President Trump’s nomination of Mike Pompeo as secretary of State probably augurs the end of the 2015 accord that has blocked Iran from building nuclear weapons, an agreement praised by world powers but detested by Trump — and by Pompeo, a notable hawk on the Islamic Republic.
Trump has set a May 12 deadline to withdraw from the Iran nuclear accord unless European allies “fix” it, a prospect that appears unlikely. The president also has agreed to meet in May with Kim Jong Un to try to persuade the North Korean leader to surrender his already large nuclear arsenal, which seems even more remote.
Juggling two powerful adversaries in torturous nuclear diplomacy would stress any White House, but Trump will grapple with Iran and North Korea with a newly reshuffled foreign policy and national security team and a thin bench of experts in a hollowed-out State Department.
In Pompeo, the president will get a bellicose secretary of State who, while serving in Congress in 2014, called for breaking off talks with Tehran and launching hundreds of airstrikes instead against its nuclear facilities — not unlike Trump’s vow last year to unleash “fire and fury” against North Korea.
Several diplomats say Trump will have a hard time coaxing North Korea to conclude a nuclear deal if he has just abandoned one with Iran that was unanimously approved by the United Nations Security Council and is closely monitored by U.N. nuclear inspectors — who have found no Iranian violations.
Like the president, Pompeo long has complained that the Obama administration signed a deeply flawed agreement, one Trump calls “the worst deal ever.”
In the critics’ view, the U.S. should not have agreed to any time limits, known as sunset clauses, in the deal. Most importantly, some nuclear restrictions will expire in 2030, and the opponents say Iran can then again push for a bomb.
Critics also say the exhaustive negotiations — which sought to prevent Iran from designing, building or acquiring nuclear weapons — should have included other Iranian threats, including its ballistic missile program and its support for militant groups in the Middle East.
But Trump will face sharp opposition from U.S. allies and other members of the U.N. Security Council if he unilaterally quits the accord. It could put the U.S. in violation of a U.N. resolution and create global friction if Washington imposes new sanctions on Iran.
In a bid to make Trump’s case, the State Department director for policy planning, Brian Hook, will lead a U.S. delegation to the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna for meetings Friday with the five other world powers who signed the deal, plus Iran. The IAEA is the U.N.’s nuclear watchdog agency.
Hook may meet separately with Iran’s deputy foreign minister, Abbas Araghchi, who is leading the Iranian side. On Wednesday, Araghchi told a parliamentary committee in Tehran that Iran would quit the deal if Trump does, raising fears that Iran would then try to restart its nuclear program.
With the May deadline fast approaching, advocates for keeping the deal have dialed up their warnings.
"If we walk away, we walk away alone," said William Burns, former deputy secretary of State who led 2013-14 back-channel meetings with Iran that helped pave the way for talks in Vienna that ultimately sealed the deal in July 2015.
"Iran would feel unconstrained over time” to rebuild its nuclear infrastructure, said Burns, who now heads the nonpartisan Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “That door would be open to them, and it would be hard to re-create the diplomatic effort" that brought world powers together to forge the deal.
The Iran deal “has been a great success in terms of global security, and we should defend it,” agreed Simon Gass, Britain’s lead negotiator in the nuclear talks and a former ambassador to Iran.
“If the U.S. walks away, those who would be the happiest are sitting in the Kremlin,” Gass said, because it would drive a wedge between Washington and its allies in Europe.
Trump fired Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Tuesday, announcing his ouster on Twitter, and said he would nominate Pompeo, the CIA director, to replace him. Trump and Tillerson had clashed for months over Trump’s pledge to scrap the Iran deal and add new sanctions on Tehran.
During heated Oval Office debates last summer, Pompeo advocated killing the deal, arguing that it had given an economic boost to Tehran that had allowed it to intervene more forcefully with armed proxies in Yemen, Syria and elsewhere.
“When you look at the Iran deal, I think it’s terrible,” Trump told reporters Tuesday. Tillerson, he said, “felt it was OK.”
Pompeo, in contrast, has expressed views more hawkish than Trump’s. As a Republican tea party member of Congress from Kansas from 2011 to 2017, he called for the ouster of the theocracy that has ruled Iran for nearly four decades.
In 2014, as the Iran negotiations moved into their final months, Pompeo joined critics who demanded that the Obama administration break off the talks. A former Army officer, Pompeo also called for launching airstrikes, saying fewer than 2,000 bombing sorties could take out Iran’s nuclear capabilities.
“This is not an insurmountable task for the coalition forces,” he said at the time.
The following summer, when the accord was finalized, Pompeo bluntly mischaracterized its provisions. “This deal allows Iran to continue its nuclear program — that’s not foreign policy, it’s surrender,” he said.
Last summer, as CIA director, Pompeo told the Aspen Security Forum that the nuclear deal “could stop a few centrifuges from spinning,” referring to the devices used to enrich uranium for nuclear fuel. But, he added, the “challenge of the agreement is that it is short term. It … covers only a narrow piece of the Iranian risk profile.”
He dismissed Iran’s compliance with the deal as “grudging, minimalist, temporary.”
Under the accord, Iran was required to destroy or dismantle its nuclear infrastructure, ship out enriched uranium and allow strict monitoring and inspections by IAEA inspectors to make sure it does not cheat.
The IAEA has issued nine reports so far and none have found violations. U.S. intelligence agencies have agreed that Tehran is meeting its obligations, and that its ability to “race for a bomb” has been pushed far back.
In exchange, a web of U.N. economic sanctions were steadily lifted from Iran and the country was allowed to reenter the global market and banking systems.
As a candidate, Trump vowed to rip up the deal, and he has bitterly complained that a U.S. law requires him to periodically waive nuclear-related sanctions to confirm to Congress that Iran is in compliance.
When he last did so, on Jan. 12, Trump vowed to not do it again — and gave European allies four months to find a way to meet his concerns or he would pull out of the deal.
The process would be relatively simple because the nuclear accord is not a formal treaty. The U.S. signed it as part of an executive order by President Obama, so Trump would need take no formal steps beyond reimposing sanctions and announcing his decision.
It’s possible other signatories to the deal could keep it alive without U.S. participation. It would require a “soft exit” to limit the effect of new sanctions so European companies and others could continue trading with and investing in Iran without fear of being shut out of U.S. markets. It also would require Iranian buy-in.
In theory, that could leave the door open for a future U.S. administration to rejoin the agreement.
Several British, French and German diplomats who visited Washington in recent weeks to meet with Trump administration officials expressed frustration with the president’s ultimatum partly because it’s not entirely clear what, if anything, would keep him in the deal.
They have proposed supplemental agreements to address key concerns — especially the sunset clauses — and say follow-on measures could be enacted without scuttling the existing deal.
But several diplomats left Washington convinced that the proposals would not satisfy Trump, who, they said, seems to have already made up his mind.
“The Europeans are starting to question [U.S.] predictability,” said Angela Kane, a German diplomat who served as U.N. high representative for disarmament affairs during the Iran negotiations. “This is becoming a very difficult thing for Europeans to stomach.”
Allies seeking to preserve the Iran deal say a U.S. withdrawal would benefit Iranian hard-liners who opposed negotiating with the West in the first place and wanted to preserve the nuclear program. Reinstating U.S. sanctions would give Tehran an excuse to blame the country’s economic problems on America, analysts said.
But Trump is unlikely to get pushback from Pompeo, a kindred spirit when it comes to Iran.
Pompeo “has a long track record on Iran and has been quite hostile towards the Islamic Republic,” said Reuel Marc Gerecht, a former CIA expert on Iran now at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a conservative think tank that opposed the nuclear deal.