image Photo: Reuters

CENTCOM: “threat posed by Iran is graver than ever”

Head of the United States Central Command (CENTCOM), General Kenneth F. McKenzie, Jr., delivered that assessment to the US Senate Armed Services Committee.

By Jonathan Hessen and Erin Viner

The Islamic Republic of Iran continues to present the greatest threat to the United States’ interests in the Middle East, and security of the region as a whole.

“CENTCOM was established nearly 40 years ago to counter the malign influence of a revolutionary regime that had seized power in Tehran and to compete with the great power (Russia) that had, in spite of international condemnation, invaded the sovereign state of Afghanistan and imposed a puppet regime. Today, Iran is no less than a threat to American interests or to the stability of the region than it was in 1979. To the contrary, the threat posed by Iran is graver than ever,” the outgoing commander said during his provision of a de-classified overview of his Area of Responsibility (AOR).

Gen. McKenzie went on to detail how “Iran has fomented conflict and arc tracing from Yemen to the Arabian peninsula, across Iraq and Syria into Lebanon into the very border with Israel” through use of its “proxies and clients.”

Saudi Arabia endures regular attacks from Houthi insurgents in Yemen are armed with “some of the most advanced unmanned aerial systems and cruise missiles in the region courtesy of the Iranians,” who have recently “expanded these attacks to include urban centers and bases with US forces in the United Arab Emirates,” he told the US lawmakers during over 2 hours of testimony for the last time as Commander of US forces in the Middle East.

“Tehran also enables its malign militias in Iraq and Syria to carry on a persistent low-level campaign of indirect fire and unmanned aerial system attacks against US and coalition forces hoping to drive us from the region,” he said, evidenced by attacks as recently as 2020 when “Iran demonstrated its willingness to target US forces directly with its highly capable ballistic missile forces.”

The Islamic Republic’s ballistic missile forces constitute a threat to the security of every state in the region, including Washington’s “most important and enduring partners” who “continue to look to the United States for assurance that we – their historic partner of choice in the region – will remain a reliable one,” the CENTCOM commander underscored.

“Iran foments a particularly variant form of anti-Americanism across the theater. It is a long-term objective of Iran for the United States to be forced to exit the region. They see the principal battleground for that as being Iraq – because that’s where we are the most distributed that’s where we are the most vulnerable – and for the last couple of years they’ve actually tried to pursue a political solution to that,” Gen. McKenzie replied during the hearing’s Q&A session when asked on multiple occasions about the Iranian threat.

Explaining that such an effort “has not worked out for them” because the “government of Iraq is interested in maintaining a long-term relationship with the United States and in fact with NATO,” he said that “What that has done is it has driven Iran and its proxies in particular to seek kinetic solutions to push us out. They believe that by causing a significantly high level of pain we are going to leave and that actually of course has not proven to be the case. From one thing, over the past several months, they have attacked us; they have not been particularly successful with those attacks.”

When queried as to Tehran’s malign behavior was impacted by targeted-killing of Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) Quds Force Commander Qassem Soleimani, who had actively engaged in attacks against US and partner forces, Gen. McKenzie commented that “The Iranians never doubted our capability, occasionally they doubt our will.” While characterizing Iran “as an extraordinary complex subject,” he said that even though the US has achieved what he referred to as “contested deterrence,” the Ayatollah regime still strives to “push us out by hurting us and they will continue to do so.”

Billions of dollars are expected to pour into Tehran’s treasury when and if a watered-down nuclear deal with the Ayatollah regime is reached at the Vienna Talks aimed at reviving the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.

When asked by Senator Angus King (Democrat, Maine) whether McKenzie views “a nuclear Iran as more dangerous than an Iran with more money in their pockets?” the Gen. replied, “Well Senator, as you know, CENTCOM is the land of less than perfect solutions. So, I’m always comfortable with a less than perfect solution. It is an overriding national policy objective of the United States for Iran not to have a nuclear weapon, to be able to possess a nuclear weapon. So I think that is a very important goal and you might have to make some tradeoffs to get to that point. But, at the military level, my concern is first of all that they not have that nuclear weapon but I am also very concerned about these remarkable growth in number and efficiency of their ballistic missile force, their UAV program – their long-range drones; and their land attack cruise missiles’ program. All of those concern me.”  

Turning to Russia’s 24 February invasion of Ukraine which he characterized as a ‘violently demonstration of its willful disregard for international norms,’ Gen. McKenzie stated, “Just as we have seen through Russia’s actions in Syria and elsewhere, in fact anywhere it sees an opportunity, to diminish confidence in America’s leadership.”

When commenting asked about China’s increasing activities, the CENTCOM commander pointed to Beijing’s “economic penetration of the region” while “vying for increased influence at American expense.”

Stressing China’s dependency “for over 40% of its fossil fuels” and interest in pursuing “close, deep and economic relationships with nations” adjoining the Gulf and Strait of Hormuz, through which “a significant portion of their hydrocarbons” are transported, Gen. McKenzie warned that in his belief, the Asian nation will ultimately shift its policy from a solely economic basis to include “a military component.”

Earlier this month the CENTCOM leader visited the US’ strongest ally in the region, the State of Israel, where leaders wished him well after completion of his tenure.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett thanked Gen. McKenzie for his contribution to strengthening security and stability in the region, as well as the significant cooperation between the State of Israel and the US during his command.

The two discussed the common security challenges facing both nations, particularly Iranian aggression in the Mideast. The Israeli Premier also emphasized the “tangible danger” in the major powers’ signing of an agreement to revive the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action nuclear agreement with the Islamic Republic at the Vienna Taks “if and when that occurs,” according to a statement TV7 obtained from the Prime Minister’s Office.

IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi, National Security Advisor and Director of the National Security Council Dr. Eyal Hulata, Israeli Military Attaché to the US Maj.-Gen. Hedy Silverman, US Deputy Chief of Mission in Israel Jonathan Shrier and other senior officials also attended the meeting.

General McKenzie held separate talks with Israeli Defense Benny Gantz.

Jerusalem’s top defense official later wrote on Twitter: “I thanked him for years of service, leadership and partnership, as well as his commitment to the unparalleled defense ties and cooperation between the United States and Israel.”

Defense Minister Gantz said that the two “discussed challenges both near and far – including Iranian regional aggression and the developing conflict in Ukraine.”

He also “emphasized the important integration of Israel to CENTCOM, which enables us to increase cooperation to maintain a more secure and stable Middle East,” wrote Gantz.

Israeli President Isaac Herzog also met the CENTCOM commander at the IDF Kirya headquarters in Tel Aviv to discuss the strategic importance of Israel-US military cooperation.

Following up in a public message posted on his official Twitter account, President Herzog thanked Gen. McKenzie for his contributions to Israel’s security, and wished his the “Best of success in your next chapter in life!”