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U.S.-Iran Tensions Remain High Even Though Both Say They Don't Want A Conflict


What is the next step in the U.S. confrontation with Iran? Iran's foreign minister is in New York this week. The U.S. waited until the last moment to approve his visa but, ultimately, let him in as required for United Nations meetings. Mohammad Javad Zarif is taking the opportunity to meet American journalists, and he told NBC how Iran might be willing to negotiate with the U.S.


MOHAMMAD JAVAD ZARIF: United States believes - I mean, is addicted, unfortunately, to sanctions. But there have been sanctions that have been imposed since President Trump came to office. Once those sanctions are lifted, then room for negotiation is wide open.

INSKEEP: OK, what does President Trump's administration make of that? Brian Hook is in our studios. He's U.S. special representative for Iran. Mr. Hook, welcome back.

BRIAN HOOK: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: Does the United States want to talk with Iran?

HOOK: President Trump and Secretary of State Pompeo have made clear over the last year or two that we are very open to diplomatically resolving our differences with Iran. But Iran has rejected diplomacy too many times, even as recently as Japanese Prime Minister Abe went to Tehran - the first Japanese prime minister to visit the Islamic Republic - they rejected his diplomacy. He was there on behalf of the president.

INSKEEP: Tried to be a mediator, in a sense.

HOOK: Tried to be a mediator, and the Iranian supreme leader rejected it. And while Abe was in the country, they blew up a Japanese oil tanker. And so we have made it clear that we have an ear open to what is possible. The - Secretary Pompeo has said in the past he would sit down and talk without preconditions. But Iran has got to start changing its behavior; they've got to choose a better path.

INSKEEP: Do you think that the economic sanctions that the U.S. has tightened and tightened and tightened are having the desired effect on Iran?

HOOK: We know they are. During the life of the Iran nuclear deal, Iran's military spending reached record highs - they had spent $14 billion. The first month we were in office, Iran's military spending went down 10%, and then this year it's gone down 28%. We also have Iran's proxies - Hezbollah and Hamas and the Houthis in Yemen are weaker today financially than when - two years ago, when we took office. And so this economic pressure is a necessary component if you want to get Iran back to the negotiating table.

INSKEEP: You want them back to the negotiating table, but is it correct that you're nowhere near collapsing the regime? From the reports that we hear, the economy is bad in Iran, but it's not as bad as Venezuela, and Venezuela's regime hasn't fallen. So do you expect Iran's government to fall anytime soon?

HOOK: Well, our focus is on changing Iran's behavior. And we are driving up the costs of Iran's foreign policy. And if you look at the period from 2007 to about 2017, the Iranian regime was able to run an expansionist and violent foreign policy around the Middle East and stoking sectarian grievances, weaponizing these grievances.

INSKEEP: And do you think that they're less able to do that today, whether they ever change any policy or not?

HOOK: We know they are. You have had admissions from the leader of Hezbollah, who has had to make public appeals for charity in March, which is the first time that's happened in Hezbollah's history.

INSKEEP: One other thing I want to ask about - as you know, Brian Hook, Europeans, who are still in this nuclear deal with Iran, have been setting up a special financial institution to make it more possible to sell food and medicine to Iran. Does the United States approve of that?

HOOK: We're out of the deal. The Europeans have said they want to set up, they're trying to set up what you described as a special purpose financial vehicle. It's clear that it will only be used for licit purposes. And the United States exempts from our sanctions on Iran food, medicine, medical devices, agricultural products. And as long as it's limited to that, we're fine with that. But we will sanction any sanctionable behavior, and I think everybody understands that. But at the same time, we're seeing no corporate demand for using a special purpose vehicle.

INSKEEP: You're not sure that it's going to have much effect. Brian...

HOOK: We don't see it having any effect.

INSKEEP: Brian Hook of the U.S. State Department. Thanks so much.

HOOK: Thanks, Steve. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.