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Briefing With Special Representative for Iran and Senior Advisor to the Secretary Brian Hook
On Depriving Iran of the Weapons of War (April 30)
April 30, 2020

MS ORTAGUS: Thank you. Happy Thursday afternoon, everybody. We will have an on-the-record briefing today. Per usual, this is embargoed until the end of the call, please. As Secretary Pompeo indicated yesterday, the United States is firm in its position that come October of this year the Iranian regime will not be able to buy convention weapons from Russia, China, or anywhere else. This is a position rooted in the national security interests of the United States and an absolute necessary piece of our efforts to ensure global peace and security from the Middle East to Latin America.

To further explain this policy, we have joining with us today Brian Hook, who is, of course, our U.S. Special Representative for Iran and a senior advisor to the Secretary. Special Representative Hook will offer brief opening remarks and then, like normal, we’ll go over to Q&A. Just a reminder that the contents of this call, again, are embargoed until the end of the call, and this call is on the record.

Brian, go ahead.

MR HOOK: Thank you, Morgan. Good to be with everybody again. I’ll be brief in my opening remarks and just say a few words about the arms embargo, which I know has been of interest to people.

October 18th is when the arms embargo on the Iranian regime expires, so we are now within six months. It’s important to understand the history of this ban. So Iran has been under various embargoes since March of 2007, and that’s when – at that time I was on the UN Security Council and I was one of the negotiators of Resolution 1747, and that includes a ban on Iranian export of arms and material. And then in 2010, we’ve got UN Security Council Resolution 1929, which put restrictions on Iranian imports of restricted weapons in addition to their export.

These restrictions were – this is – I’m talking about the restrictions on the import and export of weapons – were unanimously passed by the UN Security Council. That includes China and Russia. And the reason is because Iran for decades has not been at peace with its neighbors and has not been a good neighbor and has also conducted terrorist campaigns across five continents. Unfortunately, the UN Security Council resolution that had – that prohibited the import and export of weapons was lifted. It was replaced by 2231.

And the mistake there was in year five of the joint – of the – under 2231, the ban – the arms embargo sunsets after five years. So we’re now getting very close to that point. And I think as we survey the last five years, I would be delighted to hear someone make the case as a policy matter why the Iranian regime should be free to import and export conventional weapons. I think Iran’s behavior over the last five-plus years proves why these restrictions are so important.

And going back to 2011, Iran was caught exporting explosives, AK-47s, machine guns, mortars, and rockets to Syria. And then in 2013 they were caught moving to Yemen anti-aircraft missiles, surface-to-air missiles, RPGs, and other explosives. Those were interdicted off the coast of Yemen. In 2014, 400,000 rounds of ammo and other rockets and mortars were seized in the Red Sea. In 2016 – this is off the Gulf of Oman – 1,500 Kalashnikov rifles and 200 RPGs, and then there were also 2,000 guns and other weapons found off the coast of Oman.

Since that period in 2018, 2019, and ’20, you have had hundreds and hundreds more weapons have been interdicted, and these are Iranian shipments of weapons to intensify and prolong sectarian conflicts in the Middle East. I’ve certainly seen the physical evidence on my travels, and so have the UN inspectors, and we’ve made a number of these public. I’ve spoken at the Defense Department at the base where they have a lot of Iran’s conventional weapons.

They have also provided to the Houthis advanced, state-of-the-art ballistic missiles which terrorize Saudi Arabia and UAE, and they’ve got anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles, naval mines, and explosive boats.

So we can’t let the arms embargo expire. It was a mistake to ever put this in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. And we have drafted a resolution. It’s quite easy to renew the arms embargo, and since the arms embargo has been voted on unanimously in the past, there’s a lot of policy precedent to support renewing the arms embargo.

We have started our diplomacy on this. We’re hopeful that we’ll be able to do this in a very clean way through the UN Security Council, but we’re also prepared to use every diplomatic option available to us if those efforts are frustrated.

Happy to answer some questions.

MS ORTAGUS: Okay, great. Just to remind everybody, 1 and then 0 if you have a question to ask. I think we have a few people in the queue already, and Matt Lee is first.

QUESTION: Thank you, Morgan. Thanks, Brian.

MR HOOK: Hello, Matt.

QUESTION: I just – hey. I’ve got a question on timing of all of this. When do you think that you would have to – presuming that you are not able to get the embargo and only the embargo extended, when is the kind of drop-dead date for moving to the, quote-unquote, “nuclear option,” which would be the snapback? And I ask that with the following in the background, which is that Estonia starting tomorrow has the presidency of the council, then it’s France, Germany, and then it gets into Russia and there’s no way that that’s going to come before the council – even an extension – after that. So when do you need to have the embargo extended or move to your next option? Thanks.

MR HOOK: Well, we’re focused on the first option, and you had – you, I think, Matt, have made the assumption that we’re not able to do this. We are operating under the assumption that we will be able to renew the arms embargo.

Russia and China have great equities in a peaceful and stable Middle East, and Iran’s sectarian violence and its export of weapons is the principal driver of instability in the Middle East today. And because they voted on it in the past, there’s no reason why it can’t be voted on again. You look at the last five years; no one can argue that Iran has fulfilled its commitments in the preambular paragraphs of the JCPOA to – that the deal would promote a more peaceful and stable Middle East. Iran used the sanctions relief and some of the suspensions of sanctions to run an expansionist foreign policy and to double down on their revolutionary adventures around the Middle East.

So we’re hopeful. We’ve had very good discussions with a number of partners and allies. We think that there will be a lot of support for this, and so we’re focused on doing that. We don’t have specific timelines to announce. You do know that the arms embargo expires in October, and this administration will not allow the – Iran to be importing and exporting weapons under the UN Security Council.

MS ORTAGUS: Okay, thanks. We have Nick Wadhams next in the queue.

QUESTION: Hi, Brian.

MR HOOK: Hello, Nick.

QUESTION: Hey. Two questions. One is: Just to be clear, do you believe the U.S. has legal authority to invoke snapback? And then second, how are you going to overcome or how would you overcome opposition from European allies that have already questioned whether the U.S. has that authority? Thanks.

MR HOOK: Which specific Europeans are you talking about? I just haven’t seen that.

QUESTION: That was (inaudible) diplomats from the E3 raising deep skepticism about the idea that the U.S. has the right to invoke snapback.

MR HOOK: I haven’t seen that on the record. I’ve been to Paris some couple of months ago, made a couple of trips to the UN Security Council to consult with folks. If you read operative paragraph 10 and operative paragraph 11 of the UN Security Council Resolution 2231, it’s very clear the United States is named as a JCPOA participant in paragraph 10 that defines the term “participant” for 2231. And then in paragraph 11 it explains that – the rights to any participant, and that obviously involves the rights that we have under 2231.

So our right as a participant is something which exists independently of the JCPOA. There is no qualification in 2231 where “participant” is defined in a way to require participation in the JCPOA; and if the drafters wanted to make the qualification, they could have, but they did not. And so under a plain reading of 2231, any participant has the right under paragraph 11 to exercise those rights in the event of a dispute or other scenarios. And so this is not – I mean, I’ve been working on UN Security Council resolutions for years. This is the plain reading of the text.

MS ORTAGUS: Okay, great. Thank you. Humeyra.

QUESTION: Hello, Morgan. Hi, Brian.

MR HOOK: Hello.

QUESTION: Thanks for this. Can I just ask you point blank if the U.S. has asked the EU – E3 to trigger snapback? Just that one. And to follow up on Nick’s question, I think it’s very unlikely that you’re going to see, on the record, any European diplomats talking about their reservations about this U.S. push. But I think it’s fair to say that it’s well known that they’re not necessarily exactly on the same page with you guys on this. So can you talk what kind of leverage U.S. has on Europeans to bring them on the same page and to convince them on this? Thank you.

MR HOOK: So on the first question, I don’t share the contents of our discussions bilaterally, and I just challenge your premise that – I mean, what you’re essentially – I mean, are you suggesting that the Europeans would like to see the arms embargo to expire? I just don’t see that. I haven’t seen any Europeans publicly say that they would like to see the arms embargo expire. I don’t think, other than a handful of countries around the world like – it’s just hard to imagine a scenario where people think it’s a good idea for the ayatollah to get conventional weapons. It just doesn’t make any sense.

MS ORTAGUS: Thanks. John Hudson.

QUESTION: (Inaudible) the Security Council. Is that something that’s happening now, or are these the same drafts that you guys —

MS ORTAGUS: Hey, John, I think – I think we might have heard you – can you just start your question over? At least it broke up for me.

QUESTION: Oh, right, sure. Yeah, there are some reports that there are drafts – the U.S. is circulating drafts now at the UN Security Council. I know that the U.S. had been circulating drafts earlier this year, but – so did it – is it starting with new drafts now? Is that’s what’s happening now?

And just the last thing: Obviously, people have talked about that there’s a real possibility of – if the U.S. went forward with this and China and Russia simply didn’t go along, that there could be sort of lasting damage to the Security Council, something like that happen – is that even a concern now or is that sort of a peripheral issue?

MR HOOK: On the first question, we have drafted a resolution that would renew the arms embargo, and this can be very cleanly done. It doesn’t have to be complicated. Also on the same day, the travel ban on – I believe it’s now 22, it used to be 23 – 22 Iranian terrorists who are under a travel ban or an assets freeze, that also expires. So there’s some things that we need to do to fix some of the bad decisions that were made under the Iran nuclear deal. This is one of them.

And on the second question, look, we’re very focused on getting a resolution passed – negotiating a resolution and then getting it passed. We’re about six months out. Secretary Pompeo and I had been talking about this for some months and ringing the bell, alerting people to the fact that the country that sponsors more terrorism than any other in the world is going to be free to import and export conventional weapons.

In terms of China and Russia’s role in the Council, if you’re a member of the Council, you have an obligation to follow what the Security Council decides. This is just the nature of being in the Council. If you have a “decides” paragraph that is binding as a matter of international law, one of the reasons that you’re a member is to participate in it. In terms of whether this helps or hurt, I’m not going to speculate on that. It is clear that China, Russia, United States, the countries that are defined in paragraph 10 have rights under 2231 for the purposes of policing and addressing nonperformance. Everyone knows that the Iranian regime has now violated the Iran nuclear deal five times by increasing the purity of their enrichment, increasing stockpiles. So we are well within our rights under a plain reading of 2231, but we are very hopeful about being able to renew the arms embargo.

MS ORTAGUS: Thanks. Okay. Next in the queue is Said.

QUESTION: Yes, thank you, Morgan. Thank you, Ambassador. Sir, it’s along the lines of John’s question. Suppose that Russia and China don’t go along and they decide to sell or resume shipment of arms to Iran. What leverage would you have, then, with these two countries, and what options you may have? Thank you, sir.

MR HOOK: Not going to answer a hypothetical question like that. If you have a second question, I’m happy to answer it.

MS ORTAGUS: Said, I don’t know – you may have to unblock his call.

MR HOOK: That’s all right. We can go on to the next one and then he can come back if there’s time.

MS ORTAGUS: Okay. Kim Dozier.

QUESTION: I’m trying to get – I’m going to try to ask Said’s question but in a different way.

MR HOOK: (Laughter.)

QUESTION: The last time – well, the last time that this deal was negotiated, according to David Sanger’s excellent story, and Wendy Sherman quoted in it, China and Russia were the ones that insisted on the expiring arms deal. But however, China and Russia – you’ve also been able to talk with them over the past few years about interests of concern with Iran. So do you think you could come to a meeting of minds on this issue?

MR HOOK: Yes, we are very – I think there’s good reason – as I said earlier in the call, kind of laying out our case, Iran has increased – during the life of the Iran nuclear deal, you have objective metrics that I think are evident: increased missile testing, increased missile proliferation, increased sectarian violence, et cetera. We came in and started reversing those money flows, and we have now put in place a sanctions architecture that has no historic precedent on the Iranian regime. That is the right policy to reverse a number of things. We lost deterrents under the Iran nuclear deal, the regime got richer, the proxies got richer.

And so now we’re putting in – we have put in place a very sound policy that is much better to serve the interests of the United States and our partners and allies around the world than what we inherited. I know that there is a desire to try to jump right over our diplomatic efforts and go right to the possibilities of snapback, but that’s not our focus. Our focus is on engaging in thoughtful and measured diplomacy with all the relevant parties to successfully negotiate a renewal of the UN arms embargo, and as a drafting matter it’s not complicated. And there is ample precedent for everybody that we’re talking with who have voted on this in the past, and the same reason they voted on it in the past should be the same reason they would support it today, and so we’re going to focus on that in the months ahead.

MS ORTAGUS: Great, thank you. Joel Gehrke is up next.

QUESTION: Hi, thanks both of you for doing this, and I’m going to track on some of what my colleagues have asked about. First off, with respect to Russia and China, there we have seen that both countries have a knack for opposing U.S. initiatives even when there might be a good argument for cooperation. Have you received any indication that they’re interested in – that they’re actually interested in breaking that habit on this question?

And then on the E3 side, they clearly believe and have believed that the 2015 nuclear deal delivers security benefits, and there’s a disagreement there, but they believe that. Have you gotten any indication in setting up this diplomatic initiative – have you gotten any indication that – from the E3 that the costs of the embargo expiring outweigh the perceived benefits from their perspective of the Iran deal?

MR HOOK: Well, I spent two years in the UN Security Council successfully negotiating with the Chinese and the Russians, and so I would challenge your sort of premise that the Russians and the Chinese have a habit of opposing us.

Certainly we have plenty of instances in the UN Security Council where there’s been vetoes in either direction, but in the case of Iran we have had good experience working with the Chinese and the Russians, as I did during the Bush administration, on putting in place a multilateral sanctions architecture. The Iran nuclear deal suspended much of that architecture, and it’s going – this sort of scaffolding is going to continue to be disassembled in the coming years.

And since Iran’s behavior worsened under the Iran nuclear deal, I think there’s very good reasons to support our position. I don’t hear anyone arguing that it’s a good thing for the arms embargo to be lifted. Now, there may be tactical disagreements on how to go about renewing the arms embargo, but this is a necessary thing that has to happen. This is a policy judgment that we have made, that the arms embargo must be renewed, and we will exercise all diplomatic options to accomplish that.

On the – I think it was on the second question of – I’m not going to go into private discussions that we’ve had with the Europeans, but I’ve had a number of good meetings with them in Europe and in New York, and we’ll continue to work together to address Iran’s threats to peace and security, which are many.

MS ORTAGUS: Great. Thanks. Next is Lara Jakes.

QUESTION: Hey, Brian. Hey, Morgan. Hope you’re both well.

MR HOOK: Hello. Yes.

QUESTION: And Brian, at the top, you said – in kind of talking about the need to renew the arms embargo, you said you’re hopeful to do this in a very clean way, but you’re also prepared to use diplomatic options if not successful. And I’m wondering, what are those options? And would they be against Iran or against those who voted against the renewal?

MR HOOK: So I would refer you to what the Secretary – what Secretary Pompeo said, that in terms of – we have limited our focus to the arms embargo and 2231. And under the terms of the deal, that’s going to expire in October; it needs to be renewed. And when we talk about our diplomatic options, we’re talking about ensuring that the arms embargo gets renewed.


MS ORTAGUS: Okay. Thanks.

MR HOOK: That answer your question?

MS ORTAGUS: Is there anything else, Lara?

MR HOOK: Okay.

MS ORTAGUS: Okay. I’m going to try to squeeze in the last two people we have in the queue. Rich Edson?

QUESTION: Hey, guys. Hey, Brian. Hey, Morgan.

MR HOOK: Hello, Rich.

QUESTION: Question for you: Is – when did the administration arrive at this conclusion to sort of marry the strategies of snapback and the conventional arms embargo? And the Secretary said a few weeks ago that China and Russia are already gearing up to deliver conventional weapons to Iran once the embargo lifts in October. Do you see that as still the case?

MR HOOK: I think there has been some statement – I think there had been some statements made in the press. I can’t point you to the exact ones, but I think there was some reporting about China or Russia interested in selling weapons to the regime when the arms embargo expires. We think there are good reasons not to proceed with those transactions, and we think there are good policy arguments as to why the arms embargo needs to be renewed.

In terms of when we arrived at this position, to your specific question, Secretary Pompeo in various visits to the UN Security Council has notified the council that the arms embargo needs to be renewed. And as we’re getting closer, we have now signaled our seriousness of purpose by making clear that we have rights under 2231 to ensure that this arms embargo does get renewed.

So I wouldn’t highlight a specific day; it’s just been as we’re now getting – we are now within six months of the arms embargo expiring, and we have started our diplomacy on this. We have signaled a pathway forward, and we very much hope that we’re able to do this in a way that simply renews the arms embargo and that we’re in a good place. But if those efforts are frustrated, we are prepared to do whatever is necessary.

MS ORTAGUS: Okay. Thanks. Sorry, just squeezing these last two in here. Carol Morello.

QUESTION: Hi, Brian. Hi, Morgan. Thanks for doing this.

MR HOOK: Hi, Carol.

QUESTION: Hope you’re both well. I was hoping you could expand just a little bit more on why you think you have standing to do this, why you have these rights as a participant since you’ve withdrawn from the JCPOA. You seem a little bit to be in the position of someone who’s gotten a divorce but is still claiming to have marriage rights. Could you just expand a little bit more on your thinking on why you have the legal standing? Thank you.

MR HOOK: Participant has two meanings, and I think the people that sort of haven’t really stared at this long enough don’t understand that there are two participant meanings. One is you can be a participant in the Iran nuclear deal, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. Participant also has another legal meaning, and that occurs in the context of 2231. And so if you read operative paragraph 10, which concerns resolving any issues with respect to implementation of the JCPOA – and we are defined in operative paragraph 10 as a participant. And so for the purposes of resolving issues, we are – we have certain rights that are clearly there.

And there’s no qualification. Nowhere in operative paragraph 10 does it say that it requires membership in the JCPOA. And if you – there are ways where that could have been qualified. But they didn’t. And so as a lawyer, as somebody who’s drafted scores of UN Security Council resolutions, you just have to do a plain reading of paragraph 10 and paragraph 11 to see that we have rights as a participant in 2231, and that’s very plain.

MS ORTAGUS: Okay. Thanks. We’re actually over time. But we had one more, David Sanger, in the queue. And then that’ll be it, and we’ll have to go. Go ahead, David.

QUESTION: Brian, thanks for doing this. My question actually follows right on Carol. Many Europeans I talked to – I basically laid out for them the argument you just made, which is that there are two forms of participation, right, and one is that rhetorical one the President made when he issued his statement in was it April or May of 2018 that we would no longer participate, and the other was the legal one you just described. And their answer basically was that may be legally defensible, but it’s diplomatically too cute, and that in the end you can’t be a – as a matter of politics, not necessarily a matter of law, you can’t be a participant for legal purposes and a non-participant for political purposes.

And they thought that the risk you were running was that if you went ahead and did this you might win on the law but no one would sort of go along with it, and they would basically not enforce the arms embargo and not enforce the old resolutions that would suddenly be snapped back into place. No doubt you considered this risk, so I just wanted to see how you plan to handle that.

MR HOOK: Well, we’re hopeful that our diplomacy will succeed and that we will have passed a UNSCR that renews the arms embargo. And I understand there’s an interest to engage in hypotheticals about what happens if they don’t, but right now our focus is around successfully passing a new resolution. And we started those discussions, and we’re entering them in good faith and with hope that we’ll be able to pass such a resolution, and anything beyond that is entirely hypothetical. We are dealing with sort of the concrete reality. We have a policy goal of renewing the arms embargo, and that’s where our focus is. We’re hopeful that we’ll succeed.

MS ORTAGUS: All right. Thanks. We’re going to have to end the call here. Thanks, everybody, for jumping on.