Retired Admiral William McRaven has cast doubt on President Donald Trump’s telling of the near-airstrike on Iranian positions in retaliation for the downing of a U.S. drone in June.
Citing his extensive experience, the former special forces chief said he struggled to believe Trump’s claim to have called off the strike just 10 minutes before it was due to begin.
Speaking during a press call to discuss the release of a new International Crisis Group report on de-escalation on the Persian Gulf—titled, “U.S-Iran Tensions: Averting the Middle East’s 1914 Moment“—McRaven also warned U.S. hawks that any conflict with Iran would be far from easy.
In June, the U.S. and Iran were on the brink of conflict, even though most representatives on both sides had no interest in a war. A diplomatic standoff over the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)—also known as the Iran nuclear deal—and subsequent economic sanctions on Iran gave way to military posturing and sabotage of commercial shipping in the Persian Gulf.
Trump said the airstrike plan was prepared following the downing of a U.S. drone over the Strait of Hormuz by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. The president told reporters he called off the operation after being told there could be up to 150 Iranian casualties if the attack went ahead.
But McRaven—who said he had been involved in similar situations “countless times” in his career—suggested that Trump and his National Security Adviser John Bolton would have been extensively briefed on a range of options and their impacts.
“When I heard, after the fact, that it was only at the last minute that the president realized there would be casualties, frankly I find that hard to believe,” McRaven said. “The casualty count is almost always part of the military’s briefing when it comes to a strike on a target.”
“This idea that it was only through the president’s restraint that we got as far as we did, I think the bigger question is why did we get that far?” McRaven asked. He explained that the response to an incident like a drone shoot down should be a proportional strike, one that does not risk uncontrolled escalation.
While McRaven said he is “very pleased that the president made the decision not to do the strike, I am hard-pressed to believe that he was not briefed ahead of time about what the casualties would be.”
“My bigger concern is that fact that we even entertained that idea, when this was only predicated by the downing of a drone,” McRaven added.
McRaven has had his run-ins with Trump, publicly criticizing the president for his repeated attacks on the free press and intelligence personnel. The commander in chief dismissed McRaven as a “Hillary Clinton fan” and an “Obama backer,” and suggested his special forces should have tracked down and killed Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden quicker than they did.
Had the June strike against Iran gone ahead, it could have set off a chain reaction of retaliation resulting in a conflict. But while some hawks in Washington are keen on a military solution, McRaven said they should not be so enthusiastic.
Even with home advantage in the Persian Gulf, Iranian forces are outclassed by the U.S. “Make no mistake about it,” he said, “the U.S. military is more sophisticated by a magnitude of 10 over the Iranians.
But America’s overwhelming military might does not mean that any conflict would be an easy one for U.S. forces. “No one should think that a war in Iran is going to be quick and easy,” McRaven said.
“Anyone that thinks that we could decimate Iran with a couple of airstrikes, I think is terribly misguided,” McRaven told reporters. “That’s not to say we couldn’t take out their military, certainly their navy in Bandar Abbas and Bashir, those would be fairly easy strikes,” he added.
“But if you do something like that, you can certainly cripple their military but, in my opinion, that only galvanizes the population,” McRaven added. The prospect of a land war in Iran is not one that would entice military planners, he continued.
“Iran is twice the size of Iraq, so if you think about the challenges and problems we have had in Iraq, at least double that. But when you take a look at the terrain in Iran as well, it is considerably challenging.”