MS ORTAGUS: Hey, everybody. Happy Friday. Good to see all of you.
Today, I thought I would start things off by highlighting a few things from this past week, make a couple of announcements, and then move on to introducing our briefer, who I think all of you know very well at this point.
Secretary Pompeo this week has been in California. On Monday, he gave two important speeches, the first at Stanford University, where he addressed how the United States is restoring deterrence as a part of our overall strategy towards the Islamic Republic of Iran. Later he spoke at an event in Silicon Valley, where he emphasized the importance of U.S. businesses making thoughtful decisions that include national security considerations. In meetings with several businesses and industry groups, Secretary Pompeo stressed the importance of America’s innovative economy to our national security.
Secretary Pompeo also held meetings with his counterparts from Japan and South Korea. He also participated in a trilateral meeting, where we discussed our shared priorities in the Indo-Pacific region.
Moving on, yesterday, the United States Senate passed the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement, also known as the USMCA. This brings us one step closer to fulfilling President Trump’s promise to modernize and to update trade agreements. Mexico has ratified the USMCA and we now look forward to the Canadian parliament’s consideration of this agreement. The USMCA will promote prosperity through reciprocal, balanced, and fair trade, while encouraging robust economic engagement between our three nations.
Later today – very shortly, in fact – Secretary Pompeo will provide remarks at a meeting of the Organization of American States. He will reaffirm our commitment to upholding democratic principles in the Western Hemisphere, and will further the administration’s vision of the hemisphere of freedom.
On Saturday, Secretary Pompeo will begin a trip that includes stops in Germany, Colombia, Costa Rica, Jamaica, and my home state of Florida, from January 18th to the 23rd.
The Secretary will travel to Berlin on January 19th to attend the jointly hosted German-UN International Conference on Libya.
The Secretary will then arrive in Bogota, Colombia, on January 20th, where he will speak to the third Western Hemisphere Counterterrorism Ministerial and will meet with President Duque and other regional leaders. The Secretary will also highlight our strong counter-narcotics cooperation with Colombia.
On January 21st, the Secretary will arrive in San Jose, Costa Rica, where he will meet with the president and visit the Joint Operations Center, which facilitates regional law enforcement cooperation. In Costa Rica – an important partner of the United States, supports democracy, the rule of law throughout the hemisphere, including Nicaragua and Venezuela.
Later that day, Secretary Pompeo will travel to Kingston, Jamaica. While there, he will meet with the prime minister, conduct a multilateral roundtable discussion with Caribbean leaders, and will deliver remarks on the U.S.-Caribbean relationship.
On January 23rd, Secretary Pompeo will then head to Miami to meet with Governor DeSantis. The Secretary will travel to Bushnell, Florida, as well to deliver a speech on President Trump’s foreign policy before returning to Washington, D.C. And I owe you a response on that.
One more. This Sunday, January 19th, we will celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security between the United States and Japan. The signing of this treaty on January 19th, 1960, codified the U.S.-Japan alliance. We commemorate our mutual and unwavering commitment to values such as democracy, respect for human rights, and a rules-based international order. The U.S.-Japan alliance has played and will continue to play an integral role in ensuring the peace and security of our two countries and realizing our shared vision of a free and open Indo-Pacific. Our alliance is stronger, broader, and more essential today than ever.
And last announcement – a pitch, really. One of the most important ways the State Department serves the American people is through issuing passports. Last year we issued more than 20 million of them as a part of our commitment to U.S. travelers. Most people aren’t thinking of getting a passport for their summer vacation in the middle of winter, but they should be. Applying during the winter season when there is less demand means faster processing times. This winter we’re pleased to host special passport acceptance fairs at our passport agencies across the country. We’re also accepting passport applications at travel and adventure shows around the country from January through March. These events are open to the public and will be a perfect time to apply for passports for both adults and children. You can check out travel.state.gov for more information and also follow our winter passport campaign on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, @TravelGov. So beat the summer rush and apply for your passports now.
With that, I will introduce our briefer this morning. Special Representative for Iran Brian Hook joins us here today to discuss the latest on our Iran policy and to make an announcement of his own.
MR HOOK: Good morning. First, I have an update on our maximum pressure campaign, and then I will discuss the various crises that today the regime in Tehran is struggling to manage.
Secretary Pompeo repeatedly promised that he will hold the Iranian regime accountable for its human rights violations and for its treatment of the Iranian people. Today, we are continuing to deliver on this promise. The United States is listing IRGC Brigadier General Hassan Shahvarpour under Section 7031(c) visa sanctions. General Shahvarpour committed gross violations of human rights against protesters in Mahshahr. He oversaw the massacre of 148 helpless Iranians in the Mahshahr region last November.
General Shahvarpour was in command of units responsible for the violent crackdown and lethal repression around Mahshahr. This is the first designation on an Iranian regime official being taken under the State Department authority from section 7031(c) authorities.
This action taken today was made possible through the information we received on the tip line that the Secretary established. The Iranian people have now sent us over 88,000 tips through the tip line that the Secretary established back in November. We use this information to expose the criminality of the regime and to hold violators accountable. Since the violent crackdown on protests last November, the United States has sanctioned two judges and eight other regime officials for their roles in brutalizing the Iranian people. We are continuing to review all information we receive from the Iranian people, and we will continue to hold more regime officials responsible for human rights violations.
Over the past week, many Iranians took to the streets again to protest a corrupt government that lies to them. President Trump recognized their courage with his tweets in Farsi this past week standing with the Iranian people. We call on all nations to join our lead, particularly by sanctioning Iranian officials for human rights violations.
The Iranian regime is in a deep economic crisis.
Back in May of 2018, shortly after leaving the Iran nuclear deal, Secretary Pompeo said that we will deny revenue to Iran’s clerics who use it to fund terrorism and violence across the region. He said that Iran’s expansionist foreign policy would no longer be cost-free, and that the economic price would be severe. We have succeeded in raising the costs for Iran, and the regime is badly managing an economic crisis of its own making.
The sanctions we have imposed are the toughest ever. They are making an enormous difference, and the Iranian people are rightly blaming their own government for 40 years of corruption, mismanagement, and kleptocracy.
Iran’s oil exports are down by more than 2 million barrels per day, reducing Iran’s revenue from oil by more than 80 percent. This amounts to a loss of around $50 billion annually.
Last month, President Rouhani admitted that Iran had lost $200 billion from U.S. sanctions since their re-imposition. Iran is also facing a banking crisis with roughly half of all bank loans in arrears.
More than one in four young Iranians is jobless.
Inflation is at 40 percent.
Today, the question that people are asking is whether the regime has the competence to avoid a banking disaster and hyperinflation. The economy – the Iranian economy this year could contract by as much as 14 percent.
The regime is also facing a budget crisis to fund its new 2020 budget which comes out in March. Due to the staggering loss of oil revenue, it is nearly impossible for the regime to put forward a credible budget. After initially assuming oil exports would average 1.5 million barrels of oil per day in FY19, the regime later revised the figure down to 300,000 barrels. Today, Iran’s supreme leader in remarks said that the country’s reliance on oil should stop.
It is therefore surprising that the draft budget released just this month for 2020 assumes oil exports will average around 1 million barrels per day. This number is pure fantasy, and the regime knows it. We should expect to see an enormous budget deficit this year.
The regime is also facing a domestic crisis, with some of the worst protests in its 40-year history. The public were livid that the IRGC lied to them for three days about shooting down a passenger jet which killed 176 people. Four Iranian state television anchors and actors resigned over the last week. One state TV newscaster wrote to her followers, “Forgive me for the 13 years I told you lies.”
The regime has elections coming up next month, and these elections are a charade. Of the 247 sitting parliamentarians running for re-election, 90 were disqualified by an unelected Guardian Council. The same council also disqualified 9,000 of the total 14,000 candidates. The Iranian people know they have little to say in these sham elections, which are meant to deceive the world that Iran is a republic and not an autocracy.
And finally, Iran is facing a diplomatic crisis as its isolation deepens. We were pleased to see the United Kingdom, France, and Germany initiate the Iran nuclear deal dispute resolution mechanism earlier this week. Prime Minister Johnson called to replace the Iran nuclear deal with a new deal, which we very much support.
Yesterday, President Rouhani made veiled threats against European troops. Today, the supreme leader, Khamenei, lashed out against Europe for standing up to Iran’s nuclear blackmail. As long as the regime threatens the world, it will become further isolated. Until Iran behaves like a normal nation, its isolation will only deepen.
Happy to take a few questions.
MS ORTAGUS: Matt, go ahead.
QUESTION: First let me just say that the removal of these screens here is —
MS ORTAGUS: I know. I saw you looking.
QUESTION: It’s an improvement.
MS ORTAGUS: Oh, it’s an improvement. (Laughter.)
MS ORTAGUS: I thought you didn’t like my prompters (inaudible).
QUESTION: No, no, I don’t – no, it was just they got in the – they got in the way. Now I have a —
MR HOOK: A clear line of sight. A target. (Laughter.)
MS ORTAGUS: Thank you
QUESTION: Look at you guys. (Laughter.)
QUESTION: Yeah. One, on the designation —
MR HOOK: Yeah.
QUESTION: — can you be more specific about what the tip information was? Was it like video showing this guy directing the massacre, or can you – what was – what form was it? Was it —
MR HOOK: Well, one —
QUESTION: And how did you corroborate it?
MR HOOK: We received the videos of the massacre in that town, and we also – so what we do is we take information which comes in the form of photos and videos and text, and then we corroborate it against our own intelligence that we have until we have sufficient evidence to make the decision.
QUESTION: Okay. But you can’t be more specific about what – I mean, what did the pictures or video show? Did it show this guy directing —
MR HOOK: Well, the videos have shown – well, I’m not going to get into the specifics of it, but we do have video, which I think the public has seen, of these trucks that have gun mounts and they were mowing down Iranians. And at that – that massacre alone killed well over 100 people.
QUESTION: Secondly, there is a report that you guys threatened the E3 with auto tariffs if they didn’t invoke the dispute mechanism resolution. There seems to be some confusion about this. Is that true? Did you or someone else in the administration in this January 8th phone call with the E3 make that threat?
And then lastly, later this month, the remaining waivers for the nuclear cooperation expire. Can you give us some insight as to what the administration is thinking in terms of either revoking them, or not renewing them, or extending them?
And then last – sorry. (Laughter.) This is for Morgan. I want to – can you come back to the podium after he’s finished and take a question? Or two?
MS ORTAGUS: Not today. But let’s go. Let’s get through. We have to get off the stage pretty quickly because the Secretary’s speaking, so let’s try to —
MR HOOK: On the question about auto tariffs, we don’t comment on bilateral deliberations, so I don’t have any comment. I can’t confirm or deny it.
QUESTION: Well, but this is not bilateral. This was four —
MR HOOK: Well, you can call it quadrilateral. But we don’t comment on those sorts of things, and we also don’t preview decisions on things like waivers.
MS ORTAGUS: Nadia.
QUESTION: Thank you. The UK Government has now listed Hizballah as a terrorist organization, both political and military wing. Is this in coordination with the U.S.? Is this as a pressure – you pressured the UK Government? How do you see that?
MR HOOK: Well, we’d like to congratulate the United Kingdom for announcing today that it has designated the entire Hizballah organization as a terrorist group and frozen its assets. There is no distinction between Hizballah’s political arm and its military arm.
I remember when I was negotiating with the E3 on trying to fix the deficiencies of the Iran nuclear deal. This was a regular topic of the need to be designating Hizballah in its entirety. We are very pleased to see the United Kingdom took that step.
MS ORTAGUS: Said.
QUESTION: Yes, thank you. Sir, in an interview yesterday with Orient Television, you stated four points for a new deal. One of them – no enrichment whatsoever.
MR HOOK: Mm-hmm.
QUESTION: Now, we’re a bit confused on this because there is nothing in the UN, whatever, discussions and so on, that dictates that there should be no enrichment for Iran whatsoever – uranium enrichment.
MR HOOK: Well, the UN Security Council in I’m going to say 2006, 2007, passed a resolution prohibiting Iran from enrichment. That is the UN standard that the Iran nuclear deal abandoned, and that was a mistake. And so what Secretary Pompeo announced in May of 2018 with his 12 demands is that the world needs to restore the standard of no enrichment which was passed unanimously by the UN Security Council. It should never have been given away in negotiations with the Iranians on the Iran nuclear deal, and so we think that’s the right standard. And if you’re able to accomplish that, it moots the question of breakout cycles, and once you then allow enrichment, you start having these discussions about breakout cycles.
And so the United Arab Emirates, we think, showed leadership in the region during the Bush administration when we negotiated the 123 agreement where the UAE has peaceful nuclear power without any enrichment. More than half of the countries in the world today that have peaceful nuclear power do not enrich. And so, the Iranian regime knows that it does not need enrichment if it wants peaceful nuclear power. We need to restore the standard.
MS ORTAGUS: Humeyra.
QUESTION: Khamenei today said IRGC could easily take the fight beyond Iran’s borders, and obviously we’ve seen a lot of attacks in the region. What is your response to those who say that your maximum pressure is making Iran more aggressive? And since you won’t change course on that, should the region brace for more hostilities in the coming months?
MR HOOK: Well, there have been always been hostilities in the region. So the question suggests that things have been quiet before we targeted Qasem Soleimani. So Iran has been running an escalatory, expansionist foreign policy for 40 years. They’re not used to being told no, and President Trump is standing up to them in ways that have no historic precedent. The regime doesn’t like it, and so we’re not surprised to see the threats that the supreme leader makes. This is standard talking points for the regime. But what we saw after the Soleimani strike, that Iran said that this concludes the retaliation for Qasem Soleimani – they appear to be standing down for now.
But we have – the combination of maximum economic pressure and restoring deterrence by the credible threat of military force, if attacked, is going to do more to advance peace and stability in the region than a policy of accommodation with the regime. Iran was able to run an expansionist foreign policy under the Iran nuclear deal. Their expansion was funded by the Iran nuclear deal.
MS ORTAGUS: Rich.
QUESTION: Brian, speaking of quadrilateral relationships, the E3 did announce that they are triggering the dispute mechanism, but they were also fairly clear that they are not joining maximum pressure and they are clear that they want to save this deal. Do you think that the E3 have gone far enough?
MR HOOK: Well, the E3 will make a decision in their own sovereign capacity, but there isn’t much left for the deal – there isn’t much left to preserve. The Iran deal has been violated five times by this regime, and I think it was Zarif who said that they will no longer honor additional restrictions. And so there isn’t much left of the deal, and it starts to expire in October. We’re only 10 months away from the UN arms embargo on the world’s leading sponsor of terrorism expiring. And so that will allow countries like Russia and China to sell conventional weapons to Iran, and this is something which the UN Security Council is going to have to address.
Initiating the dispute resolution mechanism could, if brought to its logical conclusion, lead to the snapback of UN sanctions, but that’s going to be a decision that the E3 make. The President has called on the E3 to leave the Iran nuclear deal and join his efforts to get to a new deal that we are highly confident will do much more to deter Iran from ever getting a nuclear weapon than the Iran nuclear deal.
So we need to, as I said, restore that standard of no enrichment, and we also need to go beyond just the nuclear threat. We need to look at the regional aggression, the ballistic missile testing, missile proliferation, and hostage-taking.
MS ORTAGUS: Shaun.
QUESTION: Thanks. I was wondering if you could provide clarity on recent reports regarding the U.S. relationship with the exiled opposition. There have been a series of reports saying the United States has advised its embassies not to have contact with the MEK, noting that they may not have the greatest support within Iran’s borders, and that that had been superseded. What’s the directive now? Are you comfortable with U.S. embassies and other American officials meeting with the exiled opposition? What are the guidelines on that?
MR HOOK: So our position – our strategy for almost three years now has been to stand with the Iranian people, and the most recent cable that went out made very clear that we encourage our embassies and posts around the world to actively engage with the Iranian diaspora. Just last week, I was in Los Angeles, which is home to the world’s largest Iranian diaspora, met with many of them, gave a few speeches. Secretary Pompeo has met with the Iranian diaspora around the world. So it’s very important to meet with them, to hear their concerns, and to share with them our strategy, our foreign policy, which has been very successful at weakening the regime and weakening its proxies and restoring deterrence. And so, that work will continue. We’ve been doing it for three years. We don’t play favorites among groups. We don’t – as I’ve said – you’ve heard me say before, the future of Iran will be decided by the Iranian people. It will not be decided by the United States Government. There are a range of groups out there. They are very passionate about the future of Iran. So the Iranian people will decide its future.
MS ORTAGUS: Nike.
QUESTION: Yes, thank you. Brian, do you have anything on the female defector, the only Iranian female Olympic medalist? Is the U.S. in touch with her, and would the United States welcome her if she’s seeking asylum here?
MR HOOK: I don’t know if she is seeking asylum, so I can’t speak to that. Morgan did put out a statement at the time when she defected.
MS ORTAGUS: A tweet.
MR HOOK: A tweet she put out. Here’s what I’ll observe: All of – so much of the strength and the energy in the anti-regime protests are being led by Iranian women, and she is another example of a woman showing great bravery and courage defecting from the regime. She represents so many of the Iranian women who are forced to wear the hijab, who – whose basic rights are not respected. And so it’s not a surprise that she left. I’m sure many more Iranian women would like to leave the oppression that this regime presents to them, and so – but take a look at what Morgan tweeted. It was very good.
MS ORTAGUS: Kylie.
QUESTION: I just want to ask about the briefing that was scheduled earlier this week for congressional committees on Iran that was then abruptly cancelled. Can you give us a reason for the cancellation and if it will be rescheduled?
MR HOOK: That’s a question for our Legislative Affairs office. I believe it was just simply a scheduling conflict. There’s nothing more to it than that, but Leg. Affairs would have the best answer for you.
QUESTION: And can I have one more question?
MR HOOK: Yeah.
QUESTION: Just with regard to the U.S. and Iran and any direct communications, so earlier this week Secretary Pompeo said it was not true that there’s no communication between the U.S. and Iran, and we heard Secretary Esper say that the ball is in Iran’s court with regard to the way forward. So has the U.S. used these channels of communication in recent weeks to say to Iran we want direct communication between the U.S. and Iranians? Or is the ball in their court to prompt that conversation?
MR HOOK: Yeah, I’ve heard these rumors from a few people that there is no back channel, there is no sort of – the message that you described, I’m not aware of that. And so we —
QUESTION: Sorry, which message are you not aware of?
MR HOOK: The one that you talked about. I’m just saying that that isn’t true. I’ve heard the rumors; they’re not true. Secretary Esper is correct, the ball is in Iran’s court. President Trump has been making clear for almost three years, and so has Secretary Pompeo, about we would like to have our diplomacy met with diplomacy and not with kinetic action. And that’s really a question for the Iranian regime. They continually reject diplomatic off ramps, and as a consequence, they’re now facing a series of domestic crises that I laid out earlier.
MS ORTAGUS: Okay, we’re going to do last question, FT.
QUESTION: Thank you. You mentioned the people in Iran are blaming the government for the problems that they’re facing. Do you think that pressure will keep up? And what will be the impact on Tehran? And one extra one if I may: Does the U.S. have an assessment on what Iran’s nuclear breakout time is? Is it under a year? And can you give us a little bit of precision about exactly how long you think it is?
MR HOOK: On the first one, we have seen protests against the Iranian regime in Iran, Iraq, and Lebanon, and the peoples of these three countries are all protesting the same model of corruption and sectarian violence. And we fully expect these protests to continue because the Iranian regime is facing a crisis of legitimacy and credibility. We expect that to deepen in 2020, not just in Iran but in other states.
On the breakout, your question kind of makes my point. If we can get to no enrichment, we don’t need to worry about breakout cycles, and that really is the problem, is once you concede that Iran can enrich, you’re always going to be in this discussion of how strong is the inspections regime and how close are they to a nuclear breakout cycle. If we can get to no enrichment, which we need to do because Iran will never be allowed to get a nuclear weapon, that is the best way to accomplish it.
MS ORTAGUS: Okay.
MR HOOK: And the specific answer is a question for our Intelligence Community.
MS ORTAGUS: Thanks.
MR HOOK: Okay, thanks.
MS ORTAGUS: See you guys soon.