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Iran nuclear deal may be the first casualty of Tillerson’s ouster

Mike Pompeo, named to replace Rex Tillerson as secretary state, has long been a critic of Iran and the nuclear deal with it.
Mike Pompeo, named to replace Rex Tillerson as secretary state, has long been a critic of Iran and the nuclear deal with it. (Jacquelyn Martin/AP)

The nomination of Mike Pompeo to be the next secretary of state signals President Trump’s determination to quit the landmark Iran nuclear deal, which could cause it to unravel, according to national security and arms-control experts.

If Pompeo is confirmed, Trump will have at his side an adviser who is equally as hard line on Iran and a harsh critic of the 2015 multilateral agreement between the United States and other world powers.

“Now you have the appointment of someone who has made it an article of faith that the Iran deal is a bad deal that needs to be ripped up,” said Robert Malley, president of the International Crisis Group who helped broker the Iran negotiations under the Obama administration. “It may well be the first casualty of Tillerson’s ousting will be the end of the Iran deal.”

The Post's Anne Gearan talked March 13 about the firing of outgoing Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and the man tapped to be his successor, Mike Pompeo. (Video: Sarah Parnass/The Washington Post, Photo: Jonathan Ernst/The Washington Post)

Pompeo has frequently expressed scorn for Iran, which he once characterized as “a thuggish police state” and a “despotic theocracy.” Just before Trump named him to head the CIA, Pompeo tweeted that he looked forward to “rolling back” the nuclear deal, which he called “disastrous.”

As secretary of state, it will fall to Pompeo to certify whether Iran is meeting its nuclear commitments under the deal, as required every 90 days under U.S. law.

Rex Tillerson, who was fired Tuesday as secretary of state, always concluded that Iran was complying as international monitors have reported, although not in its “spirit.” He had urged the president to stay in the agreement to keep leverage over Iran’s ballistic missile testing and other actions not covered under the agreement. Although they disagreed on many foreign policy issues, Trump mentioned only the Iran deal in explaining why he thought it was time for Tillerson to go.

Even as President Trump ousts Rex Tillerson as secretary of state, it seems the White House is moving forward with a planned meeting with Kim Jong Un. (Video: Jason Aldag/The Washington Post)

After Trump named Pompeo as Tillerson’s replacement, Mark Dubowitz, head of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, tweeted that Pompeo is “Exhibit A” of Trump’s seriousness about walking away from the deal if there is no agreement to amend it.

“Now he has a secretary of state who 100 percent shares his views on the nature and gravity of the Iranian threat and the fatal flaws of the JCPOA,” Dubowitz said in an interview, using the initialism for the deal’s official name. “Now there is no daylight between the president and the secretary of state.”

Pompeo is expected to have his confirmation hearing in April, the month before a May 12 deadline for Trump to decide whether to reimpose sanctions that were suspended in exchange for Iran’s acceptance of limits on its nuclear program. However, nothing would prevent Trump from withdrawing at any time before then.

A U.S. pullback probably would kill the deal outright, even if the Europeans and other parties to the agreement strive to keep it alive. That is because other countries, businesses and financial institutions would be inclined to curb their interactions with Iran, eroding any motivation for Iran to stay in it.

Russia, another signatory to the deal, has said the agreement would collapse if one party withdraws. Some Iranian officials have said the same, although others hope to stick with it because it has ended the country’s economic isolation.

But Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi, who was a member of the Iranian negotiating team, said that “if America withdraws from the nuclear deal, Iran will follow suit,” Iranian media reported.

On Monday, Behrouz Kamalvandi, a spokesman for the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, said it could step up its production of enriched uranium within two days. Ali Khorram, a former Iranian diplomat, writing in his column in the daily newspaper Arman, called Pompeo “cowboyish in character and eager to start a war similar to the war with Iraq.”

One potential lifeline for the Iran deal comes Friday in Vienna. Britain, China, the European Union, France, Germany, Russia and the United States will meet there at the International Atomic Energy Agency headquarters for a meeting of a committee tasked with settling issues that arise.

The United States will be represented by Brian Hook, the State Department’s head of policy planning. Hook has been negotiating with Europeans on possible “fixes” to the deal, primarily involving Iran’s ballistic missile program, support for militant groups such as Hezbollah and sunset clauses that cause various limitations on Iran to expire years from now.

Those periodic conclaves often are used for sideline meetings between delegations from the United States and Iran.

Some analysts say that Pompeo may moderate some of his criticisms of the nuclear deal if he becomes secretary of state and slips into the role. As a member of Congress and then head of the CIA, he never carried the responsibility of coming up with solutions to his criticisms.

“The logic of the situation remains the same, no matter what Mr. Pompeo may want to do or Mr. Trump would like to do,” said Daryl G. Kimball, head of the Arms Control Association. “It makes no sense for America to blow up the Iran nuclear deal, create a new nuclear crisis and undermine the president’s new diplomatic initiative to start North Korea on the path to denuclearize. If Mike Pompeo is worth his salt, he will point this out.”