The United States is not seeking conflict with Iran, the general overseeing America’s military involvement in the Middle East said on Thursday, even as some Trump administration officials have stepped up rhetoric against Tehran.
“I don’t think we’re seeking to go to war with Iran, and I don’t think that’s what we’re focused on,” General Joseph Votel, who heads the US Central Command, told Pentagon reporters.
His comments came the day after Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the US was terminating a 1955 friendship treaty with Iran reached under its pro-Western shah.
And President Donald Trump’s national security advisor John Bolton, a longtime mega-hawk on Iran, last week said the US would maintain a presence in Syria even after the Islamic State group has been defeated.
“We’re not going to leave (Syria) as long as Iranian troops are outside Iranian borders,” Bolton said.
“That includes Iranian proxies and militias,” he added, going on to warn of Tehran of “hell to pay” if it threatens the US or its allies.
James Jeffrey, the US special representative on Syria, later said a continued US presence in the war-torn country did not necessarily mean American boots on the ground.
Votel has not received any “direct military tasks” in terms of the Trump administration’s pressure campaign, but he said the Pentagon remains “prepared to respond rapidly and massively if the situation requires.”
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The Trump administration, which is close to Iran’s rivals Saudi Arabia and Israel, this year withdrew from a key international deal aimed at curbing Iran’s nuclear program and has vowed to challenge Tehran’s influence in Syria, as well as Yemen and Iraq.
Trump has been clear the Iranian regime needs to “cease its destabilizing behavior and policy that spreads violence and human misery throughout the Middle East,” Votel said.
“The principle way that we are approaching that right now is through diplomatic and economic pressure. And I support that, I don’t see that necessarily as being on the road to war with Iran.”
Iran on Monday said it had launched ballistic missiles into Syria to kill jihadists in retaliation for a deadly attack on an Iranian military parade.
Such activities “give us a little bit of pause,” Votel said, noting that Iran had not warned the US-led coalition in Syria about the strike, potentially putting coalition forces at risk.
I “characterize what they’re doing as reckless, unsafe and escalatory,” he said.
Separately on Syria, Votel blasted Russia over its “needless” deployment of the S-300 surface-to-air missile system, which Moscow installed after the accidental downing of a Russian military plane by Syrian forces.