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US pointman on Iran hard line quits

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Washington (AFP)

The envoy leading President Donald Trump's hardline push on Iran quit on Thursday, months before an election that could reorient US policy.

Brian Hook, a stalwart Republican considered one of the most powerful figures at the State Department, decided to return to the private sector, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said.

Hook "has achieved historic results countering the Iranian regime," Pompeo said in a statement.

Hook will be replaced by Elliott Abrams, an intellectual architect of the 2003 invasion of Iraq who has been leading Trump's unsuccessful campaign to oust Venezuela's leftist president, Nicolas Maduro.

Abrams, known in the 1980s for his staunch defense of right-wing strongmen in Latin America, will handle both Iran and Venezuela, Pompeo said.

Hook has been at the forefront of Trump's campaign against Iran's clerical state which has included pulling out of a nuclear accord and imposing punishing unilateral sanctions.

Hook's decision to head to the private sector comes three months before US elections in which Trump is trailing Democrat Joe Biden in the polls.

Biden was a strong backer of the nuclear deal negotiated under former president Barack Obama and has promised to salvage a diplomatic solution.

Hook exits just as the Trump administration readies a key effort on Iran -- seeking to extend an arms embargo on Tehran through the UN Security Council.

If the effort fails, Pompeo and Hook have threatened to employ a disputed legal procedure aimed at forcing UN sanctions against Iran.

- 'Crisis of legitimacy' -

A dour, bespectacled lawyer whose formal manner seems more out of Britain than his Midwestern home state of Iowa, Hook was put in charge of strategic planning at the State Department following Trump's election.

After becoming secretary of state in 2018, Pompeo made 12 sweeping demands of Iran that included giving up its activities across the Middle East and soon put Hook in charge of the effort.

Tensions soared to a new high in January this year when Trump ordered a drone strike that killed a top Iranian general, Qasem Soleimani, at Baghdad's airport.

Critics say that the effort led by Hook badly backfired with Iran only expanding its regional operations and taking steps out of the nuclear deal with which it had been in compliance.

"Few human beings have done more to advance the Iranian nuclear program than Brian Hook," said Ben Rhodes, one of Obama's closest foreign policy aides.

"It was rolled back when he took his job, now it's moving forward," he wrote on Twitter.

Taken to task on his record at an event Wednesday, Hook said that Iran was facing its worst economic crisis since the 1979 Islamic revolution and that mass protests in Iraq and Lebanon showed opposition to Tehran.

"They're facing a crisis of legitimacy and credibility with their own people. The regime today clings to power on the basis of brute force," Hook told the Aspen Security Forum.

"And these are not things that we were talking about three and a half years ago when we came into office."

Hook played the lead role in the release of two US citizens imprisoned in Iran, Princeton scholar Xiyue Wang and military veteran Michael White.

He was also faulted by the State Department's internal watchdog over the ousting of a department employee of Iranian descent.

The inspector general did not find that Hook shared bias but said he did not distance himself from a smear campaign.

Hook rejected the findings of the report and Trump later sacked the inspector general, Steve Linick, who had also been conducting an unrelated probe into Pompeo.

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