Secretary of State Mike Pompeo issued a stark warning to Iran Friday, telling CNN that Washington will take direct action against Tehran for any attacks, even those using proxy forces, against US interests.
"We have told the Islamic Republic of Iran that using a proxy force to attack an American interest will not prevent us from responding against the prime actor," Pompeo told CNN in an interview with Elise Labott. "We will not let Iran get away with using a proxy force to attack an American interest; Iran will be held accountable for those incidents."
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Asked if that meant militarily, Pompeo said, "they're going to be held accountable."
The top US diplomat was speaking in the wake of early September rocket attacks, allegedly by Iran-backed militias, that appeared to target US missions in Iraq, including in an area that houses the US Embassy in Baghdad, the capital of Iraq. The White House blamed Shia militia groups, saying in a Sept. 11 statement that "Iran did not act to stop these attacks by its proxies in Iraq, which it has supported with funding, training and weapons."
Iran's Foreign Ministry responded on September 12 with a statement that called the US claims "astonishing, provocative, and irresponsible."
Pompeo noted Friday that Iran has been "confronting the world as the world's largest state sponsor of terror for quite some time. They have armed militias, the Lebanese Hezbollah, Makateeb Hezbollah, militias in Iraq; they're arming the Houthis in Yemen, launching missiles in the Gulf states."
He added that if Iran is "responsible for the arming and training of these militias, we're gonna go to the source."
Tensions between Iran and the US have increased over the last year after President Donald Trump withdrew the US from the international nuclear pact that gave Iran sanctions relief in exchange for curbs on its nuclear program.
In the months since, the administration has rolled out a pressure campaign focused on "neutralizing" Iran's influence in the region and its support for terrorism and militants. Pompeo delivered a speech in May that laid out 12 US demands for Iran to change that many saw as a strategy of regime change in all but name.
Next week, during an annual meeting of world leaders at the United Nations, Pompeo will be delivering a major speech on Iran as part of an administration wide effort to raise support for US efforts to counter Iran.
Trump is also scheduled to host a Security Council meeting on non-proliferation. On Friday, he tweeted that the gathering would be about Iran.
Pompeo also went after his predecessor, former Secretary of State John Kerry, an architect of the Iran nuclear deal who has met with Iranian officials since leaving office. Kerry's "problem," Pompeo said, is that "he always refused to treat our enemies like enemies."
"No American, and in particular no former Secretary of State should be actively speaking to undermine the foreign policy of the United States of America," Pompeo charged, saying that Kerry had told Iranian officials to "just wait out this administration."
"Every American, especially former secretary of state should be advocating for America's foreign policy. It's that straightforward," Pompeo said.
Defends admin's handling of North Korea
Pompeo also addressed North Korea, and stressed the importance of the relationship between Trump and leader Kim Jong Un to US efforts to have Pyongyang dismantle its nuclear program. The leaders' ties are "certainly very important, as is the relationship between Chairman Kim and President Moon," Pompeo said, referring to South Korea's leader who met with Kim for their third summit this year.
Pompeo said, "the two leaders will ultimately have to finish this thing, close this deal, is certainly the case."
Asked if he felt that North Korea was dictating the terms and pace of negotiations, the top US diplomat said the Trump administration knew the "pace would be uneven" as they pushed Kim to denuclearize in a verifiable and irreversible way. "But the progress each and every day was important," Pompeo said. "I think we're getting that."
Pompeo insisted that Trump's style on the world stage was leading to heightened respect, despite deepening strains with Europe, where officials have publicly said they can't rely on the US the way they used to, and some have proposed reducing their use of the US dollar.
Partners around the world "understand that America is back, we are engaged, we are leading from a core set of principles that they all can rally around and begin to help us build coalitions to solve some of the most difficult problems facing the world," Pompeo said.
Pompeo also responded to claims in the recent book by Bob Woodward that Trump doesn't understand the nuances of national security issues and that his team has sometimes worked behind the scenes to prevent the President from seeing certain papers or from acting on issues.
"I find that absolutely ludicrous," Pompeo said.
"There aren't many members of the President's Cabinet who would spend as much time with him as I have," Pompeo said. "I've briefed him almost every day as CIA director. I see him and talk to him every day now. This is a President who is fully informed, well-briefed, listens, asks hard questions and is leading his foreign policy team towards solving so many of the problems that plague this world."
"I wish the previous administration had acted with such diligence and power," Pompeo said, "but it was left to us. We'll get it right."