2:02 p.m. EDT
MR PATEL: Hey everyone, good afternoon and welcome to the daily press briefing. This is Vedant Patel, Principal Deputy Spokesperson here at the department. I don’t have anything for you at the top today, so I am happy to take your questions. Operator, would you mind giving the instructions one more time?
OPERATOR: Thank you. And once again, if you have a question, please press 1 then 0 on your telephone keypad, 1 followed by 0.
MR PATEL: Let’s go to the line of Leon Bruneau with AFP.
OPERATOR: Okay, sir, your line is open. Please, go ahead.
QUESTION: Okay, yes. Hi, Vedant. Leon here. Just a quick question. What can you tell us on the record on the Iran nuclear deal? Should we be expecting the United States to – they’re reviewing the draft. Could we expect a decision soon, an answer to the EU on this, on the proposal on the table? And to what effect, if any, does the plot that was unveiled yesterday hurt those prospects, or not at all? Thanks.
MR PATEL: We and the Europeans have made quite clear that we are prepared to immediately conclude and implement the deal we negotiated in Vienna for a mutual return to the full implementation of the JCPOA. But for that to happen, Iran needs to decide to drop their additional demands that go beyond the JCPOA. Ultimately, the choice is theirs. This administration along with our allies and partners are preparing equally for scenarios with and without a mutual return to the full implementation of the JCPOA. The President and Secretary Blinken will only conclude a deal that we determine is in the national security interest of the United States.
On the second part of your question, I will reiterate what Secretary Blinken reinforced in his comments. Our message to Iran is very clear: we will not tolerate threats of violence against Americans, and that certainly includes former government officials. This administration has been clear that it will ensure Iran never acquires a nuclear weapon, and we believe the best path to achieving that goal is through diplomacy. And as long as we believe pursuing a JCPOA is in U.S. national security interest, we’re going to continue to do so.
Let’s go to the line of Simon Lewis with Reuters.
OPERATOR: Please stand by. Okay, your line is open.
QUESTION: Hi, thanks. Thanks, Vedant. Yeah, just I wanted to see if the United States has a response or a comment on the decision by Latvia and Estonia to withdraw from the cooperation group with China that they announced today. And I wondered how does that – how does that sort of reflect Europe’s response to the tensions happening in Taiwan? And do you think this has any – any impact on the relationship between – between – well, any – is this connected in any way to China’s relationship with Russia given the invasion of Ukraine? Yeah, any comment on those? Thank you.
MR PATEL: Sure, let me try to address that in a couple parts. First, to the first part of your question, we respect and support Estonia and Latvia’s sovereign decision to no longer participate in the 16+1 initiative. We will continue to closely support their efforts to make the Baltics a more resilient and prosperous region. Estonia and Latvia are important and valued NATO Allies and key U.S. partners across a number of issues, including through our strong defense ties, our strong economic ties, as well as the promotion of democracy and human rights. Beyond our commitments to these same values, our free, democratic countries produce prosperity that helps both of our economies thrive.
On the second part of your question relating to China’s relationship in Europe, a pillar of this administration’s approach to the PRC is aligning with our allies and partners in Europe and around the world. This administration believes that our likeminded allies in Europe and the Indo-Pacific hold similar visions for the future of the international order and can realize our goals most effectively when we work together.
Over the past year, we’ve seen countries around the world express deep concern about the PRC’s strategic alignment with Russia as well as Beijing’s support for Moscow’s war against Ukraine. As Secretary Blinken has said before, there is a growing convergence about the need to approach relations with Beijing with more realism.
Next let’s go to the line of Ellen Knickmeyer with the Association Press.
OPERATOR: Please, stand by. Your line is open now.
QUESTION: Hi, thank you for doing this. Secretary Blinken is in Rwanda today, and it looks like he was quite outspoken about human rights and democracy there. He – there was some talk of – he raised the issue of – and I’m sorry, I’m – I don’t – I can’t pronounce his last name very well, and I’m hesitant to try – but the Texas-based Rwanda critic of Kagame who is in prison there now. Is the U.S. treating that person’s case with the same immediate concern that it’s treating Griner and other Americans being held in Russia? Has it – is it – what is it – what is it doing now and what has it been doing to gain his release?
MR PATEL: Thanks for your question, Ellen. I believe you’re referring to the case of Mr. Paul Rusesabagina, who, as you mentioned, is currently being detained in Rwanda. I will reiterate what the Secretary said at his joint press availability today, which is that we continue to urge the government to address concerns about the legal protections afforded to Mr. Rusesabagina and his case, as well as establish safeguards to prevent similar outcomes in the future.
More broadly speaking, the U.S. is aware of the appellate court’s decision upholding the conviction of Mr. Rusesabagina. Our concerns over the trial and conviction remain. We have also been made aware of some serious health concerns of Mr. Rusesabagina, and we’re continuing to urge to the Government of Rwanda ensure that he receive all appropriate and necessary medical care.
More broadly, this department is laser-focused and committed to any American citizen who is wrongfully detained abroad. We have our team at the State Department, including – led by Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs Roger Carstens, who remains in close touch on this issue, and it continues to be a top priority.
Let’s go to the line of Jen Hansler with CNN.
OPERATOR: One moment, please. Thank you, and your line is open now.
QUESTION: Hi, thanks so much for doing the call. Questions on two topics. One, the Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan proposal. Has there been any movement on that deal? Have any U.S. officials interacted with Russian officials since Secretary of State Blinken’s call with Foreign Minister Lavrov, and has anyone from the U.S. embassy been able to visit or speak with Brittney Griner since her sentencing last week?
And then on the New START Treaty and the impasse over the inspections, Deputy Foreign Minister Ryabkov seemed to suggest that there was a U.S. team that intended to go do an inspection without Russian approval. Is there anything you can tell us on that? Did a team intend to go or go to Russia to do an inspection there? Thank you.
MR PATEL: So on your first question, the U.S. Government continues to urge Russia to release wrongful detainees Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan. The conviction and sentencing by a Russian court of Brittney Griner to nine years in prison further compounds the injustice of her wrongful detention.
The administration – and Secretary Blinken has spoken to this a number of times – has been quite clear that there is a substantial proposal on the table to facilitate their release, both the release of Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan. This proposal has been raised through appropriate channels. Secretary Blinken has been able to raise this directly with his counterpart, Foreign Minister Lavrov. And ultimately, the ball is in Russia’s court.
As it relates to any visits, our embassy staff were able to be in touch with Brittney most recently on the day of her sentencing on August 4th.
On New START – on New START – so just to take a little bit of a step back, the U.S. and Russia had paused inspection activity due to the COVID-19 pandemic since the spring of 2020. Both sides have continued to provide data declarations and notifications in accordance to the treaty. The U.S. is committed to implementation of the New START Treaty. And as President Biden has said, today perhaps more than any other time since the Cold War, we must work to reduce the risk of an arms race or nuclear escalation. We keep discussions between the parties concerning treaty implementation confidential.
I will also note that – what Secretary Blinken noted recently, that the New START Treaty makes the U.S., Russia, and the world safer by persevering – preserving verified restrictions on our strategic nuclear arsenals and avoiding an arms race.
Operator, let’s go to the line of Camilla Schick with CBS News.
OPERATOR: One moment, please. And your line is open now.
QUESTION: Hi, Vedant. Thanks. The State Department put out a release yesterday ahead of the 10-year anniversary of the abduction and disappearance abroad of American journalist Austin Tice. That release said that the State Department will, quote, “continue to engage with the Syrian Government.” Are you able to say at all whether this engagement with the Syrian Government is current or not, and if it is direct or indirect? Thank you.
MR PATEL: Thanks for your question. So, again, to take a little bit of a step back, Austin Tice this week will have spent 10 years in captivity in Syria. We call on the Syrian Government to ensure Austin Tice and every U.S. national held hostage in Syria is able to return home. We can’t get into investigative details, but what I will underscore is that the U.S. Government knows with certainty that Austin was held by the Syrian Government and that they have the power to release him. We think Bashar al-Assad has the power to release Austin Tice, and we call on Syria to work with us to secure his release and bring him home.
Operator, let’s go to the line of Michel Ghandour.
OPERATOR: One moment, please. And your line is open now. One moment, please. One moment.
QUESTION: (Inaudible.) Do you have any comments on that? And the second question: Is there any updates on Advisor Hochstein’s mediation between Israel and Lebanon?
OPERATOR: Okay, sir, your first question, the line was not open yet, so please state your first question.
QUESTION: Yeah, the first question was Turkish foreign minister has announced that he met the Syrian foreign minister in Belgrade in October, if you have any comment on that.
MR PATEL: Let me take your second question first, Michel. So the U.S. remains committed to facilitating negotiations between Lebanon and Israel to reach a decision on the delimitation of the maritime boundary. Progress towards a resolution can only be reached through negotiations by the two governments. We welcome the consultative and open spirit of the parties to reach a final decision which has the potential to yield greater stability, security, and prosperity for both Lebanon and Israel, as well as for the region, and we believe that a resolution is possible.
On the subject of the meeting, I would refer you to the governments of those entities.
Operator, let’s go to the line of Elizabeth Hagedorn.
OPERATOR: Please stand by to have your line open. Please stand by.
OPERATOR: Okay. Please go ahead.
MR PATEL: Thanks for your question. So, broadly speaking, visa records are confidential under U.S. law, but as host nation of the UN, the United States is generally obligated under the UN Headquarters Agreement to facilitate travel to the headquarters district by representatives of UN member states. We take our obligations under these agreements very seriously. But again, to reiterate, visa records are confidential under U.S. law.
Let’s go to the line of Said Arikat.
OPERATOR: Please stand by. One moment. Your line is open now.
QUESTION: Thank you, Vedant, for doing this. I have a quick question. Today the UN Human Rights chief Michelle Bachelet issued a very strong statement expressing alarm over the death of Palestinian children. In the past week, 19 Palestinian children were killed, taking the toll this year, Vedant, to about 37 children. Are you alarmed by the number of Palestinian children that are being killed in conflict, and have you raised this issue with the Israelis, or will you raise it with the Israelis?
MR PATEL: Thanks for your question, Said. So you saw both Secretary Blinken and President Biden speak to this over the weekend in their comments relating to the ceasefire over the recent Gaza conflict. So I will reiterate that this agreement brought a welcome respite to Israeli and Palestinian civilians, and allowed deliveries of critical supplies to Gaza. We express our condolences to the families of civilians who lost their lives, and we also support a timely and thorough investigation into these reports of civilian casualties. We are grateful for Egypt for their role in reaching this agreement, as well as to Qatar and Jordan, the Palestinian Authority, as well as the UN. Our team as well played an important role and worked around the clock to support this outcome, and we also remain dedicated to our ironclad commitment to Israel’s security and are fully engaged to promoting calm. We continue to work with partners to improve the quality of life for Palestinians in the Gaza Strip. Palestinians and Israelis equally deserve to live safely and securely and to enjoy equal measure of freedom, prosperity, and democracy.
Let’s go to the line of Jiha Ham of Voice of America.
OPERATOR: One moment, please. And your line is open now.
QUESTION: Hey. Thank you very much for doing this. I have two questions today; one on North Korea. North Korean leader Kim Jong-un yesterday declared victory in the battle against the coronavirus in order to lift some of their restrictions. So do you have any comments on this? Do you still assess North Korea as preparing its seventh nuclear test? And this new announcement may allow, do you think, North Korea to move forward with their plans?
And my second question is that China has been demanding South Korea not to deploy the U.S. anti-missile defense system, THAAD. It is asking South Korea to maintain the “three noes” policy. So one of the noes is no additional deployment of THAAD. So what’s your position on the “three noes” policy and China’s strong opposition on THAAD? Thank you.
MR PATEL: Thanks. So first on your question about COVID-19, look, we are very concerned about how COVID-19 could affect the North Korean people, and we continue to support the provision of vaccines to the DPRK. To this end, we strongly support and encourage the efforts of international aid and health organizations in seeking to prevent and contain the spread of COVID-19 in the DPRK and to provide other forms of humanitarian assistance to vulnerable groups in the country. To date, DPRK has refused all vaccine donations from COVAX. We continue to support international efforts aimed at the provision of critical humanitarian aid to the most vulnerable North Koreans. Should the DPRK request vaccines, we stand ready to offer them, and we urge and reiterate for the DPRK to work with the international community to facilitate the rapid vaccination of its population.
On your – the second part of your question, the U.S. assesses the DPRK is preparing its Punggye-ri test site for what would be its seventh nuclear test. This assessment is consistent with the DPRK’s own public statements. We are preparing for all contingencies in close coordination with our Japanese and ROK allies. Furthermore, we are prepared to make both short and longer-term adjustments to our military posture as appropriate in responding to any DPRK provocation. We’re concerned by the regime’s strengthened rhetoric around its nuclear program. A seventh nuclear test since 2017 would constitute a grave escalatory action and seriously threaten regional and international stability as well as security, not to mention undermine our planet’s nonproliferation efforts. Such an action would also be dangerous and deeply stabilizing to the region.
On THAAD – on THAAD, we believe THAAD is a prudent and limited self-defense capability designed to counter DPRK weapons programs. Criticism or pressure on the ROK to abandon its self-defense is inappropriate. The United States and the ROK made an alliance decision to deploy THAAD to the ROK as a purely defensive measure to protect the ROK and its people from armed attack and to protect alliance military forces from the DPRK’s weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missile threats.
Let’s go to Joseph Haboush with Al Arabiya English.
OPERATOR: One moment, please. Your line is open.
QUESTION: Thanks for taking my question. I just want to try again on Jennifer’s earlier question. Is the U.S. planning on sending a delegation or has it sent a delegation to inspect Russian nuclear weapon sites without Russian approval? And does the State Department condemn Russia’s suspension of its participation in the New START treaty?
And just a second one: Turkey said it was sending a delegation to Washington on Monday to discuss the sale of F-16s. Are any State Department officials meeting with the delegation? Thank you.
MR PATEL: On the second part of your question, I have no meetings to preview at the moment. And as it relates to your first, I will reiterate what I said previously, is that we will continue to exercise our on-site inspection rights under the New START treaty will also prioritizing the health and safety of personnel conducting and hosting inspection activities. We look forward to continuing to implement this important treaty with the Russian Federation. It is an important instrument of stability in the bilateral relationship. And I will reiterate again what Secretary Blinken said, which is that the New START treaty makes the U.S., Russia, and the world safer.
Let’s go to the line of Alex Raufoglu.
OPERATOR: One moment, please. And your line is open.
QUESTION: Yes, thank you so much, Vedant, for doing this, and Happy Thursday. Couple of questions on Ukraine and Russia. Ukrainian foreign minister called on Western countries yesterday to stop issuing visas to Russian citizens. Yesterday, DAS (inaudible) staff from the visa services bureau confirmed to me that there is no restriction at this point on Russian travelers. Are you considering to review this in response to Ukraine’s request?
Secondly, if there’s any comment on your end from Latvia parliament yesterday naming Russia as a state sponsor of terrorism. Do you applaud that? What is your reaction?
And lastly, there’s – there are reports that during last couple of weeks Russian officials conducted training in Iran as part of the agreement on UAV transfers from Iran to Russia. Any reaction to those reports? Thank you so much again.
MR PATEL: Sorry about the delay there. Thanks for your question. I will answer the last one first. So on the delivery of UAVs to Russia, what I will first say and go back to is, as National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan told CNN in July, the U.S. Government has information indicating Iran is preparing to provide Russia with several hundred UAVs, including weapons-capable UAVs. We’ve also said that we assess an official Russian delegation recently received a showcase of Iranian attack-capable UAVs. We can confirm that during the last several weeks, Russian officials conducted training in Iran as part of the agreement of the UAV transfers.
Let me be clear: We will vigorously enforce all U.S. sanctions on both the Russian and Iranian arms trades. The kind of transactions you’re mentioning are potentially sanctionable under numerous authorities, including but not limited to Russia-specific authorities and our worldwide nonproliferation sanctions. We remain incredibly concerned about Iran’s use and proliferation of UAVs. They have been used to attack U.S. forces, our partners in the region, and international shipping entities. We will continue to use all available tools, including but not limited to sanctions, to prevent, deter, and dismantle the procurement network that supply UAV-related material and technology to Iran.
Alex, would you remind – would you restate your other two questions, please?
OPERATOR: Sir, please press 1 then 0 to restate your questions. One moment, please. Okay, your line is open now.
QUESTION: Yes, of course. Thank you so much. Yeah, other two questions were about, first of all, reaction to Latvian parliament’s yesterday’s decision on naming Russia a state sponsor of terrorism. Do you applaud that decision? And what is your reaction?
And lastly, as you know, Ukrainian Government has been urging – calling on Western countries – in particular G7 countries, which the U.S. is one of them – to stop issuing visas to Russian tourists. And as a State Department official confirmed yesterday, the Russian citizens are still able to obtain those visas. Are you in a position to give us any detail about whether or not State Department is considering to review that policy in response to Ukraine’s request? Thank you.
MR PATEL: Thanks for your question. So on a potential designation, we’re just not going to discuss deliberations or potential deliberations on a potential designation from here. As a matter of law, in order to designate any country as a state sponsor of terrorism, the Secretary of State must determine that the government of that country has repeatedly provided support for acts of international terrorism.
The U.S. Government has already taken a number of significant and effective steps to respond to Putin’s war of choice, from export controls as well as sanctions and economic consequences as well. Our unprecedented sanctions are having a drastic impact on Russia. Russia’s stock market has lost a third of its value, inflation has risen 20 percent, Russia’s imports of goods from around the world could fall by 40 percent.
On your question about any visa ban, we’ve been very clear that we intend our actions to not harm or have significant impact on the Russian people. That is not who our disagreement with is on this.
Let’s next go to the line of Janne Pak from U.S. Journal Korea.
OPERATOR: One moment.
QUESTION: (In progress) beautiful day. I don’t know because I’m late a little bit listening about your statement. Maybe somebody ask already these question on that, but I have two questions for you. One is North Korea, one is China again. So North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s sister, Kim Yo-jong, said yesterday the coronavirus was delivered from South Korea, and she announced that she would take the strong retaliation against South Korea. What is your comment on this?
The second one: China announced that it would resume trading with North Korea, which had been suspended. Trade with China will allow North Korea to secure foreign currency. Can this be seen as a violation of sanctions against North Korea? Thank you.
MR PATEL: Thanks. So on COVID-19, one of your colleagues did ask that, but I’m happy to reiterate. We are incredibly concerned about how COVID-19 could affect the North Korean people and continue to support the provision of vaccines to the DPRK. To date, the DPRK has refused all vaccine donations from COVAX. We continue to support international efforts aimed at the provision of critical humanitarian aid to the most vulnerable North Koreans. Should the DPRK request vaccines, we stand ready to offer them.
On the potential resumption of trade with China, the second part of your question, let me reiterate what my colleagues here have said before. United Nations sanctions on the DPRK remain in place. We will continue to implement them and encourage others to fully implement them, including at the United Nations and with the DPRK’s neighbors. It is important for the international community to send a strong, unified message that the DPRK must halt all provocations and abide by its obligations under numerous UN Security Council resolutions, as well as engage in sustained and intensive negotiations with the United States.
Let’s go to the line of Hiba Nasr with Asharq News.
OPERATOR: One moment please. Your line is open.
QUESTION: Thanks for taking my question. Thanks for taking my question. My question about Austin Tice. Can you confirm that officials from the Biden administration met with Syrian officials to discuss this matter?
MR PATEL: Again, so I am just not going to get into investigative details, but I will underscore that the U.S. Government knows with certainty that Austin Tice was held by the Syrian Government and that they have the power to release him. We call on Syria to work with us to secure his release, and we believe Bashar al-Assad has the power to release him. As the White House has recently said – and you heard Secretary Blinken say this as well – the U.S. Government is extensively engaged with Syrian officials to bring Austin home, but that Syria has never even acknowledged holding him.
Operator, let’s go to the line of Laurie Mylroie from Kurdistan24.
OPERATOR: One moment, please.
QUESTION: Thank you very much for taking my question. The Israeli defense minister today denounced Iranian support for Palestinian Islamic Jihad, calling it a violent Iranian proxy; it funds Palestinian Islamic Jihad, trains them. Do you share the Israeli views that Palestinian Islamic Jihad is so closely tied to Iran that Iran can be held accountable for its actions?
MR PATEL: Thanks so much. So look, the United States is under no illusions about Iran’s destabilizing actions throughout the region. If Iran wants to show it can be a responsible actor, now is the time for it to play a constructive role in the region.
Next let’s go to the line of Roj Salla with Rudaw TV.
QUESTION: Hi, yes, thanks.
OPERATOR: Your line is open.
QUESTION: Thank you so much for taking my question. So Turkish defense minister said that a delegation will be visiting U.S. on August 15 to discuss the F-16 program. Can you update us on your position on the F-16 program? Is there any change, or do you see a way that Turkey and the U.S. could find a way to resolve the issues around the F-16s?
MR PATEL: Thanks for your question. The United States strongly values its partnership with our important NATO Ally, Turkey. The U.S. and Turkey have a longstanding, deep relationship with important defense ties, and Turkey’s continued NATO interoperability remains a priority. As a matter of policy I’m just not going to comment or confirm or get into proposed defense transfers until they have been formally notified to Congress, and I’d refer you to the Turkish Government for anything additional.
I think we have time for one final question. And so we will close it back out with Ellen Knickmeyer from the AP.
OPERATOR: Your line is open. Please, go ahead.
QUESTION: Yeah, thank you. I had just wanted to ask you a follow-up about the – about Rusesabagina. Was there any progress made during Blinken’s visit about obtaining his release? And does the U.S. plan to move to any of the kind of negotiations or perhaps detainee swaps that are being talked about with Whelan and Griner in Russia?
MR PATEL: Thanks for your question, Ellen. I’m going to reiterate again what the Secretary said, which is that we continue to urge the government to address concerns about the legal protections afforded to him and his case, and establish safeguards to prevent similar outcomes in the future. We are going to also continue to push for consistent consular access, and we remain in close touch with Mr. Rusesabagina’s team. And the Secretary was able to raise this directly with President Kagame on his visit as well.
Thanks again, everybody, for joining today – for joining today’s press briefing. We’ll talk to you all again very soon.
(The briefing was concluded at 2:43 p.m.)
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