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US tries to avert Iranian retaliatory attack on Israel amid threat of wider regional conflict

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Michael Kurilla, head of the United States Central Command meets with IDF chief Aviv Kohavi at the Nevatim airbase in Be’er Sheva, Israel, Nov. 15, 2022. — Israeli Defense Forces/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

(WASHINGTON) — High-level U.S. officials are urgently trying to pressure Iran to back down from its threat to launch a retaliatory strike against Israel — the latest challenge facing the Biden administration as it tries to avert an all-out regional war in the Middle East.

In a sign of how seriously the U.S. views the risk of escalation, the Pentagon confirmed on Thursday that Gen. Michael “Erik” Kurilla, the commander of U.S. Central Command, had “moved up” a previously scheduled trip to Israel to meet with senior Israeli military leaders “due to recent developments.”

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin also spoke by phone with Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant on Thursday afternoon “to discuss the current situation in the Middle East and to reaffirm the U.S.’s ironclad commitment to Israel’s security against threats from Iran and its proxies,” according to Maj. Gen. Pat Ryder, the Pentagon’s press secretary.

Although the U.S. does not have direct diplomatic ties to Iran, State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said that Secretary of State Antony Blinken had been working the phones with his counterparts in countries that do — encouraging them to use their influence to dissuade Iran from taking military action in response to the bombing of its consulate in Damascus, Syria.

In his conversations with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, Turkish Foreign Minister Hakan Fidan, and Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan, Blinken made clear “that escalation is not in anyone’s interest and that countries should urge Iran not to escalate,” according to Miller.

U.S. officials previously told ABC News that the administration believes Iran could retaliate against Israel in the coming days — potentially using drones and missiles to attack “regional assets” — and that information about the threat has been shared with lawmakers on Capitol Hill.

At a White House press conference on Wednesday, President Joe Biden said Iran was “threatening to launch a significant attack on Israel” and that he had assured Israeli Prime Minister that the U.S. commitment to his country’s security was “ironclad.”

“We’re going to do all we can to protect Israel’s security,” he said.

While officials say they still believe Iran may could change course, the State Department announced it had placed new restrictions on U.S. personnel in Israel on Thursday, prohibiting employees and their family members from undertaking personal travel outside of the greater Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, and Be’er Sheva areas until further notice.

According to a travel alert from the department, the limits were imposed “out of an abundance of caution.” Miller declined to speak to any specific security assessments that motivated the change in policy but acknowledged Iran’s vow for revenge.

“Clearly we are monitoring the threat environment in the Middle East and specifically in Israel, and that’s what led us to give that warning to our employees and their family members and to make it public so all U.S. citizens who either live in Israel or traveling there are aware of it,” he said.

The renewed concern over a widening conflict in the Middle East was sparked by a strike on an Iranian facility in Syria that Tehran says was carried out by Israel and killed 12 people, including Gen. Mohammad Reza Zahedi, a senior leader in Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.

Although Israel has attacked a number of targets linked to Iran in recent years, primarily as part of its efforts to disrupt arms transfers to Hezbollah and other proxy groups in the region, the Israeli military has not taken credit for the incident in Damascus, which occurred on April 1.

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