Briefing with Representative for Iran and Senior Advisor to the Secretary Brian Hook, October 11, 2019.
Today, the Defense Department announced the deployment of additional U.S. forces to the kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Secretary Pompeo and Secretary Esper have had many talks with the Saudis. And those discussions intensified after the Iranian attack on Saudi Arabia on September 14th. Secretary Pompeo traveled to the region, only days after the attack, to discuss Saudi’s defensive capabilities and the means by which we can reestablish deterrence in the region. The Secretary has been in regular communication with other partners in the Middle East on the best way forward. The product of these bilateral talks is the announcement today that an additional 3,000 forces will flow to Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia is a long-standing security partner and has requested additional support to supplement their defenses and to defend the rules-based international order. We know this decision is supported by many partners in the region who are on the front lines of Iranian aggression. Since May, the Department of Defense has increased the number of forces by approximately 14,000 to the CENTCOM area of responsibility as an investment in regional security. This administration does not seek conflict with Iran. We have been equally clear to the regime that we will defend our citizens, forces, and interests, including against attacks by Iran or its proxies. We stand with our partners and our allies to safeguard global commerce and regional stability. I would like to give some diplomatic context to the decision today to increase troops. The United States is raising the cost of Iran’s revolutionary adventures, while increasing incentives for pragmatism to prevail. The international community needs to be a part of this effort. Nations around the world need to hold Iran accountable, press Iran to deescalate, and join us in our commitment to providing stability in the region. Willful blindness in the face of threats does not advanced peace, it hinders it. As we have again demonstrated today, we are doing our part. I will remind everyone that this administration has implemented its pressure campaign with two primary objectives. First, to deprive the Iranian regime of the money that it needs to destabilize the Middle East and to terrorize other regions of the world. Second, to bring Iran to the negotiating table, to conclude a comprehensive and enduring deal, as outlined by Secretary Pompeo in May of 2018. The pressure on Iran continues to mount, Iran’s economy contracted by roughly five percent last year, and probably will shrink by more than 10% this year. We estimate that Iran’s economy could contract by as much as 14%, sending Iran into a deep depression. The regime is now tapping unconventional sources like privatizing state assets and drawing on its sovereign wealth fund, to make up for the massive shortfall. Increasingly, Iran will be forced to choose between printing money or delaying spending on infrastructure development, salaries, and benefits. The regime in Iran has a choice. It can act like a country or it can act like a cause. Iran must change its behavior and act like a normal nation, or it will watch its economy crumble. While the Iranian leaders make that decision, we will stay focused on working with our partners to defend themselves from attacks, while also raising the cost of aggression. As we raise the cost of Iran’s expansionism and foreclose the possibility of prolonging the status quo, Iran will continue to find its violence will only earn it isolation and censure. Our policy is at its core, a diplomatic and economic one. Iran has responded to it with violence. Iran should meet diplomacy with diplomacy, not with terror, bloodshed, and nuclear extortion. Our diplomacy does not entitle Iran to undertake violence against any nation or to threaten maritime security. We seek a comprehensive deal that sets our two peoples on a new trajectory toward a far more peaceful and stable relationship. We are very pleased that the United Kingdom and France and Germany, have also called for a new deal to comprehensively address the threats that Iran presents to peace and security. We are defending our interests and assets in the region, and we are working to establish deterrence.
[Ortagus] Okay, Matt.
Thanks. Brian, can you try to clear up two issues of confusion? One, is I was under the impression that this President and this administration wanted to remove or reduce the U.S. troop presence in the Middle East? Do you see threat from Iran to be such, that this is absolutely necessary to regain the deterrent factor? And then secondly, you keep talking about our diplomacy and how it does not give Iran the excuse of, can you explain what that diplomacy is, actually? I mean, it’s certainly not with Iran, right? There’s no contact with Iran, so is this diplomacy that you’re doing with the Europeans or with the Saudis and with the Emiratis, what is the diplomacy to which you keep talking about?
Well, first, I’d probably change how you described it, the President has said he is getting us out of endless wars, which is very different from what you talked about. Endless wars where you have troops engaged in endless wars. In this case.
[Matt] But he’s also.
Let me finish, let me finish and then you can follow-up. The troops that we are sending into Saudi and the enhanced assets are defensive. They are there to defend our interests, and to help Saudi defend itself. We are not looking for conflict in the Middle East. We have had plenty of it. So, Iran is the aggressor and we have put in place an enhanced force posture since May when our intelligence community detected multiple threats against American interests in the region and to our partners. Our enhanced force posture has helped to disrupt and deter many of the attacks that Iran was plotting. So that is the kind of, at the heart of what we’re doing is defensive, and I think it’s a distinction that I think is lost in your question. On the second one, our diplomacy, look, however you wanna define our diplomacy, and I’m happy to describe it, it is very different than Iran and how they’re dealing with it. We would like to resolve our differences diplomatically. And the President from even while we were in the deal, and after the deal, has said that he will meet with the Iranians. The Iranians reject the diplomacy. The Secretary has said that he would meet with the Iranians and they have rejected it. They have rejected the diplomacy of Prime Minister Abe, of President Macron, and many leaders around the world. So, we want to resolve our differences diplomatically, we don’t want to have any element of violence or kinetic force as part of that equation. Our diplomacy to accomplish our objectives in the meantime, is based on economic pressure and diplomatic isolation. Two factors that are required if you want to see a change in Iran’s behavior. There is no other example in the last 40 years, of Iran moderating or changing its behavior without economic pressure and diplomatic isolation.
[Ortagus] Do you need a follow-up, Matt?
[Ortagus] No, okay.
Hi, did you see this report from Iran, Iranian oil tanker hit off Saudi, does the U.S. have any independent confirmation of that? And if any of this enhanced assets and troops will be used towards the securing of Straits of Hormuz? Thank you.
Well, the first part, we’ve seen the reports about the tanker off the coast of Sudan. I don’t have any comment on it. What was your second question?
Whether any of these additional troops and enhanced assets will be used towards better security of Straits of Hormuz? The shipping line?
Well, we have, that’s what our sentinel, our maritime security initiative is largely focused around that. And so, I think these additional troops and assets in the Saudi are meant to enhance Saudi’s ability to defend itself. Saudi has been very much focused on all the threats coming from the south because of the Iranian backed Houthi attacks on Saudi. Now that you have attacks coming from the north, it puts Saudi at increased risk, so we have put in place assets which are very much designed around restoring deterrents broadly but also specifically helping Saudi better defend itself. Sentinel, that’s one of many names for it, the maritime security initiative that we have in the Strait of Hormuz is designed to increase. We had a number of countries join. We have asked nations to contribute maritime and aviation assets so that we have more eyes on that area. The more people that we have there, it makes it harder for Iran to execute its operations against tankers and other things like they’ve done in the past. If they ever wanted to threaten to mine the Strait of Hormuz, which they’ve done in the past, take out oil tankers, capture oil tankers, in other country’s waters. So, we encourage countries to join this Maritime Security Initiative, it is entirely, it is to raise awareness about threats in that area so that we can deter them.
I know you just said that this decision to send thousands of troops to Saudi Arabia has been in the making for a while, but do you detect any imminent threat from Iran now that, it was part in this decision to send them now? And also, do you see that this maximum pressure campaign will bring Iran in any way closer to the negotiation table?
It is very hard to predict when Iran will meet our diplomacy with diplomacy. That’s really a question for the Iranians. We have provided diplomatic off-ramps for over two years, while we were in the deal and when we were outside of the deal. Iran continues to reject diplomacy. You’ve seen so many countries who have offered to be an intermediary to help deescalate tensions. Prime Minister Abe made the first visit in history, of a Japanese Prime Minister to the Islamic Republic of Iran, and while he was in the country, they bombed a Japanese oil tanker. The Supreme Leader issued a series of tweets rejecting the diplomacy, so I can’t help Iran help itself. We certainly would, we are raising the costs of being an outlaw regime. And we think that, certainly you saw, the E3 leader statement shortly after the attacks in Abqaiq. The Iran nuclear deal has come at the expense of missile nonproliferation in the Middle East. And we saw that in Abqaiq. Iran has the largest missile inventory in the Middle East. I have been saying for well over a year that inaction to deter Iran’s missile program, we are accumulating risk of a regional war. I’ve been saying that for over a year, here and in other fora. And then on September 14th we had an act of war. And we continue to accumulate risk of a worse conflict, if we don’t get serious about Iran’s missile program. The Iran nuclear deal is not only silent on ICBMs, it lifted the UN Security Council provision banning ballistic missile testing. And Iran interpreted the Iran nuclear deal as giving it a green light, on both missile testing and to deepen its engagement with its proxies, which the sanction relief helped to fuel. So, there are a lot of reasons, we think, for the European Union to match our sanctions on Iran’s missile and drone program.
So, I’m with the Voice of America Persian service. In regards to the Secretary’s early morning tweet, asking Iran to, or urging Iran to ratify Palermo convention, if you could kindly elaborate on it, on the timing. Why the urgency now? I mean, Iran’s been evading FATF. And also, State Department’s take on Iran’s heeding to the FIFA pressure and allowing women to enter their stadiums, if you can also?
Was your first question about FATF?
[Ortagus] Yeah, it was about FATF.
[Reporter] Uh, yeah.
Well, FATF had to put in place countermeasures a few months ago because Iran does not run a banking system with transparency. It is by design, opaque. And one of the reasons why you haven’t seen any activity in this INSTEX or special purpose vehicle is because Iran has not created a mirror image of the European mechanism, which does have full transparency. So, for as long as Iran continues to run an opaque financial sector so that it can disguise its money laundering and its terror finance, you are going to continue to see banks and businesses averse to engaging with Iran. Because when you conduct business in Iran, where the IRGC controls to half or more of the economy you can never know if you’re supporting commerce or terrorism. You cannot know that. The IRGC is very expert at creating front companies disguised as any number of organizations including humanitarian organizations. And this, quite naturally, has made banks fearful. The first rule of banking is know your customer. And it’s very hard to do that when you’re dealing with the Iranian regime. On the stadium, the Iranians have been denying women from attending sports events at stadiums, including soccer, for a very long time. And then you had the Blue Girl, who after she was arrested and sentenced to prison for six months, she lit herself on fire and died of her injuries. FIFA stood up for her, and put pressure on the regime. And this is another example, maybe going to Matt’s earlier question, where pressure works. It works with this regime. But if we engage in willful blindness or operate in a culture of inaction, Iran interprets that as a green light to continue doing more of the same and to raise it. So FIFA stood up to the regime, and drove up the cost of them to continue to deny women from attending soccer games. Now, what does the regime do? They then had this match, recently, the stadium was mostly empty, the area for the women was in a caged off section. And so the women were kept in a caged area, apart from the men to watch this game. Those are the women who could buy tickets, who could get tickets, the women who couldn’t get tickets, were outside the stadium and they were harassed and beaten by the Iranian regime. The big pillar of what we do is standing with the Iranian people. When you look at the energy, sort of the protest movement in Iran, it’s with the women, around the compulsory hijab and also around the soccer. The Iranian regime is very ideological, but they also have a pragmatic side. Which occasionally, they will put on display, when they think that they’re at risk. We saw that with FIFA, we believe that our approach is also going to help us accomplish our objectives.
[Ortagus] We got word that the Vice President might be going in to meet with the President, soon, and so we don’t want to run into that gaggle and I’m sure most of you want to cover it. So, let’s do Nick and we might be able to do one or two more and then.
I just wanted to follow up on Matt’s question, which you addressed with the response about endless wars. I think the confusion is in part more, the President tweeted not only about endless wars but he said that going in to the Middle East was the biggest mistake the United States had ever made in the history of the country and the U.S. was now in the process of withdrawing its troops, not only from Syria but from the broader Middle East. So, how do you explain those two conflicting messages? The President, himself, says that that’s the biggest mistake in the history of the United States and you’re now telling us 3,000 more troops are going in and 14,000 have been brought in. Just seems like a fundamental contradiction.
Don’t think it’s a contradiction. We have the 5th fleet in Bahrain, we have our base in Doha, we have troops now at Prince Sultan Air Base, we’ve had troops in Syria that have been there to ensure the enduring defeat of ISIS. I can keep going around the region. Obviously, the United States has interests which the President is dedicated to protecting. We do that through a very smart combination of diplomacy and hard power. And that has been the mix that the President has put in place. Our troop levels go up and down, depending on the threat. Given the Iranian aggression and given our partners in the region, President asked the Secretary, Secretary Pompeo, to go to Saudi, right after the attack, so that we could have this discussion about their defensive needs. He’s also said repeatedly that if our troops are attacked in the Middle East, no matter where they are, we will not make a distinction between Iran and its proxies that they organize, train, and equip. I think the President has a very good record in the Middle East, to combine our diplomatic objectives and that’s why Secretary Pompeo, Secretary Esper work so well together across the various threats and opportunities we face in the Middle East.
[Ortagus] Okay, Said.
Sir, are you concerned that it was the presence of American troops in Saudi Arabia that was used as a pretext by Al-Qaeda terrorists some 20 years ago that this may give them added incentive and to strike again? And second, on the 12 points, we’re a bit confused or at least I am a bit confused. Are these preconditioned?
[Brian] They’re very short.
Are they preconditions that Secretary?
[Ortagus] Said, I’m gonna answer that.
Right, right, I want to put one more time. Are they preconditioned?
[Ortagus] He can answer this one and then he’s gotta go. We don’t want to get in with the President.
That really is a question for Saudi Arabia. But Saudi Arabia has requested additional troops and additional assets to help them defend themselves. And so that’s really a question that is appropriate for Saudi Arabia. But we can say that Saudi Arabia has made this request both to Secretary Pompeo and to Secretary Esper.
[Ortagus] Okay, Christine, get in.
To that point a little bit, the Saudis buy a lot of weapons from the U.S. In fact the State Department went through great lengths this year to make sure that they could do that even when there was some opposition in Congress. She said they’ve requested U.S. troops, why do the Saudis need the U.S. to do this? Why can’t they defend themselves?
Well we have a number of partnerships around the world. This isn’t limited to Saudi Arabia. We have security cooperation around the world. I think the premise of your question is, if there are American troops in a country, then they can’t defend themselves.
No, I’m just saying, they have military grade weapons from us and they’re saying, well, we would like your help, and I understand that, but is there a reason the U.S. thinks that they need to go in the Saudis can’t, is it that the Saudis can’t do this themselves? Or we’re just, helping?
I would put it this way. The Saudis, in light of the Iranian effort to attack Saudi from the south and to attack Saudi from the north, has created a new security crisis for Saudi Arabia that requires additional assets which are defensive and they’re entirely defensive. We would very much like to see Iran stop attacking countries in the region. That would be the easiest way for us to reduce our troop levels in the region. But this is very much focused around defensive. And it will continue to be defensive, we are not looking for a fight. Let’s have David.
Brian, I just wanted to return to the answer that you were giving before, to Nick and before that, to Matt. You were making a distinction between troops that are at risk, that are regularly taking casualties which is, I think, what the President is saying when he says he wants to end the endless wars. And troops who are there to prevent conflict, to be a tripwire, to support local forces, it strikes me that you’ve just made the State Department’s best argument so far against the President doing what he did on Sunday. Which was to remove troops that were there as a tripwire and to provide additional security with a partner. So, I don’t, I’m having a hard time getting it, the distinction between what the troops in Saudi Arabia that you’ve announced today are supposed to accomplish.
[Ortagus] David, I get it. We really have to get on with it because the President might not.
[David] The President might but.
[Ortagus] He’s not here to answer Syria.
[David] Well, let’s, he’s here to answer a contradiction in his statement.
[Matt] The investigation into the attack on the Aramco facility, is that finished, and is there going to be more satellite or more intel released on that to share?
The United States, the UN, Saudi, some other countries have all contributed efforts to the site exploitation. There is still ongoing analysis of the debris from the attack. It is no question that Iran is behind the attacks. We’re continuing to exploit what was at the site. Okay, thanks.