On 19 September the U.S. administration announced its hopeful plans for future diplomatic relations with Iran. Speaking to an audience at the Hudson Institute think tank, special envoy of State Department Brian Hook laid out his vision for an agreement the United States and Iran could reach.
According to Hook, the United States wants to negotiate a treaty with Iran to replace the Obama-era deal scrapped by President Donald Trump in May 2018. The deal will cover both Iran’s nuclear and its ballistic missile efforts. “The new deal that we hope to be able to sign with Iran, and it will not be a personal agreement between two governments like the last one; we seek a treaty,” the envoy told listeners.
There is only one problem with these aspirations. Iran has long indicated it is not interested in any talks with the United States.
Hook acknowledged this fact in his speech. “The ayatollah [Ali Khamenei], the president [Hassan Rouhani] and foreign minister [Mohammad Javad Zarif] have all indicated they are not interested in talking,” Hook said. “We respect that though that does not change our plans. We have a sanctions regime that is underway, stronger measures are yet to come.”
The comments by Hook come at an important time. The United Nations General Assembly is set to convene next week. With U.S. sanctions targeting Iran already kicking in, the looming civil unrest in the country, and the Iranian government’s increased involvement in a number of regional conflicts, the Iran issue will likely be an important focus of any proceedings. President Trump and President Rouhani will both be in New York for the meeting. While Rouhani is scheduled to hold talks with his French counterpart Emmanuel Macron, no US-Iranian meeting has been announced.
It’s important to understand the significance of Hook’s message, especially coming on the eve of such an important international gathering.
Brian Hook has a very specific job description. Having been involved with the State Department for some time (he had already been working as the office’s director of policy planning), Hook was appointed special envoy on Iran in August, after the Iran Action Group (IAG) was created last month. Hook is now the senior diplomat on issues relating to the Islamic Republic and the most important adviser on these matters to State Secretary Mike Pompeo. The IAG has two main goals on the agenda.
First is simply to get real on the issue of Iran.
The IAG recognizes that their nuclear activity is but a fraction of the havoc Iran is wreaking in the region. That’s why Hook and others in the State Department are constantly emphasizing other, more pertinent issues. These include Iran’s support of terrorism, cyber activities, and the proliferation of ballistic missiles. Cracking down on these activities of course entails being as aggressive as possible in clamping down on Iran. Thus IAG is charged with developing more strategies in addition to current sanctions to influence Iran. That was likely the “stronger measures” Hook was referring to earlier this week—what those measures might be is still anyone’s guess.
The second task of IAG is, ironically, trying to get Iran and the U.S. talking again.
Even as Donald Trump was announcing his pull-out from the nuclear deal some months ago, he was already emphasizing his hope the two countries could eventually come to a reconciliation of sorts. This is why Hook is also taking time to speak of future deals, even as Iranian leaders continue to reject even the possibility of talks.
We will see the administration’s plan for Iran play out at the UN next week, when Trump heads a meeting of the Security Council on the issue of Iran’s support of global terror.
One thing is for sure. The combination of hard-line tactics and a seemingly sincere invitation for negotiating is a unique strategy, and the administration shows no signs of letting up.