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Iran distanced itself on Monday from an attack that killed three US soldiers as pressure built domestically on President Joe Biden to respond against Tehran.
A day after the US blamed “radical Iran-backed militant groups” for the drone strike on a military base in north-east Jordan, Iran’s foreign ministry denied any link to the assault.
The ministry said accusations of Iran’s involvement in the deaths of the US personnel were “baseless”, calling them a “conspiracy” by those “interested in dragging the US into a new conflict in the region to intensify the crisis”.
IRNA, Iran’s official news agency, quoted Tehran’s mission to the UN as saying that the Islamic republic had “no connection to these attacks, and the clashes are between the US army and resistance groups in the region, who reciprocally confront each other”.
The deaths mark the first time US troops have been killed in an attack in the Middle East since the Israel-Hamas war began in Gaza in October.
Top Republicans in Congress have called for direct strikes on Iran in response. “Hit Iran now. Hit them hard,” senator Lindsey Graham wrote on X, while Senator John Cornyn wrote: “Target Tehran”.
In a posting on his Truth Social network, former president Donald Trump labelled the attack a “horrific and tragic consequence of Joe Biden’s weakness and surrender” but called for no specific action. “We are on the brink of World War 3,” he added.
The attack, which US defence officials said also injured at least 34 service members, struck the Tower 22 outpost near Jordan’s border with Syria, which houses 350 US military personnel as part of the coalition against Isis.
US forces in Syria and Iraq have come under repeated assault by a newly created group of Iran-backed militias known as the Islamic Resistance in Iraq, which says it is retaliating for Washington’s backing for Israel’s war against Hamas in Gaza.
The US has responded by conducting air strikes on facilities linked to the Iraqi militia groups.
“Iran is probably calculating that the US is reticent to respond and engage in a region-wide conflict,” said Jonathan Panikoff, a former senior intelligence official now at the Atlantic Council.
“The facts on the ground demonstrate that avoiding the regional conflict is becoming harder regardless of US desires, and the US is now a prime target. That has to prompt the Biden administration to at least reconsider how it views the nature of the current conflict.”
The IRI said on Sunday it used armed drones to attack three military bases with US personnel in Syria, including one across the border from the Tower 22 outpost. It is not clear if this was the attack that killed the three US service members.
Biden vowed that the US would “hold all those responsible to account at a time and in a manner of our choosing”.
Oil prices briefly climbed more than 1 per cent in early trading on Monday after the White House announcement, before falling back.
Brent crude, the international benchmark, was 0.4 per cent lower at $83.18 a barrel. The equivalent US benchmark West Texas Intermediate fell 0.4 per cent to trade at $77.71 a barrel.
Iran’s foreign ministry spokesperson Nasser Kanaani accused the US of “comprehensive support for the genocide of Palestinians” in Gaza as well as the bombings and attacks against anti-Israel groups in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen that were “exacerbating this cycle of instability”.
Iran demanded “an immediate ceasefire” which “can pave the way for the return of calm to the region”, he added.
Sunday’s attack came as the Israel-Hamas war has triggered escalating violence across the region despite Washington’s aim of preventing it from spiralling into a broader conflict. Iran has also insisted it wants to avoid a regional war and has said the militant groups it backs are acting independently.
This month, the US military killed a high-ranking commander of Harakat al-Nujaba, an Iran-backed militia in Iraq. Washington described the action as “self-defence” after the faction conducted attacks on US personnel. Experts believe Harakat al-Nujaba is one of the IRI’s most influential factions. The US has about 2,500 troops in Iraq and about 900 in Syria, where they are deployed to help prevent a resurgence of Isis.
The US and UK have also been co-ordinating joint strikes on Houthi targets in Yemen in response to the Iran-backed rebel group’s attacks on vessels sailing through the Red Sea, a critical shipping lane for global trade.
Iranian-backed Houthi rebels have said their attacks on shipping lanes were in response to Israel’s bombardment of the Gaza Strip since it launched its war against Hamas in October. The Houthis have carried out more than 30 attacks on international and commercial vessels since mid-November.
Additional reporting by William Sandlund in Hong Kong and Najmeh Bozorgmehr in Tehran
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