Ex-CENTCOM chief Joseph Votel talks to 'Post' about the post-Soleimani era

‘Israel should scale back Iraq strikes while US shores up Iraq alliance’

General Joseph L. Votel, Commander of United States CENTCOM. (photo credit: REUTERS/HAMAD I MOHAMMED)
General Joseph L. Votel, Commander of United States CENTCOM.
After the strike on Qasem Soleimani, Israel should “lay off” its airstrikes against Iranian militias in Iraq in the near future while the US tries to restore US-Iraqi relations to focusing on fighting ISIS, former CENTCOM chief four-star Gen. Joseph Votel told The Jerusalem Post.
Speaking on the sidelines of the Institute for National Security Studies’s 13th Annual International Conference this past week, Votel addressed Israeli attempts to push back against Iran positioning rockets in Iraq to potentially threaten the Jewish state.
Votel, commander of US forces relating to Iran, Iraq, Syria, Egypt, Pakistan and a variety of other countries until March 2019, told the Post, “I don’t think it helps the situation there,” regarding Israeli airstrikes.
“I think the US and the coalition should address that particular issue in Iraq,” and discuss it with Iraqi authorities, said Votel.
His implication was that the US-Iraqi relationship is very important not just for the US, but for Israel as well. Following the US strike on Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Quds Force chief Soleimani, he said that the joint Israel-US focus should be returning the relationship to the way it was during the campaign against ISIS.
Israeli defense officials have been debating whether to at least temporarily scale back air strikes against Iran-affiliated militias in Iraq who are suspected of positioning rockets to potentially strike Israel.
Regarding the Iraqi parliament’s vote to expel US forces from Iraq, Votel said that this was only a declarative non-binding vote and that he expected some US forces would remain.
He said that the vote was for internal Iraqi-Shi’ite consumption, but that other significant minority groups in Iraq did not support the vote.
The former CENTCOM chief said if the US was “clear and transparent” about its military activities in Iraq going forward that it could succeed in “restoring the relationship to where it was.”
Simultaneously, he said it was important for the US to “reaffirm very strongly to the Iraqi government their responsibility to protect US forces and coalition forces.”
“An important aspect of this is not completely a US thing. Iraqis must police up militia groups... They have a law in place for several years which brings all mobilized forces under the control of the government. They need to enforce that. If groups are not beholden to the Iraq government, they need to be disbanded,” he said.
Votel said that Iraq’s “government absolutely has the capacity to enforce the law on all militia because of the assistance of the US coalition” in training the Iraqi army. “They are a professional military beholden to their civilian leadership, which is the way it should be – they can’t have it both ways.”
Broadly speaking, he was strongly in favor of the strike that killed Soleimani in order to deter the Islamic Republic from aggression against the US and its allies going forward.
Describing the situation post-Soleimani he said, “with Iran there has been some amount of deescalation, but it is not over by any stretch of the imagination. We must remain very vigilant about responses and about the next activities that take place.”
“It was a very bold action to take against Soleimani. It has contributed to reestablishing elements of deterrence. It caused Iran to certainly be more cautious about how the US will respond,” he said.
Votel said the most important aspect of the Soleimani strike was that it showed the US would enforce certain redlines, such as responding strongly to any killing of US troops.
The former four-star general did not want to wade directly into questions about whether the US should have given some part of the Iraqi government a heads-up about the strike to avoid blindsiding them.
However, it appeared that going forward he thought some advance warnings might be necessary to restore trust, even though giving such warnings can potentially harm operational security.
Moving on to whether the US would actively and militarily help Israel block Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon – if Tehran later makes the decision to try to go down that path – he said, “This is more in the political realm than the military realm. You all heard what the president said a couple of weeks ago on TV. ‘Iran will not be allowed to have a nuclear weapon.’”
Next, he was pressed that this is a line that pretty much any US president would say, but that Israeli defense official have doubted whether the US would actually step in, or leave the issue to Israel.
He responded, “Maybe a few weeks ago, they might not have assessed the US was willing to strike Qasem Soleimani. I don’t know if this [trying to breakout to a nuclear weapon] is a risk which Iran wants to take,” given how the US might respond.
Questioned about whether the point that Israel or the US would need to strike to block an Iranian path to a bomb would be before it had weaponized enough uranium for a bomb (earlier) or before it had mastered a way to fire a missile with nuclear material (later), he said, “the policy of the administration is very clear,” about preventing Iran from getting the bomb. “This is getting only into the details of how that gets done,” which he declined to get into.
When asked what was the biggest threat presented by Iran, he responded, “the issue with the biggest impact would be their acquisition of a nuclear weapon. But we need to look at the totality of the threats.”
He said Iranian threats included, “their current ballistic missiles and new ones they are developing, asymmetric warfare, drone technology... their maritime capabilities... proxies, their ability to orchestrate cyber activities – are all significant.”
“We have to understand and respect their capabilities and take them seriously,” and be ready to shift gears if one of their capabilities suddenly emerges as a larger threat than in the past.
After all of the focus on Iran and Iraq, he said that the US had to look at the Middle East in terms of its long-term global priorities. He said the US needs to either really commit to invest in the region seriously enough to have influence or to refocus its attention to other regions.
He said that trying to influence multiple regions with limited and split attention in each one was less likely to achieve US goals, than making hard choices about which areas to prioritize globally.