Mike Pompeo’s 12-Step Plan for Disaster With Iran
In what The Washington Post—no friend of Iran—has labeled “a silly speech,” Donald Trump’s new Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, provided an American answer to the charge made by French President Emmanuel Macron during his State visit last month that, when it came to the Iranian nuclear agreement (officially known as the Joint Comprehensive Program of Action, or JCPOA), there was “no Plan B.” Macron’s observations were made in the context of President Trump’s threat to withdraw from that agreement, even though Iran had been determined by all parties (including the United States) to be in full compliance.
Trump made his decision to withdraw official on May 8, and since then the United States has been struggling to articulate a strategy to deal with the consequences of that action. Pompeo’s speech—titled “After the Deal: A New Iran Strategy”—was intended to provide America’s “Plan B.” Upon reflection, however, Pompeo’s speech failed to accomplish this. Worse, the unrealistic demands made upon Iran in Pompeo’s address, coupled by the absolute detachment from reality and historical fact and/or context these demands were made, made Pompeo’s speech far more dangerous than silly.
In his speech, Pompeo promised that, in the aftermath of the American decision to withdraw from the JCPOA, the United States would be seeking to impose “unprecedented financial pressure on the Iranian regime” to compel change in its behavior. “Iran,” Pompeo declared, “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. It will not have the resources to do both.”
Pompeo stated that the Department of Defense was being directed to work closely with America’s “regional allies to deter Iranian aggression” and prevent Iranian regional dominance. Moreover, Pompeo noted, “If [Iran] restarts their nuclear program, it will mean … bigger problems than they’d ever had before.” In the face of this aggressive posturing, Pompeo declared the Trump administration’s intent to “advocate tirelessly for the Iranian people.” But this was disingenuous, being little more than code for regime change.
Pompeo’s “advocacy” consisted of little more than citing ongoing economic mismanagement, corruption and political repression, and offering economic opportunity and “liberty” in exchange for mass demonstrations by the Iranian people—demonstrations designed to overthrow the theocratic regime in Tehran. But “regime change,” “Iran” and “the United States” are three terms that historically do not mix, as every Iranian knows. The example of the CIA-led coup of 1953 that replaced democratically elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh with Reza Shah Pahlevi is deeply ingrained in the psyche of modern Iran.
History is not America’s friend when it comes to Iran, a fact that resonated in every fiber of Pompeo’s bombastic speech. In setting the conditions that must be met before the United States would consider engaging in negotiations for a “new deal,” Pompeo only further underscored how detached the Trump administration is from reality when it comes to Iran and its role in Middle East affairs. The 12-step plan outlined by Pompeo as representing the preconditions for any meaningful U.S.-Iranian engagement are little more than a road map toward disaster. What follows is a point-by-point breakdown of each of these conditions, put into context.
- Iran must declare a full accounting of the prior military dimensions of its nuclear program, and permanently and verifiably abandon such work in perpetuity.
Here Pompeo seeks to revive the Prior Military Dimension (PMD) issue that itself was derived from manufactured intelligence provided to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) by Israel through an Iranian opposition group (the Mojahedin-e Khalq, or MEK, which is listed as a terrorist group by the Department of State) via German intelligence back in 2004. Many of the documents were subsequently shown to be crude forgeries that misrepresented the work of actual Iranian entities, and others were out-and-out fabrications.
The goal of the PMD issue was to create a red herring around which the United States could build support for the imposition of stringent economic sanctions targeting Iran. This plan reached fruition in 2011, when the U.S. prevailed upon the IAEA to publish the PMD allegations as part of an official report, which in turn was used to justify American sanctions targeting Iranian oil sales. In a tacit acknowledgement that the PMD issue was little more than smoke and mirrors, the United States agreed to have the entire issue resolved through discussions between Iran and the IAEA, discussions that exposed the fraudulent nature of most of the underlying accusations. The fact that both Pompeo and President Trump are compelled to rely upon Israeli intelligence of questionable provenance to bolster their case for continued interest in the PMD issue, and not on the product of the American intelligence services, is itself a cause of concern, since it points to a clear subordination of American national security to the interests of a foreign power.
- Iran must stop enrichment and never pursue plutonium reprocessing.
Mike Pompeo and every other official in the Trump administration would do well to review the history of past American policies built around the notion of “not one spinning centrifuge” in Iran. The genesis of such a policy resides in Israeli—not American—concerns, driven by unrealistic expectations of regional exceptionalism that allow for unilateral reinterpretation of the non-proliferation treaty (NPT) in a way that denies Iran the ability to pursue peaceful nuclear energy, inclusive of the ability to indigenously produce nuclear fuel.
Moreover, under the JCPOA, Iran had already agreed not to pursue plutonium reprocessing and had decommissioned its heavy water reactor under construction at Arak. Pompeo’s demands seemed geared toward warning Iran away from any post-JCPOA efforts to reconstitute a plutonium capability, a facial demonstration of the absurdity of Trump’s decision to withdraw from the JCPOA in the first place.
Iran has already demonstrated that it has the resolve to take on the world in defense of its right to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes in conformity with the NPT. Pompeo’s demands—little more than window dressing of long-standing Israeli position—are non-starters, especially given the reality that the rest of the world has already agreed that Iran can enrich uranium.
- Iran must provide the IAEA with “unqualified” access to all sites throughout the entire country.
Like many so-called American officials who dabble in arms control today, Pompeo seems to operate from a post-Gulf War mindset, where imposed disarmament along the lines of what occurred with Iraq from 1991-1998 (or Libya in 2002-2003) are the norm. Iran is not Iraq—it has not been defeated in battle and therefore compelled to accept stringent disarmament provisions as a condition for a cease-fire and national survival. As a sovereign nation, Iran has the same right as any other state to define what constitutes its own national security interests, and to determine what access it might provide to outside parties to capabilities that fall within this designation, and under what circumstances.
The JCPOA provides the IAEA with an unprecedented ability to access sites of interest and potential interest inside Iran. Pompeo’s notion of “unqualified” access to sites throughout the entirety of Iran brings to mind the “anytime, anywhere” approach undertaken by the United Nations in Iraq from 1991-2003. Such an approach was ultimately counterproductive, having been used by the United States and others for intelligence gathering outside the remit of disarmament—which, given Pompeo’s recent stint as director of the CIA, might be the underlying intent of this demand. The bottom line is that, as a member of the NPT, Iran’s relationship with the world regarding its peaceful nuclear program is based upon the letter of the law founded in that treaty, and not the unilateral dictate of the American government.
- Iran must end its proliferation of ballistic missiles and halt further launching or development of nuclear-capable missile systems.
The irony of the world’s greatest proliferator of military weapons—including long-range strike aircraft and bunker-busting munitions sold to Iran’s regional foes, Israel and Saudi Arabia—calling on Iran to stop exporting ballistic missiles to its allies is mind-numbing. The United States, through a made-for-television exposé fronted by U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, has accused Iran of supplying ballistic missiles to Houthi rebels in Yemen that have been used to launch retaliatory attacks against Saudi Arabia, which has been using its American-supplied air force to pulverize Houthi civilian targets. Iran has not shipped any completed missiles to the Houthis, but rather provided kits that enabled the Houthi to upgrade Russian-made SCUD missiles to fly longer ranges.
Likewise, Iran continues to supply Hezbollah with long-range artillery rockets capable of striking targets inside Israel. Moreover, the definition of “nuclear capable missile systems,” as used by the United States, is so broad and encompassing that any missile capable of delivering a payload of 1,000 pounds or more—the weight of a small nuclear device—is by definition “nuclear capable.” This would preclude Iran from flight-testing virtually the totality of its ballistic missile arsenal. Once again, Pompeo, through his speech, has exposed the reality that the United States has become little more than the foreign policy arm of both Tel Aviv and Riyadh, a fact made even more ironic given that both Israel and Saudi Arabia maintain arsenals of long-range ballistic missiles that were designed to carry nuclear weapons (and in the case of Israel, actually do).
- Iran must release all U.S. citizens in Iranian custody, as well as the citizens of our partners and allies.
The Trump administration’s precipitous decision to withdraw from the JCPOA has probably made it all but impossible for the five American citizens known to be in Iranian custody to be released anytime soon, let alone for America to have any positive influence on the fate of the citizens of allied nations held by Iran. The same holds true for getting Iran to assist in determining the fate of the retired FBI agent-cum-CIA asset, Bob Levinson, who disappeared inside Iran under murky circumstances in 2007. If the recent release by North Korea of three American citizens imprisoned in that nation demonstrates anything, it is that good intent begets good intent. Mike Pompeo’s speech reeked of nothing other than the Trump administration’s ill-intent for Iran, and we should expect nothing less than the same in return.
- Iran must end its support to Hezbollah, Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ).
This demand is little more than an expression of Israeli policy. The best way to bring an end to the violence engendered by Israel’s military engagements with Hezbollah, Hamas and the PIJ is to resolve the outstanding issue of a viable independent Palestinian state. This is a tall order under any circumstance; in the aftermath of Trump’s decision to move the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, and related violence in Gaza, where Israeli soldiers have killed scores of Palestinian civilians, it is now a virtually unreachable objective. Pompeo’s demands reflect an arrogance and ignorance that is mind-boggling, much like an arsonist demanding that a fire put itself out after he’s ignited it.
- Iran must respect the sovereignty of the Iraqi government and permit the disarming, demobilization and reintegration of Shi’a militias.
In the mind and imagination of Donald Trump, the United States is solely responsible for the defeat of the Islamic State in both Iraq and Syria. This not only misstates the role played by the United States military in that struggle, but also ignores the fact that it was the collapse of the American-trained and equipped Iraqi Army in 2014 that led to the establishment of the so-called Islamic State “Caliphate.”
In the aftermath of this collapse, the only thing that saved the Iraqi capital, Baghdad, from falling to the Islamic State onslaught, was the creation of the so-called Popular Mobilization Force (PMF) within the Shi’a communities of Iraq, often (but not exclusively) with the support of Iran. The role played by Iran and the PMF in stabilizing Iraq in 2014-2015, and ultimately spearheading the counterattack that eventually defeated the Islamic State, has been ignored by the mainstream American media. The Trump administration, like the Obama administration, labors under the belief that, if left to its own volition, Iraq would turn its back on Iran and side exclusively with the United States. This flies in the face of history, including the experience of Iraqis under American military occupation between 2003 and 2011 (it was so bad that many Iraqi Shi’a were forced to admit that life was better under Saddam Hussein).
The PMF is a modern Iraqi reality, reflected by the decision of the Iraqi prime minister to integrate the PMF into the Iraqi Army by the end of 2018. The United States, having had exclusive control and influence over the Iraqi military for more than a decade, resents the loss of influence that has occurred since the creation of the PMF. Moreover, the integration of the PMF into the Iraqi army, and the rise in the political fortune of PMF leaders who led the fight against the Islamic State, are reflective of the reality of Iraqi sovereignty today, a fact that United States resents and, through Pompeo’s speech, actively resists. It is the United States, more than any other power, that operates in contravention to Iraqi sovereign interests.
- Iran must end its military support of the Houthi militia.
This demand ignores the history of the Houthi movement and Saudi Arabia’s long history of intervention and interference in the internal affairs of Yemen. The Houthi movement is not the creation of Iran (indeed, it is derived from a branch of Shi’a ideology looked down on by Iran), but rather a reflection of indigenous Yemeni opposition to Saudi Arabian encroachments on Yemeni sovereignty. Meaningful Iranian military support for the Houthis began only after the initiation of Saudi-led military operations against Yemen in 2015. Any effort to terminate this support, void of a corresponding cessation of Saudi Arabian and United Arab Emirati military operations inside Yemen, and a comprehensive peace agreement reflective of Houthi concerns and desires, is a non-starter.
Like most of Pompeo’s Iran policy, the call for Iran to end its support of the Houthi is reflective of the subordinate role Pompeo has given legitimate U.S. national security interests, which should embrace a peaceful resolution of the Yemen conflict, in spite of the regional ambitions of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
- All forces under Iranian command must be withdrawn from Syria.
Under the Obama administration, the United States was compelled to begrudgingly acknowledge the role played by Iran in helping the Syrian government confront and defeat the Islamic State (as well as facilitating, together with Russia and Hezbollah, an overall Syrian military victory on the battlefield against the various Syrian rebel factions backed by the United States, Turkey and Saudi Arabia). The Trump administration has ignored the underlying reason Iran is militarily committed inside Syria today—to ensure the survival of the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad. Instead, the Trump administration has, at the behest of Israel and Saudi Arabia, breathed life into a failed policy by insisting not only that Assad must eventually relinquish political power inside Syria, but that those responsible for Assad’s recent ascendancy disengage.
The collapse of the American and Saudi Arabian-supported Syrian rebels has created a power vacuum that is rapidly being filled by the Syrian government, together with the assistance of Iran, Hezbollah and Russia. The result is that Iran today has consolidated its influence—and by extension, extended its military influence—along an arc that extends from Afghanistan to its east, and into Iraq, Syria and Lebanon in the west. The irony is that, while many in the Arab world have feared this outcome (witness the warning issue by Jordan’s King Abdullah in 2004), its manifestation occurred only as a result of Iranian reaction to American military misadventures in the Middle East since 2003. The consolidation of political power by Hezbollah in Lebanon and President Assad in Syria has panicked Israeli politicians and military leaders, who fear the consequences of a future war, given the abysmal performance of the Israeli Defense Force against Hezbollah in 2006. Pompeo’s demand for Iran’s unilateral withdrawal from Syria is not only unrealistic, but once again underscores the depth of America’s surrender of its foreign policy to interests in Israel.
- Iran must end its support of the Taliban in Afghanistan.
The American invasion and occupation of Afghanistan in the aftermath of the September 2001 terror attack on the United States saw the Islamist government of the Taliban driven from power. At that time, the Taliban and Iran were on a near-war footing, and Iran viewed the American action in a positive light, offering military and political support. (Most Americans are ignorant of the fact that Afghanistan’s first post-Taliban President, Hamid Karzai, was able to obtain his position only due to Iran’s direct political intervention.) Since that time, however, the American presence in Afghanistan has, from the perspective of Iran, become increasingly malign.
The United States is engaged in a perpetual war in Afghanistan that has generated tens of millions of Afghan refugees, many of whom reside in camps inside Iran. The U.S. has also built up a permanent network of military bases inside Afghanistan, which are used to support covert operations inside Iran. It is no surprise, therefore, that Iran has undertaken to support, in a limited fashion, anti-American groups operating in western Afghanistan, including those affiliated with the Taliban.
Iran, however, is not alone in such support—the intelligence services of Russia and Pakistan are also involved in funneling money and arms to the Taliban in western Afghanistan. The United States has increasingly turned to regional allies such as India, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to fund development projects inside Afghanistan that Iran, Russia and Pakistan find threatening. Pompeo’s demand for Iran to cease its support of the Taliban in Afghanistan is ignorant of reality and, like every one of his list of demands, not going to happen.
- Iran must end the operations of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Command (IRGC) Qods Force.
The Qods Force is the extraterritorial arm of the IRGC. It was formed during the Iran-Iraq war, during which it conducted military operations inside Iraq, as well as covert actions in Lebanon, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. The Qods Force is a uniquely Iranian institution, combining the mission and capabilities of American Special Forces, Special Operations Forces and CIA Paramilitaries into a single organization. To the extent that Iran is involved in Afghanistan, Yemen, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon today, it does so through the Qods Force. While the United States has labeled the Qods Force as a terrorist organization, the reality is that it is as legitimate a facilitator of Iranian national security policy objectives in the Middle East as the Department of Defense and CIA are of American policy and interests. Asking the Iranians to end the operations of the Qods Force is like asking the United States to shut down the Department of Defense and the CIA—it simply isn’t going to happen, and Mike Pompeo knows this.
- Iran must end its threatening behavior against its neighbors (Israel, Saudi Arabia, UAE), its threats against shipping, and cease its cyberattacks.
Iran is currently involved in a tense standoff with Israel in Syria and is actively opposed to what it deems to be malign action on the part of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in Yemen and elsewhere. Iranian supported proxies face off against the United States in Afghanistan and Syria. While the Trump administration claims that Iran took advantage of the JCPOA to advance its position throughout the Middle East, the fact is every hot spot where Iran faces off against the United States and its allies can trace its origins back to American policy mistakes that predate the JCPOA. Iran’s response to the aggressive and destabilizing policies of the United States and its regional allies (Israel, Saudi Arabia and the UAE) is independent of the JCPOA. Indeed, if any party is to blame for the failure to diplomatically engage in the aftermath of the signing of the JCPOA, it is the United States and the very allies it accuses Iran of plotting against.
The United States continues to threaten Iranian oil production and sales through economic sanctions, naval blockade and direct military action; Iranian threats to shut down the transport of oil through the strategic Strait of Hormuz are made only in the context of a retaliation in the face of future American aggression against Iran. Likewise, Iran was the target of a major offensive cyberattack—Stuxnet—carried out by the United States; Iran’s own cyber activity targeting the United States and its regional allies must be viewed through a lens that considers the reality that it was the United Sates that initiated this cyberwar.
“The length of the list,” Mike Pompeo noted, “is simply a scope of the malign behavior of Iran. We didn’t create the list, they did.” This statement, however, is as disingenuous as it is wrong. In every one of his 12 points, the newly minted secretary of state seeks to put the Iranian cart before the American horse. The fact is, there is an American historical precursor action for every contemporary Iranian reaction. To ignore this reality is to court disaster. Demanding that Iran unilaterally surrender to American demands, which are detached from reality is little more than a prescription for war, a policy objective that John Bolton, President Trump’s new national security adviser, has made no secret of embracing in times past.
The tragedy is that the U.S.-Iranian march toward war initiated by Pompeo’s bombastic speech was inherently avoidable—Iran was willing to put many of the concerns outlined in Pompeo’s address up for negotiation so long as the JCPOA remained intact. With the United States out of that agreement, and the JCPOA itself on life support in the face of promised U.S. economic sanctions, there is no longer any hope for meaningful negotiations between the United States and Iran. Mike Pompeo may have put the possibility of such discussions on the table in his address, but the 12 steps Iran would be required to implement before such talks could occur are proof positive that the Trump administration is not serious about a diplomatic resolution to an Iranian problem that is largely of its own making.
For a man who ran on a platform highly critical of President Bush’s decision to go to war with Iraq, Donald Trump seems hellbent to do his best to repeat the mistakes of the past. History will be his judge, and it will judge him harshly. Unfortunately, millions of innocent people—American, Iranian and others—are now condemned to pay the price of Trump’s folly.