This should be a good time to be Brian Hook. The State Department special representative for Iran is in a commanding position over the Trump administration’s aggressive approach toward a longstanding U.S. adversary. Less than a year since President Trump abandoned the Obama-era Iran nuclear deal, the State and Treasury departments have slapped sanctions on nearly 1,000 people and entities to tighten the screws on Tehran.
And while staffers typically have short shelf lives in the Trump administration, Hook has managed to become a lasting and growing presence. He’s the rare member of former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s inner circle to have thrived under successor Mike Pompeo. According to two sources with direct knowledge, Hook has also cultivated ties at the White House with Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner—something that bedeviled Tillerson—and Mideast envoy Jason Greenblatt. Last month he traveled with Kushner to Saudi Arabia to meet with Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman.
But there’s a cloud over Hook. Two sources told The Daily Beast that the State Department inspector general is in the final stages of a probe into reprisals against career department personnel for their perceived disloyalty to the president. Those sources said Hook is amongst at least eight administration officials the inspector general is examining.
Representatives Eliot Engel and Elijah Cummings in August 2018 expressed alarm about Hook’s appointment as the special representative for Iran given the allegations. “Internal documents... show [Hook] engaging in significant acts of political retaliation against career State Department employees,” they wrote to Pompeo.
“The personnel accusation is without merit and has no evidentiary, procedural, or legal basis,” said a State Department official.
The inspector general’s report is highly anticipated on Capitol Hill. The House Foreign Affairs Committee is set to question Secretary of State Mike Pompeo Wednesday on the department’s budget but members also plan to confront him about the allegations.
Beyond what the watchdog concludes, Hook and his colleagues face concern stretching from Washington to Europe to the Middle East over where the administration’s approach to Iran will lead. (Through a spokesperson, Hook declined to comment for this article.) Several senior officials insist their goal isn’t regime change, and last year, Pompeo laid out an expansive set of conditions that amount to a wholesale transformation of Iranian foreign policy that Pompeo said could anchor a potential diplomatic accord. But there’s no sign of that accord on the horizon, raising questions over how much will be achieved by what Pompeo called “unprecedented financial pressure.”
Outside of Washington foreign policy circles, Hook is an obscure figure, despite his substantial influence over one of the most combustible geopolitical issues the administration confronts. But inside those realms, Hook has substantial influence.
He’s a bridge to the traditional GOP internationalist foreign policy wing that has largely scorned Trump. A former Hill aide, Hook worked at the Justice Department and then the White House under George W. Bush before transitioning to the U.S. delegation to the U.N., where he worked with U.N. ambassadors John Bolton and Zalmay Khalilizad on, among other things, Iran and sanctions issues, something he kept up during a brief 2008 turn as an assistant secretary of state.
After that, Hook was a senior adviser to Mitt Romney’s 2012 campaign and then was tight with Republican foreign-policy stalwarts who became Never Trumpers. While Hook never signed on to their denunciations of Trump, he expressed his reservations. “Even if you say you support him as the nominee, you go down the list of his positions and you see you disagree on every one,” Politico quoted Hook saying in May 2016. Still, his foreign policy experience endeared him to Tillerson, who gave Hook the prestige of running State’s policy-planning shop, a job first held by George Kennan.
“He has a close relationship with Pompeo from what I can tell, and has been central to the secretary’s efforts on Iran,” said a frequent Hook interlocutor, Mark Dubowitz of the conservative Foundation for the Defense of Democracies think tank.
“Brian is well-respected. He’s not an ideologue by any means,” said a former senior Obama administration official who worked directly on the accord with Iran. “He is a critic of the deal. But the fact that he stuck around between Tillerson and Pompeo shows he is a bureaucratic player.”
Others who’ve worked with Hook during the Trump administration put it differently. “He does what’s expedient to get him ahead. He’s an opportunist,” said a State Department official.
On the campaign trail, President Trump sold supporters on the idea that he would pull out of the Iran deal. In May 2018, when he officially announced the withdrawal, Trump said the pact was “one of the worst and most one-sided transactions the United States has ever entered into.”
Under that deal, negotiated by the Obama administration, Iran agreed to significantly diminish its uranium stockpiles, cut its enrichment levels and reduce the number of centrifuges in the country. In exchange for Iranian compliance—which international nuclear watchdogs say still exists today—the U.S. and the EU lifted oil and trade-related sanctions on Iran. Sanctions on Iran’s banking system were also dropped.
But conservative lawmakers, activists and experts immediately rejected the deal—known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA — contending that it was a financial windfall to a hostile power. Iran would be unconstrained after aspects of the JCPOA’s provisions expired, they said, which didn’t require Iran to abandon its missile development, let alone what Washington’s Israeli and Gulf Arab allies view as regional aggression.
Former Treasury and White House officials said the outgoing Obama team knew there was a high possibility that the incoming administration would make changes to the Iran deal. But how Team Trump planned to address the deal was unclear: would they tear it up immediately, expand the deal, extract concessions from European allies for keeping the deal, or structure a withdrawal?
When Hook came into the State Department in early 2017, Tillerson, who favored staying in the deal, gave him a substantial Iran-related brief. Hook became envoy to three pivotal allies—France, Britain and Germany, known as the E3—about expanding the scope of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal to extend its lifespan and add restrictions on Iran’s missile development. That was a priority for Tillerson as part of a failed effort to keep Trump from violating the Iran deal. It didn’t work.
Hook had called the deal “disastrous” in a November 2015 Weekly Standard article, but once at State, colleagues found it difficult to disentangle his position from Tillerson’s. Observations vary. Dubowitz, a tenacious critic of the accord who preferred amending it to abandoning it, said he thought Hook negotiated with the Europeans “in good faith,” even if the negotiations turned out not to have moved the Europeans to the position the administration wanted, particularly on the 2021 expirations of certain provisions. But a former State Department official who worked with Hook was skeptical.
“He was opposed. It was very clear he was extremely suspicious of anyone who worked on the deal,” the former official said.
But colleagues suspected something was at work with Hook beyond antipathy to the Iran deal. “Everyone, early on in those days, got the sense that whether you would survive in the administration was a question. He was doing what he needed to do to seem on Team Trump,” said a second State Department official who wasn’t cleared to talk to reporters.
Though Hook had his own expertise on Iran stemming from his time at State in the Bush administration, he enlisted outside advisers from FDD, the think tank that led the charge against the Iran deal.
Taking lead was Dubowitz, FDD’s chief executive, who didn’t know Hook personally until the Trump administration, “though I knew him by his stellar reputation.” Dubowitz ran point for an FDD Iran team that tapped specialists for advice on Iran’s nuclear program, internal Iranian government dynamics, its economy, illicit finance, associated Mideast regional issues and sanctions.
“I was involved extensively in helping Brian and his team through the U.S.-E3 negotiations,” Dubowitz said. “We were involved in supporting Brian and his team on the core of a supplemental agreement [to the Iran deal], and prior to that, worked closely on framing an Iran strategy and thinking through various aspects of that strategy.”
The Trump administration’s Iran policy is also intertwined with its overall approach to the Middle East. Several individuals with direct knowledge said Kushner’s push for Middle East peace was motivated, in part, by countering Iran’s influence in the region. Hook last month went to Riyadh with Kushner to talk about the peace plan with members of the Saudi Royal Court and Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman.
After quitting the Iran deal, the administration focused its efforts on creating a massive and new series of sanctions. Treasury Department sources told The Daily Beast that the Iran portfolio is by far the most active in the Office of Foreign Asset Control.
“The lines of effort are to change the regime’s behavior, restore deterrence against all threats, and support the Iranian people in their demands for a more representative government,” a State Department official said. “There exists no past precedent for Iran changing its behavior absent strong economic and diplomatic pressure. This approach has worked in the past and there’s every reason to believe it will work again.”
The administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign has at times suggested a military confrontation. Last year, Bolton, now Trump’s national security adviser, raised eyebrows by stating the U.S. military would remain in Syria until Iranian proxy groups left, something the Pentagon denied was its goal. It remains unclear to observers if the administration is containing Iran, seeking to overthrow its regime or pressuring it indefinitely.
That’s because Iran, American officials have conceded, has yet to appreciably change its behavior. The State official said it’s only been five months since oil and financial sanctions returned from their suspension under the JCPOA, but noted that Iran’s budget submission this month saw a substantial cut to military funding. The official promised that “much more is to come. As Secretary Pompeo has said, the regime can behave like a normal nation or watch its economy crumble.”
The sanctions are “aimed at depriving the regime of the revenues that it uses to spread death and destruction around the world,” Pompeo said in November 2018. “Our ultimate aim is to compel Iran to permanently abandon its well-documented outlaw activities and behave as a normal country.”
But while he helped America turn the screws on Iran’s economy, a controversy has dogged Hook from practically the beginning of his time in the administration.
In early 2017, a career official and Iran expert, Sahar Nowrouzzadeh, had her assignment to Hook’s policy-planning directorate cut short. It followed a damaging article in Conservative Review that said Nowrouzzadeh, an “Iran deal architect,” had “burrowed into the government under President Trump.” Nowrouzzadeh had started her government career at the Defense Department during the Bush administration.
The article lit a fire in right-wing circles and quickly migrated to the State Department. David Wurmser, a former aide to Dick Cheney, emailed it to Newt Gingrich on Mar. 14, 2017, commenting “I think a cleaning is in order” at State. Gingrich sent it to Margaret Peterlin, Tillerson’s chief of staff who, as CNN first reported, passed it to deputy Christine Ciccone and White House liaison Matthew Mowers. “We’re working with Brian [Hook] on how best to organize his team and have discussed where Sahar, a career employee detailed to that office previously, may be of best use to the agency if not in” policy planning.
Hook received the article separately and sent it to a career staffer in the policy planning office, Edward Lacey. Lacey, in an email first reported by Politico, called Nowrouzzadeh and other colleagues “Obama/Clinton loyalists not at all supportive of President Trump’s agenda.”
Lacey then told Hook, “I succeeded in ousting five whose details expired before your arrival.”
Hook replied, “Ed– This is helpful. Let’s discuss on Monday.”
That same morning, in an email that subsequently caught the eye of House Democrats and the State Department inspector general, Nowrouzzadeh reached out to Hook for help over the “unfortunate” and “misinformation”-filled Conservative Review article.
“I’ve adapted my work to the policy priorities of every administration I have worked for,” she told Hook—who forwarded her email to Lacey. Nowrouzzadeh “helped promote and defend the JCPOA—I would say, with enthusiasm,” Lacey replied.
Soon afterward, Nowrouzzadeh, whose stint at Policy Planning was supposed to last until July 2017, was reassigned to the Department’s Near East bureau. On Apr. 21, Politico reported Nowrouzzadeh’s reassignment. Emails obtained by The Daily Beast showed State officials attempting to craft a response for the piece that Nowrouzzadeh said was untrue. “[H]ow about saying something like: ‘It is regular practice for detailees to return to their parent office at the completion of their detail assignments,’” Lacey emailed colleagues on Apr. 17, 2017.
Nowrouzzadeh replied: “Ed—My assignment was not ‘completed.’”
Once the piece was published, Hook emailed Tillerson press aide RC Hammond calling it “a ludicrous story. At least we aren’t named.”
Four days later, Hook sent himself an email, also obtained by The Daily Beast, with the subject “Derek notes.” Two powerful House Democrats, Engel and Cummings, said that referred to then-National Security Council Mideast director Derek Harvey, who now works for Rep. Devin Nunes.
(Asked for comment, Nunes spokesman Jack Langer said: “You’d think with their two-year-long string of discredited stories alleging Russian collusion with the Trump campaign, The Daily Beast would stop relying on leaked and spun information fed to them by partisan sources. Clearly, that lesson has not been learned.”)
Hook indicates in the “Derek notes” email that Nowrouzzadeh was a subject of conversation. Hook also appears to memorialize a conversation about other individuals in the administration, using the words “leaker,” “troublemaker,” “Work to damage president,” “Turncoat who said we have to resist.” The email doesn’t indicate anywhere that Hook was outlining his own perspective.
Another “big trouble maker” identified in the email is Brett McGurk, then the envoy to America’s allies against the so-called Islamic State; Hook’s interlocutor envisioned “let[ing McGurk’s] office wind down” even as the battle to recapture Mosul raged. McGurk, who resigned in December 2018 after Trump decided to withdraw from Syria, declined comment.
The State Department did not comment on the record for this story. But two sources tell The Daily Beast that the inspector general interviewed its last witness for its probe into Hook and others’ potential political retaliation against Nowrouzzadeh and the other career officials.
“Our review and report of allegations of political retaliation against Department of State employees are still in process,” said Sarah Breen, a spokesperson for the inspector general, who said that office plans to issue a public report detailing its findings.
“I’m outraged by reports that State Department employees have faced unfair treatment and retaliation for their perceived political beliefs, national origin, ethnicity or other prohibited reasons,” Engel told The Daily Beast. “And I’m deeply disappointed that despite numerous requests from the Foreign Affairs Committee and other Members of Congress, the State Department refuses to explain how they are handling this serious issue. It makes me wonder: what is the Department trying to hide?”
That question could be addressed soon. Sources say the committee is prepared to hold a hearing on the inspector general’s investigation in the next two months.