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Pompeo Warns That Iran's Missile Program Is 'Out Of Control'


Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was at the U.N. Security Council today to sound alarms about Iran's missile program. He also called for an end to Iran's support of militant groups around the Middle East. But some U.S. allies and regional analysts worry that the administration's pressure campaign could create a conflict. NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: The Security Council was meeting to discuss the resolution that enshrined the Iran nuclear deal, the one the Trump administration left even though Iran was abiding by it. Pompeo says the deal failed to address other concerns about Iran's bad behavior in the region and its missile program.


MIKE POMPEO: The United States made clear that Iran's ballistic missile activity is out of control. Iran has been on a testing spree and a proliferation spree, and this must come to an end.

KELEMEN: Pompeo wants a U.N. system to interdict Iranian ships to stop them from arming proxies in the region. But you need partners for this, says Mara Karlin, a former Pentagon official who now teaches at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.

MARA KARLIN: And the profound unpredictability of this administration makes it really hard to get allies, partners, frenemies, onboard, especially when you're asking them to do things that can be painful.

KELEMEN: European diplomats say they share Pompeo's concerns about Iran's missile programs and its support for proxies in Syria, Yemen, Lebanon and elsewhere. But privately, they worry that the U.S. doesn't have a strategy beyond reimposing sanctions. And that also worries Ali Vaez of the international Crisis Group, an organization working to prevent wars.

ALI VAEZ: This is definitely an obsession with Iran. It's an unhealthy one. It's disproportionate to the threat that Iran poses to U.S. interests. And it's dangerous because it has put the two countries on a collision course.

KELEMEN: Vaez says the danger is that Iran could respond to the U.S. pressure campaign by reviving its nuclear program in a way that invites a U.S. or Israeli strike. Or it could use its proxies to attack U.S. troops as it did in Iraq a decade ago. And the problem is there's no diplomatic channel to resolve any of that.

VAEZ: So even inadvertently, there is risk of a clash that could then spiral out of control because we simply have no exit ramp.

KELEMEN: Vaez is not the only one concerned by this.

JAN EGELAND: I would say in general, it's always a problem when grown men are not willing to talk to each other.

KELEMEN: That's Jan Egeland of the Norwegian Refugee Council. He's been running a U.N. task force on humanitarian aid for Syria. And it's one of the few places where Iranian and U.S. officials do occasionally meet for what he calls civilized conversations.

EGELAND: So I give the floor to Russia, to the U.S., to Turkey and then later to the Islamic Republic of Iran and so on. And we try to do deals.

KELEMEN: Iran backs the Syrian regime, and the Trump administration wants Iran out, saying the war won't end until then. U.S. officials also want Iran to stop supporting Houthi rebels in Yemen who are fighting the U.S.-backed Saudi coalition. It's easy to blame Iran for all the problems in the region, says Karim Sadjadpour of the Carnegie Endowment. But he says the administration doesn't have a coherent plan to move forward.

KARIM SADJADPOUR: President Trump is not a dogmatic guy. He's not ideological like his national security adviser, John Bolton. And I think if it were up to him, he's willing to have a dialogue with Iran not just about the nuclear issue but about regional matters.

KELEMEN: Sadjadpour says Iran so far isn't interested. As for Pompeo, the secretary had no interaction with the Iranian diplomat at today's U.N. Security Council meeting. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, the State Department. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.