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General Kenneth F. McKenzie, Jr., US Central Command (CENTCOM) Commander, addresses a session focused on maritime security during 15th Manama Dialogue, a regional security summit organized by the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) in the Bahraini capital Manama on November 23, 2019. Image Credit: AFP

Manama: The deployment of 14,000 additional US troops to the Arabian Gulf region since the spring has probably not dissuaded Iran from planning a major attack on the scale of the recent missile and drone assault on Saudi Arabia’s oil fields, the commander of US forces in the Middle East says.

The officer, Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie, the head of the military’s Central Command, said the additional troops, fighter jets and air defenses that the Pentagon has dispatched might have deterred Iran from attacking American targets - like Iran’s downing of an unmanned surveillance drone in June.

But he said strikes against Arabian Gulf nations were another matter.

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A US fighter jet on the deck of the USS Abraham in the Gulf. Image Credit: AP

“My judgment is that it is very possible they will attack again,” McKenzie said in an interview this past week ahead of an international security conference on Saturday.

“It’s the trajectory and the direction that they’re on,” he added in a second interview later in the week.

“The attack on the oil fields in Saudi was stunning in the depth of its audaciousness,” he said of an assault in September that the United States and its European allies blame Iran for.

Saudi official displays pieces of what he says are Iranian missiles used in Aramco attack. Image Credit: AFP

“I wouldn’t rule that out going forward.”

McKenzie did not offer specific evidence that Iran was plotting an imminent attack against targets like oil facilities or desalinization plants - citing only the ability of American military and spy agencies to detect patterns of worrisome but unspecified Iranian activities.

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“Iran is under extreme pressure,” McKenzie said, referring to the maximum-pressure campaign of economic sanctions that the Trump administration is employing against the country. He added that Iran was trying to “crack the campaign” with attacks to provoke a US military response.

Speaking on Saturday at a regional security conference in Manama, Bahrain, the home of the Navy’s 5th Fleet, McKenzie pledged a continued American security commitment to the Arabian Gulf despite a Trump administration policy shift to prioritize threats from China and Russia.

He also urged regional partners like Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Iraq and Oman to work with Washington in confronting any Iranian aggression.

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Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the UAE have joined the United States, Britain, Australia and Albania to form a maritime coalition to ensure safe passage through Middle Eastern waterways after a series of attacks on oil tankers in the Arabian Gulf this past spring.

“Unfortunately, sometimes the Iranian regime has proved itself to be the bully in the neighborhood,” McKenzie said in his remarks.

“And the only way to stand up to a bully is to do it together.”