Iran is a major threat to U.S. interests and the long-term stability of the Mideast, the head of U.S. military's Central Command warned U.S lawmakers Tuesday.
"Iran is generating instability across the region, and the Iranian Threat Network continues to increase in strength, enhancing its capacity to threaten U.S. and partner nation interests," General Joe Votel said in a 45-page set of prepared remarks he presented to the House Armed Services Committee during a hearing on terrorism.
Votel said the U.S.-led coalition fighting Islamic State has made significant gains over the last three years, and the terror group has lost control of more than 98 percent of territory it once controlled in Iraq and Syria.
With these gains, Votel said, the U.S. military's focus will be to "neutralize, counterbalance and shape the destabilizing impact that Iran has across the region"; complete the campaign to defeat IS in Iraq and Syria; and enforce the implementation of the South Asia strategy in Afghanistan to help the Afghan government consolidate its control.
Iran over the years has attempted to use instability in the Middle East as a springboard to gain power beyond its border. The events subsequent to the Arab Spring in 2011 and the emergence of IS have helped Tehran establish a foothold in several neighboring countries, including Iraq, Syria and Yemen. An assessment by the U.S. intelligence community this month asserted that Iran remained the most prominent state sponsor of terrorism and was trying to expand its influence in those three countries.
The report said Iran could attempt to exploit the fight against IS to translate its battlefield gains into political, security and economic agreements with other actors in the region. It said Tehran was seeking to establish a corridor, or "Shiite Crescent," across the Middle East.
U.S. officials have said they intend to keep troops in Iraq and Syria even after IS is completely defeated, not only to prevent the re-emergence of the militant group but also to disrupt an Iranian dominance and threat to the U.S. allies in the region.
"U.S. disengagement from Syria would provide Iran the opportunity to further strengthen its position in Syria," said U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson last month as he laid out a U.S. strategy in Syria after the removal of IS.
"As we have seen from Iran's proxy wars and public announcements, Iran seeks dominance in the Middle East and the destruction of our ally, Israel. As a destabilized nation and one bordering Israel, Syria presents an opportunity that Iran is all too eager to exploit."
Israel and Iran are already in a standoff over Tehran's presence in Syria and Lebanon.
The tension further escalated this month after Israel's military shot down an Iranian drone and bombed a control unit in Syria. The Syrian government responded by shooting down an Israeli jet involved in the operation.
While things have calmed down, U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican, warned Tuesday that Lebanon could soon become a battlefield between Israel and Iran over a Hezbollah rocket factory on Israel's border.
"Southern Lebanon is where the next war is coming," Graham told reporters Tuesday at a news conference after a trip last week to the Middle East.