Secretary of State Mike Pompeo headed to Saudi Arabia on Sunday as the Iran crisis overshadowed his attempts to make progress in negotiations with North Korea.
Increasing fears of a military confrontation between the United States and Iran have changed the character and timing of Pompeo’s week-long trip. It initially was built around him discussing trade in India, then joining President Trump in Japan and South Korea, to talk about jump-starting stalled nuclear talks with Pyongyang.
But at the last minute, stops were added in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. The change reflected the likelihood that the crisis with Iran is not over, even after Trump canceled a military strike on the country.
Pompeo will divide Monday between talks in Jiddah, Saudi Arabia, and Abu Dhabi in the UAE to discuss the strategy of coalition building with two of Iran’s most fervent adversaries.
The meetings will be held on the same day the United States imposes another round of sanctions on Iran, with the intent to “deny Iran the resources to foment terror, to build out their nuclear weapons system, to build out their missile program,” Pompeo said. “We are going to deny them the resources they need to do that.”
Pompeo’s remarks represented a doubling down of a U.S. sanctions campaign that seeks to bring Iran’s oil sales to zero and cripple its economy. The aim is to make the economic contraction so painful that Iranian leaders renegotiate the terms of the 2015 nuclear deal Trump walked away from.
Until now, Iran has consistently met the commitments it made in the deal with the United States and five other world powers. But it recently threatened to pull back on some of its commitments, as it isn’t getting the economic benefits the accord promised once Iran rejoined the international economy.
The chief dealbreaker comes from Iran’s threat to start building up its uranium stockpiles. The material would be a low grade, well beneath the levels needed for a nuclear weapon. But the stockpiles would surpass 660 pounds, a limit set in the nuclear deal that is proving difficult to maintain because U.S. sanctions have made it hard for Iran to sell the material to other countries.
Pompeo’s detour to the Persian Gulf region underscores the competing arcs of confrontation involving two countries whose nuclear programs the Trump administration wants to restrain and reverse.
North Korea, which possesses nuclear weapons, was considered the bigger problem when Trump came to power. No longer. On Sunday, Pompeo sounded optimistic about the potential to resume talks with Pyongyang that have been at a stalemate for months.
Now, the bigger challenge and more immediate danger is proving to be Iran. When Trump took office, Iran’s nuclear program had limits set under the 2015 accord until Trump walked away from it and ratcheted up sanctions.
Pompeo said the United States is preparing for what he predicted would be an ongoing battle of disinformation.
He swatted away reports he said had originated in Iran, seeming to suggest that the United States is slinking away in defeat. Pompeo said it is “pure and blatant disinformation” that U.S. troops are withdrawing from the region, and that the White House is making peace overtures to Iran through the Omanis. Pompeo argued that the U.S. government has more credibility than the government of Iran.
“It is very likely that Iran will continue to present things that are fanciful, that are fraudulent, that are false,” he said, predicting more false narratives as the U.S. pressure campaign on Iran continues.
Pompeo said his talks with the Saudi and UAE rulers will focus on corralling other countries into a coalition that “is prepared to push back against the world’s largest state sponsor of terror.”
Tensions between Washington and Iran had been simmering since the administration pulled out of the nuclear deal and added new sanctions almost every week.
But tensions grew into anger a couple of months ago, after the State Department designated the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps a terrorist organization and put a chokehold on Iran’s oil revenue. Iran retaliated with measures calibrated to be strong enough to get Washington’s attention but not so strong as to require a U.S. military response.
Like Trump, Pompeo often mentions the administration’s desire to negotiate with Iran and end the hostile relations. In a pitch that sounds identical to one Trump made to North Korea, Pompeo said negotiations would help Iran achieve a more prosperous future.
“The president said repeatedly, ‘We want a brighter future for the people of the Islamic Republic of Iran,’ ” he said. “Those negotiations are the gateway.”
In a striking contrast to his remarks about Iran, Pompeo sounded hopeful about the prospects for talks with North Korea. Negotiations have gone nowhere since Trump walked away from a summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi in February. North Korean officials have suggested that Pompeo should be pulled off the North Korea talks; every time he gets involved, they say, negotiations falter.
On Sunday, Pompeo confirmed that Trump had sent a written response to a letter Kim sent Trump recently, and suggested that talks may begin again soon.
“I’m hopeful that this will provide a good foundation for us to begin to continue these important discussions with the North Koreans to denuclearize the peninsula,” Pompeo said.
Meanwhile, an attack by an Iranian-allied rebel group in Yemen on Sunday, targeting an airport in Saudi Arabia, killed one person and added to regional tensions.
A Saudi statement said that the rebel group, the Houthis, carried out a “terrorist attack” that targeted Abha International Airport, near the Saudi border with Yemen. The statement did not provide details about the attack, but Houthi media outlets said it was carried out by a drone.
“Thousands of civilian passengers of different nationalities pass daily,” through the airport, the Saudi statement said. The victim was a Syrian citizen, it said, adding that seven people were injured.
The attack was at least the third carried out by the Houthis on the airport in recent weeks. A Houthi missile attack earlier this month injured more than two dozen people in the airport, which sits about 65 miles from Yemen’s northern border.
Saudi Arabia has been leading an Arab coalition fighting against the Houthis in Yemen for the past four years, and coalition airstrikes have killed thousands of Yemeni civilians, according to human rights monitors. The Houthis have carried out cross-border attacks throughout the war but they appear to have become more intense in recent weeks.
Kareem Fahim in Istanbul contributed to this report.