Briefing on Updates American Citizens Wrongfully Held Abroad (Excerpts)

March 19, 2020

Related Country: 

  • United States
  • Switzerland


 QUESTION: Hi, Brian. My question is: Is the U.S. considering any sanctions relief in exchange for future prisoner releases or to help Iran fight COVID? And to end, aside from WHO contributions, could you give you a little more detail on the offers the U.S. has made to Iran to fight COVID? Thanks.

MR HOOK: Nick, the – this is a sort of tired regime talking point, saying that the sanctions are impacting their ability to deliver assistance for their people. It’s not true. The Iranian people know that. This is why you have not over the last few months seen any protests against American sanctions. The ayatollah has vast resources at his personal disposal. The elite have a lot of money. A lot of the revenue that the regime generates from oil sales and other sales goes to fund billions of dollars in terrorism on foreign wars. And so imagine if only 10 percent of the $16 billion they have spent since 2012 has been spent on a better healthcare system. The Iranian people would have been much better off today.

We have communicated – I don’t want to get into the specifics, but we sent a diplomatic note to the regime through the Swiss making an offer, and it was quickly rejected.


QUESTION: Hello, thanks for doing this. Brian, can I just press you a little bit more on Nick’s question? I understand the comments about the regime, but you mentioned oil revenues. Things like that have been down for a long time, and they are now asking widely for help. So, I am just wondering – and you guys have blacklisted new companies this week. I’m aware of that. Is there any plan, any sentiment within the U.S. Government, to even slightly ease the sanctions?

And related to that, has there been more interest on the Swiss humanitarian channel from different companies who might maybe take this opportunity to send more humanitarian shipments to Iran? Thank you.

MR HOOK: Sure. U.S. sanctions are not preventing aid from getting to Iran. We have broad exemptions that allow for the sale of medicine and medical devices by U.S. persons or from the United States to Iran. So that’s point one.

Point two, the regime has prioritized its proxies over the Iranian people for decades, and they have stolen the money from the people that – the Iranian people would expect it would go to their health care. And if you look at how this crisis has been managed, instead of halting flights to China when the risk of contagion was clear, the regime threatened and imprisoned Iranians who told the truth about the outbreak. The regime encouraged large public gatherings to try to bolster its legitimacy. They did not postpone the elections.

And in terms of money, if the regime is sincere about looking for resources to help the Iranian people, they could start by giving back some of the tens of billions of dollars they have stolen from the Iranian people.

I think you may know this – the Secretary has talked about it – Supreme Leader Khamenei runs a hedge fund worth billions and billions of dollars, and he should give back what he has taken from the Iranian people and help them during this health crisis.

QUESTION: And any interest on the humanitarian channel? Thanks.

MR HOOK: We continue to work – I mean, with the corona crisis there has been a slowdown in commerce broadly, but we are continuing to stay in active discussions to – and we encourage people to use this channel that we have set up through the Swiss to help the Iranian people.

MR HARUTUNIAN: Jennifer Hansler.

QUESTION: Hi, thanks for doing this call. Can you talk a little bit about what role, if any, outside interlocutors played in the release of these two men? And separately, Brian, on Iran, similar to Nick’s question, was there any discussion of holding off on this week’s tranches of sanctions to try to create the atmosphere in which Americans could be released?

MR HOOK: What was the first question? I didn’t hear that.

QUESTION: On any outside interlocutors, did they play a role in the release of either of these men?

MR HOOK: In the case of Michael White, no outside interlocutors played a role.

On the second question, our policy of maximum pressure on the regime continues, and it continues because, as I said earlier, U.S. sanctions are not preventing aid from getting to Iran. And the entire world knows and the Iranian people know that there are – there’s always been, from the very beginning, exemptions for food and medicine and medical devices.

The Iranian regime for 41 years has run an opaque financial sector that causes banks to be very reluctant to deal with a regime that is famous and notorious for money laundering and terror finance. They are under FATF countermeasures now. And so one of the great things the regime could do is to open up its financial sector and make it transparent, and that would make it easier on a lot of financial institutions to trust the people at the other end of the transaction.

We’ve done everything we can to set up the Swiss humanitarian channel. We have processed one transaction. We hope that others will follow.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHENKER: As for Mr. Fakhoury, there were no outside interlocutors. We had been providing consular services to Mr. Fakhoury for his entire ordeal, and we assisted in getting him back home. But no.

MR HARUTUNIAN: Ali Rogin from PBS NewsHour is next.

QUESTION: Hi there. Thank you so much for doing the call. This is a two-part question, the first being: When the United States offered additional assistance to the regime, did Iran say that they did not want to accept it because of the maximum pressure sanctions that are in place? And was there – did they signal that they would be willing to accept this assistance if the sanctions were – if they got some sanctions relief?

And the second part of the question is: If in fact that is the case, do you have any sense that they’re releasing prisoners not just because of the coronavirus risk but also in some bid to get the United States to reduce sanctions in any way?

MR HOOK: In – the regime has not commented publicly on the release of Michael White, and so you’ll have to ask them what their motives are. We requested that the Americans get released as a humanitarian gesture (a) because they’re wrongfully detained and (b) there is a – a corona epidemic in the country.

And so in terms of the bilateral communications, I don’t want to get into that because those are confidential. We have – I’d like to recognize the Swiss Government and the Swiss embassy for the enormous sort of liaison work that they do between the United States and Iran. We were able to get the message to the Iranian Government, and the Iranian Government very quickly got us a message back. And I won’t go into the content of that, but it was a clear rejection, which is regrettable and does a disservice to the Iranian people.