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SECRETARY POMPEO: Well, good morning, everyone. I first want to thank the Heritage Foundation and its president, Kay Coles James. Thank you for hosting me today. First as a private citizen and then as a member of Congress, and even today, the Heritage Foundation has shaped my thinking on matters of the world and public policy issues. I’m grateful for that excellent work.
And thanks for reminding me I can’t talk about anything else but what we’re talking about today. (Laughter.) Three years on. But it’s an honor to be here.
Two weeks ago, President Trump terminated the United States participation in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, more commonly known as the Iran nuclear deal.
President Trump withdrew from the deal for a simple reason: it failed to guarantee the safety of the American people from the risk created by the leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran.
No more. No more wealth creation for Iranian kleptocrats. No more acceptance of missiles landing in Riyadh and in the Golan Heights. No more cost-free expansions of Iranian power. No more.
The JCPOA put the world at risk because of its fatal flaws.
And they’re worth recounting at some length today, if only for the purpose of ensuring that subsequent arrangements do not repeat them.
For example, the weak sunset provisions of the JCPOA merely delayed the inevitable nuclear weapons capability of the Iranian regime.
After the countdown clock ran out on the deal’s sunset provisions, Iran would be free for a quick sprint to the bomb, setting off a potentially catastrophic arms race in the region. Indeed, the very brevity of the delay in the Iranian nuclear program itself incentivized Middle Eastern proliferation.
Moreover, as we have seen from Israel’s recent remarkable intelligence operation, Iran has lied for years about having had a nuclear weapons program. Iran entered into the JCPOA in bad faith. It is worth noting that even today, the regime continues to lie.
Just last month, Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif told a Sunday morning news show, “We never wanted to produce a bomb.”
This claim – this claim would be laughable if not for the willful deception behind it. Not only did the AMAD Program exist; the Iranians took great care – though, as we can see now, not enough care – to protect, hide, and preserve the work of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh Mahabadi and his gang of nuclear scientists.
The JCPOA had additional shortcomings as well.
The mechanisms for inspecting and verifying Iran’s compliance with the deal were simply not strong enough.
The deal did nothing to address Iran’s continuing development of ballistic and cruise missiles, which could deliver nuclear warheads.
The JCPOA permitted the Iranian regime to use the money from the JCPOA to boost the economic fortunes of a struggling people, but the regime’s leaders refused to do so.
Instead, the government spent its newfound treasure fueling proxy wars across the Middle East and lining the pockets of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, Hizballah, Hamas, and the Houthis.
Remember: Iran advanced its march across the Middle East during the JCPOA. Qasem Soleimani has been playing with house money that has become blood money. Wealth created by the West has fueled his campaigns.
Strategically, the Obama administration made a bet that the deal would spur Iran to stop its rogue state actions and conform to international norms.
That bet was a loser with massive repercussions for all of the people living in the Middle East.
The idea of the JCPOA as a strategic pillar of stability in the Middle East was captured perfectly by John Kerry when he said, quote, “I know the Middle East that is on fire … is going to be more manageable with this deal,” end of quote.
Query whether the Middle East is more manageable today than it was when they embarked on the JCPOA.
Lebanon is an even more comfortable home for Hizballah today than it was when we embarked on the JCPOA. Hizballah is now armed to the teeth by Iran and has its sights set on Israel.
Thanks to Iran, Hizballah provides the ground forces for the military expedition in Syria. The IRGC, too, has continued to pump thousands of fighters into Syria to prop up the murderous Assad regime and help make that country 71,000 square miles of kill zone.
Iran perpetuates a conflict that has displaced more than 6 million Syrians inside the – 6 million Syrians and caused over 5 million to seek refuge outside of its borders.
These refugees include foreign fighters who have crossed into Europe and threatened terrorist attacks in those countries.
In Iraq, Iran sponsored Shia militia groups and terrorists to infiltrate and undermine the Iraqi Security Forces and jeopardize Iraq’s sovereignty – all of this during the JCPOA.
In Yemen, Iran’s support for the Houthi militia fuels a conflict that continues to starve the Yemeni people and hold them under the threat of terror.
The IRGC has also given Houthi missiles to attack civilian targets in Saudi Arabia and the Emirates and to threaten international shipping in the Red Sea.
And in Afghanistan, Iran’s support to the Taliban in the form of weapons and funding leads to further violence and hinders peace and stability for the Afghan people.
Today, the Iranian Qods Force conducts covert assassination operations in the heart of Europe.
We should remember, too, that during the JCPOA Iran continues to hold Americans hostage: Baquer Namazi, Siamak Namazi, Xiyue Wang, and Bob Levinson, who has been missing for over 11 years.
I will note for the American people, you should know we are working diligently to bring each American missing wrongfully detained in Iran home.
The list continues. Iran continues to be, during the JCPOA, the world’s largest sponsor of terror. It continues to serve as sanctuary for al-Qaida, as it has done since 9/11, and remains unwilling to bring to justice senior al-Qaida members residing in Tehran.
Today we ask the Iranian people: Is this what you want your country to be known for, for being a co-conspirator with Hizballah, Hamas, the Taliban, and al-Qaida? The United States believe you deserve better.
And I have an additional point for the Iranian people to ponder. Here in the West, President Rouhani and Foreign Minister Zarif are often held apart from the regime’s unwise terrorist and malign behavior. They are treated somehow differently.
The West says, “Boy, if only they could control Ayatollah Khamenei and Qasem Soleimani then things would be great.” Yet, Rouhani and Zarif are your elected leaders. Are they not the most responsible for your economic struggles? Are these two not responsible for wasting Iranian lives throughout the Middle East?
It’s worth the Iranian people considering, because instead of helping their own citizens, the regime continues to seek a corridor stretching from Iran’s borders to the shores of the Mediterranean. Iran wants this corridor to transport fighters and an advanced weapons system to Israel’s doorsteps. Indeed in recent months, the IRGC has flown an armed drone into Israeli airspace and launched salvos of rockets into the Golan Heights from Syria. Our steadfast ally has asserted the sovereign right of self-defense in response, a stance the United States will continue to unequivocally support.
So the bet – the bet that the JCPOA would increase Middle East stability was a bad one for America, for Europe, for the Middle East, and indeed for the entire world. It is clear that the JCPOA has not ended Iran’s nuclear ambitions, nor did it deter its quest for a regional hegemony. Iran’s leaders saw the deal as the starting gun for the march across the Middle East.
So, the path forward. America’s commitment to the Iran strategy President Trump laid down in October remains. It will now be executed outside of the JCPOA.
We’ll continue to work with allies to counter the regime’s destabilizing activities in the region, block their financing of terror, and address Iran’s proliferation of missiles and other advanced weapons systems that threaten peace and stability. We will also ensure Iran has no path to a nuclear weapon – not now, not ever.
Following our withdrawal from the JCPOA, President Trump has asked me to achieve these goals on Iran. We’ll pursue those goals along several lines of effort.
First, we will apply unprecedented financial pressure on the Iranian regime. The leaders in Tehran will have no doubt about our seriousness.
Thanks to our colleagues at the Department of Treasury, sanctions are going back in full effect and new ones are coming. Last week we imposed sanctions on the head of Iran’s central bank and other entities that were funneling money to the IRGC Qods Force. They were also providing money to Hizballah and other terrorist organizations. The Iranian regime should know that this is just the beginning.
This sting of sanctions will be painful if the regime does not change its course from the unacceptable and unproductive path it has chosen to one that rejoins the League of Nations. These will indeed end up being the strongest sanctions in history when we are complete.
The regime has been fighting all over the Middle East for years. After our sanctions come in force, it will be battling to keep its economy alive.
Iran will be forced to make a choice: either fight to keep its economy off life support at home or keep squandering precious wealth on fights abroad. It will not have the resources to do both.
Second, I will work closely with the Department of Defense and our regional allies to deter Iranian aggression.
We will ensure freedom of navigation on the waters in the region. We will work to prevent and counteract any Iranian malign cyber activity. 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.
And I’d remind the leadership in Iran what President Trump said: If they restart their nuclear program, it will mean bigger problems – bigger problems than they’d ever had before.
Third, we will also advocate tirelessly for the Iranian people. The regime must improve how it treats its citizens. It must protect the human rights of every Iranian. It must cease wasting Iran’s wealth abroad.
We ask that our international partners continue to add their voice to ours in condemning Iran’s treatment of its own citizens.
The protests – the protests of the past few months show that the Iranian people are deeply frustrated with their own government’s failures.
The Iranian economy is struggling as a result of bad Iranian decisions. Workers aren’t getting paid, strikes are a daily occurrence, and the rial is plummeting. Youth unemployment is at a staggering 25 percent.
Government mismanagement of Iran’s natural resources has led to severe droughts and other environmental crises as well.
Look, these problems are compounded by enormous corruption inside of Iran, and the Iranian people can smell it. The protests last winter showed that many are angry at the regime that keeps for itself what the regime steals from its people.
And Iranians too are angry at a regime elite that commits hundreds of millions of dollars to military operations and terrorist groups abroad while the Iranian people cry out for a simple life with jobs and opportunity and with liberty.
The Iranian regime’s response to the protests has only exposed the country’s leadership is running scared. Thousands have been jailed arbitrarily, and at least dozens have been killed.
As seen from the hijab protests, the brutal men of the regime seem to be particularly terrified by Iranian women who are demanding their rights. As human beings with inherent dignity and inalienable rights, the women of Iran deserve the same freedoms that the men of Iran possess.
But this is all on top of a well-documented terror and torture that the regime has inflicted for decades on those who dissent from the regime’s ideology.
The Iranian regime is going to ultimately have to look itself in the mirror. The Iranian people, especially its youth, are increasingly eager for economic, political, and social change.
The United States stands with those longing for a country of economic opportunity, government transparency, fairness, and greater liberty.
We hope, indeed we expect, that the Iranian regime will come to its senses and support – not suppress – the aspirations of its own citizens.
We’re open to new steps with not only our allies and partners, but with Iran as well. But only if Iran is willing to make major changes.
As President Trump said two weeks ago, he is ready, willing, and able to negotiate a new deal. But the deal is not the objective. Our goal is to protect the American people.
Any new agreement will make sure Iran never acquires a nuclear weapon, and will deter the regime’s malign behavior in a way that the JCPOA never could. We will not repeat the mistakes of past administrations, and we will not renegotiate the JCPOA itself. The Iranian wave of destruction in the region in just the last few years is proof that Iran’s nuclear aspirations cannot be separated from the overall security picture.
So what should it be? We must begin to define what it is that we demand from Iran.
First, Iran must declare to the IAEA a full account of the prior military dimensions of its nuclear program, and permanently and verifiably abandon such work in perpetuity.
Second, Iran must stop enrichment and never pursue plutonium reprocessing. This includes closing its heavy water reactor.
Third, Iran must also provide the IAEA with unqualified access to all sites throughout the entire country.
Iran must end its proliferation of ballistic missiles and halt further launching or development of nuclear-capable missile systems.
Iran must release all U.S. citizens, as well as citizens of our partners and allies, each of them detained on spurious charges.
Iran must end support to Middle East terrorist groups, including Lebanese Hizballah, Hamas, and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad.
Iran must respect the sovereignty of the Iraqi Government and permit the disarming, demobilization, and reintegration of Shia militias.
Iran must also end its military support for the Houthi militia and work towards a peaceful political settlement in Yemen.
Iran must withdraw all forces under Iranian command throughout the entirety of Syria.
Iran, too, must end support for the Taliban and other terrorists in Afghanistan and the region, and cease harboring senior al-Qaida leaders.
Iran, too, must end the IRG Qods Force’s support for terrorists and militant partners around the world.
And too, Iran must end its threatening behavior against its neighbors – many of whom are U.S. allies. This certainly includes its threats to destroy Israel, and its firing of missiles into Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. It also includes threats to international shipping and destructive – and destructive cyberattacks.
That list is pretty long, but if you take a look at it, these are 12 very basic requirements. The length of the list is simply a scope of the malign behavior of Iran. We didn’t create the list, they did.
From my conversations with European friends, I know that they broadly share these same views of what the Iranian regime must do to gain acceptance in the international community. I ask that America’s allies join us in calling for the Iranian Government to act more responsibly.
In exchange for major changes in Iran, the United States is prepared to take actions which will benefit the Iranian people. These areas of action include a number of things.
First, once this is achieved, we’re prepared to end the principal components of every one of our sanctions against the regime. We’re happy at that point to re-establish full diplomatic and commercial relationships with Iran. And we’re prepared to admit[i] Iran to have advanced technology. If Iran makes this fundamental strategic shift, we, too, are prepared to support the modernization and reintegration of the Iranian economy into the international economic system.
But relief from our efforts will come only when we see tangible, demonstrated, and sustained shifts in Tehran’s policies. We acknowledge Iran’s right to defend its people. But not its actions which jeopardize world’s citizens.
Also, in contrast to the previous administration, we want to include Congress as a partner in this process. We want our efforts to have broad support with the American people and endure beyond the Trump Administration. A treaty would be our preferred way to go.
Unlike the JCPOA, which was broadly rejected across both sides of the aisle, an agreement that President Trump proposes would surely garner this type of widespread support from our elected leaders and the American people.
In the strategy we laid out today, we want the support of our most important allies and partners in the region and around the globe. Certainly our European friends, but much more than that.
I want the Australians, the Bahrainis, the Egyptians, the Indians, the Japanese, the Jordanians, the Kuwaitis, the Omanis, the Qataris, the Saudi Arabians, South Korea, the UAE, and many, many others worldwide to join in this effort against the Islamic Republic of Iran. I know that those countries share the same goals. They understand the challenge the same way that America does. Indeed, we welcome any nation which is sick and tired of the nuclear threats, the terrorism, the missile proliferation, and the brutality of a regime which is at odds with world peace, a country that continues to inflict chaos on innocent people.
Indeed, while to some the changes in Iranian behavior we seek may seem unrealistic, we should recall that what we are pursuing was the global consensus before the JCPOA.
For example, in 2012, President Obama said, quote, “The deal we’ll accept is [that] they end their nuclear program,” end of quote. That didn’t happen. In 2006, the P5 voted at the Security Council for Iran to immediately suspend all enrichment activities. That didn’t happen.
In 2013, the French foreign minister said he was wary of being sucked into a, quote, “con game,” end of quote, over allowing Iran to continue uranium enrichment.
In 2015, John Kerry said, quote, “We don’t recognize the right to enrich,” end of quote. Yet the Iranians are enriching even as we sit here today.
So we’re not asking anything other than that Iranian behavior be consistent with global norms, global norms widely recognized before the JCPOA. And we want to eliminate their capacity to threaten our world with those nuclear activities.
With respect to its nuclear activities, why would we allow Iran more capability than we have permitted the United Arab Emirates and that we’re asking for the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia? We understand that our reimposition of sanctions and the coming pressure campaign on the Iranian regime will pose financial and economic difficulties for a number of our friends. Indeed, it imposes economic challenges to America as well. These are markets our businesses would love to sell into as well. And we want to hear their concerns.
But we will hold those doing prohibited business in Iran to account. Over the coming weeks, we will send teams of specialists to countries around the world to further explain administration policy, to discuss the implications of sanctions we imposition, and to listen.
I know. I’ve spent a great deal of time with our allies in my first three weeks. I know that they may decide to try and keep their old nuclear deal going with Tehran. That is certainly their decision to make. They know where we stand.
Next year marks the 40th anniversary of the Islamic Republic – Revolution in Iran. At this milestone, we have to ask: What has the Iranian Revolution given to the Iranian people? The regime reaps a harvest of suffering and death in the Middle East at the expense of its own citizens. Iran’s economy is stagnant and without direction and about to get worse. Its young people are withering under the weight of frustrated ambitions. They are longing to pursue the freedoms and opportunities of the 21st century.
Iran’s leaders can change all of this if they choose to do so. Ali Khamenei has been supreme leader since 1989. He will not live forever, nor will the Iranian people abide the rigid rules of tyrants forever. For two generations, the Iranian regime has exacted a heavy toll on its own people and the world. The hard grip of repression is all that millions of Iranians have ever known.
Now is the time for the supreme leader and the Iranian regime to summon the courage to do something historically beneficial for its own people, for this ancient and proud nation.
As for the United States, our eyes are clear as to the nature of this regime, but our ears are open to what may be possible. Unlike the previous administration, we are looking for outcomes that benefit the Iranian people, not just the regime.
If anyone, especially the leaders of Iran, doubts the President’s sincerity or his vision, let them look at our diplomacy with North Korea. Our willingness to meet with Kim Jong-un underscores the Trump administration’s commitment to diplomacy to help solve the greatest challenges, even with our staunchest adversaries. But that willingness, that willingness has been accompanied by a painful pressure campaign that reflects our commitment to resolve this challenge forever.
To the ayatollah, to President Rouhani, and to other Iranian leaders: understand that your current activities will be met with steely resolve.
My final message today is, in fact, to the Iranian people. I want to repeat President Trump’s words from October. President Trump said that, “We stand in total solidarity with the Iranian regime’s longest-suffering victims: its own people. The citizens of Iran have paid a heavy price for the violence and extremism of their leaders. The Iranian people long to reclaim their country’s proud history, its culture, its civilization, and its cooperation with its neighbors.”
It is America’s hope that our labors toward peace and security will bear fruit for the long-suffering people of Iran. We long to see them prosper and flourish as in past decades and, indeed, as never before.
Today, the United States of America is proud to take a new course towards that objective.
Thank you. (Applause.)
MS JAMES: Thank you so very much. Bold, concise, unambiguous. We appreciate you taking this forum here at the Heritage Foundation to deliver that message. Looking at – and you listed during your speech several of our allies and friends and partners, many of whom are angry, some disappointed. How are you going to bring them on board? How are you going to use your best diplomatic skills to bring them along with us?
SECRETARY POMPEO: These strategic changes in the world come together when countries decide on an objective that is shared, and that always begins with a shared interest and values. I spent the first couple of weeks of my time as Secretary of State working to try to see if there wasn’t a way to fix the deal. I spoke with my European counterparts. I traveled there. In my 13th hour as Secretary of State I was on the ground in Brussels speaking with my European counterparts. We couldn’t get it done. We couldn’t reach agreement there.
The United States intends to work hard at the diplomatic piece of working alongside all of our partners. We focus on the Europeans, but there are scores of countries around the world who share our concerns and are equally threatened by the Iranian regime. It’s that shared interest, it’s the value set which will ultimately drive, I believe, a global response to this – to the world’s largest state sponsor of terror. I’m convinced it can take place. My team is going to work diligently to do that. We’re going to do so in the context of trying to address the concerns of all of our partners, and I am convinced that over a period of time there will be a broad recognition that the strategy that President Trump has laid out is the right one that will put Iran in a place where it will one day rejoin civilization in the way that we all hope that it will.
MS JAMES: It’s clear through your comments this morning that you truly want tough sanctions. And I think that there is some remaining concern about how are you going to deal with the nuclear concerns. Can you speak to that for just a bit? And let me say to our audience, by the way, that I wish we had more time with the Secretary this morning, and there will be an abrupt and a hard stop because we have to get him out to the CIA and – for the swearing-in ceremony, and we don’t want you late for that.
So talk to us about —
SECRETARY POMPEO: I got to go back one more time.
MS JAMES: One more time. (Laughter.)
SECRETARY POMPEO: Look, the nuclear file is imperative. It presents the largest, most severe threat for sure. The JCPOA fell short. It was a delay. Our aim is to get that permanently fixed. I mentioned quickly, right, we ask our other Middle Eastern partners to do hard things. We put a 123 agreement in front of them and say, “This is what you have to do.” And they say, “Hey, the Iranians enrich.” That’s reasonable. That seems to me a reasonable point.
Well, our demands on Iran aren’t unreasonable. Give up your program. End it. Should they choose to go back, should they begin to enrich, we’re fully prepared to respond to that as well. I’m certainly not going to share with you today precisely what our response will be. But we watch them talk. We’ve heard them say – I hope that they’ll make a different decision, that they’ll choose a different path. We welcome them taking a path that other nations in the region are beginning to take as well.
MS JAMES: Well, can you explain for us the sanctions structure and how you intend to target the Iranian regime without hurting our European friends?
SECRETARY POMPEO: Well, any time sanctions are put in place, countries have to give up economic activity. So the Americans have given up economic activity now for an awfully long time, and I’ll concede there are American companies who would love to do business with the Islamic Republic of Iran. There’s a huge market there. It’s a big, vibrant, wonderful peoples. But everyone is going to have to participate in this. Every country is going to have to understand that we cannot continue to create wealth for Qasem Soleimani.
Right, that’s what this is. At the end of the day, this money has flowed to him. The economics have permitted them to run roughshod across the Middle East. Our effort is to strangle his economic capacity to do harm to the Middle East and to the world. Nuclear programs aren’t cheap. To the extent we are effective at making it more difficult on the Iranian regime, we will reduce their capacity to continue to build out their nuclear weapon system as well.
MS JAMES: You’ve laid out a very, very bold plan this morning. Do you have a timeframe for getting all this done?
SECRETARY POMPEO: So the sanctions are back in place and are winding down over the next 100 and what, 55 days? There are – there’s lots more work in place. It is a effort across all of government. We are working certainly diplomatically in the lead, but Department of Commerce, Department of Defense, each of us has the same mission from President Trump. I can’t put a timeline on it. But at the end of the day, the Iranian people will decide the timeline. At the end of the day, the Iranian people will get to make a choice about their leadership. If they make the decision quickly, that would be wonderful. If they choose not to do so, we will stay hard at this until we achieve the outcomes that I set forward today.
MS JAMES: Well, Mr. Secretary, again, on behalf of the Heritage Foundation and the scholars here who have been working on these issues for a very long time, we want to thank you. Again, it was a bold vision – clear, concise, unambiguous – and we want to congratulate you and the President, and we wish you Godspeed.
I am going to ask you to remain seated while the Secretary exits. I have about eight more questions here, but —
SECRETARY POMPEO: For another day.
MS JAMES: For another day.
SECRETARY POMPEO: Thank you all very much for being here.
MS JAMES: Thank you so much. (Applause.)