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MANAMA, Bahrain — Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin was among top U.S. officials who spoke at the Manama Dialogue last weekend about the U.S. commitment to stand up to Iran, but their words were met with skepticism.
Why it matters: In the public sessions and in private conversations, many of the Arab and Israeli participants discussed the perception that the U.S. is leaving the region and not projecting sufficient power to deter Iran.
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Driving the news: Austin, Iran envoy Rob Malley and White House Middle East coordinator Brett McGurk sought to dispel that notion, stressing that the U.S. is willing to use other means if diplomacy with Iran fails, and it's not pulling away from the Middle East or abandoning its allies.
They encountered many interventions from officials, experts and journalists in the audience who questioned the Biden administration’s resolve and credibility.
One senior U.S. defense official expressed frustration to me that Austin faced several different versions of the same skeptical questions.
What they're saying: The U.S. commitment shouldn't be measured in terms of troop numbers, the Pentagon official contended.
Instead, the administration is trying to build a new framework based on security cooperation between the countries of the region, the official said.
What’s next: The senior Pentagon official told me there will be more joint military exercises between the U.S., Israel and Arab countries, including on countering drones, which have become the weapon of choice for Iran and its proxies.
"We want to enhance this security cooperation so that when a need arises, we will know how to work together. Everybody will benefit from this. And yes, in addition to our diplomatic efforts on returning to the nuclear deal, those joint exercises are a way to send a signal to Iran," the Pentagon official said.
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