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Mike Pompeo raises the bar for a deal with Iran 


Secretary of State Mike Pompeo went big — very big — in his speech at the Heritage Foundation Monday. Pompeo’s remarks were the first major statement of U.S. policy towards Iran following the U.S. withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear deal on May 8. Whereas the JCPOA attempted to deal with the Iranian nuclear threat in isolation, Pompeo demanded nothing less than a fundamental transformation of the Islamic Republic’s behavior. This bold move raises the bar very high for any future deal with Iran.

In order to bring about big changes in Iranian behavior, the administration is going all in on a strategy of financial warfare, coupled with the promise to “crush” “Iranian operatives and their Hezbollah proxies.”

{mosads}“Sanctions are going back in full effect and new ones are coming,” Pompeo said. The sanctions goal is to inflict enough pain on the regime in Tehran that it will abandon its policy of bankrolling foreign wars and terrorist organizations, both of which are a forte of the country’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Implicit in Pompeo’s remarks was a warning to allies who may still want to do business with Tehran: In order to avoid a collision with Washington over sanctions enforcement, European and Asian financial institutions and businesses must now make sharp adjustments and close up shop in Iran during the “wind-down” period provided for by the Treasury Department.


To demonstrate the Trump administration’s seriousness, Pompeo noted that the U.S. has already designated the governor and high-ranking officials at the Central Bank of Iran (CBI) for their role in funding terrorism. While U.S. sanctions against the CBI will be returning as part of the president’s decision to exit the nuclear deal, the targeting of the bank’s governor can be used to persuade parties to cease transactions with the CBI by highlighting the risks — and penalties — associated with doing business with a central bank deeply implicated in illicit financial schemes. 

While the pressure track being built by the administration harkens back to the sanctions regime the U.S. levied against Iran from 2010-2013, the nuclear demands the administration is pursuing are even older. In 2006, Pompeo noted, the UN Security Council called on Iran to suspend all enrichment of uranium. All in all, several UN Security Council Resolutions (UNSCRs) sought to halt such enrichment, but the JCPOA ultimately permitted it.

By returning to the important goal of zero enrichment, Pompeo reminded audiences that it was the West, not Iran, which has continually lowered its standards with respect to Iran’s nuclear program. Hopefully, the call to halt domestic enrichment constitutes more than just a bargaining chip and is motivated by a genuine desire to improve U.S. non-proliferation policy, including any potential deal with Saudi Arabia.

Another important way in which Pompeo went big was by calling for a prohibition of both missile proliferation and flight-testing. The failure of the JCPOA to address Iran’s means to deliver a nuclear warhead was a major flaw. The result of this oversight is that Iran has launched 23 ballistic missiles since agreeing to the JCPOA in July 2015. And in Yemen, Iran has proliferated ballistic and reportedly even cruise missiles to its Houthi rebel partners, which they have fired at civilian targets in Saudi Arabia and the UAE, respectively. This escalation has kept the conflict raging while aggravating the humanitarian crisis in Yemen.

Although Washington’s withdrawal from the JCPOA complicates its ability to make the case against Iranian missile tests and arms transfers as violations of UNSCR 2231 — which codified the JCPOA — that should not deter it. The administration can still work with Europe by building on other UN authorities where possible, such as the UNSCR 2216 on Yemen, and international norms to hold Iran’s feet to the fire. Going big on this issue means working with Europe to lay out in advance a set of automatic punishments Iran would trigger if it resumed flight-testing of nuclear-capable ballistic missiles.

The most difficult part about going big when it comes to Iran is that pressuring the regime is more effective when U.S. allies get on board, as it did in 2010-2013. Given the EU’s intention to preserve the JCPOA, Washington must complement its impending economic arm-twisting with diplomatic hand-holding to rebuild “the global consensus” that once existed about the Islamic Republic. Currently, Iranian officials are claiming that the fate of the nuclear deal rests with Europe, absolving themselves of any blame should the regime decide to move beyond its JCPOA commitments. Fearing this, Europe has been looking to create a designated channel for Iranian trade as well as other measures to offset American financial sanctions.

It makes sense for America to go big, because Iran has already gone big on almost all of its provocations — terrorism, nuclear, missile, military, and more. That means the economic pressure required to change Iran’s calculus on any one of these areas will have to be both substantial and sustained. The million-dollar question at this juncture is, at what point will the Islamic Republic be sufficiently compelled “by the sting of sanctions” to return to the negotiating table to ink a new deal along the parameters suggested by Pompeo?

Behnam Ben Taleblu is research fellow focusing on Iran at Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) in Washington, D.C.

Tags Foreign relations of Iran Iran–United States relations Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action Mike Pompeo Mike Pompeo Nuclear program of Iran Nuclear proliferation

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