Iran is a major threat to U.S. interests and the long-term stability of the Mideast, the head of U.S. military’s Central Command warned U.S lawmakers Tuesday, Voice of America reports.
“Iran is generating instability across the region, and the Iranian Threat Network continues to increase in strength, enhancing its capacity to threaten U.S. and partner nation interests,” General Joe Votel said in a 45-page set of prepared remarks he presented to the House Armed Services Committee during a hearing on terrorism.
Votel said the U.S.-led coalition fighting Islamic State has made significant gains over the last three years, and the terror group has lost control of more than 98 percent of territory it once controlled in Iraq and Syria. With these gains, the U.S. military’s focus will be to “neutralize, counterbalance and shape the destabilizing impact that Iran has across the region”; complete the campaign to defeat IS in Iraq and Syria; and enforce the implementation of the South Asia strategy in Afghanistan to help the Afghan government consolidate its control.
Iran over the years has attempted to use instability in the Middle East as a springboard to gain power beyond its border. The events subsequent to the Arab Spring in 2011 and the emergence of IS have helped Tehran establish a foothold in several neighboring countries, including Iraq, Syria and Yemen.
An assessment by the U.S. intelligence community this month asserted that Iran remained the most prominent state sponsor of terrorism and was trying to expand its influence in those three countries. The report said Iran could attempt to exploit the fight against IS to translate its battlefield gains into political, security and economic agreements with other actors in the region. It said Tehran was seeking to establish a corridor, or “Shiite Crescent,” across the Middle East.
U.S. officials have said they intend to keep troops in Iraq and Syria even after IS is completely defeated, not only to prevent the re-emergence of the militant group but also to disrupt an Iranian dominance and threat to the U.S. allies in the region. Israel and Iran are already in a standoff over Tehran’s presence in Syria and Lebanon.
The head of U.S. Central Command told Congress Tuesday that American troops are in Syria solely for the purposed of defeating the Islamic State, and not to counter the influence of Iran.
“Countering Iran is not one of the coalition missions in Syria,” Gen. Joseph Votel said in testimony before the House Armed Services Committee.
Yet he suggested U.S. troops could have an indirect impact in thwarting Iran. Votel drew a distinction between his narrow military mission and the broader U.S. diplomatic goal.
“As the secretary of state laid this out, he made it out not as a U.S. military objective, but he laid it out as a U.S. objective. So there are certainly other ways that we can address Iran’s destabilizing activities,” Votel said.
Votel said the U.S. is not seeking a military confrontation with Iran, but said by sticking with the forces that the U.S. backed in the fight against ISIS, it can block Iran indirectly in Syria and Iraq.
“That said, I think one of the most effective things that we can do in this particular area is build strong relationships. Our strong relationship with the Syrian Democratic Forces in the east and in the northern part of the country put us in a position where we can impede Iran’s objectives,” Votel said.
Votel added that Russia and Iran were trying to undermine the strategic partnership between the U.S. and Turkey, Anadolu Agency reported.
“Russia and Iran are both trying to bolster a brutal regime in Syria, limit U.S. military influence in Iraq and Afghanistan and fracture the longstanding strategic partnership between the U.S. and Turkey,” Gen. Joseph Votel said in a written statement submitted to the House Armed Services Committee before attending its hearing on Terrorism and Iran in Congress.
In his testimony during the hearing, Votel said Moscow plays the role of both “arsonist and firefighter,” fueling tensions among all parties in Syria by supporting the Bashar al-Assad regime and adding complexity to the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL).
However, Votel in his statement to the committee said the tension between the U.S. and Turkey is a result of Ankara’s view of recognizing the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) as a terrorist group. The different outlooks and an open U.S. support to the YPG under the name of Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) has caused for the bilateral relations between the NATO allies to deteriorate, with U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson visiting Turkey in a two-day workshop on Feb. 15-16.
Turkey and the United States have reached an “understanding to normalize ties” Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu said on Feb. 16, announcing the decision to “establish mechanisms” to solve the series of ongoing disagreements between the two NATO allies.