2:24 p.m. EDT
MR PRICE: Just a couple things at the top. First, we are very pleased to welcome today five journalists visiting us from Belarus, Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine. These journalists are here part of the Vaclav Havel Journalism Fellowship, a unique joint initiative between RFE/RL and the Czech Republic for aspiring journalists in support of pluralism, press freedom, and media independence everywhere. Welcome to you all. Welcome to the State Department.
And before we begin, allow me just a moment of personal privilege. And I need to stop making a habit out of this, but we have another very sad departure from my team. JT Ice, who has served as our deputy spox for the past two-plus years, just over two years, having started in June of 2020, will be moving on today. Today is his final day, I am very sad to say. JT, as you all know, is a career member of the Foreign Service. He has had a storied career overseas, here as well, and his tenure on the spokesperson’s team across these two administrations has been a fine example of that.
I met JT on January 20th around 8:30 in the morning or so, and he’s been by my side ever since. I could not have done the job without him, without his expertise, without his experience, without his wise counsel at every step of the way. So JT will be sorely missed, not only by me but everyone in the bureau, everyone on my team, and many, many people in this department. Of course, he’s not going far. He is going to the very pleasant confines of the Naval War College for a tour there before he continues with his next adventure in the Foreign Service.
So JT, thank you. And with that, turn to your questions.
QUESTION: Thanks, Ned. Welcome back. And JT, have fun in Rhode Island. I hope they’re ready for you there.
Can I just very briefly – is something wrong with the —
MR PRICE: I think the floor is yours.
QUESTION: There was – there was an echo. Before we – I just want to ask very briefly if you’re aware of Brittney Griner’s detention being extended by the Russians.
MR PRICE: So I’ve seen those reports. I’ve seen the reports emanate from Russia that her detention has been extended. Our position for some time on this has been very clear: Brittney Griner should not be detained. She should not be detained for a single day longer. We have characterized her, we have characterized Paul Whelan, who has also spent far too long in Russian detention, as wrongful detainees. The team here, individuals around the world, are working around the clock to secure and to effect their safe and prompt release and also the safe and prompt release of wrongful American detainees around the world.
QUESTION: But were you aware – was the embassy aware that there was a hearing or that this was a possibility today? Was there an actual hearing that anyone was able to go to?
MR PRICE: My understanding is that we became aware through TASS.
QUESTION: So nothing?
MR PRICE: I was —
QUESTION: And subsequent to the TASS report, have you been able to confirm with Russian authorities that this is, in fact, the case?
MR PRICE: To confirm that her detention has been extended?
MR PRICE: Look, we are in constant contact regarding her case. We are in constant contact with her team and her network back here at home. I think you all have seen that yesterday representatives of the department, representatives of the special presidential envoy for hostage affairs, and a senior representative from our Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs met with the Phoenix Mercury, as they are here, so we are regularly keeping them apprised of her case.
We were last able to have consular access to Brittney Griner last month. We continue to press for regular, continued access to all American detainees who are in pretrial detention, whether they are unjustly detained, as is Brittney Griner, or whether they are facing criminal charges. This is a case that we are working assiduously behind the scenes. We’ve been in regular contact with Russian authorities regarding it.
QUESTION: Okay. Well, I mean, is it problematic for you? Are you going to complain to the Russians that you were given no —
MR PRICE: Well, of course it’s problematic. Her detention —
QUESTION: No, no. Well, I get —
MR PRICE: Her —
QUESTION: I get the entire detention is —
MR PRICE: Let’s leave aside – let’s leave aside —
QUESTION: Okay. But what happened today – right, I get that the entire thing is problematic for you. I understand that. But I’m talking about specifically what happened today, the fact that you learned about it from a state news agency and there was no apparent – no notification to the embassy or the consular officials there. Is that in particular a problem for you?
MR PRICE: I don’t want to speak for the embassy and whether they had any contact prior to this. I can tell you that everyone I’ve spoken to learned of it today from the news reports. But to your question, absolutely this is problematic. This case is problematic from top to bottom. It is precisely why we have characterized Brittney Griner as a wrongful detainee. It’s precisely why we are doing everything we can to see and to effect her prompt release from Russian detention.
QUESTION: Yes, also on Russian detainees, do you have any comment on Navalny being transferred to a more strict colony and his lawyers saying they don’t know where exactly he is?
MR PRICE: Well, similarly, we’ve seen these reports that Aleksey Navalny has been transferred from the penal colony where he has been in prison and that his current whereabouts are unknown. We call on Russian authorities to allow Mr. Navalny access to his lawyers, to his legal representation, as well as to receive medical care. We have communicated to the Russian Government repeatedly that they are responsible for what happens to Mr. Navalny as he is in their custody. They will be held accountable by the international community were anything to befall Mr. Navalny while he is in their custody.
His exposure over many years of this government’s corruption and his pro-democracy activism prompted this politically motivated arrest. We have urged authorities to take all necessary action to ensure his safety and good health, and we reiterate our call for his immediate release, as well as an end to the persecution of his many supporters.
QUESTION: You have communicated that to the Russian Government even after February 24th?
MR PRICE: We have communicated this to the Russian Government previously, and I am confident that we will be in a position to reiterate that message soon.
QUESTION: On U.S. detainees, how many are in pretrial detention right now in Russia?
MR PRICE: So this is a figure, especially in a country as large as Russia, that is constantly changing. It doesn’t do us any good to release a particular figure on any given day. There are cases where Americans are detained and subsequently released in short order; there are cases where Americans are detained and are held for far too long, as is the case with Brittney Griner, as is the case with Paul Whelan, as was the case with Trevor Reed. So we are working and making the point relentlessly to our Russian counterparts that, consistent with their obligations under the Vienna Convention, consistent with their obligations under our bilateral arrangements, we expect to have regular access to Americans who are held in pretrial detention.
QUESTION: And when was the last time the embassy had access to Paul Whelan?
MR PRICE: We’ll get you the updated date there, but it was – we’ll get you the updated date.
Yes, over here.
QUESTION: Can we switch to Iran?
MR PRICE: Sure.
QUESTION: The Iranian foreign minister has said that they put forward a new proposal to revive the JCPOA. Is that true, and if so, when did they make this proposal?
MR PRICE: As we and our European partners have made clear, we are prepared to immediately conclude and implement the deal we negotiated in Vienna, the deal that has been on the table for a number of months now for a mutual return to full compliance with the JCPOA. But for that to happen, Tehran needs to decide to drop demands that go beyond the scope of the JCPOA, needs to decide to drop issues that are extraneous to the JCPOA.
We have made very clear where we are. We believe that if Iran makes this political decision, we’ll be in a position to conclude and to pursue a mutual return to compliance with the JCPOA very swiftly. If Iran does not do that, it will further imperil the odds that we will ever be able to reach a mutual return to compliance with the JCPOA.
QUESTION: But has Iran put a new proposal forward?
MR PRICE: We have been in regular indirect contact via the European Union, so we’re not going to speak to the specifics – specific dynamics of this diplomacy other than to say that Enrique Mora has been – has served as an important go-between role, and we await a constructive response from the Iranians, a response that leaves behind issues that are extraneous to the JCPOA.
QUESTION: So, Ned, you’re saying “extraneous.” What are the extraneous things that they are asking? Can you explain, please?
MR PRICE: Extraneous in this case means something that is not a part – should not be a part of the JCPOA.
QUESTION: I know perfectly well what it means. I’m just saying, what are these things?
MR PRICE: Look, I’m not going to get into the diplomacy. I’m not going to speak to proposals that the —
QUESTION: Okay. Is it something akin to the Iranians maybe demanding some sort of a guarantee that you will not have a new administration nullifying whatever deal you arrive at? Is that it?
MR PRICE: On that, Said – yeah, fancy, huh. On that, Said, we have made very clear to the Iranians – we did this in October of last year when the President met with our European – with his European counterparts in Rome on the sidelines of the G20. And if you take a close look at the readout that emanated from that meeting, we made very clear that our intention is and was – was and is – to effect a mutual return to compliance with the JCPOA and that we intend to remain there, in so long as Iran would live up to its end of the deal. It would serve us no purpose to achieve a mutual return to compliance only to scrap it down the line.
Now, beyond that, I’m not going to speak to proposals that have been sent back and forth, other than to say we are prepared to re-enter the JCPOA on a mutual basis. That is to say, if Iran decides that it is willing to reimpose the nuclear restrictions that the JCPOA calls for, we are willing to do what is necessary in terms of sanctions lifting on our end to once again be in compliance with the JCPOA. That choice is now Iran’s. It has been Iran’s for some time. There has been a deal that has been on the table in Vienna for a number of months now. It is a deal that is still in our national security interest, because it is a deal that conveys nonproliferation advantages that are – that go beyond what we have now.
And what we have now – the urgency that we have now and the challenge that we face – is that, given the advancements Iran has been able to make to its nuclear program since May of 2018, when the last administration abandoned the nuclear deal, a nuclear deal that – with which Iran was in full compliance, by the way – Iran has advanced its nuclear programs in ways that are profoundly dangerous and that are profoundly corrosive to the global nonproliferation regime. We went from a breakout time that upon implementation of the JCPOA that was out at about 12 months, it is a breakout time that is now measured in weeks or less. To us, that is unacceptable. That is why we continue to pursue a mutual return to compliance with the JCPOA. We will do that for as long as the deal that’s on the table conveys benefits that the present moment, in terms of Iran’s nuclear program, does not.
QUESTION: Ned, until when will you keep talking to the Iranians? And second, on the deterrence front, is the U.S. trying to form a coalition in the region that includes Israel and Arab countries to counter the Iranian influence?
MR PRICE: So on the first part of your question, as you know, we’re not talking directly to the Iranians. As we’ve said before, we would prefer that. It would make the business of diplomacy much simpler. It would allow us to address complex and multifaceted issues in a more effective way. But of course, the Iranians have not been willing to do that, and so, as I mentioned a moment ago, we have been going through the – our European partners and allies to convey these messages.
In terms of the timeframe – and what I just said is the core point – we will continue to pursue a mutual return to compliance with the JCPOA for as long as doing so is in our national interest. And right now, a mutual return to the JCPOA would convey nonproliferation benefits that we don’t have at the present moment. Again, the fact is that Iran’s breakout time is dangerously low at the present. It has dwindled by months and months since Iran began distancing itself from the stringent requirements of the JCPOA in mid-2018.
We are constantly looking at the nonproliferation benefits that a mutual return to compliance would convey versus what we have now. Every week, every day that this goes on, those benefits are eroded. So we will reach a point where a mutual return to compliance is no longer in our interest. Even if we wanted to, that’s not – almost certainly not a date that I could give you right now because it is based on an assessment of where Iran’s program is. It is based on an assessment of what a mutual return to compliance would convey in terms of a resulting breakout time, and that’s an assessment that experts here, experts in our Intelligence Community and elsewhere, are constantly refining to determine what’s in our national interest.
QUESTION: On the second question?
QUESTION: And you expect – and you would expect Rob Malley and Brett McGurk, when they go up to the Hill for this closed hearing before SFRC tomorrow, to make the same case that it is still – that the administration still assesses that it is in the U.S. national interest to return to compliance?
MR PRICE: It is the —
QUESTION: Because if that’s going to be their message, it’s going to be a long meeting and not a very pleasant one for them.
MR PRICE: I can’t speak to the reaction that we’ll hear from the Hill, other than to say that we regularly engage with our counterparts on Capitol Hill. As you know, Matt, it was just last month that Rob Malley spent several hours in an open hearing before lawmakers.
QUESTION: Yes, but this one is closed, which means that it might – well —
MR PRICE: Well, and —
QUESTION: — I suppose maybe there might – that there might be less, like, public performance, but —
MR PRICE: Well, the message you heard from Rob when he was before lawmakers last month is consistent with where we are now, and Rob made the case —
QUESTION: Okay. So then what’s the point of going up there to do this classified briefing if your position is still the same?
MR PRICE: The point of going up there is that we want to ensure that we keep lawmakers fully and presently informed of what it is that we’re doing.
QUESTION: Since the appearance last month, there has been this IAEA report; there has been the Board of Governors resolution. So things have changed.
MR PRICE: Of course. And I am confident that every time we speak to lawmakers that they will pose those questions and that we will offer those answers.
QUESTION: So realistically, if the President goes to Israel, let’s say around the 15th of July and so on, as planned or scheduled, before arriving at a – or returning back to this deal, is it likely that it’s dead in the water and then would you – would it be dead by then?
MR PRICE: Again, we’re not going to put a timeframe on it, largely because we can’t. It is a —
QUESTION: If the trip is made before a deal is —
MR PRICE: It is an assessment. It is an assessment that is evolving as Iran’s nuclear program advances. And if Iran continues to make these advances, if it continues to spin advanced centrifuges, if it continues to blow beyond limits to its stockpile, this is a deal that, before too long, will not convey the nonproliferation benefits that we would need it to convey if we were to pursue it.
QUESTION: Ned, you didn’t answer my second question.
MR PRICE: Oh. On the – look, the – we are – and you’ve heard from – this from us before, consistently, and again today with the announcement of the President’s travel to Israel, but our commitment to Israel’s security is ironclad. And we, in cooperation with our allies and regional partners, including Israel, we will use every appropriate tool at our disposal to confront the IRGC’s destabilizing influence in the region. You’ve seen evidence of that with the financial sanctions that we’ve imposed. We continue to coordinate closely with our Israeli partners on this, with our Gulf partners, with our – with other partners throughout the Middle East. And I have no doubt that the challenge that Iran poses to the region and beyond will be high on the agenda when President Biden is in Israel next month and when he is in Saudi Arabia next month meeting with the GCC and meeting with his Saudi partners as well.
QUESTION: So on the trip —
MR PRICE: Let me move around —
QUESTION: But since you are on the trip, what has changed, meaning – I mean, the President when he was running for office, he called Saudi Arabia a pariah and so on. What has changed since then that Saudi Arabia is recognized, as it is has always been, as a major partner of the United States?
MR PRICE: Said, this is a President as – who, of course, will not hesitate when we have an opportunity to engage in a way that advances America’s interests and in a way that is consistent with our values. I can tell you what hasn’t changed, and President Biden actually said this just the other week. He said, “I’m not going to change my view on human rights.” So in every relationship, of course, we bring our values with us, and human rights is always on the agenda. Human rights is always on the table. So, too, are the interests of the American people. And these two things can be – and I would say must be – complementary.
When it comes to Saudi Arabia, this is a relationship where a multiplicity of interests are at play. Of course, there is the issue of extremism, of terrorism. We have worked side-by-side with our Saudi partners for years on this scourge, combatting it. There’s the issue of Yemen, and just the other week there was an extension of the truce in Yemen, a truce that is now in its ninth week, a truce that has allowed humanitarian access to parts of Yemen that have been bereft of aid and humanitarian assistance for far too long.
One of the first appointments from this administration was when President Biden came here early on. It was maybe the second week of the administration, and we made public our appointment of Tim Lenderking as a special envoy for Yemen. Over the course of these past 15 or so months, Special Envoy Lenderking and his team have worked assiduously with partners around the world, including the UN, now UN Special Envoy Hans Grundberg, but also with partners in the Gulf and principally with our Saudi partners. Saudi Arabia was pivotal to getting to that humanitarian ceasefire and indispensable to extending it just the other week.
This is not only about a civil war in Yemen, which of course is a cause of great concern for the United States, both the violence, the instability, and the humanitarian implications, but this is also about our direct interests, our core interests, the number – hundreds – of cross-border attacks have emanated from Yemen in recent years. Of course, that is of concern to us for the threat that it poses to Saudi Arabia, but it’s also of concern to us because there are 70,000 Americans in the kingdom.
Beyond Yemen, there is the question of regional stability. There is the question of healing regional rifts, regional divides within the Gulf, within Lebanon. Saudi Arabia has been a partner on that as well. We’ve talked about the challenge that Iran poses. Not only are we working with Israel, we are working closely with our Gulf partners, including the Saudis, and the broader GCC, by the way, the GCC+3, which will be in Saudi Arabia when President Biden visits there.
There are also other interests, including energy, and we’ve spoken of our desire to see a steady global supply of energy. This has been a topic of discussion on a bilateral basis with members of OPEC. It will be on the agenda when President Biden meets with the GCC and meets with Saudi counterparts in Saudi Arabia next month as well.
So I think you can see the line through all of this is doing whatever we can to pursue America’s interests while not leaving by the wayside our values. And one of the first things that we did, one of the first marquee events – I believe it might have been his second visit down to this very room – Secretary Blinken came down, released the Khashoggi report, a report that was compiled under the previous administration, released it with the full imprimatur of the U.S. Government; in a powerful signal, and a signal of our commitment to human rights, our prioritization of human rights, announced the Khashoggi Ban.
We’ve implemented the Khashoggi Ban dozens of times. We’ve sanctioned the quick reaction force. We’ve taken measures to hold accountable those who have committed grave human rights abuses, and we’ll continue to do that. But we can have human rights at the center of our foreign policy, as they have been, as we continue to pursue the interests of the American people across all of these interests and the many other interests that we have and that we share with our Saudi partners.
QUESTION: Following up on Michel’s question about the military defense system probably in the Middle East, I think he spoke generally, including the Arab countries of the region. You addressed Israel, but does the same policy apply towards the Arab countries of the region? And don’t you think – and last week, late last week, there was a bipartisan legislation both in the House and the Senate to arm – to bolster the military or defense capabilities of these countries vis-à-vis Iran. Wouldn’t that just aggravate things in the region and probably cause Iran to react in a more even – more disturbing way?
MR PRICE: Well, the shared interests that I mentioned a moment ago that we have with our Saudi partners, we have with the full array of our Gulf partners, and that is why we see this as an important moment to have high-level engagement with the GCC, with the GCC+3 in this case, because Iran does pose a challenge to the broader region. It’s also why Rob Malley and his team, not only have they regularly updated our Israeli partners on the progress, or in some cases – in most cases – lack thereof with regard to a potential mutual return to compliance, but Rob has briefed the GCC. And late last year, there was a statement put out by the GCC indicating their support for the prospect of a mutual return to compliance with the JCPOA, because these countries know the challenge that Iran poses. They know the nonproliferation benefits that a potential return to compliance with the JCPOA would convey not only for us, but also an arrangement that would have – that would redound positively to their national security interest.
So the answer to your question is yes, we work cooperatively not only with Israel, but our other partners in the Gulf on the challenge that Iran poses.
To the second part of your question, everything we’re doing is defensive in nature. Iran – it is Iran that is funding proxies. It is Iran that is fueling instability. It is Iran that is providing support to bad actors in places like Yemen and Syria and elsewhere. And it’s Iran that is supporting terrorist groups. So everything we are doing is with an eye to counteract the malign influence that Iran is in many cases exporting. Of course, we don’t seek conflict. We don’t seek to exacerbate regional tensions, and in fact, we have welcomed steps to de-escalate tensions in the region. We want to see tensions de-escalated. What we are doing is taking prudent steps together with our partners to help defend ourselves against the escalatory steps that Iran unfortunately has taken.
QUESTION: And you mentioned communicating with Iran via the Europeans, the EU, the Europeans. How about the Russians right now, given the situation with the war and the tension here? Because for example, just today the Russian ambassador in Vienna met with his Iranian counterpart on the JCPOA, on the talks. Is the U.S. still communicating, consulting, talking to the Russian counterpart in Vienna on continuing or finalizing the talks one way or another?
MR PRICE: Rob’s engagements have primarily been with our European partners and allies. He does occasionally speak with other partners and allies around the globe. I believe recently he spoke to his South Korean counterpart. There are a number of global partners who are in some way part of this, whether or not they’re part of the P5+1 or have a stake in the outcome of this. But right now, our primary partners are our European allies.
QUESTION: Thank you.
QUESTION: Thank you, Ned. Today the Iranian foreign minister said, quote, “The American side had told Iran the IAEA Board of Governors’ resolution would be void of any content.” A few days before this, another source close to the Islamic Republic of Iran said – claimed, quote, “Forty-eight hours before IAEA’s Board of Governors’ resolution, Biden sent a secret message to Iran that said, ‘The resolution’s text is toned down. Don’t retaliate as my administration’s hands are tied by Congress.’” Can you confirm sending this message to Iran?
MR PRICE: I can deny sending that message to Iran.
QUESTION: Okay. And this just came in —
QUESTION: You personally or the entire government?
MR PRICE: I am not aware that any such message has been sent, neither is anyone in this building.
QUESTION: But you can admit that you – your tone in the statement from Ms. Holgate, your representative at IAEA, the tone was very mild. Also, we can detect that in Mr. Sullivan’s words, Mr. Malley’s tweets, Mr. Blinken’s statement. You wanted to de-escalate. Is that true?
MR PRICE: We wanted to register our serious concern with the status of Iran’s nuclear program. That is precisely what this Board of Governors’ resolution did. It made clear our serious concerns that Iran has failed to credibly respond to the IAEA’s questions regarding potential undeclared nuclear material and activities in Iran. This is a step that the Board of Governors had not taken in some time. We thought it was important that the United States work closely with our European allies and our other partners on the Board of Governors to achieve this resolution precisely to send a message.
If Iran seeks de-escalation, there are certain steps that Iran could take in a number of different areas. One of those areas is its nuclear program. Rather than put the brakes on its nuclear program, Iran has continued to take steps that are only escalatory and further provocative. And in response to this very Board of Governors’ resolution, a resolution that calls for more transparency, Iran has come back and countered with less transparency and has actually committed to taking offline some of the important inspections and monitoring capabilities that the IAEA has long maintained.
QUESTION: Okay. Ned, this just came in. Mr. Grossi just said to Al Arabiya that in his belief you have reached a dead end in the negotiation. This is just few minutes ago. Considering how apolitical Mr. Grossi was always and IAEA, they never took any political stance, what do you think about this statement from Mr. Grossi? Where are we going from here? Is there a Plan B?
MR PRICE: What I would say is that the steps that Iran has taken, the steps that Iran has threatened, would vastly complicate a return to the deal, a potential return to the deal that was already vastly complicated by a number of issues, including Iran’s insistence on bringing in issues that are extraneous to the JCPOA.
Ultimately, however, we are going to judge the utility and the wisdom of a potential mutual return to compliance with the JCPOA on the basis of our national security interest. And if the deal that has been on the table for some time conveys advantages to us in terms of our national security – advantages that, by the way, would work to the benefit of our partners and allies throughout the region. We will continue to pursue it. If and when we conclude that the deal that is on the table does not convey these advantages, we won’t, and we will pursue an alternative course.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MR PRICE: Yes.
QUESTION: Russian officials claim that Ukrainian forces struck within its borders, hitting near a military base. There seems to be some credible information backing up those claims. Is this something the department is looking into? And if it is confirmed, is there a concern for escalation?
MR PRICE: Well, as you know, we don’t typically comment on purported strikes or specific operations from here. I would leave it to others to update and to offer assessments on tactical developments on the battlefield. What we can say is that we are doing everything we can, and it is quite a lot, to provide our Ukrainian partners with what they need to defend themselves. Since the start of the invasion, since February 24th, we’ve provided some 4.6 billion in security assistance to our Ukrainian partners, $5.3 billion since the beginning of the administration. You see the delta between those two numbers – $600 million, indicating that – sorry, $700 million – I’m bad at math – indicating that we provided Ukraine with significant assistance well before Russia began its invasion on February 24th.
With the assistance of Congress, the passage of the emergency supplemental, we do have additional resources. We’ve had a first presidential drawdown the other week of nearly a billion dollars in additional security assistance to our Ukrainian partners. We will continue to provide our Ukrainian partners with the security assistance and with the forms of security assistance that they need contoured to the battle that they’re facing, and the battle that they’re facing right now principally in the Donbas, where Russia is continuing to inflict violence and to cause widespread death and destruction.
QUESTION: And that’s regardless of whether they’re striking into Russia, as these reports say?
MR PRICE: We will continue to provide our Ukrainian partners with what they need to defend themselves.
QUESTION: If it’s okay, I’ll move on to Democratic Republic of Congo.
MR PRICE: Sure.
QUESTION: M23 rebels in the DRC have seized an eastern border town. Congo has repeatedly accused Rwanda of backing the M23. What is the State Department’s assessment of Rwandan support for the M23?
MR PRICE: Well, we spoke to this the other week, but we are alarmed by reports of cross-border violence between the Democratic Republic of Congo and Rwanda, and the increasing tensions between those two countries. We’re deeply concerned by reports of Rwandan military personnel participating in this fighting. We urge both sides to exercise restraint and to engage in immediate dialogue to de-escalate tensions and end hostilities. We – as we’ve said before, we support the continuation of the Nairobi Process and mediation efforts by the African Union. And we encourage countries in the region to exercise responsible, constructive leadership and work together to advance peace and security in the eastern DRC.
We call on both sides to meet soon to reach a lasting resolution to this regionally destabilizing situation and to avoid rhetoric that could inflame ethnic tensions and hate speech and/or put UN peacekeepers at risk. And we’re saddened by reports of injuries and deaths caused by this cross-border artillery strikes in both directions, both this month and last month as well. We appreciate MONUSCO’s efforts in support of the armed forces of the DRC to protect civilians. We’re saddened to learn of injuries to UN peacekeepers in recent fighting.
M23 must terminate their offensive and immediately cease these attacks, which cause suffering, especially to vulnerable populations. And we continue to urge M23 and all non-state armed groups operating in this region, in the eastern DRC, to cease violence against civilians, to disband, and to lay down their arms. We know that the people of eastern Congo have suffered violence and displacement for far too long, and we’ll continue to do what we can, together with our partners, including those at the UN, to bring a halt to this escalation.
QUESTION: Sorry, Ned, isn’t that pretty much exactly what you said after the Secretary met with the – Congo foreign minister?
MR PRICE: Well, I would say that the underlying dynamics of this conflict have not changed, but —
QUESTION: Has your – has anything changed in your —
MR PRICE: Yes, there —
QUESTION: It has?
MR PRICE: It has, it has.
QUESTION: What has changed? What’s different about what you just said than what you said 10 days ago?
MR PRICE: The artillery strikes have continued, and I made reference to what we’ve seen this month as well. But as you said, Matt, the – as I said, actually, the underlying dynamics of this conflict have not changed.
QUESTION: Yeah, we saw that Special Envoy Carstens was in Mali and met with leaders there. Can you just share any readout or what he was there for?
MR PRICE: What I can say – and I will defer to my colleagues in his office if they have any more to say, but the special envoy routinely travels around the world. Sometimes we make that travel public, as we did in his recent travel to Lebanon. Sometimes we don’t. So I will defer to them if they have anything more to say on that potential travel.
QUESTION: On this, Ned —
MR PRICE: Yes.
QUESTION: — did the Senior Advisor Hochstein make any progress in his talks in Beirut? And what is the next step? Will he be going to Israel (inaudible)?
MR PRICE: Well, we announced last week that Senior Advisor Amos Hochstein was in Lebanon to meet with leaders and to facilitate and accelerate negotiations. We’ve called on all sides to seek a negotiated resolution to the maritime boundary dispute. We’re not going to get into the details of that diplomacy, but it is very much an effort that is ongoing and that Senior Advisor Hochstein will continue to be engaged on.
QUESTION: Is he going to Israel?
MR PRICE: Don’t have any travel to announce at the moment. As I understand it, he’s on his way back to the United States right now.
QUESTION: Ned, thank you.
QUESTION: Turning quickly back to Iran, the satellite company Maxar has images from today that it says are probable launch activities. Do you have any comment on the specific probable launch and how the U.S. would respond?
MR PRICE: I don’t beyond what I said previously, that it is Iran that has consistently chosen to escalate tensions. It is Iran that has consistently chosen to take provocative actions. We urge Iran to de-escalate, to cease with its provocative activities, but not going to entertain a hypothetical like that.
Yes, and then I’ll go to you, Said. Yes.
QUESTION: Ned, any update about reopening the U.S. consulate in East Jerusalem? Should we expect any announcement during President Biden’s trip to the West Bank?
MR PRICE: I don’t have any update for you beyond what we’ve said previously, and namely that we are committed to reopening the consulate in Jerusalem. In the meantime, we have a team on the ground that manages our relationship with the Palestinian Authority and the Palestinian people.
QUESTION: Just to follow-up on this —
MR PRICE: Said, mm-hmm.
QUESTION: Today there was a meeting between Barbara Leaf with the Palestinian prime minister, and he in fact demanded that the consulate be open. So is there a timeframe? I know I asked you this question, and forgive me because I asked it so many times. But are we likely – are we getting closer to sort of a timeframe for reopening the consulate?
MR PRICE: There’s not a timeframe I can provide you other than to reiterate what I just said, that we remain committed to reopening the consulate in Jerusalem. It is part and parcel of our effort to re-engage with the Palestinian Authority, the Palestinian people. You have to remember that when we took office in January of last year, there had been almost a complete rupture, a complete severance between the United States Government and the Palestinian Authority, and in some ways the Palestinian people.
So over the past 15 months, we have invested in recreating, re-establishing that relationship – that relationship between the U.S. Government and the PA. But importantly, that relationship between the U.S. Government and the Palestinian people, a relationship that has allowed us to provide significant funds of humanitarian assistance directly to the Palestinian people in a way that will tangibly improve their lives.
QUESTION: Now also, the PLO office in Washington, any prospects for reopening that office?
MR PRICE: I don’t have an update for you there. This is a complex issue, as you know. It’s one we continue to discuss with our Palestinian counterparts but also with Congress as well.
QUESTION: Okay. I have a couple more on the Palestinian issue. On – the other day, Secretary Blinken said that he would support an independent investigation of the killing of Shireen Abu Akleh. Could you explain to us what is that? What form would that independent investigation take?
MR PRICE: There has been no change in our approach, and we’ve been consistent on this since the earliest hours after learning of the tragic and reprehensible death of Shireen Abu Akleh. We continue to call for a thorough, credible investigation that culminates in accountability.
QUESTION: Okay. But he said the word “independent,” so is that independent as perhaps a third party – not Israel, not the Palestinians, someone else?
MR PRICE: Our approach remains the same. We continue to call for a thorough, credible investigation that culminates in accountability.
QUESTION: There was a thorough report in The Washington Post that was published on Sunday, and basically it shows that it was an Israeli soldier who shot the shot that killed Shireen Abu Akleh. I mean, all the evidence is there, but the Israelis are saying there was no criminal intent, that – they closed the book – almost they’ve closed the book on that. Would that cause you to be outraged if they closed the book on investigating —
MR PRICE: Would it – sorry, would it cause —
QUESTION: The Israelis are – they’re saying – in fact, the chief of staff of the Israeli army, Kochavi, he said there was no – there will not be any sort of criminal pursuit of whoever did that. If it happened, it may have happened accidentally, or so is the suggestion. Would that be satisfactory to you?
MR PRICE: We – look, Said, we want to see an investigation that is thorough, credible, that culminates in accountability, and that does so on a swift basis. We’ve been in close contact with our Israeli, with our Palestinian counterparts as well to urge authorities to fully cooperate in investigating the circumstances of Shireen Abu Akleh’s killing, and that includes to share forensic evidence. We have – we’ve made clear our view to Israel and the Palestinian Authority that we expect, as I’ve said before, this thorough, transparent, and impartial investigation into the circumstances of her killing and in a manner that culminates in accountability.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MR PRICE: Okay. Thank you very —
QUESTION: I have one more about the trip.
MR PRICE: Yes.
QUESTION: The President’s trip, that is.
MR PRICE: Yes.
QUESTION: In this call that was done last night by a White House official, it talked about this meeting between India, Israel, the U.S. and —
MR PRICE: The I2-U2.
QUESTION: Yeah. Who the hell comes up with these names?
MR PRICE: (Laughter.) I think that one’s – I actually like that one a lot.
QUESTION: You do? Really?
MR PRICE: Yeah. It’s good.
QUESTION: Is it like a – it’s like faux Star Wars thing?
MR PRICE: Matt, you know some of our acronyms. They’re – many are as good as that one.
QUESTION: Well, I know. But this one seems too – I2-U2. Really?
MR PRICE: That’s what’s —
QUESTION: Anyway, that’s not my question.
MR PRICE: Okay.
QUESTION: But what is the intent? What’s the reason behind this?
MR PRICE: Well —
QUESTION: Not the acronym, but the actual formation of it.
MR PRICE: Yeah. So part of our approach is – from the start, not only to revitalize and to re-energize our system of alliances and partnerships around the world – and I think we’ve done that to a good degree – but also to stitch together partnerships and alliances that didn’t exist previously or that previously weren’t utilized to their full extent. The Quad is a good example of an alliance that previously may not have lived up to its full potential, and of course, we’ve invested heavily in the Quad with virtual meetings at the leader level, in-person meetings at the leader level, and with Secretary Blinken convening his Quad ministerial counterparts on a number of occasions as well.
AUKUS, another good example, taking a key ally in the Indo-Pacific —
QUESTION: Another ridiculous acronym.
MR PRICE: — taking a key ally in Europe, stitching those together in a way that will work to our benefit but will also help our allies help each other in a number of realms, not only in the —
QUESTION: Yeah, but what – specifically what does India bring to the table in this group? What do the Emirates bring to the table in this group? What does Israel, other than being the host of this —
MR PRICE: Well, on their own, each of these countries bring to the table a number of interests —
QUESTION: Okay. But – all right. So if you wanted a second U, you could have invited Uzbekistan. So why not Uzbekistan instead of the Emirates? What specifically do they —
MR PRICE: I’ll make a couple points. Each of these countries are technological hubs. Biotechnology, of course, is prominent in each of these countries as well. Deepening trade and economic ties between these countries is in our interest when it comes to the relationship between Israel and the UAE. That’s something we have sought to deepen. These two countries have, of course, deepened their relationship in recent years, including in the economic realm.
India, of course, is a massive market. It is a massive consumer market. It’s a massive producer of high-tech and highly sought-after goods as well. So there are a number of areas where these countries can work together, whether it’s technology, whether it’s trade, whether it is climate, whether it’s COVID, and potentially even security as well, so —
QUESTION: Okay. I should just note that the second U could have been Uruguay too, so I don’t want to leave anyone out.
MR PRICE: Well, don’t want to rule out any potential future groupings. Thank you.
QUESTION: Thank you.
(The briefing was concluded at 3:11 p.m.)