Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin travels to the region to address the challenges posed by Iran. He will also be "quite frank" with the Israeli authorities about the spiralling violence in the West Bank

US reaffirms commitment to Middle East allies in the face of Iranian threats

photo_camera PHOTO/Royal Palace of Jordan via Reuters - Jordan's King Abdullah II meets with US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin in Amman

The United States seeks to maintain its presence in the Middle East despite new fronts in Eastern Europe and the Asia-Pacific. With the aim of reaffirming its commitment to its allies in the region, Secretary of State Lloyd Austin has begun a trip to Jordan that will also take him to Israel and Egypt. During his regional tour, Austin will focus on the growing threat posed by Iran to stability and security in the Middle East, as well as on multilateral security cooperation based on air and missile defence systems, Reuters reported. 

Among Iran's threats, a senior defence official told the news agency, "Iran's arming, training and funding of violent proxy groups, aggression at sea, cyber threats, its ballistic missile programme and drone attacks". 

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According to Tarek Fahmy, professor of political science at Cairo University - quoted by Asharq Al-Awsat - Austin's visit to the region reflects US interests in forming a regional alliance, as outlined at the US-Saudi summit last summer.

Gamal Bayoumi, Egypt's former deputy foreign minister, agrees, arguing that Washington is seeking to establish an Arab coalition against Iran. However, he points out that some Arab countries are wary of such an initiative, as Israel is seen by some as the main enemy in the region. 

Washington's proposal has been joined by the Middle East Air Defence Alliance (MEAD), which was proposed by former Israeli Defence Minister Benny Gantz during President Joe Biden's visit to the Middle East in July. This initiative is intended to address Iranian attacks on states in the region.

Violence in the West Bank on Austin's Middle East agenda 

In Amman, during his meeting with Jordan's King Abdullah II, Mr Austin highlighted the 'enduring and strategic partnership' between the two countries, expressing his desire to 'cooperate on shared interests that will generate positive outcomes for both nations'.

As expected, during the meeting between Austin and the Jordanian monarch, threats from Iran were on the agenda. In this regard, Abdullah II called for more US military assistance to deal with Tehran-backed militias trafficking drugs along the Kingdom's border with Syria.   

The Jordanian king also raised the issue of renewed Israeli-Palestinian violence. Abdullah II warned that an increase in tensions in the West Bank would negatively affect regional stability and urged the acceleration of efforts to reach a peace agreement based on a two-state solution.

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According to US officials quoted by Reuters, Austin will be "quite frank" with Israeli officials about the spiralling violence in the West Bank. He will also try to put forward measures that will restore calm in a "meaningful way" before the upcoming religious holidays begin. Ramadan begins on 23 March and Pesach on 5 April. 

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Austin's visit to Israel comes a month after a trip by Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who focused on de-escalating tensions, stressing the need for action to stem the new wave of violence. Blinken arrived in Israel shortly after the worst terrorist attack in years. Seven Israelis were killed and three wounded after a Palestinian shot at a synagogue in East Jerusalem. 

Despite Blinken's diplomatic efforts, however, the picture Austin will encounter upon his arrival in Israel is not going to be much different than it was a month ago. The defence secretary arrives in the country a week after dozens of Israeli settlers attacked the Palestinian village of Hawara following the murder of two Israeli youths in Har Brach. 

Austin is scheduled to meet with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defence Minister Yoav Gallant, Israeli Army Chief Herzi Halevi and President Isaac Herzog. 

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China increases its presence in the Middle East 

One of the main US objectives in the Middle East is to counter Iranian influence in the region. However, Frank McKenzie, a retired general who commanded US forces in the Middle East until last year, believes that Washington's interest in the region is increasing, in part because of China's growing role.

"I think this trip is an excellent opportunity to continue to demonstrate to the people in the region that they are still important to us," McKenzie said, according to Reuters.

Beijing has considerably strengthened its ties with countries in the region. Evidence of this was the China-Arab summit in Saudi Arabia in late December, which ushered in a new era in relations between the Asian giant and the Arab world.

During the meeting, Beijing and Riyadh signed a strategic partnership agreement that seeks to intensify bilateral cooperation in all areas. The Arab and Chinese authorities also agreed to hold such meetings every two years.

Coordinator for the Americas: Jos茅 Antonio Sierra.