The United States is not seeking to escalate its simmering conflict with Iran, a senior official said on Monday after the Pentagon launched air strikes on Tehran-allied Iraqi militia forces.
US Assistant Secretary of State David Schenker said the Sunday strikes on Hezbollah Brigades bases were a message to Iran after months of “restraint” by the administration of President Donald Trump.
The airstrikes – the largest yet by the US targeting an Iraqi state-sanctioned militia – were in response to a rocket attack on a US base last week that killed an American contractor.
“This was a defensive action that was designed to protect American forces and American citizens in Iraq but we are also working on the mission set of restoring deterrents against Iranian aggression,” US special representative for Iran Brian Hook said. “After so many attacks it was important for the president to direct our armed forces to respond in a way that the Iranian regime will understand.”
Schenker said the locations hit on Sunday were “significant targets and the ones on the Syrian side of the border were even more significant in many ways.”
Both Hook and Schenker said the US does not want an escalation in the region, but rather a “deescalation.”
Hook said that the US has enhanced their “troop posture by 14,000 to the region since May, specifically with Saudi (Arabia), where they have enhanced their air defenses.”
He said the US works very closely with regional allies, especially the countries that are “on the front line of Iranian aggression, to protect them against Iranian attacks, whether it kinetic or cyber.”
Below is a full rush transcript of the press conference by Special Briefing via Telephone with Special Representative for Iran and Senior Policy Advisor to the Secretary of State Brian Hook and Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs David Schenker and State Department Spokesperson Morgan Ortagus.
Ms. Ortagus: The Secretary was on U.S. news media this morning, for all of you who haven’t seen it, talking about the actions that the U.S. took over the weekend. And both he and Brian Hook and myself will also be on media later today.
So we’re here to answer any of your questions, but I think that this is an incredibly significant moment for the U.S. And I think I’ll just go ahead and quickly turn it over to Brian and let him give some opening remarks, and then we’ll jump right into Q&A.
Mr. Hook: Thanks very much, Morgan. One of the things that we want to emphasize is that this was a defensive action that was designed to protect American forces and American citizens in Iraq. But we’re also working on the mission set of restoring deterrence against Iranian aggression. This is an Iranian-backed rogue militia, Kata’ib Hezbollah, and they are not acting in the interests of the Iraqi people. They are violating Iraq’s sovereignty. And we know that the Iranian regime runs an expansionist foreign policy by the supreme leader and Qasem Soleimani. And they have been running an expansionist foreign policy for some time.
Our campaign of maximum economic pressure is making it much harder for them to accomplish that. We have repeatedly – the President and the Secretary of State have made clear repeatedly that if our – that if we are attacked by the regime or by one of its proxies, that we will take decisive action in response.
And President Trump took that yesterday with the strikes that were in five different locations. And these locations included weapons storage facilities and also some of the command and control locations that Kata’ib Hezbollah uses to plan and execute attacks against American forces and also against Iraqis.
It’s important to remember that the United States is in Iraq and the coalition – they are there at the invitation of the Iraqi Government. And when our forces and the Iraqi forces are attacked, as they have been, there have been – we’ve already seen, just in the past two months alone, 11 attacks on bases inside Iraq that are hosting coalition forces.
So the President has been very patient. He has shown a great deal of restraint because the last thing the United States is looking for is kinetic action in the Middle East, any conflict in the Middle East. We have kept our foreign policy squarely in the left-right limits of diplomacy. But we’ve also made clear that we will not tolerate attacks against U.S. citizens, our military, or our partners and allies in the region.
And so there are a number of statements that have been made since September 11th of 2018 on this – on this threat. We made – and we very much hoped that Iran would not miscalculate and confuse our restraint for weakness. But after so many attacks, it was important for the President to direct our armed forces to respond in a way that the Iranian regime will understand.
Ms. Ortagus: Great. Thanks. And just a reminder that we also have Dave Schenker on the line, who can – our Assistant Secretary for NEA, who can also answer questions as well. And I’ll just turn it over to the Media Hub for the Q&A.
Question: I have a question on the logic of the operation from a foreign policy standpoint. The five sites that were picked in Western Iraq and in Syria are not located anywhere near the location of the Kirkuk base where the American contractor was killed. It looks as if your goal was to carry out strikes in relatively isolated areas that would be on the low end of escalation to avoid escalation and limit collateral damage. Was that the thinking behind this? And also, what is the legal rationale for the strikes since self-defense is often thought of as an action that’s taken to thwart an imminent attack, not a retaliatory attack two days later against a location in a different part of the country?
Assistant Secretary Schenker: Well, I don’t want to get into why we chose what targets. Let’s say these were significant targets, and the ones on the Syrian side of the border were, I think, even more significant in many ways, although I’m not going to get into why.
But so if you look at this, this was a response that was serious but was, I think, in many ways proportionate. We don’t want an escalation here; we want a de-escalation. But what we have seen, as Brian said before, is that the Iranians have, let’s say over the past several years, taken our non-response as – understanding that as weakness and have continuously pushed the envelope. And so we’ve seen in terms of the trajectory of their strikes that they have come increasingly closer to killing American personnel.
They surround U.S. bases, they come closer to U.S. bases, they hit on different parts of U.S. bases, and finally, inevitably, they kill an American. This was not a mistake and we thought it important to hit a significant target set to send a very clear message to them about – about how serious we take American lives.
Likewise, importantly, this was – the violation of sovereignty here, if there was a violation of sovereignty, occurred on Friday when Iranian-backed forces basically shot missiles, rockets at an Iraqi military base. And so I think we should be – we can talk about the U.S. response and the defensive strikes that re-establish deterrence, but we should also talk about how Iran continuously violates Iraqi sovereignty.
Question: I wanted to ask are there any other targeted locations of Hizballah and – of Hizballah in Iraq and Syria? And can you please assess the level of threat imposed by Iran in the region?
Mr. Hook: We don’t ever preview military action or military targets.
Question: Okay. And can you assess the level of threat imposed by Iran in the region?
Mr. Hook: Well, Iran has been threatening the region – the Islamic Republic – for the last 40 years. But what we do know is that the regime is facing its worst financial crisis and its worst political crisis in its 40-year history. And the Trump administration has weakened the regime and its proxies financially in ways that have no historic precedent. And this is having, from our perspective, very positive consequences in terms of drying up the revenue the proxies need to undermine the sovereignty of countries like Iraq.
And now what we’re seeing, we are seeing the people of Lebanon, the peoples of Iraq, and the peoples of Iran all rising up against the Iranian model of dominance and exporting terror and weaponizing sectarian grievances and enriching themselves at the expense of the people that they govern. And that’s true – one thing I’ll point out that’s very important for people to recognize: You had protests in a hundred cities in Iran, you had protests all over Iraq and Lebanon. None of them were directed at the United States, the United States Government, or American sanctions.
These are people that are rejecting the Iranian model that they have been exporting for some time, and people are tired of the corruption, of the lack of transparency, of having their national wealth stolen to finance proxy wars. And so that’s our assessment of the current Iranian threat. It’s weakening and it will get weaker, especially as our sanctions increase in 2020. And we will compound Iran’s economic – it’s already now at negative 10, 11, 12 percent roughly – in that category. And Secretary Pompeo made clear a year and a half ago that the Iranian regime faces a choice, and the supreme Leader keeps choosing to manage economic collapse.
Question: You’ve already had an Iranian retaliatory attack on an airbase in Iraq, Taji. Why do you think that you have deterred Iran with what is really a modest strike?
Mr. Hook: I didn’t say that we had deterred Iran. I said that our policy is to restore deterrence that was lost under the – Obama’s nuclear deal. And Iran was able to run an expansionist foreign policy for many years while countries looked the other way in order to preserve and protect the deal. Now that we’re out of the deal, we’re in a much better picture to squeeze the regime economically and to impose costs on them for behaving like an outlaw regime. And so it is unquestionable that Iran is facing its worst financial and political crisis, and so I think your question to some extent is sort of not fully appropriating the current headwinds that the regime is facing.
Now, what we’ve done yesterday is also made very clear that we will act in defense of our interests when we are attacked. So we are combining our diplomacy with hard power, and we’re very pleased with the progress that we’ve made.
Question: We understand the potential deterrence options, the administration in early May issued a warning about potential Iranian strikes on U.S. interests, oil infrastructure, in the region. And eight months later, some of those warnings have actually happened, or there have been attacks on tankers, oil infrastructure, now on a U.S. military base. So are the actions the United States has taken not been sufficient, or those – or did the specific attacks come as a surprise? I’m just trying to understand. And when you talk about restoring deterrence, what possible options can there be that hasn’t helped in the last eight months?
Mr. Hook: We don’t preview any options that we’re considering or that we will be taking, and so I don’t have anything to offer about the future. But since May, we have enhanced our troop posture by 14,000 – 14,000 additional troops to the region since May. Specifically with Saudi, we have enhanced their air defenses, the United States along with other countries. We work very closely with our partners in the region to – especially the countries that are on the front lines of Iranian aggression – to protect them against Iranian attacks, whether it’s kinetic or cyber. And so we’re working very closely with all of our partners in the region.
The International Maritime Security Initiative has a number of countries that are participating in it. We have enhanced our intelligence, our surveillance, our reconnaissance activities, and we know that the combination of all of these things has disrupted and deterred many attacks that the regime would have liked to have execute. We’ve also made clear for some time that we’re not going to tolerate these kinds of attacks. The President has shown a lot of restraint and that has been – I think if you talk to the leaders in the region, they’ve been very pleased with the restraint that the President has shown.
I think Iran would like to bait the President into all sorts of things, but the President has shown, I think, very skillful leadership navigating through this, using our diplomacy backed up by hard power.
Assistant Secretary Schenker: I’d say that there has been sort of a lashing out that we can see as the economic pressure has really taken hold since May. You saw in June the Fujairah. You saw escalation from the Houthis. You saw increased targeting, operational tempo of targeting of U.S. assets in Iraq by Iranian proxies. Then you saw the shooting down of a UAV. And after every one of these incidents – there’s the scuttling of boats, the hijacking of boats – after every time this occurred, what you saw from the United States, from the President, was strategic patience that, as Brian said, was widely appreciated throughout the region from our allies. And finally, the downing of a U.S. UAV in international waters over the Gulf, and we responded just with more sanctions.
And so this type of patience has resulted in incredible lashing out that culminated with Abqaiq most recently, the attack on ARAMCO. And still we are exercising this strategic patience. And so now they had to go and try and escalate this further by killing an American citizen, and I think we have responded I think with strength and with careful – carefully, I think, calibrating what is appropriate, to try and reestablish that deterrence.
Mr. Hook: I think it’s also the case that Iran is currently in a state of panicked aggression. The regime understands very clearly the kind of economic pressure they’re under, and they also know that it’s not sustainable. And so they are lashing out. They’re not used to being told no. They’re not used to seeing this kind of resolve. And the President is, I think, very carefully deploying our – sort of our diplomats, working on the right mission set, and also our military.