New York Foreign Press Center Briefing on “Middle East Peace and Security” with U.S. Representative Brian Hook.
Good morning, everyone. Welcome to the New York Foreign Press Center. We’re glad you’re able to join us today. We’re delighted to have Brian Hook, who’s the US special representative for Iran and the senior policy advisor to the secretary of state. This briefing comes ahead of Secretary Pompeo’s participation today at the UN Security Council, and their discussion on challenges to peace and security in the Middle East, and the administration’s support for multi-lateral solutions. Mr. Hook will offer opening remarks, followed by time of Q and A, which I will moderate. With that said, the podium’s yours.
Hook: Good morning, thank you all for being here. Secretary Pompeo has come to New York for a meeting of the UN Security Council. The United States has been working through the United Nations to advance peace and security in the Middle East. We are very pleased that Poland is president of the UN Security Council this month. Poland’s foreign minister is in town. Secretary will be meeting with him. We partnered with Poland back in February 13th and 14th, and the United States and Poland convened a global ministerial to promote peace and security in the Middle East. We had 65 nations attend from virtually every continent in the world. It was a good opportunity to discuss the range of threats that we see in the Middle East today, and how we can work to improve security in the Middle East, and to promote peace. Poland, as the president of the security council, provides an opportunity to take stock of the progress that we have made since February. One of the outcomes of the global ministerial in Warsaw is the creation of seven working groups. These working groups will be meeting at the level of assistant secretary. The idea there, we very much wanted the global ministerial to not just be a talk fest. We want to be able to identify sort of the key threats, the drivers of instability, and bring nations together to then advance, make progress. So, we decided to operationalize that policy agenda by creating seven working groups, and the secretary will be discussing those today in the UN Security Council. We have the seven working groups. Five countries have already been announced to be hosting these working groups. The other two will be announced in due course. These working groups will be covering cybersecurity, human rights, maritime and aviation security, energy security, missile proliferation, humanitarian and refugee issues, and counter-terrorism. So, the Warsaw process also brought together Israel and Arab nations together to confront the common threat of Iran. And if there’s one nice thing that I can say about Iran’s foreign policy is that it has brought together Arabs and Israelis in ways we never thought possible. When you talk to countries that are on the front lines or Iranian aggression, you hear the same story. That the Iran nuclear deal strengthened Iran’s economy, it expanded Iran’s missile proliferation, Iran’s ballistic missile testing, it strengthened Iran’s proxies. And so, we have put in place a new strategy working with partners in the region to deny Iran the revenue that it needs to run its foreign policy, and to fund its proxies. And we’re very pleased with the progress that we’ve made on that. The other point that Secretary Pompeo will be highlighting is something that he discussed when he was last in the council in December. The Iran nuclear deal was then memorialized by UN Security Council Resolution 2231. And those two, the Iran nuclear deal and 2231 are tightly related. The Iran nuclear deal and 2231, as I mentioned earlier, failed to moderate Iran’s maligned regional behavior. It did not stop the development of Iran’s ballistic missile testing or proliferation, or its funding to proxies. Resolution 2231 contemplates in next year, October of 2020, the arms of the UN arms embargo on Iran which has been in place since about 2006, 2007, it will expire next year. That is part of the Iran nuclear deal. So, in 2015, the Iran nuclear deal, when it was concluded, plan to lift the UN arms embargo on the world’s leading sponsor of terrorism in five short years. Also, in 2231 there was a list of individuals who are under a UN travel ban. That includes Qasem Soleimani, the head of Iran’s Qods force. In October 2020, when the arms embargo expire, on the same day, the UN travel ban on 23 individuals also expires. So, we are not far away from the arms embargo expiring and the travel ban lifting. And it is important for the international community to understand that the Iran nuclear deal is going to start expiring next year, and it will continue to expire. In 2023, eight years after the Iran deal was concluded, the ban on Iran’s missile testing expires. The asset freeze on over 60 organizations also expires. And then at year 10 in October ’25, you have all the provisions of 2231 are terminated. This was an enormous setback for advancing peace and security in the Middle East. We believe that the UN Security Council has an important role to play to ensure that the arms embargo and the travel ban are continued, so that will be a discussion item today in the UN Security Council. Happy to take any questions.
Moderator: Okay, so, this is the time for Q and A. Please state your name and organization before asking your question, and again, I will moderate. So, we’ll start here in the front.
Margaret: Thank you, Mr. Hook. Margaret Besheer with Voice of America. So, are you going to ask, or is Secretary Pompeo going to ask them, the security council to do something to extend the arms embargo and the travel ban? Are you gonna make a specific request?
Hook: Well, I would refer you to what he said in November. He’ll be talking about it again today. There is an existing UN Security Council resolution, 2231, and it is important we think, for the council to take stock of the fact that what was promised in the Iran nuclear deal, that the deal would moderate Iran’s behavior, that it would contribute to regional peace and stability has not happened. In fact, quite the opposite. We have seen the Iran nuclear deal come at the expense of peace and stability in the Middle East because Iran spent the sanctions relief on its missile program and on its proxies. So, there is a role for the council to play. If the council fails to take action, you will see the arms embargo lifted on Iran. You will also see the travel ban on 23 individuals expire. And so, it’s important that this meeting happen. There is a role for the council to play. It’s an important role, and Secretary Pompeo, it’ll be a good chance to discuss the need to do something about it.
Michelle: Thank you. Michelle Nichols from Reuters. Just a followup to Maggie’s question, there is the dispute resolution mechanism in the nuclear deal, which is also mentioned, and as you said, enshrined in 2231. Some people have questioned whether the United States might be able to trigger that, which would trigger a snap back of all the sanctions. Is that something that Washington is considering doing to ensure that all the sanctions snap back and none of them are lifted? And just a couple of quick questions on two other Iran-related issues. For the past couple of UN general assemblies, the Trump Administration has asked to meet with President Rouhani while he’s been here during the general assembly. Is that something that might happen again next month? You’ve blacklisted Zarif, so who does the Trump Administration want to talk to in Iran? Who do you want to negotiate with? Just on the release of the Iranian tanker, is the US planning any other action to try and save that? Thank you.
Hook: Okay, three or four, maybe more. Maybe it was five questions. Let me go through this. So, on snap back, we’re no longer in the deal. And so, the parties that are still in the deal will have to make their decisions. With respect to using or not using the dispute resolution mechanism, there is no question that Iran is in breach of the Iran nuclear deal, but that is a decision that those that are still in the deal will have to take. With respect to diplomacy with Iran, so in the first thing on Zarif, if you look at the history, there seems to be this misunderstanding that the only person who can conduct diplomacy on behalf of Iran is Iran’s foreign minister. If you look at the history of Iranian diplomacy, they regularly use other officials besides the foreign ministry. People who are on the supreme national security council, for example, have been used to conduct diplomacy. And so, it is a mistake to argue that this is somehow a rejection of diplomacy. It is very much a message to Foreign Minister Zarif that he has been acting on behalf of the supreme leader’s revolutionary agenda. He deceives the world about the regime’s true intentions. And so, we thought that it was important to hold him accountable for his role supporting the supreme leader of Iran. The other point I’d make about diplomacy is that the president and the secretary of state for the last couple of years had made clear that we would like to see a diplomatic resolution to our differences with Iran. Iran, over the last few months, has rejected diplomacy too many times, and as a consequence, we are focused on intensifying our economic pressure campaign, to drive up the cost of Iran’s malign behavior. On the tanker question, the regime uses oil revenue to support terrorism. That is sort of the first point that everybody needs to understand. This regime, unlike most regimes in the world, uses oil revenue to support terrorism, and to fund terrorist organizations, and to fund its missile program. So, the people who are trafficking in oil are supporting an Iranian regime whose missiles end up on battlefields around the Middle East. Each oil shipment that goes to Syria is worth tens of millions of dollars. This is not an inconsequential amount of money. And so, we have called upon all governments, and the maritime community, to deny passage of any Iranian oil tankers, to deny them docking privileges, and we have also issued advisories to the maritime community that any crew members of any nation that assist the IRGC by transporting oil from Iran may be subject to criminal and immigration consequences, because they are providing material support to a terrorist organization. If you are a crew member or a captain on a vessel moving Iranian oil, then you are subject to criminal and immigration consequences. We are doing this to advance national security objectives that are collective security interests of the world. We very much want to see a more peaceful and stable Middle East, and for as long as Iran is moving illicit oil around the world to fund its terrorist operations, it’s important that we do something about it.
Michelle: So might we see a Trump-Rouhani meeting next month for United Nations?
Hook: Don’t have any comment on that.
Ben: Ben Schringhamer from the German Press Agency. Here, sir. So, you said already you want countries of the Mediterranean not to host that tanker ship. What would happen if the countries in the Mediterranean are not following your lead and not your advice?
Hook Well, we believe it’s very much in their interest. There are EU provisions to deny revenue going to Assad’s regime. And when the Iranian government moves oil to Syria, that is in violation of EU sanctions. It’s in violation of American sanctions. And so, we will continue to share intelligence with countries around the world so that they can see how the regime uses oil revenue to fund terrorism around the Middle East. And so, we’ll continue doing that. We have been able to deter a number of oil shipments. When we left the Iran deal in May of last year, Iran was exporting 2.5 million barrels of oil a day. You may have seen press reports in June and July that Iran’s oil exports were down to around 100,000 barrels of oil. I can’t overstate the significance of this accomplishment. It means a denial of up to $50 billion in revenue to the regime if we can get close to zeroing out Iran’s oil exports. It is their chief source of export revenue, and it is what the IRGC uses, and the Qods force uses to destabilize the Middle East. So, we do think countries around the world have a collective interest in stopping illicit oil shipments.
Manik: Thank you. Manik Mehtar. I’m a syndicated journalist. There has been a lot of pressure on friendly countries to the US who have been trading with Iran. I’ll cite the example of India, for example, which has got its oil imports from Iran, but now there is the question of shipping to Afghanistan, which is a land-locked country. India ships its consignments through Chabahar, which is in Iran, and then it’s shipped further to Afghanistan. There is also pressure now from the US to stop India from using Chabahar. So, how do you reconcile that with your plans to develop Afghanistan?
Hook: I’m not familiar with the evidence that you’re citing, and we have no evidence that India is running afoul of US sanctions.
[Male] Hold on, please.
Melissa: Oh, hi, Melissa Kent, Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. Thanks very much for holding this press briefing. I just want to ask you, in your opening remarks you said that the campaign of financial pressure, the US campaign of financial pressure is working, and I think you said that you’re very glad about the progress that this campaign has made. Could you give us some examples of the progress? Also, I’m just wondering what your reaction was when Gibraltar did not keep the Iranian oil tanker, and decided to let it go.
Hook: In terms of the progress that our maximum pressure campaign has had, by almost every metric, the Iranian regime and its proxies are weaker today than when they were 2 1/2 years ago when we took office. First example I’ll give you is that during the life of the Iran nuclear deal, Iran’s military budget reached record levels. It was as high as $14 billion. When we came into office, even while we were in the deal, we put in place sanctions. During the first year of this administration, Iran’s military budget went down 10%. During the second year of the administration, Iran’s military budget went down 28%. That included a 17% cut to the IRGC and the Qods force. I’d refer you to in March, Iran midwifed Hezbollah in the early ’80s, and it has Iran’s strongest proxy. And historically, Iran has given Hezbollah 70% of its operating budget. That’s almost $700 million a year to Hezbollah. In March, the leader of Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrallah, had to make a public appeal for charity because Hezbollah doesn’t have the money from Iran that it used to. The New York Times in March, in a story filed by Ben Hubbard on the front page of the Times documents Iranian proxies who are all admitting that they have had a significant cut in funding of their operations because of American sanctions. One Shia fighter in Syria said Iran doesn’t have the money that it used to, and the golden days are over and they’re never coming back. In May, the Washington Post ran a front page story documenting how Iran’s proxies are weaker today because of American sanctions. So, you don’t even need to take our word for it that Iran’s proxies are weaker. Iran has ambitions to create an Iranian crescent that I would say from about 2007 until 2017, they were able to run a foreign policy without many countries saying no. And we are telling Iran that it is not acceptable to provide lethal assistance on a regular basis to terrorist organizations. We have effectively, zeroed out Iran’s export of oil. We have sanctioned Iran’s export of petro chemicals, industrial metals, precious metals. We have collapsed foreign direct investment. We have seen significant asset flight leaving the country. Iran is in a recession. Inflation is creeping up near 50%. This is largely caused by Iran’s corruption, Iran’s Marxist economy that traps people in poverty, and the government that prioritizes ideology over the welfare of its own people. But it is also the case that our sanctions have driven up the cost on the regime, and the point of that is to help the Iranian government see that the cost of pursuing the nuclear option are very real, and they will not go away. We need to see a change in the regime’s behavior. We need to see Iran abandon its quest to become a nuclear state. We need to see Iran stop the missile proliferation to its proxies around the Middle East, especially to Hezbollah, HAMAS, and the Houthis in Yemen. And we also need to see Iran at peace with its neighbors. Iran’s security concerns are largely self-generated, and so Iran, well, you’ll often hear Foreign Minister Zarif say that their policies are meant to be in self-defense. It’s hard for me to understand how the world’s leading sponsor of terrorism is entitled to a claim of self-defense.
Melissa: The second question? I’m sorry (mumbling).
Hook: What was the second one?
Hook: Yeah. Yeah, we did what we could. Gibraltar and the UK did hold the vessel. Gibraltar followed its own internal process, and released the vessel. I think Secretary Pompeo has said it is unfortunate. We have already seen a spokesman for the Iranian government say they have not committed that the oil will not end up in Syria. I think there was some commitment made by Foreign Minister Zarif that the oil would not go to Syria. Within a few weeks you have the same government saying that “No one will tell us where our oil can be sold.” And so, we are using that information to explain to governments that there are no assurances from this regime that it will not send the oil to Syria. We also cannot trust the assurances of the Iranian regime. Europe has a sad history of broken deals with the Iranian regime. Iran has a history of playing cat and mouse with the international community in order to advance its revolutionary agenda.
Ahmed: Thank you, Mr. Hook. My name is Ahmed Fathi, ATN News. Just if I may quote you, Iran is used to play cat and mouse, and sad history of Europe with the Iranian regime. What is the US administration prepared to do if the barter system known as INSTEX is launched? Heiko Maas, Germany foreign minister, made a trip to Iran a while back, and he assured the Iranian leadership that this system will come, although it is reality, it’s a violation of the sanctions imposed. While it does not violate it legally, but in reality, it does. What does the administration plan to do?
Hook: I have yet to have a reporter give me any example of corporate demand for a special purpose vehicle to evade American sanctions. There is no corporate demand for INSTEX. If you are a European company, and you are given the choice between doing business in the American market or the Iranian market, it is the fastest decision you will ever make as CEO. The EU does more trade with Kazakhstan than it does with Iran. It is not a significant market for the European Union, and so we have seen over 100 corporations, and their investment in Iran since the United States left the Iran deal last year in May, and so we don’t anticipate corporations, any significant corporations using the special purpose vehicles, so that’s the first point I’d make. The second point is that in order for the special purpose vehicle, INSTEX, to be functional, Iran needs to set up a mirror image of the European framework, and that has very high transparency standards. Iran, back in June, was found again, not to be in compliance of FADA standards, the international standards for banking. And so, I’m still not certain that we will ever see INSTEX be operational because Iran has no intention of operating a transparent financial system, because if it did, it would not be able to disguise terror finance and money laundering that it does on a daily basis. But I think a third point is that everyone understands that the United States will sanction any sanctionable activity. Our expectation is that INSTEX will be used for only licit purposes, and will not be used to evade American sanctions.
Mathias: Hi, Mathias Ask with TV2 Norway. The US has been talking to a lot of European allies about potentially protecting ship traffic in the Strait of Hormuz. How are those talks going?
Hook: Well, the United Kingdom joined our maritime initiative. It’s a maritime awareness initiative, and the idea there is given, look, in the Strait of Hormuz and in the Bab-el-Mandeb you have almost a quarter of the world’s oil moving every day through those two sea lanes. When you look at the oil volumes that move, especially to Asia, there is an international interest in protecting freedom of navigation, freedom of commercial navigation. There have been a number of attacks on tankers in the Gulf of Oman, in the Strait of Hormuz, and the world has a joint interest in promoting freedom of navigation. And so, the United States, we have an operating base. The fifth fleet operates out of Bahrain in Manama. And the United States has offered those nations that are interested to participate in a maritime security initiative that I would compare to like a neighborhood watch program where you have people who are out. You have more people out in the domain keeping track, having eyes on the water, monitoring maritime traffic. And if they see something, they report it. That is in essence, the idea of this. The United States is willing to offer intelligence sharing and command and control operational capabilities to help nations ensure that their commercial boats move through these waterways without being attacked. So, we’ve had the United Kingdom has joined. I saw a couple of days ago, Bahrain announced, the king of Bahrain announced that they will be joining. We already have a number of countries. I think we have over 30 countries that are currently participating in the maritime initiative in the region, but we need to strengthen deterrents in both the Bab-el-Mandeb and the Strait of Hormuz. We think that this is the most executable and operational concept that has been proposed. We have a lot of history running operations like this. And so, those nations that want to participate are welcome to join. I did a briefing at the State Department a few weeks ago explaining how it works. DoD has hosted a number of meetings about it. We’ve had some countries join, and we expect others will follow.
Moderator: We only have a few more minutes left. I’m gonna try to squeeze in a couple more.
Behnam: Mr. Hook, you mentioned the mechanism in–
Moderator: Can you state your name and organization?
Behnam: This is Behnam Nateghi from Voice of America, Persian service. You mentioned how next year, parts of the nuclear deal will expire and those sanctions will be lifted on individuals, and also on some of the Iranian assets, and all that. But how can the nuclear deal hold up if Iran is actually lowering its commitment, gradually increasing the amount of uranium they are enriching, and by other means, especially the heavy war in Iraq, and all that? They seem to be weakening the nuclear deal themselves. It’s a contradiction in their own actions at the same time. How can this hold, especially if Britain leaves the nuclear deal?
Hook: Well, that’s really I think a question for those who are still in the deal. I can tell you that what we… When we got out of the deal, Secretary Pompeo gave a speech shortly after and said that we need to restore the standard of no enrichment for the Islamic Republic of Iran. We have no argument for Iran having a peaceful nuclear program. It does not need enrichment to have a peaceful nuclear program. If you look around the world at all of the countries that have nuclear energy facilities, almost half of them don’t enrich. And so, when Iran says it needs enrichment for a peaceful nuclear program, it’s not telling the truth. So, it was a UN Security Council provision prior to the Iran nuclear deal that Iran was not allowed to enrich uranium. That is the right policy. It was abandoned by the Iran nuclear deal. It needs to be restored. So, if you are then able to end enrichment, you then don’t have to worry as much about Iran getting close to a nuclear breakout. So, right now, under the Iran nuclear deal, it holds Iran to a one year breakout. We believe that needs to be pushed farther out, and if there’s no enrichment, we think that, that’s a much smarter policy. Given Iran’s history of trying to acquire a nuclear weapon, the Israeli Government liberated a half a ton of materials from Iran’s nuclear archive that were kept under armed guard in the heart of Tehran. Iran has clearly not given up its intent because they have kept their atomic archive in place. And if you look at countries that have decided to end becoming a nuclear weapon state, many of them surrender their nuclear archive. It would be like keeping the owner’s manual of a car after you sell it. It’s not something you need anymore. So, the fact that Iran was keeping it, and hiding it from the IAEA, I think points to their intent. And so, we need to restore the standard, the prior UN standard of no enrichment for Iran.
Amanda: Thank you, thank you for this briefing. Amanda Price from Al Jazeera English. Question about the tanker that was held in Gibraltar. Obviously, that put the US at odds with the UK. Has this complicated any efforts to work on this joint maritime security initiative the UK has been clear about not wanting to be perceived as being part of the US maximum pressure campaign on Iran? And then, also, Pompeo is likely to hear from the Russians about this new gulf security proposal that they put forth. Is the US willing to engage on that in any substantive way?
Hook: Well, Secretary Pompeo had a very good meeting recently with the new UK foreign secretary. President Trump, I think yesterday, had a very good conversation with Prime Minister Johnson. We have a history of working with Boris Johnson on the Iran issue. He’s been a very good partner. We look forward to continuing to work with the United Kingdom on a range of issues. I think the press overstates our disagreements with our European allies. We agree on so much more than we disagree. We have a disagreement, a tactical disagreement, over Iran’s nuclear program. We believe that being outside of the deal, the current deal, is the best means to deny Iran from ever acquiring a nuclear weapon. But the United States and the United Kingdom are in full agreement that the Islamic republic can never be allowed to acquire a nuclear weapon. When you look at the threat assessment on missiles, missile testing, missile proliferation, regional aggression, the unlawful detention of dual nationals, we are in complete agreement with the UK. We think that Gibraltar was right to seize the Grace-1 for violating EU sanctions. I’m not gonna comment any more on Gibraltar’s internal processes. But what we will continue to work, I think right now, the ship has been renamed. It was the Grace-1, and it’s been renamed to the Adrian Darya. We are tracking the movement of this boat. We want to ensure that the oil on that boat is not used to fund IRGC and Qods force operations. And so, we’re tracking its movements, but we’re tracking the movements of all Iranian oil tankers, because as I said earlier, the Iranian regime uses oil to fund its malign activities and to support its terrorist operations around the Middle East, and it’s important for nations to take that threat seriously.
Amanda: And in Russia, the Russian proposal for gulf securities?
Hook: I’ve only seen news reports of it. I haven’t seen it take flight. We believe that our proposal is the most executable, and also the one with the best odds of success in terms of restoring deterrents and protecting freedom of navigation. Look, we welcome a number of ideas to restore deterrents. There are many ways to do that. We have put forward what we know is a very good proposal. We are since May, we have increased our force posture in the Middle East. Partly to protect against unilateral Iranian attacks, but also to promote freedom of navigation. It is a responsibility that the United States takes seriously around the world. We fly, sail, and operate wherever international law permits. We’ll continue to do that. We know other nations will continue to joins us in that effort.
Moderator: And this will be our final question of the morning.
Kevin: Hi, this is Kevin Binner from Sankei Shimbun. Yesterday was the 66th anniversary of Teddy Roosevelt’s grandson leading a coo of Mohammed Mossadegh for the CIA, and Madeleine Albright acknowledged this when she was secretary of state in 2000. I’m wondering, how do you see that kind of, maybe as a way to reconcile a relationship with Iran, admitting past mistakes as a strategy in diplomacy, especially in international organizations? Do you think that strategy failed? Is there any value to admitting our mistakes in dealing with Iran? (mumbling)
Hook: Yeah. There have been scholarly articles published in the last year based on declassified information by the United States Government that has helped to give a more accurate and fuller picture of what happened in 1953 with Mossadegh. Mossadegh was not removed by the CIA. Mossadegh was removed by the religious establishment, the political leadership, and the military. The CIA was invited in on the first attempt, which failed. And after that, the CIA was no longer involved. And if you go and read the collected works of Ayatollah Khomeini, he talks about in 1953 that makes no reference to the CIA. It was something that was done by the religious establishment, by the military establishment, and by the political establishment. And so, those who are interested should take a look at the intelligence that was declassified, and the scholarly articles that have been published that undercut this narrative, which I hear often from Foreign Minister Zarif. One of the many falsehoods he spreads that the United States was responsible for the coo. Thank you.
Moderator: This concludes our briefing. The transcript will be sent once it’s available, and thank you for coming.