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WASHINGTON: The Trump administration has set up a new cell within the State Department — known as the Iran Action Group — to bring both internal and external changes in Tehran’s ‘behaviour’.

“We must see major changes in the regime’s behaviour both inside and outside of its borders,” said US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo while announcing the new cell on Thursday afternoon.

“The Iran Action Group will drive daily progress on these objectives and I hope do much more.”

Secretary Pompeo said the Trump administration had changed the Obama administration’s policy of appeasing Iran and was now leading a “campaign of pressure, deterrence, and solidarity with the long-suffering Iranian people”.

Mr Pompeo also introduced the new US Special Representative for Iran, Brian Hook, who will head the Iran Action Group. Mr Hook has been the State Department’s director of policy planning since February 2017. The new group would include several permanent personnel and more experts would be added later.

Mr Hook said at the briefing that his team would focus most of its work on changing Tehran’s beha­viour on issues of nuclear weapons, terrorism and detention of US citizens.

He said the aim of the new US strategy for Iran was to “protect America’s national security, the security of our allies and partners, and to promote a brighter future for the Iranian people”.

In May, President Donald Trump withdrew from a 2015 deal that the United States and five other world powers signed with Iran to persuade it to cap its nuclear programme. In return, the US and other Western powers agreed to remove a set of economic sanctions, meant to force Iran to give up its nuclear programme.

Later, Mr Trump said he withdrew from the deal because it did not do enough to curb Iran’s pursuit of a nuclear weapon or to end its alleged support to terrorism. He also ordered a phased re-imposition of US financial sanctions against Iran that had been suspended under the 2015 deal.

Iran rejected Mr Trump’s charges, saying that it was not developing a nuclear weapon and never supported terrorism.

Iranian officials also said that US citizens in their custody were arrested on national security offences.

Last month, President Trump offered to speak with Iranian leaders without preconditions to explore the possibility of securing a new US-Iranian deal.

Iranian leaders, however, rejected the offer, saying that the US should first stop re-imposing sanctions.

At Thursday’s briefing, Secretary Pompeo told reporters the Trump administration hoped to reach a new agreement with Iran “one day soon” but Tehran first has to change its internal and external policies and behaviour.

And Mr Hook said the offer for holding direct talks with Iranian leaders was still on the table.

“If the Iranian regime demonstrates a commitment to make fundamental changes in its behaviour, the president is prepared to engage in dialogue in order to find solutions,” he said.

“But sanctions relief, re-establishment of full diplomatic and commercial relations with the US and economic cooperation with the US can only begin after we see the Iranian regime is serious about changing its behaviour.”

The Trump administration reintroduced a first set of sanctions on Iran earlier this month and is due to re-impose a second, tougher set of sanctions targeting Iran’s oil exports and central bank in November.

Mr Hook reminded other nations that they too need to reduce any purchases of Iranian oil to zero by Nov 4. “In our sanctions regime, we are prepared to impose secondary sanctions on other governments that continue this sort of trade with Iran,” he said.

Published in Dawn, August 18th, 2018