Can Pompeo’s diplomacy subdue Iran and North Korea?
Mike Pompeo, the new US Secretary of State, said in a speech at the State Department’s Foreign Affairs Day on Friday: “These times are turbulent. The demands are for strong leadership. It is essential that our team does that and counters the threats that we face with courage and strength… I traveled to the Middle East. We need strong diplomatic efforts there as well to prevent Iran’s destabilizing behavior in Syria, in Yemen, and across the region.”
The United States has an enormous capacity to weaken and possibly eliminate any hostile regime without the need to fire a single bullet. This is what almost happened to the Iranian regime when Washington raised the level of sanctions in 2006 following the UN Security Council’s resolution in response to the regime’s insistence on pursuing its nuclear project. The sanctions included banning the export of many goods, such as refined oil products, to Iran; blocking bank transactions to disrupt the movement of funds between Iran and most of the world’s banks; and banning insurance for Iranian oil tankers. The lack of dollars, information, banks and insurance crippled the capabilities of the Iranian regime, which could no longer trade, import, nor satisfy the needs of its citizens.
These measures require sophisticated diplomatic work, long-standing political patience, and well-informed and accurate intelligence to ensure that decisions are implemented, which Washington succeeded in doing at the time. Because of the enormous pressure, the Iranian regime was forced to communicate secretly, three years later, with the administration of Barack Obama. This contact coincided with the Green Revolution in Tehran, which shook the regime.
There is a fear is that the mistakes made in dealing with Iran may be repeated with North Korea because the circumstances are similar.
A long track of contacts and talks between the two sides began. Iran was forced to bend further after the revolution in Syria, its strategic ally in the region. In exchange for Iran’s suspension of its nuclear program for military purposes, the US administration agreed with its European allies to conclude a secret deal to lift economic sanctions and refrain from toppling the Syrian regime. The Iranians, skilled negotiators as they are, discovered that Obama was ready to give them more in return for the agreement. In fact, they ended up taking much more than they dreamed of, including huge financial payments, stopping all hostile campaigns against them, and ignoring their military expansion in the region.
Even with Washington’s grave mistakes, the diplomatic efforts it led for years produced an important agreement that forced Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s regime to give up without firing a single shot. This is the power of American diplomatic tools.
The US appears to be doing the same against the North Korean regime. The fear is that the mistakes made in dealing with Iran may be repeated with North Korea because the circumstances are similar. The current administration needs an urgent preliminary understanding in anticipation of November, when congressional elections are due. Donald Trump needs to win one of the two houses, otherwise he would lose much of his power and become a hostage of his opponents in the Democratic Party.
However, resorting to diplomacy alone to force the Tehran regime to respect the principles of the UN and stop its activities and interventions in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Gaza and Yemen may succeed, but it will not produce quick results. Diplomacy is characterized by its lack of blood and bullets, but it is very slow and its results take a long time in the face of burning issues such as wars.
The worry is that the North Korean regime may exploit Washington's overwhelming desire to forge a historic nuclear deal to squeeze more concessions out of the White House. I cannot rule out that Kim Jong Un may try to save his ally, Khamenei, by persuading the Americans that any retreat from their commitment to the Iranians would undermine the credibility of their negotiations with him. My fears may be baseless, but we know the extent of the relationship between the two extremist regimes.
- Abdulrahman Al-Rashed is a veteran columnist. He is the former general manager of Al Arabiya news channel, and former editor-in-chief of Asharq Al-Awsat. Twitter: @aalrashed