NOEL KING, HOST:
Tensions between the U.S. and Iran are on the rise. Today administration officials will brief members of Congress on the perceived threat that Iran poses, and the U.S. has deployed warships and planes to the Arabian Sea over the past few days. I'm on the line now with former CIA Director David Petraeus. He's also a retired Army general. He commanded U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Good morning, sir.
DAVID PETRAEUS: Good morning, Noel.
KING: Let me start by asking you how concerned you are right now about the possibility of a conflict between the U.S. and Iran.
PETRAEUS: Well, I'm not concerned about a direct attack of Iranian forces on U.S. forces, I don't think. I'm much more concerned about miscalculation, misperception - say, undisciplined, trigger-happy Iranian-supported militia elements. This kind of activity, I think, is concerning because you don't know how far it could escalate.
KING: Well, U.S. forces and Iranian forces - or at least Iranian proxies - are geographically very close to each other in the Persian Gulf and Iraq. Do you see potential flashpoints there? And if so, where?
PETRAEUS: Well, there certainly are potential flashpoints. The question is, are they likely? Again, I think that the main forces of the Iranian army and even of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps - navy and air forces and army and so forth - these are going to be relatively disciplined. The question is - is there some, again, rogue actor? Is there somebody who is just trigger-happy? It's not clear at all who shot off the rocket the other night from Baghdad, allegedly - purportedly, according to the Iraqi counterterrorist service, it was fired by Khattab Hezbollah, which is an Iranian-supported Shia militia - but just one rocket and so forth. So that would be, I think, the concern.
And by the way, I should just note that the leaders of the Iranian-supported Shia militia in Iraq have actually denounced that and have said that "if war is ignited, everyone will burn." That's a quote from Hadi al-Amiri, an old colleague if you will, who is the head of the Shia militia and a former minister of transportation, as well. I know him well.
It's very clear that the Iraqi leadership - the president, the prime minister, the speaker and even, again, these leaders of the Shia militia - do not want to see a war between the United States and Iran fought on Iraqi soil.
KING: Well, the United States first backed out of the nuclear agreement with Iran, then increased sanctions on Iran, then declared the Revolutionary Guards terrorists. Is there an argument here that the United States is goading Iran into a conflict purposefully?
PETRAEUS: Well, the truth is I'm not sure there is precise clarity on specifically what the U.S. is seeking. I think we are beginning to see that the president certainly doesn't want to goad Iran into war, although he certainly threatened them if they take some kind of threatening action or attack us. But it's as if the administration has been having a debate about whether our objective is regime change - as national security adviser Bolton called for before returning to government - or regime behavior change, as Secretary of State Pompeo has stated is the objective. And if it's the latter - how much behavior change? - and do we re-engage in dialogue with them, as the president has implied very - on multiple occasions that he is seeking to do?
So again, there is not, again, precise clarity on all of this. And I think that's a little bit of the challenge that we have right now as the administration does come to grips with what it is that it's specifically trying to achieve through this maximum pressure campaign, the screws of which have been tightened again recently with the removal of waivers on oil exports by Iran.
KING: Well, it sounds like what you're saying is that inside the administration, people may not know what they want.
PETRAEUS: Well, I think clarity is beginning to emerge. Again, I think...
PETRAEUS: ...As the president has gotten engaged here more significantly, his public statements have been very clear. We are not seeking war with Iran. But if they bring that, you know, it's going to be very, very difficult for them. And in fact, he would seem to welcome some kind of dialogue. He has put out numerous feelers, if you will, and we know that Omani diplomats have recently been dispatched to Tehran. That's a back channel that's been used before when the nuclear agreement was being developed. He met with - the Swiss leaders last week.
So again, I think this is beginning to come into focus. But certainly, there is still, undoubtedly, some wrangling within the bureaucracy - the Principals Committee and so forth - over specifically what do we want and how should we seek it.
KING: Well, let's talk about that wrangling. Iran's President, Hassan Rouhani, said yesterday that the current situation isn't suitable for talks and that Iran's only choice is resistance. What does it take to get - to reestablish lines of communication? Is it diplomacy?
PETRAEUS: Well, actually, we'll see what he says a year into the maximum pressure campaign. I don't know how long Iran can sustain this kind of economic downturn. I mean, the currency has depreciated dramatically, inflation is way up, and the GDP is plummeting. And again, there has been unrest on the Iranian streets already. Last fall, there were spontaneous demonstrations all over the country.
So again, the leadership has to be wondering - how far can we take this? Can we tighten the belt more notches and just grit our teeth until November of 2020 in the hopes that someone else is elected and then January 2021, all is going to be good? Or do they indeed start to seek some kind of back channel communication - again, perhaps through Oman, as it was done in the past in the lead-up to the nuclear agreement?
KING: So the maximum pressure campaign may in some senses be working. A last question for you, General - do you think that these actions from the Trump administration suggest that, at least in this part of the world, there are lessons that the United States has simply failed to learn after all these years?
PETRAEUS: I think we've learned a lot of lessons over the recent years. I've learned that - you know, the big three lessons that I took from Iraq is that, No. 1, is you should really, really understand a country with a very nuanced level of understanding before you invade it, that you shouldn't then administer it with a pickup team and you should ask whether each policy will create more bad guys than it takes off the street by its conduct.
Again, each of those, I think, we learned the hard way. We've learned that aspirations, hopes in the wake of upheavals that topple longtime authoritarian figures don't always turn out the way, again, we might wish them to be. So again, this is a very, very tough place. But it's not a place from which we can walk away. This is a place that still fuels...
KING: We've got to...
PETRAEUS: ...The global economy. This is a place where extremist groups and civil wars are ongoing. And what happens there doesn't stay there. Las Vegas rules don't apply.
KING: General David Petraeus, thanks so much for your time.
PETRAEUS: My pleasure, Noel. Thank you.
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