US vows decisive response to deadly drone attack in Jordan


January 30, 2024 09:10 AM

File photos of three slain US soldiers.

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The White House vowed Monday to respond decisively to an attack in Jordan it blames on Iran-backed militants, in which a drone slammed into a military base and killed three Americans while troops were in their beds.

The casualties -- the first US military deaths in an attack in the Middle East since the Israel-Hamas war began -- raised fears of an escalating conflict, as fighting rages in Gaza and related violence plagues other parts of the region.

"We are not looking for a war with Iran," US National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told reporters Monday afternoon, adding however that the strike "was escalatory, make no mistake about it, and it requires a response."

His remarks came shortly after US President Joe Biden met with his national security team, including Pentagon chief Lloyd Austin and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan.

Iran said it had nothing to do with the attack and denied US accusations it supported militant groups behind the Sunday attack on Tower 22, a remote frontier base in Jordan's northeast, near the borders with Iraq and Syria.

Kirby earlier told CNN that the US response would be "very consequential," but would not speculate on the options Biden was considering, including whether targets inside Iran were on the table.

American and allied forces were targeted in the region again on Monday, this time by rockets in Syria, though no injuries were reported, a US defense official said.

US and coalition troops have been attacked at least 165 times since mid-October -- 66 in Iraq, 98 in Syria and one in Jordan -- with "a mix of one-way attack drones, rockets, mortars, and close-range ballistic missiles," the official said.

Deputy Pentagon Press Secretary Sabrina Singh said the attack in Jordan wounded more than 40 people, adding to around 80 injured in previous violence.

- Attack struck living quarters -

She said the drone struck an area where living quarters are located on the base early in the morning, "so people were actually in their beds when the drone impacted."

US media reported Monday, citing unnamed officials, that the failure to prevent the strike was possibly due to confusion over whether the drone was hostile or a US aircraft returning to base.

Singh did not confirm those reports, saying that US Central Command was still investigating how the drone was able to get through.

There has so far been no claim of responsibility for Sunday's attack, but Singh said it has "the footprints of Kataeb Hezbollah" -- an Iran-backed Iraqi militant group the Pentagon has blamed for previous violence.

Saudi Arabia on Monday denounced the deadly strike "in the strongest terms," while Jordan, Bahrain, Egypt and Iraq have also condemned the attack.

A spokesman for Hamas said Sunday the Jordan attack is a message to Washington that the continuation of the war in Gaza "risks a regional explosion."

The escalating Middle East conflict poses a challenge for Biden in an election year, and Republican politicians were quick to take aim at him over the weekend.

The latest round of the Israel-Hamas conflict began when the Palestinian militant group carried out an unprecedented attack on October 7 that resulted in about 1,140 deaths, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally of official figures.

Israel retaliated with a relentless military offensive that has killed at least 26,637 people in Gaza, most of them women and children, according to the territory's health ministry.

Anger over that campaign has grown across the region, stoking violence involving Iran-backed groups in Lebanon, Iraq and Syria, as well as Yemen.

There have been near-daily exchanges of fire between Hezbollah and Israel in Lebanon, while US forces are directly involved in Iraq, Syria and Yemen.

The United States and Britain have both carried out strikes targeting Yemen's Iran-backed Huthi rebels, who have been attacking Red Sea shipping in support of Palestinians in Gaza for more than two months.

US-Iran proxy war at turning point

The killing of three US troops is dragging the United States further into a proxy war with Iran that President Joe Biden had hoped to avoid and that he still hopes can be contained.

After years of trying to ease tensions with Iran through dialogue, and then months seeking to keep the Israel-Hamas war from escalating, the drone strike by Iranian-backed militants on US forces in Jordan crossed an unstated red line for the Biden administration.

The United States has already been hitting another Iranian-backed group, Yemen's Huthi rebels. The strikes come after warnings failed to dissuade Huthi attacks on Red Sea shipping, which the insurgents say are acts of solidarity with Palestinians in Gaza being bombarded by US ally Israel.

The White House has promised a "very consequential" response to the Jordan attack, which comes at the start of an election year in which Biden's Republican rivals are going on the offensive and urging direct attacks on Iran.

But the Biden administration has already stated that it does not want war with Iran -- where officials have sought to distance themselves from the attack.

"It's a fork-in-the-road moment," said Alex Vatanka, founding director of the Iran program at the Middle East Institute.

He said that Iran's goal since the October 7 attack by Hamas on Israel has been "to avoid war with Israel and the United States, but to use this opportunity to squeeze both as part of a long-term game plan."

The clerical state knows that, "like Iran, the United States is not interested in a regional escalation."

But Iranian officials also know that, with elections approaching, "President Biden is already being hammered for being weak in the face of foreign adversaries, and that politically he has to do something."

- How to change Iran calculus? -

Vatanka expected further US strikes on Iran's so-called "Axis of Resistance," with messages sent to Iran to make clear that it cannot afford greater escalation.

Thomas Warrick, a former State Department official now at the Atlantic Council, said the United States had no good choices.

Iran will not be deterred by attacks on proxies, and a full-blown assault in Iraq could hand Tehran a strategic victory by strengthening calls for US troops to leave.

"The Iranian regime doesn't believe in deterrence the way US policymakers and strategists do," he said.

Other options could include directly targeting a top military site inside Iran or eliminating Revolutionary Guard positions in Syria, where Israel has also been striking Tehran's capacities.

"Neither of these options are good, and both risk keeping the United States embroiled in a regional conflict that the Biden administration was hoping to avoid," he said.

- Hopes dim for diplomacy -

In 2020, after another flare-up with Iranian-backed groups at the start of an election year, then president Donald Trump ordered a strike at the Baghdad airport that killed General Qasem Soleimani, the storied commander of an elite Revolutionary Guards unit.

But months earlier, Trump abruptly cancelled plans to strike Iran itself, wary of escalating conflict over Tehran's shooting down of a US unmanned drone.

The Biden administration took office seeking diplomacy with Iran, negotiating through the European Union on restoring a 2015 nuclear deal scrapped by Trump.

The talks collapsed in part over Iran's demands for greater sanctions relief, and an agreement became politically toxic after the religious regime violently cracked down on women-led protests that erupted in September 2022.

But US officials since then have quietly spoken to Iran about regional tensions and -- until October 7 -- the Biden administration had boasted that it had brought attacks on US troops down to a standstill.

Now, while US officials are not speaking in the language of regime change, Vatanka said they have concluded that a "fundamental part of a solution to a large-scale sustained de-escalation in the Middle East requires a very different political order in Tehran."

Ali Vaez, Iran project director at the International Crisis Group, said US fatalities marked a "major step up the escalation ladder by Iran-backed groups" and that Tehran's denials of responsibility carried little weight.

But he said that last year's diplomacy had brought calm, while US strikes in Iraq, Syria and Yemen have only made Iran-backed fighters more brazen.

"While there is no political space in Washington for engagement with Iran in an election year, diplomacy is the only approach that has reined Iran in," he said.


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