2:15 p.m. EDT
MR PRICE: Good afternoon. Thanks, everyone, for joining us. And I’m sorry we’re starting a couple minutes late here. I’m also sorry we’re not able to do this in the briefing room. The briefing room is undergoing some AV upgrades that will be concluded, and we’ll be back online, we expect, next week.
Just a couple things at the top. First, representing the United States at the virtual International Donors’ Conference in Solidarity with Venezuelan Refugees and Migrants, U.S. Ambassador to the UN Linda Thomas-Greenfield announced nearly $407 million in new lifesaving humanitarian assistance to Venezuelan refugees and migrants and the communities that so generously host them across the region. This announcement demonstrates longstanding U.S. leadership in alleviating the suffering of vulnerable people, in line with both our national interests and our values as a nation. It brings total U.S. humanitarian assistance to more than 1.4 billion for Venezuelan refugees and migrants in 17 countries throughout the region, as well as vulnerable Venezuelans inside Venezuela, since Fiscal Year 2017 alone.
We know that humanitarian assistance is only a means for meeting immediate lifesaving needs. Only through the full restoration of democracy in Venezuela through free and fair presidential and parliamentary elections can the Venezuelan people begin to address their long-term needs. We applaud the international participation at the conference, which was co-hosted by the Government of Canada, the UN Refugee Agency, and the International Organization for Migration. We express our sincere appreciation to the governments, communities, and citizens of the countries who have shown such extraordinary solidarity and provided refuge to the Venezuelan people during this difficult time. We’re encouraged by the international response and we urge other donors to help support the Venezuelan people.
Next, I’m pleased to announce that 1 million doses of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine will arrive in Toronto this evening. This donation is part of the 80 million doses that President Biden announced on May 17th and it reflects our close partnership with our Canadian neighbors to defeat COVID-19. This also, of course, follows our donation of 1.35 million doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine to Mexico, which we announced on Tuesday of this week, June 15th. As President Biden has said, the United States is committed to bringing the same urgency to international vaccination efforts that we’ve demonstrated here at home. We’re working to get as many safe and effective vaccine doses to as many people around the world as fast as possible. Thanks to the innovation of U.S. companies and the resilience and commitment of the American people, we’re in a position to help others around the world. That’s precisely what we’re doing and what we’ll continue to do going forward.
So with that, we’ll turn to your questions. Just give us a moment here.
We’ll go to the line of Shaun Tandon, please.
OPERATOR: Your line is open.
QUESTION: Welcome back. Thanks. Hi, Ned. Welcome back.
MR PRICE: Hey, Shaun.
QUESTION: I wanted to – hi. I wanted to ask you about a couple of things in Asia that are not related but (inaudible) press freedom. There was a raid by the Hong Kong police on the Apple Daily and arrest of executives. If you have any reaction to that.
And in Burma/Myanmar, we understand that American citizen journalist appeared before court today – Danny Fenster. What is the (inaudible) on that? There are also reports that the U.S. embassy had not been informed about his appearance. If you could attest to that. Thanks.
MR PRICE: Well, on your first question, Shaun, on the arrest of the Apple Daily employees, I’ll say that we strongly condemn the arrests of five senior executives from Apple Daily and their parent company, Next Digital, and we call for their immediate release. We are deeply concerned by Hong Kong authorities’ selective use of the national security law to arbitrarily target independent media organizations. The charges of, quote, “collusion with a foreign country or with external elements to endanger national security” appear to be entirely politically motivated. We deplore the reported assertion by a Hong Kong police official that articles published in Apple Daily are evidence of what they call the, quote, “conspiracy to collude with foreign forces.” As we all know, exchanging views with foreigners in journalism should never be a crime.
We are concerned by increased efforts by authorities to wield the national security law as a tool to suppress independent media, to silence dissenting views, and to stifle freedom of expression. These actions undermine Beijing’s obligations, their own obligations under the Sino-British Joint Declaration, which is a binding international agreement, to uphold Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy and protected rights and freedoms. We call on authorities to stop targeting the independent and free media. Efforts to stifle media freedom and to restrict the free flow of information not only undermine Hong Kong’s democratic institutions but they also hurt Hong Kong’s credibility and viability as an international hub.
When it comes to Danny Fenster, as you know, the welfare and safety of U.S. citizens is one of the highest priorities of the United States Government around the world. We have – our consular officers in Burma have sought to visit Daniel, but we have not been afforded access to him by regime officials. We urge the Burmese to grant consular access, as required by the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations, without delay and to ensure proper treatment of Danny while he remains detained. We are doing everything we can to see to it that Danny Fenster is reunited with his family. We are, of course, very gratified by the release and the safe return of Nathan Maung, who recently arrived back in the United States and has had an opportunity to meet and to speak with senior Department of State officials.
We’ll go to the line of Jenny Hansler.
OPERATOR: One moment, please, while we open your line.
MR PRICE: Do we have Jennifer Hansler?
OPERATOR: Pardon me. Jennifer Hansler we’re looking for?
MR PRICE: Yes.
OPERATOR: Yes, we do have that line. And this is AT&T. Just as a reminder, please allow me to let you know when your line is open to make certain that we hear your entire question. And Ms. Hansler, your line is open. Go ahead, please.
QUESTION: Hi. Thanks for doing this, Ned. On these ships from Iran that were initially bound for the Western Hemisphere, there’s reports that they have now changed course. I was wondering what the State Department makes of this change? Have you gotten commitments from the government in Venezuela, for example, that they had denied them a right to dock there? Any information on this?
MR PRICE: Thanks, Jenny. We have, of course, seen the media reports regarding the Iranian naval ships, the reports about their location and their whereabouts. Not in a position to offer any sort of update or assessment for you. But what we have said previously continues to hold. We are prepared to leverage applicable authorities, including sanctions, against any actor that enables Iran’s ongoing provision of weapons to violent partners and proxies around the world. Again, we’re not going to comment on potential destinations, but we’ll continue monitoring developments on this.
Why don’t we go to the line of Deirdre Shesgreen of USA Today?
OPERATOR: Your line is open. Go ahead, please.
QUESTION: Hi, Ned. Thanks so much for taking my question. There’s been an alarming spike in COVID cases at the embassy in Kabul, and I – it sounds like people have been medevaced out and they’re having to set up temporary onsite wards to take care of people who need oxygen. Can you say what the State Department is doing to help address this situation? Are you providing additional resources? And then more broadly, what’s the status of the State Department’s efforts to get COVID vaccines to diplomatic staff around the world?
MR PRICE: Thanks for that question, Deirdre. Let me give you some background. Afghanistan, as we know, is experiencing an intense third wave of COVID-19 cases throughout the country. In response to an outbreak on the compound, the embassy has adjusted its operations to do all we can to ensure the continued safety, security, and health of our staff as they continue to advance U.S. interests and our relationship with the Government and the people of Afghanistan. This includes requiring all staff to telework and to adhere to physical distancing and masking requirements and other applicable regulations.
The Department of State, of course, has no higher responsibility than the safety and security of U.S. citizens overseas, and that – as well as our local staff. We are saddened by the deaths of many valiant Afghans who’ve been sickened by this pandemic, and we, in fact, grieve the passing of a local embassy staff member. We do expect that normal embassy operations will resume once embassy leadership is confident the chain of transmission has been broken.
When it comes to the provision of vaccines, through really remarkable work on the part of our counterparts and our operational MED unit, we were able to deploy vaccines around the world. Posts around the world were afforded access to – have been afforded access to the vaccines for the past couple months now. That includes Kabul. We understand that 95 percent of the COVID-19 cases at Embassy Kabul are individuals who are unvaccinated or who are not fully vaccinated. But again, the vaccine is available to members of our embassy team in Kabul, just as it is to our employees around the world.
Let’s go to the line of Michele Kelemen.
OPERATOR: Your line is open. Go ahead.
QUESTION: Thank you. I wanted to follow up on that issue. Can you say – are these 114 cases mostly among Afghan nationals or Nepalese guards. You seem to suggest that the person who died was an Afghan national. Is that accurate? And why does the vaccination rate appear to be so low there at the embassy? Are you considering requiring Americans serving or anyone who works for the U.S. Government abroad to get vaccinated?
MR PRICE: Thanks very much. We’re not able to confirm the number of cases. What we will say is that there is a significant outbreak of COVID-19 at the embassy and one local staff, as you indicated, has unfortunately passed away, and our thoughts are with that individual’s family and other loved ones. Again, most of these cases, 95 percent of them, are – emanate from individuals who are unvaccinated or not fully vaccinated. We continue to encourage our employees, both here at the Department of State in Washington and our employees around the world, to avail themselves of and to the vaccine. We’ll continue to do that. But as you know, there is no requirement for our employees to do that.
We will go to the line of Simon Lewis.
OPERATOR: One moment, please. Go ahead.
MR PRICE: Actually, it looks like – it looks like we may not have Simon. We’ll go to the line of Said Arikat.
OPERATOR: Your line is open. Go ahead, please.
QUESTION: Thank you, Ned, and welcome back. A very quick question, Ned. There has been reports that the PA is negotiating – is forming a new negotiating team, and that they are probably getting some advice from you guys. Can you tell us whether Mr. Hady Amr is in any way involved in such a process? Thank you.
MR PRICE: Well, Said, what I would say is that we have been clear that we are going to do everything we can to significantly improve the quality of life for the Palestinian people and to improve Israeli-Palestinian relations. We seek to do that in ways that are tangible, in ways that are achievable in the near term and beyond. And so in that regard, we’re working closely with both Israelis and Palestinians as well as the United Nations and other international partners to advance that vision.
When it comes to any sort of Palestinian Authority negotiating team, however, those decisions and those choices would be exclusively the purview of the Palestinian Authority.
We will go to the line of Laura Rozen.
OPERATOR: Your line is open. Go ahead.
QUESTION: Thank you for doing this. Ned, do you have any update from Vienna, and how long do you anticipate that this round of talks may go? And we’re already bumping up against the, I think, June 24th expiration of the IAEA-Iran deal, so yeah, how do you hear it’s going?
MR PRICE: Thanks, Laura. As you know, Special Envoy Rob Malley and his team are in Vienna, and they are now engaged in a sixth round of talks with our P5+1 counterparts. These are indirect talks through them with the Iranian Government officials.
Look, we’ve always been consistent on this point. We’re neither delaying, we’re neither slow-walking this, nor are we accelerating beyond what is appropriate. We’ll – our Iran policy is predicated on a clear-eyed sense of purpose, and one that we share with our P5+1 partners. That is a recognition that diplomacy remains the most durable means to ensure that Iran cannot obtain, can never obtain, a nuclear weapon.
We are in full agreement there with our allies and partners in the context of the P5+1, recognizing – who also recognize that a compliance-for-compliance outcome – that is to say, where Iran is once again subject to the most intrusive inspection and monitoring regime ever negotiated, and the United States once again complies with our commitments under the 2015 JCPOA – we continue to believe that is an effective way to ensure that Iran can never acquire a nuclear weapon.
Look, we have previously expressed our concern over Iran’s ongoing failure to comply with nuclear-related commitments under the JCPOA. That includes its production of uranium enriched up to 60 percent. That is of continuing serious concern. If Iran wants the diplomatic solution it says it seeks, it must set aside such provocative steps.
Talks will continue on the nuclear steps that Iran will be required to take as well as the sanctions relief that we would be prepared to undertake if we are able to negotiate a mutual return to compliance with the JCPOA. We would like to build and be in a position to build on the meaningful progress that has been achieved during the last round of talks. As you’ve heard both from our team, as you’ve heard from our international partners, we have been able to achieve some progress, but challenges remain. And I will just say that we will continue to work on this. Don’t have a time frame for this sixth round of talks, but we will keep you updated as that – as updates are available.
Let’s go to the line of Arshad Mohammed, please.
OPERATOR: Your line is open. Go ahead.
QUESTION: Hi, Ned. Just a quick follow-up on that. Iran’s lead negotiator, Abbas Araghchi, is quoted as saying that, “We achieved good, tangible progress on the different issues… we are closer than ever to an agreement, but there are still essential issues under negotiation.” And the Russian representative to the talks offered a slightly more negative assessment, saying that there are still very challenging issues left.
Can you give us any sense of whether you are – you feel you’re actually making tangible progress, and – or whether the issues that remain are of such an order – are of such complexity and difficulty that suggestions that you’re closer than ever are perhaps misleading?
MR PRICE: Thanks, Arshad. So I wouldn’t want to give a play-by-play when it comes to the days or even the rounds. What I will say is that the longer-term trajectory over these six rounds of talks – it’s been a couple months now – is that we have been able to achieve progress. These discussions, as we have said, have been constructive. They have been businesslike. They have been conducive to discussing the key issues that are at play, and those are really twofold. It’s, number one, the nuclear steps that Iran would need to take were it to affirmatively decide to once again abide by its full commitments under the 2015 JCPOA as well as the sanctions relief that the United States would need to undertake should we able – be able to arrive at a mutual return to compliance and the sanctions relief – and the relief of sanctions, I should say, that are inconsistent with the JCPOA.
So it is certainly true that we have made progress between rounds one and six, but again, I don’t want to be definitive in embracing one assessment over another. What is true is that despite the progress that some challenges still do remain, and that’s why the team remains on the ground in Vienna as we speak in an effort to make progress and knowing that, again, we are acting with some urgency given the advancements in Iran’s nuclear program since it has distanced itself from the deal. We will keep at this as long as we deem the forum to be a constructive one because we recognize, again, that diplomacy and specifically a mutual return to compliance provides a durable, long-term means to ensure that Iran is verifiably and permanently prevented from obtaining a nuclear weapon.
Let’s take a couple final questions here. Let’s go to the line of Robert Delaney.
OPERATOR: Your line is open. Go ahead.
QUESTION: Thank you for taking my question, Ned. I just wanted to see if I could get a little more clarity on comments by National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan that a meeting between President Biden and President Xi Jinping of China is under consideration; that is, he said, “Soon enough we will sit down to work out the right modality for the two presidents to engage.”
I just wanted to get an idea or if you could give us a little bit more on the thinking behind the timing for a meeting between the two presidents, especially in light of the remarks we’ve heard recently from the administration about still uncertainty about access to information about the origins of the coronavirus and the comments about the – China’s policies towards Uyghurs in Xinjiang, and also what you were saying earlier in this call about the actions taken against journalists and the editor-in-chief at Apple Daily in Hong Kong. Thank you.
MR PRICE: Thanks very much for the question. So the National Security Advisor was speaking to the proposition that the President has put forward that there is no substitute for personal diplomacy. And he was making the point that that is not unique to the relationship and to the meeting between President Biden and President Putin and, in fact, applies across the board when it comes to our principled diplomacy.
He went on to say that we certainly don’t have any meeting planned between President Xi, President Biden, nothing set to preview at this time, but it’s something that we would remain open to if the conditions are right and the circumstances are warranted.
I would make a couple other points. We have continued to engage – again, strategically and guided by our principles, our interests, and our values – with the PRC Government. In fact, Secretary Blinken had a follow-on call with Director Yang not all that long ago where, as you saw from the readout, they discussed potential areas for cooperation between the PRC and the United States – and that includes issues like climate, it includes issues like Iran, it includes issues like Afghanistan and a number of other issues – while we, as you pointed out in your question, continue to have serious disagreements and continue to be – to shine a spotlight on China’s wanton abuses of human rights in places like Xinjiang, its crackdown on democracy in Hong Kong, its attempted intimidation of Taiwan – Taiwan, among other areas where we have profound concerns.
So we will continue that principled engagement. In the meantime, as you know, our priority – and this applies not only to China but to competitors across the board – has been to focus on shoring up our partnerships and alliances. And that is precisely why before President Biden met with President Putin yesterday in Geneva the administration demonstrated once again through meetings with our closest – some of our closest partners and allies around the world that America’s back, that we are engaging, that we are doing so in a good-faith, constructive way, knowing that we have these shared interests and values; and two, to demonstrate that democracies can in fact deliver for their people, and that acting collectively and together we can deliver for the common interest while standing up for our shared values and our shared interests. We’ve always said that we’re best able to take advantage of opportunities and to take on challenges when we leverage our core sources of strength, and certainly one of those core sources of strength is our unprecedented system of alliances and partnership.
So again, in the context of the President’s meeting with President Putin, that’s why you saw him meet with the G7, where we launched an ambitious effort to support resilience and development around the world by investing in high-quality, high-standard, physical, digital health infrastructures, including B3W, or Build Back Better World, that the G7 allies announced at the conclusion of the summit. He then went to NATO, made clear that the United States commitment to our NATO Allies and to Article 5 is rock solid, and concluded with a U.S.-EU summit, where the President discussed how the United States can work with Europe to address the range of issues that require the full strength of our transatlantic partnership. And that includes working together to shape the new rules for the 21st century economies, and as part of that, you saw the launch of the U.S.-EU Trade and Technology Council. That is a very tangible demonstration of that work.
I cite all of that not because it is entirely relevant to our relationship with the PRC, but the principle remains that in the first instance, we have focused on shoring up and reassuring our partners and allies around the world in the context of China and the Indo-Pacific – of course, Secretary Blinken’s first physical travel, first travel was to visit our counterparts, our treaty allies in Tokyo, in Seoul. Of course, the leaders of those two countries have been to the White House as well. Whether it is Russia, whether it’s China, whether it’s any other competitor, we know that we will be in a position of strength in the relationship when we have those allies and those partners working very closely with us.
All right, I think we will call that a day. Very much appreciate everyone’s participation, and tomorrow is a federal holiday now, so we will not have a briefing then. But we look forward to speaking with you all on Monday. Have a good weekend.
(The briefing was concluded at 2:42 p.m.)