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Pompeo’s Mission Impossible on Iran

Mike Pompeo at lectern with American flag
Secretary of State Pompeo during his May 21, 2018, speech on the U.S.'s new Iran strategy. Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images

Since President Donald Trump rejected State Department appeals for more time to reach a supplemental understanding with the Europeans on Iran, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has tried to make a virtue out of failure.

Yes, but: The policy he outlined in a speech this morning has almost no chance of working. It's likely to further alienate the U.S.'s European allies, boost China as a global economic and political power and gladden Iranian hardliners looking for more reason to restart proscribed nuclear activities and to continue their interventions in the Middle East.

Pompeo listed 12 demands that range from Iran ending all uranium enrichment and providing anywhere, anytime access to “all sites” within the country to stopping support for Hezbollah, Hamas and Iran’s other historic partners in the Middle East. He also demanded that Iran withdraw “all forces under Iranian command” from Syria, where Iranians and Shia militias have been fighting at the request of the Damascus government.

The demands would require that the Iranian leopard not just change its spots but transform itself into a lamb, subordinated to the wishes of the U.S. and Iran's regional rivals — Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Israel.

Pompeo conceded that the demands “may seem unrealistic” but insisted, without providing any evidence, that they would achieve buy-in from U.S. allies. Even the president of the conservative Heritage Foundation, where Pompeo spoke, could not conceal her skepticism in follow-up questions about the willingness of the rest of the world — which still supports the 2015 deal — to get with the U.S. program.

The bottom line: By withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal, the Trump administration has likely paved the way toward two major nuclear crises — in the Middle East and Northeast Asia — with no realistic strategy to resolve either.

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