By Kristina Wong - 03/09/16 01:07 AM EST
The top U.S. military commander overseeing the Middle East said Tuesday that despite the nuclear deal, Iran shows no signs of altering its destabilizing behavior.
"There are a number of things that lead me to personally believe that, you know, their behavior is not — they haven't changed any course yet," said Army Gen. Lloyd Austin, commander of U.S. Central Command, at a Senate hearing.
Austin said he was concerned about Iran's continued testing of ballistic missiles, which the U.S. intelligence community believes is Iran's preferred method for delivering a nuclear weapon.
"What I would say is that what we and the people in the region are concerned about is that they already have overmatch with the numbers of ballistic missiles," Austin told the Senate Armed Services Committee.
"The people in the region, they remained concerned about [Iran's] cyber capabilities, their ability to mine the straits," he added. "And certainly the activity of their Quds forces ... we see malign activity, not only throughout the region, but around the globe as well."
In his opening statement, the four-star general said he was hopeful that the results of the recent election would lead to more responsible behavior by Iran.
However, he added, "We've not yet seen any indication that they intend to pursue a different path. The fact remains that Iran today is a significant destabilizing force in the region."
"Some of the behavior that we've seen from Iran of late is certainly not the behavior that you would expect to see from a nation that wants to be taken seriously as a respected member of the international community," he said.
Critics of Iran and the nuclear deal, which lifted economic sanctions on Iran in exchange for limits to its nuclear program, pounced on Austin's remarks to call for tougher U.S. action against Iran.
Sen. Kelly AyotteKelly AyotteHigh anxiety for GOP Trump: 'Very disappointed' GOP senator dropped support NH poll: Dem challenger pulls ahead of Ayotte MORE (R-N.H.), a member of the Armed Services Committee, noted the latest missile test came even after the U.S. passed sanctions for similar tests in October.
"I would argue that clearly the sanctions the administration did put in place, which I've said from the beginning are pathetic and weak, are having absolutely no impact," Ayotte said.
"Given that they're now continuing to test ballistic missiles, I would hope that we would up our game and impose real tough sanctions on Iran, on their ballistic missile program," she said.
Austin said he hoped that the Iran nuclear deal will prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon in the near and midterm, and "hopefully forever."
"But this is something we'll continue to watch," he said.
Austin also expressed concern about an "emerging strategic partnership" between another U.S. adversary, Russia. The two nations are working together to bolster Syran President Bashar Assad's government.
"What I worry about is [if] that relationship between Syria, Russia and Iran develops further, that it will present a problem for the region," he said.
That cooperation is expanding to include the sale of high-end weapons, Austin said.
"We've seen recently [the sale of] high-end air defense capability from Russia to Iran and that's a problem for everyone in the region," Austin said.
"And also coastal defense cruise missiles. As that type of technology is — migrates from Russia to Iran, it'll eventually wind up in the hands of Lebanese Hezbollah."
Austin said the emerging partnership between Iran and Russia in the Middle East would create more work for the U.S. to counteract.
"These are things that — that will increase the amount of effort required to — to do whatever work we need to do," Austin said.
"We will certainly find the ways and means to get the job done, if required to do that. But this makes it a little bit more difficult, but but not impossible," he said.