Pompeo on Iran During Middle East Tour

January 16, 2019

On January 8, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo embarked on a Middle East tour. He reassured U.S. allies that Washington is a reliable partner in addressing the region’s many problems. The visit followed President Donald Trump’s surprise announcement on December 19 that he was pulling U.S. troops out of Syria “now.” Pompeo visited Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Iraq, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Oman. In a major speech in Cairo on January 10, and in other remarks, the secretary highlighted two primary goals for the Middle East, defeating ISIS and containing Iran’s influence. "In Syria, the United States will use diplomacy and work with our partners to expel every last Iranian boot, and work through the U.N.-led process to bring peace and stability to the long-suffering Syrian people," he said. The following are Iran-related remarks by Pompeo.

 

Secretary's Remarks: A Force for Good: America Reinvigorated in the Middle East

America’s reluctance, our reluctance, to wield our influence kept us silent as the people of Iran rose up against the mullahs in Tehran in the Green Revolution. The ayatollahs and their henchmen murdered, jailed, and intimidated freedom-loving Iranians, and they wrongly blamed America for this unrest when it was their own tyranny that had fueled it. Emboldened, the regime spread its cancerous influence to Yemen, to Iraq, to Syria, and still further into Lebanon. 

Our penchant, America’s penchant, for wishful thinking led us to look the other way as Hizballah, a wholly owned subsidiary of the Iranian regime, accumulated a massive arsenal of approximately 130,000 rockets and missiles. They stored and positioned these weapons in Lebanese towns and villages in flagrant violation of international law. That arsenal is aimed squarely at our ally Israel. 

When Bashar Assad unleashed terror upon ordinary Syrians and barrel-bombed civilians with sarin gas, a true echo of Saddam Hussein’s gassing of the Kurdish people, we condemned his actions. But in our hesitation to wield power, we did nothing. 

Our eagerness to address only Muslims and not nations ignored the rich diversity of the Middle East and frayed old bonds. It undermined the concept of the nation-state, the building block of international stability. And our desire for peace at any cost led us to strike a deal with Iran, our common enemy. 

So today, what did we learn from all of this? We learned that when America retreats, chaos often follows. When we neglect our friends, resentment builds. And when we partner with enemies, they advance. 

The good news. The good news is this: The age of self-inflicted American shame is over, and so are the policies that produced so much needless suffering. Now comes the real new beginning. …

For those who fret about the use of American power, remember this: America has always been, and always will be, a liberating force, not an occupying power. We’ve never dreamed of domination in the Middle East. Can you say the same about Iran? …

Let’s turn to Iran. 

President Trump has reversed our willful blindness to the danger of the regime and withdrew from the failed nuclear deal, with its false promises. The U.S. re-imposed sanctions that should never have been lifted. We embarked on a new pressure campaign to cut off the revenues the regime uses to spread terror and destruction throughout the world. We joined the Iranian people in calling for freedom and accountability. 

And importantly, we fostered a common understanding with our allies of the need to counteract the Iran regime’s revolutionary agenda. Countries increasingly understand that we must confront the ayatollahs, not coddle them. Nations are rallying to our side to confront the regime like never before. Egypt, Oman, Kuwait, and Jordan have all been instrumental in thwarting Iran’s efforts to evade sanctions. 

The UAE has canceled its imports of Iranian condensate following the re-imposition of American sanctions. Bahrain has exposed the Revolutionary Guard proxies that are active in its country, and which – and working – is working to stop Iran’s illicit maritime activities in its region. Saudi Arabia, too, has worked with us to counter Iranian expansion and regional influence. We, the United States, commend each of these efforts, and we seek for all nations to continue the work to constrain the full array of the regime’s malign activity. 

The work to curb the regime’s deadly ambitions isn’t confined to the Middle East. America’s friends and partners from South Korea to Poland have joined our effort to stop Iran’s wave of regional destruction and global campaigns of terror. 

Countries across the globe have cut Iranian oil imports to zero and are working towards that goal. Private companies in France, Germany, Britain and elsewhere have all calculated that enriching themselves through work with the regime is bad for business and bad for the people of their own countries. 

In Yemen, we’ve assisted our coalition partners as they take the lead in preventing an Iranian expansion that would be disastrous for world trade and regional security. As is always the case with America, our engagement has also been coupled with robust humanitarian aid. We’ve supported the UN talks to put Yemen on the path to peace. 

In Lebanon, Hizballah remains a major presence, but we won’t accept this status quo. Our aggressive sanctions campaign against Iran is also directed at the terror group and its leaders, including the son of Hassan Nasrallah, the head of Hizballah. …

For our part, airstrikes in the region will continue as targets arise. We will keep working with our partners in the Coalition to Defeat ISIS. We will continue to hunt down terrorists who seek safe havens in Libya and in Yemen. We strongly support Egypt’s efforts to destroy ISIS in the Sinai. We strongly support Israel’s efforts to stop Tehran from turning Syria into the next Lebanon. 

And as the fighting continues, we will continue to assist our partners in efforts to guard borders, prosecute terrorists, screen travelers, assist refugees, and more. But “assist” is the key phrase. We ask every peace-loving nation of the Middle East to shoulder new responsibilities for defeating Islamist extremism wherever we find it. 

It is important to know also that we will not ease our campaign to stop Iran’s malevolent influence and actions against this region and the world. The nations of the Middle East will never enjoy security, achieve economic stability, or advance the dreams of their people if Iran’s revolutionary regime persists on its current course. 

February 11th will mark 40 years since the oppressive regime came to power in Tehran. America’s economic sanctions against the regime are the strongest in history, and will keep getting tougher until Iran starts behaving like a normal country. The 12 demands that we stated in May remain in force, because the regime’s threat to the region endures. 

In Syria, the United States will use diplomacy and work with our partners to expel every last Iranian boot, and work through the UN-led process to bring peace and stability to the long-suffering Syrian people. There will be no U.S. reconstruction assistance for areas of Syria held by Assad until Iran and its proxy forces withdraw and until we see irreversible progress towards a political resolution. 

In Lebanon, the United States will work to reduce the threat of Hizballah’s missile arsenal, which is aimed at Israel and can reach all points inside of that country. Many of these rockets are equipped with advance guidance systems, courtesy of Iran, and that’s unacceptable. Iran may think it owns Lebanon. Iran is wrong. 

In Iraq, the United States will help our partners build a nation free of Iranian influence. This past May, Iraqis rejected sectarianism in a national election, and we will support that wholeheartedly. The people there refused to be cowered by Iranian-backed thugs and armed groups. Iraqis have strengthened ties with Arab neighbors, peacefully resumed cooperation between the Kurdish Region and Baghdad, and have renewed their focus on fighting corruption. 

And in Yemen, we will continue to work for a lasting peace. 

And I think this is clear, but it is worth reiterating: The United States fully supports Israel’s right to defend itself against the Iranian regime’s aggressive adventurism. We will continue to ensure that Israel has the military capacity to do so decisively. …

Let me close here with a couple of final thoughts. 

First, it’s never easy to recognize truth. But when we see it, we must speak it. America has been criticized for doing too much in the Middle East, and we’ve been criticized for doing too little. But one thing we’ve never been is an empire-builder or an oppressor. 

Just look at our history together, the history which I have recounted today. Look at our fights against common enemies. Look at our coalition building. And finally, just look around you at this university, which has existed now for a century. It’s not a coincidence that many other American universities like this one thrive all across the Middle East, from Beirut to Sulaymaniyah. These are symbols of America’s innate goodness, of our hopes for you, and of the better future we desire for all nations of the Middle East. 

—Jan. 10, 2019, in a speech at the American University in Cairo
 

SECRETARY POMPEO: So good afternoon, everyone. I had a brief but very productive trip. I had a chance to meet with the Saudi foreign minister, with King Salman, and then, ultimately, with Crown Prince Salman; discussed the issues that relate to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the United States as they pertain to what I was trying to accomplish on this trip, right. 

The context for this conversation was the efforts that the Trump administration is making to create a stable and peaceful region here in the Middle East. So our conversations spanned a wide range of those set of objectives. We certainly talked about our effort to counter Iranian malign influence, but we spoke about all the issues in the region, ranging from the continued efforts of Hizballah; we talked about the fact that the – the work that was done in Sweden on Yemen was good, but we need both sides to honor those commitments. To date, the Iranian-backed Houthis have chosen not to do that.

QUESTION: -- hoping you could just characterize the conversations you just came from in terms of Iranian action in Yemen and Syria, what the Saudis are expecting, what you’re communicating back. 

SECRETARY POMPEO: So this all – step back and this all starts with extremism in whatever form you find it. In this case you have Iranian-backed Houthis, Iranian-backed Hizballah, Iranian-backed Shia militias in Iraq, Iranian-backed forces in Syria, and in each case the root of the challenge stems from the revolutionary nature of the Islamic regime and their efforts abroad. And so they’re focused on doing the things they can do. I talked to – I shared with the crown prince and with the king, if I recall correctly, my conversations to help Iraq as well. We want an Iraq that is independent, sovereign, and how it is we might do that – there are lots of economic things we can do to assist Iraq in getting back on its feet, which will permit them to be more independent and have more control and be more sovereign. I shared with the crown prince my conversations when I traveled to Iraq. 

So we had a chance to have a wide series of conversations about how it is – America’s continued effort on the economic and financial front – to attempt to convince the Iranian people that America is serious about empowering them and creating opportunities for the Iranian people. We talked about each of those things today. 

—Jan. 14, 2019, in remarks to the press

 

QUESTION: I want to ask you here though, because you know as a diplomat the threat of credible use of military force is what gives you power at the negotiating table. How does taking out U.S. troops from Syria get you any closer to expelling Iran? 

SECRETARY POMPEO: Margaret, the United States of America can project military power from lots of places in the world. The absence of a couple thousand soldiers on the ground in Syria in no way materially diminishes the capacity of the United States of America and our amazing Armed Forces to deliver American power to accomplish our objectives anywhere in the world. That certainly includes in Syria. It certainly includes into Iran, if need be. We still have those tools. American diplomats still have that leverage and that power standing behind them. I am very confident in our military capabilities here in the Middle East. 

QUESTION: So by that, are you saying that having U.S. troops in nearby Iraq will fill any kind of vacuum left by pulling out of Syria? 

SECRETARY POMPEO: Margaret, we have lots of tools in the arsenal. I was out visiting some amazing warriors out at NAVCENT yesterday in Bahrain. We have an enormous amount of American military capacity. Our ability to achieve what we need to do militarily is there. My task as America’s Secretary of State is to make sure that we don’t have to use that tool, that we get the diplomatic outcomes to secure the Middle East and keep it stable and protect the American people as well. 

QUESTION: When it comes to Iran, the Trump administration has taken some confrontational tactics here – pulling out of the nuclear accord, saying that Iranian threats would be matched here. But we saw this week another American, a Navy vet, Michael White, has been behind Iranian bars since July. So the Trump administration is not stopping Iran from taking Americans hostage. What is happening with this American? 

SECRETARY POMPEO: This administration is proud of the work that we’ve done to get Americans released all across the world. With respect to the Michael White case in particular, I can’t say much. It’s an ongoing consular matter. But the American people should know we take the security of every American, wherever they are traveling in the world, as one of our foremost priorities. We will continue to work to get each of them back. 

And your point, your point about the Islamic Republic of Iran, is spot on. It’s why the JCPOA was such a horrible idea. Many Americans are being held there today that were taken by the Iranian regime. These are a group of people who are among the worst terrorists in the world and who have the least respect for human rights in the world, and it’s why this administration has taken the very hard line you just described against Iran. 

QUESTION: Is the Trump administration open to a prisoner swap with Iran? 

SECRETARY POMPEO: I’m not going to talk about something like that. 

QUESTION: Well, I ask you because Michael White’s mother spoke to CBS, and she said she would like the administration to negotiate for her son. She said, “What is a human life worth? I would like the U.S. to negotiate. I want him home.” What can you tell her you’re doing to bring her son home? 

SECRETARY POMPEO: I have great sympathy for the families of those Americans who are wrongfully detained all across the world, and we do everything we can every day to get their return. We use our diplomatic tools in every corner of the world to reach out to these places, to get these young men and women home. We are intent to do that in Iran. We are intent to do that all across the world. We take this obligation as a solemn one, and this administration has had quite a few successes. I hope we have more. 

QUESTION: Potentially open to negotiations then? 

SECRETARY POMPEO: We’re using every tool that we have in our arsenal to get these Americans back home wherever we find them. 

—Jan. 13, 2019, in an interview with Margaret Brennan of CBS’s Face the Nation
 

QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, it’s our honor to be with us as you always were. Actually, it was a busy trip, very busy trip, and you still have more stops in it. But main thing we can understand from your speech in Cairo, from what you said about the Poland summit and meeting in Poland, that it’s Iran. And this is the main goal, a very hard speech against Iran, and sort of alliance, something like this, to face the role of Iran in the region. What’s the plan? 

SECRETARY POMPEO: Yeah, so it’s been a fantastic trip, I – this swing through the Gulf states now following my initial visits. Really three things we’re working on, different for each of our partners around the world, but America’s here, and this is important to us. Middle East stability, destroying ISIS, completing the destruction of the caliphate are very important missions for the United States – and countering Iran. The threat from the world’s largest state sponsor of terror, the Islamic Republic of Iran, is something President Trump has identified as one of his top priorities. We’re determined to do that, and we’ll do it with our partners throughout the Middle East. This is a mission for the world. It’s incredibly important, and we are determined to do it. I wanted to make sure that I got the chance to swing through the region one more time – I’ve been here a lot in my life -- to come back one more time and reassure them that America is committed to this and talk about how we’re going to execute it.

QUESTION: But what can we understand about what’s going to happen in Poland? Is it the MESA, what you’re calling MESA? Is it another sort of alliance, or what? What kind of meetings it will be -- 

SECRETARY POMPEO: Yeah, so that’s a great question. The ministerial in Warsaw will be much broader than that. We will have countries from Asia, Africa, Western Hemisphere, countries from South America – this will be a broad coalition aimed at Middle East stability. We’ll talk about how we counter terror. There’ll be a focus on Iran. There’ll be conversations about financial systems, how is it we ensure the financial systems don’t sponsor terror. There’ll be a broad conversation from a large group – dozens and dozens of countries we expect to attend over the course of the ministerial. It’s the first time we’ve put together a ministerial this way, and we think it will show the whole world that there’s a broad determination to make life better here and take the terror regimes down in the region. 

QUESTION: But with America withdrawing from Syria – at least for the time being of course; you still have a presence in Iraq but not compared to presence in the last decade. You are determined for this but you are withdrawing from Syria. This is something you consider not contradicted, and you didn’t see it contradict also what the – Mr. Bolton’s statement regarding Turkey, same issue. But how can we understand this? 

SECRETARY POMPEO: Yeah. No, there’s no contradiction at all. America supports fights against terror all around the world. Sometimes we do it with U.S. soldiers, sometimes we do it with forces from partner countries. Sometimes we do it in other ways – diplomatic means, economic means, financial means, building out coalitions. There are many tools in the power projection arsenal. And so no terrorist, no Iranian should believe that the fact that a couple thousand U.S. soldiers are going to be redeployed out of Syria in any way diminishes our commitment. 

QUESTION: It’s said in the U.S., especially at the time at the turn of the former president, that our enemies don’t hear us and our friends don’t trust us. This is something I heard in previous interviews. So in that context, do you think Iran fears what’s going on now? 

SECRETARY POMPEO: I want the Iranian people to know that we want a better life for them. We want the Iranian people’s voices to be heard. We want a real democracy in the Islamic Republic of Iran. And a real democracy doesn’t support Hizballah. A real democracy doesn’t support Shia militias in Iraq that are reducing Iraqi independence. A real democracy wouldn’t be active in Yemen in the way that they are by underwriting the Houthis today. We want the Iranian people’s voices to be heard, and so we don’t want them to fear us. We want them to know that we’re here, we hear them, and we want a better life for the people in Iran as well. 

—Jan. 12, 2019, in an interview with Najwa Kassem of Al Arabiya
 

QUESTION: Yes. I wanted to follow up on one of the pieces of the fact sheet that went out, the goal of expelling every Iranian boot from Syria, as you all put it. Hoping to hear about how we can do this, like, kind of what the nature is there, particularly in light of the efforts to withdraw. 

SECRETARY POMPEO: Yeah. So every Iranian boot on the ground is an ambitious objective. 

QUESTION: Yes, it is. 

SECRETARY POMPEO: But it’s ours. It is our mission. The tools we will use are broad. The fact that a couple thousand uniformed personnel in Syria will be withdrawing is a tactical change. It doesn’t materially alter our capacity to continue to perform the military actions that we need to perform. But even more broadly than that, the campaign to create a better world, to allow the Iranian people to have opportunity and democracy, has lots of pieces to it – economic, financial, diplomatic for sure. We’re going to hold an important ministerial in Warsaw on February 13 and 14 where the – there’ll be dozens of countries from – I use “nearly every” because I don’t think there’s anybody from a couple of continents, but from nearly every continent. We’ll have countries from Asia, from Western Hemisphere, and certainly from the Middle East and from Africa and from Europe, all attending. And we’ll talk about lots of issues, including how it is we together can get Iran to behave like a normal nation. The same set of things I laid out in May of last year. 

The coalition is big and growing, and the tools that we get from having that coalition all working together on that mission give us an opportunity to create that chance for the Iranian people. 

QUESTION: It’s fair to say it’s more of a holistic effort to expel – I mean, the U.S. will not necessarily take the lead. This is kind of what you spoke about in taking a greater role. 

SECRETARY POMPEO: That’s right. No, we – we’re happy to be an important part of it. It’s an important part of President Trump’s agenda. The nuclear proliferation risks from Iran are incredibly real. The previous arrangement that was struck was wholly inadequate to prevent those proliferation risks. And so our mission set is certainly to stop the terror regime, to stop the fighting of Hizballah and Shia militias and the Houthis, funding the Houthis in Yemen, but it has a nuclear component. And you will see in a handful of days the Iranians intend to launch a space launch vehicle, to put a space launch vehicle up. The claim is that it is to put some satellites in the air; the truth is this will be another step in their understanding of how it is you can launch an ICBM. And that’s in violation of UN Security Council Resolution 2231, and the whole world needs to come together to oppose that. 

—Jan. 12, 2019, in remarks to the press in Abu Dhabi