US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin vowed Monday that the United States would take “all necessary steps” to defend its troops after a deadly drone attack in Jordan by Iran-backed militants, even as the he administration of President Joe Biden has stressed that it is not seeking war with Iran.
Sunday’s attack killed three U.S. troops and injured more than 40 troops. It is the first deadly strike against US troops since the war between Israel and Hamas began in October, and marks a major escalation of tensions that have engulfed the Middle East.
“Let me begin with my outrage and sorrow (for) the deaths of three brave American soldiers in Jordan and for the other soldiers who were injured,” Austin said at the Pentagon.
“The president and I will not tolerate attacks on American forces and we will take all necessary measures to defend the United States and our troops,” Austin added at the start of his meeting with the NATO secretary general, Jens Stoltenberg.
“As the president said yesterday, we will respond, and that response could be multi-level, step-by-step, and sustained over time,” said US Secretary of State Antony Blinken.
Other Biden administration officials have said they don’t want the situation to escalate.
“We are not seeking to engage in conflict with the regime militarily,” White House national security spokesman John Kirby said, adding that Biden was exploring response options.
The Pentagon has suggested that Iran does not want war either.
“We’re certainly not looking for war, and frankly, we don’t think Iran wants to start a war with the United States,” Pentagon spokeswoman Sabrina Singh told reporters.
She said the weekend’s attacks bore the “footprints” of Kataib Hezbollah (Hezbollah Brigades), an armed group aligned with Iran, but that the Pentagon had not yet made a final assessment.
Missed incoming drone
The United States is trying to determine exactly why the roughly 350 troops at the base in Jordan, known as Tower 22, were unable to stop the drone.
Two officials said a U.S. drone was approaching the base around the same time the attack drone was arriving.
One of the officials said the attack drone was also flying at low altitude, which may have contributed to it being missed by the base’s defenses.
The U.S. military released the names of the victims, the youngest of whom was 23-year-old U.S. Army Reserve specialist Breonna Alexsondria Moffett.
US troops have been attacked more than 160 times in Iraq, Syria and Jordan since October 7, and warships have also been attacked in the Red Sea.
Yemen’s Houthi fighters, known officially as Ansar Allah, are firing drones and missiles at them over the Red Sea.
The attacks put political pressure on Biden to deliver a direct blow to Iran, a step he has been reluctant to take for fear of triggering a wider war.
Biden met with Austin and other members of his national security team in the White House Situation Room Monday morning to discuss the latest developments regarding the attack, the White House said.
The president’s options could include targeting Iranian forces outside or inside Iran and opting for more cautious retaliation only against Iranian-backed militants, experts say.
“Iran continues to destabilize the region. This includes supporting terrorists who attack our ships in the Red Sea,” NATO’s Stoltenberg said.
The attack, and any possible U.S. response, is likely to stoke fears of a broader conflict in the Middle East, where war erupted in Gaza after Hamas-led militants attacked southern Israel on October 7, killing approximately 1,200 Israeli civilians and soldiers. taking around 250 people hostage, according to the Israeli government.
Israel’s subsequent attack on Gaza killed more than 26,000 Palestinians, according to the territory’s health ministry.
The United States has already struck back in Iraq, Syria and Yemen in response to previous attacks by Iranian-backed groups.
British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said on Monday he was concerned about tensions in the Middle East and urged Iran to de-escalate.
Iran’s intelligence minister said regional armed groups aligned with Tehran were responding to “American aggressors” at their own discretion.
Experts have warned that any strike against Iranian forces inside Iran could force Tehran to respond forcefully, escalating the situation in a way that could drag the United States into a major war in the Middle East.