Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has formed a group to coordinate and run US policy toward Iran as the Trump administration moves ahead with efforts to force changes in the Islamic Republic’s behaviour after withdrawing from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. Accusing Iran of unleashing “a torrent of violence and destabilising behaviour against the United States, our allies, our partners and, indeed, the Iranian people themselves,” Pompeo announced the creation of the Iran Action Group, which he said would drive administration policy in Washington and overseas.
He said the administration remains willing to talk to Iran but that in order to do so “we must see major changes in the regime’s behaviour both inside and outside its borders.” Pompeo named Brian Hook, who is currently the State Department’s director of policy planning, to run the group with the title of special representative for Iran. Hook led the administration’s ultimately unsuccessful attempt to negotiate changes to the nuclear deal with European allies before President Donald Trump decided in May to pull out of the accord.
Since withdrawing, the administration has re-imposed sanctions that were eased under the deal and has steadily ramped up pressure on Iran to try to get it to stop what it describes as “malign activities” in the region. In addition to its nuclear and missile programs, the administration has repeatedly criticised Iran for supporting Syrian President Bashar Assad, Lebanon’s Hezbollah movement, Shiite rebels in Yemen and anti-Israel groups.
It has also in recent weeks stepped up criticism of Iran’s human rights record and is working with other nations to curb their imports of Iranian oil. The administration is warning Iran’s oil customers that they will face US sanctions in November unless they significantly reduce their imports with an eye on eliminating them entirely. It has also told businesses and governments in Europe that they may also be subject to penalties if they violate, ignore or attempt to subvert the re-imposed US sanctions.
Hook, accusing Iran of being “a force for instability and violence,” said he would also kept the door open to talks but made clear that US efforts to isolate Tehran both economically and diplomatically would not end until its leadership changed policies. “The burden is on the Iranian regime to change its behaviour,” he said.
Critics of the administration’s approach suggested that Hook’s new position was a sign the US was adopting a policy of regime change in Iran, something that Pompeo and other officials have denied. They maintain they only want to see the government change course.
Some critics noted that the creation of the Iran Action Group was announced during the 65th anniversary of the five-day period in 1953 in which former Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh was overthrown in a US- and British-backed coup.
Hook said the timing was “pure coincidence” and rejected comparisons between the Iran group and an earlier State Department initiative known as the “Future of Iraq Project” that was undertaken when US policy was to promote the downfall of former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.
Hook is expected to be replaced as policy planning chief by Kiron Skinner, a foreign policy academic and adviser to several Republican presidential candidates who served on Trump’s national security transition team and very briefly at the State Department after Trump took office, according to officials who were not authorised to publicly discuss personnel matters and spoke on condition of anonymity.