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12:50 p.m. EDT
MR. VENTRELL: Okay. Good afternoon.
QUESTION: Good afternoon.
MR. VENTRELL: I will turn it over all directly to you.
QUESTION: I’ve got a couple things on Iran, actually.
MR. VENTRELL: Okay. Go ahead.
MR. VENTRELL: We have.
QUESTION: You have?
MR. VENTRELL: So --
QUESTION: What do you make of it?
MR. VENTRELL: -- the IAEA Director General’s report on Iran was released to the Board of Governors today. This report marks an unfortunate milestone with regard to Iran’s illicit nuclear activities, as the Director General first reported to the board concerns over Iran’s nuclear program going back to June 2003, so we’re at the 10-year mark here. And in the past 10 years, Iran has brazenly ignored multiple Board of Governors resolutions while advancing its enrichment program in blatant violation of its international obligations. And despite more than a decade of dedicated effort on the part of the IAEA, Iran still has not provided the requisite cooperation with the IAEA for them to complete their investigation.
Iran also remains in noncompliance with its international nuclear obligations, and in that context we remain concerned about Iran’s continued expansion of enrichment capacity. And as the international community stated previously in Board of Governors resolutions and statements on Iran, we’re going to continue to hold Iran accountable for its international nuclear obligations. So we look forward to the June board meeting, where we’re going to discuss the report and look how to best respond to – with other members of the board.
QUESTION: Okay. And then my second one is: Are you watching, do you care, are you interested in at all the decisions on candidates for the election?
MR. VENTRELL: So on the election, it appears that Iran’s unelected Guardian Council, which is unaccountable to the Iranian people, has disqualified hundreds of potential candidates based on vague criteria. The council narrowed the list of almost 700 potential candidates down to eight officials based solely on who the regime believes will represent its interests rather than those of the Iranian people. So we think that the lack of transparency makes it unlikely that the slate of candidates represents the will of the Iranian people, who should be given every opportunity to choose a president who best embodies their views.
And one other thing I’ll note, Matt, that what we’ve seen in recent days is – are troubling signs that the Iranian Government is taking steps like slowing and cutting off internet access to prevent Iranian citizens from making their voices heard and from making free and informed decisions about what’s going on inside of Iran. So we’ve seen that as well.
QUESTION: Okay. That’s it for me.
MR. VENTRELL: Okay.
MR. VENTRELL: Go ahead.
QUESTION: Yesterday, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un suddenly sent his special envoy to China. What is your comment on this?
MR. VENTRELL: Well, we are aware of this. China did notify us in advance of the visit, but we really refer you to the Government of China for more information. You do know that the U.S. and China – that we’re of the same view that denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula is essential if we’re to move forward in any diplomatic process with North Korea. So we’re very much in agreement with the Chinese on that, but I refer you to them for more details.
QUESTION: So U.S. and China right now, they – the conversation why he – you know – anything open, why Kim Jong-un sent to his --
MR. VENTRELL: I don’t have any details to provide, other than to say that the Chinese have been in contact with us.
QUESTION: Thank you.
QUESTION: I have a follow-up --
MR. VENTRELL: Go ahead. Go ahead.
QUESTION: So actually I asked on China and on that Japan is also considering direct talk with D.P.R.K. And South Korea has strong intention to have direct talk to D.P.R.K. So what is U.S. going to do? Are you going to seek out the opportunity to talk to North Korea?
MR. VENTRELL: I mean, what’s really important to us is that the five members of the Six-Party process – that we stay united, that we’re all focused on denuclearization, which is our core goal. So we stay closely in touch with all five members, and that’s our focus, it’s on the denuclearization process.
QUESTION: Thank you. Ex-PM and ex-health minister were arrested in Georgia. I wonder if you are in touch with Georgian side and monitoring this process.
MR. VENTRELL: Okay. Did we have one more on D.P.R.K.?
MR. VENTRELL: Let’s do D.P.R.K. and then we’ll come back to Georgia.
QUESTION: All right. Thank you.
QUESTION: Given more and more bilateral talks on D.P.R.K. issue, such as the one between Japan and D.P.R.K. and the one between North Korea and China, what’s the prospect of Six-Party Talk? Are those bilateral talks paving the way for the Six-Party mechanism?
MR. VENTRELL: Well, as I just said, what’s important is that all five parties share fundamental security interests in North Korea, including the paramount goal of verifiable denuclearization. So that’s the goal. We’re going to continue to remain in close collaboration with the other members. But we agree that denuclearization is central to our collaborative efforts to engage North Korea and that North Korea must live up to its commitments.
QUESTION: (Inaudible) through New York channel?
MR. VENTRELL: You know that we have a channel communicating with the D.P.R.K., but we don’t get into the details.
QUESTION: Yes. Ex-PM and health ministers were arrested in Georgia, and I wonder if you’re in touch with Georgian side and monitoring this process.
MR. VENTRELL: So we are closely following the cases of detentions and investigations of alleged abuse by former – abuses by former officials. We have stressed to the Georgian Government the importance of conducting such investigations and prosecutions with full respect for due process and avoiding the perception or reality of political retribution. And the United States encourages all political actors to continue to work together constructively toward the shared goal of advancing Georgia’s democratic and economic development and Euro-Atlantic integration.
QUESTION: Because of the huge public interest, the largest independent television station was requested live broadcast of the trial, but this request was denied by the court. So I believe public won’t be able to monitor entire process. Do you have any commentary on that?
MR. VENTRELL: I’m not aware of any lack of access to the judicial proceedings in terms of television stations, but we’ve stressed the importance of the investigations and prosecutions having full respect for due process. And that’s been our longstanding message to the authorities in Georgia.
QUESTION: Except you told the Georgians that they should avoid the perception or reality of political motivation.
MR. VENTRELL: Yeah.
QUESTION: Does the United States believe there is either a perception or a reality of political motivation behind these prosecutions?
MR. VENTRELL: We haven’t made an assessment one way or another on these particular cases, but that’s been our longstanding message. And the EU also made a strong statement as well about their concerns. So that’s what’s been expressed. But we don’t have a particular determination one way or another in this case.
QUESTION: You don’t have a – but you don’t – are you concerned that there might be political motivation here?
MR. VENTRELL: Well, again, we’re watching the broad pattern and taking a close look as some of these go forward. But the bottom line is that, as there are investigations or looking into former officials, that anything is done above the board, through due process, and that everybody receives a fair trial.
QUESTION: Well, I guess my – I guess the question would be, I mean if you weren’t concerned that there might be political motivation, why would you even say that – say that you told them to avoid the perception or reality of that?
MR. VENTRELL: Well, again, because --
QUESTION: So I find – I’m just curious as to why you can’t say that you are – that the – is the United States concerned that these prosecutions may be politically motivated?
MR. VENTRELL: I don’t think we have enough information on these particular cases, but we’re reminding --
QUESTION: Well, but if you had enough information on the cases, you would know, you would have a definite opinion one way or another whether it was politically motivated or not. I’m asking you if you have a concern that the cases may be politically motivated?
MR. VENTRELL: Well, I can’t get into the hypothetical if they may or may not be or might be or what direction they’re going to go. The point is --
QUESTION: But you did that in Ukraine.
MR. VENTRELL: Well, and some of those – that’s where we have a very clear pattern. Here is one where we’re watching. If there is a greater consensus that there’s a broad pattern here --
QUESTION: But I guess the question is: If you’re willing to say that you’re watching and you’re warning them that they shouldn’t do anything – or that they should avoid the perception or reality, then you must have a concern that they might be – that these prosecutions might be politically motivated, right?
MR. VENTRELL: Again --
QUESTION: Because if you didn’t have that concern, you wouldn’t even mention it.
MR. VENTRELL: Right. Part of it is this is --
QUESTION: Right? Okay. So you –
MR. VENTRELL: Let me finish, Matt.
QUESTION: So it is not inaccurate to say that the United States is concerned that these prosecutions may be politically motivated?
MR. VENTRELL: That’s not what I said. What we’re reminding the Georgian authorities is that if you’re going after former officials, whether there’s misconduct or misappropriation of funds or whatever the facts of the case may be, that the proceedings have to be done in a way that generates confidence that they’re a free, fair judicial process and that they’re done in a way that the public has confidence that there’s due process for everybody, fairly. So that’s the message that we’re delivering.
QUESTION: On Chechnya, is there any diplomatic outreach to Chechnya over this shooting in Orlando overnight, and do you have any details on the gentleman himself, Todashev, as to what his status was here in the United --
MR. VENTRELL: I really refer you to the FBI on all elements of this incident.
QUESTION: So you wouldn’t have any communication at the diplomatic level, then?
MR. VENTRELL: Not here through the State Department, no.
Michel, go ahead.
MR. VENTRELL: Well, our understanding is that the violence is ongoing in Qusayr. I don’t have a particular update in terms of credible reporting on the number killed overnight, but the violence continues. You heard our very explicit concern about the role of Hezbollah, about the role of Iran. You heard the Secretary affirm that again in his press availability a little bit ago.
We’ve also been very concerned in addition by the ongoing clashes in Tripoli, in northern Lebanon. We have reports of 10 people that have died, and scores have been wounded in several days of fighting. So we applaud the efforts of the Lebanese Armed Forces to stop the fighting there.
And as we said on Monday, again, in terms of Qusayr, near the Lebanese border, there – I guess there are reports that about 90 who have been killed so far over the days of violence. I don’t have a breakdown in terms of the last 24 hours.
QUESTION: Why do you think the Syrian regime is targeting this city?
MR. VENTRELL: Well, again, I can’t get in their heads or talk about their strategic thinking. But the bottom line is that they’re unleashing an immense amount of brutality on the people of the city and they’re doing so with the direct intervention of Hezbollah and Iran against the Syrian people.
QUESTION: There are stories that the Syrian regime is trying to establish the Alawite state from the coast to Damascus, and Qusayr connects these two cities. Do you support such a state?
MR. VENTRELL: Again, I don’t think I would speculate on the motivations here. We’ve been clear that we want – the end result here is for the violence to end and for there to be a free, sovereign, democratic Syria that respects the rights of all Syrians. But in terms of the regime’s motivations here and why they’re unleashing this level of violence on this particular town, I’m not going to speculate. But it needs to stop and the violence needs to end.
QUESTION: The Syrian National Coalition has called today on the – has called the international community to open a humanitarian corridor to Qusayr and urged the UN Security Council to convene an emergency meeting and go beyond expressing concern to action, as the president of the coalition has said. Do you have any reaction to that?
MR. VENTRELL: Well, I’m not aware of any action at the Security Council one way or another, but we’ve been very clear in terms of providing humanitarian assistance to all Syrians, regardless of their faith or religion or background or sect or whatever their affiliation might be. Our aid and assistance to the Syrians has been to all Syrians, and we’ve consistently done everything we can to get across the lines and get that to people who are facing extreme hardship.
Obviously, when you’re looking at places like Aleppo, if you’re looking at Qusayr, there have been – there are extraordinary difficulties while you’re in the middle of intense fighting. But we do everything we can to get humanitarian assistance to all Syrians who are in need.
QUESTION: Are you ready to answer the Syrian National Coalition call for a humanitarian corridor?
MR. VENTRELL: Well, again, we continue to look at all options that can benefit the Syrian people and weigh our options in terms of things that will do less harm and will do more good for the Syrian people. But I don’t have anything particular for you on this proposal. I hadn’t seen it. You know that the Secretary is in Amman right now meeting with a number of the coalition partners and others to talk about the situation.
QUESTION: Does the Administration think that there would be any utility to a Security Council meeting while the Russians and the Chinese still have not changed their positions, or would this just be kind of a waste of time? I mean, the question was about their call for a --
MR. VENTRELL: Right. I hadn’t seen the specific call for the Security Council activity. I am unaware of, in many months, activity directly related. There may have been some meetings or briefings. Sometimes the Security Council receives an update in an emergency situation and takes a look at things, but in terms of passing the kind of resolution that we wanted many months ago, I’m not aware of any movement there.
QUESTION: Well, but is it fair to say the United States would still like to see some kind of a new Security Council resolution that would enshrine the Geneva agreement? Is that fair to say?
MR. VENTRELL: I mean, without getting into hypotheticals, if there’s a positive role the Security Council can play here, if there’s a different dynamic, that would be a good thing. But that dynamic hasn’t been there for a long time; that’s for sure.
QUESTION: Are you doing anything to prevent the regime forces with the support of Iran and Hezbollah to take over al-Qusayr city?
MR. VENTRELL: I mean, I don’t know if you’re talking about some sort of specific kinetic assistance. You know where we are in terms of nonlethal assistance, but --
QUESTION: Because yesterday a U.S. official was quoted that changing the military balance is a necessity before the Geneva conference.
MR. VENTRELL: We’ve been clear that we need to change Assad’s calculation, and that’s been the Secretary’s priority going back quite some time. The Secretary also talked at some length today about the regime and whether they’re trying to make movements here before talks or not. But regardless, our position has been longstanding in this regard.
QUESTION: Secretary Kerry has said today that Assad’s gains in the last days are temporary. What does he mean?
MR. VENTRELL: The Secretary’s point is – again, some analysts and outside folks are trying to say that this is some definitive proof that the regime is stable or is somehow winning this. And the reality is that this is somebody who, through intense brutality, is slaughtering people to hold on to some semblance of control in some part of the country, and our point is that there’ll be strategic and tactical shifts back and forth, but that the will of the Syrian people will continue and has been – this is over many months and indeed years where the Syrian people have fought and struggled for their freedom, and that will continue, and that there needs to be a negotiated political settlement. That’s the only way to appropriately and quickly end the violence.
QUESTION: Have you made any progress in the preparation of the Geneva 2 conference, especially in terms of the list of participants? And have you taken any decision on Iran presence at this conference?
MR. VENTRELL: I don’t have an update for you. You know the Secretary’s diplomacy is ongoing, even as we speak right now, in Jordan with sort of the core 11 group of countries. So that diplomacy is ongoing as we work with the opposition, as we work with partners. So I don’t have an update yet today.
QUESTION: New topic?
MR. VENTRELL: Sure.
QUESTION: On Libya, did the FBI complete its investigation in the attack on the consulate in Benghazi? Because there is a report today saying that the White House have enough proof about five suspects in Libya, and they are monitoring them.
MR. VENTRELL: What I – again, I have to refer you to the FBI for the status of their investigation, but just to emphasize that there’s no one more than the State Department family that wants to see justice served for these heinous crimes. So I don’t have an update other than to refer you to the FBI, but you know that the whole government is focused on justice being served for our fallen colleagues.
QUESTION: But what about these five suspects? Do you confirm the AP report?
MR. VENTRELL: Again, I’d have to refer you to the Department of Justice, to the FBI, for any specifics on the ongoing FBI investigation.
MR. VENTRELL: Again, I’m not sure about Syrian citizens crossing the border the other way, but we’ve been long concerned about the spillover effects in both directions. And so to the extent that tensions with – inside Syria have reverberations into Lebanon, that’s of deep concern. I’m not sure about necessarily foreign citizens, but certainly there are reverberations across the borders. And that is not just to Lebanon, indeed to other places nearby as well.
Okay? One more, Nike?
QUESTION: Right. Chinese President Xi is going to meet with President Obama early June. I wonder if you have anything on that. Is there any interagency consultation between State Department and White House on the agendas to be discussed?
MR. VENTRELL: Well, this is a White House visit, and I really refer you to the White House for any details. We, of course, at the State Department assist our White House colleagues as necessary on any bilateral visits, but this is a White House-led show, obviously, because it’s a meeting at the presidential level.
QUESTION: Do you know, would be Assistant Secretary of the State Daniel Russell will attend that meeting?
MR. VENTRELL: Well, he’s been nominated but hasn’t gone through his confirmation process, so that’s where he is in that stage of the process.
QUESTION: (Inaudible) priority agenda from State Department? For example, if human rights or international religions freedoms such --
MR. VENTRELL: I really refer you to the White House for all aspects of the visit.
QUESTION: (Inaudible) for this bilat? Chinese?
MR. VENTRELL: The White House announced that it was in California yesterday, yes.
QUESTION: Yeah. But would Secretary be also be traveling --
MR. VENTRELL: Oh, will Secretary Kerry travel along. I don’t have anything on the Secretary’s schedule for that particular week yet, but we’ll keep you updated as we get closer.
MR. VENTRELL: Well, just to say, broadly speaking about Hezbollah, that we’re increasingly concerned about their activities on a number of fronts, including its stepped-up terrorist campaign around the world and their critical and ongoing support for the Assad regime. And so countering these activities has been and will remain one of our highest priorities. We’ve been urging our European partners and other countries around the world to take a wide range of steps to crack down on Hezbollah, including sanctions and increased law enforcement cooperation with the United States. And so we’ll continue to press for international action against Hezbollah, emphasizing to our international partners that we must send a clear message that Hezbollah’s behavior is completely unacceptable and they can no longer act with impunity.
And I’d just like to make one final point, which is that we don’t distinguish as the United States Government between the political and military or terrorist wings of Hezbollah. And that’s based on our careful review of all the information that indicates that Hezbollah’s numerous branches and subsidiaries share a common funding, common personnel and leadership, which all support the group’s violent activity.
QUESTION: If you don’t distinguish between the two wings, how can you say that what Hezbollah is doing is completely unacceptable? Because as I understand it, what many believe to be the political wing is actually involved in education and health projects, things like that --
MR. VENTRELL: The point is that our assessment is --
QUESTION: So you find charity work to be unacceptable?
MR. VENTRELL: They may do some of that, but they also do this, and so the point is --
QUESTION: But you said that – but if you don’t distinguish between the two --
MR. VENTRELL: Right.
QUESTION: -- and you say that the whole – that --
MR. VENTRELL: Because they’re in a --
QUESTION: -- everything that they do is unacceptable, then you’re saying --
MR. VENTRELL: Because they’re intertwined. The point is you may have somebody who’s involved in those activities, but at the same time they’re doing other things on the side. And that’s the concern.
QUESTION: Pakistan’s incoming prime minister and his party has called for peace talks with Taliban. Since the U.S. is supporting reconciliation process with the Taliban in Afghanistan, would you support these talks with the Tehrik-e Taliban inside Pakistan --
MR. VENTRELL: Well --
QUESTION: And other terrorist groups?
MR. VENTRELL: Look, the government hasn’t even been fully formed yet, so let’s let them get ahead and get their government formed, and then we’ll continue in our bilateral dialogue with them once they’ve been set up.
QUESTION: But there have been high-level talks with Nawaz Sharif so far. President called. Secretary of State called. Ambassador has gone and visited him, but --
MR. VENTRELL: I’m not sure if that particular topic has come up one way or another. Certainly, counterterrorism efforts broadly come up in our discussion, but I’m not sure that the particular issue of discussions with the Taliban inside of Pakistan has come up. I can look into it for you.
QUESTION: And also, in the previous government, the U.S. had expressed concerns of a Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline. This issue came up with the incoming government in Pakistan?
MR. VENTRELL: I’m not sure in our initial discussions if it has, but our longstanding policy on this has been that energy is one of our top priorities in our relationship with Pakistan, and we’re committed to helping Pakistan solve its energy crisis and its energy problems. So that’s a significant part of our bilateral assistance to the Pakistani Government and will continue to be so. And our concerns with regard to the Iranian project are – remain the same.
QUESTION: Just one quick one on Asia?
MR. VENTRELL: Yeah.
QUESTION: Actually, you know that the U.S. Embassy in Seoul, Korea has received a poison letter from unknown sources. If the source is known through your investigation, would you tell us how – who they did and the source of it?
MR. VENTRELL: I’ll have to check on that. I was aware of that from last week, but let me get a check on that and get back to you.
QUESTION: Still ongoing investigation?
MR. VENTRELL: I’d be happy to take the question and get back to you.
QUESTION: All right. Thank you.
MR. VENTRELL: Okay.
MR. VENTRELL: Just to say that we’re pleased that the hostages have been released in the Sinai and we’re aware now that the Egyptian Government has announced that. So we’re pleased with that result.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MR. VENTRELL: Thank you all.
(The briefing was concluded at 1:12 p.m.)