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Mike Pompeo just proved the Trump administration has no plan B for Iran

The new Iran strategy is the same as the old one.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo gives a speech on President Donald Trump’s Iran strategy at the Heritage Foundation on May 21, 2018.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo gives a speech on President Donald Trump’s Iran strategy at the Heritage Foundation on May 21, 2018.
Win McNamee/Getty Images

Two weeks ago, President Donald Trump withdrew America from the Iran nuclear deal. On Monday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo outlined the administration’s new plan to stop Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon — and it turns out it’s basically the same strategy as before, only without the strict restrictions put on Iran by the nuclear deal.

In a Monday speech titled “After the Deal: A New Iran Strategy” at the conservative Heritage Foundation, Pompeo made 12 demands of Tehran. Here are the most important ones: Iran must stop its support for proxy groups, like Hezbollah in Syria and Lebanon; halt its missile program; end all nuclear enrichment; give inspectors access to every part of the country to ensure Tehran has not restarted its nuclear program; quit threatening US regional allies like Israel and Saudi Arabia; and allow for all international shipping to proceed unimpeded.

If Iran doesn’t give in to all of America’s demands, Pompeo said, it will face the “strongest sanctions in history” and “will have bigger problems than it has ever had before.” In the meantime, the US will work with allies, primarily in Europe and the Middle East, to ensure Iran complies with America’s demands.

Pompeo noted Trump’s openness to signing a new Iran nuclear deal to address America’s concerns, but he didn’t seem too optimistic about it. “The deal is not the objective. Our goal is to protect the American people,” Pompeo said. “We will not renegotiate the JCPOA itself,” he added, using the acronym for the Iran deal’s official name.

But here’s the thing: Nothing about what Pompeo said on Monday is new. Last October, President Trump offered his strategy for countering Iran. Here, verbatim, is what he said:

First, we will work with our allies to counter the regime’s destabilizing activity and support for terrorist proxies in the region.

Second, we will place additional sanctions on the regime to block their financing of terror.

Third, we will address the regime’s proliferation of missiles and weapons that threaten its neighbors, global trade, and freedom of navigation.

And finally, we will deny the regime all paths to a nuclear weapon.

And what would Trump do if Iran didn’t comply? Well, America would place tough sanctions on Iran, and the administration “would work closely with Congress and our allies to address the deal’s many serious flaws so that the Iranian regime can never threaten the world with nuclear weapons.”

So let’s be clear: The new strategy Pompeo laid out is the same as the old strategy — the US plans to impose maximum pressure on Iran to force it to change. (That’s similar to Trump’s strategy toward North Korea, by the way.)

That’s a problem because it shows the administration’s thinking on Iran has not changed even after leaving the Iran nuclear deal, which was the best mechanism for achieving the nuclear goals both Pompeo and Trump set out.

Trump will have a harder time influencing Iran like he wants to

Trump hated the Iran deal for three main reasons.

First, he said that Iran violated the “spirit” of the deal because it continues to work against US interests in the Middle East, like testing missiles or supporting Bashar al-Assad in Syria.

Second, Trump didn’t like that certain restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program have sunset clauses. The restraints on Iran’s centrifuges disappear after 10 years, and the limits on uranium enrichment go away five years after that. Trump claims that would allow Iran to obtain a nuclear weapon once the constraints lift.

Finally, Trump said he could make a better deal.

But recall what the 2015 Iran deal actually is: The United States, the United Kingdom, France, Russia, China, Germany, and the European Union agreed to lift sanctions imposed on Tehran’s nuclear program, giving the country greater access to the global economy.

That’s it; it’s an extremely narrow arrangement. It purposely didn’t address other concerns America had about Iran because former President Barack Obama’s administration, along with US allies, knew Tehran wouldn’t make any deal that effectively asked it to renounce its foreign policy. Both parties, then, kept to what they could agree on: a limit on Iran’s nuclear program.

By most accounts, Iran was actually complying with the deal. The country has dismantled a huge portion of its nuclear program and given international inspectors wide latitude to make sure it wasn’t cheating. Tehran remains significantly further from a nuclear weapon than it was when the deal came into force.

And while Iran and the deal’s signatories still abide by that arrangement, experts say Trump has limited America’s ability to influence Iran’s bad behavior in the Middle East.

By leaving the Iran deal, Trump may have caused more problems for himself. His administration will need new thinking to solve the Iranian problem now — but it’s clear Trump and his team haven’t thought that through just yet.

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