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Brian Hook testifies today. Photo: Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP/Getty Images

Brian Hook, the U.S. envoy for Iran, insisted today that the Trump administration’s "maximum pressure" campaign is working, despite escalating tensions and growing fears of war.

Between the lines: Asked to justify that claim of success, Hook told members of a House Foreign Affairs subcommittee that funding to Iranian proxies had dropped, and argued with limited evidence that the regime is now "weaker." He didn’t deny that withdrawing from the 2015 nuclear deal and ramping up sanctions had rendered Iran more aggressive, rather than less.

On the nuclear deal...

Hook claimed that the Iran deal made Iran "stronger" and would have led to an "inevitable" showdown as its provisions began to lapse.

“Rather than wait for all of these things to come to pass in 10 years when Iran is stronger, we have pulled that forward. But I truly believe everything we are seeing today is inevitable.”

The backdrop: The European signatories are working desperately to save the deal, which Hook acknowledged Iran had complied with. Tehran has said it will breach the deal’s limits on enriched uranium in about a week.

On potential military action...

Hook refused to rule out a justification for military action against Iran based on the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF), which Congress passed in response to the September 11 attacks.

  • The backdrop: There is bipartisan concern about such a scenario on Capitol Hill. The New York Times reported Wednesday that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Pentagon officials have told Congress that they see a pattern of ties between Iran and Al Qaeda, which some lawmakers view as a dubious claim that could be used to invoke the AUMF.
On recent attacks…

Hook said that after seeing U.S. intelligence on the recent tanker attacks near the Strait of Hormuz, "all come away without any question that Iran is behind these attacks."

  • The backdrop: Allies including Germany and Japan had sought more information from the U.S. before assigning blame, but German Chancellor Angela Merkel said Tuesday that the evidence against Iran was "strong."
On Trump's views...

Hook said President Trump's description of the tanker attacks as "very minor," in an interview with TIME, was made in light of the fact that "very significant" attacks against U.S. interests had been anticipated.

  • The backdrop: Trump has at times been less hawkish on Iran than Pompeo and national security adviser John Bolton. Asked by TIME whether he was weighing military action, Trump responded, "I wouldn't say that." A day earlier, Pompeo said the U.S. was considering military action.

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Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Five companies this morning announced plans to go public via reverse mergers with SPACs, at an aggregate market value of more than $15 billion. And there might be even more by the time you read this.

The bottom line: SPAC merger activity hasn't peaked. If anything, it's just getting started.

Moderna says vaccine appears to protect against new COVID-19 variants

Photo: Justin Tallis/AFP via Getty Images

Moderna's COVID-19 vaccine is effective against new variants of the virus that first appeared in the U.K. and in South Africa, the company announced on Monday.

Yes, but: The vaccine was as effective against the strain from U.K., but saw a six-fold reduction in antibodies against the South Africa variant. Even still, the neutralizing antibodies generated by the vaccine "remain above levels that are expected to be protective," according to the company.

Dave Lawler, author of World
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Xi Jinping warns against "new cold war" in Davos speech

Chinese President Xi Jinping. Photo: Wang Zhao - Pool/Getty Images

Chinese President Xi Jinping warned that a "new cold war" could turn hot, and must be avoided, in a speech on Monday at World Economic Forum’s virtual “Davos Agenda” conference.

Why it matters: Xi didn't refer directly to U.S.-China tensions, but the subtext was clear. These were his first remarks to an international audience since the inauguration of President Biden, whose administration has already concurred with Donald Trump's determination that China is committing "genocide" against Uyghur Muslims, and issued a warning about China's aggression toward Taiwan.