‘We Will Have to Wait and See if Iran Is Done’

Former Centcom commander says the United States would be mistaken to take Iran’s word that it does not seek escalation.

U.S. Army Gen. Joseph Votel, then-head of U.S. Central Command, testifies during a House Armed Services Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington on Feb. 27, 2018.
U.S. Army Gen. Joseph Votel, then-head of U.S. Central Command, testifies during a House Armed Services Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington on Feb. 27, 2018. SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images

As a young general officer, one of retired Gen. Joseph Votel’s first jobs in the U.S. Defense Department was as the director of a task force established to defeat a lethal new threat that killed and maimed thousands of American and coalition troops in the early 2000s—improvised explosive devices. 

The man who engineered Iran’s campaign to plant these deadly devices on battlefields across Iraq and Afghanistan: Qassem Suleimani, the commander of Iran’s elite Quds Force, who was killed in a U.S. drone strike last week.

More than a decade later, Votel saw the impact of Iran’s malign activities firsthand as the head of U.S. Central Command from March 2016 to March 2019. In an interview with Foreign Policy, Votel weighed in on the thinking behind Tehran’s retaliatory strike on U.S. and coalition targets in Iraq on Tuesday and the need for the United States to rebuild its relationship with Iraq.

Foreign Policy: What message was Iran trying to send with the retaliatory strikes on Tuesday?

Joseph Votel: The Iranian response here was clearly designed to address both an internal and an external audience. Tehran definitely chose a method that was unambiguous and very clearly linked back to them. The signal there was that they wanted to show that it was coming from them and not hide behind their proxies.

The fact that they notified the Iraqis and then struck in areas that would not have casualties was indicative of their desire, hopefully, to seek some kind of offramp after this.

FP: Iran notably used its ballistic missile arsenal in the strike, rather than cruise missiles or armed drones, as was the case in the attack on Saudi oil infrastructure last year. What do you make of this?

JV: I think they are trying to demonstrate a capability. There is no big surprise that for a number of years now they have made investments in this particular area. They have not only increased quantitatively. They’ve increased qualitatively. I don’t necessarily think a drone would’ve been the system that would’ve been chosen to create damage. 

My theory is they were trying to be unambiguous, to make sure it was clear it was them. They know we track missiles—we know where they are coming from. I don’t think they were trying to hide that.

FP: President Donald Trump in his response announced additional sanctions but no military action. Do you think he was trying to de-escalate?

JV: It was very clear from his remarks that the maximum pressure campaign continues, and he wants to stay focused on that. I thought it was interesting that he called on some of the NATO partners to become part of the solution here and bring them on board. He also mentioned that we share a common enemy with Iran in the Islamic State, and I took that to be perhaps an initial opportunity that there can be things that we can agree on and there are things that we can work on.

FP: Trump gave his address standing in front of the entire top U.S. military brass. What message do you think he intended to convey?

JV: My view of that is the intention was to show unity. There is no doubt it was designed to show strength and some resolve, and I think it did that. I would note that the secretary of state, the vice president, and the secretary of defense were right there so that our civilians were up front as they should be. 

FP: Iran’s foreign minister said after the strikes that Tehran had concluded its attacks and did not seek escalation. Is the threat over?

JV: I think we will have to wait and see if Iran is done. They have lots of capabilities and options. I do assess some of their initial public communication is designed to take advantage of the current information environment and cast themselves in the best light possible with both internal and external audiences.

That said, my view is we ought to be paying attention. We’ve got to be vigilant for other attacks, whether it is proxies or something happening in the maritime environment. We shouldn’t just assume that because they say that that’s it, they are done.

FP: Do you think Iran wants war with the United States?

JV: I think we left them with no option but to respond. They had to respond. I don’t think that Iran wants head-to-head war with the United States—that said, I think one of their objectives is to get the United States out of the Middle East, to deconstruct these coalitions that we have led in that area. So I think that remains very much part of their objective, and they will continue to do that, whether it is through low-level attacks or otherwise. 

FP: Did the strike on Suleimani damage the U.S. relationship with the Iraqi government?

JV: We’ve put Iraq in a very difficult position here with our operation. I’m not saying we shouldn’t have done it—I don’t know all the details, I haven’t been briefed on it and never will be. But if we don’t incorporate our partners into this, if we don’t have a communication strategy to do this, I think we make it very, very difficult for them. 

I hope it’s not irreversible, but it’s something we will have to work through.

FP: The Iraqi government voted after the Suleimani strike on a nonbinding resolution to expel U.S. troops. Do you think the United States will leave Iraq, and what impact would that have on the Middle East?

JV: I don’t know if it will happen or not. I hope that it doesn’t happen. I always considered Iraq to be a linchpin country in the region—it sits at an important point here. It is a great place for us to exercise our influence, to be a good partner, and by doing that, I think it gives us a strategic advantage. So I’m hopeful that we can work through this issue with the Iraqis.

In order to do that, in the coming days and weeks, we need to be very consistently and clearly communicating what we are doing—we need to reemphasize our interests in the area, we need to clarify our strategy in terms of what we are doing, and we need to really double down on our partnership here.

FP: Do you think the vote reflects the wishes of the majority of Iraqis?

JV: The vote was largely the Shiite members of parliament—most of the Sunnis and close to all of the Kurds were not present—so I can’t say that that represents the view of the majority of Iraqis. We’ve seen this before where there have been these nonbinding resolutions in the parliament. Clearly that doesn’t indicate what they really want to have happen. So I don’t believe that all the Iraqis want us to go, but I do believe we need to shore up this aspect of the relationship by being good, reliable, open partners.

My experience as commander of U.S. Central Command for the last several years was largely to the defeat-ISIS campaign. By being very open and by being transparent in things we were doing, and by incorporating the Iraqis into the decision-making process for the campaign, I think we became very valuable partners for them. We have to be trusted partners, and when we do that, then they will recognize that. But it isn’t something you turn off and turn on. Where trust is lost, you have to rebuild it.

FP: What advice would you give your successors in the aftermath of the attack?

JV: If I were still in the Central Command seat, I’d be in the assessment phase here: What just happened? What is our assessment of that? What vulnerabilities does this expose in them, and what does it expose in us? I would want to make sure I understood the situation as best as I could. Secondly, I think we want to make sure we stay vigilant. We’ve seen a response, but of course Iran is multifaceted in their threat. Third, we have to have clear, consistent communication—it would be important for me to be talking to our partners and making sure they understood what happened to the best of our ability and what we were going to be doing next.

Lara Seligman is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @laraseligman