David Petraeus: Bolton May Be "Hard-Liner" But Trump "Not After Regime Change" In Iran


ABC's "This Week" co-Anchor Martha Raddatz sits down with former CIA Director David Petraeus to discuss the escalating tensions between the United States and Iran.

MARTHA RADDATZ: One of the senior officials I spoke to said that what he thought happened there was that the Iranians were sending a message, either through proxies or whoever else, and that it was -- it was calculated -- no injuries, no oil spilled -- just to send the message that we're resisting.

GEN. DAVID PETRAEUS, FORMER CIA DIRECTOR: It's entirely possible actually to try to stay below the threshold, which would -- if exceeded, we would have to do something. And we would do something, presumably, more than they did to us, if you will. So, that is entirely possible, but I'm not sure to what end. That's not going to provoke us, I don't think, to do something very significant --

RADDATZ: Even though there's rhetoric saying, you know, I'm not -- the Iranians wouldn't be happy if they do something?

PETRAEUS: I think there probably has been in this city, not far from here, some kind of debate in Washington, about what should the policy objective be. Are there grounds for negotiation? And you know, at the end of the day, the question that I was asking very early on in Iraq when it was clear that our assumptions weren't completely well founded on the fight to Baghdad, tell me how this ends.

I think that has been answered by the president frankly -- it’s pretty clear that he doesn't want to go to war with Iran. He’s not after regime change. He's after what Secretary Pompeo has announced as the objective, which is regime behavior change.

RADDATZ: And John Bolton, obviously, before he was National Security Adviser, talked about regime change, and that that was something he wanted. Do you think that's still being whispered in the president's ear?

PETRAEUS: Not after what the president said to the press the other day certainly if it was ever said. Again keep in mind the setting in which John gave that speech was a bunch of Iranian dissidents essentially. It doesn't mean that he didn't -- doesn't desire that. It doesn't mean that perhaps many folks would like to see that. Of course, we should have learned by now, I think, especially after the the Arab Spring, that the regime change aftermath is not always what we have hoped it would be.

RADDATZ: You've seen the reports about war planning, and certainly you go on both ends when you do war planning. I would say that 120,000 is possible. The president said, if we did anything like that, we’d use a hell of a lot more than that if we were attacked. Were those prudent measure -- measures to plan, like that?

PETRAEUS: I think it's absolutely right that they should be examining a variety of different options. It’d be actually derelict if they did not actually prepare for whatever could come.

But the truth is, let's remember that Iran is a country that has a population that is three times the size of Iraq when we invaded it, and a landmass that is three to four times the size of Iraq as well. And I think any thoughts about invading Iran, again rightly the president has shelved those I think, that would be an enormous undertaking. And he's right in his assessment, we would need a heck of a lot more troops than that, were we ever do something like that.

Now that doesn't mean we can't carry out very substantial, and very damaging attacks from the air, that we can do a lot to their maritime. Again, we can do in tremendous amount of damage.

I have some pretty good knowledge of that as the commander of the US Central Command, who actually did do a lot of contingency planning and even some rehearsals at various times when we thought we might have to execute some of those contingencies.

RADDATZ: Into Iran?

PETRAEUS: But the idea of an invasion --

Contingencies against Iran. This is publicly known.

RADDATZ: Yes. Right. Right.

PETRAEUS: Obviously, we were -- had to have plans. It was -- again, it was announced that we had plans if worse came to worse and we had to do something with the nuclear program. So -- but again, the idea of invading, I think, is -- is something that is certainly not seriously on the table.

RADDATZ: A lot of people will say and I suspect you'll agree with that -- this, that the danger now is miscalculation on -- on either side, or some sort of accident or some sort of rogue actor in this and that brings us to conflict.

PETRAEUS: Well you're exactly right. I think that is the concern that some incident escalates, gets out of hand, gets out of control. But this is where again you've got to have commanders on the ground who understand the rules of engagement.

RADDATZ: Do you think Iran will come to the negotiating table or cave in because of this maximum pressure campaign? Do you see any indication of that?

PETRAEUS: Well they are going to have to make a decision. Either they are going to have to really tighten their belt and keep tightening because it’s going to get worse and try to grit their teeth, and get to November 2020 in hopes that their desired outcome emerges and then they survive till January 2021.

I'm not sure they can go that far without having to at least pursue some back channel that could then lead into some kind of negotiation. President Trump has been quite clear about this. He would welcome communication, and apparently would be willing to sit down, himself. So, I think --

RADDATZ: Do you think that’s wise?

PETRAEUS: Well, again, it might want to require a bit of diplomatic preparation. You know the old saying, you know, you can only pull a rabbit out of a hat if the diplomats put it into the hat first because -- because they prepared it so well.

RADDATZ: I just want to go back to the intelligence for a moment, there are a lot of people who have been skeptical about the, the intelligence that sent the carriers that evacuated the embassy, the non-essential personnel. You were director of the CIA, did you have absolute confidence in your intelligence, or do Americans and members of Congress have a right to be skeptical?

PETRAEUS: I don't know in this case obviously what they have said about their certainty. Without that knowledge, it's hard to say and I think one of the – crosstalk – challenges here –

RADDATZ: But do you see parallels with Iraq? I mean that’s –

PETRAEUS: I do not --

RADDATZ: That’s clearly the concern here.

PETRAEUS: In Iraq there was a real momentum to go to war with Iraq, and there was intelligence however flawed it turned out to be, that was generally assumed to be credible by the policymakers/ There was an almost an article of faith that Iraq did have weapons of mass destruction of some kind and means to deliver them. I just don't see this at all similar to that and beyond which the president –

RADDATZ: John Bolton is a real hardliner.

PETRAEUS: John Bolton is a hard-liner, but his chief client, if you will, for his advice, the president the United States clearly is not on this issue, and I think it was very clear what he said to the press, he hopes not.

RADDATZ: How does this end?

PETRAEUS: Well I hope the way the situation with Iran and is that there can be some back channel communications. There can be some kind of meetings that address, not just resumption of the nuclear agreement, but an extension of it so we deal with what were the legitimate concerns about it, and then come to grips with the activity that they're carrying out that is so damaging to the region. But they’re in for a very, very tough period if they don't do that.

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