The former U.S. commander and CIA director says Iran’s “very fragile” situation may limit its response.
As a former commander of U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan and a former CIA director, retired Gen. David Petraeus is keenly familiar with Qassem Suleimani, the powerful chief of Iran’s Quds Force, who was killed in a U.S. airstrike in Baghdad Friday morning.
After months of a muted U.S. response to Tehran’s repeated lashing out—the downing of a U.S. military drone, a devastating attack on Saudi oil infrastructure, and more—Suleimani’s killing was designed to send a pointed message to the regime that the United States will not tolerate continued provocation, he said.
Petraeus spoke to Foreign Policy on Friday about the implications of an action he called “more significant than the killing of Osama bin Laden.” This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Foreign Policy: What impact will the killing of Gen. Suleimani have on regional tensions?
David Petraeus: It is impossible to overstate the importance of this particular action. It is more significant than the killing of Osama bin Laden or even the death of [Islamic State leader Abu Bakr] al-Baghdadi. Suleimani was the architect and operational commander of the Iranian effort to solidify control of the so-called Shia crescent, stretching from Iran to Iraq through Syria into southern Lebanon. He is responsible for providing explosives, projectiles, and arms and other munitions that killed well over 600 American soldiers and many more of our coalition and Iraqi partners just in Iraq, as well as in many other countries such as Syria. So his death is of enormous significance.
The question of course is how does Iran respond in terms of direct action by its military and Revolutionary Guard Corps forces? And how does it direct its proxies—the Iranian-supported Shia militia in Iraq and Syria and southern Lebanon, and throughout the world?
FP: Two previous administrations have reportedly considered this course of action and dismissed it. Why did Trump act now?
DP: The reasoning seems to be to show in the most significant way possible that the U.S. is just not going to allow the continued violence—the rocketing of our bases, the killing of an American contractor, the attacks on shipping, on unarmed drones—without a very significant response.
Many people had rightly questioned whether American deterrence had eroded somewhat because of the relatively insignificant responses to the earlier actions. This clearly was of vastly greater importance. Of course it also, per the Defense Department statement, was a defensive action given the reported planning and contingencies that Suleimani was going to Iraq to discuss and presumably approve.
This was in response to the killing of an American contractor, the wounding of American forces, and just a sense of how this could go downhill from here if the Iranians don’t realize that this cannot continue.
FP: Do you think this response was proportionate?
DP: It was a defensive response and this is, again, of enormous consequence and significance. But now the question is: How does Iran respond with its own forces and its proxies, and then what does that lead the U.S. to do?
Iran is in a very precarious economic situation, it is very fragile domestically—they’ve killed many, many hundreds if not thousands of Iranian citizens who were demonstrating on the streets of Iran in response to the dismal economic situation and the mismanagement and corruption. I just don’t see the Iranians as anywhere near as supportive of the regime at this point as they were decades ago during the Iran-Iraq War. Clearly the supreme leader has to consider that as Iran considers the potential responses to what the U.S. has done.
It will be interesting now to see if there is a U.S. diplomatic initiative to reach out to Iran and to say, “Okay, the next move could be strikes against your oil infrastructure and your forces in your country—where does that end?”
FP: Will Iran consider this an act of war?
DP: I don’t know what that means, to be truthful. They clearly recognize how very significant it was. But as to the definition—is a cyberattack an act of war? No one can ever answer that. We haven’t declared war, but we have taken a very, very significant action.
FP: How prepared is the U.S. to protect its forces in the region?
DP: We’ve taken numerous actions to augment our air defenses in the region, our offensive capabilities in the region, in terms of general purpose and special operations forces and air assets. The Pentagon has considered the implications the potential consequences and has done a great deal to mitigate the risks—although you can’t fully mitigate the potential risks.
FP: Do you think the decision to conduct this attack on Iraqi soil was overly provocative?
DP: Again what was the alternative? Do it in Iran? Think of the implications of that. This is the most formidable adversary that we have faced for decades. He is a combination of CIA director, JSOC [Joint Special Operations Command] commander, and special presidential envoy for the region. This is a very significant effort to reestablish deterrence, which obviously had not been shored up by the relatively insignificant responses up until now.
FP: What is the likelihood that there will be an all-out war?
DP: Obviously all sides will suffer if this becomes a wider war, but Iran has to be very worried that—in the state of its economy, the significant popular unrest and demonstrations against the regime—that this is a real threat to the regime in a way that we have not seen prior to this.
FP: Given the maximum pressure campaign that has crippled its economy, the designation of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terrorist organization, and now this assassination, what incentive does Iran have to negotiate now?
DP: The incentive would be to get out from under the sanctions, which are crippling. Could we get back to the Iran nuclear deal plus some additional actions that could address the shortcomings of the agreement?
This is a very significant escalation, and they don’t know where this goes any more than anyone else does. Yes, they can respond and they can retaliate, and that can lead to further retaliation—and that it is clear now that the administration is willing to take very substantial action. This is a pretty clarifying moment in that regard.
FP: What will Iran do to retaliate?
DP: Right now they are probably doing what anyone does in this situation: considering the menu of options. There could be actions in the gulf, in the Strait of Hormuz by proxies in the regional countries, and in other continents where the Quds Force have activities. There’s a very considerable number of potential responses by Iran, and then there’s any number of potential U.S. responses to those actions
Given the state of their economy, I think they have to be very leery, very concerned that that could actually result in the first real challenge to the regime certainly since the Iran-Iraq War.
FP: Will the Iraqi government kick the U.S. military out of Iraq?
DP: The prime minister has said that he would put forward legislation to do that, although I don’t think that the majority of Iraqi leaders want to see that given that ISIS is still a significant threat. They are keenly aware that it was not the Iranian supported militias that defeated the Islamic State, it was U.S.-enabled Iraqi armed forces and special forces that really fought the decisive battles.