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U.S. Secretary of State names Brian Hook special envoy for Iran

By Lesley Wroughton
FILE PHOTO: U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo waves to the media before his meeting with Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry at the State Department in Washington, U.S., August 8, 2018. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas/File Photo

By Lesley Wroughton

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Thursday named senior policy adviser Brian Hook as Washington's special representative for Iran.

The move came as the Trump administration prepared to increase economic pressure on Iran by restoring sanctions to force Tehran to end its nuclear weapons program and support for militant groups in the Middle East.

Hook will lead a newly established Iran Action Group to coordinate the State Department's pressure campaign on Iran, Pompeo told a news conference.

The announcement was not a surprise. Hook, who has pushed for tough action against Iran, has been leading the department's talks with allies in Europe and Asia to persuade them to support U.S. sanctions and cut off Iran's oil supplies as of November.

"The Iran Action Group will be responsible for directing, reviewing and coordinating all aspects of the State Department's Iran-related activity, and will report directly to me," Pompeo said.

"We are committed to a whole-of-government effort to change the Iranian regime’s behavior, and the Iran Action Group will ensure that the Department of State remains closely synchronized with our interagency partners," he added.

President Donald Trump announced in May the United States was withdrawing from an Iran nuclear deal sealed in 2015 between Tehran and six world powers. The United States has said it would only end the sanctions if Iran allowed the negotiation of a tougher deal.

Hook, who was a close adviser to former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, worked with U.S. national security advisor John Bolton on Iran sanctions while Bolton was the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations under Republican President George W. Bush.

Hook also served as an assistant secretary of state during Bush's administration and was an adviser to the Republican presidential campaigns of Mitt Romney and Tim Pawlenty.

Trump has said he would be willing to meet Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, although Tehran said the way back to talks was for the United States to return to the nuclear deal.

Asked whether he supported such a meeting and whether his brief would be to set up those talks, Hook said if Iran showed that it was willing to change its behavior, then Trump "was prepared to engage in dialogue in order to find solutions."

Washington aims to force Tehran to end its nuclear program and its support of militant groups in the Middle East, where Iran is involved in proxy wars from Yemen to Syria.

Iran and other signatories, including Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China, have been working to find a way to salvage the nuclear agreement, even as the United States has started reimposing some sanctions on Iran.

Dennis Ross, a former U.S. official in Democratic and Republican administrations, said Hook's new post might be a bureaucratic maneuver to try to inject more clarity into Washington's policy toward Tehran.

"It creates an address within the administration for ... making the approach a more coherent one, with someone being given broader responsibility across departments to try to shape the policy," said Ross, now a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy think tank. "At least that would be theory."

"The real question is ... is the policy going to continue to be just, basically, strong tough rhetoric and sanctions ... or is it going to be something more" to curtail what Washington sees as Iran's destabilizing actions in Syria, Yemen and Iraq?" he added.

(Additional reporting by Arshad Mohammed; editing by Jonathan Oatis and G Crosse)