WASHINGTON – US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, in Jordan to begin a three-country Mideast visit, is aiming to reassure key allies of American commitment to the region despite Washington’s recent focus on Russia and China, officials said. At the same time, he plans to deliver frank messages to the leaders of Israel and Egypt.
The Pentagon chief, who arrived in Amman on Sunday, is expected to press Israeli leaders to reduce tensions in the West Bank and work to strengthen ties in talks with Egyptian leaders while touching on human rights concerns.
“We’ve demonstrated over and over again that we can rapidly surge capability to any part of the globe that we need to, but especially here in the Middle East, because we’ve operated here for 20-plus years,” Austin told reporters while visiting a joint training center near Amman.
“We’ve demonstrated over and over again that we can rapidly surge capability to any part of the globe that we need to, but especially here in the Middle East, because we’ve operated here for 20-plus years.”Lloyd Austin
The United States has about 30,000 troops in the region and is seen as pivotal in helping counter Iranian influence.
“He [Austin] will also be quite frank with Israeli leaders about his concerns regarding the cycle of violence in the West Bank, and consult on what steps Israeli leaders can take to meaningfully restore calm before the upcoming holidays,” a senior US defense official told Reuters, speaking on the condition of anonymity.
The Pentagon said Austin had discussed his concern about the escalation in tensions in the West Bank and Jerusalem during a meeting with Jordan’s King Abdullah II on Sunday.
With Ramadan and Passover weeks away, foreign mediators have sought to reduce tensions that rose after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu regained power at the head of a hard-right coalition.
The United States, long an important player in the Middle East, has been preoccupied with other international matters during President Joe Biden’s administration, including Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and concern over Chinese military activity near the self-ruled island of Taiwan.
US competition with China, Russia includes the Middle East too
“My hope is that this visit – which coincided with the chairman’s visit to the region as well – reflects an understanding that competition with China and Russia is not just limited to the Pacific and Europe, but is already taking place in the region,” said Grant Rumley, a Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “Showing up, and showing up at a senior level like this, is important in rebutting the narrative that we’re shifting our focus away from the Middle East.”
Bradley Bowman, senior director of the Center on Military and Political Power at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said he expects “that the Israelis will continue to do what they’ve been doing for quite some time, and that is highlighting ‘Iran, Iran, Iran,’ and that Iran is inching ever closer to a nuclear weapons capability.
“And that in the region both Arab partners and Israelis are wondering whether the US is serious when it says they’ll never allow Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon, and at what point has it just gone too far, and that we’re going to have to take action?” said Bowman. “So I would expect that he would get a respectful earful from Israelis on that issue. And they will thank him for the amazing Juniper Oak exercise.”
BOWMAN THINKS that Israel will want to know what the plan is to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.
“I suspect the Israelis will also emphasize that they need more F-35s, that F-15EXs and the KC-46s be delivered as quickly as possible,” he said. “They need Israeli pilots, maintainers and crew chiefs trained in the KC-46 embedded in US units. We need the American KC-46, deployed rotationally to Israel so Israelis can start to get ready for it. And they’re going to probably argue that they want some more precision-guided munitions in the US pre-positioned stocks in Israel,” Bowman added. “So those are some of the defense-specific issues that I suspect Secretary Austin will hear about.”
Bowman added that he expected Austin to be honest in his reaction.
“He’ll say that the United States has some defense industrial-base challenges. And because we’re simultaneously trying to conduct the most significant modernization in 40 years in the United States while trying to strengthen our posture in the Indo-Pacific, while arming Ukraine, while trying to make Taiwan a porcupine,” said Bowman. “And so he’s going to say we’ll look to expedite. The reality is, is that America is in the midst of a defense industrial-base crisis for both ourselves and for our allies. And it’s going to take putting our defense industrial base on a wartime footing to begin to address some of this.”
Another topic of discussion, he said is the cooperation between Russia and Iran.
“Iran and Russia are closer than they have been in memory, and Tehran is not giving Moscow weapons for use in Ukraine out of charity,” Bowman said. “The Islamic Republic of Iran is going to ask for tangible things in return from Moscow, including military capabilities. That should make Israel, the United States and its Arab partners quite nervous, hopefully expediting efforts to build an effective combined regional security architecture.”
Jewish Institute for National Security of America president and CEO Mike Makovsky said, “Obviously, they will talk about what’s going on in the West Bank and the violence there. But I think the most important issue for the United States and Israel is going to be the issue of Iran.
“I think this issue of the Iranian threat is obscured by all the coverage on the judicial reform. And it’s understandable, but I think that from a strategic standpoint, the issue of Iran and 84% [uranium enrichment], is the most pressing one, and that the Biden administration ultimately cares the most about as well,” said Makovsky.
“I think the administration is very worried about the possibility that Israel would decide to attack. I think that ultimately, the Biden administration prefers to accept a nuclear Iran than an attack to prevent a nuclear Iran.
“I assume the Israelis are going to repeat their request. They’ll want to press Austin to expedite delivery of at least two KC-46 air-refueling tankers, whether they should be delivered or they could be leased,” Makovsky continued. “Another thing is pre-positioning of precision-guided munitions. Now that the US has emptied out a lot of the US stockpile, this arms depot in Israel, and sending all these artillery shells to Ukraine, there’s more room there.”
Reuters contributed to this report.