US Secretary of State Pompeo discusses the plan by the Trump Administration to confront Iran at the Heritage Foundation in Washington on Monday. Image Credit: AP

Washington: In his first major address as US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo on Monday outlined a new strategy that overturns three key assumptions that underpinned the Iran policy of Barack Obama and his top diplomat, John Kerry. These are: that America can live with Iranian regional aggression in exchange for temporary limits on its nuclear programme; that the 2015 nuclear bargain expressed the will of the international community; and that Iran’s current elected leadership can moderate the country over time.

On the first assumption, while past US presidents sanctioned Iran for a variety of bad behaviour — “ranging from its sponsorship of terrorism to its human rights abuses” — Obama by his second term offered to lift the most biting ones in exchange for nuclear concessions. Obama gave the regime a choice: your nukes or your economy.

 Next year marks the 40th anniversary of the Islamic Republic, the revolution in Iran. At this milestone, we have to ask: What has the Iranian Revolution given to the Iranian people?”

 - Mike Pompeo | US Secretary of State 


Pompeo on Monday said the old deal no longer applied. Under renewed sanctions, he said, Iran would be forced to make a different 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.”

A technician works at the Uranium Conversion Facility just outside the city of Isfahan. AP

This formulation flips Obama’s gamble on its head. Obama argued that for all of the instability Iran sowed in the Middle East, it was worth relaxing sanctions on Iran’s banking system and oil exports in exchange for limitations on its nuclear programme. Pompeo said that deal was a loser. “No more cost-free expansions of Iranian power,” Pompeo said. Speaking of the commander of Iran’s Quds Force, Qassem Sulaimani, America’s top diplomat said he “has been playing with house money that has become blood money; wealth created by the West has fuelled his campaign.”

Pompeo on Monday also took aim at one of the more insidious elements of Obama’s diplomatic strategy, which was that the countries most effected by the change in US policy towards Iran — “Israel and America’s Arab allies” — were not included in negotiations. The negotiators of the deal were the US, China, the European Union, Iran, France, Germany, Russia and the United Kingdom. Saudi Arabia and the UAE were briefed later about the talks.

Iran’s Revolutionary Guard troops march during a parade commemorating the start of the Iraq-Iran war in Tehran. AP

Now the Europeans, Russians and Chinese are part of a much larger group America wants to press the Iranians to change their ways. “I want the Australians, the Bahrainis, the Egyptians, the Indians, the Japanese, the Jordanians, the Kuwaitis, the Omanis, the Qataris, the Saudi Arabians, South Korea, the UAE, and many, many others worldwide to join in this effort against the Islamic Republic of Iran,” Pompeo said.

The secretary also made an explicit appeal to the Iranian people. “Next year marks the 40th anniversary of the Islamic Republic, the revolution in Iran,” he said. “At this milestone, we have to ask: What has the Iranian Revolution given to the Iranian people?”

In a dig at Obama and Kerry, Pompeo called out Iran’s president, Hassan Rouhani, and foreign minister, Javad Zarif. Addressing the Iranian people, Pompeo said, “The West says, ‘Boy, if only they could control Ayatollah Khamenei and Qassem Sulaimani then things would be great.’ Yet, Rouhani and Zarif are your elected leaders. Are they not the most responsible for your economic struggles? Are these two not responsible for wasting Iranian lives throughout the Middle East?”

Compare that with Obama’s and Kerry’s careful courting of Rouhani and Zarif. Even after Iran’s revolutionary guard corps detained and humiliated 10 US sailors who drifted into Iranian territorial waters, Kerry made sure to thank Zarif for helping to get them released. After Rouhani won the 2013 presidential election, the Obama administration began relaxing sanctions designations months before the formal nuclear negotiations started.

Pompeo’s appeals to the Iranian people stopped short of calling for regime change. The closest he came to that was saying, “We hope, indeed we expect, that the Iranian regime will come to its senses and support — not suppress — the aspirations of its own citizens.”

That said, Pompeo’s expectation about Iran’s treatment of its own people was not included in his list of 12 demands of the Iranian regime if they wish to rejoin the international community. Those demands covered a range of activities, from releasing US citizens arrested in recent years to removing all personnel from Syria and allowing unfettered access to nuclear inspectors to military sites. If Iran complies, Pompeo said the Trump administration would support a treaty agreement (something Obama did not do) that would give Iran access to American markets and full diplomatic recognition.

As many have already quipped, the chance of Iran meeting these conditions is zero. But that misses an important point. In his enthusiasm for a bargain with Iran, Obama was willing to normalise a nation that was aiding and abetting a horrific crime against the Syrian people, overthrowing the government in Yemen and undermining the elected one in Iraq. It arrested US citizens even as its diplomats were negotiating the nuclear deal. It shipped missiles to terrorists in Lebanon.

All of that was worth it, Obama and Kerry insisted, because Iran had agreed to place temporary limits on its nuclear programme that would expire over the next 10 to 20 years. But the norms that separate rogue states from international citizens were weakened in the process. Pompeo on Monday took the first step in trying to restore them.