Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-KS), President-elect Trump’s nominee for Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, has earned a reputation in Washington as a hawkish, partisan fighter unafraid to express his views. Given Trump’s lack of experience on foreign policy, both he and the President-elect’s other key national security advisors could go a long way in determining the incoming administration’s policy. But Pompeo’s track record of hyping threats, issuing provocative calls for regime change, and underselling the burdens of military action against Iran all bode poorly for the direction he would help take a Trump administration as CIA director.
Pompeo has been a fierce ideological opponent of the Iran nuclear accord and gone out of his way to work to roll back the multilateral agreement. Perhaps most disconcertingly, Pompeo has downplayed the costs of bombing Iran, hyped bogus “secret side deals” in order to discredit the accord and engaged in public political stunts harmful to U.S. diplomatic efforts. That record raises strong concerns of whether he will be able to advance a balanced assessment of intelligence related to Iran and the nuclear deal to the President, Congress and American people at a sensitive time in U.S.-Iran relations.
For intelligence professionals the significant security benefits provided by the Iran nuclear deal are straightforward. As the Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, testified in February in his annual intelligence assessment, the Iran deal – known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) – has “extended the amount of time Iran would need to produce fissile material for a nuclear weapon from a few months to about a year,” if Iran made the decision to break the deal and pursue a nuclear weapon. Further, Clapper noted “the international community is well postured to quickly detect changes to Iran’s declared nuclear facilities,” and investigate evidence of cheating given the IAEA’s expanded monitoring of Iran’s nuclear activities under the accord.
Pompeo, however, fought tooth and nail to prevent the deal from being struck. In a 2014 roundtable with reporters, he downplayed the costs of bombing Iran as an alternative to negotiations, stating “In an unclassified setting, it is under 2,000 sorties to destroy the Iranian nuclear capacity. This is not an insurmountable task for the coalition forces.” Few believe that such a bombing campaign, however, would do anything but further destabilize the region, delay Iran’s nuclear capabilities by a few years and incentivize an Iranian nuclear deterrent.
In his statement on July 14, 2015, the day the nuclear accord was reached, Rep. Pompeo argued that Iran “is intent on the destruction of our country,” and said “[t]his deal allows Iran to continue its nuclear program – that’s not foreign policy; it’s surrender.” Such hyperbole might have made for good rhetoric in Congress, but does not amount to serious analysis.
During the Congressional review period for the JCPOA, Pompeo traveled to Vienna, Austria for meetings with the IAEA along with his fellow hawk Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AK). There, they were briefed on a technical implementation plan between the IAEA and Iran on how they would resolve a then-stalled inquiry into Iran’s past nuclear activities with possible military dimensions. Pompeo and Cotton then spun that technical plan into what they called a “secret side deal” they alleged the administration was withholding from the American public. However, this was far from a conspiracy. Most arrangements between the IAEA and the many countries it inspects are kept confidential in order to avoid disclosure of sensitive information that could compromise a state’s legitimate security concerns. Nevertheless, the hyping of the technical plan into a “secret deal” fit their narrative that the administration was hiding information from the public and Congress about the JCPOA, which Pompeo and his colleagues repeatedly used to spur partisan opposition to the deal.
Pompeo’s efforts to undermine the nuclear accord did not end when the agreement went into force. He was one of three Representatives to request visas from Iran to observe the Iranian parliamentary elections in February, inspect Iranian nuclear facilities, meet with Americans imprisoned in Iran and meet with Iran’s leaders over the Revolutionary Guard’s overnight detention of U.S. sailors that had drifted into Iranian waters. This effort, which was dripping with sarcasm, was in the mold of the letter sent by Sen. Cotton amid negotiations warning Iran’s leaders the next President could undo the agreement. Iran viewed it as a political stunt and rejected them months later.
On the one year anniversary of the striking of the accord, Pompeo argued the deal had not increased American security and as a result “Congress must act to change Iranian behavior, and, ultimately, the Iranian regime.” He has also introduced several bills intended to frustrate the administration’s diplomacy with Iran, including one that passed the House which would block the U.S. from purchasing heavy water from Iran and another that would effectively impose farther-reaching sanctions than existed prior to the deal under the auspices of targeting Iran’s ballistic missile program, which would directly violate the accord.
Additionally, Pompeo’s last tweet prior to his selection as Trump’s future CIA Director stated “I look forward to rolling back this disastrous deal with the world’s largest state sponsor of terrorism.”
Given his track record, Pompeo’s confirmation hearings should closely explore whether he favors killing the JCPOA, bombing Iran or instigating Iraq-style regime change, and whether he can be relied on to present an unbiased assessment of the intelligence on each option. Would Pompeo detail the long tail of negative consequences each choice would entail to President Trump, or would Pompeo say that hyped intelligence on Iran is a “slam dunk?” The consequences of having Mike Pompeo in the House pursuing war and regime change are far less than having him as the head of the CIA pursuing such goals. Hopefully the Senate will take these questions seriously and closely consider Pompeo’s nomination.