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Secretary of State Mike Pompeo delivers a speech on Iran at the Heritage Foundation on May 21, 2018. (CNN Newsource)

Pompeo's Iran demands: A 'bold' vision or an 'unrealistic' wish list?

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WASHINGTON (Circa) — Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Tuesday he is confident the U.S. and its allies can formulate a collective diplomatic approach to curtailing Iran’s nuclear weapons program and its other violations of international laws and norms, despite the backlash President Donald Trump has faced from fellow signatories to the Iran nuclear agreement he unilaterally withdrew from earlier this month.

“This is a global challenge,” Pompeo told reporters at a press conference.

The Obama administration had finalized the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) with Iran, Britain, France, Germany, Russia, and China to provide Iran with relief from economic sanctions in exchange for restrictions on its nuclear program. Over the objection of the other countries involved, Trump announced the U.S. will pull out and re-impose sanctions.

Detailing the administration’s post-Iran deal policy for the first time in a speech at the Heritage Foundation Monday, Pompeo described significant, wide-ranging changes in Iran’s behavior the U.S. expects in a new deal. Questioned Tuesday about the plausibility of Iran accepting that offer, he argued not engaging in terrorism or developing illegal weapons is “a very low standard” and is not one on which the administration will grant Tehran much leeway.

“We wouldn’t tolerate Iceland doing what the Iranians are doing,” he said.

On Monday, Pompeo laid out 12 demands Iran must meet as part of any agreement:


  1. Provide a complete accounting of previous nuclear weapons research
  2. Stop uranium enrichment and never pursue plutonium reprocessing
  3. Give the International Atomic Energy Agency “unqualified access” to all sites
  4. Stop providing missiles to militant groups and developing nuclear-capable missiles
  5. Release all U.S. and allied detainees
  6. Stop supporting Hezbollah, Hamas, and other militant groups
  7. Respect Iraqi sovereignty
  8. Stop sending arms to the Houthis in Yemen
  9. Withdraw all forces under its command from Syria
  10. Cut off support for the Taliban and stop harboring al Qaeda militants
  11. End support for militants by its Quds Force
  12. Halt threatening behavior against its neighbors, including Israel

In return for “tangible, demonstrated, and sustained shifts” in Iran’s behavior, the U.S. would end the principle components of every sanction against the regime, reestablish full diplomatic and commercial relationships, and support the modernization and international reintegration of the Iranian economy.

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Pompeo unveils Trump's new Iran strategy

If Iran does not comply with these conditions, Pompeo threatened “the strongest sanctions in history.

The conditions set forth by Pompeo represent a drastic shift from past negotiations in which U.S. officials and allies attempted to address Iran’s nuclear program separately from its other dangerous behavior. The Obama administration maintained allowing talks to get mired in ancillary issues would interfere with the priority of halting Iran’s progress on nuclear weapons.

Pompeo’s list of demands also aims to rectify President Trump's other complaints that the original Iran deal did not ensure permanent disarmament and that the inspections it allowed were too limited.

Opponents of the Iran deal have welcomed Pompeo’s rigid approach, but supporters of the agreement dismissed his speech as a right-wing fantasy.

“I was impressed by how bold Pompeo’s vision was,” said Behnam Ben Taleblu, a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. “I would essentially call the speech ‘big-for-big.’”

In exchange for big concessions that would address activities the international community has complained about for decades, Iran would get big incentives. Iran also faces big penalties if it refuses.

“We have stopped fighting with one arm tied behind our backs in economic warfare,” Taleblu said.

Chen Kane, director of the Middle East Nonproliferation Program at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, noted that Pompeo choosing this subject for his first speech as secretary demonstrates his commitment to addressing the Iran problem, but she is unconvinced this is the way to do it.

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“It was a hardline speech that communicated a set of demands for Iran to capitulate and change just about everything regarding its behavior or else they will face a regime change,” she said. “If this is the administration’s Plan B after withdrawing from the Iran deal, it is extremely worrying as it is not a strategy.”

According to James McKeon, a policy analyst at the Center for Arms Control and Nonproliferation, the Obama administration kept these issues off the table during nuclear negotiations because it was clear Iran would not agree to such conditions.

“I agree with Secretary Pompeo on one thing and that’s that his goals would be great if they could be accomplished…,” McKeon said. “Where I strongly disagree with Secretary Pompeo is that any of these things are realistic.”

During his speech, Pompeo anticipated some would call his demands unrealistic, and he disputed that.

“We’re not asking anything other than that Iranian behavior be consistent with global norms, global norms widely recognized before the JCPOA,” he said. “And we want to eliminate their capacity to threaten our world with those nuclear activities.”

Some say the administration’s intent is not to change the Iranian regime’s behavior but to topple it.

“It was a wish list of unrealistic demands that essentially boil down to Iran’s complete capitulation,” said Mary Kaszynski, deputy director of policy for Ploughshares Fund. “It’s clear that the Trump administration’s one and only goal is regime change.”

The administration denies that is the plan, but Pompeo made several comments hinting at the end of the current government.

“At the end of the day, the Iranian people will decide the timeline,” he said, when asked about a timeframe for achieving his goals. “At the end of the day, the Iranian people will get to make a choice about their leadership. If they make the decision quickly, that would be wonderful.”

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A significant portion of Pompeo’s speech Monday was devoted to expressing support and solidarity for the Iranian people who have been protesting against their government and growing increasingly discontent with its policies. However, Taleblu stressed none of the conditions he set forth overtly necessitate forcing that government out of power.

“Those 12 demands have more to do with the Iranian republic’s external behavior than internal behavior,” he said.

McKeon did not want to speculate about Pompeo or Trump’s motives, but he said many of their supporters seem to expect extreme economic sanctions to lead to the collapse of the regime. He warned that attempting to force these changes on Iran could result in another bloody, intractable war in the Middle East.

“An imposition of will that happens without a war is very rare,” he said.

The Trump administration’s new sanction-centric approach was on display Tuesday as the Treasury Department announced sanctions on five Iranians for providing ballistic missile-related expertise and weapons to Houthis in Yemen.

“These designations are reflective of a brief uptick in the pace of Treasury Department designations on Iran,” Taleblu said. “One hopes this pace will convince U.S. adversaries and allies alike that Washington will enforce the sanctions it has re-imposed on Iran.”

The State Department predicts allies burned by Trump’s withdrawal from the JCPOA will set aside their differences and help enforce sanctions, but Pompeo’s speech has been met with skepticism in Europe.

British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said Monday a “jumbo Iran treaty” could not be reached “in anything like a reasonable timetable.” European Union foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said in a statement there is no alternative to the Iran deal.

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“Secretary Pompeo’s speech 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,” Mogherini said.

It was not welcomed with open arms in Tehran either.

“The world of today doesn’t accept that the U.S. decides for the world,” said Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. “Who are you to decide for Iran and the world?”

“The people of Iran should stand united in the face of this and they will deliver a strong punch to the mouth of the American secretary of state and anyone who backs them,” Ismail Kowsari of the Sarollah Revolutionary Guards said, according to the Iranian Labor News Agency.

Brian Hook, director of policy planning at State, told reporters at a briefing Friday that disagreements with the Europeans are overstated and they still have much more uniting them than dividing them.

“We believe that our shared values and commitment to confront sort of the common security challenges will transcend any disagreements over the JCPOA,” Hook said.

Pompeo’s critics say his speech failed to elucidate an actual plan to overcome the expected resistance from Europe, Russia, and China.

“The problem with the U.S. currently presenting a maximalist position is three-fold: its timing - just after withdrawing from the Iran deal unilaterally; its delivery – a list of demands of take it or leave it, and its credibility – U.S. demands are not supported by any of the partners of the Iran deal,” Kane said.

According to Kaszynski, enthusiastic support from the international community and specifically the European Union is what enabled past presidents to construct the sanctions regime that brought Iran to the negotiating table in the first place. She expects that cooperation will be difficult for Trump to repeat.

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“Today, compliance with U.S. sanctions will be grudging and minimal at best,” she said. “After the Trump administration’s unilateral violation of the JCPOA, and bullying Europe to go along with its demands, there is no appetite to forge the kind of international pressure that is needed to change Iran’s behavior.”

Allies share the desire to curb Iran’s missile program and support for terrorism, but since Trump’s withdrawal from the deal, they see keeping the agreement together as a higher priority.

“The focus has shifted entirely from coordinating a pressure campaign against Iran to trying to protect European and Asian companies from U.S. sanctions and provide Iran with economic incentives to stay in the nuclear deal,” Kaszynski said.

While the six countries that signed onto the JCPOA with Iran are often the focus of attention, Pompeo envisioned working with a broader range of allies to apply diplomatic and economic pressure to Tehran.

“I want the Australians, the Bahrainis, the Egyptians, the Indians, the Japanese, the Jordanians, the Kuwaitis, the Omanis, the Qataris, the Saudi Arabians, South Korea, the UAE, and many, many others worldwide to join in this effort against the Islamic Republic of Iran,” he said Monday. “I know that those countries share the same goals. They understand the challenge the same way that America does.”

Taleblu acknowledged winning over the Europeans will be a steep uphill climb for the Trump administration, but he does not believe it is an impossible task.

“That is one area I am quite worried about… We’re going to have to marry our coercive economic power with diplomatic power,” he said.

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It is a risky strategy, and it assumes that, given a choice, Europe will back Trump over Tehran and help reinforce the sanctions.

“I would just hate to see Brussels or some in Europe begin to forsake Washington for the world’s largest state sponsor of terrorism,” Taleblu said.

Using financial leverage to isolate Iran economically could pose another danger, according to Kane. If Iran walks away from its commitments under the deal, the restraints currently imposed on its nuclear weapons development could be lost.

“If the Trump administration re-imposes all U.S. sanctions, including secondary sanctions targeting international trade with Iran, European companies will find it extremely difficult to do business with Iran,” she said. “Under such a situation, Iran may decide that its main reason for joining the deal, namely economic recovery through foreign investments, cannot be achieved, and withdraw from the deal.”

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