Pompeo talks tough on Iran in first trip to Mideast allies

by Dave Clark
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US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, left, has just returned from a meeting with Netanyahu in Tel Aviv

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo lashed out at Iran during a rapid tour of Middle East allies on Sunday ahead of a crucial White House decision on whether to quit the nuclear deal with Tehran.

After setting off on his first diplomatic trip only hours after being sworn in, Pompeo met with Saudi and Israeli leaders, two countries with especially close strategic bonds with the United States.

Both also have a common enemy in Iran, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has repeatedly called for the nuclear deal to either be altered or scrapped, though most world powers see it as key to preventing Tehran from obtaining atomic weapons.

"Iran's ambition to dominate the Middle East remains," Pompeo said while standing next to Netanyahu after their two-hour meeting in Tel Aviv.

He reiterated that US President Donald Trump will withdraw from the nuclear deal with Iran "if we can't fix it".

Netanyahu said "Iran is trying to gobble up one country after the other."

"Iran must be stopped," the premier said. "Its quest for nuclear bombs must be stopped. Its aggression must be stopped."

Both Netanyahu and Saudi leaders appeared delighted that Pompeo, like Trump, included their countries on his first foreign trip since taking office.

The former CIA chief and congressman showed similar affection, saying when meeting Netanyahu that he and his country were an "incredibly important partner, occupy a special place in my heart too."

- 'Made no decision' -

Pompeo met earlier on Sunday with Saudi King Salman in Riyadh, after dinner on Saturday with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

He later flew to Jordan, wrapping up a weekend of talks with some of Iran's most fervent foes in the region.

Pompeo accused Iran of destabilising the Middle East, including through its support for Syria's President Bashar al-Assad and for Shiite rebels in Yemen.

"(Iran) supports proxy militias and terrorist groups. It is an arms dealer to the Huthi rebels in Yemen and Iran conducts cyber-hacking campaigns. And it supports the murderous Assad regime," he said at a joint press conference with Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir.

"Unlike the prior administration we will not neglect the vast scope of Iran's terrorism."

Iran's President Hassan Rouhani said the nuclear deal was "not negotiable".

"The nuclear deal or any other subject under its pretext is not negotiable in any way," he told his French counterpart Emmanuel Macron in a phone call, quoted by the presidency website.

"Iran will not accept any restrictions beyond its commitments."

Trump is due to decide on May 12 whether to reimpose sanctions on Tehran, putting in peril a landmark 2015 nuclear accord.

Britain, France and Germany all remain committed to the deal, saying it is the best way to keep Tehran from getting the bomb.

But Trump and America's Middle East allies argue the deal, approved by Trump's predecessor Barack Obama, was too weak and needs to be replaced with a more permanent arrangement and supplemented by controls on Iran's missile programme.

Jubeir said Riyadh supports "efforts aimed at improving the nuclear deal" and called for further sanctions against Iran for its "violations of international decisions on ballistic missiles, its support for terrorism and its interference in the affairs of countries in the region."

Pompeo said the nuclear deal "in its current form" does not do enough to make sure Iran never possesses atomic weapons.

Macron and Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany left Washington this week after talks with Trump which failed to secure any promise to keep the deal alive.

In Washington, National Security Advisor John Bolton also said Trump was still considering his options.

"He has made no decision on the nuclear deal, whether to stay in or get out," Bolton told Fox News.

- 'Hopeful' on Qatar crisis -

Absent from Pompeo's agenda were any meetings with the Palestinian leadership, which is boycotting the White House over its decision to move its embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, expected to occur on May 14.

Pompeo said in Tel Aviv that "we are incredibly proud" of the decision.

Senior Palestinian official Ahmed Majdalani told AFP the policy of boycotting Trump's administration would continue.

Pompeo made mention after meeting Netanyahu of the White House wanting a "lasting and comprehensive peace" between Israel and the Palestinians, but other issues took centre stage.

Speaking to reporters on the flight to Tel Aviv, Pompeo said he discussed calls from Trump for Saudi Arabia and other Middle East allies to contribute more to regional stability, including in Syria where the United States has more than 2,000 troops.

He also said he was "hopeful" of an end to the Gulf crisis that has seen Saudi Arabia and regional allies impose a diplomatic and trade embargo on fellow US ally Qatar.

Pompeo will conclude his first diplomatic trip on Monday after talks with senior Jordanian officials, then fly back to Washington to move into his office in the State Department.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (L) is greeted by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Ministry of Defence in Tel Aviv on April 29, 2018

Saudi Arabia's King Salman shakes hands with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in the capital Riyadh on April 29, 2018