Brian Hook, the State Department’s special envoy for Iran and one of the few national security officials to survive the turmoil in the foreign policy team through most of President Trump’s term, plans to announce Thursday that he is resigning his post.
The departure of Mr. Hook, 52, appears to bury any remaining chance of a diplomatic initiative with Iran before the end of Mr. Trump’s term. In the four years during which Mr. Hook became the face of United States sanctions against Tehran, Mr. Hook also held out the possibility of resuming direct talks, the way the Obama administration had.
But to the Iranians — and to some of his critics in Europe and at home — Mr. Hook was merely a defender of a policy meant to break the country and force it to the table to renegotiate a deal they had reached, and complied with, with the Obama administration in 2015.
Mr. Hook will be succeeded by Elliott Abrams, a conservative foreign policy veteran and Iran hard-liner who is currently the State Department’s special representative for Venezuela.
“There is never a good time to leave,” Mr. Hook said in an interview, because the confrontation with Iran had become a perpetual series of provocations, responses and efforts to change Tehran’s behavior.
He departs with his main goal still elusive. Mr. Trump’s decision to exit the Iran nuclear deal has not forced the Iranian government to change its conduct, but it did lead to a public effort to reconstitute its nuclear production facilities. Mr. Hook insisted that with more time, Iran’s economic devastation, largely because of U.S.-led sanctions imposed after Mr. Trump abandoned President Barack Obama’s nuclear deal, would force the country to give up all of its ability to enrich nuclear fuel.
“Sometimes it’s the journey and sometimes it’s the destination,’’ Mr. Hook said in the interview on Wednesday. “In the case of our Iran strategy, it’s both. We would like a new deal with the regime. But in the meantime, our pressure has collapsed their finances.”
“By almost every metric, the regime and its terrorist proxies are weaker than three and a half years ago,” he added. “Deal or no deal, we have been very successful.”
Many disagree, including Wendy Sherman, the former No. 3 at the State Department and the chief negotiator on the Iran deal for Mr. Obama. Ms. Sherman, in a response to a presentation by Mr. Hook at the Aspen Security Forum on Wednesday, called the administration’s approach to Iran “all tactics, no strategy.”
Her complaint, sometimes heard among career officials inside the State Department as well, is that the sanctions approach is a way of beggaring the country, but not promoting reform or building a relationship.
Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina and a regular adviser to Mr. Trump on foreign policy, praised Mr. Hook while conceding that “the window on a replacement” for the nuclear deal “is probably closing before the election.” He added, however, that “after the election, it is a win-win proposal.”
Mr. Graham said Mr. Hook had done “a superb job” of building U.S. alliances against Iran with Arab states in the Persian Gulf.
“He was a steady hand in choppy waters,” he said, adding: “He is a survivor — that’s no small feat in Trump world.”
A smooth debater with degrees in philosophy and law who nurtured relationships in the White House, around the globe and with the press, Mr. Hook’s moderate manner and political leanings seemed out of step with the “America First” strains of the Trump administration. He was more a throwback to the George W. Bush era, when he got his start in diplomacy.
An admirer, friend and disciple of William F. Buckley, the conservative author and television commentator, he held several posts in Mr. Bush’s administration, including as an adviser to the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations — John R. Bolton, with whom he would later clash on Iran policy. He also kept teaching at Duke University during his tenure, and said that he would continue in that role.
Mr. Hook joined the Trump administration in early 2017, under Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, as director of the State Department’s office of policy planning. Mr. Tillerson gave that office increased influence over all the department’s initiatives, and Mr. Hook became one of his closest advisers.
It was Mr. Tillerson who introduced him to Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and senior adviser. The White House at the time had, in essence, no foreign policy at all — just a series of Mr. Trump’s pronouncements. Mr. Kushner said in an interview on Wednesday that Mr. Hook “helped us develop an approach to the world that we are now executing.”
“Brian was the traveling companion who could help guide some very fluid meetings with foreign leaders,” giving updates on Iran to King Salman of Saudi Arabia, among others. And it was Mr. Hook who had the idea of having Twitter posts sent out from Mr. Trump’s account in Farsi, to address the Iranians.
He had his critics inside the State Department, who saw him as a political player. Last November, a State Department inspector general report found that in early 2017, Mr. Hook played a role in the reassignment of a nonpartisan career official in his office after conservatives accused her of sympathy to Mr. Obama and the Iran nuclear deal. Mr. Hook denied any political motivation in the reassignment.
His record of diplomatic success was mixed. As Mr. Trump threatened to scrap the Iran deal in 2018, Mr. Hook met regularly with Western European officials in an ultimately futile effort to convince them — especially the Germans — to reopen the accord and toughen its terms. The effort failed, and Mr. Trump’s decision to exit the accord led to a rift with the European powers, Russia and China on Iran policy that remained to this day.
He was among the few top department employees to survive the transition after Mr. Tillerson was ousted and replaced with Mike Pompeo, then the C.I.A. director. Mr. Pompeo gave Mr. Hook the Iran file on a full-time basis, a job he pursued doggedly, including when he personally emailed the captain of an Iranian tanker carrying oil to Syria in violation of U.S. sanctions, offering him millions of dollars if he piloted the ship into the hands of a U.S. ally. (It didn’t work.)
On Thursday, Mr. Pompeo said that Mr. Hook had “achieved historic results countering the Iranian regime,” and winning the release of two American captives held by Iran, Michael White and Xiyue Wang.
“He has been a trusted adviser to me and a good friend,” Mr. Pompeo added.
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