Ex-CIA Head Says Iran Greater Danger than ISIS

Rebuking Obama rapprochement, Petraeus warns Iran is taking control in Iraq, and is an enemy of the US and its allies.

Ari Yashar ,

David Petraeus
David Petraeus

At a time when US President Barack Obama's administration has shown a softening stance vis-a-vis Iran, even considering an alliance against Islamic State (ISIS) terrorists in Iraq and Syria, former CIA head Gen. David Petraeus warned Iran is a greater danger than ISIS in Iraq.

In an interview conducted in Iraq and posted by the Washington Post on Friday, Petraeus, who led US troops during the 2007-2008 surge in Iraq, spoke about the challenges facing the war-torn country.

Speaking at the annual Sulaimani Forum of Iraqi leaders in northern Iraq's Kurdistan region, the general acknowledged that aside from Iraqi factionalism and sectarianism leading to disaster, the US had made many mistakes in the country as well.

"This includes the squandering of so much of what we and our coalition and Iraqi partners paid such a heavy cost to achieve," he said, noting how the US withdrew all forces in 2011. Petraeus voiced hopes that the joint efforts in the region can put an end to the chaos.

"The hard-earned progress of the Surge was sustained for over three years.  What transpired after that, starting in late 2011, came about as a result of mistakes and misjudgments whose consequences were predictable. And there is plenty of blame to go around for that," he noted. Obama had made withdrawing US troops from Iraq a key point of his platform.

Despite recent focus being put on ISIS and its well publicized atrocities, which have led the US to form a multi-nation coalition conducting strikes against the group, Petraeus pointed the finger elsewhere concerning the greatest threat in the region.

"I would argue that the foremost threat to Iraq’s long-term stability and the broader regional equilibrium is not the Islamic State; rather, it is Shiite militias, many backed by - and some guided by - Iran," warned the general.

The Shi'ite militias may have blocked ISIS from surging into Baghdad, but they have also killed Sunni civilians and committed atrocities, he noted. By doing so, they have increased the Sunni-Shi'ite divide and marginalized Sunnis in a way that strengthens Sunni radicalism and ISIS, said Petraeus.

Warning specifically about Iranian designs, he added "longer term, Iranian-backed Shia militia could emerge as the preeminent power in the country, one that is outside the control of the government and instead answerable to Tehran."

Via terror proxies, Iran has been seizing power in Lebanon, Yemen, Syria and Iraq, as well as great influence in other parts of the region.

US attitude to Middle East has been flawed

Speaking about the push to distance from Iraq, a move that Obama vocally advanced, Petraeus noted "there was certainly a sense in Washington that Iraq should be put in our rearview mirror, that whatever happened here was somewhat peripheral to our national security and that we could afford to redirect our attention to more important challenges."

"In retrospect, a similar attitude existed with respect to the civil war in Syria - again, a sense that developments in Syria constituted a horrible tragedy to be sure, but a tragedy at the outset, at least, that did not seem to pose a threat to our national security," he continued.

"But in hindsight, few, I suspect, would contend that our approach was what it might - or should - have been. In fact, if there is one lesson that I hope we’ve learned from the past few years, it is that there is a linkage between the internal conditions of countries in the Middle East and our own vital security interests."

When asked about Qassem Soleimani, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards commander who has taken a very public role in Iraq aiding the fight against ISIS, after establishing and directing Shi'ite militias that attacks US troops, Petraeus had sharp words.

"I have several thoughts when I see the pictures of him, but most of those thoughts probably aren't suitable for publication in a family newspaper like yours," he quipped. "What I will say is that he is very capable and resourceful individual, a worthy adversary. He has played his hand well. But this is a long game, so let’s see how events transpire."

Iran is our enemy

The general noted how Soleimani used to be a "man of the shadows," but in recent months he has become strikingly visible in pictures published of him at the battle front.

That turns of events underscores "a very important reality: The current Iranian regime is not our ally in the Middle East. It is ultimately part of the problem, not the solution. The more the Iranians are seen to be dominating the region, the more it is going to inflame Sunni radicalism and fuel the rise of groups like the Islamic State."

"While the U.S. and Iran may have convergent interests in the defeat of Daesh (ISIS), our interests generally diverge. The Iranian response to the open hand offered by the U.S. has not been encouraging," he noted, regarding Obama's outreach to the Islamic regime.

Petraeus added "Iranian power in the Middle East is thus a double problem. It is foremost problematic because it is deeply hostile to us and our friends. But it is also dangerous because, the more it is felt, the more it sets off reactions that are also harmful to our interests - Sunni radicalism and, if we aren't careful, the prospect of nuclear proliferation as well."

The general recounted how, in 2008, a decisive battle took place between Iraqi Security Forces and the Iranian-backed Shi'ite militias.

"In the midst of the fight, I received word from a very senior Iraqi official that Qassem Soleimani had given him a message for me. When I met with the senior Iraqi, he conveyed the message: 'General Petraeus, you should be aware that I, Qassem Soleimani, control Iran’s policy for Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Gaza, and Afghanistan,'" he recalled.

"The point was clear: He owned the policy and the region, and I should deal with him. When my Iraqi interlocutor asked what I wanted to convey in return, I told him to tell Soleimani that he could 'pound sand," concluded the general.