Defense Secretary Mark Esper told an NPR journalist that the US cannot strike Iran in retaliation for proxy attacks. However, with the interview concluded, he beckoned the journalist back and said it could.
Though President Donald Trump opted not to respond to an Iranian missile attack on bases housing US troops in Iraq last week, tensions between Washington and Tehran remain high. The fallout from the American assassination of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani in Baghdad several days prior was not limited to the missile attack, and American bases in Iraq have continued to come under sporadic rocket fire in the wake of Soleimani’s execution.
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Esper told NPR on Monday that the US is still considering retaliatory action for these proxy attacks.
“We hold Iran responsible for its proxies, and we will retain the right to exercise self-defense and take action, where legally available and appropriate, to hold those proxies accountable for their actions,” Esper told NPR.
However, Esper seemed confused over whether this potential retaliation would be limited to Iraqi soil, or could include strikes on Iran itself.
The defense secretary first told NPR that the 2002 Authorization for MIlitary Force (AUMF) grants the president the right to conduct operations in Iraq, but added “we do not have the authority, right now, to strike the country of Iran.”
However, Esper later beckoned the interviewer back to correct his earlier statement. This time, Esper said that the US can indeed strike Iran, “if it is consistent with the Commander in Chief’s authorities under Article 2,” referring to the article of the Constitution that allows the president to order military action in the event of an attack on American forces, on the condition that it later be approved by Congress.
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NPR journalist Ari Shapiro described Esper’s two contradictory answers as “complicated.”
“On the one hand, he does not want to give Iran a green light to support these militias… and on the other hand he doesn’t want to sound belligerent, like he’s threatening an attack on Iranian soil,” Shapiro said.
Esper’s apparent confusion on the legality of striking Iran is not the first mixed message to emanate from Washington following the death of Soleimani. Pushed to explain the rationale for targeting the Iranian general, Trump administration officials have said that Soleimani was planning “imminent” attacks on American troops in the Middle East, without providing evidence. Trump himself claimed that Soleimani was targeting four American embassies, yet Esper denied this, and stated that he could not reveal Soleimani’s true plans for fear of losing intelligence sources in Iran.
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