iran insight

Iranian protests have ‘not put the regime at risk,’ CENTCOM commander says

‘What we see is that the regime can deal with the domestic situation, but also do their malign behavior externally,’ Gen. Michael Kurilla told lawmakers yesterday

Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Lt. Gen. Michael Kurilla, nominee to be commander, United States Central Command, testifies during a Senate Armed Services Committee confirmation hearing on Capitol Hill on Tuesday, Feb. 08, 2022, in Washington, D.C.

Gen. Michael Kurilla, the commander of U.S Central Command, told lawmakers yesterday that the ongoing domestic protests inside Iran have not significantly destabilized or incapacitated the Iranian regime, despite hopes from some in the international community that the demonstrations could lead to the end of the Islamic republic.

“What we see is that the regime can deal with the domestic situation, but also do their malign behavior externally,” Kurilla told the House Armed Services Committee yesterday. “It is my assessment right now that even though the protests have put stress on the regime, it has not put the regime at risk.”

Testifying separately to the House Appropriations Committee, Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told House Appropriations Committee lawmakers on Thursday that Iran could have a nuclear weapon in a matter of months. Milley’s comments expand on recent warnings from Defense officials that Iran, which was recently found to have enriched uranium up to 84% — the closest it has come to the 90% threshold considered “weapons grade” — could have enough fissile material for a weapon in less than two weeks. 

“From the time of an Iranian decision… Iran could produce fissile material for a nuclear weapon in less than two weeks. It would only take several more months to produce an actual nuclear weapon,” Milley said. 

Milley emphasized that the United States “remains committed as a matter of policy that Iran will not have a fielded nuclear weapon,” and said the military has developed “multiple options” for a response if Iran develops a weapon — a message echoed by Kurilla and Celeste Wallander, assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs, with whom Kurilla testified.

Kurilla also said that Iran poses the greatest threat of a “black swan event” — a serious unexpected incident requiring a significant U.S. response such as a major terror attack — and said that “that is why it is our number one priority to deter them.”

Kurilla and Wallander said that the U.S.’s key goal in efforts to counter Iran in the region, particularly Tehran’s proliferation of drones and missiles, remains to build regional defensive partnerships, a project that has been closely linked to the Abraham Accords.

The recent Saudi-Iranian normalization pact has not relieved any of the regional pressure against Iran’s nuclear weapons program, Wallender added. “We do not see any signs that any of the countries in the region, our partners in the region, are complacent about the dangers that Iranian nuclear weapons capability would pose to their very direct security.”

Addressing China’s role in brokering the pact, Wallender told the committee that “we are concerned about China’s increased activity in the diplomatic front to present itself as a problem solver.” 

She said that the U.S. plans to emphasize to Saudi Arabia, “with which we have broad, deep, long-standing security, economic and political ties, that we are a strategic partner of choice. And just because China came in at the end here, and maybe helped to seal the deal does not mean that the reliability and the long-standing partnership between the United States and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is something to discount.”

“We need to be forward-leaning… and working with our partners in the region so that they know the United States have their best interests at heart and they can count on us,” Wallander added.

That approach seems to largely align with the preferences of supporters of the U.S.-Saudi relationship who have urged prompt and strong engagement with Saudi Arabia following the announcement of the pact. It’s likely to disappoint critics of the relationship, some of whom have said Riyadh’s deepening ties with China have only exacerbated their concerns about the kingdom.

Both Armed Services Chairman Mike Rogers (R-AL) and Ranking Member Adam Smith (D-WA) expressed concerns in their opening statements at the hearing about China’s activity in the region.

“What worries me most is [Chinese President Xi Jinping’s] growing friendship with the Ayatollah,” Rogers said. “These actions provide a lifeline to Iran at a very dangerous time.”

Smith said that the U.S. needs to better understand why its partners throughout the region are turning toward China, as well as Russia.

“It’s not enough for the U.S. to show up and say ‘We’re better than them. You have to be with us,’” he said. “What is being offered by China and Russia that we aren’t offering? How can we effectively counter that?… That’s the number one biggest challenge.”

As the Senate continues to debate a measure to repeal the 2002 Authorization for Use of Military Force in Iraq, Kurilla told the committee that repealing that authority would not impact CENTCOM operations. CENTCOM forces, he explained, do not use the 2002 authority for any current activities, and U.S. forces can counter Iran-backed forces under separate presidential constitutional authorities.

Regarding the tenuous situation in the West Bank, Kurilla reiterated recent comments that the area is poised for a “flashpoint — and it can take just one incident that can cause that fire to start inside the West Bank, and I think it would be bad for the entire region.”

Kurilla also said that the Russian invasion of Ukraine has not prompted a significant drawdown of Russian forces in Syria.

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