2:08 p.m. EDT
MR PRICE: Good afternoon.
QUESTION: Good afternoon.
MR PRICE: I actually do not have anything at the top, so ready to dive right in.
QUESTION: Oh really? Wow. Okay, let’s start with the most obvious, I think: Iran. So I presume that you’ve gotten an update from Vienna?
MR PRICE: Well —
QUESTION: Can you tell us what – well, if you have, can you tell us what it is? And if you haven’t, can you tell us why you haven’t gotten an update?
MR PRICE: Well, as you know, Matt, the discussions just commenced today at 2:30 p.m. local time in Vienna. It’s my understanding that they were scheduled to go until just about now. So they are still underway. I think you have probably seen what one of the European officials described as a “constructive” meeting of the joint commission. Of course, Special Envoy Rob Malley is representing the United States in these discussions.
I think what I said yesterday also remains true. These are early days; we don’t anticipate any immediate breakthrough. We don’t anticipate being in a position to provide any sort of live commentary on these discussions. We know these will be tough talks. We know there will be difficult discussions ahead. But again, this is a healthy step forward. It’s a healthy step forward because it allows us to move forward with what we see is – as the only path to achieve what President Biden – and as a candidate, Candidate Biden – laid out, and that is a mutual return to compliance: “mutual” meaning Iran returning to its commitments under the 2015 JCPOA, those commitments spelling out the parameters under which Iran is permanently and verifiably prevented from obtaining a nuclear weapon; and on our side, what we might need to do to return to compliance ourselves.
Those are the two working groups. Those are the two issues that are on the table. The shorthand is “compliance for compliance.” There are also – there are obviously many more complexities involved in that, but that will be the task ahead for the – our partners, the Europeans, as well as the Russians and the Chinese, in their talks with the Iranians going forward.
QUESTION: Okay. Well, you said you weren’t going to be offering any live commentary, but in fact, you offered some live commentary, even if it wasn’t even your own. It was a European official’s commentary. Would you agree with the European official? I assume this is Mora, or —
MR PRICE: That’s right.
QUESTION: Yeah. Would you agree with that assessment that this whatever it was that has happened so far has been constructive?
MR PRICE: Well, we weren’t a part of that joint commission meeting, obviously. I’m just relaying what Mr. Mora said in his statement. But certainly as a step forward, as a broad step forward, these discussions in Vienna, even though we are not meeting directly with the Iranians, as we have said, it is a welcome step, it is a constructive step, it is a potentially useful step as we seek to determine what it is that the Iranians are prepared to do to return to compliance with the stringent limitations under the 2015 deal, and as a result, what we might need to do to return to compliance ourselves.
QUESTION: Okay. So what interaction do you expect the U.S. Envoy Malley and the rest of – other U.S. officials to have? If they weren’t – they weren’t, obviously, in this meeting of the joint commission. You quoted a European as saying it was constructive. But do they even need to be there right now? What are they doing? What —
MR PRICE: Well, they do need to be there, because there are, as I said before —
QUESTION: What are they – when do they get involved in whatever talks there’s going to be?
MR PRICE: Well, so they’re involved on a daily basis. So as we have said, we do not at this point anticipate direct talks between the United States and Iran. We are open to them because we are open to diplomacy. We know that we can engage in clear-eyed, principled diplomacy even with a country like Iran, with whom, of course, we have tremendous and profound differences.
But the Iranians want to do this indirectly. We are comfortable with that. So what we will be doing is engaging in discussions with our allies, principally our European allies, who, in turn, together with the Chinese and Russians, will be engaging directly with the Iranians. Our allies —
QUESTION: But have those started yet? Have they started engaging with their – with the Europeans?
MR PRICE: Well, it has started really since January 20th. That’s the —
QUESTION: Well, today, in Vienna.
MR PRICE: That’s been the —
QUESTION: No, come on, I’m not trying to be obtuse.
MR PRICE: No, no, no, I —
QUESTION: I mean, you’re being obtuse.
MR PRICE: No, I just —
QUESTION: Wait, wait. Have they met? Have they – has there been – has Malley and the – have they and the Europeans actually sat down after this joint commission meeting, or are we still waiting for that? Is that going to happen tomorrow? Will it happen tonight?
MR PRICE: Well, let me —
QUESTION: Are they going to go out and have wienerschnitzel and —
MR PRICE: Well, Vienna, as is much of Europe, is under stringent COVID conditions.
QUESTION: Yes. But I mean, is that going to happen today, or when?
MR PRICE: So I don’t expect them to be going out into public to have discussions over drinks.
But what I will say – and I think this context is useful, because this has been the activity in which we have engaged since the very early days of this administration – we undertook intensive consultations with our allies, with our partners, and with members of Congress to explain to them what we might be prepared to do, and more to the point, what we sought to do to bring Iran back into compliance with the 2015 nuclear deal. Most recently – and we were just in Brussels with Secretary Blinken the other week when we had a meeting with our E3 partners – Iran, as I have said, was a primary topic of conversation. This was, in fact, the third meeting with the E3 that Secretary Blinken had had – not meeting but consultation because the first two were, of course, virtual.
But Iran has been a consistent topic of conversation with our allies. It’s also been a topic of conversation with our partners. We have talked about Special Envoy Malley’s engagement with the Russians and the Chinese, two of the original members of the P5+1 who were, of course, engaged in these talks, again, in Vienna.
So all that to say our European allies certainly are not going to be surprised by what they hear from us. The utility of this setting in Vienna is that there can be real-time interaction, albeit indirect, between the United States and, in turn, the Iranians with those messages ferried back and forth between – by our allies and partners.
So yes, we do see this as a constructive and certainly welcome step. And in the end, we hope that we are able to leave Vienna, return to the United States – our negotiating team, I should say – with a better understanding of a roadmap for how we get to that end state: mutual compliance; Iranian compliance with the deal, and how the United States might also resume its compliance with the deal.
QUESTION: How difficult would it be to unwind the Trump sanctions given how many were layered on, especially the terrorist designation?
MR PRICE: Well, that will be one of the topics of conversation in Vienna, and in fact, it is the focus of one of the two working groups. Because again, one of the working groups is focused precisely on what the Iranians will need to do given the steps away from the Iran deal that they have taken since May of 2018. We have even yesterday and in recent weeks, of course, expressed our concern with those steps because of the implications they hold for Iran’s nuclear program. It’s precisely why we are approaching this challenge with a great degree of urgency.
So the primary issues that will be discussed are, as I said, the nuclear steps that Iran will need to take in order to return to its compliance with the JCPOA, and on the other hand the other working group will be focused on the sanctions relief steps that the United States will need to take in order to return to compliance with the JCPOA. And so precisely that is what we’ll discuss in this context.
QUESTION: And in terms of the terror designation, what steps have to be taken to reverse that if and when Iran has complied? And one further question is: Do you agree with the commonly described position which Secretary Blinken himself has said in other interviews that Iran would be theoretically within months of having a nuclear weapon at the current state of their progress?
MR PRICE: Well, I’m not going to get into any intelligence assessments. What I will say is to reiterate what I said yesterday most recently, and that is a reminder that when the Iran deal was fully in effect – that is to say, from implementation day January of 2016 until 2018 – Iran’s breakout time was at 12 months. That was one of the primary objectives, one of the many virtues, of the Iran deal when Iran was in full compliance with the deal.
What that means is that if Iran made the strategic decision to pursue a nuclear weapon, if somehow Iran were able to evade the stringent verification and monitoring parameters associated with the deal, it would take them a full 12 months to produce the fissile material alone that would be required for a nuclear weapon. And of course, that doesn’t include the weaponization aspects of that activity.
Now that Iran has distanced itself from the deal, there are various estimates out there. Various public assessments have put Iran’s breakout time in the single digits, in a handful of months. To us, that is not acceptable. To us, our goal is, again, to ensure that that breakout time is as long as possible but more broadly to ensure that Iran is once again subject to a deal that will permanently and verifiably prevent Iran from ever obtaining a nuclear weapon.
Now this takes me to another point. We have talked about mutual resumption of compliance with the JCPOA as a necessary but insufficient step, because we have also talked about, once we are there, working on what we are calling a longer and stronger deal, using the original JCPOA as the baseline for those discussions, but then not stopping there, because we have also made no secret of our other profound concerns with Iran’s behavior, Iran’s malign activity in the region. That includes its support for terrorism; it includes its ballistic missile programs; it includes the activities of its proxies. All of these are issues that not only the United States but also together with our allies and many of our partners that we seek to constrain. So that will be the broader effort here.
Now, what is on the table in Vienna today and over the next handful of days are those initial, indirect discussions about that first step. What Iran would need to do to resume compliance with the JCPOA and what the United States would need to do to resume its compliance with the JCPOA – that task alone won’t be easy; it won’t be simple. These talks will not be uncomplicated, but again, we are encouraged by the fact that they are taking place, because it is a necessary first step to get to that desired end state.
QUESTION: And the terror designation, just very briefly?
MR PRICE: Well, again, the second working group – one of two – is going to be focused on the steps the United States would need to undertake. Our – what we recognize is that we will need to provide sanctions relief – with – for sanctions that are inconsistent with the JCPOA. But again, that’s why we have a working group focused on this, and I wouldn’t want to discuss it from here.
QUESTION: Wait. Consistent, not inconsistent.
MR PRICE: We need – we would need to provide sanctions relief for sanctions that are inconsistent with the JCPOA.
QUESTION: Oh, no. Really? You – no, I think what the Iranians are looking for is an easing of sanctions that were lifted, consistent with the JCPOA.
MR PRICE: I think we’re saying the name thing.
QUESTION: I.e., nuclear sanctions.
MR PRICE: We’re saying exactly the same thing.
QUESTION: All right.
MR PRICE: Yes, Iran.
QUESTION: So you said a handful of days. There’s going to be another meeting tomorrow and then the day after that? I mean, could you give us some idea of how long this presumably first round is? That’s one. Two, since you’re talking about a roadmap, does that suggest the possibility of simultaneous steps being taken towards compliance? And three, since the Iranians are still saying publicly the supreme leader’s statement, which is that they want all sanctions lifted at once and not step by step, is that even something that’s being considered on the table? I mean, is there some way you could work with that?
MR PRICE: Well, Special Envoy Malley has spoken to this in recent days, and he has made the point that maximalist demands are not going to get us anywhere. The reason we are in Vienna is to discuss what those steps might look like to return to mutual compliance. Calls for the United States to take unilateral gestures or conciliatory overtures that are unmatched by the Iranians – I don’t think that is constructive; we don’t think that is constructive. And so we’re focused and the team is focused in Vienna on what would be constructive, on what would be reasonable to achieve that desired end state of mutual compliance for compliance.
QUESTION: But in terms of the roadmap, does that suggest the possibility of simultaneous steps?
MR PRICE: Well, again, I’m going to leave that to our negotiating team in Vienna to work that out with our European allies and our other partners. I think what we can essentially rule out are the maximalist demands that the United States do everything first and only in turn would Iran then act. I don’t think anyone is under the impression that that would be a viable proposal. What we are looking forward to hearing – again, indirectly, via our European allies in the first instance – are constructive proposals for how we might get to that desired end state.
Now, in terms of what this might look like in the coming days, I think it is a fair expectation that Special Envoy Malley will be in Vienna for at least the better part of this week. I think – I am not sure that he has yet a return ticket in hand. I think his schedule is going to be somewhat flexible, as will the schedules of other members of our negotiating team here at the Department of State.
QUESTION: Thank you. On Iran’s eastern neighbor Afghanistan, can you give us an update on where we stand on the peace process, what’s going to happen after May 1st?
QUESTION: Can we stay in Iran, the nuclear —
MR PRICE: Let’s take one or two more questions on Iran – on Afghanistan and – sorry. One or two more questions on Iran, and then we will go to Afghanistan.
QUESTION: Are you planning to achieve an agreement with the Iranians before the elections in June? And what kind of sanctions you will take off the table? And then when will you discuss the missile program and the activities – Iranian activities in the region, before you get back to the agreement or after?
MR PRICE: Well, as we all know, there are elections upcoming in Iran in the coming months. The point remains, however, that we are not seeking to accelerate our diplomacy, nor are we seeking to stall our diplomacy. We are seeking to move in a manner that is consistent with our interests and in lockstep primarily with our European allies in this case. So again, these negotiations will take however long they will need to take, if we are able to reach that desired end state – again, that end state being compliance for compliance.
Now, in terms of the other phases of this – and I spoke of this in response to Andrea’s question before – but again, we do see this as a necessary but insufficient step, albeit an important early one, to seek to return to compliance with the JCPOA, consistent with Iran also doing so. The goal from there will be to build that longer and stronger agreement, building, using the JCPOA as a baseline. At that point, we also want to work very closely with our allies, with our partners, including our regional partners, to do all we can to seek to constrain in important ways the other areas of malign activity that we have spoken to, and that includes ballistic missiles, it includes support for terrorism, it includes support for regional proxies. But again, today in Vienna and this week in Vienna, our teams are focused on that first step, an important first step, because it is necessary – if not sufficient – to what we want to do over the longer term.
One more question on Iran, and then we’ll move on.
QUESTION: Ned, does the administration believe that Russia and China have a constructive role to play here? Or are you concerned that they may play a sort of spoiler role, given evidence, for example, that China is ramping up its purchases of Iranian oil and undermining the sanctions that are in place?
MR PRICE: Well, we do have alignment in many areas when it comes to our interests with those of Moscow and Beijing. It is certainly not in the interests of Moscow, it is certainly not in the interests of Beijing for Iran to be on the path to a nuclear weapon or for Iran to obtain a nuclear weapon, of course.
Now, what we have said when it comes to sanctions enforcement is that right now all of our sanctions, of course, remain in effect. We will continue to work with our partners and our allies around the world to enforce that sanctions regime. If we get to a point by mutual agreement where it is appropriate for us to remove sanctions, we will do that in the context of Iran also resuming compliance with the deal.
But obviously, we’re not there yet, and I think principally and strategically this is an area where we do have aligned interests with Moscow and aligned interests with Beijing. They were original members of the P5+1. They have sought to uphold the JCPOA, and we do see them as partners in this fairly narrow effort.
Moving on. Afghanistan.
QUESTION: On Afghanistan, just 24 days are left for the May 1 deadline. Can you tell us what’s going to happen after that? Where are we on the Afghanistan peace process?
MR PRICE: Well, I don’t have an update for you in terms of where we are. But I think the broader context here is also useful, because again, President Biden has been clear that he wants to see an end to our military presence in Afghanistan. As he has said, as Secretary Blinken has said, as Secretary Austin has said, as others have said, we are committed to bringing a responsible end to the conflict, removing our troops from harm’s way, and ensuring – importantly – that Afghanistan can never again become a platform, become a launch pad, for terrorist attacks that would threaten the United States or our allies.
We heard this in Brussels the other week, that there is a good deal of agreement with our NATO allies on the path forward when it comes to Afghanistan. The international community is similarly united in the belief that there isn’t a military solution to what we have long faced in Afghanistan. It’s a conflict that has to end through a political solution and a comprehensive ceasefire, processes that are at their core Afghan-owned and Afghan-led.
So, of course, I don’t have any updates to share for you now in terms of where the President may be. He has obviously spoken to this in recent days, in the context of the impending May 1 deadline. What I can say is that any removal of troops, any withdrawal plan, would be orderly and it would, of course, be informed by those consultations with our partners and allies.
QUESTION: And Mr. Khalilzad has been talking to the Talibans for more than two years now and he has continued in his position in the new administration. Do you see a commitment or honesty, sincerity from the Taliban’s side towards the peace process or just – they are just dilly-dallying as they have done in the past?
MR PRICE: Well, we know that there is no military solution to this. We know that a comprehensive ceasefire and a political settlement has to be arrived at through diplomacy, and that is precisely what Ambassador Khalilzad, what his team is engaged in. He is currently in Doha, meeting with both the Islamic Republic and the Taliban negotiating teams to push for farther – further progress in negotiations and a reduction in that violence. He’s also meeting with other international partners to explore how it might be that the international community can best help the two negotiating sides accelerate that process.
Now, we have also said in recent days that levels of violence are unacceptably high, and we have consistently called on the Taliban to reduce those levels of violence. And that is precisely because we want to create conditions that are conducive to those peace negotiations moving forward in a way that is constructive and in a way that is promising. The extended Troika – the United States together with Russia, China, and Japan – released a statement – it’s now last month – calling for the Taliban not to launch a spring offensive and to avoid further casualties, helping to create, again, an environment that is, in fact, conducive to a negotiated political settlement that Ambassador Khalilzad, his team, and our partners are seeking to achieve.
QUESTION: Staying in the region, last week, Pakistan – senior ministry in the Pakistan has asked for import of sugar and cotton from India, who is the – Pakistani cabinet declined it. What do – do you have any views on that?
MR PRICE: I wouldn’t want to comment on that specifically. What I would say is that we continue to support direct dialogue between India and Pakistan on issues of concern.
QUESTION: Well, I have one more question, follow-up from what the Secretary did yesterday upstairs on COVID-19 vaccine. Several countries led by India and South Africa have reached out to WTO for TRIPS waiver of certain COVID-19 vaccines. I think 60 congressmen here in the U.S. have also written a letter to President in support of that cause. The commerce or the companies here are opposing that, but what is the administration’s positions or the State Department position on it? Because it’s going to be a key element in what Secretary of State said yesterday, that everyone has to be vaccinated at a affordable cost.
MR PRICE: Yeah. Well, what the Secretary said yesterday, and what President Biden has consistently said, is that our first priority as the American Government is to take care of the American people. We are a country, of course, that has suffered tremendously from the toll of the pandemic. We have suffered more deaths in this country than any other country around the world. And given the unpredictability of this virus, the surges, the spikes that we have seen here, the mutations that we can continue to see take hold, not only here but around the world, we need to be prepared for a variety of scenarios. And that is precisely what we are doing.
At the same time, as we increase confidence that we have enough vaccine for the American people, that we have accounted for various scenarios, we will look at options for sharing doses globally, including through Gavi and the COVAX Advance Market Commitment or the AMC. But we already have taken important steps to demonstrate the sort of international leadership that Secretary Blinken referred to yesterday. His point is a profoundly important one, and that is principally that in order for us to be able to fully protect the American people, we must address COVID not only here in the United States, but also around the world. Because as long as the virus is circulating in the wild, as long as the virus is not controlled anywhere, it has the potential to mutate. It has the potential to come back to this country.
And so that is why from literally day one, we have demonstrated our commitment to working closely with the international community. We, of course, re-engaged the WHO on President Biden’s first day in office. We committed to providing the most funding to COVAX of any other country in the world – $2 billion initially, another 2 billion over time. We have, of course, spoken about the arrangement that we have reached with our Mexican and Canadian partners. And we announced with our Quad partners that we’re working to achieve expanded manufacturing of safe and effective vaccines at facilities in India. This in turn produced a boost production globally, so this – we will continue to be engaged on the international stage just as we continue to focus on a safe and effective distribution of the vaccine here at home.
QUESTION: But what is going to be U.S. position at WTO where India and South Africa are asking for TRIPS waiver of COVID-19 vaccines?
MR PRICE: Well, I don’t have anything specific to preview or to add on our position at the WHO. I think what is – it is safe to say that the President is deeply focused, Secretary Blinken is deeply focused, on the issue of expanding global vaccine manufacturing and delivery, which, of course, will be critical to ending this pandemic.
MR PRICE: Well, I don’t have any calls to read out at the moment. Of course, we said over the weekend that we were in close touch with Jordanian officials, starting when those reports began to emerge, and we were in close touch with Jordanian officials precisely because we value King Abdullah II’s leadership, we value his integrity, we value his vision.
And again, he has our full support. He has our full support for all of those facets in all of those regions, in addition to the mutual interests that we have with the Kingdom of Jordan, on top of the fact that the king has demonstrated remarkable leadership in the humanitarian gestures, in what he has done for the people of Syria who have suffered so tremendously under the brutal dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad. So we have been in close touch with our Jordanian partners —
QUESTION: Did the Secretary call him? Did anyone call him from —
MR PRICE: I don’t have any calls to read out at the moment.
QUESTION: And did you provide them with any kind of any support?
MR PRICE: I am not aware that they made any requests for support. Of course, we do have a strategic partnership with the Kingdom of Jordan. We stand by Jordan, but I’m not aware of any such requests that came in.
MR PRICE: Well, this, of course, will be the third strategic dialogue that the United States will hold with our strategic partner, Iraq. Secretary Blinken will engage with his counterpart. They will discuss the entirety of the relationship. I would expect after tomorrow’s session that we’ll have more to say and that we’ll have more details to share.
QUESTION: Changing subject, Egypt foreign minister warned that his country will act if any water damage is caused to it by the Renaissance Dam in Ethiopia after the failure of the talks in Kinshasa. Would the U.S. Government plan to exercise more pressure on the parties, even hosting the parties back to D.C., in order to find a solution to this water crisis?
MR PRICE: Well, I think as you know, a U.S. delegation traveled to the region to engage our partners on issues related to the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam or the GERD. The delegation included Ambassador Don Booth, it included our OES Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary Jonathan Moore, as well as NEA Deputy Assistant Secretary Karen Sasahara.
Through this mission and this concluded exchange, we heard from all interested parties, including from the Congolese presidency of the African Union, about how best the United States and our European partners can support their efforts, our collective efforts, to find a path forward to constructive negotiations. The team held consultations in Kinshasa, in Addis Ababa, in Cairo, and Khartoum, and these consultations were done in conjunction with our European – with European Union representatives.
I think the key point is that we understand the importance of Nile waters to all three countries, and we continue to encourage a resumption of productive dialogue when it comes to the GERD. Now, what exactly that might look like, I don’t have anything to preview for you at the moment. But we will continue to encourage a productive dialogue, and we have continued to stress our impartial approach towards the GERD.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MR PRICE: Sure.
QUESTION: Just the other day, you guys filed a motion – I presume through DOJ, but you – in a lawsuit against an Egyptian official who’s accused of torture and other bad things related to detainees there. And I’m just wondering, given the administration’s focus or its intended focus, claimed focus, on human rights, why exactly would you be supporting his claim of diplomatic immunity in this case?
MR PRICE: Well, I do understand that there was a brief filed with the court. This does have to do with issues of diplomatic immunity that I wouldn’t want to get into from here. But what I will say is that we continue to seek to promote a stable and prosperous Egypt where, importantly, the government protects the rights of all individuals and fulfills the aspirations of the Egyptian people. That is, in fact, a core objective of U.S. policy. President Biden has made clear, we made clear with the release of the Human Rights Report in recent days, that human rights will be at the center of our foreign policy.
And that does, in fact, include with Egypt. The Secretary told Foreign Minister Shoukry in a recent call that human rights will be at the center of our relations with Egypt, and we look forward to strengthening not only our partnership, but to strengthening that respect for democracy and human rights in Egypt.
QUESTION: Okay. They’ll be center – central to your foreign policy going towards Egypt, except in this case?
MR PRICE: No, I would not say that. I would say that human rights are —
QUESTION: Well, I mean, let’s look at the two most recent things: this one, and Saudi Arabia. Right, okay? So you come out, you release the intel report on Khashoggi’s murder, you directly tie the crown prince to it, but you don’t do anything to him about it. And now here’s an actual lawsuit that’s going forward, and you are arguing on behalf of a person who is accused of being involved in the same kind of human rights abuses that you say that you’re against and that you’re going to punish. So square that for me.
MR PRICE: This is a matter before the court, so again, I wouldn’t want to weigh in from here on a particular court case. What I would say is that our commitment to human rights globally, in the Middle East, and when it comes to Saudi Arabia, and as you mentioned, Egypt – nothing can stand in the way of that. We will continue to raise cases. We will continue to monitor how these partners respond when it comes to the cases that we raise bilaterally with them. You mentioned Saudi Arabia. Of course, we have seen the Saudi regime take some welcome steps in the right direction when it comes to Saudi Arabia.
QUESTION: You just put out a statement —
MR PRICE: Exactly.
QUESTION: — this morning criticizing the Saudis for sentencing – right? Was that this morning?
MR PRICE: That was this morning.
QUESTION: Yeah. I’m sorry, so I don’t see where the – where is the right direction? What – was there any statement praising something else that the Saudis did?
MR PRICE: No, obviously, Matt. We – the case of – there have been other cases in Saudi Arabia where they have made – where they have taken constructive steps forward. We did put out, as you said, a statement this morning, which I think speaks to the fact that even when it comes to our close security partners, that we won’t turn a blind eye when it comes to what we consider to be violations of human rights.
QUESTION: Unless someone claims diplomatic immunity, or he happens to be the de facto head of state. Right?
MR PRICE: Was that rhetorical?
QUESTION: It’s not rhetorical, because I just don’t see how you can square the two. But go ahead.
MR PRICE: Please.
QUESTION: Two question on North Korea. Recently, North Korea is ratcheting up the tension in Northeast Asia, and it – now it announced that it will strengthen the nuclear capability and ballistic missile launch technology. So President Biden said that the U.S. will respond accordingly. So my question is: What is U.S. redline on that? And secondly, North Korean Government announced that it will not participate in the Tokyo Olympics this year. So it could have been a catalyst for South Korea with talks about the denuclearization talks. Was that the issue and case for the United States? Any comment on that?
MR PRICE: Well, your second question first. We are aware of reports that North Korea has decided not to participate in the summer Olympics, which would appear consistent, in fact, with the DPRK’s stringent response to COVID-19. We will continue to coordinate closely with the Republic of Korea and with Japan on DPRK issues in pursuit of our shared goals of peace and security on the Korean Peninsula and across the Indo-Pacific. Of course, the White House spoke late last week to the trilateral meeting between the National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and his South Korean and Japanese counterparts at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis. All of this is part of the ongoing review that we have underway when it comes to our North Korea policy.
This is something that we have spoken of for several weeks now. The review that we are undertaking – the review that we are undertaking in close consultation with our allies and partners, including our treaty allies in the Indo-Pacific – it is a part of the reason why Secretary Blinken thought it so important that for his first physical travel overseas that he travel to Tokyo and that he travel to Seoul so that we could compare notes, so that we could share thinking on a number of common challenges and common threats. And of course, North Korea is a common threat to all three of us.
So this review is still underway. I wouldn’t want to get ahead of where this review might end up, but we will continue to focus on reducing the threat to the United States as well as to our partners as well as to our treaty allies in the Indo-Pacific as we remain committed to the principle of denuclearization of North Korea.
QUESTION: Can I stay in that region?
MR PRICE: Sure.
MR PRICE: Well, part of our review of those Olympics and our thinking will involve close consultations with partners and allies around the world. We have consistently said, when it comes to our concerns with the government in Beijing, including Beijing’s egregious human rights violations, its conduct of genocide in the case of Xinjiang, that what the United States does is meaningful, what the United States does will have impact, but everything we do that is – that brings along our allies and partners will have all the more influence with Beijing.
And so that is why the Department of State, as part of our thinking on the Beijing Olympics, is engaging with partners, with allies to coordinate – coordinate closely on decisions and approaches to the government in Beijing. You saw an illustration of that only the other week when the United States, together with United Kingdom, together with Canada, together with the EU, enacted a set of sanctions against those responsible for some of the atrocities in Xinjiang. So clearly, we are coordinating on all of these issues of concern, and, of course, the Beijing Olympics is an area that we will continue to discuss.
QUESTION: And when do you think those discussions will – specifically on the Olympics will be concluded with partners and allies?
MR PRICE: Well, of course, this is – we’re talking about 2022 and we are still in April of 2021. So these games remain some time away. I wouldn’t want to put a timeframe on it, but these discussions are underway.
QUESTION: And how complicated would U.S.-China diplomacy become if the U.S. decided to boycott the Olympics?
MR PRICE: Again, I wouldn’t want to comment on a hypothetical. We know that when it comes to our engagement with the government in Beijing, the – principally, it is a relationship predicated on competition. There are also adversarial aspects of that relationship. There are also some cooperative aspects of those relationships – of that relationship. Really, all three of those were on display in Anchorage, both in the session that was public as well as in the discussions that were behind closed doors.
But with our approach to Beijing, we will continue to be guided by two things and two things only. Those are our interests, including the interests we share with allies and partners around the world, and our values. And those are the values we share with our allies and many of our closest partners around the world.
QUESTION: Thank you. A couple of follow-ups of – on vaccine, if I may. First question is about Johnson & Johnson is its vaccine from Netherlands. And I wonder why the U.S. Government doesn’t allow the export of AstraZeneca vaccine, 30 million doses, that are still here in U.S. and except for 4 million doses, if not mistaken, lend to Mexico and Canada. The rest are there, although those vaccines are not yet approved – have not yet been approved by FDA. So I wonder if you, as a government, can stretch a point – I know there is a law that don’t allow – doesn’t allow so far to make this export possible, but can you stretch a point since you get Johnson & Johnson vaccine from Netherlands? It’s a European country. This is my first question.
The second one, if I may, is about the restrictions on travel, if you have any signs of ease of the restriction for travel from Europe and to Europe.
MR PRICE: Well, your second question, that will be a question that will be guided by the science. It will be guided by what our Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, what our broader set of scientists and medical experts advise. Obviously, the CDC has recently issued new guidance on some elements of travel. I would refer you there for more information on that, but at its core, these will be decisions that, again, will be based on science, on expertise, on epidemiology in this case.
When it comes to the vaccine, I just want to be very clear – and I know the White House has made this point as well – that there is no outright export ban on vaccines. But the point I was making before when we were talking in the context of – with Lalit remains, and that is that this administration, this President, this Secretary of State are focused first and foremost on protecting the American people. And we are in the midst of an ambitious, a heretofore successful distribution of safe and effective vaccine to millions of Americans.
But we also know that over the longer term, Americans won’t be fully safe until this virus is contained not only in this country but around the world as well. And so that is why we know that America needs to continue to play that leadership role when it comes to global public health. It’s precisely what we have done, and I have spoken to some of those steps, from re-engaging with the WHO; our ambitious, bold commitments to COVAX; the arrangements that we have arrived at with the Quad; the arrangement that we have arrived at with Canada and Mexico that you mentioned as well.
But right now, we are focused on that safe and effective vaccine distribution here at home, planning for what might allow us to vaccinate as many Americans as quickly as possible while also accounting for scenarios that may develop. But we fully expect as we become more comfortable in our position here at home and this vaccination campaign here at home that we’ll be able to continue to engage the international community on this important challenge, because we know, again, that is a challenge that we must address collectively, and no one has the potential to galvanize international action – collective action – like the United States. And that’s what we’ll continue to do.
QUESTION: I wanted to get your response on a couple of pieces of news. I think this broke just before you started talking, but Al Arabiya is reporting that an Iranian cargo ship, possibly affiliated with the Revolutionary Guards, has been – come under attack in the Red Sea. If you have anything on that, that would be great.
And just secondly, Ukrainian President Zelenskyy has called on NATO to support a path to membership for his country. Does the U.S. support that, bearing in mind this buildup that you’ve expressed concerns over?
MR PRICE: Well, this administration is committed to ensuring that NATO’s door remains open to aspirants when they are able to meet the commitments and obligations of membership and contribute to security in the Euro-Atlantic area. We affirm our support for that open door policy that was expressed in the 2008 Bucharest declaration, and we stand by the right of each sovereign country to choose for itself whether it joins any treaty or alliance, and, of course, that does include NATO.
We are committed to ensuring that aspirant countries wishing to join NATO meet the organization’s standard for membership. To that end, we continue to urge the Government of Ukraine to implement the deep, comprehensive, and timely reforms necessary to build a more stable, democratic, prosperous, and free country. We support Ukraine’s efforts to advance the rule of law. We support reforms and economic growth, and we, of course, continue to support our partner Ukraine in the fight against Russian aggression.
And you’re right that we have spoken about this in recent days. More importantly, several of the most senior members of this administration have spoken to their NATO counterparts, starting with the President of the United States. The Secretary of State, the National Security Advisor, the Secretary of Defense, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and others have been in close touch with their Ukrainian counterparts.
QUESTION: So that doesn’t change your view on Ukraine in NATO given what’s happening on the border? You don’t want to kind of give more impetus to that push now?
MR PRICE: Oh, we are certainly supportive of all the reforms that Ukraine is engaged in on all of the areas that I just listed. Again, we are fully supportive and affirm NATO’s open door policy, and we continue to look forward to working closely with Ukraine on all of these reforms that are in train.
QUESTION: Ned —
QUESTION: On the Iranian ship?
MR PRICE: On the Iranian ship, I don’t have anything immediately to offer, but if we do, we can get back to you.
QUESTION: Two things I think you can dispatch with extremely quickly. One, the administration came in saying it’s going to reverse the Trump-era refugee admission policy, but it hasn’t done it yet. Do you have any idea what’s taking so long for the cap to be elevated?
MR PRICE: Well, what —
QUESTION: What’s going on?
MR PRICE: President Biden has spoken both on the campaign trail as a candidate and —
QUESTION: Yes. Yes, he has. But he hasn’t actually done anything about it yet, so I’m wondering what the holdup is.
MR PRICE: And more recently as President about his commitment to ensuring that the United States is again a leader when it comes to refugees and when it comes to providing humanitarian relief to those fleeing violence, to those fleeing persecution the world over. It is also true that our – the United States refugee program was left in a state of disarray by the past administration. There is a great deal of rebuilding that needs to take place in order to have a refugee program that allows us to achieve what we want it to achieve in a way that is both effective and that is safe.
QUESTION: So is that what’s taking time? You have to rebuild the program?
MR PRICE: There is a great deal of rebuilding given the state of disrepair it was left in.
QUESTION: Secondly, the Secretary met with the acting head of the U.S. Agency for Global Media today. As you will recall, the previous administration also left that agency in a bit of a – well, it did what it did. Anyway, one of the things that the previous CEO did was to change the composition of the board, the directors. And I’m just wondering if the meeting today between the Secretary and the acting AGM head means that the State Department is going to or wants to take a more active role, to retake an active role, in the running of VOA and the other networks.
MR PRICE: Well, the Secretary certainly understands the importance of USAGM. He does have an opportunity to meet with Kelu Chao, who is currently at the helm of USAGM. We understand the important function that USAGM’s component elements provide in the dissemination of information the world over, including in places that lack options to hear messages that are unadulterated by the host government.
At the same time, we also recognize the important editorial independence that comes with those elements. The Secretary respects that editorial independence. He thinks that it is important that we continue to adhere to that firewall when it comes to editorial independence. But we can do both: We can ensure that USAGM has the backing, has the support it needs, to accomplish its important mission without interfering in that important mission.
QUESTION: Right. But is there a desire on his part to get back onto the board? Just there was a State Department seat on what used to be the BBG and then turned – and then it was eliminated under the previous CEO.
MR PRICE: If we have anything on that, we’ll be happy to get back to you.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MR PRICE: We’ll take a final question.
QUESTION: Just a follow-up on Kylie’s question. You seemed to suggest on the Olympics that the U.S. is in consultations with allies discussing whether to consider or plan some sort of joint boycott. Is that the case?
MR PRICE: Well, it is something that we certainly wish to discuss and that it is certainly something that we understand that a coordinated approach will be not only in our interests but also in the interests of our allies and partners. So this is one of the issues that is on the agenda both now and going forward, and when we have something to announce, we will be sure to do that.
Thank you very much.
(The briefing was concluded at 3:01 p.m.)