Before he was confirmed as Secretary of Defense, Lloyd Austin sketched out the Biden administration’s priorities for future diplomacy with Iran after reentering the 2015 nuclear deal. “I would hope that as we enter into that agreement, we could have this discussion about when things sunset and also take a look at some broader things,” he said during his confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee. “One of those things is ballistic missiles.” Iran has the largest and most diverse ballistic missile arsenal in the Middle East. Gen. Austin, the head of U.S. Central Command from 2013 to 2016, called Iran a “destabilizing element” that posed a “threat” to U.S. forces and partners in the region. Austin was confirmed by a vote of 93-2 on January 22, 2021.
Austin became the public face of the Biden administration's military response to rocket attacks by Iran-backed militias in late February and early March. He recommended airstrikes in Syria against facilities used by Kataib Hezbollah and Kataib Sayyid al Shuhada, two Iraqi Shiite militias trained, armed and funded by Iran. "We're confident in the target we went after," Austin told reporters after the operation. The following is rundown of what Austin has said on Iran while in office and before becoming Secretary of Defense.
Remarks after taking office:
In Senate testimony on March 28: “Iran’s nuclear program, its dangerous proxies, its support for terrorism, its cyber threats, and its proliferation of one-way attack unmanned aerial systems (UAS) all undermine Middle East security and threaten U.S. forces and Partners. We have acted decisively when Iran-backed militia groups have attacked U.S. forces in Iraq and Syria. As Iran deepens its partnership with Russia, including Russian military support to Tehran in return for Iranian one-way attack UAS to deploy in Ukraine, we are developing and fielding effective approaches to counter the proliferating threats from Iran’s UAS. This budget request seeks to tackle these persistent challenges through investments in integrated air and missile defense, maritime domain awareness, and counter-UAS systems. We have repeatedly demonstrated our ability to deploy combat-credible forces into the region to deter potential Iranian aggression, and we will continue to take necessary and proportionate military action to defend U.S. forces and facilities from attack, or threat of attack, from Iran or Iran-backed proxies.”
Question: How many attacks has Iran or its proxies launched against American positions in Iran [Iraq] and Syria since Joe Biden took office?
Austin: “There’s been 83 attacks, I think, in the last several years.”
Question: How many times have we retaliated against Iran or its proxies?
Austin: “We've launched four major strikes, Senator, but an attack can consist of a number of things—it can consist of a rocket that's fired in the direction of one of our bases but not effective.”
Question: Secretary Austin, I appreciate that in this latest instance, last week, the U.S. responded with airstrikes against individuals connected with the IRGC, but just as you told my colleague... we know there been about 83 such attacks by Iranian proxies on U.S. forces in Syria in the past two years alone. We've only retaliated four times. Why has the United States responded so infrequently, particularly when these militias are the most pervasive threat to U.S. and coalition forces in the region?
Austin: “First of all, as was stated earlier, our troops have the ability to certainly protect themselves and there have been local responses to certain types of activity, and our troops always have the ability to do that. In terms of major responses, strikes. You're right. There's only been four of those. At the three tours I spent in Iraq, I can tell you that me and my troops received a lot of attacks from Iranian--but when we respond, we want to make sure that Iranian-backed militias--we want to make sure that we are going after the element that's responsible for whatever that activity is. So it takes a little time to develop attribution, and then we want to make sure that we are holding the right element accountable, and we're doing everything that we can to protect our troops. So all of those things go into our consideration when we plan a response option.”
Question: Secretary Austin, can you tell us, do our commanders who I know want to do more have the necessary authorities to target Iran's proxies other than the ability for self-defense?
Austin: “I think we do, Senator and this is something that we need to continue to review as we go forward. And we certainly have the right to self-defense.”
In a joint press conference with Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant on March 9, 2023: “Much of our discussion today focused on the threats posed by Iran. Iran remains the primary driver of instability in the region and we remain deeply concerned by Iran's support for terrorism, its dangerous proxies, its nuclear advances, its aggression at sea, its cyber threats, and its proliferation of attack drones and advanced conventional weapons.
“Now, we continue to believe that diplomacy is the best way to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon. As President Biden has repeatedly made clear, the United States will not allow Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon.
“Now, Iran's destabilizing actions are not just a threat to Israel, they are a challenge to the region and to the world. We're especially concerned by Iran's growing strategic partnership with Russia, including using Iranian drones to terrorize and kill innocent civilians in Ukraine.
“And over the past year, Russia's military cooperation with Iran has deepened, and that poses serious challenges for this region and for the safety of your citizens. Iran is gaining important battlefield expertise and experience in Ukraine that will eventually transfer to its dangerous proxies in the Middle East.
“In return for Iranian support in Ukraine, Russia has been offering Iran unprecedented defense cooperation, including on missiles and air defense. And all that just reminds us of the stakes as Russia's cruel and unprovoked war of choice enters its second year.”
Question: Hi, Secretary Austin. Thanks so much for coming to Israel. The IAEA chief, Rafael Grossi, recently announced a new deal with Iran, expressed a lot of optimism about a return to the JCPOA but had downplayed the 84 percent uranium enrichment issue. He said, you know, maybe it was a mistake. How dangerous do you think the 84 percent enrichment issue was, since it's so close to the 90 percent weaponized uranium enrichment level? And how decisive should that be regarding Israeli and American policy in Iran not just this week, but in the coming months? Thank you.
Austin: This is yet another example of Iran's dangerous nuclear advances, and of course, I am deeply concerned. President Biden's preference is to explore all diplomatic avenues to ensure that we constrain Iran's progress in this field, and so we would look to continue at t work to make sure that we constrain their dangerous advances. And my job as secretary of defense, as you know, is to provide the president options, if he so desires.
In remarks on March 7, 2023: “Unfortunately, Daesh is not the only threat that this region [the Kurdistan region of Iraq] faces. The United States condemns the repeated cross-border attacks from Iran. These attacks violate Iraqi sovereignty, put Iraqi lives in danger, and hold the Iraqi people back.”
In remarks on March 6, 2023:
Question: So with Iran no longer bound by the JCPOA, what is the U.S. doing to stop Iran from becoming a nuclear threat?
Austin: Well, you've heard the President say a number of times that we will not allow Iran to obtain a nuclear weapon. And of course, if things evolve, we need to take action to prevent that from happening, then, you know, my job as Secretary of Defense is to make sure that I'm providing the President with the right options.
Question: My follow-up is regarding Iran's relationship with Russia. Do you see that as a growing relationship? And does that relationship have the potential to launch Iran to becoming a world power, a world threat?
Austin: Russia has, throughout this conflict, they've gone through tremendous amount of their weapons and munitions. And so now we see them in a position that they're reaching out to other countries around the globe to get additional capability.
Iran is foremost among the countries that they've engaged and we've seen Iran most recently provide one way attack UAVs to Russia. Russia's used those UAVs to attack critical infrastructure in Ukraine, and that's caused the injury and death of a number of civilians.
What Iran is doing is really unthinkable and certainly in terms of the region, for the future of the region, it's a really bad thing. They're getting more experienced as they employ these UAVs in Ukraine, and that doesn't bode well for the region here.
We also expect that Russia will provide technology back to Iran in return for some of the help that they've gotten. And of course, if you're a country in this region, you'd be very concerned about that, and they are. All of the countries are very concerned about that.
So this relationship is very troubling and one that we need to keep an eye on and discourage Iran from that kind of activity going forward.
At the AIPAC Political Leadership Forum on Jan. 10, 2023: “Going back to my days at CENTCOM, I have consistently said that the greatest threat to Israeli security, and to the region, is the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran.
“We fully understand the dangers of the Iranian government’s destabilizing actions—including its support for terrorism, its dangerous proxies, and its threats to wipe Israel off the map.
“Unfortunately, Iran has repeatedly refused to engage in meaningful diplomacy on the nuclear front, and now they are taking actions across numerous fronts that make diplomacy even harder.
“We continue to believe that diplomacy is the best way to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon.
“But let me be clear. The United States will not allow Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon. And if Iran isn’t willing to engage seriously, then we will look at all the options necessary to keep the United States secure.
“Now, the Iranian government’s recent outrages have only deepened our conviction and concern. The regime has killed, beaten, and jailed its own citizens for daring to speak out against its repressive rule. And we’re deeply moved by the courage of the Iranian people in standing up for their basic rights.
“But Iran is also stoking instability across the region—including its support for terrorists and militias, its proliferation of drones, its menacing cyber activities, its maritime aggression, and its continued threats against foreign officials.
“So Iran’s reckless actions don’t just threaten Israel. They endanger the entire Middle East and beyond, including by supporting Russia’s cruel targeting of civilians in Ukraine.
“And increasingly, U.S. partners understand the importance of a regional approach to this kind of shared danger. So we’re working closely with Israel, our partners in the Middle East, and our allies and partners to impose coordinated pressure on the Iranian regime.
“During this cruel winter, Russia has been using drones from Iran to kill Ukrainian citizens. In the process, Iran is gaining important battlefield experience and forging a strategic relationship with Russia.
“That’s deeply, deeply troubling. It’s a problem for American security, for Israeli security, and for global security. And it just underscores the importance of standing up for what’s right.”
At the Manama Dialogue on Nov. 20, 2021: “America’s commitment to security in the Middle East is strong and sure. So we’ll defend our interests in this region. And we’ll continue to evaluate the right mix of forces to bolster our deterrence against Iran. We’ll protect our forces from attack by Tehran or its proxies.”
“The United States remains committed to preventing Iran from gaining a nuclear weapon. And we remain committed to a diplomatic outcome of the nuclear issue. But if Iran isn’t willing to engage seriously, then we will look at all the options necessary to keep the United States secure.
“Now, next week, Iran’s negotiating team is set to return to Vienna to restart talks on a mutual return to compliance with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. We and our partners will return to those talks in good faith.
“But Iran’s actions in recent months have not been encouraging—especially because of the expansion of their nuclear program. As my friend and colleague Secretary of State Blinken has said, Iran’s nuclear activities are bringing us closer to the point at which returning to the JCPOA won’t recapture its benefits. But if Iran comes back with constructive positions, we still think we can quickly resolve our lingering differences to make a mutual return to the JCPOA possible.
“Yet Iran presents us all with serious security challenges that go beyond its nuclear program. Iran stokes tensions in this region and beyond, and that undermines peace and stability for us all.
“Now, Iran’s neighbors have tried to talk and improve relations. We fully support those efforts. And we urge Iran to do its part, and to take steps to reduce violence and conflict. But whatever Iran decides, we will continue to work closely with our partners. Iran should have no illusions that it can undermine our strong relationships in this region. And we will defend ourselves, and we will defend our friends, and we will defend our interests.
“That includes tackling the dangerous use of unmanned aircraft systems. Iran’s proliferation of one-way, attack UAVs is a constant threat to American troops, and a hindrance in the fight against ISIS. And as we’ve seen in Iraq, and Saudi Arabia, and elsewhere, many of our partners face the same threat every day.”
At a press briefing on Nov. 17, 2021: "Now, it’s not lost on me that this trip comes at a time when Iran is stoking tensions and undermining stability in the region.
"We remain deeply committed to preventing Iran from gaining nuclear weapons. As I’ve said before, no problem in the Middle East gets easier to solve with a nuclear-armed Iran.
"That’s why we fully support the President’s efforts to achieve a new diplomatic agreement with Iran over its nuclear program.
"But, of course, Iran presents serious security challenges that extend beyond that program.
"So I’m going to continue to be very clear: we will defend ourselves, our partners, and our interests against threats from Iran or its proxies."
Interview with ABC on March 7:
Question: I want to move to Iraq. This week, we saw a second significant attack with those 10 rockets. Do you know who did it? And what kind of responses might we expect?
Austin: Well, 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. We want to make sure that, again, we understand who's responsible for this. The message to those that would carry out such an attack is that: Expect us to do what's necessary to defend ourselves. We will strike, if that's what we think we need to do, at a time and place of our own choosing. We demand the right to protect our troops.
Question: Has Iran been given the message that this is not an escalation, when we retaliate?
Austin: I think Iran is fully capable of assessing the strike and our activities, and they will draw their own conclusions. But what they should draw from this, again, is that we're going to defend our troops, and our response will be thoughtful, it will be appropriate. We would hope that they would choose to do the right things.
Remarks on Feb. 25, 2021: “There's not much more that I'll be able to add at this point other than the fact that we're confident in the target we went after, we know what we hit. And we’re confident that target was being used by the same Shia militia that conducted the strikes.”
“We are very deliberative about our approach as you would expect us to be. We allowed and encouraged the Iraqis to investigate and develop intelligence, and that was very helpful to us in refining the target."
“It was my recommendation. We’ve said a number of times [that] we will respond on our timeline. And, once again we wanted to be sure of the connectivity and that we had the right targets.”
Remarks from before taking office:
On reentering the 2015 nuclear deal
Senate confirmation hearing on January 19, 2021: “I would hope, and I think the president-elect has been clear, that the pre-conditions for us considering to reenter into that agreement would be that Iran meet the conditions outlined in the agreement. Back to where they should have been. I would hope that as we enter into that agreement, we could have this discussion about when things sunset and also take a look at some broader things that may or may not be a part of this treaty, but certainly things that I think need to be addressed. One of those things is ballistic missiles.”
On Iran’s regional behavior
Senate confirmation hearing on January 19, 2021: “Iran continues to be a destabilizing element in the region. If you look at its behavior, it is clearly [engaged in] a lot of activity that's destabilizing. It doesn't work well with its neighbors. It does present a threat to our partners in the region and those forces that we have stationed in the region. If Iran were ever to get a nuclear capability, most every problem that we deal with in the region would be tougher to deal with because of that.”
On Arab states normalization with Israel
Senate confirmation hearing on January 19, 2021: “Any time that countries agree to normalize relations, I think that's a good thing. I think certainly this has put a bit more pressure on Iran, and I hope they will have good effects. “