General Michael Kurilla, commander of Central Command (CENTCOM), began his Army career in 1988. He has led units in combat, peacekeeping, and operational deployments. Kurilla spent every year from 2004 to 2014 in CENTCOM’s area of responsibility, which extends from Egypt on the Mediterranean to Afghanistan in South Asia and Kazakhstan in Central Asia. Kurilla commanded Conventional and Special Operations Forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Senate unanimously confirmed Kurilla on February 22, and he took command of CENTCOM on April 1.
Kurilla has repeatedly warned about the dangers from Iran. At his confirmation hearing, he said that Iran’s military capabilities are “rapidly expanding” in ways that threaten U.S. personnel, facilities, and allies as well as international trade. The Islamic Republic “is the No. 1 destabilizing factor in the Middle East right now with their malign behavior,” he told the Senate Armed Services Committee on February 8, 2022. Iran and its network of proxy militias “exploit instability throughout the region,” he warned in his written testimony.
Iran’s goal is to push U.S. forces out of the region, Kurilla said. Tehran has so far avoided escalation into major conflict, but the risk of miscalculation “remains high,” he added.
Kurilla implicitly supported the renewal of the 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and the world’s major powers, which was abandoned by the Trump Administration. “I am supportive of any enforceable agreement that limits Tehran's ability to gain nuclear weapons,” he said. But Kurilla acknowledged that Tehran might use some revenue after sanctions relief to support its proxies and terrorism beyond its borders—adding new risks to U.S. forces in the region. The following are excerpts from Kurilla’s comments on Iran.
In testimony to the House Armed Services Committee on March 23, 2023:
Question: Focusing on China… or the reopening of relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia China just recently negotiated. Part of that is that Iran says publicly that they're going to stop sending arms to Yemen, to the Houthis in Yemen, which would be a significantly positive step. So here's the first question. Do you believe that you see that coming out? Do you see some positive aspects of Iran and Saudi Arabia are reestablishing diplomatic ties?
Kurilla: “There is goodness anytime tensions can be removed, lowered. An agreement is not implementation. While they were negotiating this—over the last 90 days, we stopped five major shipments of Iranian arms that were going to the Houthis, and some of those were advanced components like inertial navigation systems for short range ballistic missiles.
“What we should be concerned about in this is that China is the one that mediated this. It was being done by two countries in the Middle East over the last two years. But what it shows is that China—not only do they have their economic information and military instruments of national power… coming into the region, we are now seeing really for the first time their diplomatic instrument of national power.”
Question: What does [the Iran-Saudi deal] mean as it pertains to military relations with Saudi Arabia?
Kurilla: “We have very strong military relations with Saudi Arabia…What we're talking about is really about opening up diplomatic ties… What this means really in the region is that this was going on for two years prior but that China came in to swoop and try and take the credit for this mediation.”
Question: General Kurilla, I'm extremely concerned about the rapid progress Iran has made on its nuclear program. Earlier this month, the IAEA said that Iran has produced uranium particles that were enriched up to 83.7 percent. Last week, you testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee that Tehran can now produce sufficient fissile material for a nuclear weapon in less than 14 days. Iran is on the brink of being a nuclear weapons state which would change the security layout of the Middle East in unpredictable ways. So General, what activities or plans are you engaged in to reinforce U.S. deterrence, and convey to Iran that acquiring nuclear weapons will not be in its best interest?
Kurilla: “U.S. policy is that Iran will not have a nuclear weapon. I think anything about plans that we have against any nuclear program would be best in a classified setting.”
Question: Further on Iran, they are posturing to be more than just a regional challenge. Over the course of Russia's invasion of Ukraine, Iran has increasingly provided military support to Russia, specifically drones. Russia is planning to provide Iran with advanced capabilities including military fighter jets, helicopters, air defense systems, so they're also planning to jointly build a drone factory inside Russia that would produce thousands of drones per year. This has more than just regional impact for Iran. So how is CENTCOM posturing to respond to this increasing collaboration between Iran and Russia and what do you assess the implications to be for the region?
Kurilla: “It is very concerning with this relationship that Iran and Russia have—we are seeing them move the UAVs to Russia [to] be able to use them in Ukraine. These are the very same UAVs that they used to attack our forces in Iraq and Syria, and they're improving upon them. And we are seeing this Iranian state media that publicly announced that they'll be getting SU-35s, which is a fourth [generation Russian] fighter aircraft. They'll be providing those—we think that will happen at some point this year. And it is this closer collaboration between two adversaries that is concerning, What we are doing is building the regional partnerships in the region to be able to counter that.”
Question: And what about the, I think it's called the S-400 air defense system that Russia is saying it will provide to Iran?
Kurilla: “We have not seen the S-400 be provided to Iran, but Iran also produces a very capable indigenous air defense system.”
Question: You laid out that you have assessed this particular situation, those risks. In your assessment, where do you believe the greatest risk exists…and what do you have currently that you're using to mitigate that risk? And what might you need in order to do everything possible to make sure that we deter those actors that may be wanting to perpetrate a black swan event?
Kurilla: “Our greatest risk is with Iran right now. That is why it is our number one priority to deter them. And then I would tell you, it's the violent extremist organizations that we are seeing, the ISIS Khorasan group in Afghanistan. What we're doing is we're applying our resources to both of those efforts. We look at those also through our partners to be the regional constructs to deter Iran. And again, it's an increase in our capability and intelligence inside of Afghanistan.”
Question: How often are you attacked from Iran with the unmanned aerial vehicles? Is it weekly or monthly? Give us a feel for how often you're being attacked.
Kurilla: “It is periodic. We see periods will they'll do more. There has been a number since 1 January 2021. The number is about 78 times that we have been attacked.”
Question: 78 times have been attacked. Are these UAVs flying out of Iran tricking us, are they being used by militias?
Kurilla: “So what Iran does to hide its hand is they use Iranian proxies. That's with their UAVs or rockets to be able to attack our forces in Iraq or Syria.”
Question: Do we have the right level of fielding for counter-UAV… should we be doing more?
Kurilla: “We are doing more right now in terms of getting additional capability in the field. We'll be bringing some directed energy systems online. That is, everything is a layered defense. I think when we bring some new capabilities online, you want to be able to test these systems and make sure they have the right probability of kill, based on different systems and the techniques that the enemy is using to be able to attack you. So I think this will be an area we'll continue to invest in. I know that there's other organizations like SOCOM that are doing some to bring additional capability to it, but all of it is part of a layered defense.”
Question: Now, I know you've spent a lot of your testimony also on Iran and I have a lot of constituents of Iranian background who say that this time, the protests are different, this time the regime really is not going well. I don't know if you're in a position to have a comment from what you're hearing in the area about what the sentiment is towards the regime and the protests?
Kurilla: “What we can see is that the regime can deal with the domestic situation but also do their malign behavior externally—their foreign policy, if you will, while they still deal with their domestic policy. It is my assessment right now, that even though the protests have put stress on the regime, it has not put the regime at risk.”
In testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee on March 16, 2023:
“Four decades after revolutionary students overran the American embassy, Iran possesses the largest and most diverse missile arsenal in the Middle East, with thousands of ballistic and cruise missiles, some capable of striking the entire Middle East and Levant. The Iranian regime now holds the largest and most capable Unmanned Aerial Vehicle force in the region. The advancement of Iranian military capabilities over the past 40 years is unparalleled in the region; in fact, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps of today is unrecognizable from just five years ago. Even more concerning, Iran has advanced its nuclear program such that Tehran can now produce sufficient fissile material for a nuclear weapon in less than 14 days. In addition, the regime invests heavily in information operations, including broadcasting, coordinated inauthentic activity, and cyber-attacks.”
On Deterring Iran
“Deterring Iran is arguably more urgent than at any time in CENTCOM’s history due to Iran’s cutting-edge missile and UAV capability as well as its uranium enrichment program. As it was at the time of CENTCOM’s formation, Iran is the most destabilizing actor in the region. Today, Iran is undeterred from its malign activities, which include conventional threats to neighbors, support to violent proxy groups that spread chaos and instability throughout the region, and support to Russia’s war in Ukraine.
“The evolution of the Iranian threat – the primary threat against which this command was born –is a story that runs the full timeline of CENTCOM history. Early in the Iran-Iraq war, the regime realized its armed forces could never fully recover from the crippling losses suffered during that ruinous conflict. Instead, to develop an asymmetric advantage against regional militaries, the regime invested in precision missiles with extended reach. It now commands an imposing measure of missile capability it uses to coerce, intimidate, and bully its neighbors.
“Tehran has also manufactured increasingly sophisticated Unmanned Aerial Vehicles. The regime now commands an arsenal of drone systems, ranging from small, short-range systems to modern intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance systems to long-range One-Way Attack platforms. They are building larger drones that can fly further with increasingly deadly payloads. Until the United States helped secure the Yemen truce, Iran was regularly using Yemen as a testing ground for these weapons, threatening both U.S. partners and tens of thousands of Americans in the Gulf.
“Meanwhile, Tehran continues to furnish weapons, support, and direction to proxies across the region who engage in acts of terror and undermine local governments, all advancing Iranian interests. The proxy forces are more emboldened and dangerous through the increased proliferation of these Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, which allow them to target US and partner interests with increased speed, range, accuracy, and explosive capacity.
“This story grows more foreboding. Today, Iran continues to enrich and stockpile uranium far above what is needed for commercial use. Increasingly more centrifuges are the advanced IRN6 models, capable of enriching uranium far faster and more efficiently than Iran’s first-generation centrifuges. The regime is now stockpiling highly enriched uranium under the guise of commercial use. The International Atomic Energy Agency report released on February 28th on Iran’s enrichment program reveals that Iran’s stockpile of uranium enriched up to 60% has grown substantially in less than three months and that Iran now has sufficient nuclear material for manufacture of several nuclear explosive devices. The region is increasingly worried about a nuclear-armed Iran.
“Iran also puts itself increasingly further outside of international norms; Tehran continues to ignore United Nations Security Council resolutions, violate sanctions and embargos, proliferate weapons to its network of proxies and affiliates, and attack shipping vessels in international waters. The regime continues the brutal beatdown of the rights of its citizenry, crushing dissent, protest, and human rights. Iranian-aligned groups routinely strike at American troops and our partners in Iraq and Syria.
“Recently, Iran’s advanced weapons are seen on the battlefield of Ukraine alongside their Russian partners. Iran often aligns information operations with or in support of Russia. An internationally isolated Iran has clearly thrown in its lot with an also isolated Russia.”
“Last week’s PRC-brokered reestablishment of relations between Iran and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia underscores the emergence of China’s diplomatic role in the region.”
On CENTCOM’s Approach
“Partners are our nation’s comparative advantage against competitors like the People’s Republic of China and Russia and serve as a barrier against the ramifications of Iran’s most destructive behavior. No nation can face the complexity described above alone. We therefore cultivate deep abiding relations with forces in the region that can serve as a hedge against threats in the region while deterring Iran from its worst, most destabilizing activity.”
“Our partners of four decades largely see the same threats and have common cause with Israel Defense Forces and the Arab militaries in defending against Iran’s most destabilizing activities.”
“People, Partners, Innovation is our glidepath to deter Iran, counter VEOs, and compete strategically, allowing us to meet the challenges posed by these threats, complexities, and adversaries and ensure regional security and stability.”
In an interview with Bahrain’s The Daily Tribune published on Feb. 14, 2023:
“Tehran is now shipping deadly UAVs [Unmanned Aerial Vehicles] and advanced weaponry to Russia, supplying and supporting Russia’s illegal war in Ukraine.”
“Iran is the primary destabilizing element in the region, and I have been consistent on that point.”
“Iran was the primary concern for CENTCOM at its formation in 1983, and that remains the case today.”
“Iran has sharply evolved its military capability over time, and Iran today is far more capable, technologically advanced, and militarily powerful than just five years ago. To combat this, we are strengthening partnerships.”
“Israel and our other partners throughout the region see shared threats, and new partnerships are forming, which only benefits regional security and stability.”
“Across CENTCOM, we cultivate, strengthen, and lean on partnerships. We are focused on developing deep, abiding partnerships that will allow us to address a range of threats.”
In written testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee on Feb. 8, 2022:
What is your assessment of the current military threat posed by Iran?
Iran remains the primary and enduring threat in the USCENTCOM area of operations due to its use of its increasingly sophisticated military capabilities, broad proxy network, and periodic willingness to use force against the U.S., our allies, and partner forces. Iran’s rapidly expanding military capabilities enable it to coerce its neighbors, threaten international trade, and exploit instability throughout the region. Tehran’s primary power projection tools are ballistic missiles, UAVs, and expanding maritime capabilities. Iran’s missile inventory includes both medium-and short-range ballistic missiles capable of holding many regional targets at risk. Iranian surface-to-air missiles pose a significant threat to U.S. intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance assets operating in international airspace. Additionally, naval cruise missile technologies will strengthen Iran’s Anti-Access Area Denial efforts and increase Tehran’s ability to hold critical sea lines of communication at risk and threaten countries in the region with greater speed, precision, and lethality. Iran also leverages a network of proxy forces to advance its power base and build strategic depth. Iran repeatedly demonstrates a willingness to share advanced conventional weapons with Shia militant proxies and partners throughout the region.
Are U.S. military forces and capabilities currently deployed to the USCENTCOM AOR adequate to deter and, if necessary, respond to threats posed by Iran?
If confirmed, I will conduct a careful assessment of forces required in the region with consideration for the significant military capabilities and threats emanating from Iran. This assessment will examine force levels necessary to deter and, if necessary, respond to Iranian threats and assess risks and mitigating strategies.
What is your assessment of U.S. national security interests associated with the growth of Iranian influence in the Middle East?
My assessment is that Iran’s negative influence in the region continues to grow and is incompatible with U.S. national interests, as well as those of our allies and partners. Iran views the U.S. as its greatest enduring threat and continues a multifaceted approach to remove U.S. forces from the region while avoiding escalation into major conflict. The risk of miscalculation and escalation remains high.
If the United States returned to compliance with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), what concerns, if any, would you have for regional security?
Iran is, in my view, the single biggest contributor to instability in the region and any agreement must fully prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. Without knowledge of the specific terms of ongoing diplomatic negotiations, it is premature to assess the outcomes on regional security. Renewed negotiation efforts must consider the significant changes that have occurred in the security and geopolitical environments since the 2018 American withdrawal from the agreement.
What actions, if any, do you believe the United States and the international community could undertake to counter Iran’s increasing conventional military capabilities?
It is my view that together with the international community and our Middle East partners, the U.S. maintains a shared objective in countering Iran’s proliferation of Advanced Conventional Weapons and its support to proxies. In addition to continued diplomatic engagement, I assess that USCENTCOM must continue its efforts to enhance interoperability with allies and partners to deter and, when required, defeat Iranian conventional military capability across multiple domains. Finally, we must continue investing in technology, to include Artificial Intelligence and machine learning platforms and programs, to increase our ability to detect, defend, and respond to conventional Iranian military capabilities.
In your view, what risks, if any, are associated with reducing U.S. military presence in the Middle East with respect to the threat posed by Iran?
If confirmed, I will assess whether a reduction of U.S. force presence impacts our ability to achieve objectives for the region and undermines the assurances we provide allies and partners. Part of this assessment will address key areas in which partners, allies, or interagency elements can fill capability gaps or further enable efforts. It is my view that the current U.S. military posture in the Middle East serves as an important role in unifying a coalition of regional partners and provides a counterbalance to Iran’s malign regional influence. If confirmed, I would ensure USCENTCOM continues to work hard in sustaining enduring military, security, and intelligence ties with our regional partners.
What is your assessment of the purpose and threat posed by Iran’s ballistic missile program? To what extent is the U.S. and our partners in the region postured to counter the Iranian ballistic missile threat?
If confirmed, I will assess whether U.S. and our partners’ integrated air and missile defense capability is adequate to counter Iranian ballistic missile threats in the short term. I intend to prioritize working with regional partners on their air defense systems with the aim of fully integrating air and missile defense across the region.
In your view, what role, if any, should USCENTCOM play in countering Iran’s support of international terrorism and proxy forces throughout the USCENTCOM AOR?
It is my view that USCENTCOM should support a whole-of-government approach to countering Iran’s support for international terrorism and proxy forces. The Iranian regime leverages the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps-Qods Force in managing proxies in Yemen, Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon through the proliferation of advanced weapons technology and destabilizing actions. USCENTCOM will counter Iranian efforts with continued operations, activities, investments, engagements, and support to partners in the region.
During his Senate confirmation hearing on Feb. 8, 2022:
"Iran is the No. 1 destabilizing factor in the Middle East right now with their malign behavior. I think going through our partners and allies and strengthening those with a united front with all of our partners and allies is the best way to confront them.”
On Iran’s nuclear program
"I think any enforceable agreement should make sure that they do not get a nuclear weapon."
“I'm not aware of the exact details of the ongoing negotiations, but I am supportive of any enforceable agreement that limits Tehran's ability to gain nuclear weapons.”
“There is a risk with sanctions relief that Iran would use some of that money [earned after sanctions are lifted] to support its proxies and terrorism in the region. And if they did, it could increase the risk to our forces in the region.”
“My current job, I'm not aware of the current military options [for eliminating Iran’s nuclear capability]. My only concern would be that you can never take away the intellectual knowledge that they have on how to increase their nuclear capability. And then the reaction that Iran would have of any strike on them.”
On Iran’s proxies
“I believe the key is that we have to make sure that we expose the Iranian malign behavior [in Iraq]. I have found that any time Iran's hand behind this is exposed, it is helpful.”
“Iranian aligned militia groups that are either firing rockets at our embassy in Iraq, they're firing at our troops inside of Syria. They support the Houthis, and they are providing that technology to them to fire ballistic missiles into the UAE and into Saudi Arabia. When we expose the Iranian hand behind that, it causes them to react.”
“Mainly, they may try and hide their behavior, and it can cause them to not take action for a period of time. That is my experience when I was down at CENTCOM.”
On cyber security
“Iran has a very capable offensive cyber capability. We see that playing out in the CENTCOM region right now. So I think the areas that we can also work on is hardening our cyber defenses of our partners in the region.”
In an interview with Al Arabiya on May. 12, 2022:
"I view Iran as the most destabilizing force in the Middle East. The United States' position is that we will not allow a nuclear Iran. However, our concerns about Iran go beyond its nuclear capability."
In a statement regarding Iran's attempt to seize a U.S. sea drone on Aug. 20, 2022:
“This incident once again demonstrates Iran’s continued destabilizing, illegal, and unprofessional activity in the Middle East."