General Joseph Votel, commander of U.S. Central Command, in a wide-ranging interview on June 11 with Tampa Bay Times, echoed General James Mattis and other U.S. officials in calling Iran the most destabilizing force in the Middle East.
But similar to what Mattis had said in a June interview, Votel drew a sharp distinction between the Islamic Republic regime and the Iranian people.
“I think Iranian influence is significant in the region, and as I have said and others have said, Iran is perhaps the most destabilizing. I should say the Iranian regime, not the Iranian people. I want to make sure I call a distinction between that.”
The general goes on to say that the Iranian people have a rich cultural heritage and they certainly have a role in the region, “but the Iranian regime and their activities, particularly those under the Qods Force element I think are the most destabilizing factor in the region long-term.”
In his interview, Votel touches upon many issues related to his command. Iraq after Mosul, the conflicts in Yemen and Syria and contacts with Russians, are topics the general speaks about in detail.
Tampa Bay Times has also published an article on June 11, by its staff writer, Howard Altman who spoke with general Votel who was on a tour of the region and was Altman was with him aboard USS New Orleans in the Straits of Hormuz.
The article describes how the general witnessed the busy waterway and Iranian navy boats whizzing about.
“The experience gave Votel a front-row seat to the complex challenges Iran poses to the U.S. and its allies in the region — challenges that fall on Votel's shoulders as officer in charge of U.S. military operations in the Middle East and Southwest Asia”, writes Altman.
U.S. navy ships and sailors have close encounters in the Persian Gulf with the Iranians, almost on daily basis. In the past few years, Iranian boats have harassed U.S. and other allied ships on numerous occasions. After each dangerous and fast approach of an Iranian boat toward a U.S. ship, Iranian officials or high ranking officers boast about how intimidating they are to the Americans.
"We do expect them to conduct operations in accordance with normal, professional maritime standards," Votel told Tampa Bay Times. "And most of the time they do that. My concern is, as you see in a relatively compressed space, there is a great opportunity for miscalculations."
Votel also speaks about the freedom to react to unforeseen situations that the military has received from the new administration, although he says that the process had begun with the previous White House.
Both in Syria and Iraq, the U.S. military presence and readiness to act has been apparent in recent months. On a few occasions in Syria, the U.S. was not hesitant to target pro-Assad or pro-Iran forces that were threatening U.S. assisted anti-Assad rebels.
But Iran’s behavior is perhaps Votels main concern. "Whether its instability in Yemen, whether it is their backing of a Syrian regime that attacks their own people — drops barrel bombs on them causing refugees to flow into Europe and rioting in their capitals — I think they need to be held accountable," Votel said.