Maximum Pressure Is Failing: Fact-Checking Pompeo on Iran


Last week, Iran threatened to take additional steps to advance its nuclear program, seized an Iraqi tanker in the Strait of Hormuz, and warned the United States and its allies against forming a naval coalition to protect tankers transiting through the Strait.

Despite these dangerous developments, in a recent USA Today op-ed, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo offered a vigorous defense of the Trump administration’s Iran policy. Pushing back against critics, Pompeo argued that the maximum pressure campaign is succeeding at weakening the Iranian regime and turning back the tide of Iranian “malign activity.” Pompeo reaffirmed the administration’s stated goal of seeking a comprehensive deal with Tehran, concluding, “We look forward to the day we can help bring the Iranian people and their neighbors the peace and prosperity they deserve.”

It is unsurprising, of course, that the secretary of state is defending the policy of the administration he serves. What is unusual and disturbing, though, is the highly selective evidence he employs in order to portray the maximum pressure campaign as a success. A more complete assessment of Iranian behavior shows that its “malign activity” is in fact increasing in many areas — and that much of this is a direct consequence of the Trump administration policy Pompeo seeks to defend.

Even more concerning, many of Pompeo’s own public statements over the last few months contradict the rosy assessment in his op-ed. It is clear, in short, that Pompeo is manipulating and cherry-picking evidence in order to provide political cover for the Trump administration’s strategy, which has already brought the nation to the brink of war.

A More Honest Accounting

In assessing whether Iran’s “malign activity” has increased or decreased as a result of Trump’s policy, our benchmark should be the areas of Iranian behavior that the administration itself has sought to change. Fortunately, Pompeo made this task straightforward. In a speech last year, he laid out 12 areas where the Trump administration sought Iranian concessions.

In the nuclear and missile realm, the Trump administration demanded an end to all enrichment, a commitment to never reprocess, unlimited International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspection authority, a full accounting of past nuclear activity, and an end to the development and proliferation of ballistic missiles. With respect to Iran’s support for proxies, the Trump administration insisted that it terminate support for terrorist groups globally, withdraw its troops from Syria, and loosen its grip over Iraqi militias. Finally, Pompeo called on Iran to release all American and allied nation prisoners and “end its threatening behavior against its neighbors,” including “threats to international shipping,” cyber attacks, and “firing of missiles into Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.”

Out of these 12 demands, none have been met. So how is Pompeo able to claim that the maximum pressure campaign is succeeding? By focusing only on one issue area — Iran’s relationship with proxies — and drastically shifting the goalposts from Tehran ending its support for these groups to simply providing them with fewer resources. In the op-ed, Pompeo argues that “Iran no longer has enough money to pay them as much as in the past,” likely referring to news reports suggesting Hezbollah and other groups are feeling the pinch of U.S. sanctions. He also highlighted proposed budget cuts to Iran’s military and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, suggesting Iran has fewer resources to engage in destabilizing behavior.

Even here, Pompeo’s use of evidence is selective and problematic. Just days ago, for example, Iran announced that it would increase its support for Hamas from around $6 million to $30 million a month. And history shows that even when under intense sanctions — for example from 2010 to 2013 — Iran has maintained support for its proxies. Indeed, as Kenneth Katzman recently put it, “there are no indications that either Iran’s nor Hezbollah’s capabilities or intent to continue helping Assad have changed. Both remain significantly engaged in Syria, and Iran’s posture in Iraq, Yemen, and elsewhere remains virtually unchanged.”

More broadly, Pompeo and other administration officials have repeatedly used evidence that Iran is experiencing economic pain as evidence that the maximum pressure campaign is working, seemingly forgetting that the goal of the campaign is not to inflict economic pain but to change behavior. Using economic damage to gauge the success of sanctions is like using body counts to measure success in counter-insurgency — it’s an indicator that your policy is having an effect, but does not necessarily imply you’re any closer to achieving strategic objectives.

Zooming out to the other areas where the Trump administration seeks Iranian behavior change, the trends are even less encouraging — often pointing in the opposite direction from that intended. Iran has not conceded to any of the demands for a “better nuclear deal,” although it did float the idea of speeding up its ratification of the IAEA Additional Protocol (something it had already agreed to do eventually under the Iran nuclear deal). Far from ending all enrichment, Iran has increased enrichment levels and expanded its stockpile of enriched uranium — in direct response to the imposition of secondary sanctions by the Trump administration, which have deterred European countries from doing business with Iran. Iran is still testing ballistic missiles and still imprisoning American citizens. In June, Iran shot down a U.S. drone, almost triggering American retaliation. Iranian cyber attacks have reportedly increased in response to U.S. sanctions. Iran’s Houthi allies continue to fire missiles at Saudi Arabia. Rather than end its threats to international shipping, Iran has ramped them up, sabotaging several tankers and seizing a few others — again in a clear response to U.S. sanctions.

As this litany of Iranian actions makes clear, that the maximum pressure campaign has succeeded at moderating Iranian behavior is a fantastical claim that can only be sustained by cherry-picking evidence and ignoring the majority of areas where the Trump administration itself seeks Iranian behavior change.

Pompeo’s claim of success not only flies in the face of the evidence, it also contradicts many of his own prior statements. In early May, Pompeo released a statement warning, “Iran has engaged in an escalating series of threatening actions and statements.” A few days later, Pompeo stated in an interview, “What we’ve seen from the Iranians is increased threats,” which were subsequently used to justify the deployment of additional forces to the Middle East and emergency arms sales to Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and the United Arab Emirates. Later that month, he acknowledged in response to a question from Hugh Hewitt that “none of the 12 things” the Trump administration had demanded of Iran have occurred. In an interview in late July, Pompeo bluntly stated, “we’ve got now 40 years of bad behavior from the Islamic Republic of Iran, and I must say, there are no indications they’re slowing down.” (Emphasis added).

Given these statements, it is difficult to escape the conclusion that Pompeo is not being entirely honest when he claims the maximum pressure campaign is succeeding. Rather than leveling with the American people and making an argument about why the administration is persisting with the policy in spite of the lack of progress, he has chosen to deceive the public in order to defend a dangerous policy.


Nicholas L. Miller is an assistant professor in the Government Department at Dartmouth College. His book, Stopping the Bomb: The Sources and Effectiveness of U.S. Nonproliferation Policy, was published by Cornell University Press in 2018.

Image: State Department