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Pompeo's Middle East trip, planned summit place focus on Iranian threat

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, right, is accompanied by Saudi Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Adel al-Jubeir, center, as he departs from Saudi Arabia's King Khalid International, in Riyadh, Monday, January 14, 2019. (Andrew Cabellero-Reynolds/Pool via AP)

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo faced new questions Sunday about how President Donald Trump’s planned withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria fits into the vision of Middle East policy he espoused throughout his weeklong tour of the region.

“The tactical change we’ve made in the withdrawal of those 2,000 troops is just that, a tactical change. The mission remains the same,” Pompeo said on CBS’ “Face the Nation.”

President Trump announced the rapid withdrawal on Twitter last month, and the administration has since walked the plan back to a more gradual drawdown of forces that would ensure the safety of Kurdish rebels in the north and prevent Iran from seizing control. Pompeo vowed the U.S. would work to ensure Iran-backed forces are completely removed from Syria before any reconstruction assistance is provided.

“We will use the full power of the United States to achieve that outcome,” he told Fox News. “It’ll be a broad range of ways in which we do that. We’re not going to talk about what those tool sets are precisely.”

Combined with reported plans to reduce troop levels in Afghanistan and Iraq and the president’s frequent and fervent tweets about not fighting other countries’ wars, some in the region feared the Syria withdrawal signaled an abdication of U.S. leadership. Trump’s comment at a Cabinet meeting this month that Iran “can do what they want” in Syria did not help dispel that impression.

According to Benham Ben Taleblu, a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, the U.S. troops were primarily in Syria on a counterterrorism and counter-ISIS mission, but their presence alone acted as a deterrent to Iran.

“The worst message to send Iran is, when it comes to brass tacks, the U.S. is not willing to sacrifice more than political capital,” Taleblu said.

Pompeo delivered a major speech in Cairo last week that placed fighting Iran’s destabilizing influence at the center of the administration’s plans for the region. He also stressed the importance of engagement with allies and trashed the Barack Obama administration’s Middle East policy as “the era of self-inflicted American shame.”

“President Trump has reversed our willful blindness to the danger of the regime and withdrew from the failed nuclear deal, with its false promises. The U.S. re-imposed sanctions that should never have been lifted,” he said.

Some Trump allies welcomed Pompeo’s words in Cairo as a statement of moral clarity and a repudiation of misguided approaches of the past.

“Pompeo made it clear that the chief focus of U.S. policy in the Middle East is thwarting Iran’s dangerous and tyrannical ambitions,” Christian Whiton, who served as a senior adviser in the Trump administration, said in a Fox News op-ed. “While violent jihadist groups like ISIS and Al Qaeda still exist and deserve our attention, they are now a lesser threat. Also, by condemning Obama’s decision to do nothing in 2009 and 2010 when Iranians took to the streets to protest their oppressive regime, Pompeo opened the door to supporting Iran’s internal opposition.”

Where some saw clarity, though, others saw obfuscation, as well as a direct contradiction of President Trump’s actions.

"Listening to Pompeo, one might be forgiven for thinking that America’s influence was rising, not declining, in the region, that the U.S. was poised for engagement, and that Iran, Turkey and Russia weren’t playing enhanced roles with newfound leverage,” said Aaron David Miller, who has advised Republican and Democratic secretaries of state, in Politico Magazine.

Conservative and liberal critics have warned the planned withdrawal of troops from Syria leaves a vacuum that could be filled by Iran or a resurgent ISIS, but Pompeo flatly rejected the notion that soldiers on the ground are necessary to keep Tehran-backed forces in check.

“No terrorist, no Iranian should believe that the fact that a couple thousand U.S. soldiers are going to be redeployed out of Syria in any way diminishes our commitment,” he said in an interview with Al Arabiya.

In Cairo, Pompeo reiterated the 12 demands the Trump administration laid out for Tehran last May, which include permanently abandoning its nuclear program, halting development of ballistic missiles, releasing all U.S. citizens in custody, and ending support for all terrorist groups. Iran has so far made no effort to comply with those conditions.

This Wednesday marks the third anniversary of the implementation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the nuclear agreement reached by the Obama administration with Iran, France, Germany, Britain, China, and Russia, but its future remains on shaky ground. President Trump pulled the U.S. out of the deal last year, and sanctions relief that had been granted was revoked.

The other signatories remain reticent to abandon the deal entirely, and the European Union is reportedly developing a financial mechanism that would make transactions with Iran outside the U.S. banking system easier. Private companies appear less eager to cross the U.S. or take measures to sidestep sanctions to do business with Iran, though, and the country’s economy has suffered as a result.

Iran has continued to comply with the agreement despite the U.S. withdrawal, but that may change if sanctions further blunt the economic benefits Tehran expected to receive. Last week, the European Union imposed new sanctions on Iran for the first time since the JCPOA was implemented, targeting an Iranian intelligence unit.

For the Trump administration’s maximum pressure campaign against Iran to succeed in forcing Tehran back to the negotiating table, Taleblu said there must be a stronger regional component to it, and Pompeo’s trip appears to have been geared toward developing that. He added that the administration deserves some credit for successfully working with Gulf states to take on Iran in recent months, even if more still needs to be done.

“The challenge the administration has is, how do you operationalize the pushback on Iran? What does successful regional pushback on Iran look like?” Taleblu asked.

Answers to those questions could be forthcoming at a newly-announced international summit the U.S. will hold in Poland on Feb. 13-14 to discuss peace and stability in the Middle East and the threat Iran poses to it.

“We will have countries from Asia, Africa, Western Hemisphere, countries from South America – this will be a broad coalition aimed at Middle East stability,” Pompeo told Al Arabiya. “We’ll talk about how we counter terror. There’ll be a focus on Iran. There’ll be conversations about financial systems, how is it we ensure the financial systems don’t sponsor terror.”

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif dismissed the ministerial as a “desperate anti-Iran circus.”

“Reminder to host/participants of anti-Iran conference: those who attended last U.S. anti-Iran show are either dead, disgraced, or marginalized. And Iran is stronger than ever,” Zarif tweeted Friday.

Iran is, in fact, not stronger than ever at the moment, plagued by severe economic troubles and internal political strife. According to Taleblu, the summit offers an opportunity for the U.S. and its allies to develop a global strategy for confronting Iran and enforcing sanctions.

Pompeo and National Security Adviser John Bolton have ushered in a new hardline approach to Iran after Trump’s previous appointees convinced him to exercise caution.

The Wall Street Journal reported Sunday the National Security Council sought military options for a strike against Iran in September after militants fired mortars into Baghdad’s diplomatic quarter. Bolton’s deputy at the time reportedly described the incident as “an act of war.”

According to a former senior administration official, the request for military plans in response to an attack that caused no injuries and little damage “rattled” Pentagon and State Department staff.

“People were shocked. It was mind-boggling how cavalier they were about hitting Iran,” the official told The Wall Street Journal.

The Trump administration’s renewed focus on Iran comes as Iran prepares to launch rockets it says will carry three satellites into orbit as part of its space program. Earlier this month, Pompeo slammed the plans as “provocative” and warned the technology involved could be applied to intercontinental ballistic missiles.

France’s foreign ministry also warned Friday that the satellite launches may violate U.N. Security Council resolutions, an assertion Iran denies. Taleblu said Iran’s rhetoric and its history of disguising its long-range missile program provide valid reasons to suspect the launch is not what it seems.

“I think it’s clear Iran wants to use this program as a steppingstone,” he said.

Other experts say the missile engine Iran uses for space launches is not well-suited to firing ICBMs. According to The New York Times, the Pentagon and intelligence agencies disagreed with Pompeo’s assessment of the satellite launches as a threat.

Even if the rockets are unrelated to Iran’s weapons program, there are other reasons for concern. The head of the country’s nuclear program, Ali Akbar Salehi, claimed Sunday scientists have made significant advances toward modernizing production of uranium with a purity of 20 percent.

“That 20 percent is significant because it’s the dividing line between low-enriched uranium, which is not practical for use in nuclear weapons, and highly-enriched uranium, which is,” said Ed Lyman, acting director of the nuclear safety project at the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Moving forward with enriching uranium at that level would violate the terms of the JCPOA, which generally restricted uranium purity to 3.67 percent. According to Lyman, obtaining higher purity would mainly be a matter of reconfiguring centrifuges at existing uranium enrichment plants.

“It would reduce the so-called breakout time, the time Iran would need to acquire a nuclear weapon once it decided to do so,” he said.

Salehi’s comments to a state news agency lacked specifics about what this modernized enrichment process would entail or how close Iran is to actually achieving it. Whether his claim is true or not, the fact that he is making it at all may be a sign Iran is getting antsy about staying in the agreement and weighing the consequences of walking away from its commitment.

“The Iranian intention here is to put out a lot of feelers to see how the west would respond,” Taleblu said.

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