The U.S. Special Representative for Iran Brian Hook will step down, the State Department announced today. Hook’s announced departure comes as the Trump administration has signaled it will likely move in the next few weeks to “snapback” UN sanctions on Iran that were lifted as part of the landmark 2015 Iran nuclear deal that Trump quit in 2018, in what is widely seen as an effort to collapse the struggling accord as Trump heads to presidential elections in November.
The other signatories to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)—the UK, France, Germany, China, Russia, and Iran–have sought to keep the deal on life support in case it might be revived should Trump be defeated.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, in a statement announcing Hook’s departure, noted his role in helping secure the return of two Americans imprisoned in Iran, Princeton scholar Xiyue Wang and former Navy veteran Michael White. But there were no other diplomatic achievements or positive changes in Iran’s behavior that resulted from the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign on Iran, of which Hook had been the public face since Trump came into office.
“Brian Hook has decided to step down from his role as the U.S. Special Representative for Iran and Senior Advisor to the Secretary,” Pompeo said in a statement. “Special Representative Hook has been my point person on Iran for over two years, and he has achieved historic results countering the Iranian regime.”
Elliott Abrams, currently the Trump administration’s Special Representative for Venezuela, “will assume the position of Special Representative for Iran, in addition to his responsibilities as Special Representative for Venezuela,” Pompeo’s statement said. Abrams, who was convicted in 1991 on two counts of withholding information from Congress related to the Iran contra affair, and subsequently pardoned, has spearheaded the Trump administration’s so far unsuccessful effort to try to oust the Maduro regime in Venezuela through diplomatic and economic pressure. It is a similar approach to that which the Trump administration has taken with Iran, and one in which it finds itself increasingly at odds with its European allies.
The next diplomatic drama on Iran is expected early next week in New York. The United States is expected to move for a vote at the UN Security Council on a resolution that would extend a conventional arms embargo on Iran that is due to expire under the UN Security Council resolution that endorsed the JCPOA and implements some of its provisions (UNSCR 2231). The U.S. resolution–which it could move for a vote on as early as Monday, a diplomat in New York said–is ultimately expected to fail.
If the United States fails to secure passage of the resolution extending the Iran arms embargo, Pompeo on Wednesday vowed the United States would then move to “snapback” all UN sanctions on Iran that were lifted as part of the JCPOA, though several other permanent UN Security Council members dispute that the United States, which quit the deal, has the legal right to do so. The move would not only re-instate the conventional arms embargo, but, if successful, would also make it essentially impossible for the JCPOA to continue on life support.
“As for Iran, we’ve made clear…. We’re not going to let the arms embargo expire on October 18th of this year,” Pompeo told journalists at a press conference Wednesday. “It’s one of the central failings of the JCPOA… We’re not going to let it happen. And so we’re using every diplomatic tool we have in the toolkit.”
“We’re deeply aware that snapback is an option that’s available to the United States, and we’re going to do everything within America’s power to ensure that that arms embargo is extended,” Pompeo said. ‘And I’m confident that we will be successful.”
Washington’s European allies are likely to try to muddle through until they see the outcome of the U.S. elections in November, said Ellie Geranmayeh, an Iran expert with the European Council on Foreign Relations.
Under a scenario she foresees, the United States will assert it has snapped back sanctions in September, but Russia and China will say the U.S. move was ineffective and refuse to implement it. In the meantime, “the Europeans buy time ‘til the November outcome and muddy the water through ‘consultations’ to avoid having to implement sanctions,” Geranmayeh told Just Security by email. “Iran takes a more moderate immediate response (which could include giving notice to leave (the nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty) NPT without putting [the departure in]to effect….and waits for the US election outcome.”
For their part, Iranian officials have repeatedly said they are open to the United States returning to the deal, whether it be a second term Trump administration or its possible successor.