The killing of Iran’s top general is such a significant escalation by the US it may prompt Tehran to “give pause”, says one of America’s best-known military commanders.
General David Petraeus, who also served as director of the CIA after retiring from the military in 2011, recalled how the accidental downing of an Iranian civilian airliner by a US warship over the Strait of Hormuz in 1988 helped end the so-called tanker war between Tehran and Washington.
The targeting of Major General Qassem Soleimani in a drone strike on Friday “is such a significant escalation that it may well give pause to Iran in the way that the accidental downing of the aircraft ended the tanker war of the 1980s”, he said in an interview with Sky News.
But the general – who served as commander of all US-led forces in Iraq from 2007 to 2008 at a time when Iranian-backed forces were killing and maiming British and American troops – noted the Iranian regime also had a lot of potential options for retaliation.
“They could launch rockets and missiles up and down the western side of the Gulf,” he said, adding there are a number of bases in the region owned by the US and its allies.
“It seems the US has posted quite a few additional forces in the region to be prepared to defend troops and respond… No one can really predict the outcome.”
He said the killing of Maj Gen Soleimani, the leader of Iran’s elite Quds Force, was “more consequential than the killing of Osama bin Laden”, the leader of al Qaeda.
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The Iranian commander was instrumental in developing relations with proxy forces across the Middle East – from Lebanon, through Syria, through Iraq and down to Yemen – that enhanced Iran’s influence in the region.
As a strategist, he effectively led Iran’s foreign policy and military policy for at least the past decade and a half.
But his style was also to be out on the ground, dealing directly with the leaders of the militias and proxy forces he was helping to fund, train and equip.
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Gen Petraeus said: “The question is how does Iran respond?
“And what does the US do in response to that? Does this in a sense restore deterrence?”
He noted many had commented the ability of the US and its allies to deter Iran from carrying out hostile acts had been lost by the lack of a robust military response to the downing of a US drone by an Iranian missile last summer.
And also attacks on international shipping in the Strait of Hormuz, blamed on Iranian forces.
Even the targeting of Saudi oil facilities in September did not trigger a military retaliation.
US-led forces in Iraq, on a mission to counter Islamic State, had also been coming under increased rocket fire blamed on Iranian-backed militia.
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It was only when a US contractor was killed in a strike on 27 December that President Donald Trump gave an order to launch airstrikes against the militia in Iraq and across the border in Syria.
He also then authorised the drone strike against Maj Gen Soleimani, who was hit along with a senior Iraqi militia leader, as he was being driven out of Baghdad airport.
“This now shows the US is willing to take very significant steps which were not apparent before,” General Petraeus said.
He had first-hand experience of Gen Soleimani during his time as the commander of US-led forces in Iraq.
Gen Petraeus recalled how he had conveyed a message to Qassem Soleimani in 2008 to “pound sand” after the Iranian general tried to make contact.
The Iranian officer had contacted him via Iraq’s then president Jalal Talabani at a time when US forces were fighting Iranian-backed militias for control of the southern city of Basra.
“The message was: if you want to deal with Iran, do not fool around with those [Iranian] diplomats, deal with me,” General Petraeus said.
He sent a message back.
“I told him to pound sand,” the former commander said.