The Trump administration’s lead diplomat on Iran, Brian Hook, has announced his resignation days before the US attempts a high-stakes gambit against Tehran at the United Nations.
He will be replaced by Elliott Abrams, who will combine the Iran special representative job with his current role as special envoy for Venezuela. Abrams is a hawk on both countries – and has combined Iranian and Latin American issues before, when he was a significant figure in the Iran-Contra affair under the Reagan administration.
Hook, until now a rare survivor at the top levels of the state department in the maelstrom of the Trump era, did not give a reason for his resignation, claiming the “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran had been “very successful”.
The secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, confirmed Hook’s departure and referred to him as “a trusted adviser to me and a good friend”, but did not give any reasons for his departure .
Pompeo added that Hook had “achieved historic results countering the Iranian regime”.
Hook played a central role in the effort to squeeze the Iranian economy over the two years since Donald Trump withdrew the US from a multilateral 2015 nuclear deal, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which limited Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief.
The “maximum pressure” campaign inflicted considerable hardship on Iran, but backfired in its aim of further constraining the country’s nuclear activities. Those have been stepped up, and Iran’s breakout time – the period the country would need to make its first nuclear weapon, if it so decided – has shrunk from over a year to a few months.
Next week, the US plans to escalate its campaign by putting forward a UN security council resolution calling for an extension of an international arms embargo on Iran, with the threat that if the resolution is rejected, it will take a drastic and legally controversial step: claim to be still technically a participant in the JCPOA and use the terms of the deal to “snap back” UN sanctions on Iran.
Hook had been trying to rally support among US allies for such a move, with very little success.
“The easy way is to do a rollover of the arms embargo,” Hook told the Aspen Security Forum on Wednesday. “It’s not difficult – there’s all the reasons in the world to do it. But we will do this one way or another.”
Reflecting on his role, Hook told the New York Times: “Sometimes it’s the journey and sometimes it’s the destination. In the case of our Iran strategy, it’s both. We would like a new deal with the regime. But in the meantime, our pressure has collapsed their finances.”
“By almost every metric, the regime and its terrorist proxies are weaker than three and a half years ago,” Hook added. “Deal or no deal, we have been very successful.”
At one point in his efforts to isolate Iran, Hook personally emailed the captain of a tanker suspected of carrying Iranian oil to Syria, offering him money to divert the cargo, according to an account in the Financial Times.
Ariane Tabatabai, a research fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the US, argued the US campaign had not changed Iranian policy in the region, and led to a shrinking of Iran’s nuclear breakout time.
“At best, the policy he helped craft produced minor tactical successes at worst it was counterproductive, and on the big issues it has been an abject failure,” said Tabatabai, who published a report on Thursday on Iranian nuclear decision-making.
In his job as special envoy on Venezuela, Abrams has also been unsuccessful in isolating the government of Nicolás Maduro and bolstering the position of the rival claimant to the presidency, Juan Guaidó.
David Smilde, a Venezuela specialist from the Washington Office on Latin America, said he suspected Abrams would not be replaced as special envoy for Venezuela, and said his move suggested removing Maduro had slipped down Trump’s to-do list.
Smilde said: “This should be a message to the Venezuelan opposition that they are not a top priority for the United States and that they really have to defend their own ship and make sure that they come up with a plausible strategy to address Maduro’s authoritarian government. If they were a priority they wouldn’t be taking a key person and moving him somewhere else.”
He said administration officials appeared to have lost faith in their original conviction that an “easy win” could be achieved in Venezuela, forcing Maduro from power and replacing him with Guaidó.
“They just don’t see that this situation is going to be resolved any time soon,” Smilde added.
Abrams was a key figure in the Iran-Contra scandal, in which the Reagan government orchestrated arms sales to Iran to raise off-the-books funds for Contra rebels in Nicaragua. He was convicted in 1991 on two misdemeanor counts of unlawfully withholding information from Congress, but later pardoned by George W Bush.
“Perhaps Trump is internally blaming Hook for the failure to get Iran to agree to negotiate with a president no one respects or trusts,” said Trita Parsi, the executive vice-president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft.
“Nevertheless, replacing him with Abrams – a more sophisticated and shrewd operator who is even more hawkish – certainly does not seem to suggest much of a policy change. As much as Trump says he wants talks, he keeps on surrounding himself with neocons and war hawks who are revolted by the idea of diplomacy.”