‘Expel every last Iranian boot’
The ayatollahs’ support for terrorism continues unabated
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has used a speech in Cairo to rally the Arab world against Iran, casting the Islamic Republic as the Trump administration’s top concern in the region at a pivotal moment in USMiddle East relations.
His address at the American University yesterday comes as he tries to reassure US allies rattled by Donald Trump’s sudden decision last month to withdraw troops from Syria and Afghanistan.
In the speech entitled “A Force for Good: America’s Reinvigorated Role in the Middle East”, Mr Pompeo offered a rebuttal of the notion the planned withdrawal from Syria suggested the US was abandoning the region.
“Let me be clear: America will not retreat until the terror fight is over,” he said.
He vowed the US “will use diplomacy and work with our partners to expel every last Iranian boot” from Syria.
His remarks reflected the Trump administration’s broader effort to cast Iran as an obstacle to peace and promote the US as the preferred partner for prosperity in the region.
“The nations of the Middle East will never enjoy security, achieve economic stability, or advance the dreams of their people if Iran’s revolutionary regime persists on its current course,” he said.
Iran has increased its involvement in regional conflicts, providing military support to the Assad regime in Syria and to Shia-led militias allied with the Iraqi government combating Islamic State. Iran also has alliances with Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas, which rules the Gaza Strip, and Houthi rebels in Yemen.
The speech included a direct assault on a similar address given by former president Barack Obama in Cairo in 2009, in which in he spoke of “a new beginning”, calling for an opening toward Muslims through transcending stereotypes and resolving conflicts in the wider Middle East.
Mr Pompeo argued Mr Obama, to whom he didn’t refer by name, had misjudged the revolutions of the 2011 Arab Spring that toppled dictators across the region and set in motion a set of continuing conflicts. The lesson from the Obama era, Mr Pompeo said, was that: “When America retreats, chaos often follows. When we neglect our friends, resentment builds. And when we partner with enemies, they advance.
“The good news is this: The age of self-inflicted American shame is over, and so are the policies that produced so much needless suffering. Now comes the real ‘new beginning’. In just 24 months, actually less than two years, 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.”
Unlike Mr Obama’s speech in 2009, Mr Pompeo didn’t include a broad call for democracy and civil rights, instead urging the Egyptian government to “promote a free and open exchange of ideas”. The administration hopes to mobilise Gulf Arab states and allies such as Egypt and Jordan to confront Iran in an aggressive approach that has been a cornerstone of Mr Trump’s foreign policy, but Mr Pompeo’s speech also drew criticism from former US government officials for lambasting an American leader while overseas.
“The speech was a shameless attack before a foreign audience on an American president, revealing a woeful gap between Trump’s promises (expelling Iran from Syria and freeing Iraq of Iranian influence for example) and the means to achieve them,” Martin Indyk, a former special envoy on Middle East issues during the Obama administration, said.
“In that sense, he repeated Obama’s mistake in his Cairo speech 10 years ago—making promises that cannot and will not be fulfilled.”
Iran’s ruling ayatollahs would be foolish to ignore the forthright warning in US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s landmark address in Cairo on the future of America’s Middle East policy under Donald Trump. Speaking at the same university where, in a major policy speech nine years ago, Barack Obama held out the historic olive branch to Tehran which led to the 2015 nuclear deal, Mr Pompeo left no doubt about the extent to which US policy in the region has changed.
Washington, Mr Pompeo declared, was committed to “expel every last Iranian boot” from Syria where, in alliance with Russia, Tehran, in its drive for regional hegemony, has been propping up the murderous Assad regime. Without mentioning Mr Obama by name, Mr Pompeo heaped scorn on the former president’s “misguided” thinking on the use of military force and reluctance to call out “radical Islam”. That was a reference to Mr Obama’s preference for the term “violent extremism” when referring to Islamist terrorism and his call for an “opening towards Muslims” that would “transcend stereotypes”.
“Remember: it was here, here in this very city, another American stood before you … he told you that radical terrorism does not stem from ideology. He told you 9/11 led my country to abandon its ideals in the Middle East,” Mr Pompeo said as he argued Mr Obama had misjudged the Arab Spring uprisings. The Obama administration’s Middle East policy, he said, was an example of “what not to do”, whether in striking the nuclear deal or abandoning long-time ally Hosni Mubarak, Egypt’s ruler, allowing him to be brought down by an uprising orchestrated by the Muslim Brotherhood.
With the benefit of hindsight it is easy to criticise Mr Obama. But the Trump administration is right to focus strongly on Iran’s hegemonic aggression and support for terrorism, making it clear it will not be tolerated. Tehran’s support for Hezbollah and for other terrorist groups seeking to destroy Israel, as well as its involvement in Syria, Yemen and even Afghanistan is the root cause of much of the conflict across the Middle East and the threat it poses to Israel.
The steady spread of Iranian terrorism was highlighted this week when the Dutch government disclosed Iran’s intelligence ministry was behind a series of political assassinations in The Netherlands. The revelation followed similar disclosures by Norway, Sweden and France about recent acts of terror in their countries involving Iran.
Mr Obama made a grave misjudgment in concluding a nuclear deal on the terms that he did with a rogue state so blatantly involved in terror. Mr Pompeo’s pledge to “expel every last Iranian boot” deserves the support of US allies. While seemingly at odds with Mr Trump’s determination to fulfil his election promise to bring home all US troops from Syria, it demonstrates why he should be in no hurry to abandon Syria altogether.
Syrian refugees use makeshift rafts to move around their flooded camp at Bar Elias, Bekaa Valley, Lebanon, on Thursday