Top U.S. General: It’s ‘Very Possible’ Iran Will Attack Again

The threat from Tehran continues to increase despite U.S. military buildup, U.S. Central Command’s Gen. Kenneth McKenzie says.

Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, the commander of U.S. Central Command
Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, the commander of U.S. Central Command, participates in a press briefing at the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia, on Oct. 30. Alex Wong/Getty Images

MANAMA, Bahrain—Since May, the Pentagon has dispatched 14,000 additional U.S. troops, an aircraft carrier, and tens of thousands of pounds of military equipment to the Middle East to respond to what it says are alarming new threats from Iran. But despite the stepped-up U.S. military posture, the top U.S. general in the region believes the Iranian threat continues to rise—and Tehran is likely to continue lashing out.

“I think the strike on Saudi Aramco in September is pretty indicative of a nation that is behaving irresponsibly,” said Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, the commander of U.S. Central Command, in a Friday interview, referring to the Sept. 14 Iran-sponsored attack on Saudi facilities that took half of Riyadh’s oil production offline. 

“My judgment is that it is very possible they will attack again.”  

McKenzie, who stepped into his new job in March, assumed command of the world’s most volatile theater at a particularly turbulent time. Over the past eight months, the Taliban has intensified attacks in Afghanistan, Turkey invaded northeast Syria, the Islamic State has threatened to resurge, and Yemen continues to be the world’s worst humanitarian disaster. But Iran is the one common thread undermining regional stability through direct attacks on its neighbors, supporting disruptive proxies such as the Taliban in Afghanistan and Yemen’s Houthi rebels, and increasingly penetrating Iraq and Syria. 

While Iran’s primary goal is to preserve its clerical regime, Tehran has long had hegemonic ambitions, McKenzie said. Over the last 10 years, Iran has invested heavily in ballistic missiles and other capabilities in order to threaten its neighbors. Indeed, according to a new report on Iran’s military power from the Defense Intelligence Agency—the first of its kind—Tehran significantly increased its defense spending from its recent low in 2014 to $27.3 billion, or 6 percent of GDP, in 2018.

In recent months, the regime has lashed out against a new threat: a U.S. maximum pressure campaign that has imposed heavy economic costs, including forcing Iran to slash its defense budget to $20.7 billion, or 3.8 percent of GDP, in 2019. In addition to Iran’s alleged attacks on commercial shipping in the Persian Gulf and the Sept. 14 attack on Saudi oil, U.S. defense officials have been warning for months about “credible” threats to U.S. forces, but they have declined to say what exactly that threat looks like.

McKenzie shed new light on the threat, saying he is particularly concerned about the possibility of a strike involving large numbers of drones and missiles—much like the Aramco attack, which used dozens of Iran-manufactured cruise missiles and drones to devastate Saudi oil infrastructure. 

U.S. officials are particularly concerned about the threat to critical desalination plants in the Gulf, said a senior U.S. military official in the region. An attack on these facilities, which could threaten the region’s primary source of drinking water and potentially cause a humanitarian crisis, would be a “gamechanger,” the official said.

McKenzie cautioned that Tehran’s actions are unpredictable. “I wouldn’t discount anything from Iran,” McKenzie said. “When a nation behaves that irresponsibly, you have to be very cautious when you evaluate what they might do in the future.”

So far, the U.S. response to Iranian threat has been “scoped”—designed to send a strong deterrent message but not to provoke fresh attacks, McKenzie said. The additional forces the Pentagon has sent to the region are mostly defensive: an aircraft carrier strike group, fighter and bomber squadrons, as well as air and missile defense batteries.

McKenzie sent the carrier, the USS Abraham Lincoln, on a transit through the Strait of Hormuz last week for the first time since it deployed to demonstrate U.S. naval power before it heads home. The Lincoln, which will soon be replaced by a new carrier, the USS Harry S. Truman, was diverted to the Middle East in May to respond to the Iranian threat, but had remained in the Arabian Sea. 

But so far, these moves have had “mixed” results, McKenzie said. Tehran has successfully been deterred from attacking U.S. forces, but not from taking provocative actions against regional partners.

Perhaps part of the reason Iran has continued to raise the temperature in the region is because it has so far not faced any significant repercussions. Even Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, usually a staunch ally of U.S. President Donald Trump, criticized the president’s last-minute decision not to launch a retaliatory strike after Tehran shot down an expensive U.S. surveillance drone in June, saying the regime saw it “as a sign of weakness.”

In addition to shoring up U.S. defenses in the region, McKenzie is working to rally international support for countering Iran. So far, six nations have signed on to the United States’ International Maritime Security Coalition, a multinational naval force designed to provide security for commercial ships in the vital Strait of Hormuz: the United Kingdom, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Australia, the United Arab Emirates, and Albania. 

Speaking at the Manama Dialogue in Bahrain on Saturday, McKenzie stressed the impact of Iran’s recent attacks on shipping in the Persian Gulf on the global market, noting that insurance rates for oil tankers have increased by a factor of 10 since May. He praised the efforts of the maritime coalition so far, calling it a “good, albeit nascent” measure, and urged regional partners to band together against Tehran.

“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. ” McKenzie told the audience. “It’s a great big world, and there’s a lot of water to cover.”

Under the maritime coalition, initially dubbed “Operation Sentinel,” the coalition keeps two so-called Sentinel ships at each end of the entrance to the Strait of Hormuz, typically a high-end U.S. or U.K. asset such as an Arleigh Burke destroyer, McKenzie told Foreign Policy. Those warships are linked into an “elaborate overhead intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance architecture” that allows the coalition to monitor activities in the Gulf.

“Our intent to shine a spotlight on malign and illegal activity,” McKenzie said. “We don’t have enough ships to be everywhere all the time and we don’t seek to be, but what we found though is that when people are worried about attribution of their acts, they tend to behave better.”

Depending on the daily threat level, the coalition will “fairly frequently” send warships to escort commercial vessels through the Strait, McKenzie said. However, it’s the “unblinking stare overhead” that serves as the most effective deterrent, rather than the presence of warships, he stressed. 

“Since the [coalition] has begun over the last couple of months we have been able to move stuff through the Strait of Hormuz pretty much without interference,” he said.

Experts have expressed skepticism about the International Maritime Security Coalition, noting that the United States struggled initially to shore up any international support for the effort after it was announced this summer. While several countries have since signed on, there is still little representation from Europe and none from Asia. 

European nations such as France have indicated that they will participate in a separate, EU-led maritime security initiative, primarily to distance themselves from the U.S. maximum pressure campaign. But the senior U.S. military official expressed skepticism that the effort will get off the ground, calling it “perpetually nascent.”

The initiative also raises the risk that the U.S. military could be dragged into conflict if the Gulf states engage in hostilities with Iran, experts said. Anthony Cordesman, an analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, questioned the “competence” of some Gulf navies.

“They could certainly sail with the tankers, but if they got into trouble over it, the question is who would support them and how,” Cordesman told Foreign Policy in June.

Iran’s malign activities don’t end in the Strait of Hormuz. McKenzie is also concerned about Tehran’s actions in Syria, particularly moving in weapon systems that directly threaten Israel, and in Iraq, where the regime is quietly penetrating Iraq’s elected government. And in Yemen, Iran is working to undermine recent progress toward peace between the Saudi-backed Yemeni government and Houthi rebels, which Tehran has supported with arms and other resources. 

“As usual, the major actor that’s working to sabotage that is Iran,” which wants to prevent a relationship between the Houthis and Riyadh, McKenzie said. “Left to their own devices I think the Houthis might be able to come to some relationship with the Saudis.”

Although McKenzie believes the United States has robust defenses against Iran, there is only so much deterrence can do when faced with an irrational actor.

“Deterrence assumes there is going to be a rational actor on the other end,” he said. “There is a basic recklessness and irresponsibility to their actions that makes you very concerned about what they might do tomorrow or the next day, and that’s very concerning.” 

Lara Seligman is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @laraseligman

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