But for one nagging detail, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s speech on Sunday about Iran stands as one of the finest moments in U.S.-Iran relations since the 1979 revolution. Unfortunately, that detail is not minor: It’s the man Pompeo reports to, President Donald Trump.
First, the good news about the speech, titled “Supporting Iranian Voices”: The secretary named names - not only shameful leaders like Sadeq Larijani, the head of Iran’s judiciary, who stands accused of embezzling more than $300 million, but also a Sufi dissident known only as Mr. Salas, who was hanged by the regime last month. He also praised successful Iranian-Americans such as Makan Delrahim, an assistant attorney general. At a time when Iranian citizens are organizing protests and strikes about everything from corruption to drought, Pompeo’s message was perfectly timed. It will resonate with a population that feels cheated out of the economic boon promised from the 2015 nuclear deal, and it’s a reminder that America has no quarrel with Iranians, only their leaders.
Another strength of Pompeo’s speech is that he did not directly call for “regime change,” a phrase that implies the next Iranian revolution will come from America, not Iran. America’s approach, Pompeo said, will focus on going after the regime’s unaccountable leaders, not the Iranian people.
And now for the bad news: Pompeo’s boss is a man who loves to cut deals. And even though Trump’s all-caps tweet Sunday evening would appear to foreclose such a deal, if past is prelude his threats are part of a strategy to prod Iran’s leaders to negotiate.
The obvious parallel here is with North Korea. Last year Trump threatened “fire and fury like the world has never seen” against Pyongyang’s “little rocket man.” Trump later invited Ji Seon-ho, a North Korean defector who endured torture and deprivation, to this year’s State of the Union. And yet in June, Trump met with the man who oversees the very regime that Trump had called “depraved” just months earlier, even fawning about how much Kim Jong Un’s people really love him.
This is the danger now for the Pompeo approach to Iran. If Iran agrees to talks after crippling sanctions are re-imposed in November, would this mean the U.S. is no longer interested in exposing the larceny of the Iranian regime? Would Pompeo’s demand that Iranian leaders treat their people with dignity go the way of Trump’s declaration of solidarity with Koreans who have endured their country’s gulags?
Iranian officials claim that the Trump administration approached them several times last year asking for a meeting between Trump and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, and Trump has said as much himself. At his press conference with Kim in Singapore in June, Trump said: “I hope at the appropriate time after the sanctions kick in and they are brutal on what we put on Iran. I hope they come back and negotiate a real deal.”
Negotiations are not, in and of themselves, a bad thing. The worry is that in any discussions, the emphasis on the regime’s corruption and abuse would be lost. It’s not an unwarranted concern: The 12 demands that Pompeo made of Iran in a May speech focused on Iran’s support for terror, its nuclear program and its meddling in the affairs of its neighbors. They did not include benchmarks for Iranian democracy or human rights.
So far, the Trump administration’s support for human rights is as convenient and transactional as the rest of the president’s foreign policy. This stands in contrast to the approach of Ronald Reagan, who negotiated arms control and trade agreements with the Soviet Union while simultaneously pressing Moscow to free its dissidents.
Pompeo is an admirer of Reagan. His speech on Sunday was delivered at the Reagan presidential library in California. But Pompeo is not the president. And Donald Trump has proven that any speeches about freedom coming from his administration - even principled ones such as Pompeo’s - are not anchored in conviction. Rather, they are rhetorical maneuvers to pressure autocrats to submit to better terms.
Eli Lake is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering national security and foreign policy. He was the senior national security correspondent for the Daily Beast, and covered national security and intelligence for the Washington Times, the New York Sun and UPI.