May 20, 2018

Mike Pompeo's "Plan B" speech on Iran

Photo: Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

In a speech on Monday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will lay out the Trump administration's new diplomatic path on Iran now that the President has withdrawn America from the nuclear deal.

What we're hearing: It's Pompeo's first foreign policy speech since taking over as Secretary. A source with direct knowledge of the speech gave me a snippet: "Iran advanced its march across the Middle East during the JCPOA... It did so with house money, with wealth created by the West... This will not continue."

  • A senior State Department official added: "We are welcoming ALL nations to join us in pushing back against Iran — our sanctions regime and our broader efforts welcome the participation of all countries. Certainly includes our allies in the Arab world, our European and Asian allies. Iran's threats extend globally, the response to their malign behavior should match that."

Between the lines: Per the same source with knowledge of the speech, "This type of speech is in line with President Trump's goal of 'going big' with foreign policy announcements and plans." That's how the President views the North Korea talks and the Iran restart.

The Europeans are skeptical about Pompeo's speech. To put it mildly.

  • A senior European official who's been privy to the high-level conversations tells me: "If it's what I hear, it's a winding up of the spin operation; bigger better Iran deal, Europeans coming on board, but Gulfies and Asia too. We like Pompeo, and he's proving much more pragmatic than some predicted, but there is a fundamental problem here..."

The fundamental problem: The major European powers — France, Germany and the U.K. — fought hard against Trump’s plan to withdraw from the nuclear deal. And now that he has, they're trying to figure out ways to keep the deal alive and help European firms continue to do business with Iran.

  • The Trump administration is betting that the Europeans will ultimately fold — and that a choice between doing business with Iran and the massive U.S. market is really no choice at all.
  • To bolster that theory, we're already seeing some firms, like France's Total, cancel anticipated contracts with Iran.

What's next for Iran ...

Most Iran experts I've spoken to are betting against a new Iran deal. They believe it's more likely that Trump follows through on his sanctions, the Europeans fold to some extent, and Iran begins making gradual steps back to developing its nuclear program.

  • The Iranians would likely start small — for example, boosting R&D spending — because doing anything aggressive would risk war with the U.S. Hassan Rouhani is surely familiar with John Bolton's 2015 New York Times Op-Ed "To Stop Iran’s Bomb, Bomb Iran."
  • The senior European official from the item above outlined another possible path forward to me: "There is a live and let live way through. It is that the Europeans stick with the JCPOA [the official name for the nuclear deal], the U.S. stay out but don't impose secondary sanctions on European companies, and we work together on ballistics and regional issues."

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