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Secretary of Defense Mark Esper. Photo: Nicholas Kamm/AFP via Getty Images

Defense Secretary Mark Esper said Thursday that there are indications Iran or its proxies may be planning additional attacks on U.S. interests in the Middle East following the assault on the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad on New Year's Eve, according to AP.

"We will take preemptive action as well to protect American forces and protect American lives. The game has changed, and we’re prepared to do what is necessary to defend our personnel and our interests and our partners in the region. ... Do I think they may do something? Yes. And they will likely regret it."
— Esper to reporters

Why it matters: Esper's comments come two days after he dispatched hundreds of U.S. troops to the region as standby reinforcements, and reflect how the storming of the embassy may have set off one of one of the biggest foreign policy crises of the Trump presidency.

What they're saying: Hossein Salami, commander of Iran's Islamic Revolution Guards Corps, said Thursday that Iran is not afraid of war with the U.S.

  • "The Iranian nation has not started war in the past incidents but it annihilates any aggressor and the U.S. is aware of this," Salami said, according to Fars News Agency.
  • Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said militia groups will run into a "buzzsaw" if they attempt to overrun the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad again, according to AP.

The big picture: Trump faces a stark choice on countering Iran, Axios' Jonathan Swan reports. If he strikes back hard, he may get a new Middle East war he never wanted. If he does nothing, he may show the type of "weakness" exhibited by Jimmy Carter during the Iranian hostage crisis that he has long derided.

Go deeper: Behind the scenes of Trump's thinking on Iran

Go deeper

"Atmospheric river" to whiplash Northern California from drought to flood

A map depicting 24-hour preciptation forecast (inches) ending Monday at 5a.m. local time. Photo: NOAA

A series of powerful "atmospheric river" storms are set dump historic amounts of rainfall across parts of drought-stricken California and the Pacific Northwest from this weekend, forecasters warn.

Why it matters: A strong atmospheric river, packing large amounts of moisture, is predicted to whiplash Northern California from drought to flood.

10,000 trees near giant sequoia groves to be removed after fires

A firefighter looks up at a giant sequoia tree after fire burned through the Sequoia National Forest near California Hot Springs, California, on Sept. 23. Photo: Patrick T. Fallon/AFP via Getty Images

"Upwards of" 10,000 trees near giant sequoia groves have been "weakened by drought, disease, age, and/or fire" and must be removed in the wake of California's wildfires, the Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks announced.

Why it matters: The damage to these trees, considered "national treasures," and work to remove them means a nearby key highway must remain closed to visitors as they have "the potential to strike people, cars, other structures, or create barriers to emergency response services," per a statement from the national parks.

Obama stumps for McAuliffe, urges Virginians not "to go back to the chaos"

Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images

Former President Barack Obama framed a Nov. 2 gubernatorial race as a bellwether for the Democratic Party and the country, telling a crowd at a campaign event for Terry McAuliffe on Saturday that "I believe you, right here in Virginia, are going to show the rest of the country and the world that we're not going to indulge in our worst instincts."

Why it matters: With just over a week to go before Election Day in the Commonwealth, McAuliffe is bringing out the big guns. The 44th president appeared on the campus of Virginia Commonwealth University to urge supporters to get to the polls.