The US will prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon and will counter its destabilising actions in the region if Tehran does “not engage seriously”, Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin said on Saturday.
Speaking at the annual Manama Dialogue in Bahrain, Mr Austin assured Gulf Arab allies that Washington was committed to the region as President Joe Biden’s administration tries to revive the Iran nuclear deal, which limited Tehran’s enrichment of uranium in exchange for the lifting of economic sanctions.
“The US is committed to preventing Iran from gaining a nuclear weapon and to a diplomatic outcome of the nuclear issue,” Mr Austin said at the event organised by the International Institute for Strategic Studies.
“But if Iran isn’t willing to engage seriously, we will look at all necessary options to keep the US secure,” he said.
“The US maintains the right to defend itself and we will defend ourselves and our interests no matter what, let no countries get that wrong. We are also committed in not allowing Iran to get any nuclear weapons,” Mr Austin said.
The top US defence official said Iran presented threats “beyond its nuclear programme”, and criticised Tehran’s support for terrorism and proxy groups in the region.
“Iran should have no illusions that it can undermine our strong relationships in the region. And we will defend ourselves, and our friends, and our interests,” he said.
Tehran maintains that its nuclear programme is only for peaceful purposes, but US intelligence agencies and the International Atomic Energy Agency say Tehran had an organised weapons programme until 2003.
Former US president Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew Washington from the Iran nuclear deal in 2018. This followed by an escalation of unclaimed attacks in the region. They include drone and mine attacks targeting vessels at sea, as well as assaults blamed on Iran and its proxies in Iraq and Syria.
Mr Austin said the US remains “committed to a diplomatic outcome of the nuclear issue”, with talks on reviving the 2015 agreement set to commence next week.
Iran’s new administration has delayed the resumption of the nuclear talks it suspended in June and has continued adding to its stockpile of 20 per cent and 60 per cent enriched uranium. In recent weeks it has hardened its position by demanding that Washington lift all sanctions at once to make an agreement possible.
“America’s commitment to security in the Middle East is strong and sure, we will defend our interests, we will protect our forces from Tehran and its proxies,” Mr Austin said.
“We’ll work together to make this region more stable and secure. We’ll work together to make this region more prosperous and just.”
The US killed Iranian general Qassem Suleimani, who oversaw Iran's regional proxies, in a drone strike in Baghdad in January 2020. Iran retaliated by launching ballistic missiles at American troop positions in Iraq, and Tehran-affiliated Iraqi forces and politicians demanded the withdrawal of US troops stationed in the country as part of the US-led coalition against ISIS.
Mr Austin said US forces were in Iraq at the invitation of the government in Baghdad.
“We will make sure that ISIS does not have the capability to make a comeback and will keep pressure on ISIS,” he said.
Since he took office in January, President Joe Biden's administration has reshuffled US forces in the Middle East, especially in Iraq and Syria, to other areas.
“We have shifted to focusing on training and providing resources to Iraq, to continue to mature its forces,” Mr Austin said.
Over the past 18 months, the size of American forces in Iraq has reduced to 2,500 from about 3,000. The remaining personnel will continue a mission to protect the US embassy and to train Iraqi forces.
The US has been working closely with the Iraqi military to battle ISIS sleeper cells which have continued to stage attacks since the defeat of the group in late 2017.
Jordan's Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi said his country is willing to go into talks with Iran to ease regional tensions.
"None of us wants a conflict with Iran, we all want to be able to get on and we don't want another crisis in the region," Mr Safadi told the audience.
"Our region needs more than deterrence, we need solutions," he said, adding that crises have been going on "for way too long causing too much destruction, pain and too many missed opportunities."
Mr Safadi said the region has to identify the root causes of instability and address conflicting agendas with Iran.
"Diplomacy is the key word, it has to be diplomacy and we must have a clear understanding of what there is," he said.
Terrorism is a threat, he said, but it was not enough to focus purely on military or security components of the problem.
"This is only something that we in region, with the support of our partners, can overcome," he said, adding that proactive diplomacy is needed.