WASHINGTON — Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Monday presented a lengthy list of grievances against the Iranian government and vowed to forge a new, better nuclear agreement — but he offered few details on how the United States would accomplish that goal without support from European allies, Russia or China.
“The bet that the [2015 Iran nuclear deal] would increase Middle East stability was a bad one for America, for Europe, for the Middle East and indeed for the entire world,” Pompeo said during his first major speech in his new role, promising that the new deal would address not only the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program but also its ballistic missile program, its interventions in Syria, Yemen and Lebanon, and its repressive treatment of its own people.
“We will track down Iranian operatives and their Hezbollah proxies operating around the world and crush them,” Pompeo added, referring to the Lebanese armed group that is Iran’s chief ally in the region. “Iran will never again have carte blanche to dominate the Middle East.”
The original deal ― negotiated between Iran, the U.S., the U.K., France, Germany, China and Russia ― focused only on Iran’s nuclear program, and some of its provisions would expire 10 to 15 years after it took effect. State Department officials had described Pompeo’s speech as an opportunity for the secretary to present a diplomatic roadmap to achieving a better deal with Iran two weeks after President Donald Trump announced plans to violate the international nuclear agreement by pulling out.
But the secretary offered few clues about how Washington might convince Tehran to sign on to a tougher accord. Pompeo’s chief proposal ― fresh sanctions that would force the Iranians to negotiate ― depends on cooperation from Russia, China and Europe, which, unlike the U.S., do significant business with Iran. Obama administration officials spent years building a sanctions framework with those governments before attempting the nuclear diplomacy.
Pompeo repeatedly blasted President Barack Obama’s team as naive and even once suggested they actually sought to help the Iranian government. But it’s unclear how the Trump administration believes it will prove more successful than its predecessor in bringing aboard other international powers. Since Trump announced the U.S. withdrawal from the deal, the other countries involved in it have scrambled to ensure that Iran continues receiving economic benefits so that it will continue upholding its end of the deal, which they say is essential to global security.
Pompeo has not outlined a strategy, but rather a grab bag of wishful thinking that can only be interpreted as a call for regime change in Iran. Suzanne Maloney, a former State Department official at the Brookings Institution.
The European Union has already started the process of insulating European countries from U.S. secondary sanctions, which punish companies in other countries for doing business with Iran. Russian aircraft manufacturers moved to sell planes to Iran after the Treasury Department announced it would cancel licenses that allowed Boeing and Airbus to sign deals with Iran. And China is eyeing opportunities to replace Total on a massive Iranian gas field expansion project if the French energy giant pulls out of the country under pressure from the U.S.
The Trump administration’s contradictory approach to Iran ― exemplified in Pompeo’s speech by his saying Tehran negotiated in bad faith and simultaneously arguing Trump wants to create a grand bargain with it ― has convinced partner governments they need to develop their own policies without looking for leadership from the U.S.
The EU, the closest American partner in diplomacy with Iran, has been unusually blunt in recent days. “Looking at latest decisions of @realDonaldTrump someone could even think: with friends like that who needs enemies,” Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council, tweeted last week.
Pompeo attempted to downplay the rift. “From my conversations with Europeans friends, I know that they broadly share these same views, of what the Iranian regime must do to gain acceptance in the international community,” he said.
Hours after Pompeo’s remarks, EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini reaffirmed the EU’s commitment to the 2015 nuclear deal.
“There is no alternative to the JCPOA,” Mogherini said in a statement, referring to the Iran deal’s official name, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. “Secretary Pompeo’s speech has not demonstrated how walking away from the JCPOA has made or will make the region safer from the threat of nuclear proliferation or how it puts us in a better position to influence Iran’s conduct in areas outside the scope of JCPOA.”
Pompeo — like hawkish national security adviser John Bolton — has warned that the Trump administration would be willing to punish European businesses dealing with Iran.
The Europeans have already been burned by the U.S. Over the past several months, the State Department’s director of policy planning, Brian Hook, led negotiations with U.S. allies aimed at creating parallel agreements to supplement the 2015 nuclear accord, part of an effort to entice Trump to stay in the deal. State Department officials say they were close to reaching an agreement — but Trump seemed to have not even known about the effort.
During his speech on Monday, Pompeo specifically referenced cooperating with the few American partner governments who praised Trump’s Iran deal decision: Saudi Arabia, Israel, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain. Some of them and other pro-U.S. nations like Qatar have supported the Trump administration’s anti-Iran actions since the announcement on the deal, including placing new sanctions on Iran-linked figures and entities.
But it’s unclear how far Gulf countries will go to pressure the Islamic Republic, particularly if Europe, Russia and China try to sustain significant international economic activity with Iran. The UAE and Qatar have their own strong economic ties to Iran, and officials around the region are wary of sparking fresh tensions between the few remaining stable governments there.
Pompeo tried to justify his case by repeatedly referencing the plight of ordinary people: Iranians themselves, Middle Easterners at risk from Iranian-backed Houthi and Hamas militants and Syrians suffering because of Iran’s support for the brutal Assad regime. (In Trump-era style, he both spoke of Syrians as victims and then repeated the misleading populist argument that Syrian refugees flowing into Europe include many terrorists.)
Yet so far, the effects of Trump’s decision are hitting the individuals Pompeo mentioned the hardest ― making it more difficult for Iranians to buy vital goods and for U.S. officials to use diplomacy to help the American prisoners held in Iran.
Tensions between the U.S. and Iran will likely only grow in the months ahead as hard-liners there gain power by pushing the narrative that the West cannot be trusted and the Trump administration continues to try and look tough.
Experts who watched Pompeo’s speech called his demands unrealistic and some predicted that when Iran inevitably fails to meet them, the U.S. will use it as justification for military intervention.
“Pompeo has not outlined a strategy, but rather a grab bag of wishful thinking that can only be interpreted as a call for regime change in Iran,” tweeted Suzanne Maloney, a former State Department official during the George W. Bush administration.
This article has been updated to include comment from Federica Mogherini.