General Kenneth McKenzie on Iran

McKenzieIran had an opportunity to deescalate conflict with its regional rivals and the United States during the Biden presidency, the head of U.S. Central Command said. “The new U.S. administration has signaled it will take a deliberate and thoughtful approach moving forward with its Iran policies, working in close consultations with our partners,” General Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr. said on February 8, 2021. 

McKenzie has repeatedly stressed that the United States does not want war with the Islamic Republic. But U.S. military deployments in the Persian Gulf – including B-52 bombers and a carrier strike group – were “a clear and unambiguous signal of our capabilities and will to defend partners and U.S. national interests,” McKenzie told a joint Middle East Institute-CENTCOM conference. Under McKenzie, U.S. Central Command has demonstrated muscular U.S. military capabilities since Iran shot down a U.S. drone in June 2019. The shootdown 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, 2020, 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.


Feb. 3, 2022 at a Middle East Institute conference

"So two ballistic missile attacks on the UAE with medium range ballistic missiles. Now, do any of us actually believe that those missiles were engineered, designed in Yemen? Clearly, they were finished there, they were launched from there, but they came from someplace else. And I think we all know where that place was. So these attacks, while maybe not direct, while I have no evidence of attacks from Iran against UAE directly, just no evidence and none from Iraq, either. But we have plenty of evidence of attacks from Yemen. And I will tell you that at a bare bone minimum, an absolute irreducible minimum, Iran is morally responsible for those attacks and possibly a great deal more so. So I think that's my view of the situation. 
"Now you were talking a little bit more about the larger view of Iran. So here's what I believe. I believe Iran is at a state now where they would like to get some form of agreement with JCPOA, mainly because they want sanctions relief. And so who knows, that's the question for others, not me to actually answer, but I think they're willing to continue that dialogue. I believe, and actually, we have evidence on this from early in 2021, where the United States talked about pursuing a JCPOA agreement with Iran later in 2021, as we're doing now and then moving on to talk about other things, particularly Iran's ballistic missiles and their proxies, and the response from Iran was electric. And it wasn't about the JCPOA. It was about the ballistic missiles and the proxies. So I think I can only speculate there may or may not be movement on the JCPOA front, some kind of a modified agreement, particularly if Iran sees selfishly a way to get sanctions relief, but they view those ballistic missiles as their crown jewels. And that's what actually gives them a kind of overmatch against their neighbors. So it's hard for me to see how you work with Iran to reduce that threat, and maybe we can get to that. And I think it is a goal that we should work toward because it is profoundly destabilizing, you know, in the theater. Now what Iran wants is, so I think at the largest level, highest level, Iran wants to pursue this agreement to gain sanctions relief. 
"At the same time, sort of on a separate but parallel stream, which tells you the complexity and perhaps fragmentation of Iranian strategic thought, they want the U.S. and our allies out of the region. That is another goal that they are pursuing. And they see the principal battleground for that goal being Iraq. So over the last two years, as you, as you know, Ambassador, they have worked really hard to nudge us out of Iraq. And I think for a while, they thought they had a political track to do that. And so now it looks like based on strategic dialog between the United States and the government of Iraq, we're going to stay. We're not going to be in a combat role in Iraq. We're going to help them as they finish the fight against ISIS and they do need that help and they have requested that help. So I think we're going to remain in Iraq, so that is sort of, they run up against the wall there. And so I think we're going to need to recalculate. And as I noted in my prepared remarks, one thing they could do they could up the series of kinetic attacks against us. And I believe there’s perhaps a false understanding in Iran about what U.S. red lines might be. Now I'm a military guy, so I don't set U.S. red lines. And that does ultimately a political decision, not a military decision. But I think I'm safe to say that Iran would be wrong to decouple what happens in Iraq against U.S. forces with what happens in the rest of the region involving Iran. I think that's a false, I think it's a that's a canard if that's what they believe, and I don't think that will hold up under the stress of an event actually occurring.

"So what does CENTCOM do here? CENTCOM’s role as we see it is, first of all, is to deter Iran from major state on state activity, you know, overt action against its neighbors. I call that contested deterrence because we have largely achieved that goal in that we believe Iran is deterred from taking those actions directly. However, what Iran is obviously not deterred from is acting with their proxies to advance their regional goals across the region, whether it is in Yemen or in Iraq or in Syria or in other locations. And they believe they can decouple that concept of localized action really from the core issue of state on state relations. I think it's a flawed belief on their part. But, you know, ambassador, it really doesn't matter what I think, it's what the Iranians think, and I believe they feel they can do that. And I think they're juggling a very dangerous situation there."


Dec. 9, 2021 on PBS NewsHour

“Iran is, first, the most serious threat we face in the region today. And I think the threat manifests itself in several dimensions. First is their expanded ballistic missile force, which they have developed carefully over the last few years. And just over the past couple of three years, we have seen the addition of land attack cruise missiles, and UAS's (unmanned aerial systems).”

“The other thing that is very concerning is their proxy forces, principally in the region, but also has the capability to manifest itself globally. Now, the Iranian nuclear program is also another area of concern. The diplomats are working very hard to find a way to reenter an agreement with them. And we — at CENTCOM, we try to do everything we can to support our diplomats as they pursue that goal.”

“We have deterred Iran from state-on-state conflict over the last couple of years. And I think that's a testament to the posture we have had in the theater.”

“They have advanced, and they're going to continue to advance (the nuclear and missile programs as well as support for proxies). And I don't think any posturing or any other force elements we put in the theater are going to affect that, because they reflect national decisions made by Iran. But what we can do and what we should strive to do is affect Iranian behavior toward their neighbors.”

December 2021, in an interview with the Financial Times

The United States has a a “very robust range of military options” to deter Iran.

“I think . . . Iran gravely underestimates us if they believe they’re going to be able to continue attacking and cause casualties in Iraq and Syria, and still be able to conduct nuclear negotiations with us without any effect.” 

“[W]e retain an ability to reinforce very, very rapidly should it become necessary. And I think that fact’s not lost on [Iran].”

“Let me be very clear: it’s our design and intent that diplomacy lead right now. That is the best path forward for everyone and Iran just needs to realize that.”


December 2021, in an interview with The Associated Press

“Iran still pursues a vision of ejecting us [from Iraq]. ... And they see the principal battleground for that as being in Iraq. And I believe they are under the view that they can increase friction in Iraq to where we will leave.”

“I think it’s a dangerous position for the Iranians to maintain (thinking that its actions in Iraq will not impact nuclear talks), because I think they’re not going to be able to decouple those two things.”


November 2021, in an interview with Time Magazine

“Our president said they’re not going to have a nuclear weapon. The diplomats are in the lead on this, but Central Command always has a variety of plans that we could execute, if directed.” 

“I think they like the idea of being able to breakout [attain enough enriched uranium to fuel one nuclear bomb].” 

“The one thing the Iranians have done over the last three-to-five years is they built a very capable ballistic missile platform.”


June 7, 2021 in a special briefing

“Another priority is deterring Iran’s destabilizing activities, which remains the biggest threat to stability in the Middle East. I believe that our posture in the region has had a deterrent effect on Iran and made it more difficult for them to deny attribution for their malign activities. We have achieved that with a robust force posture that includes ships, airpower, and ballistic missile defense capabilities, and of course there are many more things we do in concert with our friends in the region that contribute to that end as well.”

“We are seeing pressure from Iranian-affiliated militant groups that want to push us out of Iraq, and the latest manifestation of that has been the use of small unmanned aerial systems, or drones. Some of them are very small, some are a little bit larger – all can be very lethal. And they are resorting to this technique because they have been unable to force the Government of Iraq to require that we leave. So political pressure has not worked for them; now they’re turning to a kinetic approach. And that is very concerning to me. As always, we have a variety of measures there that we can defend ourselves, but just as in Afghanistan, the primary responsibility for defense of us – for defense of our forces and our NATO partners and everyone else who’s in there – the primary responsibility for that defense is with the Government of Iraq. And they have done a number of things that have been very helpful to reduce the threat. Nonetheless, the threat is concerning and we will take whatever measures are necessary to defend ourselves.”


May 23, 2021, in an interview with ABC News while visiting Saudi Arabia

"I think they [Saudi Arabians] want reassurance that they're going to be helped if they're attacked by Iran, and they want help against the continuing attacks [by Yemen's Houthi rebels]."

"I believe our posture in the theater has prevented a state on state attack from Iran."

"They're [Saudi Arabians] under constant bombardment from Yemen, with a variety of ballistic missiles, cruise missiles and small UAS (unmanned aerial systems) they're very concerned about . We want to help them with that."

"They're [Houthis] proxies of Iran, so they're under constant bombardment, so they feel that they are under attack, and they are under attack."


May 18, 2021, in an interview with Sky News Arabia

McKenzie: "The principal regional threat to the Gulf states is, of course, Iran. Iran manifests itself principally through ballistic missile land attack, cruise missile and unmanned aerial system platforms that threaten their neighbors.  In addition to their malign activities, their terrorist organizations that are exported across the region. So, I think among the Gulf states, there's a great opportunity to continue to work together toward an integrated air and missile defense shield that will help them as they consider Iran in the future.  So, there are lots of things we can do to help the Gulf states and not all of it involves the selling of military equipment. A lot of these what we call tactics, techniques and procedures, are things we can work on together that will enhance our ability to defend against likely attacks from Iran or any other state, for that matter."

"We fully support the efforts of the administration in the talks that are underway in Vienna. I hope they turn out well. You know, my part of that equation is to deter Iran from undertaking military activity and give the diplomats time to work and to find a diplomatic solution. It's in everyone's best interest to find a diplomatic, not a military solution to this problem. And I can assure you the United States does not seek a military solution to this problem."

"I'll be quite honest with you, nothing Iran does keeps me up at night. We're prepared to react to any eventuality that Iran might choose to have happen. I would urge them to continue the path of negotiation. That's their way forward and there are some things they need to do to make that practical."

Reporter: "One year, maybe more than one year after the January 2020, operations that targeted Qasem Soleimani, when you look at this operation right now, what would you say? What's your take on that?"

McKenzie: You never hear too much about an operation that takes human life. We're always very witting of that and understand its effects. But I would tell you this, I think deterrence is born of capability and will and Iran has never doubted the capabilities of the United States. Often, they have doubted our will. Since January of 2020, they've had reason to reconsider their opinion, of our ability, of our will. And so, I think it has had an effect and I think it's ultimately had a calming effect."

Reporter: "Nobody knows in Washington, D.C., if the Biden administration could reach an agreement with Iran.   Are you in favor that any deal, any agreement with the Iranians have to deal with the missile threats, the ballistic missile threats?

Gen McKenzie: "I'll leave that to the diplomats as to what that deal should or should not have. But I will tell you that one of the most disturbing things about Iran over the last 10 years has been their build out of their ballistic missile force. It is large, it is capable, as we saw in their attack on al-Assad. They have very accurate missiles as well. I am very concerned about the Iranian ballistic missile force."

April 27, 2021 speaking at a virtual AEI event 

"Iran has engaged in a range of destabilizing activities in pursuit of regional hegemony. Its proxy militia groups undermine the sovereignty of Iraq, attack logistical convoys supporting coalition forces and regularly fire upon Iraqi military bases that are hosting US and coalition personnel. And while Iran itself has avoided state-on-state attacks on U.S. forces since the January 2020 strikes on al Assad in Erbil, it continues to menace regional partners and the free flow of commerce though the use of proxies, affiliated groups, and the proliferation of armed unmanned aerial systems and other munitions.

"While diplomatic efforts are underway to address Iran's nuclear program and other destabilizing activities, we should be very clear that we remain in a state of contested deterrence with Iran, which continues to play a dangerous game by supporting proxies and affiliated groups in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen. And these groups are often willing to take risks that Tehran is not. So long as Iran continues its material support for these groups, the region will not know true stability and security."

"When you deal with a security issue or a security problem or a malign actor in the family or nation states, you're always better if the response is a collective response from a group of nations that bind together. That always gives you more strength. It always has been a hallmark of the way America has approached its foreign problems. So we gained that. That was a good output of the JCPOA... I would say that was one thing that was very good that came out of the JCPOA. You were aligned with a lot of other nations that had an interest in seeing that the JCPOA was executed as flawed as it was. And I agree, it was a flawed document."

"The United States does not rely for our national survival on the free flow of passage, free flow of commerce, through the Strait of Hormuz or the Bab al Mandab. But the larger global economy does. And what happens to the larger global economy is inevitably going to have a second order and profound effect upon the United States. It's in all our interests that we have free flow of commerce in and throughout the region. We have a variety of mechanisms to do that. One is the International Maritime Security Construct, which we established in 2019 to actually ensure that malign activity would be exposed should it occur in the Strait of Hormuz and to a lesser degree down in the Red Sea. That's proven very effective. And we think it has prevented some irresponsible behavior from occurring as a result of that entity being there."

"The greatest threats probably to commerce in the region would be the IRGC Navy doing something that was not sanctioned by higher authority. And I'll just say that the activities we typically see from the IRGC Navy are not necessarily activities that are directed by the supreme leader or from the Iranian state, rather irresponsible actions by local commanders on the scene. We're very careful to ensure that we don't get into a provocative cycle as a result of that. Luckily, our guys are pretty good. Our sailors are very well trained. They're very capable, they're very mature, and they're able to de-escalate the situations, which is what you always seek to do when you do that."

"We are concerned about Iran's use of proxies. We see that principally in Iraq, where I would argue that throughout most of 2020, Iran sought to force our departure from Iraq through a political track. When that became obvious that it wasn't going to be successful, they've begun to shift a little bit more to low-level kinetic harassment of our forces and our [Iraqi] partners and our coalition partners. That continues. We watch that with great concern, and we try to attribute responsibility when those attacks occurred. But it is a very concerning development that we look at very closely.

"Another one that is a little broader, perhaps, are the Houthis in Yemen who are consistently lobbing missiles into Saudi Arabia. They threaten the Red Sea on occasion, and they're pushed by their Iranian sponsors on these kinds of activities. That's an example of behavior that's just not good for the region. We would prefer to see a more mature, level-headed approach there. I actually think there's a chance for a peace agreement in Yemen. I think the Saudis are interested in doing that."

"We are dependent on our British partners for the minesweeping that they provide. And that's an area of significant concern to me, given Iran's number of mines, their proximity to the Strait of Hormuz and the difficulty of minesweeping in congested waterway like you see there in the Strait of Hormuz. It is very worrisome to me."

"You would like to see, particularly the nations in the Gulf states, be able to share a common threat picture against Iran. And the threat from Iran is not ground maneuver. It's not maritime particularly. It's a fires thing. It's missiles: its ballistic missiles, its land attack cruise missiles which fly low and its [Unmanned Aerial Systems] that we've already talked about. ...each nation has its own organic air defense capabilities. They will be better if they can pool those resources. That doesn't mean you're moving firing batteries to someone else's country. What it means is you're going to have a much better common operational picture. You see what Iran is doing. You can share that information. We're working with all our partners in the region to move forward on that. Israel would have potentially a role to play in that as well. Too early to tell yet what that would be, but particularly in the case of the kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, two nations that are directly across the Gulf from the threat that is Iran. There are things we can do, and we'll continue to do to improve their ability to defend themselves, particularly in the missile and air defense domain." 


April 22, 2021, during a press briefing

“Over the last five to seven years the Iranians have made remarkable qualitative improvements in their ballistic missile force while it has grown quantitatively as well, and now numbers, depending on how you choose to count the weapons, something a little less than 3,000 of various ranges. Nonetheless, their accuracy has become much better than it used to be. That is very concerning to me. We saw that demonstrated in the attack on Al Asad Airbase in January of 2020, where I would argue that the Iranian missiles generally hit within tens of meters of the targets that they chose for them -- so that is very concerning to me. And that's probably the thing that concerns me the most about Iran, although at the same time they have begun to invest heavily in land attack cruise missiles and in their unmanned aerial program -- their drone program - has also made significant achievements.”

“As for the Iranian nuclear program, I would simply note they've done nothing that's irreversible up to this point, and I think that's just an important thing to remember… They want to see what happens in negotiations with the United States.”

“Iran still pursues a policy of attempting to eject the United States, and indeed our partners and allies from the region as well -- and that's principally fought out in the battleground that is Iraq for them. Over most of 2020, I believe they thought they had a political solution to force the United States out of Iraq. That is no longer the case, it's evident from the recent Strategic Dialogue and from other signals we receive from the Government of Iraq. We're going to be there, our NATO partners are going to be there to finish the ISIS fight, and we're going to stay in Iraq. “

“We know that, in fact, Iran does continue to ship arms to [Lebanese Hezbollah] in Lebanon with an aim to build capabilities that could strike Israel to the south. All those things are very concerning to me.”

“[Sea mines are] a concern of mine because that is another example of an Iranian asymmetric capability that they can employ against us. The Strait of Hormuz is a logical place for them to do that. They have thousands of mines that they would be able to deploy. There's another area though that is also of concern to us and that's the Bab al Mandeb in the Southern Red Sea where they might be able to do it through their Houthi proxies down there. Both those areas are of great concern to us. Now the United States is does not depend on the Strait of Hormuz for our economy. However, if the Strait of Hormuz were closed, it would have a significant effect on the global economy, particularly oil exports to a number of nations, which would ultimately have an effect on us.”


April 20, 2021, while testifying before the House Foreign Affairs Committee

McKenzie: "While Iran has itself avoided state on state attacks on U.S. forces since last January — strikes on the al Assad and Erbil air bases — it continues to menace regional partners and the free flow of commerce through the use of proxies and the proliferation of armed unmanned aerial systems and other munitions. Its pursuit of regional hegemony remains the greatest source of instability across the Middle East."

"The CENTCOM area of responsibility is the most cyber-contested theater in the world. It is also the proving ground for the proliferation and employment of unmanned weaponized systems, many emanating from Iran."

"I consider Iran to be the greatest threat to regional stability in the Middle East... I can tell you that it would be very concerning to us if Iran was able to possess a nuclear weapon. And it is the aim of United States policy to prevent that condition from occurring."

"China has had an existing military agreement with Iran for a period of time. I'm not certain that this is going to produce anything new or different. Again, we'll watch to see what it does with oil exports. And I'm probably not the best person to talk about that right now. But a number of sanctions could still come in place against Chinese companies should they like to do business with Iran."

"In year 2020, Iran's plan was to gain, through political action, the ejection of the United States from the region and principally from Iraq. They failed in doing that. And as a result, we're beginning to see attacks ramp up from their Shia groups in the region. And I think that's going to continue."

"I'm very concerned about Iranian mine warfare capabilities. It's a significant asymmetric threat that they possess. And they possess it not only up in the Strait of Hormuz, which is where we always think about it, but also down in the Bab al Mandeb, in the Red Sea. Their ability to deploy a wide variety of thousands of mines is very concerning to me. Right now, we have a very limited mine warfare capability in the theater. Our ships, as you have noted, and the ships of our British partners are about all we have if we had to sweep and open the Strait of Hormuz, which is a vital international passage. And it would take us an extended amount of time to do it with the resources that we have now. I, too, have noted the [Littoral Combat Ship] and the problems that have attended it as a possible minesweeping variant. Regardless, it's not going to be available in a reasonable amount of time for me in my requirements in US Central Command. So I would share your concerns. We talk about this all the time. This is an area of Iranian capability that remains vexing and concerning to me."

"I am primarily talking about the Iran problem and the fact that our bases now have the virtue of being close to the area you might want to fight. They also have the problem being very close to the Iranians. So what we would seek to do is examine alternatives further to the West and the Arabian Peninsula. That would make it more difficult for the Iranians to target our bases there. It would increase the range; many of their weapons would not actually have the range to reach out there and get to those bases. The problem will be the tanker bill that's associated with that. On the other hand, if the tanker can survive out to the west, it’s probably better than it being close where it can be struck. So, there's a tradeoff that we make and we look to our partners to help us on this with these bases. And we've never looked to base permanently there. Whether you'd like to have the ability to go in there, as you noted, in an expeditionary manner, in a time of crisis or in a time of war, just to make it harder for an opponent to threaten the force."

April 20, 2021, in written testimony for the House Armed Services Committee 

“Iran currently possesses one of the most capable militaries in the Middle East, and its offensive capabilities include nearly 3,000 short- and long-range ballistic missiles as well as an array of land-attack cruise missiles (LACMs) and UASs. The Iranian regime demonstrated both the capability and willingness to employ all of these offensive weapons in complex attacks against Saudi Arabia’s oil facilities in 2019, and again against U.S. forces in Iraq in 2020.” 


February 8, 2021, during a Middle East Institute-CENTCOM conference

“I'll start with what is my most challenging driver of instability, the actions of Iran. For more than 40 years, the Iranian regime has funded and aggressively supported terrorism and terrorist organizations and defied international norms by conducting malign activities, which destabilize not only the region but global security and commerce as well. Iran is a major source of instability in Iraq and uses Iraq as a proxy battleground against the United States. Iran's actions also contribute to the instability seen in Syria and Yemen: Two regional conflicts that have resulted in millions of refugees, famine and outbreaks of diseases.

“So what are we doing to mitigate this instability? I believe our presence in the region, mostly defensive in nature, has brought us to a period of contested deterrence with Iran. That presence sends a clear and unambiguous signal of our capabilities and will to defend partners and U.S. national interests, a signal which has been clearly received by the Iranian regime. In addition to visible presence, CENTCOM demonstrates U.S. capability and will by enhancing a resilient and responsive force posture, dynamically moving forces in and out of the region as needed, and building cohesive and dominant partnerships with regional and coalition forces. Central Command leads two critical multinational partnerships in the region: they help provide stability and freedom of navigation. The first is the combined maritime force or the CMF. The second is the International Maritime Security Construct, also known as the IMSC. The 33 nation CMF conducts maritime security operations to ensure the free flow of commerce and actively deny the use of the high seas to terrorists and illicit networks. The CMF's frequent interdiction of illicit shipments of contraband and weapons in the Gulf of Aden and Arabian Sea are key contributors to eroding support for terrorist networks and armed groups throughout the region. The IMSC is a cooperation-based framework that, through the combination of presence and surveillance, ensures safety of maritime shipping and deters adversarial and malign interference to the crucial flow of seaborne commerce in the Strait of Hormuz and the Bab el Mandeb.

“Besides these two ongoing examples of cooperation, both focused on a common goal of providing stability, I want to note the potential for the normalization of relations with Israel. The easing of tensions between Israel and other Arab countries provides us with a strategic opportunity to align additional partners against shared threats to stability in the region. Now, I fully understand there are fundamental political issues that remain to be worked out between Israel and many of its Arab neighbors. And, that process will take its course. But, it's always been my observation that since you can't choose your neighbors, you have to find a way to get along with the ones that you do have. Clearly, several Arab nations have weighed their options and have chosen rapprochement with Israel over the destabilizing tactics of Iran. But, Iran has choices as well. The new U.S. administration has signaled it will take a deliberate and thoughtful approach moving forward with its Iran policies, working in close consultations with our partners.”


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.”


Some of the information in this article was originally published on March 16, 2020.