US defence secretary denies giving Iran too much warning of impending strikes

The aircraft carrier USS Dwight D. Eisenhower and other warships crosses the Strait of Hormuz into the Persian Gulf on Sunday, Nov. 26, 2023, as part of a wider American deployment in the Middle East
The USS Dwight D Eisenhower is already stationed in the Persian Gulf as part of a wider American deployment in the Middle East - Information Technician Second Class Ruskin/AP
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The US defence secretary has denied accusations that he has given Iran too much warning about impending retaliatory strikes, insisting the response will be “multi-tiered”.

It came as Joe Biden approved a plan to strike Iranian personnel operating in Iraq and Syria in retribution for a drone attack that killed three US troops.

The US president has reportedly approved a series of strikes designed to hit proxy groups backed by Iran.

Speaking on Thursday, Lloyd Austin, the US defence secretary, said: “The President will not tolerate attacks on Americans and neither will I.”

He said the Middle East was experiencing a “dangerous moment” and while the US will “work to avoid a wider conflict…we will take all necessary actions to defend the United States”.

Mr Austin denied revealing too much, insisting he would not “telegraph” the US’s strikes in advance. The death of US personnel “is not driving us to consider withdrawing troops” from Iraq, he added.

Mr Biden has been mulling the response to Sunday’s attack in Jordan, where three US troops were killed by an explosion from a kamikaze drone, with dozens more injured.

John Kirby, the White House’s national security spokesman, has said the US wants to avoid war with Iran but must respond to an “escalation” in hostilities.

The US has attributed blame for the attack to Islamic Resistance in Iraq, which it said was an “Iranian-backed” militia. Iran has denied any responsibility.

The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, a branch of the Iranian armed forces, is withdrawing some of its personnel from Iraq and Syria in anticipation of the US response.

Speaking on Thursday, Lloyd Austin, the US defence secretary, said: “The president will not tolerate attacks on Americans, and neither will I.”

He said the Middle East was experiencing a “dangerous moment”, and while America would “work to avoid a wider conflict … we will take all necessary actions to defend the United States”.

US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin testifies during a Senate Appropriations Committee hearing
The US defence secretary said the recent attacks cannot be tolerated - Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images

The Biden administration is thought to have ruled out strikes on Iranian soil, amid concerns that such a move would lead to war between the US and Iran.

US intelligence officials believe that Iran is increasingly worried about the actions of its proxy groups in the Middle East, including a variety of militias in Iraq and Syria, and Houthi rebels in Yemen.

Iranian-backed forces have launched more than 160 attacks on US forces in Iraq and Syria since October, when Hamas’s terror attacks on Israel sparked a war in Gaza.

The war has become a rallying point for anti-American groups in the region, which have seized on a perceived opportunity to force US troops to withdraw.

CNN reported that Iran is also concerned that Houthi attacks on commercial shipping in the Red Sea could damage the economic interests of China and India as well as intended targets in the West.

During the earlier press conference, Mr Austin also apologised for hiding his prostate cancer diagnosis and hospitalisation from Mr Biden, the rest of the government and the American public.

The defence secretary has come under heavy political fire from Republicans over his undisclosed absence at a time when the United States faces a spiralling crisis in the Middle East.

Mr Austin said he has not considered resigning and that Mr Biden continues to back him. However, he repeatedly apologised, blaming his naturally “private” instincts following the shock of the diagnosis.

Qatar claims new hostage deal is close

It came as Qatar said Hamas has given “initial positive confirmation” to a proposal for the cessation of fighting in Gaza and the release of hostages.

US, Egyptian and Qatari mediators met with Israeli intelligence officials in Paris on Sunday where they proposed a six-week pause in the Gaza war and a hostage-prisoner exchange for Hamas to review.

“That proposal has been approved by the Israeli side and now we have an initial positive confirmation from the Hamas side,” Majed al-Ansari, a Qatari spokesman, told an audience at a Washington-based graduate school.

A source close to Hamas said, however, that there was still no consensus on the proposal.

“There is no agreement on the framework of the agreement yet ... and the Qatari statement is rushed and not true,” the source told AFP in Gaza.

Mr Ansari said there was “still a very tough road in front of us”.

“We are optimistic because both sides now agreed to the premise that would lead to a next pause,” he said.

“We’re hopeful that in the next couple of weeks, we’ll be able to share good news about that,” he added.

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