Bourse and Bazaar | Esfandyar Batmanghelidj: Mike Pompeo is eager to be Trump’s new Secretary of State, a position that would offer the former Kansas congressman a public profile far greater than he enjoyed as director of the Central Intelligence Agency. Pompeo wants to represent America on the world stage and to restore the “swagger” of the Department of State.
His eagerness shone through as the nominee was questioned on his views regarding the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) by members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee yesterday. Republican and Democratic members alike were ready with sharp questions as Trump’s self-imposed May 12 deadline for a “fix” to the deal loomed.
During the hearing, Pompeo was obliged to navigate his record of hawkish statements on Iran and the nuclear deal, his need to show ideological consistency with the President (without which his tenure as Secretary of State would surely be short-lived, as Tillerson’s experience showed), and his need to demonstrate a character befitting America’s lead diplomat. Pulled between these three obligations, Pompeo confused his talking points, struggled to dodge his record of hawkish and bigoted statements, and sought to seem reasonable the one way he could—by making a strong case for the Iran nuclear deal.
The cracks in Pompeo’s thinking first appeared as Arizona senator Jeff Flake began a line of questioning focused on the economic benefit Iran had received from the JCPOA. Flake observed, “In effect Iran has already realized much of the benefit of the agreement, but if we were to exit the agreement now, we would give them reason to renege on the agreements they have made nuclear side.”
The question put Pompeo in a bind. The Trump administration has been vocal about the economic pressure it has placed on Iran. Yet, as Flake’s questions sought to establish, the economic dividend of the deal is the source of American leverage to maintain Iranian compliance.
Flake asked whether there exists any means to claw back money received by Iran to date in the event of an American withdrawal from the agreement. There is no such means, Pompeo conceded, exposing that withdrawal from the JCPOA will mean forgoing significant leverage to prevent Iranian proliferation. Iran would have nothing to lose.
Pompeo, sensing the point about leverage, agreed that Iran has “received great economic benefit from the JCPOA” and that there remains “continued interest on the part of Iran to stay in this deal. It is in their own economic self-interest to do so.”
But to deflect the concern about a loss of economic leverage in the face of a proliferation risk, Pompeo took a surprising tact, claiming “Iran wasn’t racing to a weapon before the deal, there is no indication that I am aware of that if the deal no longer existed that they would immediately turn to racing to create a nuclear weapon.”
Pompeo did not hold this belief until recently. In 2012, when he criticized the Obama administration’s assessment “that the Iranians have not yet decided to build a bomb,” saying at the time, “To me, these words are reminiscent to those of Neville Chamberlain.”
In now downplaying Iran’s ambition to proliferate to Senator Flake, Pompeo undermined his earlier testimony, given in response to questions asked by Senator Bob Menendez, in which the nominee described the urgent need to “fix” the nuclear deal. After all, if Iran is not hellbent on acquiring a nuclear weapon, and was not seeking such a weapon prior to the deal coming into force, then surely the concern over “sunsets” is overblown.
This inconsistent logic reveals who has been advising Pompeo on Iran policy. A recent Washington Post op-ed by Reuel Gerecht of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, written with Ray Takeyh of the Council on Foreign Relations, makes precisely the same argument. Gerecht and Takeyh write that “there’s no need for hysteria” if Trump abandons the nuclear deal, because “the Islamic Republic still isn’t likely to run amok, ramping up its nuclear program” given technical and political limitations. Pompeo is known to lean on FDD analysis, and participated in a summit organised by the hawkish think tank in October of last year.
Pompeo further contradicted himself on the matter of Iranian proliferation when pressed on Iran’s verifiable compliance with the Iran nuclear deal by New Mexico Senator Tom Udall.
Udall read a past statement by Pompeo expressing concern about the expiration of the JCPOA and the so-called “sunset clauses.” Pompeo had previously stated that “Iran will have the freedom to build an arsenal of nuclear weapons at the end of the agreement.”
Udall pointed out that in addition to its commitments under the JCPOA, Iran is also a signatory to the NPT and abides by the IAEA Additional Protocol, the commitments of which Iran has agreed to in perpetuity. He then asked Pompeo whether he had seen any evidence that Iran had not complied with its commitments under the JCPOA. Pompeo’s response was clear: “With the information I have been provided, I have seen no evidence they are not in compliance today.”
When Pompeo was read his own 2014 statement, in which he suggested that a military solution would be easier than a negotiated agreement to halt Iran’s nuclear program, he feebly replied “I don’t think that is what I said that day” before seeking to reassure members of the committee that he believes the “solution to preventing Iran from getting a nuclear weapon… is through diplomacy.”
Whether or not Pompeo’s newfound interest in diplomacy is genuine, it is clear that he is wary of the potential chaos that may follow Trump’s abrogation of the deal. Echoing another FDD talking point, Pompeo claimed that diplomatic efforts to “achieve a better outcome and better deal” could continue “even after May 12.”
The notion that the U.S. could continue to pursue diplomacy, and even remain in the deal, even after Trump opts not to further waive secondary sanctions on May 12, reflects the “fix not nix” approach devised by FDD which seeks to prevent American responsibility for the deal’s demise. Tellingly, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin made a similar statement this week, claiming that “If the president decides not to sign [the waivers], it doesn’t mean we’re necessarily pulling out of the deal.”
Pompeo, after years of saber rattling, seemed willing to give diplomacy a chance. But committee members could see clearly that Pompeo’s testimony was first and foremost about giving himself a chance for confirmation. For Pompeo the verifiable success of the JCPOA is nothing more than an inconvenient truth to be acknowledged briefly now and then denied vociferously later.