Moderator: Greetings to everyone from the U.S. European Media Hub in Brussels. I would like to welcome our participants dialing in from around the world and thank all of you for joining this discussion.
Today we are pleased to be joined from Muscat by Brian Hook, U.S. Special Representative for Iran, and Senior Policy Advisor to the U.S. Secretary of State. Mr. Hook will discuss U.S. policy towards Iran.
We will begin today’s call with opening remarks by Special Representative Hook. We will try to get to as many questions as possible during the time that we have today, but we do have many, many journalists on the call. A reminder that today’s call is on the record.
With that, I will turn it over to Mr. Hook.
Mr. Hook: Thank you very much, Kathy. I’m speaking with you today from Muscat, Oman which is my fourth stop on a diplomatic tour of several countries in the region. I have visited Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Kuwait.
In Saudi Arabia I met with Prince Khalid bin Salman and National Security Advisor Dr. Musaid Al Aiban. I traveled to the Prince Sultan Air Base and had the opportunity to tour a display, a warehouse which is, that warehouse had only a fraction of the Iranian weapons they had interdicted, but even that warehouse was a very impressive and troubling display of the degree to which the Iranians have armed the Houthis.
In the United Arab Emirates, I met with the Foreign Ministry as well as the Defense Minister. Our conversations there focused on the need to deescalate tension for Iran to deescalate its threats. And the need to improve maritime security.
In Kuwait I met with both the Foreign and Defense Ministers. We had excellent conversations about the need for Iran to meet diplomacy with diplomacy and to settle its issues at the negotiating table.
Here in Oman today I had the pleasure of meeting with the Royal Office as well as Oman’s Minister responsible for Foreign Affairs, Yusuf bin Alawi. We talked about the need to continue working very closely to promote stability in the region. Oman is a very important partner on maritime security initiatives. We will continue to work closely with the Omanis on these maritime issues and efforts towards stability in the region.
As you may know, the Secretary is now in the region. He has met with King Salman. He’ll be making stops in Saudi Arabia and UAE.
During all of my meetings in the four countries that I’ve visited, and I’ll be traveling to Bahrain after this stop and then on to Paris for a meeting with the E3 Political Directors. During all of my meetings here in the Gulf I’ve shared all of our declassified intelligence and also a detailed assessment of the current threats that are posed by Iran. These threats continue.
Iran was responsible for the May 12th attacks in Fujairah and for the June 13 attacks on two tankers in the Gulf of Oman. This is widely known. This assessment is based on intelligence. The weapons and the tactics used in the attacks and the fact that no proxy in the region has such sophisticated capabilities.
Today in New York our UN Ambassador Jonathan Cohen will be briefing members of the Security Council in a closed session today on all of our findings. They’ll be discussing the role that the Security Council can play.
The charter of the UN Security Council is to address international peace and security, and Iran’s threats to freedom of navigation and to innocent civilians. It’s important that the Council be responsive to the escalating tensions in this region.
I also discussed on my stops with nations how we can enhance cooperation and increase support. This is what the United States and our allies do to safeguard shipping and freedom of navigation in and around the Strait of Hormuz.
Iran’s threats to international shipping impacts states around the world, from oil producers in the Gulf and to European consumers and especially Asian consumers. More than 60 percent of the oil exported through the Strait of Hormuz goes directly to Asian markets, so this is a global challenge that requires a global response.
I talked with countries in the region about how we can enhance maritime security. There are a number of ideas that I think a number of nations are considering.
I also made clear in bilateral talks, I conveyed our seriousness to negotiate a comprehensive deal with Iran when the time is right. We have kept our maximum pressure campaign firmly within the limits of diplomatic and economic pressure. Iran has repeatedly rejected diplomacy. It has responded to diplomatic overtures by Japanese Prime Minister Abe with violence and terror. It is time for Iran to meet diplomacy with diplomacy.
Any nation with an interest in promoting regional stability should make clear to Iran that its threats and its violence cannot be tolerated. Countries should use their diplomacy to encourage Iran to use its diplomacy. Iran has a clear diplomatic off-ramp. For over a year we have put in place a new foreign policy, and at every step of the way we have made it clear that there are diplomatic off-ramps for the Islamic Republic of Iran. And when it demonstrates a willingness to talk, we will be ready. Iran knows how to reach us. Until then, our campaign of diplomatic isolation and maximum economic pressure will intensify. Sanctions will be announced later today.
I’m happy to take some of your questions.
Moderator: Thank you very much for those remarks. We will now begin the question and answer portion of today’s call.
Our first question comes to us from Andreas Ross with Frankfurter Allgemeine in Germany.
Question: Hi, Brian. Thank you for doing the call. Two questions, if I may.
One, can you give us any information at all about those sanctions that are going to be announced later today? What sectors they are targeting?
And two, regarding your Paris meeting with the E3, I know that Washington has for a while wanted the Europeans to take a different posture towards the JCPOA, which the Iranians are likely to break during the course of this week according to what they’ve said themselves. Do you have any reason to expect a change of posture from the E3?
Mr. Hook: On the first question, we don’t preview our sanctions. That would, in part, defeat the purpose of sanctions because we don’t want to give targets time to hide their assets or to put in place measures to evade them. So we don’t preview our sanctions but there will be sanctions that will be announced today.
With respect to the talks in Paris, I’m in regular communication with my counterparts in the E3 and also a number of European governments on a very regular basis.
Iran is using nuclear blackmail against the remaining parties to the deal. They have made threats and we will have to see which of those threats that they decide to follow through on if they follow through. I know this will be an agenda item when I’m in Paris to talk about those who are in the deal, what they plan on doing. It’s UN Security Council Resolution 2231 and the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action have dispute resolution mechanisms. In our case, we left the deal because we thought that being outside of the deal put us in a better position to achieve the goal that we share with our European allies and nations around the world to deny Iran from ever getting close to obtaining a nuclear weapon. So I very much look forward to seeing my counterparts in a few days.
Moderator: Thank you.
For our next question we will take a question submitted in advance by Samar Zanarini and Valia Chami from Al Hurra TV in UAE. They ask:
Question: What led to the change of plans regarding strikes on Iran?
Mr. Hook: Everything that needs to be said is said by the President.
Moderator: Thank you.
For our next question we will now go to Sune Rasmussen with the Wall Street Journal.
Question: Thanks for the briefing. What can you tell us about the meetings today in Israel between Russia, Israeli and American officials including National Security Advisor John Bolton? Will that get into the [inaudible] on Iran?
Mr. Hook: That’s really something which I would have to refer you to the White House for. I know that Ambassador Bolton is there. I think he was able to tour some areas with Prime Minister Netanyahu today to talk about Israel’s security. They’ll be talking about Syria and Iran, a range of subjects, but I’m going to defer to them for a specific read-out of the meetings.
Moderator: Thank you.
For our next question we’ll go to Nadia Bilbassy who is with Alarabiya based in Washington, DC.
Question: Thank you very much. Thank you, Brian, for doing this.
If the purpose of the sanctions is to force Iran to come to the table, we have seen the opposite. So how can you prod them in a way that will entice them somehow to negotiate a new deal and to stop interference in the Middle East?
Mr. Hook: If you look at the 40-year history of the regime, in those periods when they do either moderate their behavior or come to the negotiating table, it always follows one or more of three factors. Economic pressure, diplomatic isolation, or the threat of military force. That is just how this regime operates.
I remember when the IAEA in 2005 or 2006 referred Iran’s nuclear program to the UN Security Council because they could not confirm that it was for peaceful purposes. That set into place a multilateral sanctions architecture, some of which still exists today but is scheduled to expire in about 17 months when the arms embargo on Iran is lifted under the Iran Deal.
So I know in the period that then followed the multilateral sanctions, Iran would regularly complain about sanctions and say that they aren’t working.
We know that our sanctions are working. You could take a look at various reporting, front-page reporting by the New York Times in March and the Washington Post in May. Extensive stories documenting how Iran’s proxies are hurting for money because Iran does not have the money that it used to because of our sanctions and also because the Iranian regime runs a kleptocracy, and it prioritizes the ideology of the regime over the welfare of their own people. So the combination of those two things — Iranian economic mismanagement and American sanctions, have created a circumstance where they just don’t have the money that they used to to spend on Hezbollah and Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, the Shia Militias in Iraq and Syria, the Houthis in Yemen, and so on.
That does not mean that we have eliminated Iran’s ability to conduct asymmetric attacks. That’s just the nature of modern terrorism. But we know, it’s been documented, you don’t have to take our word for it, that Iran’s proxies are suffering from financial shortfalls, and so is the regime.
In March they put out their 2019 budget and there was a 29 percent cut in military spending. The prior year there was a 10 percent cut in defense spending. So in the time since our sanctions have come into place, we have seen reductions annually of 10 percent and almost 30 percent and that includes a cut in funding to the Iran Revolutionary Guard Corps.
During the Iran Nuclear Deal, Iran’s military spending went up every single year and it reached a peak of $14 billion. So we have weakened Iran’s military spending and also its ability to support its proxies. Iran is more diplomatically isolated today than it was prior to us leaving the deal.
So at some point Iran, the decision they face about the negotiating table is they can either start coming to the table or they can watch their economy continue to crumble. They’re in a recession now. It is going to get significantly worse. But this is a choice the regime is making, to behave like an outlaw regime and to prioritize a violent and expansionist revolutionary foreign policy over a peaceful and stable Middle East.
Moderator: Thank you.
For our next question we will go to Tom Bateman from BBC.
Question: Brian, thank you very much for taking the question.
I just wonder why you think the Iranians should trust a country that changes its mind in the terms of an international agreement.
Mr. Hook: It’s disingenuous for the Iranian regime to say that they can’t trust this administration because we left the deal. They knew what they were getting into when they negotiated a deal with a President who had about a year and a half left in office. They knew it was a political commitment. Foreign Minister Zarif has told, I was in a meeting with him when he said that the Iran Nuclear Deal, it has no legal standing, it’s not even — if you notice, it’s called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. Foreign Minister Zarif pointed out that the word “agreement” appears nowhere in that title because he said we couldn’t agree to call it an agreement.
The United States State Department under President Obama explained to Congress that it has no legal status. They never submitted it as a treaty. It also, and this is important to note, it did not enjoy the support of Congress. This is a deal that never enjoyed the support of the United States Congress when it was passed. The Iranian regime knew that, they knew what they were getting into by doing this, and they knew there was a possibility, a great possibility that the next President could come in and leave the deal.
But when a deal was negotiated that was very weak and is also temporary, in 17 months, because of this deal, the arms embargo, the UN arms embargo on Iran expires. The travel ban on Qassem Suleimani expires. Under the Iran Deal 2231, the prohibition on Iran’s ballistic missile testing was ended and it was replaced with very weak [inaudible] language.
You are going to see more provisions on the military restrictions and the nuclear restrictions start to expire under this deal. No one can argue that this deal solved the nuclear challenge presented by Iran. It is a modest and temporary nonproliferation agreement that has no legal status. Negotiated by a President who’s been out of office for two and a half years.
So this President has, and you look in the context of North Korea, has been able to sit down twice with the North Korean leader. This is a President who is very willing to sit down with the regime.
I think the question people should be asking is, instead of is there a lack of trust, why Iran continues to reject diplomacy and conduct violent responses to diplomatic pressure?
Moderator: Thank you.
For our next question we will go to Sam Kiley with CNN.
Question: Hello, Brian. Thanks very much for this briefing.
Just a very quick one. What if any official or unofficial contacts have been made between the Trump administration, the State Department and the Mujahideen-e Khalq, the MEK?
Mr. Hook: Secretary Pompeo and I meet regularly with the Iranian Diaspora, and there are a number of groups around the world who care passionately about the future of Iran. I think the Iranian people and the Iranian Diaspora very much want a government that represents their interests and not the interests of a corrupt religious elite.
The future of Iran is going to be decided by the Iranian people. It is not going to be decided by the United States. So we have been I think zealously neutral with respect to groups who all care very much about the future of Iran, and that’s going to be something which the people of Iran decide for themselves.
Was your question just limited to that, or was it other contacts with the government?
Operator: If you can press star one again, sir.
Mr. Hook: It’s okay. I’ll just answer his other question, even if it wasn’t the question he asked.
I’ll just make clear, there is no back-channel currently operating between the United States government and the Iranian government.
Moderator: Thank you.
For our next question we’ll take a question submitted in advance by Anass Ben Salah with Aljazeera News Channel. He asks:
Question: The U.S. insists on the need to negotiate a nuclear deal with Iran. What would be the terms of the new deal?
Mr. Hook: The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action is somewhat misleading in its title because it claims to be comprehensive when in fact it is limited to the nuclear program. It’s silent on ICBMs, it’s silent on regional aggression. It does, in the preambular paragraph, say that the plan of action will contribute to regional peace and stability. If only that were the case. Iran was able to spend the sanctions relief on its proxies and on its military, to strengthen its proxies and to strengthen its military. So that’s why we argue that the Iran Nuclear Deal has come at the expense of regional stability. The modest and temporary gains in nonproliferation have come at the expense of missile proliferation and regional aggression, human rights abuses, the arbitrary detention of dual national citizens.
So we are, if you look at Secretary Pompeo’s remarks in May of last year, we made clear that we’re looking for a deal that is truly comprehensive. It needs to address the spectrum of the trust and peace and security that Iran presents, so that’s the nuclear program, the missile program, Iran’s regional aggression and its arbitrary detention of dual nationals.
It’s my understanding from talking with folks who are involved in the negotiations around the JCPOA from various countries that that was not supposed to be the one and only deal, and that there was a desire to move on to these other topics before there were reasons they weren’t able to get to it.
We very much want to have a deal that covers these areas. We would submit it to the Senate as a treaty which is something I think that the prior administration should have done but was not able to because it did not have the votes. And then as Secretary Pompeo said a year ago, if we can reach a comprehensive agreement, the United States is prepared to lift all of our sanctions, restore diplomatic ties that were broken 40 years ago, and to welcome the Iranian people into the international community. But we need to get to the deal first.
We’re going to continue to talk about the 12 areas. One of those is no enrichment. That was another casualty of the Iran deal. Under international law, the UN Security Council Resolution, Iran was prohibited from enriching and that was another thing that was lifted under the deal. That itself has weakened arms control in the region.
I’ve heard people argue that the Iran Nuclear Deal helped to avoid an arms race. Permitting Iran to enrich is itself endangers the nonproliferation regime that everyone has worked so hard to advance in the region.
So those are going to be the areas that we’re looking for if we’re able to talk with the Iranians.
Moderator: Thank you. Our next question comes to us from Samuel Stolton with Euractiv based in Brussels.
Question: Thanks for taking the time to speak with us, Brian.
What is precisely that you want to see from the EU in terms of its stance on JCPOA? Would you encourage the EU to work alongside the U.S. in devising any prospective new deal with Iran? And have you discussed this with Federica Mogherini at all?
Mr. Hook: Ms. Mogherini was in Washington last week and had a good meeting with the Secretary of State. He also met with her shortly after the attacks in Fujairah when he stopped in Brussels, so we continue to have a regular dialogue with the EU which I guess you’d say is the secretariat of the Iran Deal.
We don’t advise those who are still in the deal on what their position is with regard to the deal. That’s something which they need to sort of decide in their own sovereign capacity. We had made it clear that we would expect the INSTEX, the special purpose vehicle that they have, is still not off the ground. I’m very doubtful that Iran is ever going to be able to put in place the financial transparency measures that would enable this to be able to actually conduct transactions. But the Secretary has made clear, and we have reason to believe that that would only be used for illicit purposes. Our sanctions regime has made exceptions for humanitarian purposes for food, for medicine, for agricultural products, medical devices. So that’s about as much as I can say I think on your question.
Moderator: Thank you.
Our next question comes to us from Anthony DiPaola who is with Bloomberg News based in the UAE.
Question: Hi, Brian. Thanks for taking the question.
I would like to know if you can give a bit more clarity on what the threshold is for the administration in terms of reacting militarily to Iran? Is there a red line say short of any attacks on U.S. troops or bases? You mentioned a couple of times today maritime security and Iran being responsible for the attacks on the ships. And the President has recently spoken a lot about the main point being stopping Iran’s nuclear program, and they are set to surpass some of those nuclear thresholds, enrichment thresholds on Thursday.
So are there any other red lines? Or can you give us more clarity on the threshold for when the U.S. would decide to use force against Iran? Thanks.
Mr. Hook: The President through various statements and interviews with media I think has spoken at length, he’s been very transparent about how he’s viewing the various threats and attacks from Iran. So I don’t have anything to add beyond what the President has said. He continues to speak on almost a daily basis about this, so I’m not going to get beyond what he’s said.
Moderator: Thank you.
Our next question comes to us from Omar Shariff with Gulf News.
Question: Brian, my question to you is that there was an article in the New York Times on the question of the attacks that they carried out against the drone. There were claims in that article that some of the actions of the IRGC were actually in response to some comments from U.S. officials like yourself who had said something online of the IRGC missiles and the missiles being a result of photo shops, they were not real and they were photo shopped. Is there any truth to those allegations?
Mr. Hook: If you go on-line and Google Iran, Iran photo shop you will find many examples on the internet of Iran over many years, the government doctoring and photo shopping its missile launches. We have plenty of evidence of that. It’s all available on-line. You can take a look at it yourself. So the video that we had done some time ago was to highlight that Iran often conducts these false flag operations and also engages in an extensive disinformation campaign on a regular basis. Secretary Pompeo talked about this I think yesterday as he was leaving for his trip to the region, and talked about Iranian disinformation. It’s almost on a regular basis, how they put out videos that claim to be something that aren’t.
They claim that the UAV was over their waters, it’s not. They deny attacks on a regular basis. They use proxies in order to deny and to conceal their hand from military operations. They do this with all of their proxies. They have made great advances in the gray zone over the last ten years to hide their operations.
This is why I’ve heard a number of people say that they’re very concerned about the current tensions. Iran runs a steady state of tension in the region, but they do a very good job of hiding it through their proxies. Whether it’s in Syria or in Lebanon, Iraq, Yemen, Bahrain. There’s a number of places.
People I think will hear about a Houthi attack and they don’t hear the word Iran, so they don’t understand that Iran organized, trains and equips the Houthis to fight much better than they otherwise would.
And when you hear about a Hezbollah attack, it’s not mentioned that Iran provides Hezbollah with 70 percent of its budget.
And when you hear about Assad’s war machine and the refugee crisis, it’s not mentioned that Iran has then been able to organize 12,500 soldiers into Syria and they have spent billions and billions of dollars supporting Assad’s war machine.
What we’re trying to do, being outside of the deal and since this administration has taken office, is to educate the world and to expose the regime for its use of proxy warfare. So we’re going to be talking on a very regular basis about Iranian surrogates instead of allowing Iran to perpetuate the fiction that there’s a Houthi attack or a Hezbollah attack. We are calling these Iranian surrogate attacks because that is in fact what they are. If Iran organizes, trains and equips and provides targeting assistance for an operation and does everything except pull the trigger, they are responsible for that operation. That was a policy that we put in place, the White House, the President put in place in September. We do not make a distinction between Iran’s government and the proxies that it supports with lethal assistance and training and funding.
Moderator: Thank you.
We will now turn to Michael Peel who is with the Financial Times.
Question: Thank you.
My question is to return to what you said earlier, Mr. Hook, about people having various ideas as to how to take forward the global response that you would like to see on Iran. Could you just take us through one or two of those ideas that we’re seeing among Europeans and others as to how to do this please?
Mr. Hook: There are efforts that have been underway here for some time. There is a multinational force here in the region, the Combined Maritime Force. I think there’s over 30 countries that are involved in that, and they operate in an area under various task forces that they work on. Drug smuggling and arms smuggling, protecting commercial navigation.
So there could be efforts that we could enhance. There also could be new initiatives pulling together a number of nations, allied nations who have equities in freedom of navigation so that we can increase maritime security.
There have been too many attacks. We had tankers go up in flames here very recently, and we could have had a maritime disaster there. We could have had extensive loss of human life because of Iran’s reckless provocations here on the water.
So in my conversations here, there’s a lot of interest in finding a new initiative to enhance maritime security. It’s something which we think needs to be internationalized.
I was talking earlier in my remarks about how over 60 percent of the oil that goes to Asia goes through the Strait.
I think the G20 will be a good forum for further conversations about this. Many of those nations who have equities here in freedom of navigation will be present, and Secretary Pompeo will be there, and that will be a good forum to discuss that. He already has had those discussions. I’ve had those discussions. And when we were down at CENTCOM, Secretary Pompeo was down at CENTCOM last week with General McKenzie and General Clark from the southern Command, and we had a number of good discussions about various ways to go about this. But this is something which does require an international response.
If you look at the attack in Fujairah, I think there were 17 countries that were adversely affected by those attacks. Whether it’s the, on any given boat you may have as many as eight countries that are involved in that boat from the insurance company, the flagging company, the crew, the captain, a whole range of countries that have equities here. And so we had those discussions. We’ll continue to have them.
Moderator: Thank you. Unfortunately, that was the last question we have time for.
Mr. Hook, do you have any closing words you would like to offer?
Mr. Hook: Nope, that will conclude it for me.
Moderator: I want to thank you, Mr. Hook, for joining us and thank all of you for participating and for your questions today.
Thank you very much.