US top envoy for Iran resigns at crucial moment in showdown

Brian Hook will be replaced by Elliott Abrams, an neoconservative architect of the narrative for the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

Friday 07/08/2020
A file picture of resigned US Special Representative for Iran, Brian Hook, speaking during a briefing at the US Department of State in Washington. (AFP)
A file picture of resigned US Special Representative for Iran, Brian Hook, speaking during a briefing at the US Department of State in Washington. (AFP)

WASHINGTON - The top US envoy for Iran, Brian Hook, is leaving his post and US special representative for Venezuela, Elliott Abrams, will add Iran to his role "following a transition period" with Hook, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Thursday.

Hook's surprise departure comes at a critical time when Washington has been intensely lobbying at the United Nations to extend an arms embargo on Iran and as the UN Security Council prepares to hold a vote on the US resolution next week.

"We're going to continue to make the case for this," Hook told reporters on Thursday morning, hours before his departure was announced. "We hope that the council can find a way."

A senior administration official said the transition would take a couple of weeks and Abrams, a holdover hawk from the George W. Bush administration, was expected to retain both the Iran and Venezuela roles for the remainder of President Donald Trump's term.

Pompeo did not give a reason for the change but wrote in a tweet that Hook was moving on to the private sector. He described him as a "trusted adviser and a good friend" who had achieved "historic results" in countering Tehran and securing the release of US citizens detained by Iran.

Hook, 52, was appointed to the top Iran role at the State Department in late 2018 and has been instrumental in Washington's intensifying pressure campaign on Tehran after Trump pulled out of the 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and world powers.

After becoming secretary of state in 2018, Pompeo made 12 sweeping demands of Iran that included giving up its activities across the Middle East and soon put Hook in charge of the effort.

Taken to task on his record at an event Wednesday, Hook said that Iran was facing its worst economic crisis since the 1979 Islamic revolution and that mass protests in Iraq and Lebanon showed opposition to Tehran.

"They're facing a crisis of legitimacy and credibility with their own people. The regime today clings to power on the basis of brute force," Hook told the Aspen Security Forum.

US State Department Special Representative for Venezuela Elliot Abrams testifies before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, August 4. (AFP)
US State Department Special Representative for Venezuela Elliott Abrams testifies before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, August 4. (AFP)

"And these are not things that we were talking about three and a half years ago when we came into office."

Hook will be replaced by Elliott Abrams, a neoconservative architect of the narrative for the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Abrams, known in the 1980s for his staunch defense of right-wing strongmen in Latin America, has been leading Trump's unsuccessful campaign to oust Venezuela's leftist president, Nicolas Maduro.

Abrams, 72, a Republican foreign policy veteran, was named US special representative for Venezuela in January 2019.

US officials have said privately that Trump has been frustrated by the failure to remove Maduro, who retains the support of the Venezuelan military, as well as Russia, China, Cuba and Iran.

Abrams has recently been dealing with US concerns about a growing alliance between Iran and Venezuela, both OPEC members under heavy US sanctions. Iran in recent months has sent fuel tankers to gasoline-short Venezuela, drawing US ire.

The US bid at the Security Council to extend the arms embargo is a key test that some diplomats say will likely fail as it lacks the necessary support, and veto powers Russia and China have already signaled their opposition.

If the United States is unsuccessful in its bid, it has threatened to trigger a return of all UN sanctions under a process known as snapback. Some diplomats have suggested Washington will likely start the snapback process, which could take up to 30 days, by the end of August.