US will not hit Iran for now, former defence secretary says after Iraq, Syria strikes

US will not hit Iran for now, former defence secretary says after Iraq, Syria strikes
Mark Esper said he believed Washington had no plans to conduct strikes in Iran, after the US struck Tehran-linked targets in Iraq and Syria on Friday night.
3 min read
03 February, 2024
The US airstrikes have added uncertainty to a region especially rattled by Israel's war on Gaza [Getty]

The United States will not strike targets inside Iran for now, a former defence secretary said following US airstrikes on Tehran-backed groups in Syria and Iraq on Friday night.

Friday’s strikes hit over 85 targets linked to Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and the militias it backs. Dozens are believed to have been killed and wounded, but there are no confirmed numbers yet.

Friday's airstrikes followed a recent drone attack that killed three American troops at Tower 22, a remote base in northeastern Jordan. The so-called Islamic Resistance in Iraq group was responsible for that attack, the US said.

The development has threatened to throw the region into further turmoil amid Israel’s ongoing war on Gaza that began on 7 October.

Speaking to CNN, former US Defence Secretary Mark Esper argued that Washington should strike targets outside Iran first.

"I don’t think anybody was expecting them [the Pentagon] to strike targets within Iran," said Esper, who served as defence secretary for a year as part of the Trump administration.

"That's not something I would take off the list, because I argue that we should strike targets outside Iran first."

He said he thought that "the most important part" of the statement from US Central Command (CENTCOM) regarding the strikes was that the IRGC’s Quds Force was targeted.

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There were reports in the days leading up to Friday's strikes that the IRGC had pulled some of its forces out of Syria, anticipating a US response to the killing of the three troops in Jordan. Iraq’s Kataib Hezbollah said it was halting attacks on US troops.

US forces in Iraq and Syria have repeatedly come under fire by Iran-backed militias since the start of the Gaza war. These armed groups say that the strikes are to punish Washington for its unwavering support for Israel.

The US has responded by assassinating senior officials in these militias. Israel has also killed a number of high-ranking officials in groups such as Hamas and Lebanon’s Hezbollah.

"It’s significant that striking supply depots, supply lines, warehouses, launch sites…will degrade and disrupt the ability of these militia groups to continue additional attacks against US forces for some limited amount of time," Esper said, adding that it was up to the US to continue deterring Iran and its "assets."

Esper did not rule out strikes inside Iran, or the US hitting personnel and secondary targets, depending on how Iran and its militias respond, he said.

"You could go after Iranian naval vessels in the Persian Gulf, you could go after oil platforms," he said, warning that Iran could respond against US targets more forcefully in the region – in Syria or Iraq – or in partner countries, such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

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On Saturday, the Islamic Resistance in Iraq said it struck a US base in northern Iraq.

The coalition of Iran-backed militias said it targeted the Harir base near Erbil with a drone. Northern Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish region has been the site of several attacks, including one last month claimed by Iran.

Tehran said it had struck an Israeli spy headquarters in that strike, without providing evidence.

As well as the American strikes on Syria and Iraq, both the US and UK have struck Yemen’s Houthis in recent weeks.

The Iran-backed Houthis say they are launching missile and drone strikes on Israeli-linked ships or vessels heading to and from Israel’s ports, in solidarity with the Palestinians.

The attacks have dealt a blow to global trade, forcing companies to reroute.

The Houthis have vowed to continue the attacks until Israel ends its war on Gaza, which is approaching its fifth month and has seen more than 27,000 people killed.