proxy power

U.S. should treat Iranian proxy attacks as attacks by Iran itself, former U.S. envoy argues

‘The Biden administration should announce that… we will attribute agency to the Iranian regime, and they will be held accountable as if it were a direct attack,’ Brian Hook said

Leigh Vogel/Getty Images for Concordia Summit

Brian Hook, former U.S. special representative for Iran and senior advisor to the U.S. secretary of state, speaks onstage during the 2021 Concordia Annual Summit at Sheraton New York on September 21, 2021, in New York City.

Brian Hook, the Trump administration’s Iran envoy, argued on Wednesday that the U.S. should respond to any attacks from Iran’s proxies in the region as if they come from Iran itself, arguing that Iran needs to more directly experience the consequences of the activities that it has supported.

Hook, speaking as a witness at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing, repeatedly described the administration’s military response to Iran and its proxies as insufficient, even in the wake of an attack that killed three U.S. service members in Jordan. 

“This imbalance is untenable,” he said. “The Biden administration should announce that they make no distinction between Iran and its proxies, and anything that a proxy does, we will attribute agency to the Iranian regime, and they will be held accountable as if it were a direct attack.”

During the hearing, focused on Iran and its terrorist proxies, senators on both sides of the aisle indicated that they support strengthening sanctions on Iran, particularly to target the oil trade from Iran to China. Republicans have slammed the administration for allegedly relaxing Iran sanctions enforcement.

“We’re in total agreement that Iran’s intentions are against our national security interests, that we need to enforce our sanctions, particularly in the energy sector, and the importance of U.S. leadership,” Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD), the committee’s chair, said. “I look forward to working with [Ranking Member Sen. Jim] Risch on legislation that addresses those important issues and strengthens our resolve against Iran’s nefarious activities.”

Cardin has alluded to plans to develop a package of Iran legislation, including sanctions, in lieu of picking up various individual sanctions bills that have been introduced.

Both witnesses — Hook and Suzanne Maloney, the vice president and director of the Foreign Policy program at the Brookings Institution — agreed on the need for greater sanctions enforcement.

“There is so much we agree on, and I think that’s the foundation of a very good and sound Iran policy,” Hook said. “I think Republicans and Democrats are very clear-eyed about the threats that we face. And I think Congress uniting to send a very clear message and help the Biden administration match its means and ends is the right and responsible course of action on our foreign policy.”

In addition to new oil sanctions, Risch said the committee should focus on going after companies that have provided insurance for Iran’s oil smuggling fleet.

Cardin and Sen. Chris Coons (D-DE) both argued that the best path to undermining Iran’s influence and the power of its proxies would be further expanding the Abraham Accords to include Saudi Arabia.

“If we can find a path towards Israeli-Saudi reconciliation, recognition, that’s the most important strategic advance, of building on the Abraham Accords, that we could make,” Coons, a close ally of President Joe Biden, said. “But the Saudi Crown Prince is very clear that there has to be an end to fighting in Gaza and there has to be a path towards Palestinian self-determination. I only hope that the Israeli government can recognize the historic moment that we’re at.”

Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) said that, alongside Iran, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu holds responsibility for Hamas’ continued power and capabilities in Gaza, citing reporting showing that Netanyahu had sought to prop up and contain the terror group to dilute the power of the Palestinian Authority and resist efforts toward a Palestinian state.

“Let us remember the lengths that Prime Minister Netanyahu has gone to to try to prevent [a two-state solution] from happening, including… going to the lengths of strengthening Hamas, to try to, in turn, weaken the Palestinian Authority and prevent those negotiations from going forward,” Van Hollen said.

He brushed off criticisms from fellow lawmakers in recent months of Qatari funding going to Hamas, emphasizing that that funding was provided with Netanyahu’s consent.

“We need to go into this with clear eyes as to all the factors that are at play here,” he continued. “Iranian influence and malign efforts have certainly been a factor across the Middle East. But it is a complicated story and if we’re going to find a way out that brings any hope to anybody in the Middle East, and more stability, we need to look at this whole story.”

Subscribe now to
the Daily Kickoff

The politics and business news you need to stay up to date, delivered each morning in a must-read newsletter.