CENTCOM Commander: Iran is the biggest threat in the region

McKenzie summarized Tehran's strategic goal: "The Iranians want us out of the theater."
CENTCOM Commander Gen. Frank McKenzie speaks to reporters in Washington. (Photo: AFP)
CENTCOM Commander Gen. Frank McKenzie speaks to reporters in Washington. (Photo: AFP)

WASHINGTON DC (Kurdistan 24) – "I continue to see Iran as the greatest threat to regional security and stability," the outgoing Commander of US Central Command (CENTCOM) Gen. Frank McKenzie (US Marine Corps) told reporters on Friday.

McKenzie described two main aspects of the Iranian threat. One is its support for malign actors, who engage in terrorism and also serve as a means to expand Iran's influence beyond its borders.

The second aspect of the Iranian threat is military: advances that it has made in its ballistic missile program and other weapons systems.

McKenzie summarized Tehran's strategic goal: "The Iranians want us out of the theater."

McKenzie is stepping down as CENTCOM commander on Apr. 1, and he will be replaced by Gen. Michael Kurilla (US Army.) In his confirmation hearing last month, Kurilla described the Peshmerga as "very reliable and very capable."

Read More: Key US Senator, CENTCOM nominee-commander hail Masoud Barzani, Peshmerga

Iranian Proxies: Terrorism and Political Leverage

Iran provides "weapons, support and direction to proxies across the region who engage in acts of terror and undermine local governments, all advancing Iranian interests," McKenzie stated.

"The IRGC (Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps) and the elite sub-element of the IRGC, the Qods Force," are "the principal malign actor in the theater," he added. 

Under the Trump administration, the US designated the IRGC as a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO). That designation provides for criminal penalties for anyone doing business with the IRGC. As part of the negotiations on restoring the Iranian nuclear deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Program of Action (JCPOA), Iran wants the IRGC delisted.

The Biden administration is contemplating doing so in exchange for an Iranian commitment to de-escalation in the region, according to US media reports.

The reliability of such an Iranian commitment is questionable, and such a move would likely prompt serious opposition from Congress, among both Republicans and Democrats. However, such designations are the president's prerogative, and Congress would not be in a position to block such a move.

McKenzie also noted that Iran's proxies in Iraq were blocking the formation of a new government—although it has been over five months since the Oct. 10, 2021 elections.

The most successful Shi'ite party, led by Muqtada al-Sadr, is allied with the most successful Kurdish party, led by Masoud Barzani, and they have the seats, along with sympathetic Sunnis, to form the new government.

But that is being resisted by the pro-Iranian parties, who oppose forming a "majority government"—i.e., a government formed by the winners of the elections, with a governing party and an opposition, as is customary in democracies.

Instead, the pro-Iranian parties demand a "consensual government"—i.e., one that would give them ministries and the benefits that come with such posts. 

As McKenzie's comment suggests, the US is fully aware of that political maneuvering. Earlier this week, Secretary of State Antony Blinken called for the urgent formation of a new Iraqi government.

Read More: US urges quick formation of Iraqi government; repeats denunciations of Iranian missile strike

Iranian Military Threat

McKenzie also noted the dangerous advances that Tehran has made in its weapons programs.

Iran has "invested enormous resources into improving the number and capabilities of [its] ballistic missiles," McKenzie said, as he also noted their accuracy.

In Iran's Jan. 2020 attack on Al-Asad Air Base in Iraq's western Anbar province, "their missiles hit within tens of meters of the targets they were intended to hit," McKenzie said. "So you have to respect that capability."

McKenzie's observation raises even more questions about Iran's ballistic missile attack Sunday on Erbil, in which 12 missiles were fired from Iranian territory on the capital of the Kurdistan Region. 

The IRGC, which claimed credit for the assault, said it had attacked a secret Israeli intelligence base. In fact, six of the missiles hit a private house. Both the Kurdistan Regional Government and the Iraqi government have demanded an international investigation into Iran's aggression and the justification Tehran has offered.

Read More: KAR group CEO invites Iranian Ambassador to visit his house destroyed by missile attack

In addition, four Katyusha rockets were fired on Thursday at Iraq's Balad Air Base, where its F-16 fighter planes, which are manufactured by the US, are based. No US military personnel are stationed there, but the base does house US contractors who help maintain the planes. Pro-Iranian militias were assumed to be responsible for that attack.

Read More: 4 rockets fired at Iraq's Balad Airbase: Security Cell

Other Iranian weapons systems have also become more menacing. They include land-attack cruise missiles and unmanned aerial systems (drones), McKenzie explained. 

"All of those things are now at a greater state of danger than we have ever seen in the Central Command AOR (Area of Responsibility)," he said. 

Commitment to Continued Fight against ISIS

McKenzie affirmed that the US would continue to combat ISIS in Iraq and Syria. He called Iraq "a good news story," noting, "We're in Iraq at the express invitation of the Iraqi government."

"They want us to be there," he said, and "they want the NATO Mission Iraq to be there." 

Indeed, Gen. Abdel Emir Rashid Yarallah, Chief of Staff of the Iraqi Army, recently met with Lt. Gen. Michael Lollesgaard, Commander of the NATO Mission in Iraq, and agreed "on a continuation" of cooperation.

Read More: Iraqi Army discusses developing military capabilities with NATO

Responding to a journalist's question, McKenzie stressed that any adjustments to US force levels in Iraq will "be made as a result of consultations with the government of Iraq."

"In the long term," McKenzie explained, "We would like to have a normalized security cooperation agreement" with Iraq.

However, the longer-term situation in Syria is less clear as the presence of the US-led Coalition in northeast Syria is opposed by the regime in Damascus and its Russian backers.

So while McKenzie affirmed that the US would continue to support its main partner, the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, in the fight against ISIS, he also said, "I don't know how long we're going to remain in Syria."

"Ultimately, that'll be a policy decision," which is "made by the national leadership of the United States, as we go forward, based on the situation on the ground," he said.

The Syrian regime is making something of a comeback. On Friday, President Bashar al-Assad made his first trip to an Arab country since 2011, when the Syrian civil war began. 

Assad visited the United Arab Emirates (UAE), where he met the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, and the ruler of Dubai, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum. 

State Department Spokesperson Ned Price criticized the UAE leadership, saying that the US was "profoundly disappointed and troubled by this apparent attempt to legitimize Bashar al-Assad, who remains responsible and accountable for the death and suffering of countless Syrians."