Pompeo Creates New Team to Pressure Iran

The new unit will be led by one of the State Department’s most powerful officials.

The State Department's director of policy planning and new head of the Iran Action Group, Brian Hook, speaks during a press briefing at the State Department in Washington on Aug. 16. (Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP/Getty Images)
The State Department's director of policy planning and new head of the Iran Action Group, Brian Hook, speaks during a press briefing at the State Department in Washington on Aug. 16. (Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP/Getty Images)

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is forming a new group that will coordinate the Trump administration’s rising political and economic pressure on Iran, in what he described as an effort to compel the regime to halt decades of “violent and destabilizing behavior.”

Pompeo announced the new body, called the Iran Action Group, at a news conference on Thursday. He said it would be led by Brian Hook, the current director of policy planning at the State Department.

The announcement comes as the U.S. administration reimposes steep sanctions on Iran’s oil industry and other key economic sectors. It was seen in Washington as one more sign of President Donald Trump’s preoccupation with a country that just three years ago signed a deal with the United States to suspend its nuclear program.

Trump withdrew the United States from that agreement earlier this year.

“Our hope is that one day soon we can reach a new agreement with Iran, but we must see major changes in the regime’s behavior both inside and outside its borders,” Pompeo told reporters in a brief statement on Thursday.

“We’re committed to a whole-of-government effort to change the Iranian regime’s behavior, and the Iran Action Group will ensure that the Department of State remains closely synchronized with our interagency partners,” he said.

Hook is expected to step down as director of policy planning, one of the most influential positions at the State Department. Hook had been appointed to the post by former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.

He is expected to be replaced by Kiron Skinner, an academic and former Pentagon policy advisor who served on Trump’s transition team in early 2017. The Associated Press first reported the news about Skinner, which was corroborated to Foreign Policy by two officials familiar with the internal deliberations.

Neither the State Department nor Skinner immediately responded to request for comment to confirm when Hook was leaving his role and whether Skinner was his replacement. Hook is expected to retain his title as director of policy planning until his successor is announced.

For over a year, Hook was one of the most powerful behind-the-scenes officials at the State Department. He was one of Tillerson’s closest confidants, as career diplomats were shut out of policy deliberations and senior State Department posts went unfilled.

Hook oversaw much of Washington’s dealings with European allies on Iran, both before and after Trump announced an exit from the nuclear deal in May. The president’s decision angered European allies, who have pushed back on the decision to reimpose sanctions on Iran.

Speaking to reporters after Pompeo’s announcement, Hook said the action group will launch with a small team and take on additional staff later. It will coordinate with foreign governments to ramp up pressure on Iran and push other countries to reduce their Iranian oil imports to zero before Nov. 5, a key deadline for a reimposition of U.S. sanctions.

Hook held open the prospect of direct talks with the Iranian government, but only after it met U.S. demands.

“If the Iranian regime demonstrates a commitment to make fundamental changes in its behavior, then the president is prepared to engage in dialogue in order to find solutions,” he said.

“But the sanctions relief, the re-establishment of full diplomatic and commercial relations with the United States, and economic cooperation with the United States can only begin after we see that the Iranian regime is serious about changing its behavior.”

But some analysts viewed the announcement as more symbolism than substance.

“There were no new resources, no new strategy, and no new authorities announced [for the action group],” said Brett Bruen, a former U.S. diplomat who now runs the Global Situation Room, a Washington consulting firm.

Instead, it should be interpreted as a typical Washington move to create the appearance of action by putting in the title.”

Hook has been deeply unpopular among career diplomats at the State Department. Some blame him for driving admired colleagues from government service in order to curry favor with the White House and Tillerson. One official contacted by FP welcomed the news of Hook’s reassignment but expressed disappointment that he would remain at the State Department.

The official cited the removal of Sahar Nowrouzzadeh, a veteran foreign service officer who helped shape the Iran nuclear deal, from her job in the policy planning department as an example of Hook’s political maneuverings. Nowrouzzadeh, an American of Iranian descent, was reportedly forced out of the job after conservative news outlets questioned her suitability.

“It is hard to divorce Brian Hook’s legacy from Rex Tillerson’s,” said Max Bergmann, who served in the policy planning office under former President Barack Obama’s administration. “Under Hook, policy planning was converted from State’s in-house think tank that was supposed to look over the horizon, to an operational office focused on the next 15 minutes. This created all sorts of chaos and confusion within the Department.”

Tillerson’s unceremonious sacking via Twitter earlier this year was accompanied by other dismissals and resignations among senior appointees and secretary staff. But Hook survived the purge and helped shepherd Pompeo through a contentious confirmation process on Capitol Hill.

Two current and former officials say Pompeo still trusts and relies on Hook, though the new role could appear on the surface to be a demotion. “The Iran portfolio is incredibly important for this administration,” said one former official familiar with deliberations.

In his announcement on Thursday, Pompeo lavished praise on his outgoing policy planning director.

“Brian’s diplomatic expertise and broad experience with Iran policy makes him an outstanding choice to lead the State Department’s Iran Action Group.”

Hook’s expected replacement, Skinner, is a Cold War scholar at Carnegie Mellon University with deep roots in the Republican foreign-policy establishment, having served as a member of the Defense Department’s Defense Policy Board and the Chief of Naval Operations Executive Panel during the George W. Bush administration.

Skinner also served on the Trump administration’s transition team but was not immediately tapped for a job in the administration. She signed up as a Fox News foreign-policy analyst, providing favorable reviews of Trump’s diplomatic action on trade, North Korea, and Iran. Skinner has also co-authored several books on former President Ronald Reagan.

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch

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