Elliott Abrams tapped to be top envoy on Iran

After initially being rejected for a top State Department post, Abrams replaces Brian Hook as the Trump administration’s lead person on Iran

Elliott Abrams

U.S. Department of State

Elliott Abrams

Brian Hook, the State Department’s special representative on Iran, is stepping down from his post.

Elliott Abrams, the State Department’s special representative for Venezuela, is expected to replace Hook, in addition to his current responsibilities, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement. 

Abrams served as assistant secretary of state in the Reagan administration, during which time he became involved in the Iran-Contra affair. He was later pardoned by President George H.W. Bush. Abrams also served on the National Security Council during President George W. Bush’s second term. Before his appointment to the Trump administration, Abrams served as a senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Abrams was seriously considered for the deputy secretary of state position at the beginning of the Trump administration, but was blocked by the president after seeing his critical comments in 2016. Abrams blamed the rejection on then White House chief strategist Steve Bannon. Abrams ultimately joined the administration in January 2019.

Weeks into his role as special representative for Venezuela, Abrams clashed with Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) over his role in the Iran-Contra affair during a hearing at the House Foreign Affairs Committee. 

Richard Goldberg, a senior advisor at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a former Trump administration official, called Abrams “one of the smartest and most capable U.S. government officials in history.” 

“He knows the Iran portfolio well and has deep relationships throughout the Middle East,” Goldberg told JI.

Hook joined the Trump administration in 2017, serving as director of policy planning under then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. When Pompeo succeeded Tillerson in early 2018, Hook, who had previously been the director of policy planning at the State Department, took over the Iran file and led the effort to increase sanctions on Tehran following the U.S. withdrawal from the 2015 nuclear deal. Hook was also a member of the team that drafted the administration’s Mideast peace plan released earlier this year.

Hook leaves the state department weeks ahead of the October expiration of the United Nations’ arms embargo on Iran.

Ned Price, who served as a National Security Council spokesperson in the Obama administration, told JI that Hook’s departure “speaks to the abject failure” of the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” policy on Iran. “Tehran and its proxies are emboldened, Iran has accelerated elements of its nuclear program, and there is no better deal in sight.” 

Price, who is now head of policy and communications at National Security Action, an organization of former Obama administration officials and policy experts opposed to the Trump administration’s foreign policy, told JI that the decision to tap Abrams for the role indicates “that the administration has not diagnosed or even reckoned with its profound failure.”

As the administration is still considering the next steps in implementing the Trump peace deal, it’s still unclear what role Abrams will play on the matter. 

Nazee Moinian, an Iranian native and a former consultant to the Council on Foreign Relations, described Abrams as “a seasoned diplomat whose political views have not drastically changed over the years even as geopolitical circumstances have.” In terms of policy, Moinian suggested that Abrams will continue Hook’s approach, “which is important for extending the arms embargo on Iran.”

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