State Department Iran Specialist On Restoring Sanctions Brian Hook, a State Department adviser on Iran, talks with NPR's Steve Inskeep about why the administration thinks reimposing sanctions on Iran is an effective policy.

State Department Iran Specialist On Restoring Sanctions

State Department Iran Specialist On Restoring Sanctions

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Brian Hook, a State Department adviser on Iran, talks with NPR's Steve Inskeep about why the administration thinks reimposing sanctions on Iran is an effective policy.


It was easy to miss amid this week's elections and other news, but the United States started trying to close the door on Iran's economy this week. New sanctions took effect on Monday. After withdrawing from an agreement limiting Iran's nuclear program, the U.S. is now driving to block the oil exports that are a major source of income for a major oil-producing nation. Brian Hook is coordinating that effort. He is senior adviser to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. And he is U.S. special envoy for Iran, which means he travels around the world trying to get other countries to observe U.S. sanctions. And now he's in our studios once again. Mr. Hook, welcome back.

BRIAN HOOK: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: Have you already succeeded in cutting Iranian oil sales?

HOOK: Yes, we have. We have taken at least 1 million barrels of Iranian oil off the market. And this is...

INSKEEP: This is 1 billion - or 1 million barrels a day is what we're talking...

HOOK: Yeah, 1 million barrels a day. When we started this in May, when the president left the Iran deal, Iran was at 2.7 million barrels a day. Today they're at 1.6, and that number is going to continue to decline. We've been able to do that without lifting the price of oil. Back in May when we left, it was $74 a barrel, and now it's at 72. So we've had a tight oil market. The biggest challenge we've had is not taking off so many barrels of Iranian crude that we end up increasing the price of gas.

INSKEEP: I'm curious about that because of course oil goes up and down depending on the supply of oil. Have you persuaded other oil producers to increase production, or are you just lucky?

HOOK: Yes, we have. We've been working very closely with oil-producing nations around the world. The Saudis have increased production by over half a million barrels. We have increased exports by a million barrels. And so we've seen - whether it's Iraq, Russia, Saudi, the United States, we've been able to swap out other forms of crude for Iranian crude.

INSKEEP: So two of the key players here are China and India. They both buy a lot of Iranian oil. You want them to stop that. Why would they stop?

HOOK: Our goal is to get all nations who import Iranian oil to zero. And there were 20 countries that were importing Iranian oil prior to May, and those 20 nations have gone to zero. We have given a handful of waivers to allow a few nations to continue buying Iranian oil but at a much reduced level.

INSKEEP: And China and India have those waivers. Is that correct?

HOOK: Correct.

INSKEEP: Meaning they're going to continue for now, but are you going to press them to stop buying any Iranian oil at all?

HOOK: Yes. Our waivers are for a period of six months at a time. We think that next year, we're going to have a much better supplied oil market. And that will put us in a position to accelerate the path to zero.

INSKEEP: Do you mean that the way you would get China on board is saying, we are going to help make sure that you get all the oil you need from somewhere else?

HOOK: Yes, and every nation that wants oil can get oil. It is an adequately supplied market, but it's been a fragile market.

INSKEEP: You have also traveled to Europe, Mr. Hook. How seriously do you take France's effort to lead Europe in effectively bypassing U.S. sanctions policy, finding mechanisms by which European companies can do business with Iran without running afoul of these sanctions by the United States?

HOOK: We've seen just the opposite, Steve. We've had over a hundred major corporations, mostly in Europe, all announce that they are leaving the Iranian market.

INSKEEP: Just because there's risk to them regardless of what their governments do. Is that it?

HOOK: Yes. If you are the CEO of a major European corporation and you are given a choice between selling in the American market and selling in the Iranian market, it's the fastest decision you'll ever make as CEO.

INSKEEP: What do you say then to Emmanuel Macron, the president of France, who would like to take a different policy, whose country is still in this nuclear deal and who wants to make it possible for European firms to still do business?

HOOK: We just haven't seen European businesses doing it. And so there's been talk about the special purpose vehicle, but it's something that we see no demand for. The United States made its decision to leave the Iran deal. The other parties to the agreement that are still in place have to make their decisions in their own sovereign capacity. They are trying to keep Iran in the deal, but we're very much looking at the future of getting a new and much better deal.

INSKEEP: So I get that the official goal here is to get Iran to change its behavior in the region and to cut off sources of income that Iran can use to meddle in other country's affairs and so forth. But Secretary of State Pompeo has made a number of statements stating that the United States would like to restore democracy to Iran. He has said that is a longstanding United States goal. How's that supposed to work?

HOOK: The Iranian people have been working at trying to achieve a representative government since 1905, and it has had peaks and valleys. And we very much stand with the Iranian people. So much of the things that they ask for are the same things we're asking for. This is a revolutionary regime that does not invest in its own people. It does invest in violent misadventures in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Lebanon, terrorism in Europe. And so we are trying to get this regime to start behaving like a normal country, and the Iranian people are asking for the same thing.

INSKEEP: Some people who know the history of Iran will be shouting at their radios at some point because you alluded to the history, that one of the valleys of Iranian democracy was a U.S.-backed coup in 1953. There was then this revolution in 1979. And they've had elections but not what we would recognize as full democracy ever since. What is the mechanism by which you think the current regime would be overthrown?

HOOK: We're not talking about regime change. The future of this regime is up to the Iranian people. What we have been looking for is a change in their behavior, and we are very hopeful that our campaign of maximum economic pressure on this regime is going to help accelerate the path to reform that not only we want but the Iranian people want.

INSKEEP: You think that economic stress in Iran will increase the pressure on this government to open up in some form.

HOOK: Well, as Secretary Pompeo recently said, this regime can stop funding malign behavior around the Middle East, or it can watch its economy crumble.

INSKEEP: There is considerably less than full freedom in Iran, as I know from travels there. And I've spoken with people who've been jailed in Iran. And we continue covering the cases even of Americans who are jailed in Iran today. So it's certainly meaningful that the secretary of state speaks up for freedom in Iran. But why is U.S. policy so different toward Iran's rival Saudi Arabia, which is also not democratic and also has a problem with human rights, as we have been reminded in recent weeks?

HOOK: Right. Well, Saudi Arabia is not the No. 1 state sponsor of terrorism in the world. And if you look around the Middle East, Iran is the principal driver of instability in the Middle East - $16 billion since 2013 on its proxies in Syria, Iraq and in Yemen and in Lebanon, Palestine Islamic Jihad, Hamas. There is really nothing like the Iranian regime in terms of how much money and the soldiers, the Revolutionary Guard Corps, that they dispatch around the Middle East. We have just, in the last few months, uncovered bomb plots in Paris and assassination attempts in Denmark. This is an expansionist revolutionary regime, and it's a very dark and brutal religious dictatorship.

INSKEEP: Is the difference then just that the Saudis are our friend, our ally?

HOOK: Well, we have had - Saudi has been a partner going back to the time of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. And we share a lot of interests with Saudi Arabia. We have made it very clear that there needs to be accountability for the death of Jamal - for the murder of Jamal...

INSKEEP: Jamal Khashoggi. Right. OK. Brian Hook of the U.S. State Department, thanks for coming by. It's always a pleasure talking with you.

HOOK: Thanks, Steve.


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