The announcement came as the administration last week reimposed a range of sanctions that had been lifted as part of the 2016 Iran nuclear deal, from which President Trump withdrew earlier this year. In November, a second round of “snap-back” sanctions will inflict far more pain on Iran by prohibiting all other countries from buying its oil, at the risk of being sanctioned themselves by the United States.
“Our goal is to reduce every country’s import of Iranian oil to zero by Nov. 4,” Hook said in remarks to reporters. “The United States certainly hopes for full compliance by all nations . . . in terms of not risking the threat of U.S. secondary sanctions if they continue with those transactions.”
A number of major purchasers of Iranian oil and gas, including China and Turkey, have indicated they will not abide by the energy sanctions, while others have objected or asked for exemptions from what some have described as U.S. efforts to unilaterally impose its own foreign policy on them.
To explain the policy and convince others to comply with it, the administration has already dispatched teams of diplomatic and financial officials to two dozen countries.
“We will continue to build on those areas where we are in agreement, and we will work to find consensus where we are not,” Hook said.
Overall, he said, the new team will concentrate on implementing the policy outlined by Pompeo in a speech in May. It set 12 areas where “Iran needs to change its behavior,” Hook said, including ending all nuclear activities — even those permitted under the earlier agreement — as well as ending ballistic missile development and testing, and support for what Pompeo called “terrorists and militant partners around the world.”
“That is our strategy,” Hook said. “We have launched a campaign of maximum diplomatic pressure and diplomatic isolation” against Iran. Trump, he noted, “has also said he is prepared to talk” to Iranian leaders without preconditions, an initiative he said was on a “parallel track” to sanctions pressure.
The strategy is similar to the administration’s policy on North Korea, where Trump sat down with leader Kim Jong Un but has continued stringent sanctions against that country.
On Monday, Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, banned “holding any talks with America,” which, he said, “never remains loyal to its promises.”
U.S. withdrawal from the Iran nuclear agreement, and the initial round of reimposed sanctions, has already impacted the Iranian economy and exacerbated popular unrest there. Companies from France, Britain and Germany, all remaining signatories to the agreement, have withdrawn their investments in Iran, fearing problems with the United States, although Russia and China, who also signed, have said they will remain active in the Iranian economy.
Hook declined to list members of what is to be called the Iran Action Group, but said that it would comprise “an elite team of foreign affairs specialists at State and across the administration.”
Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council, described the announcement as “heavy on accusations and demands, and rather empty on substance,” saying it was “not clear what exactly the group would be doing beyond what already has been announced.”
But, he said, it could be an important development in downplaying Trump’s offer of dialogue with Iran, while intensifying “efforts to foment unrest inside the country.”
In addition to Hook’s new role, the State Department is expected to name former senior diplomat James F. Jeffrey as its special representative on Syria. Last year, former secretary of state Rex Tillerson eliminated dozens of special representative and special envoy jobs, saying it would save money and make the department more efficient.