Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 29 September 2020

Centcom chief Kenneth McKenzie says Iran in ‘disarray’ after Qassem Suleimani's death

But head of US forces in the Middle East believes the relative lull in Iranian activity is unlikely to last

Centcom chief General Kenneth McKenzie meets President Michel Aoun in Beirut on July 8, 2020 during a visit to Lebanon, where the Iran-backed Hizbollah group holds considerable sway. Dalati and Nohra / AFP
Centcom chief General Kenneth McKenzie meets President Michel Aoun in Beirut on July 8, 2020 during a visit to Lebanon, where the Iran-backed Hizbollah group holds considerable sway. Dalati and Nohra / AFP

The top American military commander in the Middle East says he sees Iran’s decision-making abilities in “disarray” after a US drone strike killed a senior Iranian general Qassem Suleimani in January, but he does not expect the lull to last.

After a surge in tensions earlier this year following the killing of Suleimani in Baghdad, and additional damage done to the Islamic Republic from the Covid-19 pandemic, Marine General Kenneth McKenzie said he expects the Iran's military to regroup and focus on trying to get US troops out of the Middle East – just not yet.

“Iran recognises that we have the capability in the theatre to make it very painful for them to launch a direct or indirect attack against either us or one of our partners or allies,” Gen McKenzie, who heads US Central Command, said in a telephone interview on 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.”

Gen McKenzie oversees American forces in a region President Donald Trump has long said he wants to the US to exit. But Mr Trump has also bolstered the American presence there at times to help defend Saudi Arabia, a key ally, and heighten pressure on Iran after quitting the 2015 nuclear accord with the country.

Among the forces under Gen McKenzie’s command are roughly 6,500 US 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 in early June for a third stint in the region.

Gen McKenzie said Iran felt like it had momentum in its efforts to bolster influence over neighbouring Iraq at America’s expense, until the unexpected US attack on Suleimani – who was accused of being behind conflicts from Lebanon to Yemen – disrupted their efforts.

Yet short-term setbacks will not distract the Iranian regime from its ultimate goal of ejecting the US 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,” Gen McKenzie said, referring to the mid-September drone and cruise missile attack on Saudi oil facilities that the US says was directed by Tehran.

Iran’s government rejects that charge, while the United Nations says 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,” he 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."

Updated: July 10, 2020 06:46 PM

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