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US military commander says Iran backed off potential attack after US bolstered force

The new commander of U.S. Central Command, U.S. Marine Corps Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr., delivers remarks after taking command of Centcom, Tampa, Florida, March 28, 2019. (DoD photo by Lisa Ferdinando)

This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.

The top U.S. military commander in the Middle East says Tehran backed off an apparent attack against U.S. forces in the Persian Gulf region after the recent bolstering of American forces there, but he added the threat from Tehran remains “very real.”

General Frank McKenzie on June 6 said Tehran has chosen to “step back and recalculate” after making preparations for an apparent attack, but he added he is still concerned by Iran’s potential for aggression.

“I don’t actually believe the threat has diminished. I believe the threat is very real,” McKenzie said in Baghdad during an interview with three reporters accompanying him on a visit to the region.

McKenzie, head of U.S. Central Command, said he would not rule out requesting additional U.S. forces to bolster defenses to counter Iranian threats.

McKenzie did not give specifics on what type of attack the Pentagon had expected from Iran, citing security reasons.

Relations between Tehran and Washington have plummeted since the United States in May 2018 pulled out of a landmark 2015 nuclear agreement between world powers and Iran.

Since then, Washington has reimposed sanctions, stepped up its rhetoric, and beefed up its military presence in the Middle East.

“It is my assessment that this has caused the Iranians to back up a little bit, but I’m not sure they are strategically backing down,” McKenzie said.

He added that United States has enough force in the region to “establish deterrence” without “needlessly” provoking Iran.

“We’re working very hard to walk that line.”

“They probe for weakness all the times,” McKenzie said.

“We’ve taken steps to show the Iranians that we mean business in our ability to defend ourselves,” he added.

U.S. President Donald Trump, who has taken a hard line against Tehran since taking office, has nevertheless recently expressed a willingness to meet with Iranian leaders.

Speaking beside French President Emmanuel Macron during D-Day remembrance ceremonies in France, Trump said U.S. sanctions are hitting Iran’s economy hard and could possibly encourage Tehran to talk.

“And if they want to talk, that’s fine. We’ll talk,” Trump said.

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said on June 5 that Tehran would not be “deceived” by Trump’s offer of negotiations and would not give up its missile program.

The U.S. administration has accused Tehran of attempting to develop nuclear weapons and is using its ballistic missile program to advance those aspirations. Iran claims its nuclear program is strictly for civilian purposes.