The U.S. will respond as appropriate to a rocket attack last week on an airbase hosting U.S.-led coalition forces in Iraq, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said.
While he stopped short of assigning blame on ABC’s “This Week,” an earlier rocket incident prompted U.S. airstrikes against Iranian-backed fighters in Syria in February.
“We’re still developing the intelligence” on the latest attack, Austin said in his first network interview as defense chief. Iran should know “that we’re going to defend our troops and our response will be thoughtful, it will be appropriate.”
“We’ll strike, if that’s what we think we need to do, at a time and place of our own choosing,” Austin said.
Austin said relations with Saudi Arabia, Iran’s main regional adversary, will remain good, even after the U.S. published an intelligence report accusing the country’s crown prince of approving the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
“It will be a good relationship, but it will be a bit different,” Austin said.
“But I think just because you have a good strategic relationship with an ally or partner, it doesn’t mean that you can’t hold them accountable for various things.”
While President Joe Biden’s administration imposed sanctions on a range of Saudi officials, he declined to sanction Prince Mohammed bin Salman personally, drawing criticism from Democratic lawmakers. The balancing act reflects Saudi Arabia’s role as a U.S. ally.
Saudi Arabia “is a strategic partner in the region” and the two countries “have to work together to make sure that that we achieve our goals and objectives,” Austin said. “We’re going to lead with our values, but we’re going to protect our interests.”
Austin directed sharper comments at China, which he said is “trying to close the competitive edge that we’ve always enjoyed” with its military buildup.
“In some cases, they’ve been coercive and some of that coercion has been directed against our allies, and our allies are very important to us,” he said.
Austin and U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken plan to visit Japan and South Korea in March, Reuters reported last week.
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