WASHINGTON — Mike Pompeo, US President Donald Trump’s pick to become secretary of state, is an unabashed Iran hawk who vehemently opposed the 2015 nuclear deal, and has sought a more aggressive approach toward Tehran since joining the administration as CIA Director in January 2017.
Trump’s bombshell decision Tuesday morning to oust his top diplomat, Rex Tillerson, whom he often did not agree with on central matters of diplomacy, shocked but did not surprise, much of political Washington. The president himself told reporters shortly after firing Tillerson that they did not have compatible views on key matters, including on how to confront Iran’s nuclear ambitions and regional aggression.
“We were not really thinking the same,” Trump told reporters at the White House. “Really, it was a different mind-set, a different thinking.”
Tillerson will now be succeeded by a figure who has stood out as an Iran hardliner. After former president Barack Obama forged the landmark agreement with world powers and Iran in July 2015, Pompeo, then a Congressman from Kansas, immediately castigated the pact as both ineffectual and weak.
He said the accord would not “stop Iran from getting a nuclear bomb” and that it “places Israel at more risk.” He scorned the notion, perpetuated by the Obama administration, that the deal would open Tehran up to the international economy and thus allow it to potentially join the community of nations. He said the “theory that post-sanctions Iran will moderate is a joke – they want to annihilate Israel.”
Furthermore, he demanded that it should have been a prerequisite for Iran to halt its routine saber rattling against the Jewish state. “Ceasing to call for the destruction of Israel should have been a condition of the Iran Deal – along with release of innocent American hostages,” he said that summer.
Since assuming his post as Trump’s CIA director he has not only made it a habit to show up in person to the daily intelligence briefing, but to give speeches calling for a more bellicose policy toward the Islamic Republic.
Shortly after he was nominated for that role, he said he looked forward to “rolling back this disastrous deal with the world’s largest state sponsor of terrorism.”
And the day before Trump decertified the Iran nuclear deal under domestic law, Pompeo gave a speech at the University of Texas in Austin labeling the country as “a thuggish police state” and a “despotic theocracy.” He further compared its ruler’s aspirations as commensurate to those of the Islamic State terror group.
“Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence and Security and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps are the cudgels of a despotic theocracy, with the IRGC accountable only to a Supreme Leader,” he said. “They’re the vanguard of a pernicious empire that is expanding its power and influence across the Middle East.”
Pompeo has also called for making the investment climate in Iran more challenging, making it harder to do business with the rogue regime, which he said has helped it engineer various “transgressions in the Middle East,” including its support for Hezbollah and Hamas.
“It has been far too inexpensive for the Iranians to conduct this adventurism,” he told a gathering at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies’ National Security Summit. “We should raise the cost of that.”
Diplomacy Works, a pro-Iran deal group made up of former Obama-era diplomats, said Pompeo would likely push Trump to withdraw from the deal.
“Mr. Pompeo will be a destabilizing leader for the State Department who is certain to advise the President to withdraw the United States from our obligations under the nuclear agreement and could plunge our nation into another war in the region,” the group said in a statement. “Director Pompeo is a known Iran hawk who prefers military intervention to diplomacy.”
The Republican Jewish Coalition, however, applauded the choice both for Pompeo’s views on Iran and his strong support for Israel and its policies.
“Throughout his time in the House of Representatives and as Director of the CIA he has proven to be a bulwark against the aggression of Iran, and a great friend to Israel,” RJC executive director Matt Brooks said.
Pompeo last visited the country in November 2015, when he met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whom he called “a true partner of the American people,” for helping the United States to thwart Iran.
“Our conversation was incredibly enlightening as to the true threats facing both Israel and the United States,” he said of their meeting. “Netanyahu’s efforts to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons are incredibly admirable and deeply appreciated.”
Pompeo’s visit came as Israel was in the midst of an uptick in stabbing and car-ramming attacks by Palestinian assailants, and he vociferously defended Israel’s security measures.
“I can tell you that the Israeli people and the Israeli National Police are demonstrating admirable restraint in the face of unspeakably cruel attacks,” he said at the time.
While not a central figure in the Trump administration’s quest to solidify an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal, he was not totally removed from that portfolio when leading the CIA.
In February 2017, he secretly met with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah, where the Palestinian leader briefed him on his positions and concerns that the White House would not support a two-state solution.