Pompeo’s Bombastic Iran Speech Reveals The Emptiness Of Trump’s Iran Strategy

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo delivered a bombastic speech on Iran yesterday that reveals just how empty and dangerous the Trump Administration's policy toward Iran actually is.

Yesterday, in what amounts to his first major policy address, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo lambasted Iran and seemed to up the ante in what seems like a quickly unraveling relationship between the United States and the Islamic Republic in the wake of the President’s decision to back out of the 2015 nuclear deal:

WASHINGTON — Secretary of State Mike Pompeo used his first major policy address to deliver a hard-line speech on Monday, in which he demanded that Iran change just about everything regarding its behavior on the world stage.

He insisted that Iran end all nuclear enrichment programs and close its heavy water reactor, saying it did not have the right to such a program. He also appealed directly to the Iranian people, suggesting they should reject the clerical government in Tehran, the capital.

“What has the Iranian revolution given to the Iranian people?” Mr. Pompeo asked at one point, and then offered an answer: “The hard grip of repression is all that millions of Iranians have ever known.”

Iran’s right to enrich uranium, as a signatory to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treatyis debatable. More than a dozen countries in the world enrich uranium, with several doing so solely for civilian purposes, such as energy generation and medical uses.

But Mr. Pompeo’s speech at the conservative Heritage Foundation was intended to throw down the gauntlet against Tehran, piling on after President Trump’s withdrawal earlier this month from the Iran nuclear deal that was negotiated with world powers in 2015. While he did not directly threaten the use of military force, Mr. Pompeo said that if Iran restarts its nuclear program “we will respond.”

He also demanded that Iran admit to the military purposes of its now-moribund nuclear weapons program, end its support of Hezbollah, Hamas and Yemen’s Houthis, and withdraw all of its forces from Syria.

“You know, the list is pretty long,” Mr. Pompeo conceded. But, he added, “we didn’t create the list. They did.”

More from The Washington Post:

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Monday launched a sweeping broadside against the Iranian government, vowing to use all U.S. economic and military might to destroy its economy and “crush” its operatives and proxies around the world.

In his first major foreign policy address as secretary of state, Pompeo listed a dozen demands, an agenda encompassing Iran’s foreign ventures as well as its nuclear and missile programs. If Iran agreed to those demands, he said, the United States would lift all sanctions, reestablish diplomatic relations with Tehran and provide it access to advanced technology.

Pompeo said he will work with the Defense Department and regional allies — a group that includes Israel, Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf states — to “deter Iranian aggression” in the region, including at sea and in cyberspace.

“We will ensure freedom of navigation on the waters in the region,” he said in a speech in Washington at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank whose ideas have been embraced by the Trump administration. “We will work to prevent and counteract any Iranian malign cyberactivity. We will track down Iranian operatives and their Hezbollah proxies operating around the world and crush them. Iran will never again have carte blanche to dominate the Middle East.”

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani promptly rejected Pompeo’s assertion.

“Who are you to decide for Iran and the world?” he was quoted saying by the Iranian news agency ILNA. “The world today does not accept America to decide for the world, as countries are independent.”

Declaring the era of U.S. domination “over,” Rouhani added, “We will continue our path with the support of our nation.”

The suggestion of a further U.S. military role in the region was striking, since President Trump has said he seeks to draw down the U.S. troop presence in Syria, where Iran provides training and arms to militiamen.

Col. Rob Manning, a Pentagon spokesman, told reporters the military is looking at potential actions to push back against Iran’s regional military influence as part of a larger U.S. government response. He said the United States would take “all necessary steps” to contain Iran, but he declined to provide specifics.


“After our sanctions come into full force, it will be battling to keep its economy alive,” he added. “Iran will be forced to make a choice — either fight to keep its economy off life support at home or keep squandering precious wealth on fights abroad. It will not have the resources to do both.”

Many European officials, including those who negotiated the Iran agreement alongside the United States, have chafed at the Trump administration’s positions on Iran, the Paris climate accord, moving the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, and trade tariffs.

“With friends like that, who needs enemies,” European Council President Donald Tusk groused recently.

The new secretary of state, now in his fourth week in office, made clear that the United States is prepared to square off with Europe, using secondary sanctions against companies that do business in Iran.

“We understand our re-imposition of sanctions and the coming pressure campaign on the Iranian regime will pose financial and economic difficulties for a number of our friends,” Pompeo said. “But you should know that we will hold those doing prohibited business in Iran to account.


“The list of requirements of the Iranians asks for everything but conversion to Christianity and reads more like a demand for unconditional surrender than an actual attempt at negotiation,” said Jeremy Shapiro, research director at the European Council on Foreign Relations.

Pompeo said the administration is seeking a full treaty with Iran, not just “fixes” to the nuclear deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. Rather, he demanded Iran’s complete capitulation on 12 points. Judging by its reaction to similar proposals made previously, Tehran is likely to reject most, if not all.

Among the items on Pompeo’s wish list is a full acknowledgment of Iran’s previous attempts to develop a nuclear weapon. Iran has denied ever wanting to build nuclear arms. U.S. negotiators tried unsuccessfully to get Iran to admit it tried to build one in the early 2000s.

Other demands the Iranians are unlikely to go along with include stopping uranium enrichment and ballistic missile tests, and allowing international inspectors access to all sites, including military locations where critics suspect clandestine research. Currently, inspectors must outline the basis for their suspicions.

All of this comes in the context, of course, of President Trump’s decision earlier this month to withdraw from the Joint Comprehensive Plan Of Action (JCPOA) after hinting that this is exactly what he would do both during the campaign and since becoming President last January. At that time, the question that most of the world was asking was what would happen next. At least initially, the Europeans, Iranians, and other parties involved in negotiating the deal back in 2015. So far, at least, the desire on the part of all of these parties has been to do their best to keep the deal in place. America’s European allies, for example, have made it clear that they will not join the United States in backing out of the deal and that they would resist any efforts by the United States to sanction European companies doing business with Iran that is permitted under the JCPOA but which may violate whatever sanctions the United States seeks to reimpose. Russia and China, meanwhile, are proceeding forward as if nothing has changed and are likely to resist American efforts to reimpose sanctions or reopen negotiations regarding the JCPOA. Instead, they are likely to step in and grab the business opportunities that withdrawal has now blocked American companies from making, such as the $39 billion dollars in new aircraft purchases from Boeing and Airbus that are now basically ended because of the President’s decision. Iran, meanwhile, has so far reacted to the decision by seeking to keep the deal together as best as possible even while the official statements from the regime blasting the American decision.

Notwithstanding all of this, Pompeo’s speech indicates quite clearly the direction that the Trump Administration intends to go when it comes to Iran policy, and it’s a direction that is fraught with danger, unlikely to accomplish anything, and more likely to ramp up the threats that the United States and its allies already face in the Middle East and around the world. While the United States will reimpose sanctions on Iran, those sanctions will not have nearly the same impact that they would have if they were joined by our international allies. Additionally, it’s clear that the Iranians will not return to the negotiating table at least in the short term, especially since it seems apparent from the President’s decision to withdraw from the JCPOA that, at least under this President, the United States cannot be trusted to keep the agreements it enters into. Furthermore, if Pompeo’s action is a signal that the United States is committed to the rather idiotic and ultimately doomed strategy of regime change in Tehran, then the post-withdrawal strategy of the U.S. is likely to strengthen the hand of hardliners in Tehran who opposed the efforts of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Javad Zarif to normalize relations with the West in general and the United States in particular. Needless to say, the prospect of these hardliners gaining ground in the internal battles inside the Islamic Republic is not something we should be trying to actively encourage. Unless that is, one is openly hoping for heightened tensions that could devolve into a diplomatic and military crisis that is entirely unnecessary.

The Woodrow Wilson Center’s Aaron David Miller commented on Pompeo’s speech on Twitter:

Jonathan Cristol, Levermore Research Fellow at Adelphi University, meanwhile, calls Pompeo’s speech “complete fantasy”:

The new deal on the table is a dream come true for many globally important figures: Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman; Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu; Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Commander Mohammed Ali Jafari; National Security Advisor John Bolton; and the Mujahideen-e-Khalq cult.

Under this strategy, articulated by Pompeo, the US enacts a new round of crippling sanctions that will have Iran “battling to keep its economy alive.” Then Iran peacefully gives into US demands and changes the very nature of its regime.

It’s all so easy it’s a wonder no previous president thought of it.

Iran just needs to release American hostages, end its ballistic missile program, withdraw from Syria, end support for the Houthis in Yemen, stop its support for Hezbollah and all other terrorist groups and end its “threatening behavior” in the region.

Of course, these are all laudable goals. The United States and the Middle East would be much better off if Iran gave in to America’s demands. But foreign policy should be rooted in reality — not fantasy. Had the US remained in the JCPOA and built up trust with Iran over time, perhaps we could have reached agreements on other issues. But the withdrawal from JCPOA effectively nukes any chances for further agreements with Iran. 


Pompeo is effectively calling for “self regime-change” in Iran. This will not happen. He has provided no reason why Iran would acquiesce to America’s demands. Doing so would only weaken Iran’s ability to confront the United States and would require Iran to place greater trust in Washington than did the JCPOA, which the US violated.

Pompeo has succeeded only in providing the Supreme Leader with the evidence he needs to show his people that the US really does mean Iran harm.

(Emphasis mine)

And Daniel Larison adds this:

Pompeo’s speech summed up everything that is wrong with the Trump administration’s handling of Iran and the nuclear deal and with the policy preferences of Iran hawks generally. The U.S. has much less leverage and virtually no international support for a more restrictive nuclear agreement, but Pompeo is demanding that Iran accept “zero enrichment” that much greater international pressure failed to get. It won’t succeed, and it is more likely to widen rifts between the U.S. and our allies in the process. Just as the Trump administration makes unrealistic, maximalist demands of North Korea, they are making equally fantastical and extreme demands of Iran. The 12 demands Pompeo lists would never be accepted by any state, much less one that has just learned that the U.S. can’t be trusted to honor its commitments, and they are reminiscent of the ultimatum that the Saudi-led bloc delivered to Qatar last year. Like the ultimatum to Qatar, this one will also backfire and produce exactly the opposite of the results that the administration says it wants.

Except for the demand to release U.S. citizens, every one of the things Pompeo calls for is a non-starter with Iran. To agree to most or all of them would be for all intents and purposes to surrender its foreign policy decision-making to Washington and U.S. clients and to abandon all of the governments and groups that have relied on its support until now. Imagine how a similar list of demands from a hostile state would be greeted in Washington and you get some idea of how ridiculous and offensive Pompeo’s speech will seem to Iran’s government and most Iranians.

Larison and Cristol are exactly right, of course, but the important point to keep in mind here is that the Trump Administration doesn’t really care how this rhetoric plays in Iran, in Europe, or in the rest of the world. As French President Emmanual Macron accurately put it at the end of his meetings in late April with President during which he tried to save the nuclear deal, the main reason the President withdrew from the JCPOA is to satisfy domestic political forces. In addition to that, it seems clear that the White House seems more concerned with pleasing so-called allies in the Middle East such as Benjamin Netanyahu and the corrupt leaders of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates than they are with the national interests of the United States. Given that, and assuming that Pompeo’s speech is an indication of the future direction of American policy on Iran, which seems like a safe bet, things are likely to get worse before they get better.

FILED UNDER: Middle East, National Security, US Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. Stormy Dragon says:

    After our sanctions come into full force, it will be battling to keep its economy alive

    “keeping the economy alive” is the preferred administration euphemism for a $500 million no-strings-attached real estate investment.

  2. drj says:

    Additionally, it’s clear that the Iranians will not return to the negotiating table

    Indeed, but making completely impossible demands is exactly what you do when you’re looking for a pretext to start a war.

    I’m not saying war is inevitable, but Pompeo and Bolton, as well as Israel and Saudi Arabia, are clearly pushing for it.

    I wish I were exaggerating.

  3. @drj:

    I wish you were as well

  4. teve tory says:

    He’s gonna be making impossible demands of both the Iranians and the North Koreans

    With Bolton and Pompeo in the administration there’s >50% chance we’ll be going to war in the next year or so. Expect Israel to do something to provoke an Iranian response, which will be the single most horriblest thing that’s ever happened to one of our nearest and dearest alliest and it’s a shame but we just have to attack Iran in ‘defense’.

  5. Daryl and his brother Darryl says:

    A real Congress would recognize the disaster on the horizon, and revoke the AUMF. A real Congress would make it clear that this incompetent, thin-skinned, narcissistic buffoon needs them to declare war as the Constitution requires.
    But this Congress got their tax cuts for the rich, and that’s all they really care about.

  6. Kathy says:

    This is the narcissist interpretation of the Green Lantern theory of the presidency (H/T Steven L. Taylor). You know, all the president, or in this case Trump, needs to do anything is to posses the will to do it. The narcissist part is that only Trump’s will can get things done.

    Unfortunately the world does not exist within a Justice League cartoon.

  7. Kathy says:


    Indeed, but making completely impossible demands is exactly what you do when you’re looking for a pretext to start a war.

    In 1914, the Austro-Hungarian Empire made a long, exhaustive list of demands of Serbia, in regard to the assassination of Franz Ferdinand. The one difference is that Austria-Hungary delivered an ultimatum with a time limit, not a speech.

    But the intent in both cases feels very similar: capitulation.

  8. TM01 says:

    President’s decision to withdraw from the JCPOA that, at least under this President, the United States cannot be trusted to keep the agreements it enters into.

    Blah blah blah blah blah.

    So now no President can ever change the direction of US foreign policy?

    That’s such a stupid faux-argument. Are you going to stomp your feet too? “I’m gonna hold my breath until that big ol’ meanie Donald Trump does what *I* want!!”

    Where was your hand-wringing when Obama cancelled that missile defense system for Poland that GWB had promised? Or when he broke decades of U.S. policy precedent and allowed the U.N. Security Council to condemn Israeli settlements? He even pulled US troops out of Iraq…as HE’D PROMISED DURING THE CAMPAIGN! Oh the humanity!!!

    But NO! History(tm) began with Trump!

    Next time we agree to a deal, we should maybe do it the proper way, by signing a treaty and having it properly ratified by the Senate. The last time I checked the President does not have sole authority to enter into legally binding agreements with foreign nations.

    On the bright side tho, I guess this means no future President can move the Israeli embassy. Ever. #ThanksDoug

    And meanwhile, despite Western European politicians grandstanding that they will stay in the Iran deal, European companies with significant business dealings in the US are actually pulling out of Iran. Looks like more Winning.

  9. An Interested Party says:

    Looks like more Winning.

    Oh yes, because these latest actions by the Orange Blob and his henchmen are so going to stop Iran from pursuing a nuclear program…uh huh…

  10. drj says:


    So now no President can ever change the direction of US foreign policy?

    Obviously, Presidents can change the direction of US foreign policy. But, equally obviously, that’s not the issue, you fool.

    The actual issue is that the US will have to pay a heavy diplomatic price for reneging on a multilateral agreement while lacking anything even resembling a valid reason.

    After all, the rest of the world – not beholden to Fox News’ propaganda – knows that the JCPOA was doing its job.

    This means that the US not only reneged on a deal (bad enough by itself), but that it did so based on made up nonsense (infinitesimally worse).

    Which means that the US cannot be trusted by other nations, because it feels free to make up random shit whenever it feels like it.

    Which means that, in the future, other nations are unlikely to offer concessions to the US, because they can’t be certain that the US will uphold its side of the bargain.

    To state the bleeding obvious: that’s pretty bad for the US as well.

  11. Kathy says:


    Obviously, Presidents can change the direction of US foreign policy. But, equally obviously, that’s not the issue, you fool.

    For the Trumpidians there is only one issue: “Trump good. Obama baaaaaaaaad!”

    Therefore all the false equivalencies, misinterpretation, hostility, and eyes wide shut.

  12. KM says:

    Take the politics out of it for a second. Let’s say there’s only so many businesses in the world with very few chances a new one starting up any time soon. Let’s say some businesses are powerhouses and can throw their weight around. A group of businesses got together to form a coalition against a rival that was doing something damaging to them all and offered a hard-negotiated deal to make them stop. Everything seems to be going along fine. Then suddenly, the main deal-maker company gets a new CEO and he’s like “pffft we’re doing this anymore because reasons that’s why” and demands a mulligan on his terms. All the other companies decide to stick with the original deal.

    Now you are the consumer witnessing all this. What exactly do you think is going to happen to the deal-maker company? Don’t you think their future contracts will be effected? Their stock price? Consumer confidence and purchasing power? After all, they’re not the only company in the world and need the others to be able to do business. Does that sound like a good business model or are you going “WTF is that guy thinking?”

    What Trump is doing makes no sense. Not diplomatically, not financially, not militarily, not strategically, not in terms of sane businesses decisions, etc. A CEO that did something like this would be removed by the board of directors shortly for sheer stupidity. Changing direction without any intended direction or plan is madness.

  13. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Kathy: Of course not. Justice League cartoons are fiction. Fiction has to make sense.

  14. Robert C says:

    @teve tory:

    Nearest and dearest ally?… Please…more like millstone around America’s neck. The tail is 100 % wagging the dog.

    US ME foreign policy=AIPAC ME foreign policy=Likud’s ME foreign policy=Israel’s ME foreign policy.

    What’s in it for the US?

  15. grumpy realist says:

    I suspect China and Russia are sniggering the entire time this is going on, watching the US throw away all the soft power it ever had.

    I also wonder about the brains of Israel, though. If the US ends up getting used as a cat’s paw to attack Iran and ends up trashing the US economy plus the loss of a lot of life, I suspect that support for Israel will do a 180 very very quickly. Oops.

  16. teve tory says:

    @Robert C: Or course I was being sarcastic.

  17. teve tory says:

    I suspect China and Russia are sniggering the entire time this is going on, watching the US throw away all the soft power it ever had.

    That’s one thing that kinda baffles me:

    1) Putin wants a weak, chaotic, divided America, which alienates its allies.
    2) Putin would rather have Trump as POTUS than Hillary or anyone else.

    Why can’t the Trumpers figure out what those two facts mean when you put them together?

  18. Robert C says:

    @teve tory:
    Got me. My bad. 😐

  19. merl says:

    @Robert C: Dead GIs.

  20. michael reynolds says:

    Trump badly needs a war. Bolton and Pompeo want a war. Sheldon Adelson and MBS have paid Trump for a war. Of course there’s no strategy, US foreign policy is a melding of Drunk Uncle Ranting and Show Me the Money. Cretins and Crooks run our banana republic.

    Trump has kowtowed to Kim, he’s taken Chinese bribes, and it may even have penetrated Trump’s dim consciousness that war with NK would be a real problem, so he’ll try his best to lay down for Kim. But his neocon advisers and Israeli and Arab paymasters have convinced Don that war with Iran will be over quickly and the Iranians will welcome us with open arms. So if Don can find any slim excuse he’ll go to war against Iran. It will be a war crime and a disaster.

  21. teve tory says:

    @Robert C: Not your fault. It’s impossible to read tone from a short piece of text unless you really know someone already.

  22. TM01 says:


    The actual issue is that the US will have to pay a heavy diplomatic price for reneging on a multilateral agreement while lacking anything even resembling a valid reason.

    Just because you disagree with a position does not mean said opinion is totally invalid. There are plenty of reasons to be opposed to the Iran deal.

    And you know damned well that if Trump got a “deal” just like that one with NK you’d be screaming bloody murder and how Trump got screwed.

    After all, the rest of the world – not beholden to Fox News’ propaganda – knows that the JCPOA was doing its job.

    IOW: every contrary opinion is propaganda.

    Why does the Rest Of The World always mean only the people you agree with?

    The EU loves the deal because of the money and markets involved. They don’t give a crap about the consequences of an Iran more able to fund Hamas, fight in Syria, etc.

    Putting corporate interests over national security. You’re supporting the very thing you claim Trump would do.

  23. TM01 says:

    @michael reynolds:

    But his neocon advisers and Israeli and Arab paymasters have convinced Don that war with Iran

    Wait. I thought Russia was Trump’s paymaster.

    Make up your mind, man.

    Who is controlling Trump changes depending on the story.

  24. drj says:


    Why does the Rest Of The World always mean only the people you agree with?

    Projection much?

    The rest of the world does actually believe that the JCPOA works. Not just the EU, but also countries such as Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, Japan, New Zealand, the Philippines, Singapore, South Africa, Switzerland, Thailand, and Turkey.

    Not coincidentally, international relations scholars across the political spectrum in the US also disapprove of Trump’s decision to withdraw from the deal.

    every contrary opinion is propaganda

    Not at all. But pretty much everything on Fox News is.

  25. michael reynolds says:

    Whores have more than one client.

    Trump has thus far taken payoffs from Russia, China, and the UAE/KSA. Adelson’s pay-off was more in the traditional model of domestic Republican corruption.

  26. al Ameda says:

    Trump now has the type of personalities at his side – Pompeo and Bolton – that he’s comfortable with. These guys are alpha male, they push, they bully, they always mark their territory.

  27. Taiko drum says:

    It’s this casual attitude towards war and the lives of u.s. service members which makes me actively dissuade my son from joining the military after my family (including myself) has contributed three generations of service. He’s my only child, and if these tubs of shit think that Iran is such a threat they can send their own kids.