Mark Esper
Mark EsperReuters

The United States could take preemptive military action if it gets sufficient warning that Iran or its proxy forces are planning further strikes on American interests in the Middle East, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper said Thursday, according to NBC News.

"We're prepared to do what is necessary to defend our personnel and our interests and our partners in the region," Esper was quoted as having told reporters at the Pentagon.

He cited a series of violent attacks on US personnel and facilities in Iraq in recent months by Iran-supported militia groups.

The US has "indications" that more Iranian provocations may be in the offing, Esper suggested without providing details.

"If that happens, then we will act and by the way, if we get word of attacks or some type indication, we will take preemptive action as well to protect American forces, to protect American lives," he added.

Esper’s comments were made hours before Qassem Soleimani, head of the Quds Force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, was reportedly eliminated in an air strike attributed to the US at the Baghdad International Airport in Iraq.

Moments before the attack in Iraq, Esper tweeted a warning to Iran.

“To Iran & its proxy militias: we will not accept continued attacks against our personnel & forces in the region. Attacks against us will be met w/ responses in the time, manner, & place of our choosing. We urge the Iranian regime to end malign activities,” he wrote.

Tensions between the US and Iran rose this week in the wake of the US air strikes against the Kataib Hezbollah militia in Iraq at the beginning of the week. The strikes were in response to the killing of a US civilian contractor in a Friday rocket attack on an Iraqi military base.

On Tuesday, Iraqi militants laid siege to the US Embassy in Baghdad, setting fires and smashing security cameras before forcing their way into the compound.

US President Donald Trump accused Iran of orchestrating the violent protest. Iran rejected the allegations.

Following the attack on the embassy, the Pentagon announced that around 750 more troops would be sent to the Middle East immediately.

While Trump threatened that Iran would pay a “big price” for the embassy attack, he later said he didn’t believe a war with Iran was on the horizon.