Will Pompeo Calm Tensions in the Middle East or Turn Up the Heat?

Jasmine El-Gamal

Mike Pompeo, the new US Secretary of State, has several formidable challenges ahead of him, not the least of which is managing a host of thorny issues in the Middle East. In this regard, Pompeo has come out of the gate running, with a trip to three Middle East countries just days after his confirmation. With his apparently empowered role and Donald Trump’s ear on key issues, could Pompeo be the man to calm tensions in the region or, given his previous stances on issues like Iran, Islam and terrorism, be the one to help bring them to a boil instead?

In his previous role as CIA director, Pompeo forged a close relationship with Trump, and was entrusted with sensitive tasks such as meeting with Kim Jong-un to set the stage for a pending summit between the North Korean leader and the US president. This has afforded Pompeo a level of access and trust with the president that his predecessor clearly lacked. And with his first trip to the Middle East complete, it appears that while Pompeo can be a voice of moderation on some issues, on others he will clearly implement the president’s desired, and hawkish, objectives.

First and perhaps most significantly, Trump will decide on May 12 whether to pull out of the Iran nuclear deal, after a range of lobbying efforts both for and against the treaty from several of the US’s foreign partners. On one hand, the Europeans, led by the leaders of France, the UK and Germany, have been pushing hard for a compromise that would allow the deal to remain intact, albeit with some modifications. French and German leaders Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel were in Washington last week to make the case personally to Trump that pulling out of the deal could have severe negative consequences. Macron also made the case in the first joint address to Congress during Trump’s presidency.

On the other hand, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a vocal critic of the deal since its inception, has been lobbying intensively for the US to withdraw, citing Iranian malign intentions and a deal that is flawed in its essence. In a dramatic performance surely intended to influence Trump on the eve of his decision, Netanyahu claimed that the Iranians lied from the outset and should therefore not be trusted to comply; hence, the deal should be ended.

On April 29, when Pompeo stood next to Netanyahu during his visit to Tel Aviv, the new secretary of state appeared to encourage the same line of thinking, citing Iran’s sponsorship of terrorism as a reason why the US was determined to make sure “[Iran] never possesses a nuclear weapon.” Pompeo’s language gave no indication that the US would be inclined to continue participating in the deal, and given his alignment with Trump (as opposed to Rex Tillerson, who was often at odds with the president on foreign policy), his words are likely to foreshadow what is to come. As with any situation where the drumbeats of war are imminent, the Trump administration would be wise to consider the consequences of an exit from the Iran deal and a potential subsequent escalation in the region.

Pompeo presented a similarly uncompromising position by not meeting with the Palestinian leadership during his trip and by declining to criticize the Israeli military’s use of live fire when dealing with Palestinian protestors along the border with Gaza. Despite Pompeo reiterating that a resolution to the conflict is an US priority, publicly appearing to side with Israel – particularly in the days leading to the opening of the new US embassy in Jerusalem – is unlikely to bode well for a positive US impact on future negotiations.

While Pompeo did nothing to soothe tensions with regard to Iran and the Israel-Palestinian conflict, his trip to Saudi Arabia did see an effort to convince the Saudis to resolve their own conflict with Qatar, mainly because Pompeo believes that countering Iran requires an all-hands-on-deck effort. Ceasing the blockage on Qatar and restoring diplomatic relations would not only help regional actors counter Iran’s non-nuclear malign activities in the region, but also provide a much-needed unified GCC front against ISIS and its inevitable offshoots, as well as prove helpful on any potential resolution of the Syrian conflict.

Pompeo’s choice of countries on his first Middle East trip showcased an alignment with Trump’s priorities in the region – step up the pressure Iran, reaffirm unshakeable US support for Israel and cement the relationship with Saudi Arabia as a key Arab partner – and as many region-watchers have pointed out, sent a clear message about the prominent role Pompeo will play in the administration. Whether or not that role will have a net positive effect remains to be seen.

Jasmine El-Gamal is a non-resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, where she focuses primarily on US Middle East policy and violent extremism. From 2008-2015, El-Gamal served as a Middle East policy advisor and a special assistant for national-security affairs at the US Department of Defense.