The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Pompeo makes unannounced visit to Baghdad amid rising tensions with Iran

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made a sudden, unscheduled trip to the capital of Iraq on May 7. (Video: The Washington Post)

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made a sudden, unscheduled trip to Iraq’s capital on Tuesday as U.S. officials warned that Iran was positioning missiles that could be used against American forces in the region.

Pompeo’s surprise visit to Baghdad came on the eve of the first anniversary of President Trump’s withdrawal from a landmark nuclear agreement with Iran. Washington and Tehran have been exchanging increasingly belligerent rhetoric as the day approaches.

The Pentagon has ordered the deployment of an aircraft carrier and Air Force bombers in the Persian Gulf while warning of the threat posed by small Iranian boats suspected of carrying missiles.

Pompeo’s decision to break away from a European trip for the Middle East was cloaked in secrecy for security reasons. He abruptly canceled a visit to Germany, where he was scheduled to meet with Chancellor Angela Merkel and Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, with the State Department initially saying only that “pressing issues” had arisen.

Under President Trump, United States-Iranian relations have taken a decisive turn for the worse. Here's a brief history of the tumultuous relationship. (Video: Joyce Lee/The Washington Post)

After flying out of Baghdad late at night, Pompeo said he had told Iraqi President Barham Salih and Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi that they are responsible for protecting Americans in their country and briefed them on intelligence suggesting Iran is posing a greater threat.

“We wanted to let them know about the increased threat stream that we had seen and give them a little bit more background on that so they could ensure that they were doing all they could to provide protection for our team,” Pompeo told reporters. “They understood, too, it’s important for their country. We don’t want anyone interfering in their country . . . and there was complete agreement.”

About 5,000 U.S. troops are based in Iraq, and the United States maintains a large diplomatic presence. Pompeo and national security adviser John Bolton have both warned that Iran or its proxy militias could be planning an attack on the U.S. forces or U.S. interests, though they have provided few details.

Defense officials said the intelligence that sparked their concern included imagery of containers on the deck of at least one dhow, a sailing vessel, which were believed to contain assembled ballistic missiles from Iran.

Officials were unsure of the intended purpose for the suspected missiles, but they saw it as a worrying departure from Iran’s previous steps to smuggle disassembled missile parts into Yemen. U.S. officials have long accused Iran of delivering disassembled missiles by sea and overland into Yemen, where they have been reassembled for use by Houthi rebels.

The intelligence related to the suspected missile shipments was first reported by CNN.

While flying to Iraq, Pompeo said his trip was prompted by reports of escalation in Iranian activity. Iraq and Iran are neighbors and maintain cordial relations.

“I wanted to go to Baghdad to speak with the leadership there, to assure them that we stood ready to continue to ensure that Iraq is a sovereign, independent nation,” he said.

Pompeo said he would assure officials in Baghdad that the United States would continue to support Iraqi security forces, and urge them to pursue energy deals with Jordan and Egypt to reduce the country’s dependence on the Iranian electrical grid.

The Trump administration is expected to impose more sanctions on Tehran, which is already weighed down by some of the harshest penalties ever. U.S. officials say their strategy is designed to get the Islamic republic to end its support for militant groups in the region and cease testing missiles.

Iran in turn has said it will protect itself from “economic terrorism.”

Pompeo has stopped short of calling for regime change. But his list of 12 demands aiming to get Iran to act like a “normal nation” is so uncompromising that experts say there is little chance of Iran’s relenting.

Iranian officials have said they are reconsidering full cooperation with the landmark nuclear agreement with six world powers in response to the Trump administration’s pressure campaign, though any action would be short of a complete withdrawal. President Hassan Rouhani is expected to announce a decision Wednesday.

Pompeo said he had talked by phone with Trump on Monday night, when Pompeo was still in Finland for a meeting of the Arctic Council.

“The central messages are this,” he said. “We want to make sure that Iraq is positioned so that the relationship that we’ve built with them and that our allies in the region have built with them — allies that range all across the gulf, who understand that the primary threat in the Middle East is Iran — remains strong, that those relationships remain strong.”

Iraq poses a dilemma for the State Department because it hosts so many U.S. troops while continuing to do business with Iran and meeting with Iranian officials on diplomatic visits. Iraq is one of the few countries that still have a State Department waiver from sanctions, allowing it to keep purchasing electricity from Iran.

Iraq has a number of Shiite militia groups, backed and trained by Iran, that have criticized the U.S. designation of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, an elite branch of Iran’s military, as a terrorist organization.

The Persian Gulf includes critical sea lanes for oil shipments, particularly at the Strait of Hormuz. As U.S. sanctions have dried up many markets for Iran’s oil, Tehran has threatened to close the strait. When Bahrain objected, an Iranian official responded: “Mind your small size and do not threaten someone bigger than yourself.”

The White House announced Sunday that the USS Abraham Lincoln, traveling with a fleet of escort ships, was en route to the Middle East. The Navy aircraft carrier already was due to “spend a significant amount of time” in the region but will now arrive earlier than initially planned, the Pentagon said in a statement.

Dan Lamothe contributed to this report.