Mike Pompeo, the US secretary of state, has formed a dedicated group to coordinate and run the country’s policy towards Iran following President Donald Trump’s unilateral withdrawal from a multinational nuclear deal with Tehran.
Pompeo announced the creation of the Iran Action Group (IAG) at a news conference on Thursday, naming Brian Hook, the Department of State’s director of policy planning, as its head.
“We are committed to a whole of government effort to change the Iranian regime’s behaviour and the Iran Action Group will ensure that the Department of State will remain closely synchronised with our interagency partners,” he said.
“The IAG will also lead the way in growing efforts with nations which share our understanding of the Iranian threat.”
Speaking to reporters after Pompeo, Hook said Iran’s “malign activities” were “wide-ranging” and Washington’s new strategy was addressing all manifestations of “the Iranian threat”.
“The new Iran Action Group will be focused on implementing that strategy,” added Hook, who will have the formal title of the Special Representative for Iran.
Sina Toossi, a research analyst at the Washington-based National Iranian American Council (NIAC), said appointing Hook to head the new policy initiative puts the US “on the path to war with Iran”.
“Nonetheless, Hook stands to play an instrumental role in facilitating US-Iran diplomacy if President Trump follows through on his call for negotiations,” Toossi told Al Jazeera.
In late July, Trump, who has repeatedly criticised Iran’s leaders, said he is willing to meet with them with no preconditions – even though Pompeo later walked back some of the president’s comments.
Toossi said that if the Trump administration was sincere in pursuing talks, it should “reverse course” on its decision to pull out of the 2015 nuclear deal.
In a separate statement on social media, NIAC said the programme announced by Pompeo was “another echo” of the lead-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, when the George Bush administration tried to “cherry-pick intelligence and make the case for war”.
Diako Hosseini, a senior analyst at Tehran’s Center for Strategic Studies, a think-tank close to the Iranian government, said on Thursday night that he doubted that Pompeo was interested in opening negotiations with Iran.
“But if this is the first step before entering into any direct talks, it would be constructive if they facilitate in pursuing a realistic approach, to consider Iran’s legitimate concerns,” Hosseini told Al Jazeera.
“I hope this initiative helps the US find a rational way to resolve disputes.”
Earlier on Thursday, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani questioned the wisdom of Trump’s decision to withdraw from the nuclear deal.
“America took some steps that removed the conditions for talks. They destroyed the bridge themselves, and now they are standing on the other side asking, ‘How can I cross?’ Why destroy the bridge when you wanted to walk across?”
On Monday, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has the final say in the country’s most important political decisions, ruled out negotiations with the Trump administration.
He said that as demonstrated in the 2015 nuclear deal, Iran will only enter into negotiations in the position of strength “so that US’ pressures and uproars won’t affect us”.
“Recently, US officials have been talking blatantly about us. Beside sanctions, they are talking about war and negotiations. In this regard, let me say a few words to the people: THERE WILL BE NO WAR, NOR WILL WE NEGOTIATE WITH THE US,” Khamenei said in a Twitter post.
Hook led the ultimately unsuccessful attempt of the Trump administration to negotiate changes to the nuclear deal with European allies before the president decided in May to pull out of the landmark accord.
Since withdrawing, the administration has re-imposed sanctions that were eased under the landmark deal and has steadily ramped up pressure on Iran to try to get it to stop what it describes as “malign activities” in the region.
In addition to its nuclear and missile programmes, the US has demanded that Iran scale back its military presence in neighbouring Middle Eastern countries, among other issues.
It has also in recent weeks stepped up criticism of Iran’s human rights record and is working with other nations to curb their imports of Iranian oil.
The US administration is warning Iran’s oil customers that they will face sanctions in November unless they significantly reduce their imports with an eye on eliminating them entirely.
It has also told businesses and governments in Europe that they may also be subject to penalties if they violate, ignore or attempt to subvert the re-imposed US sanctions.
Tehran has accused the Trump administration of pushing for “regime change” in Iran, deepening distrust. The US has denied the allegations, despite its ties to the Iranian exile group, MEK.
Additional reporting by Ted Regencia in Tehran