MS ORTAGUS: Okay, I think we can go ahead and get started. Hi, everybody. Welcome to our virtual bullpen briefing. This is Morgan Ortagus. This call is going to be embargoed, please, until the end of the call. I think everybody has seen the news on Fakhoury and Michael White at this point, so I have both Dave Schenker and Brian Hook, who everyone knows really well. They’ll both give some brief opening comments and then we can go into Q&A. Ruben – and apologies, we’re having a little bit of trouble with our normal AT&T line, so this is a little bit of a free-for-all, so I’d just ask everybody to be really conscious about using the mute button, please, unless you’re speaking. Please text Ruben if you want to ask a question so he can try to call them and make it as orderly as possible. Ruben, why don’t you give your number one more time just in case?

MR HARUTUNIAN: Sure, happy to. My number is [redacted], so please let me know as soon as the opening remarks are done. Thanks.

MS ORTAGUS: Great. So again, let’s please keep this embargoed until the end of the call. Let me turn it over to Dave Schenker first and then Brian, you can jump right in with your opening remarks.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHENKER: Thanks, Morgan. Listen, I’ve got just a few things to say. First of all, we’re really pleased. I’m sure you saw the statement from the President today and a tweet from the Secretary about the release and – of Amer Fakhoury, who had been imprisoned since September 2019 – wrongly – in Lebanon. We’re glad to see that he’s on his way home. We sent a medevac for him today and he’s – should be home in, I don’t know, about seven hours or so give or take. So that’s a – I think a great story, and of course Mr. Fakhoury was suffering from stage four cancer, so – that he acquired in Lebanon while in prison, so it’s nice that he can get back to the United States and receive proper medical care.

The other big news that I would just point you to and – all across the region there’s news, but that the – in Iraq, Barham Salih, the president, has designated Adnan Zurfi as the prime minister-designate. In Iraq, these things are touch and go. As you know, the last prime minister-designate, Mohammed Tawfiq Allawi, didn’t make it, was not able to form a government and withdrew. We are hoping that pro-Iran parties – that is, Iran and its ally – do not move to scuttle the nomination. They seem prepared to shoot down anyone who is not completely subservient to Iran. This is an inflection point for Iraq, whether (inaudible) will choose sovereignty or whether they will choose to become a wholly owned subsidiary of Iran. So we are supportive of (inaudible) and the politicians in Iraq who support Iraqi sovereignty, and there are a number of Iraqi patriots out there that – we are supportive of them.

So I think I’ll stop there for the time being. Yeah, so we’ll —

MS ORTAGUS: Thanks, Dave. Yeah, we’ll have a longer briefing tomorrow on the Middle East with Dave, so for today let’s just stick to Fakhoury, and now Brian’s going to talk about Michael White.

MR HOOK: Hello, everybody. Michael White has been granted a medical furlough by the regime. He’s been in Mashhad, the prison in Mashhad. We have been working on a daily basis through the Swiss, trying to get the release of the Americans who are wrongly detained in Iran. Michael White was released into Swiss custody, the embassy of the – the custody of the Swiss embassy a few hours ago. They then boarded a flight to Tehran and he will be evaluated by doctors that the Swiss work with in Tehran.

As you saw in the statement, we have asked that all detainees be released as a humanitarian gesture. Each of them are wrongly detained – Siamak and Baquer Namazi, Morad Tahbaz, Michael White. So we hope this is the first step. Right now, it’s just a medical furlough. I did speak to Michael White right after he was released, had a very good conversation. He’s in very good spirits. But he has some preexisting health conditions that are going to require some attention. But he was in very good spirits and very grateful to the President and to the Secretary for all of their efforts to get him to this point. That’s it.

MS ORTAGUS: Great. Thanks to you both. Ruben, we can start on the Q&A.

MR HARUTUNIAN: Okay. First question, Matt Lee.

QUESTION: Hi, guys. Again, this usual disclaimer, apologies if my daughter or a dog interrupts. I have some logistical questions, I don’t know, maybe for David, about the whole Lebanon thing. We’ve been tracking this since Tuesday, when a plane, one of your planes, flew from Greece to Beirut, stayed on the ground about an hour, and then left without him. And then again yesterday, flew from Greece to Larnaca, Cyprus, and hung there. We were expecting that the helicopter or the Osprey flight would be yesterday, and then it didn’t happen, and now it came today. So I just want to – I just want to confirm that the Osprey that we’ve all seen on social media that landed at the Beirut embassy and then took off again was carrying him. And also, then, what happened to the plane when it went – where is he now? Because my understanding was he was supposed to go to Greece, but then that plane that I was – I’ve been tracking since Tuesday flew to Tbilisi. So, can you tell us where he is now and where exactly he’s headed, and if it was, in fact, that Osprey that carried him out of Beirut? Thank you.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHENKER: Thanks, Matt. I can’t comment on the specifics of his departure, but I, too, have seen the video on Al-Manar, and there’s not many Ospreys in the region. So anyway, I’d say that – and also your flight tracking, that’s not my understanding about exactly —

QUESTION: Okay, but where is he now, or where was he flown in —

ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHENKER: He’s in a plane – he’s in the State Department medical plane flying back to the United States.

QUESTION: Okay.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHENKER: I can’t give you his – give away his exact location. But yeah, I mean, you saw the video and all the tweets out there.

QUESTION: Okay.

MR HARUTUNIAN: Okay. Lara Jakes is next.

QUESTION: Hi. Thank you. I echo Matt’s disclaimer about little creatures in the household interrupting this call. I wanted to know, given that Secretary Pompeo also put forward a release today about hostages being held in Venezuela and obviously global concerns about coronavirus spreading in prisons worldwide, how much of that concern played into the eventual release of these two hostages in Beirut and in Iran? And I understand Mr. Trump is also appealing to President Assad to try to get Austin Tice released, and whether or not we think that coronavirus is persuading some of these governments to go ahead and do so, even if on a furloughed or temporary – or humanitarian basis. Thanks, I’m going back on mute.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHENKER: Brian, you want to go?

MR HOOK: No, I’m just covering Michael White.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHENKER: Okay. Oh, well, listen, in terms of Mr. Fakhoury, it’s no doubt that he was in a hospital at the time of his release to – and then movement because of his diminished physical condition. He had contracted Epstein-Barr while in Lebanese prison custody, and from there progressed to lymphoma, and was undergoing treatment for that. And so yeah, he was compromised and at risk. And so it was a priority for us, even more urgent that he – to get him out of there, absolutely.

MR HOOK: Lara, there are some similarities there with Michael White. As I said earlier, he does have preexisting medical conditions. And so as soon as we saw corona working its way through Iran, putting prison populations at risk, and then we also saw the regime releasing tens of thousands of prisoners from prison because the regime was concerned about them contracting corona, we applied the same logic to the Americans who are a part of the prison population in both Evin prison, where you’ve got Baquer – where you’ve got both – sorry, where you’ve got one of the Namazis and then you’ve also got Morad Tabhaz and then you’ve got Michael White in Mashhad. So yes, they are at risk just because they’re in Iran. And we are urging the regime to let them out.

MR HARUTUNIAN: Christina Ruffini.

QUESTION: Hey, guys. My question’s for Brian. I’m wondering if you can give us any indication of how you assess the stability of the Iranian regime right now. And I know that White was a special condition because he was possibly immunocompromised, but are you expecting any more releases to follow? Do you think the argument that COVID-19 is putting all of them at more risk – do you think that’ll help you or do you feel like you’re getting any traction on any of the other releases at this point? Thank you.

MR HOOK: Can’t get into the specifics, but the Americans who are in prison – on a daily basis, I am working with the Swiss to win the release of the other Americans. Whether it’s on medical furlough or whether it’s on getting them fully released from Iran, it’s something we’re working on a daily basis because we recognize the urgency of the situation. We want these Americans to not be at risk of – from corona. The fact that the regime has released so many people from jail is an admission by the regime of their concern. So we hope that that gets applied to the Americans who are still in prison.

QUESTION: And can you say anything about the stability of the regime and how corona has impacted it?

MR HOOK: I don’t really make kind of comments forecasting the future or what this crisis means for the regime. I know the death toll seems to be going up each day by the hundreds, and so it’s a – it’s obviously a crisis that they’re trying to get under control. We have offered assistance to the regime. It has not been accepted. The United States is the largest provider of humanitarian assistance in the world. Throughout the 40-year history of this regime, when there have been natural disasters or crises, we’ve always stepped in to offer the generosity of the American people and hope the regime accepts the offer.

MR HARUTUNIAN: Okay. Nick Wadhams is next.

QUESTION: Hi, Brian. My question is: Is the U.S. considering any sanctions relief in exchange for future prisoner releases or to help Iran fight COVID? And to end, aside from WHO contributions, could you give you a little more detail on the offers the U.S. has made to Iran to fight COVID? Thanks.

MR HOOK: Nick, the – this is a sort of tired regime talking point, saying that the sanctions are impacting their ability to deliver assistance for their people. It’s not true. The Iranian people know that. This is why you have not over the last few months seen any protests against American sanctions. The ayatollah has vast resources at his personal disposal. The elite have a lot of money. A lot of the revenue that the regime generates from oil sales and other sales goes to fund billions of dollars in terrorism on foreign wars. And so imagine if only 10 percent of the $16 billion they have spent since 2012 has been spent on a better healthcare system. The Iranian people would have been much better off today.

We have communicated – I don’t want to get into the specifics, but we sent a diplomatic note to the regime through the Swiss making an offer, and it was quickly rejected.

MR HARUTUNIAN: Okay. Shaun Tandon is next.

QUESTION: Thanks. Can you hear me?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHENKER: Yeah.

MR HOOK: Yeah, we can hear you. Go ahead.

QUESTION: Yes, good. Thanks for doing this. My question is for Dave. Could I ask you – as you know, Mr. Fakhoury has been accused of human rights issues in Lebanon. He was accused of – when he was part of the South Lebanon Army, of – the court there in Lebanon as well as witnesses have accused him of torture as part of the – being a warden of the prison, and the – in the former Israeli zone in the south. You had mentioned at the beginning that you consider him to be wrongly accused. Wrongly accused; do you think that these allegations are not credible? Do you think that there’s any scope for accountability for the alleged abuses now that he’s back in the U.S. or coming back to the U.S.? Thanks.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHENKER: Thanks. This is a good question. First of all, I – Fakhoury – there is a statute of limitations in Lebanon, which has expired. There have been many dozens of Lebanese affiliated with Khiam Prison who had been convicted of torture and other crimes. Fakhoury’s name has never been mentioned in regard to any of those allegations and he was never charged for that. In fact, he was charged at one point for collaboration with Israel.

But like I said, there’s a statute of limitations there. We had heard from the lawyers for Mr. Fakhoury about some of the allegations. Some people were making accusations. These were individual accusations. I think there were five people who brought claims of torture, but according to the lawyers for Mr. Fakhoury, some three of those accusers were in the Israeli jail at the time.

This was a political football from day one that had been used – manipulated, I think, for political purposes with some in Lebanon even trying to leverage this for some sort of prisoner exchange. So, no, we did not [1] believe that he was wrongfully detained, but in the end, the competent judicial authorities freed him, which is how he got to the embassy.

MR HARUTUNIAN: Okay. Humeyra Pamuk is next.

QUESTION: Hello, thanks for doing this. Brian, can I just press you a little bit more on Nick’s question? I understand the comments about the regime, but you mentioned oil revenues. Things like that have been down for a long time, and they are now asking widely for help. So, I am just wondering – and you guys have blacklisted new companies this week. I’m aware of that. Is there any plan, any sentiment within the U.S. Government, to even slightly ease the sanctions?

And related to that, has there been more interest on the Swiss humanitarian channel from different companies who might maybe take this opportunity to send more humanitarian shipments to Iran? Thank you.

MR HOOK: Sure. U.S. sanctions are not preventing aid from getting to Iran. We have broad exemptions that allow for the sale of medicine and medical devices by U.S. persons or from the United States to Iran. So that’s point one.

Point two, the regime has prioritized its proxies over the Iranian people for decades, and they have stolen the money from the people that – the Iranian people would expect it would go to their health care. And if you look at how this crisis has been managed, instead of halting flights to China when the risk of contagion was clear, the regime threatened and imprisoned Iranians who told the truth about the outbreak. The regime encouraged large public gatherings to try to bolster its legitimacy. They did not postpone the elections.

And in terms of money, if the regime is sincere about looking for resources to help the Iranian people, they could start by giving back some of the tens of billions of dollars they have stolen from the Iranian people.

I think you may know this – the Secretary has talked about it – Supreme Leader Khamenei runs a hedge fund worth billions and billions of dollars, and he should give back what he has taken from the Iranian people and help them during this health crisis.

QUESTION: And any interest on the humanitarian channel? Thanks.

MR HOOK: We continue to work – I mean, with the corona crisis there has been a slowdown in commerce broadly, but we are continuing to stay in active discussions to – and we encourage people to use this channel that we have set up through the Swiss to help the Iranian people.

MR HARUTUNIAN: Jennifer Hansler.

QUESTION: Hi, thanks for doing this call. Can you talk a little bit about what role, if any, outside interlocutors played in the release of these two men? And separately, Brian, on Iran, similar to Nick’s question, was there any discussion of holding off on this week’s tranches of sanctions to try to create the atmosphere in which Americans could be released?

MR HOOK: What was the first question? I didn’t hear that.

QUESTION: On any outside interlocutors, did they play a role in the release of either of these men?

MR HOOK: In the case of Michael White, no outside interlocutors played a role.

On the second question, our policy of maximum pressure on the regime continues, and it continues because, as I said earlier, U.S. sanctions are not preventing aid from getting to Iran. And the entire world knows and the Iranian people know that there are – there’s always been, from the very beginning, exemptions for food and medicine and medical devices.

The Iranian regime for 41 years has run an opaque financial sector that causes banks to be very reluctant to deal with a regime that is famous and notorious for money laundering and terror finance. They are under FATF countermeasures now. And so one of the great things the regime could do is to open up its financial sector and make it transparent, and that would make it easier on a lot of financial institutions to trust the people at the other end of the transaction.

We’ve done everything we can to set up the Swiss humanitarian channel. We have processed one transaction. We hope that others will follow.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHENKER: As for Mr. Fakhoury, there were no outside interlocutors. We had been providing consular services to Mr. Fakhoury for his entire ordeal, and we assisted in getting him back home. But no.

MR HARUTUNIAN: Ali Rogin from PBS NewsHour is next.

QUESTION: Hi there. Thank you so much for doing the call. This is a two-part question, the first being: When the United States offered additional assistance to the regime, did Iran say that they did not want to accept it because of the maximum pressure sanctions that are in place? And was there – did they signal that they would be willing to accept this assistance if the sanctions were – if they got some sanctions relief?

And the second part of the question is: If in fact that is the case, do you have any sense that they’re releasing prisoners not just because of the coronavirus risk but also in some bid to get the United States to reduce sanctions in any way?

MR HOOK: In – the regime has not commented publicly on the release of Michael White, and so you’ll have to ask them what their motives are. We requested that the Americans get released as a humanitarian gesture (a) because they’re wrongfully detained and (b) there is a – a corona epidemic in the country.

And so in terms of the bilateral communications, I don’t want to get into that because those are confidential. We have – I’d like to recognize the Swiss Government and the Swiss embassy for the enormous sort of liaison work that they do between the United States and Iran. We were able to get the message to the Iranian Government, and the Iranian Government very quickly got us a message back. And I won’t go into the content of that, but it was a clear rejection, which is regrettable and does a disservice to the Iranian people.

MR HARUTUNIAN: Okay, the last question is from Kim Dozier.

QUESTION: Hi, thanks for doing this. To look ahead a little bit, for David Schenker, I was wondering what you think the coronavirus spread might do to the Syrian war zone. That’s a little out there.

And a question for Brian: I’m wondering – or both of you – do you anticipate further Iranian proxy violence in Iraq or the region because of the stress of COVID-19 or to distract from it? This, of course, follows Hassan Rouhani saying that it will respond to the U.S. assassination of Soleimani in comments yesterday.

MR HOOK: David?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHENKER: Yeah, I saw, thanks. Listen, Kim, well, I would direct you to Bashar al-Assad. I think that Mr. al-Assad has said that they don’t have any coronavirus in Syria, so that’s – there’s no problem with that. I’m being facetious. Obviously it’s there. And it just will, I think, make the humanitarian situation – it will exacerbate the humanitarian situation in places like Idlib and elsewhere.

We have provided humanitarian assistance. I think we just committed $108 million with Ambassador Craft, and then Jeffrey’s visiting Idlib from Turkey, and they’ve got sort of a tentative ceasefire going there. I think that’s good to see. But we see elsewhere where things may be heating up notwithstanding the coronavirus, places like Libya.

As for Iranian proxy violence in Iraq, whether that is a product of needing to or having a residual demand for revenge over Soleimani, that I don’t know. What I do believe in regards to the proxy violence is that groups like KH, like Kataib Hezbollah, Asaib Haq, Iranian proxies continue to target American’s diplomatic facilities, members of the coalition, American military, most recently killing two Americans not two weeks ago. And we are there, of course, at the invitation of the government.

I think for them, for these proxies, this is about us, but it is also about Iraqi politics. So I mentioned earlier I’m going to give a – I guess from the podium tomorrow – but the government is in process of formation and appears to have the support of Sunnis and Kurds and a number of Shia, and this is not something perhaps – this is not Iran’s candidate, and they may want to change it. And so they will do through whatever methods they can to scuttle it, including by launching attacks, trying to provoke counter – defensive counterstrikes.

So I think that regardless of the coronavirus, this is in fact not only an effort to have an impact on domestic politics in Iraq, but also to divert attention from the coronavirus both in Iraq and in Iran, where it’s being dramatically mishandled.

QUESTION: Thank you.

MR HARUTUNIAN: That’s it for questions.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHENKER: Great. Is Morgan still out there?

MR HARUTUNIAN: Morgan, are you still on? Morgan, are you still on?

MR HOOK: I don’t think she is, Ruben.

MS ORTAGUS: Sorry. I got kicked off, sorry about that.

MR HARUTUNIAN: Okay, I think that’s it, Morgan. We’ve wrapped up with questions and answers.

MS ORTAGUS: Great. Okay.

_______________________________________________________________________________________________
[1] Corr.: So, no, we did believe that he was wrongfully detained, but in the end, the competent judicial authorities freed him, which is how he got to the embassy.

U.S. Department of State

The Lessons of 1989: Freedom and Our Future