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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 25 June 2018

Pompeo warns of rising threat of Iran in Syria

US Secretary of State continues tough talk on Iran, announcing a four layer strategy

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo says the US will exert 'unprecedented financial pressure' on Iran. Leah Millis / Reuters
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo says the US will exert 'unprecedented financial pressure' on Iran. Leah Millis / Reuters

Two days after his speech laying out the United States plan to counter Iranian behaviour, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told Congress that “unprecedented financial pressure” is on the way against Iran, which he warned has increased its military capabilities in Syria.

Mr Pompeo told the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Wednesday that a four layer strategy based on unprecedented financial pressure, deterrence efforts co-ordinated by the US Defence Department, support for the Iranian people and holding out the prospect of a new deal with Iran, will now define US policy.

“We seek to work with as many partners, friends, allies as possible to achieve the common objective of stopping all of Iran’s nuclear and non-nuclear threats,” he said.

He also rejected criticism that his strategy amounted to a fantasy, described by Congressman David Cicilline as “a Santa Claus wish list”. Mr Pompeo said the goal is for Iran to behave as “a normal country.”

The chief US diplomat raised the alarm over Iran's expanded power in Syria, and the threat its presence poses to Israel. “I am familiar with Iranian efforts in Syria, their forces and presence have expanded in the last 24 months” he said. This expansion, he said, included shipping more advanced weapons to the war-torn country, and thus increasing its capacity to threaten Israel.

Mr Pompeo said the complexity of the Syrian war made it “difficult to respond to Iran”. But “we are aware of the threat,” he said, adding that the US had discussed it with European and regional partners.

Asked about security aid to Lebanon following recent elections in which Hezbollah made slight gains, Mr Pompeo said that “Hezbollah is not only a problem in Lebanon but also in Syria, and we are trying to reduce its capacity”. However, addressing the results of the election and scope of US aid to Lebanon, Mr Pompeo said that “our assessment is that the overall balance of power [in Lebanon] won’t be changed.”

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That wasn't necessarily a good thing, he said, “because the existing balance was not good”.

He did not anticipate major changes to aid to Lebanon, but stressed that the Trump team will review the matter to “make sure we are doing this right”.

North Korea took up a big share of the hearing as well. The historic meeting between US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un is still scheduled for June 12, Mr Pompeo said.

Mr Pompeo will lead the US team rather than national security adviser John Bolton, the diplomat said, adding that he would maintain a tough stance against the north. "We have made zero concessions to Chairman Kim [Jong-un] and we have no intention to do so,” he said. “Our posture will not change until we see credible steps taken towards the complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula.”

Mr Pompeo did not answer questions on whether the administration plans to shut down the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) office in Washington or oppose the sale of F-35 jets to Turkey.

Ankara was criticised heavily at the hearing by members of both parties for recent actions against Greece, Cyprus and vis a vis the Kurdish minority. Congressman Dana Rohrabacher said Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan “is becoming our enemy”.

Mr Pompeo said he had raised the issue of human rights before with Saudi officials but not the recent arrests of women's rights activists.

He also criticised the Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen for firing ballistic missiles at Saudi Arabia.