When the United States bombed its own former air base in Baghdad to kill Qassem Soleimani, Iran’s revered Middle East paramilitary commander, just before Friday prayers last week, the pretext was that he was about to kill a bunch of Americans. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was quick to praise the “decision to eliminate Soleimani in response to imminent threats to American lives.” What threat? It wasn’t clear, and officials in government, as well as politicians on Capitol Hill briefed after the attack, were quick to say the “imminent threat” argument sounded thin based on what they’d seen.
We now know it wasn’t thin; it was a damned lie. The Washington Post revealed yesterday that President Trump had long been lobbied to kill Soleimani, by none other than Pompeo himself. “Pompeo,” the paper’s national security team reported, “first spoke with Trump about killing Soleimani months ago, said a senior U.S. official, but neither the president nor Pentagon officials were willing to countenance such an operation.”
That changed after a U.S. contractor was killed on December 27 in an attack on a base in northern Iraq, allegedly by a Soleimani-connected Iraqi Shiite militia. It was then that Pompeo and Defense Secretary Mark Esper—Pompeo’s West Point classmate, and a former defense contractor who largely owes his position to the secretary of state—traveled to Mar-a-Lago and lobbied Trump hard to bomb Soleimani, a provocative, destabilizing move that officials told the Post “would not have happened under [Jim] Mattis,” the former secretary of defense. (Esper, according to new reporting by Foreign Policy, also cut key Pentagon officials out of the strike decision, likely because it would have faced resistance from them.)
Pompeo’s lies didn’t stop there. He also denied that Trump threatened to commit war crimes against Iranian cultural sites, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. He continues to make the rounds on television, arguing that the Soleimani assassination has made Americans safer, even as his own underlings at Foggy Bottom warn U.S. citizens to “depart Iraq immediately,” without the State Department’s help, since, “Due to Iranian-backed militia attacks at the U.S. Embassy compound, all public consular operations are suspended until further notice.”
But it’s not just that Pompeo has proven unfathomably mendacious: It’s that he’s acting more like a viceroy in charge of the American security establishment than a top diplomat. For more than a year now, he has systematically led Trump and the Pentagon onto a war footing with Iran with shocking, unprecedented moves. These include designating a foreign government arm as a terrorist group; taking trips without his Pentagon counterpart to consult with America’s Mideast combatant commanders; defying Congress to arm the Saudis and other Iranian antagonists in the region; and publicly blaming regional attacks on Tehran with little evidence but heavily edited, ambiguous videos. If there’s mounting evidence for anything, it’s that Pompeo may currently be the most dangerous man in the world not named Trump.
Last April, Trump announced that the U.S. would designate the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, an Iranian government entity (the one, in fact, that technically employed Soleimani), as a foreign terrorist organization. This made the U.S. the third nation out of 195 on earth—along with Saudi Arabia and Bahrain—to treat the 125,000-member IRGC, an official branch of the Iranian military, as a terror group.
Despite significant evidence that IRGC operations had cost American soldiers’ lives in Iraq, both directly and indirectly, the U.S. military establishment had not wanted to take this step. Gen. Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the time, opposed the move, as did other officials, who described it to The New York Times as the product of a “chaotic and rushed process” and warned that “it could incite retaliation by Tehran against American troops and intelligence officers.” This momentous national security decision, however, wasn’t the military establishment’s to make: Ultimate responsibility lay with the U.S. Department of State and Pompeo.
Even within the diplomatic corps, there was considerable consternation about designating a government entity as a terror group, the first time that had ever been attempted. Officials at State “had asked Mr. Pompeo to delay any announcement, arguing that the designation could have unintended consequences for unrelated countries,” according to the Times. Pompeo, however, “dismissed their concerns” and delivered a key political talking point to Trump. The following month, Pompeo and the State Department used an “emergency” loophole to circumvent Congress and sell $8 billion in military hardware to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, ostensible allies of the U.S. against Iran, despite the fact that there was no war between the parties.
A month after that, when a Japanese oil tanker in the Gulf of Oman was attacked with an apparent limpet mine in June, it was Pompeo who spoke for the U.S. administration before any official, blaming Iran for the blast. “It’s unmistakable what happened here,” Pompeo said on a friendly forum, Fox News. “These were attacks by the Islamic Republic of Iran on commercial shipping, on the freedom of navigation, with the clear intent to deny transit through the Strait.”
What evidence did Pompeo have? “The world will come to see much of it,” he promised, “but the American people should rest assured we have high confidence with respect to who conducted these attacks, as well as half a dozen other attacks throughout the world over the past 40 days.”
The U.S. eventually offered a military video of an Iranian small boat beside the tanker, in broad daylight, inspecting the blast site and allegedly recovering material from it. The footage, expert analysts pointed out, “has significant gaps, cuts out at key moments, and zooms in and out. It does not depict a single sequence of events, or an explosive being planted.”
It’s the nature of the Trump era that events from months ago can be hard to recall, but Pompeo’s saber-rattling over the Gulf of Oman incident almost led to a real shooting war. As those war clouds gathered, he took advantage of relative disarray in Pentagon leadership to fly down to the Florida headquarters of U.S. Central Command and Special Operations Command in order to “discuss regional security concerns and ongoing operations” with uniformed leaders. Mattis’s interim replacement as defense secretary, Patrick Shanahan, did not accompany Pompeo on that trip; he was never confirmed by Congress and would be out of the job shortly afterward. Nor was it ever explained why Pompeo needed face time with American generals; a State Department spokesman only told me that Pompeo was “there to listen.” He didn’t explain why that couldn’t be done on a phone call.
Just a few days after that Pompeo trip, a U.S. drone was shot down by Iranian forces, who claimed that it had breached their air space. Goaded by Pompeo, Trump reportedly ordered a bombing campaign against Iran—then tweeted that he’d called it off, 10 minutes before it was supposed to begin. Losing that round of Iranian roulette, a U.S. official told the Post yesterday, had left Pompeo “morose.”
What, exactly, is behind Pompeo’s obsession with Iran? It could be his own evangelical convictions that the Islamic Republic must be confronted. It could be domestic politics; it’s long been rumored that he’ll step down to run for Senate in Kansas, and the Post points out that his “maximalist position on Iran … has made him popular among two critical pro-Israel constituencies in Republican politics: conservative Jewish donors and Christian evangelicals.” Whatever the explanation, his moves are the very opposite of statesmanship, ignorant of the consequences of open conflict with a developed nation of 82 million people.
Trump, of course, has to sign off on all this saber-rattling, and he does, because he loves to wield weapons and fancy himself a tough leader. But Trump himself has no coherent Iran policy beyond tweets and explosive strikes; he lacks the imagination to come up with these measures, just as he lacks the intellect to resist them as wrongheaded. The impetus comes from other men around him. And thus far, no man has proven as ambitious, ruthless, and effective as Pompeo in using Trump’s insecurities to consolidate his own portfolio and advance his own incendiary global agenda. It’s tempting to see Pompeo as America’s own Cardinal Richelieu, but that’s an inadequate comparison: No cardinal was ever as powerful or as dangerous to humanity as Pompeo now is.