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Amid growing tension, Secretary of State Pompeo defends Soleimani strike, Iran strategy

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As the Trump administration and broader international community deal with the fallout of the Pentagon’s Jan. 3 strike that killed Iranian Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani, Secretary of State Michael Pompeo defended the strike and the series of tit-for-tat escalations that preceded it. The U.S. Selective Service website crashed in the hours following the strike. 

Pompeo spoke on the issue during an invite-only breakfast at the Hoover Institution on Monday morning, moderated by one of his predecessors, Condoleezza Rice. Pompeo insisted that the Soleimani strike was necessary to deter further Iranian aggression. He repeatedly criticized the “lax” policies of past administrations toward the region. 

Referring to Soleimani as “one of the world’s deadliest terrorists,” Pompeo emphasized the Iranian official’s role in humanitarian crises around the region, from “starvation and cholera epidemics in Yemen” to “Shia militias destabilizing democracies in Lebanon and Iraq.” Relief from this malign influence, he argued, is what drew “thousands of Iraqis” into the streets when they heard of Soleimani’s death. 

Pompeo’s justifications did not include the administration’s previous attributions to an “imminent threat” until the floor was opened to discussion at the end of the event. Rhodes Scholar Anat Peled ’20 asked why Americans should trust the U.S. intelligence community’s statements describing the imminent threat when President Trump himself has expressed distrust of the intelligence community. 

Pompeo said that it was “unmistakable” that there was “a set of imminent attacks.” He also referred to his time as Director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), noting that the depth, intellect and unique “capacity of U.S. intelligence capabilities” mean that officers do their “level best” to “get it right” every day, and that it is often difficult to convey such intelligence to the public without risking the safety of intelligence officials.

Defending the strike

Pompeo justified the Soleimani strike as part of a “bigger strategy” of establishing deterrence against provocations from Iran. Criticizing past administrations from both political parties for not achieving the necessary deterrence “to keep the U.S. safe,” Pompeo also denounced the Iran nuclear deal, which the Trump administration pulled out of in May 2018. 

Pompeo repeated the administration’s common refrain that the Iran nuclear deal “created a clear pathway” for Iran to achieve nuclear capabilities. He blamed the agreement for enabling the regime to create the revenue streams that built “the Shia militia networks … that killed an American,” referencing the Dec. 27 death of an American contractor. 

Pompeo argued that the Trump administration’s strategy of economic sanctions and military response has been successful in reestablishing deterrence. He claimed that the U.S. now maintains a position of strength and Iran has never been as weak as it is today.

The Secretary noted that he did not know how the Iranian regime would react as the U.S. continued to rebuild deterrence. 

“If we make the right choice and come to a place where we have mutual respect for each other,” he said, “it will be a good thing for the world.”

During a Stanford panel discussion on Friday about the consequences of the strike, Director of Iranian Studies Abbas Milani also described changes in U.S. relations with Iran, but described the administration’s actions before the strike as increasing the influence of Russia and China in the region. 

“If the [U.S.] strategic vision is to curtail and control influence in the region, it has certainly failed,” Milani said on Friday, highlighting the unprecedented joint military exercise between Russia, China and Iran in late December. 

In an email to The Daily on Jan. 9, Director of the Stanford Program in International and Comparative Law Allen Weiner wrote that “decapitation strategies aimed at eliminating the leader of a rival force generally don’t prove that effective in changing the policies or effectiveness of the actions of those rivals.” He added that threats to U.S. national security interests are unlikely to change much as a result of Soleimani’s death, as the leader’s successor “is likely to pursue the same policies [Soleimani] did.”  

Iran’s announcement that it would no longer comply with the Iran nuclear deal means the nation can move closer to acquiring nuclear weapons, Weiner wrote.

While Iranian state media announced on Sunday that the nation would no longer abide by limits set in the deal, Pompeo repeated Trump’s declaration that Iranian nuclear proliferation “will never happen on our watch.” 

Pompeo explained that U.S. strategies — from specific strikes to deterrence to sanctions — have been employed to achieve two primary objectives: to deprive the Iranian regime of resources and to compel Iran to behave like a “normal” nation. 

“Just be like Norway,” Pompeo jokingly pleaded. 

Protests in Iran 

“The Iranian people’s hearts beat for freedom,” Pompeo said, explaining why Iranians are engaging in protests despite vast personal risk. 

“They are burning posters and billboards with Soleimani’s face on them and chanting ‘Soleimani is a murder,’” Pompeo said, attributing the demonstrations to Iranians’ knowledge that Soleimani was “one of the key architects of their oppression.”

Pompeo’s description of Iranian protests failed to recognize reporting from the region that showed many Iranians taking to the streets and waving flags to mourn Soleimani’s death. 

The strike also spurred a sense of dread in light of the possibility of more violent confrontation. Iran remains scarred by about 1 million deaths on both sides of the war with neighboring Iraq in the 1980s. A stampede during Soleimani’s burial in his hometown of Kerman resulted in more than 50 deaths and 200 injuries. 

Another round of protests began on Jan. 10 after a Ukrainian passenger plane was shot down, resulting in 176 deaths. The Iranian government took responsibility for the attack, but said it was caused by human error.

Pompeo did not discuss the deaths that came as a consequence of the escalations. On Jan. 8, Iran also executed a strike on a U.S. military base in Iraq that resulted in no U.S. casualties or serious injuries. 

Rice concluded the discussion by directly addressing Pompeo: “We know how difficult these jobs are, and whether one agrees or disagrees with outcomes from time to time, I know that you do it in a great spirit of patriotism and love for our country.”

Pompeo is the second secretary of state under the Trump administration after Rex Tillerson, whose firing capped the shortest tenure in the position’s history. Before assuming the position, Pompeo was CIA Director and a Republican congressman from Kansas who previously served in the U.S. Army after graduating first in his class at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. 

Monday’s visit to campus was Pompeo’s first event in a day of discussions with leaders in the Silicon Valley tech industry, including a sold-out conversation organized by the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco. 

Contact Leily Rezvani at lrezvani ‘at’ stanford.edu and Emma Smith at esmith11 ‘at’ stanford.edu.

Leily Rezvani is the managing editor of podcasts and a desk editor of news. She is a sophomore majoring in Symbolic Systems in hopes of better understanding the intersection between technology and the humanities. Leily has interned for National Public Radio, Google Arts and Culture, the United Nations Association, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Contact Leily at lrezvani ‘at’ stanford.edu.
Emma Smith '22 is a desk editor for the Academics beat of news. She is originally from Oak Park, IL and is studying International Relations with a focus on the intersection between international security and human rights. Contact her at esmith11 'at' stanford.edu.