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North Korea, Iran Will Test Pompeo in New Diplomatic Role


Mike Pompeo, Central Intelligence Agency director and nominee for secretary of State (center, in Washington in January), had a military background before attending law school and entering politics.
Mike Pompeo, Central Intelligence Agency director and nominee for secretary of State (center, in Washington in January), had a military background before attending law school and entering politics.
Photo:

Drew Angerer/Getty Images
By

WASHINGTON—Secretary of state nominee

Mike Pompeo’s

strong connection with President

Donald Trump

means he would be able to speak to foreign governments with more authority on thorny global issues that include North Korea and Iran.

While that is the kind of top-level backing the departing secretary,

Rex Tillerson,

lacked, the current Central Intelligence Agency chief’s shared thinking with the president could limit dissenting views, some former officials said.

A skeptic of North Korea’s intentions, Mr. Pompeo would oversee any nuclear negotiations with Pyongyang if Mr. Trump meets with dictator

Kim Jong Un,

which U.S. officials said could happen as early as May.

An outspoken critic of the 2015 Iran nuclear accord, Mr. Pompeo, whose confirmation appears assured, also would be taking up his new post as Mr. Trump faces a self-imposed May 12 deadline on whether to leave the agreement. The Trump administration has been trying to persuade European nations to toughen the terms of the deal and has threatened to withdraw from the accord if they don’t.

Each issue has implications for U.S. relations with its closest allies and for efforts to rein in the nuclear ambitions of longstanding adversaries. Together, they stand to shape the administration’s security agenda.

“This comes at a crucial moment when the White House has to decide whether to keep the Iran agreement in place while they begin a diplomatic process with North Korea,” said

Gary Samore

of the Belfer Center for Science and International Security at Harvard University. “On the positive side, it is a good time to bring in a secretary of state that the president has more confidence in. If they are not careful, though, they could have two simultaneous diplomatic setbacks.”

Born in Orange, Calif., in 1963, Mr. Pompeo comes from a family of Italian immigrants. A former Army officer who graduated first in his class at West Point and served in the 1991 Persian Gulf war before attending Harvard Law School and going into politics, Mr. Pompeo’s background contrasts with that of Mr. Tillerson. The departing chief diplomat is a civil engineer who rose through the ranks to become chairman and chief executive of

Exxon Mobil

Corp.

Mr. Pompeo joined the House of Representatives as part of the 2010 “tea party” wave. The Senate confirmed Mr. Pompeo as CIA director in a 66-32 vote three days after Mr. Trump’s inauguration.

His nomination as secretary of state, however, likely will face more scrutiny over the Iran agreement, North Korea, the war in Syria and Russian interference in U.S. elections. Mr. Pompeo may also be asked how he plans to restore morale at a State Department that has been hobbled by vacancies and budget cuts.

By all accounts, the challenge Mr. Pompeo faces on North Korea is a daunting one. American intelligence analysts have assessed that Mr. Kim is unlikely to negotiate away his nuclear arsenal. Yet as Mr. Pompeo shifts to the State Department, he will find himself overseeing a diplomatic effort to persuade the North Korean leader to do precisely that.

Mr. Pompeo on Sunday said he had recently reread the intelligence agency’s history of U.S. talks with North Korea, and criticized previous administrations for having “whistled past the graveyard” while Pyongyang developed its nuclear-weapons program. He also pledged to keep up the pressure on North Korea even if negotiations get under way.

The problem, however, is likely to be negotiating an agreement that goes beyond limited steps to restrain the North’s nuclear program, which is all some former officials think can be achieved in the near term, and determining what the U.S. is prepared to give in return.

A photograph distributed on Aug. 30 by the North Korean government shows what it said was the test launch of an intermediate-range missile.
A photograph distributed on Aug. 30 by the North Korean government shows what it said was the test launch of an intermediate-range missile.
Photo:

/Associated Press

As with Mr. Trump, Mr. Pompeo appears to be banking on China to use its influence to persuade Mr. Kim to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula. Mr. Pompeo is widely believed to be more receptive to consideration of military options than Mr. Tillerson was.

As CIA director, Mr. Pompeo made an April visit to a South Korean island that had been shelled by North Korea in 2010 to “gain a firsthand appreciation of the North Korean threat to South Korea.”

“If the Trump-Kim summit were to come to an actionable agreement, and if that agreement were to fail, or if a summit prior to that were to fail, Pompeo would be more inclined to take a more hawkish position, up to and including a kinetic action on North Korea,” said

Mason Richey,

a professor of international politics at Seoul’s Hankuk University of Foreign Studies.

On Iran, Mr. Pompeo is in tune with Mr. Trump, an unrelenting critic of the nuclear accord the Obama administration and other world powers negotiated to constrain Iran’s nuclear efforts.

In contrast, Mr. Trump on Tuesday said he had differed with Mr. Tillerson over the value of the Iran agreement and didn’t seek his secretary of state’s advice in deciding to meet with Mr. Kim.

President Trump has given himself a May deadline on whether to exit from the nuclear accord with Iran, whose Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is shown here in Tehran in January.
President Trump has given himself a May deadline on whether to exit from the nuclear accord with Iran, whose Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is shown here in Tehran in January.
Photo:

ho/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

Some experts suggested Mr. Pompeo’s new responsibilities may temper his approach to his new position, which requires maintaining a good working relationship with allies.

Brian Hook,

the State Department’s director of policy planning, is scheduled to attend a Friday meeting in Vienna to review implementation of the Iran nuclear accord and is expected to consult with European counterparts on the way ahead. But it remains unclear if he will be asked to stay on.

“[Mr. Pompeo’s] instinct aligns more with Trump’s,” said

Dennis B. Ross,

who served in several Republican and Democrat administrations. “But now that he is going to be secretary of State, he has to focus on relations with allies.”

As the CIA director, Mr. Pompeo has met regularly with Mr. Trump for his morning intelligence briefings. Explaining his decision, Mr. Trump noted he and Mr. Pompeo are “always on the same wavelength.”

“As director of the CIA, Mike has made contacts throughout the world and has come up with aggressive policies to defend our homeland,” said Sen.

Lindsey Graham

(R., S.C.). “No one understands the threat posed by North Korea and Iran better than he does.”

But some former officials said Mr. Pompeo’s closeness to Mr. Trump may come at a cost.

“There was never positive chemistry between Trump and Tillerson, but I did always view Tillerson as a counterbalance to the president,” said retired Gen.

Michael Hayden,

the former head of the CIA and the National Security Agency. “I think we lose that because Mike Pompeo I believe thinks and talks more like the president.”

—Jonathan Cheng in Seoul and Lawrence Norman
in Brussels
contributed to this article.

Write to Michael R. Gordon at michael.gordon@wsj.com and Nancy A. Youssef at Nancy.Youssef@wsj.com

Appeared in the March 14, 2018, print edition as ‘North Korea, Iran Will Test Pompeo.’

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