Pompeo Pushes Middle East Allies to Stamp Down Iranian Regime, Take Greater Role in Terror Fight

Pompeo asserts U.S. role in region, but urges Arab allies to 'shoulder new responsibilities'

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo / Getty Images
January 10, 2019

CAIRO, Egypt—In a speech aimed at reshaping the course of the Middle East under President Donald Trump, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo rallied Arab nations across the region to galvanize against the Iranian regime and play a greater role in annihilating terrorist forces.

Pompeo, speaking at American University in Cairo on Thursday, touted the Trump administration's tough line on terrorism, but also implored Arab allies across the region to stop relying solely on the United States for security and protection. In tone and message, the speech was meant to show Middle Eastern leaders that President Donald Trump is charging in a wildly different direction from that of the Obama administration.

Pompeo's remarks—described by senior U.S. officials as a wide-ranging rebuke of former President Obama's vision for the region—signal that while the Trump administration is not wholly removing America's presence from the region, it is applying greater pressure on Arab allies to contribute their fair share to the fight, particularly against the Iranian regime.

"We ask every peace-loving nation of the Middle East to shoulder new responsibilities for defeating Islamist extremism," Pompeo said, conveying Trump's vision for a Middle East less reliant on American money, troops, and armaments.

Pompeo delivered his speech shortly after meeting with Egyptian Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry, where he emphasized many of the same themes in both public and private meetings.

While Pompeo was clear that America is not abandoning its allies—a concern raised multiple times during his weeklong jaunt through the region amid the administration's surprise decision to withdraw from Syria—the secretary of state made clear that allies must step up to the plate in ways more substantial than just offering anti-extremist rhetoric.

We are looking to our partners to do more in this effort going forward," Pompeo said, echoing sentiments expressed by Trump.

However, this effort will still take place in lock step with the United States.

"Let me be clear: America will not retreat until the terror fight is over," Pompeo vowed. We will labor tirelessly alongside you to defeat ISIS, al Qaeda, and other jihadists that threaten our security and yours."

Turning his attention to Iran, Pompeo urged U.S. allies to comprehend that the Islamic Republic endangers the entire regional balance.

"The nations of the Middle East will never enjoy security, achieve economic stability, or advance the dreams of its peoples if Iran's revolutionary regime persists on its current course," Pompeo said in his prepared remarks, while vowing that the Trump administration will do all it can through sanctions and other routes to combat Tehran's march across the region.

But Arab allies will also have to play their part in this campaign to thwart Iran's pursuit of regional domination.

"Countries increasingly know we must confront the Ayatollahs, not coddle them," he said. "Nations are rallying to our side to confront the regime like never before. Egypt, Oman, Kuwait, and Jordan have all been instrumental in thwarting Iran's efforts to evade sanctions.

The United States will not send a single cent toward the reconstruction effort in Syria until Iran fully removes its forces from the country, Pompeo said, a promise that could roil some regional forces.

Pompeo also argued for President Trump's vision of America finally ending its decades-long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, where the United States has often been portrayed as an occupying power.

"For those who fret about the use of American power, remember: America has always been a liberating force, not an occupying power, in the Middle East," he said. "We've never dreamed of domination. Can you say the same of the Iranian regime?"

America, under the Trump administration, will continue to focus on securing the Middle East for its allies in the face of continued threats from jihadi militants and terror proxy groups, such as Iranian-backed Hezbollah.

"In just 24 months, the United States under President Trump has reasserted its traditional role as a force for good in this region, because we've learned from our mistakes," Pompeo said, adding that U.S. actions in the region during the past decades have strained its military and citizens alike. "We have rediscovered our voice. We have rebuilt our relationships. We have rejected false overtures from enemies."

Pompeo took direct aim at Obama, standing in the same city the former president did when he advocated a fundamental shift in U.S. policy in the region, one that denies Islamic radicalism as the root of jihadi fervor.

"Remember: It was here, in this very city, another American stood before you," he said. "He told you that radical Islamist terrorism doesn't stem from ideology. He told you 9/11 led my country to abandon its ideals, particularly in the Middle East."

"He told you that the United States and the Muslim world needed 'a new beginning,'" Pompeo continued. "And the results of these misjudgments were dire. In falsely seeing ourselves as a force for what ails the Middle East, we were timid about asserting ourselves when the times—and our partners—demanded it."

America, under Obama, "underestimated" the scourge of radical terrorism.

"Our reluctance to wield our influence kept us silent as the people of Iran rose up against the mullahs in Tehran in the Green Revolution," Pompeo said. "The Ayatollahs and their henchmen murdered, jailed, and intimidated freedom-loving Iranians off the streets."

The United States, under Trump, will not make this mistake again, Pompeo stressed.

"What did we learn from all this?" he asked the crowd. "When America retreats, chaos follows. When we neglect our friends, resentment builds. When we partner with enemies, they advance."

Trump is set on returning the United States to its traditional role as a leading force for good in the region, Pompeo said, offering the crowd a bit of "good news."

"The age of self-inflicted American shame is over, and so are the policies that produced so much needless suffering," he said. "Now comes the real 'new beginning.'"

"In just 24 months, the United States under President Trump has reasserted its traditional role as a force for good in this region, because we've learned from our mistakes," he said.

"Under new leadership, America has confronted the ugly reality of radical Islamism," Pompeo said, invoking a term the Obama administration avoided when discussing terrorism.

Routine criticism domestically and abroad of America's actions in the region will not deter this administration from fulfilling its vision, Pompeo said, closing his remarks.

"America has been criticized for doing too much in the Middle East, or for doing too little," he said. "But one thing we've never been is an empire-builder or oppressor."