US General on Iran in the Region

On March 8, General Lloyd J. Austin III, warned the Senate Armed Services Committee that “Iran maintains hegemonic ambitions and will continue to pose a threat to the region” through its use of proxies. The commander of U.S. Central Command also highlighted expanding Russia-Iran cooperation and Iran’s increasing cyber capabilities. The following are excerpts from his prepared statement.
We have an important role to play in providing for the security of the Central Region. That said, we also recognize that we cannot solve every challenge through direct U.S. military action alone. While supporting and enabling the efforts of partner nations, we must help them build additional needed military capacity. The goal is to empower them to provide for the security of their sovereign spaces and confront regional security challenges such as those posed by Iran. We must also encourage our partners to actively counter radical ideologies and address the “underlying currents” that contribute in large part to the instability in the region. American efforts, including the U.S. military, can buy time and we may encourage others to do what is necessary. However, we cannot do it for them. Only the people of the region can bring about the needed changes.
Finally, we keep a close eye on Iran. We are hopeful that the controls put in place as a result of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) agreement will discourage Iran from pursuing a nuclear weapon. Regardless, Iran maintains hegemonic ambitions and will continue to pose a threat to the region through the employment of various antiaccess and area denial (A2/AD) capabilities, theater ballistic missile and cyber capabilities, aggressive maritime activities, and the destabilizing activities of the Iranian Threat Network (ITN) and its Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps-Qods Forces (IRGC-QF), and other proxies operating in the region.
USCENTCOM Priorities. At U.S. Central Command, our aim is to see a positive transformation of the region over time, achieved “by, with, and through” our regional partners. Looking ahead, USCENTCOM will remain ready, engaged and vigilant. Our priority efforts include:
· Counter the Iranian Threat Network’s malign activities in the region, to include the impacts of surrogates and proxies.
· Maintain a credible deterrent posture against Iran’s evolving conventional and strategic military capabilities.
The situation in Iraq and Syria is made even more complex by the involvement of external actors, specifically Russia and Iran. It is apparent through Russia’s actions that their primary objective in Syria is to bolster the Assad Regime, principally by targeting those Syrian moderate opposition forces that pose a threat to the Regime. Through its actions, Russia is effectively prolonging the civil war in Syria, which over the past five years has caused the deaths of well over 250,000 innocent men, women, and children. Assad would almost certainly not be in power today were it not for the robust support provided to the Regime by Iran and Russia.
Of note, Russia’s cooperation with Iran appears to be expanding beyond near-term coordination for operations in Syria and is moving towards an emerging strategic partnership. The potential for a more traditional security cooperation arrangement between Russia, a state actor and member of the UN Security Council, and Iran is cause for significant concern given Iran’s existing relationship with the Syrian Regime and Lebanese Hezbollah. We already see indications of high-end weapon sales and economic cooperation between the two countries.
Iran has provided support to the Huthis, likely to gain leverage against the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA). This could potentially enable the Iranians to complicate maritime LOCs, including the Bab 20 al Mandeb Strait, from the Red Sea to the Gulf of Aden and beyond. Iran has a long history of seeking to protect the Shia populace in the Gulf and using this rationale to justify a broad array of actions. Conversely, KSA desires a stable Yemen with a pro-Saudi government that effectively protects its border, prevents an Iranian proxy from gaining undue influence over strategic terrain that includes the Bab al Mandeb, and protects against safe havens for Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and other VEOs.

Iran continues to pose a significant threat to the region despite the restrictions placed on its nuclear program as a result of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) agreement. In this post-JCPOA period, the Iranian Threat Network’s (ITN) Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps-Quds Forces (IRGC-QF), proxies (e.g., Lebanese Hezbollah), and Iranian-backed Shia militant groups remain very active. Iran also maintains a large and diverse theater ballistic missile arsenal, along with significant cyber and maritime capabilities. Despite the fact that President Rouhani’s administration has indicated an interest in normalizing relations with the international community, there are hardline elements in the country intent on undermining the efforts of the moderates. They maintain substantial influence over Iran’s foreign policy and military activities.
Iran continues to pursue policies that enflame sectarian tensions and threaten U.S. strategic interests in the Central Region. Their primary focus is countering the ISIL threat in Iraq and preserving the Assad Regime in Syria. They also continue to support some Shia surrogate groups in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, Huthis in Yemen, and Lebanese Hezbollah, with a combination of money, arms, and training. Iran’s emerging relationship with Russia further complicates the security environment as they look to expand their cooperation in areas that include the sale of high-end weapons. We must consider that when ISIL is defeated and Syria stabilizes, we and our partners will face an enhanced ITN bolstered by warfighting experience, a multi-ethnic supply of radicalized Shia fighters, expanded partnerships, and an intense sectarian climate. There are additional developments within the ITN that we will have to closely monitor to fully appreciate the nature of this evolving threat. For example, Iranian-backed Shia militia groups are becoming entrenched within Iraq’s formal security institutions through the Popular Mobilization Forces, a development that could provide these groups with increased resources and legitimacy and greatly complicate our relationship with Iraq’s security forces going forward. Additionally, it is possible that Iran will have challenges commanding and controlling an expanded ITN, something we are already seeing play out in several places across the region. Iran exerts a considerable degree of influence over the multiple external proxies and surrogates that comprise the ITN. However, the larger the ITN becomes through the proliferation of Shia militant groups, the more difficult it may be for Iran to control their activities, especially when their interests diverge.
Our relationship with Iran remains a challenging one. We will continue to pay close attention to their actions, while supporting our regional partners and helping them to improve their capacity to counter Iran and mitigate the effects of Iran’s malign activity in the region.
Kingdom of Bahrain
The Kingdom faces a persistent threat from Iran via malign proxy activity within its borders. USCENTCOM actively supports the Bahrainis in their efforts to counter this threat.
Our security assurance and assistance, and the steps we are taking with our GCC partners to strengthen their capacity to deal with asymmetric threats, are designed to put them in a far stronger position so that they can engage Iran politically – clear-eyed, without illusions, and from a position of strength. We look forward to seeing the initiatives translate into credible, enduring capabilities that contribute to improved regional security and stability.
Information Operations
Information Operations (IO) remains a top priority for USCENTCOM and an important element of the broader ‘whole of government’ effort to counter our adversaries and protect our core national interests. Our adversaries, including ISIL, use the information battlespace to great effect. We must actively counter this asymmetric threat, recognizing that IO will endure well beyond today’s major combat and counter-insurgency operations. Of note, Iran and proxy actors actively threaten our interests and the interests of our regional partners and they are enabled by robust IO efforts. Our IO capabilities, both offensive and defensive, are designed to disrupt and counter these and other threats. They also may be used to promote the messages of moderates in order to counter the radical ideologies that fuel much of the conflict and instability that plague the Central Region. To date, investments in IO have produced a cost-effective, non-lethal tool for disrupting VEO activity across the region. We will need to build upon the existing capability and improve our effectiveness and that of our partners operating in the information battlespace.

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