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.
Source » foreignpolicy