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US general: Iran too scared of America to pursue further attacks

General McKenzie issued a stark warning about remaining Iranian aggression in the Gulf [Getty]

Date of publication: 7 June, 2019

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But the US general says he is still concerned by Iran's potential to attack after receiving 'advanced, imminent and very specific' threats in May.

Iran has chosen to "step back and recalculate" after making preparations for an apparent attack against US forces in the Arabian Gulf region because the US is showing enough force to "establish deterrence", the top commander of American forces in the Middle East said on Thursday.

But in an interview with reporters accompanying him to the Gulf, Gen. Frank McKenzie said he is still concerned by Iran's potential for aggression and he would not rule out requesting additional US forces to bolster defenses against Iranian missiles or other weapons.

The general claimed the US is showing enough force to "establish deterrence" without "needlessly" provoking its longtime adversary. He said he is confident in the moves he has made.

"I don't actually believe the threat has diminished," McKenzie said Thursday. "I believe the threat is very real."

It was not clear if the general was posturing after the US came very close to a full-blown confrontation with Iran in the Gulf last month.

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McKenzie, the head of US Central Command, and other military officials are trying to strike a balance between persuading Iran that the US is prepared to retaliate for an Iranian attack on Americans, in order to deter any conflict, meanwhile building up so much military muscle in the Gulf that Iran thinks the US plans an attack, in which case it might feel compelled to strike preemptively and thus spark war.

Tensions between the US and Iran have shot up since President Donald Trump withdrew from a 2015 nuclear agreement between Iran and major world powers and reinstated sanctions on Tehran. Last month, in response to what American officials deemed an imminent threat, the US announced it would deploy an aircraft carrier and other assets to the region immediately.

The US also blamed Iran for last month's attacks on oil tankers in the Emirati port of Fujairah.

On Thursday, United Nations ambassadors from the Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Norway told UN Security Council members that investigators believe those attacks were led by a foreign state using divers on speed boats who planted mines on the vessels. Despite not pinpointing Iran as the suspected culprit, earlier the Saudi ambassador to the UN, Abdallah Al-Mouallimi, said the Islamic Republic was to blame for the sabotage.

Iran has consistently dismissed allegations that it was involved in the recent attacks on the oil tankers or was preparing to attack American troops in the region.

In Baghdad, McKenzie told reporters that US redeployments to the Gulf have "caused the Iranians to back up a little bit, but I'm not sure they are strategically backing down."

The general said the US is showing enough force to "establish deterrence" without "needlessly" provoking its longtime adversary. He said he is confident in the moves he has made.

"We've taken steps to show the Iranians that we mean business in our ability to defend ourselves," he said, referring to the accelerated deployment to the Gulf area of the USS Abraham Lincoln carrier strike group, four Air Force B-52 bombers and additional batteries of Army Patriot air-defense systems.

Trump, speaking beside French President Emmanuel Macron in Caen, France, said US sanctions are crippling Iran's economy, possibly yielding a diplomatic opening.

"And if they want to talk, that's fine," Trump said. "We'll talk. But the one thing that they can't have is they can't have nuclear weapons."

Read more: Proxies as pretext for war with Iran

Speaking at the Baghdad headquarters of the US-led coalition fighting the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria, McKenzie said he also has repositioned surveillance aircraft to more closely monitor the situation in the Gulf and in Iraq, where the US has 5,200 troops on the ground, and has given Iran a "new look" by introducing more aerial patrols by land- and carrier-based fighters.

"Cumulatively, all of these have caused them to sort of step back and recalculate the course that they apparently were on," he said.

Although McKenzie made no mention of it, other officials have said that in early May Iran had cruise and perhaps short-range ballistic missiles configured for potential use aboard a small number of dhows - small traditional sailing boats - off its coast. More recently, those missiles, which were deemed a potential threat, were offloaded, officials have said.

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The general said he, not the White House, initiated the May 5 moves to accelerate the deployment of the Abraham Lincoln carrier group and to dispatch B-52 bombers.

He said the intelligence on Iranian threats in the first days of May was "compelling" and that the threats were "advanced, imminent and very specific."

Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the US sent a message to Iranian officials on May 3 "just to make it clear they understood that we would hold them accountable should something take place in the region."

Two days later, the carrier was deployed which McKenzie insists he was under no political pressure to do so.

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