JERUSALEM – As we approach the end of the Biden administration’s first 100 days in office, how are the new president and his team handling the Iran threat, as well as U.S.-Israel relations, and America’s alliances with the moderate Sunni Arab allies?
In an exclusive interview for ALL ISRAEL NEWS, I put these questions to former U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who also served as director of the Central Intelligence Agency in the Trump-Pence administration.
While his tone was calm and diplomatic, Pompeo offered a blistering assessment of President Joe Biden’s handling of Iran.
What’s more, he suggested the Biden team could inadvertently make a new war in the Middle East more likely.
Pompeo warned that Biden had hired the “same cast of characters” to run his Iran policy as served in the Obama administration, which he said “doesn't bode well for a deal that protects America in the way that needs to be done.”
He noted that just since Biden took office, the Iranians have announced decisions to increase their uranium enrichment from 3.5% purity to 20%, and now to 60% – dangerously close to “military, bomb-grade” levels.
“This is the central folly of the [JCPOA] deal,” Pompeo told me. “It left, in the Iranian hands, the capacity to decide the date and time in which they wanted to enrich uranium at a level that became a military grade, enough-enriched uranium so that they could have a nuclear weapon.”
Pompeo warned that even though the Trump policy of “maximum pressure” against the regime in Tehran had caused Iran’s foreign currency reserves to plunge from $123 billion to just $4 billion, the mullahs “are not acting desperate because I'm convinced they believe this administration will give them exactly what it is that they want” – massive economic sanctions relief without truly giving up their enriched uranium, nuclear infrastructure, or support for terrorism and subversion.
He noted that several years ago former U.S. Secretary John Kerry even told the Iranians, “Just be patient. This [Trump administration] will only last four years and we'll get right back to where we were.”
“So, they have good reason to believe that they may be able to get precisely what they want,” Pompeo said, “which is no sanctions, the ability to conduct commerce around the world, the capacity and resources to conduct terror campaigns, whether that's through Hezbollah or the Iraqi militias, the Iranian-backed militias inside of Iraq.”
One of the many risks of this approach, Pompeo further warned, is that it could lead to the point that Israeli leaders may feel they have no other choice but to launch preemptive military strikes against Iranian nuclear targets.
“Joel, if there's one thing that Israel – since its inception in 1948 – if there's one thing that they have made clear to the world, it is they are going to defend with all of their might their continued capacity to exist,” Pompeo said. “And I am convinced that Israel will continue to do that.”
“So, the day they feel threatened, the week that they believe that Iran is engaged in activity that poses an existential threat to their nation,” he added, “they will take every action necessary to protect and defend themselves,” adding that – in his view – it would be “appropriate” for Israel to do so under such circumstances.
In the days since we recorded this interview, the Kansas native and devout Evangelical Christian has made headlines on two other Iran-related subjects:
First, Pompeo endorsed a new bill introduced in Congress to re-assert a policy of “maximum pressure” against the Iranian regime. According to the bill’s author, Rep. Jim Banks, the Indiana Republican and chairman of the Republican Study Committee, “The Maximum Pressure Act is the toughest sanctions bill on Iran ever proposed by Congress and codifies into law the Trump administration’s successful maximum pressure campaign on Iran.”
Second, Pompeo called for an immediate and formal investigation of John Kerry, newly appointed to Biden’s National Security Council, over fresh revelations by Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif that Kerry revealed to him the details of over 200 Israeli military operations against Iran in Syria. “What I’ve said for years [is] that [Zarif] continued to engage with former Secretary of State Kerry on policy matters after Kerry’s public service and, according to Zarif, Kerry informed the Iranians of Israeli operations,” Pompeo said Monday. “Before we cut a deal with Iran that reduces Americans’ security, it would be good to know what the arrangement, if any, may have been between these two leaders.” Kerry has denied Zarif’s account.
This was not the first time Pompeo has blasted Kerry’s efforts to subvert America’s Iran policy by holding unsanctioned meetings with top Iranian officials.
“What Secretary Kerry has done is unseemly and unprecedented,” Pompeo said in 2018. “This is a former secretary of state engaged with the world's largest state sponsor of terror and according to him, he was talking to them, he was telling them to wait out this administration. You can't find precedent for this in U.S. history and the secretary ought not engage in this kind of behavior….It's beyond inappropriate.”
Pompeo accused Kerry at the time of “actively undermining U.S. policy” towards Iran, and said this was “literally unheard of.”
Here is the full transcript of my interview with Secretary Pompeo, whom I will interview in greater detail and more in depth at the National Religious Broadcasters convention in Dallas in June.
ROSENBERG: Hi, this is Joel Rosenberg, founder and editor in chief of ALL ISRAEL NEWS, and our sister site, ALL ARAB NEWS. We have got a fascinating guest here today, as we get close to the first 100 days of the Biden administration. The former CIA director and former Secretary of State in the Trump administration is with us. Secretary Mike Pompeo, thank you so much for being on this interview today with ALL ISRAEL NEWS.
POMPEO: Yes, sir. It's great to be with you, Joel.
ROSENBERG: Hey, listen, I think people are curious on your take, now that we're roughly three months into the new administration. I think people who are fair have been trying to watch to see: Has the Biden team learned lessons from the past? What have they taken from what you guys did? Where are they going next with regards to Iran, U.S.-Israel relations, and of course, building on the Abraham Accords, on the Arab moderate [state] relationships that have been so, so strengthened during the Trump years. So, for this interview, I just want to drill into that. What kind of grade would you give President Biden on his Middle East approach, so far?
POMPEO: Well, Joel, it's hard to know – they're just getting started. I must say, though, the initial indications – which is that, you know, people [personnel, key administration appointees] matter – aren't very good. The people that were chosen to lead the conversations around the Middle East more broadly – and with Iran, in particular – are the same cast of characters that sent America down a bad path with respect to Iran, that had entered into a deal that threatened the world with a clear path for a nuclear weapon for the Iranians. So, whether it's Robert O'Malley or Wendy Sherman, the cast of characters looks largely the same. And that doesn't bode well for a deal that protects America in the way that needs to be done.
I hope I'm wrong. They’re in Vienna now. They were in Vienna the week before last. I hope that they have learned that 2021 is not 2015, that the work that took place these past four years created an enormous amount of pressure on the Iranians to conform to the things that the Trump administration asked them to conform with. And I hope this administration will be able to convince the Iranians that is in their best interest not to pursue a nuclear pathway, not to pursue a nuclear weapon, not to continue to underwrite terrorism, but rather to behave like a normal nation. That's all anyone could ever ask of them. And we provided the tool kit for the Biden administration to achieve that.
ROSENBERG: So, let's break that down a little bit further. The Iranians have now said that they're not just going to stop with 20% enrichment of uranium, but they're moving to 60%. Now, for those who are not nuclear physicists, it seems 60% still is a long way from 90 to 95% military grade, bomb grade, purity. But that's not exactly true, right? That 60% gets them pretty darn close to nuclear weapons grade. Where's this going?
POMPEO: Well, the truth is, I think exactly as you described it – the JCPOA always left them within range of doing just exactly what they did, deciding any morning when they woke up that they wanted to enrich uranium at a higher level. They've demonstrated that they can do this. This is the central folly of the deal. It left in the Iranian hands the capacity to decide the date and time in which they wanted to enrich uranium at a level that became a military grade, enough enriched uranium so that they could have a nuclear weapon. That's the central thesis.
I'm chuckling because we can now see it's playing. The Iranians have that capacity to do it, and they are now showing that, well, when they have a bad day or when they don't like the way that the world is treating them, they're going to do it. That was always the case, even under the JCPOA. And so what you have to do, Joel – our mission set was to deny them the resources to do that. We had taken their foreign currency reserves, the central number for how much trade they can conduct, from $123 billion down to $4 billion, according to the IMF. We have put real pressure on the Iranian regime to change its behavior. And I hope that this administration doesn't give up on that. It was the right plan to destroy what it is the Iranians want, which is the capacity to coerce the world into allowing them to be the dominant force in the Middle East.
ROSENBERG: So, just to follow up on that point, you're right – it is extraordinary how there's been a collapse in foreign currency reserves that, as you said, from $123 billion to about $4 billion dollars. That doesn't go that far when you're a country of some 80 million people. But the basic conceit here seems to be the Iranian regime believes, apparently, that it really doesn't matter [what the world does to sanction it]. Ultimately, if it's willing to suffer the pain, it can go as far as it wants [to enrich uranium] and either get major concessions [from the West] – while it still has all the infrastructure to go back to intensifying military, bomb grade, uranium later – or that nobody's going to take action. Now, they do seem increasingly desperate [economically], on paper. But they don't they're not acting desperate.
POMPEO: Well, they're not acting desperate because I'm convinced they believe this administration will give them exactly what it is that they want. Indeed, Secretary [John] Kerry told them, “Just be patient. This will only last four years and we'll get right back to where we were.” So they have good reason to believe that they may be able to get precisely what they want, which is no sanctions, the ability to conduct commerce around the world, the capacity and resources to conduct terror campaigns, whether that's through Hezbollah or the Iraqi militias, the Iranian backed militias inside of Iraq. The Iranians supported the effort of [Syrian President Bashar] Assad that caused six million people to have to flee Syria.
This is not a regime that the United States ought to permit to have trade with – or better still, permit to have weapons sold to them by the Chinese Communist Party, with something which is permitted today under the JCPOA. This is weakness. The Iranians sense weakness. They will drive a truck through weakness. What they respected, and had to deal with. was an America that was strong and resilient under President Trump. I'm reminded that people said, “Well, it wasn't successful because the regime didn't change its behavior or its intent during the Trump administration.” I recall newspapers weeks before the Soviet Union fell, weeks before East Germany collapsed, people said, “Well, the policy is wrong.” One never knows the date or the time that a regime will conclude that it can no longer stay with its malign activity, it can no longer engage in massive human rights violations, and it can no longer engage in taking hostages, and will conform to international norms. I'm convinced that if we stay on the path that the Trump administration had, that day will come.
ROSENBERG: Two last quick questions. If the Biden administration continues down the path it's currently pursuing, and Iran continues to move more and more aggressively both on the enrichment [front], but also on funding of terrorism and fomenting subversion in the region, how risky is it that that Israel will feel at some point that it's that there's too much daylight between Jerusalem and Washington, and it may need to take action on our own?
POMPEO: Joel, if there's one thing that Israel – since its inception in 1948 – if there's one thing that they have made clear to the world it is they are going to defend with all of their might their continued capacity to exist. And I am convinced that Israel will continue to do that. So, the day they feel threatened, they week that they believe that Iran is engaged in activity that poses an existential threat to their neither, they will take every action necessary to protect and defend themselves. It is appropriate that they do so.
ROSENBERG: Appropriate, but sobering, especially from here in Jerusalem. We want a diplomatic solution. We want the sanctions to work. We want change, because a war will be will be brutal. All right, last question – the Abraham Accords – not much has happened in the first three months [of the Biden administration]. I'm not sure that it's really fair to, you know, [expect lots of movement so far.] You're not accusing them of anything. It's early going right. But is your assessment? What country do you think is the most likely country to go next? And is Saudi Arabia even in your top five?
POMPEO: Those are good questions. I don't want to say much because I was involved in these very conversations. But I will I will say this, Joel. The direction of travel is a one way ratchet. I am convinced that what we've seen happen between Israel and the Emiratis and the Bahrainis and the Sudanese, and other countries that haven't formally signed the Abraham Accords but are moving in that direction – countries like Morocco – they can see the enormous benefits of partnering, befriending, conducting security operations alongside of Israel. I'm convinced that many more countries will come to see that a policy of hating Israel – the desire to exterminate Israel as a foreign policy matter – is a dead end. And they will sign on to the [Abraham Accords]. It's one of the central achievements of our four years. It took great leaders – like the Crown Prince in the Emirates, the leadership in Bahrain, Prime Minister Netanyahu in Israel, and President Trump, as well – it took great leaders to come together to deliver on this model, for the Accords. And I'm confident that this will continue to grow and prosper and be good for people not only in the region, but it will cause America to be less likely to ever have to send its boys and girls to fight there, as well.
ROSENBERG: You and I are going to be speaking at the National Religious Broadcasters Convention in June. Well, I won't be speaking. I'll be interviewing you….
POMPEO: Just a few weeks off – it'll be great.
ROSENBERG: We're looking forward to that. And I'm going to ask you there – I want to ask you now and you can chew on it – one question I do want to ask: Did you come away from your meeting in northwestern Saudi Arabia with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Prime Minister Netanyahu more encouraged by where the Middle East is going? Or how would you characterize whatever you can? So, something to chew on, something to foreshadow [our conversation], whatever you can muster for that question. I realize it's a little sensitive.
But thank you, Mr. Secretary. I appreciate your perspective. And we wish you all the best health. And I'm grateful for your friendship, and all that you've done to strengthen the US-Israel relationship. And I just want to say thank you personally, as somebody who lives here, and as a citizen of both countries.
POMPEO: Thank you, Joel. Bless you.
ROSENBERG: Thank you. God bless.
Joel C. Rosenberg is the editor-in-chief of ALL ISRAEL NEWS and ALL ARAB NEWS and the President and CEO of Near East Media. A New York Times best-selling author, Middle East analyst, and Evangelical leader, he lives in Jerusalem with his wife and sons.