Newly appointed Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has taken a whirlwind overseas tour, hopping on a plane almost immediately after being sworn in and before even eye-balling his office. He stopped by Brussels for a NATO conference before shooting off to the Middle East for meetings in Saudi Arabia, Israel, and Jordan. The tour’s purpose soon became clear: to drum up anti-Iran backing from American allies in the region and NATO.
The trip came just weeks before the president’s deadline for a decision on the Iran nuclear deal. Trump has been a long-time critic of the deal and gave European leaders until May 12 to solve any flaws before deciding whether to continue with it. French and German leaders visited the U.S. last week to try and convince Trump to remain in the agreement, though the U.S. still appears set to pull out. French President Emmanuel Macron left the White House saying that he would like “to work on a new deal with Iran” from now on; a decision that Iran’s President Rouhani scoffed at, questioning “with what right?” did the U.S. and France presume to redraw terms.
Pompeo’s first stop was a foreign minister meeting at NATO headquarters in Brussels, where he reiterated the organization’s importance, a topic in which President Trump has wavered. Despite a renewed commitment to his “invaluable” work with NATO, Pompeo bluntly reminded his fellows of their spending obligations in the face of perceived Russian aggression, following the Skripal chemical poisoning in England. “In light of Russia’s unacceptable actions, NATO is more indispensable than ever,” he said, despite a lack of reliable evidence connecting Russia with the incident.
Pompeo also told NATO to prepare for a change in the Iran situation, predicting that President Trump was unlikely to stay in the existing deal – a message he restated time and again upon arrival in the Middle East.
Saudi Arabia, America’s most powerful ally in the Gulf, sees Iran as its most significant regional rival. The kingdom rolled out the red carpet for Trump during his first overseas trip as president, while a Saudi crown prince was welcomed to Washington in March. The two discussed Iran’s “destructive actions” and its role in the Yemen conflict during lunch at the White House. But Saudi Arabia seeks its own hegemony in the region and has been engaged a mini “cold war” with Iran via proxy clashes in Yemen, Syria, Iraq, Qatar, and others.
Saudi Arabia and its regional allies cut off diplomatic ties with Qatar in 2017, accusing it of embracing “various terrorist and sectarian groups aimed at destabilizing the region.” While Pompeo’s predecessor Rex Tillerson backed Qatar and blamed Saudi intransigence for the ongoing conflict, Trump backed Saudi Arabia. Pompeo toed the administration’s line but urged the two nations to put aside their differences, most likely because the conflict has strengthened relations between Qatar – a U.S. ally – and Iran. He and the Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir made joint remarks emphasizing their desire to isolate Iran from its neighbors:
“Iran destabilizes this entire region. It supports proxy militias and terrorist groups. It is an arms dealer to the Houthi rebels in Yemen. It supports the murderous Assad regime [in Syria] as well…Gulf unity is necessary and we need to achieve it.”
The Syrian civil war was mentioned, though perhaps it will not be “civil” for much longer. Following recent U.S. bombings, the deployment of Saudi troops on the ground in Syria is a possibility, with Pompeo telling reporters that, “We will sit down and talk about… how to best make sure that this is not America alone working on this, it’s the Gulf states working alongside us.” Iran has supported the Assad regime throughout the conflict, while the Syrian state media openly blamed Saudi Arabia for the chemical attack that reportedly occurred in the city of Douma.
Pompeo is also said to have pressured the Saudis to ease their blockade of Yemen amid increasingly disgruntled calls stateside to curb arms sales to the kingdom, as a result of the humanitarian crisis.
Israel was the Secretary of State’s next destination, where he gave robust support to hawkish Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, calling Israeli-U.S. relations the “strongest they’ve ever been.” The meeting came shortly before the scheduled move of the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, a controversial decision that Pompeo said would “recognize [the] reality” of Israel’s capital.
He made no move to meet or acknowledge any Palestinian authority, instead defending Israel’s “right to defend themselves” against recent Gaza protests. The emphasis of the visit was not on Palestinians however, but again on the alleged threat posed by Iran, as Pompeo stated:
“We remain deeply concerned about Iran’s dangerous escalation of threats to Israel and the region and Iran’s ambition to dominate the Middle East remains. The United States is with Israel in this fight.”
Jordanian foreign minister Ayman Safadi presented a lone voice, attributing not Iran, but rather the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as the primary destabilizing force in the region – a concern Pompeo acknowledged only half-heartedly.
The Secretary of State’s Middle East tour takes on a whole new timbre in the light of Benjamin Netanyahu’s theatrical speech alleging that Iran breached the nuclear deal. It seems all but certain that President Trump will pull out of the deal, and that Pompeo planned to scout ahead and shore up support in the region before the decision is made official.