Pompeo’s Iran strategy hastens collapse of nuclear deal

By Fawaz Turki, Special to Gulf News,Thinker

As expected, reaction to United States Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s maiden foreign policy speech this week, which was focused in its entirety on Iran, was mixed. Coming in the wake of US President Donald Trump’s decision earlier this month to withdraw from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, the so-called Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the speech was eagerly, and nervously, awaited mainly by America’s European allies and Iran. It can hardly be called a strategy. Pompeo outlined 12 strict conditions that not only required Tehran to commit to almost everything that was already included in the nuclear deal, but went beyond them to counter, restrict and reverse its belligerent behaviour across the region. In fact, Pompeo spelt out a hardline stand that stopped short of calling directly for regime change; although that now seems to be the administration’s ultimate goal.

To sum up, the additional conditions included the following: End support for terrorist groups, including Hezbollah, Hamas, and Jihad; respect the sovereignty of Iraq and permit the disarming of Shiite militias; end military support for Al Houthi militias in Yemen and work towards a peaceful political settlement there; withdraw all forces under Iranian command from Syria; end support for the Taliban and other terrorists in Afghanistan and the region and cease harbouring Al Qaida; end the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ support for terrorists and militant partners; cease its threatening behaviour against its neighbours and curb its missile programme.

Failing to comply, Pompeo threatened that the US “will apply unprecedented financial pressure on the Iranian regime; the strongest sanctions in history”. He said the US will rally the world to impose crippling economic pressure on Iran to force it to end all enrichment forever. On Iran’s regional meddling he said: “We will track down Iranian operatives and their Hezbollah proxies operating around the world and crush them … Iran will never again have carte blanche to dominate the Middle East.”

The European Union (EU), whose foreign ministers were engaged in tough discussions with Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif on ways to salvage the deal following the US exit, were not enthusiastic over Pompeo’s speech. Reacting to his speech, EU’s Foreign Policy Chief Federica Mogherini said that Pompeo “has not demonstrated how walking away from the JCPOA has made or will make the region safer from the threat of nuclear proliferation or how it puts us in a better position to influence Iran’s conduct in areas outside the scope of JCPOA”. British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson declared that Washington’s plan to tighten the screws against the Islamic republic won’t work.

And of course the harshest reaction came from Iran itself. President Hassan Rouhani said that neither Iran nor the whole world will simply accept that the US makes decisions for every country, adding that the Trump administration has returned Washington to about 15 years ago, repeating the same old words of 2003 and 2004. Naturally, Israel, a staunch critic of the Iran nuclear deal, lauded Pompeo’s speech.

But where to go from here? The EU, Russia and China have all expressed readiness to find ways to save the nuclear deal. European signatories were digging deep to come up with solutions to the biggest challenge: How can European companies avoid the backlash of US economic sanctions? Already a number of European companies have decided to cease all Iranian operations as a result of the US withdrawal. Zarif has said that time is running out and that it appears that it would be difficult to save the deal.

Trump’s decision and Pompeo’s speech will have further repercussions on already strained US-EU relations. The spat over the Iran nuclear deal is just one of a number of issues that European countries are clearly in disagreement with the US. These include Trump’s last December’s unilateral decision to recognise occupied Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and to relocate the US embassy there, his decision last month to impose tariffs on certain imported goods, the US withdrawal from the Paris climate change agreement and others. In fact, Trump’s foreign policy remains an enigma for US allies; as the US steers away from multilateralism towards unilateralism and even isolationism.

Critics of the new Iran strategy doubt that the US has the means to rally the world to impose “unprecedented” sanctions in Iran. Furthermore, they believe that Pompeo’s 12 conditions will be rejected by both moderates and hardliners in Iran, while weakening the position of the latter group. If the moderates lose grip the US onslaught is likely to backfire; increasing Iranian meddling in regional affairs and unleashing a new cycle of uranium enrichment and even the reprocessing of plutonium.

By seeking to isolate Iran economically and neutralising all diplomatic channels, we might see a repetition of the North Korea example; a race to build a weapon-grade nuclear programme by Tehran. And if that begins to take place then there will be only one option left for both the US and Israel to take — to launch a massive military strike against Iran. No one can know with certainty what the regional reverberations of such a scenario will look like.

It would have been better to keep the nuclear deal and focus on negotiating a supplement that will limit and restrain Tehran’s missile programme. As for its meddling in regional affairs diplomacy, selective sanctions and incentives would have been a better recourse. That is, at least, the position of Europe, Russia and China.

But the US is no ordinary player. It still has the political and economic clout to push its agenda on Iran. Economic sanctions will weigh heavily on Tehran and as European companies pull out, that pressure will become instrumental. The question now is will Iran get the message; that its regional agenda is as dangerous to the region and the world as its nuclear programme? For it to save the latter it must now reconsider its divisive regional policies. The ball is now in its court and its next move will matter the most.

This article provided by NewsEdge.