Secretary of State Mike Pompeo unleashed a litany of neoconservative talking points at a Monday afternoon press conference, marking a turn away from the Trump administration’s “America First” foreign policy.
“We are recognizing the reality on the ground,” he said when asked about a one-state solution for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “When the time is right, our vision will go forward.”
The speech touched on issues around the world, from condemning China’s crackdown in Hong Kong to condoning the recent military takeover in Bolivia. But it focused the most on the Middle East, where President Donald Trump has promised to end “endless wars.”
Pompeo began by focusing on Iran, a country the Trump administration has flip-flopped on several times. Pompeo demanded Iran act like a “normal country,” echoing a talking point from the days of John Bolton.
“The United States will terminate the sanctions waiver related to the nuclear facility at Fordow, effective December 15,” Pompeo said, driving another nail into the coffin of the 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and six leading world powers. “The right amount of uranium enrichment for the world’s largest state sponsor of terror is zero.”
The waivers allowed foreign companies to work at the Fordow nuclear enrichment facility, which Iran was converting to a civilian research center under the deal. After the Trump administration broke from the deal and began a campaign of maximum pressure against Iran, the Iranian government began to drop its own obligations, beginning sensitive nuclear work that it had previously agreed to stop.
On November 5, Iranian nuclear scientists began to convert Fordow back into an enrichment facility.
“The regime does not intend to ‘break out’ toward a nuclear weapon but these violations continue to mount and chip away at the year break out time envisioned in the [nuclear deal],” said Matt Brodsky, a senior fellow at the Gold Institute for International Strategy. “We should bear in mind that Fordow was used to enrich uranium up to 20 percent, which is just a short step away from the level needed for weaponization.”
Pompeo also condemned Iran for its crackdown on protests. Iranians have poured into the streets over the past four days to condemn a gas tax that threatens to immiserate the Iranian working class. Information is scarce, as the government has shut down the Internet, but state news sources have admitted to at least twelve deaths in the protests and ensuing crackdown.
“I remember how the previous administration treated the Iranian people,” he said, taking a swipe at former President Barack Obama for his perceived softness on Iran.
Pompeo also condemned Iraq’s crackdown on anti-government protests, which has killed hundreds of civilians. He promised to sanction corrupt Iraqi officials.
But his most-anticipated bombshell had to do with a conflict that has been frozen in place for decades.
“The Trump administration is reversing the Obama administration's approach towards Israeli settlements,” Pompeo said, in prepared comments that had been leaked a few hours before. “The establishment of Israeli civilian settlements in the West Bank is not per se inconsistent with international law.”
“There hasn’t been much support for Israel” on the international stage, he added.”
Pompeo’s statement reversed a U.S. legal position dating back to 1978. U.S. administrations since the Carter administration have held that Israel cannot legally settle its own civilians in the Palestinian territories that Israel captured in its 1967 war against its Arab neighbors.
Israel and the Palestinian leadership have worked towards a two-state solution, which would create an independent State of Palestine in the 1967 territories, since the Oslo peace accords of the 1990s. Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu has promised to annex Israeli settlements in the territories, threatening to create a one-state status quo.
“It is clear that the Trump administration’s approach is to drive as many nails as possible into the coffin of a two-state future,” said Harry Reis, Director for Policy and Strategy at the New Israel Fund. “[Israel] will be forced to choose between perpetual military occupation and formalization of apartheid arrangements – what is known as ‘annexation.’ The question will be whether the millions of Palestinians living under Israel’s domain are entitled to civic equality and rights or not. No friend of Israel would condemn the country to pick from among those unhappy choices.”
Israel is now heading into a potential third round of elections, after both Netanyahu and his political rival, Gen. Benny Gantz, failed to put together a majority coalition.
When asked whether the decision on settlements came at a sensitive time, Pompeo claimed that it the fruits of a legal effort that had been underway for some time. He added that the Trump administration’s Israeli-Palestinian peace plan, which has been delayed for months, will be released only after elections and coalition talks are finished in Israel.
“The timing of his had nothing to do with domestic politics,” he said. “Anywhere.”
Editor's note: the piece has been updated to better reflect the context of Mr. Reis's statement.
Matthew Petti is a national security reporter at the National Interest and a former Foreign Language Area Studies Fellow at Columbia University. His work has appeared in The Armenian Weekly, Reason and America Magazine.