In Conversation with Brian Hook

Held on 14 December, 2022

Speaker

Brian Hook | Brian is a veteran U.S. diplomat who has worked for three presidential administrations. Most recently, he served as U.S. Special Representative for Iran (2018-20) and Director of State Department Policy Planning (2017-8), and was a key architect of U.S. sanctions on Iran, the Abraham Accords, and hostage negotiations with North Korea and Iran.

Discussion

The Legacy of the Trump Administration

“A record I would be happy to defend any day of the week.”


Brian was very satisfied with the achievements of the Trump administration, of which he was a key element (special representative for Iran). He outlined the Trump administration’s approach to Iran, and how it deviates from the Biden administration’s current approach. Namely, the Trump administration centralised the Iran issue, focusing on applying sanctions and withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal. This policy of standing up to Iran, and holding it accountable for its activity in the region he credits as the precursor to the success of the Abraham Accords. Brian emphasised the seminal role that the Trump administration had in designing and brokering the Abraham Accords, achieving 4 peace agreements between Arab nations and Israel in 5 months. Declaring that there are more agreements to be had, Brian shared his dismay that the “clock ran out” before the Trump administration was able to expand the scope of the Accords. Brian also touched upon Donald Trump’s focus on addressing Islamic Extremism. He recounted Trump’s first trip overseas to the region, to Saudi Arabia, during which 55 Arab countries convened to hear Trump’s speech on the importance of tackling Islamic Extremism, and the need for the US to partner with the region to facilitate moderation and tolerance. 

Pitfalls of Biden’s Agenda in the Middle East

“When you have the wrong Iran policy it closes doors in the region.”


Although Brian recognised the merits of the Biden administration’s continuation of US military presence in Iraq and Syria, to deter ISIS and deny Iran its regional influence as positive policies, he had a lot of criticisms of the administration’s approach toward the region. Hook Criticised the Biden administration’s lifting of the definition of the Huthis as a terrorist organisation, as well as the loosening of the deterrence strategy for Iran. Generally, Hook attributed the Biden administration’s failures to their adoption of the ‘wrong’ Iran policy, which subsequently led to reduced trust in the US by regional states. Beyond this, Hook criticised the JCPOA deal, claiming that the strategy did not bring the Iranians to the table in any meaningful way, and that the nuclear deal ultimately did nothing to effectively dismantle Iran’s nuclear program. Now that the nuclear deal is ‘dead’, Hook points out that Iran is left with the same nuclear infrastructure it had in place before the deal, and is in no less of an ideal position to expand its nuclear capabilities. Hook moved beyond simple observation, suggesting that the only solution to the nuclear question is limitations on Iranian enrichment, as the US has previously negotiated with the UAE. However, he expressed his doubts that the Biden administration would be inclined to  impose such restrictions. 

Defending Sanctions

“Sanctions occupy the middle ground between diplomacy and military force.”


A key characteristic of the Trump administration’s policy on Iran was the highly debated ‘maximum pressure’ campaign, which saw the enforcement of severe economic sanctions and diplomatic isolation on the regime in an attempt to force cooperation. Hook staunchly defended the necessity and merits of economic sanctions, citing their success in the current Russia-Ukraine conflict. According to Brian, US sanctions cost the Iranian regime $400bn, causing the regime to pay an enormous economic price for destabilising the region. By going after Iran’s finances, there was a positive material benefit for the region.  Hook reminded the attendees that the maximum pressure campaign only had 1 year to flower, and had the campaign been allowed to continue beyond this timeframe, he feels confident that Iran would have come to the table. When applied correctly, sanctions are a very powerful economic tool, and as a global economic powerhouse, the US is in a privileged position to ensure the efficacy of these measures and manipulate cooperation by states. Moving forward, Brian recommended the enforcement of multilateral sanctions upon the regime. He believes that if the EU and US came together to stand with the Iranian people through sanctions it would strengthen the people, and the reluctance to do so has been to leave the door open for the nuclear deal. He recommended that the Biden administration should call a meeting at the UN security council, present evidence that Iran is violating the arms embargo and put forward multilateral sanctions. Now that the deal is dead, there is no other option.

The Iran Protests

“Those who are willing to sacrifice their lives for the cause of freedom should never wonder where America stands.”


Brian expressed his support and admiration for the people in Iran, especially the women, who are fighting for constitutional freedom and regime change. Referencing Iran’s history of revolution and complicated relationship with constitutional governance, Brian declared that although not a linear path, the Iranian people are moving toward constitutional democracy. He pointed out that 2/3rds of the Iranian population were born after the 1979 revolution, and the regime is no longer catering to a civil majority. One key consequence of the current protests, according to Brian, will be the start of a wedge between the clerics and the security forces in Iran. Brian predicts that security forces will begin to question whether killing their fellow countrymen is worth defending clerical leadership which rules, not based on legitimacy, but on the basis of brute force. In terms of the role the US will play in the revolution, Brian was an advocate for a hands-off approach. He decided that the US has had enough bitter experience with failed intervention in regime change policy to recommend it as a tool of statecraft. He suggested that the US should not attempt to impose forms of government in the Middle East as it has done in the past, but should instead offer moral and material support whilst the future of Iran is decided by the Iranian people. 

China’s Expanding Influence

“When China says win-win, it means two wins for China.”


In response to the recent reports of Chinese president Xi Jinping’s visit to Saudi Arabia for diplomatic talks, Brian pondered the extent of China’s influence in the Middle East. Criticising some of the press reports as ‘over-emphasising’ the significance of the diplomatic visit, Brian reminded the attendees that Saudi Arabia has maintained economic ties with China for decades. His unwavering stance was that China will not supersede the US’s influence in the Gulf, as the US remains the preferred diplomatic and trading partner of the Gulf nations. Ultimately, he credited this to China’s relationship with Iran. This argument stems back to Brian’s previous point about the integral role of a nation’s Iran policy in predicating its reputation in the region. Although China is actively increasing its presence in the Middle East to fill the vacuum left by Biden’s minimal engagement in the region, its engagement has been characterised by predatory economics and wolf diplomacy, which “is not winning any friends”. So long as China continues to fund the Iranian regime, which will be used by the regime to attack Saudi Arabia and fund regional terrorism, the US will remain the favourable ally to the remaining regional states. Overall, Brian does not see the Chinese threat to US influence as significant at this stage.

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