Mike Pompeo stopped short of calling for regime change in Iran on Monday—but just short of it. Speaking at the Heritage Foundation in Washington in his first public address as secretary of state, Pompeo laid out an ambitious U.S. strategy for confronting the Islamic Republic, following President Trump’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal, and came close to calling for the Iranian people to rise up against their government.
Pompeo vowed that the U.S. would implement the “strongest sanctions in history” on Iran, now that the agreement is no more, and would work with allies to deter Iranian ambitions throughout the Middle East. While the Obama administration had argued that Iran’s nuclear program should be addressed separately from other regional conflicts, Pompeo asserted that the two issues are inextricably connected, saying, “Iran’s leaders saw the deal as the starting gun for the march across the Middle East.”
Pompeo said he had hoped that larger issues could be addressed while leaving the nuclear deal in place, but after talking to European partners, he had concluded it was impossible. That’s an odd claim for a secretary of state who’s been on the job for less than a month.
In presenting the campaign to deter Iran as a simplistic moral struggle—in contrast to the Obama administration’s naïvete and double-dealing—Pompeo glossed over some points that complicate the overall picture. He noted the presence of destabilizing Shiite militias in Iraq, without mentioning that they had been fighting on the same side as U.S. forces against ISIS. He attributed full blame for the suffering of Yemeni civilians in the current civil war to Iran’s support for the Houthis, without noting the massive civilian toll of the ongoing Saudi-led, U.S.-supported air campaign. He didn’t explain how it would be possible to implement the “strongest sanctions in history” without the support of Russia, China, or even the EU. He pointed to Trump’s planned meeting with North Korea’s Kim Jong-un as evidence of Trump’s genuine commitment to diplomacy, without explaining why the administration appears to be heading toward a North Korea deal far less restrictive than the one Iran had agreed to. He also demanded that Iran release the U.S. citizens it is holding in custody, something that has probably gotten less likely since the deal was canceled.
Pompeo left open the possibility of a new deal, but one based on 12 conditions—including a full halt to all uranium enrichment, withdrawal of Iranian forces from Syria, and an end to support for groups like Hezbollah, the Houthis, and Shiite militias in Iraq—that the current regime would never support.
That may be exactly the point: The idea seems to be that the U.S. will simply continue to ramp up the pressure until the regime capitulates. Though Trump would be unlikely to admit it, this is closer to the neoconservative impulses of the George W. Bush administration than the America-first isolationism he has often advocated. Pompeo also distinguished himself from his predecessor, Rex Tillerson, who rarely expressed much interest in democracy or human rights, in devoting much of his address to the Iranian people, saying that “The hard grip of repression is all that millions of Iranians have ever known.” Pompeo argued that recent economic protests in Iran are evidence of public anger at a regime that “reaps a harvest of suffering and death in the Middle East at the expense of its own people.”
He also scoffed at those in the West who consider President Hassan Rouhani and foreign minister Javad Zarif to be moderates or reformers, saying to Iranians, “Rouhani and Zarif are your elected leaders. Are they not the most responsible for your economic struggles? Are these two not responsible for wasting Iranian lives throughout the Middle East?”
In a brief question-and-answer postlude with Heritage Foundation President Kay Cole James, Pompeo came even closer to calling for an uprising, saying, “At the end of the day, the Iranian people will decide the timeline. 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. If they choose not to do so, we will stay hard at this until we achieve the outcomes that I set forward today.”
Given that there’s almost no chance of Iran meeting the Trump administration’s conditions, the hope seems to be that the Iranian people will take matters into their own hands. This is an enormously risky strategy. Many Iranians who are highly critical of their government’s policies are also resistant to foreign interference in their domestic politics. The regime already depicts anti-government demonstrations as American-inspired regime-change efforts. Pompeo just endorsed that depiction.