2:12 p.m. EDT
MR PRICE: Good afternoon. Happy Thursday.
QUESTION: Good afternoon.
MR PRICE: Over the past four days, there have been protests against MONUSCO in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo. A number of these protests have turned violent, resulting in the unacceptable and tragic deaths of UN peacekeepers and UN police officers and Congolese protesters.
The United States offers our condolences and deepest sympathies to the families, the friends, and colleagues of those killed as well as to MONUSCO and to the United Nations. MONUSCO plays a critical role in fostering peace and security, protecting civilians, and facilitating delivery of humanitarian assistance.
We call on the national and local authorities in the DRC to ensure the protection of MONUSCO sites and personnel and for protesters to express their sentiments peacefully. We appreciate the government of the DRC’s commitment to investigating these events and holding accountable those responsible.
The United States underscores that attacks against UN personnel and facilities are contrary to international law. Freedom of expression, including peaceful protest, must be allowed, but not violence.
Next, today the Department of State published our annual Investment Climate Statements, which describe the investment climates of more than 160 countries and economies around the world.
The Investment Climate Statements help U.S. companies make informed business decisions. They also serve as a reference for foreign governments seeking to mobilize high-quality, sustainable investments as they drive continued economic recovery from the pandemic. A welcoming investment climate can help attract high-quality, durable investments and support the global economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic. The reports highlight those areas in which countries have improved local investment conditions, as well as remaining barriers that may hinder opportunities for U.S. businesses.
Successful global economic recovery from the pandemic must be grounded in sustainable, equitable, and inclusive growth. To that end, the statements not only cover market conditions, they assess how governments uphold international labor standards, enable responsible business conduct, combat corruption, and implement policies to mitigate and adapt to the effects of the climate crisis.
The statements can be found online on our website.
And finally, I am pleased today to announce that we are marking the 100th anniversary of unbroken diplomatic relations between the United States and Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania.
The story of these steadfast relationships is a remarkable one. Our relationships have withstood the brutal and illegal Nazi and Soviet occupations of the Baltic States until Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania courageously reclaimed their independence, rebuilt their nations, and became active and committed members of the UN, NATO, and the EU. Today we stand together as close friends, strategic partners, and strong Allies, deeply committed to defending our democratic institutions, our human rights, and our freedoms.
The United States is proud to join with Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania as we work together to support the democratic aspirations of their European neighbors and others around the world and stand with the Baltic nations in support for Ukraine amid Russia’s brutal invasion. Whether our countries are protecting the rule of law, sharing lessons of e-governance, or standing up for fundamental freedoms, the United States is more committed than ever to stand with you as our democracies rise to the challenge of this moment. And here’s to the next hundred years.
With that, Matt.
QUESTION: Okay, thank you. Happy day after the department’s birthday.
MR PRICE: Yes, thank you.
QUESTION: I’m not sure if there’s a word for that. A kind of Boxing Day.
Following up on the Secretary’s remarks from yesterday on the – on Russia, has there been any movement on either the proposal that you have submitted or on arranging the Secretary’s phone call with Foreign Minister Lavrov?
MR PRICE: So as you heard from the Secretary yesterday, we have expressed interest, we have made clear to the Russian Federation, that we are seeking a conversation between Secretary Blinken and Foreign Minister Lavrov. Before the Secretary spoke yesterday, we had made contact with our – with the appropriate Russian counterparts to put in a call request. The Russians acknowledged that call request yesterday. We have continued to go back and forth.
As you know, Foreign Minister Lavrov is in the midst of travel, so I don’t have any update to provide in terms of when they may be able to connect, but we continue to discuss that in the appropriate channels.
Among the issues that the Secretary outlined that he would broach with Foreign Minister Lavrov first and foremost in this case is the continued wrongful detention of Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan. As part of that, the Secretary said yesterday that we had put forth a substantial proposal and that he would seek to use that call to attempt to move towards a resolution on the basis of that substantial proposal.
So the call, of course, has not happened. He has not had an opportunity to seek to do that with Foreign Minister Lavrov. But it is something that we are continuing to pursue, and we continue to expect that they’ll have an opportunity to speak in the coming days.
QUESTION: Okay. But presumably, the substantial proposal wasn’t submitted to Foreign Minister Lavrov, so I’m just curious if there’s been any – aside from a – or do you not expect there to be any movement on this until or at – until at least after they speak?
MR PRICE: Well, let me back up. We have conveyed this substantial proposal directly and repeatedly to Russian counterparts. We have done so over the course of several weeks. It had been our hope that with the conveyance of this proposal that we would be – we would have been able to resolve these cases before we got to this point.
QUESTION: But is it your analysis or is it the thinking of the administration that you don’t think the Russians will respond or there will be any movement on the proposal until after conversation between Blinken and Lavrov?
MR PRICE: I will leave to the Russians to speak to their willingness. It has consistently been our hope – we have sought to resolve these cases to see Paul Whelan, Brittney Griner freed as soon as we started working these cases. So the fact is that we are now escalating this to the level of the Secretary in the hopes of moving this to resolution, but again, this substantial proposal has been on the table for weeks now. There is no reason to delay this. Every single day that Paul Whelan and Brittney Griner remain behind bars, it is injustice compounded on itself. Our goal is to see these cases resolved just as soon as we can.
QUESTION: Last one from me. And you said that you still – even though you haven’t heard back about the call, that you still expect it to happen in, quote/unquote, “the coming days.” So does that mean that you still think it will happen before the weekend or before next week?
MR PRICE: I couldn’t say. We’re continuing to discuss logistics. I don’t have anything specific to offer at this point.
QUESTION: Thank you. On China —
QUESTION: Can we stay on the same topic —
MR PRICE: Sure, we’ll stay on the same topic – sure.
QUESTION: Thanks so much. Is there any scenario at this point that this call might not happen? Because the Secretary was very diplomatic yesterday; he said he expects to speak with Lavrov.
MR PRICE: Well, we do expect to speak with Foreign Minister Lavrov. We request – we put in a call request yesterday before you heard from the Secretary. It remains our expectation that the two will have an opportunity to speak, but again, I don’t have any updates to add at this point in terms of specific timing.
QUESTION: Thank you, and one more question on this one. Is there any concern that, given Russia’s previous behavior, the way they behave after they achieve what they want to seek, that this call, potential call, might embolden Russian actions in Ukraine, even though the Secretary made it clear it’s not going to be about Ukraine aggression in particular?
MR PRICE: Well, that’s part of our – that’s part of the reason why you heard directly from the Secretary yesterday. The Secretary felt it important to be very clear about what a call with Foreign Minister Lavrov would entail and, just as importantly in some respects, what it wouldn’t entail. And so you heard directly from the Secretary that first and foremost he wanted to convey clearly and directly, personally to Foreign Minister Lavrov, the priority we attach and have always attached to the prompt return of Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan, both of whom are held unjustly in Russia.
Two, he wanted to reiterate what Foreign Minister Lavrov has heard from much of the world regarding the message about food security and, more accurately, food insecurity that has been exacerbated by Russia’s brutal aggression against Ukraine. The Secretary intends to underscore the message that we have conveyed previously, that other countries have as well, that we welcome this deal, but a deal in principle is distinct from a deal in practice, and we want to see this deal fully implemented. And an important part of that is seeing to it that Russia upholds the commitments it has made with Turkey, with the UN, and in this case with Ukraine.
And then third, the Secretary wanted to convey a very stark message on our continued concerns that Russia may seek to annex by force parts of sovereign Ukrainian territory. We have heard very concerning statements, including in some cases from Foreign Minister Lavrov himself. The Secretary quoted Foreign Minister Lavrov yesterday, who said just in recent days that Russia’s geographic aims go well beyond the Donbas and potentially include other regions. We thought it prudent that Foreign Minister Lavrov hear directly from Secretary Blinken the message that annexation by force would be a stark violation of the UN Charter, of international law, and that it would carry with it profound costs and consequences from much of the world.
That is what the Secretary expects to have an opportunity to convey. Importantly, however, you also heard from Secretary Blinken yesterday that this would not be a negotiation about Ukraine. This would not be a return to business as usual. That is for Ukraine to take up with Russia. And our Ukrainian partners have made very clear that they are ready and they have – they are fully cognizant that Russia’s aggression against Ukraine will end, must end, through dialogue and diplomacy. At the same time, we haven’t seen any indications from Russia that it is currently, presently interested in engaging in constructive dialogue and diplomacy.
So we’ll continue to support Ukraine until Russia is ready to engage with them diplomatically, constructively through dialogue. You heard from the Secretary yesterday about the massive levels of that support to strengthen Ukraine’s hand on the battlefield, evidence of which we’re – we continue to see every day, and ultimately to strengthen Ukraine’s hand at any negotiating table that emerges.
Anything else on this?
MR PRICE: Sure. Shannon.
QUESTION: So I asked the Secretary earlier this month at the G20 summit specifically if there was a price to pay for Americans like Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan, for his lack of engagement with his Russian counterpart. He said the same thing basically – Russia’s not ready to engage in meaningful diplomacy. Can you tell us where that calculus shifted? And also, that substantial proposal – that is for the freedom of Griner and Whelan – do you see any scenario where the U.S. completes a deal where just one of those detainees comes home?
MR PRICE: So let me make a couple points. What you heard yesterday from the Secretary – of course, that isn’t something we do every day. But this is a horrifying practice that puts lives in the balance and, in cases, it calls for extraordinary tactics and measures.
And a few things to your question. The Secretary wanted to – and we wanted – to convey very clearly and directly to Foreign Minister Lavrov, so there is no mistake in Moscow, the priority we attach to the prompt resolution of these cases, meaning the prompt release of Paul Whelan and Brittney Griner. We believe that now that this message, this substantial proposal, has been conveyed directly and repeatedly through appropriate channels in recent weeks, of course without resolution, that now was the time for the Secretary to convey that message very clearly.
There are a range of concerns we have with Russia. The continued wrongful detention of these two individuals is one of them, but there are other issues that are vital priorities to us and also to the international community. And I mentioned two of them already – concerns regarding potential annexation by force, and then the fact that it remains incumbent on Moscow to uphold its commitments to the international community, but specifically in this case to Turkey, to Ukraine, and to the UN regarding the grain deal.
So again, this is not an opportunity for these two foreign ministers to engage in a negotiation. This is an opportunity for Secretary Blinken to convey very clearly, very directly on these areas that are of vital interest to us.
QUESTION: Sorry, the second part of the question.
MR PRICE: Which was?
QUESTION: Griner and Whelan, is this a package deal or —
MR PRICE: Again, it is our priority to see both of them released as swiftly, as promptly as could be possible.
QUESTION: Have you heard any response to this proposal since it was presented weeks ago to Moscow? Have there been any counter proposals from the Russians? And is the U.S. prepared to add more to the proposal on the table, if that’s what it would take to bring Griner and Whelan home?
MR PRICE: Jenny, it is not our intention to negotiate in public. It’s not in our interest to do so. It is – there is one single overriding interest that we have, and that is the prompt release of Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan. We are going to be careful in everything we do and everything we say not to run afoul of that overriding priority; not to do anything, not to say anything that might set back that ultimate cause. I’m just not going to get into the details beyond what you heard from the Secretary yesterday.
We consider this to be a substantial proposal. We’ve conveyed it repeatedly, directly over the course of several weeks. The fact that now several weeks later we are where we are – I think you can read into that as being a reflection of the fact that this has not moved to the extent we would like, and we want to make very clear to the Russians directly, in this case in a conversation with Secretary Blinken, the priority we attach to this.
QUESTION: And can I quickly follow up? Do you have any update on Marc Fogel’s case and whether he’ll be deemed wrongfully detained?
MR PRICE: There’s nothing additional I’m in a position to offer at this stage. I addressed this issue broadly earlier this week, made a point of saying that we are providing all appropriate assistance to Americans who are detained in Russia. We continue to call on Moscow to provide regular, consistent consular access to our embassy to Americans who are in pretrial detention, to Americans who have been sentenced in Russia.
And again, there has been a discussion of this process of determining whether someone is wrongfully held. What I will say is that in all cases we consistently review the totality of the circumstances. And without going into a particular case, I will just say that we are always looking at developments; we are always looking at those circumstances in determining whether someone may be wrongfully held.
Yes. Anything else on this? Go ahead.
MR PRICE: Sure.
QUESTION: And President Biden call with President Xi of PRC this morning. But the Chinese foreign minister – ministry spokesman announced that today that China will take crucial actions while House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visit Taiwan. Do you know what the crucial actions is?
MR PRICE: When it comes to President Biden’s conversation today with President Xi, the White House issued a readout just a few moments ago. I expect you or your colleagues will have an opportunity to hear more about that call from my colleagues at the White House. So I will refrain from commenting on that.
Again, we have all heard the statements from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. I suspect they, too, have heard our statements. It is not for us to speak to any potential travel of any member of Congress, and that includes the speaker of the House in this case. I understand that her office has not announced or confirmed any travel.
What it is for us to do, on the other hand, is to provide members of Congress, including of course the speaker of the House, with relevant information and context for any potential travel. That includes security considerations; that includes geopolitical considerations. But we’re just not going to detail any such conversations.
QUESTION: The North Korean leader Kim Jong-un announced through the Korean Central News Agency yesterday that he was making full preparation to deter nuclear war and warned of the annihilation of South Korean Government and military. He also warned that the war would break out on the Korean Peninsula if Korea – U.S. and Korea exercise was continued. What is your comment on —
MR PRICE: The comments we’ve heard in recent hours are not categorically different from what we’ve heard from the DPRK regime over the course of recent months and recent years, unfortunately. We’re not going to respond to them. I think it is fair to say that the DPRK also won’t be surprised to hear the same message from us, and that is our commitment to the defense of the Republic of Korea and Japan, a commitment that remains ironclad.
The DPRK, as we’ve consistently said, constitutes a threat to international peace and security and the global nonproliferation regime. We have a vital interest in deterring the DPRK, defending against its provocation or the use of force, limiting the reach of the most dangerous weapons programs, and above all, keeping the American people, our deployed forces in the region, and our allies safe from any threat to international peace and security.
And to that end, we continue to consult closely with Japan, with the ROK, and with partners throughout the broader Indo-Pacific region and beyond on the threat that is posed by the DPRK’s WMD programs.
QUESTION: Lastly, how is the United States approaching – currently approaching the North Korea? What – I mean, is – where are we now?
MR PRICE: Well, we are not, unfortunately, in a markedly different place than we have been in for quite some time. As you know, Janne, we’ve – we undertook in the early part of this administration a policy review to determine the most effective approach to the DPRK. The result of that policy review was and is a policy that seeks to advance our overriding objective of the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula through dialogue, through diplomacy, through concerted partnership with our treaty allies.
We have been able to pursue a core element of that, the deepening our partnership with our treaty allies – in this case, Japan and the ROK – both on a bilateral basis, as well as on a trilateral basis. The President, Secretary Blinken, Deputy Secretary Sherman, our Special Envoy for the DPRK Sung Kim – all of them have been in a position to convene our Japanese and South Korean counterparts in a trilateral format to discuss the broad threat to international peace and security that the DPRK poses.
At the same time, in virtually all of these engagements and consistently from here and elsewhere, we’ve made the points that we harbor no hostile intent towards the DPRK, and in fact, we seek to engage in the dialogue, in the diplomacy that we feel could be most effective towards advancing the goal we share with our treaty allies and with other partners in the region and around the world to promote that shared goal of the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.
Now, of course, we have not heard a substantive response or certainly any indication that the DPRK at present is seeking to take us up on that offer. But in the interim, we’ll continue to coordinate closely with our treaty allies and we’ll continue to impose costs and consequences should provocations continue to emanate from the DPRK.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MR PRICE: Yes.
QUESTION: Ned, can you talk about the Chinese Americans who are believed to be wrongfully detained by the Chinese Government or who are under exit bans? Was that addressed during President Biden’s call with the Chinese President Xi Jinping? And is there any progress to bring them home? Thank you.
MR PRICE: What I would say, Nike, is that in all relevant conversations with countries around the world, we raise cases of Americans who are wrongfully or arbitrarily detained or Americans who are otherwise unable to leave a particular country on their own free will. That is no exception in the case of the PRC, but it’s just not something that I’m going to be in a position to detail from here.
QUESTION: Is there a substantial proposal to the Chinese similar to the one to Russia?
MR PRICE: What I would say is that countries around the world where this is applicable know the priority we attach to seeing to it that – to see to it that Americans who are arbitrarily detained or wrongfully held behind bars or otherwise prevented from leaving the country in cases of a coercive exit ban, for example, they know the priority we attach to that. They know that we are going to continue to seek to resolve these cases on a bilateral basis.
QUESTION: I recognize the White House will be briefing on the Biden-Xi call, but just to go back to that for a second. Your counterparts in the Chinese foreign ministry have already issued a readout on the call, and they kind of pointedly failed to use the word constructive to describe the talks, which they have used on a previous occasion. I’m just wondering – previous occasions for the Biden and Xi conversations. I’m just wondering: does the State Department believe that this call was constructive in terms of a high-level engagement between the U.S. and China? And I’m just wondering if I can get your assessment of the current trajectory of U.S.-China talks.
MR PRICE: I will say just one thing. Secretary Blinken was in attendance. He was at the White House for this call, but again, I am going to let my White House counterparts characterize this call. What I can say from our part here at the State Department – of course, Secretary Blinken just a couple of weeks ago had an opportunity to engage Director, State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang in Bali.
We found that engagement to be constructive and to be useful on key fronts, but perhaps no front is more important than the fact of that engagement, keeping open the lines of communication, ensuring that we are doing everything we can to ensure that the competition that defines the relationship between the United States and China – the most consequential bilateral relationship we have – does not veer from competition into conflict.
So again, I’ll defer to my White House colleagues, but that has been our experience, including with the most recent engagement that Foreign – that Secretary Blinken had with Foreign Minister Wang.
QUESTION: Could I ask you two things in Europe unrelated? In Greece, the top court – I believe it was yesterday – ruled effectively in favor of Iran, which has complained about the seizure of a Russian-operated oil tanker with its oil on there. Does the United States have any comment on this? Where does it go from here?
MR PRICE: Well, this case went through the Greek judicial process. We’re respectful of that. We don’t have a comment beyond that.
QUESTION: You don’t regret that it didn’t go what’s perceived as the United States’ way?
MR PRICE: It went through the Greek judicial system.
QUESTION: On something completely different, Hungary. Prime Minister Orban has drawn some attention and criticism, some comments talking about how Europeans are not – I think his words was “mixed races with people of other – of non-European ancestry.” Does the United States have any – does the United States want to weigh in on this?
MR PRICE: Well, individuals from this building have commented. Deborah Lipstadt, our special envoy, commented on this. She called these comments – she said she was deeply alarmed by this rhetoric. She made the point that rhetoric of this nature is inexcusable in some 75 years after the end of the Holocaust.
What I would – the only element I would add is that – and this is a point we’ve said before – what binds the United States and our allies around the world with Hungary being an important ally, not only shared interests but also shared values. And the remarks that we heard from Prime Minister Orban are not reflective of the shared values that tether the United States to Hungary, that serve as a foundation between the relationship between our two peoples, and that serve as the basis for the relationship between the United States and our other allies, whether it’s in Europe, the Indo-Pacific, or elsewhere.
QUESTION: A few on Iran if that’s okay. Do you see the release of Morad Tahbaz as a positive sign for the other Americans held in Iran, or is this strictly tied to the Oman-facilitated UK-Iran prisoner exchange?
MR PRICE: Well, let me just say on his release – and you may have seen this, but we welcome the news that Iran has released U.S.-UK citizen Morad Tahbaz from prison, that he has been since released on bail. We’re grateful to Oman. We’re grateful to the UK for continuing to press Iran to fulfill this commitment. It remains one of our upmost priorities to secure the release and the safe return home of wrongfully detained Americans, and that includes Morad Tahbaz.
We’ve talked about this before – and I think Secretary Blinken alluded to it just yesterday – but the fact is that Iran is unjustly detaining innocent Americans and others and should release them immediately. Iran should also account for the fate of Bob Levinson. This is an issue that Secretary Blinken, that Special Envoy Malley, that our Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs Roger Carstens – they regularly speak to the families of these wrongful detainees. They keep them apprised of our efforts to bring them home, of the priority we attach to this. I’m not going to speculate on what the furlough of Morad Tahbaz may signal beyond reiterating that the release of the Americans who are wrongfully detained in Iran is of utmost priority for us.
QUESTION: And then on Borrell’s proposal, you said earlier this week that the U.S. would be swift with its review. Has the U.S. shared its response with the EU yet?
MR PRICE: We’ve been in touch with our European allies. We continue to remain in close contact with our P5+1 partners in this regard, including, of course, our European allies in this. We are reviewing the draft understanding. We plan to do so swiftly. We’ll share any reactions we have with the EU directly.
QUESTION: On the Ukraine grain deal, are there any new estimates for when ships can start exporting grain out of the ports?
MR PRICE: For that, I would need to refer you to the UN and the other parties responsible for this agreement. Our position continues to be that ships, in the first instance, never should have stopped. The effective blockade that Moscow has instituted against Ukraine never should have been put in place in the first case, but now that this deal has been reached, it needs to be swiftly implemented. And again, a deal on paper is different from a deal in practice. And it is incumbent upon Moscow to do everything it can not only to the letter of the agreement, but also consistent with the spirit of the agreement, to see to it that ships are able to leave, shippers have the confidence to be able to do so, and the millions of tons of grain that has been ready to go for weeks – in some cases, for months – can start to leave from Ukraine’s Black Sea ports.
But it’s not for us to provide updates as to when that might happen, but we are going to continue to do everything we can to facilitate the swift implementation of this deal. But ultimately, the responsibility for its successful implementation rests with Russia.
QUESTION: And then on a different topic, the G7 condemned Myanmar’s executions today. Is the U.S. planning on taking any additional steps, sanctions to further condemn the killings?
MR PRICE: All options are on the table. We have consistently said that as long as the junta continues to stand in the way of a return to Burma’s path to democracy, we will continue to impose costs and consequences on the junta. We are, again, looking at all potential options to do so. We’re considering and discussing some of those options with partners in the region and beyond. We are also cognizant of humanitarian concerns and the humanitarian imperatives facing the people of Burma, so of course we’re going to calibrate our response consistent with what is in the best humanitarian interests of the Burmese people. But as long as the junta continues its repression, as long as its senseless violence continues against the people of Burma, as long as it continues to stand in the way of a return to Burma’s democratic path, we’ll continue to increase the costs.
QUESTION: Thank you so much. Jahanzaib Ali from ARY News, Pakistan. A couple of weeks ago, there were a few media reports in Pakistan claimed that close associate of Prime Minister Khan – former Prime Minister Khan – met with Assistant Secretary of State Donald Lu here in State Department and conveyed the message, like, to forget the past and move forward. Is it – any kind of meeting held here?
MR PRICE: Again, if there was any such meeting, I just am not in a position to speak to it. We have – we remain engaged with a range of stakeholders in Pakistan, with those currently in government, and a broad array of others. But I’m just not in a position to speak to any such meeting.
QUESTION: Prime Minister Khan is leading a campaign in Pakistan, and the slogan of his campaign is, like, he will not be a slave of America. But with the current political wave in Pakistan supporting Khan, is the U.S. thinking open a window to talk to him?
MR PRICE: What we’ve said on this before remains true. We support the peaceful upholding of constitutional and democratic principles, including respect for human rights. We don’t support one political party over another. We support those broader principles of the rule of law and equal justice under the law.
QUESTION: So one last question. Last week, special assistant to Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif met with assistant secretary of state here. Can you confirm that meeting, that in fact he was here?
MR PRICE: I’m not in a position to confirm that, but if we have anything to add or to confirm, we’ll let you know.
QUESTION: Supposedly the Israeli security minister is – has a meeting at the State Department today. With whom is he meeting and what topics are they discussing?
MR PRICE: I suspect you will see a readout from us later today, but Deputy Secretary Sherman is looking forward to welcoming the minister, and I suspect you’ll see a readout after the meeting.
QUESTION: Thank you.
QUESTION: A few questions on Iraq. On diversity visa applications, there are quite a few people that are waiting for interviews in Baghdad embassy. Is there a plan to resume the interviews there?
And then on immigrant visa for Iraqis who have – who are waiting for their interviews in Ankara, can you share anything on those? When do they resume?
MR PRICE: When it comes to diversity visa applicants, there’s not much I can say on this front. There is litigation. These cases are pending before the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, and, of course, we just have a policy of not commenting on any pending litigation.
When it comes to broader immigrant visas, including those in – awaiting their interviews in Ankara, we are committed to facilitating legitimate travel to the United States for both immigrant and non-immigrant travelers. Our visa services are fully open for business. Nearly all U.S. embassies and consulates have resumed full visa services. Embassy Baghdad, to your question, is an exception, since as of January 1st of 2020, consular services, including in-person visa interviews, were suspended due to an attack on our facility. We have guidance on our website for how residents of Iraq can request to have their cases processed at other posts.
More broadly, we are reducing visa appointment wait times in all visa classes as quickly as we can. This is happening around the world, and in fact, visa processing is rebounding faster than even we projected after a near-complete shutdown and freezing of resources during the pandemic. Immigrant visa processing worldwide is almost back to normal levels, with pandemic-induced backlog already down about 25 percent and interview wait times vary by location and by visa categories, but as always, travelers should check the website of the nearest embassy or consulate for information.
QUESTION: And then, if I may, where does the administration stand on the Iraqi Government’s call for a total and complete withdrawal of Turkish forces from Iraq?
MR PRICE: Again, we – you’ve heard this from us in the aftermath of the attack just a few days ago. The principle of Iraq’s sovereignty is one that we uphold. We stand with Iraq. Foreign forces are in Iraq at the invitation of the Iraqi Government, consistent with the principle of Iraqi sovereignty.
QUESTION: And then the last one – the political deadlock in Iraq, Iraqis’ failure to form a government. Does that raise concern here? Just yesterday, protesters loyal to Sadr stormed the Iraqi parliament in protest of a new candidate for the prime minister.
MR PRICE: On the issue of the protests, whether it’s in Iraq or elsewhere, we believe that public demonstrations are a fundamental element of all democracies, but there is no place for violence in these demonstrations, either on the part of security forces or on the part of protesters. We’ve consistently reaffirmed our commitment to a strong, stable, prosperous Iraq. A long-term, deep, multifaceted, strategic partnership with Iraq serves both our interests as well as Iraq’s interests. We’ve urged all parties to remain calm.
On the broader question of government formation following the elections, we’re prepared to work with the government that puts Iraqi sovereignty and the best interests of the people of Iraq at the heart of its agenda.
QUESTION: What does that “prepared” mean? Do you guys have a communication with the Iraqis on that?
MR PRICE: We are in close contact with our Iraqi partners as a matter of course from our embassy in Baghdad, as well as senior officials here, and this is not a process in which we involve ourselves – the internal political process. But again, we stand ready to work with any Iraqi government that puts the interests of the Iraqi people at the heart of its agenda.
QUESTION: I want to just come back to Iran. I wonder, based on reviewing the text that Borrell has come up with, do you see a likelihood of talks being resumed? How sort of positive are you that this could be like a new opening? Iran has welcomed the EU’s diplomacy, but there’s also the backdrop that the British spy chief was in the U.S. last week and was basically saying he doesn’t think that Iran really wants to do a deal. Where do you stand on that?
MR PRICE: So I would say a couple things. One, on the proposal that’s been put forward by the EU high commissioner, again, we will be in touch directly and we have been in touch directly with our European partners on this. We’re reviewing that. We’ll convey any feedback directly to our European allies in this case. But it is our understanding that the proposal that Mr. Borrell put forward was based on the deal that has been on the table, that was painstakingly negotiated among the P5+1, and the deal that we have been prepared to accept since March, for months now.
So the holdup, to the extent we have not been able to achieve a mutual return to compliance with the JCPOA, has not been – we have not been the cause of that. There has been one country that has prevented a return to compliance with the JCPOA. That is Iran. We have made very clear that we are prepared to return to compliance with the JCPOA, assuming that Iran does the same. We have made that clear publicly. We have conveyed that message privately, if indirectly, to the Iranians.
What we have not seen from Iran, whether in March or in the ensuing months, is an indication from them that they are prepared to make that political decision necessary to return to compliance with the JCPOA. That’s why we’ve continued to prepare equally for scenarios where we have a JCPOA, scenarios in which we don’t have a JCPOA.
The deal remains on the table. We’ve heard from the high representative of the proposal that he’s put forward. We’ll engage privately with our European allies, but again we have been willing to accept the deal that has been on the table for some time now and Iran has not.
QUESTION: Given that lack of movement, where does that leave the hopes for the other Americans detained in Iran, given that it’s been so long without Iran seemingly moving on these negotiations? And where does that leave it in terms of trying to get those Americans home?
MR PRICE: Well, throughout this, Simon, we’ve been very careful not to tie the fates to these wrongfully detained Americans to a potential mutual return to compliance with the JCPOA. We’ve always – we’ve been under no illusions that a return to the JCPOA would necessarily be in the offing. We knew this would be a tough set of negotiations, and we were careful not to tie the fates of these wrongfully detained citizens to what to our minds always has been an uncertain proposition.
And I think the Iranian intransigence, the lack of constructive Iranian engagement has only underlined for us the uncertainty of this proposition. So even as we have discussed, via our European allies and other P5+1 parties, the modalities of a potential return to compliance with the JCPOA, we’ve worked on a separate track to seek to secure the release of these Americans.
QUESTION: And just another sort of separate issue just quickly. Since the Secretary met with the family of Shireen Abu Akleh the other day, is there any update on whether you would support the U.S. conducting its own investigation – or how long are you going to – are you going to wait for this accountability that you’ve been talking about? And just I think today some members of Congress are suggesting that they can ask for the State Department to provide a report on the case. Is that something that State is willing to do?
MR PRICE: So I’ll start with that last point. Of course, we’ll continue to communicate with Congress on this important matter. After all, this was the death of an American citizen, an American citizen whose fearless journalism had been a source not only of information but also inspiration for so many around the world. And so we’ll continue to communicate closely and privately with members of Congress on this case.
But in terms of a report, you may recall – I’m sure you do – that on July 4th, earlier this month, the State Department published a statement that summarized the findings of the U.S. security coordinator. That work on the part of the U.S. security coordinator was itself a summation of the investigations that Palestinians and Israelis at that time had undertaken. Our focus has been on bridging those investigations. We believe – we continue to believe that by bridging those investigations, as we’ve been able to do at least to some extent, that it will most effectively allow this process to culminate in accountability. And that’s what’s important to us, that this culminates in accountability.
When the Secretary met with the family of Shireen Abu Akleh earlier this week, not only did he express his heartfelt condolences to the family, but he made very clear the priority we attach to seeing accountability for her death. In this case, to seeing to it that steps are taken to put in place protections so that something like this can’t happen again, or at least additional safeguards to protect against something like this from happening again.
QUESTION: Can we stay in Israel?
MR PRICE: Sure.
QUESTION: Israel will allow Palestinians in the West Bank to travel abroad through the Ramon airport, and the PA is not excited at all about this idea and demanding that Israel allow the Palestinians to build a new airport in the West Bank. What is the U.S. view in this regard?
MR PRICE: Well, without speaking to this specifically, we would welcome all efforts that enable Israelis and Palestinians to enjoy equal measures of freedom, prosperity, and democracy. That includes all measures to facilitate increased freedom of travel for the Palestinian people.
QUESTION: And on another topic – on Israel too – Axios has reported that Israeli officials had a call with Senior Advisor Hochstein and White House Middle East Coordinator Brett McGurk on Tuesday and provided their updated position towards the maritime dispute with Lebanon. Per the report, the Israeli officials see a moment of opportunity to solve the dispute. What’s your assessment in this regard?
MR PRICE: I’m not in position to confirm the details of that report, but what I can say is that, as you know, Amos Hochstein was in the region, both in Israel and Lebanon, just a few weeks ago. Since then, he has remained in close contact with Israeli counterparts as well as with Lebanese counterparts. We have been able to help facilitate some progress, and that continued engagement with both parties is part of an effort to see to it that that momentum continues. And I suspect that he will remain in close touch with both governments going forward.
QUESTION: And my last question on Lebanon. Reuters has reported that a U.S.-sanctioned ship owned by the Syrian Government has docked in Lebanon’s Tripoli carrying grain stolen from Ukraine. Do you have any comment on that?
MR PRICE: I’m not in a position to comments on any particular ship or this report specifically. I saw it just shortly before I came out here. But what I can say is that we have been in a position to confirm the fact that the Russians have pilfered grain belonging to Ukraine. Tons of Ukrainian grain has made its way to the international market that has – on Russian ships, grain that belongs to the people of Ukraine.
So we have sought to shine a spotlight on this, to shine a spotlight on it as one of the practices that is preventing the free flow of grain to the global marketplace, to a marketplace that would enable that grain to reach the people who need it most. It is part and parcel of the broader set of Russian actions that have exacerbated the challenge of food insecurity that has led to such devastating consequences throughout the world, from sub-Saharan Africa to Latin America to parts of the Indo-Pacific as well.
Final question. Alex.
QUESTION: I have one more.
MR PRICE: Okay.
QUESTION: Ned, yes, back to Investment Climate Statements. Whoever got involved into this, thank you, because they’re very compelling reports. I just read reports on Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Georgia. I’m just wondering: how much do they reflect the latest situation given the implications of Russian aggression in the region?
And my second question: is there any reason why I cannot find Ukrainian report? And there’s no Russia report either, which is totally fair given the sanctions, but why Ukraine?
MR PRICE: So you’re right that among the 160 or so economies included in these reports, Ukraine and Russia are not featured. We weren’t in a position to collect the appropriate data for Ukraine. And of course, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has led to dramatic shifts in the marketplace conditions in Russia. It’s no secret – and you heard from the Secretary yesterday, in fact – that some 1,000 multinational companies have left the Russian marketplace. It’s a very quickly evolving set of market conditions, evolving in a way that is not conducive to business or international investments. So we were not in a position to write a country report for Russia.
QUESTION: And my first question on implications for the other regions, the South Caucasus – so how much do you think current ongoing Russian war is affecting the region, and how much is it reflected in this report?
MR PRICE: How much is reflected in this report?
QUESTION: In these reports that were released today, because they are 2022 reports.
MR PRICE: That’s right.
QUESTION: I’m just wondering how much do they reflect current, latest situation in the region.
MR PRICE: Well, again, our goal with engagement with the South Caucasus is to move forward towards that comprehensive peace that we’ve talked about. I’m not certain that Russia’s aggression against Ukraine – I think the reports will discuss if there’s any implication for market conditions in the South Caucasus, but would need to refer you to the reports for that.
QUESTION: Sorry, that question was about – I’m sorry, I was dealing with something else, but that question was about the Investment Climate Reports?
MR PRICE: Yes. Yeah.
QUESTION: Okay. Well, in fact, Russia and Ukraine are in the Investment Climate Reports. They are listed. I haven’t gone and read them in detail, but there are a number of countries that are left out. The state sponsors of terror, terrorism, for example, are not included – North Korea, Syria, Iran, and Cuba. But of those four countries, the administration has actually moved to try to open up at least limited investment in Cuba. So why aren’t they included? And I realize that you might not be the best – the most authoritative person to speak about this. It might be a –Commerce – but why wouldn’t they? Also, Venezuela is not included; neither is East Timor. Are they just – they’re not even worth putting out?
And the other question I have about this is that – why are there two sections for China, one for China and one for Hong Kong? It’s my understanding that this administration, like the previous administration, essentially said that there’s no difference anymore.
MR PRICE: So I have to correct you. There is no report for Ukraine this year. There may be a placeholder for it, but there is no report for Ukraine this year.
QUESTION: Okay, I’m looking at it right now.
MR PRICE: And there’s no report for Russia either.
QUESTION: I’m looking at it right now.
MR PRICE: You may be looking at last year’s or previous years, but —
QUESTION: Ukraine, country commercial guide, on the Commerce – on the International Trade Administration Commerce website.
MR PRICE: You may be looking at something else, but there is no —
QUESTION: This is the link that was in the release.
MR PRICE: Your colleagues in the room have also pulled it up, so – but I can tell you there is no Ukraine country report or Russia country report this year. Regardless, in countries and economies where the situation on the ground makes gathering this information particularly difficult, we don’t publish these reports. Consistent with that, there is no Ukraine report this year. The – fully suspect when it comes to Ukraine that we will see reflected the brutal implications of Russia’s aggression in future reports.
When it comes to specific countries, again, when conditions aren’t amenable to gathering this data, or in some cases given unique circumstances – inclusion on the SST may be one such consideration – reports aren’t compiled annually.
Thank you very much.
(The briefing was concluded at 3:07 p.m.)