National security adviser Jake Sullivan declined to rule out U.S. strikes inside Iran on Sunday, while still insisting President Biden is ‘not looking to get into a war’ in the Middle East.
Sullivan appeared on Sunday programs on CNN, ABC and NBC days after the United States and the United Kingdom began launching a massive airstrike campaign against Iran-backed Houthi rebels on Friday as part of retaliation for the killing of three U.S. service members and the injuring of more than 40 others in Jordan along the Syrian border.
‘The president has approached this with a straightforward principle, which is that the United States will step up and respond when our forces are attacked. And the United States also is not looking for a wider war in the Middle East. We are not looking to take the United States to war. So we are going to continue to pursue a policy that goes down both of those lines simultaneously, that responds with force and clarity, as we did on Friday night, but also that continues to hew to an approach that does not get the United States pulled into a war, that we have seen too frequently in the Middle East,’ Sullivan told CNN’s Dana Bash on ‘State of the Union.’
Sullivan vowed ‘further action,’ but said he would refrain from telegraphing the United States’ punches in the conflict.
‘Inside Iran? Would you rule that out at this point?’ Bash asked.
‘Look, sitting on a national TV program, I’m not going to rule in and rule out any activity anywhere. What I am going to say is that the president will do what he thinks needs to be done and again, reinforce the point that he’s going to defend our forces, and also that he is not looking to get into a war,’ Sullivan said.
Bash noted Republican criticism that the Biden administration should have responded before the three U.S. casualties given there have been more than 150 attacks on U.S. troops since Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack on southern Israel.
‘We have responded multiple times, before the tragic events of a few days ago. We have struck targets in both Iraq and Syria,’ Sullivan said. ‘We have gone against IRGC and militia-linked facilities in both Iraq and Syria. We have taken out a militia leader in Iraq. So the notion that we have not responded is just incorrect. Second point I would make, is that I didn’t hear these same voices, which to me sound mostly like political voices, saying that when American service members were tragically killed by these same militias in the previous administration. This is a challenging, difficult issue. It has been for every president over the past 20 years, and every president has sought to defend American forces.’
Iran, meanwhile, issued a warning Sunday to the U.S. over potentially targeting two cargo ships in the Middle East, the Behshad and Saviz, long suspected of serving as a forwarding operating base for Iranian commandos, signaling Tehran’s growing unease over the U.S. strikes in recent days in Iraq, Syria and Yemen targeting militias backed by the Islamic Republic.
Appearing on ABC’s ‘This Week,’ Sullivan said ‘the central purpose of the strikes has been to take away capabilities from the Iranian-backed militias in Iraq and Syria that are attacking our forces, and from the Houthis that continue to threaten Red Sea shipping, and we believe they had good effect in reducing degrading the capabilities of the militias and of the Houthis.’
‘This was the beginning of our response. There will be more steps,’ Sullivan told ABC’s George Stephanopoulos. ‘Some of those steps will be seen, some may not be seen, but there will be more action taken to respond to the death and the tragic death of the three brave U.S. service members. And we cannot rule out that there will be further attacks from Iranian-backed militias in Iraq and Syria, or from the Houthis. We have to be clear-eyed about that. And the president, in being clear-eyed about that, has told his military commanders that they need to be positioned to respond to further attacks as well.’
Sullivan, appearing on NBC’s ‘Meet the Press,’ also responded to criticism from House Speaker Mike Johnson, R-La., who has contended Biden’s administration has been appeasing Iran.
‘I find it somewhat strange. The president made clear before we were attacked in Tower 22 in Jordan, before our brave service members were tragically killed, that if we were attacked, we would respond,’ Sullivan said. ‘So Iran and its militia groups knew that the United States was going to respond. We think that those strikes had good effects. So, of course, there will always be armchair quarterbacks, but we are confident in the steps that we have taken so far, and we are confident in the course that we are on going forward.’
Johnson hit back, appearing later on during the same program.
‘I do take issue with a little bit of what Jake Sullivan just said. I listened to that interview. It was interesting. We need to make absolutely clear to Iran that nothing is off the table. We should not be appeasing Iran,’ Johnson told NBC host Kristen Welker. ‘That’s what the Biden administration has been doing for the last three years. We are projecting weakness on the world stage. And frankly, Kristen, that is why our adversaries are acting so provocatively. What we need to be doing right now is turning up the heat on Iran.’
The Associated Press contributed to this report.