- North Korea
MS ORTAGUS: Hey, everybody. Good morning. So I’m going to bring Brian Hook to the podium here to give a statement, and then he’s going to take your questions. That’s all we’re going to do today. It’s going to be very focused on Iran. And welcome back, Happy post-Labor Day. Great to see all of you.
MR HOOK: Thank you, Morgan. Today, the United States Government is intensifying our maximum pressure campaign against the Islamic Republic of Iran. First, we are announcing a reward of up to $15 million for any person who helps us disrupt the financial operations of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps and Qods Force.
This offer is being made through the State Department’s Rewards for Justice Program. This program gives individuals an incentive to work with the United States to bring terrorists to justice and to prevent acts of terrorism globally. Rewards for Justice has paid more than $150 million to over 100 people in return for information that either prevented acts of terrorism or brought people to justice. And the program’s motto is: Stop a terrorist, save lives.
Today’s announcement is historic. It’s the first time that the United States has offered a reward for information that disrupts a government entity’s financial operations. We have taken this step because the IRGC operates more like a terrorist organization than it does a government. The IRGC and the Qods Force were designated as a foreign terrorist organization in April, and this put them in the same category as many of the terrorist groups that they actively support, such as Hizballah and Hamas.
The IRGC trains, funds, and equips proxy organizations across the Middle East. Iran wants these groups to extend the borders of the regime’s revolution and sow chaos and sectarian violence. We are using every available diplomatic and economic tool to disrupt these operations.
In addition to announcing individual rewards of up to $15 million against the IRGC and the Qods Force, the United States today is also taking sweeping action against an IRGC/QF oil-for-terror network. The IRGC has been running an illicit petroleum shipping network over the last several months. This network has moved hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of illicit oil. That money is then used to fund terrorism.
In recent months, the shipping network used more than a dozen tankers to export nearly 10 million barrels of crude oil, largely to Syria to support Assad. These shipments sold for more than half a billion dollars. The Department of the Treasury today designated more than 25 entities and individuals and 11 vessels involved in this shipping network. The names of these entities and vessels are now listed on Treasury’s website. Those who engage in transactions with these entities, individuals, and vessels are now exposed to U.S. sanctions.
Secretary Pompeo has said many times that we will sanction any sanctionable activity, and taking down this shipping network is another example of delivering on that commitment. The actions today follow the recent sanctioning of Chinese firm Zhuhai Zhenrong and its chief executive for importing Iranian oil.
The maritime community should be aware that the Qods Force uses deceptive practices to move its illicit cargo. It cloaks the origin of its oil. It falsifies documents. And it hides the location of its vessels by turning off transponders, which violates international maritime law and is a threat to safety on the high seas. Vessels tied to the shipping network have tried to pass Iranian oil off as Iraqi oil. Countless Iranian vessels have gone dark just before delivering illicit cargo to places like Syria and to China. Deception is at the heart of the Qods Force shipping network.
Every port operator, ship owner, and management company should steer clear of the targets identified today. The economic and the reputational cost that result from U.S. sanctions are not worth the modest gains of doing business with Iran.
The reward I announced earlier gives members of the maritime community a new tool to help us combat Iran’s oil-for-terror network. We urge any person with information that leads to the disruption of Iran’s petroleum shipping network to contact us. You can submit a tip by visiting rewardsforjustice.net.
This includes information that leads to disrupting vessels like the Adrian Darya, which was formerly known as the Grace 1. This vessel was released by Gibraltar based on guarantees provided by the Iranian Government that it would not deliver its oil to Syria, which is exactly where it appears to be headed now.
Last Friday, the United States Government sanctioned the captain of the Adrian Darya for providing material support to a terrorist organization. The criminal liability and immigration consequences of crewing Iranian tankers are real and not worth the risk.
It’s important that we not lose sight of the big picture. Sanctions on Iran are designed to deny the regime revenue to fund its foreign operations and to bring it back to the negotiating table to reach a new and comprehensive deal.
I’m happy to take a few questions.
QUESTION: Hi. Brian, thank you. I’ve got two questions on slightly different things. But first one on the reward, I’m a little confused as to what kind of information you’re looking for from people, because it would seem to me that the U.S. intelligence community already has enough information to disrupt IRGC finances. I mean, what could the average person – I mean, if they lived in Gibraltar or something, they open their window and see an Iranian-flagged ship, they can call and get 15 – or maybe get $15 million? What kind of information could you imagine would be rewardable?
And then secondly, there seems to be concern in the anti-Iran deal crowd that the President is going to be conned by foreign leaders, i.e., the president of France, and a network of deep state actors within this building and the Treasury, that the President is going to be conned into keeping the Iran deal alive. Is that true? Is it this alleged deep state belief that the President is that manipulatable? Thank you.
MR HOOK: So let me take the first question. The Rewards for Justice Program, as I said, we’ve had over 100 individuals who have received payments. In total we’ve spent over $150 million. If you go to the website, you can take a look at the program overview, and they give specific examples of people who have given actionable intelligence that has disrupted terrorist operations.
We know in the case of Iran and the Qods Force that it uses its oil – the IRGC gets the revenue and the Qods Force, and then they spend it in places like Syria and on Hizballah and Hamas and on the Houthis in Yemen and proxies in Iraq and Syria. And so that’s why we’re calling it an oil-for-terror network.
There are so many touch points along sort of the chain that moves from when the oil is loaded and when it reaches its destination – the crews, the captains, the people who re-provision ships, et cetera. There are many people who are involved in that, and it’s often the tips that you don’t think are going to lead to something big that often do.
QUESTION: So like if I’m a dock worker in Cyprus or something and I see something that I think might be —
MR HOOK: You can use your imagination. There are many possibilities.
QUESTION: All right. And then on the second one?
MR HOOK: The President left the Iran deal because it provided Iran with a pathway to achieve a nuclear weapon. He’s been very clear that it is a bad deal. We have much more leverage outside of the deal to achieve our goal of preventing Iran from ever getting a nuclear weapon than we had inside the deal.
The President would very much like to see a diplomatic resolution to this. It would be helpful if Iran would meet our diplomacy with diplomacy instead of kinetic force. As the President has made clear, we do not want to see a conflict in the Middle East, but we’re also going to intensify our maximum pressure campaign because Iran – we need to deny it the revenue it needs to fund its foreign policy.
And it also, as history shows, is the principal means by which you bring Iran back to the negotiating table. The President would like to negotiate a new and better deal that will address the range of threats that Iran presents to peace and security – the nuclear program, the missile program, the regional aggression, and the arbitrary detention of American citizens.
QUESTION: Yeah. But the concern about this unelected cadre of people who are running around trying to subvert the President’s intention, is there any truth to that? And —
MR HOOK: I can only speak for the State Department, and the State Department – the President enjoys the full support of the State Department and the work that Secretary Pompeo does on behalf of American citizens.
MS ORTAGUS: Since Hudson actually showed up to a briefing, we’ll go to him next. (Laughter.)
QUESTION: Thank you very much. Brian, since, as you said, the President wants to negotiate, do moves like this chip away at the – any sort of positive environment that might take place ahead of a leader-level meeting that he said would be very soon?
MR HOOK: No, I don’t think it does because if you look at the history, the 40-year history of the Islamic Republic, they’re very good at cat-and-mouse diplomacy; they’re very good at nuclear extortion. And so the deadline is coming up on September 6. I think they’ve talked about – I saw something today that they may be giving Europe another couple of months. We believe this is nuclear extortion. Iran does not need to enrich fissile material to have a peaceful nuclear program. That’s why the first demand of the Secretary’s 12 demands is no enrichment.
And so if you look at the history of this, Iran never comes back to the negotiating table without diplomatic pressure – diplomatic isolation and economic pressure or the threat of military force. That’s just been the history of it. And so we will continue, as we have today, to deny the regime revenue, to drive up the costs of its malign behavior, and we think that this creates the right atmosphere that will lead eventually to talks. But that’s a decision that the Iranians have to make.
QUESTION: Is there a point, or at what point when it comes to Iran and its nuclear enrichment does the United States expect the E3 to respond, those in the context of the deal?
MR HOOK: Respond in what way? What do you mean?
QUESTION: Respond by snapping back sanctions or anything specifically related to Iran’s nuclear activities.
MR HOOK: Well, we are outside of the Iran deal. The E3 are still in the deal; they continue with talks with Iran that is in material breach of it. We’re not a party to those talks, but I am in regular contact with our counterparts in the E3. We share the same threat assessment. They do not want Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon. They do not support Iran’s regional aggression. They do not support Iran’s ballistic missile testing. They don’t support Iran’s missile proliferation. They also don’t support Iran’s arbitrary detention of dual nationals.
So we agree on much more than we disagree. For those that are left in the deal, they’ll have to decide how to best to achieve their national security objectives. We know that being outside of the deal helps us to achieve ours much better.
QUESTION: So considering the fact that you guys are rolling out these sanctions today saying that they’re designed to deny the regime revenue, and then at the same time we’re hearing reports that President Macron is meeting with the Iranians to offer them a $15 billion bailout to stay in the deal, how do you square those two things? They seem like they would counteract one another directly.
MR HOOK: No, I don’t think it – it doesn’t counter – it doesn’t contradict it at all. The President very much would like to resolve our differences with Iran diplomatically. He has been in regular touch with leaders around the world, including Prime Minister Abe, President Macron, Prime Minister Boris Johnson. He meets regularly with a range of people. As I said, we all share the same threat assessment. We have the same concerns, especially with our European allies. I think we have tactical disagreements on how to achieve those. But there is – there is no concrete proposal that has been generated.
There have been a number of meetings. The President enjoyed his visit with President Macron. He’s very much open to a number of options, but what we really need to see, we have to see a change in Iranian behavior, which we still haven’t seen yet. And so the President, over the last couple of years, has said many times that he would be glad to meet with the Iranians, but the Iranians have to make a decision about whether they want to start behaving like a normal nation, and that’s a decision that only Iran can make. We hope that they will, and when they do, we will be prepared to negotiate a deal.
QUESTION: And is now the time for France to be conducting these kinds of conversations?
MR HOOK: That’s a question for France. The United States is – we are sort of very focused on our national security objectives and we’re happy with the progress we’re making to achieve them.
QUESTION: Can you rule out that the U.S. would be willing to provide waivers to allow the $15 billion credit line offer to proceed?
MR HOOK: That would be – in light of our actions today, I think that speaks rather clearly. We announced new sanctions today. We’ve announced —
MS ORTAGUS: And yesterday.
MR HOOK: And yesterday. We did sanctions yesterday. We did sanctions Friday. We did sanctions today. There will be more sanctions coming. We can’t make it any more clear that we are committed to this campaign of maximum pressure, and we are not looking to grant any exceptions or waivers. We made it very clear that when we were done with our SREs – these are the oil waivers – when those were gone, those were gone. And so we’ve ended those and we’re very focused on our maximum pressure campaign.
QUESTION: Right, but there’s a – there’s quite a bit of ambiguity about your attitude toward this $15 million program. On a background call just now, an administration official said it was too early to tell. You yourself are saying there’s no concrete proposal on the table. The President seemed to be suggesting that he supported it when he spoke in Biarritz. So, I mean, is this is an idea that you’re willing to consider?
MR HOOK: I think what the President said is that when the conditions are right – and we’ve laid out very clearly what those conditions are and you see them in Secretary Pompeo’s list of 12 demands. So our focus is on those various buckets of the nuclear program, missiles, regional aggression, and hostage taking. And so that is the area where we need to see some progress. That’s our focus. The maximum pressure campaign helps us to achieve those.
QUESTION: So when there will be a French proposal or a European proposal for this credit line, will you be ready to assess any possibility to green-light it from the U.S. stance? And also, do you also still think that a leader-level meeting is possible with Iran in the next couple of weeks, as said in Biarritz?
MR HOOK: Yeah, there is no concrete proposal.
QUESTION: But when there will be one, are you ready to assess the possibility of green-lighting?
MR HOOK: We have no idea if there will be one. There is no proposal, and so we’re not going to comment on something that doesn’t exist.
And then what was the other one? The President has said many times that he is – he wants to resolve our differences diplomatically. He has said many times that he is open to meeting with the Iranians. He has now met twice with Kim Jong-un. He very much believes —
QUESTION: Three times.
MR HOOK: Three times he’s met with him, making my point even stronger. Steve Biegun should be up here for this. So he obviously is somebody who believes very much in bilateral diplomacy. There’s nothing more that needs to be said on it.
QUESTION: You said that the President’s trying to avoid conflict. How do you view the Israeli attack of Iraq or Iranian positions in Iraq?
MR HOOK: Well, here’s how we view it.
QUESTION: Do you view this as pushing the United States and Iran towards a global conflict?
MR HOOK: The IRGC and Qods Force that we sanctioned today, again, is leveraging its foothold in Syria to threaten Israel and its neighbors, and so Israel has an inherent right of self-defense, to take action to prevent imminent attacks against their assets in the region and also to protect their own people. And so we very much support what Israel is doing.
QUESTION: But on Iraq, sir, because apparently the Iraqi air space is supposedly protected by American assets or the American airpower.
MR HOOK: The position on that is the United States had no role in the alleged attacks in Iraq, nor is it clear who carried out the strikes. Statements alleging a U.S. role in these events are false.
QUESTION: I have one quick question about China. The Chinese announced a $280 billion investment in Iran’s oil sector. I’m wondering what you think of that. And then quickly to follow up on this idea of a meeting, I mean, the President said he was open to have a meeting in the coming weeks. Is there any —
MS ORTAGUS: He’s been saying that for a long time.
QUESTION: I know, but I mean —
MS ORTAGUS: To be fair, he’s said that for —
QUESTION: — it was sounding more imminent when he was in Biarritz. Is there any diplomatic leg work? Have you reached out to the Iranians about setting up such a meeting?
MR HOOK: So on the first question of – what was it?
MS ORTAGUS: China.
MR HOOK: China. We will sanction any sanctionable activity. We’ve already done that once with China, and so that is our policy. We’ve demonstrated that many times since we have left the deal, and we will continue to sanction any sanctionable activity. And we also don’t preview our sanctions.
On the second question. As Morgan said, he’s said it so many times that he is open to meetings. I don’t think – that’s an open secret that the President is very open to doing meetings with the Iranians. The Iranians – this is really a question for them. I think it was as recently as today that they expressed no interest in such a meeting. Iran has rejected diplomacy too many times. When Prime Minister Abe was in Japan, he went – he asked the President if he could make the trip. It was the first visit of a Japanese prime minister to the Islamic Republic of Iran. The supreme leader, he met with him. The supreme leader put out five tweets rejecting Prime Minister Abe and his diplomacy. And then just for good measure, he bombed a Japanese oil tanker while Prime Minister Abe was still in Iran.
You’ve seen also various leaders who’ve also attempted to try to get Iran to de-escalate, and they’ve not succeeded. So the President’s very comfortable with our foreign policy. Iran doesn’t like it. Iran is not used being told no. They have had a very long run of many years executing a foreign policy without impunity. And the United States, this administration, is standing up —
QUESTION: With impunity.
MR HOOK: With impunity. Very good correction, Matt. With impunity. And so we are standing up to that in ways that don’t have any historic precedent, and it is not a surprise that Iran doesn’t like it and they’re acting out in very kinetic ways, which is also something which is sort of an evergreen in Iran’s playbook. They’ve been doing this for many decades.
So we’re going to stick with our policy. We’re very comfortable with the progress we’ve made. We know that we are making contributions to peace and security every day that we run this policy.
MS ORTAGUS: Thanks, guys.
MR HOOK: Thank you.