The conventional wisdom in Washington has it that Mike Pompeo’s appointment as secretary of state is bad news for the fate of the Iran nuclear deal. President Trump said as much himself on Tuesday, when he elaborated on his reasons for Rex Tillerson’s firing. “When you look at the Iran deal, I think it’s terrible,” Trump said. “I guess [Tillerson] thought it was okay. So we were not really thinking the same. With Mike, Mike Pompeo, we have a very similar thought process. I think it’s going to go very well.”
Pompeo’s track record as an Iran hard-liner, who has likened the Islamic republic to the Islamic State, gives added credence to the assumption that the deal may be under threat.
“Instead of taking advantage of crushing economic sanctions to end Iran’s nuclear program, the administration negotiated a deal against the will of the American people that does nothing but give Iran leverage and enable this totalitarian regime to continue growing its terrorist practices,” Pompeo said on the day the deal was struck back in July 2015. “This deal allows Iran to continue its nuclear program — that’s not foreign policy; it’s surrender.”
Pompeo has shown no indication that those tough stances, whether accurate or not, will change if he becomes secretary of state.
“The consensus is that Tillerson was a bad secretary of state, and he had no rapport with the president,” says Colin Kahl, who served as former vice president Joe Biden’s national security adviser. “The good news is that Tillerson is no longer, but the bad news is that Pompeo has a rapport and he may help to enable Trump’s worst instincts.”
Yet supporters of engagement with Iran shouldn’t give up hope. At a moment when Trump has surprised everyone by choosing the path of negotiations with North Korea, there are sound, practical reasons he should consider sticking with the same approach to Iran.
For one thing, as many observers have noted, it will be hard to credibly persuade Pyongyang to give up its nuclear weapons program even as we’re tearing up a comparable deal that the United States and other members of the international community have made with Tehran — a deal aimed at preventing Iran from starting such a program. The North Koreans would have little reason to believe our assurances if we’re simultaneously backtracking on related guarantees we’ve given the Iranians.
“After having invested 13 years of diplomatic efforts, during the Bush and Obama administrations, to contain Iran’s nuclear capabilities, now is not the time to depart from that strategy,” says Nicholas Burns, formerly the U.S. ambassador to NATO and currently a professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. “Keep them frozen on the nuclear issue and focus on conventional concerns.”
Burns was involved in the State Department’s nuclear negotiations with Iran beginning in 2005. He and other career diplomats say the dividends of that outreach are clear.
“We should stay with the deal, however distasteful it may be to President Trump and Secretary-Designate Pompeo to do so, and instead focus our efforts on halting what Iran is doing in Yemen, Syria and Iraq,” Burns says.
Burns and others think that leaving the deal now would further strain U.S. relations with Europe, isolate America internationally and ultimately run counter to American interests.
For better or worse, our problems with Iran will be solved only through dialogue. The nuclear issue is the one that gets the most attention, but it’s not the only one that needs discussing. What about our shared interest in combating Sunni extremists — the Islamic State and al-Qaeda — in Syria and Iraq? What about Tehran’s continued practice of taking American citizens hostage? There is no non-diplomatic process that will bring them home alive.
It may seem unlikely right now, but Pompeo’s appointment could offer an excellent opportunity for talking with Tehran. Pompeo’s tough line in the past would give him the credibility among conservative Americans to make overtures to Iran. Think Nixon goes to China Part II.
Such an opening, though, would look drastically different than the Obama administration’s approach to dealing with the Islamic republic, which was one of “carrots and sticks.” Even a tougher line, delivered directly and within the existing diplomatic framework, is far preferable to giving Tehran the silent treatment.
Successive U.S. administrations have held the position that, when it comes to Iran, all options are on the table. The other world powers are in agreement that engaging Iran is the best of those options. Pompeo should give it a try, too.