The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Mike Pompeo gives a silly speech on Iran

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks at the Heritage Foundation in Washington on Monday. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

Mike Pompeo used his first speech as secretary of state Monday to send a message directly to the Iranian leadership and its people: “Do what we want, or else!”

Speaking at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative Washington think tank, Pompeo rattled off a 12-point list of what he called “basic requirements” of a new way forward with Iran (really little more than a rehashing of the decades-old laundry list of Washington’s beefs with the country).

Pompeo wants Iran to give up its ballistic missile program, cease and desist its involvement in every country it’s currently involved in, completely shut down its nuclear enrichment, and at the same time release Americans unjustly imprisoned in Iran – all just because we say so.

Sounds great. But it’s also completely divorced from reality.

If Iran would only capitulate on all 12 points, Pompeo declared, it could look forward to rejoining what Pompeo referred to as the “league of nations.” (Note: The League of Nations, the precursor of today’s United Nations, existed from 1920 to 1946.)

Pompeo, though, promised that Iran would face the toughest economic sanctions in history if it fails to comply. “After our sanctions come into full force, it will be battling to keep its economy alive,” he said. “Iran 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.”

What remains entirely unclear is how the Trump administration plans to pull this off without the support of key U.S. allies in the European Union who are all committed to remaining in the nuclear deal with Iran and ramping up commercial ties with it.

Follow Jason Rezaian's opinionsFollow

Oddly, officials in the administration consistently point to their solidarity with the people of Iran as the main motivator in targeting Tehran’s bad behavior, and Pompeo’s speech was no exception. “It is America’s hope that our labors toward peace and security will bear fruit for the long-suffering people of Iran. We long to see them prosper and flourish as in decades past, and as never before,” Pompeo said.

Pompeo referred to recent anti-government protests in Iran that he says “show that the Iranian people are deeply frustrated with their own government’s failures. The Iranian economy is struggling as a result of bad Iranian decisions. Workers aren’t getting paid, strikes are a daily occurrence, and the rial is plummeting. Youth unemployment is at a staggering 25 percent.”

All of these things may be true. But there is nothing new about any of them, and assuming that this time around the Iranian people can compel their government to bend to America’s will seems — at least to anyone who has spent significant time in Iran in recent decades — fantastical.

The reality is that the punitive measures to come could hurt Iranian officials more than previous ones, but the real victims again will be average Iranians. And let’s be honest, that’s the whole point.

Pompeo tipped his hand in that direction when asked by the Heritage Foundation’s president, Kay Coles James, about a time frame on rolling out new anti-Iran sanctions.

He couldn’t provide one and put the onus on the people of Iran who, he said, “will get to make a choice about their leadership. If they make the decision quickly, that would be wonderful. If they choose not to do so, we will stay hard at this until we achieve the outcomes that I set forward today.”

That translates roughly as, “Topple your regime, or we’re going to do it for you.”

Iran is certainly responsible for much of what the Trump administration is accusing it of, so it seemed superfluous to add Bush-era accusations about Iran’s support of the Taliban and its supposed harboring of top al-Qaeda officials.

Really, though, Pompeo’s speech Monday was just the Trump administration’s opening arguments for regime change.

But it’s hard to agree with Pompeo’s assertion that Iran represents a threat to the American way of life, because of its nefarious activities in a contentious region that is home to U.S. allies who are better armed and better funded than Iran.

Pompeo’s remarks sounded eerily akin to the sorts of statements that Donald Rumsfeld and others were making in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq. The maximalist rhetoric after the 9/11 attacks resonated with many Americans precisely because we felt threatened.

The major difference this time around is that Pompeo sounds less confident about the case he’s trying to make. I just can’t work out whether that’s because he understands that he doesn’t really know what he’s talking about, or because he knows his audience is a more knowledgeable and skeptical one than the George W. Bush administration faced in 2003.

Read more:

Jennifer Rubin: Pompeo speech reveals no realistic plan to get a better Iran deal

Josh Rogin: Pompeo’s Iran strategy speech lacked a real strategy