Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Sunday launched a blistering attack on Iran’s clerical and military rulers, calling them a kleptocracy akin to the mafia in a message the United States plans to start broadcasting heavily in Iran.
“The level of corruption and wealth among regime leaders shows that Iran is run by something that resembles the mafia more than a government,” Mr Pompeo said in speech made to a largely Iranian American audience at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library outside Los Angeles. Pompeo was introduced by Fred Ryan, publisher of The Washington Post and chairman of the Ronald Reagan Foundation.
Mr Pompeo’s hardline speech comes just three weeks before the first round of banking sanctions suspended under the Iran nuclear deal is reimposed after President Trump withdrew from the landmark agreement in May. Bigger sanctions coming in November are aimed at cutting off virtually all Iran’s oil market.
Mr Pompeo stopped short of calling for regime change, but he announced stepped-up US government broadcasting in Farsi that is likely to foment further unrest against the government.
He said the US Broadcasting Board of Governors is taking steps to circumvent internet censorship in Iran, and creating a round-the-clock Farsi channel across television, radio, digital and social media formats, “so that ordinary Iranians inside Iran and around the globe will know that America stands with them”.
Mr Pompeo said the Trump administration would be willing to hold talks with the Iranian government if it stops repressing dissidents and religious minorities and stops supporting militant groups in conflicts elsewhere in the region. But the one sentence offer in a long speech suggests that Mr Pompeo deems any behaviour change by Iran unlikely.
Many of the Iranian Americans in the audience either fled or are descendants of those who fled the country after the Islamic Revolution toppled the Shah in 1979. Southern California is home to about 250,000 Iranian Americans.
“To our Iranian American and Iranian friends,” Mr Pompeo said, “tonight I tell you that the Trump administration dreams the same dreams for the people of Iran as you do, and through our labours and God’s providence, that day will come true.”
The Trump administration dreams the same dreams for the people of Iran as you do, and through our labours and God’s providence, that day will come true
Mike Pompeo, Secretary of State
Several members of the Trump administration and Trump’s circle have been outspoken hawks on Iran. Before joining the White House, national security adviser John R Bolton called for the overthrow of the Iranian government. Rudolph W Giuliani, Mr Trump’s personal attorney, has given paid speeches to the Mujahideen-e Khalq (MEK), a controversial dissident group that the State Department listed as a terrorist group until 2012. On Sunday, Nikki Haley, the US ambassador to the United Nations, retweeted a three-day-old posting from the official account of the MEK.
Mr Pompeo’s remarks on Sunday reprised his criticism of the Iranian government, but on a deeply personal level that is likely to be repeated in the US government broadcasts into Iran.
He lit into what he called Iran’s “hypocritical holy men”, saying the ruling elites have enriched themselves through corruption, and called out officials by name who he said had plundered government coffers through embezzlement or by winning lucrative contracts.
He singled out “the billionaire general”, Interior Minister Sadegh Mahsouli; Grand Ayatollah Makarem Shirazi, the “Sultan of Sugar”; and Sadeq Ardeshir Larijani, the head of Iran’s judiciary, whom he said had embezzled $300 million in public money.
“Call me crazy,” Mr Pompeo said, “but I’m a little skeptical that a thieving thug under international sanctions is the right man to be Iran’s highest-ranking judicial official.”
He also attacked Ayatollah Ali Khamenei for presiding over a $95 billion “sludge fund” for the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.
Mr Pompeo also blamed the government for Iran’s economic woes, which have led to anti-government protests nationwide.
“The bitter irony of the economic situation in Iran is that the regime uses its time to line its own pockets while its people cry out for jobs, reform and opportunity,” Mr Pompeo said. “The Iranian economy is going great – but only if you’re a politically connected member of the elite.”
Mr Pompeo dismissed a basic premise of the Obama administration when it negotiated the Iran deal. Officials were hopeful that by suspending some sanctions in exchange for curbs on Iran’s nuclear program, an improving economy would bolster the ranks of relative moderates in the government. Mr Pompeo said Tehran has no moderates or statesmen.
“Some believe that President [Hassan] Rouhani and Foreign Minister [Mohammad Javad] Zarif fit the bill,” he said. “The truth is they are merely polished front men for the Ayatollah’s international con artistry. Their nuclear deal didn’t make them moderates, it made them wolves in sheep’s clothing.”
Halfway through Mr Pompeo’s remarks, a heckler interrupted him, only to be drowned out by boos and chants of “USA.” Mr Pompeo called it an example of freedom of dissent denied to most Iranians.
When a member of the audience asked him whether the Iranian people might gain control of their country in the foreseeable future, Mr Pompeo replied swiftly, “Of course.”
“We don’t know the right moment,” he said. “We don’t know the day that the behaviour of the regime will change. But we do know the things that the world is obligated to do so that when the right time comes, when the right moment comes, that opportunity is even more likely to find its fulfillment.”
Mark Dubowitz, head of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a leading critic of Iran and the 2015 nuclear deal, called Mr Pompeo’s remarks a “powerful indictment of a corrupt and repressive regime”, and suggested that US support will help lead to the demise of the theocratic government.
“It framed the secretary’s Reaganesque approach to confronting the Islamic Republic of Iran and his conviction that, with US support, the demand of Iranians for freedom and democracy will leave the Islamic Republic on the ash heap of history as it left the Soviet Union,” he said.
Trita Parsi, head of the National Iranian American Council, said in a statement that Mr Pompeo’s remarks presaged a looming US-Iran confrontation.
“Mike Pompeo removed all doubt today that the aim of the Trump administration is confrontation with Iran – not a better nuclear deal or new negotiations,” he said. “The Trump administration’s actions and words are simply not compatible with any policy other than fomenting unrest in and destabilising Iran.”
The Washington Post