U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo spent the last week engaged in a flurry of diplomatic meetings with Iraq, Russia, and Belgium, all meant to drum up support for the Trump administration’s increasingly hard-line stance toward Iran and its nuclear program.
The meetings did not go well.
A NATO military intelligence official who was briefed on Pompeo’s claims about increased Iranian aggression in the Middle East said the substance of the intelligence that the Americans briefed was utterly unconvincing — even insulting.
“Do they think that we are stupid?” asked the NATO official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Tensions between Washington and Tehran have risen dramatically in recent weeks as some U.S. officials fear that Iran is preparing to attack several U.S. government facilities in the region. The U.S. has already preemptively deployed an aircraft carrier group to the area to “send a clear and unmistakable message to the Iranian regime that any attack on United States interests or on those of our allies will be met with unrelenting force,” in the words of the hawkish National Security Adviser John Bolton.
NATO officials fear that even a small incident in the tense region could escalate into a protracted and enormously dangerous conflict, both militarily and economically. While containing Iran’s regional assertiveness was a key rationale behind the Trump administration’s rejection of the nuclear treaty negotiated with Tehran by the Obama Administration, the White House’s intransigent approach raises new risks: namely, the ease with which Iran could target American military bases and American ally oil operations throughout the region.
Pompeo himself has struggled to build a coalition of partners willing to break the nuclear agreement and back the U.S. position, and his sudden and unexpected arrival at a meeting of European foreign ministers in Brussels did little to improve the situation. The NATO military intelligence official said Pompeo’s clumsy attempt to gin up support for the U.S.’s dealings with Iran fell on deaf ears.
“We are telling them that the Iranians weren’t behaving unusually and they ignored us.”
“[The briefing] was a dog’s breakfast of things that happen every day, rumors, poorly-sourced things we suspect are [planted information], and of course, some pictures of boats that the Iranians have put some missiles on,” he said, referencing the photograph of an Iranian missile on a small boat in the Persian Gulf that was recently declassified, according to the New York Times, by U.S. intelligence agents who wanted to prove that Iran is indeed a threat. “Iranians have been putting missiles on boats in the Gulf since the 1980s. That’s what you do when you don’t have proper blue water navy.”
The U.S. military currently has several thousand troops deployed around Iraq, Kurdistan, and parts of Syria as part of an anti-ISIS coalition; those troops have always been considered vulnerable to attacks by Iranian proxies, though there have not been any as of yet. U.S. occupation forces in Iraq in the aftermath of the war there were struck repeatedly by Iran and its allies, with an estimated 500 troops dying in such attacks between 2004 and 2009. While those numbers are grim, U.S. commanders in Iraq — unlike some members of the Trump Administration — appear skeptical that the already existing threat had increased.
A Kurdish intelligence official, speaking from Erbil in northern Iraq on the condition of anonymity, agreed that Iran is ready to strike U.S.-related targets throughout the region if violence breaks out, but stressed that this has been the case for over a decade.
“They always are ready; this is nothing new,” he said. “From the day America put troops in [Iran’s neighbors] Iraq and Afghanistan, they have prepared to strike against them in case of a major regional war.”
In a meeting in Iraq just a few days before his trip to Brussels, Pompeo had no better luck impressing Baghdad’s political and security chiefs with a similar argument — that Iran had become more aggressive. In that meeting, Iraqi officials pointedly asked to be left out of any hostilities.
“We made it clear that Iraq had suffered enough from regional games between the Iranians, Americans, and Saudis,” said an Iraqi official who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “We also tried to explain to the Americans that we have to work closely with Iran and see no new threat because they are focused on eliminating [ISIS].”
When asked if Pompeo and his staff accepted this analysis, the Iraqi official laughed.
“You Americans aren’t always good listeners in the Middle East,” he said. “We are telling them that the Iranians weren’t behaving unusually and they ignored us.”