Pompeo Draws a Red Line

Mike Pompeo, U.S. secretary of state, speaks at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Monday, May 21, 2018. (Getty Images)

by Joseph Braude*

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo delivered a stern message to Iran and its enablers this week in a landmark policy speech in Washington. Appearing at the conservative Heritage Foundation, he outlined what has become known as “plan B” — a new White House approach to containing the Tehran government following President Trump’s withdrawal from the Iranian nuclear accord.

“President Trump withdrew from the deal for a simple reason,” he said. “It failed to guarantee the safety of the American people from the risk created by the leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran. No more. No more wealth creation for Iranian kleptocrats. No more acceptance of missiles landing in Riyadh and in the Golan Heights. No more cost-free expansions of Iranian power.” Declaring the intention to cripple Iran’s economy through unprecedented international sanctions, he said, “The regime has been fighting all over the Middle East for years. After our sanctions come in force, it will be battling to keep its economy alive. Iran will be forced to make a choice: either fight to keep its economy off life support at home or keep squandering precious wealth on fights abroad. It will not have the resources to do both.” He indicated that the U.S. would not hesitate to impose “secondary sanctions” on companies in Europe and elsewhere that do not abide by the American limitations.

Pompeo said the U.S. was also open to negotiating a new deal with Iran, provided it “makes sure Iran never acquires a nuclear weapon and will deter the regime’s malign behavior in a way that the JCPOA never could.” A deal the U.S. could accept, he explained, would entail Iranian acceptance of twelve demands: come clean on the history of Iran’s weapons program and prove the program has been abandoned; cease uranium enrichment, never begin plutonium reprocessing, and shut down the heavy water reactor; grant the IAEA unqualified access to all sites of potential interest; end all nuclear-capable ballistic missile programs; release all imprisoned citizens of the U.S. and its allies; end support for Mideast terror groups, including Hezbollah, Hamas, and Palestinian Islamic Jihad; cease intervention in Iraq and accede to the disarming of Iraqi Shi’ite militias; cease support for the Houthis and encourage a peaceful settlement in Yemen; withdraw all forces from Syria; end support for the Taliban and harboring of Al-Qaeda leaders; and cease all threats and threatening behavior toward Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE. The list of 12 demands might seem long, Pompeo said, but “the length of the list is simply the scope of the Iranian malign behavior. We did not create the list, they did.”

Conservative supporters of the new American policy evinced confidence that despite potential challenges to the new sanctions regime, it would succeed.

The Secretary also indicated that the U.S. would adopt a range of other measures to weaken Iran internationally. “We will track down Iranian operatives and their Hezbollah proxies operating around the world and crush them,” he said. “Iran will never again have carte blanche to dominate the Middle East.”

President of Iran Hassan Rouhani attends the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) Extraordinary Islamic Summit Conference on May 18, 2018 in Istanbul, Turkey. (Getty Images)


To no one’s surprise, the Tehran government emphatically rejected Pompeo’s demands. President Hassan Rouhani reportedly said, “Who are you to decide for Iran and the world? … The world today does not accept America to decide for the world, as countries are independent ... that era is over ... We will continue our path with the support of our nation.” Ismail Kowsari, a senior Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps official, said, “The people of Iran should stand united in the face of this and they will deliver a strong punch to the mouth of the American secretary of state and anyone who backs them.”

Meanwhile, prominent pro-JCPOA policy voices on both sides of the Atlantic roundly criticized the speech. In Washington, the Brookings Institution’s Suzanne Maloney, a longtime American advisor on Iran policy, said the speech proved the Trump administration has “wedded itself to a regime-change strategy to Iran, one that is likely to alienate our allies. One with dubious prospects for success.” She faulted the Pompeo demands for “explicitly put[ting] the onus on the Iranian people to change their leadership or face cataclysmic financial pressure.”

Trita Parsi, founder and head of the National Iranian American Council, a JCPOA advocacy group, assessed the Pompeo speech as follows: “What they’re doing is that they’re putting together a strategy that is based on maximum pressure, economic warfare, combined with completely unattainable objectives, demands that have a proven track record of not being able to be met. If you combine this type of pressure with these type of unattainable demands, what you are putting in place is a strategy to get yourself into a confrontation.”

In Brussels, the European Union's foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini, declared that there was “no alternative” to the JCPOA: “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.”

Another Brookings scholar, former State Department arms control advisor Robert Einhorn, predicated that “new sanctions won't be as crippling as those put in place in 2012,” during the lead-up to the Iran deal, because “other countries will defy or ignore sanctions, and look for work arounds.”

“Trade and investment in major Iranian economic sectors will grind to a halt. Insurers will walk away from Iran-related projects. … Already major European energy, insurance, and shipping companies have signaled their intention to cut ties. …” Marc Dubowitz, Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.

But conservative supporters of the new American policy evinced confidence that despite potential challenges to the new sanctions regime, it would succeed. “When push comes to shove,” wrote Clifford May, founder and president of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, “the Europeans are almost certain to reluctantly go along. If the Trump administration makes it clear that foreign companies may do business with Iran or the U.S. but not both, there’s really no contest.” May’s colleague at FDD, Marc Dubowitz, added in a Wall Street Journal op-ed, “The Trump Administration has declared financial war on the Iranian regime. Given the seriousness of its currency emergency, it’s a good bet America will win.” He noted that the Iranian rial has fallen to all-time lows since Trump’s May 8 announcement of departure from the deal. In response, he observed, the Tehran regime has resorted to criminalizing private currency trading and introduced tough measures to prevent Iranian travelers from taking all but small amounts of cash out of the country. But these attempts to prevent the economy from collapse will not in his view offset Iran’s economic isolation: “Trade and investment in major Iranian economic sectors will grind to a halt. Insurers will walk away from Iran-related projects. … Already major European energy, insurance, and shipping companies have signaled their intention to cut ties. …”

One example of a potential skirting of sanctions to watch lies in southern Germany. While the country’s largest banks are indeed shunning Iran-related deals so as to avoid U.S. sanctions, six credit unions in the country’s south are still providing trade finance to Iran. They can probably continue to do so without American reprisal until early August, when the U.S. Treasury Department’s new sanctions regime formally takes effect.

*Middle East specialist Joseph Braude is the author of Broadcasting Change: Arabic Media as a Catalyst for Liberalism (Rowman & Littlefield). He is Advisor to the Al-Mesbar Center for Research and Studies and tweets @josephbraude.