Marine Corps Gen. Joe Dunford told Brookings interlocutor Michael O'Hanlon that the threats emanating from Iran and its proxies were different than in the past.
"In the last week of April, I began to see more clearly things that I had been picking up on over a period of months," the general said. "What was qualitatively different to me was the intelligence. We were seeing … multiple threat streams, all perhaps coming together in time."
Given the nature of the Iranian regime, he said, there are always threats to America, its allies and American interests. But, Dunford explained, these threat streams were different, emanating from Yemen, the Persian Gulf and inside Iranian-backed groups in Iraq and Syria.
"We saw something that looked more like a campaign, than individual threats," Dunford said. "The geographic span and the possibility these activities would be synchronized caused us to look at that threat differently than 40 years … of malign activity by the Iranians."
The chairman said he watched the situation carefully and the U.S. government sent a message to Iran to ensure Iranian leaders understood that the United States would hold them accountable should something take place in the region. "There was not an opportunity for them to do things and then claim it was not attributable to Iran," he said. "We wanted to mitigate the risk of miscalculation."
The chairman said Defense Department officials also saw in the intelligence that Iran's leaders had a misperception about the will and capability of the United States to respond to these threat streams.
Dunford said he consulted with Marine Corps Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr., the commander of U.S. Central Command, and they recommended to the president and acting defense secretary that the Abraham Lincoln Carrier Strike Group immediately move into the Centcom area from the Mediterranean Sea. They also deployed bombers and Patriot batteries into the area, he said.
Last week, DOD announced it would send 1,500 more service members to the region to ensure there was the proper level of force protection for American troops in the region. The troops going to the region are accompanied by a message, Dunford said, "This is not intended to be a provocation, this is not intended to reinforce our offensive capability in the region, this is designed to protect our people much like the previous force elements were sent in to enhance our deterrence."
All of these moves were designed to correct any possible Iranian misperception, he said. The United States wanted Iran's leaders to know that they would be held responsible for any attack, that the United States had capabilities in theater to respond and that the United States had the will to use those capabilities if deterrence failed.
The chairman also discussed the situation in regards to the existential threat to the United States — Russia.
Russia wants to be the preeminent power in Eurasia, Dunford said. Russian President Vladimir Putin has embarked on a foreign policy meant to intimidate neighbors and force them to acquiesce to Russian needs and wants. Russia invaded Georgia, annexed Crimea and invaded the Donbass region of Ukraine. It is supporting the regime of Bashar Assad in Syria and Nicolas Maduro in Venezuela. Russia has invested billions in modernizing its military — especially its nuclear arsenal. The nation tried to influence American voters and has launched cyber attacks on bordering nations.
In 2015, NATO acted to reassure allies on Russia's border of the solidarity of the alliance. NATO forces — including U.S. service members — flowed to the region. About a year and a half later, Dunford said, the United States made a fundamental shift in strategy to make deterrence of Russia as important as reassurance of allies.
The strategy is paying off, the chairman said. American military posture is growing in Europe and NATO allies are building up their capabilities. He especially praised NATO's effort to have 30 battalions, 30 squadrons and 30 ships ready in 30 days, saying it is one example of how seriously the alliance and the European allies take the threat from Russia.