Iran has attacked US troops 83 times since Biden became president
The U.S. military was unable to provide information on how often Iran attacked U.S. troops during previous administrations.
Iran and its proxy forces have launched 83 attacks against U.S. troops in Iraq and Syria since President Joe Biden took office, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin told lawmakers on Tuesday.
In response to those attacks, the U.S. military has launched four major operations against Iranian-backed groups, Austin said during a tense exchange with Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on Capitol Hill.
“So, what kind of a signal do we think this sends to Iran when they can attack us 83 times since Joe Biden has become president and we only respond [with] four [operations],” Cotton asked Austin rhetorically. “Maybe it’s because they know that we will not retaliate until they kill an American, which emboldens them to keep launching these attacks, which kill Americans.”
Neither U.S. Central Command nor Operation Inherent Resolve – the U.S.military command for troops in Iraq and Syria – were able to provide any information on Tuesday about how often Iranian proxies attacked U.S. troops in the Middle East during previous administrations, or whether attacks by Iranian-backed groups against U.S. troops in the Middle East had increased, decreased, or stayed the same since Biden became president.
When asked if the four U.S. operations launched during the Biden administration in response to Iranian attacks were directed against Iran or its proxy forces outside of the country, Austin said that the most recent U.S. military airstrikes in Syria targeted infrastructure belonging Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’s Quds Force, an elite group that carries out clandestine operations in foreign countries.
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Those March 23 airstrikes came in response to a drone attack earlier that day in Syria that killed an American contractor and wounded another along with five service members.
U.S. intelligence officials believe the drone that attacked a coalition base in Hasakah, northeast Syria, was “of Iranian origin.” However, information about the group that is believed to have carried out the attack is classified, military officials have said.
On March 24, U.S. troops in Syria came under rocket attacks, wounding one service member. For now, the White House has decided not to launch another round of punitive airstrikes in response to the latest attacks against U.S. troops, the New York Times first reported.
A National Security Council spokesperson told Task & Purpose on Tuesday that Biden is responding to the situation in Syria by using a variety of methods to reduce risks to U.S. troops, but the president will also not hesitate to take action to protect American service members and U.S. overseas interests.
Biden took office 26 months ago, so the total of 83 attacks translates to an average of little more than three attacks against U.S. troops per month. By comparison, Iranian-backed militia groups attacked U.S. troops several times per day during the 2007 Iraq surge, said retired Army Col. Peter Mansoor, who served as executive officer for the commander of all U.S. troops in Iraq at the time.
Even though attacks against U.S. troops by Iranian forces have decreased significantly since the surge, the total number of attacks is still significant, Mansoor told Task & Purpose.
“This basically shows us that Iran is on a war footing with the United States, in their view,” Mansoor said. “It’s a high number and it shows that Iran has not reconciled itself with the U.S. presence in Iraq or in the greater Middle East.”
The United States and Iran have been locked in hostilities since Ayatollah Khomeini took power in 1979. Over time, those tensions morphed into a proxy war that the two countries waged in Lebanon, Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere. A 2019 Pentagon report found that Iranian-backed groups killed 603 U.S. troops in Iraq between 2003 and 2011.
During the height of the U.S.-led campaign to destroy the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria, most of the interaction between U.S. and Iranian forces took the form of “unsafe, unprofessional behavior” by the Iranians at sea, said retired Army Gen. Joseph Votel, who led U.S. Central Command from 2016 to 2019.
“That was in the dozens per year,” Votel said. “I think there were some years where we would see as high as somewhere between 40 and 50 of these types of interactions in the maritime environment.”
The United States also made it very clear to the Iraq government at the time that it would not tolerate any attacks on American forces by Iranian-backed groups, Votel told Task & Purpose.
However, Iran increased the volume of weapons and other lethal materials that it shipped from Iraq to western Syria in order to threaten Syria, Votel recalled.
Votel said he did not face the same types of challenges from Iran as the generals who have led Central Command since him, perhaps because the United States and Iran had an agreement on Iran’s nuclear program from 2015 to 2018.
“We were at a different place in the campaign and what we were trying to do there,” Votel said.
Tensions between the United States and Iran worsened after Votel left, and the two countries came close to war in January 2020 when a U.S. drone strike killed Iranian Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani, the former head of the Quds Force, as well as Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, commander of Kata’ib Hezbollah, an Iranian-backed group that the United States has targeted with airstrikes.
Iran responded by launching ballistic missiles at U.S. troops based in Iraq. A total of 11 missiles hit Al-Asad Air Base in Iraq on Jan. 8, 2020, after which more than 100 U.S. service members were diagnosed with mild traumatic brain injury.
Although an open conflict between the United States and Iran was averted, Iranian-backed groups have continued to attack U.S. troops in Syria and Iraq. Shortly after taking office, Biden ordered airstrikes against Iranian-backed groups in eastern Syria in February 2021 following attacks that wounded a U.S. service member and killed an American contractor.
On Tuesday, Austin told Cotton that U.S. military commanders in the Middle East have the authority to respond if they are attacked under the rules of engagement, and they have done so several times.
The defense secretary also indicated that the Biden administration may not have entirely ruled out further airstrikes when Cotton asked him if the United States has retaliated for the March 24 rocket attacks against U.S. troops in Syria.
“We have not yet, senator,” Austin said.
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