2:16 p.m. EDT
MR PRICE: Good afternoon. I come empty-handed, except to comment, once again, on just how frigid it is in this room, but hopefully we can all —
QUESTION: We’ve all been just saying, it’s a little bit warmer than yesterday. A little.
MR PRICE: That’s not saying much.
QUESTION: No, it’s not. Okay. Well, you came empty-handed, huh? All right. I just have one very brief one, and then —
MR PRICE: Sound like the voice of God in here.
QUESTION: Yeah, exactly. I should talk like this. Do you have any – have you managed to get any more information about these Americans who are allegedly – have allegedly been captured or detained in Ukraine?
MR PRICE: So this is something we’ve spoken to over the last day. We are limited in terms of what we can say on two fronts, first in terms of our privacy considerations and some unique considerations that we have as the Department of State, but also because we are limited in terms of what we know at the moment.
But I can tell you what we do know and what we can say. We are aware of unconfirmed reports of two U.S. citizens captured in Ukraine. We’re closely monitoring the situation. We are in contact with Ukrainian authorities, as well as with the International Committee of the Red Cross and the families of the two reported missing U.S. citizens. Of course, we’re not able to offer any more on that front because of privacy considerations.
But the broader message – and this is something you’ve heard from us previously, and it’s one we reiterate again today – is that we continue to urge in every way we can American citizens not to travel to Ukraine because of the attendant dangers that is posed by Russia’s ongoing aggression. There are many individuals in this country who are well-intentioned and who want to do everything they can to help the people of Ukraine. Of course, we all understand that. There are avenues and ways to channel that energy, to channel those efforts in ways that are constructive and ultimately helpful for the people of Ukraine, and you can find many of those on our website.
QUESTION: Can you just explain, if you can, who it is that you’re reaching out to for any information?
MR PRICE: Well, we’re reaching out to the Ukrainian Government to see if —
QUESTION: They don’t – it’s not them that has them if they are being held.
MR PRICE: No, of course. We are speaking to the International Committee of the Red Cross. We have discussed this issue broadly with other partners, including our British partners, for instance. If there are other avenues that we feel could shed light on the whereabouts of these two reported missing U.S. citizens, we will pursue that.
QUESTION: Well, okay. So you have not spoken to the Russians about this?
MR PRICE: As of today, we have not raised this yet with the Russian Federation. If we feel that such outreach through our embassy in Moscow or otherwise would be productive in terms of finding out more information on the whereabouts of these individuals, we won’t hesitate to do that.
QUESTION: Okay. Can you just – what would make it – what would make you think that it would be productive to reach out to the Russians? Some kind of proof of their captivity?
MR PRICE: Well, of course, we likewise haven’t seen anything from the Russians indicating that two such individuals are in their custody. If the Russians were to claim that they had such individuals, I assume we would pursue that. If we had reason to believe, credible reason to believe that these individuals were in Russian custody, we would pursue that as appropriate.
QUESTION: So just to put a very fine point on it, at this moment, you don’t have credible reason to believe that they are being held by Russia?
MR PRICE: At this moment, we have seen the open press reports, the same reports that you all have seen, but we don’t have independent confirmation of their whereabouts.
QUESTION: To follow up on that, I know you mentioned that you don’t have confirmation that the Russians have them, but in terms of what the message would be to the Russians – I mean the – supposedly, according to the reports from their families, they were volunteering with the Ukrainian military. What would be the expectations of treatment by the Russians? The Geneva Conventions, would that come into play?
MR PRICE: Well, the Russians have certain obligations, and members of the Ukrainian armed forces, including volunteers who may be third-country nationals incorporated into the armed forces, should be treated as prisoners of war under the Geneva Conventions and afforded the treatment and protections commensurate with that status, including humane treatment and fundamental process and fair trial guarantees. Under the Geneva Convention, POWs are entitled to combatant immunity and cannot be prosecuted for participation in hostilities. Russia’s obligations here are very clear: As a party to the Geneva Convention and the First Additional Protocol, they apply to its detention and treatment of anyone in the armed conflict, regardless of the status that person merits or that Russia purports to recognize of any such individual.
QUESTION: Just to follow up on that, the – I’m sure you’re aware of the case of British nationals recently who were caught up in the fighting there. What’s the signal from that in terms of how the Russians are treating foreign fighters there? Is there any cause for concern about how they’ve treated people caught with the Ukrainian forces?
MR PRICE: Well, of course, and we continue, as do our British partners, and we’ve been in touch with our British partners on specific cases and on the issue more broadly. The Russians have an obligation to afford humane treatment to anyone in their custody as a result of this conflict – humane treatment and fundamental process and fair trial guarantees. Anyone who is captured on the battlefield, who are members of the Ukrainian armed forces, including, again, volunteers who need not be Ukrainian nationals, who could be third-country nationals, should be afforded the full protections of the Geneva Conventions and the Laws of Armed Conflict.
QUESTION: Are they regular army, Ukrainian army soldiers?
MR PRICE: Again —
QUESTION: I mean, the Russians probably say, look, these guys are mercenaries.
MR PRICE: Again, I can’t —
QUESTION: We have – they have very severe and draconian kind of —
MR PRICE: Again, I can’t comment on specific cases.
MR PRICE: But individuals who are fighting in the effort as part of the Ukrainian armed forces are – they do have these protections. I’ll make this point, though. Even if not regarded officially by the Russian Federation as a prisoner of war, any person detained by Russia in connection with the conflict must be afforded fundamental guarantees, including humane treatment and fair trial rights, whether or not the Russians consider them POWs. Anyone who is fighting with Ukraine’s armed forces should be treated as a POW. Even if Russia refuses to do that, there are certain fundamental guarantees to which they should be afforded.
QUESTION: Would you warn or caution the Russians not to designate them as mercenaries?
MR PRICE: Of course. We – our message to them is that those members of the Ukrainian armed forces should be treated as POWs. Anyone captured on the battlefield should be afforded these same basic and fundamental guarantees.
QUESTION: Is this the first possible case of detained Americans by the Russians who were fighting in the war? Are there other cases that State is aware of?
MR PRICE: There are reports of one additional American whose whereabouts are unknown. I can’t speak to the specifics of that case. Unfortunately, we don’t know the full details of that case.
QUESTION: To your understanding, was this person fighting with the Ukrainians, this unknown —
MR PRICE: Similarly, our understanding was that this individual had traveled to Ukraine to take up arms.
QUESTION: Can you give a time on this of when this person was identified as missing?
MR PRICE: This has been in recent weeks.
QUESTION: Thank you.
QUESTION: Do you mind if I just do one more on —
MR PRICE: Sure.
QUESTION: — one more on Ukraine? The – several European leaders visited Kyiv today and they voiced support for European Union membership for Ukraine. Obviously, the U.S. isn’t part of the European Union, but does the – do you have any stance on this in terms of what this means and what this could mean also potentially for NATO aspirations in the future for them?
MR PRICE: We certainly support Ukraine’s European aspirations. Our support since Ukraine’s independence has been to help place Ukraine on the path to help support its European aspirations. We continue to, and to this day, continue to work with Ukraine to realize those aspirations. Obviously, this is a question for the EU, but it is also an aspiration that we fully support.
QUESTION: Can I just go back to the – just – I just want to clarify something about – when you said about anyone who was taken off the – captured on the battlefield should be treated as a POW. Does that mean that anyone who – anyone at all or anyone who is in uniform? Because I’d like to – I don’t know if there’s a comparison to be made; I’m sure you will say there isn’t. But what about the battlefield in Afghanistan, where clearly the United States did not treat enemy combatants as POWs? Is there – are you making a distinction between what’s going on in Ukraine and what has happened in Iraq or Afghanistan?
MR PRICE: So, first, when it comes to Ukraine, again, our position is that members of the Ukrainian armed forces, whether they are Ukrainians or third-country nationals —
QUESTION: I’m talking – okay.
MR PRICE: — should be treated as prisoners of war under the Geneva Conventions.
When it comes to Afghanistan, all U.S. military detention operations conducted at Guantanamo Bay are carried out in accordance with the Law of Armed Conflict – also known as the Law of War – or international humanitarian law, including Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions of 1949, and all other applicable international and domestic laws. So our position on this has been consistent.
QUESTION: Oh, okay. So those Geneva Conventions allow waterboarding and things like that?
MR PRICE: Go on.
QUESTION: No. Well, you can smile and nod, but really?
MR PRICE: Matt, we have —
QUESTION: These people were not treated as – and I understand if you’re trying to make – if you’re going to make a distinction between those people who may be terrorists or, quote/unquote, “enemy combatants” and those who are uniformed members of a military, but are you making that distinction, or are you saying that the U.S. has always treated anyone it’s taken prisoner on a battlefield as a prisoner of war?
MR PRICE: That – the policy of the United States has been that all U.S. military detention operations conducted at Guantanamo Bay are carried out in accordance with the Law of Armed Conflict, including the applicable portions of the Geneva Conventions.
QUESTION: Well, okay.
MR PRICE: Now, we have spoken —
QUESTION: Well, how about detentions in black sites in Europe?
MR PRICE: Now, we have spoken at length – we have spoken at length – not as much during this administration, but certainly during the last administration in which I served – about the ways in which America lost its way in some very notable instances in our pursuit, in our prosecution of the war on terrorism. I’m not here to relitigate that. I think we all have —
QUESTION: Okay. I’m not asking you, but I just want to know – I’m not asking you to relitigate it. I just want to know if you’re making – are you making a distinction between the two? Or are you just saying that, with some unfortunate exceptions, the U.S. has always hewed to the – to respecting the Laws of War?
MR PRICE: This has been our policy when it comes to detention operations at Guantanamo Bay.
QUESTION: Ned, do we know for sure whether they were wearing actual Ukrainian army uniforms with insignias and all that stuff, and a rank or anything like that?
MR PRICE: Said, as I said, I can’t speak to specific cases.
QUESTION: Thank you. On Russia, China, and North Korea, in a recent phone call with President – Russian President Putin, Chinese President Xi Jinping said the Russian war was justified and supported Russia. What is your comment on China’s support of the unjustified Russian war?
MR PRICE: The alignment and the partnership between China and Russia is something that we’ve spoken quite a bit about, including in recent weeks. Secretary Blinken noted it during his speech recently on our approach to the PRC. To put it bluntly, we are concerned about China’s alignment with Russia. We have noted statements from the PRC claiming that China is neutral, but its behavior, its rhetoric, its actions suggest that it is anything but. It is still investing in close ties with Russia.
We’ve seen this from the earliest days of this conflict, even before this conflict. As Russia amassed its forces along Ukraine’s borders, President Xi on February 4th, about three weeks before the invasion began, when it was quite clear what was likely to happen, chose to announce what the PRC and Russia called a, quote/unquote, “no limits” partnership. And in the joint statement from – that emanated, 5,000 words from the meeting between those two world leaders, they put forward a vision of the world order that is profoundly illiberal, that is profoundly different from the vision of a free and open Indo-Pacific and beyond that the United States and our partners have not only espoused but have sought to promote and protect.
The vision that they put forward is a world in which might makes right, a world in which – contrary to decades of PRC statements regarding the inviolability of state sovereignty – where big states can bully small states, where countries are not able to exercise a discretion to choose their own partnerships, to adopt their own foreign policy, where in many ways coercion is the name of the game.
So in key respects, despite what we – what we hear from the PRC, a stance of stated and purported neutrality, the PRC has already made a choice. And more than three months now into Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, China – despite the atrocities that have been committed, despite the violence, despite the loss of life, despite the global implications including when it comes to food insecurity not only in the region but well beyond – China is still choosing to stand by Russia. It is still echoing Russian propaganda. Very disturbingly, it is echoing and propagating what are very clearly very dangerous Russian lies on many fronts. The PRC and Russia, of course, continue to shirk their obligations as members of the Permanent Five. The fact that the PRC is in many ways still denying the atrocities that have taken place inside Ukraine – the atrocities that we’ve seen with our own eyes thanks to the reporting from many of your organizations – I think speaks to the partnership and the choice that the PRC has made.
We’ve seen, of course, the recent phone call between the two leaders. Again, this position of stated neutrality on the part of the PRC is nothing more than a hollow statement. If the PRC actually believed in the principles that it has espoused over the course of many years, including in the UN Security Council over the course of many years, the approach that we would be seeing from the PRC would be markedly different from the approach that we’re seeing now.
QUESTION: Do you think China will be willing to support military aid to Russia, any movement or —
MR PRICE: Supporting humanitarian aid to Russia or to Ukraine?
QUESTION: I mean Russia, not Ukraine.
MR PRICE: Russia. I would have to defer to the PRC to speak to any humanitarian aid that they should be sending or that they are sending to Russia. We have been calling on the international community to send, of course, humanitarian aid to the people of Ukraine. And just yesterday, you heard from us of an additional $250 million in humanitarian assistance that we are providing for the people of Ukraine. All told, this is about a billion dollars in humanitarian assistance that we’ve provided to the people of Ukraine since the start of this conflict on February 24th. This is funding for the basic and fundamental needs of the Ukrainian people: clean water, sanitation, housing, food, nutrition, the basic essentials of daily life that in many ways have been imperiled by what the Russians are – what Russia’s forces are doing against the country and the people of Ukraine.
MR PRICE: You heard from Secretary Blinken when he was standing next to his South Korean counterpart earlier this week that our approach is to make clear to the DPRK that we harbor no hostile intent. We seek diplomacy and dialogue in order to advance the prospects for the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. You also heard him say we have not heard a response from the DPRK. That was just a few days ago. There has been no change to that.
QUESTION: Thank you.
QUESTION: Ned, just going back to what you said about the Chinese policy and the idea, this “might makes right” and that the Chinese seem to be going into this following this idea that big states can dominate small states. So there are a lot of historians who would say that the United States itself has had that same policy towards – particularly towards countries in Latin America.
But since we’re talking about Taiwan in this instance, let’s talk about small island – islands that are off the coast of each country. How exactly would you describe U.S. policy towards Cuba? Is that not the case of what – the same thing of what you’re accusing the Chinese of doing with Taiwan? And if not, why not?
MR PRICE: Matt, I think you can compare what Beijing is doing to Taiwan with clear acts of intimidation, flying sorties into what are – what is clearly —
QUESTION: (Laughter.) Ned, you invaded.
MR PRICE: Are you going back 60 years? Is that where you’re going to?
QUESTION: Sure, yeah.
QUESTION: You have a long (inaudible) Cuba.
QUESTION: You can go back longer than – longer than that. I just want to know – I – again —
MR PRICE: Matt, we’ve had this – we’ve had this conversation before. I’m here to speak to the Biden administration, not to the Kennedy administration or the Eisenhower administration.
QUESTION: Okay. All right. Okay. So let’s talk about the Biden administration and its policy towards Cuba, which still has the embargo, right? Is that not a case of a big state trying to dominate a smaller state?
MR PRICE: This —
QUESTION: Which is exactly the same thing that you’re complaining that China is doing?
MR PRICE: This is a case of the United States seeking to help advance the democratic aspirations of the people of Cuba. If you take a look at what we have done, including in recent weeks, we’ve taken steps that —
MR PRICE: — seek to fulfill those aspirations: family reunification, visa processing, providing support to Cuban entrepreneurs, taking measures of accountability on senior Cuban officials who have been responsible for the repression, including the renewed repression that has followed the July 11th protests. So our approach to Cuba, I think, is the comparison you’re trying to make.
QUESTION: I’m not trying to make the comparison. I’m asking you if you – if there is a comparison to make.
MR PRICE: Okay. So I guess the answer would be no. Yes. Great.
QUESTION: You clearly would say no. Okay. Fine.
QUESTION: Thank you. I’m going to switch topics, Ned. On the Palestinian issue, the Israeli police won’t release findings of the internal probe into conduct at the Abu Akleh funeral. Apparently they have the findings and they found that the police probably conducted themselves wrongly, but they will not release it. And in fact, it seems that Haaretz is saying that they have decided not to press any charges against anyone before even the investigation. Do you have any comment on this?
MR PRICE: Well, I am not aware that we’ve seen any sort of formal statement regarding the outcome of any investigation, but let me just say this: The footage from the funeral procession – and we said this shortly after the funeral procession – showed disturbing intrusions into what should have been a peaceful procession. We urged respect for the funeral procession, for the mourners, for the family at the time. We made the point at the time that every family deserves to be in a position to lay their loved ones to rest in a manner that is dignified, in a manner that is unimpeded, in a manner that is peaceful. And we’ve seen media reports that you allude to about the reported conclusion of the Israeli police’s investigation. We are seeking further information about the investigation and its outcomes if it has in fact been completed. We continue to believe that accountability is an important component of these disturbing events.
QUESTION: All right. Let me ask one more question on the Palestinian issue. Is there – yeah.
QUESTION: Sorry, do you mind if I follow up on that?
QUESTION: Please, yes. Please, by all means.
QUESTION: When you say you’re seeking further information, do you want the Israelis to release it publicly, the report on the – or to the United States?
MR PRICE: We are seeking further information from our Israeli partners. So certainly, to us, typically these investigations, the findings of them are released publicly, but that’s, of course, not our call.
QUESTION: But would you like them to release it publicly? I mean, is that —
MR PRICE: We – transparency and accountability go hand-in-hand in this case.
QUESTION: I remember you saying that the Israelis have the wherewithal to conduct a very solid and truthful investigation. Do you still believe that?
MR PRICE: Still believe that.
QUESTION: Do you still believe that they have that wherewithal to do it?
MR PRICE: Certainly have the capabilities to do it.
QUESTION: They have the capabilities?
MR PRICE: And we continue to call on the Israelis to do just that, both in the case of the funeral procession and in the underlying event – of course, the tragic, horrific killing of Shireen Abu Akleh.
QUESTION: Let me ask you about Gaza. It’s been 15 years since Gaza became under siege basically – by land, by sea, by air, all these things. And there are reports that some 800,000 children in Gaza have never known anything but the blockade – but the blockade. Isn’t it time to really lift this blockade and allow some humanitarian supplies to go in, allow Gazans to go to school, allow them to go to – to travel abroad and so on, allow them to go to the West Bank?
MR PRICE: Said, when we came into office, we made a point of revitalizing relationships that had completely atrophied or disintegrated over the prior four years. Two of those relationships were with the Palestinian Authority but also with the Palestinian people. It is important to us that we are in a position to be a humanitarian leader around the world, and that includes for the Palestinian people, and that includes for the Palestinian people in Gaza. We are providing assistance, to include shelter, food, relief items, health care, as well as mental health and psychological support, for those who have experienced trauma. As we do around the world, we’ll provide this assistance in the West Bank and Gaza through experienced and trusted independent partners on the ground who distribute directly to people in need.
The point we’ve made consistently when it comes to this conflict and this dynamic is that Israelis and Palestinians alike deserve equal measures of security, of stability, of peace, of freedom, and critically, of dignity. And by providing this humanitarian aid, not only is it the right thing to do, but our goal is to help foster the conditions so that we can move towards the prospect of a two-state solution. And of course, no one believes that the time is ripe now for such substantial movement. No one is confident that now is the right time that we are going to see progress in the next day or the next couple weeks.
But our goal, our charge has been to try to create those conditions, and part of that has been through the significant humanitarian support that we’ve provided, including in Gaza. We announced over the course of the last year hundreds of millions of dollars in support, including through UNRWA, a funding source that we’ve been able to revitalize and a funding source that is a critical source of subsistence of survival for many in Gaza.
QUESTION: Well, I am certain that many Palestinians are grateful to the restoration of aid to UNRWA, because it’s really UNRWA has kept the Palestinians educated and with health care available to them and so on. But deserving something, because you said the Palestinians and the Israelis deserve to be – to have the same opportunities and so on – deserving it, deserving something and getting it are two different things. I’m not letting anyone off the hook. Your allies – Egypt, Israel, and even the PA, the Palestinian Authority – have taken part in imposing this blockade on Gaza. I am asking you, hasn’t the time come to lift this blockade?
MR PRICE: The time has come to do all we can to support the people, the Palestinian people, in Gaza. That’s what we are doing, including through our humanitarian assistance.
QUESTION: On this, Ned —
QUESTION: Please, did the administration ask Israel not to take any steps regarding the settlements before the President’s trip to Israel and the West Bank?
MR PRICE: Michel, you have been in this room long enough to know that we have consistently delivered a message, both in public and in private, that encourages both sides, Israeli and Palestinians, to avoid steps that only serve to exacerbate tensions and potentially move us even further away from the prospect of a two-state solution. So that has been a message that we have conveyed nearly since day one of this administration.
QUESTION: Although isn’t it also true that that message has been universally ignored?
MR PRICE: Matt, I would not —
QUESTION: By both sides?
MR PRICE: Obviously, we have worked closely with both sides to de-escalate tensions. We’ve done that, including in recent months. We spoke of a period of heightened tensions as the three major religions celebrated their holy days nearly simultaneously. It was during that period – it was – it has been in the weeks since that we’ve continued to work very closely. The Secretary has a number of – has had a number of calls with the foreign minister, Foreign Minister Lapid. He’s had a number of calls with President Abbas. As you know, Barbara Leaf was just in Ramallah meeting with President Abbas. Barbara Leaf was just in Israel meeting with our Israeli counterparts as well. So we continue to send that very clear message.
MR PRICE: Please.
QUESTION: You said you are encouraging always – you’ve been saying encouraging both sides to refrain from doing those kind of thing. But what if encouraging has been proven years and years is not working?
MR PRICE: I’m sorry. I missed the last part of the question.
QUESTION: What if encouraging – I mean, the Israelis in this case about the settlement. What if encouragement policy is not working? There is any alternative?
MR PRICE: We continue to believe that a two-state solution is in the best interests of Israel and the Palestinian people. Again, only through a two-state solution can we – can Israel’s identity as a Jewish and democratic state be guaranteed living next to a sovereign, independent state for the Palestinians. That continues to be our long-term goal.
Of course, as I said before, it is a long-term goal because the conditions are not right for it at the moment. To your point, we are doing what we can in the moment to de-escalate tensions and to support those underlying conditions, including through our humanitarian assistance to the Palestinian people, so that we can one day – and hopefully one day before too long – get to a point where the time is right to engage in direct talks to move much more directly towards that two-state solution.
So yesterday there was a hearing, a classified hearing, in Congress where Rob Malley attended and Brett McGurk. Senators were – when they came out after the hearing, they were pessimistic. And Marco Rubio said that it’s inevitable that Iran will have a nuclear bomb. Do you share this pessimism, and can you just update us on anything regarding potential talks or lack of them on the nuclear issue? That’s number one.
MR PRICE: So we do not believe it is inevitable that Iran will have a nuclear weapon. And in fact, President Biden has made a commitment that Iran will never be – never acquire a nuclear weapon. Senator Cardin, coming out of the briefing yesterday, he called it one of the more informative and significant classified briefings that he had experienced. He said as to the different options that are available, it was very informative.
There have been a number of senators, of course, who have voiced their opinions on the question of Iran’s nuclear program. The fact is that it’s a challenge and it’s a very – it’s an exceedingly difficult challenge where there are few, if any, good options. And we are where we are in large part because of decisions that were made before this administration came into office.
We still believe there is the potential to conclude a mutual return to compliance with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, if Iran were to set aside issues that are extraneous to the JCPOA and to focus on the contours of the agreement that have been on the table for some time now. We are continuing to push for that and to work closely with our European partners towards that end, because we continue to believe, as do a number of lawmakers on the Hill – and you’ve heard from several of them yesterday – we continue to believe that it would be profoundly in America’s national interest if we were able to return to mutual compliance with the Iran deal, principally because it would require Iran to once again be limited by the strictest, the most intrusive inspections and monitoring regime ever negotiated and subject to the strict limits that the JCPOA places on Iran’s nuclear program.
Now, it’s an open question if we can get there. There’s a lot to suggest we won’t be able to. But we are and have been preparing equally for scenarios where there is a mutual return to compliance with the JCPOA and the scenario where there is not, and a scenario where we will continue to work closely with our partners and allies, but working with those same partners and allies we will pursue a different approach that will nonetheless ensure that we’re able to live up to the commitment President Biden has made that Iran will never be able to acquire a nuclear weapon.
QUESTION: Okay. I’m not going to ask you about plan B because I know the answer. But we have seen widespread protests in Iran. I’m bringing you back to different administrations that Matt was alluding to. During the Obama administration there was a Green Movement. Do you think that this can be closer to anything that could be harnessed or be interpreted as a protest against the regime, or do you think it’s just basically it’s just people asking for basic demands, considering what’s happened in terms of prices, et cetera? And will the administration support these protests?
MR PRICE: Well, we’ve seen this dynamic previously in Iran, that they usually start with a proximate cause, and then they expand to take on a broader cause. What we’re seeing now is brave Iranians demanding that their government address their legitimate concerns. Iran’s government’s mismanagement and neglect have left the Iranian people with their most basic needs largely unmet.
And we condemn the use of violence against peaceful protesters. We support the human rights of Iranians to peacefully assemble and express themselves without fear of violence or retribution. This is the very same message that we’ve delivered the world over.
The Secretary has made clear as well that we condemn the partial or complete government-imposed internet shutdowns, among other tactics that we’ve seen the Iranian Government attempt to resort to, to prevent the exercise of freedom of expression online and to restrict the ability of independent journalists to serve the public. As we do around the world, we support the right of peaceful protesters.
And since 2014, in this case, the Treasury Department has authorized the provision of a wide range of personal communications software and services to Iranians. This is something that we do around the world to see to it that efforts on the part of governments to stifle the ability of their citizens to communicate, to exercise their fundamental rights to freedom of expression, to freedom of assembly, cannot be trampled. And we’ll continue to work with the private sector and the Treasury Department to identify additional measures to support and facilitate the free flow of information inside of Iran.
QUESTION: One last question on Iran. We have seen lately an assassination of many Iranian scientists. That cannot be a coincidence. So do you think this is, like, part of a containment policy on one of your allies, in the face of the much talked about there is – that Iran talks are not going anywhere?
MR PRICE: I’m just not in a position to comment one way or the other on that. But we have a commitment – it’s a commitment we share with many of our allies and partners around the world – that Iran will never be able to acquire a nuclear weapon.
QUESTION: Can I just ask you about your choice of a senator that you wanted to quote after that hearing? Was Senator Cardin the only person who you could find who came out of that hearing having been impressed? And the reason I’m asking is because if you don’t remember, I’ll remind you how he voted on the JCPOA back in 2015. He voted against it.
MR PRICE: And Matt, the fact is that there are a number of – I don’t want to speak to lawmakers, but I will speak to —
QUESTION: Well, do you have anyone else there that you can cite?
MR PRICE: I will speak to —
QUESTION: Or is he the only one?
MR PRICE: I will —
QUESTION: And if he was the only one, I might – you might want to ask your people who gave you that —
MR PRICE: No, but Matt, I —
QUESTION: Why choose someone who voted against the deal?
MR PRICE: No, but I think that’s actually an important point.
MR PRICE: There are a number of countries, there are a number of world leaders, who in 2015 weren’t enthusiastic about the JCPOA, but given where we are now, given the awful choices that were made before this administration came into office, there are a number of world leaders – and I don’t want to speak for lawmakers but there may be lawmakers in this country – who find the JCPOA as the best alternative to what we have now.
QUESTION: So you think that his comments were indicative of him potentially changing his vote?
MR PRICE: I am, of course, not speaking to Senator Cardin or —
QUESTION: Or Senator Menendez or Senator Coons or essentially everyone on the committee except for Senators Van Hollen and Murphy?
MR PRICE: Part of the – a part of our engagement with Congress has been to make very clear, based on the intelligence, the scale of the challenge that we face with Iran’s nuclear program. Of course, none of us wishes that we were in this position. We wouldn’t be in this position if the last administration had not decided to scrap the JCPOA that was manifestly working – working according to this building, according to our Intelligence Community, according to the IAEA.
But we don’t have the option of going back in time. We do have the option of going back into the JCPOA. If we were to go back into the JCPOA, we would be in a better position vis-à-vis Iran’s nuclear program. The fact is – and yesterday the briefers went into more detail and they have in the past as well – the breakout time has diminished significantly. It can now be measured not in months, not in a year as it was upon the implementation of the JCPOA in January of 2016, but in weeks or potentially even less. So the options we have, there is no silver bullet. But we do have an option that may still be in the offing – it is still in the offing if Iran decides to come to the table in a way that, that sets aside issues that are extraneous – to put us in a much more advantageous position when it comes to Iran’s nuclear program.
Now, one final point on this. Iran’s nuclear program is the most proximate challenge and threat we face from Iran. But it, of course, is not the only one – its ballistic missile program, support for proxies, its support for terrorist groups, its exportation of instability throughout the region. All of these things are challenges, threats that we could address much more effectively were the challenge of a nuclear – unconstrained Iranian nuclear program no longer on the table. If we’re to set that aside, we would have much more – excuse me – bandwidth and ability to address challenges that are also urgent and important to us and our partners.
QUESTION: On sanctions levied against Russia, there are reports that some administration officials are increasingly questioning their efficacy, whether they’re hitting average citizens harder than the Kremlin, and whether they’re driving up – significantly driving up global inflation. Now, does the department still stand by its strategy, and what level of collateral damage is acceptable?
MR PRICE: We do still stand by our strategy, and it is a strategy that is not only targeted – it is targeted at the Kremlin; it is targeted at the cronies and support networks behind key decision makers in Russia – it is a strategy that entails not only financial sanctions but export controls that, both in the near term and even more so over the longer term, starve Russia of what it needs for its industrial base, for its technological base, for its defense base, and other critical and strategic sectors. I think you can look at a number of metrics that point to the effectiveness of this strategy. I saw a report today from the Russian central bank, the Russian central banker, in which he conceded the point that Russia’s economy would not be the same as it was prior to February 24th.
Prior to February 24th, we repeatedly made the point, together with our partners and allies, that we would enact measures that were significant and severe if Russia were to go forward with its invasion. Russia has made the choice that it did. We in turn followed through on the commitment that we made.
Now, there are important carveouts when it comes to our sanctions as well. We’ve spoken of the need to maintain a steady global supply of energy. So there are applicable carveouts there. We have spoken of the imperative of doing everything we can, contrary to what Vladimir Putin is doing, to combat this challenge, this growing challenge of food insecurity. It is President Putin whose forces are destroying grain silos, who have destroyed ships at sea carrying grain foodstuffs, who have destroyed agricultural fields and crops, and who are now continuing to enact a blockade that is preventing Ukrainian ships laden with 20 or more tons of grain from leaving port and going to destinations around the world. That is what Vladimir Putin is doing. What we have done is to ensure that all of our sanctions have applicable carveouts so that fertilizer and food is not subject to any of the measures that we have put in place. We’ll continue – this is an urgent challenge for us – to see to it that the impacts of Russia’s war in Ukraine are –that we do as much as we can to address them.
Our goal is to make these measures – the financial sanctions, the export controls, the other applicable measures – as painful for the Kremlin, for key decision makers, while we do everything we can to dilute the costs not only here at home but to other countries, to other people around the world.
QUESTION: On – a follow-up on Iran. You just said you believe that it’s hopeful that they return to the JCPOA if Iran come back to the table. The question: What are you doing to bring Iran back to table? We have seen that you just today imposed some sanction on Iranian petrochemical networks. What are you doing to bring Iran, and is there a deadline for that deal? Is there a deadline that if that deal has not been signed, then there is no meaning to go through?
MR PRICE: There is a deadline. The deadline is the day upon which the benefits of returning to the JCPOA are outweighed and outgained by the advancements that Iran continues to make in its nuclear program. The reason we are pursuing a mutual return to compliance with the JCPOA is because it continues to be in the national security interest of the United States and in the collective interests of our international allies and partners as well. That won’t always be the case, and it won’t always be the case precisely because Iran is continuing to take steps that would be otherwise prohibited under the JCPOA – spinning advanced centrifuges, stockpiling levels of uranium, stockpiling heavy water, doing everything that were it to once again be subject to the strict limitations of the JCPOA would be off the table.
What we’re doing to entice Iran – this is – we have made very clear that we have a genuine intent to return to the JCPOA as long as Iran does so. We have worked together with our European allies and also with the original P5+1 partners, and that of course includes Russia and China, for 15 months now on these negotiations. The negotiations have, in many ways, culminated in the contours of an agreement that could be signed and could be implemented in short order if Iran made the decision to do so. It is up to Iran to decide if it wants to return to compliance or not. If Iran chooses not to do so, if it chooses to continue to raise issues that are extraneous to the JCPOA, we have other options that are available to us. These are other options that we’ve discussed with our allies and partners over the course of many months, and we’ll pursue them.
QUESTION: We are talking about weeks for breakout time. You have been from this podium saying that the Iranians are away just four weeks from acquiring it. When is that deadline actually? When is that deadline when the JCPOA is not going to work anymore? Iranians are just far away from the nuclear weapon four weeks.
MR PRICE: The deadline is when it’s no longer in our national security interest to pursue it. It continues to be the case that a mutual return to compliance would put us in a far preferable position to where we are now. But again, that won’t always be the case.
QUESTION: And also another topic?
QUESTION: Can I —
QUESTION: Yeah. Greece is increasingly arming the islands just miles away from Turkey that are limited under certain agreements. What is the U.S. position under – on this topic, and do you endorse this militarization of islands?
MR PRICE: Our position on this is the same one you heard a couple weeks ago, and the sovereignty and territory – territorial integrity of all countries should be respected and protected. We continue to encourage our NATO Allies – Greece and Turkey in this case – to work together to maintain peace and security in the region and to resolve their differences diplomatically. We urge our allies to avoid rhetoric that could further raise tensions. Greece and Turkey, of course, are both strong partners. They’re key NATO Allies to the United States, and we will continue to urge both of them to de-escalate tensions.
QUESTION: Thank you so much. This is Jahanzaib Ali from ARY News TV, Pakistan. We have seen a rise in Islamophobia in India. A few weeks ago, members of Indian ruling party BJP made demeaning comments about Prophet Mohammed. On this, there are protests going on in India, while the houses of protesting Muslims are being bulldozed. Would you like to say something about these hate crimes committed by Indian Government against Muslims and other minorities?
MR PRICE: Well, this is something that we’ve condemned. We condemn the offensive comments made by two BJP officials, and we were glad to see that the party publicly condemned those comments. We regularly engage with the Indian Government at senior levels on human rights concerns, including freedom of religion or belief, and we encourage India to promote respect for human rights.
The Secretary said when he was last in New Delhi, last year, that the Indian people and the American people, we believe in the same values: human dignity, human respect, equality of opportunity, and the freedom of religion or belief. These are fundamental tenets, these are fundamental values within any democracy, and we speak up for them around the world.
QUESTION: Sir, India and other Asian nations are becoming an increasingly vital source of oil revenues for Moscow, despite strong pressure from the U.S. Are you still talking with the Indian authorities on that, offering something else then? You can sell more oil to them they don’t get from Moscow?
MR PRICE: We have had a number of discussions with our Indian partners, and the point that we have made is that every country is going to have a different relationship with Moscow. India’s relationship with Russia is one that developed over the course of decades, and it developed over the course of decades at a time when the United States wasn’t prepared or able to be a partner of choice for the Indian Government.
That has changed. This is a legacy of a bipartisan tradition now that has been the case for more than two decades. It goes back really to the Clinton administration, certainly to the George W. Bush administration, where the United States has sought a partnership with India, has sought to be a partner of choice for India, including when it comes to the security realm. Now, this is not a partnership that we were able to build in the course of days, weeks, or months. I mentioned before that India’s relationship with Russia was built up over the course of many decades. As countries reorient their relationship with Moscow, as we have seen many of them do, this will be a gradual process.
But throughout it all, we have made clear to our Indian partners that we are there for them, we are ready and able and willing to partner with them, and we’ve done just that. Of course, we had a 2+2 dialogue with our Indian partners not too long ago. We will see Prime Minister Modi once again in the context of the I2-U2, the arrangement we have with —
QUESTION: You need to come up with a better name.
MR PRICE: — with the UAE and Israel along with India, incorporating India into many of the partnerships we have, including, of course, the Quad. And that is a group that this administration has sought to revitalize and has done so at very high levels, including at the leader level on – four times and —
QUESTION: I have one last question. Has there been progress in U.S.-Pakistan relations under the very new Pakistani Government? Because we have seen the former prime minister Imran Khan still selling the conspiracy theories. So is there any progress or contact with the new Pakistani Government?
MR PRICE: Well, we have had a couple occasions now to meet with representatives of the new Pakistani Government. We – when we were in New York last month for the food security ministerial, Secretary Blinken had an opportunity to sit down with his Pakistani counterpart to meet him face-to-face in his position for the first time. It was a very good, constructive discussion regarding the full range of issues, including the issue of food security. We were there in New York at the time to deal with it and to deal with the many aftereffects of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. That was also a topic of discussion.
But Pakistan is a partner of ours, and we will look to ways to advance that partnership in a manner that serves our interest and our mutual interests as well.
MR PRICE: So I mentioned this yesterday that we had not received any prior formal notification from the Russian Government before it was later announced that her pretrial detention had been extended by another couple weeks. Of course, what we heard yesterday was another injustice heaped upon what was already injustice: the fact that Brittney Griner has been in detention, wrongfully so, for months now; similarly with Paul Whelan, someone who has been in Russian detention for years.
We have called for the release of both of them beyond making these public calls. We are working assiduously behind the scenes, quietly, to do everything we can to see to it that they are released as soon as possible. And those are efforts that continue day in and day out.
QUESTION: So no conversation since the extension, then?
MR PRICE: I don’t have any to read out to you.
QUESTION: Can I quickly follow up on the third missing American in Ukraine? I know you’re limited by the Privacy Act, but does the State Department have an understanding of who this individual is, and are you in touch with their family?
MR PRICE: We are in touch with the family, yes.
QUESTION: Can you give a sense of whether there’s any update on plans to free up the grain from Ukraine and what the assessment of the department is on the state of talks in terms of Russian security assurances or any – any talks?
MR PRICE: Sure. So as I mentioned before, this is something that we have been focused on because it is a very clear implication of Russia’s aggression against Ukraine. We’re working tirelessly to help the Ukrainian Government assess alternative routes, to increase the capacity at cross-border points, and to explore the use of mobile equipment among other tactics, as well as temporary storage solutions, to help move some of this grain out from Ukraine.
In May – of course, don’t want to paint a rosy picture here, but in May these efforts, combined with the collaboration with the EU and other international partners, assisted the Ukrainian Government export 1.7 million metric tons of grain. That was more grain than had been extorted – exported the month prior. Now, it is nowhere near it needs – where it needs to be in terms of Ukraine’s export capabilities, and so that’s why we continue to look at alternative solutions.
As you know, Secretary-General Guterres of the UN has been working very closely with our Turkish allies, with our Ukrainian partners, and with the Russians as well to explore potential solutions and maritime routes.
The fact is that there is one individual who could have an overwhelming effect on the availability of Russia’s – excuse me, Ukraine’s grain today, tomorrow, and that is Vladimir Putin. If the blockade against the ports were to be lifted, that would free up tons of Ukrainian grain that has been sitting in ships that have been blocked in port for months now. We continue to call on the Russian Government to do what it can – and it can do a lot – to alleviate this growing challenge of food insecurity. Until and unless we see a change in Russia’s posture, we’ll continue to work with our Ukrainian partners. We’ll continue to support the efforts of our Turkish allies, of the UN secretary-general, to devise alternative solutions.
QUESTION: Ned, a question on —
MR PRICE: A couple – I’m going to move around so we – yes, please.
QUESTION: On a different subject.
MR PRICE: Okay, yes.
QUESTION: On Indo-Pacific region, White House Coordinator Kurt Campbell said today the United States, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, UK, and France will announce the new Pacific Islands Initiative next week. Could you tell us a bit more about it?
MR PRICE: I’m not in a position to speak to it, but it sounds like we’ll have more details before too long.
A couple final questions. Yes.
QUESTION: Going back to human right violation in Iran, yesterday United Nations High Commission for Human Rights published a letter signed by 11 human right experts warning about a violent civil society crackdown happening in Iran. In recent days, we are witnessing a very widespread crackdown against different communities – teachers, retired communities. Any reaction do you have about the OFCHR’s letter?
MR PRICE: This is related to what we were just saying about the fundamental rights of the protesters in Iran to peacefully express and to exercise their basic and fundamental rights. We applaud the work of the UN human rights experts. They expressed, quote, “serious concerns” about a violent crackdown against civil society in Iran, including members of workers unions and teachers arrested for protesting their low salaries and their poor working conditions.
The experts urged accountability for those responsible for using excessive force against the peaceful protesters. They said that they were alarmed at the recent escalation of alleged – allegedly arbitrary arrests of teachers, labor rights defenders, union leaders, lawyers, human rights defenders, other civil society actors.
They went on to make the point that in the absence of meaningful channels of participation in Iran, peaceful protesters are now the sole remaining means for individuals and groups to express themselves and to share their grievances with the authorities. And they were deeply concerned that first response, the first response by the authorities, is that of excessive use of force against the protesters. That is certainly a concern of ours. It’s why we condemned the use of violence against these peaceful protesters. We made the point that we support the right of these protesters to peacefully exercise their fundamental freedoms.
QUESTION: So your hope for returning to talks, does it prevent you to impose human right-related sanctions against Iran? Are they related?
MR PRICE: Of course not. Of course not. We will continue to hold Iran accountable for human rights abuses that take place inside of Iran. We will continue to hold Iran accountable for every strain of nefarious activity that it undertakes.
MR PRICE: Yes, Michel.
QUESTION: I have two questions. One, news stories that say that Senior Advisor Hochstein will be in Israel next week to discuss the border issue between Israel and Lebanon. Is that true?
MR PRICE: I don’t have any travel to announce.
QUESTION: Second, the Special Tribunal of Lebanon has sentenced to life in prison two Hizballah members for their part in the assassination of ex-Prime Minister Rafic Hariri. Do you have any comment on that?
MR PRICE: We welcome the Special Tribunal for Lebanon’s unanimous judgment that Hizballah operatives Hassan Merhi and Hussein Oneissi be sentenced to life in prison for their role in the 2005 terrorist attack. That attack killed 22 individuals, including the former prime minister. It injured a couple hundred more – 226 people. The judgment represents a significant overdue milestone in pursuit of justice for the people of Lebanon.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MR PRICE: Said. Last question.
QUESTION: A quick question on the President’s trip. Yesterday, John Kirby said that it includes – we got an agenda – the portion in Saudi Arabia, I think suggesting that there may be some sort of announcement on Yemen. Do you expect anything regarding the war in Yemen on this trip?
MR PRICE: Sorry, I didn’t catch the last —
QUESTION: I mean, is there anything that we can expect, something big to be announced, like maybe in the war, kind of a thing?
MR PRICE: Well, I can’t speak to what will be announced a month from now when the President travels to the region. But of course, there recently was a big announcement, two big announcements, in fact.
For the first time in more than seven years, there is a humanitarian truce that has not only persisted, it was extended, and we’re now in its ninth week. But it has led to lower levels of violence, and it has also importantly led to humanitarian assistance flowing into parts of Yemen that had been bereft of humanitarian assistance for far too long.
We’ll continue to work with the UN special envoy. We’ll continue to work with our partners in the region, including our Saudi partners, who were indispensable in achieving this humanitarian truce, in achieving the extension to consolidate it, and to see to it that we can work together to bring greater levels of stability, security, ultimately peace and prosperity, to Yemen.
QUESTION: Can you comment on naming the street on which the Saudi embassy sits after Jamal Khashoggi?
MR PRICE: I cannot. I cannot.
Thank you all very much.
QUESTION: Thank you.
(The briefing was concluded at 3:19 p.m.)