The US will respond with military force if it or its interests are attacked by Tehran, the special representative on Iran said on Thursday. But US Special Representative for Iran, Brian Hook, said US actions taken so far in the Gulf region, which include repositioning military assets, have had the “desired deterrent effect on the (Iranian) regime’s risk calculations.”
Hook was speaking to reporters by phone ahead of emergency summits of Arab leaders in the Saudi city of Makkah due on Thursday to discuss drone strikes on oil installations in Saudi Arabia and attacks on four vessels, including two Saudi oil tankers, off the UAE coast earlier this month.
The United States is not pursuing a policy of regime change in Iran, White House National Security Adviser John Bolton said on Thursday. During a visit to London, Bolton also told reporters the threat from Iran was not over but that the quick response and deployment from the United States had helped deter it.
Meanwhile, Mr Hook said Washington was expecting the results of the UAE, Norway and Saudi investigations into the attacks soon and would wait until then to respond.
“Once we have a fuller picture of the facts we’ll be in a position to discuss the proper response, but that’s something that we would be doing in concert with Norway, Saudi Arabia and the UAE,” he said at a briefing.
Mr Hook said he believed Tehran had “got the message” for now and that many of the attacks the US feared had not eventuated.
Mr Hook said the renewal of sanctions against Iran after the US withdrew from a 2015 nuclear deal was “working by nearly every measure” to contain Iran and its proxies for their behaviour in the region.
The economic bans the US has placed on Iran is working against Iran’s “favourite son” Hezbollah, Hamas, militia groups and the Assad regime in Syria as funding from Iran dries up, he said.
Responding to a question about China and India importing Iranian oil and whether it was possible for them to keep importing small amounts, Hook said there would be no more exceptions granted to sanctions against Iran oil imports.
“There will be no more oil waivers granted,” he said, adding that any oil imported by any country beyond waiver limits that ran from November last year to May, would be subject to sanctions.
Below is a full rush transcript of the press conference by Brian Hook, the U.S. Special Representative for Iran and Senior Policy Advisor to the Secretary of State.
Brian Hook: Good to be with you. I’ll make a couple opening remarks here and then happy to take questions. Our maximum pressure campaign is working by nearly every measure the Iranian regime and its proxies are weaker today than when the president took office over two years ago.
And let me give you some statistics. Hezbollah’s leader Hassan Nasrallah went on TV in March and said that public support was needed to sustain their operations. Hamas has enacted austerity plans to deal with the lack of funds from Iran. Iran’s Shia militia groups have been told by Iran that their bankroll will dwindle and they have to find new sources of revenue. The Assad regime today faces a fuel shortage crisis because we have cut off the 1 to 3 million barrels per month that was once supplied by Iran. Iran’s cyber command is also short on cash.
We have also seen Iran’s military spending be cut dramatically. During the time of the Iran nuclear deal when the United States was a participant, Iran’s military spending peaked. Since we have exited the deal Iran’s military spending for the budget that they released in March was cut by 28 percent and that includes a 17 percent cut in the IRGC Quds force operations.
Iran’s economy is in recession and our oil sanctions once they are fully in effect and we have put in place a policy of zero imports for Iranian crude oil. Our oil sanctions will deny the regime 50 billion dollars in revenue that is 40 percent of its annual budget and we are closing the doors to Iran sanctions evasion to cover these losses. One of the ways we’ve done that is by working with other countries that issue flags to tankers around the world including Iran. We have been successful in stripping 80 Iranian tankers of the maritime flags that they need to sail.
We’ve done 26 rounds of sanctions almost 1000 people over the last two years being outside of the deal has put us in a much stronger position to really deny the regime revenue. We are making Iran’s foreign policy much harder to execute and we’re making it prohibitively expensive.
So those are my opening remarks and I’m happy to take questions.
Media: “Is the US administration willing to negotiate with Iran? What would those negotiations include? And will President Trump consider meeting with Iran’s supreme leader Ali Khamenei?”
Brian Hook: I think the president himself has already answered all of those questions. I remember there was a tweet he put out some time ago. He also, I think a week or two ago, had said he would welcome a phone call from the Iranians. Our foreign policy to Iran is driven by Secretary Pompeo’s list of twelve. Those twelve requirements focus on the nuclear program, the missile program, Iran’s regional aggression and the arbitrary detention of dual nationals. This list of twelve reflected the global consensus prior to the Iran nuclear deal. And the Iran nuclear deal, one of its many failings is that it has reduced and mislead people into thinking that the only threat to peace and security that Iran presents is its nuclear program because the Iran nuclear deal is silent on Iran’s missiles and on the regional aggression. And in fact, the only area where there is any discussion of missiles is where the U.S. Security Council resolution 2231 watered down what used to be a prohibition on Iran’s ballistic missile testing. We are trying to restore what was the global consensus and to hold Iran to a set of standards that we believe are very reasonable and the same sort of things that we would ask of a normal nation. And Iran faces a choice they have to decide whether they want to be a normal country or a revolutionary cause. And we are driving up the costs of Iran’s foreign policy. We would like to get, the President has said when he was in Japan that he would like to get to a new and better deal that would replace the existing Iran nuclear deal and it will be comprehensive.
Media: Given the current situation, how is America prepared to go with Iran if for instance it’s perceived that Iran is posing some type of a threat. What would that threat need to be for America to take some form decisive action?
Brian Hook: Well I think Secretary Pompeo and the President have already put out statements on this. I think a number of times probably since September we have put out statements that have warned the Iranians not to strike at American interests. We had received a number of sort of from our intelligence community, we had detected a number of threats against American interests. If we are attacked we have promised to respond with force. We have repositioned our military assets in the region to respond to these threats and we think that that repositioning of assets has had the desired deterrent effect and the disruptive effect on the regime’s risk calculations. And so we’re very pleased with how we’ve sort of managed Iran’s threats over the last few weeks. I would say since early May that’s for the time being. But we have we have made clear that we will respond with military force if American interests are attacked by Iran.
Media: “The tone of the U.S. rhetoric has eased up and the U.S. administration has shown the principle of dialogue with Iran has been enhanced. Why then is there a U.S. military buildup in the region? Is it possible to have U.S. observers monitor the Iranian nuclear reactor and insist that it is used for peaceful purposes only?
Brian Hook: Well let’s see on the first one I think we’ve been pretty consistent in our messaging that Iran should show more of an interest in threats, should show more of an interest in talks than threats and we’ve seen on an almost daily basis the Iranian regime saying that they will not talk with the United States. We’ve made very clear our position on that, the President’s very open to negotiations with this regime to replace the nuclear deal. We put in place an enhanced force package in the region as a responsive measure to intelligence that we were receiving that Iran was plotting imminent attacks against American interests in the region. And so that was a defensive move and we think that Iran did get the message for the time being. And a lot of the attacks that we feared against American interests have not come to pass. But we are postured in a way where if we are attacked we will respond with military force.
The United States I believe is the largest funder of the IAEA. Continue to work very closely with Director General Amano and we have an ambassador there Jackie Wolcott who is working very effectively with the IAEA and we will continue working with them as we have going forward.
Media: About that Trump undercuts Bolton on Iran and North Korea recently. We have seen during his four-day visit to Japan, when he talked about – I’m not talking like Bolton, regime changes in Iran. Obviously the two men have separate ways of thinking. Trump does not want to pressurizing him. How does that have an impact on Iran and also on the foreign policy with the US?
Brian Hook: I’m sure I talk about policy I don’t talk about people. So I’m happy to just say that the President’s national security cabinet is in full agreement with the President’s policy to Iran. He is, the President, is the one who makes the decisions on our Iran strategy and the national security cabinet then executes that strategy. And we’ve got an enormous I think seriousness of purpose to change Iran’s behavior within the President’s national security cabinet. We definitely desire a change in the regime’s behavior. They have had a good run of many years making advances in a number of categories that are threats to peace and security. And we are trying to reverse Iran’s gains and to take what we have put in place a truly comprehensive policy to address the entire range of Iran’s threats to peace and security. We recently sanction people involved in Iran’s nuclear program. We put in place sanctions against their missile program, their regional aggression, their human rights abuses by sanctioning the head of the judiciary some time ago for cracking down on the Iranian people that they put in jail who were protesting. Within the President’s cabinet there is enormous unity and seriousness of purpose.
Media: Where is the U.S. thinking on taking sanctions measures against INSTEX or its Mirror Company in Iran? On what basis given that it’s done no trade yet and plans to do humanitarian transactions at least for now and given your previous assessment that no one would use it so that it’s irrelevant ?
Brian Hook: Well there isn’t a mirror image set up currently because INSTEX does require a mirror image on the Iran side. And so the Europeans have set up their mechanism and the European side of the mirror is fully transparent. Iran doesn’t even comply with FATF standards. They have a financial sector that is opaque by design. They do not want people to see where the money goes. They don’t want people to follow the money. And it’s been that way for 40 years. So I am skeptical that Iran will ever be able to internally agree on setting up a transparent mirror image to match the European financial mechanism. That said if there is a day where there is any sort of any transactions being conducted by INSTEX we expect those to be purely for permitted transactions. We do permit under United States law Treasury. You can see this on their web site. We make exceptions and our sanctions regime for food, medicine, medical devices, agricultural products. So there are categories of transactions which are permitted. We would expect any mechanism to be consistent with that. We have said repeatedly for some time now that we will sanction any sanctionible behavior. I don’t see any corporate demand for INSTEX. I have yet to receive a question where somebody points to a specific corporation that has said that it wants to use INSTEX. We just don’t see any corporate demand for it because if a corporation is given a choice between doing business in the United States or doing business in Iran it’s going to choose the United States every single time. So that’s our current assessment of INSTEX.
Media: You mentioned about that speech that Hassan Nasrallah gave on TV end of March, but do you have any other truth that Hezbollah is struggling financially and also smuggling money and weapons to Hezbollah during these heavy sanctions on Iran?
Brian Hook: Well Hezbollah has been Iran’s favorite child. Their favorite son from the beginning. And it’s a model that they try to replicate around the Middle East. We are doing, of course, everything we can to deter any shipments of weapons or any illegal goods. What we’ve been very pleased with is the fact that Hezbollah is struggling financially. Seventy percent of Hezbollah’s budget comes from Iran and that comes to about 700 million dollars per year. Secretary Pompeo was recently in Lebanon. We very much support Lebanese sovereignty and independence. Iran would like to, Iran has a different vision. They would like to see a Lebanon that they dominate. And we would like to see Lebanon a strong and secure and independent. We believe that we know because for the first time in their history they had to make a public appeal for donations. Today, you can find piggy banks and grocery stores billboards with signs with phone numbers to call in to send money. This is not these are not signs of an organization in strong financial health. You have had stories in The New York Times in March and then you also had a Washington Post story just a couple of weeks ago that document all the ways that Hezbollah has been struggling because of our sanctions which we’re very pleased with. Our goal is for that to continue as long as possible.
Media: “Observers say that the failure of the United States in Iraq had contributed to the emergence of Iraqi militias supported by Iran. These militias are a threat to U.S. interests in the region. Are you now working to dismantle these militias as part of your campaign of maximum pressure on Iran?
Brian Hook: Secretary Pompeo was in Iraq, he’s been over there a couple of times in the last few months very much supporting Iraqi armed forces is having a monopoly on the use of force in Iraq. We would like, we very much want to support the government there. It’s similar to what we’ve seen in some ways in terms of Iran. Iran’s foreign policy is designed to dissolve national identities and then to replace them with a sectarian identity to promote sectarian violence to create these paramilitaries and these sort of alternative governments which undermine the authority and the powers of the state. So we are fully invested in the future of the Iraqi government and its people. We think that we provide a much better offer to the Iraqi people than the Iranians. I know President Rouhani was there a couple of months ago and our reaction to that was in light of how Rouhani has treated his own people, just imagine how he will treat the Iraqis. He is not invested in their future and with Iran’s economy in a freefall. That’s partly our sanctions but it’s mostly Rouhani and the Supreme Leader run a kleptocracy. It is a corrupt religious mafia that robs its own people blind in order to fund a very violent and ideological foreign policy. So we would like to see Iraqi armed forces have the monopoly on force. That is one of the attributes of statehood. Iran does not share that vision. Qasem Soleimani does not share that vision. But we think the Iraqi people do.
Media: Can you just update the latest on what level of imports, if any you’re seeing from them, and obviously what Zarif said in public is that the current level of trying to get them down to zero is what they object to. Is there any version of China and or India importing a little bit of Iranian oil to keep Iran over 800,000 and to lower tensions?
Brian Hook: There will be no more oil waivers granted and the only oil that that would have been permitted would have been under the cap that we negotiated that led up to those, that cap was negotiated it was to run for a period from November of 2018 until May of 2019. And so once people have reached that cap of what was negotiated during that period that then would be the limit of the oil that we would permit to move through that would not be sanctioned. We will sanction any efforts to import Iranian crude oil beyond the limits that were negotiated in the period that ran from November through May. To date we have, I’ve been on the road for a few days and I haven’t checked in on the latest but the countries that you mentioned I think every country is aware of it. We now have I think close to 30 countries that used to import Iranian crude oil that are now at zero. This accounts for 40 percent of the regime’s revenue. If we want to get serious about denying Iran the money it needs to destabilize the Middle East. We have to enforce oil sanctions and we think that this is something which all countries in the world share a desire for a more peaceful and stable Middle East for as long as Iran is able to conduct its foreign policy with impunity fueled by oil revenue, it is going to be unstable. So that has been our message. I think nations know that if there are efforts to import Iranian crude oil beyond the accepted levels that were negotiated back from November through May that they will be sanctioned.
Media: “John Bolton said today from the UAE that the IRGC is most certainly responsible for attacking ships and Fujairah. Isn’t this considered an attack on U.S. partners? What will be the reactions from the U.S. military and is there a red line by POTUS?
Brian Hook: We will let the nations that were attacked announce the results of their own investigation. I think we’re getting near the end of that from what I’ve heard that the UAE, Saudi, and Norway will be announcing the results of the investigation into their attacks. I don’t want to prejudge their conclusions. And I think in due course they will be announcing that. I think once that’s then, once we have a fuller picture of the facts we’ll be in a position to discuss the proper response. But that’s something that we would be doing in concert with Norway, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates.