Votel: Iran is Major Threat to US Interests in Region

March 5, 2018

On February 27, General Joseph Votel, told the House Committee on Armed Services that Iran remains “the major threat to U.S. interests and partnerships in the Central Region,” which extends from Egypt to Pakistan and from Kazakhstan to Yemen. He warned that the competition between Iran and Saudi Arabia is exacerbating “multiple security dilemmas” in Yemen, Lebanon and elsewhere. “Iran has extended its tentacles across the region through numerous proxies, including Lebanese Hizballah operating in multiple countries, hardline Iranian-backed Shia Militia Groups (SMGs) in Iraq and Syria, and Iranian support has enabled the Houthis,” he said.

On March 13, Votel briefed the Senate Armed Services Committee on the same topic. He signaled support for the Iran nuclear deal. “The JCPOA addresses one of the principle threats that we deal with from Iran, so if the JCPOA goes away, then we will have to have another way to deal with their nuclear weapons program,” he said. “There would be some concern (in the region), I think, about how we intended to address that particular threat if it was not being addressed through the JCPOA. ... Right now, I think it is in our interest.” The following are excerpts from his prepared statement.

The following are excerpts from his prepared statement.


CENTCOM’s Challenging Environment

Iran, Russia, and China are increasingly competing to be the partner of choice – militarily, politically, and economically – with U.S. allies. Turmoil in the Central Region seldom remains contained, and regional problems quickly become global as they bleed across Combatant Command seams into Africa, Europe, Asia, and threaten the United States.

Proxy Warfare. The Central Region has a long history of proxy warfare, violent militias, and irregular forces operating in the “grey zone” – military competition short of war. Iran has extended its tentacles across the region through numerous proxies, including Lebanese Hizballah operating in multiple countries, hardline Iranian-backed Shia Militia Groups (SMGs) in Iraq and Syria, and Iranian support has enabled the Houthis. The result is prolonging the civil war in Yemen, threatening Saudi Arabia and the UAE, and risking expansion of Yemen’s civil war into a regional conflict. Iran uses its proxies to secure supply lines for malign activities and influence neighboring governments. Militants operating out of remote areas in Pakistan threaten Afghanistan and India.

Nuclear/Ballistic Missile Proliferation. Regional conflicts and power imbalances drive nations to seek and acquire nuclear weapons and extend ballistic missile capabilities to secure their influence. As an example, Iran continues to develop advanced ballistic missile capabilities and also transfer them to the Houthis and to its Hizballah proxies. This will enable them to strike U.S. partners and allies, and the possibility Tehran will reinvigorate its nuclear program in the out-years of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) remains a potential risk. Nuclear proliferation, combined with proxy warfare, increases opportunities for miscalculation and generates a serious threat to the region and the United States.

Regional Competitors. Iran remains the major threat to U.S. interests and partnerships in the Central Region. The competition between Iran and Saudi Arabia for influence in the region exacerbates multiple security dilemmas throughout the Middle East – from Iran’s support of Houthis in Yemen, to Riyadh’s attempt to diminish Hizballah’s authority in Lebanon. Iran is also working through proxies and friendly political allies in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon to establish an arc of influence, or “Shia Crescent” across the Middle East. As we navigate the many challenges and relationships in our region, we partially view them through the lens of countering Iran and diminishing malign influence.

Russia is also trying to cultivate multi-dimensional ties to Iran. Though historic rivals, Moscow and Tehran share interests across the region, including an overarching desire to sideline, if not expel, the U.S. from the region. Russia and Iran are both trying to bolster a brutal regime in Syria, limit U.S. military influence in Iraq and Afghanistan, and fracture the longstanding U.S.-Turkey strategic partnership.

China also seeks to increase its economic and diplomatic cooperation with Iran. The lifting of UN sanctions under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) opened the path for Iran to resume membership application to the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, a Eurasian political, economic, and security organization. This, along with the existing BRI cooperation between the two nations, increases China’s ties to Iran.


Prepare – Pursue - Prevail

CENTCOM’s mission is to direct and enable military operations and activities with allies and partners to increase regional security and stability in support of enduring U.S. interests. We aim to accomplish this mission through our strategic approach of “Prepare, Pursue, Prevail.” This approach aligns with the recently published National Defense Strategy (NDS), which directs us to “Compete, deter, and win in conflict and reinforce all levers of national power from sustainable positions of military advantage.” It also aligns with the POTUS-approved strategies for Iraq and Iran. These strategies look to consolidate gains achieved through defeating ISIS, while neutralizing and countering Iran’s destabilizing influence, and ensuring a stable Iraq does not align with Iran and remains a productive strategic U.S. partner.


CENTCOM Priorities

While the CENTCOM team manages a broad range of difficult challenges on a daily basis, a significant portion of our efforts and resources are necessarily focused in three areas: supporting the Administration’s South Asia Strategy – to include Operation FREEDOM’S SENTINEL (OFS) and Resolute Support Mission (RSM) in Afghanistan; countering VEOs in the Central Region, to include Operation INHERENT RESOLVE (OIR) in Iraq/Syria; and countering Iranian destabilizing activities across the region.

In Syria, the fight against ISIS has been complicated by the multiple countries involved in the conflict, many of whom have widely divergent interests. Syrian President Bashar al Assad remains in power, and, due to military support from Russia, Iran, and Lebanese Hizballah (LH), is attempting to bring all of Syria under regime control. In 2017, the regime made significant territorial gains in central and eastern Syria, culminating in reducing opposition enclaves in western Syria and seizing urban centers from ISIS along the western bank of the Euphrates River from ISIS. Nevertheless, the Assad regime has insufficient forces to adequately secure recaptured territory and often faces insurgent counterattacks behind its lines. The regime is highly dependent on billions of dollars in external Iranian and Russian economic and military support, the cost of which press both Moscow and Tehran to seek an end to the conflict.

The conflict in Yemen has opened opportunities for Iran, which continues to provide support to the Houthis with the aim of building a proxy to pressure the Saudi-led coalition and expand its sphere of influence. This support enabled the Houthis to launch missiles at Saudi Arabian and Emirati cities and target ships in the Bab al Mandab and Red Sea on multiple occasions in the last year, threatening Americans and our partners and raising the risk of broader regional conflict.

Countering Iranian Expansionism. Countering the Iranian regime’s malign influence in the region is a key component of our efforts to defend allies from military aggression, bolster our partners against coercion, and share responsibilities for the common defense. Our relationships with the GCC countries play a key role in this effort.

Iran is generating instability across the region, and the Iranian Threat Network (ITN) continues to increase in strength, enhancing its capacity to threaten U.S. and partner nation interests. Concurrently, the Iranian regime continues to maintain longstanding criticisms that the United States is a source of instability in the Middle East and cannot be trusted. While the International Atomic Energy Agency reports that it continues to monitor and verify Tehran’s implementation of its JCPOA nuclear-related commitments, Iran continues to express frustration with the degree and pace of sanctions relief under the JCPOA and has publicly criticized U.S. statements regarding continued participation in the JCPOA. Iran seeks expanded economic, and in some cases diplomatic, engagement with the International Community to achieve what it views as the full benefits of sanctions relief afforded under the deal. The United States is upholding its JPCOA commitments 27 and has made clear that Iran’s economic troubles stem not from issues related to JCPOA implementation, but from internal economic mismanagement, a weak banking sector, and widespread corruption, among other factors.

Over the past year, Iran has focused its regional efforts primarily on operations in Syria and Iraq to expand its influence in the region and secure supply routes to Hizballah to threaten Israel. Iran has provided increasingly sophisticated maritime and missile attack capabilities to the Houthis in Yemen. Additionally, Iran continues smaller-scale support to other groups such as Bahraini Shia militants, Gaza militants, and the Afghan Taliban. It remains wary of U.S. and coalition intentions throughout the region, and continues to engage Western nations in the “grey zone,” rather than through direct conflict.

Iran will continue to pursue policies that threaten U.S. strategic interests and goals throughout the Middle East while seeking to expand diplomatic and economic relations with a wide range of nations. Leaders in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps–Quds Force (IRGC-QF) have taken advantage of surrogates, businesses, and logistics entities to execute direct action, intelligence, influence building, terrorism, and cyber operations against the U.S. and our partner nations. By supporting proxies in the fight against ISIS in Iraq and Syria and against the Saudi coalition in Yemen, Tehran seeks to gain lasting influence and indebted allies in each country. The conflict in Syria has also proven the ITN’s expeditionary capacity; fighters from Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Lebanon wage war there solely at Iran’s behest. After the current conflicts abate, the ITN will undoubtedly turn its attention to other adversaries; future flashpoints could occur wherever there is a U.S. or allied presence.

Iran continues to acquire and develop increasingly lethal weapons to raise the cost of direct military conflict. The expansion of Iran’s military capabilities over the last decade enables Tehran to threaten international trade and regional stability throughout the Gulf and beyond. Production of advanced military equipment and threats to the free flow of commerce through the Strait of Hormuz are intended 28 to challenge the U.S. enduring presence in the region. Iran’s military is composed of approximately 700,000 personnel divided into two separate militaries: the Islamic Republic of Iran Armed Forces (Artesh) and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), which both continue to improve. Iran’s ground forces are improving their ability to quickly mobilize and deploy in response to internal and external threats. Iran has also advertised the development of quick reaction forces, consisting of armor, artillery, and heliborne assets that can deploy within four hours.

Iran postures its forces and supports proxies to threaten – or be able to threaten - strategic locations like the Bab al Mandeb, Strait of Hormuz, and oil platforms. With little warning, Iran could quickly close the Strait of Hormuz using stockpiles of naval mines and disrupt key maritime chokepoints throughout the region. Iranian surface to air missiles (SAMs) along its littoral pose a significant threat to U.S. Intelligence, Surveillance, Reconnaissance (ISR) assets operating in international airspace. During 2017, Iran’s capabilities improved with the deployment of advanced S-300 long-range SAM systems provided by Russia.

Additionally, Tehran continues to increase its strategic power projection capability with its expanding ballistic missile force. Iran has the largest missile force in the Middle East, which can range 1,200 miles and reach key targets in the region. Iran is continuing to increase the range, precision, and lethality of these missile systems. Tehran relies on these systems to deter adversaries and provide a reliable retaliatory capability against neighbors and U.S. forces.

Iran intends to expand its regional influence, counter Saudi Arabia, threaten Israel, and maintain a capability to threaten strategically important maritime transit routes in the Bab al Mandeb, Strait of Hormuz, and the Gulf. On a positive note, over the past year, we have seen an overall reduction in unprofessional Iranian actions toward U.S. and coalition vessels; such interactions decreased by 36% from 2016 to 2017.

To counter Iranian expansionism and destabilizing activities, CENTCOM will deter conventional Iranian aggression, bolster our network of allies and partners, and compete for influence throughout the region. Our forces maintain a high level of readiness at bases across the region and consistently patrol the waterways – this persistent presence deters Iranian conventional military attacks against our allies and protects international sea lanes. By improving our Arab partners’ capacity to defend themselves and encouraging them to work together as a coalition, we also create a bulwark against Iranian aggression and proxy warfare.

Our efforts to compete to be the partner of choice for our Gulf and Levant partners further weakens Iranian threat networks and limits Tehran’s malign political, economic, and military influence. This is especially crucial in Iraq, where Baghdad must work with Iran as a neighboring state, but limit Tehran’s manipulation and infiltration of political parties and government institutions. We must continue to be a reliable partner to the ISF to build their capacity to provide internal security and protect their borders. Ongoing stabilization efforts that strengthen Iraqi social and economic institutions will also impede Iran’s ability to negatively influence our Iraqi partner.

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