Mike Pompeo Recouples Iran’s Humanitarian Problems with Its Nuclear Ambitions

In a speech to American University in August of 2015, just three weeks after the signing of the Iran nuclear agreement, President Barack Obama touted the virtues of the deal. The president conceded, as he often had before, that the regime in Tehran is a menace to peace in the Middle East and beyond. “The ruling regime is dangerous and it is repressive,” he said. But—there was always a but. “We will continue to have sanctions in place on Iran’s support for terrorism and violation of human rights. We will continue to insist upon the release of Americans detained unjustly. We will have a lot of differences with the Iranian regime.”

Iran is “dangerous” and “repressive,” Obama admitted, but the U.S. would manage Tehran’s bad behavior separately from nuclear question. It was a fine expression of the Obama administration’s policy of “decoupling” Iran’s rogue behavior from its nuclear ambitions. Give the 44th president credit: He understood that if the U.S. demanded Iran stop exporting terrorism, or if we demanded the regime stop jailing and murdering dissidents and holding foreign nationals hostage on trumped up charges, the mullahs wouldn’t sign anything. So Team Obama didn’t make those requirements part of the deal. QED.

The policy was always foolish, as this magazine insisted on many occasions: No regime that sponsors terrorist proxies in foreign states and murders its domestic critics can be trusted to keep its word. That was particularly true when the final agreement allowed Tehran easily to evade nuclear inspections.

With the Trump administration’s exit from the Iran deal, however, the policy of decoupling is now reversed. The U.S. will deal with Iran as it is, not as naïfs at the U.N. think it would be if only it were given the sympathy and recognition it craves.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s speech yesterday at the Heritage Foundation is almost the exact converse of Obama’s 2015 speech. Critics faulted Pompeo for offering no specifics on reengaging with Europe, for failing to mention Russia’s role in propping up Iran, and for suggesting Iran would consider negotiation over terms repugnant to its survival. Fair enough. But the Heritage speech’s crucial doctrine—that of recoupling, as it were, the regime’s behavior with its nuclear designs—completely upends the prior administration’s policy and deserved a speech of its own. It is a melancholy fact that this had to be done at all, but it did.

“This sting of [reimposed] sanctions will be painful if the regime does not change its course from the unacceptable and unproductive path it has chosen to one that rejoins the league of nations,” Pompeo said. “These will indeed end up being the strongest sanctions in history when we are complete.” Again: “The regime has been fighting all over the Middle East for years. After our sanctions come in force, it will be battling to keep its economy alive.”

The secretary of state went on to articulate 12 demands the U.S. expects from Iran before any consideration of sanctions relief or normalized relations. Most of these had to do with ending Iran’s sponsorship of terrorism in Lebanon, Syria, Afghanistan, and elsewhere.

Critics of the Iran deal are often accused, without evidence, of wanting war with Iran. It was always untrue—we opposed the Obama administration’s naiveté precisely because it was likely to generate an unwanted war in the Middle East between Iran and one or several of its many enemies. What the secretary of state recognized, however, is that war is already upon millions of people across the Middle East. The question, for them, is not how to avoid or delay it, but how to counter it.

“The Iranian wave of destruction in the region in just the last few years,” Pompeo said, “is proof that Iran’s nuclear aspirations cannot be separated from the overall security picture.” He’s right.

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