Iran wary of disrupting nuclear talks despite regional strikes, says US general

US Gen Kenneth McKenzie believes Tehran is conducting missile attacks at a 'low enough level' to avoid hindering negotiations

US Central Command chief Gen Kenneth McKenzie giving evidence to the Senate Armed Services hearing in Capitol Hill. AFP
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The general overseeing US forces in the Middle East said on Tuesday that Iran is calibrating its strikes and proxy attacks throughout the region “at a low enough level” to avoid disrupting the continuing nuclear negotiations.

“They’re actively fomenting malign activities across the region,” Gen Kenneth McKenzie, who heads the US military's Central Command, said before the Senate.

“Their intent is to do it at a low-enough level that it will not, in their view at least, disrupt the negotiating process. In my judgment, that’s a dangerous position for them to have.”

Gen McKenzie made the remarks in giving evidence to the US Senate two days after Iran launched a missile attack aimed at Erbil, Iraq.

US officials, including the four-star general, said the attack did not target US forces stationed in Erbil.

“They were not targeting us,” Gen McKenzie said. “I am sure of that.”

He said Iran’s use of proxies to target US forces “has been relatively constrained” in recent months, and that Tehran “only loosely controls” the militias in Iraq and Syria that conduct the attacks.

“The primary share of the task is to deter Iran from large-scale attacks, and we’ve had some success doing that,” he said. “Our success has not been perfect. But Iran has largely been deterred from launching direct attacks on us over the past couple of years.”

He attributed this to establishing “a very clear set of red lines with Iran”.

“As a result of that, over the last several months their attacks have tapered off, particularly in Iraq,” said Gen McKenzie.

“At the same time, they’re finding it increasingly difficult to gain any kind of political traction with the government of Iraq. I think for a long time, Iran frankly tried to pursue a political solution in Iraq. That is not open to them any more.”

Gen McKenzie acknowledged the possibility that sanctions relief as a result of a revived nuclear deal could provide Iran with more money to fund its proxies throughout the region.

“There is a risk that they could use that money in ways that we would not want them to use that money,” he said. “But I think that we would have to balance that if we got a good agreement that prevented them from finding a nuclear weapon.”

He characterised the US bid to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon “as the primary objective of our policy in the region”.

“The best and most effective way to get to that position is doing a negotiated agreement, which I fully support,” said Gen McKenzie.

“That’s probably the best way to actually get to that and then be able to talk about other Iranian activities in the region that are equally threatening to states that are non-nuclear in character.”

Updated: March 15, 2022, 5:43 PM