By Kambiz Foroohar
Rex Tillerson argued that the Iran nuclear deal isn’t broken, one reason he just got fired. His successor has less than two months to fix it.
CIA Director Mike Pompeo, Donald Trump’s nominee for secretary of state, agrees with his boss’s conviction that the 2015 accord is a disaster. The question is whether that stance makes him more or less likely to win some international backing for America’s campaign to rewrite the deal. Tillerson’s efforts in that direction yielded few results — and if there’s no progress by May 12, the president has threatened a unilateral withdrawal.
“The Trump administration with Pompeo at the State Department has to mobilize the international community against Iran,” said Alex Vatanka, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute in Washington. “There is absolutely zero sign that is happening.”
The agreement that reins in Iran’s nuclear program in return for sanctions relief was a global effort, backed by all the world’s major powers from the European Union to Russia and China. Its breakdown as a result of U.S. withdrawal could add to tensions in the Middle East, where Iran and the U.S. are on opposite sides of civil wars in Syria and Yemen, and further strain the Trump administration’s ties with America’s traditional allies in Europe.
Tillerson certainly wasn’t a cheerleader for the nuclear accord, and he sought to win backing for new sanctions that would punish Iran for other activities such as its missile program. But ultimately he pushed for the U.S. to stay in the deal. And Trump even cited that support in the hours after his public firing.
“When you look at the Iran deal, I think it’s terrible,” Trump told reporters at the White House Tuesday. “I guess he thought it was OK. I wanted to either break it or do something, and he felt a little bit differently.”
Pompeo, by contrast, has been a vocal opponent all along. Even after the pact was signed, he warned European leaders that it still wasn’t safe to invest in Iran. Trump and Pompeo complain that Iran hasn’t curtailed its ballistic missile program, or its support for groups classified by the U.S. as terrorists. Iran says such matters fall outside the nuclear deal’s scope.
“Pompeo is a strong opponent of the Iran nuclear deal, and rather than moderate the president’s approach, there’s concern that he will reinforce those views,” said Thomas Countryman, an assistant secretary of state when the accord was signed during the Obama administration.
“If that results in the U.S. walking out of the Iran deal, it would be a setback for our credibility and our interests in the Middle East and in non-proliferation,” Countryman said.
’Language of Force’
In his current job as head of the Central Intelligence Agency, Pompeo has made it his mission to roll back Iranian influence in the Middle East. The idea that the nuclear agreement “would curtail Iranian adventurism, the terror threat, or their malignant behavior has proven to be fundamentally false,” he said in October.
The arrival of an Iran hawk at the State Department will likely strengthen the position of Pompeo’s hardline counterparts in Tehran, according to Fouad Izadi, professor of American Studies at the University of Tehran. They’ll view the appointment as another reason not to trust the U.S., and make it more difficult for President Hassan Rouhani to make any concessions on Iran’s ballistic missiles or regional role, Izadi said.
“The North Korean model becomes more attractive for Iranian officials, whereby you negotiate from a position of strength, you don’t give anything to the U.S., and you only talk to them with the language of force,” he said.
But Iran’s leaders have internal strains to address too, after the biggest anti-government demonstrations in a decade rocked the country in December and January. The unrest was initially focused on economic problems, but escalated to address issues from the lack of political accountability to Iran’s costly foreign commitments in countries like Syria.
That means there’s a chance for a tough Trump-Pompeo strategy to work, if European Union countries can be persuaded to apply pressure just when Iran’s vulnerable, according to Alireza Nader, chief executive of Nader Research Group, an Iran-focused research group based in Washington.
“The nuclear deal can still survive, if the Europeans get Iran to be flexible,” said Nader. “The Iranian regime is under tremendous internal pressure and can’t afford more economic shocks.”
— With assistance by Ladane Nasseri, and Golnar Motevalli