By Edward Carney
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is currently on a nine-country tour of the Middle East, and while in Egypt on Thursday he delivered a speech that was largely focused on galvanizing resistance to the spread of Iranian influence across the region while reassuring allies that the pending US pullout from Syria will not diminish its commitment to that same goal. The Associated Press published excerpts of that speech including the Secretary of State’s rebuke of the former presidential administration, which spearheaded the nuclear agreement that current President Donald Trump pulled out of in May.
“We were timid about asserting ourselves when the times -- and our partners -- demanded it,” Pompeo said of US policy under the Obama administration, before insisting that the US has “reasserted its traditional role as a force for good in this region” over the past two years. During that time, the White House has imposed a number of new sanctions on the Islamic Republic, as well as reinstalling those that were suspended under the nuclear deal. The accompanying war of words between the US and Iran has repeatedly underscored the Trump administration’s movement in the direction of “maximum pressure” aimed at halting the Iranian regime’s “malign activities” outside its borders.
In Thursday’s speech, Pompeo assured Iran’s regional adversaries, “The nations of the Middle East will never enjoy security, achieve economic stability, or advance the dreams of its peoples if Iran's revolutionary regime persists on its current course.” Yet many critics of the Iranian regime have raised questions about how the US will help to alter that course if it follows through on the president’s declared intention to withdraw all US forces from Syria. That country’s dictator, Bashar al-Assad is deeply indebted to Iran for defending him against rebels in an eight-year civil war, and numerous reports indicate that Iran-backed militant proxies are continuing to proliferate throughout Syria even as the war winds down.
Earlier this week, Iran’s Defense Minister Amir Hatami publicly endorsed this situation, declaring that Iran will maintain its presence in Syria until the Assad regime achieves “final victory” over all rebel groups. By that time, Iran may have established multiple permanent bases in the devastated country. Indeed, it is already reputed to be working on one, with plans in place for others. And Iran may be emboldened in these plans by the forthcoming American withdrawal, particularly in the wake of President Trump saying, when asked about Iran’s potential ascendance following the withdrawal, “they can do what they want.”
Hatami’s pubic assurances about a steadfast Iranian presence in Syria is only part of a much broader pattern of militarist rhetoric emanating from the Islamic Republic. Other defense officials and high-ranking members of the paramilitary Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps have boasted in recent weeks about supposed advancements in military technology used by the navy and the aerospace wing of the IRGC. After asserting that a domestically-produced Iranian destroyer was equipped with stealth technology, the Iranians suggested that it might be dispatched to the Atlantic Ocean as a sort of challenge to the presence of an American aircraft carrier in the Persian Gulf.
Such plans had already been teased in December, when Mohammad Ali Jafari, the head of the IRGC, delivered a speech explicitly promoting the idea of a more outwardly-directed, offensive foreign policy. This rhetoric has also been taken up by supreme leader of the Islamic Republic, who delivered a speech of his own on Wednesday in which he dismissed the economic pressure tactics of the Trump White House and looked forward to the defeat of the world’s only true superpower. “The Americans happily say that these sanctions are unprecedented in history. Yes, they’re unprecedented. And the defeat that the Americans will face will be unprecedented,” said Ali Khamenei, according to Newsweek.
Notably, however, Khamenei’s speech acknowledged that the sanctions would create problems for the Iranian regime, even in absence of a clear US military presence in the surrounding area. Other Iranian officials continue to maintain that the sanctions will not influence the regime’s decision-making or reduce its military buildup. Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, for instance, was quoted by Al Jazeera as saying that Iran will not negotiate with the US over ballistic missile development, but will continue to both design and manufacture increasingly advanced aerial weapons.
Tehran’s defiance on this issue was helpful to the Trump administration in explaining its withdrawal from the nuclear deal. Although ballistic missiles are not covered by the agreement itself, the United Nations Security Council resolution that put the agreement into place also called upon the Islamic Republic to avoid work on weapons that are capable of carrying a nuclear payload. Yet, not only has Iran continued that work; it has also responded to relevant sanctions threats by warning that it might also walk away from the nuclear deal. This warning was reiterated by Zarif on Wednesday, as he rejected the threat of greater political and economic consequences from the US.
Then, on Thursday, Iranian Oil Minister Bijan Zanganeh repeated the regime’s talking points about the “illegality” of US sanctions, adding that Tehran will not comply with them. Delivering his comments as part of a joint conference with his Iraqi counterpart in Baghdad, Zanganeh may have been implying that the defiance of sanctions would be made possible by support from allies and partners in the region and throughout the world. But while the Iraqi government has indeed trended closer to Tehran in recent months, the European Union has grown more skeptical about its relationship with the Iranians, thereby casting doubt on the prospect for a “special purpose vehicle” to facilitate transactions banned by the US Treasury.
The latest evidence of a European trend in the direction of American “maximum pressure” strategies came in the form of sanctions on the directorate for internal security in the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence, as well as two individuals affiliated with the Ministry. The Washington Post explained that the imposition of these sanctions coincided with the publication of a letter by the Dutch government explaining part of the rationale behind it and underlining the Iranian regime’s culpability for four specific incidences since 2015 of assassinations, attempted assassinations, and bomb plots on European soil.
On Wednesday, Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Qassemi issued a statement consisting of a vague promise to “adopt the necessary measures in response” to the EU sanctions and to do so “within the framework of reciprocation.” Naturally, this cuts against Tehran’s apparent confidence that it will be able to retain support from other members of the international community in the face of rising levels of pressure from the US. And if the EU does exert further pressure on the Iranian regime in the days to come, it may provide support for Pompeo’s argument about US leadership and constraining Iranian expansionism even in the wake of a withdrawal of American troops.