U.S Department of State
Brian H. Hook, Special Representative for Iran and Senior Policy Advisor to the Secretary of State
Press Briefing Room
February 20, 2020
MR BROWN: Good morning, everyone. Good to see all your faces here today. Joining us today, once again —
QUESTION: I’m not sure I believe you.
MR BROWN: I really mean it, truly. (Laughter.) Joining us today is our Special Representative for Iran, Brian Hook. He’s here to talk about, as he had in the past, Iran’s malign behavior and our efforts to deter it. He’ll start off with some brief remarks and then take your questions.
MR HOOK: Thank you. Good morning.
QUESTION: Good morning.
MR HOOK: Tomorrow, the Iranian regime will stage an event euphemistically called elections. Unfortunately for the Iranian people, the real election took place in secret long before any ballots were even cast. This is how it has been for the last 41 years in Iran. The regime denies the Iranian people a representative parliament by pre-deciding who is qualified to run for office.
Today, the Trump administration is taking action to hold the Iranian regime accountable. I am announcing that the United States is sanctioning five senior regime officials under Executive Order 13876. The five officials being designated today have denied the Iranian people free and fair parliamentary elections. This includes Ahmad Jannati, the Secretary of the Guardian Council, as well as Mohammad Yazdi, a senior member of the council and former head of Iran’s brutal judiciary. We are sanctioning three other officials who serve on the Guardian Council Central Committee for Election Supervision.
Together, these five officials oversee a process that silences the voice of the Iranian people, curtails their freedom, and limits their political participation. Any Iranian who wants to run for office must first be approved by the Guardian Council and its Committee for Election Supervision. The Guardian Council is led by a group of 12 unelected clerics and so-called legal experts. They decide who gets on the ballot. They are the ones who really get to vote in Iran.
For the elections tomorrow, the council denied more than 7,000 candidates the right to participate in the election. They also disqualified 90 sitting members of Iran’s parliament for running for re-election. The chairman of the Guardian Council is Ahmad Jannati. He is a 92-year-old cleric. He joined the council in 1980 and became chairman in 1988. So for the last 40 years, he has been busy deciding whom Iranians get to vote for. And in 2010, when Iranians protested his sham election, Jannati praised the regime for executing protestors. He urged more executions until the protests stopped.
Jannati is also well known for wishing death to America and death to Israel whenever the occasion presents itself. He’s a big part of the reason why the Iranian regime is the world’s leading state sponsor of anti-Semitism. Jannati is not well known to American and European media because the regime doesn’t want him to be well known. That would be bad marketing. But the people of Iran know him quite well and clerics like Ahmad Jannati are why the regime is facing a crisis of credibility and legitimacy at home.
The Iranian people know that tomorrow’s election is political theater. It is a republic in name only when the government disqualifies half of the candidates running for office. Millions of Iranians have decided to stay home. They know they don’t have a genuine say in the process. They are asking for a free and fair process where they can share their views openly without the fear of being marginalized or massacred.
The United States will continue to expose Iranian officials who use their authority to abuse the rights of the Iranian people and deny them their basic freedoms. This regime should respect the aspirations of its people for a representative government and give them a real choice at the ballot box. It is worth noting that while the Iranian regime increases its repression at home, it is continuing to spend the Iranian people’s money on conflicts abroad. Instead of cutting gas subsidies to Iranians, maybe the regime should cut missile subsidies to the Houthis.
But I would not hold your breath. Just a few weeks ago, the United States Navy interdicted a large cache of Iranian weapons on a dhow headed to the Houthis in Yemen. The seizure included 150 Dehlavieh Iranian-made, anti-tank missiles as well as three Iranian-designed-and manufactured surface-to-air missiles. There were also Iranian-made thermal optical sights and components for the Houthis to assemble numerous waterborne improvised explosive devices. These weapons pose a very real threat to commercial navigation and freedom of navigation in the Red Sea.
This interdiction was preceded by another large interdiction in November, in which the U.S. Navy seized a shipment of advanced Iranian weapons and Iranian weapon components destined for the Houthis in Yemen, including the same types of anti-tank missiles and surface-to-air missiles that were seized just a few weeks ago. A United Nations report released in January examined these and other weapons seized in previous transfers to Yemen, and found that they were likely manufactured in Iran.
Iran’s ongoing transfer of weapons to the Houthis violates multiple UN Security Council resolutions. These successful operations by the United States are exposing Iran’s duplicity in Yemen. While the regime claims that it supports a diplomatic solution to the conflict, its actions prove otherwise. Guided missiles and improvised explosive devices are not the tools of diplomacy; they are the weapons of war and they are what Iran brings to the table.
The United States will continue to stand with our partners in the region to counter Iran’s malign activity. This includes with Saudi Arabia, which is on the frontlines of Iran’s proxy war in Yemen. Today, Secretary Pompeo is in Riyadh, where he will meet with King Salman, Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, Foreign Minister Faisal, and other senior officials to discuss the Iranian threat. The Secretary visited Prince Sultan Air Base earlier today. That base is currently hosting American troops. Our joint presence there with Saudi Arabia forces underscores America’s commitment to deterring Iranian aggression and collaborating with our partners to enhance the region’s defense architecture.
As we work closely with our partners in the region, we are also working with our allies around the world to counter Iranian arms shipments and missile proliferation. The international community should apply more pressure on Iran until it stops providing arms, training, and funding to proxy groups in the gray zone. This includes by acting to extend the UN arms embargo on Iran, which, under the Iran deal, expires in October.
Lifting Security Council restrictions on Iran’s ability to provide weapons to terrorist groups or militias will undermine peace in the region. It will embolden Iran, allow it to grow its arsenal even further, and deepen its role in ongoing conflicts.
Happy to take a few questions.
MR BROWN: Matt.
QUESTION: Yeah. So on the – on today’s sanctions on the Guardian Council, these guys have never been – are not under current sanctions?
MR HOOK: No, they’re not.
QUESTION: So how has that happened if they’re responsible for —
MR HOOK: Well, the President signed in June of last year an executive order that imposed sanctions on the supreme leader and the supreme leader’s office. And so we have used that authority a number of times. It was under that authority that we were able to target a number of officials, including Javad Zarif, the head of Iran’s judiciary Ebrahim Raisi, and the secretary of the Supreme National Security Council Ali Shamkhani. So we’ve been making good use of this new authority. So we’ve designated those in the past, and we’ve now added five to today.
QUESTION: Okay. And then this – these sanctions are the same – the asset freezes – those —
MR HOOK: Yes. Yep.
QUESTION: But these guys don’t have any assets in U.S. jurisdictions, right? So that —
MR HOOK: Well, do you know that?
QUESTION: I don’t know, but it’s a pretty – I think it’s a pretty safe assumption —
MR HOOK: So Iran is – Iran is —
QUESTION: — that the 92-year-old head of the Guardian Council doesn’t exactly have a Citibank account or something like that.
MR HOOK: Well, Iranians have assets around the world, and so where those assets are located, anybody who has those assets should freeze them.
QUESTION: All right. Can I just ask on the embargo situation? Are you now saying that what you’re trying to do is just extend the embargo and not go for snapback? As you are well aware, there is growing impatience among certain people in this town who are not well disposed to the nuclear deal – impatience that you guys are not trying to invoke, or not yet moving to snapback all of the UN sanctions.
So my question is: Is that still an option? Do you – invoking snapback – or are you just looking to extend the arms embargo after October?
MR HOOK: Well, we – even before the Europeans had announced that they would be doing the dispute resolution mechanism, we had already begun notifying publicly the dangers of letting this expire. And so our decision on this to renew the arms embargo and the need to renew it predates the E3 doing the dispute resolution mechanism, so I wouldn’t necessarily connect those.
What I’d say in answer to your question is what the President has said in early January, that he would like to see the members of the Iran nuclear deal join our effort and leave the deal and then join our effort to get a new and better deal that will address not just the missile – the nuclear program, but also the missiles and the regional aggression and the hostage-taking.
And so now that Iran has violated the nuclear deal, I think five times now, that caused the Europeans to invoke the dispute resolution mechanism, there isn’t much left of the deal to preserve. It’s going to start expiring in October, and the regime has violated it many times. We’re enjoying some very good success with our foreign policy, denying the regime the money that it needs to fund its proxies at the levels that they’re accustomed to and to fund its own operations. So we think that more nations should join our foreign policy, and the President has called for that.
MR BROWN: Nadia.
QUESTION: Thank you. Brian, when you say that the election has been decided in secret in the last 41 years, is this – do you have, like, tangible evidence of that? And does this include also, like, what they perceive as moderate presidents like Khatami and the rest? And if there’s any specific evidence about this current election – I know it’s not presidential, it’s council.
MR HOOK: Well, the Guardian Council has been – this is not the first time the Guardian Council has disqualified candidates. This is what they’ve been doing on a regular basis. Jannati has been there since 1980. He is an unelected official who determines the people that Iranians get to vote for. And this is, by name, an Islamic republic, and yet disqualify half of the people who want to run for its parliament. And it’s Article 6 of the constitution that sets forth that “the country’s affairs must be administered by reliance on the public vote,” and “through elections.” But they aren’t – you can’t truthfully call them elections when half of the people who want to run are disqualified by an unelected few.
So we are – I mean, Iran likes to sort of have it both ways. They like to run this theocratic, corrupt, religious mafia running a country, but they like to present it to the world as a republic. And this is largely the role that Javad Zarif plays for the regime. It was interesting to me to note that – I did this Google search last night on search results, and under Ahmad Jannati you get about 69,000 search results, and under Javad Zarif you get over 4 million. And this is the way the regime likes it, because it likes to present a face of the regime that is very pleasing to Western audiences, but the beating heart of the regime are men like Ahmad Jannati.
MR BROWN: Humeyra.
QUESTION: Hi, Brian.
MR HOOK: Hi.
QUESTION: Can I ask about the humanitarian channel that you guys have announced a while ago? You said at the time that you were talking to other companies and countries. Has there been any further shipments? Has anybody else used that channel to send medicine and other supplies to Iran?
MR HOOK: We were able to get the first transaction through a few weeks ago, which we were very pleased to do, getting in cancer treatment drugs. I talked about them here from the podium. We have at least two more companies that we are in specific talks with.
We wanted to take advantage of the earlier transaction as soon as possible to test the channel, make sure it was working. And then now that I think as more companies are learning about it – medical companies and drug companies, pharmaceutical companies – there is now a lot of interest in using that channel.
I had a meeting last week at Treasury with Deputy Secretary Muzinich to talk through how we’re doing on the next transactions. So we’re going to continue working very closely together, and you will see more transactions coming.
MR BROWN: Michel.
QUESTION: Thank you. How do you view the meetings that members of Congress and the former U.S. officials hold with Iranian officials like Foreign Minister Zarif? And second, Foreign Minister Zarif has said that Iran will not negotiate until the U.S. lifts sanctions, and today you are imposing new sanctions.
MR HOOK: The Secretary has spoken about this. I believe the President has also spoken about it. On the first question, I have nothing to add beyond what they’ve said. On the —
QUESTION: Do you view it helpful for the U.S. strategy or for the strategy of this administration?
MR HOOK: The Secretary spoke about it yesterday, and I don’t have anything to add. But what was the second question?
QUESTION: On Iran foreign minister’s statement that Iran will not negotiate before —
MR HOOK: Well, that’s a choice the Iranians can make. That’s a choice they’ve been making since the beginning of this administration. The regime has been rejecting the diplomatic off-ramps that this administration has offered for the last two-plus years. But it’s not just the United States that they reject. They’ve rejected the diplomatic efforts of President Macron, Prime Minister Abe. A number of countries have worked to try to get Iran to choose a better path, to work with the United States, to resolve our differences diplomatically. The regime seems to be committed to using military force to resolve our differences diplomatically.
So our policy is very clear on that. With respect to coming together, the President has said he will not pay for a meeting. And so he has said repeatedly that there will not be sanctions relief for a meeting. There are a lot of benefits that the President and the Secretary of State have made clear once we can get to a full and comprehensive agreement with the regime, but we’ve got to see a change in behavior for that to happen.
MR BROWN: Let’s go back to the third row, right there.
QUESTION: Thank you, Brian. Iran’s leader, Ali Khamenei, and President Rouhani last weekend over the – said they will not come to the table unless United States stops the pressure campaign. I want your comment in this.
MR HOOK: Well, I think it’s a variation on what he just asked, but we have been running the same strategy since 2017 on Iran. It has three components: It’s denying the regime the revenue it needs to fund its revolutionary foreign policy and to fund its proxies; to help restore deterrence; and standing with the Iranian people. And so we are executing that strategy on a daily basis and very pleased with the results that we’ve had.
During that entire time we’ve made clear that we are very prepared to talk, but the regime has decided to choose a different course. And so we’re in no hurry. We have plenty of time. And so the regime just has to decide – this is what the Secretary offered in May of 2018 in a speech – he said the regime can either behave like a normal nation or it can watch its economy collapse. And they have chosen to manage collapse.
MR BROWN: Sorry. Lara.
QUESTION: Hey Brian, good morning Do you think that the new parliament, when it is seated after tomorrow’s elections, no matter what its makeup, no matter if it’s a little more or way more conservative than the current makeup, will have any effect on what diplomacy is like with the United States?
MR HOOK: I doubt it, because the day after the elections the supreme leader is still going to be in charge, and the supreme leader is the supreme leader for a reason. It is – I think other administrations have gotten a little bit too preoccupied with this interest in identifying the moderates in the regime, and I think that can lead to some very bad policy making. And so we judge the regime on the basis of what it does, not on the basis of who may or may not have influence within the government. It is a violent, revolutionary, expansionist regime, and it is the principal driver of instability in today’s Middle East. We have put in place a foreign policy that reflects this reality.
And the majlis, now that they’ve disqualified any of the moderates who would like to run, but even if you do have moderates in the majlis, the supreme leader still gets to decide everything. He has a small group of people who make those decisions. And so we don’t get distracted by this question of moderates and hardliners. If you’re in the regime, you’re a hardliner.
MR BROWN: Okay. I think we have time for a couple more.
MR HOOK: Yeah.
MR BROWN: Carol.
QUESTION: Thank you for doing this, Brian. Say, Elliott Abrams has said that sanctions against Venezuela are roughly at the halfway point. Where are sanctions – could you do a similar assessment on sanctions against Iran? Do you still have a long list of groups and people you could still sanction, or where are you?
MR HOOK: Yeah, there’s always – there’s always plenty of targets. Iran is – has – is very dynamic in its sanctions evasion, and they’re very good at setting up front companies, and so we are always monitoring that. We update our sanctions on a very regular basis. We’re also – Secretary Pompeo is deeply committed to sanctions enforcement, and that is as important as the designations, is enforcing it. And we still are seeing a few hundred thousand barrels a month going to China. We’ve now sanctioned Chinese individuals and entities three separate times. We would like to see that number get to zero, so we’re going to continue working hard on sanctions enforcement. We continue to look for ways to deny the regime the revenue it needs, whether it’s on crude oil, petrochemical, industrial metals, precious metals, targeting individuals and entities.
When we sanction somebody like Ahmad Jannati, we are elevating his profile in the world so that the people understand the people that hide in the shadows behind the supreme leader but are really, in fact, in charge of the country, and they’re much more in charge and much more representative of the country than its foreign minister. And so sanctions have a practical effect, but they also have a symbolic effect, because if you don’t sanction these people, it sends a message. It’s a message of silence or looking the other way. And as I said, we stand with the Iranian people. We want to elevate a lot of these people in sort of the consciousness of the international community.
We’ll do one more.
MR BROWN: Up front, last one. Ruffini.
QUESTION: Hi, Brian.
MR HOOK: Hi.
QUESTION: Since the Soleimani strike, immediately after it, the signals from Iran were that that was essentially going to shut down any negotiations about Americans being held there or prisoner exchanges or anything like that. Has there been any kind of increased communication? Is that still the case? Can you talk at all about what efforts are being done and if that strike is still impacting the ability for us to get other Americans out of Iran?
MR HOOK: Well, we were able to do one exchange in November, and we did it without sanctions relief, without pallets of cash, and without a change in policy. And so we think that there is always an opportunity to try to get Americans out regardless of the circumstances. I work on a daily basis to try to get the remaining Americans out of Iran who are wrongfully detained. I can’t speak to the specifics of it, but I work on a daily basis on this.
We have five Americans that are still in Iran wrongfully detained. I’m going to be doing – you’ll be seeing something fairly soon. I’m going to start talking more about their plight and about how these are all wrongfully detained. I speak on a regular basis with the families who are suffering. And Iran has been condemned by the United Nations and other countries for this practice of hostage taking. It is a tragedy. I was able to see Xiyue Wang recently, and that was very gratifying. We need to see more people come home.
MR BROWN: Okay.
QUESTION: That five doesn’t include Levinson, right?
MR HOOK: Yes.
QUESTION: It does? It does include?
QUESTION: Thank you.
MR HOOK: Bye. Yeah, thanks.
QUESTION: Thanks, Brian.