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Secretary of State Pompeo and UN Ambassador Haley at UN headquarters in New York, on July 20, 2018, two days before his California speech. Photo: Atilgan Ozdil/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s much-awaited Iran speech yesterday was symbolically important but lacking in new substance. The Trump administration, as Pompeo put it, will one way or another force Iran's Islamist regime into a corner, but he did not specify how or to what end.

Why it matters: Pompeo’s speech had for weeks been touted as the moment Washington would unveil its grand strategy to end the Islamic Republic, but its approach is still unclear. What's clear, at least for now, is that the main U.S. tool of pressure against Tehran remains the imposition of stiff sanctions.

The speech was delivered at the Reagan Presidential Library in California, home to the largest Iranian American community in the U.S., in an apparent effort to summon memories of President Reagan’s push against the Soviet Union. But the Trump administration has kept the diplomatic door open to Tehran, which suggests that it has yet to make up its mind about whether it wants to negotiate, as Trump did with North Korea after a flurry of back-and-forth insults, or to seek the regime’s downfall.

As much as Iran hardliners might pin their hopes of regime change on Trump, he does not appear to be a regime-change-at-any-cost president. If presented with the opportunity to negotiate, for example, a de-escalation agreement in Syria or a new nuclear deal with Tehran's clerics, Trump would likely take it.

The big picture: Ultimately, the chances of Trump making diplomatic headway are slim, as Iranian President Rouhani claims that he has on eight occasions turned down Trump's calls for direct talks. In fact, the Iranian regime's position seems to be one of buying time until 2020, when it hopes the next U.S. president will take office. In that sense, U.S.–Iran relations on Trump’s watch are unlikely to change going forward: Both parties will be generous in accusations and acrimony but short on policies that could improve the rancorous status quo. 

Alex Vatanka is a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute.

Go deeper

Omicron pushes COVID deaths toward 2,000 per day

Expand chart
Data: N.Y. Times; Cartogram: Kavya Beheraj/Axios

The U.S. Omicron wave may be peaking, but now COVID deaths are climbing as cases continue to soar in most of the country.

The big picture: Omicron’s stranglehold in the U.S. started about a month ago. Its death toll — while almost certain to be smaller than previous waves of the pandemic — is only now starting to take hold, and deaths will likely continue to rise for several weeks.

Tax season nightmare ahead for understaffed IRS

Illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios

The IRS will start accepting 2021 tax returns in less than a week, and the filing delays and administrative headaches to come might eclipse last year — which was “one of the worst filing seasons," according to an independent advocacy agency within the IRS.

Why it matters: For taxpayers, especially with complex or paper filings, this means headaches, delayed refunds, and mistakes.

Reports: CIA finds "Havana Syndrome" unlikely caused by foreign campaign

CIA Director William Burns testifies during a Senate hearing on Capitol Hill last April. Photo: Saul Loeb-Pool/Getty Images

A preliminary CIA report rules out a foreign global campaign as the cause of a mysterious illness known as "Havana syndrome" that's afflicted American and Canadian diplomats around the world, per multiple reports.

Why it matters: Some lawmakers had suggested the sometimes debilitating illness was due to directed energy attacks. But CIA officials told the New York Times that most of the 1,000 cases reported to the government could be "explained by environmental causes, undiagnosed medical conditions or stress." This finding has angered some victims, per the NYT.