ARLINGTON, Va. — The commander of U.S. Central Command warned today that Iran’s ballistic missile activity runs the risk of potentially striking a civilian airliner.
“Russia and Iran continue to exacerbate the seven-year civil war in Syria by propping up an Assad regime bent on repressing its own people, including through the use of chemical weapons,” Gen. Joseph Votel told a press briefing. “Iran, the world’s leading sponsor of terror, continues its malign influence and destabilizing the activities across the region. None of these activities are helpful or supportive of peace and stability, and all introduce greater risk to an already complex and volatile environment.”
He stressed that Iran “continues to export missiles, rockets and unmanned aerial systems to the Houthis, prolonging and expanding the conflict” in Yemen and “adding to the suffering and humanitarian disaster, threatening critical waterways and disrupting the process towards peace.”
“These are not the actions of a good neighbor, but of one that threatens the peace and stability of the region,” he said.
On Monday, Iran fired six ballistic missiles into ISIS territory in Syria, drawing protests from the U.S. as American troops were just three miles away at the time.
Votel was asked if there are concerns about U.S. forces getting caught in the crossfire as Iran expands its influence and whether Iran is shipping disassembled missiles into Syria and possibly Iraq.
The commander said U.S. forces are “absolutely” concerned “with the impacts of some of their activities on our personnel, on our facilities, on our activities there.”
“And as you’ve seen, some very strong messaging from our government to the government of Iraq that we will hold them accountable if an attack is carried out against U.S. personnel, facilities or activities,” he said. “And so we do take that very seriously. And, of course, we remain very vigilant and prepared for that eventuality.”
The recent Iranian strikes in the Middle Euphrates River Valley are “an example of what does give us a little bit of pause.”
“You know, I do think these kind of uncoordinated activities are a threat to not only our forces, but they’re a threat to military and civilian air and aviation that operates in the area,” Votel said. “As you know, professional militaries deconflict their operations to ensure safety and that did not — Iran took no measures like that in this particular case. So I kind of characterize what they’re doing as reckless, unsafe and escalatory in this regard. And so I do — we do have concerns about that.”
On weapons smuggling, the general confirmed “we’ve certainly seen some indications of that, and our efforts have been to try to expose that and bring that to the attention of the appropriate forces to deal with, particularly in Iraq.”
“So we don’t have that mission; our mission is strictly focused on defeat ISIS,” he added. “But we are concerned about them moving these types of capabilities into Syria… we believe they are moving lethal capabilities into Syria that threaten neighbors in the region here.”
Votel noted “very significant efforts under way here to put pressure on Iran to change their behavior,” and said that “while we don’t have any direct military tasks that have been given to us in terms of that, we do recognize that our presence on the ground, our development of good partners on the ground does have an impact on Iranian activities.”
“In many ways, one of the most important things that we do to counter Iranian influence is build very strong relationships in the region.”