2:03 p.m. EST
MR PRICE: Happy Wednesday, everyone.
QUESTION: Happy Wednesday.
MR PRICE: We have two elements at the top before we turn to your questions. First, this morning, Secretary Blinken, Assistant to the President and Director of the White House Gender Policy Council Klein, and the United States Agency for International Development Administrator Power launched the first-ever whole-of-government U.S. Strategy on Global Women’s Economic Security. This strategy aims to support women and girls around the world, in all their diversity, to fully, meaningfully, and equally contribute to and benefit from economic growth and global prosperity.
This strategy has four priority lines of effort. First is promoting economic competitiveness and reducing wage gaps through well-paying, quality jobs; second is advancing care infrastructure and valuing domestic work; third is promoting entrepreneurship and financial and digital inclusion, including through trade and investment; and fourth is dismantling systemic barriers to women’s equitable participation in the economy.
The Department of State worked with eleven departments and agencies to develop this strategy. All of them will each formulate corresponding action plans and regularly report progress on implementation of this strategy.
Next and finally, today we announce the retirement of Ambassador Philip Reeker from his role as the senior advisor for Caucasus negotiations, from the Foreign Service, effective tomorrow, January 5th. For over thirty years, Ambassador Reeker has epitomized dedication and service to the department and the people of the United States of America, including as assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs and as our chargé d’affaires at our embassy in London.
Ambassador Reeker’s work as the senior advisor for Caucasus negotiations accelerated engagement and helped build a structured process to bring peace to a troubled region. His contribution reaffirms the importance the United States places in helping Armenia and Azerbaijan negotiate a bilateral sustainable peace, as well as our goal of supporting the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Georgia, as lead of our delegation to the Geneva International Discussions. Since the beginning of Ambassador Reeker’s appointment in August of last year, it was always understood and expected that he would serve in this position on a short-term basis until the end of last year.
Ambassador Reeker’s departure in no way undermines the United States’ commitment to promoting a secure, stable, democratic, prosperous, and peaceful future for the South Caucasus region. The United States continues to engage bilaterally with likeminded partners, like the European Union, and through international organizations, like the OSCE, to facilitate direct dialogue between Azerbaijan and Armenia and to find solutions to all outstanding issues related to or resulting from the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.
Ambassador Reeker’s extraordinary career at the department has focused on the most challenging of our diplomatic endeavors. From his work on peace agreements to his tireless efforts to negotiate the release of detainees, to his work at this very podium, Ambassador Reeker’s efforts have stemmed the tides of conflict and changed lives for the better. On behalf of the department, we thank Phil for his service and wish him the best in the next chapter of his career. We will all miss him very much.
With that, Matt.
QUESTION: Right. Thanks. And let me just add to your congratulations on Phil’s retirement. You should have mentioned that higher up, I think – that he was the deputy spokesman —
MR PRICE: He – I made reference to his work at this very podium.
QUESTION: Well, I know. Yes, yeah. But it was like a very small reference.
MR PRICE: He has done a lot in his career.
QUESTION: One might argue that there was – Phil was actually the first person that I ever heard of who got up and said that the Taliban were about to blow up the Bamiyan Buddhas back in pre-9/11 days, and it made a big impression.
QUESTION: Hear, hear.
QUESTION: So congratulations to Phil on his retirement.
MR PRICE: Yes, indeed. Indeed.
QUESTION: Speaking of Afghanistan, your first opening statement talked about the Global Women’s Economic Security. And yet in the Secretary’s speech, there was one – a one-word mention of Afghanistan in a one-sentence part of it. Why not highlight this a little bit more, considering you have expressed deep concern and reservations about the situation for women and girls in Afghanistan?
MR PRICE: Of course.
QUESTION: And this seemed – this would have seemed like a good opportunity to say something a little bit more than a clause.
MR PRICE: So a couple things on this, Matt. The event this morning was to launch the U.S. Strategy on Global Women’s Economic Security. This is an agenda that, as I detailed at the top, has several proactive and affirmative elements. Unfortunately, our work when it comes to supporting the women and girls of Afghanistan right now is focused, first and foremost, on seeking to mitigate the harms that the Taliban has inflicted on the women and girls of Afghanistan. This is a strategy that applies to women and girls around the world – to developed countries, developing countries alike. It is with a great degree of remorse that we say that women and girls in Afghanistan are, unfortunately, in a category unto their own.
And there is one actor that is responsible for placing them in that category. That is the Taliban. The steps, successive steps, that the Taliban has taken over the course of recent months – first with the edict banning girls from receiving secondary education, most recently with the edict banning international NGOs working with female humanitarian aid workers – these are steps that the Secretary has weighed in on in his own voice. These are actions that the Secretary, of course, is engaged on. The department as a whole is also engaged on them. As I mentioned yesterday at some length, we are working with our partners throughout the government and also with likeminded partners around the world to devise an appropriate set of consequences that register our condemnation for this outrageous edict on the part of the Taliban, while also protecting our status as the world’s leading humanitarian provider for the people of Afghanistan.
We were very quick to condemn this, as were a number of our allies and partners around the world. This happened on Christmas Eve. We did not let the day go by before we lent our voices to condemning this. We’re now working on that policy response, and we’ll have more to say at the appropriate time.
QUESTION: Okay, fine. But going back to when the announcement was made, when the administration announced that it was going to withdraw and then the actual withdrawal, you guys were saying all the time we have leverage over the Taliban because they want international recognition. They want foreign investment. They want respectability in the world. And there were people – a lot of them, including me from sitting right here —
MR PRICE: That was my thought.
QUESTION: Yeah. Who said, what gives you any reason to think that they do? And now you still say that. But they have done absolutely the opposite, as they did back in the 1990s. What can you do? What are your plans? If you really care, if human rights are really like at the forefront of this administration’s foreign policy agenda, and if you really care about Afghanistan post-withdrawal, what are you going to do?
MR PRICE: Matt, a couple of things. We have made no bones about the fact the Taliban have failed. They have either been unable or unwilling to live up to the commitments that they have made to the United States, but more importantly to —
QUESTION: Look, Ned, the problem is that they never intended to and you guys should have known that based on —
MR PRICE: — the people of Afghanistan.
QUESTION: Based on their past history, you should have known that.
MR PRICE: Matt, look, we have never been under any illusions about the nature of the Taliban, what they seek, and how they seek to go about doing that. But it is not the fact that we have been baselessly claiming that the Taliban wants better relations with the rest of the world. The Taliban, including yesterday the acting commerce minister, publicly asked for countries around the world to invest in Afghanistan, to engage in foreign direct investment inside of Afghanistan. That is a clear a signal as any that the Taliban seeks better relations with the rest of the world, that —
QUESTION: I’m sorry, that’s just – that – what they are doing, in terms of policies, not in terms of wishes – yes, if I had my own country —
MR PRICE: And the Taliban – the —
QUESTION: — I would like to have a ton of foreign investment and would want to have billions in —
MR PRICE: The Taliban – the Taliban may still be under the faulty illusion that they can have it both ways, that they can seek better relations with the world —
QUESTION: Well, then why don’t you prove to them that they can’t have it both ways?
MR PRICE: So we have taken a series of steps so far. We are considering what additional steps we can take to make very clear to the Taliban precisely where the United States stands. But we’re going to do this in a coordinated way with the rest of the world so the Taliban hears, continues to hear, a unified chorus from the rest of the world, a chorus of condemnation and a series of steps that are coordinated that make very clear where we stand.
QUESTION: Ned, on this point – just on —
MR PRICE: Let me go to Nazira, and then I’ll come to you, Said.
QUESTION: Yes (inaudible). Thank you so much. I was there upstairs, that Secretary Blinken —
MR PRICE: Yes.
QUESTION: — was talking about Afghanistan. I expected to say something more, and I tried to ask question, but I don’t do anything against that protocol. I was scared, because in the past I did – I was scared to not lose my job in the sensitive time that women is under a lot of pressure in Afghanistan.
Number two, yesterday, I asked you a question – thank you very much; always you answer my question – Taliban immediately showed reaction. And the Taliban spokesperson, Bilal Karimi, said this morning that we don’t care about United States; United States failed the war, and we defeat them. We listen (inaudible) our leader, Mullah Akhund Hasan and Mullah Hibatullah, say. In this situation, what is – you said we have another option. What will be next action of – next action from the United States to show – to do to defeat Taliban? They acting that they are very powerful, even more than United States. That’s a tough situation.
MR PRICE: So that is the very question that we are discussing internally and with our allies and partners, what that response – what that precise response to this latest affront to the rights of women and girls but in this case to all of the people of Afghanistan, including and certainly the most neediest – the neediest within the country – what that response will look like. We want to make very clear where we stand on this. We’re assessing the impacts that this edict has had and will have. We’re discussing the options that will best allow us to maintain a strong, principled position as the single largest humanitarian donor to Afghanistan while also doing what we can to prevent the humanitarian situation from deteriorating further as a result of the extraordinarily difficult operating environment the Taliban have created in Afghanistan for humanitarian providers in this case but for all of the people of Afghanistan. It’s women. It’s girls. It’s ethnic and religious minorities as well.
We remain committed to helping to alleviate the suffering of the Afghan people. There is a tremendous amount of it. We are under no illusions about that either. And we’re looking at those specific consequences that can be levied against the Taliban to register the condemnation that they have already heard from the rest of the world. They – as I – the point I was making to Matt earlier – they cannot expect to have it both ways. They cannot expect to take these draconian, barbaric steps that prevent opportunity for women and girls but more recently inflict such tremendous suffering on all of the people of Afghanistan and still expect to find a path to improved relations with the rest of the world. The Taliban may continue to harbor that faulty illusion. It is our goal with the response that we are developing internally and with our allies and partners to prove them – to prove to them that will not be the case.
QUESTION: Can I follow up? Thank you so much. Depriving Afghan people from their basic rights is a big problem, but harboring the terrorist groups is another major concern, especially for the neighboring countries. What measures are being taken to take out the hideouts of – terrorist hideouts in Afghanistan?
MR PRICE: So this is a concern for us as well. When I made the point to Matt that the Taliban has proven itself unable or unwilling to fulfill the commitments it has made, this is certainly one of those commitments. In the U.S.-Taliban agreement, the Taliban made a commitment to see to it that international terrorists would not operate freely within Afghanistan. The United States has in the operation that we undertook a few months ago that eliminated the leader of al-Qaida – who was living inside, in Kabul – made very clear that the Taliban had not lived up to that commitment.
But this is a shared concern we have. It is a concern we share with Afghanistan’s neighbors, including Pakistan. In this case, Pakistan, of course, has suffered tremendous violence owing to the threats that are – that have in many cases emanated from Afghanistan. So we are committed to working with partners, but President Biden also has a commitment to act unilaterally if and when necessary as we did just a few months ago with Ayman al-Zawahiri to take out threats that emerge in Afghanistan that potentially present a threat to the United States, to our allies, and to our interests.
QUESTION: The Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan threatens the top Pakistani political leadership, including Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif and Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto Zardari. I hope you have seen their statement?
MR PRICE: I have, and we condemn any threat of violence from any group, but certainly a threat of violence like this from a terrorist group like the TTP.
QUESTION: Sir, one last question. Pakistan is planning a massive operation against Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan, their hideouts in Pak-Afghan border areas. So what kind of assistance the United States can offer to help Pakistan in that kind of operation?
MR PRICE: With this, I think it’s important that we not lose sight of the bigger picture. Terrorism remains a scourge that has taken, as I said before, so many Pakistani, Afghans, and other innocent lives. The United States and Pakistan do indeed have a shared interest in ensuring that the Taliban live up to the commitments and that terrorist groups like ISIS-K, like the TTP, like al-Qaida are no longer able to threaten regional security. But for questions regarding their plans, I would need to refer you to Pakistani authorities.
QUESTION: Switching topics. Cuba. The embassy I believe today resumed visa operations for immigrants. What does this say both – does this have any implications more broadly for relations with Cuba? And also, what does it say about Havana Syndrome – so-called Havana Syndrome that was the original reason for reducing staff levels there? Is there a perception that there’s no longer the same threat level, at least in Havana?
MR PRICE: A couple things on this. So as you mentioned, starting today, the U.S. Embassy in Havana is processing all immigrant visa categories in addition to current services provided in Cuba, which include American citizen services as well as official diplomatic and emergency non-immigrant visas. This is a significant step in the restoration of consular services in Havana. It means all Cuban immigrant visa applicants scheduled for interviews starting this month will no longer have to travel to Georgetown, Guyana, where processing was taking place. Immigrant visa applicants whose appointments were originally scheduled in Georgetown, Guyana must still complete case processing in Guyana. Those cases will not be transferred to Cuba, but going forward new cases will be processed from our embassy in Havana.
The embassy began expanding consular services in May of 2022 by expanding immigrant visas for parents of U.S. citizens, and in July of 2022 expanded to include all other categories of immediate relatives – relative immigrant visas, including spouses and minor children of U.S. citizens as well. Additionally, in August of last year DHS resumed processing cases in Havana under the Cuban Family Reunification Program. The – we remain committed to facilitating the safe, orderly, and regular migration of Cuban citizens to the United States.
To the first part of your question, what this speaks to when it comes to our broader approach to Cuba, I think it makes real what we have consistently said that we seek to find practical ways to support the Cuban people. As I said just a moment ago, this visa processing, much of it is directed in very practical ways to support the Cuban people, including through family reunification. That has been a focus of our visa processing since the start of this administration. It will continue to be a focus now.
When it comes to anomalous health incidents, we have reviewed our staffing posture at our embassy in Havana at the direction of the President, and we’re exploring options to augment staffing to facilitate diplomatic, consular, and civil society engagement with an appropriate security posture, as we do around the world. Our top priority remains the health of – and safety of U.S. citizens overseas, including of course our diplomats and their family members, and we’re working to get to the bottom of anomalous health incidents and to provide top-notch care and support to everyone affected.
The investigation into what has caused these incidents and how we can protect our people is ongoing. And this represents a major effort that is underway within the interagency – among the White House, the Defense Department, Intelligence Community, as well as Congress and leading scientists, all with the input of the State Department, of course.
So the fact that we have been able to augment our staffing posture at our embassy in Havana is a signal that we are confident in our ability to mitigate the risks, confident in our ability to take prudent steps to protect our people. But this is something we evaluate and re-evaluate on a – virtually a daily basis.
QUESTION: Just briefly, you say you’re confident about the – the State Department is confident about the ability to mitigate the risk, in the sense that it’s not – there’s not seen as a particular risk in Havana from anomalous health incidents as opposed to other places?
MR PRICE: Well, diplomacy is never a risk-free endeavor, and our goal— is never a risk-free endeavor.
QUESTION: What? Oh, “risk-free.” I thought you said “risky endeavor.”
MR PRICE: Yes. Yes, it is never a risk-free endeavor. And our intention is never to eliminate risk, because we know that’s impossible. Our goal is to mitigate risk, and to conduct our operations responsibly, safely, taking into account all of the prudent precautions that are necessary in posts around the world. And that’s what we’re doing here.
QUESTION: But you’re – but just to be specific as to this, you’re looking to add people, not reduce people, to Havana?
MR PRICE: Over the course of the last year, we have —
QUESTION: No, I know, but now, from now —
MR PRICE: Yes, we have added people, and as we restart this visa processing out of our embassy in Havana, our intention, our hope will be to add people so we can expand those services that we’re able to provide from Havana.
QUESTION: Thank you. Can I change topics?
MR PRICE: Sure.
QUESTION: While everybody is focused on the Ben-Gvir visits yesterday, no one seems to be paying attention to what Mr. Netanyahu intends to do, which is legalize the – what you call illegal outposts like Evyatar and others. Do you have a position on this?
MR PRICE: We do. You’re referring, I believe, to the Homesh outpost in the West Bank.
MR PRICE: The Homesh outpost in the West Bank is illegal. It is illegal even under Israeli law. Our call to refrain from unilateral steps certainly includes any decision to create a new settlement, to legalize outposts, or allowing building of any kind deep in the West Bank adjacent to Palestinian communities or on private Palestinian land.
QUESTION: A couple more real quick. The Palestinians are – well, they’re saying that they – the Security Council will meet tomorrow at an emergency session at 3:00 in the afternoon. Do you have a position on the meeting of the Security Council to discuss Ben-Gvir?
MR PRICE: We have a position on the underlying issue. As you heard me say yesterday, we stand firmly for preservation of the historic status quo with respect to the holy sites in Jerusalem. Any unilateral actions that depart from that historic status quo is unacceptable. To your question, if a member of the Security Council requests a meeting on this issue, as seems to have happened, we will be ready to reiterate our views to our fellow Security Council members.
QUESTION: Okay. And finally, just very quickly, on the – on a potential summit, I guess, in Morocco for the Abraham Accord countries, is the Secretary working or coordinating with his counterparts to hold such a summit in March?
MR PRICE: We certainly intend to continue down the Negev Forum process that was started last year in the Negev Desert in Israel. The Secretary, of course, participated with his counterparts. I do expect that there will be lower-level engagement through the Negev process, potentially even in the coming days, if – I expect we may have more details to share on that before too long. But yes, since the conclusion of the Negev Forum last year, the inaugural convening of the Negev Forum, it has always been our intention to bring together the Negev participants at the ministerial level. Again, we don’t have a specific date at the moment to provide, but that remains our intention. Because normalization between Israel and its neighbors is something that we unambiguously support. We believe it brings opportunity to the people of Israel, to the people of the region, and we seek to help Israel and its neighbors build those bridges of opportunity.
QUESTION: Thank you. Several months before, Secretary Blinken had spoken about that he will take steps to reduce the visa backlog in India. Instead of decreasing, it’s gone up to more than thousand days, sometimes 1,200 days. What steps the U.S. is taking to reduce those visa backlog, because this is impacting people-to-people and business-to-business ties between the two countries?
MR PRICE: Certainly understand those frustrations. And I can tell you that it is a priority of the Secretary and of the department to do everything we can to reduce that backlog and ultimately to reduce the wait times. We are committed to safeguarding national security while facilitating legitimate travel to nonimmigrant travelers, and we know that timely visa processing is essential to the U.S. economy and to the administration’s goal of family reunification.
We have made great strides in recovering from pandemic-related closures and staffing challenges, but we’re still working to respond to the significant demand for visa services. And that demand for visa services has only increased as pandemic restrictions have eased in countries across the world and people are looking for opportunities to travel to the United States.
We are successfully lowering visa wait times worldwide. We have doubled our hiring of U.S. Foreign Service personnel to do this important work. Visa processing is recovering faster than projected, and over the coming year we expect to reach pre-pandemic processing levels. We issued more student visas in Fiscal Year 2022 than in any year since 2016. Our embassy and consulates in India, in particular, broke their all-time record for the number of student visas issued in a single fiscal year. We issued nearly 125,000 student visas. We of course recognize that some applicants may still face extended visa wait times, and we’re making every effort to further reduce visa interview appointment wait times as quickly as possible in India and around the world, including for first-time tourist visa applicants.
QUESTION: This year being – India being the G20 head, there’s a lot of activities with the two countries. Do you have a timeline for the 2+2, the annual mega event with the two countries?
MR PRICE: I don’t have a date to announce just yet, but it is an important opportunity for the Secretary, for the Secretary of Defense, to engage with their Indian counterparts every single year. It’s an opportunity to discuss the breadth of our Global Strategic Partnership that we have with India. The Secretary will of course have probably several opportunities to travel to India over the course of the year, given India’s hosting of the G20 – something we look forward to taking part and certainly look forward to a successful G20 under India’s auspices.
QUESTION: And finally, one more thing on the Taliban part, if you can go back. There’s a war of words between the Taliban and the Pakistani army these days. Have you taken note of it? What do you think – make out of this?
MR PRICE: Sorry, could you repeat that question?
QUESTION: There’s a war of words between Taliban and the Pakistani army. What do you – how do you see this?
MR PRICE: We know that the Pakistani have – Pakistani people have suffered tremendously from terrorist attacks. We know that the Taliban have made commitments to curtailing the ability of international terrorists to be able to operate on Afghan soil. We continue to call on the Taliban to uphold those counterterrorism commitments.
QUESTION: Ned, thanks so much. Happy hump day.
MR PRICE: Yes.
QUESTION: A couple of questions on – housekeeping questions involving Ambassador Reeker, and then I have a couple more on (inaudible) —
MR PRICE: Sure.
QUESTION: — if you stay with me. Who is the point person right now in this building overseeing U.S. mediating efforts in the South Caucasus?
MR PRICE: Well, right now Ambassador Reeker, fortunately, is still a State Department employee, at least for another 24 hours or so. Upon his departure, this is an issue that will continue to receive attention from senior-level officials in this building. As you know, Secretary Blinken is personally invested in this process; he’s demonstrated that personal investment by bringing together the leaders of – his counterparts from Armenia and Azerbaijan by speaking with them regularly. I expect he’ll have an opportunity in the coming days to re-engage by phone with his counterparts in Armenia and Azerbaijan.
Karen Donfried, our assistant secretary for Europe and Eurasian Affairs, also plays a leading role in these efforts. But it is something that we will remain committed to going forward.
QUESTION: And will his position as special envoy be vacant or shop is closed?
MR PRICE: I don’t have anything to add when it comes to personnel. But I do have something to emphasize when it comes to policy, and that is what I said at the top. This in no way diminishes our commitment to promoting a secure, stable, democratic, and prosperous South Caucasus region.
QUESTION: And you said that your – his departure will not – in no way undermine your efforts.
MR PRICE: That’s right.
QUESTION: But can you give us more – can you give more efforts, other than the phone calls, to convince the Azerbaijanis, Armenians, and Georgians that that will be the case moving forward?
MR PRICE: Well, what you’ve seen from us to date, both under Ambassador Reeker’s tenure and under the tenure of his predecessor as well, we have engaged bilaterally. We have engaged with likeminded partners like the EU. We’ve engaged with international organizations like the OSCE to facilitate direct dialogue between Azerbaijan and Armenia to find solutions to all of those issues related to or resulting from the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Our approach is not going to change. Our approach is one of facilitation, helping the parties themselves to sit down together in a constructive way, and to ideally achieve progress to what is ultimately a comprehensive, long-term solution.
QUESTION: So there’s no connection between his retirement, announcement of his retirement, and also the fact that his latest effort to bring the ministers together in December didn’t pan out?
MR PRICE: Of course not. This was always intended to be a rather short-term assignment on the part of Ambassador Reeker. He’s someone who took on this assignment at the request of the Secretary after what had been a storied career. He’s been ambassador many times over, most recently the chargé at the Court of St. James, stood at the very podium, has served as our assistant secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs. This is someone who has been around the world, been around the block in this department, and it was always his intention to step down at the end of last year.
QUESTION: Thanks so much. Moving to Russia, I’m sure you have seen the media reports that Putin – reports on Putin sending new hypersonic cruise missiles to Atlantic. There are also reports that the ship would also sail in the Mediterranean Sea. Just was wondering if the department has any position on that.
MR PRICE: I’d refer you to the Department of Defense for any particular position on this. From here, it is not our practice to weigh in on propaganda exercises.
QUESTION: Thank you. I have two questions. Russia and North Korea and South Korea (inaudible).
MR PRICE: Sure.
QUESTION: It was reported that Russia sent a letter of appreciation to North Korea for supporting a special military operation in the war with Ukraine. Can you share any information on what North Korea specifically supported to North Korea – I mean, supported to Russia? I’m sorry.
MR PRICE: Yes. So we have made no secret of the fact – and in fact, we have provided information that speaks to the support that the DPRK has provided to Russia, apparently at Russian – at Russia’s request. The DPRK has provided needed security assistance, sending this assistance through third countries. We released information at the end of last year, speaking to the DPRK’s provision of security assistance to the Wagner Group in particular.
The fact is that because of the sanctions, because of the export controls that the United States and dozens of countries around the world have levied against Moscow, Moscow has been forced to look for nontraditional security partners – countries like Iran, countries like the DPRK. In some cases, Moscow has not had a robust security relationship with these countries. That in and of itself has posed a challenge to Russia, attempting to integrate this type of assistance that it has been forced to seek out.
And because of all of this, the Ukrainians are and have been able to demonstrate their efficacy on the battlefield. They have been putting to extraordinary use the weapons and the supplies that the United States and our partners around the world have provided to them. We’ve seen evidence of that success and efficacy even in recent days.
QUESTION: Is there any evidence that North Korean special forces supported to Russia except – beside arms?
MR PRICE: I don’t have anything to add on that.
QUESTION: Okay. One more on South Korea. South Korean Government announced that it was considering suspending the September 19 military agreement with North Korea because North Korea violated the agreement 17 times after signing the 9/19 agreement. Can you share the U.S. view on this?
MR PRICE: Well, I can share our view on what you raised. We are concerned about the DPRK’s apparent disregard of the 2018 Comprehensive Military Agreement and calls – and we call on it to end its irresponsible and escalatory behavior. The DPRK has continued to engage in a series of provocations, including the ones that you alluded to. Regarding a possible abrogation of this Comprehensive Military Agreement, we’d have to refer you to the ROK Government on that.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MR PRICE: Thanks. Shaun.
QUESTION: Could we stay in Asia? China – more on China and COVID. The World Health Organization said today that it believes that China is undercounting the COVID cases. Is that an assessment that the United States agrees with? And a little bit more broadly, how do you assess the role of the World Health Organization? The previous administration was not especially happy with the WHO’s performance at the start of COVID-19, at the start of the pandemic. How do you assess how the WHO is handling what’s going on right now?
MR PRICE: Sure. We – the CDC, I should say – when it announced the pre-departure COVID testing requirement for travelers coming from the PRC, made a couple points. The CDC recommended this approach because of the spread of COVID within the PRC, the prevalence of COVID within the PRC, but also because of the lack of adequate and transparent epidemiological and viral genomic sequence data being reported from the PRC. It’s the lack of transparency that has compounded our concern for the potential for a variant to emerge in the PRC and potentially to spread well beyond its borders.
We are not going to characterize discussions between the PRC and the WHO. Those discussions took place yesterday. Senior WHO officials have, over the course of the day, characterized not only those discussions but their assessment of what they have seen, but more appropriately, what they have not seen from the PRC. We’ve seen the statement from the WHO’s emergencies director that the current numbers being published in China underrepresent the true impact of the disease in terms of hospital admissions, in terms of ICU admissions, particularly in terms of deaths. I believe the same official went on to say that we do not – we still do not have complete data. That, of course, is the WHO’s assessment. They are in the best position to make an assessment, because PRC officials recently took part in discussions with them, discussions that included a formal presentation.
When it comes to the WHO, the WHO is an indispensable organization. It is an organization that is at all times important. It is especially important in the midst of what still continues to be a pandemic that is having implications the world over, not only in terms of illness and death but in terms of the knock-on effects, the economic effects, the inflationary pressures, the supply chain disruptions as well. This is an organization that, at its best, can be effective in terms of their response. Just as importantly, it can be extraordinarily useful in terms of building up resilience so that the world can be prepared for the emergence of the next outbreak, hopefully staunching it before it becomes an epidemic or, at worst, a pandemic.
They’re – like all organizations, of course we believe they’re – it is possible to optimize its operations. From the earliest day, literally, of this administration, we reengaged with the WHO out of the knowledge of its indispensability, but also out of the belief that by – through re-engagement, we could help the WHO in its efforts to fulfill its important mandate.
Kylie, go ahead.
QUESTION: Just a follow-up on that.
MR PRICE: Yeah.
QUESTION: Tomorrow the restrictions for travelers coming from China go into effect in the U.S. So could you just speak to how those restrictions are part of an effort to keep out any potential new COVID variants or detect any potential COVID variants from coming to the U.S.?
MR PRICE: Well, this is really a better question for the CDC. They are the ones that are administering this approach. They were the ones that announced it. Of course, this was an approach that is based on science. It is based on the best medical advice that emanates from the CDC and its peer organizations. So I’m hesitant to delve too far into this.
But the point we’ve made repeatedly is that when COVID is spreading anywhere, but especially when COVID is spreading with such prevalence in a country as populous and as large as China, of course there is the potential for variants to emerge. We have seen variants emerge apparently from other regions of the world that have ultimately reached the United States. This is a transnational – all public health threats are, by their very definition, transnational. We want to do all we can to see to it that the PRC gets this under control and to put in place prudent steps so that we do everything we can to prevent the spread of any potential variants, should they emerge beyond any country’s borders.
QUESTION: And can I just ask you one domestic question? Given that we’re going into day two with Congress still kind of in havoc, not able to pick a speaker, what’s your message to U.S. allies who are watching this about the state of the U.S. political system?
MR PRICE: Our message has never been that democracy is neat or that democracy is seamless in terms of its operations. But what the – what we’re seeing, what the world is seeing, are our democratic institutions at work. The fact is that this is —
QUESTION: Or not at work.
MR PRICE: Well, no. The fact is that these are the processes that –
QUESTION: Sorry. What work has the House gotten done in the last day and a half?
MR PRICE: These are the —
QUESTION: What work have they gotten done?
MR PRICE: They are seeing our democracy at work, because the processes that have been written into questions like the leadership, the elected leadership of the House of Representative – House of Representative – House of Representatives, that is what is governing this process, and that is what members are complying with and abiding by. That’s what the world – that’s what the world is watching. Democracy isn’t always – it isn’t always without its complications. But when processes are followed, institutions are respected, ultimately the outcome is one that everyone can get behind.
QUESTION: Ned, this is the first time that this has happened in about a hundred years. So, I mean, what does that show the rest of the world? I mean, is the U.S. political system as stable as it has – in a more unstable place now than it has been in recent years?
MR PRICE: Look, I’m not going to characterize the U.S. political system. I will just say that there is a process that is being hewed to right now by elected lawmakers. We saw Americans turn out – in some cases in record numbers – in the midterm elections to vote for the 118th Congress. That 118th Congress is now taking part in the process that is set out in the bylaws of the House of Representatives. That in itself is a testament to the functioning of democracy, even if that functioning may be taking just a little bit longer than it has in the past hundred years or so.
QUESTION: Can I ask a question on Iran?
MR PRICE: Let me move around to —
QUESTION: Yeah, please. Go ahead.
MR PRICE: — people who haven’t asked a question yet. Yes.
QUESTION: Today it was announced that Jarrett Blanc, the special – the deputy special envoy for Iran, is leaving State Department. He was very much involved in the nuclear talk. What is the reason behind this departure, and do we have a new appointee for this position?
MR PRICE: So Jarrett is a Department of Energy National Nuclear Safety Administration employee, and after nearly two years on detail – that is to say, he was on loan from DOE to the Department of State – he is returning to his home agency, where he will be managing special projects for the Secretary of Energy and the NNSA administrator. The Department of Energy is a critical partner in shaping U.S. policy on Iran’s nuclear program, and in his new role, Jarrett will remain involved in this issue, and returning to his home agency after two years is a normal personnel move.
QUESTION: So in nature, this departure is different than Richard Nephew’s departure?
MR PRICE: I’m not going to —
QUESTION: Did —
MR PRICE: I’m not going to compare the two, but it is true that Richard Nephew was not a detailee. Richard was then and now is again a direct hire by the Department of State. Jarrett is a detailee from the Department of Energy and he is returning to his home agency.
QUESTION: Today, two senators – Ted Cruz and Jim Risch – they named Iran as one of the biggest crucial political challenges that U.S. is facing in 2023. Do you have the same assessment?
MR PRICE: Of course. There is no denying that Iran presents one of the most complex challenges we face. That has been the case over the course of successive administrations. Its nuclear program has been the focus of successive administrations. Its malign activities throughout the Middle East and in some cases potentially even beyond has been the focus of successive administrations, as it has been during this administration. And now what it is doing to its own people – the repression, the violence that it’s perpetrating against the brave Iranians who are taking to the streets; and the military support, the security assistance that it’s providing to Russia – all of these are compounded and represent what is undeniably one of the most difficult challenges we face.
QUESTION: Ned, an Iranian official said last week – I think it was Saturday – that things are not that bleak or don’t look that bleak for returning to the – to the nuclear deal. What is your assessment?
MR PRICE: We spoke to this yesterday, but at every step of the way, the Iranians have given —
QUESTION: During the time —
MR PRICE: — have given us no reason to put any stock or faith into the statements that they have made, the assessments that they have put forward. We had an opportunity to put that proposition to the test just a few short months ago in September. There was a deal to mutually return to the JCPOA that was on the table that was approved by all parties. That ultimately went nowhere only because the Iranians weren’t prepared to accept it, and in fact they reneged on that deal.
The JCPOA hasn’t been on the agenda for some months now. Of course, at the top of our agenda has been doing everything we can to support the universal rights of the people of Iran and to counter this burgeoning security relationship between Iran and Russia.
QUESTION: So what would be the one thing that the Iranians could say this week to reinject life into the process next week?
MR PRICE: Look, right now our focus is on the protests, our focus is on what Iran is providing to Russia and what in turn Russia is doing with those materials and wares to the people of Ukraine.
QUESTION: One more on Iran?
MR PRICE: Sure.
QUESTION: One more on Iran.
MR PRICE: Yeah.
QUESTION: Charlie Hebdo, the satirical newspaper, has some cartoons of Ayatollah Khamenei. The Iranian – the regime is not very happy about those cartoons. They’ve summoned the French ambassador, calling for just the prohibition of the publication. Does the United States want to weigh in on that? Is there a view —
MR PRICE: We would only weigh in on the side of freedom of expression, and freedom of expression is a value, it is a universal right that we protect, we uphold, we promote the world over, whether that’s in France, whether that’s in Iran, whether that’s anywhere in between.
Let me – yes.
QUESTION: Ned, one final on Iran, please.
MR PRICE: Go ahead, yes.
QUESTION: Yes, hi. The Libyan minister of oil and gas is in town, in D.C. Does he have any scheduled meeting at the department?
MR PRICE: I am not aware. We’ll check on that and get back to you if there is any engagement with the Department of State.
QUESTION: And my second question is on Lebanon. The Lebanese foreign minister was here, and he – I believe he met Barbara Leaf. Did you give the Lebanese any promises regarding sanctions waiver if they want to import gas from Egypt and electricity from Jordan? Is there any update?
MR PRICE: Sorry, is there —
QUESTION: Any update on that sanctions waiver?
MR PRICE: There – we don’t have any update to provide from here. Of course, we have regular discussions with our Lebanese counterparts, with our Lebanese partners, emphasizing to them the need of – the need for the Lebanese Government to put the interests of their country first and to create and sustain a government able to implement long-overdue reforms critical to unlocking the international support that Lebanon so clearly needs. But I don’t have an update for you to offer when it comes to any sanctions, any approach to – change in our approach to sanctions.
QUESTION: Thank you, Ned. There is an impression being created in Pakistan that the U.S. basically wants Pakistan to take some action against the terrorist hideouts on the border. Is there such encouragement?
MR PRICE: This is a threat that Pakistan itself faces, going back to what I was telling your colleague just a moment ago. Militants, terrorist groups operating in the border regions, operating inside Afghanistan, have claimed far too many Pakistani lives. Of course, Pakistan has every right to defend itself. This is ultimately, in some cases, a shared threat to the region, and it’s one we take very seriously, as do our Pakistani partners, of course.
QUESTION: But Pakistan – but the U.S. is not, like, encouraging Pakistan to take such action? That’s – if I’m correct on that, the U.S. is not encouraging that Pakistan should take action.
MR PRICE: Pakistan will do what’s in its self-interest, and it will take action when it deems appropriate based on the inherent right of self-defense.
QUESTION: But Pakistan has been saying the same thing for 20 years. When the U.S. was there and more than hundred thousand NATO troops were there, Pakistan had the same concerns that these terrorists across the border conduct terrorist activities and then they go back. So how will the – if the U.S. couldn’t do it along with the NATO forces, how can the Taliban keep an eye on such hideouts and – like, is it possible? Do you see something like that?
MR PRICE: It’s clear that this has been an enduring challenge. It’s been an enduring challenge for the United States, for NATO, but certainly for Afghanistan’s neighbors, who have often most frequently been the victims of attacks that have emanated from Afghanistan. Pakistan is a close partner, a close security partner. We work closely together to do what is appropriate to confront shared and mutual threats as well as shared opportunities, but I’m not going to speak to any plans or operations that the Pakistanis may be taking or contemplating.
QUESTION: Okay. Just one more thing on the same (inaudible). If such thing were to happen, the U.S. is aware that on both side of the border region, there are mostly Pashtun population, and this could lead to a severe warlike condition between this ethnicity as well. I’m sure the U.S. is aware of that, right?
MR PRICE: I am just not going to weigh in on a hypothetical. Of course, too many Pakistanis have – the lives of too many Pakistanis have been taken as a result of cross-border violence. The terrorist threat emanating from Afghanistan has in the past not only presented a threat to Pakistan but to the region and, in some cases, as we know all too well, well beyond. So these are questions for the Pakistani Government. We are a partner to Pakistan, but ultimately its decisions are its decisions.
QUESTION: Two questions. Russia’s special envoy for the Middle East, Safronkov, said today that the United States is withdrawing itself from the work of the Quartet, the Middle East settlement. Is it – is the United States still interested in working with the Quartet, do you know?
MR PRICE: I’m not aware that we’ve made any formal decision regarding the Quartet or any formal statement regarding the Quartet. Of course, the Quartet is focused on Israeli-Palestinian issues. We have made no secret about the fact that, in our estimation, we are not on the precipice of any meaningful engagement between Israelis and Palestinians towards that two-state solution. Our focus, therefore, has been on doing what we can in the interim to help set the conditions: re-engaging with the Palestinian Authority, re-engaging with the Palestinian people, continuing to maintain our ironclad commitment to Israel’s security, continuing to advance and deepen our partnership with Israel, all in ways that over time we hope will help create the conditions for meaningful progress towards that ultimate end goal of a two-state solution.
QUESTION: Do you think in 2023 we’re going to see Russian and U.S. embassies coming back to normal staffing?
MR PRICE: That is a better question for Moscow, and that’s a better question for Moscow because Moscow has unfortunately imposed onerous restrictions on our staffing posture at the embassy in Moscow. We of course have been curtailed in terms of what we’ve been able to do and provide from that platform as a result of those onerous restrictions. All we seek is reciprocity. We seek to have in Moscow what the Russians have in the United States. That’s the principle that we seek to exercise the world over with our diplomatic relationships and our reciprocal missions, and we continue to work on these questions with Moscow and we hope to see progress.
QUESTION: Well, but really – I’m sorry, I don’t want to drag this out any more, but just can you find out when you say you want – what you want is reciprocity, are you – in terms of presence in each other’s country? That does not include the UN, does it?
MR PRICE: The UN is not a —
QUESTION: Because if you’re going to – because if you’re going to add – if you’re going to say that the Russians need to give you the same amount as they have in New York and in Washington —
MR PRICE: The UN does not constitute a bilateral mission to the United States.
QUESTION: Okay. So it —
MR PRICE: That is right.
MR PRICE: The Russians have more diplomats in the United States in their bilateral facilities than we do in Russia.
QUESTION: But not including the UN?
MR PRICE: That’s right. That’s right.
QUESTION: Okay. And then when was the last time the Quartet met at any —
MR PRICE: I was – I was wracking my brain myself.
QUESTION: — at any level?
MR PRICE: I was wracking my brain. That is a question for the history books. I don’t know.
QUESTION: Do you have an update as to when Lynne Tracy will be arriving?
MR PRICE: I know she wants to arrive just as soon as she can. She was just confirmed late last year. Obviously she’s been serving as an ambassador in the region. She’s concluding that service shortly and will be in Moscow just as soon as she can.
Alex, final question?
QUESTION: Thank you, Ned. Two final on Iran, please. Ukrainian intelligence today revealed that Iranian drones contain parts from 13 – one-three – different American companies. Was the department aware of this fact? And is anyone in this building keeping good track of the materials manufactured in the U.S. that Iran has its hands on, either directly or through resellers?
MR PRICE: We’re certainly aware of these reports. This is something that we’re focused on. As you know, our approach has been to deprive, to systematically starve Russia of the inputs that it needs to prosecute its brutal war of aggression against the people of Ukraine. And so reports that Russia has been able to get its hands on needed components from Western countries, potentially even including the United States, that’s something that we’re taking a close look at. It’s something that we’re engaging private industry with. Supply chain security is something that’s especially important in a case like this to ensure that vendors know where their products are going, to ensure that we share information as appropriate and relevant with the private sector as well. And if there are additional steps we can take, including additional export restrictions, that’s something we’ll take a close look at as well.
QUESTION: Just (inaudible), you meant Iran, not Russia? Just to —
MR PRICE: I’m sorry, Iran.
QUESTION: So finally, back to (inaudible) question, is the administration reconsidering whether or not to keep the Iran negotiator position now that we know the President said the deal is dead, unless the word “dead” has different meaning in this building?
MR PRICE: So Rob Malley’s position is a broad one, and of course at the beginning of this administration he was primarily focused on efforts to achieve a mutual return to compliance with the JCPOA. More recently, now that the JCPOA has not been on the agenda for several months, Rob has been very focused on what we can do to support the universal rights of the Iranian people, those Iranians who are taking to the streets to exercise those fundamental rights, but also what we can do as a government to counteract Iran’s broader malign influence and activities, including its provision of security assistance to Russia, but in addition to all of the other malign activities that we’ve talked about today and in recent weeks.
(The briefing was concluded at 3:01 p.m.)
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