12:36 p.m. EST

MR PATEL:  Good afternoon, everybody.  

QUESTION:  Good afternoon.

MR PATEL:  How is everyone doing?  I don’t have anything off the top today, so Shaun, if you want to kick us off. 

QUESTION:  Sure.  Sure.  Could I start with something – this just happened in the past hours. 

MR PATEL:  Sure. 

QUESTION:  There’s a ship that the Iranian navy has apparently seized, formerly called the Suez Rajan.  Do you have any information on the ship or any reaction to what’s taken place? 

MR PATEL:  So we condemn the Iranian seizure of the St. Nicholas, which is a Marshall Islands-flagged and Greek-owned oil tanker, while it was lawfully navigating waters in the Gulf of Oman.  The Iranian Government must immediately release the ship and its crew.  This unlawful seizure of a commercial vessel is just the latest behavior by Iran – or enabled by Iran – aimed at disrupting international commerce.  We believe this kind of action will simply add uncertainty for commercial shipping and for regional and global economies.  Iran and Iran-enabled provocative actions like this are a menace to the global economy, and it must cease.  We in the United States will continue to work to deter and confront the full range of Iran’s concerning and destabilizing behaviors.

QUESTION:  Sure.  To expand on that, have there been any – has there been any – presumably not with the Iranians directly, but has there been any dialogue on this through partners in the region?

MR PATEL:  Look, when it comes to countering Iran’s destabilizing actions, that continues to be a subject of conversation when it comes to our talks with partners around the world, but especially those in the region who are at immediate impact at some of these activities.

QUESTION:  And you addressed this in your remarks a bit, but in terms of what this adds to the region, of course the attacks by the Houthis – how dangerous do you think it is now for shipping and what – how do you see this going forward?

MR PATEL:  Well, the important thing to remember, Shaun, is that about 30 percent of global container shipping passes through the Red Sea, passes through that part of the world.  So of course these kinds of actions are just going to put further burdens, add further uncertainty to global supply chains, to global economies, potentially even making it more burdensome to working families around the world, so – which is why the U.S. is continuing to – in close coordination, we’ll discuss with our regional partners about appropriate steps that can be taken.

QUESTION:  Could I switch to a different topic, or do we have —

QUESTION:  Follow-up on the tanker.

MR PATEL:  Yeah.  Yeah, go ahead.

QUESTION:  Iranians’ UN – the Iranian UN mission said that this was a lawful undertaking sanctioned by a court order that corresponds to the theft of Iran’s oil.  I was wondering if you have any response to that or just more broadly, like, whether you expect continued oil sanctions evasion or for things to be even more escalated like this in the future.

MR PATEL:  Well, let me say a couple things.  First, as it relates to any seizure, I would refer you to the Department of Justice, who can speak more about that and specifically the Suez Rajan case.  But broadly, Jenny, it’s important that – to be incredibly clear that the United States continues to vigorously enforce our sanctions on Iran, including our sanctions on Iran’s oil and petrochemical trade, as we have been warning for some time, including in a detailed business advisory to the industry in December, that would-be buyers of Iranian oil put themselves at risk of exposure to U.S. sanctions.  And we take this opportunity to remind businesses that they must be vigilant to make sure that their supply chains are not exploited by the IRGC and that other sanctioned entities – to conduct illicit activity or to evade U.S. sanctions as well.

QUESTION:  Vedant, on this.

MR PATEL:  Yeah, go ahead.

QUESTION:  Is it an American ship or not?

MR PATEL:  As I said, it is a Marshall Islands-flagged vessel and a Greek-owned.

QUESTION:  And will there be any reaction if they don’t release the ship?

MR PATEL:  Michel, it should come no surprise to you – I am not going to preview any actions from up here, but again, when it comes to countering Iran’s destabilizing activities – in this case its activities particularly in the maritime space – we will continue to consult closely with our partners in the region about appropriate next steps that can be taken to hold the Iranian regime accountable.

Anything else on this before I go back to Shaun, who wanted to switch topics?  Go ahead.

QUESTION:  Sure.  Can I go to the ICJ?

MR PATEL:  Sure.

QUESTION:  There was – I know that State put out a statement last night, but I wanted to follow up on that.  The statement said that the allegations are unfounded.  Could you assess, like in terms of what the U.S. is doing now, that it’s – is the U.S. actually actively watching the proceedings?  Could it be persuaded at all?  Is it looking at the evidence or the arguments that are being presented?

MR PATEL:  There’s a couple things here, Shaun.  First, we are going to refrain from any speculation about the outcome.  I also think that it is important that we not comment on specific points raised in the day’s hearing, as Israel will have an opportunity to respond directly to those allegations tomorrow.  Of course, we are watching closely.  The ICJ, as you know, is a principal organ of the UN.  It plays a vital role in the peaceful settlement of disputes, but again, as you saw us speak to last night and I will say again from here, the allegations that Israel is committing genocide are unfounded.  Those who are violently attacking Israel, who continue to openly call for Israel’s annihilation and the mass murder of Jews – genocide is one of the most heinous acts any entity or individual can commit, and such an allegation should only be made with the greatest of care.

QUESTION:  Sure.  A couple things on that.  I mean, you said that you didn’t want to react to the arguments made today.  The Israelis – the Israeli foreign ministry said that – described South Africa as being the legal arm of – I forget the exact phrasing – the legal arm of Hamas.  Do you agree with statements like that?  Do you – do you agree about the South African motivations in this?

MR PATEL:  Certainly that’s not a – that is not a characterization that I would make from up here when it comes to our South African partners, but again, we continue to feel very strongly that the allegations that Israel is committing genocide are unfounded.  

QUESTION:  Just one more – go ahead.  Go ahead, sorry.

MR PATEL:  Follow-up?  Go ahead.  Yeah. 

QUESTION:  Thank you.  Yeah, you said that the allegations are unfounded.  How confident are you about this statement, saying that the allegations are unfounded?  And if you – if the U.S. is so confident that the – it is unfounded, why not just let the court investigate them?  

MR PATEL:  So much to the chagrin of my parents, I didn’t go to law school, so I’m not going to offer specific legal analysis from up here.  But it is important to remember – and I will reiterate again – that genocide is one of the most heinous acts any entity or individual can commit, and such allegations should only be made with the greatest care.  I also am going to refrain from speaking to and addressing specific points that are raised as tomorrow Israel will be addressing some of these points that are raised as well, and I will leave it at that.  

QUESTION:  I have one on that, in – allegations that – about intentional killing of civilians.  You said previous to that, that there are steps Israel can take to minimize civilian harm, and the Secretary this week said the civilian toll in Gaza is far too high.  If there are steps that Israel can take to minimize civilian harm and they choose not to take them, does it imply an intentional killing of civilians?  

MR PATEL:  Again, I’m just not going to speak to a legal characterization like that.  What I will say is that we have not parsed words about the fact that far too many civilians have been impacted by the current conflict in Gaza and that in every trip to the region, Secretary Blinken has carried the same message that additional steps need to be taken to further minimize the impact on civilians.  And this most recent trip is no different.  That’s something we raised directly with the Israelis, and we’ll continue to do so.  

As it relates to the specifics of the battlefield and specific steps that are taken or not, I’m certainly not going to speak to that from up here, as we are not party or part of this operation.  

QUESTION:  Just one more on that.  Since the U.S. is the biggest supplier of military aid to Israel, is there any concern that you might be involved in any possible war crimes by Israel?  

MR PATEL:  Look, we have made clear to any country in which we have this kind of security relationship with that international human rights must be respected and followed, and this is no – international human law – I’m sorry – needs to be followed, and this of course is no – this case is no different.  And we’ve made that clear to the Israelis that, again, steps need to be taken as often and as frequently and as strongly as possible to minimize this conflict’s impact on civilians.  

QUESTION:  Follow-up on Gaza?

QUESTION:  Follow-up on that?

QUESTION:  Follow on Gaza?

MR PATEL:  Olivia’s had her hand up.  Go ahead.  

QUESTION:  Thank you, Vedant.  

MR PATEL:  On the same region, I’m assuming?  Yeah.  Yeah. 

QUESTION:  Yes.  Secretary Blinken from Cairo said this morning that one of the main takeaways from this trip was Israel agreeing to the UN assessment of northern Gaza to establish the conditions for when Palestinian citizens could return there.  When is that assessment supposed to begin?  How long is it expected to run?  And what assurances has the U.S. received that Israel will agree to, abide by any recommendations that the UN makes there?  

MR PATEL:  So our hope is that this is able to get launched as soon as possible.  That is our strong desire.  Discussions are currently ongoing between the UN and the Government of Israel to begin this.  Logistical issues exist that need to be worked out, but our hope and our expectation is that this will get up and running as soon as possible.  

QUESTION:  There’s been some reporting that Israeli officials won’t permit Palestinians to return north unless and until more hostages are released.  Has that been formally communicated to the U.S. as Israel’s policy?  And how does the U.S. view that kind of condition, if it exists?  

MR PATEL:  So I’m not going to speak to the specifics of internal diplomatic deliberations, but Palestinian civilians must be able to return to their homes when they choose to return – full stop.  And we’ve been clear that all hostages must be released immediately and that the issue of their release should not be linked to any other issues.  We’ve been quite clear about that.  

QUESTION:  Okay.  Staying on the region and the UN, there’s now a warning that the people of Gaza could be experiencing famine by as soon as early February.  Were there any concrete commitments secured by the Secretary during this trip to significantly boost the amount of humanitarian aid, the consistency with which it gets in, the volume with which it gets in, the deconfliction zones that seem to be a persistent sticking point in aid’s delivery?  Any breakthroughs on that front? 

MR PATEL:  These are things that we are continuing to work directly with our Israeli partners, as well as the Government of Egypt and other regional partners that have a convergence with us, on the need to ensure that humanitarian aid can flow into Gaza more frequently, more expeditiously.  And those are efforts that we are continuing to work around the clock.  

When it comes to the flow of humanitarian aid, since October 21st, more than 7,000 trucks of humanitarian aid have been able to enter Gaza.  We recognize that that number is still not enough, and we’re working around the clock to do everything that we can to ensure that that is increased.  

Over the course of his travels, the Secretary had the opportunity to speak with the UN’s newly appointed Senior Humanitarian Reconstruction Coordinator for Gaza Sigrid Kaag, and he discussed a number of these issues with her.  And the United States is going to continue working on these issues in close coordination with the United Nations and others as well.

QUESTION:  I mean, the 7,000 number notwithstanding, I mean, health officials are saying that it’s an average of 127 trucks getting in, down from an average of 500 that were going in daily before this conflict erupted.  So this is a three-month-long effort that seems not to be bearing much fruit.

MR PATEL:  I certainly don’t stand up here trying to make the case that that – that those numbers are enough.  We know the people of Gaza need more humanitarian aid, more humanitarian aid needs to be flowing into Gaza, more commercial goods need to be flowing into Gaza.  Secretary Blinken raised all of these things in his engagements in the region, and I will just add that this dire situation again shows the indispensability of American leadership and American diplomacy.  It was our engagement with regional interlocutors that allowed the flow of humanitarian aid into Gaza in the first place.  And so we recognize the seriousness of this situation, and we’ll continue to work every lever we can to ensure that more aid can get to the places it needs to go.

Abbie, you’ve had your hand up.

QUESTION:  I just wanted to follow up on Olivia’s questions.  When the Secretary is looking with the newly appointed UN envoy about conditions in the north that would allow people to return up there, how long do you estimate it might take to reach what would be an appropriate level of conditions up in the north?  And what are sort of – what are some of the more details of the conditions you’re looking for?  What needs to take place before people are able to go back there?

MR PATEL:  Right.  Well, what you asked is why there – is so critical that this assessment work take off, and I don’t want to speculate on what conditions need to or should look like.  And so we’ll let that process play out as soon as possible.  But again, it is our hope that that is up and running as swiftly as possible.

QUESTION:  Given the destruction, obviously, of the infrastructure up there, is – the U.S. have specific asks that they would like to see before people are able to go back?  Or what is the purpose there of evaluating those conditions?

MR PATEL:  The purpose is to evaluate whether the conditions are acceptable and safe, and in a matter in which civilians are able to return to their homes or if additional circumstances need to be addressed.  And that is why it is so important for this assessment to take place.  And in fact, that is one of the – a number of the concrete steps forward that Secretary Blinken is carrying from his travels, this agreement between the Israel and the UN to send this assessment team to the north to do this important work.

QUESTION:  Can I ask about Satterfield’s role in this?  Will he be working directly with the UN coordinator, or would – what would be —  

MR PATEL:  As our special envoy for humanitarian issues in Gaza, Special Envoy Satterfield – Ambassador Satterfield, rather, will – no doubt will continue to be engaged on these issues, working very closely with Coordinator Kaag, as well as other regional interlocutors.

QUESTION:  On Gaza?

MR PATEL:  Michel, go ahead.

QUESTION:  Yeah, on the – Lebanon.  Do you have any readout on Hochstein’s meetings in Beirut?  Was he able to achieve anything?

MR PATEL:  Senior Advisor Hochstein is meeting with the Lebanese Government and military officials on Thursday in Beirut in an effort to advance discussions to restore calm along the Blue Line.  The U.S. has made it clear it does not support the ongoing conflict spreading into Lebanon and continues to exhaust all diplomatic options to see Israeli and Lebanese civilians return to their homes and live in security and stability.

QUESTION:  The – okay.  

MR PATEL:  Go ahead, (inaudible).  Go ahead.

QUESTION:  On Gaza.

QUESTION:  Thank you.  Was it for me or — 

MR PATEL:  I’ll come to you right after.

QUESTION:  Okay.

MR PATEL:  Yeah.

QUESTION:  Okay.  Well, thank you, Vedant.  Since the Associated Press and CNN questioned the legitimacy and accuracy of the Hamas-controlled health ministry Gaza death statistics, and CNN stating that they cannot independently verify the number of Gaza deaths, how can Secretary Blinken justify trusting in these unverifiable death statistics, since its Hamas-controlled health ministry never distinguishes between civilians and combatants, nor how Palestinians were killed, whether from Israeli air strikes and artillery barrages or other means like errant Palestinian rocket fire?  It describes all casualties as victims of Israeli aggression.  I have a follow-up.

MR PATEL:  When it comes to civilian casualties – when it comes to civilian casualties, any number above zero is one that is heartbreaking for us.  And that is why at every trip and at every engagement with Israeli officials, every engagement with regional partners, we have stressed the importance of steps being taken to minimize the impact on civilian casualties.

QUESTION:  Okay, so do you see these questions – do you see these death statistics as really unreliable or unverifiable as CNN and Associated Press talked about?

MR PATEL:  We have previously spoken to this.  The health ministry has had a track record of inflating or inaccurately reporting on statistics before.  But again, what I want the takeaway from here to be is that our viewpoint, the United States viewpoint, is that any number of civilian casualties – if that number exists above zero – is heartbreaking and unacceptable to us   —

QUESTION:  Well, along with that — 

MR PATEL:  — and more steps need to be taken to minimize the impact on civilians.  Go ahead.

QUESTION:  Thank you, Vedant.  Can I do – I actually —

MR PATEL:  I – you’ve had two questions; I’m going to work the room.  Go ahead.

QUESTION:  Yeah.  On the Gaza issue.

MR PATEL:  Yeah.

QUESTION:  In 2022, the U.S. filed a brief of intervention in Ukraine’s case against Russia in the ICJ.  Why are the circumstances different that the U.S. would not file such a brief or support South Africa in its action against Israel?  What are the points of difference that the U.S. has decided on to adopt these very different positions?

MR PATEL:  Every conflict is different, and how and whether there is a ground to make a determination or not is based on specific facts and law.  And again, in the case of genocide and this ongoing case in front of the ICJ, we believe that those claims are unfounded, and we believe that making such a claim needs to take place with such great care.

QUESTION:  The claim is not exactly genocide is happening.  The claim in the brief is that the potential for genocide is in place.  The bar for genocide is exceedingly high, as you know, but also remembering that President Biden in 2022 described Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as genocide.  So he was very quick to make a determination which something like the ICJ still has not made on that particular case.  Isn’t this all a bit too early to be saying that there are no grounds for the potential to genocide?

MR PATEL:  Every conflict is different and every circumstance is different, and these kinds of determinations need to be made with a close look at the law and the facts.  And these allegations that Israel is committing genocide are unfounded.  That being said, we have been clear to Israel that they not only must comply with international humanitarian law in its operations against Hamas, but it needs to take all feasible steps to prevent civilian harm.  Also we have been clear with regional partners who have relationships or influence with Hamas that any steps that they would be interested in taking to cease hostilities, to release hostages, to take steps away from their self-claimed goal of repeating October 7th again and again and again and again, would be welcome as well.

QUESTION:  Can I follow up on that?  

MR PATEL:  Go ahead.

QUESTION:  Secretary Blinken has specifically accused China of genocide for its treatment of the Uyghurs, but Blinken didn’t point to any mass killing there.  According to Euro-Med Monitor, 4 percent of the entire population of the Gaza Strip is now dead or injured in just 90 days, 65,000 tons of munitions have been dropped on the Gaza Strip, three times what was dropped on Hiroshima.   You have evidence of industrial-style killing.  The South African legal team presented 20 minutes straight of statements on the record by Israeli leadership expressing the intent to commit genocide, for example, referring to the Palestinian population as Amalek.  So how can you explain this discrepancy between Secretary Blinken accusing China explicitly of genocide with no mass killing, presenting no evidence of the mass killing of Uyghurs, and then dismissing out of hand the potential that Israel could be committing genocide in the Gaza Strip, calling it unfounded?  How do you explain this discrepancy?

MR PATEL:  The same way that I just explained it to your colleague who asked essentially the same version of your question, which is that each conflict is different, and any kind of determination like this needs to be based on specific facts and law.  

QUESTION:  And given — 

MR PATEL:  And when it comes to the points that are made – being made in today’s hearing, again, I’m not going to speak to those specifically.  Israel will have an opportunity to address some of those tomorrow.  But we, again, feel that these allegations that Israel is committing genocide are unfounded.  That being said, we do not disagree that additional steps must and need to be taken to minimize the impact on civilians, and we’ll continue to raise that directly with relevant partners.

QUESTION:  And given that you’ve fast-tracked 14 – a sale of 14,000 tank shells to Israel, bypassing Congress, given Secretary Blinken’s participation in war cabinet meetings — 

MR PATEL:  We didn’t by – we didn’t – I’m just going to stop you right there, because the premise of your question is – is a little misguided.  We did not bypass Congress.  As part of those – as part of that, there is appropriate congressional notification that happens, and we complied with those appropriately.  

QUESTION:  Okay. More and more members of Congress are demanding oversight because they’re not getting adequate oversight, but no one disputes that the U.S. is isolated in protecting Israel as it conducts this operation, as it calls it, in Gaza.  No one disputes the direct U.S. role.  So the question is:  Is Secretary Blinken, who went to Israel first declaring he was there as a Jew identifying with the ethno-religious character of this state which is now standing accused of the potential to commit genocide, is Secretary Blinken concerned that ruling in favor of South Africa in this case could set the stage for his own prosecution or that of your colleagues?

MR PATEL:  I’m just not going to get ahead of hypotheticals, and you probably shouldn’t either.

Jackson, go ahead.

QUESTION:  Thanks, Vedant.  A few questions.  One, is the department worried about China interfering in the Taiwanese election?  Is State communicating with Beijing about the administration’s upcoming delegation to Taiwan?  The next one is:  Given the crucial relationship between the Secretary of Defense and the Secretary of State, when did Secretary Blinken learn of Secretary Austin’s hospitalization?  And finally:  What is the State Department’s protocol if the Secretary of State is unable to fulfill his duties due to specific reasons like being hospitalized?  

MR PATEL:  Let me try and speak to those.  First, as it relates to your question about upcoming elections in Taiwan, we have been very clear about our opposition to outside interference or malign influence in Taiwan’s elections.  We also have deep confidence in Taiwan’s democratic process and believe it is for Taiwan voters to decide their next leader free from outside interference.  And I will just leave it at that.  

As it relates to your questions about protocols and Secretary Austin, Secretary Blinken spoke to this in Doha, so you should make sure to catch the transcripts on travel.  But as he said, he was – did not know about the circumstance.

But beyond that, as it relates to processes that exist at the department, I’m not going to get into hypotheticals, but we have a process in place to ensure that should the Secretary be not in a position to execute the duties of his post that the role be appropriately delegated to the senior officials that exist in this department that fall in the relevant chain of command.  Part of that also includes notifying the public as appropriately, should we need to.  But again, I’m not going to speak to that process in much more specificity than that. 

QUESTION:  But don’t the American people deserve to know the process given what just happened at the Pentagon?  Is this really the time for being opaque, with all due respect? 

MR PATEL:  Again, I’m just not going to get into hypotheticals.  We have a process in place should we ever need to rely on it.  

QUESTION:  Thank you. 

MR PATEL:  Cindy, go ahead.  

AQUESTION:  Yes, I have a question on Ecuador.  Ecuador’s president met with diplomats in Quito and put into motion several measures to respond to the violence.  Can you talk about how the U.S. plans to support Ecuador in this?  And if part of it is intelligence support, could you talk about who the U.S. believes is directly responsible for this latest intense wave of violence?

MR PATEL:  Thanks for your question, Cindy.  I don’t have any assessments to speak to from up here, but I will note that we are coordinating closely with President Noboa and the Ecuadorian Government and stand ready to provide assistance.  If you’ll allow me, as it relates to our embassy and consulate posture and as it relates to our personnel, we’ve canceled all routine consular appointments and mission staff are operating at a maximum telework posture through January 12th.  Beyond that, we are monitoring the situation closely and we have been in touch with a number of U.S. citizens and are providing all appropriate consular assistance.  

Oh.

QUESTION:  Can you talk more about —  

QUESTION:  Could – could I just follow up briefly, then —  

QUESTION:  Yeah —

MR PATEL:  Yeah, go ahead.  

QUESTION:  I just — 

QUESTION:  What kind of aid?  

QUESTION:  Yeah, exactly.  What – I mean – U.S. assistance, ready to help – I mean, what type of help can – could actually go to Ecuador? 

MR PATEL:  I don’t want to get ahead of this process, and of course the government would need to, of course, request aid before we could provision it.  But the point that I’m making is that we stand ready to provide assistance and are continuing to work closely and coordinate closely with the president and the government there as well. 

Go ahead. 

QUESTION:  Just to head back to the Middle East, if I may. 

MR PATEL:  Uh-huh. 

QUESTION:  I wanted to ask how far the parameters of normalization with Saudi Arabia have shifted since October the 7th and the war in Gaza.  Prince Khalid bin Bandar, the Saudi ambassador to London, gave an interview with the BBC this week where there was a very clear shift in tone and emphasis.  He talked about, “We’ve been…willing to accept Israel for a long time…a reality that’s there that we have to live with.  But we can’t live with Israel without a Palestinian state.”  He said that nothing else matters other than a sovereign, stable, independent Palestinian state.  It wasn’t being talked about in these very clear terms at the time that normalization was being discussed more – later last year.  So I just wondered what you made of those comments, and if you think this is really a change in the parameters for a deal. 

MR PATEL:  So the Secretary spoke – addressed a great deal of this on the road.  But those are statements in a broad-brushstroke sense we agree with as well.  It is clear from the Secretary’s travels that there is a convergence among ideas between the United States and Arab leaders that Israel should be able to live in peace and security free from the threat of terrorism or attacks by its neighbors.  It’s also clear that we all agree that Gaza and the West Bank should be united under Palestinian-led governance.  And the future of the region depends on further integration, not division, and this also requires the establishment of an independent Palestinian state.  We’ve not parsed words about how key we believe that is to what we believe is longer-term peace and stability for the region. 

QUESTION:  Do you think that the – what Hamas did has effectively rewritten the Arab position in a much more clear sense?  They weren’t speaking with the use of that kind of language a few months ago — 

MR PATEL:  I just don’t want to speak to the – any kind of evolution or anything like that.  That wouldn’t be for me to address.

QUESTION:  Vedant? 

MR PATEL:  Sorry.   Janne, go ahead.  

QUESTION:  Thank you, Vedant. 

MR PATEL:  Yeah. 

QUESTION:  The UN Security Council resolution meeting on violation of the arms trade between the North Korea and Russia ended without a conclusion yesterday.  Meanwhile, Russian ambassador to the UN reputed that the U.S. had made unreasonable claims without evidence.  How would the U.S. respond to this? 

MR PATEL:  As a permanent member of the UN Security Council, Russia is flagrantly violating multiple UN Security Council resolutions in its attack of another UN member-state.  These violations that are – further the suffering of the Ukrainian people.  And in its recent transfer of ballistic missiles from the DPRK to Russia, the DPRA – the DPRK is also at – at blame for violation of – additional violation of UN Security Council resolutions, including the UN arms embargo.  So we believe that when it comes to this that all countries have a role to play here.

Yeah.

QUESTION:  And the White House confirmed this between North Korea and Russia is – has arms trading; they said they have all kind of evidence.  Why they said that without the evidence United States is unreasonable claims?  How did you refute this to Russia? 

MR PATEL:  Sorry.  Refute what exactly? 

QUESTION:  This Russian – the Russians said that without evidence – U.S. doesn’t have any evidence to the arms trade between —

MR PATEL:  Well, Janne, that’s interesting that the Russian Federation would say that, given that earlier this week Secretary Blinken and 49 other foreign ministers and the EU high representative issued a joint statement condemning the DPRK’s transfer of ballistic missiles to Russia for use against Ukraine.  So there is a high level of confidence between, I will say, from the United States as well as these other partners who share our concern and condemnation of the transfer of this type of ballistic missile.

QUESTION:  Quick follow-up.  China is tolerating this.  Do you think China is also responsible for this?

MR PATEL:  We’ve long said that countries that have a relationship with the DPRK, or including even Russia in that matter, have a responsibility to help curtail this kind of provocative, harmful activity. 

Guita, go ahead. 

QUESTION:  Thank you, Vedant.  I have two questions about Iran.  I believe one has been addressed, the one about the seizure of oil tanker by Iran.

MR PATEL:  Mm-hmm, yeah.  

QUESTION:  All right.  The second one is Travel Advisory for Iran has been updated, was updated today, I understand.  And it seems like the risk of terrorism has been added to it.  Does it have anything to do with the recent bombing in Iran on the anniversary of the Soleimani death?  And anything else that you can tell us about it? 

MR PATEL:   So I would not necessarily link it any one specific event.  Our travel advisories look at the totality of the circumstances on the ground as it relates to a particular country, and we look at various threat levels and trends that may contribute to how we designate them on our travel advisory list.  But yes, today the department did update our Travel Advisory for Iran to add the T indicator for risk of terrorism.  We also updated additional information regarding risks associated with surrogacy tourism in Iran as well.  So there are a number of factors that we look at when going – looking – when updating these travel advisories, not just specifically about one singular event.

Alex, go ahead. 

QUESTION:  A couple questions on Russia. 

MR PATEL:  Sure. 

QUESTION:  And I have two more on South Caucasus.  There are media reports citing U.S. foreign trade records in the – claiming that U.S. has purchased Russian oil, despite import ban.  Is there any validity to those reports, and what would your reaction be? 

MR PATEL:  I’m not aware.  I’ve not seen those reports, and I wouldn’t believe that there is any validity to them at all.  But we’re happy to just double-check what you’re referring to. 

QUESTION:  Yeah, that’d be helpful.  Moving to the front line, Russia is back to its familiar tactic.  They’re targeting hotels – today a hotel was full of reporters – with ballistic missiles.  Ukrainian foreign minister earlier this year during the new year, when there was massive attacks from Russia, came up with five immediate steps that the U.S., West would take to stop Russia.  Why hasn’t Secretary spoken with Ukrainian colleague since then? 

MR PATEL:  The Secretary speaks to foreign counterparts, including counterparts in Ukraine, as often as he needs to.  And if not happening at the Secretary’s level, conversations continue to be ongoing through, of course, our ambassador and other staff who work on these issues, not just necessarily in the case of Ukraine, but in, of course, any country.  So I would not interpret that to mean anything. 

QUESTION:  Is the department reviewing those five steps that the Ukrainians thinks you should take to limit Russia’s attacks?  

MR PATEL:  Sorry, I — 

QUESTION:  Those five steps that Ukraine laid out, including limiting – stopping – they say limiting Russian diplomats, from freezing Russian assets to boosting your support to Ukraine militarily.  Are those steps being considered? 

MR PATEL:  So, Alex, we have taken a number of steps over the course of the past two years to not just continue to support our Ukrainian partners but also hold the Russian Federation accountable.  I don’t have any additional steps to outline for you today.  But in both of those regards, we, of course, won’t hesitate to act should we need to.  

QUESTION:  Thanks.  And one more on South Caucasus, if I may.  

QUESTION:  One on Ukraine.  On Ukraine.  

QUESTION:  Following ambassador —

MR PATEL:  Can I do Ukraine —

QUESTION:  Please come back to me. 

MR PATEL:  Okay. 

QUESTION:  I have one on Russia. 

MR PATEL:  Okay.  Why don’t we do Ukraine-Russia.  Then we’ll make our way back to the Caucasus.  

QUESTION:  Yeah.  Do you have any —

MR PATEL:  Go ahead, Michel. 

QUESTION:  Any comments on the Pentagon report that 40,000 weapons worth more than $1 billion that the U.S. sent to Ukraine have not been properly tracked? 

MR PATEL:  There are inventory procedures in place, and there is no credible information indicating illicit diversion of U.S.-provided advanced conventional weapons from Ukraine.  But my colleagues at the Pentagon, I’m sure, would be happy to talk to you about this in greater detail.

Olivia. 

QUESTION:  I have a question on Russia, just because I think it’s the first time we’ve had you at the podium.  It’s on a U.S. national arrested by Russia.

MR PATEL:  Yeah.  Yeah.

QUESTION:  Has the U.S. – was it offered consular notification, consular access?  What can you tell us about the case and U.S. efforts to intervene on Robert Woodland’s behalf?

MR PATEL:  Sure.  So we are aware of reports of the – of a recent detention of a U.S. citizen in Russia.  Whenever a U.S. citizen is detained overseas, our embassies and consulates stand ready to provide all appropriate consular assistance.  Due to privacy considerations, there is a limit to how much I can share, but the Ministry of Internal Affairs notified us on January 9th of the detention of this U.S. citizen.  

I will use this opportunity again to remind all tuned in that the State Department’s Travel Advisory for the Russian Federation continues to be a Level Four, which means do not travel there.

QUESTION:  One on South Caucasus?

MR PATEL:  Okay, let me go to Shaun and then we’ll close out with South Caucasus.  Go ahead.

QUESTION:  Actually it’s in Africa.

MR PATEL:  Yeah.

QUESTION:  Two things, Burundi and Rwanda.  Burundi has closed its border with Rwanda.  It’s accusing Rwanda of supporting rebels.  This, of course, is a familiar accusation by the DRC.  Do you have anything to say about the allegations by Burundi or about the deterioration of relations between Burundi and Rwanda?

MR PATEL:  I’m happy to check on that, Shaun.  I had not seen that report.

QUESTION:  Okay, sure.  And could I go to Central African Republic?

MR PATEL:  Sure, sure.

QUESTION:  Bancroft, the private U.S. group – there have been reports and I think it’s said it’s at least considering some involvement in the Central African Republic.  Do you have anything to say about this, whether the U.S. Government has a position on it, and if it does, if this is correct, I mean, whether this is a challenge of sorts to Wagner, the Russian group there?

MR PATEL:  Sure, sure, let me say a couple things.  First, the State Department was not involved in the reported decision of Bancroft Global Development to establish a purported presence in CAR, nor has the State Department sought the involvement of any private military company in CAR.  The department did not give a green light to Bancroft to begin operations, as some have falsely reported.  We’re committed to partnering with the Central African people and will continue to engage closely with the CAR Government and international partners to achieve our shared objectives of a peaceful and prosperous Central African Republic that respects human rights and the rule of law.

And I would just add on top of that, Shaun – broadly, not as it relates to this particular incidence, as you well know – that when it comes to private entities, private enterprise, corporations operating in any country, there are business advisories that the interagency puts out that exist that would serve as a resource.  But certainly, the department’s not involved in any greenlighting of any sort.

QUESTION:  Sure.  Just to expand on that, not involved in any greenlighting – is – does it have any concerns about this?  It’s a private company, obviously, but — 

MR PATEL:  I just wouldn’t comment on that.

QUESTION:  Supportive or —

MR PATEL:  Yeah.  All right.  Alex, go ahead.

QUESTION:  Thank you.  On South Caucasus – following Special Advisor Bono’s talks in the region this week, do you sense any progress being made?

MR PATEL:  There continues to be – we continue to believe that a durable peace between Armenia and Azerbaijan is possible.  It’s something that the department will continue to work towards.  Obviously, Coordinator Bono, the Secretary, and others continue to be deeply engaged on this.  I just don’t have any updates for you right now at this time.

QUESTION:  Ambassador O’Brien this morning expressed his desire to discuss the full agenda with both countries.  It sounded like he was signaling some upcoming conversations.  Am I right?

MR PATEL:  I don’t have anything to preview for you from up here right now, but when we do, we have no doubt that we will share appropriate information.

All right, thanks, everybody.  Thanks, everybody.

(The briefing was concluded at 1:17 p.m.)

U.S. Department of State

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