Recent Threats from Iran Different Than Past, Chairman Says (Excerpts)

May 29, 2019

The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff discussed the threat streams from Iran that provoked a response from the United States and also discussed the problem of deterring Russia, during a talk at the Brookings Institution in Washington.

Marine Corps Gen. Joe Dunford told Brookings interlocutor Michael O'Hanlon that the threats emanating from Iran and its proxies were different than in the past.  

"In the last week of April, I began to see more clearly things that I had been picking up on over a period of months," the general said. "What was qualitatively different to me was the intelligence. We were seeing … multiple threat streams, all perhaps coming together in time."

Given the nature of the Iranian regime, he said, there are always threats to America, its allies and American interests. But, Dunford explained, these threat streams were different, emanating from Yemen, the Persian Gulf and inside Iranian-backed groups in Iraq and Syria.

Campaign-Like Activities

"We saw something that looked more like a campaign, than individual threats," Dunford said. "The geographic span and the possibility these activities would be synchronized caused us to look at that threat differently than 40 years … of malign activity by the Iranians."

The chairman said he watched the situation carefully and the U.S. government sent a message to Iran to ensure Iranian leaders understood that the United States would hold them accountable should something take place in the region. "There was not an opportunity for them to do things and then claim it was not attributable to Iran," he said. "We wanted to mitigate the risk of miscalculation."

The chairman said Defense Department officials also saw in the intelligence that Iran's leaders had a misperception about the will and capability of the United States to respond to these threat streams.

Dunford said he consulted with Marine Corps Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr., the commander of U.S. Central Command, and they recommended to the president and acting defense secretary that the Abraham Lincoln Carrier Strike Group immediately move into the Centcom area from the Mediterranean Sea. They also deployed bombers and Patriot batteries into the area, he said.

Sending a Message

Last week, DOD announced it would send 1,500 more service members to the region to ensure there was the proper level of force protection for American troops in the region. The troops going to the region are accompanied by a message, Dunford said, "This is not intended to be a provocation, this is not intended to reinforce our offensive capability in the region, this is designed to protect our people much like the previous force elements were sent in to enhance our deterrence."

All of these moves were designed to correct any possible Iranian misperception, he said. The United States wanted Iran's leaders to know that they would be held responsible for any attack, that the United States had capabilities in theater to respond and that the United States had the will to use those capabilities if deterrence failed.