Secretary of State Mike Pompeo's first major foreign policy speech was everything Iran hawks have dreamt about.
The address was filled with tough-sounding rhetoric about Iran's behavior in the Middle East. Pompeo provided red meat to neoconservatives, unilateralists, and primacists alike, outlining an approach that relies on economic, military, and political pressure to bend Iran to Washington's will.
What the Trump administration billed as a "plan B" in a post-Iranian-nuclear-deal world was in truth not a plan but a long list of grievances and a series of demands that Tehran will almost certainly reject. "Relief from sanctions will come only when we see tangible, demonstrated, and sustained shifts in Tehran's policies," Pompeo told his audience.
These may be popular words from the standpoint of domestic politics. But in terms of actual policy, the speech is substanceless.
Few will take issue with the administration's ultimate goal. If we could wake up one day, turn on the television, and discover a reformed Iranian government that respects the sovereignty of its neighbors, dismantles its entire uranium enrichment infrastructure, ends its support to Damascus and Hezbollah, and stops threatening Israel, that would be wonderful. That is, in effect, what Pompeo is demanding—a wholesale reformation of the Iranian regime's foreign policy, something it has not done after more than 40 years of American sanctions and threats.
The chances that Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei or Quds Force Gen. Qassem Soleimani will have an epiphany one day and act the way Washington wants are less likely than your chances of winning the lottery. The probability that the Iranians will succumb to pressure alone is so small that it's negligible. Coercing a regime that prides itself on total resistance to Western demands is no easy task. It may be close to impossible.
For those more interested in beneficial outcomes than intentions, what Pompeo outlined was not a realistic plan for a "better deal." Indeed, there is no better deal is to be had. Pompeo's speech was a transparent attempt to lay the foundation for another counterproductive, costly regime change campaign.
As the old adage goes, we need to start living in the complicated and often unfair world as it is rather than the utopian world we wish it to be. America's core national security interests in the Middle East are a balance of power where no hegemon dominates the entire region, pressure on transnational terrorist groups that threaten the U.S. homeland, and a strong and vibrant U.S. diplomatic presence with as many players as possible. What the White House needs is an actual strategy that prioritizes those interests.
Such a strategy will require difficult trade-offs as to what can be realistically achieved and expected from Iran. It will also require a willingness to bargain or hold a dialogue when the opportunity presents itself, as well as a general understanding that U.S. interests do not automatically and unconditionally match those of America's partners in the region. Just as critical to an effective Iran policy is an acknowledgment that Washington can do only so much in a part of the world that has repeatedly defied Washington's expectations.
Iran will remain a central player in the region. This is not a scenario that Washington would prefer, but this is the reality. The Trump administration has an opportunity to reorient how America conducts business in the Middle East. But it can only begin this process if it recognizes that coercion alone, without any flexibility or diplomacy, will merely lead to more failure.