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The Pompeo plan: Kill the Iran deal, and go to the brink with Tehran

US hardliners' real goal isn't the mere scuttling of the nuclear deal, it is regime change

The appointment of Mike Pompeo as the new secretary of state is a perfect choice for US President Donald Trump. Pompeo can satisfy Trump's ideological views and will provide him with the courage to fulfil a dream he has repeatedly expressed since his election campaign: the destruction of the Iran nuclear deal.

The core issue

It is, of course, true that Trump and Tillerson were a terrible fit from the outset. Tillerson's removal was also because of his reservations about Trump's shock decision to meet Kim Jong Un, the North Korean leader. But observers almost unanimously maintain that the issue of Iran was at the core of the disagreement between the president and his former secretary of state.

During the announcement of the dramatic shake-up, Trump said that he and Tillerson "got along actually quite well," but they "disagreed on things".

What were they? "When you look at the Iran deal, I thought it was terrible. [Tillerson] thought it was okay," said Trump. "I wanted to either break it or do something. He felt a little differently. … With Mike Pompeo [however], we have a similar thought process."

Based on the experiences of the ten tumultuous years between 2003 and 2013, it seems clear that once the Iranians face harder sanctions, they will react by expanding their nuclear programme

Pompeo called Iran a "thuggish police state" and a "despotic theocracy" last autumn. Shortly after Trump's victory, he tweeted: "I look forward to rolling back this disastrous deal with the world's largest state sponsor of terrorism." In accordance with CIA policy, Pompeo's Twitter account was deleted after he assumed control over the agency.

It is also true that Iran sits at the core of the similarity in worldviews between Trump and Pompeo. But when one looks at Trump's "Muslim ban" and Pompeo's views of Muslims, a broader agreement can be detected.

In 2015, Pompeo, then a Congressman, attacked Barack Obama, who, according to him, took the side of the "Islamic East" in its conflict with the "Christian West". "Every time there has been a conflict between the Christian West and the Islamic East, the data points all point to a single direction," he said.

"It is very clear that this administration – and when I say that, a very narrow slice inside the leadership regime here in Washington – has concluded that America is better off with greater Iranian influence certainly in the Middle East."

The scenarios going forward

Escalation with Iran could start by Trump decertifying Iran's compliance to the nuclear deal followed by a likely re-imposition of sanctions on Iran on or around 12 May, when Trump must decide whether to extend the sanctions waiver.

Based on the experiences of the 10 tumultuous years between 2003 and 2013, it seems clear that once the Iranians face harder sanctions, they will react by expanding their nuclear programme.

US President Donald Trump speaks during reception for law enforcement officers and first responders in Blue Room of White House on 22 January, 2017 (AFP)
Do the American hardliners know the end result? The answer is yes. Their real goal isn't the mere scuttling of the nuclear deal. In 2015, when Senator Tom Cotton called for "new crippling sanctions" against Iran, he revealed that he knew what the outcome would be. 

"First, the goal of our policy must be clear: regime change in Iran. . . . But, the end of these negotiations isn't an unintended consequence of Congressional action, it is very much an intended consequence. A feature, not a bug."

The views that Trump and Pompeo share – hatred toward the Iranian government and support of Israel’s far right – are a recipe for a US-Iran military confrontation

Pompeo shares this view. "Congress must act to change Iranian behaviour, and, ultimately the Iranian regime," Pompeo remarked on the one-year anniversary of the nuclear deal.

The tit-for-tat path of expanding the sanctions by the US and the nuclear programme by Iran could inevitably end in a military confrontation. In 2014, Pompeo, in fierce opposition to the nuclear talks, said in a round table: "In an unclassified setting, it is under 2,000 sorties to destroy the Iranian nuclear capacity. This is not an insurmountable task for the coalition forces."

In 2015, Barack Obama addressed this simplistic and dangerous point of view, saying: "[Some] argue that surgical strikes against Iran's facilities will be quick and painless. … If we've learned anything from the last decade, it's that wars in general and wars in the Middle East in particular are anything but simple."

No caricature nuclear programme

Trump's primary demand with regard to the nuclear deal is the indefinite extension of limits on Iran's uranium enrichment and other nuclear activities, which have expiration dates under "sunset clauses" in the nuclear accord. "If Iran does not comply … American nuclear sanctions would automatically resume," he remarked last January.

The Iranians will not accept a caricature nuclear programme after, wisely or unwisely, paying a hefty price to protect the programme. Due to the sanctions, Iran lost $185bn since 2011 just in oil revenues, according to IMF estimates. According to some experts, the total may be as high as $500bn.

The primary reason the Iranians agreed to significantly roll back their nuclear programme was the assurance that after 10 to 15 years, they could expand their programme to an industrial level. Iran will not give in to Trump's demand.

Abbas Araghchi, the deputy at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Iran and the country's chief nuclear negotiator, was quoted as saying: "The United States is serious about leaving the nuclear deal, and changes at the State Department were made with that goal in mind – or at least it was one of the reasons."

He added: "We have told the Europeans [the UK, France, and Germany] that if they cannot convince the Americans to stay, and the US pulls out of the agreement, so will Iran."

Iran options

Araghchi’s statements should not be considered a bluff. If the US were to abandon the deal – meaning the reactivation of crippling sanctions against Iran, particularly against its oil and banking sectors – there would be no point for Iran to suffer immense economic pressure on the one hand yet abide by the consequential restrictions on its nuclear programme on the other.

Two major developments will likely unfold in Iran.

Negotiators from Iran and the P5+1 nations pose for a family shot after they concluded the Iran nuclear talk meetings with a deal in Vienna on 14 July 2015 (AA)
First, the hardliners will push the moderates and reformists to the sidelines, and radicalism will most likely dominate Iran's foreign politics.

While hostilities with the US will escalate to epic proportions, Iran's leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, will publicly disparage the moderates by saying, in effect, "I always said that the Americans are not trustworthy, but some naïve people insisted on giving it another chance by making this deal with them."

Second, the country will tilt to the East in a significant way. Alaeddin Boroujerdi, the chairman for the Committee for Foreign Policy and National Security of Iran's parliament, has reacted to developments in the US by saying: "Looking towards the East should become a substantial element in the [country’s] foreign policy."

In 2005, John Sawers, then one of the British negotiators and later chief of the UK Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) until 2014, told Hossein Mousavian, a member of the Iranian negotiating team, that Washington would not tolerate even one centrifuge spinning in Iran.

The hardliners will push the moderates and reformists to the sidelines, and radicalism will most likely dominate Iran's foreign politics

Sawers said that Iran's proposal to keep a pilot plant operational in Natanz would not impact this position. In response, Mousavian said: "Listen, John. Nezam (the establishment) has made its decision. … Iran will start enrichment even at the cost of war."

The talks collapsed in 2005, and Iran not only began uranium enrichment, but also expanded its programme from 164 centrifuges to 19,000. This despite Iran's previous agreement to keep the total number of centrifuges at 164 for an agreed-upon trust building-period.

Israel's first man

Pompeo is a vehement supporter of Israel. In 2015, while consistently criticising Obama for his efforts to diplomatically resolve the nuclear crisis with Iran, he said: "Ceasing to call for the destruction of Israel should have been a condition of the Iran Deal."

After meeting with Netanyahu in 2015, Pompeo praised him as "a true partner of the American people". He added: "Our conversation was incredibly enlightening as to the true threats facing both Israel and the United States. Netanyahu's efforts to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons are incredibly admirable and deeply appreciated."

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Undoubtedly, Pompeo will be Israel’s man. Last October, he was a featured guest at the so-called Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), one of the pillars of the Israel lobby in Washington that is dedicated to regime change in Iran.

He was greeted by Juan Zarate, chairman and senior counsellor of FDD, who said: "There's no secret here: I’m not an unbiased journalist. I'm a fan of this director. I worked on his transition. Frankly, I love the man. So, I believe in the Weberian concept of putting your biases out front before beginning the questions (emphasis added)."

The views that Trump and Pompeo share – hatred toward the Iranian government and support of Israel's far right – are a recipe for a US-Iran military confrontation. Perhaps the only way to avoid such a confrontation is a European intervention to prevent Trump from taking the first step toward it; i.e. re-imposing crippling sanctions on Iran.

Shahir Shahidsaless is an Iranian-Canadian political analyst and freelance journalist writing about Iranian domestic and foreign affairs, the Middle East, and the US foreign policy in the region. He is the co-author of  Iran and the United States: An Insider’s View on the Failed Past and the Road to Peace. He is a contributor to several websites with focus on the Middle East as well as the Huffington Post. He also regularly writes for BBC Persian. He tweets @SShahisaless.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Photo: Iranian President Hassan Rouhani (Reuters).

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition

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