Trump’s Top Diplomats Are More Hawkish On Iran Deal Than His Generals

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Will Racke Immigration and Foreign Policy Reporter
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With CIA Director Mike Pompeo set to replace Rex Tillerson as secretary of state, the Trump administration’s leading diplomatic posts will be filled by Iran hawks eager to see the Tehran nuclear deal renegotiated or scrapped altogether.

Tillerson is one of a minority of senior administration officials who believe the 2015 accord, whatever its shortcomings, is worth preserving. Pompeo, on the other hand, shares Trump’s disdain for the deal, which imposed limits on Tehran’s nuclear activities in exchange for international sanctions relief.

Pompeo, as a House lawmaker, mirrored Trump’s rhetoric on the pact, calling it a “disastrous deal with the world’s largest state sponsor of terrorism.” More recently, Pompeo voiced concern the terms of the deal are too lenient and expire too soon.

“My critique of the Obama administration’s JCPOA [Joint Comprehensive Plan Of Action] commitment was that they left the Iranians with a breakout capacity,” Pompeo said Sunday on CBS’s “Face The Nation.” “They had a short time frame that these would — these restrictions would remain in place.”

Pompeo’s views on the agreement align closely with those of U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley, the face of the administration’s foreign policy and its foremost Iran critic. Haley has repeatedly denounced Iran in U.N. meetings, accusing it of destabilizing actions in Yemen, Syria, and other Middle East hot spots.

Haley, like Trump, believes the Iran deal was too narrowly drawn and left Tehran free to continue its ballistic missile program and support militant proxies in the region. She has also sought to tie Iran to Yemeni rebels’ missile attacks on Saudi Arabia.

If Pompeo clears his Senate confirmation in April, the State Department will be led by two diplomats who are openly hostile to a deal widely considered to be the Obama administration’s signature diplomatic achievement. That puts the balance of support for the Iran nuclear deal in the Pentagon, where some top military commanders believe the U.S. is better off in the deal than out of it.

U.S. Central Command chief General Joseph Votel told the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday the nuclear deal serves Washington’s interest in preventing Tehran from acquiring a nuclear weapon.

“There would be some concern, I think, about how we intended to address that particular threat if it was not being addressed through the JCPOA,” Votel said, using the acronym for Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the deal’s official name.

“Right now, I think it is in our interest” to stay in the deal, he said.

Votel’s remarks mirrored previous assessments by Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. James Dunford and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis — both of whom support keeping the deal in place while working to counter Iran through other channels. Mattis has long held private concerns about Iran’s behavior throughout the Middle East, but during testimony to senators in October, he affirmed the nuclear deal was in U.S. interests and said it was “something the president should consider staying in.”

For now, Trump appears to be siding with Pompeo and Haley instead of Mattis and top Pentagon brass. He demanded in January the deal’s European signatories fix its “terrible flaws” or he would refuse to extend U.S. sanctions relief for Iran.

Trump has until May 12 to decide whether to reimpose sanctions on Tehran or issue another waiver. Iran has said it will stop complying with the terms of the deal if Washington pulls out and resumes sanctions.

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