Mike Pompeo marked his first tour as Secretary of State by trashing a successful nonproliferation agreement and stoking tensions with Iran:
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo delivered a broadside against Iran on his first foreign trip as the U.S.’s top diplomat, calling Tehran the world’s “greatest sponsor of terrorism” and repeating President Donald Trump’s threat to pull out of the nuclear deal if it isn’t changed.
“We are determined to make sure [Iran] never possesses a nuclear weapon,” Mr. Pompeo said at a joint news conference in Riyadh with Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir. “The Iran deal in its current form does not provide that assurance.”
Pompeo said elsewhere that a “substantial fix” to the deal was needed to prevent the U.S. from withdrawing, but as supporters of the JCPOA have pointed out many times there is nothing wrong with the deal that it requires fixing at all. If it doesn’t include everything that some Western governments might want, that is the result of the compromise needed to secure agreement among all the parties. Anything that the U.S. wants to add to the deal after the fact won’t be acceptable to Iran, so talking about a “fix” is just a way to deflect criticism from the U.S. for unnecessarily and irrationally scrapping an agreement that achieves the thing that the Trump administration claims to want.
If the JCPOA doesn’t provide enough “assurance” to the Trump administration that Iran won’t develop a nuclear weapon, there is no agreement that could realistically be made that would ever be good enough for them. Iran hawks have been dead-set against this deal since before negotiations began, and they have wanted to undo it for the last three years. The pretense that they have any desire to keep a deal they hate can’t be taken seriously, and European parties to the agreement should stop trying to placate the administration’s hard-liners. The Trump administration wants to wreck the deal, and it should be the only one held responsible for its collapse.
It is fitting that one of the first things that will happen during Pompeo’s tenure as chief diplomat is the repudiation of a successful diplomatic agreement solely for reasons of spite and ideology. That reflects the contempt for diplomacy and compromise that Pompeo shares with the president. It is an early reminder why having Pompeo in charge of U.S. diplomacy is so dangerous and why it would have been better not to confirm him.
Pompeo also said this weekend that he didn’t think North Korea would care if the U.S. withdrew from the agreement:
“I don’t think Kim Jong Un is staring at the Iran deal and saying, ‘Oh goodness, if they get out of that deal, I won’t talk to the Americans anymore,’” Pompeo told reporters traveling on his plane en route from Saudi Arabia to Israel. “There are higher priorities, things that he is more concerned about than whether or not the Americans stay in the [agreement].”
It is obvious that North Korea has bigger concerns than U.S. adherence to the JCPOA, but it doesn’t follow that they won’t take U.S. withdrawal as another sign that negotiating with Washington is pointless. North Korea already has other reasons to doubt U.S. trustworthiness. John Bolton’s endorsement of using negotiations with Libya as a model couldn’t be more tone-deaf, since North Korean officials frequently cite the overthrow and death of Gaddafi as a cautionary tale of what happens when a government makes a deal with the U.S. It is possible that North Korea won’t put much stock in what happens to the JCPOA one way or another for a very different reason: unlike Iran, North Korea has no intention of making significant concessions, and it is engaged in talks with the U.S. to get as much as it can out of the fact that it is now a full-fledged nuclear weapons state. North Korea wasn’t going to give up its nuclear weapons anyway, and now it will look at Trump’s reneging on the nuclear deal as proof that they are right to keep them.
One possible effect of withdrawing from the nuclear deal while engaging in high-level negotiations with North Korea is that Iranian hard-liners may conclude that North Korea was right to build and test nuclear weapons and long-range missiles and that they should follow their example. They could see that North Korea is being treated as a power to be reckoned with and its demands are being taken seriously in foreign capitals, and they will note that the U.S. is breaking its agreement with their government more or less on a whim. They might remember that the only time that the U.S. was willing to negotiate directly with Iran was when Iran’s nuclear program was quickly advancing, and once Iran complied with an agreement to limit its nuclear program the old hostility resumed. The message these two things send to other governments around the world is that the U.S. will do whatever it likes in its dealings with states that don’t build nuclear weapons but it will sit down to talk with the ones that do.