(Bloomberg) --

The top American commander in the Middle East says he sees Iran’s decision-making abilities in “disarray” after a U.S. drone strike killed a senior Iranian commander in January, but he doesn’t expect the lull to last.

After a surge in tensions earlier this year following the killing of Quds force commander Qassem Soleimani in Iraq, and additional damage done to the Islamic Republic from the Covid-19 pandemic, Marine General Kenneth McKenzie said he expects the Islamic Republic’s military to regroup and focus on trying to get U.S. troops out of the region. Just not yet.

“Iran recognizes that we have the capability in the theater to make it very painful for them to launch a direct or indirect attack against either us or one of our partners or allies,” McKenzie, who heads U.S. Central Command, said in a telephone interview Thursday. “Right now, it is kind of quiet but I think part of that is they’re still on their heels a little bit from January and I think they’re still sorting themselves out and what they want to do.”

McKenzie oversees American forces in a region President Donald Trump has long said he wants to the U.S. to exit. But Trump has also bolstered the American presence there at times to help defend a key ally -- Saudi Arabia -- and heighten pressure on Iran after quitting the 2015 nuclear accord with the country.

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Among the forces under McKenzie’s command are roughly 6,500 U.S. troops in Iraq out of as many as 80,000 in the region, including Afghanistan. The weaponry at his disposal includes next-generation F-35A stealth jets redeployed June 2 for a third stint to the region.

McKenzie said Iran felt like it had momentum in its efforts to bolster influence over neighboring Iraq at America’s expense, until the unexpected U.S. attack on Soleimani -- a commander who was lionized in Iranian society but accused of being behind conflicts from Lebanon to Yemen -- disrupted their efforts.

Yet short-term setbacks won’t distract the Iranian regime from its ultimate goal of ejecting the U.S. and all Western allies from the region, he said.

“I remember well the lesson of last fall where we were in a relative period of quiet and, bang, they attacked Aramco,” McKenzie said, referring to the mid-September drone and cruise missile attack on Saudi oil facilities that the U.S. says was directed by Tehran.

Iran’s government rejects that charge, while the United Nations says the weapons used in the Aramco strike were of Iranian origin, without directly saying Tehran was responsible.

‘Classic Deterrence’

“I draw no confidence from periods of quiet,” he added. “That’s when I actually begin to look very hard at what the Iranians might be up to because I think they have long-term goals to eject us.”

But so far, “they are deterred because in the mind of the opponent -- the Iranians -- they believe, that the goal that they desire -- ejection of the United States from the theater -- will be more painful than the value of attaining it -- that’s classic deterrence theory,” he said. “That’s what I think we are operating under right now.”

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.