Transcript of US special representative for Iran's interview with Al Arabiya
US special representative for Iran Brian Hook spoke with Naser El Tibi of Al Arabiya, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, for a wide-ranging interview that covered the ongoing demonstrations in Iraq and Lebanon, US sanctions on Tehran and Iran’s interference in the Middle East.
Here is the full transcript:
EL TIBI: Hello and welcome to this special interview. We’re conducting it here in Riyadh this time with the US special representative for Iran, Mr. Brian Hook. Mr. Hook, thank you for taking the time. The administration on July 31 renewed some sanction waivers that have allowed some work to continue and the reactors of Arak and the Tehran Research Center. There is a bill currently in the Senate that aims to drop and end these waivers. These waivers are expiring at the end of October. Will they be renewed?
HOOK: That’s a decision that the secretary will be making. We’ve had a number of very good consultations with some of the senators who have sponsored the bill that you referenced. We have imposed sanctions on the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran. We have also sanctioned some of Iran’s top nuclear scientists. We have ended a number of nuclear waivers that were in place from the Iran deal when we left it. There are a handful that are left in Iraq and Bushehr and Fordow, some of the sites that you mentioned, in I think it was in July, the secretary decided to renew these restrictions for 90 days. And these are restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program that are part of the Iran Nuclear Deal. We have left the deal. And being outside the deal has given us enormous leverage to sanction the regime, including the sanctions we have put on Iran’s nuclear program. We have allowed some of the work to continue but that work that you referenced, restricts Iran’s nuclear program. And while Iran is living under these restrictions, we have no restrictions to sanction the regime, to drive up the costs of their, of their foreign policy, to make their nuclear and missile program more expensive. And we’re going to keep imposing sanctions on Iran until we’re able to get a new and better deal to replace the Iran Nuclear Deal that we left in May of last year.
EL TIBI: In September post attacks, the US tightened its sanctions further on Iran. Some pundits say that there isn’t much left to sanction. So will the maximum pressure strategy just bide its time until Iran comes back to the negotiating table? And what would America’s next move be economically if to force Iran’s hand if it does not budge?
HOOK: You’re right. We have put in place some pretty big sanctions on Iran. We have imposed massive sanctions on their financial sector because of all the work they do on terror finance and money laundering. The Swift Financial System de-Swifted did about 70 Iranian banks. Iran is under FATF counter measures for the same problem of running an opaque financial system that funds terrorism and fund its proxies around the Middle East and beyond. We have put in place oil sanctions that have no historic precedent. When President Trump left the Iran deal in May of last year, Iran was exporting 2.5 million barrels of oil, generating about 36 billion dollars a year in revenue for the regime. This is money that the regime spends in places like Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and Bahrain. In June or July, just one year after leaving the deal, there are press accounts that you may have seen of Iran’s oil exports going from 2.5 million to about 125,000 barrels. That is a complete collapse of Iran’s oil sector. And we have also collapsed Iran’s petrochemical sector, and its industrial metal sector, and its precious metals sector. But we are sanctioning Iran on an almost weekly basis and there is still plenty left for us to do. And this is, unfortunately for the Iranian regime, is the price that they are paying for an expansionist and revolutionary and violent foreign policy that has caused so much suffering, especially here in Saudi Arabia with Iran attacking Saudi Arabia from the north. And then all of the Iranian attacks through the Houthis coming from the south. We are making it harder for Iran to conduct these operations because Iran doesn’t have the money that it used to. The regime today is much weaker economically than it was two and a half years ago. When we came into office. When we came into office, Iran had the Iran nuclear deal and 150 billion dollars in sanctions relief that they spent in Syria and in Yemen and in all sorts of countries where they have proxies and in the gray zone. They also spend it all on their missile program. Iran has the largest missile inventory of any country in the Middle East. And they, these missiles, find their way into here, into Saudi Arabia. And the kingdom of Saudi Arabia is a security partner of the United State. Since May when the attacks started after leaving after getting Iran’s oil exports to zero, there’ve been a number of attacks here in Saudi. We have increased the number of troops in this region by 14,000 since May and in October, we announced another 3,000 forces to Saudi Arabia alone.
EL TIBI: But Mr. Hook to head on still enjoys a U.S. waiver to sell electricity and natural gas to Iraq. Is that waiver under consideration or does the stability of Iraq and the Iraqi government, in light of the popular protests currently taking place, is it constraining such an option in the short term?
HOOK: I think it’s a very good question. You’re right. Iran has not been able to, sorry, Iraq has not been able to eliminate its dependency on Iranian electricity. So we have granted waivers. The first waiver we granted, I think, was only granted for 30 or 40 days because the Secretary of State wanted to make sure that if we’re going to grant a waiver to the Iraqi government to import Iranian electricity, we need to see concrete steps that the government is taking to end this dependency. And during the last year, Iraq has taken a number of very good steps to reduce that dependency. They’re not there yet. But each time that we have been faced with the decision on whether to renew the waiver, we take a very hard look at what Iraq has done concretely during each period to show progress so that they’re not dependent on Iran.
EL TIBI: The U.S. has lately sanctioned a Chinese shipping company and has also indicted a Turkish state owned bank for evading sanctions on Iran. Is this a sign that the U.S. is willing to crank up pressure on entities, whether in state owned or private that is continuing to do business with Iran?
HOOK: In addition to the sanctions that we’ve put in place that we’ve talked about earlier. We have also, without question, increase the number of assets in the United States government to enforce our sanctions and to detect any sanctions evasion. We have sanctioned Russia for its complicity in helping to illegally move oil to Syria. Iranian oil to Syria. We also have sanctioned China twice now, once in July and then again in September. We sanctioned a subsidiary of Cosco Shipping Lines. We did grant one oil waiver to China for six months in the period immediately after leaving the Iran deal. We had to grant a handful of oil waivers at that time because we faced a very tight oil market and there wasn’t enough supply in the system relative to demand that would have allowed us to zero out Iranian imports without also spiking the price of brent crude oil. So we gave a handful of waivers, when we got out of the deal, brent was trading at $74. Six months later after taking off one million barrels of Iranian crude, brent was at $72. And so we’ve got a very good job of balancing our economic interests and our national security interests. As soon as we faced a much more liquid oil supply and not as much demand as supply that put us in a position to zero out all imports of Iranian crude oil. And we had very good, I think in the first couple of months we saw 100 percent compliance with the exception of Syria. China started importing some of its private companies, not its state-owned enterprises, but some of its private companies started to import Iranian crude oil and they did not have a waiver to import that oil. And so we sanctioned them. In September, we sanctioned six Chinese companies and we sanctioned five of their top executives. This is a message to any country in the world, if their companies are considering importing Iranian crude oil, it’s not worth the risk. There is nothing exotic about Iran’s crude oil. It’s not an exotic grade. You can get it here in Saudi as a one-to-one alternative. And many of the countries that we saw, Japan, Korea and India have experienced no interruption in their supply of oil in thanks in large part to Saudi Arabia ensuring a well-supplied and stable oil market. So we also sanctioned, as you mentioned, Turkey’s bank for sanctions evasion. It is just not worth the risk for any individual or entity to do business with Iran. First of all, you never know if you’re supporting commerce or terrorism, and we will sanction any sanctionable activity.
EL TIBI: The E3 have set up the insects, the SPV that acts as a transaction channel to allow companies to continue trading with Iran despite the U.S. sanctions. How would you describe the activity on this platform since its inception in late January of this year? And what are the chances of seeing a momentum growing on that platform?
HOOK: We have. Not seeing any transactions facilitated through INSTEX, the special purpose vehicle that was set up by the Brits and the French and the Germans. We also don’t anticipate at any point if there ever are transactions using that mechanism that they will be for sanctionable activity. We’ve made it very clear to the E3 that that can be a channel used to facilitate transactions involving food, medicine, medical devices or agricultural products. But it cannot involve any sanctionable activity. And I think we’ve reached that understanding some time ago. I’m skeptical that Iran is ever going to set up the finance, the mirror, sort of the mirror mechanism on the other side of INSTEX. So the Europeans have set up their mechanism to facilitate licit transactions. I don’t think Iran is ever going to put in place the mirror image of it, because if they did, it would require transparency. But as we talked about earlier, Iran does not have a financially transparent banking sector. Last week, the United States announced the creation of a new humanitarian channel that we’re going to be working on with Switzerland and Swiss banks. That could be a channel. It’s designed to be a channel to facilitate exemptions to our sanctions regime around food and medicine and medical devices. So we think this is a very good mechanism that we’re still sort of putting the finishing touches on. But we did announce it last week. I think it was well received by Europeans and by, by companies that, for example, that sell medical devices. They’ve had a hard time finding banks that want to do business with Iranian banks because so many of them are dirty banks that are on the Treasury blacklist. So if we can find a mechanism that works, we’re happy to support it. We think we’ve set that up.
EL TIBI: Economic pressure, Mr. Hook is definitely taking a toll on the Iranian economy. But what about diplomatic isolation? Iran leaders have been meeting up with leaders from France, the U.K., Germany, Turkey, Russia, Japan, and Pakistan. So is the maximum pressure strategy not yielding its intended consequences on the diplomatic isolation front?
HOOK: Naser, we’ve got two prongs to this: diplomatic isolation and economic pressure. We have not had any diplomatic relations with Iran in 40 years. We don’t have embassies in each other countries. But we have seen a number of Iranian diplomats expelled from Europe for conducting terror operations or terrorist attempted attacks. Morocco has severed diplomatic relations with Iran. We have seen a number of countries, especially the U.K., France and Germany, identify Iran by name as responsible for attacking Saudi Arabia on September 14th.
HOOK: They also over the since over the last year, I’ve counted well over 30 examples of European countries calling out Iran for its missile proliferation, its ballistic missile testing, its space launch vehicle launches. And so we think that Iran does need to be more diplomatically isolated when there is an attack like what occurred on September 14th here in Saudi. We need more countries to identify Iran as the country that attacked Saudi Arabia. But we also saw that when there were a number of tankers that were attacked off the coast of Fujairah. That was an IRGC Quds Force operation. And there were, I think, only five countries in the world that called out Iran for the attacks, even though we had video evidence of the Iranian Navy Guard Corps removing a limpet mine from the hull of a Japanese tanker that they had just attacked. And so, there are a number of countries who I think have good intentions. They fear that if they identify Iran as the aggressor, that it will somehow escalate tensions. It will have the exact opposite effect. And so what I’ve been advising countries around the world is to, you have to identify Iran by name. And we’re seeing more countries do that. And I think that is part of the diplomatic isolation. We have seen good recent progress, but there is more work to be done.
EL TIBI: After the E3 latest statement blaming it on for the Abqaiq attacks, which you just mentioned. Are you seeing any signs that the European sanctions might soon converge onto American sanctions with regards to Iran’s ballistic program and drone program?
HOOK: There are discussions taking place about the proper response to the September 14th attacks. In my meetings here with a number of Saudi officials, we’ve talked about the status of their investigation into the September 14th attacks. There were a number of countries that helped in that investigation, both in Europe, the United States, and the United Nations. So I think as that, as that investigation wraps up, we do think that there is a role for the U.N. Security Council to play. Iran’s attack on Saudi Arabia, violated the United Nations charter, and the U.N. Security Council is responsible for maintaining international peace and security. And so there is an important role that the council can play. We’re thinking about what exact what sort of shape that might take, but we are doing everything we can to expose the true nature of the Iranian regime and what it has done, especially since May, to make the Middle East much more dangerous, both through the deniable attacks that we often see, especially with the Houthis in Yemen, but also then Iran being responsible for the attacks on the 14th.
EL TIBI: Let’s talk a little bit about Yemen. Do you think that we’re closing in on an end to the war there? And what are your current assessments on the war in Yemen?
HOOK: We are seeing, we are seeing some positive developments, positive trend lines, which are good involving the conflict in Yemen. It is the case that when Iran asked the Houthis to claim responsibility for the attacks of September 14th, I think it’s surprised and ended up embarrassing the Houthis. And if the question in Yemen is, what can we do to end the war and promote peace? The answer is never the Iranian regime helping. This is a regime, I think, that has gotten it wrong repeatedly in Yemen. And whenever Iran gets involved in a conflict, whether it’s a civil war in Yemen or a civil war in Syria, when Iran comes in and they organize, train and equip these forces that are in a civil war, and what it does is it intensifies the war, it prolongs it, and it deepens the war. And so this conflict in Yemen has gone on for over three years. It’s gone on well beyond any period that makes sense because of the role that Iran has played. And I testified recently before Congress talking about this. I also had a piece in The Wall Street Journal talking about Iran’s long game in Yemen. And what they’re trying to do in Yemen is what they accomplished 40 years ago in Lebanon with Hezbollah. They would like to turn the Houthis into their proxy right on Saudi’s southern border so that they’re able to attack at will through the Houthis, Saudi Arabia, Israel, UAE. And this is the kind of destabilizing behavior that that the United States frequently talks about. Iran has no legitimate interests in Yemen. And yet here, here they are in the middle of the civil war using this proxy to attack Saudi Arabia. Now, I think that the September 14th attacks by Iran were a sign of weakness. And I think that it certainly exposed that the United States pressure campaign has hit a nerve with the Iranian regime. And so they’re lashing out, but they’re doing it in very dangerous and escalatory ways that I think are going to backfire on the regime. And we saw that very immediately in the aftermath of the attack on September 14th, when after you’ve got over 20 missiles and drones right at Saudi Arabia and this is these are Iranian missiles and drones, and then the Houthis claim credit for it at Iran’s request. It was a mistake for the Houthis to do that. I think they recognized it. They were embarrassed by it. They were surprised by it. So we’ll use this opening to press our advantage. And that’s why I think we’re seeing some positive developments in Yemen.
EL TIBI: We’re witnessing now some popular protests in both Iraq and Lebanon. Do you think that we could see some spillover effects from these protests?
HOOK: You’re right. There’ve been a lot of protests in Lebanon. Prime Minister Hariri has resigned. There have been violent protests in Iraq with a number of Iraqis who have been killed. The United States has called for, especially in Iraq. Peaceful demonstrations. A lot of these protests, though, are protesting corruption. And also in Lebanon, Lebanese people are tired of the corruption that we see with Hezbollah. The Iranian regime is a corrupt religious regime that robs its own people blind. And over these 40 years, the regime has enriched itself at the expense of its own people. And they have also taken the money that really belongs to the Iranian people and they have spent it on their proxies in Iraq and in Lebanon. And it’s no surprise that these same proxies are as corrupt as the Iranian regime. And so we’re seeing these protests against corruption and a lot of the frustration and anger that we’re seeing and protesters is directed at Iran and its proxies. And so we could see spillover effects in Iran as the Iranian people see the same frustration with Iran’s proxies that the Iranian people have with the Iranian regime. We stand with the Iranian people for a better way of life. And we very much hope that some of the reforms that are necessary in places like Lebanon and Iraq can take place. But the Iranian regime and its proxies oppose these reforms because Iran and its proxies, wherever they go, always prioritize ideology and terror over the welfare of the people in that country.
EL TIBI: We’ve heard some reports saying that there might be some U.S. forces advancing into some of the oil to feed oilfield services in northern Syria. Is there a concern that the Iranian forces or any other forces allied to it could gain control of these oil fields in northern Syria?
HOOK: I’ve been here and in Saudi Arabia for the last few days, and I don’t have the latest on what you report with American forces in the oil fields. What I can say is Iran’s interests in Syria essentially have three interests. They want to save Assad and protect him, keep him in power. They want to keep their links to Hezbollah in Lebanon. And they would like to then use Syria as essentially a forward deployed missile base to attack Israel. And so those are its key interests in Syria. Iran since 2013 has spent over 16 billion dollars supporting Assad and proxies in Syria and Iraq. And so this is money that probably would have been much better spent in Iran on example, for example, on managing the water resources there. The country goes from a countrywide drought to then massive flooding because the regime has so mismanaged its water resources and and the environment, they’ve destroyed the environment in Iran. And so looking at Syria, we are, we are doing everything we can to deny Iran the revenue that it needs to conduct its operations in Syria. And in March, The New York Times ran a front page story documenting how Iran’s proxies in Syria are weaker today because they don’t have the money that they used to. And there was one Shia fighter in Syria who said the golden days are gone. Iran doesn’t have the money that it used to. And that is true. And the Times even confirmed that our sanctions are working and so did The Washington Post, that Iran’s proxies don’t have as much money because we’ve denied tens of billions of dollars to the regime. So we’re going to keep that up. And we are essentially putting the Iranian regime on the horns of a dilemma. They can either spend money on guns in Syria or butter in Iran. And we are putting them in a position where it becomes very hard for them to keep spending that the billions that they used to in places like Syria. Now, that’s a very I think a medium and a long term objective. But we have seen some short term gains, but we know that our maximum pressure campaign is working. All you have to do is look at sort of Iran, they’re in a state of panic aggression that we’ve seen lately. Iran has a 40 year history of funding an expansionist foreign policy. We are not trying to threaten the Iranian regime, but we are countering Iran’s expansionist foreign policy, which is which has caused so much suffering, not only here in Saudi Arabia, but all over the Middle East.
EL TIBI: With this we come to the end of this interview. Thank you so much, Mr. Brian Hook, the U.S. special representative for Iran, for taking the time. Thank you for being here. And this is all, folks. That’s the end of our special interview from Riyadh. Thank you for watching. Goodbye.