Motivations for the Dead-End Policy on Iran

Mike Pompeo (State Department via Fickr)

by Paul R. Pillar

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s recent speech on Iran, although titled “After the Deal: A New Iran Strategy,” was not new at all. It was mostly a recitation of the same arguments, with the same fallacies and red herrings, that have become numbingly familiar in attacks on the deal in question: the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the multilateral agreement that restricts Iran’s nuclear program and closes all possible paths to an Iranian nuclear weapon. The fallacies are easy to point out, as many knowledgeable analysts have done.

To take just one example, consider one of the most frequent topics in the talking points of JCPOA opponents: the “sunset clauses” under which some of the restrictions on Iran’s activity are loosened after 10 or more years. Pompeo said nothing about how the most important provisions of the JCPOA—including the intrusive inspection regime and the prohibition on bomb-making or any other military use of nuclear material—are permanent. He did not mention how expiration dates, even of important provisions, are standard fare in arms control agreements, including successive strategic arms limitations agreements to which the United States has been a party. He did not address the obvious observation that without the JCPOA, Iran would be free to do right away everything that under the agreement it cannot do for a decade or more. He did not explain why an issue that, however it gets addressed, would make no difference whatsoever for a decade or more should be a reason for tearing up an agreement that imposes meaningful and important restrictions today.

What Pompeo did say on the subject—that “after the countdown clock ran out on the deal’s sunset provisions, Iran would be free for a quick sprint to the bomb”—overlooked that if Iran were to do so, this would be a blatant violation of the permanent provisions of the JCPOA (as well as of Iran’s obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty). So why all the fuss about fine print in the JCPOA—about expiration dates or about anything else—if the operative scary contingency is one in which Iran would have to violate the agreement anyway? Pompeo also failed to say that, thanks to the JCPOA, any “sprint” to a bomb would be several times longer (as well as being, because of the intrusive inspections, much more detectable) than it would have been without the JCPOA.

Impasse as the Inevitable Result

This speech did not really offer a strategy, but instead a list of a dozen inflexible demands. The demands will not be met. If this speech is supposedly a diplomatic initiative, the initiative is going nowhere, for several reasons.

The JCPOA was laboriously and carefully negotiated over more than two years. Whatever leverage each side could bring to the negotiations was exploited to the max. And this was with the United States being part of a broad international coalition (even broader than the states at the negotiating table, as reflected in a unanimous United Nations Security Council endorsing the JCPOA). Iran met the earlier approach of pressuring without negotiating, of more and more sanctions, by spinning more and more centrifuges and enriching more and more uranium. The notion that a “better deal” could have been had is as much of a myth today as it always was.

Whatever leverage the United States had back then, it has less now. With the Trump administration reneging on the agreement, it is the United States, not Iran, that is isolated. The administration hopes to use secondary sanctions to coerce private business in Europe, but the governments other than the United States that are party to the agreement have stated their determination to resist the United States and preserve the agreement. Some of those parties, especially China, are able to take concrete measures to circumvent the sanctions.

The United States not only has less coercive leverage than before, it is less able to offer positive incentives. Trump has badly damaged U.S. credibility by reneging on the JCPOA. The Iranian supreme leader is exclaiming how right he was in his earlier cautions about negotiating with perfidious Americans. Iranian leaders of every ideological persuasion know they would be fools to argue today for striking a new deal with the same bunch of Americans who just reneged on an existing deal that Iran has been scrupulously observing.

Pompeo’s list of demands reflects little sense of reality as to what is attainable and what is not. A goal of zero uranium enrichment was tried before and proved to be unattainable—even when the Iranian nuclear program was far less advanced than it was when the JCPOA was negotiated. Some of the other demands amount to saying that Iran should supinely defer to the United States in determining with whom in the Middle East Iran can and cannot associate. The extreme nature of the demands perhaps becomes apparent when thinking about what an equivalent list of Iranian demands to the United States might look like.

The result of this “new strategy” thus will be continued tension and impasse. Issues involving Iran will not be resolved; grievances will not be eliminated. Even if the other parties to the JCPOA succeed in keeping the accord alive, other disadvantages of the U.S. reneging will ensue. A political boost has been given to Iranian hardliners and to the hardline polices they favor. The risk of escalation to military conflict has increased. The chances for follow-on agreements to address issues of concern to both the United States and Iran have been killed. U.S. relations with the Europeans have been poisoned. The United States will be waging economic warfare against not only Iran but also important U.S. allies, with possible follow-on implications for wider issues of trade and economic retaliation against the United States.

If the JCPOA dies, then in addition to these consequences there will be the further one of Iran becoming free to produce as much fissile material as it wants as fast as it wants, and to do so with little scrutiny by international inspectors. The Iran nuclear issue would be back to where it was before the JCPOA, with the specter of an Iranian nuclear weapon widely cited as the leading security threat facing the United States.

Multiple Explanations

The question arises: why would any U.S. policymaker want such an outcome? What could possibly be the motivation to pursue a “strategy” destined to lead to these undesirable results? There are several possible answers to this question. Their applicability varies from individual to individual, and they are not necessarily mutually exclusive even for any single policymaker.

One explanation, which applies especially to Donald Trump, is that the policy has been made only with a rhetorical moment and applause lines in mind and with little or no attention given to larger and longer-term consequences. For Trump, berating and destroying whatever Barack Obama had wrought continues to be the most consistent theme of his policies. Toughness, or rather the simulacrum of it, and claims of superior deal-making ability take precedence over any actual results of actual deals. And no American politician has lost votes by sounding tough on Iran. This alternative can be called the don’t-care explanation.

A second explanation is that policymakers really believe that a pressured Iran will at some point cave and give in to even the most extreme U.S. demands. Various elements of American culture and history, and an inability to understand foreign perspectives, underlie this belief. But the belief is badly mistaken as applied to the current situation, for all the reasons mentioned above.

A third possibility is a belief that pressure and hostility will lead the Iranian regime not to cave, but to fall. The dream of regime change shows through in some lines in Pompeo’s rhetoric, including his speech this month. One might think that all American politicians would have learned sobering lessons about regime change from recent experiences involving Iraq, but they haven’t. As for present-day Iran, it is not in a pre-revolutionary situation, and what Trump has done to the JCPOA has put it even farther away from one. Iranian hardliners have been pleased to note how the U.S. reneging on the agreement has made it easier to blame the United States for economic problems inside Iran. If regime change were nonetheless to become feasible, the most likely possibility would be the Revolutionary Guard imposing martial law, an event that would imply Iranian policies even less to the liking of the United States than current policies.

A fourth explanation, and one that may be at least as valid as any of the other three, is that policymakers want to have unending impasse and high tension with Iran. A subset of the policymakers in question, possibly including National Security Advisor John Bolton, would go even farther and welcome not only increased tension with Iran but war. Their preference raises a whole different order of hard-to-answer questions about motivations—and who can adequately explain what drives chickenhawks? A different and probably larger subset of people to whom this explanation applies does not seek war—although their policies increase the chance of one breaking out—but instead wants perpetual enmity in which Iran serves forever as a bête noire. Iran is a handy choice for playing this role in American rhetoric—for several reasons, such as memories of the hostage crisis of 1979-1981.

Having such a bête noire serves the purposes that foreign foils have long served for leaders of many countries, not just the United States. The political benefits include rally-around-the-flag effects, deflecting blame away from the true source of troubles, distracting attention from one’s own faults and failures, and providing an opportunity to look tough against a supposed threat. For Trump, who has been criticized for softness toward foreign authoritarians, the opportunity to display toughness is especially attractive. Note that, as with the don’t-care explanation, none of this has anything to do with the interests of the United States but instead only with the narrower political interests of individual politicians and administrations.

Subcontracting Policy to Foreigners

The attraction of forever keeping Iran as a bête noire for the United States is even more obvious for Iran’s regional rivals. This especially means Saudi Arabia, along with its sometime ally the United Arab Emirates and its satellite Bahrain, and Israel. Those regimes are content to see a dead-end U.S. policy toward Iran that offers no prospect of any thawing of relations between Washington and Tehran. Such a policy assures that Washington always will take their side in their local disputes. It means continued U.S. cover for their own excesses and contributions to regional instability, with blame always focused on Iran. Thus Saudi leaders were delighted to hear Pompeo demand an end to Iranian aid to Houthi rebels in Yemen, while he said nothing in his speech about the far larger role of Saudi bombardment in turning Yemen into a humanitarian disaster. Israeli leaders were delighted to hear demands about ending Iranian aid to Hamas, in a speech that made no mention of the role of the Israeli military in the killing of scores and the wounding of thousands of what were overwhelmingly unarmed protestors in the Gaza Strip.

That Trump’s Iran policy is so much to the liking of Iran’s regional rivals raises the relevance of a story, fleshed out by recent reporting by The New York Times, of the role of those rivals (and of their sympathizers and supporters within the United States) in getting Trump elected. Amid the justified attention to Russia’s role in the 2016 election, this other story of foreign interference in the same election has been largely overlooked. Indeed, what was looked upon as one of the earlier chapters in the Russia story—former national security advisor Michael Flynn admitting that he lied to the FBI about a meeting he had with the Russian ambassador—was really more of an Israel story. Flynn’s objective in the meeting was to get Russia’s help in killing a resolution at the United Nations Security Council that criticized Israel’s building of settlements in occupied territory.

The issue of Russian interference in the election and dealings with the Trump campaign is still very important, and Trump’s frantic efforts to derail the investigation by the special counsel strongly suggest that there is more fire yet to be uncovered underneath the voluminous smoke already visible. But to compare the significance of the different sources of foreign interference in American politics, consider the reason any such interference should concern U.S. citizens: the possible bending of U.S. policy to serve the interests of the interfering foreign government rather than the interests of the United States. For Russia, it is a mixed picture. Vladimir Putin no doubt believes he got his money’s worth from his interference in the discrediting of American democracy and the damage to U.S. credibility and alliance relationships that Trump’s presidency has entailed. As for bilateral U.S.-Russian relations, however, the political toxicity of being seen to make nice to Moscow under the Trump administration has meant that the relationship is not a lot different than it may have been under Hillary Clinton.

For Iran’s regional rivals, however, the Trump administration’s policies have been an unalloyed gift. Expressions of concern in Congress about the carnage in Yemen have not caused the Trump administration to abandon its support for the Saudi air war there. Mild administration criticism of the Saudis has centered more on trying to heal the Saudi rift with Qatar, and the healing effort itself has an anti-Iran thrust. Saudi crown prince and de facto ruler Mohammed bin Salman is still the favorite chum of Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner.

As for Israel, Trump’s policies could hardly have been more to the liking of that country’s government if Benjamin Netanyahu had dictated them himself. Those policies have included the reneging on the JCPOA, the gift of a U.S. embassy in Jerusalem, the apparent abandonment of any two-state solution worthy of the name, and unqualified diplomatic cover provided by UN votes and administration rhetoric—notwithstanding the damage all this causes to wider U.S. standing and relationships.

The dead-end policy toward Iran embodied in Pompeo’s speech thus has several roots, but perhaps the most conspicuous one involves a subcontracting of U.S. policy to Iran’s regional rivals. This practice could be called other things, but it certainly cannot be called America First.

Paul Pillar

Paul R. Pillar is Non-resident Senior Fellow at the Center for Security Studies of Georgetown University and an Associate Fellow of the Geneva Center for Security Policy. He retired in 2005 from a 28-year career in the U.S. intelligence community. His senior positions included National Intelligence Officer for the Near East and South Asia, Deputy Chief of the DCI Counterterrorist Center, and Executive Assistant to the Director of Central Intelligence. He is a Vietnam War veteran and a retired officer in the U.S. Army Reserve. Dr. Pillar's degrees are from Dartmouth College, Oxford University, and Princeton University. His books include Negotiating Peace (1983), Terrorism and U.S. Foreign Policy (2001), Intelligence and U.S. Foreign Policy (2011), and Why America Misunderstands the World (2016).



  1. Iran is not the “bette noir”, Ayatollahs are. Please see the difference. Ayatollahs have no sovereign right over Iranians Mr Pillar. Stop treating them as normal people. They are criminals. Or do you think they are good as gold?

  2. What is missing in all the analyses we have so far seen of the Iran-US-Israel-Saudi conflicts is a serious probing into the American and Israeli-Arab politicians’ personal lives, psychology, mood swing and ‘mental health illness’, especially during their political careers.

    Governments are not complex machineries or abstract apparatus but made of individuals whose ‘mental health’ can play fateful roles in our lives. For instance, years later did the public learn about Winston Churchill’s ‘manic depression’, extreme ‘alcoholism’ and his love of ‘war’.

    The driving force behind the American politicians’ policies towards Iran is not a rational approach to the US-Iranian relations, and not even solely the regional dominance and nuclear issue, but the 1979 humiliation due to the American hostage crisis – and the historic ‘humiliation’ will never fade away from their memory because of the US politicians’ Colonial-Imperial arrogance and deep-seated racism and orientalism, justifying their past criminal interference and domination of Iran including their infamous 1953 military coup in Iran as their indisputable ‘rights’; hence, any condemnation, violation or negation of that illegitimate right is not only ‘indefensible’ but wholly criminal and ‘punishable’.

    But what the American politicians, including the American mainstream media and the ‘American People’ fail to grasp is the fact that we Iranians ‘rightly and strongly’ hold the same view about the US: that not only are the ‘crimes’ perpetrated by the US Administrations in Iran ‘indefensible’ but the perpetrators ought to have been brought to justice for their heinous crimes spanning a period of 65 years – from 1953 to the horrendous mass murder of 1000s of our young soldiers in 1980s and the unlawful perpetual economic sanctions and military threats.

  3. Very good article Paul. If there was any doubt in any Iranian’s mind that we are NOT looking to subjugate them and keep them under our thumbs vanished when Comrade Trump took us out of JCPOA. No Iranian will ever trust us and rightfully so. This is one of the most significant and best thing Comrade Trump could to help Iranian Revolution and the current government of Iran. It Proves their point all along.

  4. I don’t think ayatollahs are any more criminal than Bibi.

  5. @MKRohde, absolutely right!
    Please ignore this guy! He’s a troll and only fixated on Ayatollahs! He hasn’t said a word what kind of positive step(s) he’s taken to improve the life of his countrymen!

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