By Alan W. Dowd, ASCF Senior Fellow
JUNE 2018—Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has hit the ground running as America’s top diplomat—unveiling in his first days at State a tough new plan for dealing with Iran, while laying the foundation for a global coalition to counter Iran’s malign influence.
With refreshing clarity and candor, Pompeo laid out the plan—and the administration’s rationale for it—late last month. Pompeo’s starting point is Iran’s “bad faith” behavior in relation to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which President Barack Obama negotiated in 2015, in hopes that it would incentivize Tehran to stop pursuing a nuclear bomb and start acting like a legitimate government.
Those hopes were dashed by Tehran’s actions in the intervening years. As Pompeo puts it, “That bet was a loser, with massive repercussions for all of the people living in the Middle East.”
In the years since the JCPOA came into force, Pompeo explains, Iran has trained and equipped Hezbollah fighters in Syria; deployed its own military personnel to Syria; “sponsored Shia militia groups and terrorists to infiltrate and undermine the Iraqi security forces”; bankrolled Houthi militias in Yemen and Houthi attacks in Saudi Arabia; backed Taliban fighters in Afghanistan with weapons and funding; conducted “covert assassination operations in the heart of Europe”; “advanced its march across the Middle East”; continued to hold Americans hostage; and continued to lie about the nature of its nuclear program.
“All of this,” Pompeo notes, occurred “during the JCPOA.”
Pompeo, a former CIA director, a West Point grad and retired cavalry officer, knows what he’s talking about when it comes to the threat posed by Iran. The 2018 Worldwide Threat Assessment delivered by Director of National Intelligence (DNI) Daniel Coats grimly reports that “Iran’s ballistic missile programs give it the potential to hold targets at risk across the region,” that Tehran “has the largest inventory of ballistic missiles in the Middle East,” that “Iran remains the most prominent state sponsor of terrorism, providing financial aid, advanced weapons and tactics, and direction to militant and terrorist groups across the Middle East and cultivating a network of operatives across the globe,” and that Iran’s support for Shia militants in Iraq is now “the primary threat to U.S. personnel in Iraq.”
Nor can we forget that Tehran has the blood of 500 American troops on its hands—or that “there is strong evidence that Iran facilitated the transit of al Qaeda members into and out of Afghanistan before 9/11,” as the 9/11 Commission reports.
As President Donald Trump concluded in announcing his decision to reimpose sanctions on Tehran and thus scuttle the JCPOA, “The Iran deal is defective at its core” because it failed to address systemic problems inside the Iranian regime—namely, its bent toward militarism, terror and deceit.
Under the JCPOA, China, Russia, the U.S., Britain and Europe agreed to lift the sanctions that had forced Iran to the negotiating table; Washington released more than $100 billion in frozen assets to Iran’s terrorist tyranny; and as we learned months later, the Obama administration shipped Iran hundreds of millions of dollars in hard currency. In exchange, Iran didn’t have to renounce terror, cease its missile-development programs, withdraw its fighters from Syria, Iraq and Yemen, give up its nuclear program, or open its subterranean labs to unfettered inspections. In fact, the JCPOA allowed Iran to remain a threshold nuclear power forever.
We now know that Iran “spent its newfound treasure fueling proxy wars across the Middle East and lining the pockets of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), Hezbollah, Hamas and the Houthis,” Pompeo reports. Indeed, since 2015, Iran’s military budget has increased by some 40 percent.
In April, the Israeli government revealed evidence of Iran’s record of lying about its nuclear program. As usual, most media outlets missed the point. Israel was not claiming Iran was breaking the letter of the JCPOA—though there’s evidence suggesting that—but rather that the deal itself was “based on Iranian lies and Iranian deception.”
Pompeo recognizes that the core problem with the Iran nuclear deal was the very nature of the Islamic Republic of Iran. There’s really nothing like the government of Iran. Yes, other regimes challenge the global order; other regimes make common cause with terrorists. But the men who run Iran have normalized terrorism into a basic government function—like building roads. Indeed, it could be argued that the Islamic Republic is not a regime that engages in terrorism, but rather a terrorist organization that runs a regime.
Add it all up, and the JCPOA “failed to guarantee the safety of the American people from the risk created by the leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran,” in Pompeo’s words. In its place, he offers a return to reason.
America’s goal going forward is to “ensure Iran has no path to a nuclear weapon—not now, not ever” and to “counter the regime’s destabilizing activities in the region, block their financing of terror, and address Iran’s proliferation of missiles and other advanced weapons systems.”
Toward that end, Pompeo reports that Washington has imposed fresh sanctions on Iran’s central bank and other entities funneling money to the IRGC and Qods Force.
U.S. intelligence and military assets “will track down Iranian operatives and their Hezbollah proxies…and we will crush them,” Pompeo vows.
Pompeo knows U.S. Naval power will be key to this renewed effort to contain Iran. The Iranian navy has engaged in 72 unsafe, provocative and/or illegal maneuvers near U.S. Navy assets since 2015, according to the DNI’s report. Related, Iran has repeatedly threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz (2011-2012, 2016) and illegally seized cargo ships (2015) and a U.S. Navy vessel (2016).
Turning the page on years of inaction, Pompeo vows, “We will ensure freedom of navigation on the waters in the region.” That requires more Navy assets in the region—and a more-constant Navy presence. At the height of President Ronald Reagan’s rebuild, the Navy boasted 594 ships. When President George W. Bush launched the first counterstrokes against al Qaeda, the Navy deployed 316 warships. But today’s fleet, in a time of war and metastasizing instability, numbers just 277 active deployable ships.
These numbers aren’t close to America’s maritime needs. “For us to meet what combatant commanders request,” according to former CNO Adm. Jonathan Greenert, “we need a Navy of 450 ships.” A government-funded study concludes that the U.S. needs 14 aircraft carriers (the Navy has 10 active), 160 cruisers and destroyers (the Navy has 84), and 72 attack submarines (the Navy has 52).
These gaps have real-world implications: After Tehran threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz in 2012, CENTCOM requested an extra aircraft carrier to send a strong deterrent signal. That request was denied because the carrier was needed in the Pacific. When the Obama administration ordered warplanes from USS George H.W. Bush to blunt the ISIS blitzkrieg in 2014, Greenert admitted that “they stopped their sorties” over Afghanistan to do so. In 2015, the United States was unable to deploy an aircraft carrier in the Persian Gulf for a two-month stretch.
Recent increases to the defense budget are a start, but much more must be done to revive America’s deterrent military strength.
If Tehran wants relief from Pompeo’s multi-pronged response to its destabilizing behavior, the new secretary of State makes it clear that Tehran must adjust its behavior:
“Iran must declare to the IAEA a full account of the prior military dimensions of its nuclear program…permanently and verifiably abandon such work in perpetuity…stop enrichment and never pursue plutonium reprocessing…provide the IAEA with unqualified access to all sites…end its proliferation of ballistic missiles and halt further launching or development of nuclear-capable missile systems…release all U.S. citizens, as well as citizens of our partners and allies…end support to Middle East terrorist groups, including Lebanese Hezbollah, Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad…respect the sovereignty of the Iraqi government and permit the disarming, demobilization and reintegration of Shia militias…end its military support for the Houthi militia…withdraw all forces under Iranian command throughout the entirety of Syria…end support for the Taliban and other terrorists in Afghanistan and the region…cease harboring senior al-Qaeda leaders…end the IRGC Qods Force’s support for terrorists and militant partners…[and] end its threatening behavior against its neighbors.”
Countering those who say his list of demands is too long and too ambitious, Pompeo notes, “The length of the list is simply a scope of the malign behavior of Iran. We didn’t create the list; they did.”
We’ve heard much, especially from Europe and veterans of the Obama administration, about the dangers of taking a harder line with Tehran. But Pompeo reports that several countries—mentioning by name Australia, Bahrain, Egypt, India, Japan, Jordan, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, South Korea and the UAE—“share the same goals” and “understand the challenge the same way that America does.”
Moreover, consider what the nations in Iran’s neighborhood are saying.
“We believe that is the right policy,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says of Pompeo’s hardline approach. “It is the only policy that can ultimately guarantee the security of the Middle East and bring peace in our region, and we call on all countries to follow America’s lead here.”
The UAE foreign minister expresses support for Washington’s return to reason in dealing with Iran: “Uniting efforts is the correct path for Iran to realize the futility of its incursions and expansionism.”
The Saudi foreign minister says Washington and Riyadh hold “identical viewpoints” on Iran, adding that “the Iranian problem must be dealt with by imposing further sanctions on Iran for violating international resolutions on ballistic missiles, supporting terrorism and for intervening in the affairs of the countries of the region.”
“Bahrain considers itself in a single position with the United States of America in the face of the Iranian threat,” according to a Bahraini Foreign Ministry statement. Bahrain endorses Pompeo’s strategy “to confront the danger of Iranian policies that undermine security and stability in the region.”
These are nations that do more than talk about confronting Iran; they are working hard to contain Iran.
Israel is regularly responding to Iranian aggression by striking Iranian bases in Syria. Israel recently granted the U.S. access to an airbase where U.S. troops are manning missile-defense systems pointed at Iran—the first American military base on Israeli soil.
The UAE, Saudi, Qatari and Bahraini armed forces are fighting Iranian-backed Houthi militias in Yemen.
Al Dhafra Air Base in the UAE houses U.S. refueling aircraft, drones, AWACS aircraft, U-2s, F-22s and other fighter-bombers, and “one of the largest fuel farms in the world,” as Military.com reports. Bahrain is home to the U.S. 5th Fleet. And Qatar’s al Udeid Air Base is home to a key USAF operations center that coordinates air missions in Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, and across the Middle East and North Africa. Some 11,000 U.S. troops and scores of U.S. warplanes—B-52s, B-1Bs, fighter-bombers and midair refuelers—are based in Qatar.
Pompeo included an ominous footnote as he unveiled the administration’s new Iran strategy: “The Iranian regime should know that this is just the beginning.”