Gen. Frank McKenzie, the commander of US Central Command (CENTCOM), delivered a speech on Thursday where he railed against Iran’s activities in the Middle East and warned the country against entering an “escalatory spiral” with the US. The CENTCOM chief’s comments come at a time of heightened tensions between the US and Iran. The New York Times published a story on Monday that said President Trump reviewed options to strike Iranian nuclear sites during an Oval Office meeting last week.
The consensus from the meeting was that a military strike was off the table. But a source told The Washington Post that President Trump would be ready to respond against Iran if any American killing in the region can be “tied back to instructions from Iran.” One country where the US will blame any American casualty on Iran is Iraq, where rockets were recently fired towards the US embassy in Baghdad. McKenzie discussed attacks on US forces in Iraq during his remarks, given during a virtual conference hosted by the National Council on US-Arab Relations.
“Shortly after I spoke with this group last November, Iran launched a ballistic missile attack against coalition bases in Erbil and al-Assad, Iraq,” McKenzie said. The CENTCOM chief was referring to when Iran launched missiles at bases housing US troops in Iraq on January 8th. But the commander left out crucial context.
The Iranian missile attack was carried out in retaliation for the US assassination of Gen. Qasem Soleimani, which took place on January 3rd. Along with Soleimani, the drone strike killed Abu Mahdi al-Mohandes, who led the Popular Mobilization Force (PMF), a group of Iraqi-state-sponsored militias formed in 2014 to fight ISIS. The killings enraged many forces inside Iraq, not just Shia militias, but Iraq’s parliament, who voted unanimously to expel US forces from their country after the strike.
“Over the past year, Iranian-aligned proxies in Iraq have conducted more than 50 rocket attacks on coalition bases as well as our embassy in Baghdad and more than 90 attacks on coalition logistic convoys,” McKenzie said. While there was an uptick in rocket attacks on bases housing both US and Iraqi government forces at the end of 2019, most attacks came after the US killed Soleimani and the PMF leader.
The incident that set off the series of events that led to the killing of Soleimani was a rocket attack on a base in Kirkuk, Iraq that killed a US contractor. The US blamed the Shia militia Kataib Hezbollah and bombed the group, killing 25 of its fighters. The attack on Kataib Hezbollah enraged many Iraqis, and protesters swarmed the US embassy in Baghdad. Then, the US killed Soleimani and al-Mohandes.
The US never presented evidence to show Kataib Hezbollah carried out the Kirkuk attack or shared intelligence with Iraq’s military. In February, Iraqi intelligence officials told The New York Times that it was more likely that ISIS carried out the Kirkuk attack, based on circumstantial evidence.
Abu Ali al-Basri, Iraq’s head of intelligence and counterterrorism, told The Times that the US did not share any information about the Kirkuk attack. “They did not ask for my analysis of what happened in Kirkuk and neither did they share any of their information,” he said. “Usually, they would do both.”
The latest rocket attack aimed at the US embassy in Baghdad took place on Tuesday, shortly after the US announced a partial withdrawal of Iraq. In October, Iraqi militias vowed not to attack US targets, a ceasefire that hinges on a full US withdrawal from the country. In his speech, McKenzie said Iran’s “ultimate objective” is to “eject” the US from Iraq and the broader Middle East. The commander’s framing allows any resistance to the US presence in Iraq to be blamed on Iran.
After railing against more of Iran’s activity in the region, McKenzie went on to say there is no “military component” to the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran. “It is strictly a diplomatic and an economic approach,” he said. The commander also said Iran has been deterred due to the capabilities of the US.
“Today I believe Iran has been largely deterred because the regime now understands we possess both the capability and the will to respond,” McKenzie said. “I believe the Iranian regime recognizes if they get into an escalatory spiral with the United States, it will not end well for them.”
The Trump administration is ramping up its “maximum pressure” campaign and is planning to sanction Iran as much as possible in the coming weeks to make it difficult for the incoming Biden administration to rejoin the 2015 nuclear deal. Recent reports that Trump was considering a military strike have some concerned that countries like Israel or Saudi Arabia could see the final days of this administration as their last chance for a war with Iran.