Bonnie Kristian — CNBC May 22, 2018
“Two weeks ago, President Trump terminated the United States’ participation in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), more commonly known as the Iran nuclear deal,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo started his speech at the Heritage Foundation on Monday.
“President Trump withdrew from the deal for a simple reason,” he continued. “It failed to guarantee the safety of the American people from the risks created by the leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran.”
Thus Pompeo began a talk grounded more in fantasy than strategy.
He spoke repeatedly of an Iranian “march across the Middle East,” painting Tehran as the mastermind of regional instability which poses an active, existential threat to U.S. friends and allies.
The “path forward,” as Pompeo described it, is for Iran to submit to onerous new U.S. sanctions and concede to a long list of demands. It is a list so exacting it is difficult to believe, as Daniel Larison notes at The American Conservative, that Pompeo could sincerely think it is a step away from conflict: The “ultimatum is so extensive and unreasonable that we have to assume that the administration intends for it to be rejected.”
Three key problems
There are three key problems in Pompeo’s “Plan B” speech which, if not corrected, will gravely undermine Americans’ security, the Trump administration’s foreign policy, and the Iranian people’s ability to make their government more humane, democratic, and responsible.
First, Pompeo blamed the Iran deal for failing at what it never set out to do. His sweeping complaint that JCPOA could not protect the United States from every possible Iranian threat is less an indictment of the deal than a statement of fact: Such a broad accomplishment was never its aim.
Though certainly not perfect, what JCPOA did do is block all Iranian options to acquire sufficient material for a nuclear weapon for 15 years, while increasing international inspections and applying restrictions both temporary and permanent on Iran’s military development.
The administration’s approach makes future U.S.-Iran diplomacy even more difficult and uncertain than it already would be. Rather than building on a foundation of JCPOA to exact further desired changes in Tehran’s behavior with additional talks, Pompeo has accused Iran of negotiating in bad faith and signaled Washington may be an unreliable partner.
He has also left Washington with little room to maneuver once, as is all but guaranteed, Iran’s behavior does not change as a result of the Trump administration’s new, post-JCPOA pressure.
Second, this unrealistic, all-or-nothing ultimatum makes escalation more likely. It is one thing to want the changes Pompeo demands and quite another to present them as a public ultimatum. This is reckless and unproductive—unless the aim is to provoke Iran into providing a pretext for military intervention.
If it seems unfair to accuse the administration of acting in an underhanded manner, consider that such a move comes straight from the playbook of National Security Adviser John Bolton, who made clear in his 2007 memoir that he backed U.S.-North Korea talks during the George W. Bush years only in hopes the communications would break down, paving the way to U.S. invasion.
Bolton may be attempting to lead the Trump administration’s Iran policy down the same counterproductive, costly path.
Finally, the tack Pompeo outlined couldn’t be better designed to put the U.S. on a path to forcible regime change in Iran. Toward the end of his speech, the secretary of state shifted his attention to Iran’s domestic policies, highlighting Tehran’s poor record on human rights, and arguing that the “regime is going to have to ultimately have to look itself in the mirror” because the Iranian people “are increasingly eager for economic, political, and social change.”
Narrowly understood, Pompeo is correct—younger Iranians, in particular, are unsatisfied with their oppressive regime—but the context of his assessment suggests these are changes the Trump administration, likely at the urging of Bolton and his hawkish allies like Rudy Giuliani, increasingly seeks to facilitate by force.
Military intervention and a Washington-orchestrated regime change attempt in Iran would be a dangerous mistake with catastrophic consequences. The United States’ well-remembered history of meddling in Iranian politics; our extensive and costly military interventions already underway across the greater Mideast; and Iran’s size and wealth all make invasion a fool’s errand.
It is also unnecessary to U.S. security, as Iran—against Pomeo’s “march” narrative—is at best a regional power balanced by nearby states friendlier to Washington, like Israel, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia.
War with Iran is not required to keep our friends and allies safe, let alone America. On the contrary, it will put U.S. troops needlessly in harm’s way.
Pompeo committed the U.S. to escalating tensions with Iran with the hope Tehran will yield—even though it has not done so after 40-plus years of pressure. We can say with certainty this approach will not make Americans safer, nor will it bring the Middle East closer to stability, the Iranian people closer to liberty, or the Trump administration closer to its stated foreign policy aims.
The path forward cannot be unrealistic, unilateral ultimatums and barely concealed threat of invasion, as Pompeo proposed. That path leads to generational war at a price of blood and treasure the United States need not, and should not, pay.
Commentary by Bonnie Kristian, a fellow at Defense Priorities and weekend editor at The Week. Her writing has also appeared at Time Magazine, CNN, Politico, USA Today, the Los Angeles Times, Relevant Magazine, The Hill, and The American Conservative, among other outlets.