Via Teleconference from Vienna
1:11 p.m. EST
MS. HARF: Hi everyone, I hope you can hear me. Welcome to the daily press briefing, this time from Vienna. We’re doing things a little bit differently with so much travel, so thank you for your patience and understanding. This will be like a normal daily press briefing, so everything will be on the record. I’ll do a quick trip update and another topper at the beginning, and then we’ll open it up for questions. So make sure to enter yourself into the queue, as the moderator indicated.
So as you know, Secretary Kerry is wrapping up his trip overseas. Over the course of this last week, he visited South Korea, China, Indonesia, the UAE, and Tunisia. Over the weekend, during a bilateral visit with Indonesia, he gave a speech on the impact of climate change and the importance of the international community taking action now to address this threat to our global economy.
On Monday, he traveled to the UAE, where he met with senior Emirati Government officials to discuss the ongoing crisis in Syria, the P5+1 negotiations on a comprehensive agreement with Iran, and the ongoing negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians. He then stopped in Tunis, Tunisia on Tuesday to highlight the work they have been doing during this important transition.
Today, Secretary Kerry is in Paris, where he has had meetings with French Foreign Minister Fabius and Jordanian Foreign Minister Judeh. Later tonight, he’s scheduled to meet with Palestinian Authority President Abbas.
And one more topper for you. It’s on Lebanon.
The United States condemns in the strongest possible terms today’s terrorist bombing in the Bir el Hassan neighborhood of Beirut. We extend our deepest condolences to the victims and their families. We stand firmly with the new government, with the people of Lebanon, the Lebanese Armed Forces, and the internal security forces as they combat terrorism.
This wave of terrorism threatens the principles of stability, freedom, and safety that the people of Lebanon have worked so hard to uphold, and we urge all parties to refrain from retaliatory acts that contribute to the cycle of violence. We support the Government of Lebanon in its efforts to bring the perpetrators to justice.
So with that, I will go ahead – again, we’ll give folks a second to get some questions in the queue, and then we will get started. So it looks like the first question is from Anne Gearan of The Washington Post. Go ahead, Anne.
QUESTION: Hi, Marie. So on Ukraine, can you give us an update of what the Secretary is doing today or other senior Department officials – calls, lobbying efforts, and so forth – and a look, please, at what a U.S. threat of sanctions might actually look like? What are you guys talking about possibly threatening them with or encouraging them to do – the kinds of – take the kinds of actions you would like, lest they not have that threat?
MS. HARF: Yeah, absolutely, and it’s a good question. I believe that my colleague from the White House, Ben Rhodes, just addressed this a little bit, as did Jen yesterday. The White House also talked about a Vice President call. So let me say just a few points on this, and then we’ll keep lines open so you can follow up.
Look, I think what we saw in Kyiv yesterday and what continues is completely outrageous. The fact of the matter is we’ve made it very clear to the Ukrainian Government that it’s their responsibility to allow for peaceful protest. As you saw yesterday in our statement, that we’ve called on President Yanukovych and the Ukrainian Government to deescalate the situation immediately and resume dialogue with the opposition on a peaceful path forward.
As I noted, the Vice President spoke to President Yanukovych yesterday to express our concerns, to call on him to pull back government forces, and of course, to exercise maximum restraint. I would say that the events we saw yesterday are, I would say, heightening our focus on this issue, and we’ll be reviewing the different policy options we have in our toolkit to see what we’ll do next. Obviously, a part of that is, as we’ve said, reviewing possible sanctions. Nothing to announce at this point, but it’s certainly something that we are considering. And again, what happened yesterday has certainly determined this.
Just a couple other points. We’re obviously consulting very closely with the Europeans on this. It did come up on the margins of Under Secretary Sherman’s conversations with our European colleagues here in Vienna. Obviously, these are focused on Iran, but on the margins it did. And yesterday – there’ll be a meeting of folks chaired by Cathy Ashton where the EU indeed will talk about what their response will be. So we will stay very closely linked up with them. I don’t have a timeline for you on when we might make additional decisions on policy, but I think that’s certainly where things stand right now.
QUESTION: Okay. But no calls by Kerry or Toria Nuland or anybody to talk about?
MS. HARF: Let me check on calls out of the State Department. Obviously, as I mentioned, the Vice President, I know the Secretary is very engaged on the issue, as is Assistant Secretary Nuland. So let me just get that for you and get the latest, and we’ll send that to you after the briefing.
QUESTION: Okay. And then just one other very quick follow-up. I mean, yes, Ben Rhodes said much the same as you just did, that this is a – sanctions would be a potential tool in the toolkit. But, I mean, I’m really trying to understand how that might work. Are you talking about individual sanctions on individual people who could potentially be, I would assume, both government and opposition figures, if they were found to have furthered the violence? Or are you talking about some sort of national sanctions? And would Congress have to be involved?
MS. HARF: Yeah. No, it’s a good question. The sanctions process, as we know, is a bit of a complicated one, depending on what kind of sanctions are imposed, if any are. So I don’t want to sort of get ahead of that process. You’ve seen us already impose some visa restrictions on some Ukrainian officials.
Obviously, part of the process here is determining who’s responsible for the violence. And I think what Ben mentioned and what we’ve mentioned before specifically is considering taking action against individuals who are responsible for acts of violence. So I think that’s certainly something we’ve been focused on. But again, we’re looking at sort of the broad range of possible policy options at this point, and we’ll be consulting. We’ll see what happens tonight, quite frankly, on the ground, and we’ll be making decisions going forward.
QUESTION: Okay. Thanks.
MS. HARF: Thank you. The next question is from Michael Wilner of The Jerusalem Post.
QUESTION: Hey, Marie. How you doing?
MS. HARF: Hi. How are you?
QUESTION: Good, good, good. So I’ve just got these two questions on Israel-Palestine and then one on Iran, if that’s all right.
QUESTION: Great. So we’ve seen some reports recently of Mr. Erekat making comments that his Israeli counterparts are sure to consider inflammatory on Netanyahu’s interest in Abbas’s assassination and Gaza incursions and the like. Have you seen these reports, and do you have a reaction to them?
MS. HARF: Yes. Thank you for the question. I know it’s been a few days since we had a briefing, so I’m glad we’re getting to cover some issues that have come up recently.
As I mentioned, Secretary Kerry will meet with President Abbas in Paris tonight. They’ll continue talking about discussions on a framework. We are, of course, concerned about the recent comments by Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat. We’ve said all along that it’s important to create a positive atmosphere around these discussions, that personal attacks, quite frankly, are unhelpful. And the Secretary will make clear that these kind of comments are disappointing, that they are unhelpful, especially coming from someone involved in the negotiations, indeed the lead negotiator. So again, we’ve said throughout this that we need to do things – everyone needs to create a positive atmosphere. And I know – I’m guessing that discussion will be had tonight as well.
QUESTION: Terrific. And the second question on the same topic: Army Radio – I’m not sure if you saw – had a report that the Secretary’s framework proposal will include a request that Israeli Government – that the Israeli Government freeze all construction in settlements outside of the large blocks of communities that Israel intends to keep in a final status deal. Have you seen that report? Do you have a reaction to that?
MS. HARF: I’ve seen a number of reports that are sort of talking about what may or may not be in a framework, in terms of specifics. And I know it’s frustrating for folks, but as we’ve said all along, we’re just not going to get into the details one way or the other on these kind of rumors about what may or may not be a framework. The Secretary has been very engaged in discussions with the two sides on this, again. And hopefully, we will get one done soon.
QUESTION: Right. So --
MS. HARF: Okay.
QUESTION: -- I’m sure you’ll – you’d like to provide an overview of how you think the talks are going, and we’d appreciate that. But more specifically, the talks started on a pretty rough note yesterday, at least from Israel – many people’s perspectives in Israel, when the Iranians said that they would not consider ever dismantling any of their nuclear facilities. Wendy Sherman has called that their maximalist position that she expected going into the talks. Does that mean that Ms. Sherman expects them to ultimately compromise on that position? And is that something that you expected at the beginning of these talks?
MS. HARF: Yep. Well, it’s another good question. Talks are continuing here. They’ll continue tonight and into tomorrow morning, and then we’ll break for this round. We do think that this round has been, quite frankly, constructive and useful. We’ve discussed both process and substance, had a lot of discussions with our P5+1 counterparts at both the political director and the expert level.
In terms of specific issues like dismantling, look, we’ve been clear for very many months that our goal is to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. If doing that will eventually include some sort of dismantling, those are all discussions that will be on the table for discussion as part of these comprehensive negotiations. We’ve said that all of the international community’s concerns need to be addressed as part of these discussions.
So, again, we think that this has been a constructive and useful set of discussions. We will have six months of these discussions to see if we can get a comprehensive agreement done that resolves all of our concerns. And on those specific issues, look, we know both sides come to the negotiating table with certain positions in mind, clearly, but we do think that we have made some progress over these last few days and, hopefully, can continue to build on that going forward.
QUESTION: Thanks, Marie.
MS. HARF: The next question is from Lara Jakes of the Associated Press. Lara, you weren’t on first. What’s going on?
QUESTION: Well, I can’t hold a candle to Anne Gearan, so – in many ways.
MS. HARF: Oh, I know. Beat you to it.
QUESTION: So I have three questions – one on Ukraine, one on Russia, and one on Israel-Palestine negotiations. Why don’t I start with the Ukraine, to follow-up again on Anne. Just again to clarify and to understand, obviously the situation on the ground looks very bad. I think you said it was outrageous. What more needs to happen for the U.S. to make a decision on implementing some sanctions? And I’m also confused on how sanctions would be levied against individuals beyond visa rights.
MS. HARF: Well, again, I think we need to do a few things. We need to – (inaudible) – talk in the interagency about what we do going forward. Part of that discussion is determining who was responsible for the violence, and there are a lot of facts that still need to be ascertained about what’s happening on the ground. It’s obviously a fast-moving situation.
In terms of specific sanctions, I don’t want to get into technicalities of something that hasn’t been decided yet. But there are different kinds of individual sanctions that can be levied. We’ve talked about some of the visa restrictions that have been put in place thus far. That’s certainly one kind. There are others as well, so I really don’t want to get ahead of that – that decision, but I would say that everybody feels the sense of urgency here and believes that we do need to make a decision very, very soon about what we will do next.
QUESTION: Okay. Great, thanks. On peace negotiations – and maybe this is just something that’s common knowledge and I don’t know it yet, so I apologize – but I wonder if you could clarify for me whether the official U.S. position does currently recognize Israel as a Jewish state?
MS. HARF: It does, Lara. I think the President has said repeatedly that we support Israel as a Jewish state. I’ll quote, I think, most recently from the September 24th UNGA speech where he said – and I’m quoting here – “I’ve made it clear that the United States will never compromise our commitment to Israel’s security, nor our support for its existence as a Jewish state.” So we have said that repeatedly and that is our position.
QUESTION: Great. Thank you. And then, lastly, I’m sure you saw in Sochi some of the attacks on the band members of Pussy Riot today. They were beaten with horse whips by a militia, and I’m just wondering if the State Department has any kind of reaction to that or any advice on how something should be prevented again, if that is your position?
MS. HARF: Yeah, so we obviously have seen those reports, and we continue to support the rights of all Russians to exercise their fundamental freedoms of expression and assembly, as we say all the time, and of course, condemn the use of violence against any protesters. So we have been, I would say more broadly speaking, troubled by the arrests of peaceful civil society activists during the Olympics in various cities in Russia and government pressure on these activists as well. I’d mention specifically environmental activists in the Sochi region, and also LGBT protesters in Moscow and St. Petersburg.
So more broadly speaking, we are troubled by the climate there and obviously condemn any use of violence.
QUESTION: Thanks very much.
QUESTION: Hi, Marie, can you hear me?
MS. HARF: I can hear you. I hope you guys can hear me well enough, by the way. I’m on speakerphone on a wireless phone, so --
QUESTION: Oh, yeah. No, you’re coming through loud and clear.
Marie, I wanted to ask you about this video that a Japanese member of the upper house and close advisor to Prime Minister Abe posted. He had some pretty harsh things to say about the U.S. response to the prime minister’s visit to Yasukuni. I think specifically he said that he was disappointed in the fact that you put out the statement expressing your disappointment.
So I guess my first question is: Are you disappointed in his disappointment at your disappointment?
MS. HARF: That’s a good question, Elliot. Look, we – a couple points on this. We understand that the video in question has been taken down and that the Japanese Government has noted that the remarks were made in a personal capacity and do not represent the views of the administration. And I think for any other questions on this, we’d refer you to the Government of Japan. We have, though, made our position on the visits to the shrine very clear weeks, if not months, ago. And I think that’s probably the reaction we’ll have to that. But you said you had a follow-up.
QUESTION: Yeah. So I guess the – you’re right, the Japanese Government did say that he was expressing – he wasn’t expressing the official government stance, but, I mean, do you buy that wholeheartedly? He is, after all, a very high ranking member of the Diet and very close to the prime minister. So, I mean, is that really something that you’re willing to just take the government at their word at?
MS. HARF: I have no reason to indicate otherwise, quite frankly. And again, the video has been taken down; we’ve made our position clear. But just – I don’t think have much more on it than that.
QUESTION: Okay. And then just placing this in the broader context of a lot of recent remarks that have been made recently by NHK executives, people close to the LDP, making historically very sensitive remarks that have tended to inflame South Korea and China and people on that side, what kind of impact do you see this having on efforts to reconcile north – the relations in Northeast Asia?
MS. HARF: Well, I know it’s probably no surprise to you that our position on this hasn’t changed, but we obviously believe that good relationships between Japan and Korea and between countries in the region in general are in the best interests of the countries themselves, certainly in the best interest in the region, and in our best interest. So we hope that Japan and South Korea will work together to resolve their differences through dialogue. And we do believe that continued trilateral coordination, particularly on issues such as North Korea, is really crucial for peace and security.
QUESTION: Hm. And since – so, last one on this, since you bring it up: Secretary Kerry last week in his press avail in Seoul mentioned that the U.S. would – sees ROK-Japan relations as a very immediate issue that they need – that the U.S. needs to be engaged in immediately in the coming days and weeks. How does this recent – most recent statement by Mr. Eto impact the U.S. engagement efforts in this regard?
MS. HARF: I don’t know that it does. I haven’t heard that it does, to my knowledge. Obviously, we will continue to encourage – if we’re talking about Japan and South Korea relationship – encourage both of our allies to work together. I just quite honestly haven’t heard that this would impact that. We’re very committed to both of our very close allies in the region.
QUESTION: So Secretary – the efforts that Secretary Kerry mentioned will continue, pretty much, as if this hadn’t happened?
MS. HARF: Well, and it’s much broader than the Secretary, of course.
QUESTION: Oh, sure.
MS. HARF: (Inaudible) Assistant Secretary Danny Russel, our ambassadors, there are lots of folks who work on this very hard every day.
QUESTION: Okay. Great. That’s it for me. Thank you.
MS. HARF: Thanks, Elliot.
Our next question is from Ali Weinberg, ABC News. Go ahead, Ali.
QUESTION: Hey, Marie. Thanks so much for doing this. Can you hear me okay?
MS. HARF: I can hear you.
QUESTION: So the question is on Syria. There’s been a lot of reporting over the past 24 hours or so about the meetings going on sometime this week regarding discussing specific new options for the situation. So from the State Department point of view I wanted to ask: What sort of options are you guys suggesting? And also, if you can give us any details about the timing of these meetings, and who for the State Department will be participating. Thanks a lot.
MS. HARF: Which meetings are you referring to? I’m sorry. You cut out a little bit at the beginning. Are you talking about the Security Council or internal U.S. Government discussions?
QUESTION: This would be internal U.S. Government meetings. I’m sure you’ve seen some of the reporting over the past 24 hours or so about the unspecified meetings going on specifically to discuss a range of new options through kind of the interagency review process.
MS. HARF: Yep. Yeah. Absolutely. Well, and it’s not surprising that there would be many, many meetings going on about Syria, given the gravity of the situation and the urgency of the situation. As I think I said – I don’t remember the last time I actually briefed in person – but this is a constant policy review process. It’s a situation that we know isn’t getting better, as the President and the Secretary have said, and we need to continue considering all options to help the situation for the Syrian people.
I know it probably won’t surprise anyone that on specific ideas that have been reported or rumored, I’m obviously not going to get into the specifics of internal deliberations inside the U.S. Government. But as we’ve said, we’re constantly looking at what options we can take. One of those, of course, is a Security Council resolution that we are committed to, but there are a range of options that we’re talking about right now. The Secretary has been very engaged in this topic, as have other senior officials. I don’t have any specific meetings to announce for you or participation in them, but as we do and we can share that, we can try to.
QUESTION: Thanks, Marie.
MS. HARF: The next question is from George Jahn of the Associated Press.
QUESTION: Thanks, Marie. Can you hear me?
MS. HARF: I can hear you, yes.
QUESTION: Good. It is now reported, according an unidentified member of Iranian delegation, that the talks have resulted in agreement on a framework for the agenda of the comprehensive talks, and I’m just wondering if you could confirm that. And I know you won’t be able to help me too much with the second part, but whether you could give some details, if that is true, of what that framework involves.
MS. HARF: Well, I’d say a few points. Obviously the (inaudible), and I know there have been a lot of unconfirmed rumors out there in different press outlets about what’s being discussed and what isn’t, so I’m really just not going to go much further than I already have. I’m assuming at the end of this round some folks will be talking about what has come of it, as has been our tradition in the past. So I think we’ll probably wait until the talks wrap up to talk any more about what will come out of them and certainly what – where we’ll go from here.
And what was your second one?
MS. HARF: Oh, yes. Well, I wasn’t going to answer that if I didn’t answer the first. So, yeah, I think on this one, that’s where we’re going to be today.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MS. HARF: Yeah?
QUESTION: Go ahead.
MS. HARF: So the next question is from – sorry, from Rebecca from The Times of Israel. I’m sorry, I can’t see your last name here. Is Rebecca on the line?
QUESTION: Yes. Can you hear me?
MS. HARF: Yeah. Sorry. Yeah. Go ahead.
QUESTION: Oh, no problem. It’s a really long last name. I’ll forgive you.
MS. HARF: I think it may just be cut off, but I don’t want to mess it up. So go ahead.
QUESTION: That’s okay. Shimoni Stoil, I hyphenated it. So I – yesterday there were reports of the final report issued by the U.S. Special Rapporteur on Israel and the Occupied Territories Richard Falk. And I know in the past that the State Department has had some very, I’d say, harsh commentary on his interpretation of the situation on the ground. I was wondering if there was any response to this latest report. That was part one.
And part two is Mr. Falk’s tenure is ending in March, and I know in the last response to his comments I think it was said there wasn’t going to be a call for him to step down since he was ending his job. But is there anything that the U.S. can do to ensure that a like-minded individual does not replace him in his role?
MS. HARF: Yes, and thank you for the question. I know this is a topic we’ve talked about quite a bit. Unfortunately, and I’m sorry about this, I haven’t seen the reports. I’m sure our folks back in Washington are very focused on it, so let me make sure to get you an answer from them, and we will get you something after the briefing. Again, I apologize, Rebecca. I just haven’t seen that and certainly don’t want to speak about it without taking a look.
MS. HARF: Yeah. The next question is from Catherine Chomiak of NBC News.
QUESTION: Hi, Marie. Thanks so much for doing this.
MS. HARF: Let’s talk up a little, Catherine.
QUESTION: Is that better?
MS. HARF: A little bit, yeah.
MS. HARF: Just scream into the phone.
QUESTION: I’ll yell. I have two questions, the first on Venezuela. What is your reaction to opposition leader Mr. Lopez turning himself over to the authorities? That was yesterday, but on Saturday, a statement from the Secretary said that the U.S. was alarmed that arrest warrants had been issued for him previously, so what is the reaction now?
MS. HARF: Yeah, so let me pull up what I have here on that. In general in Venezuela –obviously, we’ve talked a lot about this over the past few days with some of our folks being PNG’d and some of the other situations that’s been happening on the ground. In terms of arrests, obviously, we believe the most appropriate way to resolve differences is through consultations and dialogue, right, not the arrest of people who may be political foes.
In this and all cases, we call for due process and the immediate release of those in Venezuela who have been detained while peacefully expressing their rights to freedom of expression and assembly. Again, this is essential in any country, but certainly to a functioning democracy. And we believe that the Venezuelan Government does have an obligation to protect those fundamental freedoms.
I’m happy to answer more broad questions on Venezuela too, if you have any follow-ups.
QUESTION: Actually, my other question is – that was – thank you – is on if you’ve seen these reports of two former Navy SEALs were found dead on the Maersk Alabama. They were near – I think they were moored near Madagascar. Do you have any information? They’re Americans. Thanks.
MS. HARF: Yes, I do. We can confirm reports that two deceased American citizens were found on the Maersk Alabama, and it was moored, actually, in the Seychelles, I believe.
MS. HARF: This incident is currently being investigated by the U.S. Coast Guard, in part because it’s a U.S.-flagged vessel, so obviously I’d refer you to them for more details, or of course, to the company involved for other details. But there is an investigation ongoing.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MS. HARF: Yeah. Looks like the next question is from Ilhan Tanir, if you could open his line, please.
QUESTION: Hi Marie, do you hear me?
MS. HARF: I can hear you, Ilhan, yes.
QUESTION: Thank you for taking the call. A quick two questions on Turkey and one question on Syria-Iran. Question on Turkey: There are two bills just passed at the parliament and the first one is internet bill.
MS. HARF: Uh-huh.
QUESTION: It just actually approved by the President Gul yesterday, and it’s criticized by outside and inside, by many corners. What’s your reaction to this bill?
MS. HARF: Yep. So this is – what we said when the legislation was first approved by the parliament, we share the serious concerns raised by the OSCE and others that the law has the potential to severely restrict free expression, freedom of the press, and access to information over the internet. We also believe that the law could negatively impact Turkey’s business and investment climate.
We understand that the legislation improved by – approved, excuse me, by President Gul will be subject to further modification by parliament. During this process, as well as the implementation of any final legislation, I’d say we’re looking to Turkey to uphold – again, I’ve talked about it a few times today – but fundamental freedoms of expression and a free and independent media.
QUESTION: So as you mentioned, there are two modifications by President Gul. Will be okay if those two modifications are amended or done at the parliament?
MS. HARF: I wasn’t saying that. Obviously, we are looking to Turkey during this process to uphold the fundamental freedoms that really underscore why we’re concerned about this legislation. I’m not going to get into more detailed analysis about the law or possible modifications. We’ll take a look at what happens when it happens and make assessments at that time.
QUESTION: Thank you. And the second bill, this one passed at the parliament – I asked this question about three weeks ago – and it is awaiting President Gul’s signature again. It is the bill on the judicial council that will hand control of the judiciary to the executive branch, being again criticized by the EU many, many times, and also there is a big reaction within Turkey. Do you have any reaction to this one?
MS. HARF: I haven’t seen the specifics on that one, Ilhan. I know you’ve asked about this a few times, so let me check with our folks and see if we have more of a response. I know we don’t always comment on sort of internal Turkish matters, but let me check and see what I can do.
QUESTION: Actually, that’s exactly what I am asking for, because if you are taking this bill as an internal matter, that means that you’re not taking it as the universal value of democracy as judicial control that will have control to the entire judiciary to the executive branch. So even if you can get back to me on this, whether you’re taking this as internal matter or as something that will deal blow to the separation of powers would be immensely helpful for the writing record in history.
MS. HARF: Yep. Let me see what I can do for you, Ilhan.
QUESTION: Thank you. And my final question is – this question was asked again several times in the past. This is about the U.S. Treasury’s statement issued on February 7th or 6th about operatives in Iran that is – they have been helping. According to Treasury statement, they’ve been helping to transfer funds and fighters to Syria for the al-Qaida elements. Do you have anything on this this time?
MS. HARF: I really just don’t have more on this than I think we’ve talked about. I’d refer you to the Treasury Department and my colleagues there to speak to this.
QUESTION: Actually, I talked to them. They referred me to you to comment on this.
MS. HARF: I love when that happens. So I’ll refer you back, and I will talk with them and see if we can get you anything. Again, it’s a Treasury designation --
MS. HARF: -- so I think they’re probably most appropriate to speak to that issue.
QUESTION: This is about how Iranian operatives are in Iran helping al-Qaida elements in Syria. This kind of analysis or your take on this is the question to you.
MS. HARF: Well, look, broadly speaking, we’ve made our concerns clear about some of Iran’s activities in Syria. But beyond that, let me talk to my Treasury colleagues, but I’d recommend you give them another call and they can speak to their designation a little bit more.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MS. HARF: Thank you, Ilhan.
Our next question is from Nicolas from AFP.
QUESTION: Thank you, Marie. Can you hear me?
MS. HARF: I can, yes.
QUESTION: Okay. Thank you for doing that. Just one question on South Sudan. You have probably seen that heavy fightings have resumed in the north of the country. So what is exactly the leverage of the United States to try to end the crisis there? Is imposing sanctions, is it an option for the U.S.? And are you ready to resend your special envoy to the region?
MS. HARF: Yep. Well, Ambassador Booth is in Addis working on this issue right now. We are deeply concerned by reports of extensive fighting in and around Malakal, which this continued fighting – let me be very clear – is a blatant violation of the cessation of hostilities agreement. And quite frankly, we condemn the failure of both parties to abide by the terms of agreement and call on both parties to end any military actions aimed at the other, and to finalize an agreement on the implementation details of the monitoring and verification mission. This is what Ambassador Booth is working on in Addis, among other things. And so hopefully, we can work with the parties to help get back to a better place, back on a better track in terms of the discussion.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MS. HARF: Yep. Our next question is from Inner City Press, from Matthew Russell Lee. Go ahead.
QUESTION: Great. Thanks a lot. This is on South Sudan and also Central African Republic. On South Sudan, I know that the State Department back in – I mean, it was February 8th – had called for the redeployment or progressive withdrawal of the Ugandan forces there. So they pretty much rejected that, and I wanted to know if there’s been any follow-up by the U.S.
And also, just relatedly, there was a letter from like 26 NGOs – International Crisis Group, IRC, and others – to Secretary Kerry asking for reengagement in South Sudan, but specifically asking for the U.S. to favor a UN peacekeeping mission in Central African Republic and to include it in its budget request for 2015. So I don’t – is there any reaction to that letter? What’s the U.S. thinking on engagement in the Central African Republic? Thanks.
MS. HARF: Yep. So let me start with South Sudan. So when we talked about withdrawal of foreign forces from South Sudan, that was really, as I’m sure you know, consistent with language in the cessation of hostilities agreement that both parties signed last month. We’re urging the redeployment or phased withdrawal of foreign forces invited by either side.
Our concern, obviously, has been primarily focused on ensuring the implementation of the agreement. We have recognized the role that Ugandan forces have played in helping defend critical infrastructure in Juba, on one of the main roads. But we do believe it’s time for those forces to begin a phased withdrawal – again, consistent with the cessation of hostilities agreement – and more broadly speaking, think it’s critical that all countries in the region play a positive role in pressing the parties to resolve their disputes peacefully, and that any regionalization of the conflict could have very serious consequences.
In terms of where that process stands, I’m happy to check with our team and with Ambassador Booth on the ground to see what the latest is. Again, we’ve said that there have been on both sides in South Sudan violations of the cessation of hostilities, and we know there is still, quite frankly, a lot of work to be done there. So if there’s more to share, I’m happy to check with our team and do so.
In terms of the Central African Republic, I am not actually familiar with that letter that was sent to Secretary Kerry. I’m happy to check in with our folks and see if we have indeed received it, and what – I’m sure we’ll respond, but what that response might look like. We have, of course, been deeply concerned by the continued interreligious violence in the CAR, and call now for the urgent deployment of additional MISCA troops and police to support the French, the EU, and the MISCA efforts. We think at this point this is a critical step that must be taken immediately to stem the violence, which is, of course, so important.
We’ve been supporting in a number of ways, including airlifting Burundian and Rwandan troops to Bangui, and we’ll continue to transport, equip, and train additional troops that are identified. We are also developing targeted sanctions against those who further destabilize the situation, or encourage or abet the violence. That’s something we’re looking at right now. Nothing to announce, but that’s certainly one policy option we’re developing.
QUESTION: Great. Thanks a lot. Just on – the letter, I think, was to the Secretary and also to OMB, and it was dated February 14th.
Just one last thing on South Sudan, if you don’t mind, it was this report – the UN, in fact, said that they found cluster bombs on the road between Juba and Bor, and there’s sort of – what I’m wondering is, this is – the U.S. is raising it as a concern, and the different types of ordnance elsewhere, but is this on the U.S.’s radar screen? Is there – who’s going to determine who used them? Some people are saying that they could only have been dropped from the air, so it kind of narrows the people that could have done it. I’m wondering, are you aware of that, and is the U.S. concerned or going to follow up?
MS. HARF: Yeah, I’ve seen those reports. Let me check with our folks and see what the latest is on that. Obviously, we would be concerned about that, suffice to say, but I just want to make sure I have all the details before I respond further.
QUESTION: Great. Thanks.
MS. HARF: Thanks, Matthew. Could the moderator remind folks on the call how to ask a question, please?
OPERATOR: Certainly. Just a reminder, you can press * then 1. Once again, if you do have a question, press * then 1.
MS. HARF: Great. Thank you. The next question is from David Storey of Reuters. Go ahead David.
QUESTION: Yeah. Hi, it’s David Storey of Reuters here in Washington. The first question is on Afghanistan. Reuters had a story and others have had stories about moves to revive the Afghan peace talks, including talks – including some kind of swap of Taliban detainees for a U.S. prisoner of war. I’m not sure whether the State Department’s already commented on these, but could you tell me what the latest is as far as State’s response to these reports?
MS. HARF: Yeah. Well, in terms of the response to the reports – the reports about some alleged swap that’s being considered, we have said that we can’t discuss all the details of our efforts to bring Sergeant Bergdahl home. Obviously, he’s been gone far too long. We continue to call for his immediate release.
But there should be no doubt that we work every single day using our military, our intelligence, and our diplomatic tools to try to see him returned home safely. So that – I know there are a lot of rumors out there, but that is where things stand right now.
In terms of reconciliation, which I think is what your first question was referencing --
MS. HARF: Look, we’ve said for a long time that our interest has always been in a stable, prosperous, and unified Afghanistan. And our objective has always been to promote a political process where Afghans can sit down with other Afghans to determine their future of their country. The outcomes of this kind of discussion must be the Taliban and other insurgent groups breaking ties with al-Qaida, ending violence, and accepting Afghanistan’s constitution.
We are not currently involved in active negotiation with the Taliban. Clearly, if negotiations do resume at some point with the Taliban, then we would want to talk with them about the safe return of Sergeant Bergdahl. As I said, we are continuing to call for and work towards his safe and immediate release.
MS. HARF: You can, yes.
QUESTION: A follow-up on the expulsion of the three embassy officials by Maduro. What is the action that the United States plans to take – or reaction to that? Are you trying to get these officials reinstated? Or what are you trying to do for them?
MS. HARF: Well, at this point, we’re considering what actions to take. There’s a couple things we can do. One is, in accordance with Article 9 of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations and Article 23 of the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations, the U.S. can take reciprocal action here – well, not in Vienna, here in the United States. I use “here” not literally.
So right now we’re considering what actions to take. They did notify us, as we said, on the afternoon of February 17th that three of our consular officers were given 48 hours to leave the country. I would repeat very strongly that the allegations against our diplomats by the Venezuelan Government are baseless and false, and that right now we are considering what actions to take.
QUESTION: Okay. But reciprocal action here in the United States is one of the possibilities?
MS. HARF: Yep.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MS. HARF: In terms of – people have asked do we plan to retaliate by PNGing their folks, we are certainly able to do so under the Vienna Conventions both on diplomatic and consular relations. But haven’t decided yet what to do, but again, are considering a variety of actions.
QUESTION: Okay, thank you very much.
QUESTION: Thanks. Yes, madam, can you hear me?
MS. HARF: I can hear you, Goyal. Yes, go ahead.
MS. HARF: Okay, let’s do them all in order. So do your first question first. Pakistan.
QUESTION: Yes, madam. My question is that the situation in Pakistan is deteriorating and it’s very bad in Karachi, Lahore, Peshawar, and also in Balochistan. My question is that if U.S. is concerned about this deteriorating situation in Pakistan, because massive graves were found in Balochistan and also police bus were bombed, and every day people are being killed in Pakistan. And recently, Nawaz Sharif government and the Taliban talks failed already because the problem is it’s not the Pakistan’s internal matter as Pakistan said, but U.S. presence is there in Afghanistan next door and India is there and also central Asian countries are also there. And it’s a question of entire region and the global peace: What the U.S. is doing to bring peace and stability in the region, please?
MS. HARF: Well, that’s a big question what we’re doing to bring peace and stability in the region. But let me say a few points. First, in terms of the security situation in Pakistan and the terrorist threat, as I’ve said many, many times, I think, in response to some of your questions, we are concerned about it, the Pakistani Government is concerned about it, because its citizens, in fact, have been the – affected by it more than anyone. In terms of – and we have a constant dialogue with the Pakistani Government on counterterrorism efforts and building their capacity to fight this threat.
In terms of Afghanistan, we appreciate Pakistan’s efforts to further Afghan-led reconciliation. Pakistan is obviously an important partner in supporting a secure and stable Afghanistan, which is vital to the security of the region. But I would say the same thing about India that India is also an important partner in supporting a stable and secure region, including in Afghanistan. So we will keep working with all these folks to certainly work on these security issues, particularly going into 2014 longer and as we decide what, in fact, our presence will look like in Afghanistan.
QUESTION: Thank you, madam. My second question is that Madam (inaudible) was recently in Nepal and as I asked you the question last week in the State Department that Nepal has an all-new government – so what – she had talks or anything like you can give on a visit to Nepal, please?
MS. HARF: Well, I think I spoke to this a little bit last week. I don’t have anything to add, I don’t think, from them. I’m happy to check with her and see if there is anything she wants to add, but I don’t have anything to add from here.
QUESTION: And finally, madam, quickly on India. As far as Ambassador Nancy Powell’s meeting with Minister Narendra Modi and the ongoing elections in India and situation in India, anything that the U.S. is watching this elections and situation on India right now, especially now? And in Delhi there is a presidential rule? Because a local government --
MS. HARF: Well, I don’t have more to offer, I think, than when we talked about this the last time I briefed, which is that Ambassador Powell has been talking to folks across the political spectrum, also in civil society, as is her job, and that we will work with whoever the elected government of India is, and that certainly will be our policy going forward.
QUESTION: Madam, thank you very much, and enjoy your trip.
MS. HARF: Thank you so much. Our next question is from --
QUESTION: And (inaudible) to India (inaudible) for three days.
MS. HARF: I know. Vienna’s lovely. Vienna’s lovely, even though it’s cold.
MS. HARF: Our next question comes from Tejinder Singh, if we can open his line.
QUESTION: Can you hear me?
MS. HARF: I can hear you, yes. Go ahead.
QUESTION: Okay. The Indian home minister – home – yeah, Home Minister Shinde. And he has said that he was in talks with the U.S. to arrest Dawood Ibrahim who is – he said he was in – is in Pakistan. But his junior minister today denied that there are any talks with the U.S. on this, and this – Dawood is named in the – and is wanted in the Mumbai blast of 1993. So can you please clarify if there is any cooperation on this going on?
MS. HARF: Tejinder, it’s a good question. Unfortunately, I don’t know the answer, so let me check with our folks – I know this comes up periodically from time to time, but let me check with our folks and see what I can do.
QUESTION: Okay, thank you. Enjoy Vienna.
MS. HARF: Thank you. Our next question is from Daniel, and I don’t want to mess up your last name, I’m sorry – from Caracol TV. Sorry.
QUESTION: Hi Marie, it’s Daniel Pacheco.
MS. HARF: Thank you. Thank you.
MS. HARF: I think I addressed that in an earlier question that certainly with him and any other folks that have been detained for peacefully expressing their rights, we are calling for due process and the immediate release of all these folks.
QUESTION: And if I can ask more broadly as to how you evaluate the situation in Venezuela, do you feel that as the government states, the opposition seeks to replace the regime? What is your understanding of the political situation inside the country?
MS. HARF: Well, a couple points on that. The first is that it’s really up to the Venezuelan people to decide what their internal situation will look like. I think one of the things we’ve seen over the past few days, actually for a long time, quite frankly, many times, that the Venezuelan Government is trying to distract from its own actions by blaming the United States or other members of the international community for events that happen inside Venezuela. We do think that these efforts reflect a lack of seriousness on the part of the Venezuelan Government to deal with the situation it faces. As I said earlier, the allegations they’ve against our diplomats are just – have no basis in reality, and that, look, broadly speaking we are open to having a constructive relationship with Venezuela, but quite frankly have not seen that reciprocated on the other side. So we can only judge the relationship based on actions and quite frankly leave it up to the people of Venezuela to decide what their future should look like, but at the same time saying that the Venezuelan Government has a responsibility to protect certain fundamental rights, including peaceful expression and assembly.
QUESTION: Okay, thank you. Thank you very much.
MS. HARF: You’re welcome, Daniel. I think we have time for just a few more. Our next question is from Jafar Jafari from (inaudible).
QUESTION: Yes, please. This question is regarding Libya. There seems to be an understanding among the Libyans that the current crisis is based on differences between what they call the Muslim Brothers supported by the Qatari faction and others perhaps supported by the Saudis. Does the U.S. have any position regarding this realignment?
And a second related question regarding the Syrian opposition: Within the current reorganization and realignments within the military wing of the Syrian opposition, it seems that Salim Idris, who was forced out of his position a few days ago, is coming back and saying no, that he’s – he wants his position back, that the other faction doesn’t – is not allowed to fire him. Is there any reaction?
MS. HARF: So we do – we have, of course, seen the news that General Idris has been replaced. We’re still gathering information about the February 16th vote. We do believe that the SNC and the SOC are effective advocates for the political and armed opposition, and we remain supportive of them. So I don’t really have much more analysis of what this means at this point, nor do I have details of the opposition’s internal discussions. We are following developments very closely. We’re gathering information. We’re in touch with relevant contacts. But I would say that our support has not changed.
And on the opposition writ large, because I think people are talking about this a little bit based on this, what you just mentioned, the realignment, that – look, the opposition came to Geneva and demonstrated civility to coalesce, to come together, and to be an effective international advocate for the Syrian people. It, I think, showed that the opposition is unified, and that to suggest that it’s somehow weak or not unified just isn’t the case. So we will keep watching it. And again, if we have more to say about it as we get more information, we will do so.
In terms of Libya, what exactly – we put out – or at least I think our Embassy put out a statement yesterday talking about threats to the government from militia groups, but were you referring to something else specific? I’m sorry, I couldn’t hear the beginning of your question.
QUESTION: It seems that the Libyans are saying the current crisis is predicated on differences between the Muslim Brothers faction supported by the Qataris and others perhaps supported by the Saudis. Is this an accurate description?
MS. HARF: Yeah, I haven’t seen those comments, quite frankly. Let me check with our folks and see if they have a little more clarity on that. Obviously, we are close partners with the Libyan Government as they are going through their democratic transition, as we are helping them work to build their capacity both on the governance side, but also on the security side. And in terms of the Saudis and others in the region, they are very, very close partners with us on a whole host of regional issues. So let me – I, quite frankly, just haven’t seen what you’re referring to, so I’ll check and see if there’s any more on that.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MS. HARF: And it looks like we have another question from Michael Wilner of The Jerusalem Post.
MS. HARF: Mm-hmm.
QUESTION: And it was basing this analysis on Press Secretary Carney’s comments in his briefing that, quote, “We have to examine what the alternatives some might be proposing are and whether they’re in our national security interests and whether a desire to do something about it could lead us, the United States, to action that could produce the kind of unintended consequences we’ve been – we’ve seen in the past.” Do you think that analysis is overzealous or do you think it’s accurate that the U.S. is – still remains cool on using force in Syria?
MS. HARF: Well, I think I’d say a few things. We have said, the President has said, that all policy options remain on the table here, obviously, except for boots on the ground. And what I think my colleague at the White House was saying, and what we’ve said many, many times is there is no military solution to this conflict, that this conflict requires a negotiated diplomatic solution in the form of a transitional governing body, and that people or critics who would say and assert that if the U.S. just got militarily involved, somehow we would solve the crisis in Syria is, quite frankly, intellectually dishonest and not borne out by the facts on the ground.
It’s very complicated. We know that what we need to get in place is a transitional governing body, that Assad has lost all legitimacy, and that when you look at the different tools in the tool box, right, you have to say what has the most chance of succeeding, what’s most appropriate in every situation. And that’s why we put the full diplomatic weight of the United States behind our efforts and continue – I think the important second half of that is that we continue to constantly reevaluate if there are other policy options we should be taking – again, not boots on the ground, but other policy options.
And as we’ve said on chemical weapons specifically – look, it was the threat – the credible, very real threat – of U.S. military force that indeed got us an agreement on chemical weapons. Now, we have a lot more work to do. But I think those are all factors that we consider, and I think the last point I would say on this is that – it’s something I think I referenced in one of my briefings last week – that there are no easy answers here and there’s no magic formula, that if critics said, “Well, if the Administration was just doing X or Y, we would solve the situation in Syria,” I think, quite frankly, need to look a little more closely at the situation because it indeed is so complicated. And so that’s why progress is very slow and it’s not getting better, but we are very committed to working to do so.
QUESTION: Great. Thanks, Marie. Enjoy Vienna.
MS. HARF: Thanks, Michael. I think we have time for just two more questions, probably. Lara Jakes with the AP has another question, it looks like.
QUESTION: Yeah, just a very quick follow-up on Venezuela. We’ve been trying to get a number of how many U.S. diplomats are stationed at the Embassy there. Is that something you can get for us? I know your office – the bureau’s been working on it, but still looking for an answer, at least a ballpark answer.
MS. HARF: We don’t generally give numbers. Let me see if there’s any way I can give a ballpark. We generally don’t, but let me see what I can do. I doubt we’ll be able to, but I’ll try. We might, we might.
QUESTION: There is precedent for that. I mean, I have gotten it on other missions.
MS. HARF: Yeah, no, I know. And it’s particularly ballpark. So let me just check.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MS. HARF: I just don’t know off the top of my head.
The next question is from Indira with Bloomberg News, who’s here with us in Vienna.
QUESTION: (Inaudible) properly.
MS. HARF: Unmute your phone, Indira.
QUESTION: Yeah, all right. Problem with my phone. I wanted to ask you about an Iranian media report from state-run IRNA that is saying that Ashton and Zarif are expected to – they’re meeting again tonight and that they’re going to finalize the framework tonight. Has this framework been sent back to Washington, to the White House? And do you expect that framework to be finalized?
And also, can you clarify – there have been varying reports about whether or not the U.S. wants Iran’s missile program to be part of these talks. I know we’ve talked about the UN resolutions, but does the U.S. explicitly want the missile program to be part of the talks? Thanks.
MS. HARF: Yep. So on the first question, I don’t think anybody has actually confirmed some of those unconfirmed reports that you referenced. What we’ve said – because I got asked about this a little bit earlier – are that the --
QUESTION: (Inaudible) reporting it now. They’ve just moved a story saying – attributing it --
MS. HARF: Not everything you read in the press always is completely accurate, I know it’s surprising to say. But I’m certainly not confirming those reports. I’m not saying they’re accurate. What I’m saying is the talks are continuing, both at the political director level and the expert level, on process for how these negotiations will unfold over the next six months, and also starting to talk about some substance. So they have been constructive, they have been useful. We are continuing to meet tomorrow morning, is my understanding, unless that’s changed in the last hour I’ve been on the phone here. And I expect we’ll have more to say at the end of this round about how we move forward.
In terms of the missile issue, look, in the JPOA it very clearly states that we will deal with Security Council resolutions and past issues of concern. We’ve said that all of our concerns need to be part of these discussions, that they need to be part of the talks. Beyond that, I think probably just not going to go a lot further here. Again, at the end of these talks, I think we’ll probably have a little bit more to say.
QUESTION: Okay. Thank you.
MS. HARF: Yep. Last question of this probably first daily briefing from Vienna is from Ashish Sen of The Washington Times. Go ahead, Ashish.
QUESTION: Hi, Marie. This is Ashish. I just wanted to follow up on the Libya, developments in Libya. There was a statement from the Embassy yesterday about the threat from the militant groups to the government there, to the parliament there. Since then, the same militias have set a 72-hour deadline to resolve this deadlock. Do you have any updated comments on developments in Libya? Thanks.
MS. HARF: I don’t have an updated comment beyond what the Embassy said yesterday, that obviously we fully support the transitional, democratic process, the one that was outlined in their constitutional declaration from 2011, and believe that the use of force is not a legitimate means to divert this democratic transition. So we’ll keep monitoring the situation, but just don’t have anything further than what we had yesterday.
QUESTION: Okay. Thank you.
MS. HARF: Thanks, Ashish. And thank you, everyone, for joining. Again, this was all on the record as today’s daily press briefing. We will keep folks posted on when we will be briefing the rest of the week. And Jen and I both, I think, endeavor to get back and brief in person as soon as we can. So thank you for your patience and understanding, and we will talk to you soon.
(The briefing was concluded at 2:08 p.m.)