Centcom's Gen McKenzie warns against helping Iran protests, fearing backlash

Western support could help Tehran mobilise people to quash nationwide demonstrations

A police motorcycle burns during a protest in Tehran, Iran, over the death of Mahsa Amini, a woman who died in police custody. Reuters
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Former Centcom commander Gen Kenneth McKenzie has said that outright western efforts to support protesters in Iran could have the adverse effect of mobilising enough support for Tehran to allow a brutal crackdown to prevail.

The US commander, who oversaw regional forces until April this year, told a panel at London's Policy Exchange on Thursday that there should be no naivety about the lengths the Iranian leadership would go to protect its grip on power.

“The great act of giving succour to those people in Iran will tend to mobilise elements of the Iranian population against us and will give leverage to the Iranian regime to mobilise against the outside enemy, which has always been a very important part of Iranian politics,” he said.

“I think we need to be very open-eyed and very realistic about what the Iranian regime will do, because their number one priority will be regime self-protection.”

Nazanin Boniadi, and Iranian-born activist now living in the US, had early pleaded for support, saying the current wave of demonstrations was greater in scale than previous movements, including the 2009 protests.

“What the Iranian people want from us [is] global solidarity and to stop turning a blind eye to their suffering in order to fulfil our own political objectives,” she said.

“For 43 years, we've only responded to the symptoms of the Islamic Republic's malign activities with a focus on countering Iran's nuclear ambition.

Liam Fox, the former UK defence secretary, described the failure to come out in support of protests against the rigged Iranian election in 2009 — a moment that proved to be a turning point in the country's history — “as the lowest moral point in recent western politics”.

Mr Fox called on the UK to proscribe the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terrorist group for its regional attacks and to the export of Iranian-made drones by air to the battlefields of Ukraine. In light of this, he questioned the continuance of daily flights to London from Tehran.

“Why are we allowing Iranair to fly into Heathrow every day of the week?” he asked.

“It's time we started to take real measures and I would ban Iran air from coming and using civil aviation space in the United Kingdom.

“We need to take three measures, not signing up to the [Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action nuclear deal] until it gets tougher, proscribing the IRGC and banning Iran.”

French diplomat Jacques Audibert, a former foreign policy adviser to Francois Hollande and lead negotiator on the JCPOA deal, said the overall deterioration in relations with Iran means he does not expect a new agreement on the nuclear programme any time soon.

The deal was effectively derailed in 2018 when Donald Trump withdrew the US from the agreement, something current President Joe Biden has sought to reverse.

“Today's situation is much more dangerous than four years ago when it has been decided to get out of the certainly not perfect agreement,” he told The National.

Recommending something of a fresh start in talks, he suggested a new name for the accord and bringing back the original objectives.

“Maybe you remember that it was first considered as a first step towards more and more global agreement, including ballistic missiles and including the role of Iran in destabilising the region,” he said.

Gen McKenzie said his Centcom days informed his view of the conventional threat posed by Iran.

“These are genuine real capabilities” he said. “I would argue that, day to day, the possession of those capabilities is perhaps more important to the Iranians than the nuclear file.

“I think the nuclear programmes is something they like the idea of being able to have a nuclear weapon, they like the effect it has on the West when they talk about nuclear weapons.

“A war in the Centcom region would be a fire war, it would not be a war of manoeuvre, would not involve tanks, it would not involve ships to large degree, it would not involve manned aeroplanes — at least on the Iranian side — what it would involve would be missiles, rockets and unmanned aerial systems.”

Gen Mark Carleton-Smyth, chief of the UK General Staff until earlier this year, said Iran was breaking out of conventional deterrence, something with ominous implications for the region.

“Iran today seems less deterred by American conventional capabilities than it once did,” he said.

“It's hard to find amongst the spawning range of crises across the broader Middle East one that doesn't have Iranian fingerprints on it.

“Iran today is clearly not a status quo power. It's embarked on a systematic campaign of exploitation, to fill the vacuums associated with the changing political geometry of the region, some of which is, unfortunately, the existential legacy of our own interventions.”

Updated: October 06, 2022, 6:07 PM