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Opinion Pompeo’s Iran strategy speech lacked a real strategy

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo delivers remarks on Iran at the Heritage Foundation on Monday in Washington. (Michael Reynolds/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced Monday morning that the Iran deal was bad, that the United States will ramp up pressure on Iran and that the world can either go along or not. None of this is news, and his speech left huge questions about the Trump administration’s “new Iran strategy” unanswered.

Delivering what was billed as a major policy address, Pompeo was expected to chart out how the United States will continue to negotiate with its European allies for a supplemental agreement to strengthen the Iran nuclear deal, as Pompeo said would happen during his confirmation hearing last month. But in his remarks at the Heritage Foundation, Pompeo said only that if Europe wanted to try to preserve the Iran deal working with Tehran, that would not change the Trump administration’s approach.

“That is certainly their decision to make. They know where we stand,” he said. “We understand our re-imposition of sanctions and the coming pressure campaign on the Iranian regime will pose financial and economic difficulties for a number of our friends. But you should know that we will hold those doing prohibited business in Iran to account.”

Pompeo called the Trump administration’s new Iran strategy a “fundamental strategic shift” that would confront Iranian mischief across the region. But he neglected to give any specifics about how the United States would implement that beyond more sanctions. Pompeo called on Iran to fulfill 12 huge demands —  including removing its forces from Syria — but didn’t mention that President Trump still wants to end U.S. involvement in that country.

The speech doubled down on Trump’s May 8 remarks, when the president railed against the Iran deal, promised to bring financial pressure on Iran to unprecedented levels, and appealed to the Iranian people to push for a better government. But Pompeo offered no specifics on what happens next if Iran doesn’t buckle under the new pressure and change its ways.

There was no mention of Russia or China, two parties to the Iran nuclear deal who have the ability to severely undermine new sanctions (assuming the Europeans don’t do that first). Pompeo said he wanted Iran to come to the table and sign a new “treaty” that would be approved by Congress, but he set out terms that Iran is unlikely to ever agree to.

“The sting of sanctions will be painful if the regime does not change its course from the unacceptable and unproductive path it has chosen to one that rejoins the league of nations,” Pompeo said.

Some argue that Trump’s approach to Iran fits his negotiating style of “escalate to de-escalate,” in which he ramps up pressure and tension in order to get the best deal possible. Some point to North Korea as a case in which this approach has borne fruit. There are two problems with this theory. Success with North Korea is far from assured. Also, Iran is not North Korea.

Unlike North Korea, Iran is not easily isolated, and the United States’ allies and partners are not on board with the strategy. And the Trump administration is not offering Iran a diplomatic off-ramp short of totally changing its foreign policy, the character of its regime and its entire economic approach. His demands, which include Iran abandoning enrichment and ending all support for proxies, are unrealistic.

This is what happens when the United States makes foreign policy based on Trump’s long-held instincts and biases and his obsessive urge to do the opposite of whatever the Obama administration did. The rest of the world is left to fall into line or suffer punishment at the hands of the United States. The fact that the European countries that are party to the Iran deal are even considering choosing punishment over cooperation should shock those who care about the transatlantic alliance.

There is a potential scenario in which the United States applies harsh sanctions to Iran and yet Iran still stays in the deal, adhering to all the restrictions and inspections that now exist. That would be an unexpected positive outcome of Trump’s disruptive actions. But it still doesn’t solve the problem Pompeo says he is focused on: Iran’s aggression all over the Middle East.

In a briefing for reporters last week, State Department officials said Pompeo would be “presenting a diplomatic roadmap to achieve a new security architecture and a better security framework, a better deal, following the President’s decision to end America’s participation” in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. What Pompeo delivered fell far short of that.

Punishing Iran is not enough. Sanctions are not a strategy. The United States is either committed to working with partners and against Iran in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and elsewhere or not. The diplomatic path to a better deal is still unclear. The Trump administration should come up a viable and comprehensive Iran strategy fast and then tell everybody what it is.