ON-THE-RECORD BRIEFING Special Representative for Iran Brian Hook And Ambassador Nathan A. Sales, Coordinator for Counterterrorism

April 8, 2019

Press Briefing Room
Washington, D.C.

MR PALLADINO:  Thank you all very much.  We now have Special Representative for Iran and Senior Advisor to the Secretary of State Brian Hook and our Assistant Secretary for Counterterrorism Nathan Sales.  They’d be happy to take additional questions.  Please.  Let’s start – Associated Press, Matt.

QUESTION:  So, I’m just curious.  This has been obviously under consideration for a while.  Previous administrations have considered it as well but opted not to do it, and one of the reasons has been for not doing it to date that it creates complications – particularly in Iraq but also in Lebanon and elsewhere for American soldiers but also American diplomats and how they – so are there any exclusions, waivers, carve-outs, however you want to call this, that would allow the kind of contacts, particularly in Iraq, that American commanders or regular troops might have with people – Iraqi officials who, by virtue of their station, have to interact with IRGC personnel.

MR HOOK:  I’ll do the first part and then ask (inaudible) to take on the second part.  The IRGC has been threatening American troops almost since its inception.  And whenever we impose sanctions on Iran, it’s usually followed by a range of threats.  What endangers American troops in the Middle East is an IRGC that operates with impunity and never has its ambitions checked in the Middle East.  We’re taking an entirely new approach to this of significant sort of sustained maximum economic pressure to deny the IRGC and the Iranian regime of the revenue that it needs to conduct its foreign policy.

And we know that the IRGC has been a principle architect, an enforcer of Iran’s foreign policy since around 1979, the way the ayatollah designed the regime.  And they are trying to reshape the Middle East in their favor, working as a power broker and as a military force.  And they assassinate rivals, not only in the Middle East but in Europe.  They organize, train, and equip these militias all over the Middle East.  As we saw in Syria, they direct a network of militant groups, and in the case of Iraq, they’ve killed over 600 American servicemen.  And so we think it’s important to – in this case today, we’re adding a layer of additional sanctions on the IRGC to make radioactive those sectors of Iran’s economy that are influenced or controlled by the IRGC.

QUESTION:  (Off-mike.)

MR HOOK:  I’ll let Nathan answer your second question.

QUESTION:  Well, I just want to make sure you understood.  I’m not talking about threats to U.S. forces and diplomats from Iran.  I’m talking about threats to them from potential U.S. prosecution for violating sanctions by doing something that may be construed as providing material support to an IRGC affiliate or associate.  That’s —

AMBASSADOR SALES:  We’re not going to answer hypotheticals about various cases that could be conjured up in the future.  We simply don’t have anything to say on that.  What I can tell you is the United States has a strong interest in an Iraqi Government that is strong and stable and sovereign and free from malign external influence.  The record of Iranian involvement in the region is not a promising one.  Look at Syria, look at Yemen, look at Lebanon.  We have an interest in making sure that Iraq does not take that road and is able to stand on its own two feet as a strong and prosperous country in its own right.

MR HOOK:  I would just maybe add one thing to that.  The Middle East cannot be more stable and peaceful without weakening the IRGC.  It’s just simply not possible.  When you study their 40-year history, it’s impossible to allow the IRGC to continue to operate under this fiction that it’s a benign part of the Iranian Government.  It is the blunt instrument of Iran’s foreign policy, and it has been that way for decades.  And what we’re doing today is, in addition to the new tools that this gives us, we’re also stigmatizing this organization.  We’re highlighting to the world, as the Secretary just did, the perils of working with the IRGC, which by some estimates controls up to or more than half of Iran’s economy.


QUESTION:  Thank you.  So does this rule out any sort of contacts with anyone connected to the IRGC?  And I’m asking because in the past – the past – last administration had to negotiate with the IRGC to get American hostages out, for instance, or at least have some contacts with members of the IRGC.  So do you not have any kind of contact with people who are holding Americans or people who are threatening Americans in places like Iraq?

AMBASSADOR SALES:  Let me tell you what the law provides.  The law provides that it is a federal criminal offense punishable by up to 20 years in prison for any person who provides material support to a designated foreign terrorist organization.  That is what the IRGC will be seven days from today.  Now, the application of that law to particular cases, it’s impossible to predict in advance what that’s going to look like.  We simply don’t want to get into hypothetical situations.

But the point of this designation that the Secretary just announced is to render the IRGC radioactive, and so all businesses, all foreign officials who are thinking about engaging with the IRGC, should think long and hard about whether that makes sense.

QUESTION:  But that includes U.S. Government, American diplomats?

MR HOOK:  Well, we have – this is a tool.  The FTO tool is something that we have used since 1993, I want to say, over 60 times.  And we’re still able to execute our diplomacy and our foreign policy without any impediments, and we have —

QUESTION:  But this is the first time you’ve done it to a U.S. —

MR HOOK:  Right, but we —

QUESTION:  — to a government entity.  That’s why I’m asking the question.

MR HOOK:  Doing this will not impede our diplomacy.

MR PALLADINO:  Al Quds, Said.

QUESTION:  Thank you for taking this.  Sir, just to clarify, on Iraq, will you be requiring the Iraqi Government as of now to turn over any suspected or known members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard since you’ve declared them as terrorists?

AMBASSADOR SALES:  We’re not making any demands of the Iraqi Government.  As I said a moment ago, we share the Iraqi Government’s interest in ensuring that the Government of Iraq is able to represent a proud and free and prosperous people without any undue influence from malign actors.

QUESTION:  So they will continue to operate freely in Iraq?

AMBASSADOR SALES:  It is a criminal offense for any person to provide material support to a designated foreign terrorist organization.  How that applies in particular cases we’re simply not going to speculate about right now.

QUESTION:  Thank you.


QUESTION:  Yeah, hi.  A quick question.  So over the weekend, an IRGC commander warned that if the U.S. take – took this action, U.S. forces in Western Asia will lose peace and quiet.  And it’s obviously something we’ve been talking about, U.S. forces operating very close to the IRGC members in Iraq.  So is there more being done to provide safety measures to members of the U.S. military that are in close proximity, or are you confident that they are defended enough against the IRGC at this point?

MR HOOK:  The decision leading up to this process was a full interagency process that included every member of the National Security Council.  We have taken all measures that are appropriate and prudent in the context of this designation.

With respect to Iranian threats, when you play under house rules, the house always wins.  And Iran has a very long history of trying to get the world to play by its rules, and every time the world calls out this regime for being a mafia racket – the IRGC, as the Secretary said, resembles more a racket than a revolutionary cause.  And so whenever we and other nations call out and expose the regime for what it is, it behaves like a mafia organization, increasing its threats, and we will not be deterred by their threats.

AMBASSADOR SALES:  And let me just say we’re not going to get into the details of what we’re doing to make sure that our people downrange are safe.  I can assure you that we take force protection very, very seriously, and that is why we have run a robust interagency process to make sure that all interested parties are prepared for whatever the Iranian regime might throw at us.

MR PALLADINO:  Let’s go to CBS, Christina.

QUESTION:  Thanks.  Hi, guys.  Can you talk a little bit to Matt and a little bit Kylie’s question about the timing of this designation?  I know there has been some criticism about, especially now, because U.S. forces are in close proximity, this might put them at risk, which you answered a little bit.  But we’ve been hearing about this for a year.  Why now?  What was the tipping point that made this designation important this week?

AMBASSADOR SALES:  Well, it’s the next step in our maximum pressure campaign.  This administration previously designated the IRGC for providing support to terrorism.  Today, we have stripped away the plausible deniability.  It’s not just that the IRGC supports terrorism that its proxies undertake.  Today the IRGC stands accused and convicted of directly engaging in terrorism itself.

This new tool doesn’t just add rhetorical heft to our campaign.  It has practical, real-world consequences, some of which we’ve discussed.  It’s now a federal criminal offense to provide material support to a designated FTO such as IRGC when this take effect on Monday.  The material support statute is an incredibly powerful tool.  Since 2001, since 9/11, we’ve used it to obtain hundreds of convictions.  And the sentence, “For which you are eligible if convicted,” 20-year maximum penalty.  So this creates very powerful deterrents for anyone who would provide material support to the IRGC or to any other designated organization.

QUESTION:  Can I have a follow-up?

QUESTION:  Let me just add your phrasing of that – IRGC’s —

MR PALLADINO:  Let him finish.  Let him finish.  Go ahead, Brian.

MR HOOK:  Matt – we have said from the time the administration came into office that we’re going to be taking a new approach to Iran, and you have seen over now two years we’ve had 25 rounds of sanctions.  We’ve designated almost a thousand individuals and entities.  We left the Iran deal, which has given us enormous diplomatic and economic leverage to go after the full range of threats that Iran presents to peace and security.  This is just another chapter, and there will be more chapters to come.  This is a sustained and focused effort at the direction of the President that enjoys the full support of the national security cabinet.


QUESTION:  And can I follow up?  Last time you were here, we talked about that 600 number that’s been mentioned several times today.  You said the Pentagon would give more guidance.  They didn’t really.  Do you have any more context as to how that number was arrived at as the 600 —

MR HOOK:  Well, it’s – there have been estimates over many years.  I think in the Obama administration, one DOD official said that somewhere north of 500.  It took a while to I think pull together all of the information and to be accurate about it, and the number that has come out of the Defense Department is over 600.  Secretary gave the number – I think it’s 603 – and those are just the ones who’ve been killed.  It’s an enormous number of Americans who’ve been maimed and hurt because of Iran’s improvised explosive devices.

That’s only Iraq, which accounts for 17 percent of all American service – servicemens’ deaths in Iraq.  That doesn’t include Lebanon and the bombings there and other terrorist attacks around the world conducted by this regime.  This is the right thing to do; it’s long overdue.  It does give us a lot of new tools, and there will be more tools to come.

QUESTION:  Thank you.

MR PALLADINO:  Matt, do you have a follow-up?

QUESTION:  Well, I just wanted to know about Ambassador Sales’ – the IRGC stands convicted today.  I mean, are you referring to a court decision, the one that the Secretary mentioned?  I mean, it’s a legal term, and I’m not aware that they have been convicted of being a foreign terrorist organization.  They may well should – that may well happen, but are you referring to previous cases where that’s happened?

AMBASSADOR SALES:  Matt, don’t be so literal.

QUESTION:  Well, I just want – I mean, it’s a legal phrase.  You said “convicted,” so —

AMBASSADOR SALES:  That was a rhetorical turn of phrase.

QUESTION:  Got you.  Okay.

AMBASSADOR SALES:  With the announcement today, which will take effect a week from now, the legal status of the IRGC will change from an organization to a designated foreign terrorist organization.  That was the sense in which I used the phrase.

QUESTION:  Got you.  All right.

MR PALLADINO:  One more question?

AMBASSADOR SALES:  Yup, I’ll do one more.

MR PALLADINO:  Let’s go right here.  Please.

QUESTION:  Yeah, thank you.  Earlier on a conference call this morning, a U.S. administration official said that the IRGC’s dual mission is to suppress people at home and the other terrorize abroad.  Now, is this designation today in any way geared towards the first part of the mission here, suppress people at home?  Do you expect this designation to in any way affect how the IRGC treats the people within the country?

MR HOOK:  Yes, we do.  Yes, we do.  The IRGC is responsible for much of the repression at home.  When you saw the protests in 2009, the detentions, the arrests, the harassment, and then the murders, that is very much an IRGC operation.  And so they have been a principle driver of repressing the Iranian people who want a better way of life at home.  So when we deny this organization revenue and we put a black cloud above it, it makes it harder for the IRGC to conduct its mission.  And they also do this overseas, principally through the Quds Force.  And so today’s designation is IRGC and Quds Force, and they are the – of course, IRGC and QF rotate personnel domestically and internationally as Soleimani sees fit.  As Qasem Soleimani said in March 2009, “The battlefield is mankind’s lost paradise.”

And this is the true nature of Iran’s foreign policy.  It is not the very nice-seeming tweets of Iran’s foreign minister.  If you want to know Iran’s foreign policy, pay more attention to what Qasem Soleimani has said and continues to say.  He was recently given a medal by the supreme leader, who wished for his martyrdom, and the supreme leader has said things – he’s been lionizing people who drink “the sweet syrup of martrydom.”  This regime is in many ways a death cult, and their foreign policy resembles that with all of this talk about martyrdom.  And it’s a very dangerous, dark, and brutal regime, both for the Iranian people and for those nations who are on the front line of trying to respond to Iranian aggression.

And we know that Saudi Arabia, with the missile launches from Yemen into Saudi; Bahrain, which has – since ’81 the Iranian regime has tried to destabilize and overthrow the government there in Bahrain; Lebanon, Syria, the Hizballah tunnels – the list goes on and on.  It is very hard to imagine a peaceful Middle East with a strong Iranian regime.

QUESTION:  But Brian, when —

MR PALLADINO:  We’re going to call it there, then.  Thank you all very much.

MR HOOK:  Thank you.