2:32 p.m. EDT
MR PRICE: Okay, we have a few things at the top, and then we will get right to your questions. Today, as you have heard, we announced a major milestone in the administration’s global vaccination efforts. The United States has now donated and shipped over 110 million vaccines around the world. In June, President Biden committed to donate at least 80 million vaccines from the U.S. supply to countries throughout the globe. Today’s announcement is a fulfillment of that promise and a reassurance that we are doing this with one singular objective, and that is to save the lives of the American people and people around the world.
The first tranche of over 110 million vaccines is just the beginning, as we expect to begin shipments of the half billion Pfizer vaccines at the end of this month. We will continue to work with COVAX and our regional partners to ensure these vaccines are delivered in a way that is equitable and follows public health data. For more information on our deliveries, I encourage you to visit state.gov/covid-19-recovery. I assume you all also saw the fact sheet that the White House put out this morning on that score.
Next, we are very concerned about the worsening conflict in northern Ethiopia and its impact on humanitarian relief efforts. We renew our calls on parties to the conflict to end hostilities and for the initiation of talks to achieve a negotiated ceasefire. We call on the TPLF to withdraw its associated military forces immediately from the Amhara and Afar regions. At the same time, we renew our calls for the Amhara regional government to withdraw immediately its associated military forces from western Tigray and for the Eritrean Government to withdraw its military forces permanently from Ethiopia. All parties should accelerate unhindered delivery of humanitarian assistance to those affected by the conflict, and the commercial blockade of Tigray must end.
And finally, this week the department welcomes 700 young African leaders to the virtual Mandela Washington Fellowship Summit, featuring opening remarks from Secretary Blinken. After six weeks of virtual academic study and leadership development at higher education institutions across the country, fellows will connect with other young African leaders and with the U.S. Government, business, and private sector representatives.
During the summit, fellows will hear from Ambassador to the UN Linda Thomas-Greenfield, USAID Administrator Samantha Power, Acting Assistant Secretary for the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs Matt Lussenhop, and members of Congress. Fellows will also learn about U.S. foreign policy and – U.S. foreign policy priorities in Africa and discuss topics such as climate change, public health, and social justice.
Previous fellowship participants have proven that their experience extends well beyond their six-week program. With the support of the Young African Leaders Initiative, or YALI, and the established alumni network, alumni of this fellowship will continue to build on their skills and positively impact their communities and future generations.
With that, happy to take your questions.
QUESTION: Thanks. Just semi-logistically, to start off on Ethiopia. You may or may not know that the embassy in Addis put out a – what used to be known as a warning notice, but an alert earlier today that appeared to suggest that you guys were considering kind of evacuation – I don’t know – flights or convoys or something from this area. Do – one, are you aware of this? And two, is that actually what is being considered? It told people that they should right now talk to the UN about if they want to leave and relocate, but I just want to know if – is this something that is being considered?
MR PRICE: Well, as you know, Matt —
QUESTION: By the U.S.
MR PRICE: As you know, Matt, our posts around the world constantly update American citizens and, in turn, the broader public on the safety and security situations in any given country. That’s – our embassy in Addis is no different. I don’t have any actions to preview at this time, but the point we’ve been making for a number of weeks now – too many weeks now – is that we are gravely concerned by the ongoing violence in the Tigray region and other parts of northern Ethiopia. And we know that that fighting has more recently, as I just said, expanded into the Afar and Amhara regions. So as the safety and security conditions continue to evolve, our embassy in Addis will issue appropriate notices to the American citizen community there.
QUESTION: I’m aware of that. My – I was just asking if it was something – an evacuation flight —
MR PRICE: I’m not in a position to preview any coming operations.
QUESTION: Can we – on to what – the situation in the Arabian Sea, the Gulf of Oman. What’s your understanding of the situation with these ships that appear to be – well, are in distress and potentially hijacked?
MR PRICE: Well, as you know, these reports have only recently emerged. We’ve – we are aware of the reports of a maritime incident in the Gulf of Oman. We are concerned; we are looking into it. We are coordinating with partners, but at this point I just don’t have anything more for you on it.
MR PRICE: Daphne.
QUESTION: Do you have reason to believe that Iranian-backed forces have seized the tanker in the Arabian Sea, as has been suggested?
MR PRICE: It’s far too premature for us to render a judgment. As I’ve said, these reports are just emerging. They are concerning, certainly, at first blush. We are looking to learn more. We will continue to share information and coordinate with our partners as we do learn more.
QUESTION: Would you agree, though, that the vast majority or, in fact, all incidents like this have either been – you have eventually determined that either Iran or its proxies were behind them, right?
MR PRICE: Well —
QUESTION: In that specific location? It’s not as if you think the Canadians are behind this, right?
MR PRICE: As we said in the context of the Iranian attack on the Mercer Street, we have seen a very disturbing pattern of belligerence from Iran, including belligerence in the maritime domain. So yes, that is absolutely the case. But when it comes to this specific incident, it’s too early for us to offer a judgment just yet.
QUESTION: Yes, to remain on Iran, as the new president is sworn in, do you regret, as Israel, that the European Union sent representative to the ceremony in Tehran? And also with Iran, have you heard indirectly from Europeans or other partners anything about when and how the negotiations in Vienna could resume, if they will?
MR PRICE: Well, we would need to refer you to the EU to speak to their decision to send a representative to —
QUESTION: I was asking for your reaction to their decision, not the decision.
MR PRICE: Sure. We don’t have a reaction to offer. We would need to refer you to them for comment.
When it comes to the negotiations and the seventh round that has yet to be announced, we’ve made very clear that we continue to believe that an Iran that is permanently and verifiably prohibited from ever obtaining a nuclear weapon is in our interests. And we continue to believe that diplomacy offers the most viable, most effective path forward. That is why we have said for several weeks now that we are prepared to return to Vienna to resume those indirect negotiations towards a mutual return to compliance with the JCPOA.
We’ve also said for a couple weeks now, however, that it’s very clear that officials in Iran, in the Iranian Government – they have decisions to make within their own system about the course they want to pursue. Obviously we’re in the midst of a transition in Iran. We continue to believe it’s in our national interest. We continue to coordinate and to be in close contact with our partners and allies in the P5+1. There is a great deal of consensus and shared conviction among that group, within that group, that Iran must not be allowed to ever obtain a nuclear weapon. And the United States, we continue to stand with our partners and allies and we continue to be prepared to engage in that endeavor diplomatically.
QUESTION: But you don’t know how and when they will resume?
MR PRICE: Again, it is clear that the Iranian Government has decisions to make about the course they wish to pursue. As the Secretary said the other day in New Delhi, the ball is very much in Iran’s court. We are prepared to resume those diplomatic negotiations precisely because we feel it is in our interest to do so.
QUESTION: And any update on the reaction to the attack on the Israeli ship?
MR PRICE: Any update on the reaction to —
QUESTION: The response.
MR PRICE: The response. So you heard the Secretary speak to this yesterday. We have offered our deepest condolences to the families, to the loved ones of the deceased, the – to the British and Romanian governments. And we will continue working with our partners and allies to address this attack. We are confident, as we said over the weekend and as the Secretary reiterated yesterday, that Iran was responsible for this attack. We are working with those partners, with those allies to consider those next steps. We are consulting with governments inside the region and beyond on an appropriate response, and an appropriate response will be forthcoming.
QUESTION: On the EU’s participation in Raisi’s taking oath of office on Thursday, okay, you said that you have no reaction to that. But did they consult with the State Department letting you know that they were – they had been invited, that they’re going?
MR PRICE: We consult very closely with the EU on just about every subject imaginable. I’m not in a position to read out specific diplomatic consultations. I also would note that the EU foreign minister issued a public statement explaining the EU’s belief that open lines of communication are a good thing. But again, we are not – it’s not up to us to comment on that decision. You need to – we would need to refer you to the EU for that.
QUESTION: Okay. And you just said that – okay, and you’ve been saying that you’re ready for the seventh round of the negotiations in Vienna and that the ball is in Iran’s court. I’m sure you remember that when Zarif’s report to their parliament came out, after that there was reaction from within the country that the national security council, their national security council, was saying that the – what the U.S. had offered in terms of sanctions relief did not meet with the standard or with their law on the subject. And they’re saying that now the ball is in the U.S. court, actually. So how is this going to work out?
MR PRICE: Well, it’s very clear and it’s very simple. We are prepared to return to Vienna to resume these indirect negotiations in close coordination with our P5+1 partners and allies – some of our closest allies in the world in the form of our European allies, along with Russia and China, as well as the EU as a bloc in this case.
So there should be no question we are prepared to do so. It is also beyond question, I would say, that the Iranians have some decisions to make. They are in the midst of a transition. We’ve all seen the reports that have emerged from Tehran in recent days in the context of that transition, but the Iranians are the ones who will need to make decisions going forward about how they would like to pursue this endeavor.
QUESTION: One more question. Today there was a report by a semi-official news agency close to their national security council that somebody – an official, unnamed official – had said that the Raisi government is going to take the prisoner exchange subject off the table. Have you heard anything? And if so, what would – how would the U.S. negotiate, continue negotiations especially on – in this aspect?
MR PRICE: Well, we’ve seen that report. We have said all along that securing the release of these unjustly detained American citizens is an absolute priority for us. We have engaged in discussions towards this end precisely because it is such a priority for us. We will not stop pursuing their release until they are able to be safely united with their families. We will pursue any and all means to seek that through available channels, because it does remain such a priority for us.
QUESTION: Ned, can I just – just in the context of what’s been going on over the last couple of months with Iran since the indirect talks resumed or started in Vienna, you have the Houthis increasing their offensive in Marib and the situation in Yemen getting worse. Presumably, you think that these people are Iran-affiliated, Iran-tied, and that they take their orders from Tehran.
You have the DOJ charging Iranian agents with attempting to kidnap journalists from the United States. You have the attack on the Mercer Street vessel, which was a deadly attack. And you have this – whether or not this report today is true about the prisoners, you have Abbas Araghchi’s comments from the other week that you personally labeled outrageous and said they were ridiculous.
So my – this is my question: Is there anything that you can think of that Iran could do that would make you say, no, I’m sorry, we’re not interested in going back to the talks in Vienna because you have shown on virtually every level no goodwill at all? Is there anything that you can think of that Iran might do that would make the talks – that would make you uninterested in continuing?
MR PRICE: What I would say, Matt, first of all, is that I think the timeline requires some context. It – these activities, the broad swath of these activities, don’t date to January of 2021. They don’t date to the start of the talks in Vienna later this year. Across virtually every realm, whether it is the maritime realm, whether it is support for proxies and for militants throughout the region, whether it is across every challenge we face – of course, the nuclear program and the advancements that Iran has made – that dates not from 2021, but I think you can trace quite a bit of that to 2018.
And the point we have made is that under the last administration we were promised, the American people were told, that a strategy of so-called maximum pressure would cow Iran into submission on every front, that it would lead to a better – so-called better deal on the nuclear program, that it would keep Iran from providing funding and supplies and support to its proxies, that Iran would be deterred from undertaking attacks in the maritime realm against our partners in Iraq, even against American forces in Iraq. Quite the opposite has happened since 2018.
QUESTION: So this is —
MR PRICE: And —
QUESTION: So your position is that this is all the Trump administration’s fault?
MR PRICE: No, I – my point is that as long —
QUESTION: Because I’m old enough to remember there was a night when President Obama was about to deliver the State of the Union, and the Iranians took a bunch of American sailors prisoner during a period of quote/unquote rapprochement.
MR PRICE: And do you remember how that ended? Now 12 —
QUESTION: Yeah, I do remember. But it still happened.
MR PRICE: Well —
QUESTION: And so I – so bad Iranian behavior has been going on for years and years even —
MR PRICE: Oh, I’m not —
QUESTION: — even during —
MR PRICE: I am not —
QUESTION: — the lifetime of —
MR PRICE: I’m not arguing with that.
QUESTION: Even during your participation in the JCPOA.
MR PRICE: I’m —
MR PRICE: No one —
QUESTION: So it’s a bit – it’s a bit rich to say that all of this is the Trump administration’s fault when it – when yesterday you were asked in a completely different context about who’s responsible for the increase in violence in Afghanistan, and you said, rightly, that it is the Taliban who is responsible for that increase.
So saying that – the suggestion that all of what Iran is doing now and has been doing for the last couple weeks, the last couple of months, is the fault of the previous administration —
MR PRICE: It is —
QUESTION: — is a bit hard to take.
MR PRICE: It is – the point that is undeniably true is that Iran has acted with a greater degree of impunity since the shackles on its nuclear program have been removed.
MR PRICE: You have heard this from us before because we sincerely believe it and it is very much true that —
QUESTION: Okay. But the bottom line, my question —
MR PRICE: — that Iran has license – feels that it has license, I should say —
MR PRICE: — to do these things that in many cases it was not doing before.
QUESTION: Let me try to get an answer to the question that I asked at the beginning, which was just: Is there anything that you can think of that they could do or they would do that would make you uninterested in returning to – or that would take the offer of returning to the Vienna talks off the table?
MR PRICE: I am not going to weigh in on a hypothetical, on a blue-sky hypothetical at that. What I would say is that it will always be in the interest of the United States of America to see to it that Iran is permanently and verifiably prevented from obtaining a nuclear weapon. It is hard for me to imagine – again, without being categorical about this – to – where we would arrive at a point where we would say —
MR PRICE: — Iran should have a nuclear weapon.
QUESTION: Well – all right, well, you changed it a little bit. But basically, you’re saying there’s nothing that Iran could do that would make you take the offer of talks —
MR PRICE: No, I – those words did not come out of my mouth. I —
QUESTION: Well, I know.
MR PRICE: The words that came out of my mouth were —
QUESTION: All right, I’ll stop.
MR PRICE: — it will always be in the interest of the United States of America —
QUESTION: And I won’t say another word.
QUESTION: South Africa?
MR PRICE: We’ll go to Afghanistan and then South Africa.
QUESTION: Do you – does the State Department have a response to the blast in central Kabul today that reportedly was targeting the acting defense minister?
MR PRICE: Well, we have seen – of course, we have seen the reports that have emerged today. I’m not in a position to attribute it officially just yet, but of course, it does bear all the hallmarks of the spate of Taliban attacks that we have seen in recent weeks. We unequivocally condemn the bombing and we continue to stand by our partners, our Afghan partners.
I think the broader point in all of this is that there is broad international consensus that there is no military solution to the conflict, and that is why we’re looking at ways and means by which we can help accelerate the peace negotiations that are ongoing. It’s important – I’d make a couple points. It’s important for the Taliban to recognize that it cannot achieve its objectives by seizing power through violence, and if it seeks to do so, it will repeat history and become, as you heard from the Secretary, an international pariah. The history of Afghanistan over the last – decades, 40, 50 years, is very clear. It indicates that an effort by one side or one party to impose its will on others results only in bloodshed, only in instability, only in violence, and Afghan leaders at this moment have a unique opportunity – really for the first time in decades – to build a country that is stable, that is sovereign, that – the point we made yesterday – in which all Afghans are able to live in safety and security. And seizing this opportunity, it’s in everyone’s interests. And that’s why we’ve been encouraging both sides, the Islamic Republic and the Taliban, to take advantage of this, because it’s in the interests of the Afghan people as well.
The wise thing to do is for both sides to engage seriously and urgently in the peace negotiations to respond to the wishes of the Afghan people for a political agreement. We – it’s very clear the two sides have disagreements, but they need to put the interests of their country and the future of the Afghan people first.
The simple point is that there is no path to a stable Afghanistan that is at peace with itself and the world without a political agreement, and that’s – this is not – this is something that you’ve heard from me, you’ve heard from the State Department, especially in recent weeks. But I want to reiterate the point that there is broad buy-in from the international community that this is the case.
Let me give you just a few examples. The extended “Troika,” which includes Russia, China, and Pakistan, issued a statement that said: “We reiterate…there is no military solution in Afghanistan and a negotiated political settlement through an Afghan-led and Afghan-owned process is the only way forward for lasting peace and stability…” The U.S.-Europe communique, which includes the EU, France, Germany, Italy, NATO, Norway, and the UK: “We reaffirm…there is no military solution to the conflict, we stand by [UN Security Council] Resolution 2513…we do not support any government in Afghanistan imposed through military force.” The C5+1, which includes Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan: “[T]here is no support for the imposition by force of a new government in Afghanistan.” The joint statement of diplomatic missions in Iran – this includes Australia, Canada, Czech Republic, Denmark, the EU, Finland, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Korea, Netherlands, NATO, Spain, Sweden, and the UK – call for an urgent end to the Taliban’s ongoing military offensive. We join in calling on the Taliban and all parties to immediately end the violence, to agree to a permanent and comprehensive ceasefire, and engage fully in peace negotiations to end the suffering of the Afghan people.
You heard with Secretary Blinken just the other day in New Delhi, his Indian counterpart, Foreign Minister Jaishankar, he said similarly: “[U]nilateral imposition of will by any party will obviously not be democratic and can never lead to stability, nor indeed can such efforts ever acquire legitimacy.”
So we – this is the position of the international community. That matters not only for purposes of legitimacy of any future government, but for very practical purposes that are imperative to durability, and that includes but is not limited to humanitarian assistance, to international assistance, to the assistance that any future government of Afghanistan would need if it is to achieve that durability.
QUESTION: Can I just follow up?
MR PRICE: Yeah, sorry. Sorry, we’ll follow up.
QUESTION: Sorry, I just wanted to follow up on two things.
MR PRICE: Yeah.
QUESTION: First off, clearly factions of the Taliban believe that there is a military solution. So is the United States prepared to deny them of that military victory? Is that what you’re saying?
MR PRICE: The Taliban has said otherwise. Now, again, their actions —
QUESTION: They’re not acting —
MR PRICE: Actions are going to speak louder than words, of course. They continue to be engaged in Doha. So look, we’re going to be looking to their actions. They have said that they see the utility of a negotiated solution. They are engaged in Doha. But the simple point remains that if they attempt and seek to do otherwise, if they seek to contravene what they have said, then they will be an international pariah. They won’t have the support of their people. They won’t have the support of the international community. And the concern on the part of all of us – one of many concerns – is that the result will be civil war, will be a civil war in which the Afghan people do not have and won’t be in a position to achieve the safety and security in which they deserve to live.
QUESTION: Okay, so you’re not prepared to say that the U.S. will militarily deny them victory.
MR PRICE: The President has been very clear that we went into Afghanistan with a singular mission, and that was to defeat the network that was responsible for the 9/11 attacks and to ensure that Afghanistan could not become a staging ground for attacks on the United States going forward. We’ve achieved that mission. In the first instance, Osama bin Laden was killed more than 10 years ago. The network behind the 9/11 attacks has been decimated for many years now. And we continue to retain the capacity, as you’ve heard from the military and President Biden and others, to see to it that Afghanistan does not become a staging ground, cannot become a staging ground for attacks against the United States.
All the while, we will continue to support the diplomacy. We will continue to rally the international community. We will continue to do all we can to achieve this negotiated settlement which the Afghan Government is behind, which the Taliban says it’s behind, and which, as I just rattled off, the international community is absolutely behind.
QUESTION: You can say that the international community is behind it, but for three years we’ve been in Doha. The Taliban is not committed to the peace talks. It’s very, very clear. Just yesterday, Embassy Kabul said that the massacre of civilians could be war crimes. So why continue with the fiction of Doha when the Taliban is in civil war and, for all intents and purposes, they’re killing civilians as well as targeting officials? What is the point of being in Doha or even participating in it to give them the cover of being involved in peace negotiations?
MR PRICE: Doha is a tactic. We’re in Doha because we believe, the international community believes, the Government of Afghanistan believes, and the Taliban say they believe that diplomacy is —
QUESTION: But it’s a failure.
MR PRICE: Is – has it achieved the results any of us want? Of course not, not yet. But we’re not ready to throw in the towel on diplomacy.
QUESTION: Isn’t it political cover for withdrawal? You inherited the withdrawal. For what other purpose are we still there?
MR PRICE: The diplomacy began well before the withdrawal.
QUESTION: Three years ago.
MR PRICE: Right.
QUESTION: And nothing has been achieved. They’ve never agreed to anything substantive in terms of a permanent solution.
MR PRICE: These are parties that until relatively recently were not speaking to one another. So progress has been too slow. It has been too incremental. It has not achieved what we ultimately want it to achieve. But the United States and the international community and the Government of Afghanistan and, at the very least, elements of the Taliban are behind this. And in the case of the Taliban, they say they’re behind it. So again, look, we’re going to judge them based on their actions. Their actions to date have sent a different message, but we are going to continue to do all we can to facilitate, to galvanize, to organize that diplomacy because we are confident, the international community is confident, these dozens of countries and international coalitions that I just mentioned are confident that only through diplomacy can we bring about a stable, secure, peaceful Afghanistan.
QUESTION: Ned, is the U.S. helping?
MR PRICE: I’m sorry?
QUESTION: Is the U.S. helping the Afghan military to defend the cities, especially by providing Air Force or —
MR PRICE: I would refer you to DOD on that. They’ve spoken to discrete operations in recent days, but I would need to refer you to them to comment on that.
QUESTION: A follow-up.
MR PRICE: Yeah.
QUESTION: There were two people who suggested that the military strategy did offer a potential way forward, and that was today. Special Envoy Khalilzad and then David Petraeus also said that essentially the Afghan Government needs to find its military bearings and come up with a new military strategy, and it’s essentially too weak to negotiate a political settlement. That was Special Envoy Khalilzad, and then David Petraeus said that the U.S. Government – the only way it would be able to reverse the Taliban gains was by restoring a situation where it was providing close air support and reconnaissance. Is that something that the administration would consider doing? And could you give us additional context on what Special Envoy Khalilzad meant when he said that the Afghan Government needs to find its military bearing?
MR PRICE: So to the first part of your question, this gets back to the original mission that was set out for us in Afghanistan 20 years ago. October of 2001 we went in to defeat the al-Qaida network that was responsible for the 9/11 attacks. Osama bin Laden was brought to justice 10 years ago. Afghanistan ever since has not been able to be a staging ground for attacks against the United States, and we retain the capabilities to see to it that terrorist groups aren’t in a position to reconstitute and pose that sort of threat going forward.
So President Biden, this administration, has been very clear that our military has accomplished what was asked of it. It is now the function of other elements of the administration, including in large part the State Department, to do all we can, including diplomatically, to bring about the stable, secure Afghanistan that has eluded us not for the past few months, not for the past decade, not for the past two decades, but, for many reasons, for the past 40 years. So that is what we’re working on. And we are using a number of tools at our disposal. In the first instance and certainly from this building, diplomacy is at the top of that list.
Now, when you talk about – in reference to Special Envoy Khalilzad’s remarks today, the special envoy has been very clear that there is no military solution to this. The special envoy has been at the forefront of our efforts. I mean, this has been the guiding principle behind Doha, and special – Ambassador Khalilzad was and is an architect of Doha, bringing the parties together, supporting the parties in their diplomacy.
Now, what he was referring to today were tactical decisions that the Government of Afghanistan may be in a position to make to thwart some of those Taliban gains as they approach major power centers. His remarks I believe are public, but that’s the gist of it. This is not about there being a military solution to the conflict in Afghanistan, because there is not one.
QUESTION: So just to follow up, then sort of in parallel with what Matt was asking you about Iran, given attacks on defense forces, on the defense minister, on these troops some weeks ago who tried to surrender, is there anything that the Taliban can do – you say actions speak louder than words – is there anything that they can do that would cause you to essentially say that the Doha process will amount to nothing and ought to be ended?
MR PRICE: Well, again, it is fair to say that we believe – and I think it is fair to say at least for the foreseeable future we will continue to believe – that only through diplomacy can we achieve a just and durable political settlement, and the point is that only a just outcome can be a durable one. And this goes back to what we’ve said before. Any party, any element that seeks to take Afghanistan by force, that rules in – without regard or respect for the basic rights of the Afghan people – that, in our minds and in the minds of the international community, is not likely to be a durable outcome. Because that party won’t have legitimacy, won’t have the support of the international community, won’t have the financial support that the international community is able to provide.
QUESTION: I just – I mean, I – not to get too philosophical about it, but I just don’t see where you guys sort of get that argument from. I mean, history is littered with examples of powers that took – governments that took power via military force and remained extremely durable. I mean, look at the Vietnam War for example. The Government of Vietnam is now obviously becoming almost a strategic partner with the United States after having defeated it in that war. They took power by force. Where do you get this idea that somehow a government that achieves power via military means is not going to remain durable?
MR PRICE: It’s not our idea. This is an idea that is a consensus view. It is commonly held. And the fact that it is commonly held is an element of proof itself. The list of countries and the collections of countries that I just went through, speaking to the fact that there’s no military solution, that there is no support for the imposition by force of a new government of Afghanistan – the fact that all of these countries have signed on to that sentiment, have repeated it – it is a deeply held conviction – should be a very strong signal to the Taliban, to any other party in Afghanistan that they are not going to have legitimacy, but more important – more practically, they’re not going to have that international support that a government, a fledgling government, would need.
QUESTION: And —
MR PRICE: I skipped over, yes, South Africa. I’m sorry.
QUESTION: Thank you. So my question is going to be South Africa, but then sub-Saharan Africa more broadly, if I can.
MR PRICE: Mm-hmm, sure.
QUESTION: By the way, good to see you again, Ned.
MR PRICE: Yes, thank you, Pearl.
QUESTION: There is vaccine hesitancy everywhere, not just in Africa, but a lot of what is on the minds of South Africans is driven by misinformation and increasing their fear. And yes, I did see the fact sheet that came out of the White House today, which is great – the 5.66 million doses that arrived in Johannesburg on the 31st.
All of that is well and good. I’m wondering if you can help dispel of this notion that free donations from the United States – that you are simply dumping vaccines in Africa after initially having kept vaccines for yourselves and for Americans. These fears, Ned, I think sometimes possibly stemmed from the contaminated Johnson & Johnson vaccines in South Africa in June – had to dispose of 2 million doses. So I’m wondering if you could articulate for South Africans right now who are doubting.
And there are a lot of reports from Eastern Bloc countries that are pushing this misinformation and it is increasing this misinformation and fear. So now, millions of South Africans don’t actually want to take these vaccines that are coming, and this is going cross-border into Zimbabwe, Mozambique, and so on, where there is the third phase continuing there. So if you could speak to that.
I do have another question.
MR PRICE: Let me take that one, and then —
QUESTION: Sure, sure.
MR PRICE: And it’s a really important question and I appreciate the opportunity to speak to it. I would start by saying that President Biden, when he announced that the United States would be – would provide an arsenal of vaccines for the world, announced that the United States would be sharing 80 million doses from our own domestic stockpile.
To be very clear, these are the same brand names, the same vaccines that go into the arms of and that have gone into the arms of the American people. We seek to ensure safe and effective vaccines are delivered in a way that is efficient, that is equitable, and that follows the latest science and public health data. The vaccine doses the U.S. Government is donating internationally – we know they are safe. They are effective. They have received emergency use authorizations from both the FDA and the WHO on the international level, and they’re the same vaccines that we are making available to the American people. That’s the 80 million that has since turned into 110 million.
Of course, the President has also said that starting next month, we would begin shipping the half a billion doses – and these are Pfizer, and millions of Americans have received doses of the Pfizer vaccine that, again, are safe and, importantly, effective. Now, you’re absolutely right —
QUESTION: So Ned, are more vaccines going in August or are the – a portion of the allocation from the half billion only going to start going out in September? Can you just, like – how is that working out?
MR PRICE: The – my understanding is that the shipments of those half a billion Pfizer vaccines will start later this month – excuse me, August.
MR PRICE: Now, you did raise the point of misinformation and disinformation. It’s a real one. It is a problem. It’s a challenge that is being faced the world over. We believe that the best antidote to misinformation and disinformation is information, which is why we appreciate the opportunity to speak to it, to make the point that these vaccines are safe and effective.
We also know that disinformation magnifies the risk of potential – magnifies the risk of the pandemic. Until and unless people the world over are vaccinated – that is to say people feel safe accepting a vaccine – no one will be safe. We have seen recently with the Delta variant that as long as this virus is circulating anywhere, it is a threat to people everywhere, including Americans here at home, people around the world. So that is why it is an urgent priority for us to see the fair and equitable distribution of these vaccines just as we’re doing what we can to put out truthful information to counter some of this misinformation and disinformation.
QUESTION: So I just want to follow up. It’s great to see that we have got a senior State Department official actually in the region right now, Amb. Nuland, which is great. So I wanted to find out – I did ask a few months ago about how far away we were to actually seeing an assistant secretary of state appointed. I know Deputy Secretary Sherman was on the Hill today testifying, mentioned something about that.
But how far along are we, and what prompted her specific visit? Because there’s a lot going on in the region right now after the looting and riots in South Africa. The eye, kind of, was not focused on the monarchy issue in Eswatini, so we’ve got issues boiling up there. You’ve got the northern Mozambique Cabo Delgado issue, although DOD and Cutlass Express just finished their military exercises on maritime domain awareness in that region. I’m seeing that South Africa has not been invited in participating in those military exercises.
I looked at the State Department FY22 budget as well as DOD’s. I don’t expect you to speak to DOD today, but I don’t see enough money under the security cooperation aspect that perhaps might help these types of exercises and see countries like South Africa becoming one of your leading partners on the continent, as you’re doing, perhaps, with Ghana and Kenya.
So we’ve got multiple issues going on there. We’ve got China, Russia, increasing influences involved with Tanzania and so on. So what prompted Amb. Nuland’s visit? How far along are we to actually seeing an assistant secretary of (inaudible)? And when will we see a Biden Africa doctrine?
MR PRICE: Lots of questions. Let me try and take them in turn.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MR PRICE: So first, Deputy Secretary Sherman is on the Hill testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee today on the administration’s position on the authorization for the use of military force and describing where it is we stand on the need for a narrow and specific framework that will ensure that the President, the Executive Branch, can continue to have the authority to protect against threats while ending these so-called forever wars, which is a priority of the President.
As you know, the President has put forward a nominee for our African Affairs Bureau, Molly Phee. She is a tremendous public servant, someone who has deep experience in AF, someone who knows the continent and its issues inside and out. You heard the Secretary yesterday when he was right here make the case that the dozens of nominees who – State Department nominees who are awaiting their confirmations that we have urged the Senate to move expeditiously given the number of challenges, threats, and opportunities we face the world over. So yes, we feel that it is an urgent matter for us to have an assistant secretary for the African Affairs Bureau. We feel it’s an urgent matter for us to have an assistant secretary of our Bureau of South and Central Asia, as we talked about Afghanistan. We need a Senate-confirmed assistant secretary for our East Asian and Pacific Affairs Bureau, given the relationship we have with the PRC, our investment in the Indo-Pacific, the ongoing collaboration with ASEAN, as the Secretary is doing right now. We’ve talked quite a bit about our Near Eastern Affairs Bureau in the context of this briefing already today. It’s important for us to have a Senate-confirmed assistant secretary there. I could go down the list, and there are dozens there.
So again, we are encouraging and doing all we can to facilitate their swift confirmation because we too would like to see —
QUESTION: Can I ask you a follow-up question? I’m sensing a contentious relationship with Zimbabwe in between things going back and forth between the Zimbabwean Government spokesperson, President Mnangagwa’s spokesperson, and the U.S. embassy. What are you doing to improve your engagement with Zimbabwe and to see that getting better?
I know that, for instance, in the Trump administration, Zimbabwe had already been singled out as an adversary along with Iran and China. I know national security officials in the White House had done so. We’ve had a whole string in the last decade of these contentious relationships. What, if anything, are you doing in terms of maybe strengthening democracy specifically to Zimbabwe, if you can speak to that? Thanks.
MR PRICE: Well, we have made very clear that we are a steadfast friend of the people of Zimbabwe. Over the years, we provided more than $3.5 billion in assistance. That sum is the amount we provided since Zimbabwe achieved its independence in 1980. We share the Zimbabwean people’s aspirations for a country that offers democracy, justice, human rights, prosperity for all, supporting human rights, supporting these values in Africa and around the world. It is absolutely a priority for us and we’ll continue to work on ways to support those aspirations of the Zimbabwean people.
QUESTION: Thanks, Ned.
QUESTION: Thanks, Ned. China’s Foreign Ministry has responded to the House Foreign Affairs minority staff’s report on the COVID origins as “concocted lies and distorted facts.” I’m just wondering if this administration has reviewed that report. It’s a lot of open-source, circumstantial information, but is it something that the administration is using or has used to inform its investigation into COVID’s origins?
MR PRICE: Well, as you know, Rich, we are working this aggressively on a number of fronts. Number one, the Secretary met with Director-General Tedros in – last week when we were on travel in New Delhi. And —
QUESTION: No, no, no.
MR PRICE: Where did we meet with him?
QUESTION: In Kuwait.
MR PRICE: In Kuwait, correct. I’m sorry. We met with him in Kuwait. Because – and it was during that meeting that Secretary Blinken and the director-general agreed on the need for a phase two WHO study that is guided by nothing more than science, expertise, in a way that is unbiased, that is apolitical, that is free from interference. We continue to believe that is imperative. It is not just the United States that believes that. As you’ll recall, it was a couple months ago now that we, together with about a dozen or so of our partners and allies around the world, issued a joint statement. A number of other countries issued their own similar joint statements calling for this phase two study.
But that is not all we’re doing. President Biden has requested, as you know, the U.S. Intelligence Community to redouble its efforts to collect and analyze information relevant to the origins of COVID-19 and to report back on their analysis and their recommendations for area of further inquiry that may be required, including specific questions for the PRC. The administration is looking forward to the results of that analysis and we’ll keep working with our likeminded partners around the world to press the PRC to participate, like I said, in a full, transparent, evidence-based international investigation and to provide access to all relevant data and evidence.
For us, this is incredibly important. It is not only about the past. It is important that we understand the origins of this virus for many reasons, including going forward as well. This is about understanding how we can see to it that an outbreak does not again become an epidemic, and that an epidemic does not again become a pandemic. That’s our goal. That’s why we’re working so aggressively and so focused on this.
QUESTION: Would the U.S. consider consequences, sanctions, penalties of any sort if there were, in fact, no phase two investigation in China, which the Chinese Government has given no indication – in fact, quite the opposite?
MR PRICE: Well, again, I don’t want to get ahead of it. We are determined and we know we have – we know there is an absolute imperative for us to do all we can to get to the bottom of this, not only for the question of accountability but also for the important question of how we can save lives going forward.
QUESTION: Ned, on Tunisia, President Saied has terminated the mission of the Tunisian ambassador to Washington. Are you aware of that and do you have any comment?
MR PRICE: Well, we, as you’ve heard from the Secretary and others, we are directly engaged with Tunisian leaders. We urge President Saied to provide a clear roadmap to quickly lift the emergency measures and return Tunisia to its democratic path. The Secretary had an opportunity to speak with President Saied. He was very clear in his message, as you heard directly from Secretary Blinken; I believe it was yesterday that National Security Advisor Sullivan had an opportunity to do the same. Tunisia’s leadership is hearing a clear and unequivocal message from the United States about the imperative or returning Tunisia to that democratic path.
QUESTION: And anything on the ambassador? And do you consider what happened as a coup d’etat?
MR PRICE: Again, this – it’s been a fluid situation. Our focus is on encouraging Tunisian leaders to adhere to the Tunisian constitution and to quickly return to normal, democratic governance. In some ways more important than the question of labels is the critical work of supporting Tunisia in its return to that democratic path, and that’s what we’re focused on right now.
QUESTION: Thank you, Ned. On the Secretary’s engagement with ASEAN countries this week, during yesterday’s background briefing the State Department officials mentioned that he would have an opportunity to address China on issues like human rights. I’m just wondering when he addresses China in front of ASEAN members and other regional countries, what’s his messaging going to be like, sort of the tone of his message? Will it be sort of conciliatory, or will it be more like when he met his counterparts in Alaska where he used very strong language?
MR PRICE: Well, I think the message that he will relay – and of course, he has engagements with our ASEAN partners every day this week – is the message you’ve heard him relay in public, and that is the fact that the United States is not here to force countries, to force the international community, to have a binary choice. It’s not a question of the U.S. or China.
What we are going to hear and what was reflected last night in the Mekong-U.S. Partnership, what will be on high display tonight during the U.S.-ASEAN Ministerial and the events throughout the course of the week, are the shared values that we have with our ASEAN partners. ASEAN is in many ways predicated on not only the shared interests – and that does include an interest in a free and open Indo-Pacific – but the shared values that, to us, are key to ASEAN centrality in our strategic partnership with ASEAN.
What brings this group of countries together is that we do have some common concerns. Some of those concerns we have in the context of the PRC, but we also are united in our shared values. And again, many of those shared values are not irrelevant to the challenges we’ve seen from a PRC that is more repressive at home and more regressive – more aggressive in the region.
QUESTION: And one – just second question. Japan’s foreign minister will also be participating in a couple of the meetings. Do you have anything you can say on any prospects of U.S.-Japan-ASEAN cooperation that might come out of this week’s meetings?
MR PRICE: I don’t have anything specific to add on that. Obviously, our bilateral relationship with Japan is – it is a treaty ally. The number of shared interests and shared values there are profound. We’ve talked about our trilateral cooperation with Japan and the ROK and the importance there in securing that vision of a free and open Indo-Pacific and in the context of the DPRK as well. But always, we support ties and deepening relationships between our friends and allies in the region, and ASEAN and Japan certainly fall into that category.
QUESTION: On North Korea. So last week, we learned that South Korea and North Korea, the leaders exchanged letters in April. So I’m wondering if any letters have been exchanged between the United States and North Korea, because it’s been more than four months since you’ve completed the policy review on North Korea, and we learned – I mean, we know that you’ve reached out to North Korea. But where are we? I mean, what’s the current status of the North Korean issue? Thank you.
MR PRICE: Well, when it comes to the inter-Korean communication, let me just say that the United States supports inter-Korean dialogue and engagement, and we welcome the announcement on the restoration of inter-Korean communication lines. We believe that is a positive step, and we believe it’s a positive step because diplomacy and dialogue are essential to achieving the complete denuclearization and to establishing permanent peace on the Korean Peninsula. And as you know, those were key conclusions of our recently concluded DPRK policy review.
As you also know, we have reached out to the DP – the regime in the DPRK. I don’t have an update for you on any response, but I will say that our offer remains to meet, as you’ve heard from Ambassador Sung Kim, anytime, anywhere, without preconditions. It’s up to the DPRK to respond positively to that outreach.
QUESTION: What about in ASEAN? I mean, the Secretary, we know that he’s not going to be – will be having a meeting with North Korea. But have you proposed any – like the meeting or suggested to North Korea to maybe be able to participate in that meeting with the Secretary?
MR PRICE: Has North Korea been proposed to —
QUESTION: No. Have you proposed maybe North Korea to maybe – as a – maybe a chance to having a maybe conversation with that ASEAN —
MR PRICE: I don’t believe it’s been raised in that context, no.
MR PRICE: Daphne, last question.
QUESTION: An (inaudible) Belarusian activist was found hanged in a park in Kyiv. Does the State Department have any comment on this? His colleagues accused the Belarusian security services of murdering him. Does the U.S. have any reason to believe that’s the case?
MR PRICE: Well, we are deeply saddened by the reports of the tragic death of Mr. Vitaly Shishov. We will continue to closely monitor the Ukrainian authorities’ investigation into the cause of his death. Mr. Shishov was an important member of the Belarusian civil society and had been forced to live outside his country due to the repression and ongoing crackdown on journalists, on civil society, on political opposition, on athletes and ordinary citizens by the Lukashenko regime.
We condemn in the strongest terms the ongoing violent crackdown on Belarusian civil society and transnational repression by the Lukashenko regime. We’ve seen alarming incidents of that in recent weeks alone. Of course, Ryan Air is top of mind, as is the incident at the Olympics just this week.
And so we’ll continue to monitor the regime’s actions very closely and renew our call for an end to the crackdown, the immediate release of all political prisoners. A genuine dialogue with the opposition and civil society is called for in the OSCE Expert Mission Report, and free and fair elections with international observations.
Now, when it comes to the death of Mr. Shishov, we’ll continue to closely monitor the investigation. And – but we would refer you to Ukrainian authorities for comment.
Very quick, yes.
QUESTION: Any announcement ahead of the Lebanon conference tomorrow in Paris, anything new you have?
MR PRICE: So I do —
QUESTION: Participation and contribution.
MR PRICE: So I don’t have any details to preview in terms of a contribution. As you may know, Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield will be sitting in the chair for the United States, and I would expect very high-level U.S. participation.
Thank you all very much.
(The briefing was concluded at 3:33 p.m.)