U.S. Department of State
Dubai Regional Media Hub
Monday – November 5, 2018
MODERATOR: Greetings to everyone from the U.S. Department of State’s Dubai Regional Media Hub. I would like to welcome our callers who have dialed in from across the region. Today we are joined by the U.S. Special Representative for Iran and Senior Policy Advisor to the Secretary of State, Mr. Brian Hook. Prior to this appointment, he served as the Director of the Policy Planning Staff and managed an international [strategic consulting firm based in Washington D.C. He held a number of Senior Positions including Assistant Secretary of State for International Organizations. Senior Advisor to the U.S. Ambassador the United Nations, Special Assistant to the President for Policy in the White House Chief of Staff office and Counsel Office of Legal Policy for the U.S. Department of Justice. With that, I will turn over the floor to Mr. Hook to give some initial opening remarks. Thank you.
BRIAN HOOK: Thanks very much. It’s good to be with all of you today. Today, this morning, Secretary of State Pompeo and Secretary Mnuchin did a joint press conference, and they announced today is the largest ever single day action targeting the Iranian regime. This is by the U.S. Department of Treasury. The Treasury Department has sanctioned more than 700 individuals, entities, aircrafts and vessels. This is the re-imposition of the remaining U.S. nuclear related sanctions that were lifted or waived in connection with the Iran nuclear deal, entered into by the prior administration. The purpose of these sanctions is to greatly reduce the Iranian regime’s capacity to fund its broad range of violent activities, its destabilizing activities around the Middle East and we are placing unprecedented financial pressure on the regime so that it will agree to a solution that will prevent Iran from ever acquiring nuclear weapon and end Iran’s broad range of malign activities. Since the Iran nuclear deal was concluded, we have seen Iran accelerate its destructive activities which includes supporting terrorism, fueling foreign conflicts and developing its ballistic missile capabilities. We will impose maximum economic pressure on the regime until it changes its behavior and stops being a key driver of global instability and terror. The last thing I would say is, for the last six months we have been preparing for the re-imposition of our sanctions and during that period, we have seen enormous support and cooperation for our pressure campaign. More than 20 countries that imported Iranian oil prior to May have zeroed out their imports because of our sanctions. More than 100 major companies have withdrawn their business from Iran or cancelled their planned investment, leading to tens of billions of dollars in lost investment. Our oil sanctions have taken off one million barrels of Iranian oil off the market, and that alone has reduced the regime’s revenues by more than $2 billion. An important component of our sanctions, of our diplomacy, is standing with the Iranian people. Iranian people are the longest suffering victims of the regime’s brutality and economic mismanagement. We stand with them as they call for the regime to respect their human rights and their dignity. The United States does not sanction humanitarian goods or the sale of food, agricultural commodities, medicine or medical devices. It has never been our policy to target humanitarian trade with Iran. The regime’s attempts to mis-characterize these humanitarian exemptions are a pathetic effort to distract from its own corruption and mismanagement. And I’m now happy to take any questions.
MODERATOR: Thank you Mr. Hook. We will now begin the question and answer portion of today’s call. For those asking questions, please state your name and affiliation and limit yourself to one question related to the topic of today’s briefing. We will take questions, first from the English line and then the Arabic line. As a reminder, if you wish to join the queue, please dial zero one. I will now turn the floor to the English line operator. Please give the floor to the first journalist.
OPERATOR: Thank you. Our first question comes from Parisa Hafezi, from Thompson Reuters, please go ahead.
QUESTION: Hi, Parisa from Reuters. Thank you for doing this. My question is that the size of oil cutbacks, how much of oil and condensate of Iran will come off the market please? Thank you.
BRIAN HOOK: Since the time, is…I think I said earlier, the President left the Iran deal on May 8th and since that time, you’ve seen a reduction of one million barrels of Iranian oil off the market. There will be more reductions in the export of Iranian crude as our sanctions go back into effect and as we police any efforts to undercut our sanctions. It is– our goal remains getting countries to zero imports of Iranian oil. We will do that as we have done for the last six months. We will do that in a way that ensures a well-supplied and balanced oil market. Even though we have taken off a million barrels of Iranian oil, we have been able to substitute those million barrels by increased exports from a number of oil producing countries including Saudi , the United States, Russia and Iraq. We will ensure that as more barrels of Iranian crude and condensate come off the market, that we accomplish our national security objectives without increasing the price of oil and we have a high degree of confidence that we’ll be able to achieve both.
MODERATOR: Thank you very much. We’ll take the next question from the English line.
OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Caroline Hayek from L’Orient – Le jour. Please go ahead.
QUESTION: Caroline Hayek, L’Orient Le Jour. [inaudible] Beyond the new sanctions, how does the United States intend to contain Iranian influence in the Middle East especially in Iraq and Syria? Thank you.
BRIAN HOOK: I would say that we have– it’s a very good question. I think you asked how we’re going to try to contain them in Iraq and Syria. I would describe our Iran strategy as focused around three efforts: diplomacy, restoring deterrence, and standing with the Iranian people. Under the diplomacy part, we are– we are putting in place maximum economic pressure to help achieve our diplomatic goals. But that also helps us to restore deterrence because we’ll be denying the regime billions and billions of dollars that it would otherwise spend in Syria and Iraq. My counterpart for Syria is Ambassador Jim Jeffrey who is the Syria envoy. And Jim has made removing all forces under Iranian command out of Syria as a key objective in his diplomacy. There are 2,500 Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps soldiers in Syria and they — Soleimani manages about 10,000 Shia fighters. These this presence is a hindrance to achieving stability in Syria getting toward a new constitution, elections, getting under way with an irreversible political process. We will be withholding reconstruction assistance to any territories under the control of the Assad regime as a condition of accomplishing our objectives, which include Iranian forces under running control out of Syria. In terms of Iraq, our embassy there has been doing very good work during this period of government formation. I think you may have seen the Reuters article that talks about the proliferation of sophisticated missiles into Iraq. President Trump put out a statement in September after we had rocket attacks on our diplomatic facilities in Baghdad and Basra. We also had Iran launching ballistic missiles into Iraqi Kurdistan and these are examples of Iranian aggression whether it’s in Syria or Iraq. This is a revolutionary regime at its core that keeps pushing out beyond its borders. And so we are very focused on restoring deterrence and ensuring that Iran stops violating the sovereignty of nations like Iraq. And so we’ve got a lot of diplomacy and efforts focused around that.
MODERATOR: Thank you very much. Let’s take the next question from the English line.
OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Mohamed Manzarpour for Iran International TV. Please go ahead.
QUESTION: Hello Mr. Hook. I would like to ask, isn’t the new sanctions basically a violation of the ICJ ruling with the measures affecting humanitarian aid, food, medicine, and civil aviation?
BRIAN HOOK: No it’s not a violation. The ICJ is not able to decide how America advances its national security objectives. I believe the ICJ ruling, which was brought by Iran as a clear abuse of the Treaty of Amity, which we have now left, I believe that ruling talked about humanitarian exemptions. I don’t know if you were listening at the beginning of the call but the United States is the largest provider of humanitarian assistance in the world. We have made it very clear you can go to the Department of Treasury’s Web site –the OFAC Web site and you will see very clear guidance to all financial institutions to permit trade for food, agricultural commodities, medicine, medical devices. And the biggest problem we have–getting this humanitarian assistance the Iranian people is the Iranian regime which does two things: it diverts the money that should go to humanitarian assistance and uses it to line its own pockets and then to fund of course Assad’s civil war; but it also — banks around the world are afraid to do business with Iranian banks because so many of them are corrupt banks. Iran for 39 years has operated an opaque financial system and it is deliberately opaque because they don’t want people to see where the money goes. They don’t want their own people to know where the money goes and they don’t want the international community to know where the money goes. Because if we saw that, we would observe deep corruption, self-dealing, the Iranian regime robbing its own people blind, and then all of the billions of dollars they spend– $4.6 billion to Assad, $700 million a year to Lebanese Hezbollah, hundreds of millions of dollars a year to the Houthis in Yemen. The list goes on. This regime has enough money to invest in its own people. It has the money and it has the entire framework to ensure that humanitarian assistance gets to its own people. It fails at that basic task of government
MODERATOR: Thank you very much. Let’s take the next question on the English line.
OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Mahmood Al Ken, AJA please go ahead.
QUESTION: Sure yes. Iran was able to survive the sanctions imposed between 2012 and 2016 when its oil production was low as well as the oil crisis. Iran entered Iran entered tough negotiations to sign a nuclear deal that Mr. Trump describes as bad. Why do you think Iranians will accept the new U.S. terms before the end of this. administration’s term?
BRIAN HOOK: Well I’m sure back in 2013 when the last administration started its sanctions campaign that they were asked the same question. And we believe that we know from the historical record that the Iranian regime does respond to significant economic pressure. The United States has had sanctions on Iran since 1979 when they violated all diplomatic protocols and stormed our embassy and kept our diplomats hostage. Then, in 2006 you had the U.N. imposed multilateral sanctions on Iran. And those were in place until they were suspended by the Iran nuclear deal. We have every reason to believe that Iran will come back to the negotiating table at some point. They face much worse economic conditions now than they did in 2013 when oil was higher and their rial was healthier. The rial has been in a has been in a freefall because President Rouhani has mismanaged this economy. You’ve had capital flight because people inside of Iran have lost confidence in the regime. You have had a collapse in foreign direct investment as nations around the around the world are leaving to comply with American sanctions. We take maximum economic pressure very seriously. We take it much more seriously than the prior administration.
MODERATOR: Great, thank you very much. We are going to move for now to the Arabic language line; operator can you please take the first question from our journalist listening in Arabic.
OPERATOR: Thank you. We have a question from the U.S. Embassy in Algiers.
QUESTION: I’m from [inaudible] magazine.
Do you think that there’s the possibility for these sanctions to lead to internal problems in Iran that might lead to an escalation of violence internally that would impact the Iranian regime and government?
BRIAN HOOK: The Iranian people have had 39 years of economic mismanagement. They know very well that their economic problems are caused by this regime. They know that they are not caused by the United States. And I think people should be careful not to confuse causation with correlation. The Iranian regime is the direct cause of the of the impoverished Iranian economy. It’s a revolutionary regime that spends its money on violence and terrorism around the Middle East. The Iranian regime was given the best opportunity it will ever have from the United States to get on a better footing when the Iran nuclear deal was agreed to. They received more than $100 billion in sanctions relief, $1.5 billion in cash, and instead of investing that money in its people, they decided to spend it, as they always do, in Lebanon, Iraq, Syria, and Yemen, and with Hamas and Palestine Islamic Jihad. During the protests in December and January, you had people holding up signs that say, “Forget Syria, remember us.” And that tells you something. The Iranian people know that this is a regime that doesn’t invest in them. And they hear President Trump and they hear Secretary Pompeo and Vice President Pence standing with the Iranian people in support of their demands for a better way of life. You have truck drivers and teachers in over a dozen cities in Iran asking for better wages, better schools, better infrastructure, better roads. You also have protesters who are asking for clean air and clean water. And when people ask for clean air and clean water and better land management so that there isn’t a drought everywhere caused by the building of 600 dams by the IRGC, they arrest these people and then they are mysteriously murdered in jail. And so we find this absolutely appalling that when the Iranian people just simply ask for clean air and water that the response of this dark and brutal regime is to arrest and murder them. The Iranian people know this. The Iranian people know that the regime is their biggest problem and that this government stands with them and their demands for a better way of life.
MODERATOR: Thank you very much we’ll take the next question from our journalists listening in in Arabic
OPERATOR: We have a question from Ahmed Zakaria. Sir, Iran moved away from the Syria- Israeli border but are still present in Syria and are interfering – doesn’t that help them circumvent the sanctions and are you not worried about reprisals out of revenge from Iran-backed militias elsewhere?
BRIAN HOOK: President Trump has made it clear that we will not make a distinction between the Iranian regime and the Iranian backed militias that they control in places like Iraq and Syria. And the president has promised swift and decisive action if there are further attacks on our on our diplomatic facilities or our people. And I think that the Iranian regime understands that we are very serious about swift and decisive action. They are violating the sovereignty of Iraq and in Syria. And we very much would like to see Iran to pull back and to operate from inside of its borders and to start behaving like a normal country.
MODERATOR: Excellent, we’ll take the next question from the Arabic line
OPERATOR: A question from [inaudible] TV.
QUESTION: Thank you. My name is [inaudible[ of [inaudible] TV in Washington. Thank you for what you’ve said so far. I would like to ask about the continuing threat of Iran to Saudi and the UAE through the Houthis. Do you think that these sanctions might limit the threat and also what about the Iran-Qatari relations? Would you be monitoring any bank accounts or financial transactions between them.?
BRIAN HOOK: Secretary Mnuchin, I believe, today talked about how vigorous the sanctions regime implementation will be. We will be very aggressive in preventing any individual entity or nation that undermines our sanctions on the Islamic Republic of Iran. I’m not quite sure I understood the question about Yemen. Could you ask that again so that I understand it?
QUESTION: We are taking another question from [inaudible], from [inaudible]. My question to you, sir, is the sanctions are imposed by the U.S. of course. But what about Iran being able to circumvent these sanctions because there are Western countries that still maintain, or have not withdrawn from the nuclear agreement. Maybe they could still have access to the banks of these countries. So how can the U.S. ensure that they can monitor Iran and prevent Iran from accessing banking services and financial systems in European countries?
BRIAN HOOK: Today the Treasury Department imposed sanctions on more than 50 Iranian banks and their subsidiaries. And we have every expectation that all European banks will avoid doing business with these 50 Iranian banks and their subsidiaries. We have been very pleased with the support and cooperation that we have seen since May from European corporations and European financial institutions.
We have had teams from the State Department and Treasury that have worked very closely with the private sector in Europe and if you would just think about this. If you are a European bank or if you are a major European corporation and you are given the choice between doing business in the United States and doing business in Iran it is the fastest decision you will ever make as a businessman. There are …We’ve not had any problems at all with European companies or European financial institutions. We’ve had no indication that they’ll be anything less than fully supportive of our sanctions regime.
MODERATOR: Thank you very much. We’ll take the next question from the Arabic line.
OPERATOR: Hello. I’m sorry. I’m sorry the line is very bad but we’re trying to work around that technical problem.
MODERATOR: Ok can we go to another question then please.
QUESTION: I think the question is about potential Iranian threat to both the price. So we’re moving to another question. I’m sorry because of the technical issue of moving to another question sorry for that. A question from Barakat [inaudible] from [inaudible] newspaper in the UAE. I have a question of two folds: to what extent do you think the U.S. sanctions on Iran will lead to an increase in oil prices and to what extend Iran can make up for the lost money from bringing down its exports . When you think that the temporary exemptions that countries have benefited from will continue.
BRIAN HOOK: Those are all good questions. Targeting the oil is very important in a campaign of economic pressure because 80 percent of the regime’s revenue comes from oil exports. Our goal remains getting countries to zero imports of Iranian oil but we have successfully navigated is bringing down the number of exports by a million without increasing the price of oil. The price of Brent, the last I checked, was roughly now what it was in May when that when the president left the Iran nuclear deal. And so even though we have taken off a million barrels of oil we have been able to keep a well-supplied and stable energy market. There will be more barrels of oil coming off in the coming months. But we have more barrels coming on and we are highly confident that we will be able to substitute Iranian crude for other crude oil producers have all increased their production: the United States, Iraq, Saudi , Russia. We have more than covered the gap. And as more barrels of Iranian crude come off the market we will be finding alternatives for nations. Happy to take the next question.
MODERATOR: Ok. We’ve got one question left. This will be your last question, unfortunately. Can we please take the next caller on the Arabic line.
QUESTION: A. question from the news agency. I am from Iraq, the Iraqi News Agency. Iraq has a deal on energy with Iran. And the sanctions might lead to a blackout in Iraq. What is your position on that? And will Iraq be one of the countries that are benefiting from exemptions from U.S. sanctions.
BRIAN HOOK: Iraq has been granted an exemption and Iraq has been working with us on reducing Iranian influence and opening Kirkuk which would be another 200,000 barrels of oil. We do not anticipate the scenario that you just described in terms of having any electricity shortages or the like. And let me just mention one other thing before… I know that was the last question, but I wanted to mention one other thing. At the at the University of Maryland we have the Center for International and Security Studies at Maryland. They did, after the protests, they took a poll and they did the survey from January 16th through the 24th. And this survey asked people in Iran a number of questions. And I just want to mention a couple of the answers they got. One of them is do you think the government is not doing enough to help the poor? Seventy three percent agreed that the government is not doing enough to help the poor. This, by the way, was prior to the United States leaving the Iran deal. They also were asked the question; the government is not doing enough to help farmers who are suffering due to the drought. Seventy percent agreed with that. They were also asked the government should spend less money in places like Syria and Iraq. And you had fourty-one percent of the people agree with it. These are… I mention this because they get this question regularly about the United States and what, you know, are they to blame for a lot of these troubles. That’s why I said earlier the Iranian people know the cause of what has impoverished them and is what made them a country that’s been economically struggling and it has to do with this government not doing it. They do not invest in their own people. They don’t help the poor. They have ruined agricultural land there because of all the dam building and they spend money in places like Iraq and Syria. That’s where the money goes. And we agree with the Iranian people on all of these things that they should do more to help the poor, they should get their environmental system under control. And they should stop spending money in places like Syria and Iraq and Yemen. So with that very much appreciate you taking time to be on the call today.
MODERATOR: And with that I’ll let you go Mr. Hook. Thank you so much for making the time to speak to our journalists in the region. That concludes today’s call. I want to thank Mr. Hook for joining us and to thank all our callers for participating. If you have questions about today’s call please contact the Dubai Regional Media Hub at [email protected] Once again that email address is [email protected] Thank you all very much. This concludes the call.