Two weeks ago, President Trump terminated America's participation in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the deal his predecessor cut with Iran's rulers. Since then the administration's critics — and more than a few of its friends — have been asking: What will replace the JCPOA? What's the plan, man?
On Monday, in his first major foreign policy speech as secretary of state, Mike Pompeo provided an answer: the imposition of "unprecedented financial pressure on the leaders of the regime," and sanctions tough enough to bring Iran's mismanaged and corrupted economy to its knees.
Pompeo argued that the JCPOA was fatally flawed and "failed to guarantee the safety of the American people." At best, it delayed Tehran's nuclear weapons program. It certainly did not stop it.
The deal also gave Iran's rulers billions of dollars that they have been using to support their "march across the Middle East," as well as to fund terrorist proxies, the mass-murdering Assad regime in Syria, Shia militias in Iraq, Houthi rebels in Yemen, and the Taliban in Afghanistan. Americans continue to be held hostage in Iranian prisons.
Iran's rulers. Pompeo said, "entered into the JCPAO in bad faith" and continue to lie about their intentions. "Just last month Iranian Foreign Minister (Javad) Zarif told a Sunday morning news show that Iran never wanted to produce a bomb." The evidence retrieved by Israel's Mossad from inside Iran tells a different story.
Pompeo went over the heads of the regime and spoke directly to the Iranian people, asking them: "Is this what you want your country to be known for?" He added: "The United States believes you deserve better." He promised to help them — if their leaders change their behavior or, he implied, are changed by other means.
The secretary ran through a list of "12 basic requirements" to which Iran's rulers must agree if they want Washington's maximum pressure campaign to be lifted. "The length of the list," Pompeo said, "is simply the scope of the Iranian malign behavior. We did not create the list, they did."
Among the requirements: There can be no more uranium enrichment or plutonium processing. U.N. inspectors must be given "unqualified access" to all suspect facilities in Iran; Military facilities where covert and illicit nuclear weapons development has occurred in the past can no longer be off-limits.
Iran's development of nuclear-capable missiles must come to an end. American hostages are to be freed without further delay.
America's European allies — in particular, the UK, France and Germany, the so-called E3 — are mightily displeased with the Trump administration. They went along with former president Obama's Iran policy and thought that would be the end of it. They had been looking forward to doing business with and making money in the Islamic Republic.
When push comes to shove, however, the Europeans are almost certain to reluctantly go along. If the Trump administration makes it clear that foreign companies may do business with Iran or the U.S. but not both, there's really no contest.
Should the Iranian regime agree to the demands, Pompeo said, "the United States is prepared to take action to benefit the Iranian people. He held out the prospect of reestablishing diplomatic and commercial relationships, allowing Iran to have "advanced technology," and supporting the "modernization and integration of the Iranian economy into the international system."
As ambitious as the administration's goals might appear, Pompeo pointed out that "what we are pursuing was the global consensus before the JCPOA." He's right about that. But as the talks progressed, Iran's skilled negotiators, led by the silver-tongued Zarif, won concession after concession.
What will Iran's rulers do now? It's not clear they've decided. They can't relish the prospect of an economic war with the United States. And a kinetic war would be worse for them. That threat was not credible during the Obama administration. With Trump in the White House, they can't be certain.
You can bet that Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and President Hassan Rouhani paid close attention when Pompeo warned that, "We will track down Iranian operatives and their Hizballah proxies operating around the world and we will crush them. Iran will never again have carte blanche to dominate the Middle East."
Not long after Pompeo delivered his remarks a Pentagon spokesman said that the U.S. would take "all necessary steps to confront and address Iran's malign influence in the region."
At the same time, Iran's rulers see themselves as revolutionaries. They do not aspire to become custodians of a peace-loving Middle Eastern welfare state.
It's not impossible that they will make a strategic retreat if they see the present moment as a time of unusual peril. But persuading them to take that course will require extraordinary determination on the part of Trump, Pompeo and other members of the national security team. Over the months ahead, they will demonstrate whether they are equal to that challenge.