National Security & Defense

Pompeo’s Encouragingly Tough Words for Iran

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo testifies at a hearing of the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Capitol Hill, May 23, 2018. (Leah Millis/Reuters)
On Monday, the new secretary of state signaled a desire to deal with Tehran from a position of strength — a welcome change from President Obama's weakness.

‘We win and they lose” is how Ronald Reagan once summed up his policy toward the Soviet Union. At the time, almost all serious foreign-policy experts considered any talk of winning the Cold War to be delusional and possibly dangerous, but in hindsight, Reagan’s words come across as prophetic. And in bold remarks Monday morning, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo brought a Reagan-esque flourish to the Trump administration’s foreign policy, demanding nothing short of Iranian surrender.

While insisting that President Trump is prepared to negotiate a new deal with Tehran, Pompeo listed no fewer than twelve preconditions for an end to American pressure. All twelve reflect longstanding U.S. and allied concerns, many of them inscribed in U.N. Security Council resolutions. Pompeo observed fairly that the Trump administration is “not asking anything other than that Iranian behavior be consistent with global norms.”

Nonetheless, no one should be holding their breath in anticipation of Iran’s acquiescence. If Iranian leaders decided to suddenly accept global norms, it would be a shocking repudiation of the revolutionary-Islamist foreign policy the regime has pursued since 1979. Already, Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khameini, has indicated that he’d rather make demands of his own than consider Pompeo’s preconditions.

The first four of Pompeo’s twelve points address Iran’s nuclear program and its nuclear-capable ballistic missiles. Together, they represent an effort to claw back the key concessions that John Kerry made to the Iranian regime in order to close the 2015 nuclear deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Instead of an approved uranium-enrichment program, Iran would have none. Instead of long delays and a de facto ban on inspections at military sites, Iran would give unfettered access to U.N. inspectors. Instead of being free to pursue missile technology as it pleases, Iran would be forced to end missile testing and development.

The great unknown is whether President Trump will give Pompeo and the rest of his national-security team a green light to push back against Iran on every front, or whether he will upend their strategy at unexpected moments by announcing his disagreement.

Pompeo also broke very clearly and consciously with the Obama administration by making twice as many demands — eight in all — concerning Iran’s sponsorship of terrorism and subversion of neighboring states. Calling out his predecessor by name, Pompeo noted John Kerry’s dashed hope that a deal limited to nuclear issues would make it easier for the U.S. to fully manage the array of Iranian threats. The new policy is that there will be no limited deals, only those in which Iran verifiably commits to ending all forms of its malign behavior.

Of course, insisting that Iran break off its support for Hezbollah, Hamas, and Bashar al-Assad may be even more offensive to the ruling ayatollahs than calling for an end to their nuclear program. For Iran, these allies are not terrorists or human-rights violators, but a so-called “axis of resistance” that enables the spread of Iranian influence and ideology despite the raw-power advantage enjoyed by the U.S. and Israel.

To force Iran back to the negotiating table, Pompeo called for pushing the regime to the edge of bankruptcy, much as Reagan did to the Soviets. He promised “the strongest sanctions in history,” and they will have to be if there is any hope of inducing Iran to make such painful concessions.

But sanctions alone will be not enough, even though they must be a pillar of U.S. strategy. The U.S. will also have to engage fully in places where Trump’s instinct is to disengage, chief among them Syria. One of Pompeo’s tallest orders was for Tehran to “withdraw all forces under Iranian command throughout the entirely of Syria.” Syria has now become Iran’s forward base for aggression against Israel, an ideological imperative, so that’s a big ask. If Trump follows through on his pledge to bring U.S. troops home from Syria “very, very soon”, he will be undermining his own strategy for dealing with Iran. The purpose of U.S. troops shouldn’t be to overthrow Assad, but to defend the oil-rich real estate they have liberated from ISIS in northeast Syria. That real estate is a key source of leverage.

The U.S. will also need to lean forward in Iraq, Lebanon, and Yemen. As Pompeo noted, Iranian-backed militias “infiltrate and undermine the Iraqi Security Forces and jeopardize Iraq’s sovereignty.” Iraq just held a surprisingly fair election, but it’s not clear whether the U.S. is as committed as Iran to ensuring that a favorable coalition takes power in the country. Meanwhile, in Lebanon, where Hezbollah and its allies just won a majority of seats in parliament, the U.S. will need to be more active. The same is true in Yemen, where a congressional backlash threatens U.S. support for the Saudi-led coalition fighting the Iranian-backed Houthis.

Just hours after Pompeo’s speech, the Pentagon signaled that it is on board with his tough stance. “We are going to take all necessary steps to confront and address Iran’s malign influence in the region,” a spokesman said. This suggests unity within the cabinet. The great unknown is whether President Trump will give Pompeo and the rest of his national-security team a green light to push back against Iran on every front, or whether he will upend their strategy at unexpected moments by announcing his disagreement. Perhaps if Trump reconsiders Reagan’s relentless determination to triumph over the Soviet Union, he will come to appreciate the value of consistent strength and resolve in the face of America’s most malignant adversaries.

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