WASHINGTON (CNN) - In a blistering criticism of the leader of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Quds Force, the four-star US general in charge of US military of operations in the Middle East said Qasem Soleimani is behind much of Iran's destabilizing activities in the region.
Speaking to Pentagon reporters Wednesday, General Joseph Votel, the head of US Central Command, described Soleimani as "an individual who is perpetrating a lot of this destabilizing activity."
Votel called out the IRGC leader for "his very aggressive nature and wherever you see Iranian activity, you see Qasem Soleimani, whether it is in Syria, whether it is in Iraq, whether it is in Yemen, he is there and it is the Quds force, the organization which he leads, that I think is the principal threat as we look at this and the principle ones that are stoking this destabilizing activity."
Votel emphasized that the US military can keep the Strait of Hormuz open for shipping despite Iranian threats to potentially shut it down.
The Strait of Hormuz links the Persian Gulf to the Arabian Sea and is "the world's most important oil transit chokepoint," according to The US Energy Information Administration, with 20% of oil traded worldwide moving through the waterway. At its narrowest point, the Strait is only about 30 miles wide.
Sending a message
"Iran has layered capabilities here that include mines, that include explosive boats, that include coastal defense missiles and radars and other things," Votel said, "so they certainly have capabilities there but I would just suggest we have capabilities as well."
"We routinely focus on demining exercises in the region and we maintain forces and readiness, as do some of our partners in the region that are well trained, well prepared to deal with these types of situations," Votel said.
The issue of the IRGC has taken on renewed focus in recent days after they held a major naval exercise earlier in the year than they normally do. Votel suggested the timing was tied to the recent re-imposition of US sanctions on Iran.
"It's pretty clear to us that they were trying to use that exercise to send a message to us that as we approach the period of the sanctions here, that they had some capabilities," Votel said.
Votel also acknowledged for the first time that a rare public statement distributed by Central Command was aimed at sending a message right back to Iran.
That statement on the exercise had said: "We are aware of the increase in Iranian naval operations within the Arabian Gulf, Strait of Hormuz, and Gulf of Oman," and also noted the US military was monitoring it closely.
"The purpose of any messages that we would send would be to highlight to them that we are paying attention, we are very vigilant, we are aware of what's going on," Votel said, "and we remain ready to protect ourselves as we pursue our objectives of freedom of navigation, freedom of commerce in international waters."
Separately, the four-star general said the US military would act to ensure international navigation would remain open in the Bab-el-Mandeb waterway off the coast of Yemen, where Iranian-backed Houthis rebels have also recently attacked commercial shipping.
"The Bab-el-Mandeb is open for business as far as we're concerned," Votel declared. "It's a major waterway, not just for the United States, but for many countries in terms of moving through that particular area, so one of our key missions here is to ensure freedom of navigation, freedom of commerce."
He added, "we will continue to exercise that throughout the region."
Votel noted that US Navy crews operating in these tense waters are trained in "pre-planned responses" if any escalating provocations take place. He added, however, that the US has had no unsafe or unprofessional encounters with Iran since last year in either waterway.
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