The US will aim to “crush” Iran with economic and military pressure unless it changes its behavior in the Middle East, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Monday in a speech that many analysts saw as a policy of regime change in everything but name.
Pompeo, unveiling the administration’s new policy just weeks after President Donald Trump pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal, said the US will work to counter Tehran’s regional activities, curb its influence in the Middle East and make sure that it never gains a nuclear weapon.
The speech earned praise in some quarters for the “toughness” of Pompeo’s ultimatum to Iran’s leaders, and his message of support for the Iranian people. Other analysts said the remarks amounted to a push for new leadership in Tehran and a return to traditional US policy that could carry risks for the Trump administration.
“It’s implicitly a regime change policy,” said Suzanne Maloney, deputy director of the Foreign Policy program at the Brookings Institution. “There’s no other possible way to interpret that speech.”
As Pompeo spoke at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, a Pentagon spokesman said Monday the US will take “all necessary steps to confront and address Iran’s malign influence in the region.”
Pentagon spokesman Col. Rob Manning said the Defense Department is assessing whether to “double down on current actions or implement new actions. Obviously we are part of a broader approach to address Iran,” he said, adding the US is “not going to rule out anything necessary in order to address Iran.”
Within hours, Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani fired back at Pompeo asking, “who are you to make decisions about Iran?” according to the semi-official Iran Labor News Agency.
“Today’s world will not accept the United States to decide on behalf of the whole world. Countries have their own sovereignty,” ILNA quoted Rouhani as saying. “Of course, they (US) will do what they want by the use of force; but the world does not accept this logic.”
Israeli President Benjamin Netanyahu, speaking at a Foreign Ministry reception, offered praise. “The US policy is correct,” he said.
Pompeo laid out a vision of a policy that will end Iranian missile launches, shrink its sphere of influence, and cripple its economy so that “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.”
The US will do this by using “unprecedented” financial pressure, working with partners, advocating for the Iranian people, and using the military, Pompeo said.
“We will ensure freedom of navigation on the waters in the region. We will work to prevent and counteract any Iranian malign cyber activity. We will track down Iranian operatives and their Hezbollah proxies operating around the world and crush them,” Pompeo said. “Iran will never again have carte blanche to dominate the Middle East.”
“This is just the beginning”
“The Iranian regime should know this is just the beginning,” Pompeo added.
Analysts who opposed the Iran nuclear deal applauded. “Pompeo provided a clear Plan B,” said Mark Dubowitz, chief executive of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. “Intensify the Iranian regime’s ongoing liquidity and political crisis to force fundamental changes in its behavior across a range of malign activities with the promise of a big diplomatic deal if they do.”
Others saw a set up for confrontation.
“I think this is war, but not by name,” said Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council. “There is really no strategy there. We heard a long list of complaints combined with a maximizing pressure in order to achieve objectives that everyone knows are unachievable. Where does that get you? Pressure combined with unachievable objectives is a path to confrontation, by design.”
The liberal leaning pro-Israel advocacy group J Street called on Congress to ensure that Trump “and his regime change-obsessed advisors cannot bring about another costly and bloody war of choice.”
Lawmakers “must make clear that the President does not now have its authorization for the use of military force against Iran,” J Street’s Vice President of Government Affairs Dylan Williams said in a statement.
Pompeo appeared to hold out an olive branch, saying the administration is “open to new steps” with Iran, including a diplomatic relationship, but he laid out 12 preconditions that regional experts said precluded any chance of negotiations.
Included among the demands: Iran must acknowledge past military dimensions of its nuclear program, expand the access given to nuclear inspectors, effectively end its ballistic missile program, release US detainees, end its support for groups like Hezbollah and Hamas, and pull its forces out of Syria.
“You know, that list is pretty long,” said Pompeo, “but if you take a look at it, these are 12 very basic requirements.”
Maloney and others said the list is a non-starter. “They’ve ruled out the prospects of negotiation with those 12 conditions,” Miller said.
Clement Therme, a Bahrain-based Iran expert with the International Institute for Strategic Studies, said the conditions are “impossible for the Islamic Republic to accept because they deal with issues that are part of the identity of the revolution. We are not going to have a new agreement, we are going to regime change.”
In exchange for a change in behavior, Pompeo said the US would be willing to end sanctions, re-establish commercial relationships and allow it to have advanced technology.
Aaron David Miller, a vice president at the Wilson Center, said the speech reflected “magical thinking” because it amounted to “a regime change strategy designed to change the regime and its behavior without the means to do so.”
Pompeo offered no details on how the US will contain or rollback Iran’s influence in Iraq, Syria or Lebanon. “It lacks the specifics of any real strategy to change Iran’s regional calculations,” Miller said.
The other point, he said, is that Pompeo’s speech highlighted a disconnect.
“If you do want to try to dislodge Iran’s influence in the region you’re talking about a major investment – decades,” Miller said. But the President campaigned against exactly that kind of commitment, promising to get the US out of the Middle East, with its messy, expensive and seemingly intractable military quagmires.
Just two days ago, the Trump administration announced it was pulling stabilization assistance to northern Syria, where al Qaeda-linked groups remain active and the Syrian regime, backed by Iran, has been making gains.
The decision to pull funding raises questions about the thoroughness of the administration’s strategy and commitment to roll back Iran, as walking away from Syria “ultimately could benefit” Iran and others, said retired Air Force Col. Cedric Leighton, a CNN military analyst.
“The strategy will fail if the President pulls US troops out of Syria and hands the rest of the region to the Iranian regime,” Dubowitz said in an email to CNN.
“The plan requires the credible threat that President Trump is prepared to use all instruments of national power or the regime will assess that he is a paper, or more fittingly, a Twitter tiger,” Dubowitz said.
Pompeo emphasized that the US would make full use of as many punitive economic measures as it could. And he made clear that the Trump administration was ready to part ways with allies and even use sanctions against them if necessary.
A broad coalition
“We understand our re-imposition of sanctions and the coming pressure campaign on the Iranian regime will pose financial and economic difficulties for a number of our friends,” Pompeo said. “But you should know that we will hold those doing prohibited business in Iran to account.”
After his remarks, Pompeo was asked about the anger of European allies who still back the Iran deal and had worked, at Trump’s request, on an supplemental agreement to address his concerns about Iran’s missiles and regional activities.
“We focus on the Europeans, but there are scores of countries around the world,” Pompeo said in a Q&A after his speech. In his remarks, he said the US hoped to create a broad international coalition to counter Iran, mentioning Australia, Bahrain, Egypt, India, Japan, Jordan, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, South Korea, the UAE, “and many, many others worldwide,” but no European allies.
“The casual disregard, the back of the hand that was given to Europeans, I think, is going to be incredibly counterproductive” and “going to prompt a lot of anger and resentment,” said Maloney. “There’s no possibility for Europe to work within these parameters, and by definition no possibility for Russia and China.”
Dubowitz and others say the policy Pompeo laid out is very familiar. “It’s a return to long-standing demands by previous administrations and foreign governments as embodied in multiple UN security council resolutions,” Dubowitz said.
Therme said the policy takes the US “back to the future,” adding that, “it’s not very surprising, but to think that this could lead to an agreement is not very logical,” in part because now it will be harder to get allies on board.
There is also a potential cost for the US, as it could be very vulnerable in places where it has troops stationed, such as Iraq and Afghanistan.
Dubowitz countered that, ‘the US is only vulnerable in Iraq and Afghanistan if the Iranian regime doesn’t fear American power. If it does, the regime may be loath to escalate against an administration prepared to use all instruments of national power.”