Trump’s pick for top general plays down Iran war talk

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Article Summary
A day after Iranian boats reportedly attempted to seize a British tanker in the Gulf, President Donald Trump’s pick to become the military’s top officer downplayed the potential for conflict with Tehran.

In the wake of months of tensions between the United States and Iran, President Donald Trump’s pick to serve as the Pentagon’s top military official downplayed the potential for conflict with Tehran in his confirmation today.

Gen. Mark Milley, currently the Army’s top officer, said in Senate testimony that Iran’s military activity in the Middle East has increased since Trump opted to withdraw from the 2015 nuclear deal in May 2018; the United States has blamed Tehran for the shootdown of an American surveillance drone in June and attacks on Emirati, Norwegian and Japanese tankers.

Milley pointed at Iran as the culprit behind the killing of troops under his command during the 2003 Iraq war, but said the possibility of a wider war in the region was unlikely. The Trump administration has ruled out more severe US military options that had been reported in the media.

"I don't think that would happen," he said, referencing the possibility of a war that might take the Pentagon’s focus away from major threats such as Russia and China. "I don't think anyone is seriously considering anything approaching [deploying 150,000 US troops]."

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The Army’s chief of staff, who has backed the plan for the US military to prepare for a conflict with Russia and China, said he wasn’t concerned that the current uptick in tensions would cause the United States to deviate from the strategy. Under questioning from Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., Milley said retaliatory operations against Iran in the 1980s "were very limited single-strike type operations."

But the Pentagon remains concerned about Iran’s arsenal of ballistic and cruise missiles — some of which can hit targets more than 1,000 miles away. In written testimony released ahead of his confirmation hearing, Milley said that while Iran’s navy “is capable of only a limited menu of operations,” it can deploy small boats and mines “to complicate adversary freedom of movement in a conflict.”

Iran’s military leaders likely do not believe they can defeat a modern force, such as the United States, he said, “but they could impose significant cost.”

Milley said the outgoing chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Joseph Dunford, has led negotiations with allies to build a maritime coalition to survey the Gulf for potential tensions and guard shipping traffic. But the Army chief said Trump’s decision to withdraw from the 2015 deal, which the State Department has still called for Tehran to align with, has hampered relations with European partners. "Our relations to our allies relative to Iran I think are probably strained," Milley said.

Milley won pledges of support for his nomination to become the next chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from several senators during the hearing. But lawmakers used the occasion to point out the Defense Department’s lack of confirmed leaders amid the uptick in tensions with Iran. Twelve top positions at the Pentagon are vacant, said Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., who added that “filling those positions is really important” in order to demonstrate “civilian control of the military.”

On Thursday, Defense News reported that the Senate had received Acting Defense Secretary Mark Esper’s nomination for the permanent role, setting up a confirmation hearing Tuesday. Under US law, that will push Navy Secretary Richard Spencer, the second-ranking confirmed official remaining in the Pentagon, to serve as the building’s third acting secretary so far this year.

The Joint Chiefs of Staff has already spent the past two weeks getting Spencer, who has focused on managing the Navy, prepared to oversee military operations, as the Pentagon faces an ongoing crisis in the Gulf dealing with alleged Iranian attacks.

“As a service secretary, he hasn’t been exposed to the range of operational issues,” Eric Chewning, the acting defense secretary’s chief of staff, said of Spencer at an off-camera press briefing Tuesday. Esper’s top aides, such as acting Deputy Secretary David Norquist, will stay in place, Chewning said.  

Chewning said that the quickest timeline between nomination and confirmation has occurred in under a week, when lawmakers approved Robert Gates’ nod to become defense secretary in 2006. William Perry’s nomination also sailed through in under a week in 1994 during the Clinton administration.

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Jack Detsch is Al-Monitor’s Pentagon correspondent. Based in Washington, Detsch examines US-Middle East relations through the lens of the Defense Department. Detsch previously covered cybersecurity for Passcode, the Christian Science Monitor’s project on security and privacy in the Digital Age. Detsch also served as editorial assistant at The Diplomat Magazine and worked for NPR-affiliated stations in San Francisco. On Twitter: @JackDetsch_ALM, Email: jdetsch@al-monitor.com.

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