Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman meets with US Secretary of State Pompeo in Neom, Saudi Arabia. Photo: AFP / Bandar Al-Jaloud / Saudi Royal Palace

US top diplomat Mike Pompeo has used a late-term Middle East tour to cement Washington’s “maximum pressure” campaign on Iran, apparently hoping that President-elect Joe Biden can’t easily reverse it. 

As the Donald Trump era draws to a close, US Secretary of State Pompeo has made containing the Islamic republic a key focus of his trip. In a newspaper interview published Sunday, he even refused to rule out a military strike

At the end of his tour he was in attendance as Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu held secret talks in Saudi Arabia Sunday with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Israeli media said, in the first reported trip by an Israeli premier to the kingdom. Both rulers are key enemies of Iran.

While Biden has signalled a return to diplomacy with the Islamic republic, Pompeo, in a tour taking in Israel and the UAE and concluding in Saudi Arabia – all countries that view Iran through the same hawkish lens – has insisted Iran is the region’s top threat.

“This administration … is here until January 20” and will “continue to pursue its policies,” a senior US official travelling with Pompeo said during the stop in Abu Dhabi, which had followed a visit to Qatar’s capital Doha.

“I would hope that this leverage that the (Trump) administration works so hard to get will be used to good purpose to get the Iranians to, once again, start behaving like a normal state.”

Trump, who has refused to concede the bitter US election contest, unilaterally withdrew from a 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and world powers over two years ago, before reimposing crippling sanctions on Tehran.

In Jerusalem, Pompeo said in a statement that Washington would keep up its policy of “maximum pressure” to isolate Iran, later describing it as “extraordinarily effective.”

He has warned that the US could in the coming “weeks and months” impose new sanctions adding to a catalogue of measures slapped on the Islamic republic in the last two years.

‘Good faith’

In an interview with The National newspaper during his stop in Abu Dhabi, Pompeo was asked whether the US was considering a military strike against Iran, after the New York Times reported that Trump had been mulling such an option over Iran’s nuclear program not long after the election.

Pompeo – who, before embarking on his tour alluded to a second Trump administration, in apparent defiance of the election result – reportedly responded by saying that the US president “always retains the right to do what’s needed to ensure that Americans are safe.”

Critics of Trump’s foreign policy have accused him of ratcheting up tensions to a point of no return so that Biden is unable to resume dialogue with Tehran.

Biden – vice-president under Barack Obama, when Tehran agreed to the nuclear deal with world powers – is expected to attempt to reinvigorate that agreement, setting him on a potential collision course with Iran’s arch-rival Saudi Arabia.

Riyadh has for years led a military coalition in support of Yemen’s internationally recognized government against the Iran-backed Houthi rebels, in a war that the UN warned this weekend leaves the impoverished country on the brink of famine. 

In response to reports that the outgoing Trump administration could designate the Houthis as a terrorist group before leaving office, the senior official accompanying Pompeo did not confirm or deny the possibility. 

“We would hope that the Houthis would negotiate in good faith … with UN representative Martin Griffith towards finding a political solution for the war in Yemen,” the US official said.

In stark contrast to the Trump administration’s current regional loyalties, President-elect Biden pledged on the campaign trail to turn Saudi Arabia into a “pariah,” amid concerns over its military entanglement in Yemen and its wider human rights record. 

Saudi Arabia, for its part, has said it expects no major change in its relationship with the US under Biden. 

“We deal with the president of the United States as a friend, whether he’s Republican or Democrat,” Adel al-Jubeir, the Saudi minister of state for foreign affairs, told CNN in an interview released over the weekend.

Pompeo’s trip appeared in the early stages, through Europe and Turkey, to be a directionless mystery tour. He had almost nothing to say to the media until he finally spoke on his fourth stop, in Jerusalem, where he pushed the Trump strategy of unstinting support for Israel and maximum pressure on Iran.

For what will likely be his final visit as the top US diplomat, he broke taboos and became the first secretary of state to visit an Israeli settlement in the West Bank  – more precisely, the Psagot winery.

That enterprise had already rolled out a Pompeo wine label after he contested the international consensus that Israeli construction on occupied Palestinian land is illegal.

Pompeo also became the first secretary of state to tour the Golan Heights, whose annexation by Israel from Syria was recognised by Trump.

Ben Rhodes, a top aide to former president Barack Obama and a major critic of Pompeo, told NBC that the lame-duck secretary of state seemed focused on not just “complicating the Biden presidency but his own political interests.”

He was alluding to wide speculation that Pompeo will seek the White House in 2024, a campaign in which he will likely reach out to fellow evangelical Christians who are staunchly supportive of Israel.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hailed the “tremendous friendship” of Pompeo but, mindful of the future, he spoke by phone with Biden on Tuesday, in what the premier’s office called a “warm” conversation.

Pompeo highlighted a signature achievement of Trump by participating in the first-ever visit to Jerusalem by the foreign minister of Bahrain, which officially established diplomatic ties with Israel last month.

He then flew to the United Arab Emirates, which has also normalized relations with the Jewish state.

On Saturday he arrived in Qatar to meet negotiators from the Afghan government and the Taliban before finishing his tour with the stop in  Saudi Arabia.

A diplomatic correspondent at Israeli public broadcaster Kan said on Monday that Pompeo was at the reported talks with Netanyahu and Mohammed bin Salman. 

The broadcaster cited unnamed Israeli officials as saying that Netanyahu and the head of the Mossad spy agency Yossi Cohen “flew yesterday to Saudi Arabia,” and met Pompeo and Mohammed bin Salman “in the city of Neom.”

Multiple other Israeli media outlets reported similar information on Monday morning.

Netanyahu’s office was not immediately available to comment on the reports. 

Publicly, Saudi Arabia has said it would stick to the decades-old Arab League position of not having ties with Israel until the Jewish state’s conflict with the Palestinians is resolved.