United States Secretary of State Mike Pompeo warned Iran on Monday that the US would “crush its proxies”, reimpose sanctions with “full effect” and reject any new nuclear deal if Tehran does not end its regional interference and halt its ballistic missile programme.
Unveiling the Trump administration's new strategy towards Iran after withdrawing from the 2015 nuclear deal on May 8, Mr Pompeo listed 12 conditions to reach a new agreement. While four of those demands relate to Iran's nuclear threat, such as providing the UN's nuclear agency with "unqualified access", stopping uranium enrichment and ending the proliferation of ballistic missiles, eight of them are tied to Tehran's regional behaviour and support for US-designated terror groups.
Speaking at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, the secretary of state demanded that Iran release all US citizens and end its support to Hezbollah, Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, Yemen's Houthi militia and the Taliban as part of any new deal. He also called on Iran to withdraw “all forces under Iranian command from Syria”, “cease harbouring Al Qaeda members” and stop threatening neighbouring states or US allies such as Israel, as well as end the Iranian Revolutionary Guard's support for terrorists and militant partners.
While Mr Pompeo did not call for regime change, his address contained several references to the Iranian people and the protests since December against deteriorating economic conditions. "Today, we ask the Iranian people: Is this what you want your country to be known for? The United States believes you deserve better,” he said.
He also dismissed the perception of differences between Iran’s moderates and hardliners. "Here in the West, president Rouhani and Foreign Minister Zarif are often treated differently - 'If only they could control, things would be great.' Yet they are your elected leaders. Are they not the most responsible for your economic struggles?" he said.
“At the end of the day, the Iranian people will put a timeline” on a change of government, Mr Pompeo said, arguing that supreme leader Ali Khamenei, who came to power in 1989, “will not live forever, nor will the Iranian people abide the rigid rule of tyrants forever".
Should Iran comply with the 12 demands - which would be a complete reversal its behaviour since 1979 - the US would be willing to lift all sanctions, restore full diplomatic and commercial ties with Iran, and support the modernisation of its economy, Mr Pompeo said.
But if these demands are not met, "sanctions are going back in full effect … we will ensure freedom of navigation on the waters in the region. We will work to prevent and counteract any Iranian malign cyber activity. We will track down Iranian operatives and their Hezbollah proxies operating around the world and crush them," he said. "Iran will never again have carte blanche to dominate the Middle East.
"The Iranian regime should know this is just the beginning," he added.
Asked about the impact of the sanctions on US partners in Europe and companies that invest in Iran, Mr Pompeo said: "We understand our reimposition of sanctions and the coming pressure campaign on the Iranian regime will pose financial and economic difficulties for a number of our friends ... [but] we will hold those doing prohibited business with Iran to account”.
“We can’t generate wealth for [senior Revolutionary Guard leader] Qassem Soleimani.”
Mr Pompeo cited the UAE’s peaceful nuclear programme as a model for any deal with Iran on its nuclear activities and said regional countries such as Jordan, Kuwait, Oman, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar and "many, many others worldwide” should be engaged in a new deal.
But Michael Weiss, a foreign policy expert based in New York, said the tough stance laid out by Mr Pompeo could be at odds with Trump policies, such as calling for the withdrawal of US forces from Syria, and did not lay out a clear strategy for implementation.
"Mr Pompeo basically just created the argument for an ambitious and decades-long policy for rolling back Iranian hegemony without explaining how this is going to be accomplished except by threatening more sanctions," Mr Weiss told The National.
In Syria, he said, “the US cancelled the one programme - the CIA's Timber Sycamore [programme to arm select rebel groups in Syria] - by which American proxies were successfully taking out IRGC militias. Is this programme to be reinstated or rebooted now? And what of reports of a US withdrawal from Syria? How can we pack up and go home and beat Qassem Soleimani at his own game?”
In Iraq, the election victory of Shiite cleric Moqtada Al Sadr, “who may not like Iranian influence in his country, but cares for the American variety even less”, could also complicate US calculations, Mr Weiss said.
Speaking after Mr Pompeo's speech, the US Defence Department spokesman Rob Manning told reporters: "We have said time and time again that Iran's malign influence in the region is not helpful. They are a destabilising force in the region.
Mr Manning refused to spell out specific actions the US would take. "We are assessing if we are going to double down on current action or implement new actions … it's on the table. We're not going to rule out anything in order to address Iran."
Matt Reed, a fellow at New America Foundation in Washington, said the White House wanted "a grand bargain or no bargain”.
Mr Pompeo is "asking Tehran to disband the 'resistance axis' for good in exchange for complete sanctions relief and full diplomatic ties", Mr Reed told The National. "But what Mr Pompeo calls terrorism, Mr Khamenei calls resistance. Iran's support for it is state policy enshrined by law and commanded by God. So it's non-negotiable."
As far as economic pressure is concerned, "Iran’s economy is hurting, but it may not matter to Mr Khamenei", he said. "He’ll always tell the Iranian people they’ve had worse and can endure more. The Trump administration is preparing to prove him wrong.”
Following Mr Pompeo’s speech, UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash tweeted in support of the new road-map. “US secretary Mike Pompeo’s approach on Iran policy is concise, and the firm strategy he announced is a natural result of Iran’s behaviour over the years”, the UAE senior official said. He added that the right path forward is in “uniting the efforts so that Tehran recognises the absurdity of its incursions and expansion.”
Mr Gargash said the problem is Iran’s behaviour, and blamed its policies in “inflaming fronts with opportunism and sectarianism.”
“Mr Pompeo’s strategy demands wisdom and a change in Iranian compass” he said.
Also on Monday, Bahrain’s foreign ministry welcomed Mr Pompeo’s speech, which it said “reflects the determination to confront the danger of Iranian policies that undermine security and stability in the region and to overcome the shortcomings of the nuclear agreement.”
It added that its position is unanimous with the US in the face of the Iranian threat and called on Tehran to immediately stop “support for terrorist militias and adherence to international laws and norms and non-interference at all in the internal affairs of the States of the region".
In Argentina and on the margins of the G-20 summit, Mr Pompeo’s deputy John Sullivan met with Saudi foreign minister Adel Al Jubeir. According to a statement, Mr Sullivan thanked him “for his government’s support for the president’s decision to withdraw from the JCPOA and Saudi Arabia’s commitment to address the full array of threats posed by Iran”.
But in Ankara, a senior Iranian official told Reuters that “America wants to pressure Iran to surrender and accept their illegal demands.” The official said that Mr Pompeo’s remarks “showed that America is surely after regime change in Iran”.
The European Union’s high representative Federica Mogherini also criticised Mr Pompeo’s speech for not demonstrating “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,” she said.
On sanctions, Ms Mogherini appeared defiant and argued that “the normalisation of trade and economic relations with Iran constitutes an essential part of the agreement, which should be upheld by the international community.”