Mike Pence's Iran Comments Set the Tone for Hawkish GOP 2024 Contest

With former Vice President Mike Pence tipped to be considering a 2024 run, his recent remarks on Iran set the tone for a hawkish contest for the GOP nomination.

Pence, 62, accused President Joe Biden of "weakness" on Iran at an event on Thursday.

"Peace follows strength," Pence told attendees of the pro-intervention National Council of Resistance of Iran meeting.

"With our current administration's embrace of the [Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action nuclear deal], their hesitation to condemn rockets being fired at our cherished ally Israel, and the heart breaking and disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan, our adversaries may be sensing weakness in the current American administration."

"They may be emboldened to test our resolve...Weakness arouses evil."

Pence and other potential challengers—including figures such as former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley—are putting all the pieces in place for possible runs at the White House, though former President Donald Trump's significant shadow looms over them all.

The twice-impeached president remains widely popular with the Republican base, and few prominent GOP lawmakers have been brave enough to challenge him in public. Those who have, for example Rep. Liz Cheney (R-WY), have been quickly ostracized.

Iran will remain a key part of any president's foreign policy agenda, whether or not Biden manages to revive the JCPOA and ease tensions with Tehran, ideally also reducing the tempo of tit-for-tat violence between regional American forces and Iran and its proxy militias.

It remains to be seen what policy options would be available to a potential Republican president come 2025.

Biden may have revived the JCPOA, his team may have negotiated another deal, talks with Tehran may have failed completely.

But, Julie Norman of University College London told Newsweek, prominent Republicans will remain antagonistic.

"The stance that Pence took at the talk, which was really reflective of his comments elsewhere, I think reflected the GOP's stance more broadly," Norman, a lecturer in politics and international relations, said.

"Really trying to return to a hardline approach, doubling down on sanctions, very opposed to restarting any kinds of negotiations around the JCPOA, or whatever kind of deal might come out of that.

Norman added: "That venture of negotiating with Iran, they will try and frame as weak, as capitulating to a terrorist state.

"They'll be looking to paint the negotiations in a poor light, whichever direction they end up going."

The GOP 2024 field is likely to be predominantly hawkish.

Trump's belligerent style will dominate the contest, whether he is a candidate or not. The former president is a longstanding critic of the JCPOA, and the "maximum pressure" campaign which strangled Iran's economy and undermined living standards.

Trump, Pence, and Pompeo will all likely double down on their regime change dreams for Iran if they win the Republican nomination for 2024. All three will also put Israel—a politically divided nation nonetheless united in opposition to the JCPOA and in support of regular direct and covert attacks on Tehran—at the center of their regional strategies.

Those tipped to run in 2024 are unlikely to deviate too much from the GOP's interventionist script, including Haley—who described the Biden's efforts to revive the JCPOA as a "death wish" for Israel—and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who after the U.S. withdrawal from the deal tweeted: "The only way to deal with a maniacal regime like Iran is from a position of strength."

Indeed, Iran is an issue where Republicans can energize their base, demonstrate a clearly different approach from the Democrats, and laud Trump's track record.

Sanam Vakil, the deputy director of the Middle East North Africa program at the British Chatham House think tank, told Newsweek: "Iran is an easy political football that can very quickly unite different poles of the party and perhaps bring some Democrats over."

Pence's speech, Vakil added, "foreshadows that the Republicans are going to continue to try and hammer on this issue, knowing full well that there are also divisions among Democrats."

"This is something that they could try to weaken the Biden administration with," Vakil.

The Trump administration set out 12 demands of Iran in 2018. Among them was ending support of all militant groups in the Middle East, withdraw from Syria entirely, and end threatening behavior towards regional American allies like Israel and Saudi Arabia.

The fanciful demands give GOP leaders cover to oppose any engagement with Tehran, Vakil said. "To walk away or climb down from those 12 demands I think would be difficult after leading the charge of maximum pressure," she explained.

"These are unattainable demands, and so anything that falls short of them will allow these politicians to criticize Biden's administration."

Pence speaking at an NCRI event is a signal in itself. The organization is the political wing of the People's Mujahedin of Iran, a controversial guerrilla group committed to overthrowing the Iranian theocracy and which was a proscribed terrorist organization in the U.S. until 2012.

The NCRI and MEK—both led by Maryam Rajavi since the disappearance of her husband Massoud Rajavi in 2003—say they are the only realistic alternative government for Iran.

But their critics dismiss them as a cult-cum-terrorist group with little actual backing inside the country. The MEK's network of activists has intelligence value, but this does not equate to a government-in-waiting.

Pence described the MEK as "a well-organized, fully prepared, perfectly qualified and popularly supported alternative" to the current government in Iran. Rajavi, he said, is "an inspiration to the world."

Norman said Pence's praise of the group was unusual. "It is rare for a politician to lean in that heavily in support of the MEK," she said.

"In terms of politics and elections, most Americans are not going to know the MEK or feel one way or another about him mentioning that. But it worked for that event, for sure."

Newsweek has contacted Pence's team for comment.

Mike Pence at event in South Carolina
Former Vice President Mike Pence speaks to a crowd during an event sponsored by the Palmetto Family organization on April 29, 2021 in Columbia, South Carolina. Sean Rayford/Getty Images