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White House rattles its saber with warnings to Iran, China about attacking US allies

‘Our Israeli counterparts are taking it seriously,’ senior White House official says about a ‘credible’ threat from Iran

President Joe Biden speaks with Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken during a meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and Ferdinand Marcos Jr., president of the Phillipines, in the East Room of the White House on Thursday.
President Joe Biden speaks with Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken during a meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and Ferdinand Marcos Jr., president of the Phillipines, in the East Room of the White House on Thursday. (Andrew Harnik/Getty Images)

The White House has been rattling its saber this week, warning China and Iran against attacking two key allies as U.S. officials track a “credible” threat of an imminent Iranian strike inside Israel.

President Joe Biden has been in diplomat-in-chief mode, huddling with the leaders of Japan and the Philippines for high-stakes talks aimed at bolstering cooperation with both countries to combat China’s outsize influence in the region and beyond. Meantime, administration officials have a message for Iran, saying they are closely monitoring a potential retaliatory strike inside Israel that could set the tinderbox Middle East afire.

“We are certainly mindful of a very public and what we consider to be a very credible threat made by Iran in terms of potential attacks on Israel,” John Kirby, White House national security communications adviser, said Friday. “We are in constant communication with our Israeli counterparts about making sure that they can defend themselves against those kinds of attacks.

“And, believe me, our Israeli counterparts are taking it seriously,” he added.

Kirby, a retired Navy rear admiral who was the top spokesperson for then-Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Michael Mullen, said U.S. intelligence officials have briefed Biden on what “we do believe… still is a viable threat.” Senior U.S. military officials were in Israel on Friday to discuss the threat with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government.

Biden “has kept himself completely informed. He is being briefed by the national security team multiple times a day in terms of what we’re seeing,” Kirby told reporters. “And again, he has made it clear to the entire national security team that … we will take seriously our commitments to the defense, the self-defense of Israel.”

The spokesman’s comments came two days after Biden himself addressed the threat to Israel, which would be retaliation for an Israeli strike on an Iranian diplomatic facility in Syria that killed a senior Iranian military official and several others.

“They’re threatening to launch a significant attack on Israel,” Biden said during a joint news conference Wednesday with his Japanese counterpart.

“As I told Prime Minister Netanyahu, our commitment to Israel’s security against these threats from Iran and its proxies is ironclad,” Biden said, referring to a telephone conversation he had with the embattled Israel prime minister earlier this month. “Let me say it again: ironclad. We’re going to do all we can to protect Israel’s security.”

Asked Friday if the U.S. could get directly involved should Iran go through with the Israel attack, Kirby declined to comment, though he did say the situation could force administration and Pentagon officials into “maybe making prudent adjustments on our own.”

Kirby did make a point to note that Biden has ordered retaliatory U.S. strikes on Iranian-backed groups in the region that have targeted American forces based there.

“We know that proxy groups and groups that Iran supports can only do what they do with the support of Iran,” Kirby said. “And so we have said, for instance, when our troops and facilities have been attacked by proxy groups in Iraq and Syria, or these attacks by the Houthis, that these groups may be pulling a trigger, but the bullets in the chamber are being provided by Iran.

“So Iran certainly is culpable. Iran certainly bears responsibility as well for those kinds of attacks,” he added. “We’ve been pretty honest about that. There’s been no okay. There’s been no pulling back on that.”

But even without American forces jumping in to help its closest ally in the volatile region, an Iranian strike could throw the Middle East into a chaotic — and destabilizing — free-for-all, with centuries-old enemies in a very hot war that could upend the world order and the global economy.

So, too, would a Chinese attack on allies in the Indo-Pacific region.

Even before Biden and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida huddled privately Wednesday before holding a joint news conference, U.S. officials were attempting to downplay any notion that the Japanese leader’s state visit was largely about countering Beijing.

The massive impact China has across the Indo-Pacific region — and the world — was an elephant in the Rose Garden as the leaders addressed reporters at the White House.

“The president has said that his alliances are not designed against. They’re designed for. They’re designed for a free and open Indo-Pacific, for peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific,” Jake Sullivan, Biden’s national security adviser, said Tuesday. “And frankly, the American alliance system has helped bring peace and stability to the Indo-Pacific for decades, and now we need to update and upgrade that alliance network for the modern age.”

But the extent to which they were also sending a message to Chinese officials became clear as the duo took turns touting their new agreements and describing the Indo-Pacific region they are trying to mold.

The U.S. and Japanese leaders announced a new missile defense system and other defense moves sure to get ample scrutiny in both China and North Korea. Kishida said his government would continue to press China to meet its “responsibilities as a major power.” And Biden said during a recent “long discussion” with Chinese President Xi Jinping that the two agreed to “one-on-one” discussions on the most important and sensitive matters, so there would be “nothing between the cup and the lip.”

While Biden used the Wednesday news conference to, in part, play up steps Washington and Beijing have taken to avoid a potential conflict, he also delivered a clear warning to Chinese leaders the next day.

During a Thursday “trilateral” summit with Kishida and Ferdinand Marcos Jr., president of the Philippines, Biden said the three allies would deepen their economic and military ties with the goal of “building an Indo-pacific that is free, open, prosperous and secure for all.”

Then came the warning.

“I want to be clear: The United States defense commitments to Japan and to the Philippines are ironclad. They are ironclad,” the U.S. commander in chief said, the seal of the Office of the President affixed to the long table in the East Room where he sat, at times leaning over to listen to Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken speak into his ear. “Any attack on Philippine aircraft, vessels or armed forces in the South China Sea would invoke our mutual defense treaty.”

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