Department of Defense Briefing on Iran

Katie Wheelbarger, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs; Vice Adm. Michael Gilday, Director of the Joint Staff


[Eds. note:  The correct terminology for IRGC is Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps not Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps.

ACTING ASSISTANT SECRETARY OF DEFENSE KATIE WHEELBARGER:  This on?  Can you hear me?  I have not done this before so I'm not sure how these microphones work.

Am I on?  OK.

Good morning, everyone.  Thank you for your time and attention today.  For those who I have not met before, my name is Katie Wheelbarger.  And I am presently the acting assistant secretary of defense for International Security Affairs, which means I cover the regional portfolio for basically the world, but Asia, so that includes the Middle East.

We wanted to take time today to make sure you understand the decision the secretary has made this morning.  In specific, in response to credible intelligence that we see that Iran continues to plan for attacks by itself and its proxies against the United States, its forces and our allies and partners in the region, the acting secretary of defense has approved a request from the CENTCOM combatant commander for additional forces and capabilities in the region.

These capabilities are intended to enhance our defenses, harden our positions and provide additional ISR coverage to see the threat, to be able to illuminate the threat more clearly.

I want to make clear that our policy with respect to Iran has not changed.  As the president and the secretary have been clear, we do not seek conflict with Iran.  We do not see these additional capabilities as urging hostilities.  We see them as defensive in nature.

Again, our policy remains an economic and diplomatic effort to bring Iran back to the negotiating table to encourage a comprehensive deal that addresses the range of their destabilizing behavior in the region.

That being said, the secretary is committed to ensuring the protection of our forces in the region, and hence made this decision this morning in response to a request from his combatant commander.

With that, I will turn it to the admiral for further insight.

VICE ADMIRAL MICHAEL GILDAY:  Thank you, Katie.

Good afternoon.  My name is Vice Admiral Mike Gilday.  I'm the director of the Joint Staff.  First, I'd like to give some context on why -- to what Iran has said and done in the past three weeks that have prompted the recent movement of additional forces into the region, to include those associated with today's announcement.

In the recent past, Iranian leaders have publicly threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz.  They have backed up those threats with actions, posturing their forces in an effort to intimidate the movement of international trade and global energy sources.
Recent actions by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, to include attacks against foreign tankers in Fujairah and the attempted covert deployment of modified dhows capable of launching cruise missiles, are all part of a dangerous and escalatory strategy by Iran to threaten global trade and to destabilize the region.

Even more troubling, we have had multiple credible reports that Iranian proxy groups intend to attack U.S. personnel in the Middle East.

While we won't be able to declassify all the available intelligence, we believe that Iran's actions and threats are troubling, escalatory and dangerous to our U.S. forces, our interests and those of our regional partners.

U.S. Central Command commander, General McKenzie, requested additional capabilities to defend against these threats.  This is why the secretary of defense recently approved sending additional forces to the CENTCOM AOR, to include the Abraham Lincoln carrier strike group, a bomber task force and a Patriot battery, as well as the USS Arlington.

This morning the secretary authorized additional force protection assets, capabilities requested by CENTCOM for providing increased force protection for U.S. troops in the region.  Over the coming weeks we will flow additional intelligence surveillance, air reconnaissance capabilities, as well as force protection engineering and aviation units to the region.

These assets include a compliment of manned and unmanned platforms to collect intelligence and track Iranian cruise missiles, UAVs, and aircraft.  A Patriot battalion to defend against any missile threats, an engineer element to provide force protection improvements throughout the region.  And a fighter squadron -- and a fighter aircraft squadron to provide additional depth to our aviation response options.

All together this amounts to approximately 1,500 troops in the region, while we do not seek conflict with Iran we are determined to protect our forces and interests in the region from attack.

We will remain postured and ready to respond.  We continue to closely monitor intelligence sources in Iran and their proxies for further indications of impending attacks, and will continue to remain well postured to defend our U.S. force, our interests.

With that, we standby to take any of your questions.

Q:  One quick detail, we understood that the earlier deployment had included a Patriot missile battery -- when you mentioned this one, is that the same one or is that an additional battery?

And then more broadly, Katie, if you can take this also, how do you weigh the risks and the balance?  Where's the number that you think is enough to protect versus the number that you think will provoke Iran in to doing more attacks?  Because we had all understood that some of the earlier discussions had been of its more than this number of troops?

ADM. GILDAY:  So with respect to the Patriot battalion, it's a battalion that's already in theater, we're extending it for a certain amount of time.

MS. WHEELBARGER:  And with respect to the numbers of troops, the specific number is related directly to what we determined is required for the protection of our forces.  We do not see these forces as provocative, we think they are intended to avoid conflict and defend our forces.  I don't think there's a specific number that -- if you're alluding to that would be defensive -- provocative.  Our intent is to give our forces in the field what they need to be able to defend themselves.

Q:  Admiral Gilday, could I ask you from the military perspective could you just say exactly what the military mission and goal is here?  What is the U.S. military mission, and when you speak about military deterrents of Iran, how do you know when you're successful?  Because success presumably is nothing bad happening, how do you know from a military point of view when you're successful?

ADM. GILDAY:  I think it's important, Ms. Starr, when I answer that question to give you a little bit of insight into the intel story that's actually thriving, what we're doing.  And so this truly is operations driven by intelligence.

So as the secretary mentioned publically we first learned of -- I wouldn't just call them threat streams, I'd call them a campaign designed by the Iranians against U.S. interests, U.S. forces and our partners in the region.  And so those threat streams range from the Bab al-Mandab in Yemen, all the way to the Strait of Hormuz, and up into Iraq.

Importantly, we saw this -- we have seen this manifested in the attacks I mentioned against the foreign ships in Fujairah and attacks that have manifested in Saudi Arabia against their pipelines and pumping facilities and most recently, a rocket attack in the vicinity of the green zone, the U.S. embassy complex in Baghdad.

So we continue to see those -- those threat streams as very active.  We continue to see the planning that's occurring not only with the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps forces but also, as I mentioned, quite troubling with Iranian proxies in Yemen and in Iraq.

And to your point about deterrence, I -- I didn't mention deterrence in my opening statement but what we hope to clearly convey, that, you know, that -- that storyline with that intel, and more importantly, what's manifested -- what we've seen manifested since we first learned of that information I think is indicative of the fact that we have -- the secretary has taken this information very seriously.

And as you probably know, upon first learning of that information on the 3rd of May, it was within hours that a warning was issued through a third party to the Iranian leadership, that we knew of this planning and that we hold them responsible for the attacks that occurred.

And then we followed that up after the -- after we -- after the -- we confirmed the Iranians received that message -- within diverting of the carrier strike group, the bombers and the Patriot battery to theater and we made a public announcement that we did that.

And so this was done to make it clear to Iran that we were not trying to provoke anything but we were responding, a very clear signaling from them that they were threatening -- threatening us.

STAFF:  Dave?

Q:  You know, as lawmakers in Capitol Hill are wondering, what is the policy objective here?  Is it to get Iran back to the table to talk about the nuclear program, is it to have them agree to the demands made by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, which include any support for Hezbollah, Hamas, removing all troops from Syria?  So if you could walk us through that.

And for you, Admiral, is it quite clear now that the attacks on the ships and the pipeline and the missiles shot in Baghdad came from the Iranian leadership through the Republican Guard to their proxies?  Is that quite clear now?

Because I think the secretary of state said it's possible Iran was behind this.  He wasn't as definitive.

MS. WHEELBARGER:  With respect to our policy of the -- of the pressure campaign against Iran, I think we have attempted to be very clear with Congress in the last few weeks in particular that our policy objectives remains return Iran to the negotiating table, to address more than just their nuclear program, but to address the range of their destabilizing behaviors across the region.

Yes, Secretary Pompeo's 12 points that he laid out last fall is the most concrete example of the issues that we want to address in that comprehensive deal with Iran.  We do seek their return to the negotiating table.

ADM. GILDAY:  So the second part of your question, based on the campaign that I described and what we've learned, we believe with a high degree of confidence that this stems back to the leadership of Iran at the highest levels and that all of the attacks that I mentioned have been attributed to Iran through their proxies or their forces.

Q:  A couple of things.  On force structure, the world within the last week has been told that the U.S. is going to send like 10,000 troops and you're saying 1,500.  Can you explain to the world why it's a lower number?

And for the -- for the admiral, the hardware involved in this, will there be a squadron of potentially F-22's or F-35's stealthy fighters and more ISR?  We're talking Predator, Global -- Global Hawk, Rivet Joint, that -- that sort of ISR architecture to enhance the U.S. picture?

MS. WHEELBARGER:  I don't actually know where the 10,000 number came from.  So with respect to the 1,500 that we're announcing today, this -- again, as I said, was made -- a decision made in direct response to a request from the combatant commander for specific capabilities and personnel that are deemed necessary to ensure force protection.

I can't comment on the difference between 10 and 1,500 because I don't know where the 10 came from.

ADM. GILDAY:  So with respect to the units.  So with the order just being -- just being approved by the secretary, we're still working through sourcing and notification of the specific units.

I can tell you, with respect to the fighters, they'll be land-based -- they'll be land-based fighters, so they'll come from the Air Force.  And you -- you pretty much hit the range of both manned and unmanned ISR that -- that we're looking at deploying to theater.

Q:  Thank you very much.  Nick Schifrin with PBS NewsHour.  Admiral, first, for you.  As you know, there are some questions about how the administration has been describing the intelligence that you've gotten.

You used the word "campaign" by Iranians against U.S. interests.  You talked about threats to close the strait, postured forces to interrupt trade.  And then you've listed these three attacks that Iran has made.

Your critics would say Iran has done this in the past.  So what is different today, that you are seeing in the last two weeks, that has caused this required increase in troops?

And for Katie, just a simple question.  Is it the beginning of a larger increase in troops or consideration of a larger increase in defense?

ADM. GILDAY:  So I think in -- so -- have we seen this activity before?  Yes, we have.  It's been episodic.

So the reason I described it as a campaign is because you're seeing activity across multiple domains -- across the sea, from the air and on the land -- by either Iranian forces or proxies.  And so it's more complicated than just a single threat stream.  And they've acted on it.

MS. WHEELBARGER:  Yes.  In response to your question about the beginning, I just want to, again, reconfirm that this is in response to specific threats and the numbers and the capabilities deployed is -- meet the requirement that we assess -- or needed to address that threat.

We will of course continue to monitor the threat, and we continue to monitor the needs of our forces in the -- in theater.  And if additional assets or capabilities are needed to ensure their protection, we will evaluate that at the time based on the threat stream as we see it.  But this is -- this is based on the specifics as we see it today.

Q:  When do you -- well, I guess a couple of things.  First off, I just want to be a hundred percent clear on, Admiral Gilday, on the three attacks you mentioned.  That includes the attack on the green zone, last weekend I think it was, and the tankers?  You are attributing those to IRGC or proxies, right?  Correct?

ADM. GILDAY:  Correct.  So -- so they ultimately go back to Iran.  So the attack in Iraq is by the proxies.  The attack against the shipping in Fujairah, we attribute it to the IRGC.

Q:  And then can you talk about -- I think there's a little confusion about the latest thing that the acting secretary approved.  Was that -- that was not part of the original request that came in, that had the immediate response of the carrier, and then several days later?

When did that -- what did General McKenzie send in this latest request?  And can you say whether he actually requested more assets than what the acting secretary approved?  Or -- and whether we should expect to see more things continue to flow in as you -- the threat evolves or as more -- the U.S. moves into the region?

ADM. GILDAY:  So -- so the first -- the first action that we took, again, was within less than 48 hours from first learning of that threat stream, right?  It was -- it was to underpin the public message that we were sending, that they would take it seriously, that we did have the will, here, to defend ourselves and respond.  We weren't just saying it, we would do something about it.

As we've seen these threat streams manifest themselves and we see the planning continue, it was General McKenzie's determination that in order to ensure that he could properly defend the forces that we have in theater conducting other missions, that we selectively take a look at additional capabilities we could bring to bear fairly quickly.

And so the secretary approved the -- the force package that he asked for.

Q:  Just a quick follow up?  Did General McKenzie get everything that he asked for?

ADM. GILDAY:  To the best of my knowledge, he received everything that he asked for, that he -- that he agreed -- that he concurs with this force package that he ...

Q:  Well was (inaudible) originally request this package?

ADM. GILDAY:  His original request was the package that he's receiving.

Q:  And just to follow up, the third country that you called on May 3rd, was that Russia?

ADM. GILDAY:  I -- I can't say what that -- what -- we have multiple ways to -- to -- to talk to the Iranians.  I -- I don't want to discuss, provide any details on the channel ...

Q:  Real quick question.  You're talking about the Iranians who are allegedly doing these attacks and threats posed by Iran.  Where is your proof?

ADM. GILDAY:  I just specified three different ...

Q:  You haven't provided any evidence.

ADM. GILDAY:  ... through -- through intelligence sources that we have.

Q:  OK, so what can you present to ...

ADM. GILDAY:  So the Iranians said that they were going to close the Strait of Hormuz.  The Iranians struck those -- those tankers.  The Iranians struck the -- that pipeline facility in Saudi Arabia through their proxies in Yemen.

We know that they're tied directly to those proxies.  We know that they're tied directly to the proxies in Iraq that launched the rocket.

Q:  Not enough.

Q:  But you're just saying that.  You're not -- you -- can you provide us with anything that backs this up?

ADM. GILDAY:  I can't reveal -- I can't reveal the sources of that reporting except to say, that in very high confidence, we tie the Iranians to those -- to those ...

Q:  Well that sounds like WMD.  What do you have to back up your case?

ADM. GILDAY:  I'm not reverse engineering this.  The Iranians -- the Iranians have said publicly they were going to do things.  We learned more through intelligence reporting they have acted upon those threats and they've actually -- they've actually attacked.

Q:  So we have to take your word on it?

STAFF:  Hey, Jeff, let's go ahead and move on to the next question.  Phil Stewart, what do you got?

Q:  So -- so what do you think is driving the Iranian actions?  Do you think their goal is to get the United States to ease sanctions?  Do you think the goal is to trigger a war with the United States?  And then on the tanker issue, it's the first that we're hearing of the definitive links to IRGC.

So I was just wondering is it -- is the idea that it was IRGC proper because of the sophistication of the attack that it was at the water line, et cetera?  Or is it -- is it basically based on also maybe forensics that you've done?

ADM. GILDAY:  So in terms of the -- in terms of the attack in Fujairah, I'm not going to describe the means of delivery.  However, we did attribute it directly to limpet mines and those limpet mines to the IRGC.

MS. WHEELBARGER:  And with respect to what we think Iran's intentions are, you know, we've seen for 40 years aggressive, destabilizing behavior by the Iranian regime.  This is just another iteration of that but perhaps even more provocative.

We do assess that they're -- you know, one of their overall interests is to counter U.S. influence in the region but do so through aggressive and destabilizing activity through this -- their network of proxy forces.

Q:  Admiral, you said that your operations were based on intelligence, but all that we have seen is mixed messages coming out of Congress, whose (inaudible) presented some of that intelligence.  So does the Pentagon have a plan to release some of this to the American public?

And what gives you that high degree of confidence, what makes you able to stand up here and say that or stood up here and say that to us?

ADM. GILDAY:  Because I see that reporting every -- I follow that reporting closely every day since -- since the 3rd of May.  And so I'm coming here to tell you what -- we have a high degree of confidence the information I'm telling you publicly is -- is backed up by -- by factual analysis.

MS. WHEELBARGER:  And if I could provide as well, just some of the atmospherics of those of us who do watch the intelligence every day.  You know, the weekend that we announced the deployment of the carrier strike group, you know, we were watching very closely, multiple threat streams.  One of them of concern, obviously, in the maritime domain.  But there were others.

And then, of course, we saw effectuated, that they actually acted on their desires in -- in the Gulf of Oman.  So that increased our concern that they were going to actually operationalize their other planned threats as well.  So it significantly increased our concerns, again, for those of us that watch this every day, it was a significant change in what we were seeing.

(CROSSTALK)

Q:  ... the second part of my question, do you plan on releasing any -- declassifying any part of the intelligence?

MS. WHEELBARGER:  Our intelligence community right now is attempting to do all they can to see what they can declassify without revealing sensitive sources and methods.

We are also, similarly, trying to change the classifications to provide as much as we can with our closest allies and partners as well.

Q:  Ma'am, there have been reports that the strategy involved surging and beefing up foreign military sales to allies in the region.  Can you tell us more about what that effort is going to entail and is there a dollar figure attached to what's headed there yet?

MS. WHEELBARGER:  I'd have to defer to the State Department on their plans for ongoing sales to the -- to the region.

Q:  Can you confirm that it's part of the new strategy to deter Iran?

MS. WHEELBARGER:  Building partner capacity and capability in the region is part and parcel of our overall strategy in the region, both in terms of bringing security and stability to the region, but also addressing Iran's destabilizing behavior.

But in terms of the actual specifics of foreign military sales going forward in the future, I will have to defer to the State Department.

Q:  Question here.

MS. WHEELBARGER:  Yeah?

Q:  You said this isn't a provocative move.  How are you ensuring that Iran knows it's not a provocative move?  Perhaps they may misunderstand it as the Pentagon sending troops to attack them.

MS. WHEELBARGER:  We're talking to all of you, first of all.  It's a key point for us, to be as transparent as possible, both with our domestic audience but as well as the international audience.  And that includes Iran, that this is intended to be responsive to their aggressive behavior and planning, and to defend our forces in the region.

We are -- we are seeking to avoid hostilities.  And we are not seeking war with Iran.  We have been as clear as we can possibly be in that regard.  But we will be postured to defend ourselves and our forces in the field if they are going to continue to act aggressively.

Q:  Are you working with a third country to pass messages on to Iran over this?

MS. WHEELBARGER:  We have multiple messages, as the admiral said, including, you know, the U.N., for example, other partners that we can communicate with the Iranians, our intent.  To avoid miscalculation and miscommunication.

(CROSSTALK)

ADM. GILDAY:  I'd like to add something on, just to -- just to clarify the nature of the 1,500 people.  So almost 600 of those, as I mentioned, is a Patriot battalion that's going to end up being extended.  So the number of deploying personnel is really less than a thousand.

And so if we think about the nature of the assets that I described that we're going to flow to theater, they're really designed to do three things.  One is to allow us to see the threat better, right?  And so that would be through the ISR as both manned and unmanned.

So we need a -- General McKenzie felt that we needed greater visibility into the movement of proxy forces and Iranian forces in order to -- in order to remain poised to defend ourselves.

The second is to harden defenses that we already have.  And so that's the role of the engineers that are flowing in.

And the last -- it's tied to the to be able to see better -- is to be able to defend or respond if we have to.  And so that's where we talk about the -- the fighter squadron.  One squadron of 12 aircraft.

STAFF:  Time for about three more questions.  First we'll go to AFP and then to Kristina.

(CROSSTALK)

MS. WHEELBARGER:  I pointed wrong.  I'm sorry.  Go ahead.

Q:  It's a question for both of you.  Do you think that this campaign against the U.S. military is linked to the decision of the administration to consider the IRGC as a terrorist organization?

MS. WHEELBARGER:  We don't.  We -- as we've seen for years, Iran has acted aggressively and provocatively and destabilizing in the regions.  We think this is a heightened manifestation of their continued goals to assert their influence in the region through asymmetric and aggressive behavior through their networks of proxies.  And that has, in the past and as it is now, poses significant threat to U.S. forces in the regions.  We don't think this is related at all.

Q:  But -- but -- but if I may, the -- after this -- this -- designation, you want this – Iran designated U.S. military as a terrorist organization, which makes them a target.

MS. WHEELBARGER:  I think the -- the Iranian designation of CENTCOM has no meaning in international law or norms.  I think, again, Iran continues to find mechanisms to assert their authority and influence in the region through aggressive and dangerous behavior, and that is the reason we are -- the secretary made his decision today to ensure appropriate defense for our -- our troops in -- in the region.

Q:  How -- how far along was the planning by Iran on attacks against U.S. forces and (inaudible) in the region?  So that's one.

And then second, back to Bill's question on intentions, do you -- was -- is this messaging by the Iranians, are they trying to provoke an attack short of a military conflict?  Are they preparing more attacks?  What's the short term goal of Iran?

ADM. GILDAY:  So if I could take the second question first, I think it's difficult, and perhaps dangerous to try and speculate on what the decision calculus is of the Iranians.

I would go back to a couple of other questions, just to tie -- tie a few things together.

The secretary of defense recently said that he felt that the actions that we took changed -- changed the calculus of the Iranians.  And so the attacks that we -- that we've seen thus far have not directly impacted U.S. forces, and so we think that through a combination of a very measured deployment of assets, as well as public messaging, we are again trying to underscore that we are not seeking hostilities with Iran.  And so in the military dimension, that is the best that we can do because they are reacting in the military dimension.  And so we just want to be clear that based on our posture and based on the assets that we're flowing to theater, they're very narrowly-focused defensive posture on our part, and not in any way designed to be provocative.

(CROSSTALK)

MS. WHEELBARGER:  I think you asked how far along we saw the -- their planning.

Q:  Yes.

MS. WHEELBARGER:  Without getting into classified information or details, I would say that, you know, we took very significant steps forward to defend our forces in theater because we thought there was a significant chance of action against those forces.  So I'll leave it there.

STAFF:  Here's the last question.

Q:  (Inaudible) and how is this different from previous years?  Because we've seen rockets flying into green zones in higher quantities over the past few years.  We've seen drones, Houthi drones strike Saudi oil facilities.  How is this different, I think is sort of something that hasn't been answered.

ADM. GILDAY:  I'd go back to what I said earlier.  We -- we view -- we view this as the campaign.  When you take a look at the swathe of the region that -- that they're targeting, all the way from the Bab-el-Mandeb through their proxies in -- in Yemen, the attacks in the Saudi Arabia that emanated from -- from Yemen through the Strait of Hormuz, the attacks in Fujairah, the fact that the dhows were laden with -- with missiles; and then moving north into Iraq, where we have forces based as well.

And we're -- you know, we -- where we actually saw a rocket attack a week or so ago.  I think that it -- that it's -- that it does have a degree of complicated nature to it, in terms of tying a bunch of threads together.  What their intent is, again, I think it's difficult to judge, but -- but we see this differently than just an episodic, you know, errant rocket here or there.

Q:  (inaudible)

Q:  Did someone say this campaign started 40 years ago, and that missiles on ships saw that in 2015?  What -- to follow my colleague, what is new here?

ADM. GILDAY:  So if we take a look at the time frame over three weeks, again, we take a look at these attacks along those vectors that we saw intel reporting on, consistent with what they've said publicly, it is different.

Q:  So the attacks happened after you announced you were sending a strike group.  Some would say you're provoking this?

Q:  One clarification, Admiral, though?  You used the past tense on the missiles on the dhows.  Is it -- is it accurate that the missiles were removed from the dhows?

ADM. GILDAY:  I can't confirm that.

Q:  Were they...

(CROSSTALK)

Q:  ... dhows were headed toward Iraq?

ADM. GILDAY:  No, I did not.

(UNKNOWN):  Thank you, (inaudible).

(UNKNOWN):  Yeah, you bet.