With a speech before the conservative Hudson Institute on Wednesday morning, Brian Hook, head of the newly formed Iran Action Group, reiterated the Trump administration’s only policy on Iran: Sanctions.
Sanctions against Iran, sanctions against anyone investing in Iran, and, of course, asking other countries to support the U.S.’s sanctions against Iran.
The Trump administration has said that it is willing to talk to Iran (a gesture deemed as inauthentic by Tehran), but requires that Iran meet the 12 demands Secretary of State Mike Pompeo outlined in May, which include the country’s ballistic missiles program, and foreign policy in the region.
“I didn’t hear anything new in terms of policy… I didn’t see any carrots out there,” he said. “I suspect the Iranians are going to try and wait out the Trump administration,” said Micheal Elleman, senior fellow for Missile Defence at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.
The threat of Iran’s ballistic missiles, he said, is “more of a straw man — everyone is scared of missiles… but I don’t know what the administration is offering. I’ve heard nothing new from Hook this morning.”
Watch Hook’s full speech:
The current sanctions approach fails to address Iran’s security concerns — its neighbors, Iraq and Afghanistan, are occupied by U.S. forces, and nearby Gulf Arab countries host U.S. military bases.
“Putting more pressure on them and threatening them even more, is not going to contain [Iran’s] bad behavior, or the behavior we don’t like,” said Elleman. “I just don’t see where this more aggressive strategy is headed. If I’m Iran, I look at it as a prelude to regime change.”
Hook repeated President Donald Trump’s key lines, blaming Iran for everything that is going wrong in the Middle East — from Iraq, which the U.S. invaded in 2003, to Yemen, where the U.S. is supporting the Saudi Arabia-led campaign that has lead to the slaughter of thousands of civilians.
He described essentially all of Iran’s weapons capabilities as a threat — short-range missiles and long-range missiles alike. But even Iran has said that it doesn’t need all of those weapons.
“Iran said it doesn’t need missiles that fly beyond 2,000 km [1242 miles]… Let’s take up on that offer and create an agreement that’s verifiable that prevents Iran from developing ‘ICBM’s [Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles], which Hook kept talking about, which I don’t know what evidence he has that they’re even developing,” said Elleman.
Missiles, though, play a big part in Iran’s “defense and deterrence” strategy, he said. Because Iran can’t match the conventional superiority of the United States, it has to rely on proxies or asymmetrical military capabilities — as in the Persian Gulf waters.
“Are they a threat? Yes, but the actual threat posed by their ballistic missiles… it’s not that significant,” said Elleman. “It’s more of a harassment weapon than anything else.”
Hook also “conflated Iran’s legitimate battlefield weapons with nuclear-capable missiles — and those are two different categories. They just happen to operate under the same principle,” said Elleman.
Only two missiles, he said were designed to be nuclear-capable.
It’s worth noting that Iran has been found to be in full compliance with the terms of the 2015 nuclear deal — the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action — which has seen Iran subjected to repeated inspections by the U.N. nuclear watchdog agency in exchange for sanctions relief.
As is often the case in these sorts of events, the audience — including the press — had to submit written questions, which were vetted by the moderator before being issued to Hook.
Somehow, no one had any critical questions.
The sole voice of dissent belonged to CodePink co-founder Medea Benjamin, who managed to get on stage after Hook’s speech and before the Q&A, to accuse Hook of “making the case for war with Iran.” She asked, “how did war with Iraq turn out?” before being carted off by two men. Her appearance was edited out of the Hudson Institute’s feed, but C-SPAN3 carried it:
The moderator, Rebeccah Heinrichs, referred to Benjamin as their “little friend” and responded to her point that the sanctions would harm the Iranian people.
“To the contrary, actually, part of the Trump administration’s approach to Iran, which I think has been remarkable and right on, which is to say, no, the Iranian government has been the number one threat to the Iranian people and peace in Iran,” said Heinrich.
In his reply, Hook said the Trump administration is showing “strong, clear, robust” support of the Iranian people, “validating the demands that they’re making.”
Once the regime behavior changed — which, actually, is Iran’s entire foreign policy portfolio — Hook said “there’s a very bright future in store.”
U.S. sanctions do not enjoy the support of the Iranian people living inside the country. However, the Trump administration has reached out to a select diaspora, including the former terrorist group MEK, which is wildly unpopular among Iranians, and others sympathetic to their perspective, such as the individuals invited to Secretary Pompeo’s speech in July (members of media, from whom Pompeo did not take questions on the record, not withstanding).
Hook was appointed as the head of the “elite team” on Aug. 16 by Secretary Pompeo.
The former director of policy planning, Hook first started work on Iran during George W. Bush’s second term in office in 2006. He was adviser to then U.N. Ambassador (now National Security Adviser) John Bolton, who has advocated for bombing Iran and was a vocal critic of 2015 Iranian nuclear deal.
President Trump pulled the U.S. out of the JCPOA in May, and has threatened other countries — including other parties to the JCPOA: China, Russia, the United Kingdom, France, and Germany — with sanctions should they do business in Iran or purchase Iranian oil after the oil sanctions hit in November.
Other sanctions on Iran have already been re-imposed.
All of the other countries in the deal support the agreement and are trying to find a means of staying in it and protecting their companies from U.S. sanctions.
“What the U.S. and the international community concluded was an Iran with nuclear weapons is the biggest threat. Let’s cap that and work on the other issues,” said Elleman, adding that he’s not a fan of the sunset clauses — the timeline included in the JCPOA, which is not a permanent agreement — but addressed that did not require the U.S. to pull out.
“I can’t imagine why the Iranians would come to the table and trust the United States at this point,” said Elleman, a former weapons inspector who worked in Iraq. “I think getting out of the JCPOA will go down as one of the greatest unforced blunders outside of the Iraq invasion in the last 25 years.”