U.S. Defense Officials on Iran

Under the Biden administration, U.S. defense officials have prioritized deterring Iran and its myriad proxies. Iran’s activities are “the biggest threat to stability in the Middle East,” General Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr, the head of U.S. Central Command, said in June 2021. At the same time, U.S. military leaders have backed diplomacy to return Iran and the United States to full compliance with the 2015 nuclear deal. “No problem in the Middle East gets easier to solve with a nuclear-armed Iran,” Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said in November 2021. The following are remarks by U.S. defense officials arranged by individual in reverse chronological order. 

 

Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin 

At the Manama Dialogue on Nov. 20, 2021: “America’s commitment to security in the Middle East is strong and sure. So we’ll defend our interests in this region. And we’ll continue to evaluate the right mix of forces to bolster our deterrence against Iran. We’ll protect our forces from attack by Tehran or its proxies.”

“The United States remains committed to preventing Iran from gaining a nuclear weapon. And we remain committed to a diplomatic outcome of the nuclear issue. But if Iran isn’t willing to engage seriously, then we will look at all the options necessary to keep the United States secure.

“Now, next week, Iran’s negotiating team is set to return to Vienna to restart talks on a mutual return to compliance with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. We and our partners will return to those talks in good faith. 

“But Iran’s actions in recent months have not been encouraging—especially because of the expansion of their nuclear program. As my friend and colleague Secretary of State Blinken has said, Iran’s nuclear activities are bringing us closer to the point at which returning to the JCPOA won’t recapture its benefits. But if Iran comes back with constructive positions, we still think we can quickly resolve our lingering differences to make a mutual return to the JCPOA possible.

“Yet Iran presents us all with serious security challenges that go beyond its nuclear program. Iran stokes tensions in this region and beyond, and that undermines peace and stability for us all. 

“Now, Iran’s neighbors have tried to talk and improve relations. We fully support those efforts. And we urge Iran to do its part, and to take steps to reduce violence and conflict. But whatever Iran decides, we will continue to work closely with our partners. Iran should have no illusions that it can undermine our strong relationships in this region. And we will defend ourselves, and we will defend our friends, and we will defend our interests.

“That includes tackling the dangerous use of unmanned aircraft systems. Iran’s proliferation of one-way, attack UAVs is a constant threat to American troops, and a hindrance in the fight against ISIS. And as we’ve seen in Iraq, and Saudi Arabia, and elsewhere, many of our partners face the same threat every day.”

At a press briefing on Nov. 17, 2021: "Now, it’s not lost on me that this trip comes at a time when Iran is stoking tensions and undermining stability in the region.

"We remain deeply committed to preventing Iran from gaining nuclear weapons. As I’ve said before, no problem in the Middle East gets easier to solve with a nuclear-armed Iran.

"That’s why we fully support the President’s efforts to achieve a new diplomatic agreement with Iran over its nuclear program.

"But, of course, Iran presents serious security challenges that extend beyond that program. 

"So I’m going to continue to be very clear: we will defend ourselves, our partners, and our interests against threats from Iran or its proxies."

AustinIn remarks welcoming Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett to the Pentagon on Aug. 25, 2021: “I look forward to a frank discussion today about Iran's alarming - alarming nuclear steps and continued regional aggression. Iran must be held accountable for acts of terrorism and aggression, whether in the - in - in the Middle East or in international waters, like the July 30th attack on the Mercer Street commercial vessel.”

Remarks at bilateral meeting with Israeli Minister of Defense Benjamin Gantz on June 3, 2021: “I wanted to reiterate that the administration's commitment to Israel's security is ironclad. We are committed to maintaining Israel's qualitative military edge and ensuring that Israel can defend itself against regional threats, such as those posed by Iran, its proxies, and terrorist groups. The administration fully supports your country's right to defend itself against rockets, rocket attacks fired indiscriminately by Hamas, and other Gaza-based militants against Israeli civilians.”

Comments during his Senate confirmation hearing on Jan. 19, 2021: “I would hope, and I think the president-elect has been clear, that the pre-conditions for us considering to reenter into that agreement would be that Iran meet the conditions outlined in the agreement. Back to where they should have been. I would hope that as we enter into that agreement, we could have this discussion about when things sunset and also take a look at some broader things that may or may not be a part of this treaty, but certainly things that I think need to be addressed. One of those things is ballistic missiles.” 

“Iran continues to be a destabilizing element in the region. If you look at its behavior, it is clearly [engaged in] a lot of activity that's destabilizing. It doesn't work well with its neighbors. It does present a threat to our partners in the region and those forces that we have stationed in the region. If Iran were ever to get a nuclear capability, most every problem that we deal with in the region would be tougher to deal with because of that.” 

“Any time that countries agree to normalize relations, I think that's a good thing. I think certainly this has put a bit more pressure on Iran, and I hope they will have good effects."

 

Commander of U.S. Central Command General Kenneth McKenzie 

McKenzieIn an interview with Time Magazine published on Nov. 24, 2021“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.”

In a special briefing on June 7, 2021: “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.”

Comments in an interview with ABC News on May 23, 2021: "I think they [Saudis] 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."

Comments in an interview with Sky News Arabia on May 18, 2021: "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."

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.”

Comments at a virtual AEI event on April 27, 2021: "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 againstIran. 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." 

At a press briefing on April 22, 2021: “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.”

Comments while testifying before the House Foreign Affairs Committee on April 20, 2021: "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."

Comments at a Middle East Institute-CENTCOM conference on Feb. 8, 2021: “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.”

 

Department of Defense Press Secretary John Kirby

KirbyAt a press briefing on Aug. 9, 2021: “I think it's fair to say that we're concerned as we watch Iran's increasingly aggressive and maligned behavior throughout the region. Without speaking to an individual situation - you've cited two - but without speaking to any one in particular, we obviously are watching, with great concern, Iran's continued use of intimidation and aggression in the region and, of course, their support - continued support for proxy - proxy militia, as well as proxy terrorist groups.”

At a press briefing on May 25, 2021: “And as for Iran's support of Hamas and other terrorist organizations in the region, this is certainly a long-standing concern and we continue to work with our allies and partners in the region to try to limit the effects of that support. It is one of the ways in which Iran continues to prove itself a malign actor in the region.”

“Part of that larger effort is of course maintaining a presence in the Middle East and maintaining these partnerships throughout the region. And making sure that, and this will - part of the global posture review that we're conducting and making sure that we are, in fact, matching appropriate resources to the strategy in that part of the world. But certainly [its] not lost on the secretary that the types of threats that Iran still poses in the region and he's going to stay laser focused on that.”

At a press briefing on May 3, 2021: “We have - as a government, have made clear through diplomatic channels our concerned about IRGC navy activities. We also understand, and I think you understand, Joe, that the IRGC's not the Iranian state navy and doesn't have the same reporting structure as the Iranian state navy. Our interactions with the Iranian state navy have remained professional, but that's a whole different reporting chain up to the elected government, and the IRGC doesn't report along those same lines.”

“So we have made it clear to Tehran our displeasure and our concern about this. We'll continue to do that, but I don't believe that there's a need, nor would there - I - I would suspect no appetite for any sort of operational or strategic communication between us and the IRGC. We have - we have diplomatic channels that we work through appropriately to communicate our displeasure to - to Tehran. I mean, obviously, we don't have a diplomatic presence there, but there are diplomatic channels that we can avail ourselves of."

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