Less than a week after US Secretary of State Secretary Mike Pompeo told Fox News Sunday that the "Iranians are responsible for the starvation' of Yemeni civilians" he's again issued hugely provocative words, telling the BBC during an interview that Iranian "leadership has to make a decision that they want their people to eat" in reference to the latest round of US sanctions.
As the interview was with BBC Persian, Pompeo's words were immediately translated from English and broadcast to the Iranian public through BBC's Persian-language publication. Pompeo repeated his theme that Iran is the world's foremost state sponsor of terror and a "destabilizing influence" in the Middle East while ultimately blaming the country's economic suffering on the intransigence of the country's leaders.
Pompeo's words came on the heels of Iran's foreign ministry issuing a formal response to this week's US sanctions snap back on the energy sector, publishing a 3-minute video of FM Javad Zarif on Tuesday wherein Zarif emphasized that the sanctions mainly targeted average Iranian citizens, referencing "the economic warfare that directly targets the Iranian people."
The most contentious segment of the BBC interview was as follows:
QUESTION: You say you are not punishing the people. You say that the sanctions are not targeting the people. But what if --
SECRETARY POMPEO: No, they’re not.
QUESTION: But what if the sanctions hurt the Iranian people, the ordinary lives of them?
SECRETARY POMPEO: The folks who are hurting the Iranian people are the ayatollah and Qasem Soleimani and the Iranian leadership. That’s who is bringing the difficulties to Iran today. And you see this. You see this when you read of the protests. You see this when Iranian people have a chance to speak, although we know the human rights there don’t permit the Iranian people to speak freely. It’s the regime that is inflicting harm on the Iranian people, not the world and not the United States.
QUESTION: But as you – but you say that this is not a democratic regime. You say that the regime doesn’t care for Iranian people. But you say you do care for Iranian people.
SECRETARY POMPEO: We do.
But with hundreds of thousands of common Iranians reportedly now struggling to find life-saving medicines due to the sanctions, we doubt the Iranian public is going to be convinced of Washington's "care" and "concern" for common Iranians.
In the weeks leading up to the November 5th round of sanctions European governments attempted to persuade the White House to agree to guarantees or waivers of Iranian imports of basic foods and medicine — pleas that were reportedly rebuffed.
Addressing the medicine issue in the BBC interview, Pompeo denied that the US was disallowing the flow of life-saving drugs into the country, and made the following assertion: "Not only are the transactions themselves exempted – that is, the transactions in medicine, for example – but the financial transactions connected to that activity also are authorized," he said.
Pompeo also claimed that "None of the sanctions that have been imposed prevent humanitarian assistance and, indeed, there are big exemptions for medicine for sure, pharmaceuticals, but also more broadly than that for agricultural imports too."
However, Pompeo seemed to contradict his prior denial that the sanctions were impacting medicines, saying it was ultimately up to Tehran to change its behavior in the face of the sanctions. Pompeo said:
Well, remember, just so you remember, the leadership has to make a decision that they want their people to eat. They have to make a decision that they want to use their wealth to import medicine, and not use their wealth to fund Qasem Soleimani’s travels around the Middle East with – causing death and destruction. That’s the Iranian Government’s choice on how to use Iranian wealth.
Recent words out of Tehran suggest that Iranian leadership is prepared to settle in for a "long siege" which could result in a years-long stalemate, while continuing to find ways to circumvent US sanctions and while urging Europe to help it weather the storm.