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Secretary of State Mike Pompeo at a press conference in Cairo, Jan. 10. Photo: Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP via Getty Images

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo did his best on Thursday to paper over the contradictions in the Trump administration’s Middle East policy, in a speech that was heavy on Iran bashing and light on criticism of U.S. allies.

The big picture: Pompeo performed his greatest verbal gymnastics when seeking to project an image of U.S. resolve against both Iran and the Islamic State, or ISIS, despite President Trump’s decision to withdraw troops from Syria — the main purpose of the secretary’s current Mideast tour. But given varying White House statements, Pompeo’s claims that withdrawing the 2,000 U.S. troops from Syria doesn't constitute “a change in mission” deserve skepticism.

Details: Pompeo directed heavy rhetorical fire at Iran. In contrast to President Obama — who in a major 2009 address in Cairo expressed his desire for a new relationship with Tehran, despite a history of mutual grievances — Pompeo promised “to confront the ayatollahs, not coddle them” and to combat “the full array of the regime’s malign activities.”

  • He defended the Trump administration’s decision to unilaterally withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal and said that the 12 demands he outlined for Iran to become a “normal nation” in his first major speech as secretary last May are still U.S. policy.

Unlike his predecessor in the George W. Bush administration, Condoleezza Rice, who chided U.S. partners for jailing dissidents, Pompeo made no mention of Saudi Arabia's brutal murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi or its continued incarceration of peaceful advocates of reform.

Pompeo also called on Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi to “unleash the creative energy of Egypt’s people,” but praised his “courage” in “promoting religious freedom” — even as some 60,000 political prisoners languish in Egyptians jails, five years after Sisi took power in a coup.

The bottom line: To the extent that the Trump administration has a strategy for the Middle East, it appears light on military presence and heavy on rhetoric and economic sanctions. Echoing Obama, Pompeo called this a “new beginning,” but whether it will be any more successful than his predecessors' initiatives remains to be seen.

Barbara Slavin directs the Future of Iran Initiative at the Atlantic Council.

Go deeper

29 mins ago - World

Brazil begins distributing AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccine

Containers carrying doses of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine arrive in Brazil. Photo: Maurio Pimentel/AFP via Getty Images

Brazil on Saturday began distributing the 2 million doses of the AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccine that arrived from India Friday, Reuters reports.

Why it matters: Brazil has the third highest COVID-19 case-count in the world, according to Johns Hopkins University data. The 2 million doses "only scratch the surface of the shortfall," Brazilian public health experts told the AP.

Sullivan speaks with Israel's national security adviser for the first time

Israeli national security adviser Meir Ben Shabbat U.S. Photo: Mazen Mahdi/Getty Images. U.S. national security adviser Jake Sullivan. Photo: Chandan Khanna/Getty Images

U.S. national security adviser Jake Sullivan spoke on the phone Saturday with his Israeli counterpart Meir Ben Shabbat, Israeli officials tell Axios.

Why it matters: This is the first contact between the Biden White House and Israeli prime minister's office. During the transition, the Biden team refrained from speaking to foreign governments.

Biden speaks to Mexican president about reversing Trump's "draconian immigration policies"

Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador. Ismael Rosas/Eyepix Group/Barcroft Media via Getty Images

President Biden told his Mexican counterpart, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, on a phone call Friday that he plans to reverse former President Trump’s “draconian immigration policies.”

The big picture: The Biden administration has already started repealing several of Trump’s immigration policies, including ordering a 100-day freeze on deporting many unauthorized immigrants, halting work on the southern border wall, and reversing plans to exclude undocumented people from being included in the 2020 census.

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