Pompeo Speech on Iran Strategy Puts Emphasis on the Iranian People

On Monday morning, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo delivered his first foreign policy speech since being sworn in about three weeks earlier. Speaking at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C., he outlined the strategy to be adopted by the White House in the aftermath of the President Donald Trump pulling the US out of the 2015 nuclear agreement, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.

The speech did not remain focused on the nuclear issue, but instead expanded upon the president’s consistently assertive approach to Iran policy in general. Trump’s justification for withdrawal included references to perceived problems with its nuclear restrictions and enforcement measures, but also to unrelated or tangentially related issues such as the Iranian regime’s ongoing development of ballistic missiles and its interference in regional affairs and conflicts such as the Syrian Civil War.

Pompeo took a similar approach to his declaration of strategy on Monday, issuing 12 specific demands that Iran would have to comply with in order to avoid crippling economic harm from “the strongest sanctions in history.” The first three demands relate to Iran’s abandonment of nuclear ambitions and its acceptance of unrestricted inspections of all possible nuclear sites. The remaining nine demands involve Iran’s regional activities, support of terrorism, and hostage taking.

Conspicuously, the 12-item list does not include explicit demands for a change in Iran’s domestic behavior, but there was no shortage of references to that behavior. In fact, substantial sections of the speech were dedicated to discussion of the effects of Iran’s policies on the people of that nation, whom Pompeo referred to as the “longest-suffering victims” of the clerical regime. He also called attention to Iranian protests including but not limited to the nationwide uprising that began at the end of last year and continued through much of January.

This protest and subsequent demonstrations “show that the Iranian people are deeply frustrated with their own government’s failures,” Pompeo said. He also used the speech to report that “strikes are a daily occurrence” in the Islamic Republic, that there is “enormous corruption inside of Iran, and the Iranian people can smell it,” and that those people “are increasingly eager for economic, political, and social change.”

At times, the Secretary of State addressed the Iranian people directly, as when he criticized Western assertions that the Iranian President Hassan Rouhani represents a trend toward moderation for the clerical regime. “Rouhani and Zarif are your elected leaders,” he said. “Are they not the most responsible for your economic struggles? Are these two not responsible for wasting Iranian lives throughout the Middle East?”

Pompeo went on to advise the Iranian people to consider this matter, but it bears mentioning that the protests referenced elsewhere in his speech indicate that they have already done so. It was widely reported in January that in many of the protests that made up the national movement, people expressed regret over their former support of Rouhani’s candidacy, in light of the administration’s failure to follow through on any of its various progressive promises. Accordingly, protesters were heard to chant both “death to Rouhani” and “death to [Supreme Leader] Khamenei,” thereby rejecting the heads of both the “reformist” and the “hardline” factions of Iranian politics.

Organized opposition to the Iranian regime, such as the National Council of Resistance of Iran, tends to emphasize a conclusion that Pompeo evidently sought to imply: that there is no alternative within mainstream Iranian politics that would meaningfully represent the will of the Iranian people. Accordingly, in the run-up to Rouhani’s bid for reelection last year, activists affiliated with the NCRI illegally posted images publicly of the coalition’s leader, Maryam Rajavi, as well as urging people to boycott the elections and “vote for regime change.”

Pompeo’s speech did not explicitly echo this call for a change of government, but some commentators on American politics have been suggesting for months that this is the ultimately goal of the Trump administration’s assertiveness. And the speech did nothing to dispel those rumors, Rather, Pompeo hinted at Tehran’s perceived vulnerability to overthrow, saying that the recent protests and subsequent crackdowns demonstrate that the regime is “running scared.” He then added, “The brutal men of the regime seem to be particularly terrified by Iranian women who are demanding their rights.”

In his concluding remarks Pompeo said, “It is America’s hope that our labors toward peace and security will bear fruit for the long-suffering people of Iran. We long to see them prosper and flourish as in past decades and, indeed, as never before.”

This arguably echoes President Trump’s speech announcing withdrawal from the JCPOA two weeks earlier. At its conclusion, he declared that “great things can happen for Iran.” Although neither of these statements was definitive about what the administration hopes to accomplish, they will no doubt fuel optimism among the NCRI and other proponents of regime change, as well as anxiety among critics who advocate for preserving the status quo with regard to Iran.

In its coverage of Pompeo’s speech, Al Jazeera quoted an advocate of the Iranian regime called Jamal Abdi as asserting that the diplomatic overtures were “a smokescreen” concealing an effort at “paving a path towards confronting Iran militarily - whether that's through covert action or an overt escalation in the region.”

But on June 30, at the Iran Freedom rally outside of Paris, officials and supporters of the NCRI, including Western lawmakers and some close advisors to President Trump, will outline another alternative. The coalition has never advocated for regime change by military means, but has long insisted that a purely domestic uprising, with support from economic and diplomatic pressures like those outlined by Pompeo, would eventually result in the ouster of the clerical regime.

In the wake of the January uprising, Maryam Rajavi predicted that the year to follow would be “a year full of uprisings,” leading to the victory of the Iranian people over the theocratic system. In light of the multiple references to the Iranian people and their recent protests in Pompeo’s speech, it is easy to conclude that the administration’s long-term vision for its emerging Iran strategy is more akin to that of the NCRI than to advocacy for regime change by force.

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