Can Pompeo’s Iran Action Group deliver what Trump promised?

Trump sought to reverse course on Iran from his first day in office, and now Pompeo has put in place a team that is expected to work on “daily progress” against the mullahs and their activities.

August 18, 2018 21:06
4 minute read.
Mike Pompeo

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo delivers remarks on the Trump administration's Iran policy at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, US May 21, 2018.. (photo credit: JONATHAN ERNST / REUTERS)


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US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo’s announcement of the creation of the Iran Action Group (IAG) puts teeth to US President Donald Trump’s threats over the last year and a half to do more against the Tehran regime.

Trump sought to reverse course on Iran from his first day in office, and now Pompeo has put in place a team that is expected to work on “daily progress” against the mullahs and their activities. He says Tehran has been responsible for 40 years of violence in the region, targeting the US and its allies, and the Iranian people. Washington is seeking to reverse that. But can it deliver?

Trump wanted to tighten the pressure on Iran since January 2017 but grasped at straws. His first Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, was not a hawk on Iran and had spent more time trying to patch things up between Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

Even when Tillerson did press Iran’s proxies, calling on the Iranian-backed Popular Mobilization Forces in Iraq to “go home,” he was quick to reverse himself during an October meeting with Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi.

Pompeo is cut from a different cloth. The former CIA director is serious about Iran and is a dedicated manager, operating in the public eye and behind the scenes to create an effective policy.

Whereas the Obama administration had been willing to turn a blind eye to Iran’s role in the region to focus on the Iran deal, Pompeo wants to chop off Tehran’s tentacles to walk back the regime’s activity. In short, the Trump administration sees Iran’s policies as all tied together, pushing them back on one front will lead them to understand that the Iran deal doesn’t exist in a vacuum.

Pompeo has spoken out about Hezbollah being “armed to the teeth by Iran.” He has called for Iran to withdraw its forces from Syria. He has condemned Iran’s sponsorship of Shi’ite militias in Iraq that “undermine the Iraqi Security Forces and jeopardize Iraq’s sovereignty.” And Pompeo has been outspoken on Iran’s role in Yemen and its threats to Israel.

Brian Hook, the US Special Representative for Iran, will be leading the IAG’s day to day operations. He will be looking at ways to apply economic pressure.

In his briefing on Thursday, Hook laid out some of the issues the IAG will be exploring.

“We have taken a comprehensive approach to Iran because the scope of Iranian malign activity is so wide-ranging, from its aspirations of nuclear weapons, its support for terrorism, its cyber activity, its proliferation of ballistic missiles and much more,” he said.

The IAG sounds like a kind of reincarnation of the 1960s ‘Whiz Kids” who helped remake the US Department of Defense. Hook calls it an “elite team” recruited from across the administration.

The IAG hopes to put all the US agencies at work on the Iran issue in concert. For years, many parts of the US government seemed to conduct their own foreign policy.

For example, during the Syria conflict while former Secretary of State John Kerry was paddling away on a river of diplomatic nothingness, the Defense Department armed a group of mostly Kurdish fighters who defeated ISIS. At the same time the CIA, Congress and others within the Defense Department were working on a mostly failed programs to arm, train and vet mostly Arab Sunni Syrian rebels. All of these programs worked in their own vacuum, and were sometimes in opposition to each other.

The same issue happened when Saudi Arabia seemed to think the Trump administration would greet its sanctions on Qatar with open arms last June. Instead, it found out members of the state and defense departments were caught off guard by Riyadh’s actions. Since Trump came to office, US allies have quietly expressed frustration over the administration’s internal chaos. The IAG appears to be a step out of the instability in Washington.

On Iran policy, the Trump administration has put in place a full-court press that dovetails with Israel’s own concerns about Iran.

Jerusalem has long been concerned both by Iran’s activities throughout the region and its nuclear ambitions. The IAG wants to take a holistic approach to Iran.

The question remains if it can deliver on that. Can it pressure Baghdad to end work with Iranian-backed militias? How will it disentangle Iran from Syria?

Trump says he discussed this with Putin in Helsinki, but Russia doesn’t have a magic wand to get Tehran out of Damascus. Washington also doesn’t know how to pressure Lebanon to reduce Hezbollah’s footprint. These are the big challenges, including addressing the nuclear and ballistic missile threats. Hook’s team has at least two years to work on them before the next US presidential election.

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