On March 9, General Joseph Votel, discussed the U.S. military posture in the Middle East before the Senate Armed Services Committee. The head of U.S. Central Command said that Iran “poses the most significant threat to the Central Region and to our national interests and the interests of our partners and allies.” The following are excerpted Iran-related remarks from his statement.
Iran poses the most significant threat to the Central Region and to our national interests and the interests of our partners and allies. We have not seen any improvement in Iran’s behavior since the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), addressing Iran’s nuclear program, was finalized in July 2015. Iran aspires to be a regional hegemon and its forces and proxies oppose U.S. interests in Iraq, Yemen, Lebanon, Gaza, and Syria, and seek to hinder achievement of U.S. objectives in Afghanistan and some Central Asian States. They also are working to subvert the GoI by establishing a long-term presence within Iraq’s security forces. Of note, Iran exerts influence and a degree of control over the majority of the nearly 100,000 Shia militias within the PMF. Furthermore, Iran has expanded cooperation with Russia in Syria in ways that threaten U.S. interests in the region.
The JCPOA removed a key threat posed by Iran for at least a number of years. Unfortunately, the agreement has led some to believe that we have largely addressed the Iranian problem set and that is not the case. In addition to its nuclear weapons potential, Iran presents several credible threats. They have a robust theater ballistic missile program, and we remain concerned about their cyber and maritime activities, as well as the activities of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps – Qods Forces (IRGC-QF) and their network of affiliates.
Iran implements its strategy primarily within the “gray zone,” the space short of conventional conflict where miscalculation can easily occur, leading to escalatory conflict and misunderstanding. Iran fosters instability by funding and promoting a threat network that employs provocation, violence, and covert arms transfers that serve as the stimulants for a range of conflicts across the region. It complements this subversive arm with conventional military provocation and overt threats to close key maritime sea lanes, especially at critical international economic chokepoints, namely the Strait of Hormuz and the BAM Strait, which puts global political stability and economic prosperity at risk.
Recognizing that Iran poses the greatest long-term threat to U.S. interests in the Central Region, we must seize opportunities to both reassure our allies and shape Iran’s behavior. In order to contain Iranian expansion, roll back its malign influence, and blunt its asymmetric advantages, we must engage them more effectively in the “gray zone” through means that include a strong deterrence posture, targeted counter-messaging activities, and by building partner nations’ capacity. Through both messaging and actions, we must also be clear in our communications and ensure the credibility of U.S. intentions. Iran must believe there will be prohibitive consequences if it chooses to continue its malign activities designed to foment instability in the region. The U.S. Government should also consider communicating directly with Iran’s leadership to improve transparency and lessen the potential for miscalculation.
To further strengthen deterrence against Iran, we must also take the necessary proactive measures to build the capacity of partners and allies in the region. Ideally we want to improve interoperability, expand communication, and enhance security mechanisms. Stronger, more capable partners, able and willing to assume a greater role in countering Iran, will serve to further enhance deterrence and improve stability in the region.
In addition to ready military actions, we must support the broader USG strategy with regard to Iran which should include new diplomatic initiatives that provide Iran with viable alternatives to its present course. While Iran continues to pose the most significant threat to regional security, we remain optimistic and believe that by taking proactive measures and reinforcing our resolve we can lessen Iran’s ability to negatively influence outcomes in the future.
In October 2016, the Iranian-supported BAM Maritime Threat Network (BMTN) demonstrated the ability to threaten freedom of navigation by successfully attacking a UAE vessel and a Saudi warship, and attempting to attack U.S. Navy warships in the southern Red Sea. We responded swiftly and decisively, destroying several Huthi coastal defense radar sites. While the origin of these attacks is found in the ROYG-Huthi conflict, the threats posed by the BMTN to the safe passage of vessels, either through deliberate action or unintentional acts, has the potential for significant strategic and economic impacts throughout the region. We continue to closely monitor the BMTN and remain prepared to promptly and decisively respond to any threats. Going forward, our efforts against violent, non-state actors and support for similar efforts by our regional partners will remain our primary focus in Yemen. At the same time, we continue to do what we can to enable ongoing diplomatic efforts aimed at achieving a resolution to the hostilities that pose an enduring threat to stability in the country and the region writ large.
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