In an effort to ramp up pressure for political changes in Iran, the State Department has set up a task force to coordinate punitive measures, including sanctions and oil boycotts, Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo said Thursday.
Pompeo said the Iran Action Group would “closely synchronize” policy across the government, the latest step the Trump administration has taken since it withdrew from the landmark Iran nuclear deal in May with the stated goal of ending Tehran’s support for militant groups in the Middle East, among other “malign behavior.”
Pompeo said the administration is willing to talk to Iranian leaders, but “we must see major changes in the regime’s behavior, both inside and outside of its borders.”
He said the new task force will reach out to other countries to create a “true multinational undertaking” in pressuring Iran. That may prove difficult since Britain, France, Germany, Russia, China and Germany, the other signatories to the nuclear deal, all still support the accord.
The administration has said it is not trying to overthrow the Islamic government in Tehran. But critics and those who favored the nuclear accord argue that the White House demands would require a new leadership and even a different political system in Iran.
Pompeo recently issued a 12-point list that demands Iran curtail production of ballistic missiles, withdraw forces from Syria, disarm Shiite militias in Iraq, and end support for Houthi rebels in Yemen and the ruling Hezbollah organization in Lebanon.
He also said Iran must never acquire a nuclear bomb, and must stop all enrichment of uranium and allow unfettered access to all sites by U.N. inspectors — two demands that Iran was already largely meeting under the 2015 nuclear deal that President Trump jettisoned.
The new action group will be led by Brian Hook, who was director of policy planning at the State Department and one of the few survivors of the team that worked closely with Pompeo’s predecessor, Rex Tillerson.
Trump fired Tillerson, former CEO of ExxonMobil, in March over several policy disagreements, including whether to stay in the Iran nuclear pact.
Pompeo and Trump’s national security advisor, John Bolton, are arguably more hawkish on Iran than the president. When he was in Congress, Pompeo suggested bombing Iran’s nuclear facilities, although he disavowed that during his confirmation hearing.
Unlike with policy on Russia or the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, Trump and his administration appear united when it comes to challenging Iran.
Hook cited his work with Bolton, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, as part of his expertise on Iran. Hook, who will become special representative for Iran, already was leading negotiations with allies to muster support for the administration’s approach to Iran.
The National Iranian American Council, which advocates for a detente with Tehran, likened the creation of the action group to the run-up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003, when flawed intelligence and poor policy were used to make the case for war.
The new group is an attempt to bypass normal channels at the State Department “to implement Pompeo’s dangerous vision to destabilize Iran and close diplomatic” options, said Jamal Abdi, the council’s president.
But critics of the Iran nuclear deal praised the decision, saying the new group establishes Iran as a major priority and will make it possible to marshal resources to squeeze its government.
“This is a strong rebuke to the mullahs who are betting that the Trump administration may become weaker over time, too preoccupied with domestic politics to pay much attention to Iran,” said Mark Dubowitz, chief executive of the Washington-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies, which advocates a hard line on Iran.
The Trump administration already has revived economic sanctions that were lifted as part of the nuclear agreement and called for a boycott of Iranian oil. Most countries have not complied, risking secondary sanctions that Washington could impose to restrict their access to U.S. markets.
“The United States certainly hopes for full compliance” with the sanctions, Hook said after Pompeo announced the new group. He added: “We are prepared to impose secondary sanctions … on other governments that continue this sort of trade with Iran.”
In response to a question, Hook said it was “pure coincidence” that the announcement came on the anniversary of the CIA-backed coup in 1953 that ousted Iran’s democratically elected government in favor of a pro-Western monarchy. The current government dates back to the 1979 Iranian Revolution.
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