The top American commander in the Middle East says he sees Iran’s decision-making abilities in “disarray” after a U.S. drone strike killed a senior Iranian commander in January, but he doesn’t expect the lull to last.
After a surge in tensions earlier this year following the killing of Quds force commander Qassem Soleimani in Iraq, and additional damage done to the Islamic Republic from the Covid-19 pandemic, Marine General Kenneth McKenzie said he expects the Islamic Republic’s military to regroup and focus on trying to drive U.S. troops out of the region. Just not yet.
“Iran recognizes that we have the capability in the theater to make it very painful for them to launch a direct or indirect attack against either us or one of our partners or allies,” McKenzie, who heads U.S. Central Command, said in a telephone interview Thursday. “Right now, it is kind of quiet, but I think part of that is they’re still on their heels a little bit from January and I think they’re still sorting themselves out and what they want to do.”
McKenzie oversees American forces in a region President Donald Trump has long said he wants U.S. forces to leave. But Trump has also bolstered the American presence there at times to help defend a key ally -- Saudi Arabia -- and heighten pressure on Iran after quitting the 2015 nuclear accord with the country.
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Among the forces under McKenzie’s command are roughly 6,500 U.S. troops in Iraq out of as many as 80,000 in the region, including Afghanistan. The weaponry at his disposal includes next-generation F-35A stealth jets redeployed June 2 for a third stint to the region.
McKenzie said Iran felt it had momentum in its efforts to bolster influence over neighboring Iraq at America’s expense, until the unexpected U.S. attack on Soleimani -- a commander who was lionized in Iranian society but accused of being behind conflicts from Lebanon to Yemen -- disrupted their efforts.
Yet short-term setbacks won’t distract the Iranian regime from its ultimate goal of ejecting the U.S. and all Western allies from the region, he said.
“I remember well the lesson of last fall where we were in a relative period of quiet and, bang, they attacked Aramco,” McKenzie said, referring to the mid-September drone and cruise missile attack on Saudi oil facilities that the U.S. says was directed by Tehran.
Iran’s government rejects that charge. The United Nations has said the weapons used in the Aramco strike were of Iranian origin, without directly saying Tehran was responsible.
“I draw no confidence from periods of quiet,” McKenzie added. “That’s when I actually begin to look very hard at what the Iranians might be up to because I think they have long-term goals to eject us.”
But so far, “they are deterred because in the mind of the opponent -- the Iranians -- they believe, that the goal that they desire -- ejection of the United States from the theater -- will be more painful than the value of attaining it -- that’s classic deterrence theory,” he said. “That’s what I think we are operating under right now.”
The Aramco attack highlighted for McKenzie what he says is the most worrisome threat U.S. forces and allies face in the region today: “It is the small drone -- it’s the Costco-purchased drone” because “if you can see it with a larger radar cross-section we can engage it with traditional measures.”
Those smaller, relatively cheap models can be launched close to targets as an opening salvo meant to disable early warning radar, opening the way for a larger attack -- “either a swarm attack or a highly precise single strike,” McKenzie said in the interview.
Since May 2019, Iranian-supported groups have “conducted scores of UAS reconnaissance flights near U.S. and Iraqi Security Force bases” and used drones in the September attack against Saudi oil facilities, McKenzie said earlier this year, using an acronym for unmanned aircraft systems.
The U.S. is investing a lot of money to solve the risk from drones but “I do not believe we have solved the problem yet,” he said in the interview. McKenzie praised a decision in January to make the U.S. Army the Pentagon coordinator for assessing, testing and purchasing counter-drone technologies.
“We’ve got to get ahead of this,” he said. “There’s a ways to go on this -- we have not yet cracked the code.”
(Updates to add comments on drone attacks from 12th paragraph)
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