The 2020 election is over and his days in power are waning, but Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is vowing to double down on his hardline approach to Iran. His plans have gone largely unnoticed — which might not be much of a surprise, given everything else that’s happening in Washington right now.
But his latest move — as mean-spirited as it is misguided — still deserves to be called out.
Pompeo and his current Iran envoy, Elliott Abrams, recently revealed that they intend to announce a new sanction on Tehran every week until Inauguration Day. That approach would be perfectly consistent with the secretary’s track record of staging poorly conceived publicity stunts rather than undertaking any actual diplomacy with the government in Iran.
Every U.S. administration since 1979 has tried to influence the Iranian regime with various sticks and carrots, but none has been quite as harsh as this one. Under a strategy known as “maximum pressure,” President Trump and his assistants have implemented a range of punitive measures that have inflicted most of the damage on the Iranian people themselves.
Economic sanctions have disrupted the import of medicine and food. A travel ban has made impossible almost any travel by Iranians to the United States. And, last year, rather than pinpointing specific culprits, the Trump administration designated the entire Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, a branch of Iran’s military, a terrorist group, effectively putting millions of average Iranians who were forcibly conscripted into its ranks on America’s most-wanted list.
The sad truth is that Trump and Pompeo have demonstrated beyond much doubt that “maximum pressure” — a strategy that basically fulfills the wish list long demanded by hawkish foreign policy conservatives — is a total bust.
The policy hasn’t achieved any of its professed aims. A year after anti-government protests led to the deaths of hundreds of protesters and the longer-term detention of thousands more, the regime in Tehran remains firmly in place, intensifying its wholesale abuse of its own citizens’ basic rights. If anything, its influence in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and elsewhere in the region remains largely the same as when Trump took office in early 2017. Iranian forces and their regional proxies have scaled up their attacks on U.S. military personnel.
Worst of all, Iran has steadily increased its stockpile of low-enriched uranium, a key component of building nuclear weapons, to more than 10 times the amount allowed under the 2015 nuclear deal between Tehran and world powers. According to a range of intelligence assessments, that deal was achieving its intended goal of restricting Iran’s enriched uranium supply. But then Trump ordered the United States to withdraw from it unilaterally in 2018.
Rarely has a foreign policy failure been so obvious. And as the chief architect and implementer of U.S. foreign policy, Pompeo deserves much of the credit for that folly.
Pompeo has long demonstrated a particular obsession with Iran. His first speech as secretary of state in 2018 made clear that confronting Tehran would be his top priority.
In that address at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative Washington think tank, Pompeo outlined a list of 12 demands he expected the leadership in Tehran to fulfill if it wished to re-engage in talks with the United States. But the list was notable for its lack of incentives. Because it offered no motivation for the Iranians to respond positively, they didn’t. To any serious observer, it sounded more like bad marketing material than actual policy.
Long before his ascent to the top post at the State Department, Pompeo demonstrated a fondness for similar gimmicks. In 2016, when he was still a member of the House of Representatives from Kansas’s 4th Congressional district, he and two of his fellow members of Congress requested visas to Iran so they could monitor parliamentary elections that year. “We welcome the opportunity to be convinced that these elections will be fair and free,” they wrote in their application letter.
Such antics might win votes in a midterm election, but they aren’t a qualification for the serious work of handling our biggest national security concerns.
Since then, the stunts have continued. Pompeo and other State Department officials have rage-tweeted at Iranian officials — a poor substitute for painstaking policy work and serious diplomacy.
Or consider State’s “This Week in Iran Policy” fact sheets, which consist mostly of quotes from Pompeo or links to State Department social media postings. It’s worth noting that Iran is the only country singled out for its own regular newsletter. China, Russia, North Korea and Venezuela have not earned a comparable distinction.
All these schemes seem designed to obscure the fact that the Trump administration’s Iran measures have done nothing to reduce the Islamic republic’s grip on power, deter its regional adventurism or help Iranian civil society.
Iran’s economy is in tatters. Its people are heading into winter amid one of the world’s worst covid-19 outbreaks. And they’re no closer to achieving freedom from the repressive state that has abused them for the past four decades.
Mike Pompeo clearly wanted his legacy as secretary of state to be defined by his handling of Iran. And so it will be — just not in the ways he promised.