After months of tension with Iran, the United States has “reestablished a rough form of deterrence” in limiting the impact of “state-on-state attacks,” General Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr., the head of U.S. Central Command, said in congressional testimony on March 12, 2020. McKenzie has repeatedly stressed that the United States does not want war with the Islamic Republic. But he has led a strategy to demonstrate muscular U.S. military capabilities since Iran shot down a U.S. drone in June 2019. It was the first of a series of escalating attacks that led to the U.S. airstrike on General Qassem Soleimani, head of the Qods Force, during his visit in Baghdad and Iran’s missiles strikes on two bases used by U.S. forces in Iraq in January 2020. Aboard the USS Truman on February 2, McKenzie told service members, “Nothing makes a potential adversary think twice about war than the presence of an aircraft carrier and the strike group that comes with it. I think Iran has seen that we do have will and that we’re willing to take action in our own interests. We’re not going to endlessly be the recipient of their actions.” The following is a collection of his key remarks on Iran since his appointment to lead CENTCOM on March 25, 2019.
August 12, 2020, during a virtual event at the U.S. Institute of Peace
McKenzie: The malign influence of Iran in both Iraq and Syria is an impediment to the enduring defeat of ISIS. Iranian support to their armed proxies in Iraq increases the risk to coalition forces, and it impacts our ability to support development of the ISF and to focus on the reason we're there: operations against ISIS. Support to the Syrian regime and regional terrorist organizations prolongs the conflict, prevents the return of displaced persons and refugees, and drives intervention from other regional actors. Under new Prime Minister Kadhimi, the Iraqi government has an opportunity to address protestors’ demands for political, economic, and security reforms. We will continue to support the development of the ISF, transitioning from a tactical focus that enabled the defeat of ISIS to institutional capacity-building to sustain the gains that they’ve made. There's no viable military solution to the conflict in Syria. Only a political settlement can end the violence and address the underlying conditions that fractured the country and allowed ISIS to take hold.
McKenzie: The threat against our forces from Shiite militant groups has caused us to put resources that we would otherwise use against ISIS to provide for our own defense. That has lowered our ability to work effectively against them. We've got to be able to protect our people and those are our coalition partners that are with us in this fight. We look to get back to the reason that we were there, and the reason we're there is to finish the defeat of ISIS and to ensure that it cannot return to the level where it can move beyond local sporadic violence. Unfortunately, I don't think we're ever going to get past that point. There’s always going to be remnants of that.
Question: You have an extraordinarily complex command. Not only do you address the problem that you just laid out, you also have under your command the issues in Afghanistan with the Taliban and the growing focus on great power competition. Is there a struggle to maintain the focus on this issue, especially as it has morphed into not just a military solution, but a humanitarian and diplomatic requirement?
McKenzie: We remain focused on Iran, as our central problem. This headquarters focuses on Iran and executing deterrence activities against Iran. At the same time, we're conducting a significant campaign in Afghanistan, where Americans are directly at risk, and we're conducting a significant campaign in Iraq and Syria. In both countries, our coalition partners are at risk. Our goal is always to keep focused on where we have U.S. service members and coalition partners at physical risk.
McKenzie: Going forward with what our presence is going to be Iraq, it will be adjusted in concert with the Government of Iraq. I think there's going to be a requirement for us our NATO and our coalition partners to have a long-term presence in Iraq. That is a grave concern to the Iranians because that works against what they want, which is for Iraq to be pretty directly under their control and for us to be out of the theater.
Over the last seven or eight months, we have had to devote resources to self-protection that we would otherwise devote for the counter-ISIS fight. We've had to pull back and our partners have had to pull back. We've done some things to harden our positions and to make it more difficult for Iran to actually attack us in Iraq. We've been very successful. Commanders on the ground there have done a great job. We’re also seeing that the Iraqis are better. You would like to believe when you train someone over a period of time, that eventually you don't need to be quite as closely associated with them tactically on the ground. We're seeing the fruits of the training that we conducted over the past several years. They're good enough to begin to fight aggressively against ISIS within the physical boundaries of Iraq, and that's good enough.
The fact that we're getting smaller is actually a sign of campaign progress. We don't want to maintain a huge number of soldiers forever in Iraq, we want to get smaller. We want to return to a more normal security cooperation environment with Iraq as we go forward. That's going to be a political decision that will be made by our national leadership in concert with the Government of Iraq. The strategic dialogue that's going to occur here in the next few days is a good sign of the healthy nature of that dialogue. It is not what Iran wanted. It's not how they saw things in January or February. Things have gone against them. They will eventually respond to that. I do not know what the nature of that response will be, but we will certainly be ready for it should it occur.
Question: The political objectives that Iran pursues in Iraq and the tactics that they employ can in fact inflame the possibility of reemergence of ISIS.
McKenzie: You're absolutely right, and I had an opportunity to meet with the Prime Minister a month ago, when I was in Iraq. What they have asked us for is patience. They're trying to do a number of things that we agree with. We're going to have to say: “they'll take two steps forward, they might have to take a step back every once in a while.” We need to be patient and understand that. But he's on the right path. The trajectory of the government is actually good. We need to give them a little space to begin to work the issues and control the paramilitary forces. He has a good vision for how to proceed. We've got a pretty good team in place there, and we just need to support him, we need to let him work, and we need to try to do everything we can to not inflame the environment in Iraq.
June 10, 2020, during a virtual event at the Middle East Institute
“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.
March 12, 2020, in testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee
“In early January Iran launched more than a dozen ballistic missiles in a deliberate attack against U.S. and coalition forces at two bases in Iraq. This state-sponsored missile strike crossed a threshold, compared to previous attacks, and has probably set a lower bar for future actions by the regime.”
“While periods of decreased tension may provide the illusion of a return to normalcy, ample intelligence, and indeed yesterday's actions [indirect militia fire attack on US forces in Camp Taji], indicate the Iranian regime's desire to continue malign activities.”
“Our presence sends a clear message about our capabilities and our will to defend partners and U.S. national interests. Going forward, it is CENTCOM's objective to posture forces in the region with the operational deputy to achieve a consistent state of deterrence against Iran and to be adaptable to future Iranian threats.”
“I believe that deterrence is born of an appreciation in the mind of the adversary of both capability and will. And we, over the last few months, have demonstrated both of that. And as a result of that, I believe we have re-established a rough form of deterrence, what I would call contested deterrence, with Iran, at the level of state-on-state attacks. By that, I'm referring to things like attributable ballistic missile attacks from Iran launched against U.S. forces. We've seen they have stood their missiles down. They are no longer an imminent threat.”
“We've seen public admissions of various senior leaders that are ill, and a couple that have actually died. I think it [COVID-19] is having an effect on how they made decisions. I think it slows them down.”
“Totalitarian, authoritarian regimes, when they're under extreme pressure, typically react by looking to an external threat… They [Iran] are fractured now and they're having difficulty dealing with a number of things. So I think it [the COVID-19 pandemic] probably makes them, in terms of decision-making, more dangerous rather than less dangerous.”
“Iran needs to understand that we hold them ultimately responsible for SMG [Shia Militia Group] attacks in Iraq. There is a relationship. These Shia militia groups in Iraq and other proxies across the region… they're not entities unto themselves. They all have some form of causal relationship with Iran. And so I think the best way to convince Iran to cease giving orders to those activities is to convey to them that it's not going to get them what they want and may in fact have significant consequences.”
“I would believe a red line for the United States is going to be the death of U.S. service members or those of our partners and allies.”
“As the maximum pressure campaign against Iran continues, they see that they are unable to really respond economically or diplomatically—the two channels that we're using to place pressure on them… The only way that's left is the military component, and they can do it one of two ways. They can do it directly, a state attack, and they have done that with the attack on Al-Assad, or they can do it indirectly, which the proxy attacks… There's evidence over the course of the summer and the fall that Iran wanted to pursue those gray zone activities in order to force us to reconsider the maximum pressure campaign, in order to make us back off from that.”
“They [Iran] were very bold in the spring -- late spring, early summer of 2019, and they were bold because they have never doubted our capability, but they doubt our will… I believe they are less bold now, probably most significantly impacted by the death of Qassem Soleimani.”
Feb. 2, 2020, address to U.S. forces aboard the USS Truman in the Arabian Sea
“You’re here because we don’t want a war with Iran and nothing makes a potential adversary think twice about war than the presence of an aircraft carrier and the strike group that comes with it.”
“I think Iran has seen that we do have will and that we’re willing to take action in our own interests. We’re not going to endlessly be the recipient of their actions.”
Jan. 31, 2020, remarks to reporters
“Iran has always sort of dabbled a little bit in Afghanistan, but they see perhaps an opportunity to get after us and the coalition here through their proxies, so we are very concerned about that here as we go forward.”
Nov. 26, 2019, remarks at the Manama Dialogue in Bahrain
“Yes, Iran has been hindering freedom of navigation in and around the Strait of Hormuz over the past few months. Merchant ships from several countries have been attacked or confiscated by Iran's military forces. Had Iran not undertaken those actions, had there been no threat to freedom of navigation, there might not have been a need for the IMSC (International Maritime Security Construct). However, since it has been operational, none of these actions have occurred. That is an important fact worth considering.”
“The importance of attribution is worth mentioning in this context. The Iranian regime has conducted many non-attributable attacks in the past when they did not think anyone was looking. They prefer the darkness where their activities can be hidden. They do not do so well in the spotlight or daylight of full exposure and accountability. However, the value of having additional reconnaissance resources – things that can shine a spotlight on nefarious activities for all the world to see – is almost certainly having an effect.
“A quick follow-on on deterrence. It is not a military concept. It is a diplomatic and a political construct. It obtains from the effect that demonstrated capabilities and will have on the mind of a potential opponent or potential adversary. However, whether it is Iran or some other nation, knowing that there is an international will to form these kinds of partnerships and the capabilities to document and expose those who violate international law, that does weigh in on the deterrence calculus.
“I want to conclude my remarks on the point about being good partners and neighbors. Today, we are talking about maritime security in the Middle East. In the recent months, Iran has been the primary threat to that security. Now, I fully understand that our partners in the region cannot choose their neighbors. Saudi Arabia, Iraq, the UAE, Oman, Bahrain and others, for those nations, Iran is their neighbor, like it or not.
“Unfortunately, sometimes, the Iranian regime has proved itself to be the bully in the neighborhood. The only way to stand up to a bully is to do it together. As we and our partners in the region continue to work to provide security and stability, we must do so with the knowledge that we are stronger together. We must remember that our strategic strength rests mainly on the partnerships, the alliances, and the whole of government efforts that we bring to bear, together.”
Nov. 23, 2019, remarks in an interview
“My judgment is that it is very possible [Iran] will attack again… It’s the trajectory and the direction that they’re on. The attack on the oil fields in Saudi was stunning in the depth of its audaciousness. I wouldn’t rule that out going forward.”
“Unfortunately, sometimes the Iranian regime has proved itself to be the bully in the neighborhood, and the only way to stand up to a bully is to do it together.”
“There wasn’t any particular strategic necessity on the timing [of the USS Abraham Lincoln passing through the Strait of Hormuz]. It is important to demonstrate that we can do it when we want to.”
June 6, 2019, remarks in an interview
"They [Iranians] probe for weakness all the times. I would say the threat has probably evolved in certain ways even as our defensive posture has changed and become more aggressive, and we certainly thank our Iraqi partners for many of the things they've done."
May 8, 2019, excerpts from a speech made to Foundation for the Defense of Democracies
“The long -- and I'll say again -- the long-term challenge we face in the Central Command theater is Iran.”
“Their [Iran’s] hegemonic ambitions, their misbehavior, their threats to us and our partners in the region, have been consistent elements of the regime's policy for many years. The United States has levied diplomatic information and economic efforts against the regime, in an effort to convince them to cease those unproductive behaviors. My responsibility is the military element of our whole-of-government approach.”
“Today as I am speaking to you, the Iranian regime is providing support to many designated terrorist groups, including Hezbollah, Hamas, the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command, Kata'ib Hezbollah in Iraq, and the Al-Ashtar Brigades in Bahrain. And as we witness the humanitarian catastrophe in Yemen, it's important to remember that Iran is behind the irresponsible behavior that actually led to the overthrow of the government of Yemen and created the crisis we now have in Yemen.”
“We've been working to build a strong coalition of nations to deter Iran's threats in the region and around the world, ensure freedom of navigation and convince the Iranian regime to end its destabilizing activities.”
“Now we know that the Iranian regime knows what our military capabilities are, and they have a healthy respect for them -- and that's good. And while they have avoided direct military conflict with the United States and our partners, they have demonstrated the willingness and ability to attack our people, our interests and our friends and allies in the confusing, complex zone just short of armed conflict.”
“Iran has also increased funding for its cyber efforts twelvefold in recent years, as well as increased espionage and targeting of U.S. government and commercial entities.”