The Tillerson sacking and US policy toward Iran

The Tillerson sacking and US policy toward Iran


US President Donald Trump has fired his Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, indicating that his decision was partly based on disagreements with Tillerson over the future of the Iran nuclear deal. Trump is nominating CIA Director Mike Pompeo to replace Tillerson. Pompeo is known to share Trump’s critical view of the Iran. Pompeo spent the last 15 months as the Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, and prior to that, was a Republican member of Congress for five years, representing the 4th Congressional District of Kansas.

Explaining his decision to fire Tillerson, Trump told the media, “We disagreed on things”, adding, “When you look at the Iran deal – I think it’s terrible,” he said. “I guess [Tillerson] thought it was okay. I wanted to either break it, or do something, and he felt a little bit differently. So we were not really thinking the same. With Mike Pompeo, we have a very similar thought process.”

Nathan Guttman writes in the Forward that Trump may have been “understating the differences” on Iran with the former ExxonMobil chief:

“Tillerson led the opposition within the administration to Trump’s decision to de-certify and later threaten to drop out of the nuclear agreement. Tillerson would have rather seen a negotiated separate agreement with European partners on curbing Iran’s non-nuclear ambitions, instead of a full American withdrawal from the nuclear deal.
Pompeo, on the other hand, has always held a tough position opposing the Iran deal. As a member of Congress, he voted against it and supported repealing it, and as CIA director, he remained highly critical about Iran’s compliance with the deal. With Tillerson out and Pompeo heading the State Department, Trump will have even more freedom to go ahead and withdraw from the deal when the deadline to agree to remain in it arrives in May.”

Rumours of tension between Trump and Tillerson were circulating for some time and there had been numerous occasions when the President publicly contradicted Tillerson.  Most recently, on March 12 Tillerson supported the UK position that Russia was culpable for the poisoning of the Russian double agent Sergei Skripal on UK soil.  In contrast, Trump said, “As soon as we get the facts straight, if we agree with them, we will condemn Russia or whoever it may be.”

Tillerson’s parting words as Secretary of State included a warning about Russia:

“Much work remains to respond to the troubling behaviour and actions on the part of the Russian government… Russia must assess carefully as to how its actions are in the best interest of the Russian people and of the world more broadly. Continuing on their current trajectory is likely to lead to greater isolation on their part, a situation which is not in anyone’s interest.”

Tillerson’s sacking comes at a crucial time for the Iran nuclear deal.

The US State Department is currently leading talks with Britain, France and Germany to discuss Trump’s concerns with the flaws in the Iran nuclear deal – they have an eight week deadline set by the US in January.

Based on Pompeo’s previous statements about Iran, he is likely to take a much tougher position than Tillerson.  In 2014, before the nuclear deal was signed, Pompeo argued that military strikes on Iranian nuclear facilities would be more effective to stop Iran’s quest for nuclear weapons than diplomacy. Pompeo has also advocated extending sanctions on Iran’s weapons program and he believes that nuclear cooperation between Iran and North Korea is “a real risk” to the United States.

Regarding Pompeo’s views on Iran, Haaretz reported:

“In the summer of 2015, at the height of the debate over the Iran deal, Pompeo said that the deal ‘won’t stop Iran from getting a nuclear bomb and places Israel at more risk.’ He also said that the ‘theory that post-sanctions Iran will moderate is a joke – they want to annihilate Israel, now buying Russian missiles.’ Pompeo also criticized the Obama administration for not demanding that Iran cease calling for Israel’s destruction as part of the deal – a demand proposed and promoted by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. ‘Ceasing to call for the destruction of Israel should have been a condition of the Iran Deal – along with release of innocent American hostages,’ Pompeo said in a statement.”

Pompeo is also concerned by Iran’s destabilising actions in the Middle East, stating at his Senate confirmation hearing for CIA director in January 2017, “Iran, the world’s largest state sponsor of terror, has become an even more emboldened and disruptive player in the Middle East.”

Meanwhile, on the Israeli-Palestinian front, Pompeo is likely to become more involved in negotiations as compared to Tillerson – who appeared to have been sidelined by senior White House advisers Jared Kushner and Jason Greenblatt who have dominated the Administration’s efforts on that front. 

Pompeo is also already well acquainted with Israel, having visited in November 2015 while still a Congressman. He met with Prime Minister Netanyahu and received security briefings from the Israel Police and visited the Western Wall.

Commenting at the time on his discussion with Netanyahu, Pompeo said: “Our conversation was incredibly enlightening as to the true threats facing both Israel and the United States. Netanyahu’s efforts to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons are incredibly admirable and deeply appreciated.”

Israeli Police also briefed Pompeo on the “lone wolf Intifada” that included stabbings and car-ramming attacks by Palestinians. Haaretz noted that, “two weeks after his visit, Pompeo released a statement condemning ‘the ongoing violence in the State of Israel,’ explaining that ‘I can tell you that the Israeli people and the Israeli National Police are demonstrating admirable restraint in the face of unspeakably cruel attacks.’ He added that ‘We cannot let these acts of terror go on any longer. Those who carry out, encourage, or defend this violence should be condemned in the strongest possible terms. We must stand with our ally Israel and put a stop to terrorism. Ongoing attacks by the Palestinians serve only to distance the prospect of peace.”

During his time at the CIA, Pompeo reportedly had good relationships with his counterparts in the Israeli intelligence community and also played a role in maintaining ties between the Trump Administration and the Palestinian Authority’s security and intelligence forces. Haaretz reported that “Last February, Pompeo was the first senior official in the Trump administration to visit Ramallah and meet with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, as part of the administration’s early attempts to build a relationship with the Palestinian leadership.” 

Pompeo appears well equipped to take on the role of US Secretary of State. In contrast to Tillerson – who was a business outsider – having served as CIA chief, Pompeo is intimately familiar with the latest intelligence and understands the dangers posed to the US and the international order. He will thus be in a stronger position to negotiate the future of the Iran nuclear deal with the Europeans and seek consensus for fixing the flaws in the deal. These flaws include its failure to address Iran’s ballistic missiles, preventing inspectors from accessing military sites, and the sunset clauses that could enable Iran to develop nuclear weapons when the deal expires.

Sharyn Mittelman