US defence secretary to visit UAE after Washington and GCC co-ordinate on Iran

Lloyd Austin’s trip to UAE comes after US and Gulf Co-operation Council issue strong rebuke of Tehran's activities

Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin speaks during a media briefing at the Pentagon. AP
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The US and the Gulf Co-operation Council issued a joint statement on Wednesday condemning Iran on the eve of US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin’s trip to the UAE and Bahrain.

Washington and its GCC allies “condemned a range of aggressive and dangerous Iranian policies, including the proliferation and direct use of advanced ballistic missiles” and drones after concluding a working group meeting in Saudi Arabia.

“These weapons have been used by Iran or its proxies in hundreds of attacks against civilians and critical infrastructure in Saudi Arabia and civilian merchant seamen in international waters of the Sea of Oman, and endangered American troops combating ISIS,” the US-GCC Working Group statement said.

The statement noted that the US and GCC members discussed Iranian support for Yemen’s Houthi rebels as well as Shiite paramilitary groups in Iraq and “agreed that Iran’s support to armed militias across the region and its ballistic missile programme pose a clear threat to regional security and stability".

The statement came after an Iranian helicopter buzzed a US Navy ship in the Gulf of Oman this week, coming within 23 metres of the USS Essex, the Pentagon reported.

“We continue to see unsafe and unprofessional actions as we operate in the Gulf,” Mr Austin said in a briefing with reporters at the Pentagon.

“That kind of behaviour affects everyone and it’s very troubling. It certainly impacts freedom of navigation and everyone loses by these dangerous and disruptive actions.”

He added that: “We will defend ourselves and our partners and our interests against threats from Iran or its proxies.”

The incident came after the US, the UAE, Bahrain and Israel held an unprecedented joint naval exercise in the Red Sea, enabled by the signing of the US-brokered Abraham Accords last year.

President Joe Biden’s special envoy for Yemen, Tim Lenderking, also embarked on a trip on Tuesday to Saudi Arabia and Bahrain as part of “an inter-agency team to co-ordinate approaches to regional security and a broad range of concerns with Iran”, the State Department said.

“[Mr Lenderking] also will discuss the Houthis’ continued detention of some Yemeni staff of the US embassy in Sanaa and the Houthis’ breach of the US embassy compound in Sanaa,” the State Department noted.

The White House also announced on Wednesday that Mr Biden intends to nominate Steven Fagin, a career foreign officer who most recently served as the deputy chief of mission at the US embassy in Iraq, to serve as his new ambassador to Yemen.

Despite tension in the Gulf, Dr Anwar Gargash, diplomatic adviser to President Sheikh Khalifa, said this week that the UAE seeks to de-escalate tension with Tehran through dialogue.

To that end, the group's statement noted that GCC members spoke “on their efforts to build effective diplomatic channels with Iran to prevent, resolve or de-escalate conflicts, backed by strong deterrence and defence co-operation with the United States".

“The US and GCC member states stressed that these diplomatic efforts will not succeed if Iran continues to provoke a nuclear crisis,” the statement added. It also called on Tehran to co-operate with the International Atomic Energy Agency and welcomed the seventh round of talks in Vienna meant to revive the ailing nuclear deal.

The talks are scheduled for November 29, which will give Mr Austin ample time to co-ordinate with the UAE on Iran when he meets with senior Emirati officials this week.

He told reporters that he looks forward to “discussing our two countries’ common defence priorities".

But before that, he will address the International Institute for Strategic Studies Manama Dialogue in Bahrain while participating in bilateral meetings with US allies and partners attending the conference.

The Pentagon noted in a statement that Mr Austin’s participation in the Manama Dialogue will “reaffirm the US resolve to advance and strengthen enduring defence partnerships and commitment to the long-standing US leadership role in strengthening regional security and stability".

Several high-ranking Gulf officials have publicly questioned whether the Biden administration will remain committed to the region, citing the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan this year.

But Mr Austin insisted that “the United States is deeply committed to the security of the Middle East and we continue to strengthen our partnerships there".

“You can see the strength of our networks and partnerships on full display just a few months ago. As we wound down our 20-year military mission in Afghanistan, our partners in the Middle East stepped up to help us evacuate more than 124,000 people. We couldn’t have done it without partners like the United Arab Emirates.”

Updated: November 18, 2021, 12:06 PM