Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was supposed to announce the Plan B for Iran — how we were going to fix the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action by exiting the deal without our allies. Instead we got bluster and a wish list unattached to a coherent strategy for attaining our goal. The speech was mislabeled as “a new Iran strategy.” It was missing the strategy — a cogent explanation as to how we will unilaterally obtain what we could not when we had a united front. On a more welcomed note, Pompeo said the Trump administration would go the treaty route. (One hopes the same is true with regard to North Korea, in which concern is growing that a desperate president will give away the store.)
Pompeo threatened to crush Iran with new sanctions. Vowing to make them the strongest sanctions in history, he did not explain how U.S. unilateral sanctions could be stronger than the multilateral sanctions that brought Iran to the table in the first place. Pompeo seems to have abandoned the pretense that European allies will exit the deal. Instead he hinted, but did not say outright, that we’d start slapping sanctions on allies who stayed in the deal. (“Over the coming weeks, we will send teams of specialists to countries around the world to further explain administration policy, to discuss the implications of sanctions we imposition, and to listen.”)
Pompeo listed 12 requirements for a new Iran deal, including ceasing all enrichment (even the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty allows uranium enrichment for peaceful purposes) and “unqualified” access to all sites as well as non-nuclear items such as withdrawal of all troops from Syria and ending support for Shiite Houthi rebels in Yemen and for Hezbollah. As the Associated Press reported, “Taken together, the demands would constitute a wholesale transformation by Iran’s government, and they hardened the perception that what Trump’s administration really seeks is a change in the Iranian regime.”
Pompeo declared: “We will ensure freedom of navigation on the waters in the region. We will work to prevent and counteract any Iranian malign cyber activity. We will track down Iranian operatives and their Hezbollah proxies operating around the world and crush them. Iran will never again have carte blanche to dominate the Middle East.” We have failed to do any of this to date, and it is entirely unclear why we could not have remained in the JCPOA. Moreover, having pulled out of the JCPOA without our allies, it is far from clear why they would cooperate with us on more ambitious undertakings.
The demands were so over-the-top as to convey a total lack of seriousness. “If you read the 12 requirements Pompeo listed for a new deal, it becomes immediately apparent that the administration does not take diplomacy seriously,” says Jake Sullivan, who served in various capacities in the Obama administration and was Hillary Clinton’s top foreign policy adviser during the 2016 campaign. “They set the bar at a place they know the Iranians can never accept. And the rest of the world, including our allies, will see that clearly. So now the question is, now that the U.S. has abandoned even the pretense of diplomacy, will secondary sanctions work? I think we will see the rest of the world drag their feet and look for workarounds, and the sanctions will be considerably less effective as a result.”
Brian Katulis of the Center for American Progress was even more blunt. “It is delusional — the triumph of naive bluster over the hard-won experience of the unified effort it took with the rest of the world’s leading powers to get the 2015 deal,” he said. “There was a better pathway to strengthening the deal — one that strengthened support internationally and at home as well. But the formula Team Trump is using will weaken America’s hand on the nuclear issue and also will likely put us in a less advantageous position to deal with Iran’s destabilizing policies in the region and its support for terrorism.” Why is that? Katulis argues that the all-or-nothing-with-no-leverage approach “further fragments political support at home for U.S. engagement overseas and created unnecessary ruptures with allies at a time when we need to build coalitions at home and overseas to get real results.”
Indeed, our closest ally immediately threw cold water on the grand plan. British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson remarked: “The prospect of a new jumbo Iran treaty is going to be very, very difficult. … I don’t see that being very easy to achieve, in anything like a reasonable timetable.”
In the short run, we can expect the European Union to negotiate with Iran to increase investment and support in order to keep Iran in the deal. The administration will then need to contemplate whether it is really willing to declare economic warfare on our own allies to force them out of a deal which, for now, Iran is in compliance with. We’ve gone from a unified front against Iran to a unified front against President Trump’s harebrained scheme.One wonders how a future president is going to repair the wreckage of American foreign policy this president will leave behind.