Two of the Trump administration's top national security officials offered a glimpse into the president's strategy regarding Iran on Thursday while speaking at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracy's security conference in Washington, D.C.
CIA Director Mike Pompeo and national security advisor Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster said that Trump's strategy takes a more comprehensive approach when dealing with Iran, one which goes beyond the nuclear deal alone. The two officials noted that Trump wants to cut off all of Iran's avenues to a nuclear weapon, while also combating the country's growing influence over the Middle East.
Trump has come to believe that Iran is at the center of many problems in the Middle East, according to Pompeo. Specifically, the CIA chief noted the Qods Force, Iran's shadowy special operations unit responsible for foreign operations, has been a main driver behind many of these issues.
Iran directly supports Iraq's Popular Mobilization Forces, a collection of mostly Shiite militias which were incorporated into Iraq's security forces after the rise of the Islamic State. The alliance has been a point of contention for U.S. officials throughout the campaign against ISIS, many of whom are concerned the PMF's presence only exacerbates the divide between the country's Sunni and Shia Muslims. Iran has hardly hidden its involvement. Qassem Soleimani, the enigmatic leader of the Qods Force, was reportedly seen in Kirkuk around the time Iraqi forces forced out the Kurdish Peshmerga.
"Iran is very good at pitting groups against eachother," noted McMaster. He explained that Iran often acts as the "patron" for one group over the other, exacerbating the sectarian cleavages in the Middle East.
He added that Iraq must not aligned with Iran going forward, as Iran is seeking to keep the Iraqis intentionally weak and dependent on its support.
Pompeo said it has been far too easy for Iran to support proxy groups, and that the U.S. should make it more expensive for them to do so. The Trump administration has continued the policy of previous administrations by sanctioning various Iranian operatives and shell companies, but Pompeo admitted his agency has a hard time determining which actors are involved. He estimated that as much as 20 percent of the Iranian economy is controlled by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, the paramilitary branch which oversees the Qods Force.
Trump has been met with criticism for failing to recertify Iran's compliance with the 2015 nuclear agreement, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. Former CIA Director John Brennan has warned that fully withdrawing from the agreement would alienate U.S. allies, however, Pompeo noted there is a "consensus" among U.S. partners regarding the Iranian threat.
McMaster reiterated the comprehensive aspect of Trump's strategy, noting that the previous policy simply viewed the deal as the strategy itself. He said the next challenge is executing the new strategy and getting partners on board. McMaster said he has told European partners to simply refer to the Iran deal as the "worst deal ever," but he also reportedly had reservations on decertification.