Another spectacle of a confused American foreign policy was on display on May 21, 2018 at the Heritage Foundation, where Secretary of State Mike Pompeo delivered what amounted to an ultimatum to Iran and American allies to get on board with the Trump Administration’s new Iran strategy. In his attempt to sound tough and committed to confronting the Islamic Republic, Pompeo threatened to use American economic pressure and military power to destroy Iran’s economy and “crush” its surrogates around the world. It was obvious that the speech was meant to force a radical change in Iranian behavior and to entice Tehran to take steps that would be rewarded with the lifting of sanctions, full diplomatic relations, and provision of advanced technology. But what his bravado and ill-conceived ideas may have exposed is a new twist in American foreign policy-making that pushes the United States and its allies in the Arabian Gulf on a risky and dangerous path toward a confrontation with Iran, a scenario that is unlikely to be in anyone’s interest.
In fact, Pompeo’s demarche seems to be more of a gamble than an actual plan. It is apparently encouraged by behind-the-scenes pressure from National Security Advisor John Bolton, who has made regime change in Iran his top priority. Secretary Pompeo is gambling that the world powers that negotiated the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) with Iran––France, the United Kingdom, Germany, Russia, and China––are eager to support President Donald Trump’s May 7 decision to withdraw from the nuclear deal. Pompeo is also betting that the powerful tools that Washington can employ in its confrontation with Tehran will lead to Iranian capitulation. What has transpired since the Iran deal withdrawal announcement, however, indicates that neither of these wishes is likely to be realized.
Prior to Trump’s ill-fated decision, European leaders trekked to Washington to persuade the president not to withdraw from the JCPOA, warning of calamitous repercussions on America’s reputation as world leader, allies’ interests, Middle East stability, and nuclear nonproliferation. Russia and China criticized the decision. European countries began to devise ways to shield their companies from the potential impact of reimposed American sanctions. In addition, all the countries have reaffirmed their commitment to stay in the 2015 deal––which is consecrated in United Nations Security Council Resolution 2231––and have shown a clear disinclination to go back to negotiations. It is thus hard to see how they would be interested in heeding Pompeo’s call to be tougher on Iran.
Perhaps more problematic is Iran’s rejection of any new negotiations to allay the purported fears of Donald Trump. Acceptance of a new negotiating process will most likely mean agreeing to the potential of more stringent conditions regarding different aspects of Iran’s nuclear program (such as enrichment, sunset clauses, and inspections), additional provisions to limit the development of ballistic missiles, and restrictions on Iranian behavior in the region. If anything has been learned from dealing with Iran on these issues and others, it is that the Islamic Republic will simply walk away from whatever it does not see as enhancing its strategic positioning, painful repercussions be damned.
Iran viewed the 2015 agreement as ending its long isolation from the international economy. If the Trump Administration succeeds in depriving it of that goal, Iran is likely to walk away from the deal rather than to renegotiate it. Tehran also considers missile development as a sovereign right since it concerns military and defense policies. Finally, Iran is far from negotiating over its advantageous position in the region. It calls the shots in Damascus where its allied militias, specifically Lebanon’s Hezbollah, have helped restore the regime of Bashar al-Assad; it has gained considerable clout east of the Mediterranean from friends in Iraq and Lebanon; and it exploits the Yemeni Houthis in their war of attrition with Saudi Arabia, Iran’s foremost competitor. Indeed, calling on Iran to abandon its current foreign policy is unlikely to bear much fruit.
Pompeo’s impassioned speech was directed more toward the administration’s domestic audience, including American conservatives, than the international community—although the latter is arguably the more important actor in dealing with Iran’s affairs. President Trump has announced on many occasions that it is important to keep campaign promises, even as he rescinded one agreement after another to which the United States was a party. Trump’s withdrawal from the JCPOA––supposedly to keep a campaign promise––came despite undeniable evidence that was acknowledged by the US Departments of Defense and State, as well as the International Atomic Energy Agency, that Iran was abiding by the agreement. Moreover, and ironically, Pompeo justified the original decision to withdraw although he himself had certified Iran’s adherence to the JCPOA’s provisions when he was director of the Central Intelligence Agency.
There is, on the other hand, a small international constituency that is quite interested in pulling the United States out of the JCPOA and preparing for a confrontation with the Islamic Republic. Since the days of the Obama Administration, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has lobbied, cajoled, and intimidated American political leaders and policy-makers to, first, distrust any agreement Tehran signs and, second, treat Iran as a pariah state—while his own intelligence services thought the JCPOA protected Israel’s security. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have also disparaged any American opening toward Iran and thus lobbied the Obama Administration before the JCPOA was signed, and now the Trump Administration to rescind it. Their rejection of the deal and the ongoing escalation with Iran will first and foremost be at their own peril. In terms of US interests, the decision to satisfy a swath of the American electorate that bought a bad campaign promise and to agree with a very small international audience is questionable at best.
As Pompeo lays down the new rules for the international community’s dealings with Iran, two outcomes are sure to be consequential in American and global politics. The first is that the United States may have crossed a line in its relations with erstwhile friends in Europe. Pompeo’s threat that “…you should know that we will hold those doing prohibited business in Iran to account” was mostly directed at the European companies that have already entered the Iranian market. With American pressure ratcheting up, European countries and companies will be hard pressed to reconcile their commitment to international law (of which the JCPOA has become an important element) with what may uncharitably be called the rogue behavior of the Trump Administration. With the administration’s hardwired extremist position on Iran and the JCPOA, the outcome of this accommodation will not be in the interest of American-European relations.
Second, increased American pressure on Iran through sanctions and the reinstitution of international isolation is likely to drive the so-called moderates of the Iranian political system into a corner and possibly oust them from decision-making. Those in Iran supporting President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif may soon find themselves bereft of ideal models for how the country could reenter the world community, now that the United States seems to have adopted National Security Advisor Bolton’s mantra of regime change.
Instead, the Islamic Republic will most likely be looking to a cohort of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s hardliners, especially those associated with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, to fully take over Iran’s foreign policy. In that scenario, Tehran may decide that the JCPOA was merely a cynical tactic to delay the development of its nuclear program; they could then scuttle the agreement and go back to enriching uranium—but this time in order to make the ultimate weapon. Neither would Iran be any closer to negotiating over its missile program. And as for malign activities, the new hardliners will be more than happy to increase their intensity and scope of engagement throughout the region.