clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

A top US general explains why Iran hasn’t attacked Americans in the Middle East — yet

Marine Gen. Kenneth “Frank” McKenzie says Iran recently took a “step back” from supposed plans to kill US troops, diplomats, and citizens.

Marine Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie during a news briefing at the Pentagon April 14, 2018 in Arlington, Virginia. He was a three-star then.
Marine Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie during a news briefing at the Pentagon on April 14, 2018, in Arlington, Virginia. He was a three-star then.
Alex Wong/Getty Images

A top US military official just said the Iranian threat against Americans in the Middle East remains “imminent,” but no major attacks have occurred mainly because of swift US action over the past month.

In early May, National Security Adviser John Bolton announced the US was deploying an aircraft carrier, bomber planes, and anti-missile batteries to the Persian Gulf in response to “a number of troubling and escalatory indications and warnings” of threats from Iran.

The move, Bolton said, was meant “to send a clear and unmistakable message to the Iranian regime that any attack on United States interests or on those of our allies will be met with unrelenting force.”

Iran apparently intended to target US troops in Iraq and Syria, or even use drones against Americans in a key waterway near Yemen. There was also information that Iran put cruise missiles on ships, heightening fears that it might attack US Navy vessels with them.

But Marine Gen. Kenneth “Frank” McKenzie, who leads American forces in the Middle East, told multiple reporters in Baghdad on Thursday that the situation is somewhat on pause thanks to the US.

The initial deployment of ships and planes, along with the introduction of surveillance aircraft, has made Iran “sort of step back and recalculate the course that they apparently were on,” McKenzie said. He added, however, “I think the threat is imminent ... I don’t actually believe the threat has diminished.”

In other words, the quick US military response to the intelligence seems to have stopped Iran from planning to target America in the Middle East — at least for now. And while that possibility persists, Tehran also may have been deterred from launching strikes in the near future.

That doesn’t mean Iran will stand down forever, though.

“They probe for weakness all the time,” McKenzie told NBC News. “I would say the threat has probably evolved in certain ways even as our defensive posture has changed and become more aggressive.”

Iran is still causing Middle East mischief

If what McKenzie says is true, then it’s a big win for the Trump administration. A major Iranian attack on Americans would not only be a tragedy on its own but would also greatly increase the chance of a US-Iran war. After all, Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo — both noted anti-Iran hardliners — have long pushed for a broader fight.

It’s therefore vitally important that America continue to track any potential threats against the US in order to stop them from happening. According to NBC News on Thursday, some of those threats currently include missile attacks from small Iranian ships in the region or assaults by Iranian proxies or militias on US targets.

But it’s possible — and indeed likely — that Iran has already caused immense harm in recent weeks.

Four oil tankers were damaged in May near the Strait of Hormuz, a vital waterway aggressively patrolled by Iran through which a third of the world’s liquefied natural gas and almost 20 percent of the world’s oil production flows.

Two of the oil tankers belonged to Saudi Arabia and one belonged to the United Arab Emirates, both staunch enemies of Iran and friends to the US. (The fourth was owned by a Norwegian company.)

On Thursday, United Nations ambassadors from the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and Norway said the damages came after a country used divers to place mines on the large ships — though the diplomats didn’t specifically name Iran as the culprit. The US, however, has openly blamed Tehran for the sabotage, a charge Iran denies.

But that’s not all: Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen launched an attack on a Saudi oil pipeline a few days after the oil tanker incidents. And one of Iran’s top military leaders reportedly told militias in Iraq to prepare for a war. That may be why the US chose to remove some staff from the embassy in Baghdad and its consulate in Erbil.

There’s no question that Iran continues to act aggressively in the Middle East, putting US officials and America’s regional allies like Saudi Arabia on high alert. With all that extra attention, it’s unclear if Iran will feel emboldened enough in the coming weeks to attack Americans — escalating a situation that could easily and quickly get out of hand.