The Trump administration is feeling its oats. President Trump and his lieutenants spent weeks applauding their strategy of “maximum pressure” on North Korea, which they believe forced Kim Jong Un to agree to a historic round of denuclearization talks on June 12. They also pointed to the absence of such pressure on Iran as the reason Tehran is supposedly wielding its malign influence across the Middle East, requiring the United States to scrap the nuclear deal.
On Monday, in a speech billed as his first major policy address, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo hailed “the coming pressure campaign on the Iranian regime.” Echoing his boss, Pompeo painted an image of Iranian militias and agendas running rampant across the Middle East. And, like Trump, he denigrated the previous administration’s diplomatic overtures to the Islamic Republic as a losing “bet.”
“We will track down Iranian operatives and their Hezbollah proxies operating around the world and crush them. Iran will never again have carte blanche to dominate the Middle East,” Pompeo said before outlining a list of blunt demands of the Iranian regime that included halting development of ballistic missiles and ending support for militant proxies.
While many American allies in Europe would also like to see the defanging of the Iranian regime, few would consider Pompeo’s demands as part of a coherent strategy or a viable Plan B to compensate for the collapse of the nuclear deal.
“The list of requirements of the Iranians asks for everything but conversion to Christianity and reads more like a demand for unconditional surrender than an actual attempt at negotiation,” Jeremy Shapiro, the research director at the European Council on Foreign Relations, said to my colleagues.
Iran’s foreign minister, Javad Zarif, sneered at Pompeo’s speech, calling it a “regression to old habits” by a bullying superpower.
Federica Mogherini, the European Union’s foreign-policy chief, issued a more polite but no less stern rebuke. “The JCPOA was never designed to address all issues in the relationship with Iran,” Mogherini said in a statement, using the official abbreviation for the nuclear agreement. “Secretary Pompeo’s speech has not demonstrated how walking away from the JCPOA has made or will make the region safer from the threat of nuclear proliferation or how it puts us in a better position to influence Iran’s conduct in areas outside the scope of JCPOA. There is no alternative to the JCPOA.”
“This is the Trump administration making an offer Iran can only refuse, and was made in order for Iran to refuse,” tweeted Rob Malley, the president of the International Crisis Group. “Risks of regional escalation, already high, just got higher.”
Stephen Walt, a Harvard professor of international affairs, suggested Pompeo’s demands echoed “the Austrian ultimatum to Serbia in 1914,” which prefigured World War I.
Undeterred, Pompeo used the tough words of a hawk who bitterly opposed the nuclear deal and has a history of advocating regime change in Tehran. “The Iranian regime should know that this is just the beginning,” he warned on Monday. “After our sanctions come into full force, it will be battling to keep its economy alive.”
But it isn’t clear how the new program of U.S. sanctions will be any more stifling than the ones slapped on Iran by the Obama administration to bring Tehran to the table. Few experts believe that the Trump administration can cobble together the same kind of multilateral front that coaxed Iran into curbing its uranium enrichment activities and submitting to international inspections.
“After Trump’s decision earlier this month to trash effective and verifiable agreement that had near universal international support, other states have little motivation to support a new U.S. sanctions regime,” noted Kelsey Davenport, the director of nonproliferation policy at the Arms Control Association. “The United States is not going to get that level of support this time around — not even for its own sanctions.”
Of course, some of Trump’s key aides simply aren’t that invested in the diplomatic path the White House is supposedly laying out.
John Bolton, Trump’s new national security adviser, argued in the Wall Street Journal in 2009 that sanctions on Iran wouldn’t work because other major powers wouldn’t sign up for them (he was proved quite wrong) and they wouldn’t change the behavior of the regime’s more hard-line elements (he may be on firmer ground here). Many of the administration’s critics believe Bolton, as well as Pompeo, would rather skip straight to military action.
Bolton is also casting a shadow on the White House’s North Korea gambit. Though Trump is keen on the potential publicity and TV buzz generated by the planned June 12 meeting with Kim, White House aides have started to fear what many analysts had assumed: North Korea is not actually serious about striking a deal in Singapore. Few Korea watchers or arms-control experts believed Pyongyang would actually surrender its nukes, and some worried that hawkish figures at the White House were deliberately setting up the talks to fail.
Bolton, in particular, has been singled out for his saber-rattling against North Korea — not just in Pyongyang, but also in Seoul. “In South Korea, many people, regardless of their political orientation, are not fond of John Bolton,” a senior official close to the South Korean president told my colleague Anna Fifield. “He seems to think the U.S. can fight another war on the Korean Peninsula, so from our perspective, as the people living on the Korean Peninsula, he is very dangerous.”
It’s unclear what the maximalist stance struck by Bolton and Pompeo will achieve other than pushing the countries closer to military conflict. In the meantime, Trump may end up looking weak by meeting Kim.
“The White House might be talking about maximum pressure,” wrote arms-control expert Jeffrey Lewis, “but what’s really happening is that it is moving to accommodate Kim, offering him the recognition he always believed nuclear weapons would bring.”
Ishaan Tharoor writes about foreign affairs for The Washington Post. He previously was a senior editor and correspondent at Time magazine, based first in Hong Kong and later in New York.