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When it comes to Iran, how many failures is enough for Pompeo?

The main result of the “maximum pressure” policy to date, aside from the increasing immiseration of the Iranian people, has been the unprecedented degree to which Washington has been isolated from the rest of the world.

Analysis | Middle East

For many years Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has worked to bring Iran to heel, if not to destroy the Islamic Republic altogether. He would presumably prefer to accomplish those ends through economic and political warfare, but it is unlikely he would object to military attacks if that is what it takes. As a Congressman from Kansas as early as 2014, he was urging Washington to attack Tehran’s nuclear facilities, noting it would take “under 2,000 sorties,” or bombings, to do the job. “This is not an insurmountable task for the coalition forces,” he said. 

Pompeo is an ideologue rather than a diplomat. His urge to confront Iran appears to be motivated by his Christian Zionism and support for Israel, as well as, as some believe, his own presidential ambitions. Adding to these factors are no doubt his views about American exceptionalism that require such countries as Iran, Venezuela, Syria, and Iraq to bow to U.S. demands for their own good, all of which creates a mixture dangerous to world peace, and to the Middle East, in particular.

As CIA Director Pompeo released the agency’s documents taken from Osama bin Laden’s hideout in Pakistan, but gave advanced copies to the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a well-funded, stridently pro-Israel lobby and think tank that opposed the JCPOA and has long promoted waging economic warfare against Iran. Pompeo had presumably hoped that FDD would uncover evidence linking Iran directly to al-Qaeda — much as the George W. Bush’s administration struggled to link Saddam Hussein to Al Qaeda nearly 20 years ago — so that the 2002 Authorization for use of Military Force in the so-called war on terror could be invoked against Iran. The FDD obliged and published a report. But the evidence for such a link that it adduced from the documents was so weak that it was almost entirely ignored by lawmakers and major media alike.

Almost immediately after being confirmed as Secretary of State, in April 2018, Pompeo delivered what one Iran expert at the Washington Post called a “silly speech” in which he announced his “maximum pressure policy” against Iran that imposed the harshest ever economic sanctions on the nation and set forth twelve conditions, including abandoning both its nuclear program and its regional allies, that Iran would have to fulfill before the Trump administration would undertake negotiations for a new and much broader agreement with the Islamic Republic. The twelve conditions were assailed by most Iran experts as tantamount to an ultimatum for Iran to capitulate and surrender its defensive capabilities

Pompeo, who enjoyed the strong backing of then-National Security Adviser and veteran Iran hawk John Bolton, was also hoping that when the U.S. pulled out of the JCPOA and imposed new sanctions against Iran in May 2018, the Islamic Republic would in turn withdraw from the nuclear agreement, thereby giving an excuse for “snapback” sanctions by the U.N. Security Council. But, acting prudently, the Islamic Republic declined to take the bait, as it did a year later when the administration declared Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps a Foreign Terrorist Organization.

Several months after Trump withdrew from the JCPOA, Pompeo began his campaign to create an “Arab NATO,” consisting of the Arab countries of the Persian Gulf plus Egypt and Jordan. But that effort only demonstrated how little Pompeo knows the Middle East and the many political and ideological differences between Arab countries. Saudi Arabia and its allies have imposed a blockade on Qatar, the United Arab Emirates supports separatists in southern Yemen — who oppose the Saudi-supported “government” of that country — and there is intense rivalry between some of the same countries in the war in Libya. Kuwait, Qatar, and Oman have good relations with Iran and do not wish to jeopardize them. 

Next, Pompeo worked with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to organize a conference in Poland in February 2019, ostensibly about the Middle East, but clearly targeting Iran. The meeting, however, was boycotted by top European officials among others, and produced no meaningful new initiative

As Pompeo moved to strengthen sanctions against Tehran, he was encouraged by Iran’s “fake opposition” — some exiled Iranians who support Pompeo’s “maximum pressure policy,” including threats of war against Iran — to believe that the strategy would prompt Iranians to rise up against their leadership, a prospect that was supposedly strengthened a year later when Iran was among the first and most hard-hit countries ravaged by COVID-19

Even before the COVID pandemic, however, Pompeo and his allies believed that the sometimes-violent anti-government demonstration that broke out in many Iranian cities after the regime tripled gas prices without any prior warning in November 2019 signaled the IRI’s imminent collapse. However, the unrest was confined almost exclusively to working-class and poor districts, while the middle class largely refrained from taking part in the demonstrations, not because it supports the regime, which to a large extent it does not, but because of fears that the protests could devolve into the kind of chaos and external intervention experienced by Libya, Syria, or Iraq. As usual, Pompeo exaggerated what had happened. While Amnesty International estimated that 304 people lost their lives in the unrest, Pompeo insisted that 1,500 people had been killed.

When, in June 2019, Iran shot down a U.S. drone that it claimed had violated its airspace in the Persian Gulf. Pompeo pushed hard for retaliatory military attacks on Iran, but Trump rejected his urgings. 

Three months later, a similar scenario played out when precision missile and drone attacks, attributed by Washington to Iran, were carried out on Saudi Aramco’s oil facilities, heavily damaging the facilities and rendering the Saudi’s MIM-104 Patriot defense system useless. Pompeo called the attacks “an act of war” on Iran’s part, but Trump again explicitly ruled out a military response.

The assassination of Major General Qassem Soleimani is perhaps Pompeo’s only “success” so far. For months, if not longer, Pompeo had urged the President to authorize the assassination, a blatant violation of international law that was explicitly denounced as an unlawful act by Agnes Callamard, United Nations’ special rapporteur on extrajudicial killings. Whatever hopes Pompeo entertained that it would provide the spark for a bigger confrontation failed to materialize, however, as Tehran’s limited and telegraphed missile strikes against Iraqi bases that housed U.S. military personnel in Iraq failed to persuade Trump to escalate.

The United Nations has been the forum for Pompeo’s latest diplomatic belly flops. The U.N. Security Council rejected overwhelmingly a U.S. resolution to extend the arms embargo against Iran that will expire next month. Of the other 14 members of the Council, only the Dominican Republic — historically heavily dependent on U.S. aid — supported the move.

So, too, has been Pompeo’s effort — which relied on a bizarre argument that the U.S. remained a “participant” to the JCPOA despite its having declared that it was no longer participating in the pact back in 2018 — to persuade the Council to invoke the “snapback” mechanism that would reinstate multilateral sanctions against Iran that were in effect before the JCPOA was agreed. 

Pompeo then met with U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres at his residence in New York. He failed again; the meeting produced nothing.

There is, of course, no reason to believe at this point that Pompeo’s crusade — and his continuing provocations — against Iran will end any time soon, just as there is no reason to believe that the Islamic Republic is on the verge of collapse. But what is clear is that the main result of the “maximum pressure” policy to date, aside from the increasing immiseration of the Iranian people, has been the unprecedented degree to which Washington has been isolated from the rest of the world, especially from its closest traditional allies, on a key issue of international peace and security.

Alexandros Michailidis /
Analysis | Middle East
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