WASHINGTON – Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is confronting two crises that are likely to define his legacy as he starts an overseas trip with talks on Iran and will end it focusing on North Korea.
Although Pompeo sounded optimistic about resuming negotiations with North Korea, which already has an arsenal of nuclear weapons, his rhetoric remained downbeat and abrasive toward Iran, which does not yet have any nuclear arms.
Soaring fears of a military confrontation between the United States and Iran have changed the character and timing of Pompeo's trip that was to have featured him talking trade with India, then joining President Donald Trump at the end of the week in Japan and South Korea.
But stops in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates were added at the last minute, after Trump said he had canceled a military strike on Iran to avoid loss of life. The point of having Pompeo in Jeddah and Abu Dhabi during a whirlwind day of talks today is to discuss a strategy of coalition building with two of Iran's most fervent adversaries.
Pompeo, who last year issued a list of 12 broad demands for change in Iran, shows no signs of softening his outreach to the Islamic Republic. He began his travels lashing out at Tehran, belittling its explanation of why it downed a U.S. drone last week as “childlike” and not worthy of belief.
He specifically swatted down reports he said had originated in Iran, suggesting the United States was already withdrawing its troops in the region and making peace overtures to Iran through Oman, a Gulf state. He called the reports “pure and blatant disinformation,” seeming to suggest the administration is trying to defend its credibility.
More false narratives will be coming, Pompeo said, as the United States keeps pushing for Iran to change its behavior.
“It is very likely that Iran will continue to present things that are fanciful, that are fraudulent, that are false,” he said.
Pompeo said his talks with the Saudi and UAE rulers will focus on corralling other countries into a coalition that “is prepared to push back against the world's largest state sponsor of terror.”
The Trump administration is expected to impose more sanctions on Iran today, adding to a raft of measures that have been impeding foreign investment and oil sales, and strangling the Iranian economy.
The administration's decision to withdraw from the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran and sharply increase sanctions over the past year has propelled tensions skyward as Tehran responds to what it sees as American aggression.
After the United States designated the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps a foreign terrorist organization, and put a chokehold on Iran oil revenues, Iran began retaliatory measures. They were calibrated to be strong enough to get Washington's attention and possibly an easing of sanctions, but not so strong as to require a U.S. military response.
Pompeo declined to identify what the new sanctions would be, other than characterizing them as “significant.”
He said his goal is to “deny Iran the resources to foment terror, to build out their nuclear weapon system, to build out their missile program. We are going to deny them the resources they need to do that.”
Like Trump, Pompeo said the United States is prepared to negotiate. Despite his demands last year, the secretary of state now says the offer comes “with no preconditions.” But the dilemma for the administration is that the no-preconditions approach is similar to that of the Obama administration approach that resulted in the nuclear deal Trump lambasted throughout the campaign and eventually withdrew from.
In contrast to his remarks about Iran, Pompeo sounded optimistic about the prospects for resuming talks with North Korea.
Although negotiations have reached a stalemate since Trump walked away from a summit with leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, in February, Pompeo confirmed that Trump had sent a written response to a letter Kim sent Trump recently.
“I'm hopeful that this will provide a good foundation for us to begin to continue these important discussions with the North Koreans to denuclearize the peninsula,” Pompeo said.
Meanwhile, an attack by an Iranian-allied rebel group in Yemen on Sunday, targeting an airport in Saudi Arabia, killed one person and added to regional tensions.
A Saudi statement said the rebel group, the Houthis, carried out a “terrorist attack” that targeted Abha International Airport, near the Saudi border with Yemen. The statement did not provide details about the nature of the attack, but Houthi media outlets said it was carried out by a drone. “Thousands of civilian passengers of different nationalities pass daily” through the airport, the Saudi statement said. The victim was a Syrian citizen, it said, adding that seven people were injured.
The attack was at least the third carried out by the Houthis on the airport in recent weeks. A Houthi missile attack earlier this month injured more than two dozen people in the airport, which sits about 65 miles from Yemen's northern border.
Saudi Arabia has been leading an Arab coalition fighting against the Houthis in Yemen for the past four years, and coalition airstrikes have killed thousands of Yemeni civilians, according to human rights monitors.
The Houthis have carried out cross-border attacks throughout the war, but they appear to have become more intense in recent weeks.