WASHINGTON — Last week, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was the loudest voice in the administration pushing President Donald Trump to kill Iran’s most important general. This week, he is back in his role as the nation’s top diplomat, trying to contain the international crisis the general’s death created.
True to form, Pompeo is not backing down. “You saw, more tactically, just these last few days the president’s response when the Iranians made a bad decision to kill an American,” he told reporters at the State Department on Tuesday, referring to a deadly rocket attack in Iraq on Dec. 27 by an Iran-backed militia. “We hope they won’t make another bad decision just like that one.”
The strike against the Iranian general has affirmed Pompeo’s position as the second-most powerful official in the Trump administration, behind only the president himself. A hawk brimming with bravado and ambition, Pompeo is ostensibly the Cabinet member who smooths America’s relations with the rest of the world.
But as the man at the center of the argument to launch the drone strike that killed Gen. Qassem Soleimani — and who pushed Trump to withdraw from the landmark Iran nuclear deal in 2018 — he is in the unusual role of shaping national security policy that makes his diplomatic job harder.
“Pompeo’s end run got the decision he may have wanted, but the messy day after — sloppy explanations of the threat, disorganized public statements, and hasty diplomatic and military efforts — limited the effectiveness of the policy and made it far riskier for the country and president,” said John Gans, a former chief speechwriter at the Pentagon and author of a new book on the National Security Council, which includes Pompeo.
Congress is demanding that Pompeo and other senior administration officials testify about the intelligence that led to the decision to blow up Soleimani’s convoy as it was leaving Baghdad International Airport on Friday.
And should Iran retaliate aggressively, as expected, Pompeo, 56, could be the man who helps lead the United States into another conflict in the Middle East — breaking one of Trump’s key campaign promises just as the president faces reelection.
“I think Secretary Pompeo is playing a rather naive and destructive role in all this,” said Wendy R. Sherman, who was the third-ranking State Department official in the Obama administration and helped negotiate the 2015 nuclear agreement between Iran and other countries from which the United States withdrew just days after Pompeo arrived at the State Department.
Pompeo said he and other U.S. officials “evaluated the relevant risks” that the strike against Soleimani might bring. He cited “continuing efforts on behalf of this terrorist to build out a network of campaign activities that were going to lead potentially to the death of many more Americans.”
Last fall, during the impeachment inquiry, Pompeo’s standing among career staffers at the State Department, Democrats in Congress and much of the public plummeted, when it became obvious he had enabled Trump’s shadow Ukraine policy. He also lost some of Trump’s confidence after failing to prevent veteran diplomats from testifying on Capitol Hill.
The Iran crisis presents similar risks for Pompeo, who had considered running this year for an open Senate seat in Kansas. His associates say he now has an eye on a presidential campaign in 2024.
The upheaval is unfolding at a pace that Trump and top aides never expected, officials said.
Millions of Iranians have taken to the streets to protest Soleimani’s killing — a dramatic change from just weeks ago, when demonstrators were denouncing the rulers in Tehran. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, told officials that any retaliation should be direct, proportional and carried out by Iran itself.
European allies have expressed anger to Pompeo over the strike, which they were not told about in advance.
And Pompeo has been unable to convince Iraq’s government that the United States remains a reliable partner. Its parliament, furious at what Iraqi officials call a violation of their sovereignty, voted Sunday to expel more than 5,000 U.S. troops from the country.
Diplomats and other American employees at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad remain on high alert, with some heading by airplane to the safety of the U.S. Consulate in Irbil, in Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq. The Pentagon has added 4,500 troops to some 50,000 who were already in the region, and the British navy deployed two warships to the Persian Gulf.
U.S. embassies around the world are issuing messages to U.S. citizens warning them to stay alert to potential dangers — an action that undermines the administration line that the killing of Soleimani made Americans safer.
The security of State Department personnel abroad is a big potential political liability for both Pompeo, who played a leading role in the House Benghazi inquiry as a Republican congressman from Kansas, and for Trump.
Both men excoriated Hillary Clinton, the former secretary of state who ran for president against Trump, for the 2012 deaths of four Americans, including an ambassador, in an attack against a diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya. As director of the CIA and then secretary of state, Pompeo has warned his subordinates that he does not want to see “any Benghazis.”
Trump and Pompeo were outraged by images of pro-Iran protesters in Iraq attacking buildings at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad on Dec. 31, though no Americans were injured.
A senior administration official said a severe but unspecified threat against the embassy was the reason that Trump made the decision to kill Soleimani.
Yet no major attack against the sprawling and heavily fortified diplomatic compound in Baghdad’s Green Zone was “imminent,” even though Pompeo had asserted that repeatedly, the official said. The official was not authorized to discuss administration deliberations by name. Some Pentagon officials said earlier that there was no intelligence revealing any unusual threats.
On Tuesday, Pompeo did not repeat his assertions that the United States had intelligence about an “imminent” attack and instead pointed to recent violent episodes.
“If you’re looking for imminence, you need look no further than the days that led up to the strike that was taken against Soleimani,” Pompeo said, apparently referring to the rocket attack by an Iranian-backed militia that killed an American interpreter in Iraq on Dec. 27. The Americans then carried out airstrikes that killed 25 militiamen, which led to protests by mostly Iranian-backed militiamen inside the U.S. Embassy compound in Baghdad.
U.S. officials say that over the last two months, there have been 11 attacks by Iran-backed militias on bases in Iraq where American service members, diplomats and contractors work.
Critics say Pompeo, the only surviving member of the president’s original foreign policy team, is a chief architect of the rising tensions between the United States and Iran.
As Trump’s first CIA director, he created a special center to deal with Iran, appointing as its head Michael D’Andrea, a veteran officer and convert to Islam known as the Dark Prince, who oversaw the hunt for Osama bin Laden and the drone strike campaign in the Middle East and Central Asia.
In December 2017, Pompeo said he had sent a letter to Soleimani warning him against attacking U.S. forces in Iraq. The general had helped plan deadly attacks on U.S. troops in Iraq during the mid-2000s. When he got the letter, Soleimani was in Syria guiding a campaign against the Islamic State — which meant he was nominally on the same side in that fight as the Americans.
Just days after becoming secretary of state in 2018, Pompeo pushed Trump to withdraw from the nuclear agreement and reimpose strict sanctions on Iran. He has nurtured closer partnerships with Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, enemies of Iran that sometimes have agendas that run counter to U.S. interests.
In April, he advised Trump to designate as a foreign terrorist organization Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, an arm of the Iranian military that includes Soleimani’s elite Quds Force. It was the first time the United States had applied that label to a part of another government.
And after the Dec. 31 breach of the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, Pompeo pushed for the strike against Soleimani, which Defense Department officials had presented to Trump as an extreme and not particularly palatable option just days earlier.
Yet Pompeo’s hawkish role on Iran could increase his support within a Republican establishment that has long wanted the United States to adopt more aggressive policies toward Tehran, with some advocating regime change against the ayatollahs.
A notable voter base — conservative supporters of Israel, including white evangelical Christians like Pompeo — promotes hard-line actions against Iran. They denounced the 2015 nuclear deal as appeasement. Last year, on a trip to Israel, Pompeo invoked the Bible in saying Trump was a modern-day Queen Esther sent by God to save the Jews from Iran.
Since Friday, Pompeo has spoken on the phone with senior officials and leaders in Europe, the Middle East and Asia to explain the United States’ need for defensive actions and, in some cases, stress that Washington wanted de-escalation. The United States also sent a message to Tehran on Friday through a Swiss diplomat, a senior administration official said.
In a joint statement issued Sunday, the leaders of Britain, France and Germany condemned Iran for its “negative role” in the Middle East but also described “an urgent need for de-escalation.”