Petraeus vs. Ross?

Back in July, I wrote a post on this blog with the title, “Is Petraeus Preparing to Betray the Neo-Cons?” in which I suggested that, given his expanded geographical jurisdiction as CentCom commander, Gen. David Petraeus, like the Joint Chiefs (and candidate Barack Obama for that matter) at the time, would soon see Afghanistan/Pakistan as the “central front on the war on terror” and thus develop a sense of urgency about diverting more U.S. military and related resources from Iraq to Southwest Asia. At that time, neo-cons like Fred Kagan and Max Boot were arguing that Iraq was far more important than Afghanistan and that any diversion of troops eastward could have catastrophic geo-political consequences for the U.S. position in the Gulf and the Middle East.

Since then, of course, Petraeus has occasionally noted the necessity of a regional approach in dealing with Afghanistan/Pakistan, one that would include India to the east, the “Stans” to the north, and Iran to the west, but he has never been as explicit about common U.S. and Iranian interests in the region as he was today in a presentation to the U.S. Institute of Peace (sponsored, incidentally, by Lockheed Martin and Raytheon, as well as McDonalds and Coca-Cola). Despite evidence that Tehran has provided some weapons to anti-NATO forces in Afghanistan, he noted, Iran doesn’t “want …to see Afghanistan in the grip of ultra-fundamentalist extremist Sunni forces. Nor do they want to see the narcotics problem get worse. In fact, they want to see it reduced; it’s a huge issue in Iran,” he said, noting again that Iran, like India, could be critical to stabilizing Afghanistan.

Petraeus’ appreciation for the importance of bringing Iran into a regional effort to stabilize Afghanistan — he spoke shortly after former UN Special Envoy on Afghanistan Ibrahim Brahimi told the same conference that Iran was “second perhaps in influence to Pakistan” in Afghanistan and would not hesitate to create problems if it felt its interests there were threatened — may, of course, lead him into conflict not only with the neo-conservatives (as I suggested back in July), but, more importantly, with Dennis Ross and his backers within the Obama administration. Ross, who, according to numerous reports now, appears certain to be made special envoy on all matters pertaining to Iran (and possibly the entire Middle East) has even less expertise on Afghanistan and Southwest Asia than he does on the Islamic Republic. Moreover, his Israel-centric worldview (in which Iran, rather than al Qaeda, represents the greatest regional threat to both the U.S. and Israel) is almost certain to clash with Petraeus’ (and the Pentagon’s) view that Iran’s cooperation — or at least acquiescence — is critical to stabilizing Afghanistan and ultimately Pakistan as well. In other words, a serious conflict is likely to develop between those, like Ross, who see Iran as the greatest threat to U.S. interests and Israel in the region defined as the “Middle East”) and those who believe that al Qaeda and its allies in “Southwest Asia” represent the greatest immediate threat to U.S. security.

Of course, Richard Holbrooke, who will be special envoy on Afghanistan/Pakistan (and India in parenthesis, according to the latest news), generally shares Ross’s views on Iran — they are co-founders, after all, with James Woolsey and Fouad Ajami of a group called United Against Nuclear) Iran; see this Wall Street Journal op-ed, for example — and may be expected to back him up in inter-agency debates about how confrontational a policy Obama should pursue toward Iran. But I think Petraeus and the military will have some pretty strong views about how well-positioned Tehran is to make life much more difficult for the U.S. in both Afghanistan and even in Pakistan, not to mention Iraq — and how much easier it could be if some sort of a “grand bargain” — even one that recognizes Iran’s right to enrich uranium under strict international inspection — with the Islamic Republic could be forged. Perhaps, if things really went well, Iran could even offer NATO a desperately needed new and inexpensive supply route for its troops in Afghanistan…

Jim Lobe

Jim Lobe served for some 30 years as the Washington DC bureau chief for Inter Press Service and is best known for his coverage of U.S. foreign policy and the influence of the neoconservative movement.



  1. Even an administration totally devoted to war will leave town with Iraq still worse than when Bush declared the war over so many years ago, Somalia a US defeat, US influence in Afghanistan declining, US opponents on the offensive in Pakistan, Palestine an unmitigated disaster, Hezbollah doing better than ever in Lebanon, Iran on the rise, and al Qua’ida still around. Hubris could not overcome the absence of priorities (is it oil or WMD or Israel or terrorism or democracy; is it Saddam or al Qua’ida or Iran) even with a caved in Democratic Party, angry population after 9/11, and (for a moment after 9/11) world sympathy. And now there’s a recession that Washington’s behavior over the last three months has significantly worsened.

    The Obama Administration will need to establish priorities to accomplish anything. Herein of course lies the importance of your valuable post. The Obama Administration will need to see the differences between Palestine, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, and Kashmir rather than viewing them all through the same mind-numbing lens of Israel or Islam or terrorism or “those who are against us.”

    Seeing the differences among these issues can enable us to gain important benefits. One major example is Iran: Iran can once again help us in Afghanistan, as it did just after Bush invaded, but we will need to reject the war fever being promoted by Israeli neo-cons and their American fellow travelers. Any number of other examples could be cited.

  2. I agree with your analysis.

    I think:

    2008-09: Petraeus wins over Ross&Co.

    2010-2012 Ross&Co. wins over Petraeus (and his geostrategic circle)

    2013 Bomb Iran after sevaral UN sanctions with inadequate inelligence (as the war in Iraq)


  3. Is that really likely?
    Iran giving the US a pathway to attack Afghanistan?
    Doesn’t that seem like the devils bargain, in which first they let us set up governments in Afghanistan and Pakistan, expecting what to happen to them?
    Would they think we would ultimately leave them alone, merely because they were accommodating?

    I didn’t realize that the Iranians were positive in supporting the outward US democracy mission. I don’t remember them supporting the liberation of Iraq. I would have thought they would see us as, blood and oil thirsty imperialist dogs. Perhaps I am naive.

    I suppose there is also what you mentioned about allowing Iran to use their nuclear reactor. Here I really don’t know and am curious, aren’t they with UN supervision already allowed to do that the way North Korea was? The WSJ article you linked to uses as a main signal that they are building weapons, aside from there is a lot of material, that they don’t want to use outside suppliers. Isn’t it usually more cost effective not to have to import workers and materials for projects? Look at the US in Afghanistan using local warlords of the north since the beginning.

    Iran is scary and I do think that we should try to engage in diplomacy and try and find common ground to do business together, building sustainable energy, so that we wouldn’t have to question what they are doing with their nuclear.

    Leading by example is an idea I don’t think the US has practiced in a while but is our best argument.

  4. Nick, why do you think Iran is scary? Though they are a swarthy people, they may pale in comparison to Italians. I tend to think Nick’s are Italian. Though we had a family friend who had a skinny dipping accident which resembled a bris who was later known as Nick; anyway,…

    Iran did help us in Iraq and in Afghanistan. Iran kept even modest weapons out of Iraq. The democratization of Iraq served Iran’s interest beyond anything they could’ve imagined. The Shia majorities, especially when one ignores that the Kurds and Sunis are all Suni; they are politically divided. This served Iran’s interest. The meager RPG’s that Hamas is firing into Israel exceed anything we’re seeing in Iraq.

    Again, you refer to Iran offer routes to attack Afghanistan. I don’t think Iran would offer carte blanche here, but if we are indeed helping to build peaceful and stable neighbors that is certainly in Iran’s interest.

  5. Thank you for this interesting and important post. The attitudes of Petraeus and the Joints Chiefs are key to which way Iran policy will go – and they should favor a grand bargain, for several reasons. Cooperation with India and Iran is the path to getting the U.S. out of an unwinnable war in Afghanistan, without letting the Taliban back in.

    The question is whether Israel and its U.S. supporters will allow this to happen. Not that they care about Afghanistan; Iran is what matters to them. Their opposition to a grand bargain, which normally would be decisive, may not be enough against an Obama-military united front – especially if hard times at home in the U.S. turn the populace decisively against more military adventures. If Obama and the military indeed find common ground, there is a strong possibilty that a sensible Iran policy will emerge, and with it the beginning of U.S. disengagement from Afghanistan.

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