Five takeaways from Pompeo’s Iran speech

In a at The Heritage Foundation, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo sought to chart the way forward after the US withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal. He pointed to Israel’s intelligence operation that showed Iran has been lying about a nuclear weapons program. Pompeo’s Iran speech is supposed to be part of a larger US strategy against Iran. Here are several takeaways:

The US made a “losing” bet on the JCPOA

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In criticism directed at the former administration, he said the US had gambled that the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), or the "Iran deal," would curtail Iran’s rogue activities. Instead, Pompeo showed how Iran’s tentacles have spread across the region, fueled by the deal. In Syria, 11 million Syrians have been displaced by war, at least in part due to Iran’s militias. In Lebanon, Hezbollah is emboldened. In Yemen, Iran is supporting the Houthi militias, he said. In Iraq, the Ayatollahs are also supporting Shi’ite militias. He also claimed Iran was supporting the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Pompeo’s list of Iran’s nefarious activities was long. He mentioned US citizens held in Iran and accused Iran of being the world’s “largest sponsor of terror.” This was a speech aimed initially at showing how the JCPOA was a failure and justifying the US decision to withdraw.

The West and the Iranian people

Pompeo sought to reach out to the Iranian people and seemed to urge western countries to care more about their rights. He said Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammed Zarif, and President Hassan Rouhani were squandering Iran’s resources. He accused the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps of carving out a corridor from Tehran to Israel’s borders. He urged the regime to protect its citizens and stop persecuting them. He spoke about the deep frustration of local protesters who have been striking against the regime.

“Youth unemployment is at a staggering 25%. Government mismanagement of natural resources has led to severe droughts,” Pompeo said.

He accused the regime of stealing from the people and wasting millions on terror groups abroad. Pompeo declared that women in Iran deserve the same rights as men, and mentioned the protests during which women removed the hijabs that the Ayatollahs have forced on them since the Islamic revolution in 1979.

Reaching out to the Iranian people was a logical step in Pompeo‘s speech, but he was short on specifics. Some have continued to accuse the US of supporting “regime change” in Iran, but the reality is that Washington doesn’t seem to know what steps for the “Iranian people” America is willing to take. For instance, will this mean actual support for minorities, such as the Kurds, who are suppressed by Iran? Will the US provide asylum to dissidents? Where action is the US willing to take to really do something for the Iranian people?

The path forward

Pompeo declared the US would enforce the strongest sanctions in history. Iran would be battling to keep its economy alive, and that would strip it of the resources to keep up its activities in the region. He said the US would work to counteract cyber activities, track down operatives and proxies and “crush” them. Iran would no longer have a blank check to dominate the Middle East. He also threatened “bigger” problems if it restarts its nuclear program.

Pompeo argued that he thought other western powers share America‘s views. But, as with the rest of the speech, it was not clear how the US would actually do any of this and whether this speech represents a plan beyond the State Department to implement these directives. The State Department has no real power to track people down. Instead, the Pentagon and CIA and other assets would all have to work in concert. That means discussing what to do with the US role in eastern Syria, which is ostensibly only to fight ISIS. What will the US do about funding for Lebanon and Iraq, which inevitably enables Iran’s clients? Is there any concrete plan to do something about these key issues and play hard ball with Lebanon and Iraq?

The carrot

Pompeo said the US was open to a new deal. “Our goal is to protect the American people. Any new agreement will ensure the regime never acquires a nuclear weapon.”  This was the carrot part of the speech, after having provided the stick. The speech outlined certain demands, including the military dimensions of Iran’s nuclear program and said Iran must stop enrichment and end proliferation of ballistic missiles. Pompeo also said Iran must stop supporting Hezbollah, Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and said Tehran must support disarming Shi’ite militias in Iraq and withdraw from Syria. The list of things Iran must do in order to receive the carrot of some kind of new deal was so long that it was unclear how Iran would ever meet any of these demands.

He said the US was open to full diplomatic and economic relations and would permit Iran to have “advanced technology.” He said that the US would now support a treaty brought before Congress. This is a good step and it flips the logic of the JCPOA on its head. The JCPOA sought to beg Iran not to build nuclear weapons by offering sanctions relief. This new deal appears to ask Iran to do confidence-building measures first and only then receive something.

So, what’s new?

In October 2017, then CIA director Pompeo made a speech at the University of Texas where he also accused Iran of being the “world’s largest state-sponsor of terrorism.” He likewise claimed Iran was making a drive for regional hegemony and pointed to its actions in Syria, Yemen and Iraq and its threats to Israel. So, what’s new?

Wall Street Journal editorial page contributor Mary Kissel tweeted in response to the May 21 speech:

“Unclear why Secretary Pompeo gave that Iran speech. A rehash of old ideas, no clarity on strategy, a call for regime change without the courage to utter the phrase.”

Jonathan Schanzer, Senior Vice President for research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies tweeted that Pompeo’s vow to “crush proxies” appeared to be a “commitment to a new approach to counterterrorism.” He added that this unwillingness to go after Shi’ite terror groups had been a blind spot of Washington policy in the past.

In the CIA, Pompeo had more tools to go after Iran’s proxies and the resources to gather intelligence on Iran’s activities. However, in the fall of 2017 the Trump administration did not appear to actually do anything in this regard. One could conclude that Pompeo took with him to the State Department the knowledge he gained at the CIA. The question is whether his speech will now mark a real strategy roll-out. Since last year there have been numerous false starts as the administration grasps for a policy.

Important moves like the opening of the embassy in Jerusalem or scrapping the JCPOA can put down roots only with a full court press on policy. Pompeo in his Heritage speech rushed through a list of allies he hoped would come on board. Besides the “European friends,” he mentioned Bahrain, Australia, Egypt, India, Japan, Qatar, Japan, Kuwait, Jordan, Oman, Saudi Arabia, South Korea and the UAE. He was so rushed in naming these countries that listeners would have had to go back to the video tape to hear them all. One hopes that the policy roll out will be more clear and audible.