Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Wednesday acknowledged that the current crisis with Iran was a “direct result” of actions taken by President Donald Trump.
Since Trump withdrew the US from the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, his administration has engaged in a “maximum-pressure” campaign against Tehran, Iran’s capital, in an effort to cripple the Iranian economy with harsh sanctions. The end goal of this is to squeeze Iran into coming back to the negotiation table to agree to a more stringent version of the nuclear deal that prevents Iran from building nuclear weapons.
But so far, Trump’s hard-line strategy has not been successful, and there’s little evidence this is changing.
Pompeo defended this approach to reporters traveling with him to Saudi Arabia, saying, “There is this theme that some suggest that the president’s strategy that we allowed isn’t working. I would argue just the converse of that. I would argue that what you are seeing here is a direct result of us reversing the enormous failure of the JCPOA.”
He was referring to the formal name of the 2015 nuclear deal, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.
The secretary of state was addressing the recent attack on two major Saudi oil facilities and facing questions on how the attack was possible despite Saudi investments in US defense technology, as well as how such incidents could be deterred moving forward.
Though Pompeo conceded the attack was “of a scale we’ve just not seen before,” he made the case that without the Trump administration’s sanctions, Iran could have access to even more complex and dangerous weapons systems.
In the process, he inadvertently captured why the US and Saudi Arabia were in the situation in the first place — Trump’s decision to pull the US from the Iran nuclear deal — as he said, “What you are seeing here is a direct result of us reversing the enormous failure of the JCPOA.”
Since Trump withdrew from the 2015 nuclear deal, relations with Iran have rapidly spiraled downward. The situation has become so contentious in recent months that it has raised fears of a new conflict in the Middle East.
As the Trump administration has ramped up the economic pressure on Iran, the Iranians have responded with aggressive behavior in an effort to cause problems for the US and its partners.
If Iran is indeed responsible for the Saudi oil field attacks, experts and former US officials say Trump’s decision to withdraw from the JCPOA opened the door for the attack, as well as the broader tensions surrounding it.
Barbara Slavin, the director of the Future of Iran Initiative at the Atlantic Council, said in an op-ed on Wednesday, “This is what happens when you unilaterally pull out of a nuclear deal and then try to smother another country.”
“The results of this ‘maximum-pressure’ campaign are now clear: growing instability in the Persian Gulf, including an unprecedented attack on Saudi oil installations that caused a bigger disruption of world oil markets than the Iranian Revolution, and an incremental but steady resumption by Iran of nuclear activities proscribed by the JCPOA,” Slavin added.
Trump’s choice to pull the US from the JCPOA was condemned by nuclear experts and US allies who were also signatories to the deal.
Pompeo on Wednesday described the deal as an “enormous failure,” but there’s little evidence to back that assessment up. The UN’s nuclear watchdog repeatedly reported Iran was in compliance with the deal, including well after Trump pulled out of it. It was not until tensions with the US reached a boiling point this summer that Iran began to take steps away from the deal.
In short, the nuclear deal began to crumble and be violated in significant ways only after Trump withdrew the US from it — and Iran still has a long way to go to enrich uranium to levels necessary to build nuclear weapons.
“There is no question in my mind that this entire cycle of crisis and escalation is a direct result of the Trump administration and its decision to violate the JCPOA,” Jon Wolfsthal, who served as the nuclear expert for the National Security Council under Obama and is now a senior adviser at Global Zero, told Insider.
“While it is possible that if Trump could have stayed in the pact and sought to confront Iran in a variety of military ways that we could have ended up here, the reality is that with its economy under pressure and the US not fulfilling its obligations under the nuclear deal, Iran is going to look for ways to increase leverage on Europe to compensate Tehran and to push back against the US ‘maximum pressure,'” Wolfsthal added.
Wolfsthal said this did not excuse any possible attacks from Iran against the Saudi kingdom but went on to say that none of what has recently occurred “needed to happen, and there is a direct line you can draw from Trump’s violation of the Iran deal and the risk of conflict today.”