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Trump administration restores Iran sanctions, critic says policy has ‘proven track record of failure’

On Monday, the Trump administration is expected to take its most aggressive step in countering Iran since withdrawing from the nuclear deal. The U.S. will reimpose a massive set of sanctions targeting more than 700 entities. Nick Schifrin discusses the move with Brian Hook, Senior Policy Advisor to the Secretary of State, and Trita Parisa, former president of the National Iranian American Council.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The Trump administration has made countering Iran one of its top foreign policy priorities.

    And, as Nick Schifrin reports, next Monday morning, the U.S. will take its most aggressive step since withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Judy, the U.S. will reimpose a massive set of sanctions that had been relieved under that nuclear deal in exchange for a freeze on Iran's nuclear program.

    The sanctions target more than 700 entities in the heart of Iran's economy. They prohibit the sale of Iranian oil, which accounts for the vast majority of the country's revenue. They target Iranian financial institutions, including its central bank. And they target state-run ports and shipping firms.

    The man helping lead Iran policy is Brian Hook, special adviser to the secretary of state and special representative for Iran.

    I spoke with him earlier today and asked him about the administration's goals.

  • Brian Hook:

    Well, the purpose of reimposing the sanctions that were lifted under the prior administration is to deny Iran the revenue that it uses to destabilize the Middle East and proliferate missiles and commit acts of cyber-terrorism.

    There's a range of threats to peace and security that Iran presents. We have to go after the money if we're going to get after those threats.

    The other purpose of the sanctions is to put sufficient pressure on this regime that they decide to come back to the negotiating table, so that we can get a new and better deal.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    The sanctions lay out a desired goal, to get Iranian oil exports to zero. But you have laid out eight exceptions, Turkey and Iraq have confirmed, other countries, Italy, India, Japan, South Korea.

    Is this in part a message that you're sending to Iran? If Iran acts positively, for example, would you consider extending those exceptions?

  • Brian Hook:

    I think right now our goal is to deny Iran the ability — the revenue that it needs; 80 percent of its tax revenues come from the export of oil.

    And so our goal is to get the import of Iranian oil to zero as quickly as possible. We have an adequately supplied oil market. The challenge that we have had is ensuring that, as we advance our national security objectives with Iran, that we don't inadvertently increase the price of oil.

    I think going forward, next year, we anticipate a much better supplied oil market, and that will help us accelerate, I think, the path to zero.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    You mean you expect not to give any exceptions beyond the next six months?

  • Brian Hook:

    We are not looking to give any exceptions or waivers to our sanctions regime.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    One of the criticisms of the sanctions is that they are self -defeating, that you are disempowering, in Iran, people who want to work with you, and you're encouraging the idea among Iranians that diplomacy with the West doesn't work, but what might work is regional proxies and the use of the very actions that you are trying to prevent.

  • Brian Hook:

    I think the historical record doesn't quite support that.

    As recently as three or four years ago, when the prior administration entered into talks, the only reason the regime came to the table was because they had been under multilateral and unilateral sanctions for many years.

    And so this is a regime that, over its 39-year history, only comes to the negotiating table when there's pressure. We believe that we have calibrated this in the right way to achieve our diplomatic goals.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    One other criticism is humanitarian goods.

    A European official I talked with today said that you made an exception of humanitarian goods in name only, because, at the end of the day, less medicine is getting in and prices are going up.

    And so you say you're not trying to impose pain on the Iranian people. But the criticism is that you are.

  • Brian Hook:

    We have made it very clear to banks all over the world to facilitate food, medicine and medical devices into Iran.

    The problem is that Iranian banks are not in compliance with financial standards. They're dark banks. They're dirty banks.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    But that is because of what you are doing. The actions that you're taking mean that there's last medicine and food prices are…


  • Brian Hook:

    No, that's not accurate.

    This regime for 39 years has purposely created a financial sector where you can't follow the money. That causes a lot of banks around the world to avoid Iranian banks.

    But we are doing everything that we can to make clear that we want humanitarian goods to get to the Iranian people.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    I'm going to show you a tweet that the president sent out today.

  • The tweet is:

    "Sanctions are coming."

    This is an obvious reference to "Winter is coming" from the HBO show "Game of Thrones."

    Is it cavalier to use a meme that essentially says that you are going to undergo pain and there's going to be a war, given that your stated policy is not regime change?

  • Brian Hook:

    Well, it's very clear that sanctions are coming and they're going to be reimposed on Monday.

    These are sanctions that were lifted for the last few years. During that period, the Iranian regime used the sanctions relief that it was given and spend it in Syria, in Lebanon, in Yemen and in Iraq, and that has greatly destabilized the region.

    So, the point…

  • Nick Schifrin:

    But the connotation of the tweet, of "Winter is coming," is that there will be pain coming, and that it's a war to the death.

  • Brian Hook:

    Well, this is very much focused on the Iranian regime, which is an outlaw regime that spends most of the money not on its own people, but on violent misadventures around the Middle East.

    And so the message the president was trying to convey to the regime is that we are serious about denying them the revenue they need to fund extremism around the Middle East.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Brian Hook, U.S. special representative for Iran, thank you very much.

  • Brian Hook:

    Thanks, Nick.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    For a different perspective, we turn to Trita Parsi, founder and former president of the National Iranian American Council, a nonprofit dedicated to improving U.S.-Iran relations. He's now an adjunct professor at Georgetown University and the author of "Losing an Enemy: Obama, Iran, and the Triumph of Diplomacy."

    Trita Parsi, thank you very much.

  • Trita Parsi:

    Thank you for having me.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    We just listened to Brian Hook saying — defending the tweet that the president sent out and saying that, regardless of the humanitarian aspect, we are focused on punishing the regime and not the people, and if there is blowback on the people, that's the regime's fault and not the U.S.'.

  • Trita Parsi:

    In the history of sanctions, we have always seen that sanctions tend to hit the population much more so than the governments.

    There was a running joke in the U.S. government during the Iraq sanctions, in which skeptics inside the government were saying the last chicken sandwich in Baghdad is going to be eaten by Saddam Hussein.

    We can sanction everything, but the last person we would ask actually reach is the government itself. And that has clearly been the pattern in Iran as well. We saw that during the Obama sanctions, that it was the population that was suffering, medicine in particular. And the reason for that is, because by sanctioning the banks, even if medicine is exempted, if no bank is willing to handle the transactions, the Iranians can't buy medicine.

    So, even simple medicine — we're not even talking about rather sophisticated medicine — even simple medicine is not going to be reaching in.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    The U.S. says, imposing pain on the Iranian regime, as these sanctions do, could get Iran back to the negotiating table. What's wrong with that?

  • Trita Parsi:

    So, there's a very interesting premise of this. And Brian was essentially saying that this is what got Obama to succeed in getting the Iranians to come to the table.

    That's actually a rather false reading of what actually happened. The Obama administration put in place some very, very tough sanctions, but the sanctions didn't bring about the breakthrough in the negotiations. What happened was that, in secret negotiations in the country of Oman, the United States reached a conclusion that sanctions simply couldn't bring the Iranians to be more flexible.

    In order to get that, the United States needed to offer some concessions and incentives. And that's what happened in Oman. And had it not been for that, the Obama administration realized that the sanctions part actually was more likely to lead to military confrontation than an Iranian capitulation.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    The U.S. talks about Iranian behavior and wanting to have a deal that goes beyond a nuclear deal. Iran has the largest missile — ballistic — ballistic missile program in the Middle East, uses proxies all over the region.

    What's wrong — or isn't it important to try and change that behavior?

  • Trita Parsi:


    And there's a way to do so. It's called negotiations. And it was a nuclear deal that started off addressing the most important and pressing conflict between the United States and Iran. And the idea on all sides was, if both sides live up to this end of — end of their bargain, and start building a little bit of a trust, then we can start addressing these other issues.

    And there are plenty of issues, from Syria to Yemen to other — and human rights. But, in 40 years, the United States has only been successful in changing a core security policy of Iran through negotiations. Everything else it has tried, from sanctions to pressure to cyber-warfare, has actually not worked.

    Now, the Trump administration has chosen to go down the path with a track — proven track record of failure, instead of building on the track record that actually has had some success.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And very quickly, in the time we have left, the Trump administration says that Iran needs to change all of its behavior and that only pain via sanctions will get them there, or that they can actually either get them to the negotiating table or some kind of capitulation.

    Is that possible?

  • Trita Parsi:

    I don't think so.

    I mean, first of all, we have to keep in mind the Iranians are at the negotiating table. The Chinese, the Russians, the Europeans are all at the negotiating table. It's the United States, under the Trump administration, that is not at the negotiating table.

    The other countries of the P5-plus-one have continued to adhere to the deal, continued their conversations. The Iranians are involved in negotiations about Syria, about Yemen. It's the United States that is not at the table.

    And it signals that there actually isn't much sincerity behind the talk about diplomacy. This policy, whether by design or unintentional, is far more likely to lead to a crisis or a war of choice.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Trita Parsi, former president of the National Iranian American Council, thank you very much.

  • Trita Parsi:

    Thank you so much for having me.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Thank you.

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