WASHINGTON (Circa) — Secretary of State nominee Mike Pompeo backed President Donald Trump’s threats to walk away from an agreement aimed at curtailing Iran’s effort to obtain nuclear weapons at his Senate confirmation hearing Thursday, but he also downplayed the possibility that tearing up the deal would be catastrophic.
“President Trump is prepared to work with our partners to revise the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) to fix its most egregious flaws,” Pompeo said in his opening statement. “If confirmed, it will be an immediate personal priority to work with those partners to see if such a fix is achievable.”
Pompeo would face a busy first month as America’s top diplomat. A May 12 deadline for Trump to issue waivers for economic sanctions on Iran that were lifted by the deal is fast approaching. In addition, the administration is preparing for what would be a historic meeting between President Trump and Kim Jong Un of North Korea over that regime’s nuclear weapons program.
Both issues were frequent topics of discussion during the hearing Thursday. Given Pompeo’s past rhetoric about the Iran agreement and the president’s oft-stated disdain for it, several senators prodded him to explain what happens next if Trump does not continue waiving the sanctions.
Contrary to warnings from some national security experts and former diplomats, Pompeo suggested a United States withdrawal from the deal would not precipitate a nuclear crisis.
“Iran wasn’t racing to a weapon before the deal,” he told Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz. “There is no indication that I’m aware of that if the deal no longer existed they would immediately turn to racing to create a nuclear weapon today.”
Pompeo was hesitant to detail how the administration might deal with the consequences of backing out of the agreement, but he assured Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., that there would be a strategy involved.
“I am confident that whatever course the administration takes, we will have a strategy,” he said.
Though Pompeo once commented that destroying Iran’s nuclear capabilities would not be “an insurmountable task,” he said Thursday that he does not favor a military strike.
“There is no doubt that this administration’s policy and my view is that the solution to preventing Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, to finding ourselves in the same place we are with North Korea in Iran, is through diplomacy,” he said.
The Trump administration has identified three deficiencies in the deal, one of President Barack Obama’s major foreign policy achievements, that the president wants addressed before waiving the sanctions. The other nations that signed the agreement—Britain, France, Germany, Russia, China and Iran—have resisted revising its terms.
One concern is that the JCPOA does nothing to address Iran’s ballistic missile program, its funding of terrorism, and its other destabilizing activities in the region. Supporters of the deal acknowledge that non-nuclear issues were excluded, but they say it was never intended to include them.
Trump has also complained that the inspections regime set up under the agreement is insufficient and does not enable inspectors to access some military sites.
The third problem, and likely the hardest to reconcile, is that many of the JCPOA’s restrictions on Iran’s behavior eventually sunset. Critics of the deal argue Iran could hop back onto the fast track to nuclear weapons and have one within months after those provisions expire.
Those who believe the agreement effectively constrains Iran’s nuclear ambitions today and provides reliable means to verify its compliance see giving that up because those mechanisms are not permanent as counterproductive.
“They hate the sunset clause, so they propose a supernova, which is just blowing up the deal completely,” said James McKeon, a policy analyst at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation.
Mary Kaszynski, deputy director of policy for Ploughshares Fund, called the administration’s demand that all three issues be resolved “very unrealistic parameters.”
Foreign policy experts say Iran’s actions are difficult to predict, but some agree with Pompeo that the regime would have economic incentives to continue complying with the deal even if the U.S. does not.
“Iran doing something to grossly transgress the deal is not in its own immediate interest,” said Behnam Ben Taleblu, a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
Over time, the deal could lend the Iranian regime a veneer of international legitimacy that it craves, but Taleblu also expects Iran to use it to drive a wedge between the U.S. and Europe.
“They know how to use these bureaucratic minutiae against the West,” he said.
Meeting the agreement’s requirements could help win business commitments from the Europeans even if Iran does surreptitiously set out to reconstitute its nuclear program at the same time.
“This is really a battle for Europe’s head, heart, and pocketbook, both from Tehran and Washington,” Taleblu said.
Others see the continued involvement of the U.S. as critical to keeping Iran on board.
“All I can say is if the United States withdrew from the Iran deal, the Iran deal would collapse,” McKeon said.
While Iran may not pick up where it left off right away, he stressed there would be nothing preventing it from doing so anytime it wants without the JCPOA. The U.S. would also be left with less leverage at that point to reopen negotiations.
“Unilateral sanctions are nowhere near as powerful as multilateral sanctions,” he said.
One likely scenario, according to Kaszynski, is that Iran pursues the dispute resolution process laid out in the agreement to bring the U.S. back into compliance.
“The Iran deal cannot survive indefinitely with the U.S. in violation of it,” she said.
Without the U.S., Kaszynski doubts the remaining signatories could offer an economic package that would make accepting the deal’s restrictions worthwhile for Iran.
“The U.S. clearly cannot bully others into accepting its terms unilaterally,” she said. “The way Iran was brought to the negotiating table was because the United States built a coalition of countries that were all willing to collaborate on international pressures.”
Reports on negotiations with Britain, France and Germany have been mixed, with some diplomats claiming progress is being made and others expressing pessimism that common ground can be found in a month.
“We came out feeling like we are making good progress towards addressing the president’s concerns and coming to an agreement,” one European diplomat told reporters Thursday after meetings with U.S. officials in Washington.
“I’m not especially optimistic,” another European diplomat said, according to Reuters. “In the end, it will be decided by one volatile person.”
Pompeo has signaled that being close to an agreement might be enough for him to recommend that Trump waive the sanctions.
“I want to fix the deal,” he told Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md. “That’s the objective.”
Reaching an agreement with the three European countries is only half of the battle. Changes or additions to the JCPOA would need to be signed off on by Russia, China, and Iran itself, and those countries have displayed far less flexibility on the subject.
“Renegotiating the agreement is going to be extremely difficult,” McKeon said, observing that it took many years and many attempts to finalize the original deal.
Still, just getting Britain, France and Germany on board would be a victory for Trump.
“If we get a transatlantic consensus, that means the countries with the bulk of the economic clout now agree that the deal needs to be fixed,” Taleblu said.
According to Miles Pomper, a senior fellow at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, there is “zero short-term prospect” that Iran will agree to renegotiate the deal itself, but the U.S. may be able to work with allies to limit Iran’s behavior in other ways.
“The real negotiation here is not really on the Iran deal itself but between the U.S. and the Europeans on how much they are willing to do to add pressure on Iran on other issues outside the core Iran deal by other means sufficient to meet Trump's three demands on missiles, inspections, and sunset provisions,” he said.
Critics of the Trump administration’s stance fear pulling out of a major international nonproliferation pact in May will send a message to Pyongyang that the U.S. cannot be trusted to uphold its end of any deal they try to negotiate.
Pompeo brushed that concern aside when Flake posed it to him, saying, “I’ve read lots of the analysis with respect to how [Kim] is thinking about the challenge he faces today with the enormous economic pressure that has been placed upon him, and the list of things that he is thinking about don’t involve other deals throughout history.”
Pomper dismissed Pompeo’s testimony as “political statements” rather than accurate analysis.
“To be sure, negotiations can go forward with or without an Iran deal, but scrapping it will certainly raise additional challenges for US-North Korean negotiations,” he said.
If North Korea is left with the impression that any agreement reached with Trump could be torn up after he leaves office, McKeon said the president’s commitments might carry less weight.
“It undermines any negotiating strength we have with North Korea,” he said. “You think, ‘What if the next president comes in and hates the agreement and decides to leave?’”
Trump’s commitments may already carry less weight than his predecessors. Kaszynski noted his frequent reversals of positions and contradictions of his own aides on both domestic and international affairs.
“He’s already established himself as not being the most trustworthy of negotiating partners and pulling out of the Iran deal would only exacerbate those concerns,” she said.
According to Taleblu, the leadership in Iran and North Korea already had a deep distrust of the U.S. While they have learned from each other’s diplomatic engagement with past administrations, their circumstances are very different at the moment.
If anything, he suggested remaining a party to an agreement the administration has declared fundamentally flawed would send a message to North Korea that the U.S. will accept far less than the full denuclearization it has demanded.
“If the administration settled for a fake fix, the Kim regime may get the impression that it can water down the definition of denuclearization,” he said.
Taleblu also sees some evidence that Trump’s aggressive diplomatic strategy has worked so far.
“It’s worth noting that if there was no pressure, if there was no date on the calendar, I find it almost impossible to see what else would have motivated the Europeans to even begin to work with the U.S.,” he said. “The impetus for a fix comes from the fear of a withdrawal.”
For supporters of the agreement, though, Pompeo’s performance at Thursday’s hearing did little to inspire faith that the administration is prepared for the fallout from a decision it appears to be on the verge of making.
“They’re going in blind and hoping for the best,” McKeon said. “That is not how you do diplomacy whatsoever.”