Opinion: No, Pompeo — U.S. is not committed to de-escalation with Iran

Fiona Harrigan

The rift between Iran and the United States got much wider last week with the airstrike assassination of Qassem Soleimani, the most powerful general in Iran. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo sprang into action immediately, swearing again and again that the United States government is serious about its “commitment to de-escalation” with Iran. 

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has exacerbated an Iran-U.S. dynamic of retribution as opposed to de-escalation, Harrigan writes.

Pompeo has taken special care to paint himself as a level-headed arbitrator who wants nothing more than a peaceful solution. He’s pushed this image abroad, too — the State Department reported that Pompeo made personal calls to officials in Great Britain, Germany and China before dawn on Jan. 3, defending the strike as a necessary component of de-escalation efforts. 

Though Pompeo’s desperately trying to convince the world that de-escalation is the overarching goal of current U.S. policy toward Iran, it’s a hard sell. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei venomously promised that those responsible for Soleimani’s death would be met with “forceful revenge.” That revenge began this week when Iran launched attacks on two Iraqi military bases where U.S. forces are stationed. While the U.S. has confirmed that there were no American casualties, Trump had previously threatened to strike Iranian cultural sites should Iran target American assets. Ultimately, Trump opted to push for more sanctions against Iran in his Jan. 8 remarks and remained proud of Soleimani’s assassination. Iran, meanwhile, has moved to enrich uranium and ignore international nuclear restrictions, much to Trump’s chagrin. 

President Trump addresses the nation Jan. 8 from the White House regarding the ballistic missile strike that Iran launched against Iraqi air bases housing U.S. troops.

And in the past year of relations between the U.S. and Iran, it’s nearly impossible to identify an action taken by either country where de-escalation was the primary goal — a dynamic that Pompeo has exacerbated as secretary of state. Recent interactions have been characterized by sanctions, deployed troops, and downed drones, with hotheaded leaders creeping toward full-blown war. 

Retribution? Yes. De-escalation? No. 

It’s absurd to think that Iran would choose to back down now when it hasn’t before. The end of December saw Iranian-backed militia members staging a destructive attack on the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, spurred by U.S. airstrikes in Iraq and Syria that killed two dozen militia members supported by Iran. That onslaught was a response to the very same militia killing an American contractor in a rocket attack. Despite economic and political pressure coming from both countries, Iran and the U.S. have remained hot. This cycle of vengeance has no end in sight.

What’s more, the attack on Soleimani has alienated current and former officials across the Middle East. Former Afghan President Hamid Karzai condemned the action for “risk[ing] regional peace and stability.” Even Houthi rebels in Yemen chimed in, with leader Abdul-Malek al-Houthi promising that the victims’ “blood [would] not go in vain.” The reactions are worrying, and they certainly don’t support Pompeo’s claim that the U.S. is working toward a more peaceful Middle East.

Though U.S. officials indicated that killing Soleimani was a well-calculated defensive play that would prevent future Iranian attacks, Iran’s actions Wednesday suggest otherwise. Considering the assassination’s fallout, Pompeo’s declarations of de-escalation sound entirely vacuous. It’s clear that the attack has further tarnished the image of the U.S. abroad. As world leaders express calls for peace that sound more urgent by the day, can we really call this airstrike proof of sincere de-escalation efforts?

Completely independent of the rightness or wrongness of assassinating Soleimani, the aftermath of the strike has proven Pompeo incorrect. Tensions between the U.S. and Iran were already going to be difficult to resolve — but now, de-escalation may prove impossible. The last thing the international community needs from Pompeo right now is his claim that this action was performed in the name of peace. At best, it’s a useless platitude. At worst, a blatant lie. 

Fiona Harrigan is a contributor for Young Voices and a political writer based in Tucson, Arizona.