The White House has created a plan to replace Secretary of State Rex Tillerson with current CIA Director Mike Pompeo, and then nominate Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) to replace Pompeo at CIA, according to the New York Times.
This move would likely carry significant implications for the administration’s Iran policy, which might shift toward a more aggressive posture. Tillerson has publicly said that staying in the Iran nuclear agreement was in the U.S. national interest. Likewise, Politico reported in October that the debate over whether to recertify the deal “pitted Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin,” who favored recertification, against Mattis and McMaster, who favored the current Trump strategy of de-certification while continuing to waive nuclear sanctions and pursuing new, non-nuclear sanctions, and a small group, led by “U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley and CIA Director Mike Pompeo, [who] pushed hard for decertification.”
By contrast, Director Pompeo and Sen. Cotton have both spoken publicly about how they view the Iran nuclear agreement as insufficient to contain the Iranian threat, while emphasizing the potential success of military strikes against the country and downplaying the costs of such a strategy, all in a more general and wide-ranging effort to confront the government in Tehran.
I. Military Strikes on Iran
Even before taking office, Sen.-elect Cotton called for ending the Obama administration’s nuclear negotiations with Iran at a news roundtable alongside Pompeo on Dec. 3, 2014: “I hope that Congress’ role will be to put an end to these negotiations. Iran is getting everything it wants in slow motion so why would they ever reach a final agreement?,” he said. Cotton advised the best way forward would be to re-impose the economic sanctions that were suspended during the negotiation of the deal.
At the same event, then-Rep. Pompeo (R-Kan.) added that military strikes could be highly successful in destroying Iran’s nuclear capacity: “In an unclassified setting, it is under 2,000 sorties to destroy the Iranian nuclear capacity. This is not an insurmountable task for the coalition forces.”
Similarly, on Apr. 9, 2015, Sen. Cotton told USA Today that he was confident military strikes would be effective: “The United States military has amazing capabilities,” he said. He added that historical Israeli air strikes against nuclear reactors in Iraq and Syria, as well as President Obama’s statements about a “military option,” indicated that “air and naval bombing of Iran’s nuclear facilities would in fact work.”
Even more categorically, on Aug. 5, 2015, Sen. Cotton told Israeli reporters: “We can set them back to day zero. There is no doubt that the United States has the capability to do that.”
Likewise, following Donald Trump’s election, Sen. Cotton told the Washington Post in an interview that the United States has a “credible military option” with respect to Iran, analogizing to past Israeli and U.S. air strikes in the Middle East:
Cotton: Now, another premise of most of your questions, [Washington Post Associate Editor] David [Ignatius], and most of the argument about this that we don’t have a credible military option, which is simply false. President Obama often implied that the only choice we had was capitulation under the JCPOA, or a decade of occupation after forcible regime change through the introduction of 150,000 mechanized troops like we had in Iraq. That’s simply not the case. We have a number of calibrated military strikes, like Ronald Reagan conducted against Libya; like Bill Clinton conducted repeatedly against Iraq; like Donald Trump conducted against Syria; like Ronald Reagan conducted against Iran itself, by blowing up half of their navy and several oil platforms, which I would point out wasn’t too long before the Iran-Iraq War ended.
Ehud Barak has said Iran’s nuclear infrastructure could be destroyed in a fraction of a night. I would say that’s probably a little optimistic. But again, we have options between capitulation under this deal, and forcible regime change followed by a decade of occupation. And Iran needs to know that.
II. Denouncing the Iran Deal, Calling to Directly “Confront” and “Choke” Iran, and Regime Change
Both Pompeo and Sen. Cotton have emphasized the need to confront Iran over the nuclear program and more broadly over its regional activity. In Nov. 2016, while Pompeo’s confirmation as CIA Director was pending, he tweeted: “I look forward to rolling back this disastrous deal with the world’s largest state sponsor of terrorism.” The tweet was subsequently taken down, but has been republished by outlets including the Financial Times.
Pompeo made similar remarks at a Foundation for Defense of Democracies event on Oct. 19, 2017, adding that the Iran nuclear deal failed to eliminate Iran’s path to obtaining a nuclear weapon permanently.
And he told Brett Stephens in a July 2017 interview at the Aspen Forum that negotiations would not succeed in eliminating the entirety of the Iran threat, adding that doing so would require Americans to be willing to take risks:
I would answer it this way, I’d answer it this way, I don’t know. I don’t know what will push them back, but I can tell you what won’t. What won’t is continuing — continued appeasement, continued failure to acknowledge when they do things wrong, and forcing them into compliance, and sometimes yes that will require Americans taking risk. I’m confident this administration will ultimately be willing to do so. When we get our strategy in place I am confident you will see a fundamental shift. We’ve begun, right, that one of the first things the President did is to go build a coalition of the Gulf States and Israel to help find a platform which could uniformly push back against Iranian expansionism.
But even in private, Pompeo reportedly disagreed with a detailed CIA briefing that he received in Spring 2017. The assessment concluded that Iran was complying with the 2015 Iran Deal and that the deal made it substantially harder for Iran to build an atomic weapon. He reportedly wasn’t impressed, saying: “Good…But we know they’re cheating anyway—we’re just not seeing it.”
Sen. Cotton’s statements on these issues have been similar. In an Oct. 18, 2017 interview on Fox News Radio, he framed the Iran Deal as aiming for short-term prevention at the risk of failing to “confront” Iran’s long-term goals:
Iran now is by all accounts about a year away from getting a nuclear weapon. This deal though starts to expire in a mere eight years, sometimes thirteen years with some of the provisions. I don’t think we can wait eight to thirteen years. Iran is going to get stronger, it’s economy is going to grow, it’s going to get more conventional weapons like tanks and artillery and helicopters, and ultimately it will have a nuclear weapon. That’s what we saw with the North Korea nuclear deal in 1994. They detonated their first bomb in 2006. So I don’t think that we have the luxury of waiting eight to thirteen years to confront a nuclear Iran. I think we need to confront them now. I understand those people who say that we have so many other challenges it’s best to kick this one down the road, I just think the consequences are too grave.
Sen. Cotton had said earlier that month, at the Council on Foreign Relations, that Iran was an opponent “on its knees” in 2013 that the Obama administration should have “choke[d] out:”
“These [Obama administration nuclear sanctions] were the toughest sanctions Iran had ever faced and they helped drive the regime to its knees,” he said. “One thing I learned in the Army is that when you have your opponent on his knees, you drive him to the ground and choke him out. President Obama extended a hand, and helped the ayatollahs up.
And Sen. Cotton has explicitly called for the official U.S. policy on Iran to be regime change:
“The policy of the United States should be regime change in Iran…I don’t see how anyone can say America can be safe as long as you have in power a theocratic despotism,” he told Politico on June 25, 2017. He added that the U.S. government should “support internal domestic dissent” in the country by economic, diplomatic, and covert actions, particularly with respect to minority groups who “aren’t enthusiastic about living in a Persian Shiite despotism.”
When Pompeo released 470,000 documents obtained in the Bin Laden raid, his aim seems to have been to create the public perception of a link between Iran and Al Qaeda. As former CIA spokesperson and senior analyst Ned Price noted in the Atlantic, “A close read of [Pompeo’s] statements and the CIA’s public rollout of the new documents suggests, instead, that their release is part of his ongoing campaign to link al-Qaeda to Tehran.” The documents, however, “do not alter the fundamental and longstanding understanding of the consistently tense, and occasionally openly hostile, relationship between Iran and al-Qaeda,” Price explained.
And the release appears to be part of Pompeo’s broader effort to weaken the Iran nuclear agreement. At the Foundation for Defense of Democracies event, he said the following when asked about Trump’s statement that there is a link between Iran and Al Qaeda:
POMPEO: […] I think it’s an open secret, and not classified information, that there have been relationships, there are connections. There have been times the Iranians have worked alongside Al Qaeda.
We actually, the CIA is going to release, here, in the next handful of days, a series of documents related to the Abbottabad raids that may prove interesting to those who are looking to take at this issue—take a look at this issue a little bit further.
But there have been connections where, at the very least, they have cuts deals so as not to come after each other. That is, they view the West as a greater threat than the fight is between them two along their ideological lines. And we, the intelligence community, has reported on this for an awfully long time. It is something we are very mindful of.
And, with the defeat of the real estate proposition in Syria and Iraq for ISIS, we watch what’s going on in Idlib. You’ve got ISIS folks, Al-Nusra Front, Al Qaeda folks up in the north. We’re watching to see if there aren’t places where they work together for a common threat against the United States.
Pompeo is playing politics with intelligence, using these files in a ploy to bolster the case against Iran by reinvigorating the debate on its terrorist ties. While the politicization of intelligence is more than sufficient cause for concern, the fact that he appears to be returning to the Bush administration’s pre-Iraq war playbook underscores the danger.