Pompeo's tough talk on Iran is 'how wars start'

  • After President Trump pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal, experts wanted to know what comes next?
  • Today, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo answered this question.
  • The deal will be replaced with a three-pronged strategy that would "crush" the Iranian regime if it did not give up its aggression and rejoin "civilization."
  • Here's where that strategy goes wrong.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo delivers remarks on the Trump administration's Iran policy at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, U.S. May 21, 2018.
Jonathan Ernst | Reuters
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo delivers remarks on the Trump administration's Iran policy at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, U.S. May 21, 2018.

After President Trump pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal, experts wanted to know what comes next?

Today, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo answered this question. Critics will no doubt dwell on what the defunct Iran deal could have achieved, but this is wasted energy.

Pompeo made this clear by trashing it for ten minutes before announcing there would be no "new deal." It will be replaced with a three-pronged strategy that would "crush" the Iranian regime if it did not give up its aggression and rejoin "civilization." But his strategy has holes.

First, he promised "the strongest sanctions in history." It's true, this could bend the Ayatollah's will. Iran has a collapsing economy, high unemployment, and run-away inflation. Worse, Iran's nuclear program and shadow wars in Syria, Iraq and Yemen have cost billions.

Sanctions would force the regime to choose between funding its military ambitions or saving its economy, and Pompeo is betting on the latter. However, the regime has consistently chosen the former since its founding 40 years ago. Expanding Shia Islam is how the regime legitimatizes its existence, from the Iran-Iraq War to present hostilities. Expecting this to change now is folly.

"The biggest problems are what Pompeo left out. For example, we're going back to a pre-Iran Nuclear Deal policy, which wasn't working hence the deal in the first place."

Second, Pompeo wants to contain Iranian aggression. This means forcefully pushing back on Iranian cyberattacks, proxy wars in Syria and Yemen, and threats against international shipping in the Persian Gulf. Harkening back to his CIA days, he said the U.S. and allies (read Israel) would hunt down and stop Iranian agents around the world. Iran would no longer have "carte blanche to operate."

While this tough talk sounds impressive, it's how wars start. World War I started with an assassination that spiraled into the Great War because world leaders didn't want to back down. The Cuban Missile Crisis almost set off World War III, and the same could happen today.

Readers will remember the close call of the USS Stark in 1987, when an Iraqi jet fighter nearly sank a U.S. frigate by "accident." Washington, the Middle East and Pyongyang are full of hot heads, making accidental war a threat.

Third, Pompeo stressed Washington would "advocate tirelessly for the Iranian people." America would defend the human rights of the Iranian people, he said, and encourage allies to do the same. He especially stressed equal rights for women.

Pompeo said this strategy had 12 objectives, most of which I believe are unattainable. For example, he demanded the release of all American political prisoners in Iran, a complete halt of nuclear activities, and its full withdrawal from Syria. It's hard to see why Iran would do any of this now.

For example, Iran owns Syria the same way Russia owns the Crimea. Why would they leave at this point? Israel might go to war with Iran over this, and suck the U.S. into a war with Iran too. It's a bad strategy.

The biggest problems are what Pompeo left out. For example, we're going back to a pre-Iran Nuclear Deal policy, which wasn't working hence the deal in the first place. Also, how to end the war in Syria, an intractable conflict? You can't deal with Iran without touching Syria.

Pompeo didn't mention Russia once, Iran's main backer and a rising powerbroker in the Middle East. For example, Russia could infuse billions into Iran's failing economy, nullifying the sanctions.

Russia could support its ally militarily, playing nuclear chicken with the Washington. Would the U.S. really declare war against Russia over a naval standoff in the Persian Gulf? Doubtful. Russia is the only country that could vaporize the U.S., something many forget. Moscow is the power player here, not Iran, and Pompeo didn't mention this once, a serious oversight.

Lastly, Pompeo's speech had spooky overtones of the lead up to the invasion of Iraq, 2003: We must be tougher on Iraq/Iran and promote regime change to stop its nuclear ambitions. America has been there and done that, and probably doesn't want to do it again.

Commentary by Sean McFate, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and the Changing Character of War Centre, Oxford University. He is author of the forthcoming book, 'The 10 New Rules of War' (January 2019). Follow him on twitter @seanmcfate.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the nationality of a fighter jet that nearly downed the USS Stark in 1987. It was an Iraqi jet, not an Iranian one.

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