E.t was a charm offensive with limited success. Several top American officials had traveled to the Gulf region to convince the Arab allies that the United States was not in retreat. On Saturday, Defense Minister Lloyd J. Austin III appeared at the “IISS Manama Dialogue” in Bahrain, arguably the most important regional security conference. The American minister said that he perceived that there were great fears. Austin affirmed that tens of thousands of American soldiers are and will remain stationed in the region: “We will not give up our interests.” Has forged shadow armies in the region and threatened his opponents with a fleet of drones and regular rocket fire. America could strike back decisively against Iranian aggression at any time and any place, Austin said
But Austin and the other emissaries from Washington learned in Manama that America’s allies in the region no longer really trust such announcements. There are considerable doubts there about the reliability of the United States – not least about the willingness of the Biden government to use military means to protect and enforce its interests from Iranian attacks. “Your local partners are concerned and some of them are starting to take cover,” Farhad Alaaldin, chairman of the Baghdad-based Iraq Advisory Council, told Austin in a question and answer session. He referred to the American announcement that the combat troops would be withdrawn from Iraq by the end of the year and the hasty withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Long-standing partners of Washington could be heard from behind the scenes at the weekend that they had hoped for more concrete assurances from the Americans. Functionaries and observers from the Arab Gulf states described the appearance of the American defense minister as disappointing. “Either the Americans are not telling us the truth, or they really don’t know what they are doing,” said one of the harshest critics in this group.
Washington’s problem with credibility
Austin’s trip to the Gulf comes at a delicate time. Negotiations on the nuclear dispute with Iran are expected to resume in just under a week. The regime in Tehran has recently pushed its nuclear program so vigorously that it is getting closer and closer to the point at which negotiations on a return to the old nuclear agreement would no longer have any value. The US Secretary of Defense pointed this out again. And he said that even if Washington wanted a diplomatic solution, they would “examine all necessary options” if Iran does not seriously seek one.
Washington’s greatest credibility problem lies precisely in the question of a possible failure of the talks and a possible escalation. The Iranian regime appears to be better equipped for this. If only because the appetite of the American president to really exhaust all options seems to be much narrower than the fear of the Iranian regime years ago under sanctions. Biden’s special envoy to Iran, Robert Malley, who was also in Manama at the weekend, said he did not think much of operating in Plan A and Plan B categories. “There’s an element of pressure in diplomacy, too,” Malley said. And he announced that, should the negotiations actually fail, Iran would above all have to reckon with further negotiations.
Finally – possibly out of consideration for the forthcoming negotiations – some provocations by Iran and its Arab deputies remained without a visibly decisive response from Washington. For example, the drone attack on an American outpost in southern Syria in October. Brett McGurk, the coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa in the National Security Council of the White House, countered criticism in Manama for sending a signal of indecision. Washington will not get involved in a game of mutual pinpricks, he said and also reiterated: “The United States is not going away.” They are just setting more modest and more realistic goals in the region.
The Gulf States are reorienting themselves
Obviously you see it differently there. America’s allies have long since treaded their own – also more modest – paths. After years of confrontational politics and rhetoric, a new policy of de-escalation and relaxation is now being propagated in the leading Arab Gulf states. The United Arab Emirates have officially announced that restructuring the economy to make it less dependent on oil and gas revenues should now be a priority. A functionary in Abu Dhabi speaks of a “new era”. Saudi Arabia has started talking to Iran again. “Of course, the skepticism in Saudi Arabia about the United States is a major factor,” says Abdulaziz Sager, founder of the think tank “Gulf Research Center”. He is skeptical about the chances of success of these talks. “The Saudi side has specific expectations, the Iranians talk mainly for the sake of talking,” he says.
It is a problem that America has in common with its disappointed allies in the Gulf: Iran has not been impressed by the pressure so far. And it is questionable whether easing pressure will lead the Iranian regime to change its destructive behavior.
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