US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has ordered a series of retaliatory strikes against Iranian-backed militias for more than a day.
Austin said all drones in the region that attack the US are of Iranian origin. Retaliatory strikes are expected to hit militants in Syria and Iraq, though Austin did not specify a time or exact location.
“We will have a multi-layered response, and we have the ability to respond multiple times depending on the situation,” he said at a Pentagon news conference Thursday.
Austin stressed that a lot of thought has gone into ensuring that the US response in Washington does not provoke a major escalation.
“There are ways to manage this so it doesn't get out of control, and that's our focus throughout,” the defense secretary said.
Three US soldiers were killed and more than 30 wounded in a drone attack on a small US base on the border between Jordan, Iraq and Syria on Sunday. They were the first US military deaths from hostile fire since the Israel-Hamas war began on October 7.
Iran has repeatedly warned the US not to launch any attack on its border, and its response would be swift and dramatic if the US escalated in this way.
Austin insisted that the United States was not at war with Iran and that Washington did not know whether Tehran was aware of Sunday's specific drone strikes by what he described as an axis of resistance.
“It doesn't matter because we know Iran is funding these groups and sometimes training these groups,” he said.
Austin said the attacks could not have been carried out without Iranian help. He dismissed claims that because the US was slow to respond, senior Iranian military advisers had left Syria for Iran, where they were less likely to face a US attack.
Asked about Iran-backed militias forcing Hezbollah to halt attacks on US bases inside Iraq, he said: “We always listen to people and we watch what they do. Actions are everything so let's see what they do.
A newspaper from the Emirati, The National reported on Thursday that a senior Iranian general had traveled to Baghdad and met with Tehran-backed militias and urged immediate de-escalation.
Austin acknowledged that there have been 160 strikes on US bases in Syria and Iraq since Hamas launched an attack on Israel on October 7.
He described most of them as useless, and said that America was able to defend itself. “We're going to take away the capability when we strike. This particular strike [on Sunday] It was very bad in the sleeping areas of our base.”
He said: “We will respond at a time and place of our choosing. Iranian proxy groups have been attacking our troops since before October 7.
He said there is no set formula for meeting America's competing objectives of holding the right people accountable, doing everything to protect its troops and avoiding escalation.
As the presidential re-election campaign begins in earnest, the Biden administration is under competitive pressure in the wake of the deadly attack on a US base. Republicans accuse Biden of weakness and leaving US troops as sitting ducks in the region.
The White House hopes to ramp up its response to prevent further attacks, but also to avoid triggering a major escalation. The president's priority after the Israel-Hamas war broke out was to limit the spread of the conflict and prevent a direct US-Iran conflict at any cost.
U.S. officials hope a cease-fire in Gaza will ease pressure on U.S. forces in the Red Sea and across the region. Qatar said Thursday night that Hamas had given “initial positive confirmation” of an agreement on a ceasefire and the release of hostages.
In his comments on Thursday, Austin justified the joint US and UK strikes on Houthi positions in Yemen, saying the Houthis continue to do very reckless and illegal things.
“We're going to be serious about freedom of navigation or not. The rest of the world is looking at how serious we are, how serious we are.
“It costs countries and companies a significant amount of money,” he added, calling on Iran to stop supplying the Houthis with advanced weapons to attack merchant ships.
There is no evidence so far that China is pressuring Iran to lead the Houthis to end attacks and halt arms supplies, he said.