Pompeo’s 12 Demands For Iran Read More Like A Declaration Of War Than A Path To Peace

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo says the United States will end still-unseen crippling sanctions against Iran if the regime in Tehran effectively capitulates to the U.S. government and agrees to a dozen demands. America’s top diplomat offered little detail on any overarching strategy the U.S. government has to extract these concessions, but strongly implied that Iranian authorities needed to comply or risk some sort of American-backed push for regime change.

Pompeo announced the 12 points in a speech at the Heritage Foundation think tank in Washington, D.C. on May 21, 2018. This came nearly two weeks after U.S. President Donald Trump had announced his administration would no longer abide by the multi-national Iran Deal, also known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA. Under that deal, Iran had gotten relief from existing sanctions in exchange for certain limits on its nuclear activities.

According to the Department of Treasury, the United States will begin reimposing those economic and other restrictions in two tranches, one within 90 days and another no later 180 days after Trump’s announcement. Pompeo’s comments seemed to suggest there would be additional sanctions on top of the ones that had been in place prior to the JCPOA coming into effect in 2015, but he offered few specifics on what they might entail.

“These will be the strongest sanctions in history by the time we are complete,” Pompeo said. “After our sanctions come into full force, [Iran] will be battling to keep its economy alive.”


The Secretary of State said the United States would halt these plans if Iran met its demands, which are as follows:

  • “First, Iran must declare to the IAEA a full account of the prior  military dimensions of its nuclear program, and permanently and  verifiably abandon such work in perpetuity.”
  • “Second, Iran must stop uranium enrichment and never pursue plutonium reprocessing. This includes closing its heavy water reactor.”
  • “Third, Iran must also provide the IAEA with unqualified access to all sites throughout the entire country.”
  • “Iran must end its proliferation of ballistic missiles and halt further launching or development of nuclear-capable missile systems.”
  • “Iran must release all U.S. citizens, as well as citizens of our partners and allies, each of them detained on spurious charges.”
  • “Iran must end support to Middle East terrorist groups, including Lebanese Hizballah [Hezbollah], Hamas, and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad.”
  • “Iran must respect the sovereignty of the Iraqi Government and permit the disarming, demobilization, and reintegration of Shia militias.”
  • “Iran must also end its military support for the Houthi militia and work towards a peaceful political settlement in Yemen.”
  • “Iran must withdraw all forces under Iranian command throughout the entirety of Syria.”
  • “Iran, too, must end support for the Taliban and other terrorists in  Afghanistan and the region, and cease harboring senior Al Qaida leaders.”
  • “Iran, too, must end the IRG [Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps] Qods Force’s [Quds Force’s] support for terrorists and militant partners around the world.”
  • “And too, Iran must end its threatening behavior against its neighbors – many of whom are U.S. allies. This certainly includes its threats to destroy Israel, and its firing of missiles into Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. It also includes threats to international shipping and destructive – and destructive cyberattacks.”

None of these demands are new or necessarily unreasonable individually or when one considers them in a vacuum. It goes without saying that since it agreed to the JCPOA, Iran has developed increasingly longer-range ballistic missiles that implicitly threaten its neighbors, exported either some of that technology and expertise to state and non-state actors who have gone on to strike American partners in the region, continued to bankroll terrorists and other militant groups in countries such as Syria and Yemen, committed gross human rights violations against its own people, and called for the total destruction of Israel

But while these demands are definitely in the United States’ own interests, if Iran were to comply with these points, it would effectively be ceding all of its interests to the U.S. government. The regime in Tehran could quite rightly question how the United States can demand it respect the sovereignty of other nations when Pompeo’s speech calls for total Iranian submission American policies. 

A number of Pompeo’s specific stipulations are particularly notable in this regard, with some even calling for steps that would limit Iran’s domestic civil development in addition to its ability to exert influence in the Middle East and beyond. Many of them also place the onus entirely on Iran for complex geopolitical realities.

The first and second demands essentially call for Iran to abandon any domestic nuclear ambitions whatsoever. Under these parameters, if Iran were to pursue civil nuclear power in the future, it would have to source the fuel for those reactors from external sources, rather than producing it itself. Under the JCPOA, Iran continued to produce low-enriched uranium to support a peaceful nuclear energy program, which it has the right to as a signatory of the Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Iran’s IR-40 heavy water reactor at Arak in 2012., Nanking2012 via Wikimedia

Pompeo’s third stipulation also continues to places the blame on Iran for limiting access to potentially nuclear-related sites, even though it was the IAEA that had refused to inspect the Iranian military base at Parchin for possible violations of the Iran Deal. The U.N. nuclear watchdog consistently said the U.S. government had failed to provide the necessary evidence to support its request that inspectors go to that location. 

For Iran, the fifth demand might seem odd given the Trump administration’s conciliatory tone toward North Korea over the release of three Americans earlier in May 2018. “We want to thank [North Korean premier] Kim Jong Un, who really was excellent to these three incredible people,” Trump himself, who is eager to meet with Kim to try and extract concessions over its nuclear and missiles programs, said during a press conference at Andrews Air Force Base along the former prisoners. 

The seventh and ninth points effectively call on the governments of Iraq and Syria to break ties with Iran. It goes without saying that the United States has little if any leverage to compel Syrian dictator Bashar Al Assad to eject his Iranian allies and their proxies, who have been essential to the stability of his regime, from his own country. At the same time, on May 21, 2018, Syria’s government declared it had just reestablished complete control over the capital Damascus and its suburbs for the first time in years, yet another example that Assad is firmly in power for the time being.

In Iraq, a political bloc led by the firebrand Shia cleric Muqtada Al Sadr, a long time adversary of the United States and friend of Iran, won the country’s recent parliamentary elections. The U.S. government lauded those polls as evidence of Iraq’s progress. It’s worth noting that Sadr traveled to Saudi Arabia in 2017 to meet with that country’s rising start, Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, but there was no indication that he was willing to break his own personal connections with Iran or those of Iraq’s existing government.

An Iraqi youth holds a picture of Shia cleric and politician Muqtada Al Sadr after his movement dominated Iraq’s parliamentary elections earlier in May 2018., Ameer Al Mohammedaw/Picture-Alliance/DPA/AP

When it comes to the remaining points, its impossible to say that Iran might not change course under the right conditions. It also seems clear that the ruling regime in Tehran views many of these activities, including supporting regional proxies and the development of long-range weapons, as key to its survival against the threats it perceives – real or imagined – from the United States, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and other potential opponents.

Most importantly, Pompeo made no indication that the United States had been working with allies and partners on a unified effort to enforce sanctions and goad Iran into changing policies. Beyond that, he only outlined vague plans to “work closely with the Department of Defense and our regional allies to deter Iranian aggression” and “advocate tirelessly for the Iranian people.”

That latter point, which he underscored by mentioning Iran’s crackdown on women who had defied the regime’s morality code and protested rules regarding the wear of hijab, is somewhat undermined by similar actions in Saudi Arabia. Despite glowing reports of reforms under the growing influence Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, the government in Riyadh arrested a number of prominent activists on the eve of Ramadan, accusing them of treason and seeking to undermine the country’s monarchy.

Even more worrisome, from Pompeo’s remarks, it appeared that the U.S. government had not only abandoned plans to try and work on a new strategy to tackle Iran with the other parties to the Iran Deal – including American allies the United Kingdom, France, and Germany – but had also made no serious attempt to garner international support for its still largely undefined sanctions packages before announcing them. The Trump Administration has stressed its intent to sanction any country, allied or otherwise, that continues to engage with Iran.

Representatives from the European Union, Iran, France, Germany, and the United Kingdom meet to discuss the future of the Iran Deal without the United States on May 18, 2018., T Monasse/ANDBZ/Abaca/Sipa USA via AP

“You should know that we will hold those doing prohibited business in Iran to account,” Pompeo said. “Over the coming weeks, we will send teams of specialists to countries around the world to further explain the Administration’s policy, discuss the implications of sanctions re-imposition, and hear your concerns.”

Despite Pompeo’s bluster, the United States has already essentially acknowledged that there’s now too much US-Iranian engagement to reimpose sanctions overnight. Parties have three to six months at least to investigate alternative methods of continuing their business activities, either within the United States or by moving their operations to another country. So far, major U.S.-based companies, which are increasingly eager to placate Trump to ward off a late-night flurry of Tweets that could send their stock price crashing, have been the ones to most publicly begin cutting ties.

In an era of multi-national commerce and trade, sanctions only have a chance at working if there is broad support from other parties to take similar action. Many of America’s major allies disagree with its actions and have already announced plans to try and assure Iran’s economy will continue to operate at its present level in hopes of saving the Iran Deal. And in an attempt to ease fears among allies over the possibility of additional sanctions, the Trump administration has already exempted nearly a dozen states from those threats of economic restrictions in exchange for plans to steadily reduce interactions with Iran, especially the import of oil.

Russia and China have made it clear they intend to continue business as usual with the country. China may even increase its trade, further helping to offset the impact of sanctions. 

For its part, Iran has already taken another opportunity to drive a wedge further between the United States and its traditional allies over the issue. After Pompeo’s remarks, Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif Tweeted out that the threats, which he said were “dictated by a corrupt Special Interest,” a likely reference to Israel, would not stop his country from working on a “post-U.S. JCPOA” type deal.

In addition, in pulling out of the Iran Deal, the United States has now closed itself off to many potential alternative avenues to seek the concessions it wants from Iranian authorities. Notably, in Syria, as the situation stabilizes for Assad, his allies are finding themselves increasingly at odds. 

On May 17, 2018, Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has become increasingly close with Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, implied that Iran should begin withdrawing its forces and demobilizing its proxies from Syria. Iran has since rejected that demand, saying it will stay as long as the Syrian government asks it to remain. So far, the United States does not appear to be able to take advantage of this rift and drive a wedge between the two countries.

The War Zone’s own Tyler Rogoway had already noted just how much the Trump Administration’s attitude of maximalist demands could backfire more broadly earlier in May 2018, writing: 

Is Iran a bad actor in the  Middle East? Absolutely, no news there. Has the magnitude of their reach increased since 2015? Yes, it has. But that ship has sailed. If the White House wants to deal with Iran’s extra-territorial activities or ballistic missile programs than it can make a case for doing so without ripping up the nuclear deal unilaterally and injecting massive quantities of uncertainty into a region that is already far from stable. 

Now that the U.S. has acted, if Iran moves to immediately reconstitute their nuclear program, other increasingly powerful players in the region, such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE, are sure to follow with the spinning up of their own nuclear programs. In fact, moving toward a mutually assured destruction model by acquiring nuclear weapons capabilities may be invited at this point as the word of the United States is now deeply in question even when it comes to its very own non-proliferation deals. In other words, for Saudi Arabia, which is also increasingly assertive in the region, just getting its own nukes and not having to depend on the U.S. to contain Iran is likely a welcome prospect at this point.

Beyond how this decision impacts the North Korean nuclear weapons issue and the security situation in the Middle East in the longer-term, we now have to wait to see what shorter-term actions will occur as a result.

The U.S. government seems to be drawing the wrong lessons from its North Korea model of “maximum pressure” and is trying to apply them, but without any of the same multi-national support, to Iran. Iran, which is far less isolated than the regime in Pyongyang on an international level, has far less reason to acquiesce to the United States’ demands in general.

And seeing the U.S. government’s demands for Iran may only cause further pushback from North Korea, which seems to be increasingly angry about the Trump Administration’s public pronouncements about the likelihood of it abandoning its nuclear arsenal and making other concessions. It is clear that Kim and his regime see themselves as negotiating from a position of strength in regards to the planned summit with Trump and are incensed at the possibility of being treated as anything less than equals when they arrive in Singapore in June 2018.

Pompeo and North Korean premier Kim Jong Un smile and laugh as they shake hands during a meeting earlier in May 2018., KCNA

Taken together, in its apparent divergent approaches to North Korea and Iran, and its lack of international support even from many of its own allies with regards to the latter, the United States risks isolating itself and damaging its credibility as a reliable negotiating partner. By attempting to pursue both sets of policies at once, the U.S. government is stretching its resources thin and also increases the potential for at least the appearance of contradictory double standards.

All told, the vague strategy Pompeo outlined, coupled with the laundry list of demands that Iran would almost certainly reject out of hand, seems to be a prelude to an argument for military action rather than a realistic approach to negotiations. The Secretary of State did not use the phrase “regime change” in his speech or during the following question and answer session, but it’s hard to see how his proposal calls for anything else.

“We are working certainly diplomatically in the lead, but Department of Commerce, Department of Defense, each of us has the same mission from President Trump,” Pompeo said. “I can’t put a timeline on it. But at the end of the day, the Iranian people will decide the timeline [for meeting these demands].”

For American policies, regarding either Iran or North Korea, to be successful, they need to be grounded in a clear, concise, and most importantly realistic strategy that does its best to elicit international support. Unfortunately, what we’ve seen so far is less a diplomatic path forward and more a potentially disastrous set of ultimatums.

Contact the author: jtrevithickpr@gmail.com

Joseph Trevithick

Deputy Editor

Joseph has been a member of The War Zone team since early 2017. Prior to that, he was an Associate Editor at War Is Boring, and his byline has appeared in other publications, including Small Arms Review, Small Arms Defense Journal, Reuters, We Are the Mighty, and Task & Purpose.