Secretary of State-designate Mike Pompeo will walk into his confirmation hearings, and soon after that his first day of work, confronting the missiles of spring.
In one case President Donald Trump and Pompeo signal they want to back away from an Obama-era nuclear deal with Iran, while in the other both men seem intent on securing a likely similar deal with North Korea. It will be Pompeo’s counsel to Trump which will help shape the nuclear landscape American foreign policy will move forward in.
The shakeup at State places an ardent critic of the Iran nuclear deal as the nation’s top diplomat, alongside a president who already delivered an ultimatum to European powers in January to fix the deal’s “terrible flaws.” Absent changes western Europe (as well as China and Russia) would agree to press on the Iranians, Trump will not extend U.S. sanctions relief when the current waiver expires on May 12. That move would likely scuttle the whole agreement and spin Iran back into the nuclear development cycle.
Trump previously singled out the Iran nuclear deal as one of the main policy differences he had with former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. The new Secretary of State’s starting position on the 2015 agreement is unambiguous: “I look forward to rolling back this disastrous deal with the world’s largest state sponsor of terrorism,” Pompeo remarked during his Central Intelligence Agency confirmation process. As director of the Agency, Pompeo likened Iran to Islamic State, and called the nation a “thuggish police state.”
It may be as simple as that. Iran’s Javad newspaper, believed to be close to the Revolutionary Guard, said replacing Tillerson with Pompeo signaled the end of the nuclear deal. But sometimes, as the old saying goes, where you stand depends on where you sit. Pompeo will find the region more complex as Secretary of State than as Director of Central Intelligence. Pompeo will inherit a Department of State which views the Iran agreement as one of its key legacy successes. Should he seek advice from his new staff at Foggy Bottom, Pompeo will be challenged on his hardline views. Same for Pompeo’s initial calls to his counterparts in western Europe, China, and Russia. They are likely to ask for more time to work with Iran on an arrangement that allows Trump to appear to have bested the Obama deal without it falling apart and sparking a nuclear crisis in the Persian Gulf.
As Secretary, Pompeo will become much more conscious of the powerful role Iran now plays in Iraq. While at the Agency Iran is simply known as a bad guy, over at State it is seen as an odd bedfellow, a pseudo-partner. Effectively defeating Islamic State in Iraq is a little-mentioned foreign policy success for Trump, and one due significantly to cooperation with Tehran. Tehran, with its military advisors in place, control over the Shiite militias, and influence among key politicians, holds the key to stability in Iraq. With elections for the next prime minister scheduled for May 12 in Iraq (major candidates all have ties to Iran), Tehran has some bargaining chips of its own, including threats to vulnerable American forces and diplomats in Iraq, right at the time the US might reimplement sanctions.
The good news? If his new counterparts in western Europe, China, and Russia can get Pompeo’s ear where they have failed to do so with Trump, they’ll have a strong advocate in the Oval Office. Those same counterparts, knowing Pompeo is unafraid of war with Iran, also have a new impetus to find common ground with Washington on modifying the Iran deal; even as Tillerson was being fired Tuesday his top policy aide Brian Hook frantically headed to Vienna for meetings with European allies aimed at coming up with new measures that can satisfy Trump.
Pompeo might be persuaded, for example, to get Trump to extend his sanctions waiver on Iran into the autumn, buying time to negotiate a “soft exit” that would delay enforcement of secondary US sanctions so international companies could continue trading with Iran without the threat of losing the American market. Extending the sanctions waiver into the fall would also allow Mike Pompeo to forestall a potential crisis striking the Middle East nearly to the day the president is scheduled to sit down with Kim Jong Un.
Mike Pompeo’s most recent comments on North Korea emphasize he is now in lock step with Trump: “We’ve gotten more than any previous administration — an agreement to not continue testing nuclear weapons and their missile program, the things that would put them capable of getting across the threshold… at the same time [Kim] has agreed to have a conversation about denuclearization.” Pompeo’s move to Foggy Bottom appears timed to have him shepherd through the summit plans; one report claims the reason Trump is putting Pompeo at the State Department now was because he “wanted a strong team ready for North Korea.”
Trump seems to want a deal with North Korea, very likely ironically similar to the one Obama made with Iran — reduced sanctions in return for progress on denuclearization. The highly-technical deal with Iran, with its tethered sanctions, inspection protocols, and multinational angle, could even serve as a quiet blueprint for what may happen with the North.
Pompeo is well-placed to help. One of his first acts at the Agency was to revamp intelligence collection on North Korea to inform the administration’s sanctions campaign. Pompeo will be ready to suggest where sanctions can be adjusted for whatever impact Trump is seeking. And unlike others at State, whom Trump would likely fear were trying to make him look weak with their suggestions, Pompeo is trusted. Pompeo has also been in charge of a covert cyber campaign against the North, hinted at on several occasions, which can be strategically dialed up or down as appropriate.
For Pompeo to implement his marching orders in Asia, he will need to walk back earlier comments about regime change in North Korea. Security is Kim Jong-un’s primary goal for negotiations with the US, and a guarantee of his own position will be nonnegotiable. Trump can expect no progress on denuclearization without deflecting Pompeo’s July 2017 statement the North Korean people “would love to see” Kim removed from power, and that he remained hopeful the US would figure out a way to make that happen. But it won’t be hard to sort out; the North understands well the role of bellicose rhetoric in negotiations.
Mike Pompeo as Secretary of State stands at an important policy intersection. His relationship with Trump means overseas he will be seen as speaking with the full authority of the president. He is a true believer in Trump’s worldview, and an influential figure in a chaotic White House. How he handles the role as chief foreign policy advisor to Donald Trump will help determine whether or not the Middle East falls into a nuclear crisis even as first steps are taken to avoid one in East Asia.
Peter Van Buren blew the whistle on State Department waste and mismanagement during Iraqi reconstruction in his first book, We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People. His latest book is Hooper’s War: A Novel of WWII Japan. Reprinted from the his blog with permission.