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Losing Petraeus, Losing Iran

The general was one of few who understood that Iran was at war with the U.S., and no bargain could be struck

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CIA Director David Petraeus arrives to testify before the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee on Jan. 31, 2012. (Karen Bleier/AFP/Getty Images)

The still-unraveling scandal that has forced the resignation of CIA Director David Petraeus has already touched on vital matters of U.S. national security. For starters: Did the spymaster pass information about the CIA’s secret work in Benghazi onto his mistress and biographer, Paula Broadwell? As the scandal continues to widen, there will surely be other pertinent, and likely more disturbing, questions raised.

But perhaps the most significant question we’ll be left asking once the tawdry details stop leaking is: What happens to U.S. foreign policy when it loses a man of Petraeus’ experience, perspective, and institutional memory? For all of his peerless expertise regarding Iraq and Afghanistan, the question is especially relevant regarding Iran.

According to former Petraeus aides, leading military officials, policymakers, and analysts close to the four-star general that I spoke to this week, Petraeus understood, more than anyone else in our national-security apparatus, that the Islamic Republic is at war with the United States. By Petraeus’ reckoning, they said, it’s not possible to strike a grand bargain with Iran over its nuclear weapons program because the larger problem is the regime itself, whose endgame is to drive the United States from the region. And no arm of the regime is more dangerous than its external operations unit, the Qods Force, whose mastermind, Qassem Suleimani, is considered by Petraeus to be a personal enemy.

In seeing Iran as a threat to vital U.S. interests, Petraeus bucked the mainstream of more than 30 years of U.S. foreign policy. Presidents and legislators from both parties, as well as military and civilian officials, have tended to downplay the Iranian threat, seeking engagement with Tehran in the vague hopes of reaching a deal that might lead the regime to finally call off its dogs and leave us in peace. Petraeus, on the other hand, fought the Iranians.

As commander of American forces in Iraq from February 2007 to September 2008 and in Afghanistan from July 2010 to July 2011, Petraeus fought Iranians’ local proxies and frequently the Iranians themselves, often drawn from the Qods Force. As head of Central Command from October 2008 to June 2010, the general had a large area of responsibility that afforded him an overview of Iranian activities throughout the region, in Lebanon, Syria, Yemen, the Persian Gulf states as well as Iraq and Afghanistan. During the course of almost a decade, Petraeus became Washington’s institutional memory of all of Iran’s activities directed against the United States and its allies.

“He understood the Iranians’ modus operandi, and their mentality,” said one intelligence analyst who worked in Iraq and saw Petraeus’ work up close. “No one has dealt directly with the Iranian threat the way he has. We’re losing someone at the highest levels of government with the historical knowledge and ability to counter the Iranians.”

Before the adultery scandal that forced his resignation on Friday, Petraeus was most famous as the commander who implemented the “surge” in Iraq, which is often credited for changing the course of the war. Petraeus’ campaign employed a large escalation of combat troops and a controversial counterinsurgency, or COIN, doctrine. Both the man and the idea were subjected to sharp criticism inside and outside military circles (including by this writer, whose understanding was faulty), which is hardly surprising given the acclaim heaped on Petraeus—or King David, as some rivals sarcastically referred to the general.

COIN’s basic premise is to the win the “hearts and minds” of a local population by providing it with protection and thereby cutting off an insurgency’s base of local support. COIN advocates explain that this account is too simplistic. “There’s this idea that COIN is about showing up in a village with a bag of money,” Lt. Col. Joel Rayburn, an Army intelligence officer who worked with Petraeus from 2007 to 2010, told me. “But from the start, the idea was to interdict lines of external support, politically and militarily.”

While the surge is usually believed to have focused all its energies against al-Qaida and Sunni militants, there was also a significant campaign against Iraqi Shia groups like Moqtada al-Sadr’s Jaysh al-Mahdi. Targeting their external lines of support—including money, weapons, and advisers—meant going after Iran. “When Petraeus came back to Iraq and took command in February 2007, my impression was that one of the things that struck him most was the level of Iranian involvement and its influence over the Iraqi government,” said Rayburn. “He clearly had a sense the Iranians were sponsoring killing our soldiers in Iraq and conducting operations against some of our allies.”

Others told me that the Iranians were always a factor in Iraq, but there was little political will to do anything about it before Petraeus took command. Many U.S. military and civilian leaders, in Washington and on the ground in Iraq, simply chose to ignore it. Gen. George W. Casey, who commanded the multinational forces in Iraq before Petraeus, was, according to one senior military official, in “denial” about Iranian involvement. “They downplayed it—and you can understand why,” he said. “If the strategy is to hand security over to the Iraqi government, then it is problematic to be told that it is infiltrated by Iranian agents. If that’s true then the fundamental assumption is wrong, and you need to change your strategy.”

When George W. Bush realized that he was in danger of presiding over an American defeat, he tasked Petraeus with the job of turning the Iraq war around. That meant looking at Iraq with fresh eyes and seeing Iran’s role clearly. “With the Iranians, there was a multipronged campaign to root out their operations in Iraq,” said Max Boot, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations who observed Petraeus in Iraq and later in Afghanistan. “That went from gathering intelligence, to arresting Iranian operatives, and pushing back Iranian influence.”

The man in charge of Iran’s Iraq policy, and most of their foreign operations, was and remains Qassem Suleimani, the 55-year-old major general who commands the Qods Force. According to Michael Gordon and Gen. Bernard E. Trainor’s new book The Endgame: The Inside Story of the Struggle for Iraq, From George W. Bush to Barack Obama, Suleimani answers directly to Supreme Leader Ali Khameini. With the job of advancing the Islamic Republic’s interests through warfare and clandestine activities, Suleimani is perhaps the second-most important figure in the regime’s power structure. Recently he’s helped to shore up Bashar al-Assad’s besieged Syrian regime and participated in the plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to Washington. In a 2008 letter to then-Defense Sec. Robert Gates, Petraeus called Suleimani a “truly evil figure.”

For the entirety of Petraeus’ tenure in Iraq, said Rayburn, “pushing back on Suleimani’s political and military influence was a key concern for him. He didn’t say it explicitly, but I believed he considered himself to be in war of wits against Suleimani.” The intelligence analyst agreed: “Petraeus saw Suleimani as his main adversary. We’d whack them, and then they regenerated because they had safe haven. But then he gave Suleimani an ultimatum, that he’d go after Qods Force.”

In January 2007, U.S. forces captured five Qods Force operatives in Erbil, which was Petraeus’ way of sending a message to Suleimani. “After that, they no longer sent in their senior guys, they sent in proxies,” said the analyst. The Erbil Five were eventually released, which is to say that Petraeus’ campaign against the Iranians hardly amounted to a rout, especially considering the amount of influence Iran today exercises in Iraq, including its relationship with Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki.

And yet, Petraeus did considerable damage to Iran’s project in Iraq. “The Iranians tried to force us back down in 2006,” said the analyst. “But their militias were pushed out of Baghdad. By the end of 2008, all Iranian-backed militia leaders were dead or trying to take a taxi back to Iran. Ultimately they did not achieve their goals there. They want to project the image that they have more control than they actually do in Baghdad. It’s like when they photoshopped those ballistic weapons to make themselves look more powerful. It’s how they operate.”

According to the sources I spoke with, many of the programs that Petraeus implemented, and the tools he used to push back against Suleimani and the Qods Force, are going concerns. Those will continue. But as far as having someone at the top levels of government who understands the Iranian’s tactics, and has fought them up-close, Petraeus will likely be impossible to replace.


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Seyed Seyedsaadat says:

He could not keep his D in his pants ,He also think Iran is at war with US and the problem is the regime Is he thinking with the head in his pants ? What loser . He disgraced his family and entire country. He has no credibility to make any judgment.

    He certainly did Seyed and he headed up the invasion of Iraq which was embarked upon on the flimsy string of a lie. Thus he has earned the name which he was long ago bequeathed which is General Betray us.

He is a human being, not a machine. What happened to him has happened throughout history. It should not negate the things he accomplished. And if anyone thinks that we are not in war with Iran, look again.

stannadel says:

So Smith is another one who has fallen in love with Petraeus and is promoting his cult of personality rather than providing a realistic analysis. Well at least he isn’t sleeping with him–I think.

dongszkie says:

What in the world ! Only Petreus knows and understand Iran??? All the world is a dumb ???

dan3333333333 says:

Seyed Seyedsaadat, your an idiot, Iran is at war with the US, and no matter how well that truth smacks your stupid sand beat face you still deney the truth.
Keep it coming Iran, I hope and pray you keep it coming to see whats in store!

    Muammar Gaddafi was pushing other Arab countries to adopt a gold standard currency which would have eclipsed the dollar and the euro.

    So the whole country of Libya was sacked in order to kill him.

    When the ‘rebels’ ousted Gaddafi, what was the first thing they did ? Form a new GOVERNMENT ?

    Nope. They formed a LIBYAN NATIONAL BANK.

    Now, why would they do that?

    And even though they ‘ousted’ Gaddafi, he remained sole proprietor of the Libyan National Bank (the original one) until he (and his heirs) died.

    So… guess what?

    The EUSSR needed Libya’s oil and since they have been on US military welfare since WW2, they had their dupe Sodom Hussein Obama arrange the assassination of their newly uncooperative stooge Muammar Queerdaffy, who they previously had on the UN Human Rights Commission.

    In Syria, nobody wants to get openly involved because it would force them to admit that George Bush was right and the WMDs Saddam Hussein did have and did use on Kurds and Iranians went over to his friend (and formerly theirs) Bashar al-Assad in the Ba’ath Socialist party.

    The EUSSR socialists can never face the facts of what socialism really is.

    Smuggling guns to narcoterrorists in Mexico is the same modus operandi as smuggling guns to the Salafist terror groups in Syria…

    The deliberate indifference to the planned assassination of US ambassador Stevens just eliminated one loose end.

    Leon Puñettas was just too busy having gay pride celebrations at the Pentagon and couldn’t spare the troops to protect an ambassador…

    (Serbia was bombed by NATO so the IMF could make loans to rebuild and get control of the iridium assets.)

    It is never about human rights at all with these people, it is all about who controls…

      wefearwhatwedontunderstand says:

      Dude, I have been trying to verify the truth of this gold standard business, and all I ever find is the report by Laura Emmett in the Russian Times and people like you – all over the friggin’ place – insisting that it is true in the comments to any article about Libya. What other sources do you have for this supposed truth, to back it up? It seems like something like this would have been reported somewhere besides the one RT report.

      And as for Syria having Saddam’s WMDs – surely, you have seen this thorough debunking:

      And finally, as to your crazy ideas about what socialism is all about and who the evil socialists are, 1. Gaddafi was a socialist, not Obama. 2. How are capitalists like the Bush administration, with Cheney’s ties to Halliburton, somehow the noble players in your wacked out scenario?

        1988. Al-Hakam, a large biological agent production facility, goes into operation in Iraq. Botulinin toxin and Anthrax are its main is its main production. By 1991 the plant produces about 125,000 gallons of agents. After stating for years that the plant was used to produce animal feed, the Iraqis admitted in 1995 that the plant was a biological warfare production facility. The admission comes only as a result of a high-level defection. The site is supervised by Dr. Taha’s staff at Muthanna State Establishment.

        In addition to producing biological warfare agents, they also conducted live-agent tests on animals. The Iraqis also later admitted they had prepared about 200 biological missiles and bombs. Still unaccounted for.

        Hans Branscheidt a chemical expert says (in 2003), that Iraq purchased eight mobile chemical laboratories from the Federal Republic of Germany. He says that the construction of an Iraqi research center for missile technology “became almost exclusively the work of German companies.” This report is confirmed by the head of Germany’s intelligence service, August Hanning.

        1990, August 6. The US Navy sends it’s commanders an intelligence assessment on Iraq’s bio-weapons capability warning that Iraq’s germ weapons may be effective against ships at distances of up to 25 miles. It also stated that Iraq has substantial amounts of Botulinin toxin, Anthrax, Cholera, and Staphylococcus–among other agents. The CIA warns that Saddam has a significant number of artillery shells, missiles, bombs, rockets and high-performance aircraft equipped with sprayers for dispensing these agents. 

        All modified Soviet equipment.

        1978-1990. Soviet Union sells Iraq (33) Il-76M/Candid-B Transport/tanker aircraft; (37) Mi-17/Hip-H Helicopters; (12) Mi-24D/Mi-25/Hind-D Combat helicopters; (30) Mi-8TV/Hip-F Helicopter; (61) MiG-21bis/Fishbed-N Fighter aircraft; (50) MiG-23BN/Flogger-H FGA aircraft; (30) MiG-25P/Foxbat-A Fighter aircraft; (8) MiG-25RB/Foxbat-B Reconnaissance; (41) MiG-29/Fulcrum-A Fighter aircraft; (46) Su-22/Fitter-H/J/K FGA aircraft; (25) Su-24MK/Fencer-D Bomber aircraft; (84) Su-25/Frogfoot-A Ground attack aircraft; (180) 2A36 152mm Towed guns; (100) 2S1 122mm Self-propelled guns; (100) 2S3 152mm Self-propelled guns; (10) 2S4 240mm Self-propelled mortars; (560) BM-21 122mm MRL; (576) D-30 122mm Towed guns; (576) M-46 130mm Towed guns; (10) SS-1 Scud/9P117M SSM launchers; (100) BRDM-2 Sagger-equipped tank destroyers; (200) PT-76 Light tanks; (60) SA-13/9K35 Strela-10 self-propelled AA systems; (160) SA-9/9P31 self-propelled AA systems; (2,150) T-62 Main battle tanks; (25) SA-6a/2K12 Kvadrat SAM systems; (80) SA-8b/9K33M Osa-AK Mobile SAM systems; (960) SA-13 Gopher/9M37 SAM’s; (100) SA-14 Gremlin/Strela-3 Portable SAM; (250) SA-16 Gimlet/Igla-1 Portable SAM’s; (840) SA-6a Gainful/3M9 SAM’s; (6,500) SA-7 Grail/Strela-2 Portable SAM’s; (1,290) SA-8b Gecko/9M33M SAM’s; (1,920) SA-9 Gaskin/9M31 SAM’s; (800) SS-1c Scud-B/R-17 SSM’s; (40) SS-1c Scud-B/R-17 SSM’s.

        1977-1990. France sells Iraq (23) Mirage F-1C Fighter aircraft; (85) Mirage F-1 Fighter aircraft (various versions); (18) SA-342K/L Gazelle Light helicopters (assembled in Egypt); (5) Super Etendard FGA aircraft for use with AM-39 anti-ship missiles against Iranian warships and oil tankers in the Persian Gulf; (85) AMX-GCT 155mm Self-propelled guns; (100) AMX-10P IFV’s; (150) ERC-90 Sagaie Armoured cars; (115) M-3 VTT APC’s; (2) Rasit Battlefield radars; (113) Roland Mobile SAM systems; (1) TRS-2100 Tiger Surveillance radar (Fitted in Iraq on an Il-76 transport aircraft designated “Baghdad-1”); (6) TRS-2230/15 Surveillance radars; (280) AM-39 Exocet Anti-ship missiles For Mirage F-1E and Super Etendard aircraft; (36) AM-39 Exocet Anti-ship missile For AS-332 helicopters; (450) ARMAT Anti-radar missiles For Mirage F-1E FGA aircraft; (240) AS-30L ASM’s For Mirage F-1E FGA aircraft; (1,000) HOT Anti-tank missile For SA-342K helicopters and VCR-TH tank destroyers; (534) R-550 Magic-1 AAM’s For Mirage F-1C fighter aircraft; (2,260) Roland-2 SAM’s; (300) Super-530F AAM’s For Mirage F-1C fighter aircraft.

        1981-1988. China sells Iraq (4) B-6 Bomber aircraft; (40) F-6 Fighter aircraft; (80) F-7A Fighter aircraft (Assembled in Egypt and transferred via Jordan); (50) Type-83 152mm Towed guns; (1,300) Type-59/T-54 Main battle tanks; (25) Type-653 Armored Recon Vehicles; (1,300) Type-69-II Main battle tanks; (650) YW-531C & YW-701/Type-63 APC; (100) CAS-1 Kraken/C-601 Anti-ship missiles For Tu-16/B-6 bomber aircraft; (1,000) HN-5A Portable SAMs.

        1978-1990. Germany (FRG), sells Iraq (28) BK-117 Helicopters (intended for VIP transport and Search & Rescue); (20) Bo-105C Light helicopters.

        1979-1989. Brazil sells Iraq (67) Astros-2 MRL’s; (350) EE-11 Urutu APCs; (280) EE-3 Jararaca Reconnaissance vehicles; (1,026) EE-9 Cascavel Armoured cars; (13) Astros AV-UCF Fire control radars for use with the MRLs.

        1979-1989. Switzerland sells Iraq (2) PC-6B Turbo Porter Light transport aircraft; (52) PC-7 Turbo Trainer Trainer aircraft; (20) PC-9 Trainer aircraft.

        1982. Austria sells Iraq (200) GHN-45 Towed guns. Officially ordered by Jordan, but illegally delivered to Iraq.

        1982. Libya sells Iraq (400) EE-9 Cascavel Armoured cars.

        1982. Iraq also establishes Muthanna State Establishment, also known as al-Muthanna, and operated under the front name of Iraq’s State Establishment for Pesticide Production. It has five research and development sections, each tasked to pursue different programs. In addition, the al-Muthanna site is the main chemical agent production facility, and took the lead in weaponizing chemical and biological agents–including all aspects of weapon development and testing in association with the military.

        1982-1990. Poland sells Iraq (15) Mi-2/Hoplite Light helicopters; (750) MT-LB APC’s; (400) T-55 Main battle tanks; (500) T-72M1 Main battle tanks.

        1982, October 27. Iraq’s first operational Scud Missile brigade, equipped with 9 launchers, fires its missiles at Iran. During the war, Iraq fires between 333 and 360 Scud missiles at Iran, 183 at Teheran alone. Iraq is known to have purchased over 1,000 Scud missiles from the Soviets during the war. The Iranians return the favor by firing their own Scuds at Baghdad.

        1983-1985. USA sells Iraq (31) Bell-214ST Helicopters (Officially bought for civilian use, but taken over by Air Force); (30) Hughes-300/TH-55 light helicopters (Officially bought for civilian use, but taken over by Air Force); (30) MD-500MD Defender light scout helicopters; (26) MD-530F light helicopters.

          wefearwhatwedontunderstand says:

          The biological weapons plant was actually named Al Hakum, and yes, Saddam had a biological weapons program there.

          The mobile chem labs produced hydrogen to fill artillery balloons see:

          They were not weapons labs not sold by the Germans – they were lies sold by Curveball via Ahmed Chalabi,, who had business ties with Paul Wolfowitz and about whom German intelligence told the Americans was not to be trusted see:

          Hans Branscheidt remains another phantom of the discussion boards brought up by conspiracy theorists clinging to their own set of “facts”

          August Hanning, the director of German intelligence (BND), was reported by the press as saying that German companies had apparently supplied Iraq with components for production of poison gas, not that he confirmed Branscheidt’s claims.

          I could go on and on, point by point, proving that you only have things partly right, and that the parts that you do have right to not add up to proving that Saddam sold all of his chemical weapons to Syria.

          No is arguing that Saddam did, at one time, have a chemical weapons program. Here is a document from the National Security Archives that discusses the Reagan Admin. response to Saddam’s chemical weapons program and the fact that they were secretly conducting relations behind a claim to neutrality – complete with the pic of Rummy shaking hands with Saddam:

          Meanwhile, your document dump on military purchases tells us nothing about the subject. Its all beside the point and doesn’t have anything whatsoever with the gold dinar claim.

          As far as that goes, I did some more research, only to become all the more convinced that the myth grew out two realities. 1. In 2001, the prime minister of Malaysia announced a seminar to discuss the introduction of an Islamic gold dinar – obviously, it never got off the ground. 2. In March 2011, there were reports of Gaddafi paying his mercenaries in gold from his large, undeclared reserves. That’s it – still waiting for more info from other sources on that one.

mbrenman says:

Bunch o’ humbug in this article. If Petraeus were really that opposed to Administration policy in regard to Iran, he would never have been made head of the CIA.

altershmalter says:

In the 1990s, Rabbi (name withheld) was a great talmudic scholar but
sleeping with multiple congregants while paskening all of those
difficult she’aylot betrayed the public trust (not to mention his aura
of emissary to G-d) and he was dismissed from his position, his rulings
no longer referenced because of his improprieties. Similarly, while
Gen. P may be a great military strategist, if we continue to trust him
to direct or influence our military efforts, we would be eroding the
moral fiber that the military (Petraeus included) has stated is an
integral part of its code of operations. He was not the first (nor will
he be the last) general to comprehend and establish a tactical plan to
control and eradicate those who seek to destroy us and our allies. He,
literally, f***ked up; now he’s out…and that’s the way it is.
Glorifying him is insulting and demeaning to our intelligence (no pun

ScottLucas11 says:

A bonus in Petraeus’ downfall if it lessens chance of war over Iran….

herbcaen says:

I have seen multiple vets myself sidabled in Iraq by Iranian made IEDs and EFPs. Perhaps Petraeus was focusing too much on Iran for the liking of the Chosen One

John Johnny John Johnson Jr. E says:

“By Petraeus’ reckoning, they said, it’s not
possible to strike a grand bargain with Iran over its nuclear weapons
program because the larger problem is the regime itself, whose endgame
is to drive the United States from the region.”

Is this not the guerilla in the room.
Why exactly has the US been involved militarily in the middle east for more than half a century now, arming this or that group that has come back to bite us in the ass or invading this or that nation we armed in the past?
Let the do whatever it wants to the mid east. Private charities can send aid if they want. Or US can adhear to obligations in relation to UN diplomatic or peacekeeping missions.

Beyond that, our casus belli and miltiary involvement against any given state in the mid east in the first place is questionable and doesn’t serve a single material need of the US. We don’t need their resources or their land, so what are we doing there?


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Losing Petraeus, Losing Iran

The general was one of few who understood that Iran was at war with the U.S., and no bargain could be struck

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