Brian Hook, Director of Policy Planning, State Department
New York, NY
September 21, 2017
MR HOOK: I think the Secretary’s participation in the Joint Commission Ministerial I think was a highlight of the UN General Assembly because it allowed the Secretary to – for the first time in this administration at the ministerial level – meet with the signatories of the Iran nuclear deal and present the comprehensive threat that the Iranian regime poses to international peace and security.
He walked through the full range of the Iranian regime’s malign activities because they extend well beyond the nuclear threat. And this was important to do at the ministerial level because over the last many years we did not have an integrated strategy to Iran and the Iran deal became a substitute for an Iran strategy, because when you look at all the range of Iran’s activities which threaten peace and security, the nuclear piece is just one part. You have the missile part. You have the material and financial support for terrorism, their support for extremism, what they’ve done to support Assad’s regime and the atrocities against the Syrian people, the unrelenting hostility to Israel, consistently threatening freedom of navigation, cyber attacks, miserable human rights record, arbitrary detention of foreigners. The Secretary wanted to have a conversation with the members of the Joint Commission about the full range of their activities, and we think that that is consistent with the spirit of the Iran nuclear deal.
QUESTION: Can I follow up on that?
MR GREENAN: Michele Kelemen from NPR.
QUESTION: Did he specifically raise the detentions, the Namazis, and did others raise any of theirs? Because there’s a couple Brits also, right?
MR HOOK: In the President’s speech he talked about the detention of foreigners. And so I don’t have the transcript of what the Secretary said to the Joint Commission in front of me. He explained to the Joint Commission members that we can’t lose sight of Iran’s full range of activities, and he called on the members to appreciate the broad threat that the Iranian regime presents to peace and security.
MR GREENAN: Elise Labott, CNN.
QUESTION: I think – correct me if I’m wrong, but it seems as the way this is going from the conversations that he seemed to be having with the ministers and what Ambassador Haley said today is there’s an effort to kind of, as you said, get the commission to focus on that while maybe also – that doesn’t need to be mutually exclusive from pulling out of the deal. Now, I know what you say about the spirit of the deal. The deal was never intended to do any of those – I know you want – the previous administration wanted to get those things in the deal, couldn’t get those things in the deal. The hope was that over time Iran’s behavior would improve. But everyone signed on to these limited nuclear things, and it seems as if the allies would like to – and your partners would like to deal with these other things but would also like to keep the deal. So can you talk about how this does seem to be shifting into a broader conversation, but within the confines of “let’s not throw out the nuclear deal, but let’s also strengthen the pressure on Iran on these other behaviors”?
MR HOOK: The stated goal of the JCPOA is to contribute to, quote, “regional and international peace and security.” And when you look at Iran’s behavior since the time the deal has been signed, they are not contributing to regional and international peace and security. And this is the message that the Secretary carried to the meeting of the Joint Commission.
And the previous administration ignored and downplayed the full range of those activities in order not to jeopardize the deal, and so we think this was a mistake that jeopardized American interests and the interest of our partners and allies. And so we are now working with allies to explore options for addressing what we believe are the deficiencies of the JCPOA and to also not ignore all of the other activities which do not contribute to peace and security.
QUESTION: But you also – just a quick follow-up. You also can’t ignore that even Secretary Tillerson himself, the IAEA, and all the partners have said that they are complying with the nuclear aspects of the deal, and you can’t just completely throw that away.
MR HOOK: Iran has been in tactical compliance.
QUESTION: Technical compliance.
MR HOOK: Tactical. Tactical compliance with the JCPOA.
QUESTION: Is that the new – that’s the new buzz – that’s the new buzz, apparently.
MR GREENAN: Nick Wadhams, Bloomberg.
QUESTION: Can I – I just have two questions. One is on the – I mean, it seems clear that, like, regardless of what you guys think about the deal, backing out of it would be folly because you would then lose eyes on all of these sites where the IAEA has access. So suddenly, that would be drawing a curtain over Iran’s activities. So regardless of these other malign activities, you would be losing insight into one very large malign activity that, for the time being at least, has been contained. So can you explain the play on going so hard after the nuclear deal when it seems from the outside that there would be nothing to be gained from being outside of it that you don’t gain from being inside of it?
And then the other question, just on North Korea: Can you explain what the President was referring to this morning when he talked about this move from China? Was that the statement they had made earlier this month about asking banks to enforce – I mean, we were all sort of running around today trying to explain what he was talking about when he said they had seen this positive move from China. That wasn’t clear.
MR HOOK: On the first question, Nick, we strongly support the work of the IAEA to enforce the JCPOA and, at the same time, recognize that the inspections regime could have been stronger. And the deal actually gives us less – it gives us certainly some visibility, but it could have given us, we think, more visibility with respect to inspections and verifications.
QUESTION: So – but then what do you? I mean, well done? Like, okay, the deal sucks, but how are you going to get something better?
MR HOOK: That’s what negotiations are about. We don’t believe – we don’t believe the deal was well negotiated. We think the deal – there are areas which during the negotiations of the deal many of our European allies had highlighted that they thought were deficiencies. And as we, during this week, talk about the Iran deal with other countries, there is an awareness about the areas that need to be strengthened. There are many ways to go about doing that.
QUESTION: Then the North Korea issue?
MR GREENAN: Matt Lee, AP.
QUESTION: I’m aware of one.
QUESTION: Can you just answer the North Korea issue?
MR GREENAN: On the China (inaudible).
QUESTION: On – what the China – what the President was referring to.
MR HOOK: I haven’t seen the statement.
QUESTION: Can --
MR HOOK: I just haven’t seen it yet.
QUESTION: Can I follow up?
QUESTION: Is it more than – you say many European allies. There seems to be this narrative that’s overtaken the – come into common parlance in the administration that there was this grand opposition from some of the Europeans. I’m aware of complaints from the French, and that’s about it. Who else?
MR HOOK: I have never heard anyone describe the JCPOA as perfect.
QUESTION: No, no one ever did.
QUESTION: Not even the U.S.?
QUESTION: Not even Secretary Kerry did.
MR HOOK: And so there – during – I remember, following the debate during the negotiations, there were – we had heard – I mean, I think some of these were reported by different countries who were parties to the deal – about things that they were looking to get out of the deal that they did not get. And so those are some of the facts, that they weren’t able to get what they wanted; that has not changed. We think there are ways – there are many ways to go about addressing the deficiencies. Or I would say there are many ways, I think, to ensure that Iran never becomes a nuclear state.
QUESTION: And then just --
MR HOOK: The JCPOA is one proposal, one avenue, to try to achieve that. Prior to the JCPOA, we had a sanctions architecture. And prior to the UN, we had the IAEA. And so when you look at the life cycle of this, you have the IAEA referring the matter to the UN Security Council – I think it was back in ’05 or ’06. And they had said we are referring this to the Security Council for potential action, because we cannot verify that they are in compliance as a member of the NPT. And that then set into motion a series of sanctions resolutions that were passed in the Bush administration and the Obama administration, and that was one way to ensure that Iran does not become a nuclear state. There are other ways to achieve that. The JCPOA is one. That’s all I meant by that.
MR GREENAN: Let’s go to Margaret Brennan.
MR GREENAN: CBS.
QUESTION: Sure. On – what was the interaction with Zarif? This was the first time the two men, at least that we know of, were in the same room. Was there any direct interaction there? And did the Secretary – I mean, what did the Secretary – you laid out what he wanted to say and express, but did he actually walk out having convinced anyone who was party to the deal that renegotiation is a possibility? Because that isn’t anything – they’ve all been on the record quite strongly saying we’ve got to keep the architecture of what exists, we can talk about everything else separately. Did you convince anyone?
QUESTION: Mogherini said that you didn’t even discuss it.
MR HOOK: Didn’t discuss – didn’t discuss what?
QUESTION: Reopening the agreement.
MR HOOK: Let me say a little bit about the meeting. It – all of the members of the Joint Commission made statements, and they went in a sequence, and everyone came prepared with statements. It was run very much like a UN Security Council meeting. It was not a meeting of the UN Security Council; it was a meeting of the Joint Commission, but it was run very similar to a meeting of the UN Security Council.
QUESTION: So there were no direct interactions on the sidelines with Zarif --
MR HOOK: No.
QUESTION: -- and Tillerson?
MR HOOK: No.
QUESTION: But can you answer the question of whether – what was accomplished? Was it just the airing of the grievances, or was it that they walked out saying we’re going to have another follow-up meeting? France: “Oh, hey, my mind’s changed”? Like, did anyone change their mind when they left that room? Because it sounds like no one did.
MR HOOK: The Joint Commission decided to meet on the margins of the UN General Assembly, and Secretary Tillerson was very pleased to attend the ministerial so that he could share with the members of the Iran nuclear deal many of the questions and concerns that we have about the threat the Iranian regime poses and the concerns we have about the JCPOA.
MR GREENAN: John Hudson, BuzzFeed.
QUESTION: Hi. Can you talk a little bit about Secretary Tillerson’s bilateral or just meeting with Lavrov, whether any progress was made on bilateral issues, strategic stability issues, irritants? And Lavrov gave an interview this week and he said – expressed sort of the suggestion that the tit-for-tat downward spiral may be at the end. Is that your expectation or do you think there might be another round of retaliation?
MR HOOK: The first – the bilat at the beginning of the week was to discuss de-confliction in Syria. That was the focus of the meeting: keeping the de-confliction channel working as it should. That was the focus of that meeting.
MR GREENAN: Okay. Felicia from The Wall Street Journal.
QUESTION: But sorry, the second – he had 45 minutes with him, and anything on the issues discussed? Because they spent some time outside of the de-confliction.
MR HOOK: I was not in the first part of the meeting, for most of the first part, and so I didn’t get – I don’t have a full readout of that meeting.
MR HAMMOND: I believe the Secretary was asked last night at the press conference about where he thought the relationship was going, so I’d reference you to that.
MR GREENAN: We’ll go to Felicia, The Wall Street Journal, and then over to Nicole and CNN.
MR HOOK: Hi, Felicia.
QUESTION: Thanks, Brian. Just going back to the JCPOA, the Secretary said on Fox that if the U.S. is going to stay in the deal, there’ll have to be some changes. The French at least have come on the record saying they’re suggesting that the U.S., other parties of the JCPOA open talks on ballistic missiles with Iran. I’m just trying to understand, would that count as making changes to the agreement? When the Secretary says making changes, is he talking about actually opening up the agreement, or would additional arrangements outside of the agreement count?
MR HOOK: The JCPOA is a plan of action. It is not titled an agreement. It is a plan of action, and plans can be amended.
QUESTION: It just seems like it’s a bit of a semantic – if what you’re trying to do here is get the Europeans and perhaps the Russians and the Chinese on board to strengthen the deal, why pay so much attention to changing the deal or not changing the deal? I think it’s just confusing for the American people to understand, like, what you’re trying to accomplish here and how you’re going to set about it.
MR HOOK: The administration’s Iran policy is still under review, and during this period we have been working with allies to explore options to address what we have identified as the flaws of the JCPOA, which include the sunset, the inadequate enforcement of existing restrictions under the previous administration, and how – also, how we address the regime’s threatening non-nuclear behavior. We are at the early stages of our consultations with allies, and this was the first ministerial meeting that the Secretary has attended with the signatories to the plan of action. And given where we are, we should not expect any sort of breakout coming from a first ministerial meeting of the members of the plan of action.
MR GREENAN: Nicole from CNN.
QUESTION: Hi. Nicole Gaouette. This sort of keys off Felicia, but in that meeting and certainly from the public statements we’ve heard from the Europeans, Russia, other members, it doesn’t sound like you moved anybody. I’m wondering if there’s anything that you heard from the other parties in the room that is going to influence your approach or that was an idea that you thought might be worth considering as you sort of wrestle with how to make the changes you’d like to see.
My second question is there seems to be – I don’t quite know how to square the circle between your statement that the review is ongoing and President Trump’s statement that he’s made a decision. How can he have made a decision if you guys are still considering what to do?
MR HOOK: Because the decision that the President referenced concerns the INARA certification. That is one piece of our Iran policy, and that is what we are trying to help people understand – that we cannot take a myopic focus on the nuclear program to the exclusion of the regime’s many other malign activities. And so the President has made a decision with respect to INARA. We are still working on our – a comprehensive plan to address the non-nuclear aspects of Iran’s behavior.
QUESTION: Conor Finnegan --
MR GREENAN: Conor Finnegan, ABC News.
QUESTION: -- ABC News.
MR HOOK: Oh, can I mention one other thing? The meeting of the joint commission – there was no proposal that was tabled. And so you had said that --
QUESTION: I was just wondering if --
MR HOOK: No, you responded that there wasn’t a breakthrough. There wasn’t – the United States did not come to the meeting with a proposal. We came to the meeting with the intention to share our concerns about the deficiencies of the JCPOA and the broader threatening – the broader threats that Iran presents to peace and security.
MR GREENAN: Okay. Conor Finnegan, ABC.
QUESTION: And just to address those deficiencies, though, if you decertify the deal and either it blows up and the U.S. gets blamed for it blowing up or the U.S. is then excluded from it, what leverage do you have to address those deficiencies?
MR HOOK: Can you give that one – what?
MR HOOK: Can you give that one more time?
QUESTION: If you don’t certify the deal and then the U.S. is either blamed for it blowing up or the U.S. is then not a party to it anymore and doesn’t have the same access to it, what leverage do you have to then address all those other deficiencies that you just mentioned about the deal and about Iran’s other activities?
MR HOOK: I think there are – I counted three conditionals in that question. Makes it hard to sort of give a one-sentence answer to it. The INARA certification is related to but separate from the JCPOA. The – I’m not going to prejudge what the President or – the President has made a decision. We will know that in due course. Regardless of the decision, the United States has an array of options to address the range of Iran’s malign activities, nuclear and non-nuclear. Those include, typically – you’ve seen the sanctions that we have taken since the President was elected. And so we have, I think starting in – we started our Iran policy review in April. While we have been doing that, we have imposed a range of sanctions against Iran while we have been undergoing this policy review. And so certification or no certification, it does not hinder our ability to address threats to peace and security.
QUESTION: Just to put a quick, fine point on it, just because he – if he decertifies, that doesn’t mean that you’re automatically pulling out of the deal.
QUESTION: There’s two things. It’s --
QUESTION: No, I know. That’s the whole – but that’s what you seem to be saying, like he can decertify the INARA, but – which doesn’t mean that you’re – doesn’t mean that the deal’s – you’re pulling out.
MR HOOK: The INARA requires a certification or not a certification --
MR HOOK: -- every 90 days.
MR HOOK: That is --
QUESTION: Separate from the deal itself.
MR HOOK: That is separate from the Iran deal.
QUESTION: Yeah, right.
QUESTION: Do you know what the decision is? And if you don’t, shouldn’t you figure --
MR HAMMOND: Don’t make eye contact when you answer the question. (Laughter.)
QUESTION: Shouldn’t you get to know – find out what it is pretty quickly to prepare? Because you only got like --
QUESTION: Doesn’t matter. It really doesn’t matter.
MR HOOK: What doesn’t matter?
QUESTION: It doesn’t matter whether you certify or not.
QUESTION: Of course it – what? No. I’m asking if you know what the decision is.
MR HOOK: I don’t have any comment.
MR HOOK: I don’t have any comment.
MR HAMMOND: All right. Two more questions.
MR GREENAN: Abigail. Abigail from NBC and Kylie Atwood from CBS.
MR GREENAN: Okay. We’ll start with Abbie and then Kylie from CBS. Abbie, NBC.
QUESTION: There have been a lot of questions about the way that the other people in the JCPOA responded, but specifically, Iran, I wondered if there was any characterization you could give to the way that Zarif himself responded to what the Secretary presented as the statement. And also, specifically, the Secretary talked about the idea of imposing sanctions that were outside of the Iran deal itself to address the malign activities and bringing along the European partners to do that. I wondered if there was any response from Iran with that suggestion.
MR HOOK: Could you give me your first question one more time, Abbie?
QUESTION: Sure. First one was --
MR HAMMOND: We’ll take the first one and go to the second one. We’ll address – Abbie, we’ll take the – afterwards. There’s --
QUESTION: Okay. Both questions?
MR HAMMOND: Just go with your second one. We’ll address the second one after --
MR HAMMOND: -- which is Matt’s.
QUESTION: Okay. So --
QUESTION: How Iran responded.
QUESTION: -- how Iran responded to what the Secretary – the Secretary was talking of imposing – having European partners go along with additional sanctions that were outside of the deal to address malign activities where the U.S. had done unilateral actions. I wondered how Zarif responded to that suggestion.
MR HOOK: There wasn’t a specific proposal that was presented at the Joint Commission meeting. It was an opportunity for the Secretary to share his views on the deal and on Iran’s destabilizing activities. Because there wasn’t a specific proposal tabled at the meeting nor was there any expectation by anyone that there would be, no one came to the meeting with a specific proposal. And so it wasn’t – there wasn’t a vote at the end of the meeting on a proposal because there was no proposal tabled.
And so this is a new administration attending its first ministerial-level meeting of all of the signatories to the plan of action, and the Secretary wanted to share his views on what I mentioned.
MR HAMMOND: Last question.
MR GREENAN: Okay. Kylie.
QUESTION: Okay. So --
MR HOOK: Hi, Kylie.
QUESTION: So I think everyone in here understands what you’re saying about the certification being different than the JCPOA. How would you explain that difference to the American people? And what’s the point of decertifying if you’re going to stay in the deal?
MR HOOK: The INARA was passed during the Obama administration and it was tailored for the Obama administration. This is a new administration that is undertaking a broad approach to Iran’s range of threats and the certification is – or non-certification is a conversation between the President and the Congress. It does not have any automatic application to the JCPOA.
QUESTION: Are you saying it’s symbolic only, politically?
QUESTION: Well, then, except they could vote to re – vote sanctions which would then put you in violation.
MR HOOK: But it’s not automatic.
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