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Pompeo’s Distorting Ideological Lens

Then-Rep. Mike Pompeo, R-KS, speaking at a rally in 2013. He faces a senate grilling for his secretary of state nomination today.Mark Taylor/Creative Commons

Pompeo blamed the Iranian seizure of the British tanker Stena Impero on the nature of the regime in a recent FoxNews interview:

So the responsibility in the first instance falls to the United Kingdom to take care of their ships. But Brian, you know this story. This isn’t because of American sanctions. This is because of the theocracy, the leadership in Iran, their revolutionary zeal to conduct terror around the world for now four decades continues [bold mine-DL]. This is a bad regime; it’s not honoring the people of Iran. They’ve now conducted what amounts to national piracy – right – a nation-state taking over a ship that’s traveling in international waters.

As usual, when Pompeo tells us what the “story” is, he misleads, makes things up, or leaves out crucial details. In this case, he leaves out the fact that Iran’s action came in response to the seizure of one of their tankers. When the U.K. seized an Iranian tanker near Gibraltar a few weeks ago ostensibly in the name of enforcing EU sanctions, Pompeo did not accuse them of engaging in piracy. The Iranian action to seize this ship is a direct result of the U.K. action to seize one of their ships. With any luck, the U.K. and Iran will now find a way to settle this peacefully and deescalate an already very tense situation. Both tankers and their crews should be released, but Pompeo’s propaganda rhetoric isn’t helping matters.

Pompeo’s remarks tell us something important about how he and other Iran hawks view Iranian behavior. When he says that the seizure of the tanker stems from “their revolutionary zeal to conduct terror around the world,” he is committing a common error of explaining Iranian government behavior in ideological terms based on the government’s internal makeup and qualities rather than recognizing the role of external factors in their decision-making. Pompeo doesn’t want to understand why Iran’s behavior has become more combative, not least since that would show the administration’s Iran policy to be a dangerous failure, and so instead he just uses that behavior to vilify them. Instead of thinking about how U.S. and U.K. actions have made Iranian retaliation more likely, Pompeo comforts himself with a simplistic ideological morality tale.

Even though it is obvious that Iran is responding in a tit-for-tat fashion to the previous British action, Pompeo has to make it into an example of how “revolutionary zeal” drives them to act this way. It doesn’t bother Pompeo that their “revolutionary zeal” didn’t cause them to bother oil tankers at all until the last few months when they began responding to the U.S. economic war against them and the British seizure of one of their ships. All that matters to him is reinforcing the “story” he wants to tell about a regime driven by zealotry to do bad things. Repeating this propaganda is all that Pompeo is good at doing, and it contributes to increasing tensions that could lead to an unnecessary war.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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