Carlos Barria | Reuters
WASHINGTON – Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin warned those responsible for carrying out last week’s rocket attack against an Iraqi base that hosts American troops will be held to account.
“The message to those that would carry out such an attack is that expect us to do what is necessary to defend ourselves,” Austin said in an interview with ABC that aired on Sunday.
“We’ll strike if that’s what we think we need to do at a time and place of our own choosing. We demand the right to protect our troops,” he said, adding that the U.S. is still assessing intelligence with its Iraqi partners.
Defense officials have previously said the attack had typical hallmarks of a strike by Iran-backed groups. Iran has denied involvement.
When asked if Iran would view a potential U.S. response as an escalation of tensions, the new Pentagon chief and retired Army four-star reiterated that Washington would do whatever is necessary to protect Americans and U.S. interests in the region.
“What they [Iranians] should draw from this, again, is that we’re going to defend our troops and our response will be thoughtful. It will be appropriate,” Austin said. “We would hope that they would choose to do the right things,” he added.
On Sunday, the U.S. military’s Central Command, which oversees the wars in the Middle East, flew its fourth bomber deployment to the region.
The show of force mission included two B-52H Stratofortress bombers alongside aircraft from Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar at different points to “deter aggression and reassure partners and allies of the U.S. military’s commitment to security in the region.”
Last month, Iran rejected an invitation from global powers who signed the 2015 nuclear deal to discuss the regime’s potential return to the negotiating table, a significant setback in the Biden administration’s efforts to revive the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA.
The White House said that the Biden administration was disappointed with Iran’s decision to skip the informal meeting but would “reengage in meaningful diplomacy to achieve a mutual return to compliance with JCPOA commitments.”
President of Iran, Hassan Rouhani speaks during the National Combat Board Meeting with Coronavirus (Covid-19) in Tehran, Iran on Nov. 21, 2020.
Iranian Presidency Handout | Anadolu Agency | Getty Images
The Biden administration has previously said that it wants to revive the nuclear deal but won’t suspend sanctions until Tehran comes back into compliance. Tehran has refused to negotiate while U.S. sanctions remain in place.
The 2015 JCPOA, brokered by the Obama administration, lifted sanctions on Iran that had crippled its economy and cut its oil exports roughly in half. In exchange for billions of dollars in sanctions relief, Iran agreed to dismantle some of its nuclear program and open its facilities to more extensive international inspections.
The U.S. and its European allies believe Iran has ambitions to develop a nuclear bomb. Tehran has denied that allegation.
In 2018, then-President Donald Trump kept a campaign promise and withdrew the United States from the JCPOA calling it the “worst deal ever.” Following Washington’s exit from the landmark nuclear deal, other signatories of the pact have tried to keep the agreement alive.
Washington’s tense relationship with Tehran took several turns for the worse under the Trump administration.
President Donald Trump speaks during a briefing on Hurricane Michael in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, DC, October 10, 2018.
Saul Loeb | AFP | Getty Images
People gather to protest the US air strike in Iraq that killed Iranian commander Qasem Soleimani, who headed Iran’s Revolutionary Guards’ elite Quds force in Sanaa, Yemen on January 6, 2020.
Mohammed Hamoud | Andalou Agency | Getty Images
Soleimani’s death led the regime to further scale back compliance with the international nuclear pact. In January 2020, Iran said it would no longer limit its uranium enrichment capacity or nuclear research.
In October, the United States unilaterally re-imposed U.N. sanctions on Tehran through a snapback process, which other U.N. Security Council members have previously said Washington does not have the authority to execute because it withdrew from the nuclear deal in 2018.
A month later, a top Iranian nuclear scientist was assassinated near Tehran, which led Iran’s government to allege that Israel was behind the attack with U.S. backing.
A view shows the scene of the attack that killed Prominent Iranian scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, outside Tehran, Iran, November 27, 2020.
WANA via Reuters
During the summer of 2019, a string of attacks in the Persian Gulf set the U.S. and Iran on a path toward greater confrontation.
In June 2019, U.S. officials said an Iranian surface-to-air missile shot down an American military surveillance drone over the Strait of Hormuz. Iran said the aircraft was over its territory. That strike came a week after the U.S. blamed Iran for attacks on two oil tankers in the Persian Gulf region and after four tankers were attacked in May.
The U.S. that June slapped new sanctions on Iranian military leaders blamed for shooting down the drone. The measures also aimed to block financial resources for Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei.
Tensions soared again in September of 2019 when the U.S. blamed Iran for strikes in Saudi Arabia on the world’s largest crude processing plant and oil field. The strikes forced the kingdom to shut down half of its production operations.
The event triggered the largest spike in crude prices in decades and renewed concerns of a budding conflict in the Middle East.
The Pentagon described the strikes on the Saudi Arabian oil facilities as “sophisticated” and represented a “dramatic escalation” in tensions within the region.
All the while, Iran maintains that it was not behind the attacks.