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The US is being coy about how it will handle Iran

U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin testifies before a Senate Appropriations Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., October 31, 2023.

U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin testifies before a Senate Appropriations Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., October 31, 2023.

REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

Defense Sec. Lloyd Austin on Thursday signaled that the US was on the verge of retaliating against Iran-backed militias over the deaths of three service members in Jordan. But the Pentagon chief also repeatedly emphasized that Washington will aim to avoid taking actions that could raise the already feverish temperature in the region amid the Israel-Hamas war.


Still, many questions remain about when and how the US will respond – including whether it will directly target Iranian assets or personnel, as some reporting suggests.

What’s the holdup? The US is seemingly not eager to take hasty actions that could risk sparking a wider war. “There are ways to manage this so it doesn’t spiral out of control, and that’s been our focus,” Austin said Thursday.

The US could also be giving Iran and its proxies time to pull commanders from areas likely to be targeted. If the Biden administration wants to avoid a war, it would make sense to abstain from killing people of high importance to Tehran. But Austin dodged a question on whether the US was “telegraphing about strikes,” and underscored that Washington has “not described what our response is going to be.”

So, what do we know? The Biden administration says its response will occur in phases. Whatever happens next, it won’t be a one-off.

We also know that Iran, like the US, is not interested in going to war. But it’s also warned that it will respond to any US attacks.

It seems that we should brace ourselves for a series of tit-for-tat hits in which both sides attempt to save face while stopping short of any moves that could set the entire region on fire – figuratively and literally.

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