RIYADH, Saudi Arabia—The Trump administration is waging a multi-pronged effort to thwart Iran's expansion across the Middle East, including efforts at the United Nations to ensure global sanctions come back into effect in what would mark a final death blow for the landmark nuclear deal, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told the Washington Free Beacon in an exclusive and wide-ranging interview.
In a one-on-one talk with the Free Beacon on Friday following high-level meetings with the Saudi royal family in Riyadh, Pompeo pulled the curtain back on the Trump administration's years-long effort to combat Iran militarily and diplomatically.
While that effort has faced many challenges, the administration remains steadfast in its pursuit of a global alliance that will end Iran's nuclear weapons program and stymie its pursuit of regional dominance. Pompeo outlined the next steps the administration will be taking to eradicate Tehran's growing influence in key Arab nations, including Yemen, Syria, and Lebanon.
The secretary of state also opened up about mounting criticism he has faced from leading GOP hawks in Congress, who have been vocal in recent months about their disdain for a range of policies that they say have undermined the administration's so-called maximum pressure campaign on Iran. This includes a series of much-disputed sanctions waivers that have enabled Iran to continue some of its most contested nuclear work at a military site that once housed the country's atomic weapons program.
In the coming months, Pompeo said, he and the president will make a major decision about whether to petition the U.N. to invoke what is known as "snapback" on a set of international sanctions on Iran that were lifted as part of the Obama administration's nuclear accord. Iran hawks in Congress have been pressing Pompeo and the administration to pursue this course of action for months, a message the secretary says he has received and is digging into. Such a move would deal a deathblow to the nuclear deal.
‘Snapback' at the U.N.
While the president has yet to make an ultimate decision on snapback at the U.N., the administration has already begun to lay the groundwork for this course of action. An internal legal opinion recently issued by the State Department made the case that snapback is now warranted, a position that Pompeo confirmed when asked by the Free Beacon.
The issue of snapback has been complicated by the expiration in October of this year of a U.N. ban on Iran's advanced missile program, which has nonetheless continued to make progress in the years since the nuclear deal was signed. If the ban is lifted by the U.N. Security Council—where members such as China and Russia could veto U.S. efforts to block lifting the embargo—Iran would legally be able to purchase advanced offensive weapons.
"As a policy matter, we've made very clear it's unacceptable" for the arms embargo to be lifted, Pompeo said. "We've known these deadlines, these sunset pieces we're approaching, we now have the first one, a very significant one" coming up in October.
"Think about this," Pompeo said of the possibility the arms embargo is lifted: "We had [missiles] fly out of Yemen towards Saudi Arabia and it will be lawful to sell those very missiles to the Iranians in what is now eight months. We're determined to push back against that, we're determined to stop it. We've spoken to our German, our French, our British counterparts about this. They know, too, they appreciate the threat."
These European nations, however, remain "wedded" to the nuclear deal and are not nearly as forward leaning on the Iran issue as the United States.
"They believe fundamentally that staying in that deal is in the best interest of their nations," Pompeo said. "Our push is this: The Iranians are largely ignoring the most important components of the [nuclear deal] with respect to nuclear enrichment."
"It's important to have the coalition as closely aligned as we possibly can," he said. "We're working already at the United Nations to set forward this discussion. I hope, too, the Russians and Chinese will understand. You talked about their veto. We're not assuming that. We believe that the Russians and Chinese also share our concern that an Iran that is able to buy significant weapons systems is fundamentally destabilizing here in the Middle East."
The administration could petition the U.N. for a full sanctions snapback. This would block all member nations from efforts to lift the arms embargo.
GOP Outrage Over Sanctions Waivers
As with snapback, Republican hawks in Congress have been pressing the administration for months to stop issuing a set of sanctions waivers that permit Iran to engage in some of its most contested nuclear work, including at the Fordow facility, a secretive military bunker dug into the side of a mountain.
For months, Republican allies typically aligned with Pompeo and the president have accused career officials at the State Department of pursuing these waivers in a bid to keep the nuclear deal on life support, as the Free Beacon has reported on multiple times.
Pompeo said the sanctions waivers are not being debated in the shadows, nor are they being manipulated by career officials, dubbed deep-state operatives by critics. Each time the waivers come up for renewal, Pompeo, his team, and the White House reassess their value. As of now, they are still necessary in order to keep tabs on Iran's nuclear work, he said.
"We go back and make our best assessment of whether allowing those waivers to continue reduces risk to the United States or increases risk," Pompeo told the Free Beacon in one of his most in-depth explanations of the contested issue to date.
"Pieces of those waivers that, in fact, have held back the program," he said. "They've given us access and information that's been to our benefit. The analysis that the president has come to when he made the decision to extend those waivers is that it was in our interest."
As for GOP critics of the waivers, "There's a couple who have been loud about it," Pompeo said.
"We take it all on board. We do value their thinking and their analysis. And we welcome their thoughts as well. I've spoken to each of those members at least once or twice about this personally in addition to the public messaging that's taken place. We take it on board. … We've tried to articulate our rationale as well," he said. "And, look, we disagree with our friends from time to time as well."
U.S. Aid Dollars for Lebanon
Another long-running issue of disagreement between the Trump administration and its allies in Congress has been the millions in taxpayer aid it sends to Lebanon, a nation largely controlled by the Iranian proxy group Hezbollah.
The dispute over these aid dollars spilled into the public in December, when the Free Beacon reported that the administration released millions of aid dollars over the objection of Trump loyalists in the administration and Congress who warned the money is directly benefiting Hezbollah.
U.S. officials who spoke to the Free Beacon at the time warned the money would fuel Hezbollah's next war against Israel. Republican leaders such as Sen. Ted Cruz (R., Texas) went so far as to demand the administration freeze economic and military aid until a review of the funds' dispersal could be conducted.
The pressure campaign appeared to work. In late January, U.S. officials told the Free Beacon that the administration is reconsidering the aid in light of the Lebanese elections that ushered in a government closer to Hezbollah than ever before.
While that has eased GOP criticism, it is likely the issue will again become a flashpoint as it comes time to send Lebanon another tranche of aid dollars. When that time comes, the administration will be forced to decide whether it will continue propping up the Lebanese Armed Forces, which critics say is controlled by Hezbollah. Pompeo will play a key role in that decision.
Asked how he views the competing interests, Pompeo emphasized "the deep connection of Hezbollah inside that government is unacceptable."
That very issue was raised Thursday evening when Pompeo met with Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Salman, the secretary told the Free Beacon.
"The Arab states and the United States are united in saying, ‘We're happy to support Lebanon when it is prepared to not be under the control of the Iranian influence, Hezbollah,'" Pompeo said.
It is, however, unlikely that U.S. aid to Lebanon will end, Pompeo confirmed in comments likely to irritate hardliners in Congress.
"The president and our administration has to date continued to believe that underwriting the institution that is least impacted by Hezbollah, the Lebanese Armed Forces, ultimately provided a security opportunity to give the next Lebanese government," Pompeo said.
But aid money will not flow arbitrarily. The administration will closely investigate where this aid is going, Pompeo vowed.
"We will the next time we're making decisions about not only how much and how, but where and whether its appropriate to provide continued assistance to the Lebanese Armed Forces, we'll reevaluate that," he said. "There are good elements inside of Lebanon who want nothing more than to be disconnected from Hezbollah. We want to support and encourage those people who are standing up for the fundamental rights of the Lebanese people."
"But where we find a Lebanese footprint that is too significant to ignore, I think the entire coalition that is staring at this problem from Iran … understand the risk," Pompeo said.
The Trump Administration's Alliance with Saudi Arabia
When it comes to "pushing back against Iran," no one has relied more on the United States than Saudi Arabia.
During Pompeo's two days in the country, he powwowed with the royal family about the ongoing threat Tehran poses to the country's security. He also visited a top Saudi air base to see up close how some 2,500 American military personnel are working with their Saudi counterparts to monitor Iranian acts of aggression.
When Tehran attacked a Saudi oil facility in 2019, the already close partners found themselves in even closer coordination, a relationship that perhaps rivals the longstanding one enjoyed by the United States and Israel.
When asked about that "special" relationship—a term typically applied to the U.S.-Israel alliance—Pompeo acknowledged that the two countries are on better footing than ever, particularly when it comes to Iran.
"Those words have great meaning," Pompeo said. "These relationships that we have in the region, whether its our relationship with the Saudis, the Emiratis, the work we do out of Bahrain, all off these folks who are in this coalition, who understand that if we can get the Islamic Republic to behave in a way that is not theocratically revolutionary, we've got a real chance to increase growth [and] prosperity in the region."
"We've fundamentally made the right decision to continue to work with the Kingdom to deliver security and safety for the American people," Pompeo said in response to such critics of the administration's relationship with Saudi Arabia, mainly from the human rights angle.
Saudi Arabia, in recent years, has come under a constant barrage of terrorist rockets.
The United States and its Saudi partners will not hesitate to combat these acts of terror, Pompeo said.
"This can't become ordinary course, it can't become routine for a nation to underwrite missiles being fired violating the sovereignty of other Middle Eastern nations," he said. "They've been great partners. They've all been willing to step up themselves and share the burden, the cost, and risk associated with this."
Historic religious differences have been put aside in pursuit of a unified regional policy that sees Iran as the aggressor and the United States as a countering force.
"This isn't about Muslims, or Christians, or Jews," Pompeo said. "This is about security in the region. They have a common objective and common threat from the Islamic Republic of Iran and they are prepared to come together knowing full well the history of the region, but come together to push back against this common threat."
The Obama Administration's Legacy of Failure in the Middle East
One of the Trump administration's primary obstacles in combating Iranian aggression is the legacy created by the Obama administration's policy of appeasing Iran as it marched across the region.
"This threat, the threat that emanates from Iran, and they've understood this strategically for a long time, and it's what the previous administration fundamentally misunderstood, that this is a cohesive effort by the Islamic Republic of Iran to demonstrate their capacity and impose costs in a way that would ultimately encircle the Jewish state, which they have clearly said they want to wipe from the face of the earth," Pompeo said. "We have an obligation, a moral obligation and security obligation to push back against that."