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Q&A

Trump Administration Says Iran Could Exit Syria Amid Pandemic

The State Department’s top official for Iran thinks Russia and Syria see more benefits to a potential Iranian drawdown.

US Special Representative for Iran, Brian Hook, looks on during a briefing at the US Department of State in Washington, DC on January 17.
U.S. Special Representative for Iran Brian Hook looks on during a briefing at the State Department in Washington on Jan. 17. Photo by Brendan Smialowski / AFP

The Trump administration believes Iran has growing incentives to pull out of a multibillion-dollar military campaign in Syria as the coronavirus pandemic has ravaged the country, the U.S. State Department’s top official for Iran told Foreign Policy.

Special Representative for Iran Brian Hook said the United States has seen “tactical displacement” of Iranian troops in Syria, where Tehran-backed militias have provided much of the firepower for the Bashar al-Assad regime’s assault on Idlib province, one of the last remaining opposition holdouts in the war-torn country.

Hook’s comments come amid signs that Tehran’s enthusiasm for proxy campaigns across the Middle East could be flagging, with COVID-19 killing more than 7,000 people in Iran so far, a figure that U.S. officials believe could be much higher. Israel’s departing defense minister said this week that he’d seen Iranian forces leaving Syria but offered no evidence to back up his claim. An Iranian lawmaker also said this week that the campaign on behalf of Assad has cost as much as $30 billion.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Foreign Policy: We’ve seen COVID-19 penetrate deeply into Iran’s leadership and hamper its economy. Do you see any change in Iran’s military posture as a result?

Brian Hook: Iran has [declared] about 7,000 deaths. Based on what we know, the number is probably five times that number given how they underreport. We see a pattern of behavior in both Iran and China, where people are jailed for disclosing accurate statistics. You have doctors who are fired and other people who are threatened for telling the truth. Obviously, it did not help the Iranian people when the regime in the very early stages denied and hoped it wasn’t a problem while people were dying. This is a notoriously opaque regime that has a hard time being transparent not only with its own people but the world.

We have seen some tactical displacement of Iranian troops. We see both Russia and Syria recognizing the incentives for Iranian troops and forces under Iranian command and control to leave Syria. And that has been a condition of America and the international community providing reconstruction assistance. Iran is using Syria as a platform to threaten Israel and as a corridor to keep its ties with Hezbollah. You’ve got a number of people who want to move to a post-conflict scenario in Syria, and the Iranian regime is an obstacle to that: to moving along toward a post-conflict political process. So we think that there are increasing incentives for Iran to leave Syria.

FP: The U.S. Treasury Department announced new sanctions against Iran’s interior minister and several other senior law enforcement officials. How does this specifically add to the maximum pressure campaign, and what’s even left to sanction, given that the Trump administration has already targeted so much of Iran’s economy?

BH: I think a year ago, journalists started asking me what’s left to hit in Iran. One year later, we continue to find many targets of opportunity to squeeze the regime financially. When U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo two years ago in May announced our new Iran strategy post-deal, we made clear that we’re going to continue to stand with the Iranian people. And we’ve done this by calling out the regime for killing its own people. In November, the regime murdered over 1,500 people, injured thousands, and jailed anywhere between 8,000 and 10,000 people. And so today we’ve sanctioned 12 Iranians who were complicit in human rights abuses. The interior minister was one of the 12. He authorized Iran’s public forces to use lethal force on peaceful protesters. I would refer you to an Amnesty International report: There were 23 children who were killed. One of them was a 12-year-old who was returning home from school. He was fatally shot by the regime as he walked past protesters near his house. We’ve sanctioned judges, we’ve sanctioned judiciary [sector], we’ve sanctioned the interior [ministry]. And these are both financial sanctions, but they’re also visa sanctions. Given America’s reach in the global economy, these have consequences.

FP: The United States is expected to hold talks in June with the new Iraqi government. What are the priorities that the administration will be asking from Iraq related to Iran?

BH: It’s a similar problem we see in places like Lebanon and Syria in Iraq. The Iranian regime since the time of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini has the desire to dominate all governments in the Middle East. Our policy is to reverse Iran’s influence across the Middle East and to help countries like Iraq and Lebanon be free of Iranian interference. And I think there’s a lot of support for that among the Iraqi people. And one of the things the prime minister will be focused on, I think, is reclaiming Iraq’s sovereignty from Iranian interference. I think the death of Qassem Suleimani [from a U.S. strike] presents a better environment for the Iraqi people to have a government that represents their interests and not the interests of the Iranian regime.

FP: The Trump administration has stated repeatedly that it wants to see Iran behave like a normal nation. Can Iran simultaneously have a revolutionary regime in place and behave like a normal state?

BH: Well, we know that the Iranian people do not have a representative government. Iran is not a poor country—it is a rich country that is governed by thieves. The regime has been robbing its own people blind for 41 years. I think that there’s a real desire among the Iranian people—you saw this in November—they’re tired of their government behaving like an outlaw regime around the world and being an international pariah. The regime understands that it faces a crisis of legitimacy and credibility with its own people. Our campaign of maximum economic pressure and diplomatic isolation has expanded the space for the Iranian people to have a more representative government. That’s why in November, when you had protests in 31 provinces, there was not a single protest against U.S. President Donald Trump, the United States, or American sanctions. Because they know who to blame for their economic troubles. It is the regime; it is not the United States.

So President Trump would like to see the Iranian regime come to the table so that we can negotiate a truly comprehensive deal that addresses Iran’s range of threats to peace and security. We have amassed the leverage that will be necessary to accomplish a deal of that kind of scope. The pressure we put in place dwarfs the pressure that was put in place prior to the Iran nuclear deal, and we very much like our position. We’re very pleased with the success that our foreign policy has had: restoring deterrence, standing with the Iranian people, diplomatically isolating Iran. And we’re going to continue down this road with a lot of confidence that our policy.

FP: Given that it has been two years since the Trump administration exited the nuclear deal in 2018, do you assess that you’re closer now to getting into a new nuclear deal with potential safeguards on the missile program and other aspects of Iranian power?

BH: That’s a question for the regime. President Trump has been open to sitting down with the regime for the duration of his presidency. And so whether we’re closer to a deal is a question for the regime—they should meet our diplomacy with diplomacy and not meet it with threats and extortion and nuclear blackmail, which we don’t fall for.

In this case, we know that Iran will not come to the table without economic pressure, diplomatic isolation, and the credible threat of military deterrence to defend our interests. So we know that we have put all three of these in place, and that increases the odds of us getting the deal that we need. While we are in that process, we are denying the regime levels of revenue that have no historic precedent. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani himself said that our sanctions have cost the regime $200 billion, and that matters when that regime is the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism and anti-Semitism. Iran faces a much more constrained and less permissive environment because the regime is largely broke.

I’m not suggesting that we have eliminated the regime’s asymmetric capabilities and terrorism on the cheap, which is something no one can eliminate. But the regime is weaker today than they were three years ago, and so are its proxies. So Iran faces a choice: They can continue to watch their economy collapse and their proxies be starved for cash. And we’re going to continue that policy because it’s working. And in many ways, we’re in no hurry. We have a good policy in place. The regime needs to decide when it wants to come to the table.

Jack Detsch is Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter. Twitter: @JackDetsch

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

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