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Top U.S. envoy insists Iran policy "working," but success appears limited to prisoner swaps

U.S. special representative on Iran Brian Hook (L) listens as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks to reporters before departing from al-Bateen Air Base in Abu Dhabi, September 19, 2019. MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty

The Trump administration's senior adviser on Iran has said the negotiations that secured the release of U.S. Navy veteran Michael White began months ago, and continue with the aim of getting three more American prisoners home. Special Representative for Iran Brian Hook issued a staunch defense of the White House's "maximum pressure" policy of choking Tehran with economic sanctions over its nuclear program while continuing indirect negotiations focused on freeing prisoners.

"We have now won the release of two Americans, with no pallets of cash, no sanctions relief and no change in policy. Our maximum pressure campaign continues," Hook said in an interview with the Washington D.C.-based Heritage Foundation, a conservative policy think-tank. He was referring to the release of White, along with U.S. academic Xiyue Wang, who was freed by Iran in December in exchange for Iranian scientist Massoud Soleimani.

"This is another example that our strategy is working," said Hook.

Bringing Americans home

The American envoy, who also serves as a senior adviser to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, said he personally negotiated for several months through the Swiss, who act as intermediaries for the U.S. in dealing with Iran, to secure White's release last week. Washington and Tehran have had no direct communications since 1980, after the Islamic Revolution toppled Iran's Western-allied government and brought the current cleric-led regime to power.

Iran has granted a medical furlough to Michael White, a U.S. Navy veteran who has been imprisoned in Iran for more than a year. Michael White's family

White was freed as part of a deal that saw the U.S. release Iranian scientist Majid Taheri from prison. Hook said earlier this week that Taheri was, "somebody that Iran had identified, and that's kind of how often these things start."

"He was in jail for 16 months," added Hook, "so we were able to advance important law enforcement objectives."

Just days earlier, the U.S. government had freed another Iranian scientist from prison. Sirous Asgari was acquitted of charges accusing him of stealing U.S. trade secrets and was deported back to Iran. Following White's release, Hook said there was "never a connection" between Asgari and White's release.

On Monday, Hook said his focus was now on bringing three U.S.-Iranian dual nationals still held by Tehran, Siamak Namazi, his elderly father Baquer, and Morad Tahbaz back home, along with the remains of Bob Levinson.

Family of Robert Levinson "disappointed" in the U.S, calls for action in release 01:59

U.S. officials and family members of Levinson, a former FBI agent who went missing in Iran in 2007, said earlier this year that he was believed to have died in Iranian custody.

More "maximum pressure"

Those negotiations via the Swiss appear to be continuing in parallel with — or even despite — mounting tension between Washington and Tehran. 

Hook said Monday that Washington was still working on getting an international arms embargo on Iran renewed. The current embargo, set to expire in October, was implemented as part of the 2015 nuclear deal agreed by Iran, the U.S. under President Obama, and four other world powers.

President Trump had long-criticized that deal as too generous to Iran, and in 2018 he unilaterally pulled the U.S. out of it, leaving the agreement in tatters. The move infuriated the Iranians and confounded America's allies, who tried for months in vain to keep the deal intact without U.S. participation.

The impact of Trump's sanctions inside Iran 04:13

Those efforts were thwarted in large part by the fact that the White House had begun implementing its "maximum pressure" campaign against Tehran.

Washington hit the already-cash-strapped nation with a series of harsh sanctions in a bid to draw the regime back into negotiations on a new agreement, aimed again at thwarting any Iranian ambitions of a nuclear weapons program, but broadening the remit, too. The Trump administration felt the restrictions imposed by the 2015 deal were too lax, given expiry dates and the fact that they didn't address Iran's other nefarious actions in the region or its conventional weapons program.

U.S. keeps pressure on Iran over "destabilizing behavior" 01:28

Thus far, the "maximum pressure" has failed to draw Iran, at least publicly, even one step back toward the nuclear negotiating table.

"Excellent results"

The European Union, one of the signatories to the 2015 nuclear deal, has warned, meanwhile, that the U.S. cannot now expect to leverage that agreement for a new, United Nations-backed arms embargo on Iran after walking away from it.

"The United States has withdrawn from the JCPOA (Iran nuclear deal), and now, they cannot claim that they are still part of the JCPOA in order to deal with this issue from the JCPOA agreement. They withdraw. It's clear," EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said Tuesday.

Speaking the same day to The Heritage Foundation, Hook was adamant that the tough sanctions against Iran had already yielded "excellent results."

"We have deprived the Iranian regime of billions of dollars thanks to the sanctions," he said. "The Iranian regime is languishing under great pressure and the door is open to diplomacy... President Trump will continue to pressure and Iran must respond."

Mr. Trump himself voiced optimism in the wake of White's release last week, saying, "it shows a deal is possible!"

On Wednesday, however, Iranian Foreign Ministry Spokesman Abbas Mousavi played down Washington's push for a new arms embargo, and he reiterated the stance that Tehran has taken all along to the "maximum pressure" campaign.

"Iran will not surrender with such sanctions and pressures," Mousavi told Iranian television. 

CBS News State Department reporter Christina Ruffini and Khaled Wassef in London contributed to this report.

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