Brian H. Hook & The Rt. Hon. Jeremy Hunt MP: In Transatlantic Conversation on Iran

EVENT TRANSCRIPT: Brian H. Hook and The Rt. Hon. Jeremy Hunt MP: In Transatlantic Conversation on Iran

DATE: 4th June 2020, 4pm – 5pm

VENUE: Online

SPEAKERS: Brian H Hook and The Rt Hon Jeremy Hunt MP



Dr Alan Mendoza 00:00

Welcome, we have two excellent interlocutors to take through on this. Firstly, I’d like to welcome Brian Hook, who is the US Special Representative for Iran and Senior Policy Advisor to the Secretary of State. And Brian was previously Director of the Policy Planning Staff from 2017 to 2018. And before then he managed an international strategic consulting firm based in Washington, DC, but was also heavily involved in the Bush administration, having held several positions, including Assistant Secretary of State for international organizations, and Senior Advisors to US Ambassador to the United Nations. So, he is a seasoned veteran of the diplomatic force. Today, we welcome him to give his thoughts on Iran. And we also welcome Rt. Hon. Jeremy Hunt, who is, of course, the Member of Parliament for Southwest Surrey, here in the UK since 2005. He served in the cabinet famously from 2010, all the way through to 2019 under both David Cameron and Theresa May. For those joining from abroad, Jeremy was actually the Minister of State in charge of the Olympics when they were held in London. And then he is the record office-holder in our Department of Health and Social care. And lastly, of course, became Foreign Secretary, where he did, of course, touch upon the subject of Iran quite extensively during his period in office. And he is currently the chair of the House of Commons Health and Social Care Select Committee, but we welcome both of our speakers. Today, what’s happening is that Jeremy is going to interview Brian for the first half of the discussion. And there’ll be an opportunity for you watching at home or in your offices, to ask questions to both of our panellists. And I will take that part of the session. So, while this is going on, there is a Q&A box. As always, if you want to submit a question, please do. We will then try and group questions by theme and try to get people as many people as possible to ask. But as the old saying goes, if you’re not in it, you can’t win it. So, do submit your question in that way. And I’m now going to pass it over to Jeremy, who will take us through the first half of our session.

Rt. Hon. Jeremy Hunt MP 02:08

Thank you, Alan, and hello to everyone who’s joining us on this session. And particularly thank you to the Henry Jackson Society for organizing this afternoon’s discussion, because I think what we’re going to discover is that as the world thinks about Coronavirus, there are some very important other things going on that we need to be thinking about as well. And that I hope is what we’ll uncover. And it is a real pleasure to have the privilege of interviewing Brian Hook. As you said, Alan, he has had a very distinguished and important role in both Trump and Bush’s administration. And, of course, we’re going to focus on Iran this afternoon. But I think the most relevant thing about Brian’s past that we should also think about is the role he had in formulating US policy towards the United Nations where he also had some very important roles. And that, of course, is very relevant. So, Bran thank you for sparing the time this afternoon. And I think we certainly in the UK have had a lot of discussion in the last couple of months about the way Coronavirus has affected the global order with respect to China. But there’s been much less focus on the Middle East. And I wonder whether we could just kick off with you giving us a bit of a summary as to where the administration is with respect to Iran, and what has changed in the last few months, as you see it.

Brian Hook 03:47

I’m happy to talk about what we’re seeing in Iran in COVID. But let me just first say Jeremy, it’s a real honour to be with you. During your tenure as Foreign Secretary, I really enjoyed working with you. And you and Secretary Pompeo had a terrific working relationship. I was just at the Henry Jackson society a few months ago in March right before the world shut down. And I was there and was very glad to be hosted by Alan and I was in town because I was doing some meetings. I was in London and in Paris, doing some meetings with them to discuss our cooperation and working together on common threats that we face. And of course, Iran was at the top of our agenda. So, it’s very nice to be back again with this. It’s virtual. I wish it were in person but such is the nature of the times. Let me say a little bit about Jeremy.

The first question you asked on COVID. I think the official number in Iran is roughly 8,000 deaths. We know various organ nations have informed us reliably that any official number is probably five times higher. And so Corona has obviously been a big problem all over the world. In Iran, I think it was aggravated by a number of decisions by the government, which really didn’t serve the interests of the people. And it has also created problems around the Middle East. I’ve talked to a number of foreign ministers around the Middle East. And I’ve also done the research myself. In some of these countries like Lebanon and Iraq and other countries, they trace patient zero to a flight from Iran, on Mahan Air into their country. And so the regime not only exports ideology, it’s also exporting the Coronavirus and creating patient zero in a number of these countries. The reason why this happened is that there was a terrific BBC documentary that I encourage everybody to take a look at – they documented how many flights ran between China and Iran. Well, after everybody knew that we had a Corona crisis and Iran kept all those flights going. I remember the Health Minister said that there is no Corona in the country. And that day somebody died from COVID. So, the regime in the initial period, kind of like they did after the downing of the jetliner, they denied. They weren’t transparent with their own people. And it’s that transparency that is so needed from not only Iran, but also Jeremy, as you mentioned, China. We really need full transparency. The Iranian people need it from their government. And we need it from China given that that’s the origin of this. So, transparency and honesty would go a long way toward helping to save lives. We have the last thing I’ll say is that we, from the beginning, when it was clear that Iran was having a crisis, a health crisis, we directly offered to the regime assistance, we offered it a number of times at different levels, and it was rejected every time. And that’s regrettable. We wish they would accept the United States as the largest donor of humanitarian assistance in the world. Whenever there’s been any kind of crisis in Iran, whether it’s man-made or natural disasters, we always reach out to see how we can help the Iranian people, we’re going to continue to do that. And that’s sort of my sense of the state of play on COVID inside Iran.

Rt. Hon. Jeremy Hunt MP 07:34

Thank you, Brian. Fascinating. Um, if we cast our minds back to January, and that does seem a very, very long time ago now. The world was gripped with concern about a possible escalation of tensions between the US and Iran, following the Qasem Soleimani operation. And that operation, I want to ask you about that, for many people, signified the much more muscular approach that the Trump administration has taken to foreign policy than, for example, the Obama administration that preceded it. So, I just wonder now, if you look back on that Soleimani operation, do you think it was a success? And do you think the fact that we haven’t seen a big escalation since there has also had, if I can put it this way, an element of luck, because we had the downing of the Ukraine Airlines Flight 75 on the Eighth of January, which sort of took the air out of the balloon in terms of any potential response from Iran. So, I just wondered how you view that operation now, a few months on?

Brian Hook 08:48

Jeremy, that is a very good question. And I’ll try to give a succinct answer to it. Let me first just explain how Soleimani fits into our sort of broader strategy. I’ve been working on Iran since 2005 when I was in the UN Security Council, and I was the lead negotiator for those first UN sanctions resolutions that was at a time when, Sir Emyr Jones Parry was your Perm Rep in New York, and then he was followed by John Sawers. So, we have back in the Bush’s administration, we did start building a sanctions architecture. We think that pressure is the sort of language that this Iranian regime understands. And when you had the nuclear deal, the UN sanctions were suspended. For the most part, we’re going to see some of them expire here in October when the arms embargo is lifted. Maybe we’ll have a chance to talk about that later. So, when I came into office, my experience with Iran, we did an evaluation of the strategy over the last eight years here. What we’ve concluded after 41 years of experience with this regime, if you want to respond to the broad range of Iranian threats, you need to have three components, you have to have economic pressure, diplomatic isolation, and the credible threat of military force to defend our interests and the lives of Americans and those of our partners and our allies. So that’s what we put in place. The other thing I would say that we’ve added to it is we stand with the Iranian people. And the President did that in his first speech to the UN General Assembly, where he addressed the Iranian people directly. So that’s what we’ve been doing. And Qasem Soleimani was not a household name, certainly not in the United States. But to those who work in this space, Qasem Soleimani was one of the deadliest terrorists in the world. In Syria alone, he aided and abetted the killing of half a million people and the displacement of millions, helping Assad. He is responsible for the deaths of 603 Americans in Iraq. And that is a chilling figure. When you think about it, he was the glue that held together Iran’s proxies, he spoke Arabic, he had a cult of personality, enormously effective, and what he did for the Iranian projection of power. And what we had, you know, we knew the whole history, but then we also had exquisite intelligence, showing that he was in violation of the UN travel ban. He was moving around the Middle East, and he was plotting attacks against American personnel and American interests. So, the President made the decision to then take him off the battlefield and Qasem Soleimani is a man who said that the battlefield is mankind’s last paradise, we believe and know that this is going to contribute to greater peace instability in the region. Because he, as I said, was the conductor. When you look at, you know, I remember, in 2014, a member of Iran’s Parliament bragged that they controlled capitals in the Middle East, Qasem Soleimani was a big part of that. Iran’s foreign policy is the principal driver of instability and violence in today’s Middle East. Qasem Soleimani no longer on the battlefield is a game-changer. And we think short, medium long term, it will be for the benefit of the Middle East.

Rt. Hon. Jeremy Hunt MP 12:36

Thank you, um, fascinating. Now, another example, and you’ve touched on it, that more muscular approach is the Iran nuclear deal the JCPOA, which you pulled out of on May the 8th, 2018. So, it was two years on. Looking back on those two years, has it shown any success in terms of bringing Iran back to the negotiating table? Has it been heavier lifting than you thought two years ago? How do you evaluate the success of that policy at this moment?

Brian Hook 13:13

Well, we pulled out in May of 2018. There was a period where I was working with the E3 to see if we could fix some of the deficiencies in the Iran nuclear deal, mostly around the categories of the sunset clauses in the deal. This is a deal that expires, it’s temporary. We wanted it to have a stronger inspections regime. And we were also troubled by the absence of any mention of intercontinental ballistic missiles. That’s not to cast blame. It’s just our assessment of some of the deficiencies. And I know that during that period, we were able to reach an agreement on how we could strengthen it, we ultimately weren’t able to reach an agreement on the sunsets. One thing I’ll say just as an aside, Jeremy, the press, I think sometimes overstates the transatlantic rift on the Iran file, it’s no secret that we have a disagreement on the Iran nuclear deal. But one thing that I’ve always emphasized is that with our European allies, we do have the same threat assessment. The United States and every European country, no one wants Iran to have a nuclear weapon. We all think that would be a bad idea. No one supports Iran’s regional aggression at (inaudible) sectarian violence, its missile proliferation, its missile testing. And also the UK has this problem of hostage-taking by the regime. And so I think there’s a lot of agreement in terms of the threat assessment, and we have disagreements on sort of the way to get there. But one thing that I always treasure about sort of the special relationship, and I’ve worked so regularly with Richard Moore, who Jeremy he’s worked for you and used to work for Prime Minister Johnson, we’re even golf partners when it comes to the United States. Maybe someday he’ll take me golfing UK but still waiting. So, we always work through our differences. And we keep working together. And that’s going to continue.

So, as we look at the last two years, going back to, I talked about the three things that you need with this regime from our viewpoints of economic pressure, the Obama administration decided that it would suspend the oil sanctions and the sanctions on Iran’s financial sector. As long as we were in the deal, that really tied both of our hands, we were not able to extract the kind of leverage that we think, to deny the regime revenue, and to try to help change its calculus. So, when we got out of the deal, Iran was exporting 2.5 million barrels of oil a day. In April, they exported 70,000. That is a complete collapse of Iran’s oil sector. It’s where the IRGC gets most of its money. That’s how they fund a lot of their sectarian warfare. So, we have denied this regime, billions in revenue, President Rouhani said that our sanctions have denied the regime $200 billion in revenue, and I will let the members of HJS use their imagination on where the regime would like to spend $200 billion, I promise you, it would not be on their schools, their roads, the infrastructure, etc. So, we know that this is still the world’s largest state sponsor of terrorism. And if you’re denying the regime revenue, it means less money for their nuclear program, their missile program, their regional aggression, and all of that. And it also has made their proxies weaker.

We have seen a number of stories by the New York Times and the Washington Post a few weeks ago, just documenting how this regime is financially weaker, and so are its proxies. So, we have been very pleased with that kind of success in terms of the sanctions denying the regime levels of revenue it has never experienced, and today the regime is facing the worst economic crisis in its 41-year history. That’s mostly because the regime is a kleptocracy. Iran is not a poor country. It’s a rich country governed by thieves. And the Iranian people know that the regime has been robbing them blind to pay for all of these foreign adventures. So that’s the first part.

In the second part, I would say, Jeremy, you asked like, are we closer to getting to talks with the regime? So that’s why I was getting a two-part answer part of it. And a big part of it is the revenue. You’ve got to deny revenue because money is the sinews of war. And if you don’t have money, it’s very hard to prosecute your foreign policy, we’re trying to make Iran’s foreign policy prohibitively expensive. We do know, from the Bush and Obama, when you put pressure, the regime comes to the table. We’ve put more pressure than the Obama administration did. But they did come to the table last time. And my guess is that the regime is waiting until November to see if their resistance is greater than our pressure. And I think they’re hoping to grind it out and see if they’re waited out and see what happens in November. We’ll see, the President would like to have a deal with the regime. He’s now met with Kim Jong Un three times and had a number of meetings with the North Koreans. We’ve not been able to do any meetings with the Iranians. But the door to diplomacy is wide open. And we very much hope that they take this diplomatic off-ramp and come to the table so that we can come up with a new deal.

Rt. Hon. Jeremy Hunt MP 18:42

Fascinating. I remember when I was Foreign Secretary, the Foreign Ministers I met in the Middle East who had links with us, were also talking to the Iranians. They often said there was a deal to be done between the US and Iran. But it wouldn’t happen until after the presidential election. Because they wanted to know if they were going to have to do a deal with Trump. And so that would very much echo your analysis. On the nuclear side, though, Brian, how many months away? Are we from Iran developing a nuclear weapon? And do you think that you will be able to stop it militarily before it got to that point?

Brian Hook 19:26

The intelligence community and our nuclear experts both at the State Department and the Department of Energy obviously monitor this very closely. The Iran nuclear deal was set as a standard. As you know, Jeremy, it’s a one-year breakout, so that Iran is under the current nuclear deal. Iran is one year, no less than one year out. And so my proposal on the deal was that we should extend this one-year thing in perpetuity, unforced, under the Iran nuclear deal that expires. And I think what Secretary Pompeo would freely admit, we pulled forward the expiration date. But we pulled it forward because we don’t want the regime to be richer and its proxies richer and in a better position at the end of the deal, and then they could be in a position where they could raise to a bomb and a much stronger position. So, what we tried to do is weaken the regime, keep the door open for diplomacy, and deny it a lot of revenue. We’ve done all of that when they have violated the deal, now five times in terms of the breaches on the purity of enrichment, and also the stockpiling of enriched uranium. We monitor that very closely. We have estimates on it, but those are classified. So, I know from your old position, since we share intelligence, you understand that very well. We do follow it very closely. President Trump has said repeatedly, Iran will never acquire a nuclear weapon, we hope to do that diplomatically. Over half of the countries in the world that have peaceful nuclear power do not enrich. The Iranian regime does not need to enrich anything in order to have peaceful nuclear power. And, and so that’s what our argument has been. UAE is a model for this, the UAE has a nuclear program, there’s no enrichment. And when I was in the UN Security Council, we were able to pass a resolution that prohibited Iran from enriching. And all permanent members of the council voted in favor of that back in 2006, we need to restore that standard of no enrichment. The Middle East is the most volatile region in the world. And we have got to ensure that there isn’t an arms race in that region. And if you open the door to enrichment, on that, it sets off a lot of bad problems. So, we’d like to restore that standard. You asked about the military option. Yes, it’s on the table. And that’s just the nature of it. It’s a very high-risk sort of thing in terms of what Iran is doing. The President has said all options are on the table. But what we hope to do is to resolve this diplomatically, and to reach a new agreement with Iran. That is very much in their interest. If we’re able to get to a new agreement with the Iranians, Secretary Pompeo said he is ready to end all of our sanctions, restore diplomatic ties with Iran, exchange ambassadors, welcome them into the international community. But we’ve got to see an end to that nuclear program.

Rt. Hon. Jeremy Hunt MP 22:39

Thank you. Um, now, Brian, there are lots of people who want to ask you questions, but I just want to ask you about one slightly more general point, if I may, before I conclude this part of the session. And it’s one you’ve touched on, you talked about the strained relations between European countries and the administration. And let me just put it to you the sort of the case that is sometimes made, not just in continental Europe, but also sometimes in the UK as well. And that is if you look at not just the JCPOA but the Paris Climate Change accord, the withdrawal from Syria, even recent decisions like withdrawing funding from the World Health Organization, the concern is that by championing America First, America is no longer interested in leading a global alliance of democracies, and basically wants to go it alone. And I come from the school of thought that says that what has given the world unprecedented peace and prosperity and stability over the last 75 years since the Second World War has been that very tight alliance between the democracies of the world in which the US is the most important player by a long way. But the UK has always stood shoulder to shoulder with you. What would you say to people who are worried that America’s losing interest in that, and particularly when it comes to relations with rising powers like China, the risks of being able to play one set of democracies off against another?

Brian Hook 24:32

I would describe it this way. I think that we’re trying to hold international organizations to a higher standard. I remember when I was in the Bush administration, both serving at the UN and then also, as you mentioned, when I was Assistant Secretary for international organizations, we often try to hold the UN to its ideals. And if you look at a lot of the remarks that various republican presidents and the Republicans have made, and even President Obama, if you read his speeches to the UN, during the General Assembly, there is a call to demand something higher from international organizations. In the case of the World Health Organization, I remember I wrote an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal during the Ebola crisis. And it was about the World Health Organization. And it sits atop the global pyramid of health organizations. And it failed on Ebola. And then when we look at how it was executing its mission on the pandemic, it was entirely too cozy with China. And we have seen too much Chinese influence in the World Health Organization, we have done our best to give it a number of opportunities to reform. We are a champion of reform at the World Health Organization. We have an ambassador there, Andrew Bromberg, who’s a health expert, we’re working on these things. The President just reached a point where he didn’t feel like he was getting anywhere and he was hitting a wall. And so, at that point, we’re going to spend, I think it’s about $400 million, we’re going to allocate that to probably the international organizations that we think do a better job of delivering on that mission. Look, Doctors Without Borders was more effective during Ebola than the World Health Organization. And, you know, these are taxpayer dollars, we need to spend them very effectively. So, when we look at our various goals, whether it’s national security, humanitarian, World Food Program does a fantastic job. And that’s our contribution, there is voluntary. Our view is that the voluntary, where funding is voluntary and not taken for granted, we see higher metrics of performance, World Food Program is a great example of that. We’re going to continue supporting organizations that are effective, and we think deliver a good investment for American taxpayers. That’s how I look at it, Jeremy.

Rt. Hon. Jeremy Hunt MP 27:07

Okay, I suppose just as my last question, and I’ll hand back over to Alan, I appreciate that this is difficult as an official to answer these questions very directly, but I’m just trying to get a sense of whether inside administration circles, you guys basically think that Europeans are all cheese-eating surrender monkeys. And if you put the UK in that basket as well, or whether you see us as different.

Brian Hook 27:33

I would refer people to a speech that Secretary Pompeo gave when he was with you. And it was the Margaret Thatcher lecture, I believe. And Secretary Pompeo outlined, that I think very well, and talked about the durability of our institutions, the durability of our values between the United States and the United Kingdom. When I look at the more than 200 years of US and European cooperation, there have been ups and downs. But as I said earlier, what impresses me most is the permanence of it. And I think that you’re going to have various leaders who have different messaging, but there’s permanency and endurance to I think all of it. And I remember I was testifying before Congress, and I think there was one member who had asked me, Jesus, you know, it doesn’t seem like the Europeans are doing all that much in the case of Iran. So I then submitted for the record, this is just in this administration alone, I added up 37 different instances of Europe taking action, just on my file on Iran, concerning the nuclear program, missile program, economic pressure, terrorist activity, regional aggression, diplomatic cooperation, there’s a whole range of things that the press underreports, and I always go out of my way to make sure that our European allies know that we always appreciatively look at how many countries in Europe have banned flights on Mahan Air, Germany just recently designated Hezbollah, every time that Iran does a space launch vehicle test, or missile ballistic missile test in contravention of resolution 2231. The Europeans are always first out to condemn it. I remember the UK led the effort in the EU to put sanctions on Iran’s intelligence ministry after the Paris bomb plot and after the assassination attempts in Europe. I have a long list of this. I’m always aware of it. I think the press underreports it because the press likes to cover a good fight. I get it. But at the same time, I know that there’s a lot going on. That doesn’t always make the news.

Dr Alan Mendoza 30:04

Oh, thank you both for taking us through the first part as you can expect, or having expected that we will have a whole selection of questions ready for you. What I’m going to do with questions you can still, by the way, send your questions in, and we’re going to try and get them on themes. I said, if you don’t get yours in, it’s because we’ve tried to get the theme already sorted, of course, in that way. But I’m going to start by calling three people. What will happen is that the backroom team will put you on the screen for a brief moment, you unmute your microphone, and then ask your question, and then it’ll move to the next person in that way. So, we’ll take the first three questions. First up is Tom Tugendhat MP, who is the chairman of the House of Commons, Select Committee on Foreign Affairs. Tom, are you there?

Tom Tugendhat MP 30:52

I am here. So, it’s a pleasure to see you Brian. And you’re privileged not to be able to see me but so you get a better deal. First of all, thank you very much for a very interesting presentation and how appropriate the Jeremy is grilling you for change. The question I wanted to ask was about neighbours. You’ve spoken very powerfully about the Iranian regime. But I’d be really interested in your perspective on Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and indeed, Russia that have been influential neighbours over the Iranian regime and how are they helping? How are they hindering your work in trying to bring Iran’s nuclear program to a more reasonable conclusion and with any luck, getting ensuring that the Iranian people enjoy some liberty?

Dr Alan Mendoza 31:40

Okay, Russia and Saudi Arabia, I hope we’re gonna bring in some other questions as well. James Lansdale is next.

James Landale 32:05

Thank you very much for giving your presentation. Um, I just asked a question about why you think Iran will eventually come to the table? And what evidence do you have of a change of thinking in Tehran, because thus far, we’ve yet to see any suggestion that Iran is willing to shift its position? And it’s fine to say let’s wait until November. But what if it carries on waiting after November?

Dr Alan Mendoza 32:35

Thank you very much, Keith Best is next.

Keith Best 32:42

Hello there. I hope everybody can hear me. Jeremy, good to see you again. And I was really asking about the fact that in the Middle East, which has been troubled for so many decades now and indeed, more than a century, and also a rather unfortunate, often involvement by the West in the affairs there. I mean, that includes the UK and oil and things of that nature. It is arguably, though, notwithstanding its current regime and terrorism activities, one of the more stable countries in the Middle East. And as such archery was really regarded as an obvious ally, for the West. Now, Iran has set out very, very ably the issues that are currently preventing that from happening. But is there a time when it can be seen that whether with a change of regime or not, there is a way in which Iran can be brought more within the western sphere of influence?

Dr Alan Mendoza 33:53

Thank you. So just a question to both of you, can Iran become the ally we believe it could be. And finally, we’ve got Thomas Gratowski.

Thomas Gratowksi 34:07

Thank you very much, Brian, for this very interesting discussion. I have one question about sunset clauses. Because my impression is that at the moment, there is a big debate about the UN arms embargo, which is set to expire in October, and where the US government has made suggestions that, you know, it should be extended. So maybe you can explain a bit how maybe the administration will try to together with European allies avoid the exploration of the arms embargo.

Dr Alan Mendoza 34:40

Thank you. Thank you, Thomas. I’m dragging on the thread that also to you obviously, as well, because it’ll be interesting to get your perspective on the arms embargo. But Brian, you want to take whatever you’d like from those four, and give some answers to them.

Brian Hook 34:52

I wrote down the questions here so I can be sure I answer each of them. Tom’s question. First of all, I had a great visit when Tom hosted me in his office, we had a terrific time together, really enjoyed that opportunity to share views and compare notes on Iran. He has a number of friends who are colleagues of mine, including Congressman Mike Gallagher and Deputy National Security Adviser Matt Pottinger. Sure. So good to spend time with him. He asked me about Turkey, Russia, and Saudi. I would say, let me start first with Saudi. Saudi has been attacked directly by Iran when the world’s largest oil processing facility was attacked with Iranian weapons from inside of Iran. And that’s a violation of the United Nations Charter and the sovereignty of Saudi Arabia, another example of how Iran has a hard time being at peace with its neighbours. And so, I work pretty regularly with Caliban Solomon, who is the Defence Minister there, and we are very close working with them. One nice thing I’ll say about Iran’s foreign policy is that it brought together the Gulf states in Israel in very new and important ways. Because if you look at, you know, a number of countries, Bahrain, Saudi, UAE, who are on the frontlines of Iranian aggression, so is Israel. And we’ve done our part to try to facilitate cooperation in a number of ways. Saudi Arabia has been very supportive of what we have been doing. And we have increased our force posture in the region pretty dramatically. From May of last year, we had sent 14,000 new troops in the region after the attack on (inaudible). We moved in and I know some European allies also helped with Saudi air defence, so much of their air defence was pointed south to deal with Iranian weapons being fired by the Houthis. And then Iran attacks them from the north with Iranian weapons. So, our CENTCOM commander Frank McKenzie works very closely with former CENTCOM commander and now, US ambassador to Saudi Arabia John Abizaid. So, we got two CENTCOM commanders that are both working. So there’s a lot of male cooperation there to try to help Saudi security which had very much needs. Russia is an enigma and a riddle etc. It’s a very, in this case, I think they played both sides of the street on Iran. I think that Putin talks with Netanyahu on a pretty regular basis. And he talks with Assad, obviously, on a very regular basis. You’ve got Iran trying to use Syria as a forward-deployed missile base to threaten and attack Israel. And, obviously, Prime Minister Netanyahu has a number of calls with President Putin to say that we’re going to defend ourselves (inaudible) in Syria. I see Russia getting very frustrated with Assad, they obviously have been there a lot longer than they expected. It’s been much more expensive than they expected to rebuild Syria that is probably going to be between $300 and $400 billion. And there’s not going to be any reconstruction assistance that flows to Syria until Iranian forces and Iranian commanded militias are out of Syria. So I see declining incentives on Russian-Iranian cooperation in Syria. So we’ll just have to see, I’ve been meeting pretty regularly lately with Russian ambassador to talk about the arms embargo and see if we can find an understanding. And I know that’s the fourth question. Just to be efficient here. Why do I think Iran will come to the table? Well, that’s their history. They come to the table when they decide that the risk reward is no longer there to resist our pressure. The regime is facing a crisis of legitimacy, a crisis of credibility with its own people. And it’s facing a massive economic crisis, which they were in a world of hurt before COVID hit. And at some point, the regime I think, is going to decide that it’s going to have to come to the table. I don’t have a crystal ball. If the president gets a second term, I don’t see any scenario where they can grind out and resist our economic pressure. The math just doesn’t add up. There won’t be any way for the regime. I think, to get through four more years of this. We have collapsed foreign direct investment, collapsed their energy sector, foreign direct investment is largely dried up (inaudible) plummeted, they’ve been disconnected from the Swiss financial system. They’re under the (inaudible) of countermeasures, on and on and on. It’s very hard for a country that has so many international ties around the world to I mean, a country like North Korea, the Hermit Kingdom, it’s very different from Iran. Iran is very internationally engaged. There was a question kind of making the observation, you know, Iran shouldn’t be an ally. I did a video, which you can find on YouTube. I did it in front of the Iranian embassy on Massachusetts Avenue in Washington DC. Not many people know this. But for 41 years, the State Department has been taking care of that embassy. All the Persian rugs in the artwork are in climate-controlled storage, we take care of the maintenance and all the landscaping. Next door to it is the residence of the Iranian ambassador. And what I said in that video, is I look forward to the day when we can return the keys of the Iranian embassy to the Iranian people. And I believe that day will come I don’t know when it will. I know that if you look at the last 100 years of the Iranian people since the constitutional revolution in the early 1900s, I think the Iranian people have been working to achieve a representative government. And over those last 100 years, there have been peaks and valleys, the last 41 years will be remembered as the Dark Ages. And the Iranian people have so much in common with the American people. I don’t know if you happen to see the video in November during the protests in all 31 Iranian provinces. But I think the government had put an American flag and an Israeli flag on the ground, and they wanted people to trample it and step on it. You’re on and people walked around the two flags. That is in a nutshell the Iranian people. And it’s a very Western sort of facing people in Persia. And I know that at some point when the Iranian people have a more representative government, I think you’re going to see much better relations. And I very much pray for that day.

The other last question was on the arms embargo. So, I would love to have Jeremy weigh in on this. In the Iran nuclear deal, the Obama administration conceded to Iran’s demand, that in year five of the deal, the UN arms embargo expires. And on October 18 of this year, we’re about five months away, the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism will be permitted to freely buy and sell conventional weapons. And it’s also the world’s leading state sponsor of antisemitism. Just a few weeks ago, the Supreme Leader endorsed the Nazi policy of genocide against the Jews when he called for the final solution. We’ve got to take these threats very seriously. And President Rouhani said that the arms embargo was a huge victory for the regime, and he looks forward to buying and exporting weapons. And if we care about a Middle East that’s less sectarian and less violent, it’s important to extend the arms embargo. So we have drafted a resolution. And I worked on it with the Saudis and the Emiratis. And I’ve also shared it with the three and with the Russians and the Chinese. And we’re now underway to see what the traffic will bear, we very much hope that the council will extend the arms embargo because it’s the right thing to do. That was what was in place before the Iran deal. We think it should be extended. We do have the right to under 2231, and paragraphs 10, 11, and 12 to step back all UN sanctions. under the condition if Iran has violated the deal, they’ve violated it no fewer than five times. And so that’s not our preference. When we got out of the deal, two years ago, we could have done that, and we didn’t. We’re spending all of our time and energy on our foreign policy on our Iran strategy. Those who are in the Iran deal are focused on that. That’s fine. We agree to disagree. We’d like to be able to focus on our strategy, but letting the arms embargo expire is going to be bad for everybody.

Rt. Hon. Jeremy Hunt MP 44:27

I’ll just be very brief because I think we want to get some more questions to Brian. But I mean, the first thing I’d say is that I wholeheartedly agree we have to find a way of extending the arms embargo. I think there’s a twinge of irony and the US wanting to extend an embargo on a deal that itself has withdrawn from and use the mechanisms of the JCPOA to do that, but I think the real point is that nobody can afford to allow Iran to continue to go back to buying arms so I’m sure you’ll get full support from the UK on that. And I hope you get it internationally. And I hope we play our part in supporting you. Keith’s question about the big role for Iran in the future. I just wanted to touch on that, because I think one of the things that will make a deal possible whether it’s shortly after November, or whether we have to wait a lot longer is whether the Iranians feel that the United States genuinely wants to do a deal, or is really interested in regime change. As someone who went to Tehran when I was Foreign Secretary, principally because I was trying to move forward the release of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe. The conversations I had with Foreign Minister Zarif and other people persuaded me that, rightly or wrongly, they really do believe in Iran that all the US wants is his regime change. And that is one of the things that’s causing them to dig in. And they see Iran as one of the great civilizations of the world. And so I think, some way of persuading Iran, that we recognize that they are a regional power, albeit one that does not have the right to stabilize its neighbours in the way that it’s been doing will be an important part of a solution when it comes.

Brian Hook 46:28

Can I just say, I think that’s a very thoughtful analysis by Jeremy, I do get the regime change question a lot which I get I understand it. The future of Iran will be decided by the Iranian people. It is not going to be decided by the United States government. And we have made clear repeatedly that we would like to reach an agreement with this regime to address its nuclear threats, the missile proliferation, the regional aggression and the hostage-taking. Those are the threats to peace and security. And I think in some ways, we’ve lost the ability to imagine a peaceful Iran because they’ve been at this for 41 years. We’ve almost desensitized to the level of violence that Iran inflicts around the region. And if we could imagine a more peaceful Iran, the Middle East starts to look very different. But that is not going to be something that is achieved by the United States through regime change. That’s not our policy, our policy is to come to an agreement that is permanent. There are a ton of benefits for the regime if it comes to the table. And I mentioned those earlier. And we’re sincere about that. The fact that we went to war with Korea. And the President has now met with Kim Jong Un three times. So, he very much believes in diplomacy, he has repeatedly offered to meet with the Iranian regime. And they have repeatedly said no, I can’t solve that for the regime. And Jeremy mentioned earlier, perhaps it’s the hangover from America’s sort of foreign policy in the Middle East for the last, you know, that predates this administration. But I think we’ve put enough into evidence in terms of our desire to have a diplomatic solution that they should believe us by now.

Dr Alan Mendoza 48:30

Now, we’ve got three quick-fire questions if we can. And please ask your questions as quickly as possible. Hamid Bahrani is first, asking a question to Jeremy Hunt. I think your question if I can summarize it, I know what you’ve said, which is we’ve designated Hezbollah, but we haven’t designated the IRGC. So, Jeremy, do you think we should be designating the IRGC here in the UK? Next up, we’ve got a question from Ken Abramowitz for Brian.

Kenneth Abramowitz 49:56

Yes. Iran recently sent a tanker of oil and probably terrorists to Venezuela. Why didn’t the US government or military or somebody stop it? I thought we had a policy of maximum pressure on Iran.

Dr Alan Mendoza 50:11

Thank you, Ken. And then finally, Steven Erlanger from the New York Times, Steven.

Steven Erlanger 50:20

Okay, yes, thanks. Listen, Brian, hi, believe it or not, I was not a great fan of the Iran deal, as it was written. And I believed with you that it could be improved upon. And you tried but the President decided otherwise. But what I really have trouble with as many people do is that you were pushing Iran into penury. Now you’re doing that on purpose, as you said, you’d say you’re not after regime change, which I actually believe, but you’re hoping for it. But the Iranians leave otherwise, you’ve reduced money to them, but they’re still very active in the region, which is why we killed Qasem Soleimani. And your desire to get them into negotiations you’ve just admitted isn’t working, it’s not going to work until the election. So, I really wonder how you can keep saying this is a successful policy when the results have not been what you’ve wanted them to be. I would really love you to explain that in the most honest way.

Dr Alan Mendoza 51:42

Jeremy, I’m gonna start with you and then move to Brian.

Rt. Hon. Jeremy Hunt MP 51:45

Okay, just on the IRGC. It’s simply the same question that Brian and I were discussing a moment ago, which is because the IRGC effectively controls the Iranian regime. And then I don’t have any doubt at all that they are sponsoring terrorism all over the region. And that’s what we have to stop. And I think the diplomatic calculation is that if you designate that organization, are you sending a signal to the Iranian regime that you want regime change, and therefore making ultimately an agreement less likely going forward? It’s a very finely balanced judgment. And I couldn’t predict whether that judgment on the UK side might change or not under my successor, but I think that’s the debate you have.

Dr Alan Mendoza 52:29

Thank you, Brian, Venezuela and then general policies working.

Brian Hook 52:35

You have in the case of Venezuela, the kleptocracy that’s helping each other. And Elliott Abrams, who’s the Special Envoy for Venezuela, and works down the hall for me, we’ve been working very closely together on this. Secretary Pompeo, I think it’s talked about this, but I think I’d also refer you to a story that was in the Wall Street Journal, that so there were five Iranian tankers, five Iranian flag tankers, I don’t know if all five have made it, but I know at least four or five, possibly five have now reached their destination. But we were able to disrupt the other tankers that were in that flotilla. And so we did that diplomatically. And we’ve been very effective, I think, on that score. Steven’s question is sort of a glass half empty assessment. When we came into office, Iran’s military budget had achieved record levels of spending. For the first three years now, their budget has gone down year after year after year. And so that’s a good thing. When you see Iran’s military budget go from record highs to then going in the other direction. I think we’ve seen a cut of something like 20%. I earlier went through a number of different things that we look at. This regime does not have the money that it used to. And Ben Hubbard has written about this. Steven, your colleague back in March of last year, did a front-page story documenting how the leader of Hezbollah has had to do a fundraising drive because Iran doesn’t have the money that it used to support Hezbollah. I’d also point out, you saw massive protests in October in Lebanon, massive protests in Iraq and massive protests in Iran, all rejecting the Iranian model of corruption, lack of transparency and sectarian violence. None of this was happening before we came into office, and we see all these things related. In the November protests, I remember the commentariat and a lot of pundits, when we got out of the deal, everybody was saying that this is going to cause the Iranian people to rally around the regime. And everyone got it wrong. If you look at all the protests in November, in Iran, not one protest against United States, President Trump or American sanctions, because the Iranian people know whom to blame. And they know that our sanctions have expanded the space for them, to have a more representative government. And when the regime comes to the table, that’s a question for the Iranians, we’ve done everything we can to set the table for success. The Supreme Leader claims power on the basis of brute force, he does not enjoy the support of his own people. And there was one thing that I’m certain of the Iranian regime fears a free election more than anything else because they know, that’s why they had to rig the elections a few months ago. And they just qualified scores of moderates, who would have liked to run. We know that, that at the end of the day, the Supreme Leader always calls the shots. And we don’t get lost in this handicapping of empowering the moderates. I think that was the theory of letting the arms embargo expire because I think the theory of the case was that in your (inaudible) the moderates would have taken over. That’s just not how the machine works. So, we’re very pleased with the success we’ve had with our strategy. It’s working, we’re very happy with so much of what we’re seeing happening over the last few years is exactly what we started forecasting in May of 2017 when principals approved the strategy in the national security cabinet.

Dr Alan Mendoza 56:46

I’ll ask one very quick question to each of you, starting with Jeremy. During the Qasem Soleimani incident, you wrote a lot and spoke a lot of interesting commentary about how it was a dangerous capital, they do have the potential to shake things up in a potentially positive way. If you were British Foreign Secretary today, one gamble would you take on Britain’s Iran position at a prime effect of similar positive change right now?

Rt. Hon. Jeremy Hunt MP 57:13

I think that you know, in foreign policy, the history of foreign policy over the years is of people taking gambles that, surprisingly, sometimes succeed. And the biggest one, in my lifetime, has been the way that Ronald Reagan got tough with the Soviet Union, in a way that had people demonstrating all over the United States all over Europe, but actually ended up bringing Gorbachev to the table and leading to the collapse of what was an evil empire. So, I recognize that you have to take these risks, but you also have to be alive to the fact that sometimes they go wrong, as I think they probably did with the Iraq War, for example. So that was really the point I was making. I feel that for us as the UK, what we have to recognize is that the Iranian regime is under pressure that has been driven by the US regime. And we should not be doing anything that reduces that pressure, because we’re more likely to get a result if that pressure continues.

Dr Alan Mendoza 58:23

Okay, and, Brian, your question, obviously, you’re speaking to a largely British audience, although exclusively the UK has, of course, Brexit is on the way, finally out will be then the final processes of that as a chance to reprise its own foreign policy. What would you like to see from the UK foreign policy in the rest of 2020 on Iran?

Brian Hook 58:43

Alan, I think what we’d like to see, post-Brexit is the freedom for the UK to match some of our designations, or to initiate their own so that they don’t then have to go to Brussels, and then reach a consensus. One of the biggest frustrations I’ve had in this job is, there’s been a number of times working with E3 where we had had an agreement on what we thought was the right thing to do in the EU. And because a lot of these national security decisions operate on the basis of consensus, we were unable to get things through because one or two countries disagreed and they were able to hold up the process. I think the UK is going to enjoy greater sovereignty in the area of national security decision-making. And that will, I think, give them more running room to address threats to peace and security. And, you know, the UK has been an enormously powerful country, economically, militarily, and when they decide to put their weight behind a foreign policy. It’s a big difference. And we very much look forward to that. We think it’s going to enhance and strengthen our cooperation in a number of ways. And Woody Johnson, our ambassador there is working on these sorts of things work very closely with him and we’re gonna keep working together.

Dr Alan Mendoza 1:00:18

Good. We already kind of keep working together. We’ve run out of time. We could talk about this all afternoon, of course. And I want to thank you, Brian, and you, Jeremy for having engaged so openly and with such candor, about challenges, but also potential solutions. Thank you both, for joining us, of course. Thanks, everyone, for joining. Thank you, Brian. Thank you, Jeremy. And look forward to seeing you all again soon.


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