US Enters Its Next Phase in Its Strategy to Pressure Iran

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announces the creation of the Iran Action Group at the State Department, in Washington, Thursday, Aug. 16, 2018.

AP Photo/Cliff Owen

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Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announces the creation of the Iran Action Group at the State Department, in Washington, Thursday, Aug. 16, 2018.

The State Department’s Iran Action Group will mostly focus on “nukes, terrorism, and the detention of American citizens.”

Sixty-five year ago this week, a CIA-backed coup toppled Mohammed Mosaddegh, Iran’s democratically elected prime minister. The goal of the coup was to strengthen the hand of the West’s ally, Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi. On Thursday, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced the creation of a new Iran Action Group to coordinate U.S. policy toward the Islamic Republic in the wake of the U.S. withdrawal from the nuclear accord with Iran.

Brian Hook, who Pompeo named head of the Iran Action Group, dismissed speculation that the new group’s creation during a week coinciding with the coup anniversary suggested that the U.S. was pursuing regime change in Iran, calling the timing “pure coincidence.” But Barbara Slavin, director of the Future of Iran Initiative at the Atlantic Council and a critic of the Trump administration’s policy toward Iran, told me: “It’s just an example of the tone-deaf Iran policy of this administration.”

Announcing the group’s creation, Pompeo said: “The Iran Action Group will be responsible directing, reviewing, and coordinating all aspects of the State Department’s Iran-related activity.” He said the group will report directly to him. Hook declined to name any of the personnel on the group, saying only: “We have a team that’s assembled, and in time we’ll be happy to talk about it.”

Hook said the group’s work will center on the 12 demands made of Iran by Pompeo in a speech in May, adding the focus will mostly be “around nukes, terrorism, and the detention of American citizens arbitrarily detained.” In that speech, Pompeo warned “of unprecedented financial pressure in the form of the strongest sanctions in history” if Tehran did not comply with the U.S. demands.

“The goal is to weaken Iran in the hopes that it will pull back in the region, suddenly become more amenable to the policies of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Israel,” Slavin said. That is unlikely to happen, however, as Iran views the region as part of its sphere of influence, just as the Saudis and Emiratis do.

The Trump administration and its supporters said the JCPOA did not adequately deal with Iran’s ballistic-missile program, its support for militant groups, and its involvement in regional politics. Supporters of the agreement said the accord was meant to deal with only the single-most problematic aspect of Iran’s behavior—its nuclear program—and argued that the agreement could serve as a starting point for talks on other issues. (Critics of the agreement say the JCPOA merely postpones Iran’s inevitable acquisition of nuclear weapons; the accord’s supporters dismiss that claim.) Trump himself had initially said that he was open to talks with Iran with no preconditions, but officials in his administration have since walked that back. The U.S. now says it is open to talks with Iran—if the Islamic Republic changes its policies on a range of issues, including its political and military involvement in Syria, Yemen, Lebanon, and Iraq; its threats against Israel; its ballistic-missile program; and its dismal human-rights record. The Iranians have meanwhile signaled they aren’t interested.

“If the Iranian regime demonstrates a commitment to make fundamental changes in its behavior, then the president is prepared to engage in dialogue in order to find solutions,” Hook said Thursday. “But the sanctions relief, the re-establishment of full diplomatic and commercial relations with the United States, and economic cooperation with the United States can only begin after we see that the Iranian regime is serious about changing its behavior.”

But Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Kahmenei, shut the door this week on that prospect when he said that even permitting Iran’s foreign minister to talk to the Obama administration on what eventually became the JCPOA was a mistake. “It was a loss for us,” he said. Other Iranian officials say they will not talk to the U.S., either.

“Anyone who knows anything about Iran knows that there’s no way the government can agree to talk to the United States under these kinds of conditions,” Slavin said.

The other signatories to the JCPOA—China, France, Germany, Russia, the U.K., and the European Union—remain in the agreement along with Iran. They acknowledge, however, that the economic benefits for Iran that the deal promised will not materialize as the biggest Western companies that entered Iran following the accord have announced they are leaving the country because of the threat of U.S. sanctions. The remaining signatories say they will continue to bring economic and political benefits to Iran, but any such gains will be limited in nature because only those companies that aren’t exposed to the U.S. market or that don’t carry out transactions in U.S. dollars will be able to circumvent the U.S. sanctions on entities doing business in Iran. The true test will come in November when the U.S. sanctions that target Iran’s lucrative oil trade go into effect.  

“They’re traveling around the world and they’re making various countries cut or eliminate their purchases of Iranian oil, and they’ve had some success,” Slavin said of the Trump administration’s efforts. “But a number of countries have also indicated they’re going to continue to buy Iranian oil.” Those include China, India, and Turkey. Hook said the U.S. would examine requests for waivers from countries that are seeking to reduce their oil imports from Iran on a case-by-case basis, but reiterated “we are prepared to impose secondary sanctions on … governments that continue this sort of trade with Iran.”

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