A US air force plane was waiting for Mike Pompeo while he was taking the oath as the country’s new secretary of state in late April in Washington, DC. Promising to get the state department’s “swagger” back, Pompeo wasted no time after being sworn in, setting off on a whirlwind tour of the Middle East to Israel, Saudi Arabia and Jordan.
At every stop, the US’ top diplomat lambasted Iran, accusing it of being “the greatest sponsor of terrorism” in the world. He vowed to ensure Tehran never possessed a nuclear weapon.
A few days later, on May 9, President Donald Trump announced Washington was abandoning the 2015 nuclear deal – signed between Iran and six major powers – under which Tehran accepted limits on its nuclear programme in exchange for sanctions relief.
The pullout was strongly opposed by the pact’s other signatories, including Washington’s European allies, and caused jitters in some of Europe’s biggest companies over the fate of multi-billion dollar deals made with Iran. In Tehran, the prospect of further punishing sanctions weighed down on residents, increased anti-White House sentiment and prompted the country’s foreign minister to embark on a diplomatic tour to save the deal.
With the pact’s future in question, Pompeo – now back in the US capital and four weeks into his new role – took to the stage at the Heritage Foundation on Monday to deliver his first major foreign policy speech.
Unsurprisingly, he focused on Iran.
Iran must change its domestic and foreign policy, the former CIA director said, as he set out 12 demands for inclusion in any future nuclear treaty with Tehran. Failing to comply will result in “the strongest sanctions in history”, he threatened.
The tough conditions in the US administration’s so-called Plan B on Iran included Tehran withdrawing all its forces from Syria, halting uranium enrichment and nuclear-capable missiles, as well as ending support for a range of groups in the Middle East, such as Hezbollah and Hamas.
Pompeo described them as “very basic requirements” that were not “unreasonable”.
But to Iran observers, the exacting demands he issued hark back to the decades of “failed” US policy that preceded the signing of the landmark nuclear agreement three years ago.
“Pompeo’s post-nuclear deal Iran strategy leaves zero chance for diplomacy with Iran,” said Seyed Hossein Mousavian, former spokesman for Tehran during its nuclear negotiations with the international community in 2005.
“It repeats the same coercive policy the US administration has implemented for four decades on Iran. This approach has already failed,” he added.
In his 30-minute speech, Pompeo also threatened that Washington would punish companies that continue dealing with Iran.
The goal, analysts say, appears to be clear: cripple Iran’s economy to prevent it from pursuing its regional and domestic policies and eventually topple the Iranian government.
Ellie Geranmayeh, fellow at European Council on Foreign Relations, described the new US terms “as conditions of surrender”.
They are not intended at effecting a change in Iran’s calculation, she said, but rather aimed at “imploding the Iranian state, by undermining the Iranian leadership at home and abroad, as well as economically, through waging sanctions warfare, not only against Iran but every other country that engages in business with Iran”.
For some, the new US policy came across as “regime change”, she added.
Others warned that the US move had done nothing else but to raise the spectre of war between Washington, its regional allies and Iran.
Calling the demands “completely unrealistic”, Trita Parsi, author of Losing an Enemy: Obama, Iran, and the Triumph of Diplomacy, said they revealed that “the Plan B of the Trump administration is designed to fail and then pave the way for Plan C, which is most likely war”.
That’s because “when you combine unrealistic demands with massive pressure then you are by design creating a pathway to confrontation”, he explained.
The signs are already worrying.
Two days after the US pullout, Israel said it attacked nearly all of Iran’s military infrastructure in Syria, claiming it was responding to Iranian rocket fire on its positions on the occupied Golan Heights – allegations Tehran denies.
The barrage of Israeli bombs was the US ally’s largest intervention in Syria in decades.
Parsi said an Iranian response to Israeli raids could lead to a “very different dynamic” in the Middle East.
Mohammad Marandi, a professor at University of Tehran who was part of the nuclear deal negotiations in 2015, said the US withdrawal has led to an “overwhelming consensus in Iran that the US simply cannot be trusted”.
It is likely that Iran will withdraw from the agreement, he said, expressing scepticism at the ability of European powers to protect the deal.
“Iran will then resume its nuclear programme at full speed, and so the US government behaviour is going to have the exact opposite result,” he said.
The prospect of renewed conflict in the region has caused alarm in Europe, which is still reeling from the arrival of millions of refugees fleeing war zones in countries such as Syria and Yemen.
The Israeli raids prompted German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron to issue a call for “level-headedness and de-escalation”. Merkel said the exchange of fire in Syria showed that protecting the 2015 deal was “truly a matter of war and peace”.
World’s most sanctioned country
Geranmayeh said that while European leaders share many of the Trump administration’s concerns, alluding to Iran’s ballistic missile programme and intervention in conflicts in the Middle East, the two sides have a different strategy in dealing with them.
“The Europeans are saying, let’s keep the nuclear agreement in place and build on it, so that we have an add-on agreement beyond some of the expiration dates agreed on in the original deal,” she said.
The US approach does not give Europe or Iran space for a “political or diplomatic solution”, said Geranmayeh.
She added: “The truth is, Iran is already the most sanctioned country in the world. If we haven’t managed to strike a change in Iran’s regional position when we have the most crippling sanctions against Iran, there’s a lot of questions whether going back to that strategy is going to achieve results.”
New US sanctions may also wipe out more than a million barrels of Iranian oil from the global market, a move that will put pressure on a plummeting currency and reduce government revenues.
The pain though will be felt outside Iran too, with major European companies already dealing with the prospect of significant losses.
In recent days, the European Commission has promised to take steps to protect European firms, including by activating a 1996 law that bans the bloc’s companies and courts from complying with US sanctions against Iran.
Still, several are already pulling out. Danish shipping giant Maersk Tankers has ceased business in Iran, while French oil giant Total said it will pull out from a multi-billion dollar project to develop the South Pars gas field in Iran.
The exit of European giants, however, may open the door further for Chinese and Russian companies to do business in Iran.
A Russia-led trade bloc signed on May 17 an interim trade deal with Iran that lowers tariffs on hundreds of goods, and has announced talks to create a free trade zone.
China’s state-owned CNPC has meanwhile pledged to replace Total if it abandons the gas project, according to Bijan Zangeneh, Iran’s oil minister.
“China and Russia feel threatened by the Trump regime, which seems to be out of control,” said Marandi, the Iranian scholar.
“This decision will force Iran closer to these two countries.”
While acknowledging that renewed sanctions will be “very painful” and exacerbate Iran’s economic woes, Marandi said Pompeo’s threats were not new and would “not change anything” in Iran.
“In fact, what it is going to do is unite the country more than ever.”
The distrust of the US will also harden Iran’s position on its missile programme, Marandi said.
“Iran has to be able to defend itself. What prevents the US from attacking Iran is its defence capabilities,” he said, adding that Trump’s decision will “not change Iran’s behaviour in any way or form”.