Department Press Briefing – January 13, 2023
2:04 p.m. EST
MR PATEL: Good afternoon, everybody. Happy Friday the 13th to those that celebrate that.
QUESTION: Well, what do you have in store for us?
MR PATEL: So it’s a Friday the 13th in January, so I really don’t know what that actually is evocative of.
I have one brief thing at the top. So I want to address the possibly imminent execution of Iranian-British dual national Ali-Reza Akbari. The United States echoes the British Government’s strong call for Iran not to proceed with this execution and to release Mr. Akbari immediately. The charges against Ali-Reza Akbari and his sentencing to execution were politically motivated. His execution would be unconscionable.
We are greatly disturbed by the reports that Mr. Akbari was drugged, tortured while in custody, interrogated for thousands of hours, and forced to make false concessions.
More broadly, Iran’s practices of arbitrary and unjust detentions, forced confessions, and politically-motivated executions are completely unacceptable and must end.
With that, Matt, if you want to kick us off.
QUESTION: Sure, well, let’s just start with that. I mean, other than this public call, are you able to do anything about this?
MR PATEL: I don’t have any specific actions to preview, Matt, but as we’ve said previously, we have a number of tools at our disposal to hold the Iranian regime accountable. We have done so and taken action at various intervals over the past number of months, whether it be sanctions, whether it be designations of entities and individuals, doing so in robust in close coordination with our allies and partners.
QUESTION: But you would concede that those haven’t worked?
MR PATEL: Well, Matt, I – what I would say is that the actions that we have taken have had an effect. They’ve had an effect in the sense that —
QUESTION: Well, they haven’t stopped the repression or these executions.
MR PATEL: I’m not trying to make the case that they have done that, but they have had an impact in further isolating the Iranian regime and making them more of a pariah on the national stage.
QUESTION: Okay. And then I just have one other which is completely unrelated.
MR PATEL: Sure.
QUESTION: And that is – and I realize you guys have been looking for this and you may not have an answer – but do you have any more details on this agreement that the Secretary is going to sign this afternoon between NASA and Japan?
MR PATEL: Sure, Matt, let me share what I do have.
QUESTION: You do?
MR PATEL: It is largely similar to what Ned said today – yesterday – in that today Secretary —
QUESTION: Well, okay. That was almost nothing, so —
MR PATEL: If you’ll allow me, Secretary Blinken and the Japanese foreign minister will sign an agreement at NASA this afternoon that will build on our decades of cooperation and exploration and the use of outer space. This agreement underscores the commitment of the U.S. and Japan to safe and responsible outer space activities in Earth’s orbit, on the moon, and beyond. The U.S. and Japan are two of the original signatories of the Artemis Accords demonstrating our outstanding commitment to sustainable and transparent outer space exploration.
Now, to your specific question yesterday on the signing of this and its potential impact on forthcoming Artemis missions and the makeup of a crew and so on and so forth, I will let our NASA colleagues speak to that. I just don’t have any information on that piece of it.
QUESTION: Okay. Okay, thank you.
MR PATEL: Great. Alex. Go ahead.
QUESTION: Thank you, Vedant. Happy Friday. Just before I dive into my questions, to follow up with what Matt asked and based on your response, you wouldn’t say that you have exhausted your options, right? I mean there are still tools in your toolkit, just you haven’t used them yet.
MR PATEL: There are always tools in our toolkit, and I certainly wasn’t trying to make the case that we have exhausted our options. We continue to have tools at our disposal to hold the Iranian regime accountable, and you’ve seen this administration take action from this department, from the Treasury Department, from other entities within the Executive Branch. We have done what we can to hold the Iranian regime accountable, and we’ll continue to do so through this government but also in close coordination with our allies and partners as well.
QUESTION: Is sanctioning the supreme leader for gross human rights violations on the table?
MR PATEL: I’m not going to – I’m not going to talk about what’s on or off the table. What I am going to say is that we have taken action, we continue to have tools at our disposal, and we’ll continue to do what we can and do it in close coordination with our allies and partners to hold the Iranian regime accountable for its egregious human rights violations, for its killing of its own people.
QUESTION: Thanks so much. Moving to Russia, the Secretary yesterday mentioned —
MR PATEL: Actually, can I – can we stay on the subject, and then I’ll come back to you.
QUESTION: Thank you, Vedant. The European Parliament – members of the European Parliament are more and more calling for the EU to designate the IRGC was a terrorist group. Britain, the UK, is also – agrees with this. In addition, a member of the UK Parliament today, for example, called even for more actions, like recalling ambassadors from – or at least the UK ambassador for Iran – to Iran, expelling Iranian diplomats, completely stopping the JCPOA talks, snapback, and similar actions in this line. Does the Biden administration agree with the above actions in downgrading diplomatic relations or is it of the camp that thinks at least one channel of communication needs to stay open?
MR PATEL: Well, let me say a couple of things, Guita. First and foremost, we have designated the IRGC, and that is because we continue to believe that the Iranian regime and largely through the IRGC it has taken part in malign and destabilizing activities, not just in the immediate region, but the world more broadly – activities that are harmful to not just the United States regional and national security but those of our allies and partners. I will leave it to other entities to speak to their own determinations and the own designations that they make within their own foreign policy.
Similarly, we’ll leave it to other countries to make their own determinations on their diplomatic relations with Iran and anything like that. But what I would say specifically to your question about the JCPOA, Guita, is that for some time – and this is not something new that I’ve said – the JCPOA is not on the agenda right now.
QUESTION: Yeah —
MR PATEL: Janne, go ahead.
QUESTION: Thank you. I have a couple questions. China has suspended visas to South Korea and Japan. On the other hand, there are reports that China and the United States will increase flights between the two countries. How do you view about China’s differences – different situations?
MR PATEL: Are you speaking in the context of COVID-19 or in public health?
QUESTION: Yes, COVID-19.
MR PATEL: Understood. So I will – I am not going to speak to the public health measures that another country takes. What I will say is that the United States has always made its decisions – and our colleagues at the CDC can speak to this more greatly – on – they have based their decisions in science. And as you saw in December, in late December, we issued a mandatory testing requirement for flights originating from the PRC.
I don’t have anything else to preview in terms of the increase of flights or anything like that, but what I will say, Janne, again is that our decision making has been rooted in the science, rooted in transmission, in the prevalence of various variants, and I will let the CDC speak to those.
QUESTION: So do you think the South Korean Government response to COVID-19 based on scientific grounds was justified?
MR PATEL: Again, I will let other countries speak to their own public health measures. My understanding of the South Korean effort was that it was a similar testing requirement much like the one that the United States imposed, but again, I will let other countries speak to their own public health measures.
QUESTION: Lastly – lastly, what is the State Department position on the South Korean wants their own nuclear armament?
MR PATEL: Well, I think you saw President Yoon speak to this earlier this week, Janne. To take a little bit of a step back, the United States and the Republic of Korea continue to pursue what we view as a shared objective, which is a complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. And the Yoon administration has been very clear that it is not pursuing a nuclear weapons program and that it is working closely with the United States through existing extended deterrence mechanisms, and in fact, it is the DPRK that is pursuing an unlawful nuclear arsenal, raising nuclear tensions in the region, and taking part in destabilizing actions. So the U.S. is going to continue to work with the ROK and we’ll continue to work together to strengthen these extended deterrence programs in the face of the DPRK’s destabilizing actions.
QUESTION: So yesterday Pentagon and White House saying they want to be denuclearization – complete denuclearization on the Korean Peninsula. So is it same page —
MR PATEL: That continues to be our goal, and the Yoon administration has been very clear that it is not pursuing a nuclear weapons program.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MR PATEL: Going back to you, Alex. Thank you.
QUESTION: Thank you so much. The Secretary yesterday met with Ambassador Tracy prior to her departure to Russia. Just wondering how does the Secretary envision her mandate, her role during the next couple of months and weeks. This is not the business as usual – or I should say diplomacy as usual – with Russia, right?
MR PATEL: Of course. Of course, and I spoke to this a little bit when Ambassador Tracy was confirmed by the Senate. Look, Alex, Russia is a country that we have bilateral relationships with, and I know that Ambassador Tracy for – once she gets to Moscow she looks forward to doing what she can to be an advocate for the issues that are important to the United States, and there are issues within the bilateral relationship that require the lines of communication to remain open. And we would like those lines of communications to remain open. That is equally true in quote/unquote “normal” times, but also true – and perhaps more important – in times of conflict like right now.
QUESTION: Ukraine has —
QUESTION: To confirm she’s getting there today, tomorrow —
MR PATEL: I don’t have a specific date. I don’t have a specific date, but I have – am sure she intends to get there very soon. I can check if we’ve got a specific, but I’m sure our embassy will be in touch on that also.
QUESTION: Staying on diplomacy, Ukraine has claimed that Russians are trying to reach out to European countries for some unfavorable deal on behalf of Ukraine. What is the confidence level that Russia will not succeed in undermining European, trans-Eurasian unity?
MR PATEL: Sorry, I don’t understand your question.
QUESTION: Russians are sending out their diplomats to European countries and trying to fish some sort of, like, unfavorable deal. That’s based on Ukrainian intelligence assessment. What is your confidence level that they will not succeed in undermining your unity?
MR PATEL: Well, we have been in lockstep with our allies and partners since the genesis of this in February of last year. Over the course and over the varying turns of this conflict, you have seen through the various multilateral fora and otherwise the United States and its allies and partners be in unison about Russia’s unjust, its barbaric, its unlawful infringement on Ukrainian sovereignty and territorial integrity. You have also seen our allies and partners, including those in Europe, play an – a vital role in supporting our Ukrainian partners through security assistance, through humanitarian assistance, through other measures, and I have no doubt that that will continue.
QUESTION: Thank you. My last one on this: May I get your assessment on what’s going on in eastern Ukraine during the past 24 hours and how much this was a subject to today’s phone call between the Secretary and his counterpart?
MR PATEL: I don’t have – and I assume you’re speaking about Soledar? Yes. I don’t have any additional – anything additional to offer about Secretary Blinken’s call with Foreign Minister Kuleba. But what I would say is that we’ve seen those same reports, just as we’ve seen the same reports from Russia and just as we’ve seen Ukrainian reports that refute – that say that the fighting continues.
Broadly speaking, though, Alex, I don’t want to get into specific battlefield assessments. But to widen the aperture, it is clear that Russia’s months-long campaign appears to have come at extreme and tremendous loss of personnel. Thousands of Russian unprepared and poorly equipped conscripts have been killed, and the Kremlin itself has acknowledged that its decision to attack Soledar has come at a high price. So we are going to continue to consult closely with our Ukrainian partners and assess the situation.
Said, go ahead.
QUESTION: Thank you. Switching topics?
MR PATEL: Sure.
QUESTION: Okay, the Palestinian issue. There was a report today in The Washington Times about the haunt – how Palestinian children are and haunted by the nightly raids by the Israeli occupation army. I wonder if you saw this.
MR PATEL: I’ve seen —
QUESTION: And if you have any comment on that.
MR PATEL: I saw the article, Said. And what I would – what I would say to that is I would point you back to what President Biden said last summer on his visit to Israel, and that he made quite clear that we continue to support a two-state solution. And the President noted that the two states living side by side remains the best way to ensure the future of equal measures of freedom, prosperity, and democracy for Israelis and Palestinians alike.
QUESTION: Well, this is great, but in the interim the Palestinian children continue to be targeted and haunted. I mean, since the beginning of the year, 10 Palestinians have been killed – 10 in the last 13 days, including one today – 13 – and dozens more injured. What can you do besides, I mean, talk about the two-state solution and so on? What can you do to provide protection for the Palestinians and Palestinian children? They are mainly — largely innocent.
MR PATEL: Said, we have been very vocal, not just from this briefing room but in the various other engagements that the Secretary and other senior officials have done from this department, about our continued support for a two-state solution and our opposition to policies that endanger its viability. This includes – and we have – continue to have a deep support for the equal administration of justice for all of those who live in Israel.
QUESTION: Well, your envoy to the Palestinians, Mr. Hady Amr, was just there like a day or two ago. What does he tell the Palestinians and the Israelis in this regard? What is the message? I mean, he was meeting with all – I don’t know if he met with any Israelis. But I mean, it – obviously that the Israelis greeted him with accelerated aggression against innocent Palestinians.
MR PATEL: Said, whenever we engage with both the Israelis and the Palestinian Authority, we continue to be very clear that we have a continued support for a two-state solution and opposition to policies that are going to endanger its viability. You have seen the Secretary speak to this; you have seen the President speak to this; it’s something Ned and I have been – have made quite clear as well.
QUESTION: If you would just bear with me.
MR PATEL: Sure.
QUESTION: The Palestinians are warning that Israel’s extremist policies and your ambiguity towards these extremist policies just put the whole thing in peril. Are you ambiguous towards this government and its conduct thus far – the Israeli Government?
MR PATEL: We – I don’t believe we’ve been ambiguous at all, Said. As we’ve said repeatedly from the beginning, we look forward to working with Israel to advance the interests and values that have long been at the heart of our bilateral relationship. I will also point you back to what Secretary Blinken said in December, that our engagement and our judgment with the new Israeli Government will be rooted in the policies they pursue, not based on personalities. And again we have been clear, and I have just said now again that we’ve been very clear, about our continued support for a two-state solution and opposition to policies that endanger its viability.
QUESTION: And lastly, I know maybe this is not your area or doesn’t really fall under the auspices of the State Department, but Harvard nullified a fellowship for the former head of Human Rights Watch, Mr. Ken Roth, because he criticized Israel. You certainly would have a position if Harvard denied the fellowship for someone because he criticized China, the human rights violations in China and elsewhere. Do you have any comment on this?
MR PATEL: Said, I’m just not going to – I’m not aware of this. I’m just hearing of this now. And obviously Harvard is a private institution, so I just don’t have anything to offer there.
QUESTION: Yes. Do you have any comment on this report by The Wall Street Journal that the Biden administration is preparing to seek congressional approval, it says, for a 20 billion sale of new F-16 jet fighters to Türkiye along with a separate sale of next-generation F-35 warplanes to Greece? Any comment on this?
MR PATEL: As a matter of policy, the department is not going to comment on proposed defense sales or transfers until they’ve been formally notified to Congress. But what I would say is that Türkiye and Greece both are vital, vital NATO Allies and we have a history of, of course, supporting their security apparatuses. But I’m just not going to get ahead of the process here.
QUESTION: And what about —
QUESTION: Do you have sanctions against Türkiye under CAATSA? Do you still have sanctions against Türkiye? Can you check?
MR PATEL: I would have to double-check, and we can – we can come back to you.
QUESTION: A quick follow-up on this?
MR PATEL: Sure.
QUESTION: The same article said that Türkiye foreign minister is expected to visit Washington next week. Do you have any announcement about that and a potential meeting?
MR PATEL: As I just said, Türkiye is a vital and important NATO Ally, and Ned referenced this yesterday. We will have more to offer on the schedule in the forthcoming days, but I just don’t have anything to preview at this moment.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MR PATEL: Shannon, go ahead.
QUESTION: Thank you. Going off the announcement today that the government expects to begin taking extraordinary measures to avoid breaching the debt ceiling, I was wondering if you could address how defaulting on that might impact the State Department’s operations and also the roiling of the global economy in general. What kind of ripple effect would that cause?
MR PATEL: Well, on the impacts of the economy, I will let my colleagues at the White House and other agencies speak to that. We of course – what I would say broadly, and speaking more specifically about our engagements with Congress, is that we engage with them on a variety of issues. I don’t have a specific assessment to offer on these negotiations. But we engage with Congress on a number of issues. We’ve done so in the 117th Congress and we’ll look forward to doing so with this Congress as well.
QUESTION: Another topic, if I may. Just a couple days ago, and effigy of the Turkish president was hanged across the city hall in the Swedish capital. Even the Swedish prime minister said that it’s extremely serious and a sabotage of their NATO application. From the same podium yesterday, your colleague Ned Price said that Sweden is ready to join NATO. This is what the United States believes. But don’t you think that with the recent developments that Sweden has still some distance to cover when it comes to eliminating terrorism on its soil?
MR PATEL: Well, let me say a couple things, and I will echo what Ned said yesterday, is that of course Türkiye is facing a very complex security environment. And as we’ve said before, Türkiye is one of our NATO Allies that faces the most terrorist attacks. On this specific incident, I’m not familiar, so I’m going to – it obviously is deeply troubling. But what I would say is I would echo what Ned said, that we of course look forward to the accession of both Sweden and Finland to NATO, and we’re going to let that process continue to work its way out.
QUESTION: And I have a follow-up on that.
MR PATEL: Sure.
QUESTION: Because I want to learn what the United States believes at this moment because it sounds like, obviously, to the international audience that – as if Türkiye is blocking it for some kind of entertainment. But as you say, even the Swedish Government is acknowledging that they have not completed on their homework. What do you think on that? Because they still say that it’s extremely serious and there are terrorist activities on their soil, in their capital. What’s the United States position? Like, are they ready to join right now or do they still have some tasks to complete before they can join?
MR PATEL: Our assessment is that we would want Sweden and Finland to join NATO as soon as possible. But of course the United States is just one of the member nations, and this is a process that needs to be worked through, and we’ll let that process work itself out.
QUESTION: Can I ask a question on Cuba?
MR PATEL: Sure.
QUESTION: There’s a high-level delegation that’s going to be visiting Cuba soon, U.S. delegation. Does that indicate that maybe relations with Cuba is becoming more normalized or we’re on the cusp of normalized relations with Cuba?
MR PATEL: Are you speaking about the law enforcement —
QUESTION: Law enforcement, international law and all that stuff.
MR PATEL: Yeah, sure, sure.
QUESTION: But I’m sure that they will probably discuss —
MR PATEL: Said, let me – if you’ll let me offer some broader thoughts. So to – for those that might be tracking, U.S. and Cuban officials will meet as part of the U.S.-Cuba Law Enforcement Dialogue in Havana next week to discuss topics of bilateral interest on international law enforcement matters, increased international law enforcement cooperation, and this is an opportunity to enable the U.S. to better protect U.S. citizens and bring transnational criminals to justice.
The Departments of State, Justice, and Homeland Security will co-chair the dialogue for the United States. And broadly speaking, Said, to your question, improved law enforcement coordination between the United States and Cuba is in the best interest in the United States and the Cuban people. And during the dialogue, the U.S. and Cuba will address topics of bilateral interest.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MR PATEL: Go ahead, Alex.
QUESTION: I have human rights-related questions involving Azerbaijan and then Georgia as well. Both you and Ned recently addressed recent arrests of leading activist Bakhtiyar Hajiyev and politician Tofig Yagublu in Azerbaijan. We’re receiving conflicting reports, but mostly all of them are about their health situation, which is worsening. My question is: Ned yesterday was talking about new initiative, and he said we’re going to use every possible tool that we have to get both the prisoners out of jail. I know they are not subject to a new initiative. But Assistant Secretary Donfried called Azerbaijan two days ago. Did she raise these cases?
MR PATEL: This is an issue that we continue to be deeply engaged on and raise directly. The U.S. remains strongly committed to advancing respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, and we again in this case urge the government to respect its citizens’ rights, including the right to express views peacefully. I don’t have a specific call readout to offer for you, Alex, but as I said, this is something that we are paying very close attention to, and I will echo what Ned said when this was first raised, is that we are deeply troubled by these arrests and we urge authorities to release them expeditiously.
QUESTION: Thank you. And to Georgia, Ukraine upheld —
MR PATEL: I’ll come to you after, Leon.
Sorry, go ahead.
QUESTION: Former President Saakashvili – now Ukraine asked the Georgian Government to transfer him for medical treatment to Ukraine. Does the United States Government support this idea?
MR PATEL: I don’t have any update to offer on this since we last spoke about it. We continue to be deeply concerned and pay close attention to this situation, especially the state of his health.
QUESTION: Vedant, I just have —
MR PATEL: Go ahead, Leon.
QUESTION: I had a follow-up on the question on Cuba.
MR PATEL: Sure.
QUESTION: So you said that this meeting on law enforcement issues is in the best interest of the United States. Would you consider that it would be now in the best interests of the United States to actually normalize relations with Cuba?
And then second, so there’s this meeting on law enforcement issues, criminality, transnational, etc., but the United States still has Cuba on the supporting terrorism list, on its list of supporting – states supporting terrorism. How do you justify having that meeting in Cuba while the country is still on your official list of sponsoring terrorism?
MR PATEL: Can you repeat the second part of your question, Leon? Sorry.
QUESTION: Basically how do you justify having this kind of meeting on specifically law enforcement issues in general while at the same time keeping the country on the terrorism list?
MR PATEL: Well, Leon, there continue to be, obviously, concerns and human rights concerns that exist. But I would say broadly, to widen the aperture a little bit, Leon, following the large-scale protests that we saw last summer, President Biden directed the department to act in two primary areas. The first was to promote accountability for human rights abuses, for which we have announced previously several rounds of sanctions targeting those individuals and entities with direct ties to human rights violations.
Specifically within the context of these – this dialogue, let me see if I have some more information for you. But as I said, engaging in these talks underscores our commitment to pursuing constructive discussions with the Government of Cuba where appropriate to advance U.S. interests.
Our belief is, is that establishing and increasing channels for law enforcement cooperation to better address transnational threats is not at the expense of the serious human rights concerns that we continue to have. And we’ve integrated these human rights concerns and protections into all of our interactions with the Cuban Government.
QUESTION: Vedant, isn’t the real answer that this administration does not agree with the previous administration’s determination to put Cuba back on the SSOT list, and that you’ve been looking for a way to take them off since —
MR PATEL: I don’t have any —
QUESTION: — coming into office —
MR PATEL: I don’t have any update to offer that —
QUESTION: — and therefore, that a law enforcement dialogue is not inappropriate, given what you believe is —
MR PATEL: Oh, a law enforcement dialogue is not inappropriate for a variety of reasons, including the ones that I just outlined.
QUESTION: Well, how many do you have with Iran? None.
MR PATEL: Those are slightly different circumstances.
QUESTION: How many do you – well, but in terms of the SSOT. Anyway, I want to just check to make sure that there are no updates on the special counsel, the documents, and Secretary Blinken, right? Nothing?
MR PATEL: I have no updates to offer beyond what Ned said yesterday.
QUESTION: I have a follow-up, if I may. As a general policy, do you sell weapons to any country that is under CAATSA sanctions?
MR PATEL: Sorry, can you repeat your question?
QUESTION: I’m asking that as a general policy – I’m not asking about Türkiye, okay – as a general policy, do you sell weapons – planes, boats anything – to any country that is under CAATSA sanctions?
MR PATEL: What I would say broadly – and I will check specifically if there is a specific framework or definition to offer – is that we of course support the security apparatuses of a number of countries. But broadly speaking, as it relates to this specific situation – I know you’re not asking that at this time, but you did previously – we’re just not going to get ahead of the process that we have in place as it relates to congressional notifications.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MR PATEL: All right. Thanks, everybody.
QUESTION: Have a good weekend.
MR PATEL: Have a great weekend, everybody, a great long weekend.
(The briefing was concluded at 2:36 p.m.)
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