U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has had a prolific career, from graduating first in his class at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and serving in the U.S. Army for five years to becoming a U.S. congressman from Kansas to CIA director, and now, the nation’s top diplomat.
Since becoming the 70th secretary of state, Pompeo, 55, has been lauded as a pro-Israel leader at Foggy Bottom, which has historically been criticized as anti-Israel. Just days after being sworn in on April 26, 2018, he visited Israel as part of his first trip in his current role.
During his relatively short tenure, America relocated its embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem; withdrew from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, reimposing sanctions lifted under it, along with enacting new financial penalties against the regime; shuttered the Palestine Liberation Organization Diplomatic Mission in Washington, D.C.; merged the U.S. consulate general in Jerusalem with the embassy; recognized Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights; and designated Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terrorist group.
JNS talked with Pompeo by phone. The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Q: U.S. President Donald Trump has signaled his willingness to meet with Iran. Does this reflect a shift in the administration’s hardline stance on the Islamic Republic? Negotiations with another international pariah, North Korea, have yielded little tangible results. Why would Iran be any different?
A: Need to go back to first principles with respect to President Trump’s strategy in the Middle East more broadly. We came in when an administration had cozied up to Iran, had given them a pathway to a nuclear-weapons system, had permitted their missile system to grow and allowed them to continue to be the world’s largest state sponsor of terror—all with real money and real wealth. We’ve fundamentally flipped that. We’ve said that we’re no longer going to permit Iran to engage in commerce that gives them the money and resources to underwrite Hezbollah, the Shi’ite militias in Iraq, the Houthis in Yemen, and have put real pressure and forced them to make hard decisions about how to allocate their resources. That’s a game-changer and has been incredibly effective.
At the same time, President Trump has said I’m happy to engage in a conversation, but here’s what Iran needs to do. I always summarize it by saying, “Behave like a normal nation,” and that means the list of things that we laid out, our objectives. That certainly includes how we’re going to treat their nuclear program, the restraints that we will need them to place on their missile system, and the fact that they can’t continue to engage in terror, right, by underwriting these regimes around the world.
The policy has been consistent since the Trump administration’s come into place, and I don’t anticipate there will be a change in the president’s strategic direction.
Q: Have U.S. officials been talking to Iranian officials in recent days or weeks about returning to the negotiating table?
A: I never talk about private negotiations or the existence thereof or the absence of the existence thereof.
Q: Is the extension of the civilian nuclear waivers under the deal the last extension that will be given?
A: The president will make that decision at the appropriate time.
Q: Do you think sanctions will succeed in changing the regime’s behavior, or does the United States need to take other steps?
A: It already has succeeded. They’ve had to make hard decisions. You’ve seen Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah talk about the fact that he has to pass the tin cup to underwrite his activity in Lebanon and the threat that Hezbollah poses to Israel. We’ve watched them now begin to take steps that look like gas rationing inside of the country. We’ve seen enormous budget shortfalls inside the Islamic Republic of Iran that force them to make choices about how to spend those limited resources that they have. It has already forced the regime to make difficult decisions and change their behavior.
Q: What can we expect to hear from President Trump’s speech at the upcoming U.N. General Assembly? What steps does the administration hope the international community will take to confront Iran’s aggression?
A: I don’t want to get out in front of what the president will say, but you need look no further than the actions that we’ve taken. You’ve certainly seen and we’ve talked about the economic activity that we have undertaken, but the diplomatic efforts, too. We’ve worked with partners to build out a Warsaw Process to bring countries together to talk about this threat from the Islamic Republic of Iran, and a few months back, we had Israelis and Arabs working alongside each other understanding jointly that this challenge to the Middle East’s instability emanates almost always from the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Diplomatically, we’ve worked to isolate them by making clear that we’re going to present a deterrence posture—whether that’s in the Strait of Hormuz or other places around the world that prevent Iran from using their military activities to gain leverage to cause other countries to walk away from what everyone knows is right, and that is to force the Iranian regime—the revolutionary regime inside of Iran—to behave like a normal country. That’s what you’ll see as America’s continued policy so long as President Trump is in office.
Q: The president has said the administration will likely release its Mideast peace deal after the Israeli elections on Sept. 17. What are some of the broad outlines of the deal, and how will it differ from past proposals?
A: I will obviously not disclose what’s going to be in that. We’ll release it when the time is right. But clearly, what we’re looking for is to resolve this decades-long challenge in a way that protects Israel, that protects the security interests of Israel, and we would never step in or recommend an outcome that presented risk to them.
Q: What’s the administration’s stance on a two-state solution? Does it support other options?
A: The president’s spoken about that multiple times. In the end, this will be a decision for Israel and the Palestinians to work through.
Q: What’s your reaction to the Palestinians already repeatedly rejecting the peace deal before the remainder has even been released?
A: It’s unfortunate. We hope that when the plan is released that everyone—everyone all around the world—will look at the plan, evaluate it. They’ll see that it is thoughtful and nuanced, and something that leads to better outcomes for Israel, as well as for the Palestinians. You saw the efforts that were made in Bahrain now a handful of weeks back, talking about how we can have a better life for people living in the West Bank. That’s something President Trump’s very serious about. We hope that the Palestinian people there will look at this plan and demand that their leadership do the same, take it seriously, and begin to use it as a basis with which to move forward in their conversation.
Q: In an interview with Bloomberg’s Kevin Cirilli last month, you said you would go to Tehran and appear on Tehran TV. Would you travel to Ramallah to appear on Palestinian TV?
A: I’ve been to Ramallah. When the time is right, I’m happy to travel wherever I can go to ensure that American citizens are protected and that we get good outcomes that are consistent with President Trump’s foreign policy.
Q: Despite the administration recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and moving the U.S. embassy there from Tel Aviv, “Jerusalem, Israel” currently cannot be listed on U.S. passports. Why is that?
A: We’re constantly evaluating the way we handle what can be listed on passports. It’s something that’s actively being looked at, and so I don’t want to comment on that today.
Q: Despite the administration’s desire for better relations with Russia, how comfortable is it with Russia’s conduct in Syria, and the anomalous situation in which it and Iran have effectively occupied the country?
A: We’ve talked with the Russians about this a great deal. We hope that the fact that U.S. President Barack Obama allowed Russia to come in and take such a prominent role in Syria will not continue to work against America’s interests in the way it has. We talk with the Russians with some frequency about a path forward, how we can get to U.N. Security Council Resolution 2254 and get a political dialogue there, so that we can accomplish what is America’s mission inside of Syria, which is to enable that country to begin a political process that will allow the now 6 million-plus displaced persons to return to Syria so that we can once again have a political discourse, at least, to an outcome that’s better for the Syrian people, reduces risk that Iran will have influence in Syria, and therefore provides security for the American people as well, always President Trump’s first objective.
Q: In Syria and Lebanon, beside sanctions, what should the United States do to combat Hezbollah’s dominance there? What is the possibility that acting in part on Iran’s orders, it could drag Syria or Lebanon into a disastrous war with Israel?
A: The Israelis have made clear that they don’t want that war with Lebanon. Hezbollah’s made pretty clear that they don’t either, and we hope that that doesn’t happen.
Our efforts against Hezbollah are pretty clear, whether it’s their designation as a terrorist group; the work we’re doing to sanction particular officials who are touching or connected to Hezbollah will continue.
Of course, our larger strategy that I spoke about earlier with respect to Iran [is] to deny wealth and resources to them to underwrite and to pay Hezbollah soldiers. Whether they’re sitting in the Beqaa Valley or in Syria or in Iraq, through denying them resources and applying pressure to them we think decreases the capacity of Hezbollah to put Israel or the United States at risk.
Q: What are your thoughts on the Lebanese Armed Forces, which has worked with Hezbollah?
A: We don’t permit anyone to work with Hezbollah in a way that is material without calling them out for it.
Q: Even though the United States has given taxpayer funding to the Lebanese Armed Forces?
A: The Lebanese Armed Forces are a group that we believe needs to be connected to the Lebanese government, and we’re working every day on the political resolution that ensures an independent, sovereign Lebanon that is disconnected from Hezbollah.
Q: Reportedly, the administration has expressed concern about Israel’s economic partnership with the Chinese. Can you confirm this is the case? Are you concerned about Israel’s relationship with China, now in a trade war with the United States, among many issues between Washington and Beijing?
A: I’ve seen this reporting. It most often surrounds technical capabilities and high-end telecommunication systems and the like. Our policy is consistent with respect to every country. That would certainly include Israel with respect to those systems. We want to make sure that Israeli citizens don’t have their private information stolen by the Chinese Communist Party. Using China as an interconnector, as a backbone for a network, puts at risk that network. It makes a likelihood that we will not deem that network trusted, and the United States has a policy of not permitting American information to flow across networks that aren’t trusted.
We’ve been clear everywhere I’ve traveled; that’s our policy. In Europe, in Asia, throughout the Middle East, including Israel, we want them to be “eyes wide open” when it comes to the Chinese Communist Party’s efforts to use these telecommunications tools and infrastructure to steal information from their citizens and national security secrets as well.
Q: Do you believe the Muslim Brotherhood is a terrorist group? Is designating the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist group under consideration?
A: I’ve been asked this a number of times. You should go back and look. I have a record on this one. I was a member of Congress. It’s something that the administration has looked at, and is continuing to look at and evaluate.
Q: You’ve spoken out against anti-Semitism. At the AIPAC Policy Conference, you said that anti-Zionism is anti-Semitism. Can one be anti-Israel without being anti-Semitic?
A: Every country is subject to critique. It’s one of the great things about the fact that Israel’s the lone true democracy in the Middle East. Policies, decisions about how the Israeli government is run or how it treats its people—those are wide open, very fair and very reasonable. But where one crosses the line and what I’m referring to is the fundamental underpinnings—the fundamental right of Israel to exist cannot be challenged.
Q: Besides the responsibilities entailed in each job, what has been the difference between being a congressman, CIA director and now Secretary of State, in terms of the U.S.-Israel relationship? Is there something about the alliance you’ve discovered as the nation’s top diplomat that you didn’t know while in Congress and at Langley?
A: I don’t know that the particular roles have led to particular discoveries. But it’s certainly the case that the more one’s involved in challenges around the world, the more one comes to understand that this relationship is central not only to protecting democracies around the world, but to keeping America safe as well. They are a great security partner; they are a fantastic economic partner. We think about most parts of the world the same way, and it is a deep, important relationship for the United States. I certainly saw that as a member of Congress. I probably see it even more now today as America’s senior diplomat.