Retired Army Gen. David Petraeus, a former commander of U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan and former CIA director, spoke with Foreign Policy about the implications of the U.S. airstrike that killed Iranian Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani, calling it “more significant than the killing of Osama bin Laden.”
Soliemani and his Quds Force were “responsible for the deaths of hundreds of American and coalition service members and the wounding of thousands more,” according to the Department of Defense.
Soleimani and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the deputy commander of Iran-backed militias known as the Popular Mobilization Forces, were killed, along with eight others, in the drone strike at Baghdad International Airport.
“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 group leader Abu Bakr] al-Baghdadi,” Petraeus told Foreign Policy in a Jan. 3 interview. “Soleimani 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.”
The airstrike came amid tensions after a New Year’s Eve attack by Iran-backed militias on the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. On Wednesday, Trump ordered about 750 soldiers deployed to the Middle East, The Associated Press reported.
The breach at the embassy followed U.S. airstrikes on Sunday that killed 25 fighters of the Iran-backed militia in Iraq, the Kataeb Hezbollah.
The U.S. military said the strikes were in retaliation for last week’s killing of an American contractor in a rocket attack on an Iraqi military base that the U.S. blamed on the militia.
Petraeus echoed the Department of Defense in affirming that the Soleimani strike was a defensive response.
The question now is how will Iran respond?
“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,” Petraeus said.
“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.”
He added that the U.S. has “taken a very, very significant action” but did not declare war.
“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,” Petraeus said.
President Donald Trump defended his decision to call for the airstrike in televised remarks on Jan. 3.
“We took action last night to stop a war. We did not take action to start a war,” the president said.
Petraeus added in his interview that the U.S. didn’t have a choice but to conduct the attack on Iraqi soil.
“Again what was the alternative? Do it in Iran? Think of the implications of that,” he said. “This is a very significant effort to re-establish deterrence, which obviously had not been shored up by the relatively insignificant responses up until now.”