United States Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is on a mission to garner a global coalition to push back against Iran and limit its militant actions in the region.
Speaking exclusively to The National in Abu Dhabi, Mr Pompeo said a "global effort" is needed to rein in Tehran and have it act as a "normal country".
This pronouncement comes two months after US President Donald Trump withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, with the Americans urging a broader approach to Tehran, rather than just focusing on its nuclear programme. Of primary concern to the US is Iran’s expansionist efforts in the Middle East, in addition to its threats to the US, Israel and the free flow of energy supplies through the Strait of Hormuz.
As part of his efforts to strengthen sanctions and collective action against Iran, Mr Pompeo arrived in Abu Dhabi on Monday night. His overnight stay in the capital came after a tour of the Pacific region that included Pyongyang, Tokyo and Hanoi, and before he headed to Europe for the Nato Summit.
In his first visit to the United Arab Emirates since becoming Secretary of State, Mr Pompeo discussed Iran's regional behaviour and the international action needed to curb it. In his interview with The National, Mr Pompeo said that the cost to Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps, and specifically Quds Force leader Qassem Soleimani, had to be increased in order to deter them.
Iran’s presence in Syria is tied up with Iraqi militia forces that further enforce Tehran’s network of allies and militias in the region. The complication of the American ally having armed forces under Iranian command in Syria was highlighted when Iraqis were killed by a missile strike, believed to be by Israel.
Members of Iraqi Hezbollah, a paramilitary group that is designated as a terrorist entity by the US but belongs to the Popular Mobilisation Units that were part of the military grouping that defeated ISIS, were recently killed in Syria.
The PMUs are under the leadership of the Revolutionary Guards and specifically the leader of the Quds Force, Maj Gen Soleimani. Mr Pompeo said: “Qassem Soleimani is causing trouble throughout Iraq and Syria and we need to raise the cost for him – for his organisation and for him personally.”
Iraq plays an important role to counter Iran in the region. In addition to targeting Maj Gen Soleimani’s military role in Iraq, all eyes are on the government formation process there.
Mr Pompeo said: “We are working closely with the Iraqis to make sure that as they move through their government formation process, what America wants is an Iraqi Iraq for Iraqis, not influenced by Iran but rather comprised of the various groups, the Kurds, Sunnis, Shias; we want everyone to have a voice in an Iraqi national government that leads to an Iraq that is strong, independent and robust and economically successful as well.”
Must Assad go?
And while Iran’s role is an issue that the US is concerned with in Syria, the US administration has been putting less emphasis on the fate of Syrian President Bashar Al Assad. In response to the question of whether “Assad must go” was still an American demand, as had been set by the Obama administration, Mr Pompeo said: “The first thing that America is working on politically is to reduce the level of violence. We have over six million displaced persons. We have got to restore the opportunity for the Syrian people to begin to engage politically and develop a stable non-violent Syria. At that point, the political decisions, the constitution of Syria, will be sorted by the Syrian people.”
As the pressure mounts on Iran, its leaders have been making increasing threats to the region. In a recent tweet, Mr Pompeo said: “Ayatollah Khamenei must be held accountable for destabilising the Gulf’s security and prolonging suffering of the Yemeni people.”
‘We have great partners in the UAE’
In response to how the leader of Iran can be held to account, Mr Pompeo told The National: "There are lots of ways. First, a united opposition is very important. It is one of the reasons I am here; we have great partners in the UAE, we have great partners with the Saudis and the Bahrainis. Many countries are pushing back, demonstrating that what we are asking is pretty simple, Iran to become a more normal country. The tools we will use will be varied, they will often be diplomatic. You see the US-led efforts on sanctions, so economic tools. It is also the case that we will be prepared that when Iran does things like launch missiles that come here or go to Riyadh, that we are prepared to defend the region militarily."
Responding to recent Iranian threats to close the Strait of Hormuz, Mr Pompeo said: “The United States has made very clear that we are going to make sure that the sea lanes remain open. It has been a long-standing US policy and we are prepared to make sure that that happens.”
Tackling Iran’s meddling in Yemen
In recent months, Hezbollah and Iranian support for the Houthis increased. Iranian-made weapons and Hezbollah members have been traced in Yemen. Efforts to curb Iran in the region would have to include their role in Sanaa.
Mr Pompeo explained: “I do hope that there is ultimately a political resolution there. The UN through Mr [Martin] Griffiths is working hard to achieve that political resolution but at the end of the day it is going to require a global effort to convince the Iranians that this kind of meddling, this kind of interference, this kind of promotion of violence directed at Arab countries doesn’t make sense for them. So all the same tools that I described previously will ultimately lead the Houthis and others in Yemen to realise that the war is not worth continuing and a political resolution, that is best for the people of Yemen.”
Mr Pompeo emphasised the importance of sanctions to curb Iran’s “malign role in the region”, linking the lifting of sanctions under the Obama administration with Tehran’s increased militant activity in the region.
“In the last few years, the sanctions were lifted and much of this malign activity, this increase in resources provided to Hezbollah, the increase of resources provided to Shia militias fighting in Iraq and Syria, the support to the Houthis in Yemen, the efforts in Bahrain, those all took place against a backdrop of a relief from sanctions that was a result of agreements that were entered into in the JCPOA. America has now withdrawn from those. These sanctions are returning and I am convinced that the combined effort of the Gulf states and the United States and the Europeans will ultimately achieve a good outcome and convince the Iranian people that this is not the type of activity their government should be involved in.”
A new deal with Iran?
With the US withdrawing from the Iran deal that was negotiated and agreed upon by the previous US administration, questions have been raised about the possibility of agreeing on a new deal that the US could sign up to. However, Mr Pompeo insisted that if there was such a possibility it would not be confined to Iran’s nuclear activity alone.
He said: “If there is another deal it will be completely different. It will be of permanent duration, not temporary. It will have a verification regime sufficient to ensure that nuclear weapons are not being hidden or developed in a clandestine way. It will, importantly, not just be about the nuclear programme, but about their space programme which is really a proxy for their missile efforts. It will be about their missile programme. It will be about their malign activity. It will be a comprehensive effort to convince Iran to behave in a way that we ask every country in the world.”
Resolving the Qatar crisis
Since the start of the Qatar crisis last summer, Doha has been elevating its relations with Tehran. Asked whether the closeness of relations between the two countries was a matter that he raised with Qatar, Mr Pompeo said: “My message and the president’s message to the entire Gulf region is that we hope that they will begin to have discussions and resolve this dispute. We understand there are differences of views, this happens among countries with great frequency, but we do also recognise that these disputes lead to a strengthening of Iran and allow Iran to create a wedge between Gulf states who have a shared threat from the Islamic Republic of Iran and so we are hopeful and we are prepared to try to resolve to the extent we can.”
In the past eight years, Iran’s presence in Syria has been instrumental in propping up the regime of Bashar Al Assad, with the support of Russia.
Mr Pompeo would not respond directly as to whether he has spoken to his Russian counterpart about pushing Iran out of Syria, saying: “We have spoken with many parties in Syria, including the Russians, and made very clear, as have the Israelis, that the Iranian presence in Syria is not appropriate and will not be tolerated.”
Ultimately the answer to getting the Iranians out of Syria rests on a political solution. Mr Pompeo said: “We are working diligently to develop a political solution that not only achieves America’s goal of defeating ISIS, which is still a challenge for us, but leads Iran to the place where they conclude that is it not worth the gamble for them to be in Syria. There is no reason for them to reach that country, there is no reason to have military forces there. We are going to undertake along with our partners a comprehensive programme to diminish that activity.”