This Week in Iran Policy (June 5)
So great to have Michael home. Just arrived. Very exciting. Thank you to Iran. Don’t wait until after U.S. Election to make the Big deal. I’m going to win. You’ll make a better deal now!
– President Trump, @realDonaldTrump, June 5
STATEMENT BY SECRETARY MICHAEL POMPEO ON RELEASE OF MICHAEL WHITE, JUNE 4, 2020
- We are bringing another American home. Michael White, a U.S. Navy veteran who has been wrongfully jailed in Iran for nearly two years, has been released. He is now on his way back to the United States, where we look forward to reuniting him with his family. I commend U.S. Special Representative for Iran Brian Hook for negotiating Mr. White’s release with the Iranians. I thank the Swiss government and the work of our diplomats for facilitating this successful diplomacy.
- While we are pleased that Iran was constructive in this matter, there is more work to do. The United States will not rest until we bring every American detained in Iran and around the world back home to their loved ones. The United States continues to call for the release of U.S. citizens Baquer Namazi, Siamak Namazi, and Morad Tahbaz, who have been wrongfully detained in Iran for far too long, and to provide a full accounting of the fate of Robert Levinson.
SPECIAL BRIEFING BY SPECIAL REPRESENTATIVE FOR IRAN AND SENIOR POLICY ADVISOR TO THE SECRETARY BRIAN HOOK ON THE RELEASE OF MICHAEL WHITE, JUNE 5, 2020
MR BROWN: Hey, thanks. Hello again, everyone. I think we’re three for three on briefings today. But given the fantastic news yesterday on the release of Michael White from Iranian custody, we wanted to prioritize having our very own Special Representative for Iran and Senior Advisor to the Secretary Brian Hook available to talk to you.
Brian, who just returned to Washington only a few hours ago, has a unique perspective on this extraordinary mission. By now I’m sure you’ve all seen the photo of Brian with Michael White at the Zurich airport with Michael clutching the U.S. flag, and no doubt you’ve also seen the statements and tweets from the Secretary, and from the President himself who congratulated Michael on his release and reiterated the administration’s commitment to bringing home all Americans wrongfully held overseas.
So I know you all want to hear from Brian, so I’ll turn it over to him. After his brief opening remarks, we’ll have time for your questions. Remember that the contents of this on-the-record briefing are embargoed until the end of the call.
Brian, please take it away.
MR HOOK: Thanks very much. Good to be with everybody after a very successful day yesterday. It was a special day, and I want to update you on how it all unfolded, then I’m happy to take a few questions after some opening remarks.
President Trump and Secretary Pompeo continue to focus significant time and attention on securing the release of all Americans wrongfully detained abroad. It is a top priority for them both. As the President said yesterday, we have now brought home more than 40 American hostages and detainees since he took office, and we in the administration are all tremendously proud of this number. It’s going to continue to grow, but we recognize there’s more work to do.
As the U.S. special representative for Iran, I have always made securing the release of Americans in Iran a top priority, those who are wrongfully detained. On December 7th, we had our first breakthrough and negotiated the release of Xiyue Wang. He had been held in Evin Prison in Tehran on false charges of espionage for over three years. And I had a very good correspondence with him yesterday. He was very pleased to see the release of Michael White.
Yesterday, American diplomacy paid off again. We negotiated the release of a second American, U.S. Navy veteran Michael White. Michael was wrongfully jailed in Iran for 683 days, nearly two years.
You may recall that in early March we were able to negotiate Michael’s medical furlough on humanitarian grounds, and that was conditioned upon him staying in Iran, but we kept up the diplomacy and were able to secure his full release yesterday. It was an honor for me to meet him in Zurich and to fly him back home to America where he will soon be reunited with his family.
Shortly after Michael landed in Switzerland and we had concluded the final details among the U.S., Iran, and Switzerland, I called the president and shared with him the good news, and gave the phone to Michael White, and they had a very good conversation.
But we are now making sure that Michael gets all the help he needs, and on behalf of Secretary Pompeo and myself, we wish him all the best and I will be staying in touch with Michael.
I want to thank the Government of Switzerland, especially three people in particular. One is Markus Leitner. He is the Swiss ambassador to Tehran. He and I have been in daily contact for the last few months, and then predating that, last year working on the other release. Markus does a superb job and he serves in the Swiss Government with great distinction.
I also want to thank Swiss ambassador to the United States Jacques Pitteloud, and also Maya Tissafi who works in Iran for the Swiss embassy. And she is the one that flew with Michael from Tehran on the Swiss Government plane to Zurich.
I want to thank Roger Carstens, the special presidential envoy for hostage affairs, for all of his excellent work. National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien also played a key role in making the release possible, and I want to recognize Attorney General Barr and his team for their assistance.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, I want to speak to the families of those Americans who are still wrongfully detained in Iran. The United States will not stop working until your loved ones are back with you. While we are pleased that Iran was constructive in the last two negotiations, there’s still more work to do.
The United States calls for the release of U.S. citizens Baquer Namazi, Siamak Namazi, and Morad Tahbaz, who have been wrongfully detained in Iran for too long. And we also demand a full accounting of the fate of Robert Levinson.
Later today, on World Environment Day, I will be releasing a video about the renowned conservationist Morad Tahbaz. He needs to be freed. And I’m glad to take a few questions.
OPERATOR: Ladies and gentlemen, if you —
MR BROWN: Great, so – go ahead.
OPERATOR: If you would like to ask a question, press 1 0 on your telephone keypad. Once again, for questions press 1 0 at this time.
MR BROWN: Thank you. All right. First up, we have Jennifer Hansler.
QUESTION: Hi there, thanks for doing this. I was wondering if you could give us a little bit of detail as to why Majid Taheri was chosen as part of this deal as opposed to Sirous Asgari. And then also, how much did Bill Richardson play a role in these negotiations? Joanne White thanked him in her statement yesterday. Thanks, Brian.
MR HOOK: The first question, could you just give it to me one more time?
QUESTION: Why the decision to free Majid Taheri as part of this deal? Why not Sirous Asgari in exchange for White? Just any details on that particular angle of it.
MR HOOK: Yeah, as DHS Deputy Secretary Ken Cuccinelli, he – I would refer you to his tweets dated May 11th, June 1st, and yesterday on June 4th, where he outlines the history of our efforts going back to November to try to deport Asgari. And I would just have you take a look at what Ken said on May 11th.
Then yesterday he said he was not a participant in a prisoner deal for Michael White. We’ve been trying to deport him – I think Ken said since December. But the Iranians have stalled until this last week. A swap can’t exactly work when we want Asgari less than the Iranians do, and so he was never part of it. Us trying to depart – deport Asgari predates my diplomacy in terms of it getting going on Michael White by many months, and so there was never a connection there.
You had also asked why Taheri. It was – that was just something that came out of the negotiation, somebody that Iran had identified, and that’s kind of how often these things start. We always want to get all Americans released. That’s always our goal. And so in this case we were able to reach an agreement on Michael White, and at the same time we were able to substantially advance our law enforcement objectives. Taheri served a jail – he was in jail for 16 months, and so we were able to advance important law enforcement objectives.
I don’t have any comment on Bill Richardson. That’s something that you would have to ask Michael’s mother.
MR BROWN: Okay, thank you. Next, let’s go to the line of Christina Ruffini.
QUESTION: Hey Brian, welcome back. I just wanted to know when you got —
MR HOOK: Thank you.
QUESTION: When you got on the plane – because sometimes these things are more certain than others – when you got on the plane, how sure or unsure were you that this was actually going to happen, it was going to go through? And then do you expect a release of other Americans due to COVID concerns, or do you think you’ve made progress on a strictly diplomatic basis and you are expecting more releases, or are you not expecting more releases and you’re going to have to take each one as it comes? Thanks.
MR HOOK: Well, let’s see. Diplomacy with Iran is never a linear process, and I am never confident about the conclusion of any diplomacy until it’s concluded. And so I was very hopeful when I left – I guess it was two days ago to Zurich – to finalize the details among the three countries that have been working on this, and that’s just the nature of these things. But we work in good faith with the Iranian regime through the Swiss, and that’s through Marcus Leitner, and just through very patient, very methodical diplomacy we were able to get a diplomatic win yesterday for Michael White and his family, and I’m very pleased about that.
Morad Tahbaz has a lot of health issues, and we would like to see him granted a medical furlough, and the same goes for Siamak Namazi. So we’re going to continue to make that request, and we kind of take these things one step at a time. We have an immediate concern about COVID because it has been an enormous problem in Iran, and we worry about the health of the Americans who are wrongfully detained. And so – but the diplomacy continues, and I will continue to work as I have. After I was able to get Xiyue Wang out, I said to the regime that this shows that in spite of a lot of differences we have that we’re able to reach agreement on some matters of shared interest, and we – I’m going to continue that work. I would also point out that this is now the second successful diplomatic negotiation we’ve had securing the release of two Americans with no sanctions relief, no change in policy, no pallets of cash.
MR BROWN: Thanks. To our next question, we go to Said Arikat.
QUESTION: Hi, thank you, Cale. Brian, I mean, I just want to go after the point that you just said, that you told the regime that despite all you can negotiate on critical issues and so on. Does this give you sort of comfort or some confidence that you can pursue diplomatic efforts with Iran independent of other countries on many other issues regarding probably security matters and other matters, perhaps another nuclear deal? Thank you.
MR HOOK: Well, we do think that every successfully concluded diplomatic engagement does build confidence. It builds confidence in the consular sphere, but it can also build confidence that we’re able to negotiate agreements and that advance the interests of both countries. There is no question that if we could reach an agreement, a comprehensive agreement on what we have outlined as what a new deal with Iran would look like, it would advance the interests of the Iranian people. They’re very tired of seeing their national wealth squandered in places like other countries in the Middle East and also in places like Venezuela.
So we think that there are a number of good reasons for the Iranian regime to come to the negotiating table. I would refer you to the President’s statements last night that he made on Twitter. He would like to get to a new deal to replace the failed Iran nuclear deal, and that’s a question for the regime. The President has had the door open for diplomacy for many years, and in this same timeframe he has met with Kim Jong-un three times. So we would like to see the regime meet our diplomacy with diplomacy, but that’s a question for the Iranian regime, I think, at the end of the day, as to how they want to proceed.
Secretary Pompeo – I remember almost two years ago when he laid out the new strategy for Iran after leaving the Iran deal, and he said two years ago that the regime faces a choice. It can either come to the table or it can manage economic collapse, and the regime continues to choose badly for their own people. And there are a lot of – Secretary Pompeo in that speech outlined all of the benefits for the Iranian people if we can accomplish a new deal, and that includes ending sanctions, exchanging diplomatic ties, and a range of other benefits, but we’ve first got to get to a deal.
QUESTION: Okay. Thank you.
MR BROWN: Okay. Next let’s go to John Hudson.
QUESTION: Thank you very much. Brian, you mentioned U.S. demand for a full accounting of what happened to Robert Levinson. Obviously, in March, Levinson’s family issued a statement saying U.S. officials concluded that Levinson died in Iranian custody. I just wanted to know: Is it still true that U.S. officials have concluded Levinson died in Iranian custody?
MR HOOK: John, nothing has changed in our assessment since March. I am in touch on a regular basis with the Levinson family. In every one of these diplomatic exchanges with the Iranian regime, I present all of the Americans that are wrongfully detained. That’s going to continue. But we’re not the ones holding the Americans; the regime are – the regime is. And so we try to be very opportunistic. When there is an opportunity that is presented that is able to advance our interests, then we follow that line of diplomacy for as far as we can take it.
Secretary Pompeo mentioned Bob Levinson in his statement that was released yesterday, and we would very much like the regime to provide a full accounting of the fate of Bob Levinson. It is something that his family deserves, and they have been – it’s been tough, obviously, for the Levinson family since March, and that – when that statement was issued and it was – we’ve done – we spent a lot of time with the family, and they have been grieving. And it would be just in the sake of sort of a humanitarian gesture they should provide a full accounting.
MR BROWN: Next, Nick Schifrin.
QUESTION: Thanks for doing this. If I can go back to Majid Taheri, his lawyer says that the understanding in this deal is that he would go to Iran and then return to the U.S. I wanted to see if that’s your understanding of this swap. Then to go back to the larger question just to explicitly ask: At any point during this negotiation or any point up until now, has there been any larger discussion that has come about between the U.S. and Iran doing more diplomacy than just this prisoner swap, or that has not happened yet? Thanks.
MR HOOK: Nick, on the first question, Mr. Taheri is an American citizen, and there was a judgment that was issued yesterday by the federal court in Georgia, and he is in a position to make his decisions pursuant to the sentence that he wishes as an American citizen. And so his travel is something that is up to him. I don’t know what his plans are. That is something perhaps you could ask him.
On the second part, I think one of the obvious dimensions of doing consular dialogue with the regime is the opportunity to discuss other issues. The regime has not taken us up on this opportunity now. It’s unfortunate, and we don’t think it’s in Iran’s best interest to decline opportunities for deeper – in deeper dialogue and engagement so that we can work towards a new and better deal that will certainly benefit the people of the United States and the people of Iran, and so the door remains open. But we have not had – to specifically answer your question, we have not gone beyond a consular dialogue.
MR BROWN: Thanks. We have a lot of people in the queue today, so if we could keep it down to a question per person, I’m sure everyone’s colleagues would appreciate it. Next up, David Sanger.
QUESTION: Thanks very much, and good to talk to you again, Brian.
MR HOOK: You too, David.
QUESTION: Yep, can you hear me?
MR HOOK: I hear you just fine, yeah.
QUESTION: Okay. You mentioned the President’s tweet on – last night after the release, where he talked about the big deal that could come, but it had an interesting twist to it that I was hoping you might explain to us. He said, “You’ll [get] a better deal” if you do it before the election, and I’m trying to figure out what he means by that. Does he mean that – he said he was going to win – so does he mean that it would be politically helpful to him to do it before the election, that he would be more in a mood to make greater concessions before the election? I mean, if you’re measuring this by national interest, what difference does it make whether they negotiate before the election or after the election?
MR HOOK: I’m not going to go beyond what the President said in his statement last night. That’s something which is a question that’s probably best directed to the White House. I do know that if you look at the President’s statements over – for the last two years, he’s been very clear that he would like to resolve our differences with the Iranian regime diplomatically. And we have pursued a policy of three elements: maximum economic pressure, diplomatic isolation, and the credible threat of military force to defend our interests. And that is a winning formula when it comes to dealing with this specific regime, and it’s something that we’re going to continue. We know that without it we are never going to get to the negotiating table, because this regime exploits good will, and we have seen historically that timidity and weakness invites more Iranian aggression. And the regime has historically threatened greater levels of terrorism if the world does not accept their normal level of terrorism, and we refuse to play by that rule book. When you play under house rules, the house always wins, and so we’re going to continue with our policy, our foreign policy, because it’s been effective.
You’ve heard President Rouhani say that our sanctions have cost the regime $200 billion, and when you’re talking about the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism, that matters. And some of it is the means we – our policy has been the means by which we have denied Iran the money, but that same policy is going to advance our – the President’s goal of bringing them to the negotiating table. And we think that this is a good time, but we’ve been saying that for the last couple of years. If you go back and read Secretary Pompeo’s speech in May and what the President has said at various times, we’ve been very consistent in wanting to get into talks with the regime.
MR BROWN: I see we’re at 30 minutes. Brian —
MR HOOK: We can take a couple more. That’s fine, we can take a couple more.
MR BROWN: Okay. All right, we’ll take a couple more. Let’s go to the line of Kim Dozier.
QUESTION: Thank you. Sorry about the mute issue.
MR HOOK: It’s all right.
QUESTION: Brian, thanks for doing this. Could you update us on what you’ve seen in terms of Iranian proxy action in Iraq and Syria or the wider region? And along those lines, it sounds like you’re describing a Cold War Soviet spy swap more than anything that was confidence building and would lead to a lessening of that proxy activity.
MR HOOK: Hmm. Well, I’m not sure how what transpired yesterday sort of is reminiscent of Cold War spy swaps. We don’t look at it that way. This was an agreement that advanced the interests of both countries in a significant way. And so we’re pleased with the outcome, very pleased that Michael White is going to be reunited with his family.
In terms of the proxy activity, after the killing of Qasem Soleimani, we saw a change in tempo with their proxies around the region. One of the great benefits of our economic pressure campaign is Iran’s proxies are financially weaker because their banker is under enormous economic pressure, and the regime doesn’t have the money that it used to to spend on its proxies. That’s a good thing. And one of the downsides of the Iran nuclear deal is it allowed the regime to get rich and its proxies to get rich, and we have reversed both of those trends. And so that’s, I think, one of the most effective things that you can do, is to starve this particular regime of money.
And the other thing that we’ve done – and the President has done a brilliant job of this – is restoring deterrents, and we have been working to reverse Iran’s power projection. I remember in 2014 there was a number of the Iranian Majles who bragged that Iran is in control of four capitals. And I look at the Middle East today, just in the last few months, and you see massive protests – in October, in Lebanon against Hizballah, massive protests in Iraq against Iranian influence, and massive country-wide protests in Iran by the Iranian people against the regime. And so Iran’s model of sectarian violence and corruption and lack of transparency is being vetoed in a lot of key countries where historically the regime enjoyed some success. And from the very beginning when we took a fresh look at where we are with Iran, we’ve been able to build a very strong hand. We play it very effectively.
MR BROWN: Okay. For our last question then – and I apologize, I know there are lot of people in the queue – but for our last question we’ll go to Francesco Fontemaggi.
QUESTION: Hi, thanks. Hi, Cale. Hi, Brian. I wanted to ask you if in your discussions you had to get Michael White back, you’ve had any sense that it could be possible to get more in the coming month, and – or if you fear that obtaining the release of a jailed citizen could prove more tricky.
MR HOOK: Hmm. Well, in some ways that’s a question for the regime. I think the regime denials – denies dual citizenship. Xiyue Wang and Michael White were both full – they were American citizens, they weren’t dual citizens. And so we have been able to win the freedom for both of them. The ones that are still there, the three that I mentioned earlier, are dual citizens. We – the way we look at it, they’re all Americans, and they have the right to expect all of our best efforts to get their – to win their freedom as well. And so I think the regime probably looks at dual citizens differently than we do, but it’s the same level of effort that’s applied to all of them, and also obviously that includes Bob Levinson. So we don’t discriminate. I think the regime may reach different conclusions on that, but we don’t.
Cale or Ruben, are you on?
MR BROWN: Sorry. Brian, thanks so much for taking the time out, fighting jet lag in order to address our reporters. And to everyone else who dialed in, thanks for doing so. Sorry we couldn’t get to everyone but have a great weekend. This is the end of the call, so the embargo on the contents is lifted.
MR HOOK: Thank you.
REPORT TO CONGRESS ON LIST OF PERSONS RESPONSIBLE OR COMPLICIT IN CERTAIN HUMAN RIGHTS ABUSES IN IRAN, JUNE 1, 2020
- Pursuant to the authorities delegated to the Secretary of State in Executive Order (E.O.) 13553, which implements Section 105 of the Comprehensive Iran Sanctions, Accountability, and Divestment Act of 2010, as amended (CISADA) (Public Law 111-195), as well as in the October 9, 2012 Delegation of Certain Functions and Authorities Under the Iran Threat Reduction and Syria Human Rights Act of 2012 (TRA), this report includes persons determined by the Secretary of the Treasury, in consultation with or at the recommendation of the Secretary of State, to meet the criteria in Sections 105(b), 105A(b), and 105B(b) of CISADA.
- This report includes persons who are subject to visa sanctions and whose property and interests in property are blocked pursuant to E.O. 13553, based on determinations that such persons are, among other things, responsible for or complicit in, or responsible for ordering, controlling, or otherwise directing, the commission of serious human rights abuses against citizens of Iran or their family members. In addition to these persons, this report also includes certain persons designated or listed under other authorities based on a determination that they have engaged in certain conduct related to human rights violations or abuses and censorship, or other activities that prohibit, limit, or penalize the exercise of freedom of expression or assembly, as further described below. This report is based upon information as of May 20, 2020.
- For a list of designated individuals and more information please see here.
OP-ED BY SPECIAL REPRESENTATIVE FOR IRAN AND SENIOR POLICY ADVISOR TO THE SECRETARY BRIAN HOOK IN THE NY POST, MAY 28, 2020
“Why are US taxpayers funding a ‘Voice of the Mullahs’ in Iran?
- Read op-ed here.
@StateDept June 5
On #WorldEnvironmentDay, we call for the release of Morad Tahbaz, a renowned conservationist suffering in a jail cell in Iran. All who care about basic human rights, the environment, and the preservation of endangered species should join our call for Iran to #FreeMorad. https://twitter.com/StateDept/status/1269028252045185025
@realDonaldTrump June 4
I just got off the phone with former American hostage Michael White, who is now in Zurich after being released from Iran. He will be on a U.S. plane shortly, and is COMING HOME……to the UNITED STATES! We have now brought more than 40 American hostages and detainees back home since I took office. Thank you to Iran, it shows a deal is possible!
@realDonaldTrump June 4
I am to happy announce that Navy Veteran, Michael White, who has been detained by Iran for 683 days, is on a Swiss plane that just left Iranian Airspace. We expect him to be home with his family in America very soon…..I will never stop working to secure the release of all Americans held hostage overseas! Thank you Switzerland for your great assistance.
@SecPompeo June 4
We will not rest until we bring every American wrongfully detained in Iran and around the world back home to their loved ones. We thank the Swiss government for facilitating the return of Mr. White, and are pleased the Iranian government has been constructive in this matter.
@SecPompeo June 4
Another American is coming home. Michael White, a U.S. Navy veteran who has been wrongfully jailed in Iran for nearly two years, has been released and is on his way back to the United States. Mr. White will soon be reunited with his family, who have missed him dearly.
@SecPompeo June 2
Great conversation with my Australian, Canadian, New Zealand, and UK counterparts. Together we are addressing the CCP’s erosion of Hong Kong’s autonomy and pushing for transparency on COVID-19. We remain focused on addressing Iran’s destabilizing behavior in Iraq and the region.