Department Press Briefing – December 20, 2022
2:13 p.m. EST
MR PRICE: All right. Good afternoon, everyone.
MR PRICE: Hello. A couple things at the top, and then we’ll turn to your questions.
The United States condemns, in the strongest terms, the Taliban’s indefensible decision to ban women from universities, to keep secondary schools closed to girls, and to continue to impose other restrictions on the ability of women and girls in Afghanistan to exercise their human rights and their fundamental freedoms.
The Taliban’s decision to close secondary schools to girls last March has had a significant impact on our engagement with the Taliban representatives. The Taliban made promises to the people of Afghanistan and to the international community that schools would reopen. They claimed that this was a matter of procedures and arrangements and would be quickly reversed.
Now, we hear the opposite: An order from the so-called Higher Education Ministry yesterday states that women cannot attend universities either. With the implementation of this decree, half of the Afghan population will soon be unable to access education beyond primary school.
Afghanistan is already losing more than $1 billion per year in contributions that women could be making to the economy. Now the Taliban have imposed these losses on the Afghan people for the indefinite future. Furthermore, the Taliban have permanently sentenced Afghan women to a darker and more barren future without opportunity. No country can thrive when half of its population is arbitrarily held back.
Education is an internationally recognized human right and it is essential to Afghanistan’s economic growth and its stability. This unacceptable stance will have significant consequences for the Taliban and will further alienate the Taliban from the international community and deny them the legitimacy they desire.
Next and finally, today, the United States Department of the Treasury announced one of the most important updates to our sanctions policy in years. In September, Secretary Blinken announced the United States’ intent to ensure that food, medicine, and humanitarian assistance are exempted from UN and U.S. sanctions programs. The first step in achieving that goal was the adoption of UN Security Council Resolution 2664 on December 9, which exempts humanitarian assistance from UN Security Council-imposed asset freeze measures. We are grateful to Ireland for co‑drafting this resolution with us.
Today, the Treasury Department is releasing a package of general licenses for humanitarian authorizations across U.S. sanctions programs that will establish consistent regulations, streamline compliance for humanitarian and commercial actors, and ultimately help ensure sanctions do not unduly impact humanitarian conditions around the world. The general licenses implement UN Security Council Resolution 2664 and build upon the humanitarian authorizations this administration has already incorporated across several U.S. domestic sanctions programs. We believe that these reforms will make our sanctions clearer, stronger, and more effective.
We look forward to working with our allies and partners around the world and with humanitarian actors and financial institutions to ensure these licenses are properly understood, so that food, medicine, and other aid reach those most in need. The licenses announced today are one critical step to meeting the humanitarian challenges of unprecedented magnitude while maintaining the integrity of our sanctions to promote international peace, security, and stability as well.
With that, Shaun.
MR PRICE: Sure.
QUESTION: You mentioned that the earlier ban by the Taliban on girls at secondary schools had a significant impact on U.S. engagement. I mean, from that one could say that what’s the impact in terms of what the U.S. is doing? I mean, do you find any way to persuade the Taliban? Is it – is there any means at the U.S.’s disposal to actually effect change?
MR PRICE: So a couple things on this. You just heard a message of condemnation from us, from the United States. I have every expectation that you, and more importantly in this case, the Taliban will be hearing similar messages of condemnation of the step that they announced today. Our allies and partners will be joining us in a chorus calling out this decision, lamenting it, and making clear where the international community stands on this indefensible decision. That, of course, is important that the Taliban hear this united messaging, but just as important is the fact that we will be imposing accountability measures on the Taliban. And I suspect, just as we have coordinated with this messaging, many of our partners will be doing the same in the days to come.
The Taliban should expect that this decision, which is in contravention to the commitments they have made repeatedly and publicly to their own people, will carry costs – will carry concrete costs for them. So of course that’s what we’re doing to hold the Taliban to account. There are a number of tools that we can draw from to do this. Not going to be able to go into any more specifics today.
But then there’s also the affirmative side of the ledger – what it is that we’re doing in the absence of the Taliban upholding the commitments they’ve made to the Afghan people to support the Afghan people, and suffice to say, the United States is doing a lot. We continue to lead the world’s humanitarian response to the needs of the Afghan people. Since August of 2021, the United States has committed some $1.1 billion in humanitarian assistance, some – much of this money is funding that can go to support the lives, the livelihoods, of women and girls – those who will be most impacted, who have been most impacted by these draconian and barbaric decrees that we’ve heard from the Taliban since March and more recently affirmed today. So just as we hold the Taliban to account, we are prepared and we will continue to support the Afghan people in every way we can.
QUESTION: Can I just follow up on that? Just wondering – I mean the – you say that it’ll carry costs for them. I know you’re probably not announcing anything right now – this was just in the past hour or two – but what type of costs? Are you talking about costs in terms of the lack of further engagement, the lack of – that this was, in fact – this was a diplomatic engagement with the Taliban. Could there be any economic costs?
MR PRICE: Well, we have had our suspicions for some time that a move like this was potentially coming. And as soon as we became aware that the Taliban, despite their assurances after the March decree that they would do otherwise, at least the assurances from some Taliban officials, we redoubled our efforts, again with our allies and partners around the world, to make clear to the Taliban that such a move would represent a tremendous setback to their own objectives, to their own goals, and would carry with it concrete implications – again, not just from the United States, but from the international community.
We reminded the Taliban that their actions, their behavior towards their own people will define our relationship with them. They know full well that the United States and our partners can’t have a normal relationship with the Taliban when it makes moves like this, when it fails to uphold its commitments to the international community, but very much to its own people. And the Taliban have made a commitment to respect the human rights of all Afghans. Needless to say, this flies directly in the face of that.
This decision – and the Taliban understand that this decision – will be a tremendous setback to the improvement of relations that they seek with countries around the world. They know that any improvement is contingent upon their own actions. They know that this step – with this step that they have taken, they have seriously, possibly even fatally, undermined one of their deepest ambitions in other areas where they seek progress, and that is an improvement, a betterment of relations with the United States and the rest of the world.
So on top of that, I do fully expect that we will continue to pull from the tools that we have at our disposal to hold the Taliban to account. Some senior members of the Taliban are already subject to certain measures. The Taliban as an organization is subject to certain measures. And we will look to see what more we can do to hold the Taliban to account for today’s announcement, even as, importantly, we continue to support the people of Afghanistan with our humanitarian assistance that very deliberately bypasses the Taliban and goes directly to the needs of the Afghan people.
QUESTION: Are there any implications for the frozen funds and that – the international fund that you guys set up that I think is being run by the World Bank? And second of all, what makes you think after all this time that they want better relations with the West?
MR PRICE: So first of all, on the frozen funds – and we spoke a couple of months ago regarding the course, the approach we took for these funds, which very intentionally did not constitute a recapitalization of the Afghan Central Bank. And we didn’t recapitalize the Afghan Central Bank because we didn’t have confidence that doing so would keep these funds out of Taliban hands or that it would not leave them at grave – great risk for the potential of diversion. The way the Afghan fund has been set up puts in place a system of checks and balances to ensure that literally the balance of this fund will be used for primarily the macroeconomic needs of the Afghan people. These are not funds to which the Taliban has access. These are funds that are at the discretion of those who oversee the board of this Afghan fund, including prominent Afghan stakeholders themselves. So this will continue to be an important resource for – primarily for the macroeconomic stabilization of Afghanistan, for the viability of its currency, for the economic stability that the people of Afghanistan need.
On the second part of your question, we have engaged with the Taliban consistently since even before August of 2021. We have had a number of conversations with them predicated on the issues that matter most to us. They, in turn, have had several opportunities now to engage with us directly on the issues that are of most importance to them. Just as I wouldn’t for any other interlocuter, I’m not going to precisely characterize what we’ve heard from them, but they’ve made it clear to us in private – including in private – that they seek an improvement in relations with the United States. Not only do they seek that in practice, in principle, but they, of course, seek the concrete, the very real implications that would come with that.
Afghanistan, over the course of the past 20 years, was a country that was heavily reliant on international assistance. Its budget was primarily funded by the international donor community. It is a country that is heavily reliant on humanitarian assistance. The prior Afghan government relied on various forms of assistance from the international community. The same will be true of the next government of Afghanistan. It will need assistance; it will need support; it will need resources from the international community. The resources that we provided the last Afghan government certainly is not on the table for the Taliban, not on the table for them if they emerge as the official government of Afghanistan.
The level of our support and the nature of our relationship is wholly contingent on the actions that they take towards their own people and the actions that they take with regard to our primary interests. And we’ve talked about those interests – human rights, safe passage for those who wish to depart Afghanistan, the counterterrorism commitments that they’ve made to the United States and to the international community, the ability of the people of Afghanistan to have a government that is representative and inclusive of all of the people of Afghanistan, including its girls, its women, its minorities. That’s what’s important to us. That is what will define the future of our relationship with the Taliban.
Anything else on —
QUESTION: Can I have a follow up on this?
QUESTION: On Afghanistan?
QUESTION: I’ll get Kylie, and Said.
QUESTION: Just – is there anything you can say about the two Americans who were released from Taliban detention and are on their way to Doha or maybe have landed there, and what the U.S. gave the Taliban in order to secure their release?
And just if you could speak to if you think it’s strategic on the Taliban’s part to allow this release to happen at the same time as a suspension of women’s education for universities. Do you think that they are sort of trying to gain goodwill from the U.S. while they do something that you ardently oppose?
MR PRICE: So on that final question, that is a good question for the Taliban. It’s not exactly a good question for us. We can only speculate and it’s not something we’d want to do from here.
You are right to point out that this indefensible decree did come on the same day that we are in a position to welcome the release of two Americans, two U.S. nationals, from detention in Afghanistan. We are providing these two U.S. nationals with all appropriate assistance. They will soon be reunited with their loved ones, and we are absolutely gratified to see that.
To the first part of your question, this we understand to have been a goodwill gesture on the part of the Taliban. This was not part of any swap of prisoners or detainees. There was no money that exchanged hands. We understand this, or at least the Taliban characterized this to us, as a goodwill gesture.
And the irony of them granting us a goodwill gesture on a day where they undertake a gesture like this to the Afghan people, it’s not lost on us. But it is a question for the Taliban themselves regarding the timing of this.
I think the point remains that we will always be consistent in advocating for our interests with the Taliban if there is to continue to be engagement with the Taliban, and our interests are consistent with the interests of the people of Afghanistan. We have an interest in seeing Americans released from detention. We obviously welcome the release of these two Americans today. That is a uniquely U.S. interest.
But beyond that, the categories that I spoke to earlier – human rights, safe passage, representative government, counterterrorism, go down the list – all of these are priority issues for the Afghan people. In our engagement with the Taliban we will continue to be – take a principled and pragmatic approach. We will continue to advocate for these interests. We will continue to advocate for everything we’ve been seeking since this period of our engagement began.
QUESTION: And just one more question. Are there any other Americans who are detained in Afghanistan at this time?
MR PRICE: So we continue to raise with the Taliban the need for the immediate release of any U.S. nationals detained in Afghanistan, but I’m just not in a position to offer specifics.
QUESTION: Yes, very quickly. You said that you engaged with the Taliban prior to 2021, or prior to the departure. You also engaged with the Taliban before September 11. I remember when a minister came into Washington and went on a goodwill tour throughout the United States. And my question to you is after 20 years of war and upward of a trillion dollars spent and so on, what has changed? Should the United States perhaps bear some responsibility for the situation that you started out with today?
MR PRICE: Said, we had an opportunity to speak to this at some length around the time of the U.S. military withdrawal from Afghanistan, and I think in the 20 years that have transpired since October of 2001 when U.S. military forces first went into Afghanistan there has been some perhaps degradation in the understanding of that original mission. And I think your question speaks to that.
The United States didn’t go into Afghanistan in October of 2021 – 2001, excuse me, on a nation-building mission. We never went into Afghanistan to remake a society, to fabricate a society that was based on the principles we hold most dear. We went into Afghanistan in October of 2001 for a simple mission: to go after the network that attacked the United States on September 11th of that year.
We were successful in that mission. Arguably – not arguably, in fact – we were successful in that mission years ago. It was in the years after, the few years after 9/11, that this small network that was behind 9/11 was on the run certainly, degraded certainly. It was in 2011, more than a decade before August of 2021 that Osama bin Laden was removed from the battlefield. Since then, his lieutenants have been taken off the battlefield – most recently Ayman al-Zawahiri, who of course we pursued successfully earlier this year.
So it is the case that we went into Afghanistan with a defined mission. Many people lost sight of that mission over time, but we were successful in concluding that mission. And that is a – it’s a primary reason why, as he was considering this decision early on in the administration, President Biden felt that it was no longer responsible to keep a contingent of American service members in Afghanistan engaged in a state of hostility or at the very least under threat from terrorist actors and other forces, that it was past time to complete the military withdrawal, a withdrawal that multiple presidents before him actually called for and sought to do, but for one reason or another ended up choosing not to do so.
Anything else on this? Alex. Still on this?
QUESTION: Thank you so much.
QUESTION: Still on Afghanistan?
QUESTION: Can I just ask – I know there’s probably a limit to what you can say, but can you just tell us a little bit more about the two Americans, how long they were detained? Are they Afghan Americans? Is there anything more you can detail about their situation?
MR PRICE: Unfortunately, there’s not in this case. And as you know, our ability to speak to the details of any particular case is dictated by the wishes of any particular American. In this case, there is just not more I can say, unfortunately.
Said. Or sorry, were we – Alex, yeah.
MR PRICE: This is – and it was a step that we announced to ensure that there is full understanding across all of our sanctions programs regarding what is and what is not permitted. The sanctions environment is itself quite complex. There are a number of sanctions regimes, country-specific regimes and otherwise. We also know that there is a difference – or at least there can be a difference – between what’s on the books in terms of our sanctions and the perception of what’s on the books when it comes to our sanctions. And across our sanctions programs, what we’re trying to prevent is what is oftentimes called overcompliance, or de-risking, by oftentimes private sector actors who want not to run afoul of U.S. sanctions.
So this was a very – it was a sweeping step that builds upon the UN Security Council resolution that was recently adopted to send a very clear signal that the United States does not want, does not seek, to take any steps that would impede the ability of those in need around the world to benefit from humanitarian assistance. This is true of our country-specific sanctions programs, and some of these programs already have humanitarian authorizations in place. That includes those programs in Russia, Iran, Syria, the DPRK, in Venezuela. But this was a rather sweeping step to make sure that all parties who might be otherwise deterred by U.S. sanctions programs are not deterred and in fact are ambitious in providing humanitarian assistance to those most in need.
QUESTION: I’m asking because I’m just curious how much this clears away in terms of designating Russia as a state sponsor of terrorism. Because one of the reasons – the only reason, actually, we were given why you were so reluctant to do so is that because you didn’t want to block the way in terms of reaching out with humanitarian aid. So are we one step closer to designating Russia?
MR PRICE: I wouldn’t connect these two elements. I think certainly this step today does not take any actions off the table. We have spoken about our thinking when it comes to the state sponsor of terrorism designation as it relates to Russia and the challenges that are posed there, the challenges you raise when it comes to humanitarian organizations. That’s certainly one of them, and we’ve heard from humanitarian organizations that such a designation would hamper their ability to provide humanitarian assistance, including inside Ukraine. Obviously, we are attuned to that. But we’re also – as we’re required to do, we are very attuned to the law and what the law stipulates, the criteria it sets forth to designate a country as a state sponsor of terrorism. It’s our task to marry what’s in the books, what’s in the law, with the facts on the ground.
But as we’ve spoken about, as we’ve – as you’ve heard us say before, we’re working with Congress on a potential alternative that would allow us to continue to increase the costs on the Kremlin and those who are responsible for Russia’s war against Ukraine without some of the unintended consequences that the state sponsor of terrorism, the state sponsor designation might bring.
QUESTION: And can I also ask you about Russia-Iran, please? British defense minister today said that Russia will give Iran advanced military components in return to – in return for new drones. So they’re talking about 300. The White House had a chance to address this this morning, but this is two-ways road so Iran will receive as well in this case advanced military components. I’m asking about that part of the coin. Why does Iran needs Russian advanced military components? To use against Iranian people? To use against neighbors? Should we be worried about Iran’s behavior backed by Russia?
MR PRICE: So this is a point that we, too, have made. And I think it was on December 9th that I think we might have used that exact term: it’s a two-way street. It’s a partnership between Iran and Russia. We’ve spoken since July of Russia’s provision – excuse me, of Iran’s provision of armed UAVs to Russia for lethal use inside of Ukraine. But more recently, we spoke about the two-way nature of this relationship and the fact that in exchange for these armed UAVs, Russia is offering Iran an unprecedented level of military and technical support. It’s transforming their relationship into a full-fledged defense partnership. We’ve spoken about the challenges that this partnership presents not only to Ukraine, but to Iran’s neighbors in the region as well.
It’s not for us to speak to Iran’s intentions, what Iran might seek to do with the military and technical support that Russia is providing it. But you’ve heard from us consistently the track record of Iran that certainly gives us pause when Iran comes into possession of potentially greater know-how, more sophisticated technology, technical support expertise as well. Iran has a track record not only of using its instruments of the state to conduct violent, destabilizing actions through the region, but providing support to terrorist groups, to proxies, to others who themselves have a destabilizing and profoundly unhelpful influence across the region.
QUESTION: Thank you. Switching topic?
MR PRICE: Sure.
QUESTION: Okay. There was an article in Politico today on Biden’s strategy for a far-right Israel: lay it all on Bibi. And it says that the Biden administration will hold the presumptive Israeli prime minister personally responsible for the action of his more extreme cabinet members. Is that the policy in your view? Will that be the policy towards Israel in the coming months and so on, or toward the presumptive Israeli right-wing government?
MR PRICE: So a couple things. One, this is all still a hypothetical. There is not a government in place, and so we’re going to refrain from commenting on the exact dynamics of any coalition that is yet to be formed. But we know that we will have a constructive relationship with the next Israeli government. We’ll have an opportunity to advance not only our shared interests, but also the values that have long been at the heart of the strategic partnership we have with Israel. This doesn’t pertain just to Israel or to any one country, but of course the head of government or the head of state is by definition the head of government, the head of state, and we have a relationship with that individual as such.
MR PRICE: The illegal transshipment of oil?
MR PRICE: So Janne, this gets back to a related point that we were speaking to earlier. First, we do have a robust sanctions program on the DPRK. It’s a sanctions program that owes to years now – decades, I should say – of North Korea, of the DPRK’s brazenly illegal flouting of international law and the multiple UN Security Council resolutions that have been put in place regarding its ballistic missile program and its nuclear weapons program. The sanctions program, as I said before, is comprehensive. Here too we do have humanitarian carveouts for the people of the DPRK, but it is comprehensive owing to the scale and the scope of the challenge that the DPRK presents to the region and potentially beyond.
The UN Security Council resolutions that govern this – the international aspect of this sanctions regime were put in place by the Security Council, of course, which means that all five Permanent Members of the Security Council voted in favor of each one of these UN Security Council resolutions. In many cases that was now years ago. And what we are seeing – and I think what we’ve seen accelerate in recent years – are two members of the Security Council choose not to uphold the commitments that they themselves had made, have chosen not to uphold the Security Council resolutions that they themselves helped craft and to put in place in the first instance. That has, unfortunately, given the DPRK additional breathing room.
We think it is incumbent upon all members of the UN Security Council, but especially the Permanent Five members of the Security Council, to uphold the very commitments that they have made. When the P5 – the so-called P5 choose not to do so for whatever reason, it erodes the capability, it erodes the legitimacy of the Security Council itself.
Now, of course, our concerns and profound disagreements with members of the Security Council go well beyond the DPRK, and we’ve spoken to them in the context of Russia’s brutal war against Ukraine. But the DPRK is an excellent example of a challenge to the region and beyond where we can and should be working with the other Permanent Five members of the Security Council, in this case China and Russia.
There has – years past have seen a good deal of cooperation between the United States and these two members of the Security Council in an effort to contain the DPRK’s ballistic missile and nuclear weapon program – nuclear weapons program. But these two members have chosen not to uphold their own commitments and, unfortunately, have chosen to look the other way when the DPRK has consistently defied international law and these Security Council resolutions.
QUESTION: Yes, I have another one. IAEA secretary general – Grossi recently visited South Korea, and he said that North Korea is trying to possess weapons-grade nuclear weapons and they are ready to dispatch an inspectorate. What is the U.S. position on this?
MR PRICE: That – he said that the IAEA was prepared to dispatch inspectors?
MR PRICE: Of course, we have full faith and confidence in the IAEA. It performs an indispensable mission. But it is not any fault of the IAEA – it is the fault of the DPRK that they have chosen to flout international law, they have chosen to develop this nuclear weapons program in contravention of international law, of multiple UN Security Council resolutions and in a way that gravely undermines the global nuclear nonproliferation regime. It’s of concern to us; it’s of concern to the international community. It’s of concern to the IAEA as well.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MR PRICE: Yes.
QUESTION: Yes, Ned. I asked you yesterday about the – a meeting of the top advisors of the prime minister of Greece and the president of Turkey. The – you asked me to ask the Germans, and they said that they set a meeting. But can – do you have any comment as State Department spokesman about this?
MR PRICE: Sure. We’ve made the point before that this is a time when we need unity between and cohesion between our allies, certainly between and among our NATO Allies. We always regret the escalation of provocative statements. The tensions within an alliance, between two alliance members, certainly does not help anyone. To that end, we welcome the recent meeting in Brussels between Anna-Maria Boura, Prime Minister Mitsotakis’s diplomatic advisor, and Ibrahim Kalin, President Erdoğan’s spokesperson and chief advisor, and we continue to encourage these discussions at all levels.
QUESTION: I have another question, please. I don’t know if you heard yesterday the – Senator Menendez, he attacked the president of Turkey for his statement that he will fire a missile at Athens unless Greeks stay calm. He also said that the recent actions by Turkey’s president, which include this threat to fire a missile at Athens, are not only disturbing – they are totally unacceptable. He said also that Erdoğan is a close friend and ally of the presidents of Russia and Iran, and he said as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee he will not approve any F-16s for Turkey until Erdoğan halts his campaign of aggression across the entire region. And I wanted to know what do you think and if you agree with the senator.
MR PRICE: Our assessment is what is reflected in what I just shared regarding the statements that we’ve heard between our two close NATO Allies. This is a time, we think, when unity within the Alliance and between and among Allies is especially important. We regret the escalation of tensions between two Allies, especially between two such important NATO Allies. It doesn’t serve anyone’s interests, and we continue to support all efforts to de-escalate those tensions, including the efforts that are being undertaken now or have been undertaken in Brussels.
Let me go – yes, go ahead.
QUESTION: Moving to Japan, you may have seen the report that President Joe Biden will possibly visit to Nagasaki during his trip to Japan next May for Hiroshima summit, G7 summit. Do you have anything to share about ongoing discussion between United States and Japan regarding this?
MR PRICE: I’m just not in a position to share any details. I have seen that report; I’m not in a position to confirm it. I would note that the White House just today confirmed presidential travel for next month. I don’t think we’re quite at the point of confirming travel for May just yet, but I am sure the White House will have more details when details are – start to firm up.
Yes, in the back.
QUESTION: Thank you. My question is about North Korea. So recently, sister of Kim Jong-un implied that North Korea is ready to test-run ICBM at a normal trajectory. So how does the State Department assess the possibility of DPRK launching ICBM at a normal trajectory? And also, do you think DPRK’s ICBM launch could cross the red line of the U.S.?
MR PRICE: We continue to believe that the DPRK is poised to undertake additional provocations. The DPRK has taken a wide variety of steps, including ICBM launches. We continue to believe the possibility of a seventh nuclear test is on the table. We’ve said for a number of months now all technical preparations appear to be in place. It is really only a political decision at this point as to whether the DPRK goes ahead with a nuclear test. Whether it is an ICBM test, as you described, or a nuclear test, this would be significant, severe, grave escalation that the United States would take especially seriously.
In response to the DPRK’s prior ICBM launches, we’ve worked with the international community to impose additional accountability measures on those who are responsible for the DPRK’s ballistic missile program. The same would, of course, be true if the DPRK were to undertake a seventh nuclear test. We would seek to impose additional measures on those responsible for its nuclear program, even as we would seek to ensure that we have sufficient defense and deterrent capabilities in the region by working closely with our treaty allies, Japan and the ROK in this case, to whom we have an ironclad commitment, an ironclad security commitment.
But our message continues to be that these provocations are dangerous; they’re destabilizing; they are unnecessary, especially when the United States has made clear time and again that we harbor no hostile intent towards the DPRK. We’re prepared to engage in principled diplomacy to achieve or to advance our ultimate goal of the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. We urge the DPRK to take us up on that offer, to change course, to cease with the provocations, and to engage in diplomacy to address this challenge.
QUESTION: One more on the region, Ned.
MR PRICE: Sure.
QUESTION: The Japanese foreign minister is scheduled to visit China next week. Will the Secretary be having any phone calls with his counterpart before or after his trip? And does the Secretary plan on visiting Japan and South Korea while he’s in the region next year?
MR PRICE: I am certain that we’ll have a chance to get to the region before too long. We don’t have any – we, ourselves, don’t have any travel to the region to announce just yet, just as the White House does not, nor do we have any calls between the Secretary and his counterpart Foreign Minister Hayashi currently lined up. But as you know, they speak often. They see each other quite frequently. And we do have a practice of keeping one another updated on our shared approach to the PRC. The Japanese affirmed that shared approach to the regional security challenges in the documents they’ve – they released just a few days ago. In the aftermath of our engagements with senior PRC officials, including President Xi, including Wang Yi, Yang Jiechi, we have developed a habit of providing our treaty allies with context from those sessions in coordinating closely on our approach. And I assume that will continue going forward as well.
QUESTION: We’re a few weeks out, but how concerned is the U.S. that Russia will veto the cross-border aid mechanism for Syria when it comes up for renewal at the Security Council next month? And is this something that the U.S. is discussing with the Russians?
MR PRICE: So this is a reference to UN Security Council Resolution 2642 that was passed in July of this year that authorized continuing cross-border aid into Syria for six months. I believe the Security Council will take up the renewal of this mandate on January 10th. It is the hope, it is the expectation of the United States and – of the United States that all council members – and, of course most notably, Russia – will recognize and respond to what is undeniably the urgent need to extend cross-border humanitarian efforts. Millions of Syrians remain reliant on this lifesaving humanitarian mechanism, and the council we believe must act to ensure Syrians continue to have access to basic needs, particularly in the depth of winter, as this vote will come in January.
We made this clear at the time, but we remain disappointed that the resolution that was passed almost six months ago now in July was only for six months. We believe – and we believed at the time – that a straightforward 12-month renewal of the cross-border aid mechanism was essential and this six-month resolution, having to go through these motions every six months, only makes it harder and costlier for humanitarian actors to plan their operations and to procure the necessary supplies. It’s not only the United States that has been making the case; the Secretary-General has been clear as well that this is a moral imperative that we renew this mandate. And we believe – as we do when it comes to all matters of humanitarian concern – that something like this should not be politicized. This is about people and lives and livelihoods and not about politics.
QUESTION: Back to Asia. COVID in China. You mentioned yesterday that there was – there are concerns for the global economy, in terms of what’s happening in China. There are reports from many of our news outlets, but crematoriums having huge caseloads of dead people. Is there anything you can further about how the U.S. assesses the COVID situation in China? Is there anything potentially that the United States could or is willing to do on that regard?
MR PRICE: Sure. I made the point yesterday, Shaun, that the United States joins the rest of the world in hoping to see the PRC defeat this outbreak and to get COVID under control. That, of course, is the case because we don’t want to see death or disease spread anywhere. We also know that whenever the virus is spreading anywhere widely in an uncontrolled fashion, the potential – it has the potential for variants to emerge. We’ve already seen firsthand the cost of variants that have mutated and that have spread around the world. But third, we also note that what happens in China does have implications for the global economy. And it’s important not only for the PRC but also for the continued economic recovery of the international community that the PRC is in a position to get this outbreak under control.
We believe in doing so it’s important that all countries – and this includes the PRC – it’s important that all countries focus on getting people vaccinated and making testing and treatment easily available. We’ve said this many times publicly, but the U.S. is the largest donor of COVID-19 vaccines around the world. We are prepared to continue to support people around the world, including in China, with this and other COVID-related health support. This is in the interests of the international community that we all collectively do everything we can to help China get this under control.
QUESTION: Can I just – the last point, you’re saying that the U.S. of course is the largest donor on COVID supplies. Is this basically an offer of vaccines to China? Has it actually been formally discussed with the PRC?
MR PRICE: Look, I’m not going to go into private discussions, but we’ve made the point many times publicly that we are the largest donor of COVID-19 vaccines around the world. We’re prepared to continue to support countries around the world, including China, on this and other COVID-related health support. This is profoundly in the interests of the rest of the world. Our COVID-19 vaccines are safe and effective, and we’ve provided them to countries around the world regardless or in spite of any political disagreements. For us, this is not about politics; it’s not about geopolitics. It is about saving lives, saving livelihoods.
MR PRICE: Sure.
QUESTION: — really quickly? A White House official told our colleague from Al Arabiya at the White House that currently the deal really does not garner any importance or not important at all. So I want to ask you on the importance scale of 1 to 10, where do you put the importance going back to the deal at this point, or are you going to pull the plug on the deal – on the process?
MR PRICE: Look, Said, we’ve made the point for several months now that the JCPOA is not on the agenda. It hasn’t been on the agenda for some time. Of course, there have been instances where we thought we are on the precipice of a mutual return to compliance with the JCPOA, only to find the Iranians turning their backs on a deal that was on the table, a deal that had otherwise been approved by all. So it hasn’t been on the agenda for us for months. It hasn’t been our focus. Since September, certainly our focus has been on standing up for the fundamental freedoms of the Iranian people and countering Iran’s deepening military partnership with Russia and its support for Russia as Moscow wages its brutal invasion of Ukraine.
QUESTION: So you declare it dead?
MR PRICE: I’m sorry.
QUESTION: So you declared the deal – agreement dead already?
MR PRICE: It is certainly the case that the Iranian —
QUESTION: In a coma or what?
MR PRICE: It is certainly the case that the Iranians killed the opportunity for a swift return to mutual compliance with the JCPOA. They killed that opportunity for a swift return to compliance most recently in September when, again, we were on the precipice – we thought – of a mutual return to compliance with the JCPOA. All of the other parties had agreed, but instead of putting us in a position to go forward, the Iranians reneged.
What is very much alive is the President’s commitment and this administration’s commitment that Iran is never in possession of a nuclear weapon. We continue to believe that diplomacy represents the most effective and sustainable way to achieve that goal and to see to it that Iran is verifiably and permanently barred from obtaining a nuclear weapon. At the same time though, we have an extensive toolkit. We have not removed any option from the table as well.
QUESTION: So if they return, you will return?
MR PRICE: I’m sorry.
QUESTION: If the Iranian would return —
MR PRICE: This is – it’s just a – it’s a complete hypothetical at this point. It’s not even academic because the Iranians have demonstrated time and again that they are not prepared for a mutual return to compliance with the JCPOA, and they have, most recently in September, killed the opportunity for a swift return to mutual compliance with the JCPOA.
QUESTION: Just to clarify —
QUESTION: Given that —
MR PRICE: Let me move around. Abbie.
QUESTION: Given that Iranian officials have come out more vocally seeming to move towards wanting to go back to earlier discussions about a return to the deal, is the U.S. willing to re‑engage in those discussions?
MR PRICE: We’ve – we – there is a track record. These statements do not come in a vacuum. And the track record that we have seen over the past year and a half or so speaks to the fact that the Iranians have not and may not ever be in a position to move forward with a swift return to compliance with the JCPOA. Time and again, on several occasions now, we thought we were close. The rest of the world thought we were close – the E3, the other members of the P5+1 – only to have the rug pulled out from under us by the Iranians.
Despite these statements from the Iranians, what we’re focused on now are what’s happening in the streets of Iran – the bravery, the determination, the courage of the Iranian people, especially its women and girls to take to the streets to express their universal rights. And we’re also at the same time focused on what Iran is enabling Russia to do, and that’s also a primary concern of ours.
QUESTION: Just to clarify, there’s a huge difference between the deal is not on the agenda and the deal is dead. The President of the United States is on the record saying that the deal is dead, and I think that part of the story is established already. Now the question is let’s talk about the killers. So what are you going to do to hold Iranian mullah regime accountable for murdering Iranians and murdering the deal?
MR PRICE: So we have taken steps to make clear that we stand resolutely with the Iranian people, who are exercising their universal rights by taking to the streets, voicing their grievances, voicing their aspirations, as they have every single right to do. We have taken steps to enable them to do that more effectively through the general licenses that we issue that allow technology companies to provide hardware and software to the Iranian people to allow them to speak, to communicate with one another and with the outside world so that, importantly, the rest of the world can see – we can hear – precisely what is going on inside of Iran. That’s important for us. It’s important for the protesters that they be heard by the rest of the world, just as that they are demanding that they be heard by the Iranian regime.
At the same time, we have now taken – undertaken multiple rounds of sanctions against those who are responsible for the repression, who are responsible for the bloodshed, the violent crackdown, the attempts to cut off Iran from the rest of the world, the internet blackouts. We have taken now multiple rounds of sanctions. We’re always looking at additional steps we can take. We’re always looking for additional targets who may be responsible, whether that’s on human rights grounds, whether that’s on any other ground for which we have an authority to pull from.
QUESTION: A need to sanction the supreme leader of Iran, who is actually sitting atop of all this brutal regime?
MR PRICE: We are going to take the steps that we feel are within the bounds of the law and that are appropriate to support the people of Iran and to hold accountable the regime.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MR PRICE: Guita.
QUESTION: Ned, you just mentioned internet blackouts, and Sunday and Monday there was total blackout – excuse me – apparently. You also mentioned the general license and everything. Are you hearing from the private sector, the technology companies if there’s room still to help the people?
MR PRICE: We are having a discussion with the private sector. It’s a discussion that’s been going on since the earliest days of these protests in Iran. We want their ideas. We do not have a monopoly on good ideas when it comes to steps we could take that would help the people of Iran fulfill their aspirations. You may recall that early on in these protests, Deputy Secretary Sherman met with a – representatives of various technology companies. We’ve continued to have discussions with technologists on additional steps we might be able to take.
But with the general license that we issued in the earliest days of this protest, it is a versatile tool in that it is self-executing. And so it provides technology companies with essentially a green light to provide their wares to the people of Iran if they themselves deem that their technology is covered by the general license. The general license is a general license rather than a specific license, meaning that it’s also broad in its scope. And so there are a number of tools and a number of capabilities that this general license authorized that previously may not have been on the table.
So if technology companies, if the private sector more broadly, if other governments have good ideas as to additional steps we could take that would enable the Iranian people to communicate with one another and with the outside world, we’re of course all ears to that and we’ll work with them on implementing them.
QUESTION: Can I ask one specifically on Iran?
MR PRICE: Sure.
QUESTION: Taraneh Alidoosti, arguably one of the best known or one of the most acclaimed actors, actresses in Iran was detained over the weekend over social media post. Do you have any reaction specifically to her arrest?
MR PRICE: We do. We condemn the arrest of Taraneh Alidoosti. Unfortunately, Ms. Alidoosti only joins the ranks of thousands of other Iranians who have been detained simply for acts of peaceful protest. Ms. Alidoosti is only the latest cultural icon to be detained, along with many other actors, journalists, students, athletes, lawyers, and human rights defenders. It’s part of the regime’s effort to sow fear and to suppress these peaceful protests. We call on Iranian authorities to cease the arbitrary detentions and to stop denying the Iranian people their fundamental freedoms, including the freedom of expression and the freedom of peaceful assembly. And the world, as we’ve been saying for some time now, will be watching how the regime treats Ms. Alidoosti and all those it has detained arbitrarily.
QUESTION: Yeah, quick question on China. Congress put out its government funding bill this morning. It included the full ban of TikTok on government devices. You’ve said before when asked about this, this specific application, that you’ve raised general cyber security privacy issues with China. This bill specifically names this application. There’s a lot of – there’s a lot of clamoring for a ban, coming from both parties now at this point in Congress, of this specific application. So what have you said to China about specifically that app and concerns about it?
MR PRICE: Well, this is not an app that we are permitted to have on our government-issued phones here at the State Department, I think for reasons that are probably clear. I think the – it is less a conversation that we’ve had with the PRC and it’s more a conversation that we’re having with allies and partners around the world, and with the American people. Because what we want to do is to sensitize stakeholders around the world – partners, allies, and the American people – to the potential dangers that technology may pose, especially when it’s foreign-owned or when there’s a foreign stake and that foreign country is a competitor or an adversary, or has been known to use the data of private American citizens for nefarious purposes. We want to make those concerns known. We want to have a shared approach with countries around the world, and we want to make sure that the American people at the very least appreciate the risks when it comes to their personal privacy and personal data.
QUESTION: So it’s not something you’re speaking to with them directly, China, about it?
MR PRICE: We have a relationship where we are in a position to discuss with one another the stark disagreements we have, the challenges that the PRC poses to us and to our allies and partners, including when it comes to technology. I think it’s fair to say that the PRC Government knows where we stand, how concerned we are. But I think perhaps the more important conversation is the conversation that we’re having with the American people, and that we’re having with allies and partners to harmonize that approach.
Okay, final question? Okay.
QUESTION: Thank you so much. Two final, if you don’t mind. Georgia. Mikheil Saakashvili, former president, in jail. But we all have seen pictures coming out of jail. He is not in good shape. His doctors – American doctors – also recommended that he needs to be taken out of the country. Has the embassy or the department been in touch with Georgian authorities on this topic?
MR PRICE: So we have – when in it comes to Mr. Saakashvili, we – as you said before, it’s a responsibility of the Georgian Government to treat Mr. Saakashvili fairly and with dignity, including by providing all necessary medical and psychological treatment as recommended by the independent public defenders’ medical experts. They should ensure, of course, that his human rights are protected, and that he is receiving every bit of care that he needs.
QUESTION: Thank you. And lastly, on Azerbaijan, leading activist and U.S.-educated Bakhtiyar Hajiyev, he is on hunger strike in jail. It’s been six days now, and today the court refused to release him. There are reports that he is – actually is a subject to torture. I know Vedant, last time he was behind this podium, he addressed the topic and expressed the department’s position on this.
I also know that there are Azeri officials in this building last week, talking to U.S. officials. Has the topic been discussed? Did it come up during the discussions? And also, are you going to (inaudible) Azeri authorities through the embassy or through other channels to follow up on this case?
MR PRICE: Well, we – you heard from us last week, you heard from Vedant last week just how troubled we are and we were by the arrest and the detention of Mr. Hajiyev on the eve, at the time, of Human Rights Day. We’ve urged Azerbaijan authorities to release him expeditiously. These are conversations that we are in a position to have privately through diplomatic channels with our partners. We don’t hesitate to raise human rights broadly, systemically, but also individual cases with our partners around the world. And that, of course, includes our partners in Azerbaijan.
Thank you all very much.
(The briefing was concluded at 3:12 p.m.)