Special Representative for Iran, Senior Advisor to the Secretary of State, U.S. Department of State
Executive Washington Editor, Wall Street Journal
Brian Hook discusses the future of U.S.-Iran relations and the current state of the Iranian economy during the coronavirus pandemic.
SEIB: Well, thank you. And thank you all for joining us. We are, as you all know, joined by Brian Hook, who is the special representative for Iran and senior advisor to the secretary of state. Brian, thanks for being with us.
HOOK: Thanks, Jerry. Good to be with you.
SEIB: I’m Jerry Seib, executive Washington editor of the Wall Street Journal. And Brian and I will talk for about half an hour, and then we will open it up to members for your questions, and we will hope that the technology provides the way for us to do all of that.
So Brain, let me start at a high altitude, if I could. Everybody would agree, I think, that the campaign of maximum pressure, the sanctions regime that you’ve established with Iran has done great damage to the economy there. Yet the regime is still in control, it’s enriching uranium, and there is no discernable move toward the negotiating table on the part of the regime. So where are the tangible results?
HOOK: Well, some of the things that we look at Jerry are what you just named. So if you look at the Iranian economy writ large, exports are down. They are facing a massive economic contraction. That was even before COVID. Their access to foreign exchange reserves is minimal. Their government budget has big funding gaps that the regime has no idea how to fix. The IMF and the World Bank have both placed Iran’s economy as third worst in the world behind only Venezuela and Libya, which is not good company.
The Iranian regime relies on oil as its chief export to fund its malign behavior. And it’s really important I think on any strategy to counter Iran that you have to go after the oil. And for as long as we were in the Iran nuclear deal, we were not able to go after Iran’s oil exports. And in a very short period of time we have collapsed Iran’s oil sector. When we got out of the deal in May of 2018 Iran was exporting about two-point-five million barrels of oil a day. There was a Reuters story that had Iran’s export numbers for April at seventy thousand barrels a day.
This has been something that we promised to do. Secretary Pompeo in the speech that he gave after the president got out of the Iran deal, he gave the Iranian leaders a choice. He said: You can either come to the negotiating table or you can manage economic collapse. And so far, the supreme leader has made very bad decisions for his own people because he has been managing economic collapse now ever since. And so much of what we said we would do we have delivered on.
They have not come to the negotiating table yet, but that is something which the jury is still out on that. There is still plenty of time. What we have been able to do is to constrain Iran’s power projections by denying it massive amounts of revenue. And it’s really important for people to understand just how much Iran relies on its economy to fund its expansionist foreign policy, its sectarian warfare in the gray zone. Iran has conducted terrorist operations across five continents. They need money to do that. And this regime is facing an economic crisis that it has never before seen in its forty-one-year history.
SEIB: So has there actually been a reduction that you can quantify or at least identify in that power projection—a reduction in the amount of money spent on activities beyond its borders?
HOOK: Well, we certainly have that in our own intelligence assessment. But I’ve also been very pleased to see so much reporting documenting how the Iranian regime is weaker and so are its proxies. You’ve had a number of frontpage stories in the New York Times and the Washington Post over the last plus year looking at how Hezbollah had to take up a fundraising drive for the first time in its history. Iran provides Hezbollah with 70 percent of its operating budget. And Hezbollah has had a very constrained—sort of less permissive environment I think than it is accustomed to.
You have some of Iran’s Shia proxies in Syria say to the press that Iran doesn’t have the money that it used to and the golden days are over. You also have in Iraq the sort of favorability of numbers, you might say, for the Iranian regime in Iraq has plummeted. And you’ve had protests during the same period in Lebanon, Iraq, and Iran all protesting the Iranian model that we have been exposing for the last three years. It’s a model that is very heavy on corruption, lack of accountability, lack of transparency, prioritizing ideology over the welfare of people. And so we see the Iranian model under a lot of duress.
SEIB: So one of the things that the U.S. is seeking is an extension on the embargo in selling arms to Iran and Iranian arms exports, which is due to expire in October. The Russians and the Chinese oppose the extension and say that the U.S. has no standing because it’s no longer part of the JCPOA to seek an extension at all. So the question is, are you willing to be flexible on that demand in order to—are you willing to be flexible in order to win over European allies because the Russians and the Chinese seem to be pretty adamant in opposition?
HOOK: Well, what we’ve done—and I placed an op-ed in your paper, Jerry, talking about how we’re looking at the arm embargo expiring. It does expire on October 18. I think it was a very bad idea five years ago to permit the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism to be free of the arms embargo that was negotiated in 2006 or ’(0)7, and then also later in 2010. This is something which should have stayed in place.
So we are now only five or so months away from the arms embargo. And that would be imports and exports for the regime. President Rouhani declared this a big political win, that they were able to get this concession. He also said he looks forward to buying and selling weapons. So given the volatility of the Middle East, we think that the last thing that region needs is more conventional weapons for Iran. Iran’s foreign policy is the principal driver of instability and violence in today’s Middle East. So we very much hope that we can get the arms embargo renewed.
You’re right, Jerry. Russia and China have both publicly said that they don’t support it. I think they would like to sell weapons to Iran. I don’t see how it’s in their interests if they also would like to see a more peaceful and stable Middle East. This certainly will not accomplish that. It is very clear under 2231, the resolution that memorialized the Iran nuclear deal back in 2015, it does not say that you have to be in the deal in order to initiate snapback. And the drafters of the resolution knew how to disqualify people based on status. There are seven nations—seven member nations that have the right to initiate snapback. You see the European Union appears in a prior paragraph, but then in a subsequent paragraph they’re disqualified because they are not a member state.
And so there is nothing in the text on the plain reading of the text that suggests that one has to be in or out of the deal in order to initiate snapback. Our preference, because we’re very pleased with our foreign policy and our strategy to counter Iran, we’re very pleased with it. So our first preference is to see if we can get the arms embargo extended and to have the travel ban renewed on twenty-two Iranian terrorists. It used to be twenty-three. So that’s our focus. But what we have said publicly is that one way or another we’re going to renew the arms embargo.
SEIB: So let’s imagine that you did engineer a snapback of sanctions in the fall which would essentially, I think, bring an end to the JCPOA. What do you think would happen then? Would the Russians and the Chinese ignore the snapback? Would they continue or even step up arms sales? What would happen to the nuclear program in Iran itself?
HOOK: Well, I’ll let China and Russia answer that. They are a permanent member of the council. It’s very clear during the time that U.N. Resolution 2231 was negotiated that no state—none of those seven states needs the permission of anybody else in the council to initiate snapback. So we hope that we’re—I think the easiest way to avoid sort of the very circumstance that you mentioned, Jerry, is for everybody to recognize that it is in the interests of the Middle East—it’s especially in the interests of those countries that are on the frontlines of Iranian aggression—to have the arms embargo extended.
And that’s Israel, Saudi, UAE, Bahrain. These are countries that all want to see the arms embargo extended. And I think we have an obligation to listen to those countries. And I think that includes Russia and China. We ought to be listening very carefully to what those countries are all saying, that it is very much against their interests and the interests of the region to see tanks, attack aircraft, submarines, all sorts of conventional weapons that would be lifted under the deal.
I was one of the negotiators of the resolution that put in place the first half of the arms embargo. Russia and China voted in favor of it. They voted again when the arms embargo was then filled out for imports and exports later on. They voted for that. There is a lot of policy precedent for Russia and China supporting the very thing that we would be tabling in the council.
SEIB: But is there a dialogue underway with the Russians and the Chinese on this subject now, or is it something that’s going to wait until later, as the deadline approaches?
HOOK: Secretary Pompeo and I have started diplomacy with them, but also with the P3, and also some of the Gulf countries that I mentioned. So Secretary Pompeo started ringing the bell, I think, on the arms embargo expiring probably a year and a half before it expired. So this is—this is not going to be news to anybody about the need to do this. I’ve had a lot of very good meetings with my E3 counterparts, as I regularly do. We disagree about the Iran deal. That’s no secret. (Laughs.)
But as I’ve said I think many times, when you sit down with a number of these countries—especially when the P3 sit down—no one on the council wants Iran to have a nuclear weapon—nobody. Nobody is in favor of Iran’s inability to be at peace with its neighbors. No one support’s Iran’s regional aggression. And so we do have the same threat assessment. There is a lot of prior history I think that argues for extending the arms embargo.
I think if you look at Iran’s behavior during the five years of this deal, certainly no one can argue that they merit having the arms embargo lifted. And perhaps that’s a question for the Russians and the Chinese. How has Iran merited to have the arms embargo lifted? It was a mistake to ever put this in the Iran nuclear deal. And now we’re having to manage it as best we can. It’s not good options.
SEIB: So when the JCPOA was implemented, the breakout time—which is the amount of time that it would take for Iran to enrich enough uranium to produce a nuclear weapon, was pushed back to a year. Now the Iranians are resumed and are increasing enrichment. They’re actually increasing to a higher level. A lot of experts think that breakout time might have been reduced to four months or so. What’s your assessment of breakout time at this point? And how do you handle a shrinking breakout window?
HOOK: I think your question illustrates one of the challenges of the Iran nuclear deal. I think the right answer to this sort of question is no enrichment. And when I was in the U.N. Security Council, the council passed a resolution that prohibited Iran from enriching nuclear material. I think that’s the right standard. We need to restore that standard because for as long a we don’t restore that standard we’re going to be dealing with this very difficult question of, what is Iran’s nuclear breakout time. And so if you look at all of the countries in the world that have peaceful nuclear power, well more than half don’t enrich. Iran does not need to enrich if they want to have peaceful nuclear power.
And the Russians in the past have put forward proposals that would have Russia doing the enrichment. There’s a lot of different ways to do this. But I think that we need to restore the U.N. Security Council standard of no enrichment. That’s the right answer. Look at UAE. We recently celebrated the tenth anniversary of UAE signing the 123 Agreement, which was negotiated in the Bush administration. So UAE has peaceful nuclear power. They have no enrichment capabilities. And I think that’s a very important standard for the most volatile region in the world. The Iran nuclear deal set the breakout at no less than one year. And so I think the better place to be in is to get to a point where Iran is not able to enrich. I think that’s a standard that the world can get behind, and I hope they do.
SEIB: But what—in the real world we live in now there is a breakout time. What do you think it is? And how do you deal with the fact that the policy seems to have actually shortened rather than extended the breakout time?
HOOK: So a couple thoughts on that. The number on the nuclear breakout time in our system is always classified. It’s something that we watch very closely. Obviously, we see that Iran has violated its nuclear commitments under the JCPOA no fewer than five times. I’d also point out that you have the IAEA director general saying to the board of governors that Iran has now denied access to two sites, and they’re also not answering questions that the IAEA has put to them over the last year. This is part of the Safeguards Agreement. It’s separate from the Iran nuclear deal, and something that we shouldn’t allow discussions on the Iran nuclear do anything to poison the discussion around Iran’s violations of its NPT obligations. And it’s something which is very serious. And the director general called for Iran to immediately provide access and to answer questions.
So the bottom line is that we are never going to allow Iran to have a nuclear weapon. It’s simply the case. They are never going to be allowed to have a nuclear weapon. The thing that, as we did our strategic reviewing coming into office, it’s very clear that the Iran nuclear deal, as negotiated, much like North Korea, creates a pathway for Iran to eventually develop a nuclear bomb. And what our view is that we have a lot more leverage and capability outside the deal in order to accomplish our objective than inside the deal. So we have the right strategy in place of economic pressure and diplomatic isolation, restoring military deterrence—I think which was lost. It’s very important to restore that. And that’s going to be our policy while we continue to make clear that they’ll never have a nuclear weapon.
But I do think as a policy matter, Jerry, you’re right, we have to be in the real world where we are today. But if you look at Secretary Pompeo’s list of twelve demands, I’ve heard plenty of people call them unrealistic and that they amount to regime change. If you go through that list of twelve you can find almost all of them in a U.N. Security Council resolution that was passed between 2006 and about 2013 or ’14. And at the top of that list is no enrichment. So I think you have to have clarity on the policy. And the standard that we ought to be talking about is no enrichment, just like UAE. UAE does not need enrichment. They wanted nuclear power? Fine. Same thing for the Iranian regime.
SEIB: So, again, in the real world in which we live, Iran probably, almost certainly, has enough nuclear fuel, low-grade still, to produce a weapon. It could choose to enrich that fuel. At what point along that path does the U.S. have to act to make the statement that you just made, and that the president has made, and others have made, that we will not allow Iran to have a nuclear weapon, to seem real, to be credible?
HOOK: I think the president has put in place—when I talked earlier about restoring military deterrence—I think Iran understands the dangers of escalating with this president. And the president has struck back a number of times against Iran’s proxies in Iraq and Syria. And he also took Qassem Soleimani off the battlefield. And so I think it’s important for this regime to understand that the days of running an expansionist foreign policy with impunity are over. I think Iran had a very good run. I think coming into office they were not used to being told no. They were not used to a policy, I think, of very strong economic pressure.
What we’ve done on the economic side has no precedent in the Islamic Republic’s forty-one-year history. But we’ve also done much more than that. And we’ve also been pleased with a number of steps I think that countries around the world have taken to support this strategy, including Germany recently designed the whole of Hezbollah. Mahan Air has been denied landing rights in a number of countries. You see the E3 regularly condemn Iran’s ballistic missile testing, its space launch vehicles, its assassination attempts, its bomb plots in Europe, et cetera.
So we’re going to continue to try to organize the international community to counter Iran’s power projection. We have constrained it. I think earlier you asked about how we disrupted it. Iran does not have the money to spend on its operations that it used to. It’s in a much more constrained environment. And we know that we have disrupted and deterred many terrorist attacks in the region and beyond. And that is a kind of whole of—whole of threat assessment approach.
I think one of the shortcomings of the Iran nuclear deal is that it only addressed one aspect of Iran’s threats to international peace and security. And I know there were ambitions to go beyond the nuclear deal to get other deals negotiated, but when the administration ended we only had that. And I think Iran understood that as license to be able to sort of move freely around the Middle East. And in 2014 you had a member of the Majlis say that Iran now owns four capitals in the Middle East.
Now when you look at their—how they’re postured in a lot of these same capitals that they were bragging about in 2014, with protests in Lebanon, and in Baghdad, and also—in all of Iran’s thirty-one provinces—the regime’s in a much worse place today.
SEIB: So let me ask you about something that perhaps is more pleasant, if that’s the right way to put it. You were in Zurich to receive Michael White, the Navy veteran who was held in Iran for nearly two years, was released. The foreign minister—Foreign Minister Zarif said he’s open to future exchanges. Do you see the potential for more prisoner swaps this year?
HOOK: Well, I hope so. The diplomacy to get Michael White released was the work of many months of diplomacy with the regime through the Swiss government. And so I’m in pretty regular contact on these detainee issues with the regime through the Swiss. And we were able to negotiate the release of Xiyue Wang back in November and then now also Michael White just a couple of weeks ago. Iran uses hostage taking as a—as a tool of its foreign policy. And you—Jerry, you’ve been in Evin Prison yourself. They regularly jail journalists. And Michael White was over in Iran, was completely innocent. So was Xiyue Wang, so were all the diplomats that the regime took hostage in 1979.
So this is what they do. I would love to see the remaining Americans we have there are the Namazis, the father and the son, and then also Morad Tahbaz. And then just about two weeks ago I released a video talking about Morad Tahbaz. He is a world-renowned conservationist. Putting him in jail is a tragedy. And he’s somebody whose only crime is to try to help save an endangered species from extinction. There are only fifty Asiatic cheetahs left in Iran. They’re all in Iran. And he was there working on conservation efforts. And the IRGC picked him up. And he was sentenced to ten years in jail.
This has been condemned by the U.N., a number of organizations, even members of the Iranian government have condemned it. We really need to get him out. The Namazis need to be released. We need to bring home the remains of Bob Levinson. So I’m going to continue, as I have, working with the regime. Would love to have an in-person meeting, to have a consular dialogue so that we can move faster than we have. The regime—the process negotiating with the regime is not linear. It requires a lot of patience. But we’ve been very methodical, very patient, and very determined. And we’ve been able to reach agreements.
And so the door for diplomacy on our side has been wide open. Not just on these matters, but on the entire sort of—all the issues that have been bedeviling the U.S.-Iran bilateral relations for forty-one years. The president would like to get to the negotiating table with the regime. And he’s now met three times with Kim Jong-un. He’s had a number of meetings with—in other difficult regions of the world to try to see if we can make progress. And we very much hope that we can.
SEIB: You know, there’s a temptation whenever one of these things—a detainee release happens—to read something broader into it, that maybe this is a sign, a signal, a straw in the wind, something that suggests a thawing of the relationship in a broader sense. Should we read any of that into the Michael White release?
HOOK: Jerry, I have the same view of it you do. I would like to think that each one of these is a confidence-building exercise. And during the first exchange that I did in Zurich, I brought an Iranian with me, and then there was an exchange that occurred in an airport hangar in Zurich. And Foreign Minister Zarif was in Zurich. I think he stayed on his—on his jet the whole time. His deputy, the one who’s in charge of the Americas, Baravan, he was there in the Iranian room. I had suggested through the Swiss that perhaps we have a discussion. But he did not have the mandate to have a discussion. And that’s because the supreme leader has closed the door.
But I would also remind people who may be quick to blame us—to sort of blame this on us leaving the Iran deal, this predates the Iran deal. We have tried a number of times, even while we were in the deal, to jumpstart talks with the Iranian regime. And the answer has consistently been no. So that’s why you see Secretary Pompeo making it very clear: You can either come to the table or you can manage economic collapse. They are managing economic collapse. As I said, third worst economy in the world. And that was before COVID. So I would have—would have been very glad to have a conversation with Baravan there at the hangar in Zurich, just to begin discussions, but that has not happened. That’s a choice they’re making. It’s really a question for the regime.
SEIB: So I want to return for a moment to something you mentioned earlier in discussing the potential for an Iranian breakout, which was that they have to take seriously the statements by the president that all options, including military options, are on the table. That statement, though, comes in the context of a broader shrinking of the American military footprint in the region. Can the threat be as real in that environment as it was before the footprint started to shrink?
HOOK: After we saw Iran start committing some attacks in the Gulf against various tankers and some other things that they were—sort of standard pages from the Iranian playbook. Starting in May of last year we increased our force posture by fourteen thousand troops in the region. After the Iranian attack on Abqaiq in Saudi Arabia, the world’s largest oil processing facility, we enhanced Saudi’s air defenses, and we also worked with other partners to do that. I think one of the things that I would point you to is the president’s first trip overseas to was to Saudi Arabia. And he gave a speech there. And he talked about the burden sharing and the need to develop the competencies and the capabilities of our partners in the region so that they can also be effective in countering Iranian aggression.
And I think if you look at our record over the last three years, standing very strongly with Saudi, and UAE, and Bahrain, and also with Israel, these are the countries that together have borne the brunt of most of Iran’s aggression. So we’re going to continue that security partnership. We have a lot of shared interests there to make that possible. Our troop presence and our sort of overall posture in the region goes up and down. The mission set doesn’t change. There’s a lot of different ways to accomplish this. I think that we’ve been very creative in how we’ve done it. And also very pleased with how Israel has defended itself. They’ve been very strong. And you’ve seen the tactical displacement of a number of Iranian troops in Syria, because Israel is not going to allow Iran to use Syria as a forward-deployed missile base. And we very much support that. And I think a lot of countries in the region see that and they admire it.
SEIB: You referred earlier to the Iranian desire to project power. And you mentioned Hezbollah in that context. Let me ask you about that in particular, which is to say to what extent does Hezbollah’s positioning throughout the Western Hemisphere create a strategic threat to the U.S.? And more directly, how much do you worry about the potential for the Iranians finding a way to strike closer to our homeland in response to the pressure that you’ve created?
HOOK: Back in the ’90s you had the two bombing in Argentina that had all the markings of Hezbollah. And so this has a long history to it. And prior to al-Qaida, Hezbollah led the world in the—in killing Americans, more than any other nonstate actor. And so Iran midwifed Hezbollah. And Hezbollah has been a very lethal force. They do have ambitions in the Western Hemisphere, as you said, Jerry. What we’ve been doing and trying to do is to do what we can to help our partners in the region. And so you’ve seen Argentina, and Honduras, and I think Paraguay have all designated Hezbollah in its entirety as a terrorist organization. And I mentioned Germany also as well, very recently. So these are all positive things.
We obviously track Hezbollah cells all over the world. I think we have—we obviously have the best intelligence capabilities in the world. We track this very closely. Nathan Sales, who’s our assistant secretary for counterterrorism, has spoken about denying Hezbollah any running room in our hemisphere. So it is something that we are aware of. We track it. We share a lot of intelligence with partners in the region, where we think there could be cells that are active. So the short answer to your question is yes, we take it seriously and we’re going to continue working on it.
SEIB: So let me ask you one final question from me, and then we’ll open it up to the members. One of the things, leaving politics and geostrategy aside, one of the realities for Iran in the last three or four months has been a pretty severe outbreak of COVID-19. What is your understanding of how serious that situation is inside Iran, and how ready is the U.S. to help the Iranians deal with it?
HOOK: Well, I look at that from a couple of different angles. One, anytime you see the number of cases or the death toll in Iran, you should probably multiply that number by five. And that will give you I think a fairly reliable number on the cases and the mortalities. Iran—there was a terrific BBC documentary, that I would encourage people to take a look at, that showed how Iran kept running flights to China. I think there were 157 flights, if I have my numbers correct, in February. And they were telling people that there were no flights going to China, but in fact traffic was very robust during that period.
And then you also had the regime that wanted to get to elections. They wanted to get the elections done. And they were worried that if they talked about COVID that it would suppress voter turnout, even with that it still had very low turnout because I think the Iranian people know that these elections are a joke. It’s a veneer of democracy. At the end of the—every morning after an election, the supreme leader is always in charge. And so I remember the health minister had said that there are no cases of COVID in Iran, and someone died that day of COVID.
So the regime has mismanaged the response. They did nothing to stop people from going to Shia religious sites, places like Qom, where people go and they lick the lattice windows of these Shia shrines. And they go back to Iran’s provinces and it spread. So this is something which I think the numbers could have been much lower with better management by the regime. But they lied about the corona and they tried to cover it up. They lied about shooting down the jetliner in January, and they tried to cover it up. It’s the same pattern. I think the Iranian people are desperately tired of this playbook.
You also had, if you look around the Middle East—many of the countries in the Middle East can trace their patient zero to a flight from Iran. And Iran not only exports this sort of sectarian ideology, they also have been exporting corona on a massive scale. And I’ve talked to a number of my counterparts in the region, and they all can trace it back to Iran. So it’s a tragedy. It’s one of my tragedies. As people look back on this regime it’s a kleptocracy that robs its own people blind and has always prioritized revolution over the wellbeing and the welfare of their own people. In that way it’s no different than Hezbollah.
SEIB: And could the U.S., would the U.S. under any circumstances, provide help to deal with it?
HOOK: Well, we have. We’ve tried repeatedly. I made a direct offer to the regime right when it was clear—it was clear to us—that they had a big problem. And it was before things started hitting the United States on the force and the scale that they did. But early on we went out and asked them to tell us what they needed. We’d be happy to see if we could provide it. It was rejected within hours. And we have continued to make offers. That wasn’t—we’ve done it repeatedly.
So we’ll see where this all nets out. The regime sometimes has a hard time saying yes. But we’ve also done this in the past. The United States is the largest provider of humanitarian assistance in the world. And every time you’ve had a natural disaster or some sort of crisis, some tragedy in Iran over many decades, the United States has always offered a hand. The regime typically rejects it. But the Iranian people know that the American people stand with them. I think that’s been clear throughout the protests in November.
SEIB: So at this point I would like to open it up to members for their questions. A reminder to everybody that this is on the record. And the operator will remind you of how to join the question queue.
STAFF: (Gives queuing instructions.)
We will take the first question from Deborah Harding. Deborah, if you could please unmute your microphone now.
Q: I didn’t ask a question.
STAFF: Oh, well, we apologize then.
Our next question will come from Barbara Slavin.
Q: Hello. Hi, Jerry. Nice to see you, even though you can’t see me.
Mr. Hook, I’m going to ask you a question about snapback. I’m going to quote to you from paragraph eleven of U.N. Security Council Resolution 2231. It says that, “within thirty days of receiving a notification by a JCPOA participant state of an issue,” et cetera. You just said to us not long ago, quote, “we have a lot more leverage outside the deal than inside the deal.” You have yourself said the United States is no longer a JCPOA participant. So how can you claim a right to snapback? Wouldn’t it be better to try to work informally to get an understanding among major arms suppliers not to sell to Iran? And doesn’t snapback imply that your real goal is just to blow up what’s left of the JCPOA? And I have a follow up.
HOOK: Well, Barbara, you conveniently leave out operative paragraph ten, which defines who the participant states are. And so in paragraph ten there are seven countries that are named. Well, you actually have eight. The EU was one of them, in paragraph ten. And having drafted scores of U.N. Security Council resolutions I can tell you that—and also this is also being a lawyer—you define a term and then you refer to it later in the document. And that’s what that does. It states the seven countries that have the right under paragraphs ten, eleven, and twelve to do snapback. And then in paragraph eleven it then further qualifies the status by limiting it to participant member states, which would then disqualify the EU.
There’s nothing in that that you read, Barbara, that says that we can’t do it. And the council knows how to disqualify people on the basis of their status. If they really wanted to make it clear that you had to be in the deal in order to do snapback, the text would say that. The text doesn’t say that. It only defines the term for the purposes of paragraphs ten, eleven, and twelve. I think sort of the better question to ask is why was this arms embargo ever allowed to expire in year five? I think people sort of fell into the wishful thinking that somehow by year five the moderates would be in power. But I think this sort of moderate hardliner, it occupies a lot of people’s time and thinking. If you’re in the regime, you’re a hardliner. And it’s controlled—it has clerical and revolutionary oversight that is completely independent of elections.
And so you can do everything you can to try to change the numbers in the Mejlis, but at the end of the day the clerics run the state. And there is no evidence to suggest that the clerics want to be at peace with their neighbors. And so we have taken a very realistic and very hard-nosed approach to this. We would be very happy not to be dealing with this. We do hope that people can get behind this. We think it’s a very commonsense sort of thing. The Iran deal also says that they hope that this deal will contribute to regional peace and stability. That manifestly did not happen. I think the Iran nuclear deal has come at the expense of missile nonproliferation. It’s come at the expense of constraining and containing Iran. And so I think this is the logical consequence of only isolating one aspect of Iran’s threats. And it’s also temporary.
The arms embargo expires in October. The deal is going to continue to unwind in outyears. And I have yet to hear from anybody that I’ve spoken to what’s the plan when the deal expires? We pulled forward the expiration date because we knew that if we waited for the deal to expire Iran would be richer, proxies would be richer, they’d be in a much better position in the Middle East. And so we think we’ve done the right thing. We’re very pleased with the progress we’ve made.
Q: If I could just follow. You mentioned North Korea. The record of U.S. diplomacy with North Korea doesn’t look very good right now. We’re hearing a lot more threats from Kim Jong-un and others in his circle. Why would offering a Korea-like process hold any attraction for Iran?
HOOK: Well, my point on that was I think some of the things—some of the same theories I think that underpin the ’94 Agreed Framework and some of the other diplomacy with North Korea also inform the thinking on the Iran nuclear deal. And you had some of the same people involved in both efforts. I think we know how the movie ends under the Iran nuclear deal. And it ends in the same way that it does with North Korea. And so that’s why we thought it was important to get out of the deal. We absolutely are in a much better position to accomplish that goal that I stated earlier of denying Iran a nuclear weapon, but also, as we’ve talked about, reversing Iran’s power of projection.
And so I’ve sort of developed some lessons learned from the nonproliferation efforts that various administrations have made. And it was in my judgement at the time in 2015 and also in this administration that the Iran nuclear deal—look, the fact that Iran can restart its program as quickly as it is should tell you something about the strength of this deal.
STAFF: Our next question will come from Michael Gordon.
Q: Brian, you made your case for extending the arms embargo. But you didn’t specify how long you would like to see it extended. My question is, are you proposing an open-ended, indefinite, permanent extension of the arms embargo? And would you accept, in order to get a compromise, an arms embargo that was limited in duration or that had a somewhat narrower scope than the current one?
HOOK: Given Iran’s pattern of behavior we think the right policy is to have an arms embargo in place that doesn’t have a definite date fixed. I don’t negotiate with myself, so I’m not going to propose a fallback position. But I do think that Iran hasn’t really shown the change of heart. We did not see a change in heart in the regime after the deal was concluded. In fact, I remember when I testified before the Senate last year I submitted for the record many pages of materials—I think it was seventy-six separate incidents concerning threats to peace and security committed by the regime while they were in the Iran deal. And so it didn’t have the hoped-for effect of moderating its behavior. And so in the absence of evidence that suggests a change of heart, I think the right policy is to extend it indefinitely. When Iran changes its behavior, we’re very happy to discuss something different.
STAFF: Our next question will be from Karen DeYoung.
Q: Hello. Thank you.
If you’re not able to reach agreement with the Security Council for an agreed snapback, I’m assuming that presumes that the United States will impose its own sanctions on arms shipments in and out of Iran. And how much thinking and planning has gone in at this point to ensure that Russia and China re not shipping—selling arms to Iran? And how would you accomplish that?
HOOK: Karen, I don’t blame you for asking the question you did, but we don’t preview our sanctions in terms of what we might do to sanction. I think you had a few ifs in your question. So I don’t ever preview our sanctions, because that would give a heads-up to the people whose behavior that we’re trying to limit. We are sincere in our desire to see if we can get the arms embargo extended and the travel ban put back in place. There’s a number of things that we think are just and fair in light of how Iran has behaved. And that’s as much as I can say about where we are now.
STAFF: Our next question will come from Norman Roule.
Q: Good afternoon, Brian, and thank you for the presentation.
HOOK: Hello, Norm.
Q: Good hearing you.
Brian, I haven’t heard much about Yemen lately. Advocates of the nuclear deal tend to focus on the nuclear side. Opponents tend to focus on the lack of attention to regional and missile issues. But Yemen seems to be a quiet area, despite the number of missiles that are coming from Yemen against the kingdom and the many nationals who live there. Could you comment on that, please? Thank you.
HOOK: Good question, Norm.
I think Iran would love to see a version of Hezbollah on Saudi’s southern flank. That is their ambition. And this would, I think, help build out Iran’s goals to create the Shia crescent that stretches from Beirut down to Yemen. And so we’re doing what we can to interdict weapons. And I think our brave men and women in our armed forces have interdicted a number of shipments of lethal arms that were going to the Houthis in Yemen. I think that the Iranian regime has not been held to account by the international community for what it has done to create one of the world’s worst humanitarian catastrophes in the world.
The Houthis are a tribal militia that have been organized, trained, and equipped for many years by Iran. And they did this while they were in the Iran deal, going back to my other argument earlier that I think Iran interpreted the Iran deal as giving it a green light on the nonnuclear threats that people care about. And the Houthis, given how many very sophisticated weapons that they’ve shot into Saudi Arabia, one of their missiles hit a G-20 airport. And they’ve had a number of close calls. And it could have been—you know, we were very lucky that day in terms of not hitting a commercial airliner. Americans could have been on that plane. But I think that we have to take that seriously.
I’ve been to Prince Sultan Air Base to see where warehouses of Iranian munitions that have been picked up on the battlefield, exploded and unexploded ordnance. And so this is a many-year-long problem. We’re pleased that there is a ceasefire that has been in place. The U.N. secretary-general encouraged that in order to help focus resources on corona. And that’s been in place. We’ve been pleased with the work of the U.N.’s—Secretary-General Guterres’ special envoy, Martin Griffiths. And we’re pleased that the Saudis have been supporting these efforts to try to bring the fighting to an end.
But one of the biggest challenges we’ve had is that every time we bring these groups together, Iran is always hanging outside the conference room urging the Houthis to keep at it. And that has been one of the biggest, if not the biggest, obstacle to winding down the war in Yemen, is Iran wants to keep attacking Saudi Arabia through a proxy. It’s no different from what they do in Lebanon with Hezbollah or with Palestine Islamic Jihad, or with Hamas, or with its PMF in Iraq, on and on. This is Iran’s playbook. We have, I think, taken an approach that has been very effective.
STAFF: Our next question will come from Kim Dozier.
Q: Thank you. Kim Dozier with Time. Thanks, Brian.
So to pick up on Karen’s question, if diplomacy fails and Iran starts selling conventional weapons in November 2020, what next? What’s the threat to the region?
HOOK: Well, I heard two ifs. And in my line of work I don’t—I don’t answer hypotheticals. I deal with the real world. And the real word is the arms embargo is expiring on October 18th. We have put in place a resolution which we think deserves the unanimous support of the council. That’s our focus. The only thing that we’ve done is made clear that we have other options. And I think it’s important that everybody understand that we do have this option. It’s not our first choice. We very much hope that we can work through this and have the council pass a resolution.
STAFF: Our next question will come from Hamid Biglari.
Q: Hamid Biglari, Point72 Asset Management.
Mr. Hook, while I’m very sympathetic about the administration’s efforts to secure the release of the dual nationals you mentioned, I confess I’m baffled by what you hope to achieve with the maximum pressure campaign. If you look at the situation from the perspective of the Iranians, it would be strategically suicidal for the regime to be humiliated into a compromise. Not only is capitulation inconceivable as a matter of national pride, it establishes terrible precedent for any future negotiations. That only leaves the prospect that maximum pressure will bring about regime change through a popular uprising.
But the regime has demonstrated repeatedly and unequivocally that it will use whatever force it needs to maintain control. It only needs to look at the recent experience in both Syria and Venezuela and compare these countries’ crisis response to Gadhafi’s Libya, which did compromise, to conclude that holding onto power is the superior solution. On top of everything, the regime will wait out any discussions until it sees the outcome of our election. So putting this all together, what reason is there to believe that your strategy of maximum pressure has any chance to succeed?
HOOK: That wasn’t a very leading question. Look, I—obviously, I don’t share your premises. I have an entirely different assessment of it. I think as you describe it, it sounds like Zarif’s talking points. It sounds like Rouhani’s talking points. And so if you want to repeat their talking points, that’s your choice. What we have seen is when we came into office the regime was rich and its proxies were rich, and the international community was encouraging business with Iran. But the Iranian economy is the banker to Iran’s terrorism. And if you want to get serious about reversing Iran’s power projection, you’ve got to go after the money. And if you want their proxies to be weaker, you can’t suspend all of your key sanctions as they did during the Iran nuclear deal in deep freeze. We couldn’t touch oil or banking sanctions. So being out of the deal we’re now able to do a lot.
In terms of the Persian pride you mentioned, I’m not going to be the regime’s psychoanalyst. Pride is not something which afflicts only the Iranians. It’s something which everybody has some measure of pride. But I think the regime also has to think about its own people and put its people ahead of its pride. And we have made it abundantly clear many times, this regime has had more diplomatic offramps than I can count. Not just through the United States. We’ve certainly had it open. But how do you explain President Macron, Prime Minister Abe, leaders in Pakistan, in Oman, all making efforts to get the regime to deescalate. And every time the regime said no. That they prefer the course that they’re on. That’s not my problem. That’s the regime’s problem.
STAFF: Our next question will be from Arshad Mohammed. Arshad, if you can unmute your microphone. OK, we’re having a bit of an issue with this. We will now go to Peter Galbraith.
Q: My apologies. Can you hear me now?
STAFF: Oh, sorry. Yeah, we can hear you now.
Q: Yeah. Two quick things. When does the United States intend to circulate its resolution? As you’re aware the SG’s 2231 report is due on June 30. Are you going to try to do it then or soon thereafter?
HOOK: I’m glad you mention, Arshad, the 2231 report. I think that was already—it seems to have leaked a little bit up in New York. But it does tie some weapons in the Middle East back to the Iranian regime that have been used in conflict. So the report will be coming out. What we’ve done is to just talk conceptually about how we see the arms embargo. And so we’ve done that. I don’t want to get into the specifics of which day we’re going to table the resolution and how we go about it. That’s something which I discuss with counterparts both on the U.N. Security Council but also in the region that is affected by Iranian aggression.
So I do encourage people to take a look at the 2231 report when it comes out. I believe it’s in a week or two before it’s formally released. We’ve encouraged a number of countries to cooperate with the 2231 committee. It’s shared by a permanent representative from Belgium who is very good. I met with him a few times. And so we look forward the report coming out. And that’s as much as I can say about timing.
STAFF: Our next question will be from Peter Galbraith.
Q: Good afternoon and thank you very much.
You mentioned one of Iran’s proxy forces, the PMF. But you haven’t mentioned one of our major allies, namely the Kurds. And in October 2017, the administration permitted the PMF to use American Abrams tanks in an operation that was commanded by Abu Mahdi Muhandis and planned by Qassem Soleimani against the Iraqi Kurds. Bute we haven’t been willing to provide them with the same level of weaponry, including Abrams tanks. And in Syria, in September of 2019, the Syrian Kurds were depriving Iran’s ally Assad of roughly one-third of his country. But as a result of President Trump’s decision to greenlight a Turkish invasion, the Syrian Kurds have had to invite Assad’s forces back, at least to some extent.
So my question is, are we prepared to do steps, including selling Abrams tanks and other weapons to the Iraqi Kurds, that might reassure our partners that we’re going to be partners? Are we going to stand with the Syrian Kurds? And would we consider building alliances with the Iranian Kurds, who are of course among the most oppressed of the Kurdish people?
HOOK: Certainly I agree with you on the oppression that the Kurds have endured, and how badly they’ve been treated around the region for a very long time. As the Iran envoy, I try to stay in my lane. We’ve got David Schenker who’s our assistant secretary for the Near East. We also have Jim Jeffrey and Joel Rayburn who are leading our counter-ISIS campaign both in Iraq and Syria. And I’m going to stay in my lane and let them field questions that I think are more in their jurisdiction. I just try to be a good colleague and not wander too far outside of my lane.
STAFF: Our next question comes from Lyric Hughes Hale.
Q: Yes. Hi. I’m the editor-in-chief of EconVue in Chicago.
This conversation so far has been about the external pressures, aimed at military deterrence basically. But my Iranian American friends tell me that the economic situation in Iran is desperate. And I’m wondering what the long game is for Iran and the United States, and will they be able to return to Iran someday, my friends here? I lived at the American Embassy in Iran as a child. Will I be able to ever return? What do you plan to make that happen? Thank you.
HOOK: So the first part—I’ll take it in two parts. And the first part of the question, I remember when President Trump gave his first speech to the U.N. General Assembly. He spoke directly to the Iranian people and he said that the longest-suffering victims of the Iranian regime are its own people, and that is true. It’s true today, it was true then, it’s been true for forty-one years. The revolution did not deliver on its promises. And its people have been—I mean, look at the decades of progress that have been lost because of this regime. Iran is not a poor country. Iran is a rich country governed by thieves.
And I think when you look at the protests in November that were countrywide, and you did not see any protests against American sanctions. And you even saw one video where there was an American and Israeli flag, I believe it was in Tehran, and the regime was hoping people would step on it and the Iranian people walked around it. That represents Iran much more than the regime ever will. And I’ve always believed very much that the American people and the Iranian people share a number of the same values. Those two peoples don’t share the values of the regime—the Iranian regime itself.
I did—I remember, it’s probably been two years ago—I did a video in front of the Iranian embassy on Massachusetts Avenue, which we have been maintaining for forty-one years now. We’ve got the—we take care of the grounds, and the building, and what was in the embassy. And what I said is I look forward to the day when we can return the keys of the Iranian embassy to the Iranian people. That’s not possible now, but I like your hopefulness. I have the same sort of hopefulness about the future, especially when you look at the long sort of history, at least in the 20th century.
You had a constitutional revolution in the very early 1900s in Iran. And I think the Iranian people have had some success and some failure in achieving a truly representative government. And that can take many forms. But I think when people look back over these forty years—forty-one years, they’ll be remembered as the dark ages for the Iranian people. And it was a real setback. And so I hope for a representative government for the Iranian people.
The future of Iran is going to be decided by the—by the Iranians. It’s not going to be decided by the United States. And so we’re going to continue to stand with the Iranian people. We have sanctioned so many of the people who have caused so much suffering over many decades to the Iranian people. We’ll continue to do that. I think they know that we stand with them. I know they do. We have five social media platforms in Farsi. And we push out a ton of content. And we—I communicate on a very regular basis with the Iranian people. And I’ll continue to do that.
STAFF: Our next question will be from Mirna Galic.
Q: Thanks so much.
My question has to do with the election coming up in November. I think you may be aware that the Biden campaign has said that Biden would take the U.S. back to the original JCPOA if Iran was in agreement. And I think our European allies as well as China and Russia would probably welcome that with open arms. I have to imagine that now if you’re a diplomat—a European diplomat working on Iran you’re probably hedging your bets not only about the JCPOA but about snapbacks and other things, to wait to see what happens in November. And I’m curious, do you think that the administration is in a bit of a quandary about this? Do you think that you have lost maybe some the cache that the U.S. might have had with these issues as people maybe wait and possibly hope to see for different policies coming out of the United States in November? Thank you.
HOOK: Well, we’re still a long ways from November. We have—we have a strategy and we have been executing against that strategy relentlessly for the last—for the three-plus years. So in my role I very much focus on implementing the strategy. I don’t get distracted by some of the things I think that you mentioned. It wouldn’t surprise me at all if the regime is waiting until November. I think that this is a regime that knows our strategy very well. And they are now facing their worst economic crisis. They’re facing a crisis of legitimacy. They’re facing a crisis of credibility. The regime clings to power on the basis of brute force. Much of that is a mess of their own making, but our strategy has expanded the space, I think, for the Iranian people to demand a better way of life delivered by its government.
So I’m going to continue keeping my head down and focused on the pillars of our strategy. And I talked about the economic pressure, diplomatic isolation, and military deterrence. The fourth big piece of that standing with the Iranian people. And we have—I think every time you’ve seen protests in Iran, we’ve been there. We have repeatedly expressed our support and validated their demands. And the other thing I think if you take a look at, if you look at our list of twelve, in many ways they overlap with the demands of the Iranian people. They’re tired of seeing their money squandered on foreign adventures. Your average Lebanese Hezbollah fighter makes more money than an Iranian firefighter.
The Iranian people know this and they’re tired of it, and they would like to see, look, Iran has one of the—this regime has destroyed is environment over forty-one years. And I put out a report on how they’ve destroyed the environment. People have very—the land is very poor for farming. They have droughts across the country that are occasionally interrupted by massive floods because Iran has mismanaged its water resources. The COVID is another example of how they’ve mismanaged the pandemic. So they’ve spent about $10 billion in Syria saving Assad so that they can attack Israel, save Assad, and then have that corridor to Lebanon. Imagine if they had spent just 10 percent of that on their own people, the difference that would make in some of the areas that I just discussed.
So we have tried to force the regime to make a choice. They can choose between butter in Tehran or guns in Damascus. It’s very hard for them to be able to do both. And we have seen the press reporting bear out our assessment that the regime doesn’t have the money that it used to, and it would have liked to have spent, on these various conflicts in the region.
SEIB: I think we’ve hit the 3:00 mark. And it’s been a great discussion. And I want to thank you all for joining and joining in in that discussion. And thank you, Brian, for being with us.
HOOK: Well, thanks, Jerry. I also want to thank Richard Haass for inviting me to this. Appreciate his leadership and all the work that CFR does.
SEIB: And just as a note on that front, the audio and the transcript of this conversation will be available on the CFR website. Thank you all again and please stay safe.
HOOK: Thank you.