CENTCOM: Iran Recalculating Strategy on U.S.

McKenzieIn response to U.S. strikes on Iran, the Islamic Republic has revised its tactics in dealing with the U.S. military in the Middle East, according to General Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr., the head of U.S. Central Command. “Right now, we're in a period of what I would call ‘contested deterrence’ with Iran,” he said. Tensions escalated in 2019 as the two nations shot down each other’s drones flying over the Gulf and Iran was tied to attacks on Saudi Arabia’s oil facilities. The dynamics shifted after the U.S. strike that killed Quds Force Commander Gen. Qassem Soleimani in January. The Iranians “have had to recalculate because they did not believe that we would actually take that action,” McKenzie told the Middle East Institute (MEI) on June 10. The following are abbreviated excerpts relevant to Iran from a transcript provided by MEI.



Regional Meddling

Paul Salem:  A broad question -- three parts. First part, how do you define or how does CENTCOM define U.S. interests in the region? What are the main challenges or threats facing those interests per se? And what strategies does CENTCOM pursue to pursue the interest or to confront the threats to the interests? 

Gen. McKenzie: The greatest threat to stability and security in the region is Iran. Their funding of terrorism and terrorist organizations. They're propping up the murderous Assad regime, providing advanced weapons to the Houthis in Yemen, their direct attack on international oil tankers in the Strait of Hormuz, refineries in Saudi Arabia and U.S. troops in Iraq. Iran actively stokes instability and is intent on degrading security all over the region, ultimately for their own hegemonic purposes.

Over time, the regime in Iran has taken a great portion of the country's wealth and prosperity and repeatedly invested it in instruments of instability and proxies. And they use violence, both state violence and proxy violence, to push other nations, other regimes in the area in the direction of their agenda.

Beyond Iran, there are also other terrorist organizations in the region, ISIS, al-Qaeda, that operate in the shadows of the region, in the ungoverned spaces, and we still maintain strong, vigorous efforts against those terrorist organizations because we know they do retain the aspiration to attack the United States and our allies. It is only the result of direct pressure that prevents them from being able to do that.

So what's the strategy? How do we actually carry out and try to be effective in this very demanding regime? So against Iran, it's a whole of government approach. It's been led by the Department of State, that's known colloquially as the maximum pressure campaign. A variety of sanctions and other activities have been undertaken to pressure the government of Iran to do a variety of things, renounce nuclear ambition, cease to work on ballistic missiles, cease exporting terror and other things against their neighbors. We support -- indirectly -- the diplomatic and economic efforts that are part of the whole of government approach against Iran.

It's important to note, there's actually no military component of what's known as the maximum pressure campaign. Instead, what our responsibility is, as U.S. Central Command, is to deter Iran from taking actions either directly or indirectly against the United States or our allies and partners in the region to attempt to act against the maximum pressure campaign as it continues.


Contested Deterrence

Salem:  On Iran, last year was a year of great escalation, with attacks on shipping, attacks on Abqaiq in Saudi Arabia, attacks actually through proxies on the U.S. and Iraq, culminating with the killing of General Qassem Soleimani in the very beginning of this year. And what we've seen for most of 2020 is much less direct escalation of kind of high tension without major escalation. How would you describe sort of the risk situation between U.S. forces and Iran and its proxies? Is it a quiet tension? Do you think 2020 has major risks in it or are you fairly -- you know, what's your sense there? And do you have any contact or deconfliction with any Iranian units, whether it's naval or otherwise, to avoid escalation by mistake? 

McKenzie: Right now, we're in a period of what I would call "contested deterrence" with Iran. And that really obtained from the January exchange where we struck Qassem Soleimani and they attacked our forces at Irbil and also at Al-Asad Air Base -- proceeding from that, the Iranians have had to recalculate because they did not believe that we would actually take that action. They had pushed for many years to find a red line. And they found a red line and the United States responded vigorously. And so they're having to recalculate just what we're willing to do and what we're not willing to do. And that has had a significant effect in establishing and reestablishing a rough form of deterrence in the theater.

When I think of deterrence in the theater, I think of it in two domains principally. I think of it in what I would call state-on-state deterrence, where attacks clearly, directly attributable to Iran are not being generated. In 2019, we saw a state-on-state attacks generated from Iran against Saudi Arabia, the Aramco attack. Then we saw a state-on-state attack against us in early January in Iraq when they attacked the Al-Asad airbase. Right now they are deterred from undertaking those activities because they have seen that we have both the capability and the will to respond. They have never actually doubted our capability because they know that we can bring significant forces to bear should the situation require.

It is possible that Iran can control the early steps of escalation in the theater. It is also clear that we will control the final steps of escalation in theater. And so I think they've always recognized that if they get into an escalatory spiral with us. What they have always doubted, though, is the other component of deterrence, is will. And they have doubted that we would actually have the will to act. They now see that we actually do have the will to act. And so that has caused them to recalculate. And so that's why we've seen a decline in these tensions at sea, in Iraq and in other places. I don't want to paint too rosy a picture. Because that could change very quickly and we're not dealing with a regime in Iran that always makes purely rational calculations. Also beset by COVID and the effects of the coronavirus, which I think have had an effect on them. But nonetheless, it has set them back. 

And one of the other areas I'd just briefly like to touch on is in Iraq, where they view that as a principal battleground operate against the United States and the coalition. It is an aspirational goal of Iran's to eject the United States from Iraq. And I think that what we're seeing right now as a result of possibly what happened in January, but also other activities. Tomorrow, we're going to begin a strategic dialog with the government of Iraq at the at the ministerial level, which is a very important negotiation going forward to establish the long-term relationship. It is my belief that the government of Iraq is going to want to retain U.S. and coalition forces. We're in Iraq to finish the defeat of ISIS and to support Iraq as they finish that defeat and come to final victory against it.

In terms of holding ground, the caliphate no longer holds ground, but they still have the capability to carry out attacks. And so we continue to work institutionally with Iraq. Their forces are much better. We will continue going forward. We will optimize our presence in Iraq, both to be the most effective we can be as Iraqi forces gain capability and become more direct in their actions against ISIS and other forces.

But we have to take steps to protect ourselves against some Iranian presence in Iraq. Some of the Shia militant groups that would choose to attack us given the ability to do so, and attacks from Iran itself. We’ve taken measures to harden ourselves and to better posture ourselves. But that's only a small part of our total relationship with the government of Iraq, much of which will begin here in the ministerial dialog. 

The last point was direct contact with Iran. And there's not much I can say about that. At a very high level, those contacts may occur. I think we're very clear, though, when we operate at sea and in the air, there are international guard channels that we can communicate our intent on. So they know very clearly what we're doing and generally they're very respectful of that -- not always. Sometimes there's less than professional activities that occur out there. But, by and large, I think they know and respect our capabilities.



McKenzie: The country in the middle of the AOR that may be the worst affected of all, of course, is Iran. By a variety of very poor decisions about how to actually address the coronavirus and decisions about just to power through and ignore it. There's significant penetration in Iran that is extended even to the senior leadership. And in the IRGC and in other entities. They have not been completely straightforward with their people. As a result, the distrust that you begin to see in Iran against the leadership is perhaps magnified. Some of that comes from the shoot down of the jet over Tehran. All of that feeds into a narrative that the government is not particularly effective.

Also because the border of Iran and Iraq is--to say it's porous would be a minimalist description. People go back and forth, so it's net exporter of the virus in the theater. The same thing in Afghanistan, in the east. So I think that I had an opportunity back in March to to give my opinion to Congress about what the effect of this would be.

We do believe Iran has made great sacrifices to ensure that what they would consider to be their core capabilities remain intact. And I would define those as their ballistic missile force, their strategic air defense force, some of their Navy elements, as well as the IRGC. We believe they've gone to great lengths to try to protect those forces to moderate degrees of success. I assess today they are still very capable in those areas. But as a government writ large, they are struggling. I am not certain that it makes them less dangerous


Yemen War

Salem: Let me ask you about another part of the region which has gone through a horrific civil war, a lot of pain and suffering, which is Yemen. There is not a large U.S. presence there like Afghanistan or Iraq or Syria. What are what are the main concerns when you look at Yemen? Certainly there is a counterterrorism aspect to it, there's as you mentioned earlier, the security of the Red Sea and Bab al-Mandeb. And there's also a regional presence, a proxy conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia and so on. So when you when you look at Yemen as CENTCOM and I know, you know, White House, State Department are engaged politically and with the UN to try to resolve some of these issues. But what does Yemen mean to you? What is the level of engagement, whether it's counterterrorism or naval security? 

McKenzie: It's my judgment based on dialog -- mil-to-mil dialogue -- with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and meetings I've had there that Saudi Arabia genuinely seeks a negotiated end to the conflict in Yemen. I believe they are negotiating in good faith to try to come to that end. The Houthis have an opportunity here to come to an agreement that would give them a lot of the things that they want.

Unfortunately, there's a third party to these negotiations, and that third party is Iran. And Iran has no interest in this war being over. In fact, there's nothing better for them than for Saudi to continue to bleed out, for the Houthis to continue to launch attacks into Saudi Arabia, and for this to continue to go on. It is something they can use to further embarrass the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia on the international stage. So I think if we could if we could reduce the Iranian patronage for the Houthis, we might be able to get to an ultimate solution there. And that would allow other things to happen.