Pompeo takes aim at Iranian missiles ahead of talks with Netanyahu
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Pompeo takes aim at Iranian missiles ahead of talks with Netanyahu

New US secretary of state lands in Riyadh before heading for Israel, where discussions are expected to focus on Trump's plans for the nuclear deal

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo gives a press conference during a NATO Foreign ministers' meeting at the NATO headquarters in Brussels on April 27, 2018. (AFP/John Thys)
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo gives a press conference during a NATO Foreign ministers' meeting at the NATO headquarters in Brussels on April 27, 2018. (AFP/John Thys)

Mike Pompeo, Washington’s newly appointed secretary of state, is set to fly to Israel Sunday, where he will meet with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in talks likely to focus on US President Donald Trump’s plans for the Iran nuclear deal.

Trump is due to decide on May 12 whether to reimpose nuclear-related sanctions on Tehran, putting in peril the landmark 2015 accord, which most world powers see as key to preventing Tehran from getting the bomb.

But Trump and America’s Middle East allies argue that the deal, approved by the president’s predecessor Barack Obama, was too weak and needs to be replaced with a more permanent arrangement and supplemented by controls on Iran’s missile program.

Pompeo set off on his first diplomatic trip within two hours of being sworn in on Thursday, and on Friday — after talks with the NATO allies in Brussels — he appeared to suggest that Trump plans to nix the deal.

“Absent a substantial fix, absent overcoming the shortcomings, the flaws of the deal, he is unlikely to stay in that deal past this May,” Pompeo told reporters at NATO headquarters.

Perhaps the last chance to fix those alleged shortcomings came from talks between Washington and its European allies Britain, France and Germany on a supplemental agreement to sanction Iran’s missile program.

But both President Emmanuel Macron of France and Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel left Washington this week after talks with Trump having failed to secure any promise that he might keep the core deal alive.

Pompeo landed in Saudi Arabia on Saturday night, and his senior policy adviser, Brian Hook, said that Iran’s missile program would be one of the focuses of talks with Israel and the Saudis. He also called on Europe and the rest of the international community to sanction Tehran as a means of curbing that program.

“We are urging nations around the world to sanction any individuals and entities associated with Iran’s missile program, and it has also been a big part of discussions with Europeans,” Hook said, according to Reuters.

Pompeo touched down in Riyadh shortly after Tehran-backed Huthi rebels in Yemen fired missiles across the kingdom’s border. US officials traveling with him told reporters the Huthi missiles had been supplied by Iran, and cited the attacks as evidence that regional powers should work together.

This picture released by the official website of the Iranian Defense Ministry on Saturday, July 22, 2017, shows Sayyad-3 air defense missiles during inauguration of its production line at an undisclosed location, Iran, according to official information released. (Iranian Defense Ministry via AP)

“This administration has made it a priority to address Iran’s missile programs,” a senior US official told reporters in Riyadh, condemning the latest volley of missiles.

“Iran supplies the missiles that the Huthis fire into Saudi Arabia, threatening civilians,” he said. “Today alone the Saudis shot down four Huthi missiles, the latest in a string of such attacks.”

Pompeo, a former Kansas politician, is seen as an anti-Iran hawk with hardline views about projecting US military might.

In Saudi Arabia, he was due to hold talks with his counterpart, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir, before having dinner with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

The prince, or MBS as he is commonly known, is the kingdom’s de facto ruler and a would-be social reformer who launched an anti-corruption drive to secure his own control over the oil-rich royal elite.

Like Trump and Pompeo, MBS is a tough opponent of Iran, but his war against the Tehran-backed Huthi militia in Yemen is stumbling and has contributed to the country’s large-scale humanitarian disaster.

After meeting with Netanyahu on Sunday, Pompeo will fly on to Jordan, wrapping up a weekend of talks with some of Iran’s most fervent foes in the region.

Bringing ‘swagger’ to US diplomacy

Pompeo also has a second, more personal mission: to show foreign capitals and his own colleagues that US diplomacy is back on track after the troubled reign of his sacked predecessor, Rex Tillerson.

Trump’s first secretary of state, a former oil executive, failed to fill senior positions, embarked on unpopular bureaucratic reforms, and had conspicuously little chemistry with the president.

Where Tillerson was seen as a voice for moderation in the Trump administration, Pompeo — a former CIA chief, army officer, businessman, and conservative congressman — is viewed as a hawk who could combine with new White House National Security Adviser John Bolton to back Trump’s aggressive posturing on the world stage.

Pompeo has insisted his focus will be on diplomatic solutions to problems, while pledging to bring “swagger once again” to the State Department.

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson disembarks from his plane as he arrives at Djibouti Ambouli International Airport in Djibouti, March 9, 2018. (AFP/Pool/Jonathan Ernst)

He promised to address State Department staff in Washington on his return on Tuesday, and was full of praise for the staff who scrambled to put together his first foreign itinerary.

“I just met with a great group of State Department officers who work here at the mission. They may have been demoralized, but they seemed in good spirits,” he said Friday, at NATO headquarters.

“They are hopeful that the State Department will get its swagger back, that we will be out doing the things that they came on board at the State Department to do,” he promised.

“To be professional, to deliver diplomacy — American diplomacy — around the world, that’s my mission set, to build that esprit and get the team on the field so that we can effectuate American diplomacy.”

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