Pompeo vows diplomatic approach to Iran nuclear threat

CIA director Mike Pompeo (L) is President Donald Trump's pick to be the next secretary of state. His Senate confirmation hearing is set for March 12, 2018

Washington (United States) (AFP) – President Donald Trump’s pick to become Washington’s top diplomat vowed to work with US allies to strengthen the Iran deal Thursday and played down fears he is bent on regime change in North Korea.

Outgoing CIA chief Mike Pompeo has a reputation as a “war hawk” and a hardliner, and his nomination as secretary of state was seen as a sign that Trump’s adminstration intends to rip up the nuclear accord.

But on Thursday, grilled by the senators who will approve or refuse his appointment, he strove to emphasize that he would work towards a May 12 deadline to agree a new framework with skeptical European allies to “fix” the deal.

Both France’s President Emmanuel Macron and Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel are due to visit Washington on separate official visits before May 12, in part to lobby Trump to preserve a deal they see as the best way to stop Tehran getting the bomb. 

Trump has long derided the 2015 deal as a capitulation to Tehran and has declared it no longer is in US interests to maintain the sanctions relief that his predecessor Barack Obama accorded Tehran in exchange for controls on its nuclear program.

As a congressman, Pompeo was a fierce critic of the deal, and his nomination — along with this week’s appointment of arch-hawk John Bolton as Trump’s national security adviser — has sharpened concerns that Washington may abandon the pact.

But at his nomination hearing, he was keen to stress the importance of diplomacy in seeking a tougher framework that may appease Trump’s concerns, and confirmed that as CIA director he had seen no evidence that Iran had broken its side of the bargain.

“I want to fix this deal. That’s the objective,” he told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

“If there is no chance to fix it, I’ll recommend to the president we do our level best to work with our allies to achieve a better outcome and better deal. Even after May 12th, even after May 12th, there’s still much diplomatic work to be done.”

Asked whether, for the moment, Iran remains in compliance with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the Iran deal’s implementation mechanism, Pompeo said: “I’ve seen no evidence that they are not in compliance today.”

Pompeo was also asked whether he favors US military action to overthrow the regime in North Korea, which has developed a nuclear arsenal that may soon threaten US cities but has also invited Trump to a summit with its leader to discuss disarmament.

“I’ve articulated my own personal views on this,” Pompeo told the committee. “We have a responsibility to achieve a condition where Kim Jong Un is unable to threaten the United States of America with a nuclear weapon.”

Pressed on whether this meant he favors overthrowing the Pyongyang regime, Pompeo stressed: “I’m not advocating for regime change.”

– Known entity –

Pompeo is a known entity for Trump, someone who briefed the president nearly daily and shares a gung ho attitude towards Iran.

And as head of the Central Intelligence Agency, he has already been vetted by the US Senate, where 14 Democrats joined Republicans in confirming him to that post.

It appears at least one Democrat will be needed to get Pompeo successfully through the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which holds the hearing Thursday and is expected to vote on Pompeo in the coming weeks.

The committee has 11 Republicans and 10 Democrats, and Republican Rand Paul has already expressed his opposition to Pompeo, for the latter’s support of the Iraq war and his aggressive posture against Iran.

But Senator Lindsey Graham, a Republican hawk on foreign policy, has said Pompeo would be taking over during a “dangerous” period globally, and that “I think he’s the right guy at the right time.”

Trump has gone without a top US diplomat for nearly a month after he sacked former oil executive Rex Tillerson barely one year into a period in office already marked by upheavals in the department that left US diplomats demoralized and complaining of absent leadership.

In that time he has threatened a trade war with China, blamed Russia and Syria for a suspected chemical attack that killed more than 40 people, and ratcheted up anti-Russia rhetoric on Twitter, including Wednesday’s warning that “missiles will be coming” in response to the chemical atrocity in Syria.

Pompeo has made the rounds meeting senators including Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Bob Corker, who noted their “very good meeting” but did not declare whether he would support him.