CIA Chief Warns Russian, Iranian Aims in Syria Threaten the U.S.

  • The Russians ‘love to stick it to America,’ Pompeo says
  • Iran’s ‘significant foothold’ in Syria extends its reach

The Arguments for and Against Removing Syria's Assad

Russia and Iran both threaten U.S. interests as they pursue long-term roles in Syria, CIA Director Mike Pompeo said.

The Russians are seeking a “warm-water naval port” in Syria, and intelligence shows they have the “intention” to remain in the country, Pompeo, a former Republican congressman, said Thursday in a speech at the Aspen Security Forum in Colorado.

Michael Pompeo

Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

“They love to stick it to America. I’m sort of kidding, but I think they find any place that they can make our lives more difficult,” the Central Intelligence Agency chief said of Russia, though he added that there may be opportunities to work together on countering terrorism.

President Donald Trump continues to seek ways to cooperate with Russian President Vladimir Putin, and the U.S. is working with Russia to establish cease-fire zones in Syria. Pompeo sidestepped a question about a Washington Post report this week that Trump has ordered an end to the CIA’s covert -- but widely known -- program to arm and train moderate rebels in Syria, as Russia had long demanded.

Read More: Why Syria’s Civil War Resists Resolution

On Iran, Pompeo said the Islamic Republic has a “significant foothold” in Syria and is seeking to create a corridor through Syria and Iraq as part of its effort to become the “kingpin” of the Middle East.

“We are working diligently to figure out how to push back against Iran, not only in the nuclear arena but in all the other spaces as well,” Pompeo said.

Pompeo was a strong opponent of the deal Iran signed with world powers during the Obama administration to curb its nuclear program in exchange for lifting some sanctions. While the current administration has reluctantly certified that Iran is keeping its commitments under the accord, the intelligence chief compared its compliance to having a “bad tenant.”

“They don’t pay their rent, you call them and then they send a check and it doesn’t clear and then they send another one,” Pompeo said. “And then the next day there’s an old, tired sofa in the front yard and you tell them to take it away, and you know they drag it to the back. This is Iranian compliance today: grudging, minimalist, temporary.”

On other threats, Pompeo stressed the need to curb North Korea’s progress toward a nuclear missile that can hit the U.S. mainland.

“The president -- when I’m with him nearly every day -- rarely lets me escape the Oval Office without a question about North Korea,” Pompeo said. “It is at the front of his mind.”

While Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has said the U.S. goal in North Korea isn’t regime change to oust Kim Jong Un, Pompeo said the greatest danger about its nuclear arsenal “is the character who holds the control over them today.”

“From the administration’s perspective, the most important thing we can do is separate those two -- separate capacity and someone who might well have intent and break those two apart,” Pompeo said, without elaborating on the options do achieve that.

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