- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 7, 2021

The U.S. military on Sunday delivered a pair of clear warnings to Iran, with the Air Force dispatching two B-52H “Stratofortress” bombers to the Middle East while Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin vowed to “hold people accountable for their acts” if Americans are targeted.

U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM), which oversees American military operations in the region, said that aircraft from Israel, Saudi Arabia and Qatar joined the B-52 bombers during their flights.

It’s the fourth time this year the Pentagon has sent B-52s to the Middle East, and it comes as the Biden administration weighs how best to respond to yet another recent rocket attack on U.S. troops believed to have been launched by Iran-backed militias.

Sunday’s mission was designed “to deter aggression and reassure partners and allies of the U.S. military’s commitment to security in the region,” CENTCOM said in a statement.

“The U.S. Air Force routinely moves aircraft and personnel into, out of, and around the U.S. Central Command area of responsibility to meet mission requirements, and to train with regional partners, underscoring the importance of strategic partnerships,” the statement said.

The flights came just days after the most recent rocket attack in Iraq, which targeted American troops housed at the al-Asad air base. A U.S. contractor died of a heart attack during that attack last Wednesday.

That incident was especially noteworthy because it came on the heels of U.S. airstrikes along the Syria-Iraq border targeting the Iran-backed militia Kataib Hezbollah, suggesting that the American airstrike on Feb. 25 may not have been enough to fully deter Iran-linked proxy groups.

With tensions between Washington and Tehran escalating, U.S. officials are making clear that any future attacks will be answered.

But the administration also is seeking to strike a balance with a proportional response to Iran that doesn’t completely undercut the prospects for diplomacy between the two nations.

Administration officials have said the U.S. is willing to meet with international partners and Iran to discuss resurrecting a deal to limit Tehran’s nuclear program. So far, Iran has rejected those overtures, limited the access of international inspectors to its nuclear facilities and threatened to ramp up its uranium enrichment to near-weapons grade levels.

Against that backdrop, the administration is taking a cautious approach. Mr. Austin said Sunday that the Pentagon is waiting for an Iraqi-led investigation to definitively determine who was responsible for last week’s rocket attack before deciding on any retaliation.

“We’re still developing the intelligence. We’re encouraging the Iraqis to move as fast as they can to investigate the incident and they are doing that. But you can expect that we will always hold people accountable for their acts,” Mr. Austin said. “We want to make sure that, again, we understand who’s responsible for this. The message to those who would carry out such an attack is you know expect us to do what’s necessary to defend ourselves.”

“We’ll strike if that’s what we think we need to do at a time and place of our own choosing,” he said. “We demand the right to protect our troops.”

Meanwhile, Iran has ratcheted up its threatening rhetoric toward the U.S. and its allies, particularly Israel. Top Tehran officials on Sunday warned Israel against any military action directed at Iran.

“The Zionist regime knows, and if it does not know it should know, that if it makes a mistake, the Islamic Republic will raze down Tel Aviv and Haifa,” said top Iranian Gen. Amir Hatami, as quoted by Iran’s Fars News Agency.

• Ben Wolfgang can be reached at bwolfgang@washingtontimes.com.

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