US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made an unplanned visit to Iraq amid growing tensions with Iran, cancelling a trip to Berlin to meet with Iraqi leaders in Baghdad. The visit took place a few days after the United States sent the USS Abraham Lincoln aircraft carrier to the region. As it turns out, the United States has also sent B-52 bombers to the Middle East. Pompeo directly linked his visit with the escalation of tensions with Iran, which shares a common border with Iraq.
Exactly a year ago, Michael Pompeo left his post as CIA director to become the US Secretary of State. Addressing his new subordinates at the State Department, Pompeo promised to return “toughness” to the department, to restore the prestige of the foreign service, and to remind the world of the intellectual greatness of American diplomats. Since then, Pompeo has made many speeches and visited 38 countries – each time trying to emphasise the “toughness” of his initiatives by all means.
So this time, in order to hold a four-hour meeting with Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi and President Barham Saleh, Pompeo demonstratively cancelled his visit to Germany, where he was to meet with the nation’s top leaders. In doing so, he underscored the foreign policy priorities of the Trump administration. As far as Germany was concerned, the move proved to be especially offensive: despite visiting 38 countries during his first year in office, the Secretary of State couldn’t take the time to travel to the most powerful nation in the European Union.
To be fair, the circumstances surrounding Pompeo’s dramatic change of plans were indeed urgent: Tehran announced that it was suspending the fulfilment of its obligations under two JCPOA provisions. The reaction of the US administration was immediate. While Pompeo said that Washington “will wait and see” what Iran will do after the 60-day ultimatum, Brian Hook, US Special Representative for Iran, urged the American public that the United States “will not succumb to the nuclear blackmail of the Iranian regime,” and that the victim in this situation is America, not Iran.
The general mood in Washington was one of rejoice. The difficult economic situation in Iran and the political pressure on President Rouhani both from his conservative ideological opponents and inside the “progressive camp” had forced Tehran to take measures that in the media can be construed as a “slide towards aggression.” If the Iranians had “made a move,” this was seen as evidence that Trump’s strategy is working. Pompeo points to Trump’s decision a year ago to exit the JCPOA as a real success, and tunes out the criticism of the Democrats, who blame the White House for Iran’s actual intention to resume the nuclear programme.
The most recent US military build-up near Iranian territory is alarming for all the players involved. According to some information, the Israeli Mossad has transferred to its American counterpart information on the alleged deployment of a Hezbollah militant group on the tourist island of Kish in the Strait of Hormuz. If so, Israel and the United States appear to consider the island a potential Iranian foothold for attacking the ships of the United States and its allies in the Strait. The Iranian warning seems to have tangible contours: if the Islamic Republic is deprived of the opportunity to transport its own oil through this strait, no one else should be allowed to do it.
Until today, all the proposals made by Netanyahu to Trump to contain Iran have been accepted: the United States withdrew from the JCPOA; pressure on the Iranian economy is increasing every day, as recently evidenced by the latest US sanctions on the Iranian metallurgical industry; the IRGC has been declared a terrorist organisation; Iran’s closest neighbours are being forced to boycott the country’s products and restrict contact. If this escalation continues along its current trajectory, the next step could be a direct military conflict, which the Pentagon does not want yet.
In addition, it appears that in this chain of events, the United States has simultaneously established new demands.
First, Trump wants a “new exclusive deal with Iran” for the United States. It is very likely that there is no understanding of the specific procedure for such a deal. At the same time, the United States is doing this in a diplomatically inconspicuous, cheeky and rude manner. However, the Trump administration is working the same way with respect to other major foreign policy issues.
The second factor is that Washington is not hiding its intention, if not to overthrow the Iranian regime, then to “drastically re-educate” Tehran through proactive deterrence, involving the political, economic and moral exhaustion of the enemy. Neither of these patterns of behaviour involves active military activity – except with respect to the information war, cyber-attacks and the destruction of individual representatives of the IRGC and Hezbollah, such subversive activities have been conducted for a long time.
However, the logic of Pompeo’s movements and those of other high-ranking representatives of the State Department in recent days, as well as the nature of their discussions with their political opponent seems to boost the likelihood of a more forceful option — perhaps by organising a major provocation that will “force” America to take even tougher measures against Iran. Probably, for certain circles within the United States and beyond, such a scenario could visually establish the “toughness” of the ruling administration, and of America as a whole. But it will hardly serve as a testament to the desired intellectual grandeur of the politicians who make such decisions.