Defense Secretary Mark Esper joined MSNBC's Andrea Mitchell Thursday afternoon to talk about the U.S.'s campaign to reign in Iranian power following an attack on U.S. forces in Iraq by an Iranian-backed militia and retaliatory U.S. airstrikes, which led to massive protests at the U.S. embassy in Baghdad:
That guy has tweeted that we see Iran responsible for the events in Baghdad & we will respond to Iran.— Khamenei.ir (@khamenei_ir) January 1, 2020
1st: You can’t do anything.
2nd: If you were logical —which you’re not— you’d see that your crimes in Iraq, Afghanistan… have made nations hate you. https://t.co/hMGOEDwHuY
ANDREA MITCHELL, MSNBC: Taking a step back, there have been a series of incidents of Iranian-backed incidents, including of course the massive attack in September against the Saudi oil fields. The president had said at the time, the U.S. said, "we're locked and loaded," yet we did not take action then. And then, an American contractor, tragically, was killed, and this very large response in Iraq, at the same time responding against Iran, does that also weaken the fragile Iraqi government which is so heavily influenced by Tehran?
MARK ESPER, DEFENSE SECRETARY: I think the party that is weakening the Iraqi government and the Iraqi country is Iran. They are exerting their influence throughout that country, through these Shi'ite militia groups, through politicians that they control in whatever way, shape, or form. That is why you've seen in the past few months thousands of Iraqis, normal Iraqis, in the streets protesting both corruption and Iranian influence in their country.
In fact, as I recall they tornado the consulate, an Iranian consulate in one of their provinces, an Iranian consulate, because they want Iran out of their country. We are there, of course, as guests of Iraq. We're there to ensure the enduring defeat the ISIS. We helped the Iraqis do that. And we remain there to train, advise, and assist them. We have full respect for Iraq's sovereignty and what we want to see is an independent, secure, stable Iraq.
ANDREA MITCHELL: Didn't the Iraqi government fail to respond strongly enough? How did these militants get into the Green Zone, get that close to the embassy? Doesn't that indicate some complicity and some ambivalence by the Iraqi government under the influence of Iran?
MARK ESPER: I think that's part of what we have to look at now and understand. I think their performance was slow. It's in a much better posture now. We have Iraqi security forces around the embassy. They need to remain there. It is the sovereign responsibility of the Iraqi government to defend not just our embassy but all other embassies in that country. We've had friends and partners around the world condemn this protest by the Shi'ite militia groups. The Iraqis have been largely good partners. But they're under the influence of Tehran in many ways. This is why the people of Iraq are so upset with what's happening in their country, and they should be.
ANDREA MITCHELL: There's Iraqi nationalism also to take into consideration now, and increasing pressure in the parliament in Baghdad to get some 5,000 U.S. troops, all the U.S. troops, out of Iraq. Are we going to concede to that pressure and withdraw our troops?
MARK ESPER: There is nothing on the table right now. Again, we are there at the invitation of the Iraqi government. We work closely with them. I was in that country a month or so ago and had good meetings with both the defense minister and prime minister. They recognize the importance of our relationship to ensure not only the enduring defeat of ISIS but the integrity of their country and make sure we professionalize their armed forces so they remain a sovereign state, and hopefully, the goal would be for them to be a country free of influences such as Tehran.
ANDREA MITCHELL: They Ayatollah and the President of the United States are now in a war of words on Twitter. The president is saying on Twitter, "This is not a warning, it's a threat." The Iranians are saying there's nothing we can do, we can't do anything. Is he right, that we can't do anything in this situation?
MARK ESPER: The United States has a full range of capabilities whether it's on the military side which of course we have a good -- but it's further economic sanctions, it's diplomatic action. There's a lot we can do. It's important to not make this a United States versus Iran issue. It's really Iran versus the world. It's Iranian bad behavior that's been going on now for nearly 40 years. Again, it's the support of proxy groups from Africa, Lebanon, Yemen, Iraq, Afghanistan. You go around the world and you'll find Iran is either directing, resourcing, supporting, providing their own soldiers or special operators to do this type of bad behavior. And that's not to mention whether it's hostage-taking or ballistic missiles or the pursuit of nuclear weapons.
Iran needs to become a normal country.