US CENTCOM head concerned over Iran-Israel tensions, praises Abraham Accords

Commander Gen. Frank McKenzie held a press briefing Friday, as he prepares to handover CENTCOM to general Erik Kurilla.

CENTCOM Gen. Kenneth McKenzie (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
CENTCOM Gen. Kenneth McKenzie
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

US Central Command head Gen. Frank McKenzie is concerned that Israel-Iran tensions could affect US forces in the region as he prepares to retire. “I do worry about these exchanges between Iran and Israel because many times our forces are at risk, whether we’re in Iraq or in Syria,” he said in a briefing on Friday, according to a transcript from the US Department of Defense.

McKenzie has been head of CENTCOM at a key time. His era has seen rising drone threats in the region, especially Iranian drones that have targeted US forces in Iraq and Syria and have also been used by the Houthis to target the United Arab Emirates and shipping in the Gulf of Oman.

The US has helped the UAE intercept attacks. That means Central Command is front and center in the new drone wars in the Middle East. He has also presided over a time of other rising Iran threats to US forces in Iraq and Syria. The US killed IRGC Quds Force head Qasem Soleimani in 2020. Iran has been attacking US forces in Iraq since 2019, using local militias.

While the US backs Israel’s attempts to reduce Iran’s entrenchment in Syria, it has also been concerned for years that there could be attacks on US forces by Iran as part of rising Israel-Iran tensions. The US reports to the Department of Defense have warned of this issue for several years. The CENTCOM head has articulated this now in the briefing. It comes after Iran used ballistic missiles to target an area near Erbil in the Kurdistan region of Iraq.

Iran has said it targeted an Israeli facility there. Reports in The New York Times hinted that this was a response to an attack on Iran drone facilities, but other reports said it was also a response to a March 7 airstrike in Syria that killed two IRGC officers.

The outgoing head of the US Central Command said Friday he was concerned about the increasing attacks between Israel and Iran “because many times our forces are at risk,” Al-Arabiya reported.

“I think it’s obvious that Israel is going to take steps to defend itself when it’s confronted with Iranian actions. And of course, Iran is dedicated to the destruction of Israel,” McKenzie said during a video call with reporters. The next head of CENTCOM is army general Erik Kurilla, who has been chief of staff at Central Command and has headed the 18th Airborne Corps.

Smoke rises from a fire in a container storage area, after Syrian state media reported an Israeli air strike on the port of Latakia on December 7. (credit: SANA/REUTERS)Smoke rises from a fire in a container storage area, after Syrian state media reported an Israeli air strike on the port of Latakia on December 7. (credit: SANA/REUTERS)

Israel was incorporated into CENTCOM when McKenzie was in charge. He praised this new format. “CENTCOM is focused on operationalizing the Abraham Accords, as we brought Israel into our area of operations, and missile defense is one area of cooperation that all our partners understand. They all understand it’s particularly important when you consider the threat that Iranian missiles pose,” he said.

“While it continues to be nascent at this time, we have seen a willingness of traditional regional partners to work together in exercises with the Israeli Defense Force,” the general said. 

“Air defense is an excellent opportunity for cooperation because improving regional missile defense can begin with a sharing of information, which doesn’t require any nation to approve the stationing of foreign forces on their territory. My hope is that this cooperation will continue to advance in the years to come,” he added

The CENTCOM head was asked several key questions about Iran. When asked about an Iran nuclear agreement, he noted that “the number-one objective of the United States with regard to Iran is that Iran not possess a nuclear weapon. So I think any solution that closes that path to them contributes to regional security because we’d all like to work with an Iran that is not a nuclear-armed Iran.

“The best way to get there is probably through a negotiated agreement,” he said. “Now, that does not solve Iranian proxies. It doesn’t solve the compelling problem of Iranian ballistic missiles, land-attack cruise missiles and small unmanned aerial vehicles, and we need to recognize that. That’s a separate problem.”

He discussed Iraq’s attempt to defeat ISIS but noted Iran’s role in Iraq. “Despite the many roadblocks that are being thrown up by Iranian-based proxy groups, they’re proceeding... maybe not the way we would do it, maybe slower than the way we would do it, but nonetheless, they’re moving forward.”

On Syria, the general said the US would remain and back the Syrian Democratic Forces, the key partner that defeated ISIS in eastern Syria. Rooted in the Kurdish resistance to ISIS that developed in 2013 and 2014, the group includes many fighters from across eastern Syria.

“In Syria, again, our principal task is to complete the defeat of ISIS,” McKenzie said. “You know, we are in support of our SDF partners as they continue that operation and also as they sit on top of the many displaced persons camps and the prison camps that are there. So there’s still work to be done in Syria.

“I don’t know how long we’re going to remain in Syria. That’s just not known to me, ultimately, that’ll be a policy decision that’ll be made by the national leadership of the United States as we go forward, based on the situation on the ground,” McKenzie said. 

Discussing air defenses, he also delved into some issues the US is facing in the region. America now must contend with both missile and drone threats. Air defenses like Patriots can be used for these threats. The US also has C-RAM and has two batteries of the Iron Dome system; but the Iron Dome is deployed in Guam at the moment, reports say.

“I think the real story about air defenses in CENTCOM is not the US air defenses,” he said. It’s really the air defenses and particularly the Patriot systems and other high-end systems that our Gulf and other partners possess and how that is knitted together.... Saudi Arabia has a number of Patriot batteries, UAE has a number of Patriot batteries, as does Kuwait, as does Bahrain,” the general said. He talked about knitting the systems together in a “common operational picture so everybody sees the same thing, everybody gets an early warning, everybody can be prepared to react very quickly to a potential Iranian attack. That’s where the future in this theater is.”

McKenzie continued, “It’s principally because of the Iranians. They have invested enormous resources into improving the number and capabilities of their ballistic missiles. And, you know, as in the Al Asad attack in January of 2020, their missiles hit within tens of meters of the targets they were intended to hit. So you have to respect that capability, and believe me, our partners in the Gulf respect that capability.

“So nothing focuses the mind, you know, of a nation like an imminent threat just over the horizon with malign intent. It’s not only ballistic missiles, but it’s also land-attack cruise missiles and it’s also unmanned aerial systems. All of those things are now at a greater state of danger than we have ever seen in the Central Command AOR,” he noted.

“So now there’s pressure that really is immediate, and maybe hasn’t been there in the years prior for nations to come together and develop that defense architecture that will allow them to share information. And again, it’s a form of defense cooperation. It’s easier to get to than other forms of defense cooperation because as I noted, you’re really sharing information.”

McKenzie mentioned allied and partner nations. These include Israel, which is now in CENTCOM’s area of operations. “It is not the US systems,” he said. “It is actually our allied and partner nation systems, and they had a bunch more Patriot batteries than we do in the theater by a factor of three or four or five so there’s a lot of capability there.”

Iran’s threats are increasing as well. “The IRGC and the elite sub-element of the IRGC, the Quds Force, they’re the principal malign actor in the theater, so they’re very concerning to me,” he said.

“What might come next with Iran’s threats in the region? Iran wants sanctions,” the CENTCOM head said. “I believe they’re probably willing to talk about the nuclear issue in order to get the sanctions relief.”

The Iranians also want the US to leave the Middle East. They see Iraq as one place to pressure the US. “Over the past couple of years they have worked on political solutions to try to eject us that have not panned out for them, so they’ve turned to kinetic solutions, and the Iranians believed that they can undertake a certain level of kinetic action against us [i.e. actual attacks] and it won’t affect the larger negotiations, state-on-state,” he said.

“Over the last six months, as you know, we’ve been attacked a number of times in Syria and Iraq, and through very good action on the part of commanders on the ground, through good counter-UAS [counter-drone] action and a couple of other things, we’ve been able to avoid US casualties. Had US casualties occurred, I think we might be in a very different place right now, but we’ve been able to avoid that, and we’ll continue to use those best practices as we go ahead.”

McKenzie went further, noting that Iran wants a nuclear deal and the next months are crucial for that issue. “I think we don’t want Iran to have a nuclear weapon,” he said, “and the best way to get to that is probably through a negotiated solution. That will not solve the other problems of Iranian behavior in the theater, and I don’t think anybody in the United States government is blind to that fact.”

CENTCOM attempts to provide deterrence for Iran’s attacks, McKenzie said. “We work at that with force posture. We work at that through other activities that we carry out across the region, and we have had some success in doing that – not perfect success," the general said. 

"The phrase I use is ‘contested deterrence’ when we talk about the state of affairs that exist between us and Iran in the theater.”