Pompeo and Iran: A Bizarre Mentality

Mike Pompeo delivers speech at Reagan Library (State Department via Flickr)

by John Limbert

“The angry Mojahed lies in ambush in the alley,
American, come out. Your blood will flow on the ground.”

Thus sang the militants of the Iranian opposition group MEK (Mojahedin-e-Khalq) to a catchy Kurdish folk tune. Now the same group—rebranding itself as democratic and pluralistic—presents itself as the best alternative to the current reactionary theocracy. In so doing, it has purchased support from Americans on both left and right, including the current national security advisor, the president’s personal attorney, and the former speaker of the House of Representatives.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s speech in California on Sunday night reveals some basic facts about the administration’s approach to Iran.

  • It does not know what it wants beyond the end of the Islamic Republic. It knows what it does not want. It has no idea what it does want.
  • It traces Iranian woes and misdeeds to what Pompeo called “the Iranian Revolution” of 40 years ago, ignoring the reality that that mass movement included those calling for a democratic Iran.
  • The administration has no appreciation for the currents and counter-currents in Iranian history and political life. It writes off the whole Islamic Republic as unalloyed evil.
  • It has no coherent message on Iran. On the one hand, Pompeo says that people in Iran should have the same freedoms that Iranian-Americans enjoy. On the other hand, President Trump, in his midnight tweet, threatens to annihilate millions of them.
  • The president and his administration remain obsessed with un­doing the acts of its predecessor. In the case of Iran, the administration has rejected anything that even hints at reaching goals through diplomacy.

Iranians certainly deserve a government that treats them decently. They deserve a government whose officials do not steal national wealth. They deserve a government that does not imprison journalists, filmmakers, women’s rights activists, and religious minorities. They deserve a government that does not make empty slogans like “Death to Israel” a substitute for policy. They deserve a government that does not imprison foreign scholars and dual nationals on obviously spurious charges.

Few would deny that officials of the Islamic Republic have an unsavory record. The secretary recited a long list of grievances against them. The unanswered questions are: so what and now what?

When the secretary tells Iranians that the United States will support their efforts to overthrow their government, what follows? Is the U.S. government going to support splitting the country along ethnic and sectarian lines? The similarities with Iraq in 2003 are eerie. What I witnessed in Iraq at that time was, despite the assurances of clueless exile groups, a brutal dictatorship giving way to bloody anarchy. Is this administration going to abandon a decades-old policy of supporting Iranian unity against threats both internal and external?

Administration officials clearly do not know what they want for Iran beyond the disappearance of the Islamic Republic. If the government there were to fall tomorrow, the Trump administration would descend into bitter infighting as each official claimed that his particular client was the destined leader of new democratic Iran. Some, including National Security Advisor John Bolton and his friends, would end up backing the above-noted MEK, a group hated by most Iranians and resembling a combination of the Jonestown cult and the Khmer Rouge.

Pompeo’s speech has demonstrated that this administration has no knowledge of or interest in history. If it did, it would have learned the lesson that meddling in other countries’ internal politics usually ends with a failed state, a new dictator, or a feeble client hated by his own people and in need of constant American support. As I used to tell my students, “Those of you who forget history are condemned to repeat…sophomore year.”   This group seems constantly ready to repeat at least sophomore year.

Among the many ironies of Pompeo’s speech was its staging under the auspices of the Reagan Foundation. Perhaps doing so was another part of the administration’s historical igno­rance or another effort to rewrite history. The reality is that Reagan’s dealings with Iran led to fiasco and came within an eyelash of destroying his presidency. His misguided effort to strengthen non-existent anti-Communist Iranian factions and his trading of arms for hostages to finance the Contras in Central America freed just a handful of prisoners and did nothing to encourage moderation in the Islamic Republic. When the secretary invoked Ronald Reagan’s memory on Iran, he no doubt missed this irony.

If the administration’s policy is to reject the tools of diplomacy—listening, patience, and forbearance—what will replace them? The United States is apparently back to the same cycle of futility with Iran. For almost 40 years, Washington and Tehran glared at each other across an abyss and traded accusations, insults, and threats. That approach accomplished nothing beyond feeding self-righteousness on both sides. Bullying in international affairs does little beyond forcing others into the most extreme positions.

Now the Trump administration has decided to return to that approach without considering the alternatives. Pompeo, from his speech, clearly cares less about results than about looking “tough” for its own sake.

Insulting and sermonizing are poor substitutes for foreign policy. The secretary, while expressing admiration for some Iranian-Americans, referred to Iran as “that place,” recalling those who called FDR “that man” in the White House. It has a name, Mr. Secretary. Lecturing Iranians about the corruption of their officials is unconvincing coming from the administration of Scott Pruitt and the first family. Calling the Islamic Republic’s leadership a “Mafia” is totally unconvincing given this administration’s problematic dealings with Russian oligarchs.

The secretary and others in this administration need to take a deep breath. As the Iranians say, they need “to put their posteriors into a bucket of cold water.” They need to ask themselves, “Where do we want to go with Iran? How do we get there? What do we gain by all of this posturing, threatening, and insulting?”

Iran has been a nightmare for American administrations since 1978. On both sides, a combination of mutual hostility, suspicion, toxic domestic politics, inept diplomacy, bad luck, and bad timing have prevented changes that would benefit both sides. The secretary’s recent speech demonstrates that, even if this all isn’t just a clumsy attempt to distract from the president’s recent bumbling in Helsinki, this administration has learned nothing from the last 40 years.

John Limbert is a retired Foreign Service Officer. A former deputy assistant secretary of state for Iranian affairs, he also served at the US Embassy in Tehran where was held hostage for 14 months.

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  1. US policy goals in Iran do not require anything beyond the disappearance of Islamic government. Anarchy, chaos, will do just fine.

    In Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan it is US that controls their trade, and makes sure every penny spent to buy their oil or opium finds its way back to US.

  2. this administration is on war path and nothing will change the mind of criminal warmongers like bolton

  3. What the US Administration failed to admit is the fact that they are in trouble with Iranian people because they continue to support the ‘Iranian concept’. This is a coexistence formula that had created a multi-nation-state based on commonly accepted values is a cultural context. And this ‘Iranian Concept’ has known its enemy to be foreign, and lastly, US interventionism.
    This is what the US administration is struggling to manipulate, or if not, annihilate.
    But trough history we learn that among few physically successful conquerors, all submitted to ‘Iranian Concept’ and copied it to create the longlasting governmental system but none were good students as they finally cut the connection with the original concept. Alexander, Islam, and Mughals are the examples and on the other side is a long list of unsuccessful adventures.
    That is why practically the sanctions are aimed at ordinary Iranians inside and abroad. It is because they had felt that Iran is not only a country on the map but it is a cultural heritage and identity carried by every single Iranian (and even non-Iranian that believe in it), wherever he/she be (Even US constitution is inspired by that concept to help it run a multinational country).

    They had committed several forceful interventions in Iran and now they want Iranians to forget the history of US interventions; again by force and sanction!
    They want to make them love, certify and obey the regional adventures and ambitions of Israel with the same strategy! Is it possible?

    The other driving force for such irrational conduct is that they think keeping enmity with Iran may help to keep US militarism-based existence for longer. The US, as is today, is the biggest burden for world peace because after WWII it depends on continuous war for existence and its economy is addicted to it as well.

    However, these interventions are only complicating the situation in a changing international order. Even the Islamic revolution in Iran was the result of US interventionism including political and economic ones. For instance, they persuaded Shah of Iran to go after a land reform program which resulted forced migrations to big cities and changing the political atmosphere of cities against him overtime ending with 1979 revolution. Even they forget that they gave Shah the false-advice to create a political freedom atmosphere (a sudden release of pressure in a country which was tightly run by dictatorship and security organizations for decades, did they expected other than a regime change then?); and interestingly And they paved the way for Khomeini to be heard inside Iran and finally come back by giving him a media-focused opportunity while advising to shah to leave the country.

    So why the US shareholders are not happy with the regime-change which they already facilitated in 1979? Even if you succeed to facilitate another (even is really in doubt) you could be sure that the next regime would be more hostile towards the US by adding another ‘open’ intervention to US list of bad intentions toward Iran.
    The shareholders of US interventionism are fascinated by Idea of one-man-Dictatorship in ME, to whom they think they can fall in love easily, as in most countries of the region, but they should know that in Iran this is not be as an option on the table at all. Iranians have started their indigenous democratic movement more than 100 years ago. While the west was successful in halting the movement by facilitation of a Dictatorship system of “Reza Shah” but the circumstances have changed a lot. Today Iranians would not accept any system of dictatorship on one hand and on the other hand, any democratic system in Iran would be against the US. So at the end there is no better future for US in Iran if they stick to only reasoning system they have, the FORCE. The only way back to friendship with Iranians (not the government) is to apologize for all of their bad deeds against them and change their own mind.

  4. A free democratic society can only be stable when there is an overwhelming consensus in favor of that particular political system that is implemented. People need to accept the laws of the country, they need to accept election results without there being a dictator exerting its power using a secret police. But you’ll always have some fraction of the population for whom the current situation is not optimal. For them to support the system requires them to value the system more than any particular outcome of the system.

    This means that regime change due to an intervention by an external power is unlikely to work, as it’s unlikely to yield the necessary consensus for the new political system. The level of consensus needed is huge, close to 100% as we’re talking about a much more fundamental issue than is at play in Western democracies. We can see that clearly in the rare cases where that consensus had broken down, e.g. in Northern Ireland or the Basque region of Spain.

    But whenever one wants to jump start a new political system for a country, this situation will be typical. Take e.g. former Yugoslavia. There the Serbs who saw themselves as citizens of Yugoslavia suddenly became minorities in different countries. In Bosnia that led to a terrible civil war. We tend to look at particular incidents like Srebrenica and attribute that to the people who were directly responsible (Mladic), but we tend to not consider how making fiercely nationalistic people, citizens of another country with a different majority religion, political system etc. amounts to asking for problems.

  5. One possibility is that Trump does not need to know what they want after regime change or whatsoever in the future. The Saudi and Israeli and Washington Iran-phobia politicians behind are happy with an isolated,poor and struggled safavid (in Saudi words).

    However the reality is that a lot of things the US do in the Middle East has to face Iranians, from Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan and Yemen. Sometimes they confront, sometime they cooperate privately because the domestic political environment in both side do not allow they to admit in public. The US needs to work with Iran all the time, no matter who is in power in Tehran. So as the author argues, D.C needs to sit down and thinks thoroughly about what can they do with Iran and read the history, rather than unconditionally meeting the demand of Bibi and wahabis.

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