Iran Has Backed Off of Challenging US Since Soleimani Killing, General Says

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Revolutionary Guard Gen. Qassem Soleimani
In this Sept. 18, 2016 file photo released by an official website of the office of the Iranian supreme leader, Revolutionary Guard Gen. Qassem Soleimani, center, attends a meeting in Tehran, Iran. (Office of the Iranian Supreme Leader via AP)

Iran has backed off from directly challenging the U.S. military in the region since the Jan. 3 drone strike that killed Iranian Quds Force leader Qasem Soleimani, the top U.S. commander in the Mideast said Wednesday.

Marine Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, head of U.S. Central Command, said he is reluctant to paint a "rosy picture" on the deterrent effect of Soleimani's death.

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"Nonetheless, I think it has set them back," he said.

The airstrike that killed Soleimani at Baghdad's airport led to the Jan. 8 Iranian ballistic missile attack on Iraq's Al Asad Air Base, in which more than 100 U.S. troops were later diagnosed with traumatic brain injury.

Since the Al Asad attack, McKenzie said confrontations with Iran have settled into what he called a form of "contested deterrence."

"They're having to recalculate what we'll do and not do" with Soleimani's killing in mind, he said of the Tehran leadership. "They have seen we have the capability and the will to respond.

"That's why we've seen a decline in those tensions" brought on by Iran's attempts to expand its influence in the region, either directly or through the support of proxies, he added..

McKenzie also noted the devastating impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on Iran and its leadership but added, "I am not certain it makes them less dangerous."

He spoke in an hour-long teleconference sponsored by the nonpartisan Middle East Institute and covered a range of issues in CENTCOM's area of responsibility -- from the civil war in Yemen to troop withdrawals from Afghanistan.

He said the U.S. would meet the commitment to draw down the number of its troops in Afghanistan to about 8,500 in July, but he was less certain that the current plan for a complete withdrawal by May 2021 could be realized.

McKenzie said the U.S. withdrawal is conditional on a political settlement and cease-fires, adding that "those conditions have not been fully met."

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.

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