Brian Hook is Trump’s Iran whisperer
The way the wind whipped on the other end of the line, the State Department’s special representative for Iran knew the man he’d called was at sea.
“This is Brian Hook,” the American official said, his voice stern and direct. The connection wasn’t great, and the swirling gusts made it hard for the Mediterranean shipping executive on the other end to hear him clearly.
“This is Brian Hook from the State Department,” the Iran envoy repeated, hoping his words would cut through the noise. With a hint of resignation in his voice, the shipping executive responded after a long pause, “I know who you are.”
Then came the thrust of the conversation: Ensure your ships don’t carry Iranian crude, said Hook, or that would defy the Trump administration’s maximum pressure campaign against the Islamic Republic.
But to understand just why a high-ranking State Department official would jump on the phone with a shipping magnate, it helps to know a bit more about oil. In particular, Iranian oil.
According to the latest estimates, Iran boasts the third- or fourth-largest oil reserves in the world. Even with obsolete extraction and refining technology, it’s bursting with black gold. A find announced just this November added an estimated 53 billion barrels to what are called “recoverable” reserves — this one just 180 feet underground. Compared to, say, the complexity and challenge of pulling crude from deepwater drilling rigs in the North Sea or hydraulic fracking in North Dakota, this is basically like scooping oil from a sandbox.
It’s not surprising, then, that Iran’s economy relies heavily upon crude exports. The problem is that exporting oil has been increasingly hard of late — and Iran’s economy is in a parlous way.
The US government — under Hook’s direction — has imposed a heavy toll of sanctions on Tehran, limiting the state’s ability to conduct financial transactions, import goods, and sell its voluminous reserves of oil on the global market. But the Iranian government hasn’t taken this lying down.
Sometimes tankers “go dark” as they near Iranian ports, with captains disregarding international rules that require they divulge the ship’s position and course. Sometimes Iran employs ship-to-ship transfers — transferring cargo to another seagoing vessel — to make the goods harder to track. And other times the Islamic Republic, or others doing business with it, will forge paperwork to hide what’s being exported.
But when Hook gets a tip, he likes to know other important players have the same information. And recently, the envoy has been busy, reaching out directly to a handful of high-powered maritime leaders and at least a dozen ship captains to convince them — through a mixture of threats and financial incentives — not to do business with Iran. “We are trying to dry up their labor pool to move illicit oil,” a US official told the Financial Times of the outreach.
The shipping world, then, knows about the bookish lawyer-turned-diplomat. But you’d be forgiven if you’ve never heard of him. Until recently, most people hadn’t.
One of the most important foreign policy officials in the Trump administration, the 51-year-old Iowa native has helped design the administration’s new strategy toward Asia and North Korea. He has a hand in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. And he’s close to Trump’s inner circle, especially senior White House adviser and presidential son-in-law Jared Kushner.
And for over a year now, he’s been serving as the US special representative for Iran, spearheading the president’s campaign against the country — placing crushing sanctions on the Islamic Republic’s economy to compel it to negotiate a new nuclear deal with America and thoroughly change its behavior.
Trump and Pompeo may be the faces of US foreign policy, then, but Hook is the one working behind the scenes to turn the president’s scattershot impulses into a meaningful strategy toward the country.
“He’s the translator,” said R.C. Hammond, a former top Trump State Department official and Hook friend.
Once a Trump critic, Hook served as a senior official in the George W. Bush administration, a top adviser to Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign, and a confidante of former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. That he worked his way from the heart of the Republican establishment to lead a nontraditional Republican’s signature foreign policy remains stunning to many.
“He’s a survivor,” said a State Department official who, like others interviewed for this story, requested anonymity to speak freely about a colleague.
His survival, though, is now under threat. Current and former State employees — many of whom worked with or for Hook — complain the top diplomat ignores them or shuts them out completely. A State Department report detailed how Hook pushed out a staffer over outside conservative pressure for bigoted and partisan reasons, a conclusion he fiercely denies.
It all adds fodder for his many critics in Congress who say his grasp of Iran policy is rudimentary and overly aggressive. “I’m not a fan of his,” Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA), a member of the Senate Foreign Relations and Armed Services committees, told me. “He is like a John Bolton type: bellicose first, analyze later, if at all, then justify the bellicose actions we take as necessary. I don’t think his assessment of the Iran situation shows much real-world connection.”
Even certain congressional Republicans agree, telling me Hook’s personnel problems make it impossible for him to testify in front of Congress again. “He’ll get eaten alive,” said a senior aide to a Republican senator, noting many top GOP lawmakers and Trump allies still support the envoy.
If things in Washington aren’t all warm and fuzzy for Hook, it’s not all roses out in the world, either. Hook organized a disastrous international conference that isolated America more than Iran, critics say. Europeans didn’t accede to his demands to reform the nuclear deal as the administration initially wanted. Despite the strain on the regime, Tehran lashed out violently to America’s withdrawal of the Iran deal by bombing oil fields in Saudi Arabia and restarting its nuclear program. In recent weeks, the government has cracked down on protesters demanding new leadership, killing at least 180 people and perhaps hundreds more.
Tehran’s actions, some fear, could set it on a collision course with Washington that could turn into a disastrous war.
Through it all, Hook has stayed out of the limelight, instead finding a place steps from the secretary of state’s office and in the heart of the Trump administration. “We’re putting Iran at the center of everything,” a State Department official told me, “which puts Hook at the center of everything.” That makes understanding Hook vital to understanding Trump’s foreign policy today — and what it could mean for Iran heading into a critical year.
This account of Hook’s career, including his three years at the top of President Trump’s foreign policy team, is based on interviews with nearly 20 current and former US officials, congressional members and staff, experts, and people close to him.
“Let’s figure it out when you get in”
The son of a banker, Hook grew up a staunch Catholic with an eye for politics. As a teenager, he watched The McLaughlin Group every Sunday and was dazzled by conservative icon William F. Buckley Jr. Once in college, he called Buckley’s agent to express admiration and received an invite to watch the firebrand speak in Bemidji, Minnesota, after which Hook got to eat dinner with the commentator.
They became quick friends, going on sailing trips and holding deep conversations about their Catholic faith, the music of Bach, and books — anything besides politics. Buckley left those conversations for his op-eds and television appearances. Hook admired that Buckley’s life was larger than politics, and it’s a code the husband and father of three tries to live by in his personal life, those close to him say.
But Hook still pined for politics. He got his first chance in the 1990s, when he worked as a legislative aide to both Iowa Rep. James Leach and Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad (now the US ambassador to China) while attending law school. Those who knew him then said he showed an aptitude for public service. After graduating from law school at the University of Iowa in 1999, Hook moved to Washington — but to practice corporate law at the private firm of Hogan and Hartson.
Working in the nation’s capital, Hook increasingly immersed in the political world, and in 2003 joined the Department of Justice under President Bush. He quickly climbed the ladder, serving as a special adviser to the president on policy, where Hook learned the high-stakes and quick tempo operations of the White House. At the United Nations as a special adviser to the ambassador, he gained familiarity with the intricacies of diplomacy, sanctions policy, human rights, and Iran.
He then became the acting assistant secretary of state for international organizations in June 2008, receiving an official confirmation by the Senate that October — four months before Barack Obama was sworn in as president. “The fact that he got confirmed so late in the Bush administration shows the strong bipartisan relationships he has,” Kristen Silverberg, Hook’s immediate predecessor in that role, told me.
Those close to Hook attribute that to his outwardly warm, affable demeanor. “He’s political, but not partisan,” a person close to Hook told me.
His thirst for politics didn’t end when he left government at the end of the Bush administration in 2009. He got to work as the foreign policy adviser for Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s presidential run. When Pawlenty’s campaign ended, Hook moved over to become a senior adviser on Mitt Romney’s team, helping him shape the eventual Republican nominee’s worldview.
That campaign cycle had an unusual focus on foreign policy. Romney repeatedly assailed Obama’s record with the usual Republican talking points: He was weak on terrorism, Russia, North Korea, and Iran; he embraced dictators instead of allies; and he shied away from using US military power abroad — particularly in the Middle East — over fears of embroiling the US in another war.
Those arguments, though, weren’t quite enough to convince voters to dislodge the incumbent. After Romney lost, Hook, along with his campaign colleagues Eliot Cohen and Eric Edelman, felt they should stick together to keep Romney’s internationalism alive and groom the next generation of Republican foreign policy leaders.
They founded the John Hay Initiative, a think tank and advisory group promoting that internationalist vision, in 2013. “We’re trying to build the bench” of new Republican foreign policy leaders, Hook told the Wall Street Journal in 2015.
Peter Feaver, a former Bush administration official who worked for Hook at John Hay, described him as “charming” and “serious,” adding that Hook “isn’t the kind of sharp-elbowed, sharp-tongued player you encounter in Washington.” That served Hook well when handling the political side of the group’s operations, some said, as he worked contacts in Congress and attracted donors. He managed to do all that while also running his own international consulting firm, Latitude, and engaging in humanitarian projects like improving refugee housing conditions and women’s health in sub-Saharan Africa.
Then came candidate Trump and his “America First” foreign policy. It was anathema to much of what the initiative stood for. Cohen, Hook’s co-lead at John Hay, orchestrated the March 2016 release of a letter signed by 122 GOP foreign policy experts, all agreeing they were “united in our opposition to a Donald Trump presidency.” It was one of multiple statements made by so-called “Never Trumpers” who argued the candidate’s stances were dangerous for the country.
Hook seemingly felt the same way: “Even if you say you support him as the nominee,” he told Politico in 2016, “you go down the list of his positions and you see you disagree on every one.”
But Hook didn’t sign Cohen’s Never Trump letter — or any other public declaration against candidate Trump. The reason, according to those familiar with his thinking, was a mix of patriotism and worry about his future prospects. “He’s not a letter signer,” a person close to him told me. “He wants people to serve their country.”
That reticence, or patriotism, allowed Hook’s friend Chris Christie, the former governor of New Jersey and one-time presidential candidate, to pull Hook into the Trump transition team. His name was floated for a top administration job, but it was unclear what exactly it might be.
It became more apparent the day before Trump’s inauguration. On January 19, 2017, the president’s pick for secretary of state, then-Exxon Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson, held a one-hour meeting with Hook in which they discussed how the administration might run foreign policy. The two men didn’t know each other, but by the end, Hook was offered the job as director of policy planning in the State Department and Tillerson’s chief foreign policy adviser.
Hook asked his soon-to-be boss what, exactly, would be expected of him in the role. Tillerson, according to a senior department official, simply replied, “Let’s figure it out when you get in.”
Hook was integral to “how the building ran” early in Trump’s presidency
The policy planning office (known internally as S/P) is akin to the State Department’s in-house think tank. Filled with career staffers that span multiple administrations, it’s an office for long-term thinking on nearly every challenge facing the country. Whoever leads this team helps set the course of US foreign policy for years, and previous officeholders include prominent figures like George Kennan, Anne-Marie Slaughter, and Richard Haass.
Hook’s arrival as director was encouraging for many in the policy office. “There was a lot of optimism on the team when he joined,” a former State Department official who worked with Hook told me. “We thought he’d be very helpful since he was at State before, knew how the building worked, and would respect career staff in a way the administration hadn’t.”
That hope faded fast for many.
Current and former staffers told me that Hook didn’t hold a staff meeting for at least his first six weeks in the building. Employees reporting directly to him, many working on top issues like Iran and North Korea, didn’t know what their new boss wanted from them. “There was no direction, no blueprint in terms of how he wanted things to run and what he expected,” one former staffer told me. “Colleagues were fighting for work and spent most of their time in the cafeteria with nothing to do.”
That, in large part, was a function of the broader chaos inside the State Department. While most incoming administrations have teams of people lined up to hit the ground running on Inauguration Day, the Trump administration spent months without top diplomats in place. Other than Tillerson and his deputy, John Sullivan, no other Senate-confirmed appointee at the undersecretary or assistant secretary level came into office for many months, meaning Hook had to spend days and weeks away from his team to travel with Tillerson or brief the White House on policy.
Hook prefers to work in tight teams, State Department officials told me, and he frequently held small-group meetings in his office on North Korea, Iran, China, and ISIS. Those who worked on topics not on the president’s priority list didn’t get much face time with the boss. Hook likes “go-getters,” said a senior department official, and it was up to someone leading a non-priority portfolio to make the case for why they should pay more attention to their issue.
Staffers who got to interact often with Hook, though, came away with a good impression. “All those willing to offer ideas, written products, and support the process were given meaningful and substantive roles,” said a current department official in an email. “This was a meritocracy: excellent written products, fresh ideas, and energy were rewarded.” Hook “connected with the secretary and started building a staff process appropriate to his and the interagency’s needs.”
Further, the official offered a theory for why so much ire was reserved for Hook. “Those folks were not inclined toward constructive and receptive team-building with the incoming secretary and key secretary assistants. This created in S/P a sort of professionally neutral group ready to build bridges with incoming leadership and row hard in a new direction, and a defend-existing-policy/resist change group.”
That would reflect a general sentiment inside the State Department. There was widespread disillusionment among the ranks — people were suspicious of Trump and his pick, Tillerson. But even among the Trump believers, the highest-level officials didn’t have the necessary political support to do their jobs.
Tillerson, for example, was an outsider who hadn’t met Trump before being tapped to lead the building. He only came to Trump’s attention after top Bush administration officials, like former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and former National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley — both of whom had ties to ExxonMobil — pushed for his appointment.
Between the vacancies and general chaos, Hook quickly rose to the top of the administration’s foreign policy team. “Tillerson, [State Department Chief of Staff Margaret] Peterlin, and Hook — that’s how the building ran” early on, a State Department official told me.
“Killing ants with a sledgehammer”
Hook’s biggest assignment, a directive from the president and the secretary of state, was to convince America’s European allies to reform the Iran deal, known formally as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA.
The negotiated 2015 accord — signed by the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, plus Germany, the EU, and of course, Iran — lifted sanctions on Tehran in exchange for restrictions on its nuclear program and invasive monitoring of facilities. It was one of Obama’s signature foreign policy achievements, heralded by Democrats as a historic diplomatic moment and lambasted by Republicans as naive capitulation.
On the campaign trail, Trump called it “the stupidest deal of all time,” seemingly because it didn’t do anything to address Iran’s ballistic missile program or support for terrorism in the region, and because it included a time limit for when the restrictions on its nuclear program would end. He vowed to get the US out of the deal on his first day as president.
But in office, Trump administration officials — many of whom believed the US should remain in the deal, flawed though it may have been — set out to try to negotiate a new side agreement that would address those concerns and keep America in the Iran deal. To do so, the US would first need to get the Europeans on board.
Hook spent months criss-crossing the Atlantic trying to negotiate an enhanced agreement, knowing that Trump’s patience with the endeavor was limited.
“In the event we are not able to reach a solution working with Congress and our allies, then the agreement will be terminated,” Trump said in an October 2017 speech on Iran strategy. “It is under continuous review, and our participation can be canceled by me, as president, at any time.”
The Europeans wouldn’t budge, State Department officials told me, because they wanted to stay true to the already-signed agreement and they had business interests in Iran. Whenever Hook would send documents to his European counterparts with language about removing end dates on the nuclear restrictions, they would come back with bright red lines straight through them, a senior department official told me.
Toughening the deal remained administration policy through at least February 2018, when Hook spoke at a Duke University event moderated by Feaver, a professor there and his former colleague at the John Hay Initiative. “I know the logic that he was pursuing, and I genuinely believe he was trying to get a deal and to get the Europeans to toughen and sweeten their part to get better leverage on Iran,” Feaver confided. “The approach was clearly ‘Let’s fix the Iran deal from inside.’”
It didn’t work. During an April 2018 Oval Office meeting, French President Emmanuel Macron tried to convince Trump that Europe was close to agreeing to a Hook-brokered deal in an effort to keep the Obama-era agreement in place — which some US officials suspected was a ruse to placate Trump.
Trump, however, didn’t seem to know his own administration’s foreign policy was to revamp the Iran deal or even who was leading that effort. Trump’s first reaction to Macron’s plea for a bit more time was: “Who’s Brian Hook?” He pulled the US out of the Iran deal the following month.
Hook still had his admirers in the White House, though, even if he wasn’t a household name in the Oval Office. The White House requested his presence often to brief advisers, mainly Stephen Miller and Jared Kushner, on policy, as well as to attend other normal foreign policy meetings.
“He was at the White House all the time,” a State Department official told me. “The White House would call and tell him to come over, and he would oblige.” Kushner, Miller, and Hook grew close during those many briefings, giving the department leader allies close to the president.
Hook’s defenders say his deference to the White House is defensible. Few knew if they were valued by a mercurial president, and the actions of many top officials could be explained — if not forgiven — mostly by their will to survive in the administration. When the president’s team calls, you come running, and Hook’s phone rang often due to the State Department’s many vacancies. He was “the guy” because he was the only guy around.
Others, though, claim Hook enjoyed his proximity to power. “He got excited when he got to go to Mar-a-Lago for a weekend,” another former State Department employee told me. “He was really diving in as much as he could with the new team, and that was his only focus.”
As Hook grew closer to the White House, some career officials in his team suffered. When a high-level Western European delegation came to meet with Hook in February 2017, no one in the State Department knew about the gathering until that country’s embassy called the relevant desk officer hours before they got to the building. That staffer then contacted the policy planning office to ask if they could send someone to take notes.
“We kind of scrambled and asked Brian if someone other than him could be in the meeting. He agreed, but the sense was he did it to placate us,” a former department official told me. “I don’t think he trusted his staff. There was a feeling that he was trying to shut us out.”
For some, that sense of alienation became clearer when Hook assigned two Pentagon detailees to run a project on how to redesign policymaking inside the State Department. Hook entrusted the military officers with the task due to their previous management and planning experience, but it still felt odd to long-time State Department employees to ask military officials to remake years of department operations. They’d already been affronted by the bevy of consulting firms brought in by Tillerson to revamp the building’s processes.
The final proposal, per five people familiar with the situation, was that Hook’s team would lead all policy generation on everything — not just Iran. Afterward, Hook would bring options to Tillerson and his top lieutenants for their approval. The accepted plans would then “trickle down,” in the words of one person, from leadership — including the policy planning office — to the rest of the bureaus for implementation.
In other words, it would give Hook more power.
That idea wasn’t overly radical, though. Policy planning directors in the past, including during the Obama administration, wielded immense influence over crafting and executing foreign policy. And despite the extensive expertise throughout the State Department offices in Washington and embassies around the world, it’s not unheard of for the secretary to set policy without much input and have staffers execute it.
Tillerson also wanted a bigger say in how his building created policy proposals in top-level administration discussions, especially since he was surrounded by Cabinet officials, like then-Defense Secretary James Mattis, who had immense experience and early influence on the president. Trump constantly boasted about having “his generals” by his side; Tillerson, by contrast, was kept at arm’s length. So Hook, according to multiple officials, wanted to give the boss a proposal to satisfy his strong preference for greater influence in US foreign policy.
Many on Hook’s team agreed there was (and remains) room to streamline and improve the building’s processes, but what the military planners devised at Hook’s request unsettled his employees.
“What’s the point of having all these experts in your building if you have all these closed-circuit proposals?” one former official told me. A current staffer expressed incredulity in more colorful language: “It was like a civilian going into a war room and telling people how to invade. Sure, trim the fat, but that was like killing ants with a sledgehammer.” The proposal, like many of Tillerson’s reforms, never went into place.
Tillerson continued to entrust his top lieutenants with foreign policymaking, and much of the building felt sidelined by his leadership style. It wasn’t just bureaucratic hiccups or sour grapes that angered staffers in his charge, which could be understandable for a new boss in a tumultuous administration. Hook early on became embroiled in a scandal that has put a black mark on his time in government and possibly his future career.
Brian Hook vs. Sahar Nowrouzzadeh
A civil service employee who handled the Iran and Gulf country portfolios for the policy planning team, Sahar Nowrouzzadeh joined the US government in 2005 during the George W. Bush administration. During the Obama years, she helped craft the nuclear deal from inside the White House, an accord that Republicans en masse despised.
“If there’s one thing that unifies Republicans, it’s that the Iran deal was not a good deal for security and non-proliferation,” said Silverberg, Hook’s predecessor at the State Department’s international organizations bureau and now a top executive at the Business Roundtable.
As Trump came to power, his loyalists looked for any signs that “deep state” operatives were conspiring against the president. The paranoia grew as the administration early on suffered leaks about the president’s conduct and mishaps throughout the government. The White House was also obsessed with this notion of a bureaucratic attempt to destroy Trump — a message that fit with his stated desire to “drain the swamp” of entrenched, unelected officials thwarting the movement he led.
Trump allies began to attack US officials suspected of anti-Trump sentiments. Nowrouzzadeh soon found herself directly in the crosshairs. Not only had she worked on the Iran deal in the Obama administration, but her Iranian heritage raised eyebrows — even though she was born in the United States. Articles in Breitbart and elsewhere claimed she had cried after Trump won the election and unfailingly cited her previous work for the National Iranian American Council, which some say is close to the country’s regime. Nowrouzzadeh, her backers note, was just an intern there.
The anti-Nowrouzzadeh campaign soon reached a high-powered audience. Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker and current Trump booster, sent to multiple State Department officials — including Peterlin, Tillerson’s chief of staff — a March 14, 2017, Conservative Review article claiming she had “burrowed into the government under President Trump.”
Hook received the Conservative Review article and sent it to a career staffer and his deputy, Ed Lacey. When Hook asked Lacey about Nowrouzzadeh, Lacey said that many people working in the policy planning staff were Obama holdovers.
“Their picks” — meaning who was chosen to work in the office during the Obama administration — “without exception, were Obama/Clinton loyalists not at all supportive of President Trump’s foreign policy agenda,” Lacey emailed, adding that “all of these detailees have tried to stay on” the team. “Ed – This is helpful. Let’s discuss on Monday,” Hook replied.
That was a change of tune for Lacey, who only days before Trump’s inauguration had only great things to say about Nowrouzzadeh.
“Sahar’s performance as a Member of the Secretary of State’s Policy Planning Staff (S/P) over the rating period [from July 2016 to that point] has been first rate and has exceeded by far the standards expected of a foreign affairs officer of her grade,” Lacey wrote to another State Department staffer in a performance review I obtained that has not been previously reported.
“She is exceptionally well positioned to continue to excel at her position, and should be looked upon very favorably for a promotion as soon as possible so that she can make full use of her talents going forward,” Lacey concluded.
It’s unclear why Lacey’s opinion of Nowrouzzadeh changed so sharply with Hook at the helm. What is clear, however, is that Hook — with Lacey’s help — wanted to replace her, despite no concrete evidence she did anything to stymie Hook’s policies or Trump’s Iran strategy.
Several State Department officials saw Nowrouzzadeh go into Hook’s office on March 20, 2017, in an effort they say was to seek his help against the broadsides. It’s unclear what happened during that one-on-one session, but some told me they saw the staffer immediately afterward in her office and noticed she had been crying.
Then in April, Lacey wrote an email to Hook in which he said another department official “asked me to initiate the process of wrapping up [Nowrouzzadeh’s] detail. … Unless I hear otherwise from you, I will do so today.” Hook simply responded, “Yes I agree,” and Lacey then let Nowrouzzadeh go. She formally filed her complaint in May, detailing how unfairly she thought her reassignment was handled.
According to several people familiar with the situation and the IG’s report, Lacey told Nowrouzzadeh she was being removed from her role on the Policy Planning Staff because someone else was coming in to handle Iranian affairs. However, that new person — who didn’t know Hook personally — didn’t arrive until months later, indicating that a normal staffing change wasn’t the main reason for her reassignment.
“Employee One’s [Nowrouzzadeh’s] detail … ended on or about April 17, 2017, although it was scheduled to end on or about July 4. Mr. McInnis, the replacement Schedule C appointee to cover S/P’s Iran work, started in September 2017,” the IG’s report reads.
Hook, I was told by two State Department officials, never said a word to Nowrouzzadeh after her dismissal.
Hook got a chance to counter the IG’s conclusion in the report. “I did not ‘acquiesce to pressure’ to use non-merit factors,” he responded. “My personnel decision was lawful, proper, and within the administrative standards for the Department of State.” He added that once he started work as policy planning chief in February, he already “intended to hire my own expert for Iran and the Gulf.”
Hook is still pleading his case. According to a senior administration official, he’s telling State Department officials that the IG report was biased against him and faulty from the start. He is considering some sort of direct action against the IG office’s staff, but it’s unclear what that exactly may be.
Further, Hook argues he couldn’t have been biased against Nowrouzzadeh since the two of them didn’t interact until that late March meeting, going so far as to say she never sent him a substantive email. But two State Department officials — one current and one former — say that they saw “multiple” emails she sent to Hook featuring substantive policy issues on Iran. Many of those emails contained classified information.
Hook’s defenders also insist he did everything by the book and that he had the absolute right to form the team he wanted. Nowrouzzadeh, as a holdover from the Obama administration, just didn’t gel, they say. Hook felt he knew the Iran portfolio well enough and that Nowrouzzadeh wasn’t a “go-getter,” anyway. What’s more, they note, the IG report doesn’t cite a single interview or document that directly ties Hook to forcing out Nowrouzzadeh for bigoted or political reasons.
Tom Shannon, who until February 2018 served as Trump’s undersecretary of state for policy — the State Department’s third highest-ranking position — told me those arguments don’t hold water. “I saw her in several instances at the White House and State, and she’s an absolute professional,” he said. “She completely dominates the subject matter that she works on.”
“It’s offensive to hear her characterized as somehow a slouch, and I think it reflects very poorly on those who are doing this,” he continued.
Nowrouzzadeh’s colleagues were alarmed by what they saw — not only because of what happened, but also because of what they feared might happen to them. “Morale plummeted,” said a current State Department staffer, “and people started jumping ship.”
Hook’s supporters tell a different story. Some people I spoke to said that spirits in the entire policy planning outfit vastly improved after those initial months. Full staff meetings resumed, communication flowed, and Hook’s high profile made the team’s work extremely important and valued. One person even said they were “stoked” to be in that office.
Hammond, the former top State Department official who’s close to Hook, said that Hook’s time as the policy planning chief was a triumph. His greatest achievement was “aligning the State Department with a Trump agenda, which was a 180-degree turn from what they had been used to for eight years” under Obama.
“Policy planning was completely reinvented under Brian,” another department official told me.
But when I asked other current and former officials the same question — did Hook have any major successes in the policy planning role? — all responded with the same sentiment: none.
If any of Hook’s early troubles bothered top administration officials, though, it never showed. Trump fired Tillerson on March 13, 2018. Per three people familiar with the situation, Hook that same day received a call from Kushner in which the president’s son-in-law relayed that Hook’s job was safe.
“Political savvy is what it takes to survive in any presidential administration, but especially one like this with such high turnover,” a person close to the envoy told me.
Hook takes over as Trump’s Iran envoy
After former CIA chief Mike Pompeo was confirmed as secretary of state in April 2018, he immediately took off for a trip to the Middle East and Europe. Hook was on the plane, and they quickly formed a close partnership over Iran issues.
Hook, like many other Republicans, despised the Iran deal. He called it “disastrous” in a Weekly Standard article that came out just four months after the Obama administration made the July 2015 agreement with Tehran. And despite Hook’s work to get the Europeans to expand and strengthen the agreement, Pompeo knew Hook was just following Trump and Tillerson’s directive, people close to the situation told me.
That policy changed abruptly in May 2018. “We cannot prevent an Iranian bomb under the decaying and rotten structure of the current agreement,” Trump said in a White House address. “Therefore, I am announcing today that the United States will withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal.” Previously lifted sanctions fell back on Iran, and more would soon come.
The most important demands were for Iran to stop its support for proxy groups, like Hezbollah in Syria and Lebanon; halt its missile program; end all nuclear enrichment; quit threatening US regional allies like Israel and Saudi Arabia; and allow for international shipping to proceed unimpeded.
The chances of all of those things happening are slim to none, most experts say. But Pompeo named Hook the special representative for Iran policy in August 2018, and so it became his job to try.
“The idea of having an envoy for Iran has been talked about for a long time,” Suzanne Maloney, an Iran expert at the Brookings Institution in Washington, told me. “It has real value because Iran is a crisis that takes up a lot of diplomatic time and energy, and often spans functional and regional directorates in a way that makes it difficult to have a full-scope policy.”
Taking that mantle would put Hook at the center of Trump’s foreign policy and the combustible Washington debate over how to handle Iran. Opinions differ widely, but two main lines of thought persist. On one hand, some say the US should’ve remained in the nuclear deal to keep the proliferation problem at bay and open up dialogue for improved relations. On the other hand, there’s a belief Iran won’t cow unless it feels immense economic pain. The Trump administration firmly believes in the latter.
With a “maximum pressure” campaign, the administration argues it can curtail the worst parts of Tehran’s foreign policy: its funding for terrorist organizations that wreak havoc in the Middle East and around the world; Tehran’s stranglehold control over Iraq; and attacks on US allies like Saudi Arabia.
That’s what Hook, and the team of roughly 20 to 30 people in what’s known as the Iran Action Group (IAG), have aimed to prove. “It was our job to define the contours of what ‘maximum pressure’ looked like,” a former senior State Department official told me, “and then we had to develop and fill in the details.”
Fill it in they have. In conjunction with the Treasury Department, State Department officials tell me the IAG has sanctioned more than 1,000 Iranian and other individuals — including leaders in Tehran — and entities like the military and oil sector. That means no one in the US can do business with them, and Washington has made it known it will come down hard on anyone else who tries to make deals with the Islamic Republic.
Hook and his team now begin each day by looking at a dashboard of Iran’s economic fundamentals — such as the value of the riad or oil exports — to see what effect their moves have had. They seem to have had quite an effect: A year and a half ago, when Hook took on this role, Iran was exporting 2.5 millions barrels per day of oil. That number is now down to half a million.
That’s a huge hit to Iran’s economy, as oil is central to its economic viability. The US-led pressure campaign has starved the Islamic Republic of an estimated $25 billion in oil revenue, per State’s estimates I obtained, and Hook’s team believes Iran’s economy will contract by around 14 percent this year.
To put it mildly, those numbers mean the country is — or is about to be — in a deep depression, and it doesn’t help that the country’s currency has lost 60 percent of its value against the US dollar. A senior State Department official told me a Middle Eastern foreign minister relayed to him that Javad Zarif, Iran’s top diplomat, recently said privately, “We’re dying a slow death.”
Alireza Miryousefi, the top spokesperson for Iran’s mission at the UN, disputed that quote. “We will not allow them to make us die in a slow death,” Zarif said, according to Miryousefi.
Iran is clearly feeling the pain. The question, though, is whether the economic downturn will force Tehran’s hand. Some in Hook’s team believe Iran could collapse by the end of 2020, three administration officials told me, and they’re convinced Tehran will come calling for a meeting soon.
Others believe things will get worse before they get better. They point to Iran’s increasingly violent regional escalation to get the US to back down. Tehran has bombed oil tankers, Saudi oil fields, and restarted critical parts of their once-shuttered nuclear program. And the country has cracked down brutally on recent widespread internal protests, despite global condemnation for its actions.
Sen. Kaine, a former Democratic vice presidential candidate, believes this is proof that the Hook-led maximum pressure campaign is failing. “Iran feels existentially provoked,” he told me. “We could easily be like the Guns of August and blunder into a war that would be foolish to be in.”
Hook’s loyalists beg to differ. “We think our pressure is bigger than their resistance, and they think the opposite,” a senior State Department official told me.
Recently, Hook’s escalation campaign against Iran’s most important resource has become even more pointed.
“I am writing with good news”
On August 26, Hook directly emailed an Indian ship captain piloting an Iranian oil tanker in international waters. “This is Brian Hook ,” he wrote to Akhilesh Kumar. “I work for Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and serve as the US representative for Iran. I am writing with good news.”
Hook explained that if Kumar took the ship to a country that would impound the vessel on America’s behalf, he would receive millions of dollars in compensation through the State Department’s Rewards for Justice program, which gives up to $15 million for information desired by the US.
Kumar wasn’t special, per se: Hook has emailed or called ship captains roughly a dozen times all in an effort to stop Iran from evading US-imposed sanctions.
“Iran knows that the success of our pressure campaign depends on vigorous enforcement of oil sanctions,” Hook told the Financial Times in September. “We have collapsed Iran’s oil exports in a short period of time. We are working very closely with the maritime community to disrupt and deter illicit oil exports.”
That article and word of mouth have clearly raised awareness of Hook’s efforts. According to the State Department, the Rewards for Justice program has received over 23,000 tips on Iran during this administration, all hoping to receive some financial reward for information on Iran’s sanctions-evading practices. Specific rewards, though, are classified.
Critics of the program, mainly Iranian officials like Zarif, say the plan is nothing less than “outright blackmail.”
Hook’s supporters, though, say he’s done a superb job getting the entire diplomatic apparatus to fall in line with the maximum pressure plan. “Brian has completely turned a freighter around regarding America’s Iran policy, both literally and figuratively,” Hammond, the top official in Tillerson’s State Department, told me.
Even critics note that those accomplishments are impressive, but say the US still hasn’t done enough to crush Tehran as hoped. “They’ll survive [the economic pressure] and they’ll make it difficult” for the US, Eurasia Group Iran expert Henry Rome told me, “especially because they want to build leverage for post-2020 negotiations.” The regime may be helped in the short term by European countries working hard to maintain economic and business ties with Iran.
Iran, it seems, is prepared to wait out Trump and is showing its muscle to a future administration. Others agree: The Trump administration has “really painted themselves into a corner,” a department official told me.
In February, for example, the IAG hastily organized a two-day summit in Warsaw meant to recruit more than 60 countries to isolate Tehran as part of the maximum pressure campaign. It ended in total failure as the US isolated itself instead.
Among other embarrassments, the leaders of Germany, France, and the European Union — all members in the Iran nuclear deal — didn’t come, despite Hook’s invitation. Meanwhile, other European and Arab nations sent low-level delegates to the sessions.
That left top American officials, like Vice President Mike Pence and Pompeo, in an embarrassing position. Usually they would only attend events featuring their counterparts; in this case, they flew all the way to Poland to hobnob with foreign leaders well below their stature.
It also didn’t help that Pence gave a fiery speech, lecturing the Europeans about giving Iran money, even though the accord they still adhere to allows it. It’s “an ill-advised step that will only strengthen Iran, weaken the EU, and create still more distance between Europe and America,” Pence said. Many in the audience were stunned, officials told me.
That conference and other woes didn’t keep Hook out of the running to replace John Bolton as national security adviser in September. Two people familiar with the situation said that Kushner pushed for Hook to get the job, though he ultimately lost out.
The admiration inside the administration, however, hasn’t totally translated to Capitol Hill. During an October Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing, Hook testified on Trump’s decision to withdraw US troops from Syria, abandoning long-time Kurdish allies and leading to Turkey’s incursion to kill them.
Sen. Mitt Romney (R-UT), who Hook supported and advised during the 2012 presidential campaign, asked him if Iran would benefit from a lack of American presence and further chaos in the region. Hook could only respond with a non-answer. “Our military is in Syria for ISIS, our diplomacy is focused on Iran,” he said, noting his work on the “pressure side” dovetails with his colleagues’ efforts to find a diplomatic solution in the country.
Romney was incredulous. “It’s astonishing that the Administration’s top Iran expert does not believe Turkey’s attacks on Kurds in Syria are a game changer in favor of Iran,” he tweeted about the exchange. “Kurds are now aligned with Assad, whose regime is backed by Iran!”
It’s astonishing that the Administration’s top Iran expert does not believe Turkey’s attacks on Kurds in Syria are a game changer in favor of Iran. Kurds are now aligned with Assad, whose regime is backed by Iran! pic.twitter.com/R0d4Qad7HQ
— Senator Mitt Romney (@SenatorRomney) October 16, 2019
While he still has many allies on the Hill who admit to being huge Hook fans, some congressional Republicans tell me that that may have been Hook’s last official appearance in front of Congress in this administration. Between Tehran’s aggressive pushback and his role in Nowrouzzadeh’s ouster, they worry Democrats will trash him on camera. Others also admit that Hook isn’t that impressive on Iran policy even in private, which makes him expendable as far as they’re concerned.
Indeed, Hook may have climbed to the top of Mount Trump, but it’s come at the cost of getting on the wrong side of his previously like-minded Republicans. If there was ever a moment to crystalize Hook’s journey, it was his dispute with Romney: Seven years earlier, he helped Romney devise an internationalist American foreign policy. Today, he’s an emblem of the Trump administration to the world — repping a foreign policy that some say is overly brash, overly aggressive, and overly haphazard.
Whether or not he ultimately succeeds with Iran, many will forever peg him as a Trump guy. Only Hook knows whether it’s been worth it, but those who know him understand the situation he’s in.
“This has been an exceptionally difficult administration in which to serve, especially for people of quality,” Feaver, Hook’s former associate, told me. “Just by surviving as long as he has, Brian has accomplished something.”