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State Department Adviser On Iran

NOEL KING, HOST:

The standoff between the United States and Iran got more intense this week. The Department of Defense says it will send 1,000 more troops to the Middle East. This came after Iran announced it plans to break its uranium stockpile limit if it doesn't get relief from sanctions. Now, this would violate the 2015 nuclear deal, which, of course, the United States pulled out of last year. President Trump briefly talked about Iran as he boarded Air Force One yesterday.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We're looking at it Iran. We have a lot of things going with Iran. We have - we're very prepared for Iran. We'll see what happens.

KING: Brian Hook is on the line with us now. He's a U.S. special representative for Iran.

Mr. Hook, good morning.

BRIAN HOOK: Good morning, Noel.

KING: So this standoff with Iran is escalating - at the very least it appears to be escalating. Do you expect that these 1,000 additional troops will be the end of the U.S. response or should we expect to see more troops deployed to that region?

HOOK: We don't telegraph troop decisions in advance, but we have put in place another thousand troops there in the region. And the purpose of that is to establish - to restore deterrence against Iranian attacks, which, obviously, have affected freedom of navigation. It's a threat to international trade and shipping. We are committed to working with our partners in the region, making sure that we have the right force posture in place so that we can restore deterrence.

KING: All right. You're referring to these attacks on two oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman. You're headed to the Gulf tonight, as I understand it. Who are you talking to there? What's the plan?

HOOK: I'll be heading to the Gulf this evening for bilateral meetings with Saudi Arabia, UAE, Kuwait, Oman, Bahrain. And then from there, I'll be going on to Paris for consultations with the Brits, the French and the Germans. There's a wide range of issues concerning the Iranian regime that we want to discuss. I'll be discussing Iran's regional aggression, talking about the recent attacks on the two oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman and also sharing additional U.S. intelligence on the various threat streams that we continue to see in the region.

KING: You're going to be talking to our European allies. Our European allies still favor the nuclear deal that the president withdrew from. Does the U.S. want the existing deal to simply fall apart at this point?

HOOK: That's really a question for those that are still in the deal. We left the deal about over a year ago. And that has put us into the position that we're in today that has allowed us to run a campaign of economic pressure with the goal of both denying this regime the revenue that it needs to run an expansionist and violent foreign policy, but it also is designed to bring Iran back to the negotiating table. If you look at the 40-year history of this regime, they don't come back to the table absent pressure. And we are - we have put in place a foreign policy that has denied this regime tens of billions of dollars in revenue. And that is having a positive effect in the region.

KING: Well, actually, Iran's President Hassan Rouhani said this morning that Iran will not negotiate with the United States under pressure. So President Trump - the Trump administration - may be open to this. But it doesn't seem to be working on Iran, does it?

HOOK: Well, the Iranian regime will say a number of things that they're not able to actually execute. They regularly threaten to close the Strait of Hormuz, but they're not able to do that. So we are - we know that - if you look at - study the 40-year history of this regime as I have, they do come back to the table. They certainly will not come back without pressure.

KING: Let me take you back to our European allies. Some EU foreign ministers have made clear that they're not convinced by U.S. allegations that Iran was responsible for the attacks on these two oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman. Why doesn't the United States share the evidence that it has gathered with our allies in Europe? Wouldn't that help, in part, to convince them, if that's what you're trying to do?

HOOK: Chancellor Merkel - German Chancellor Merkel yesterday announced that there is strong evidence that Iran is behind the attacks. The British foreign minister said that Iran is behind the attacks. So I think, in fact, our European allies have made very clear that Iran is responsible for the attacks in the Gulf of Oman. We have been sharing intelligence on a very regular basis. You're going to see more countries, I think, follow the lead of Germany and the United Kingdom.

KING: Iran says they will be out of compliance with the nuclear agreement on the day that you're in Paris. What would happen on the diplomatic front if they do leave the agreement or if they renege on some of their commitments to the agreement in that agreement?

HOOK: Chancellor Merkel yesterday addressed that same question. And she said, naturally, there will be consequences if Iran decides to make good on its threat and to breach material sections of the Iran nuclear deal. What - the kind of things that we're looking at very closely is whether Iran is able to get to a nuclear weapon in less than a year. The Iran nuclear deal has them outside of a year. We would like them as far out as possible. This is still the world's leading state sponsor of terrorism. They can never be allowed to have a nuclear weapon. I know that we disagree with our European allies about the deal, but we are completely in agreement that Iran will never possess a nuclear weapon.

KING: And may I ask just quickly, are you concerned that the U.S. is headed toward a conflict with Iran?

HOOK: I think we're doing a good job of restoring deterrence in the region. Back in early May, we were seeing a number of credible threat streams that suggested imminent attacks by Iran against American interests. And the president's national security Cabinet and the president made the decision to enhance our force posture in the region, to share as much intelligence as possible. And the very sorts of major attacks that we feared have not occurred to date. And we believe that is because we have put in place enough deterrence measures to avoid that.

KING: Brian Hook, U.S. special representative for Iran.

Thanks so much.

HOOK: Thank you.

KING: NPR's Deborah Amos has been listening in from Berlin.

Hi, Deb.

DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: Hello.

KING: What did you hear there from Special Representative Hook?

AMOS: You know, two things - he talked about restoring deterrence. You know, they're not escorting tankers yet. That is another step that they can take. And the second thing I heard him say is bringing Iran back to the table. What you hear in European capitals is, yeah, we want that too. But you need to give Iran a way to get to that table and not just, you know, pressure. Oil imports down to zero, which has an enormous effect on the economy, in particular for Iranian citizens. You need to have an opening not just put a telephone number out there and say, you know, call us when you're ready. And that, they say, is what they want to hear.

KING: Europeans are stuck in the middle of this standoff - our European allies. How are they dealing with it?

AMOS: Oh, they feel it.

KING: Yeah?

AMOS: They feel that they are stuck in the middle. And it's going to be hard for the Trump administration to forge an international alliance because they don't see eye-to-eye on how to deal with Iran. What the Europeans are doing is they're trying to keep trade open with this system of barter called INSTEX, which would allow food and medicine to go to Iran. Under the old sanctions policy, nobody would sell them food and medicine. And they were short of cancer drugs and nebulizers - all kinds of things.

So the Europeans are trying that. It is limited. The Iranians don't like that. It's not a great sales technique to keep them in the nuclear deal, but that's what the Europeans want. They want the deal to hold. And Merkel's comments - that if Iran pulls out, there will be consequences - was the toughest that we've heard in Europe in response to the Iranian announcement, that they may just pull out.

KING: NPR's Deborah Amos in Berlin.

Deb, thanks so much.

AMOS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.