2:08 p.m. EST
MR PATEL: Good afternoon everybody. Happy Thursday. I have a few things at the top, and then I’m happy to dive into your questions.
Today, we are announcing the designation of former President of Panama Ricardo Alberto Martinelli Berrocal for his involvement in significant corruption. Specifically, Martinelli accepted bribes in exchange for improperly awarding government contracts during his tenure. This designation renders Martinelli and his immediate family members, including his two sons Luis Enrique and Ricardo Alberto Martinelli Linares, ineligible for entry into the United States. Such acts of public corruption diminish confidence in governance, reduce resources available for schools, hospitals, roads, and other government services. And this was a public designation made under Section 7031(c).
I’m also pleased to highlight today’s announcement by President Biden, the decision to extend Deferred Enforced Departure for Hong Kong residents for another two years. This extension provides Hong Kongers who are concerned about returning to Hong Kong with temporary safe haven in this country. The U.S. will continue to defer the enforced departure of eligible Hong Kong residents who are physically president – present in the United States as of January 26th for a period of up to two years.
The U.S. reaffirms its solidarity with the people of Hong Kong in the face of Beijing’s steady assault on the rights and freedoms guaranteed to Hong Kong under the Basic Law and Sino-British Joint Declaration, a binding international agreement. This decision to extend Deferred Enforced Departure and expand to include those who have arrived in the U.S. since August 2021 complements steps being taken by our allies and partners – including the UK, Canada, and Australia – to provide options to those who fear returning to Hong Kong.
This announcement was made necessary by Beijing and Hong Kong authorities’ continued and repeated attacks on the protected rights and freedoms cherished by people in Hong Kong. We strongly urge Beijing and Hong Kong authorities to restore Hong Kong’s autonomy and rule of law, stop draconian application of colonial-era laws and national security apparatus, and allow people in Hong Kong to exercise rights and freedoms and participate meaningfully in their own governance.
We again call on the PRC and Hong Kong authorities to immediately and unconditionally release those detained or imprisoned solely for exercising their rights and freedoms.
And lastly, as I’m sure you all saw, Russia launched yet more missiles and Iranian-made Shahed drones across Ukraine last night, followed by another strike of missiles this morning. On behalf of the United States, I want to extend my sympathy to all those who were hurt and condolences to the families of those killed across Ukraine.
Russia remains bent on causing death and destruction despite its ongoing strategic failures, and Iran’s transfer of these lethal weapons continues to help Russia in its brutal war. These tactics will not diminish Ukraine’s determination to resist. The U.S. will support Ukraine for as long as it takes, and our allies and partners have made the same quite clear.
We stand in unity and resolve with Ukraine as they defend their country and seek to build the bright, peaceful, democratic, and prosperous future for which the people of Ukraine have sacrificed so much.
And with that, I am happy to take your questions. Matt, if you want to start.
QUESTION: Great. Yes. We all set?
MR PATEL: Yeah, I’m good.
MR PATEL: Yeah.
QUESTION: You sure?
MR PATEL: Yeah.
MR PATEL: We’re great.
QUESTION: Okay. You don’t want to raise it up a little bit?
MR PATEL: No, no, no. I’m good.
MR PATEL: I should have done that before. But go ahead.
QUESTION: So I am going to presume that you don’t have a whole lot to add to what Assistant Secretary Leaf said on – earlier today, but I’m just wondering in – since 11:30, since she spoke, have there been any contacts between the Secretary and/or other very high-level officials here in the – either the Israelis or the Palestinians about what happened in Jenin as it – and as it – as that might relate to the Secretary’s upcoming trip?
MR PATEL: Sure, Matt. So I don’t have any specific engagements to read out for the Secretary or anything to preview there. But as Assistant Secretary Leaf noted on this very call that you’re referring to, the department has been working the phones and in touch with both our immediate U.S. State Department counterparts – this – over the course of the morning – but as well as others in the region.
Specifically, if you’ll give me the opportunity, Matt, we are aware of the reports that today in Jenin at least 10 Palestinians, including militants and at least one civilian, were killed and over 20 injured during an Israeli Defense Force counterterrorism operation against a Palestinian Islamic Jihad cell.
We recognize the very real security challenges facing Israel and the Palestinian Authority and condemn terrorist groups planning and carrying out attacks against innocent civilians. We also regret the loss of innocent lives and injuries to civilians and are deeply concerned by the escalating cycle of violence in the West Bank. I want to underscore the urgent need for all parties to de-escalate, to prevent further loss of civilian life, and to work together to improve the security situation in the West Bank. Palestinians and Israelis equally deserve to live safely and securely.
QUESTION: Okay. And it remains the case that you do not believe that the Palestinian decision or announcement that they are going to suspend all security cooperation with Israel and also take this incident and refer it to the UN, the ICC, and others, other places, that you still think that’s a bad idea, correct?
MR PATEL: That’s correct, Matt. As we’ve made clear, and the assistant secretary touched on this earlier today, we believe that there is an urgent need for all parties to de-escalate, and in fact this should be an opportunity to work together to improve the security situation in the West Bank. And as it relates to the UN, we just don’t believe that this multilateral fora is appropriate for this, and this is something that the two sides should work together on. And again, we believe that this should be – we should be deepening our security cooperation.
QUESTION: Okay. Well, recognizing that you don’t know exactly what happened – an investigation, an Israeli investigation, is underway. But recognizing that you don’t know, I wanted to go back to a question that I asked Ned last year or even 18 months ago. If you don’t think that the Palestinians should go to the UN or to the ICC or to any other international forum, where do they go?
MR PATEL: We believe that this is something that the Israelis and the Palestinian Authority should be engaging on together in dialogue with one another. Of course the United States has made quite clear that we continue to believe that steps should not be taken to incite tension, to exasperate the situation, and that both Palestinians and Israelis equally deserve to live safely and securely. And we continue and have made this clear pretty consistently that we believe that steps that would – could potentially undermine a future two-state solution are also not helpful to this process.
QUESTION: Yeah, but – well, whether or not their grievance or grievances are legitimate or not, where exactly are the Palestinians supposed to take them? Do they – if you don’t think that they can go or should go to the UN or to the ICC or to another international forum, where do they take them to? Where do you think they should be allowed to take them or that they should take them to? To the Israelis themselves?
MR PATEL: Our belief is that this is something that should be engaged on through dialogue, through diplomacy between the Israelis, between the Palestinian Authority. And of course the United States has made its opinion on this very clear.
QUESTION: Well, you haven’t made your opinion very clear. So you think that this should – that the Palestinians should take their complaints, their grievances, to the Israeli court system?
MR PATEL: I’m not just speaking about the court system specifically, Matt. I’m saying that —
QUESTION: Okay. Well, where?
MR PATEL: This is something that we think that should be addressed through dialogue and diplomacy between the Israelis and the Palestinian Authority, and we’ve said that quite consistently.
QUESTION: May I follow?
MR PATEL: Sure, Said.
QUESTION: So what is the status of the Palestinians in the West Bank? What is their status?
MR PATEL: I’m sorry?
QUESTION: What is the status of the Palestinian people in the West Bank, including Jenin, including the camp of Jenin, and everywhere else in the West Bank? How do you designate them? What kind of designations do you give the Palestinians in the West Bank?
MR PATEL: That they reside in that – those territories.
QUESTION: They reside in that – they’re totally independent of the rest of the world, as if it were a different planet. Are they occupied, for instance? Do you – do you subscribe to the fact that they are under a military occupation?
MR PATEL: Said, let me – let me —
QUESTION: It’s a simple question. Are they under occupation?
MR PATEL: Said, let me say a couple of things to the point that I believe —
QUESTION: Vedant, are they occupied or are they not occupied? What is the status that you give the Palestinians right at this moment? What kind of status do they have?
MR PATEL: Said, the recent period has seen a sharp and —
QUESTION: I’m not talking about a recent period. I am saying about legally, how do you designate the Palestinians in the West Bank? What is their status?
MR PATEL: Said, I understand the question you’re asking, and I – as we’ve said previously, it is vital for both sides to take action to prevent even greater loss, and we condemn any violence, escalation, or provocation. We have made quite clear – and I spoke to this in addressing Matt’s question – that we believe Palestinians and Israelis equally deserve to live safely and securely.
QUESTION: Now, who guarantees that equality? Who will guarantee that Palestinians and Israelis can actually have the same equal measures, as you keep repeating? It’s not the Palestinians that keep going day after day into Israeli villages and towns and so on and attack them during night raids, killing their people. You just basically recited the Israeli story that they are nine militants killed and one civilian, as if you were sure of that fact, even before an investigation went on.
Where should the Palestinians go for protection? I’ve asked this question many times in this room. How should the Palestinians be protected?
MR PATEL: Said, we have been very clear and we believe that there is an urgent need for all parties to de-escalate and to work together to improve the security situation in the West Bank.
QUESTION: Right. But you know that we have seen Israel, as the governing authority, as the military authority, it can conduct raids anytime it wants to against any Palestinian place. We have not seen any Palestinians attack Israeli villages, for instance. So how is that equal measure? How do you guarantee it? I mean, I get lost in understanding what you’re saying in equal measures for both.
MR PATEL: Said, we recognize the very real security challenges facing both Israel and the Palestinian Authority and condemn terrorist groups planning and carrying out attacks against innocent civilians.
MR PATEL: We also, again, underscore the urgent need for all parties to de-escalate to prevent further loss of civilian life and to work together to improve the security situation in the West Bank and the region broadly.
QUESTION: And I have a couple more; just please indulge me. If they are occupied, if you agree that the Palestinians are under occupation, is collective punishment a war crime for any captive people, for any people under occupation?
MR PATEL: Said —
QUESTION: Is it your view that collective punishment is a war crime?
MR PATEL: Said, I’m just – I think I’ve spoken to this pretty extensively, and what I’m just going to reiterate again is that we believe that there’s an urgent need for all parties to de-escalate and to work together to improve the security situation.
QUESTION: Can you call on the Israelis to de-escalate? Do they listen to you when you tell them to de-escalate and not to attack —
MR PATEL: Said, we have —
QUESTION: — innocent Palestinians day-in and day-out?
MR PATEL: Said, we have consistently called on both sides to de-escalate, and we have consistently spoken about our – the need for both Palestinians and Israelis to equally —
MR PATEL: — deserve to live safely and securely.
QUESTION: And if they don’t listen to you, where should they go? Just to follow on where Matt began, where should the Palestinians go?
MR PATEL: Again, Said, we continue to believe that this is something that can be discussed through dialogue and diplomacy between both parties.
QUESTION: Still on Israel, Vedant. So recently, there have been, like, some meetings about the Negev Summit, which is also another, like – what should we call it? – like, alliance or, like, conference umbrella that actually does not have any representation for the Palestinians. I’m wondering how this rising escalation of violence would impact the future of Abraham Accords. It’s been – Washington has been trying to get on board more countries to that, some important Arab allies. Are you not at all worried that – what’s happening there and the behavior of, like, Israel’s new right-wing government? They might be put off and have second thoughts about that.
MR PATEL: Let me say a couple of things to that, Humeyra. First, we can – as I said, we reiterate and believe that this is an urgent opportunity for all parties to de-escalate and work together to improve the security situation in the West Bank.
On the Negev process specifically, as you know, earlier this month senior officials from the United States concluded two days of productive meetings of the Negev Forum in Abu Dhabi. This was a significant meeting of six working groups with around 150 officials representing the different countries of the Negev Forum. This was the largest gathering of Israeli and Arab government officials since the Madrid process, and we believe that these meetings represent an important step in the advancements of the goals of the Negev Forum, which was launched in March of 2022. And we thank the UAE for hosting this important gathering.
QUESTION: Did they actually talk about any of the Palestinian issues in any of those working groups?
MR PATEL: The working groups sought to develop clear and pragmatic steps to bolster regional integration and cooperation. They discussed a variety of specific proposals, which, over the coming weeks and months, will be further refined and discussed in these various capitals.
QUESTION: But anything to improve the livelihoods of the Palestinians at all?
MR PATEL: That is something that we, of course, think is integral to this process, as I have said previously, that we continue to believe that both Israelis and Palestinians equally deserve to live freely, safely, and securely.
QUESTION: Can I just follow up —
MR PATEL: Shaun.
QUESTION: — on the violence today and the Secretary’s trip. Is there any metric that the Secretary wants from his talks with the Israelis and Palestinians? Does he want some sort of agreement? Obviously, not major agreement, but anything about a ceasefire or anything about ending the violence? What – is it more just he’s going to urge things, or is there actually something he’s looking for in terms of commitments to get on the ground?
MR PATEL: So I will not get ahead of the Secretary’s trip, but you saw Assistant Secretary Leaf speak to this a little bit in the call earlier today. And this, of course, this broader trip to Egypt, Israel, and the West Bank is also about consulting with our partners on a range of bilateral, regional, and global priorities, including the advancements of efforts that will promote human rights, democratic norms, values, and other things that are integral to our foreign policy, as well as, of course, deepening and expanding our economic partnerships, expanding and promoting regional security, stability, and prosperity, including through mechanisms like the Negev Forum that I just spoke to Humeyra’s question about.
Anything else on the region before we move.
MR PATEL: Go ahead.
QUESTION: Yeah. The U.S.-Israel wrapped up their biggest joint military drills this week. Is this a sign that the U.S. is preparing for a reality without JCPOA?
MR PATEL: So we have been quite clear for quite some time that the JCPOA is not on the agenda, and it is not on the agenda because of the Iranian regime. The Iranian regime killed the opportunity for a swift return to full implementation of the JCPOA in September when they turned their backs on the deal that was on the table. And since September, our focus has been on standing up for the fundamental freedoms of the Iranian people and countering Iran’s deepening partnerships with Russia and its support of Russia’s barbaric and unjust war in Ukraine.
On the specific piece about joint exercises, I will let my colleagues at the Pentagon speak to that specifically.
QUESTION: Do you name JCPOA a dead deal?
MR PATEL: Look, we have been very clear from the beginning – President Biden has been clear about this, that he is absolutely committed to ensuring Iran never acquires a nuclear weapon. And we still believe that diplomacy is the best way to ensure, on a sustainable and verifiable basis, that Iran never acquires a nuclear weapon. But as of now, as we’ve said previously, we don’t see a deal coming together anytime soon.
You had your hand up.
QUESTION: Talking about standing up for Iranian people, my question is about GL D-2s. It’s been few months that you issued the general license which let companies – private tech entities – to help Iranians to bypass the governmental internet shutdown. Is the Biden administration funding or financially supporting in any way the Iranians inside Iran to have access to internet – this is including Starlink — if you are funding – buying the satellite dishes, if you are helping any partners to send the dishes inside Iran, or no?
MR PATEL: So we spoke about this a little bit a number of months ago when the GL-2 licenses were brought on board. These decisions – ultimately the implementation, the deployment of them are private sector decisions. The United States’s role in bringing that license about was for the easier access of information and the flow of information between – not just between Iranians but between Iranians and the outside world. But no, the United States is not involved in the way that you’ve described.
QUESTION: Because in the case of Ukraine, we have a big governmental funding going from United States to Ukraine. Why this is not the case for Iranians, that they really need help regarding Starlink or free internet?
MR PATEL: For – so let me say a couple of things. These situations – these circumstances are a little bit apples and oranges. Perhaps they are not even apples and oranges; they are two very different situations. In the case of Ukraine, we have the Russian Federation unlawfully, unjustly infringing on the territorial integrity and sovereignty of another country, that of Ukraine. And you are correct, the United States has done – has taken a number of steps through security assistance, through economic assistance, through sanctions and export controls on the Russian Federation, and has taken – and has done a number of things in regards to that.
In the context of Iran, we also have taken a number of steps. The steps are different because the circumstances are different. We have, even as recently as Monday, taken actions and made designations to individuals and entities to further hold the Iranian regime account for its atrocious human rights violations on its own people. I’m certainly not going to preview any actions, but together with our allies and partners we’ll continue to have those discussions on a bilateral basis, through multilateral fora, and take the appropriate steps necessary to continue to support the Iranian people.
Anything else on the region before we move away? Alex, go ahead.
QUESTION: Thank you, Verdant. Happy Thursday. I want to start with Russia-Ukraine. I want to start with the Wagner decision today. As a result of today’s designation, you made it clear that the assets in the U.S. have been frozen. Do you have an estimated number, how much funding do they have and have been frozen? And also, is the administration considering further steps, such as to seize it and to allocate that amount for Ukraine’s reconstruction?
MR PATEL: Alex, I will let our colleagues at the Treasury Department speak to specific – any specific asset number or any appropriate next steps on forfeiture or seizure or things like that. But I do want to use the opportunity to reiterate that this action supports our goal, which is to degrade Moscow’s capacity to wage war against Ukraine, to promote accountability for those responsible for Russia’s war of aggression and associated abuses, and to place further pressure on Russia’s defense sector. We are steadfast in our resolve against Russia’s aggression and other destabilizing behaviors worldwide, and today’s designation will further impede the Kremlin’s ability to arm its war machine that is entangled in a war of aggression against Ukraine and which has caused unconscionable death and destruction.
The Wagner Group’s pattern of serious criminal behavior includes violent harassment of journalists and aid workers among others, rape and sexual assault in the Central African Republic, as well as rape and killing in Mali. They are a deeply destabilizing entity, and today’s action was another step in degrading their capacity.
QUESTION: Thanks so much. I also want to ask you about American companies operating – well, they are still present in Russian market. It appears there are over 300 companies that are still there. They might not necessarily violating U.S. sanctions, but they are paying taxes there and also exposing American business investors to all kinds of risks. This administration has in the past come up with advisories on business risks in different regions – Cambodia, Sudan, and some other countries.
My question is – as you know, we are approaching to a one year’s anniversary of Russian invasion. Are you planning to do the same vis-à-vis American business in Russian market? And if so, are you willing to cooperate with civil society organizations and other groups that have been advocating for that?
MR PATEL: Let me say a couple of things to that, Alex. First, I would also note that Russians – Russia’s brutal war has also led to a number of American corporations choosing to leave Russia and choosing to cease doing business in Russia as a result of its aggression and as a result of its very clear violation of Ukraine’s territorial integrity and sovereignty. It is very clear that Russia is not a place where companies want to invest, and we will continue to see businesses and individuals fleeing the Russian Federation.
Specifically, though, Alex, the decision to suspend or exit or operate is ultimately up to individual companies and legitimate commercial actors and investors are rationally assessing the various risks associated with doing business in Russia. I don’t have any memo or action to preview or business guidance to preview for you, but as we have long done, we are encouraging U.S. organizations and their personnel operating in the region to join the U.S. department’s Overseas Security Advisory Council, which is managed by Diplomatic Security. This is a free resource that’s available to all U.S. incorporated organizations operating outside of the United States, including, of course, corporate actors. And it issues ongoing assessments of the situation in Ukraine, highlights safety concerns, security concerns, logistical information, and other things as well.
QUESTION: Is the department in touch with advocacy groups who have been advocating for such guidance?
MR PATEL: I don’t have any specific NGO or nonprofit engagements to preview, but this is, of course, something we’re paying very close attention to.
QUESTION: And perhaps it’s also best time to ask about the U.S. ambassador just arrived in Moscow. What do you expect from her in the days and weeks ahead? I know I’ve asked this question before, but it’s relevant now.
MR PATEL: Sure, sure. I don’t have any specific updates to offer you. You are correct; Ambassador Tracy has arrived in Moscow, and we expect her to present her credentials in the coming days. But as we have previously said, there of course are issues of bilateral relation between the United States and the Russian Federation, and I know Ambassador Tracy is eager to continue working on these issues that will expand U.S. interest in a variety of areas.
Let me work the room a little bit. Anything else on the region before we move away?
QUESTION: On Iraq? Iraq.
MR PATEL: Go ahead.
QUESTION: Hi. Leah, ABC News. So yesterday, Ned Price said for decades the U.S. was not in a position to be a partner to African countries, but Russia was, but that that dynamic has gone away entirely. And this morning, Prigozhin wrote in a letter that he has contracts with presidents in African countries, and he claims if he pulls out those fighter – pulls out his fighters, those countries would cease to exist. So what does the department say to those African countries who have contracts with Prigozhin or other Russian entities who do feel their country would be in danger without that support?
MR PATEL: We have clearly seen that the Wagner Group, when they operate in a country, they take very destabilizing, very harmful actions – actions that are a threat to the stability in a specific country, but also the regional stability more broadly. And that was in part why the United States took the designations that it took today. And we’ll continue to take steps and assess the situation and work closely with our allies and partners to hold the Wagner Group accountable.
I will also say that as it relates to deepening our cooperation in the African continent, I would point no further than the most recent African Leaders Summit that was held in December, where you saw countries from all across the continent represented here, where the Secretary or President Biden had the opportunity to hold bilateral engagements with many representatives of these countries. You saw last year the Secretary of State, USAID Administration Power, the UN ambassador take important trips to the region. Secretary Yellen is in the region now; Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield just returned from the region or is still there.
So this is a continent that of course we’re continuing to place an important emphasis on, and one where we look to deepening our deep diplomatic ties with.
QUESTION: Could the U.S. – would the U.S. take action against any countries that do work with Prigozhin, Wagner, or any of their affiliated groups?
MR PATEL: Of course I will refer to our Treasury colleagues to speak to the specific ins and outs of the designations that are being made today. But I would reiterate that we’ve been quite clear that countries that partner with Prigozhin and Wagner are not – do not end up in a better place afterwards.
QUESTION: Thank you. Circling back to the latest slate of attacks from Russia on Ukraine that you denounced at the top of the briefing – of course, we’ve seen this kind of violence before, but it comes right on the heels of those high-profile tank announcements. Does the U.S. assess that those strikes are retaliatory – retaliatory, rather, in any way, or that perhaps reducing the profile of these announcements might dissuade Russia from these strikes?
MR PATEL: We have been very clear over the course of this conflict that we will support our Ukrainian partners with the appropriate security assistance and security apparatus that the status and – of – on the battlefield and the tides and turns of the conflict requires. And that continues to be the case.
Ultimate, it is Russia here that is being the aggressor. It is Russia taking the unlawful, unjust actions that are infringing on Ukrainian territorial integrity and sovereignty. As the President, the Secretary, and others have made quite clear, we will continue to support Ukraine, our Ukrainian partners in their efforts to defend themselves.
Anything else on Russia-Ukraine before we move away?
QUESTION: This is sort of on the Russia-Ukraine situation.
MR PATEL: Go ahead. Yeah, go ahead, Shaun.
QUESTION: On the Wagner Group.
MR PATEL: Yeah.
QUESTION: Burkina Faso – I wondered if you have anything to say about Burkina Faso asking French troops to withdraw. Obviously, to a certain extent it’s bilateral, but to the extent that there have been allegations that Burkina Faso is moving closer to the Wagner Group – I believe the Ghanaian president said that publicly when he was here in Washington. Do you have any comment on the – on the move to boot out the French troops and whether this indicates a greater relationship with the Wagner Group by authorities in Burkina Faso?
MR PATEL: I don’t have a – I don’t want to be speculative or offer a shot-in-the-dark assessment. But we’ve been very clear, and as I said just now, that countries that deepen their cooperation with the Wagner Group do not end up in a stronger position. And in fact, it’s quite the opposite: Countries that partner closely with Prigozhin and the Wagner Group find themselves susceptible to deeply destabilizing activities, activities that are destabilizing to not just their own country but also the region more broadly. But I can check if we’ve got anything further to add on Burkina broadly.
QUESTION: Something else – something else in the region.
MR PATEL: Yes, go ahead. Go ahead.
QUESTION: I guess it’s a couple days old, but Rwanda-DR Congo, the tensions there. Has there been any U.S. diplomacy involved in – involved there in this past week? How do you see things going? And specifically, the Qataris have been trying to organize a summit apparently between the DRC and Rwanda. Do you have any – has the U.S. been involved in that at all and has the Secretary called the Qataris?
MR PATEL: I don’t have any specific – specific calls or new engagements for the Secretary to read out, but I believe Ned spoke about this earlier in the week, and we of course are continuing to track the fighting that erupted among the M23 and the Congolese security forces and several armed groups on Monday. We’re also aware of Rwandan forces firing on DRC military aircraft on Monday as it was landing, and we welcome the swift investigation on this.
We, of course, continue to believe that all actors to support and abide by commitments to the regional mediation efforts led by Angola and the East African Community, and we urge all actors to seize this opportunity to achieve peace. But I’ll check if we have anything additional to share.
Go ahead, yeah.
QUESTION: Thank you very much. I have a question about some of the comments that Under Secretary Nuland made today at a hearing in Congress. She said that Congress would look more favorably to the sale of F-16 fighter jets to Türkiye if the Turkish parliament approved the NATO applications of Sweden and Finland. But we know very well that long before that application of those two countries, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chair Bob Menendez and a few others in Congress pledged that they’re going to do everything in their power to block the sale from taking place. So how is this supposed to be interpreted by the Turkish parliament as a friendly advice by Ms. Nuland when a few congressmen are creating an unfriendly or perhaps, let’s say, a hostile environment and holding the sale hostage? Can you please weigh in on that?
MR PATEL: Yeah. I will – I will reiterate what we’ve said previously. First, on the specifics of arms sales, I’m just not going to get into the specifics of that until they’ve been formally notified to Congress. Of course, we are seeing members of Congress make their opinions quite clear and quite vocal about this process, and that of course – they have every right to do that.
On NATO accession specifically for Sweden and Finland, we have been very clear about that and I will be clear about that again. We believe that they are ready to join NATO. They are already NATO partners. Their security forces are ready. Their security apparatuses are ready. They are countries that we and NATO both have partnered closely with, and that is why you saw our Congress ratify this process swiftly. It’s why you saw President Biden and Secretary Blinken be enthusiastic about this accession process. And we’re going to continue to push for that process to move forward.
QUESTION: If I can have a follow-up on that. I obviously know all of the points you just made, but I’m seeing – perhaps it’s a personal assessment, you can say, or there’s actually a shift in the U.S. narrative. Because now it’s getting to a point where it’s going to a place – okay, if you’re not approving the – if you’re not ratifying the applications, then you’re not getting the F-16s because President Biden said in June 2022 that there’s not going to be any quid pro quo, and that those two things are separate. Obviously that was the U.S. assessment. So now —
MR PATEL: That still is the U.S. assessment. That still is the U.S. assessment.
QUESTION: — the under secretary’s comment is basically like a clear-cut message to Ankara that, well, they’re going to look more favorably if you approve the ratification. But you’ve got the Senate Foreign Relations Committee chair and a few others that are saying that no matter what the circumstances, we’re going to try and block the sale. So how is this supposed to be a message to not only the ruling party, but also opposition parties, that you’re going to get the F-16s if you approve the applications? Because that doesn’t seem to be the case unless you can remove some of those roadblocks.
MR PATEL: Let me say a couple of things. I did not catch Under Secretary Nuland’s hearing today, so I don’t want to speak about something that I haven’t had a chance to see myself. But what I will say broadly, though, is we have been very clear – the Executive Branch, President Biden, this department have been very clear on F-16s. He’s been clear about this process and made his comments quite public.
On the specifics of the sale, though, we’re just not going to get ahead of that process till the formal congressional notifications have happened. Of course, Congress is an actor here and they have made their opinions quite vocal, and we welcome those, but we have also been clear about our continued support for Türkiye, our important NATO Ally, and their security operability within the NATO system and – though that is something that we’re going to continue to be clear-eyed out – about as well.
QUESTION: You said those two things should be separate as the State Department —
MR PATEL: They continue to be separate. We’ve – there is no quid pro quo. These two items continue to be separate.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MR PATEL: Michel.
QUESTION: I have a couple of questions on Lebanon.
MR PATEL: Sure.
QUESTION: One of the suspects that the top prosecutor released yesterday is a U.S. citizen who left Lebanon, coming to the U.S. Did the U.S. Government coordinate with the Lebanese authorities in the departure or regarding his departure?
MR PATEL: So I’m aware of your – the reports that we’re seeing that a U.S. citizen was released by Lebanese authorities. I don’t have specific updates for you, due to privacy considerations, but I will note that we generally offer and provide appropriate consular services to American citizens while they are abroad.
QUESTION: And some Lebanese considered the release of all the suspects a blow for the investigation. Do you agree with this assessment?
MR PATEL: So I will refer you to Lebanese authorities on the specifics, but I want to use the opportunity to reiterate what we have said before – we and our partners in the international community – which is that since this explosion, we continue to urge Lebanese authorities to complete a swift and transparent investigation into the horrific explosion at the Port of Beirut. The victims of the August 2020 port explosion and their families deserve justice, and those responsible must be held accountable.
QUESTION: And finally, is the U.S. ready to set forth any move at the UN Security Council to launch an international investigation in the – into the blast?
MR PATEL: I don’t have any update or change in policy to offer, Michel. I think, again, we are at the place of urging Lebanese authorities to complete a swift and transparent investigation into this explosion.
QUESTION: Just had a couple questions on China.
MR PATEL: Sure.
QUESTION: The first one is Secretary Blinken was obviously up on the Hill this morning briefing lawmakers. I’m wondering if there’s anything additional you might be able to provide in terms of what the message was and whether it was about the trip he’s taking to the PRC in February.
MR PATEL: I don’t have specific engagements to offer, Ian. Obviously, we engage with Congress on a number of issues, and the Secretary himself engages with leaders in Congress on a number of issues. Of course, as you know, he is intending to travel to the PRC at some point soon, and of course engagements with Congress relating to that would be appropriate. But I don’t have any specific readouts to offer.
QUESTION: Okay. Just on the trip itself, I mean, obviously, we’ve seen reports that Senator McCarthy is likely to make a visit to Taiwan in the coming months. And I’m just wondering: What will the Secretary’s message be to officials in Beijing about that visit? I mean, obviously, we saw the fallout from Pelosi’s visit over the summer. The Chinese have said previously that they would respond to any further visit of the same kind. So I’m just wondering – this will be the – one of the most high-level visits to China in years, and it will be the highest-level one ahead of – presumably ahead of any visit by McCarthy to Taiwan, so I’m wondering what that message will be to China on McCarthy’s potential visit.
MR PATEL: So I will let the Speaker’s office speak to any travel that may or may not coming down – be coming down the pike. I certainly don’t want to get ahead of that, and I also am not going to get ahead of the Secretary’s own trip. We, of course, I’m sure, will have more to talk about as that date gets closer, but I don’t want to get ahead of that process as well.
In the back. And then I’ll come to you, I promise.
MR PATEL: Go ahead.
QUESTION: Prashant Jha from The Hindustan Times. Vedant, last weeks, Xi Jinping held a meeting from the PLA headquarters in Beijing with the PLA troops stationed on the India-China border. He inspected their combat readiness, he asked about border patrol, he asked them to persist in their efforts, he asked them to make new contributions. This is, of course, a border that has seen tensions over the last two years. What would – how would you read it, and how – what would be your take on the larger dynamic that’s still ongoing on the India-China border? And then I have a follow-up after.
MR PATEL: I will have to get back – actually, I will have to get back to you on the specific developments that you just mentioned, but we are closely monitoring the situation broadly on – regarding the border clashes and are glad to hear at least in December that both sides to – have appeared to have disengaged. But we’ll check if we’ve got any specific updates for you.
QUESTION: Sorry, you’re saying that both sides disengaged in December?
MR PATEL: You’re speaking about the situation with India, correct?
MR PATEL: Yes.
QUESTION: Are you suggesting that both sides disengaged in December?
MR PATEL: No, I was speaking previously that they had. But we’ll check if we have an update for you.
QUESTION: My second question: Next week, the national security advisors of India and U.S. are meeting for the first initiative on critical and emerging technologies. I know that’s a process that’s shepherded by NSC, but given the history of India-U.S. relations, where technology denial has been a part of that past, would you like to speak broadly about the future of technology cooperation between India and U.S., especially in critical and emerging technologies?
MR PATEL: What I would say is that India is a important partner of choice for the United States in a number of spaces. That includes trade cooperation. It of course includes security cooperation. It also includes technological cooperation as well. So I don’t want to get too ahead of the process or get ahead of any specific meetings that might be coming down the pike, but this is of course of great importance to us.
QUESTION: Just one final question. After the formation of the new government in Nepal, China has been asking the Nepal Government to sign up for the Global Security Initiative. What’s your take on GSI and what would you – what’s your message to governments in South Asia which are feeling the Chinese heed to sign up for GSI?
MR PATEL: I’m going to have to check back on that, and we can make sure that someone follows up with you.
QUESTION: Thank you very much. Iraq and Kurdistan. The legal decision came as the Iraqi Government simply decided to send 260 million to the Kurdistan Regional Government as payments. As you know, the Iraqi federal supreme court, ruling against releasing payments by the federal government to the Kurdistan region. KRG completely rejects and all political party they are very, very angry, including Kurdish leadership, President Masoud Barzani. How you can help both side to find a solution? I know stability of Iraq is very important for the United States.
MR PATEL: Absolutely. And what I would say broadly that the United States wants to see a strong, united, resilient, and sovereign Iraqi state. And we want to see an Iraq that provides security, jobs, electricity, water, and healthcare for all of its citizens. I will also note that President Biden understands the importance of Iraq, including the Kurdistan region, and the importance of the United States to Iraq, including the Kurdistan region, for security needs and how critical it is to the regional security and the security of not just Iraq but also the Middle East as well.
QUESTION: Can I ask you a question about the withdrawal of a presidential nominee?
MR PATEL: Sure. Go ahead, Said.
QUESTION: On Sarah Margon, you probably heard that she withdrew from contention because, I guess, the position of Senator Jim Risch from Idaho that she’s critical of Israel. Do you have any comment on that withdrawal?
MR PATEL: I would say that Sarah Margon is someone who is deeply experienced and deeply accomplished in her field. This was a decision that she made personally, but of course she is somebody who has deep experience in the works of democracy, of human rights and issues that are very, very important to this department and this administration. But of course she made the decision to withdraw her nomination.
MR PATEL: Go ahead in the back. Let me work the —
QUESTION: Just a follow-up on this topic.
MR PATEL: Okay. Go ahead.
QUESTION: As you know, she – her nomination wasn’t considered because of a Tweet she put out there. What is the department reaction to the fact that the Senate – one Senator – right after a very important nominee that was supposed to lead the very important department of this – bureau of this department, just because of a Tweet?
MR PATEL: Alex, I’m not going to speculate or get into reasoning or anything, but I want to reiterate again that Sarah is someone who is deeply experienced, deeply knowledgeable in her field. She’s a subject‑matter expert, no doubt one of the most renowned experts in these areas that I outlined of democracy, of human rights, of labor issues. And of course, she made the – what I’m sure was a tough decision to withdraw her own candidacy.
Go ahead in the back.
QUESTION: According to the reports from South Korea, ROK Foreign Minister Park is planning to visit to United States and talk with Secretary Blinken. Can you confirm on this report, and what would be the possible agenda?
MR PATEL: I of course would let our Republic of Korea partners speak to their own travel. I don’t have any meetings or anything to read out. But I of course will use this opportunity to note that we have a deep relationship with the Republic of Korea. The Secretary has an – has had the opportunity to engage with the foreign minister on a number of occasions in bilateral settings, in multilateral settings. And we of course would look forward to any future opportunity to do that as well, but I don’t have any specifics to offer.
MR PATEL: One final question, Alex, and then —
QUESTION: Thanks so much. This might be —
MR PATEL: — we’ll call it a day.
QUESTION: — last minute for you, but Russian foreign minister, you probably have seen, issued a sharp statement today criticizing the EU for sending a civilian monitoring mission to Azerbaijan-Armenian border – something we discussed with Ned yesterday. They used pretty undiplomatic language. They blamed them on pursuing confrontation policy in the region, of bringing geopolitical confrontation. My question is, first off, your reaction to that statement. And secondly more broadly, how does the department view Russia’s role in the region? Is it truly a peacemaker or a troublemaker?
MR PATEL: Let me say a couple things, Alex. First, the U.S. is committed to Armenia‑Azerbaijan peace negotiations. We welcome efforts by partners, including the European Union, to build confidence in the region and to ensure an environment conducive to direct dialogue between Armenia and Azerbaijan. We continue to work closely with all our partners directly and with partners in the region as well when effective.
Specifically, about Russia’s role, the U.S. was not involved in the November 20 ceasefire brokered by Russia between Armenia and Azerbaijan that resulted in the deployment of Russian peacekeepers, so I just wouldn’t have anything additional to offer on that. But of course, as you know, Alex, this is something that is deeply important to the Secretary, something he’s paid – played close attention to and been deeply engaged on.
All right. Thanks, everybody.
(The briefing was concluded at 2:57 p.m.)
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