U.S. Secretary of Defense: Israel Has 'Absolute Right to Defend Itself' From Iran

James Mattis was the first senior American official to speak directly to Saturday's escalation between Israel, Syria and Iran, naming Iran as the most problematic actor in the region

Jim Mattis, U.S. secretary of defense, takes a question during a White House press briefing in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Wednesday, Feb. 7, 2018.

U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis said Sunday about the recent escalation between Israel and Iran that Israel has "an absolute right to defend itself" in face of threats from the Iranians on its northern border.

Speaking to reporters before flying to a work visit in Europe, Mattis said that "everywhere we find trouble in the Middle East, you find the same thing behind it," explaining that he sees Iran as the most problematic player in the region. 

"It is interesting that everywhere we find trouble in the Middle East, you find the same thing behind it. Whether it be in Yemen or Beirut, or in Syria, in Iraq, you always find Iran engaged," Mattis said. "If you're in Bahrain, and the police there have captured explosives and that sort of thing, clearly from Iran; if you're picking up debris in Saudi Arabia of Iranian missiles; or you've got explosive boats, remote-controlled boats, out in the Red Sea, you can see where Iran is either producing the wherewithal for the fight or actually leading the fight, in some case." 

Mattis added that the U.S. did not have any "military involvement" in the events that took place on Saturday between Israel and Syria.

"Israel has an absolute right to defend themselves. They don't have to wait until their citizens are dying under attack before they actually address that issue," he concluded.

Mattis is the first senior American official to directly discuss the events that took place over the weekend. The Trump administration had issued a number of written statements on the situation, with all of them - coming from the White House, the Pentagon and the State Department - supportive of Israel and critical of Iran. State Secretary Rex Tillerson conveyed a similar message in a phone conversation with Prime Minister Netanyahu.