Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced earlier this month that Brian Hook, the State Department official tasked with crafting the Trump administration’s Iran policy, was stepping down. The department is replacing him with Elliott Abrams, the stalwart Republican foreign policy hand who currently serves as special envoy for Venezuela. Some of the opponents of the administration’s “maximum pressure” strategy — which is designed to undo the sanctions relief negotiated by the Obama administration to force Iran’s agreement to a tougher nuclear deal — took Hook’s departure as a tacit acknowledgement of the Trump administration’s failure.
Last Friday, the United States lost a vote to extend the U.N.’s arms embargo on Iran; only one other country supported the push. This afternoon, Pompeo visited the U.N. to demand that the Security Council snap back into place all sanctions that are supposed to be lifted under the 2015 Iran deal, which the United States left in 2018. Each of the council’s other permanent members has vocally objected to the move.
These are some of the reasons why the administration’s critics claim Hook failed. The Washington Post’s Jason Rezaian penned “a requiem for Trump’s failed Iran envoy.” MSNBC’s Steve Benen made a similar point: “Hook, who’s clearly had a troubled tenure in the Trump administration, leaves at a time when the failure of the president’s policy is obvious.” And a “former senior administration official,” (which administration that would be is not clear) who went unnamed in a Washington Post report said that Hook is “being asked to leave to take the fall for the failed Iran strategy.” Other examples abound.
But the immediate explanation of Hook’s departure as an acknowledgement of failure now seems premature, in light of subsequent events. The personnel change was announced on August 6. The next time Hook appeared above the fold he was standing next to the president as he announced a historic normalization agreement between Israel and the United Arab Emirates. And during Pompeo’s press conference at the U.N. this afternoon, Hook was standing right next to him. Although it will be strongly contested, today’s snapback demand is a move that Hook played a significant role in orchestrating.
Reasonable people can debate the merits of the Trump administration’s approach to Iran, and it’s also true that the move to snap sanctions back in place will be messy. But whether the White House’s strategy is succeeding on the terms that it defined is an entirely different question. U.S. sanctions are back in place, and Washington is exerting pressure on the U.N. to reimpose its sanctions (even if other Security Council members object) — all of which makes it politically difficult for a future Democratic administration to return to the accord without first extracting concessions from the Iranian side. Isn’t this what Hook has been working to accomplish?
So did Hook fail so terribly that Pompeo needed to switch him out? Quite the contrary. He quit just as he notched some victories for the administration’s Iran policy.