Newly confirmed Secretary of State Mike Pompeo traveled to the Middle East this weekend. In public remarks on Sunday, Pompeo explained:

Iran destabilizes this entire region. It supports proxy militias and terrorist groups. It arms — it is an arms dealer to the Houthi rebels in Yemen, and Iran conducts cyber hacking campaigns. It supports the murderous Assad regime as well. Unlike the prior administration, we will not neglect the vast scope of Iran’s terrorism. It is indeed the greatest sponsor of terrorism in the world, and we are determined to make sure it never possesses a nuclear weapon. The Iran deal in its current form does not provide that assurance. We will continue to work with our European allies to fix that deal, but if a deal cannot be reached, the President has said that he will leave that deal.
I also want to highlight today that the nuclear deal has failed to moderate the regime’s conduct in many other areas. I highlighted a few. In fact, Iran has only behaved worse since the deal was approved. In Yemen, Iran continues to support the violent Houthi rebels by providing military equipment, funding, and training. This is in violation of the UN Security Council resolutions. The Houthis continue to fire missiles into Saudi Arabia on a regular basis, targeting Red Sea shipping and threatening the Saudi people.

Pompeo’s statement reveals the inherent incoherence in the administration’s Iran policy.

Iran destabilizes this entire region. It supports proxy militias and terrorist groups. It arms – it is an arms dealer to the Houthi rebels in Yemen, and Iran conducts cyber hacking campaigns. It supports the murderous Assad regime as well. Unlike the prior administration, we will not neglect the vast scope of Iran’s terrorism.” But that is precisely what this administration for 15 months has done — nothing. If anything, President Trump has aggravated the problem by declaring his intent to withdraw from Syria, Iran’s closest ally. Where is the pressure on Iran to abandon these activities?

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Likewise, Pompeo argues that “the nuclear deal has failed to moderate the regime’s conduct in many other areas … In fact, Iran has only behaved worse since the deal was approved.” Again, for the past 15 months the fault for that lies with the Trump administration. Since these other areas were not covered by the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the United States — via military action, sanctions or diplomacy (ideally all three) — could have addressed the non-JCPOA topics. It can still do so, but pulling out of the JCPOA will be unlikely to induce the European Union to be more cooperative.

Pompeo’s remarks on the sunset clause are also puzzling“We are determined to make sure it never possesses a nuclear weapon. The Iran deal in its current form does not provide that assurance.” He’s right insofar as the JCPOA has a sunset clause. But his “solution” — pulling out of the JCPOA because it is not long enough — makes no sense. How does a U.S. departure from the deal, which arguably frees Iran to do whatever it pleases, make the agreement permanent? Well, resumption of sanctions, the theory goes, will force Iran back to the bargaining table to extend the deal. However, if Iran would not commit to an open-ended deal when sanctions were in place, what makes Pompeo think that it would commit to an indefinite deal when sanctions are lifted and the E.U. has said it will not exit the deal?

More effective, frankly, would be an agreement with our allies that when the sunset clause kicks in, we will reestablish sanctions to pressure Iran to curtail its program. But, the response would be, the allies won’t keep up sanctions forever. And that’s the point. If we are not willing to reimpose sanctions beyond the 10 years, then Iran really is free to do what it pleases after the deal runs out. The problem is not the sunset clause; it is the West’s lack of will to, if need be, keep Iran permanently under sanctions.

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The president’s obsession with ripping up the deal when Iran is complying and after it retrieved its frozen funds poses a problem for Pompeo and other U.S. policymakers. Ripping up the deal doesn’t solve the weaknesses of the JCPOA; staying in the deal gives us the chance to work in concert with our allies.

Instead of threatening to pull out and causing a breach with our allies, the administration should pursue a multi-pronged strategy. For starters, we can in concert with our allies impose sanctions and step up military pressure on Iran for its missile testing and regional aggression. Rather than signal our disinterest in Syria, Iran’s junior partner, we should in concert with regional allies be turning up the heat, forcing Iran to pay a price for establishing a permanent presence in Syria.

Former ambassador Eric Edelman and retired General Charles Wald wrote last year: “In parallel to intensified enforcement of the deal, U.S. policymakers must rebuild military leverage over Iran. This includes updating contingency plans to neutralize Iran’s nuclear facilities if it materially breaches or withdraws from the JCPOA. It also entails a robust U.S. missile defense posture. Just like it already appears to be doing against North Korea, the Pentagon must develop credible capabilities in preparation for a possible shoot-down of future Iranian ballistic missile tests, if necessary. U.S. Navy ships must also fully utilize rules of engagement to defend themselves and the Persian Gulf against rising Iranian harassment. Each of these changes needs to be conveyed unequivocally to Tehran.”

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In short, the notion that pulling out of the JCPOA — or threatening to — is going to force Iran to amend the deal defies logic and recent experience. It is only when we address the full scope of Iran’s conduct — the very items that Pompeo identifies — that we can reestablish leverage and address the flaws in the deal. The next time Pompeo complains about Iran’s non-nuclear conduct, he should be compelled to answer two questions: How does leaving the JCPOA help? Why haven’t we implemented a policy to address these very concerns? Unless and until he can answer those questions, we should not threaten our allies with a unilateral pullout — or worse, actually pull out while Iran is in full compliance.

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