Opinion

Pompeo's Crude Threat to 'Crush' Iran Hides Crisis in Trump's Mideast Strategy

The Secretary of State gave Tehran a full U.S. foreign policy shopping list. But as a diktat, not an invitation to negotiate, it will only provoke Tehran to amp up its threats to American allies and U.S. objectives in the Mideast

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks at the Heritage Foundation May 21, 2018 in Washington, DC.
WIN MCNAMEE/AFP

Mike Pompeo stepped up to the plate today in his first major policy speech as Secretary of State. As part of the hawkish team that drew Trump away from the Iran Deal, he holds much of the responsibility for setting up an alternative. But this isn’t how you play ball. 

After the years that Trump and his allies have spent decrying the deal, this speech was almost a watershed moment. Unsurprisingly, it continued the bolshie, un-nuanced foreign policy we have come to expect from the Twitter president.

Pompeo’s speech set out 12 basic demands from Iran relating to its domestic and foreign policy. Iran is to stop uranium enrichment, release all U.S. citizens, and open up its facilities to inspection.

A gas flare on an oil production platform in the Soroush oil fields alongside an Iranian flag in the Persian Gulf, Iran. July 25, 2005
\ Raheb Homavandi/ REUTERS

Additionally, Pompeo demanded withdrawal of Iranian forces from Syria and Yemen. Otherwise, the U.S. will "crush" Iran. The means of this ‘crushing’ remain to be fully determined, but includes what Pompeo characterized as "the strongest sanctions in history." 

In essence, this is a U.S. foreign policy shopping list. Nothing in it is undesirable per se, indeed, the speech outlines substantive American objectives in the region. It is a diktat, not an invitation to negotiate. 

Iran’s long and torrid relationship with the West makes it deeply distrustful of the U.S. Its realist leadership had to tread lightly to get the original deal past Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani had to sell significant Iranian concessions by saying that, "sometimes you have to concede a goal to score two." It is unlikely the regime will stomach Pompeo’s gameplan lightly, even if it comes with the offer of significant U.S. benefits to the country if it acquiesces.

After Trump’s decertification of the Iran deal, trust in the U.S. is at the lowest it has been for some years and it seems unlikely that these promises will be taken seriously. Pompeo’s ransom demands will see this distrust continue. Iran’s doctrine of the "Resistance Economy" and its tough responses to anti-regime protests will see Iranians’ suffering persist because of, not in spite of Pompeo’s demands.

And still the U.S. will be no closer to achieving its goals.

President Donald Trump stands with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo during a swearing-in ceremony for incoming CIA director Gina Haspel at CIA Headquarters. May 21, 2018
Evan Vucci/AP

Europeans too have paid a price for this administration’s policy on Iran, and they do not stand to benefit now either. Although Emmanuel Macron has tried to shape the future of Iran’s relationship with the West for the better, Trump continues to trample these efforts. France’s energy giant Total will likely pull out of its billion-dollar deal to develop oil fields in Iran, as other companies flee business in the country amidst crippling uncertainty.

As has happened elsewhere, Chinese and Russia companies will fill these new gaps. Iran, then, is not the only loser.

To be clear, with this policy gamut leading U.S. diplomatic efforts Iran will drift further away from the U.S., not closer to it. The Islamic Republic is immensely careful of nurturing relationships with America, and the JCPOA represented an - albeit imperfect - foot in the door. With an increasingly belligerent America, Iran stands only to gain politically by straining relations between the EU and U.S., and feeding its own belligerent anti-American rhetoric on Syria, Yemen, and Saudi Arabia.

In these theatres and others Iran represents an enormous threat to the stability of the Middle East. Benjamin Netanyahu’s spectacle over Iran’s nuclear archive shows that with carte blanche the country will pursue its goals with a renewed vigor. Its support for Assad and Houthi rebels will be accordingly amped up.

Iranian worshippers hold anti-U.S. and anti-Israel placards at a pro-Palestinian rally after their Friday prayers in Tehran, Iran. May 18, 2018
Vahid Salemi/AP

As the U.S. cozies up to Saudi Arabia and Israel with increasing warmth, the regime will turn international alienation to its own advantage. The Islamic Republic’s hawks and conservatives, as much opposed to the deal as Trump himself, will take this as a chance to pounce on their moderate compatriots.  

Broad demands will not fix this. Absolutes and ultimata serve to increase frictions and drive the U.S. away from both its foes and its allies. The JCPOA showed that relations with Iran are built gradually, slowly, and circumspectly. Pompeo’s approach is decidedly the opposite.

Daniel Amir is a Tel Aviv-born graduate of Oxford University in Persian Studies and an MSc candidate in Conflict Studies at the London School of Economics. He has extensive experience in foreign policy research in Jerusalem, London, and Washington D.C. Twitter: @Daniel_Amir1