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From Iran to North Korea, opportunities await Trump’s new secretary of State


The departure of Rex Tillerson from the State Department is an unwelcome development for America’s adversaries, particularly Tehran and Pyongyang.

Tillerson’s replacement — pending Senate confirmation — is current CIA Director Michael Pompeo, a former congressman, CEO, and Westpoint and Harvard Law graduate. Pompeo has a clear-eyed view of the threats emanating from Iran and North Korea, and reportedly has President Trump’s trust. It is therefore hard to think of a candidate more suited to fixing the flawed nuclear accord with Iran and wrangling with Kim Jong Un, both of which are top diplomatic priorities for the Trump administration.

{mosads}On Iran, the U.S. is facing a May 12 deadline to waive sanctions in order remain a party to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear deal. The last waiver, in early January, was predicated on the promise of trans-Atlantic diplomacy to “fix the terrible flaws of the Iran nuclear deal.” To that effect, the EU and U.S. will be meeting in Berlin on Thursday, March 15, to reportedly develop a common position towards Iran’s ballistic missiles (a potential nuclear delivery vehicle), sunset clauses (the timeline for any deal to remain in force) and enhanced inspections and verification (to make sure no nuclear material is diverted for weapons purposes). A promissory note from the EU is necessary, but not sufficient, to fix these flaws of the JCPOA.

Pompeo’s nomination and likely successful confirmation means that America is serious about developing a common framework with Europe to deal with the Iranian nuclear issue. However, it also could signal that America is serious about its threat to leave the deal if it is not improved.

On the one-year anniversary of the JCPOA in 2016, then-Congressman Pompeo penned an op-ed calling on his colleagues to “act to change Iranian behavior, and, ultimately, the Iranian regime.” Pompeo’s commentary could be a form of leverage in future U.S.-EU bilateral diplomacy: either the Europeans get serious about meeting the U.S. more than halfway on the future of the deal, or the U.S. will indeed walk away in favor of other pursuits.

Since agreeing to the JCPOA, the EU has not once designated, using non-nuclear sanctions authorities, a single new Iranian entity. Conversely, in that time, Iran has flight-tested as many as 23 ballistic missiles.

On North Korea, which already possesses nuclear weapons, the Kim regime’s offer to negotiate must be treated with healthy skepticism. As CIA director, Pompeo stressed that the administration was keeping “its eyes wide open” when dealing with Pyongyang. In the past, North Korea has floated talks as a way to deflect external pressure.

A State Department led by Pompeo could make sure that the administration does not relent on its “maximum pressure” campaign and rush into talks with North Korea, no matter how high profile they might be. Pompeo would also be well suited to make sure America does not water down its definition of denuclearization — a longstanding U.S. policy goal for the Korean Peninsula — or concede on other issues like military drills, which would be a detriment to regional ally, South Korea.

To be sure, leadership changes on the seventh floor of the State Department do not always result in new or more efficacious U.S. policy. But successful diplomacy requires having a top diplomat who can articulate key national security challenges to America’s allies and partners, as well as pushing back on the propaganda, narrative, and invective peddled by America’s adversaries.

Take Iran’s Foreign Minister, Mohammad-Javad Zarif. In the Middle East, Iran is ascendant, producing and proliferating weapons that fan the flames of conflict. All the meanwhile, Zarif continues to deflect-blame and point a finger at the U.S. through his English-language Twitter account. Similarly, in Northeast Asia, North Korea continues to rely on an array of illicit financial networks to stay in power. Nevertheless, the regime has successfully used the Olympics to reap public relations dividends and silence its critics.

As the old Washington adage goes, “personnel is policy.” A secretary of State with a demonstrated history of accurately framing Iran and North Korea’s nuclear and non-nuclear threats could just be the shot in the arm that U.S. coercive diplomacy needs.

Behnam Ben Taleblu is a research fellow focusing on Iran at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) in Washington, D.C. Behnam has testified before the U.S. Congress and Canadian Parliament and frequently briefs D.C. audiences on Iran.

Tags Donald Trump Donald Trump Foreign relations of Iran International relations Iran–United States relations Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action Mike Pompeo North Korea Nuclear energy in Iran Nuclear program of Iran Politics of Iran Rex Tillerson Rex Tillerson

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