Hudson Institute

Transcript: Special Representatives Brian Hook and Elliott Abrams on the Evolving Tehran-Caracas Relationship

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Following is the full transcript of the July 10th, 2020 Hudson event titled Special Representatives Brian Hook and Elliott Abrams on the Evolving Tehran-Caracas Relationship

Nadia Schadlow:
I'm really pleased to be here this afternoon with Brian Hook and Elliott Abrams, both with the State Department to talk about two of the most pressing issues that the United States is facing today, Iran and Venezuela and the nexus of the relationship or the evolving relationship between the two countries.

Elliott Abrams is a special representative for Venezuela at the Department of State. And Brian Hook is the special representative for Iran and is senior policy advisor to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. He previously served as the director of policy planning in this administration at the State Department. I've known both Brian and Elliott for quite some time. It's a pleasure to see both of you today and I'd like to start.

I think I'll first start with Elliott to tell us a little bit about the evolution of the administration's policy, vis-a-vis Venezuela. As I recall, Elliott, I think it's been about a year and a half since you've been special representative and why don't you tell us a little bit about what's been happening in that country and about US/Venezuelan relations. Thank you.

Elliott Abrams: Thanks Nadia, it's a great pleasure to see you again and to be here with Brian. Our offices are actually next door to each other so most of what I hear about Iran policy is what I hear through the wall. US policy toward Venezuela has been particularly strong in the last year and a half, not because I've been there, but because in May 2018, there was a phony election and in January of 2019 when former President Maduro claimed another term, the National Assembly in Venezuela, which is democratically led, said no, that was a phony election and the office of the presidency is vacant. And under the constitution, President of the National Assembly, Juan Guaido, then stepped in as interim president and we, I think it's now 57 other countries have been supporting him as interim president.

The policy is basically to promote a return to democracy, a restoration of democracy in Venezuela. We do this through diplomatic pressure and through economic sanctions. The sanctions which have been strong, have had great success, although I have to admit they've been helped along by the unbelievable corruption and incompetence of the Maduro regime. What we've been trying to do is take away resources from the regime so that it could not continue its terrible depredations and we've been very successful at that.

Just a couple of numbers. In 1998, when Hugo Chavez came to power, Venezuela was producing three and a half million barrels a day of oil. In 2013, Maduro came in as president, they were down to 2.3 million barrels a day. 3.5 to 2.3. Today it seems closer to be about 250,000 barrels a day, which is an incredible 95% reduction. Part of it is their own corruption and incompetence, part of it is of course our sanctions, which mean that people don't want to buy their oil and so they are not producing oil. What the regime is doing is really attempting to dismantle the institutions of democracy in Venezuela. They've taken over the Supreme Court, which is now servile. They are acting now to prevent free elections, free parliamentary election. Most recently, for example, they have been taking over the parties. It's the kind of thing we used to see in Eastern Europe where the Supreme Court rules, you're not the head of that party and it puts in some flunky as the head of the party who then has control over the party's assets, offices, symbols, branding, if you will.

The worst part of the repression is killings. The most recent report by the UN High Commission of Human Rights Bachelet talks about roughly 1,300 killings already this year. Executions. Non-judicial executions. Pardon me. The newest tie that this pariah regime has is to another pariah regime, Iran. I guess we'll talk more about that in a few minutes but, the link is not new but it has been newly energized in the last couple of months and that's been interesting because it is in a context in which Russia and China are actually pulling back from Venezuela. We see these two pariah states finding each other.

I just finished with one more word. Happily, this is a bipartisan policy. There aren't too many in Washington, this is one of the few that are left but at least, so far, this is an area where Democrats and Republicans have found a very great deal of agreement.

Nadia Schadlow:
That is an important point to emphasize since there are few areas, but they are out there. I think it's important that we highlight that. If we were going to actually have a title for this seminar which I should have mentioned in advance it might almost be a tale of two pariahs. So with that, Brian, I turn to you. Can you tell us a little bit about, also in the same time period or whenever you'd like about the past year and a half, US/Iranian policy, some recent developments there. Then I do look forward to talking about that nexus.

Brian Hook:
Nadia, thank you. I'm glad we were able to do this on Hudson's platform. We miss working with you, but your legacy lives on in the form of the national security strategy. I feel like we're continuing to implement what was set out very early in this administration. Especially on Iran. Elliott is right, what we're seeing now is the circumstance where these two pariah states have found each other. You were right to describe it as newly energized ties because these ties first started to develop during Chavez's period between Iran and Venezuela.

Then they dipped and then they got some new energy. Elliott walked through the oil numbers in Venezuela and what this has done to deny Maduro the revenue that he needs to execute on his missions. Very similar analogy in Iran when President Trump got out of the Iran nuclear deal in May of 2018, Iran had about 3% of the world's oil supply, and that's equal to about 2.5 to 2.7 million barrels of oil they were exporting. Being out of the deal allowed us to apply big pressure on Iran and Iran's chief source of export revenue is oil. Oil exports.

We have collapsed Iran's oil sector, and that's the price that it pays for being the principle driver of terrorism and antisemitism and instability in the Middle East. So in May of 2018 Iran was at 2.5 million of barrels of oil a day. There was a Reuters story that came out in April that had their March 2020 numbers at 70,000 barrels. 2.5 million to 70,000 barrels in about two years. So this is the price that the regime pays for behaving like an outlaw regime. What I find interesting about Iran and Venezuela is that these are not poor countries. These are rich countries that are governed by thieves.

I was just in the Middle East last week and toured through the Gulf and also Israel. When you look at cities like Tel Aviv, Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Manama and then you look across the Gulf and you really get the feeling that the Iranian people have been robbed of decades of progress because of failed leadership. You see a similar phenomenon happening in Venezuela under Maduro. We also see the phenomenon in Lebanon. The Islamic Republic of Iran midwifed the creation of Hezbollah. That has not been to the advantage of the Lebanese people. What we see in the region is the Iranian, Islamic revolution model being rejected, in a lot of places that they used to claim they owned.

We see now in October, massive protests against the Iranian model and against Hezbollah. Even in the south we had protests against Hezbollah. They're tired of the corruption, they're tired of the lack of transparency, the lack of accountability. In Iraq, massive protests in Iraq at the end of last year, and in Iran itself the heart of the Shia corridor of power that they're trying to build out. Protests in November in all 31 provinces. The regime murdered 1,500 of its own people and they injured thousands and they jailed anywhere between eight and 10,000 people. It's the biggest crackdown they've had to do on their people in their 41 year history.

I see the trendlines in the Middle East broadly rejecting the Iranian model. It's happening in Lebanon and in Iraq and in Iran itself. Contrast that with what we're seeing in places like UAE, the reform since Saudi Vision 2030, in Bahrain, in Israel. What's the difference? These are countries that are investing in their own people. They're investing in the future. They're investing in progress. That gives people a sense of hope. When I look at Iran and you see really a sense of hopelessness among the Iranian people but they're stuck with this regime. The Iranian people we think deserve a more representative government.

I go all over the world and I meet with the Iranian diaspora and the one thing that's very clear to me, Iranians are thriving everywhere except in Iran. This regime has held back so much potential because they squander the people's wealth on their proxies. That's changing and the banker to all these proxies in the gray zone is out of money and that's the consequence of our maximum economic pressure campaign. It's been very successful and we're very pleased with... The regime is much weaker today than what it was three and a half years ago when we took office and so are its proxies. You didn't see these kinds of headlines when we came into office.

Iran's military budget was at a record level when we came into office. Its proxies were rich. You had a lot of cheerleading for doing business with Iran. When you do business with this government in Iran you never know if you're supporting commerce or terrorism. We now have made that very clear and I think you've seen foreign direct investment collapse as a consequence of our strategy. As we look at the newly energized ties between Iran and Venezuela in our hemisphere, we're very concerned about it. That's why Elliott and I have offices next to each other on the seventh floor. We are determined that this relationship does not become a new form of instability in our hemisphere.

Broadly that's how I look at it. It's really great with Elliott who's got so much expertise in the Middle East. He also has a lot of expertise in the Western Hemisphere given the work he did back in the Regan and Bush years so we've got the right people in place with the right policies with a lot of great leadership and we're pleased with the [inaudible 00:12:31].

Nadia Schadlow:
Thanks, Brian. One of the questions I have is what do you see as the objectives of both Iran and Venezuela in terms of the reconnection that we've seen? Are they tactical objectives merely to get around some of the sanctions? Is there a longer history of that relationship? Is there a more strategic impetus behind this relationship? Elliott do you want to provide your thoughts on that and then Brian?

Elliott Abrams:
It does go back, as Brian was saying. It starts with Chavez under President Khatami. Then Chavez with Ahmadinejad, and if you go back to those years you do have exchanges of visits. The level, if we're talking dollar amounts, the level of commerce was never really very great. It's rising now for a few reasons, I think.
One of them is they are pariah states. They are essentially friendless countries. They have relationships with a few other countries but in terms of friendly relationships, not really anything. So they're looking for a way to say, "You see, we're not really all that isolated." Then there's the very pragmatic one. Maduro has one thing to sell which is oil and he desperately needs gasoline. Nobody's buying the oil. He does have gold reserves, so he is able to say to the Iranians, "Well you want gold, I can give you gold." And the Iranians of course have an enormous amount of oil and gasoline that they're having a hard time getting rid of.

That's a practical arrangement, gold for gasoline. Then there's the ideological part. What held together Chavez and Khatami? Chavez and Ahmadinejad? And now Maduro with the present group? Hatred of the United States I think probably more than anything else.

Nadia Schadlow:
Right. So it's not necessarily an ideological affinity that the Islamic regime has with...

Elliott Abrams: Yeah. I wouldn't call the regime in Venezuela now a leftist regime. I would call it a criminal gang. Thieves who deal with drug traffickers who take bribes from drug traffickers. Who have destroyed the country which was, as Brian was saying in both these cases used to be rich countries. It isn't ideological in the left/right sense, it is ideological in the sense of viewing the United States as an enemy. Which necessarily pulls them toward each other and to a certain extent in the case of Venezuela, toward Russia and China, although Russia and China are keeping a certain degree of distance.

Nadia Schadlow:
Which I'd like to hear more about later but Brian, your sense of the nature of this newfound friendship.

Brian Hook:
The IMF recently put out an assessment, a sort of global economic assessment, the three worst performing economies in the world. Libya, Iran and Venezuela. Libya is a failed state. And you've got an illegitimate regime in Venezuela and in the case of Iran you have a regime that is facing a crisis of legitimacy and credibility with its own people. The elections that are held in Iran are complete, Westphalian theater. Mostly designed to deceive Europe about the true nature of the regime. I think the fact that Iran and Venezuela, a group that has two of the worst performing economies in the world, causes them perhaps to reach out and see if they can do something to help each other because they're both in dire situations.

The Iranian regime as Elliott said, they can only accept about 10% of their foreign exchange reserves. Those are now well below $10 million. They're facing a real financial crisis. Right now, the rial is at 225,000 to $1 and you have seen a collapse in that currency. People are losing their savings because their money isn't worth all that much. I've been very heartened by that the fact that in the November protests, all of them are directed against the government. When we got out of the Iran deal there were plenty of people in the commentariat who had wrongly predicted that our sanctions would cause the Iranian people to rally around the regime and blame us for their economic troubles. It's quite the opposite.

In 31 provinces not a single protest against America, or President Trump, or our sanctions. What did we see? We saw a brave woman climbing a pole to tear down a picture of Soleimani. We saw the Supreme Leader being burned in effigy. Seminaries were burned. The government invited people to trample upon the Israeli and the American flags and the people walked around them. The video went viral. I think in both cases, Maduro and Iran, these are two governments who represent their own people badly to the rest of the world and there's a lot, when you look at the long history of these two countries, the American people, the Venezuelan people and the Iranian people. We have so much in common in terms of interests and values and right now in both cases with these governments, we don't share interest or values.

These two pariah states have found each other because Iran needs gold and Maduro needs fuel. Even so, we can talk about this a little bit later, we've been able to disrupt those operations to get fuel and money exchanged in our hemisphere.

Nadia Schadlow: Speaking of gold, just a small point but Elliott correct me if I'm wrong. I read recently that a lot of that gold is in the United Kingdom and that it had been blocked, actually, from being removed. Is that correct?

Elliott Abrams:
That's right. There's well over a billion dollars worth of gold and Maduro tried to get at it and sued and the high court in London ruled about a week ago that Juan Guaido is the legitimate interim president of Venezuela and Maduro is not a legitimate president and therefore he has no right to direct what happens to that gold, so it sits safely in the Bank of England.

I just want to add, I was sad to hear in a certain way from what Brian said. Iran is beating Venezuela in one way. 220,000 to the dollar I think you said and Venezuela is only up to 200,000 to the dollar.

Brian Hook:

Nadia Schadlow:
Another point with the gold is that it also shows that this is not just a US position but it is an example of allies and partners working together for the same set of objectives, in this case. Which I think you made your point, Elliott, earlier.

Elliott Abrams:
It's nearly 60 countries, it's really all the democracies. The EU, Western Europe, Canada, the US, Latin America, who view the Maduro regime as illegitimate and very much want to see Venezuela go back to democracy. Of course for the neighbors it's worth noting, Columbia above all, but Peru, Ecuador, Chile, Brazil. There's a huge tide of refuges and migrants. The largest in the history of Latin America. Now not short of five million. Of course the strain that puts on their educational systems, their health systems, is very great.

Brian Hook:
Our policy broadly, you can summarize as having three or four pillars. You've got the economic pressure, the diplomatic isolation, the credible threat of military force to defend our interests in standing with the Iranian people. Elliott talked about, he's run a very successful policy building a coalition of countries that are all supportive of the same end states. In the case of Iran, the diplomatic isolation piece is something that we've spent a lot of time on. Part of that is exposing the regime for what it is and talking about it honestly because if you whitewash what the regime is up to and if you look the other way, Iran expands its non-nuclear threats in order to keep the Iran deal alive, you have the consequence of actually increasing global support for the world's leading state sponsor of terror.

That's what we saw, I think, in the last administration. The Iran deal has come at the expense of regional peace and stability because Iran interpreted as a green light to move out on regional aggression and missile testing and missile proliferation and hostage taking. Our policy of isolating the world's leading sponsor of terrorism and antisemitism has brought a lot of people on side. When you look at everything that Europe has done over this administration in terms of visa sanctions, condemning Iranian activity on missile testing, cutting diplomatic ties after some of... We also had the EU sanction the regime for some of its assassination attempts in Europe.

We have the International Maritime Security Initiative in the Gulf to respond to Iran's piracy and its maritime that the IRGC Navy executes. That international coalition has really helped to calm things down in the Gulf. That doesn't mean that Iran, we've eliminated their ability to occasionally light up tankers but it's a much different picture than it was last year before we had this set up. Just two weeks ago in Vienna at the IAEA, the board of governors had voted 25 to 2, calling on Iran to open access to suspicious nuclear sites, and to answer questions from the IAEA. That's the product of us working with the E3 and leading, as we do, the diplomatically isolated Iran and to hold them to a higher standard. To hold them to a standard of a normal nation.

Secretary Pompeo frames this. "We want Iran to behave like a normal nation, not like a revolutionary cause." I hear that repeated as I get around the region. This is what people are saying. Why can't Iran be normal and be at peace with its neighbors instead of constantly at war but pretending it's not at war? Iran loves to be the arsonist and the firemen. We don't allow them to perpetuate that fiction. Here's another key thing, and I think this is something which really... If you were to take all the people that work on Iran and put them into a room, you could probably divide them over this question.

We see Iranian aggression and we decide to stand up to it, the other side of the room sees Iranian aggression and worries if we stand up to it, it'll force Iran into a corner and they will then commit greater acts of terrorism. If you follow that second theory of the case, you're playing by Iran's rules. Because I would say the hallmark of this regime's foreign policy is to intimidate people into accepting the usual level of violence for fear of something worse. If you play by those rules, Iran wins. The house always wins. We are saying to Iran it's over. You are not going to be running an expansionist revolutionary foreign policy at will. We are going to hit back harder than you hit us.

So the president has taken up Kataib Hezbollah sites in Syria and Iraq. He took Qasem Soleimani off the battlefield. We have collapsed Iran's economy as the price for the terrorism that they do. Now they're managing economic collapse and they don't have the support of their own people. We've been very pleased with the diplomacy that we've run. I think the press overstates a lot of our differences. They like to highlight the transatlantic rift over the Iran nuclear deal. Here's where there's total agreement among Russia, China, the E3. Iran can't ever have a nuclear weapon, they don't like that Iran keeps attacking its neighbors. They condemn the ballistic missile testing and the space launch vehicles.

We have the same threat assessment. We have tactical disagreements on how to deal with it, but nobody wants Iran to achieve its hegemonic ambitions and dominate the Middle East and introduce massive sectarian violence there.

Nadia Schadlow:
I want to turn to you, Elliott but just because this is directly related, could you talk a little bit though about potential cracks in this diplomatic coalition vis-a-vis the expiration of the arms embargo in October and the back and forth that we've been having with allies and partners over that? And maybe just a minute on explaining what that arms embargo is and how it's linked the JCPOA and what it actually means in terms of if it expires.

Brian Hook:
One of the mistakes of the Iran nuclear deal is that in year five, which we're in year five, the UN arms embargo which has been in place for 13 years expires. It was a mistake to put that in. I think the theory of the case at the time was that in year five the moderates will have taken over the country. This administration doesn't get distracted over what we think is a parlor game of empowering moderates or sidelining extremists. They can have as many elections as they want. The morning after the election there's one guy in charge. Supreme leader. He's got a bunch of counsels that are unelected and they control the country, the Majalis is largely theater.

For the West, and that's how Khomeini set it up. It has all of the features of a western style government, but that's just the front office. The back office is run by the mullahs. In year five of this deal the arms embargo is going to expire. The moderates are not in charge. Iran has been engaging in all sorts of terrorism around the region and beyond, so there is no national security reason to allow this arms embargo to expire. We have circulated a resolution in the UN Security Counsel that would extend it indefinitely. Until we see a change of heart and a change of behavior from the regime, there's no reason to set a date.

So we circulated this. It will expire on October 18th, we need to get it renewed before then. I was in the region, you have Yemen, Saudi, UAE, Bahrain and Israel all publicly called on the counsel to extend the UN arms embargo. So that's what we hope to do. If we're blocked by any country we have other legally available options to extend the arms embargo. By the way, last thing I'll say Nadia. The arms embargo in October, Iran will be freely able to purchase fighter jets, attack helicopters, submarines, missiles up to 300 kilometers, and large caliber artillery systems. Then, that's the first expiration date.

In 2023, all of the missile restrictions expire under the Iraq nuclear deal and then Iran will be free to buy and sell missiles, they can buy them, pirate the technology, create a homegrown industry, and then move it to its proxies. This will set off an arms race. It will set off an arms race in the region.

Nadia Schadlow:
Do they have the financial resources to do all that? Is that a consideration or they would find a way?

Brian Hook:
Thanks to our pressure they certainly won't be able to write the check they had hoped to. Look, this is a government that has spent $10 billion in Syria since 2013. That's real money.

Nadia Schadlow:They'll find a way, yep.

Brian Hook:
That's real money and so they don't have that money like they used to. We have forced them to choose between guns in Damascus or butter in Tehran. That's where they ought to be. They ought to be on the horns of that. The arms embargo is not going to expire. We're going to make sure that it continues one way or another. If it were to, this regime doesn't have the money that it used to to spend what it wants to spend on buying and selling weapons.

Nadia Schadlow:
Thank you, Brian. Elliott any comments? Go ahead, Elliott.

Elliott Abrams:
I was just going to jump in. What do they do if the arms embargo expires and they want to buy more arms? Part of the answer is sell more arms to anybody who would buy. That probably include rogue regimes around the world. Any actors who've got cash. One of the actor's who's got cash or in this case gold is Maduro. There has been an arms relationship going back to the Chavez years, 20 year ago. At one point I think they tried to build a bullet factory, actually. Mostly small arms, obviously. That's something we watch very carefully because Iran does manufacture of things that it could, in theory, sell.

Or it could buy, for example, jets from Russia or China. Then, with some kind of markup, sell them to Venezuela. Now we're getting back to the Cuban Missile Crisis here. That is there are certain things that national security interests of the United States simply will not permit in this hemisphere and I'm sure that this administration and I would hope any administration would place really significant limits on the kind of arms that Iran can ship to the Western Hemisphere.

Nadia Schadlow:
Thanks, Elliott. There are two areas I'd like to talk about as the program ends. One, you both mentioned as a common theme, the people in both countries and the differences between the people and the regimes. Are there ways that the United States can communicate more effectively with those people? Ways that you can talk about. I know that for years we've talked about public diplomacy as a country, the radios, our mechanisms for using those sets of instruments more effectively. Elliott you've been involved in this area for a long time, can you comment a little bit about that? Because it seems to me a pretty important issue.

Elliott Abrams:
It is an important issue and I've actually, even this week been thinking about the question of radios. There is BOA of course, there's Radio Farda for Iran. We don't have something like that for Venezuela, I've been asking myself whether we should. Of course when the cold war started the high technology we were using was shortwave radio and fax machines. Now the internet is critical because in Venezuela the regime has complete control over the broadcast mass media. Television, for example. And parts of the internet in the sense that in the National Assembly when Guaido would give a speech, they would take down the ability of the National Assembly webpage to be seen in Venezuela.

We need, obviously to think hard about VPNs and various ways we can help Venezuelans access the internet. You then have the other problems like unstable electricity, unstable internet connections. This is the new world that we're working in. Even in this new world, radio remains important. It is something that I think in the context of Venezuela we're going to be thinking about more.

Nadia Schadlow:
That's good. Actually I read that the Iranians also have their own... They actually have a station focused on Venezuela. Which I'm told was ironic.

Elliott Abrams:
Yeah it is. Some of these issues, one has to say, don't get a very wide reading. That's one of the things we need to do is make sure that anything we do does reach a wide audience in Venezuela.

Nadia Schadlow:
Thanks, Elliott. Brian, in terms of the Iranian people, and this has been a long standing subject for the United States. Could you comment a little bit as well?

Brian Hook:
One of the things I've been very proud of is how we've stuck with the Iranian people. In 2009 the United States stood with the regime during the Green Revolution and that was a real mistake. The first protest we had in this administration was in December of 2017, we were on the grid very quickly, and in January of 2018, standing with the Iranian people. The president, when he went to the UN for his first general assembly spoke directly to the people and he said, the longest suffering victims of the Iranian regime are the Iranian people.

We have really spoken up for them. We have here at the State Department, we have five social media platforms in Farsi. We've been pushing out content every day. The press doesn't cover it because [inaudible 00:34:54] my Farsi isn't very good but we've got translators here and I push out a lot of content on a very regular basis speaking directly to the Iranian people. When we see the regime cracking down on protesters or somebody gets murdered, I will do a segment talking about it.

When people are victims of oppression, especially the family members, they want to hear the name of their loved one who was murdered. They want to hear it said out loud to the national community. So we tried to speak up and to expose these things. The regime would like all of this to happen in silence. That's why they took down the internet in November. Because the regime did not want to show the world its beating heart, which is to oppress its people violently. So they turned off the internet. That probably cost their economy $700 million. Whenever they shut down the internet it's not cost free. Given that we live in an age of eCommerce so that can only go for so long.

Elliott looks for ways to communicate directly with the Venezuelan people. We do the same thing through our different platforms. The president has tweeted in Farsi many times. He's the first president to ever tweet in Farsi. I think his first tweet broke a record of all tweets in Farsi for the most views. So we know that we're connecting in a very real way with the Iranian people. They see a president that wants to invest in the American people and they want the same thing in their country and they very much like the fact that the president stands up for the people. This regime clings to power on the basis of brute force not on the consent of the governed. I think one thing this regime fears more than anything else would be one free election.

Nadia Schadlow:
Thanks, Brian. Can you both, because obviously we can't have this conversation without talking about COVID, the pandemic, the human tragedy. Especially in closed countries like Iran and Venezuela, to understand the impact that it's having on the people is probably even more difficult. Has the United States reached out in a humanitarian way? What do we think about how this will affect the nature of the regimes, their strength. Could you comment a little bit about that, Elliott and then Brian?

Elliott Abrams:
The impact is of course horrendous. It's always worse, and we see this in China, we see it in Iran, we see it in Venezuela, in a closed society. In Venezuela, journalists and doctors have been jailed for speaking out honestly about what's going on. We know that the number of cases is significantly higher than what the Maduro regime announces. We don't know the exact number because again, they are suppressing the information.

What we are trying to do is to help the people, working with and through Juan Guaido. Helping him access some funds overseas to give to various medical agencies. The largest single donor is the United States. To give you an idea of the comparison with what we're dealing with and what the regime is doing. We're the largest donor to Venezuela. The regime to this day, forbids the World Food Program from operating in Venezuela because the regime wants to be the one who gives poor Venezuelans food and it places a political test before they can get the food.

Secondly we know from indictments and sanctions we got, they steal money from the food program for the poor so they don't want the competition from the World Food Program. So you have a regime that is feeding off the carcass of the Venezuelan economy, and you have the United States having now given about... I believe we're up to about $850 million in aid to Venezuelans who are migrans, refugees, or living inside Venezuela.

Nadia Schadlow:Thanks, Elliott. Brian, what about COVID and Iran?

Brian Hook:
As I listen to Elliott it's remarkable how much commonality there is among mafia regimes. Democracies always have so much variety and interest but there's something that's very uniform about mafia governments. Everything Elliott described on Venezuela applies equally to how the Iranian regime is handling COVID. Very early on, long before we had our own challenges here, we offered humanitarian assistance. I offered it directly. I know that other channels in the executive branch offered it directly. All of them were rejected. Within hours, they were rejected.

Not talking like they thought this over, they just said no. One of the things I'm proud of as an American is the United States is the largest provider of humanitarian assistance in the world, and in the narrow case of Iran, [inaudible 00:40:15]. Every time there's a natural disaster or any sort of crisis in Iran over the last 40 years we are always the first out of the gate to offer assistance to the Iranian people and the regime typically rejects it because they don't want the Iranian people to think well of the United States. They want them to think of us as the great Satan.

This regime knew it had a crisis. It encouraged people to watch a BBC documentary that showed how during February I want to say there were 175 flights between Iran and China. While they were telling the world that they were cutting back on flights they were in fact running at full speed. That caused an infestation from China to Iran of the virus. The regime did nothing to stop its spread. In fact, they held the elections, they shouldn't have held the elections for the parliament. They also didn't stop people from going to religious sites and places like Qom it spread hugely that way.

If you talk to countries in the region as I have, they can trace patient zero to an Iranian who came to places like Lebanon and Iraq and other countries. Not only does the Iranian regime export sectarian ideology it also exports the coronavirus. Another gift that keeps on giving from this regime. Destabilizing its neighbors on ideological grounds and destabilizing them because of the health crisis. Anytime you see a number on the statistics in Iran you should probably say it's anywhere between five and 10x higher. Just like Elliott said about Venezuela. They're closed societies, they're not honest about it, and that lack of transparency has the consequence of infecting a lot more people, increasing the mortality rate and spreading it around the region.

I don't know how Venezuela has spread it around the region but Iran has been the epicenter of corona in the Middle East because of mismanagement.

Nadia Schadlow:
Thanks for that depressing news, Brian. As we come to a close I want to give both of you an opportunity to maybe comment on something I haven't asked. We didn't talk specifically, I know, about the Iranian fuel shipments to Venezuela, efforts to disrupt them. Maybe you want to say something about that. Maybe something about where we hope to be in the next six months. Where would we like to be in terms of where you're sitting and what we hope for. I'll turn to you Elliott to make some final comments and then to Brian.

Elliott Abrams:
It's easy to say we'd like to see a restoration of democracy for the Venezuelan people. We'd like to see them getting what they want. We will remain faithful to that cause and we will call the elections that they're now planning for December 6th the fraud that they are clearly planning for them to be and we will not recognize the outcome of that fraudulent election. I guess I close on saying that we are also going to work very hard, we are working very hard to maintain this international coalition of democracies that realizes that it's really important to let what is happening in Venezuela spread, ideologically.

Latin America went through a long period of dictatorships and came out of it. The last thing that Latin American democracies that surround Venezuela want is to see in Central America or the Caribbean or South America, see the Venezuelan model which is really a criminal model. A regime that steals money and works with drug traffickers, spreading around the region. So we will work with Venezuela's neighbors and with democracies not only in the region but all over the world, to try and help Venezuelans restore the democracy that they once had.

We've talked about the years when Latin America was mostly dictatorships. In those years, 60s, 70s, Venezuela was the richest country and it was one of the rare democracies. SO it's really quite tragic to see what's happened there now.

Nadia Schadlow:
Thanks, Elliott. Brian?

Brian Hook:
As I was listening to Elliott again, looking at similarities. The future of Iran will not be decided by the United States. It will be decided by the Iranian people. We very much want them to have a representative government. If you look at the last 100 years in Iran, the Iranian people have made strides in that direction. The last 41 years will be remembered as 41 years of loss. The United States, we have national security objectives that we're trying to advance and as Elliott talked about containing and reversing any of the spread of Maduro to the region, infecting the region with that kind of failed government model.

When we came into office you had the regime bragging about owning four capitals in the region. We very much want to see the Iranian model rejected as the right model for the region, and we're very pleased that it is under a lot of duress. It's under a lot of strain. It's being rejected in a lot of key places that only a few years ago they took for granted. So we would like to see the Iranian, Islamist, Shiite extremism we don't want that contagion to spread. The United States has done a lot to counter Shiia and Sunni extremism. Whether it's in the form of Iran's revolutionary government, or our work against Al-Qaeda and ISIS.

That's broadly our mission set. That work is going to continue. When we came into office we thought it was very clear to reverse a lot of the gains that Iran has made in the years prior to us coming into office and I think we have done that. I think the regime right now is playing a waiting game. They're going to see what happens in November. They are not used to being told no, and this president has said no to their expansionism, to the sectarian violence, to their missile proliferation, to their proxy network, to their hostage taking. That's the right policy, and we have put in place a ton of leverage to achieve ultimately a new agreement with Iran that would address the nuclear threat, missile threat, regional aggression and the hostage taking.

I think we're positioned very well for that kind of outcome, but if that outcome does not materialize, we have really dented this regime in terms of its power projection and the money that it would otherwise spend on its mission set, and we've made their foreign policy prohibitively expensive and very successful at that. So we'll see. We're going to keep executing our policy as it is. We're going to keep trying to contain their influence just as Elliott is trying to do the same thing in Venezuela. In terms of, you mentioned Nadia about the tankers. There were nine tankers that were moving to Venezuela, we were able to disrupt four of those shipments.

I think the maritime community knows that if you get a phone call to move fuel to Venezuela, that's an offer that you should not accept. Five tankers that did make their way to Venezuela, all their captains were sanctioned and they're going to face a very tough future economically because they said yes to that offer to move fuel. So we're going to continue to sanction any sanctionable activity. We have really dried up the maritime community that's available to Iran to move this stuff. We de-flagged all of Iran's tankers. It's very hard for them to... They have the goal obviously, of getting the fuel to Maduro and then getting paid for it, but that's an increasingly big challenge they face because of the work that Elliott and I have done.

Nadia Schadlow:
Thanks, Brian. Thanks Elliott. I appreciated the opportunity to speak with both of you, to learn more. There's actually not always a lot being written about the set of issues that we talked about. It's here and there, it's episodic. I definitely learned a lot and I look forward to seeing you both again one day, hopefully in person in the future.

Brian Hook:
Hope so, thanks very much.

Nadia Schadlow:
Stay well everyone and thank you for those of you listening in we appreciate it. Thanks very much.

Elliott Abrams:
Thank you.

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