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Pompeo's tough talk on Iran sparks fears of confrontation

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo arrives for meeting with Jordan's King Abdullah II at the Royal Palace in Amman, Jordan April 30, 2018 Khalil Mazraawi/Pool via Reuters

New US secretary of state Mike Pompeo wrapped up a whirlwind tour of the Middle East Monday, where he reiterated Washington's threat to quit the 2015 nuclear deal ahead of a May 12 deadline. Critics say deteriorating US-Iranian relations could spark confrontation.

On pit stops in Saudi Arabia, Israel, and Jordan (from 28-30 April), Pompeo slammed the Iran nuclear deal, urging the world to place more sanctions on Tehran over its ballistic missile program.

"There was supposed to be a curtailing in the nuclear deal of certain types of ballistics and ballistic testing. They’ve [Iran] broken beyond the two thousand and even four thousand threshold," Mitchell Belfer, Director of the Euro Gulf Information Centre in Rome, told RFI.

"So it’s very important that when it comes to any type of deal, that there be a clause about how Iran is going to develop a ballistic missile capability. Sadly the nuclear deal does not have an enforcement mechanism for that," he said.

Since the July 2015 nuclear agreement--known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)--was signed, Iran has tested as many as 23 ballistic, or long range missiles according to the US Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

It's one the reasons why US President Donald Trump has been itching to scrap it since he came to power.

Belfer thinks he should. "If you look at the facts on the ground, most of our conflict areas, whether we’re talking about Yemen, Afghanistan, or even Iraq for that matter, you have the hand of Tehran."

Iran a pawn in a chess game

For other critics, Washington's hostility towards Iran has less to do with its nuclear weapons and more to do with its problematic behaviour in countries like Syria and Yemen.

"Iran has already given up its enriched uranium by 20%, stopped developing new nuclear centrifuges and has opened its doors up to international monitors," Scott Lucas, a professor of American Studies at Birmingham University in the UK told RFI.

"The Iran deal has always been just a pawn in a bigger game of chess in the Middle East," he reckons.

It's being played against a backdrop of escalating tension over Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen, with Iran backing the Houthi insurgency, and the deteriorating conflict in Syria, where Iran backs Hezbollah.

"While I agree that Iran has certainly not been a force for good in this conflict and in many others, what you’re actually saying is that ‘look, we don’t care about the nuclear deal, we are actually going into an all-out confrontation with the Iranians," says Lucas, for whom the Iran deal is being used by the Americans to side-step more controversial issues.

He points to the fact that Pompeo failed to meet a single Palestinian official on his first Middle East tour.

"Palestine has been pushed to the side. We’re seeing it as a marker of the Trump administration portraying this new alliance with the Israelis and trying to declare it I think in terms of a conflict with Iran," he adds.

Storm clouds brewing

All of this spells bad news.

"I think that the situation is very ripe for a forthcoming war if nothing is done," Farhad Khosrokhavar, Director at the School for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences in Paris, told RFI.

Warning signs were spotted on Sunday, when at least 26 Iranian fighters were killed in fresh missile strikes on central Syria that a British war monitor blames on Israel.

"Israel is emboldened by the fact that Saudi Arabia is backing it as well as the US," continues Khosrokhavar.

"This sort of alliance between the US, Israel, and Saudi Arabia, against Iran, and partially Russia, and Syria, is very dangerous," he comments.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been a staunch opponent of the Iran nuclear deal, and on Monday said he had new "proof" of an Iranian nuclear weapons plan that could be activated at any time.

US President Donald Trump is due to decide on May 12 whether or not to reimpose nuclear-related sanctions on Iran, a move which would put the agreement in jeopardy.

Saving the deal

French President Emmanuel Macron has rallied to salvage the nuclear deal, speaking at length with Iran's President Hassan Rouhani and Russia's Vladimir Putin.

"The problem is that the people who are talking aren't the ones wielding the power", warns Khosrokhavar.

"Rohani is not the ultimate decision maker, it’s the Supreme leader. At the same time, Trump is perceived rightly or wrongly as not being reliable."

Where does that leave talks? At a dead end.

"We have never been closer to war since the end of the 1990s, as we are now," he concluded.