A requiem for Trump’s failed Iran envoy: Brian Hook

A requiem for Trump’s failed Iran envoy: Brian Hook...
washingtonpost.com 13/08/2020 Politics

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Brian Hook, Trump’s Iran envoy, is leaving office with a dismal track record
ill say it aloud, but a recent shake-up in the State Department’s Iran office is a tacit admission that the so-called maximum pressure policy toward Iran has failed.
Brian Hook, who has handled the Iran portfolio since 2018, announced his resignation on Thursday — ahead of a U.S.-led U.N. Security Council vote this week on whether to prolong an embargo on the sale of weapons to Iran. The current ban is set to expire in October. But given that Russia and China are almost certain to veto the extension, Iran will soon be free to start buying arms again from whomever it likes.
The Trump administration considers that likely outcome disastrous. And when it happens, it will cement Hook’s legacy as the architect of the United States’ least effective Iran policy yet — no small feat.
As Hook’s replacement Trump has named Elliott Abrams, the administration’s current Venezuela envoy who was famously convicted for his role in the Iran-contra scandal. Abrams, a well-known neoconservative, takes a hard line on sanctions, and his appointment merely confirms what many observers already suspected — that this administration has no intention of making any significant changes in its Iran policy before the election.
After decades of punitive measures directed at Iran under the still unfulfilled promise of defanging the Islamic Republic, the Iranian people deserve better from the U.S. government. And so do Americans.
The United States urgently needs a new approach. The bottom line: We need to start seizing opportunities to talk to Iranians (also known as “pursuing diplomacy”). Otherwise, what’s the point of gaining leverage in the first place?
Hook’s final act as envoy was to secure a letter from the members of the Gulf Cooperation Council urging the Security Council to extend the ban on weapons sales. It was a symbolic gesture of solidarity, representing a rare accord among the monarchs of Persian Gulf Arab states who have had major disputes in recent years.
It also neatly summed up Hook’s tenure. Rather than directly engaging with Iranian diplomats, he has always asked other nations to do the heavy lifting for him.
Yet he still managed to play a role in worsening the lives of average Iranians, in part by promoting measures such as indiscriminate economic sanctions and travel bans. Meanwhile, the real threats posed by the Iranians to U.S. forces in the Middle East grew on his watch.
When Secretary of State Mike Pompeo asked him to lead the department’s newly created Iran Action Group, Hook had no relevant Iran experience. In the two years he held the position, there’s no indication that he ever conducted any diplomacy with Iranian counterparts.
But perhaps this was done by design, as part of Trump’s broader goal to undermine expertise. A State Department inspector general report last year found that Hook had actively sought to sideline a State Department colleague with years of distinguished experience on Iran and other sensitive matters, then lied about it.
On Iran, Trump wanted to get rid of the nuclear deal negotiated between Tehran and world powers in 2015. Now, as he nears the end of his first term, he continues to promise that he’ll replace it with a better deal.
For all its supposed shortcomings, that deal was succeeding in what it was intended to do: limit Iran’s nuclear activities and ensure Iran would never become a nuclear weapons power. The chastening reality is that Iran has moved closer to a nuclear weapons capability since Trump pulled us out of the deal.
It’s also worth remembering that the Obama administration’s initial sanctions regime against Iran was tougher than any previous presidency’s. Although Barack Obama’s sanctions were equally detrimental to ordinary Iranians, they ultimately compelled Iranian leaders to the negotiating table.
If former vice president Joe Biden wins in November, he will have a chance to alter our current collision course with Iran.
Biden would inherit a situation in which the United States enjoys significant leverage over Tehran, and he will have foreign policy advisers with years of experience working on these issues. He should take advantage of both, conditioning any concessions on real change that improves the lots of average Iranians. After all the harm we have caused them with nothing positive to show for it, the United States owes that to the Iranian people.
Biden should not promise Iran’s current leadership an indefinite lease on life. The Democrats have stated that they will not pursue regime change in Iran, but that shouldn’t stop them from targeting regime officials for their abhorrent human rights abuses.
Despite Hook’s failings, valuable lessons were learned during his tenure. The administration’s sanctions policy proved that without incentives, pressure on Tehran failed to alter its behavior. The killing of Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani, presumed to be the mastermind of Iran’s destabilizing activities in the Middle East, didn’t extinguish those threats. And even as our relationship with Iran faces countless challenges, it is still possible to negotiate over other issues, such as Americans held hostage.
It would be in our national interest for Hook’s successors to incorporate these lessons into a revised Iran policy — in other words, precisely what he refused to do.
Jason Rezaian is a writer for Global Opinions. He served as The Post's correspondent in Tehran from 2012 to 2016. He spent 544 days unjustly imprisoned by Iranian authorities until his release in January 2016.
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