WASHINGTON — With US President Donald Trump’s self-imposed make-or-break deadline for amending the Iran nuclear deal less than a month away, secretary of state-designate Mike Pompeo told Capitol Hill lawmakers on Thursday that the administration’s objective is to prevent Tehran from acquiring nuclear weapons through diplomatic means.
Since the ouster of former secretary of state Rex Tillerson and former national security adviser H.R. McMaster, both of whom encouraged the president to work inside the pact, speculation has risen that the White House plans to abrogate the deal. Those speculations were further increased by the naming of replacements — Pompeo and former US ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton — known for their hawkish inclinations.
But on Thursday morning, Pompeo sought to quell concerns that Washington was heading toward a military confrontation with Iran. In his confirmation hearing, the former CIA director repeatedly told senators the president’s aim was to “fix” the deal through addressing “three shortcomings,” and that it preferred to do that through negotiations. “There is no doubt that the administration’s policy, and my view, is to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon through diplomacy,” he said.
Last October, Tillerson laid out the “three shortcomings” that Washington wants to amend with Congress and European allies, including adding a ban on Iran’s ballistic missile testing, granting inspectors greater access to Iran’s military sites, and addressing the deal’s sunset provisions, which allow certain restrictions on Tehran’s nuclear program to expire nine years from now.
In January, Trump threatened that if these changes were not made by May 12, the next deadline to waive sanctions under the deal, he would exit the accord.
But in recent months, reports have emerged indicating that America’s European allies would be unable to reach an agreement to Trump’s liking by the May deadline.
When asked what the administration would do under that scenario, Pompeo said, “If there’s no chance that we can’t fix it, we will work to get a better deal.”
“The president has stated his objective,” he added. “His goal is to take the three shortcomings that he identified and fix them.”
Several senators, Democrat and Republican alike, expressed concerns over the consequences of the United States unilaterally pulling out of the deal while Iran was in technical compliance, as the International Atomic Energy Agency has repeatedly reported.
Indeed, at one point in the hearing, Pompeo himself admitted “there is no evidence that they are not in compliance today.” But Trump has said Iran is violating “the spirit of the agreement” through its continued support for terrorist groups and other designs in the region.
Most recently, Iran has worked to set up a military presence in Syria to threaten Israel more directly.
Trump has also argued that because the arms embargoes in the deal are time-based and not condition-based, Iran is incentivized to fully comply with the deal and then race for the bomb once it expires.
Pompeo, who is also a former Kansas congressman, has, throughout his career in public life, advocated a more aggressive Iran policy. He vehemently opposed the nuclear deal, which he said would not “stop Iran from getting a nuclear bomb,” after it was forged in July 2015.
Asked on Thursday if he was advocating for a preemptive strike on Iran, Pompeo said: “I’m not. I’m absolutely not.”