Getting America and the Arab world back on the same page

A speech by the US Defence Secretary in Manama shows a realignment, but there's work to be done

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In his address on Saturday to the annual Manama Dialogue, an international security summit taking place in Bahrain, US Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin broadly provided two assurances to America's Arab allies. First, he reiterated his country's commitment to the region. Second, he acknowledged the multi-dimensional nature of the threat that Iran poses to Middle East security, well beyond its nuclear weapons programme.

The defence secretary's remarks, which also covered the pandemic and climate change, will be welcomed by those who want to stabilise the region. But the administration of US President Joe Biden must also take specific steps – in concert with its allies – towards containing Tehran's security challenge to the Arab world.

Mr Austin's visit to the Middle East, including a trip to the UAE, is his first to the region since the US's withdrawal from Afghanistan in August. The chaotic nature of the pull-out, which paved the way for the Taliban's total takeover of Afghanistan, had left Washington's allies around the world deeply circumspect over its commitment to their collective security – and its competence. Mr Austin acknowledged concerns that the US was reorienting much of its focus from the Middle East and Central Asia to concentrate instead on containing its superpower rivals, namely China and Russia, but he assured allies of America's continued presence in the region.

Mr Austin's speech in Manama also comes at a time when the Biden administration is seeking to assuage Arab countries' trepidation over the manner in which it has sought to revive a 2015 nuclear deal with Iran. Mr Biden's predecessor, Donald Trump, had pulled America out of the pact in 2018, in recognition that a deal that excludes measures to contain Iran's ballistic missiles programme and its support of terror groups inside some Arab countries is incomplete.

On Thursday, however, the Gulf Co-operation Council joined regional allies Egypt and Jordan, as well as the US, France, Germany and the UK in calling for the revival of the nuclear deal, provided Iran demonstrates good faith. It is significant that the joint statement – released following a meeting involving US Iran envoy Robert Malley in Saudi Arabia – "called for an urgent mutual return to full compliance" with the nuclear deal while also condemning a "range of aggressive and dangerous Iranian policies, including the proliferation and direct use of advanced ballistic missiles" and drones.

An alignment between the West and its Arab allies over the need not only to revive the deal, but also build on it, is an important step towards peace in the region. Mr Austin's address seemed to acknowledge this, when he condemned Tehran's support for terrorism via a number of proxies in the Arab world. He said: "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."

There is still more work to do. The US should, for instance, exert continued pressure on Tehran over the smuggling of arms to its proxies, particularly the Houthi rebels in war-torn Yemen. Indeed, the militia has over the past seven years developed an increasingly sophisticated ballistic missile arsenal – despite a UN arms embargo on the country – due to Tehran's support.

The West must also insist on including Arab countries' concerns during negotiations with Iran. After all, how can there be peace in any region when the voices of that region's stakeholders are not heard at the table?

Published: November 21, 2021, 2:00 AM