On Tuesday September 28th, NUFDI hosted former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo for a fireside chat on Iran.
Below is the event’s full transcript.
Dr. Saeed Ganji: Good afternoon, my name is Saeed Ganji, and I’m the president and chairman of the National Union for Democracy in Iran (NUFDI). NUFDI is a non-partisan non-profit organization of Iranian Americans based in Washington D.C. dedicated to human rights, democracy and the rule of law in Iran. Our main goal is to amplify the voice of the Iranian people who have been silenced for more than four decades. It is my honor and my privilege to welcome Secretary Pompeo to our office in Washington for a candid discussion on Iran. This event wouldn’t have been possible without the tireless effort of Secretary Pompeo’s team as well as NUFDI’s. A special gratitude and appreciation to Mr. Len Khodorkovsky, former special advisor to State Department’s Special Representative on Iran for being a true friend and ally of NUFDI, who has also made this event possible, so without further ado I’d like to ask Len to take the podium and continue the event. Thank you.
Len Khodorkovsky: Thank you Dr. Ganji and all of my friends here at NUFDI and the wider Iranian community. I know NUFDI is doing a great job on behalf of Iranian-Americans and representing the democratic aspirations of the Iranian people. Today I have the great honor to introduce to you a man who needs no introduction, a man that still makes the mullahs tremble with fear. The 70th Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo. From the day the Trump Administration came to office, indeed, from the first day that Mike Pompeo became the CIA Director and then the Secretary of State, I bet the mullahs sensed they were in a whole heap of trouble. There would be no more pallets of cash, no more photo ops in Geneva and no more coddling of terrorists as if they were normal diplomats. What’s more, the Iranian people, not the Iranian regime, now had friends at the White House and the State Department. Both President Trump and Secretary Pompeo made Iran policy a priority for the United States.
Yes, it was about denying the world’s top terrorist regime a nuclear weapon but it was also about differentiation between the regime and the Iranian people. Maximum pressure on the regime and maximum friendship with the people. Throughout his tenure Secretary Pompeo prioritized engagement with the Iranian people. He turbocharged the Farsi-language outlets at the State Department and he regularly met with Iranian dissidents, he was the first Secretary State to do a Q & A with the Iranian people inside Iran, which led to an executive order denying entry to family members of the regime officials. During the 2019 protests, Secretary Pompeo opened a digital channel to receive evidence of human rights atrocities from the Iranian regime and this action led to sanctions on hanging judges and Basij thugs.
Secretary Pompeo shined the spotlight on human rights as well, you may recall during a human rights event focused exclusively on Iran, Secretary Pompeo shared the story of Pouya Bakhtiari, a young man who loved Elvis and was murdered by the regime for demanding his basic human rights. Now you know that his family wasn’t even allowed to bury Pouya in peace and his father Manouchehr is still in prison today. One day soon Pouya’s murderers will face justice. Speaking of justice, one word, Soleimani.
Finally, and this might be my favorite, Secretary Pompeo restricted that malekesh Javad Zarif from roaming around New York City for more than six blocks. If that were the only accomplishment by Secretary Pompeo, I’m sure the Iranian people would build him a statue in Tehran. Finally, ladies and gentlemen, I am humbled and honored to present to you a great American Patriot, a staunch friend of the Iranian people and the 70th Secretary of State Mr. Mike Pompeo. Take it away Cameron.
Cameron Khansarinia: Len, thank you very much for your introduction, Dr. Ganji thank you for your leadership, Mr. Secretary welcome to the NUFDI office, it is really a pleasure sir to have you here. We very much appreciate it.
Secretary Pompeo: It’s great to be with you all, looking forward to the conversation.
Cameron Khansarinia: Thank you, as are we. Let’s hop right into current events sir, so last week at the U.N. General Assembly, the Iran that was on display was not an Iran that I think most Iranians or Iranian-Americans are proud of. You know this regime has had 42 years of terror aimed against the Iranian people as you have often alluded to and also against the United States and our allies. But that wasn’t always the case of course, prior to this regime Iranian women enjoyed vast social freedoms, they held high government office, religious minorities like Jews and Christians practiced their faith freely, Iran had a GDP higher than that of South Korea and from a security perspective it was a keystone for regional stability instead of as it is today, being a hotbed and the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism and actually Iran worked with the United States to keep Islamism, communism, terrorism, all at bay. Very different from what, unfortunately, we see today, but we have the regime seeking a nuclear bomb, so can I ask you sir, whereas you made the decision to and in your administration to leave the flawed nuclear deal in what our opinion and the opinion of many is flawed, the Biden Administration has chosen a policy that some people have termed “maximum appeasement,” so how would you assess the Biden Administration’s work thus far and if sir, were to return to the JCPOA would you envision a future GOP administration leaving it once again?
Secretary Pompeo: Well, it’s hard to know where we’ll find ourselves other than I am an optimist, I think the Iranian people one day will throw off the mullahs and find the right leadership for their country. As for U.S. policy, we inherited the policy that Barack Obama had put in place, it was a policy that had enabled the regime to accrete power, create resources capabilities, we certainly saw that in the nuclear front they cobbled together this document they’d signed onto with the other P5 countries, it no more protected the world from an Iranian nuclear weapon than a man in the moon, it wasn’t going to stop it, indeed it provided a glide path for them to do this. It might have delayed it for a moment or a year or even five, but certainly didn’t put the brakes on, not just a nuclear weapon but a nuclear program and that’s an important distinction.
The capacity of Iran to have even one weapon would allow them to use extortion around the region in ways that are absolutely frightening. We saw that, so we built out an entirely different construct. Our construct revolved around declaring the central understanding that Iran’s leaders were the central destabilizing source, that we could find partners and friends in the region– Arab countries who were prepared alongside us helped deliver Iranian isolation and then ultimately, we achieved the Abrahamic Accords which were an outcome from a series of great leaders who also understood and wanted good things for the people of Iran and they wanted this regime to be constrained.
Now we are headed back, I think even this week we have Americans sitting at the table with Ebrahim Raisi. I don’t get that I must say, I can’t absorb the logic that would suggest that more money, more resources, more accommodation to this regime makes life better for anyone in the region certainly not for the Iranian people and yet it’s now a bit more of an article of faith more than a matter of strategic importance.
So far, the Iranians haven’t bitten, I fear that’s because they think more concessions can yet be wrung, but make no mistake about it, there are requirements, U.S. legal requirements, connected to the sanctions regime, many of which have nothing to do with their nuclear program so the administration says they’re going to get longer stronger. I hope that congress and the American people will hold them accountable for longer and stronger if they decide to go back to that deal.
Cameron Khansarinia: Do you think that there are ways before a new administration may come in and reverse this policy, for example the Congress to hold the administration to some account? I know you worked with, for example, the Republican Study Committee on the Maximum Pressure Act. Do you think that congress in the next few years, while President Biden is still in office, can play a role in holding them accountable for their policy?
Secretary Pompeo: Not only can they, they must for it’s a matter of American security. While the president has an enormous amount of capacity in the space of foreign policy and national security, congress has a role there as well. We have friends and allies who desperately want to trade with the Iranians too, some of the Europeans are just anxious to just get back in there in the same way they were as part of the first deal.
Congress has a role in preventing those kinds of things from happening and I saw this in our time, Iranian sanctions were often bipartisan, there was a broader understanding it wasn’t just Republicans and Democrats, there was a broader understanding of what the Iranian leadership will do when it has money. It won’t make life better for the Iranian people, it’s not going to work inside multilateral institutions for a good thing, there are no moderate Iranian leaders.
Many across a broad political spectrum accept that as a central understanding of who these mullahs, these terrorists are, so congress has a responsibility to hold our executives accountable against the policy set that they claim they want.
Cameron Khansarinia: Well now speaking of something that was not bipartisan, but actually both parties seem to be against, but an action that your administration took was the elimination of Qasem Soleimani, who was a field commander, basically the field leader of the IRGC- Quds Force, as you well know sir the blood of unpolled numbers of Iranians, Americans and citizens and soldiers of our allies is on his hands. As I mentioned, that was a decision that previous Republican and Democratic administrations refused to take. What was the decision-making process for that like to the extent that you can share with us of course, and how do you think it has changed the region since?
Secretary Pompeo: The whole world took notice of the fact that the United States was serious about preventing terrorism and preventing this IRGC leader from killing Americans again. And that we were willing to undertake some level of risk in order to do so… that is you are right, there would have been many leaders unlike President Trump, who were prepared to make that decision. People inside the administration said if you do this there will be war, the Iranians will conduct cyber-attacks, and all kinds of things. We were mindful of those people being serious and thoughtful, the risk was certainly there, but we had laid the groundwork, we had laid the groundwork to reduce the risk that those kinds of responses from the Iranians would take place.
And so, and when President Trump was presented both with the threat and active effort by General Soleimani to kill Americans, and an opportunity to prevent that from happening, we took the actions to make sure that Soleimani never killed another American.
Cameron: And do you think the region is better off for that now, sir?
Secretary Pompeo: Oh, there’s no doubt, the worlds better off! I promise you that Chairman Kim, Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping, they all saw that action. The time stood still for a moment when it was announced that General Soleimani was no more. It was more than just taking a senior IRGC Quds force leader off the battlefield. That mattered, it was both necessary and sufficient in my judgment to recommend to the President that he proceed down that path.
But it was telling that this was an administration that when we spoke about things, that there were red lines in American interests that we were prepared to defend, we were prepared to accept some amount of risk in order to do so, and we were prepared to make sure, that if those risks happen, if there was a follow on, that we were going to respond in a way that respected the traditional lines that America has always drawn.
Last thought, I am also confident, and this mattered a lot in our thinking as well. I am also confident that the Iranian people saw that. I’m also confident that they saw now they had a partner in the United States who would support them, and when they went to the streets, that the Secretary of State of the United States would tweet their protest and support them.
They saw that they had an American president, who when they were being mistreated, and there were human rights violations inside of their country, and they decided to protest, that that president would decide to stand with them as well. And so, there were multiple first and second order impacts of the decision the President made to make the strike on Qassem Soleimani.
Cameron: Absolutely, even tweeting yourself and the President in Persian for the first time, and I think that to this day is the most liked tweet in Persian Twitter history if I’m not mistaken, so that was most certainly historic. If I may, Mr. Secretary, on the point of the Iranian people, when we announced this event, as I am sure you can imagine, we had a huge influx of interest, and people were thrilled that you would be generous enough with your time to sit with us today, and we got dozens if not hundreds of questions, some from Iranian-Americans, some from inside Iran, in fact people from inside Iran sent videos with their questions; out of respect for their security I’m just going to read one which I think encapsulates many of the questions, with your permission. And this is from Maziar who is in Mashhad, actually you spoke with lots of people from Mashhad in your time as…
Secretary Pompeo: It’s a wonderful place!
Cameron: … as Secretary. So, you’ll forgive me for reading: “Mr. Secretary, as Secretary of State, you were extremely popular in Iran. Thank you for hearing our voices. After four decades of this regime, we all agree that our future government has to be secular, democratic, and based on human rights. Now some want to see that democratic government in the form of a republic and some want to see it in the form of a parliamentary constitutional monarchy. We all agree on the democratic content but we may disagree on the form it should take. I know the day when our country will get rid of this regime and freely decide the future form of government is soon. If you were in a position of power then, when that happens, will you pick a side, or will you welcome the outcome whichever we, the Iranian people, choose?”
Secretary Pompeo: Oh, that’s easy! I’ll do what we did in our revolution. This might be a revolution or counter-revolution in Iran, but the people will have the say in the nature of their government, right? The consent of the Iranian people will be what is necessary. Not only because that’s the morally right thing to do for a sovereign nation, and the Iranian people deserve every bit of that sovereignty, they have earned it, they have, they will have fought for it. I am confident that it will be a difficult challenge and it will be people who will have sacrificed an enormous amount when we ultimately get to the time the Iranian people get the government that they deserve and that they want.
They will then have earned the right to shape how their government will be formed. It will be different than what our constitution looks like, it will be different within what preceded it in Iran, I’m confident, right, it’ll be, there will be other elements, there will be different ideas. But in the end, what the Iranian people choose should be deeply respected and welcomed and encouraged and supported. Supported not only by the United States, but supported by their Arab neighbors as well.
And I pray, and people, people chuckle just a bit, I pray one day that the Iranian leadership is in a position where they can sign the Abraham Accords, right, where they can join nations that say: “we just want to be peaceful and prosperous and raise our families in the way that we want to, and we have a government that is responsive to our needs and our desires, and the things that we love and cherish.”
Uh, the Iranian people have a rich history and I am confident that one day they will get back that very opportunity, and whoever the president of the United States is, at that point in time, ought to have deep respect for that process and allow the Iranian people to make good decisions for themselves.
Cameron: Well, thank you Mr. Secretary, I’m sure that many people will appreciate that. It’s funny you mentioned the future of the Abraham Accords, because you know Len, who was kind enough to, join us today, has talked a lot about the Cyrus Accords, and I think that that’s something that a lot of Iranians look forward to. Did you see when you were Secretary of State, sort of the, I know you often mentioned, the vast difference between the Iranian people and the Islamic regime in Iran. Did you see, in I think how, how Iranians looked for example to us as Americans or to Israelis, or to Arabs in the Persian Gulf, and did you, was that I think uh, was that something you saw the vast difference there in how they want to have this peaceful relationship that you talk about?
Secretary Pompeo: Oh, my goodness! You know we, our administration worked so hard. What do I mean by worked so hard? We weren’t, we weren’t, we weren’t the moving force, we were the supporting efforts for these desires of people and these places to get to a place that they knew was the right place but was politically difficult and fraught. But we unlocked a lot of problems, we provided a backstop for some of the hard decisions that they needed that they would need to make, and then, as with all things, great leaders rose. And this is my, this is my my deep belief about Iran, great leaders will rise, people will rise up, we may not even know their names today, they will rise up and they’ll do great things in small towns, they’ll do great things in parts of the country that people have never heard of, and they will come together to deliver a really good outcome.
We could not, no one could have predicted that we would successfully see four nations recognizing Israel. But it worked, it worked because of all the great leaders that rose, and the American backstop that provided the space and the resources for them to make those bold decisions. And the last thought there is, one, one should never talk about the Abraham Accords or anybody joining them without acknowledging that we want the Palestinian people to be fruitful and successful as well.
We wish the very best for those human beings as well. Sadly, their current leadership is corrupt, and we gave them our best offer, they rejected it as they had so many before, and we found ourselves having to continue a pace with creating peace and stability without the Palestinians as part of that conversation. I pray one day, they will be part of the conversation and ultimately, will join us in the same place.
Cameron: Absolutely, God willing. Now Mr. Secretary, you just mentioned this hearing the voice of the Iranian people, something you did so consistently and I think I think as Len mentioned in his introduction that more than any Secretary of State in history so with your permission just a quick video of some things from inside Iran. I’m sure you’ve seen many if not all of these before:
Cameron: Mr. Secretary you, as you mentioned you were consistent in your time as Secretary of State as were the many other amazing public servants in your administration that we support the people of Iran and I think for all of those who follow this issue and certainly yourself sir. By large, it’s become clear what the Iranians want and that is the end of this regime and the establishment of a secular democracy – whatever that may look like as you said looking to the future.
Do you think in a future administration, Mr. Secretary, that you may be a part of in some capacity would take the step to go perhaps beyond maximum pressure on the regime and support something that we here at NUFDI at least call maximum support of the Iranian people? I know for example at the end of your administration folks were working on the issue of providing internet access or supporting laborers with something like a strike fund. Do you think that that’s something that’s conceivable for the future?
Secretary Pompeo: I do. Putting pressure on the regime is central. It’s important. It is necessary. But in the end, much as the United States did to allow the Berlin Wall to ultimately fall, we were supportive. We helped it. Whether it was in Gdansk or wherever it may have been, we helped. It wasn’t America leading the revolt. It wasn’t America conducting this change in leadership.
It was America responding to the calls of the people in those who wanted nothing more than just the opportunity to live their lives and freedom and practice their faith in the way they wanted to, to raise their families the way that they wanted to. We did that. We provided support.
We tried to do that in the Trump administration some as well. We always have to make sure we do it in a way that’s lawful and consistent with American law. But there are real opportunities to do that and we have to be consistent about it. We need to be clear about the things we can do and the things that the Iranian people are going to have to do themselves and once that division of labor is set it is perfectly appropriate for the United States to support humanitarian efforts and those who are desirous of freedom across the world.
Cameron: I think you hit the nail on the head Mr. Secretary. I think Iranians inside the country based on folks we talked to by and large accept that they said this is going to be something like a team effort. After a week you know we’re on the field and we have our allies who are cheering us on helping us in the United States. Funny you mentioned of course the Soviet Union and the great dissidents of that time who were in the Soviet prisons. You know we had…we have the pleasure of having Len again with us here today – who knows much more about that.
When they heard President, Reagan says this is an evil empire and it will fall – that gave Natan Sharansky, when they write about this and talk about it now – they talk of how much hope it gave them and I think that you sir for example when he was murdered and you spoke so eloquently and touchingly about him. His father came in and talked about that and I think set the record straight for so many of those here who say no we can’t talk about human rights; we can’t talk about the issues of human dignity because that will empower the regime. We saw it empowered the Iranian people.
Secretary Pompeo: We know history teaches that that’s always the case. It’s always the case valuing individual lives and not the state and venerating human dignity and not totalitarian regimes. Those are the things that everywhere in the world enable people to find that capacity to set a course to make lives better for themselves and this fight will be ultimately led by the Iranian people.
It is proper that that’s the case. But all of us who have a central understanding of the founding documents in our country and who respect them and admire them need to make sure that we honor each place that we travel around the world as well where we can have an impact. We ought to do our best to do so.
Cameron: Absolutely. I want to bring in with your permission Mr. Secretary a little bit closer to home. Now you and your colleagues like Brian Hook made a point to engage directly the Iranian-American at the Iranian diaspora here in the United States in historic events like the Raegan library in Southern California but also in Texas and here in Washington. I know you met a really wide variety I’m sure of people – knowing the Iranian community as I do – you met a wide variety of people and I’m sure some interesting characters from all backgrounds in our diverse community and that was unique and historic for a secretary of state. Why was that important for you to do? What was that experience like? And what, if anything, did you learn from those meetings?
Secretary Pompeo: It was really great. I had to fight my own State Department to do it with some frequency but that’s okay too. I felt like it was very important. Two things, three perhaps one personal – two deeply aligned with my duties as Secretary of State. The first two are…it helped me get an understanding of what was truly transpiring inside of Iran. I was happy to read the intelligence, happy to read the things that were in the open press. But people who had family and friends and deep connectivity and understood the history.
By the way, and all of the characters that you described right from different communities and people with different faiths to listen to them and hear what they were seeing and hearing from the people that were on the ground there was absolutely invaluable and I did it as a scale that I thought was more anecdotal than data upon which helped formulate recommendations to the President about our foreign policy.
The second this was I knew that the people of Iran would see this as well. Some of these folks would write back to their friends and family members and say that I’m with the Secretary of State of the United States of America and this administration cares about your plight and knows that you are oppressed under a tyrannical regime and I hope that gave them heart and courage. Those are the two official ones.
Thirdly, it was really important to me because it always reminded me of how humanity moves forward and modernity matters and when you have regimes like the Islamic Republic of Iran’s regime today and they want to turn the clock back and that…I’m a Christian, I’m an evangelical Christian. My understanding of my responsibility in the world suggests that I had a duty to try and help those human beings as well so I got a chance to hear about some of that in a way that reminded me of why it was I was engaged in the very efforts that I was engaged in.
Cameron: Absolutely. Well thank you sir and we’re going to wrap up very shortly because I know you have a very busy schedule no longer in office but nonetheless very busy. Two final quick questions, sir, with your permission. As we discussed prior to the Islamic Revolution, relationships between our country and Iran looked very different. You know President Carter’s sort of brought that to an end with some actions that he took. You know President Reagan at that time referred to the previous Shah as a stalwart ally and called President Carter’s decision a blot on our record. You’ve been very optimistic today and I very much appreciate that and I think Iranians will too. Do you see a time again sir when Iran and America might have such productive and peaceful relations with one another?
Secretary Pompeo: I do and I don’t think it’s that far off. This isn’t 200 years from now. As I observe what’s taking place in Iran, today the regime is at a very weak point. Frankly, it’s why I regret the administration’s actions that our current administration is actually at this moment in time where Iran was more isolated, had fewer resources, less money – they were down to as little as four billion dollars in foreign exchange reserves, they were under enormous pressure.
I think that’s why you see Raisi in some parts, right? They have to put in a bloodthirsty, horrible human being to demonstrate their power in the waning days of the current Ayatollah. So, I don’t know how long… I don’t do predictions and timelines. I have proven to be incapable of this but I can predict that the direction of travel…the one-way ratchet will be towards an ever-evolving understanding that the Iranian people deserve to have the government that they consent to and not the one that they have today.
Cameron: Absolutely. And my final question, sir, and I’m very thankful for your generosity of time. There are numerous connections between the US and Iran as we go back in history and one of them actually goes back to our nation’s founding when Thomas Jefferson found himself inspired. You referred to this previously by the values of the founding Iranian King Cyrus the Great and likewise in Iran’s own constitutional revolution of 1905 when leaders were looking to modernize Iran’s ancient monarchical system. They looked to the United States, they looked to the values from our own founding fathers as you mentioned and these historic ties have only been strengthened over the past four decades or with the diaspora community here with whom you’re well acquainted. What would be your guidance to IraniansAmericans, to people who really honor and appreciate both of these legacies – their Iranian heritage, their American country – what would you say to them? How could they effectively engage in the political process and bring these two countries – America and free Iran together?
Secretary Pompeo: Keep telling the story. Talk about this precisely as you just did. Iran will choose a path. The Iranian people will choose a path that isn’t a perfect layover of the American constitution. It’s completely appropriate but look to successful models, not just the American model. There are other successful models out there as well. Other democracies where people have a real right to protest their government and to have a rule of law, and the right to have property contracts where women are treated as equal human beings.
These are the things that every human being has the right to expect. And I would ask Iranian-Americans to keep telling the story of Iranian history where they know this. They know that it can be. It’s not a pipe dream. It’s not new. It’s something that the Iranian people know in their hearts and so I urge for those Iranian Americans, they should urge their American elected officials to continue to push for this and to demand that their elected officials fight to support the Iranian people and then they too should be optimistic as difficult as I’m sure that is for people who have family members in Iran today. They should remember that this is a worthy undertaking, that this fight is worth fighting and that victory can be achieved.
Cameron: Well Mr. Secretary I want to again thank you on behalf of myself and behalf of NUFDI and many members of our community who really appreciated all that you did during your time as Secretary of State. We very much appreciate your comments today and I hope to have the pleasure of hosting you again sir.
Secretary Pompeo: Thank you very much.
Watch the full event here: