Department Press Briefing – June 6, 2023
1:55 p.m. EDT
MR PATEL: Apologies for being a little tardy. I have one very brief thing off the top, and then I’m happy to dive right into your questions.
I would like to note Iran’s continued harsh treatment of Vahid Afkari, the brother of Navid Afkari, an Iranian wrestler whom Iranian authorities executed in 2020. Vahid Afkari has now spent 1,000 days in solitary confinement. Like his brother, Vahid was unjustly detained and tortured into giving false confessions and handed down a 33-year and nine-month prison sentence and 74 lashes after an unfair trial.
Vahid’s treatment is typical of that of the Islamic Republic’s judicial authorities, who are not interested in justice but who endeavor to strike fear in the hearts of ordinary civilians and protesters.
We once again call on Iranian authorities to free Vahid and all those Iranians, including many young people, who remain imprisoned for exercising their human rights, including the right to freedom of expression.
With that, Matt, go ahead.
QUESTION: Thanks, Vedant. I want to start with Ukraine, even though I have, like, zero hope that you’re going to have an answer, considering what just happened at the White House briefing. What’s your understanding of what happened with this dam?
MR PATEL: So, we’ve been closely monitoring the impacts of the destruction of the Kakhovka dam, which has triggered massive flooding in Ukraine and resulted in the evacuation of thousands of Ukrainians. As our colleagues at the White House said, we have seen the reports that Russia was responsible for the explosion at the dam, which Russia forces took illegally last year, and we have been continuing to monitor. We can’t say conclusively what happened at this point, but we will share more information when we can.
What continues to be very clear, though, is that the damage to the Ukrainian people that they’ve endured and to the region will continue to be significant. We continue to be in touch with our Ukrainian partners – and our offer to how we may be able to provide assistance to the many Ukrainians who have been displaced.
QUESTION: When you say it’s inconclusive, does that mean that you cannot rule out that it might have been an accident?
MR PATEL: We are actively working to determine what happened, and hope to have more information soon. I’m just not going to speculate from here.
QUESTION: Can you – I’m not asking you to speculate, but when you say it’s inconclusive, does that mean that you’ve decided that it – or you have come to the conclusion that it could have been accidental?
MR PATEL: Again, Matt, we’re working to determine what happened. But I think the important thing is that Russia started this war, and it was Russia that —
QUESTION: Well, that means everything – so anything could have happened? Right?
MR PATEL: — occupied this area of Ukraine, and it was Russia that was in control of this dam. Again, I don’t have a conclusive assessment to offer you from up here.
QUESTION: Okay. But I don’t understand – so that means that it is still a possibility, according to what you know, at the moment, that it was accidental?
MR PATEL: Again, we are – I think we’re basically saying the same thing, Matt. We are actively trying to determine what happened.
QUESTION: No, we’re not saying the same thing. I’m saying – I’m asking you if you think —
MR PATEL: I think we are. I’m saying that —
QUESTION: — that it’s still a possibility – if there’s still – if there’s a possibility that it was an accident. And you’re not saying that; you’re saying it was inconclusive, and refusing to say that it’s possible it was an accident.
MR PATEL: We are trying to determine what happened.
QUESTION: All right.
MR PATEL: Of course, that could be a possibility. But we are trying to determine what happened.
QUESTION: Ah, okay. Thank you.
MR PATEL: Again, but I don’t have a steer to offer from up here.
QUESTION: Thank you.
QUESTION: Could I just follow —
MR PATEL: Shaun, go ahead.
QUESTION: Just real briefly. When you say you’re trying to – and not you, personally, but that the United States is trying to assess what happened, what means are going into this? Is there – are there discussions with Ukrainians? Is there remote assessment? I mean, how – what level of —
MR PATEL: Of course. There’s close coordination and collaboration with our Ukrainian partners, as well as other regional partners – as well, into assessments into what happened. I’m certainly not going to go into how we are assessing and analyzing this intelligence or assessing what unfolded, but that work continues to be ongoing.
QUESTION: And just – I know this veers a little bit into the hypothetical, but in terms of what the repercussions would be, I mean, how big of a deal was this if this were a deliberate act of sabotage?
MR PATEL: I’m just not going to speculate or hypothesize, Shaun. We are actively working to determine what happened, and we hope to share more information soon. The important thing to remember, though, that it was in fact Russia that started this war. It was Russia that was occupying this area, and it was Russia that was in control of the dam. So we continue to be in touch with Ukrainian authorities, and how we may be able to offer assistance to the many Ukrainians who have been displaced and forced to flee.
QUESTION: Same topic.
MR PATEL: Same topic?
QUESTION: A follow-up on this?
MR PATEL: Yeah, go ahead.
QUESTION: Has the Secretary been in touch with his Ukrainian counterpart yet?
MR PATEL: So, the Secretary speaks to Foreign Minister Kuleba quite regularly. We, of course, are also in touch with our Ukrainian partners quite regularly. I don’t have a specific call to read out. But we have been in close coordination with our Ukrainian partners through our embassy in Kyiv and Ambassador Brink and others, and we’ll continue to do so.
QUESTION: Minister Kuleba said today that by not going out exclusively denouncing Russian action, Western media actors might put on the same foot propaganda and the facts. Don’t you —
MR PATEL: Who said that?
QUESTION: Minister Kuleba.
MR PATEL: Oh.
QUESTION: Said that by not calling it out, you might put – you might give some room for propaganda. Are you not —
MR PATEL: Alex – Alex, we have at every turn of this conflict – I and the others who brief from this podium have called out illegal and unjust Russian actions – not just in Ukraine but in the region broadly when they have happened. As I have said, as it relates to this specific incident, we’re continuing to assess what has happened, and we’re working to determine that, and we will share any information that we can. But I take issue with the characterization that we have not called out Russia for many of its malign and illegal activities as it relates to Ukraine.
Hudson, go ahead.
QUESTION: (Inaudible) to basically assess —
MR PATEL: I’m going to – I’m going to —
QUESTION: Just one last question.
MR PATEL: Okay.
QUESTION: Basically, assess it. Well, Russia controls the land and also the dam. How do you assess? Do you assess the consequences of it, or do you collect the facts in a way that we have no idea of —
MR PATEL: This is a process that’s ongoing, Alex. We’re doing so in coordination with our Ukrainian partners and others on the ground. And when we have more information to share, I am certain that we will.
John, go ahead.
QUESTION: Just quickly, Kirby did make a reference to an explosion. Is it possible to confirm if the U.S. has assessed if it was an explosion rather than a breach at the dam?
MR PATEL: I have no reason to say anything different from what the admiral said, but I’m happy to check in and see if there’s some specific assessment that we can offer.
QUESTION: Does that mean it does appear to have been an explosion?
MR PATEL: Again, our understanding is that there were reports of an explosion. There were some reports that – also that Russia was responsible. But again, we can’t say conclusively what happened, and that is still assessment – those assessments are still ongoing.
QUESTION: On the same topic.
MR PATEL: Okay. Go ahead.
QUESTION: Have you seen the reports from The Washington Post back in December that the Ukrainians were actually firing HIMAR missiles into this dam as part of a potential strategy to flood the region so that Russia could not advance? So, is there any – have you seen those reports?
MR PATEL: I’ve not seen those reports, but – so I don’t have anything to offer on that.
QUESTION: Are you aware of that strategy in general?
MR PATEL: I don’t have anything to offer on that.
QUESTION: Mr. Patel, Igor Naymushin from RIA Novosti, thank you. So, don’t you think that the recent developments in Ukraine, including Kakhhovka power plant attack is a reasonable – is an important reason to arrange a call between Secretary Blinken and Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov?
MR PATEL: To say what?
QUESTION: To discuss the recent – the developments in Ukraine, as they haven’t talked for about two months.
MR PATEL: Our message to Foreign Minister Lavrov and to any Russian official has been pretty clear, and we have been pretty clear in all of those readouts. They are: You should leave Ukraine. You should free Paul Whelan, and you should free Evan Gershkovich. And you should immediately withdraw your forces in your illegal and unjust invasion into Ukraine.
QUESTION: So, no plans to arrange —
MR PATEL: We’ve been very clear in our messaging to Russian officials. Anything else on this topic before we move away? On this topic, Janne, or something else? Okay. That’s the – when I say on this topic – go ahead.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MR PATEL: Yeah. I’ll come back to you, Janne. I promise.
QUESTION: Thank you.
QUESTION: So, if this is deliberate, do you consider it a war crime? Because, I mean, it is against international law. And, also, there were – President Zelenskyy back in October warned that Russians are mining the dam. Have you checked that information out, and – yeah.
MR PATEL: So, I just don’t have a determination for you on that, specifically to your question on whether it’s a war crime or not. Admiral Kirby spoke to this as well. But I will note that deliberate attacks on civilian objects are prohibited by the law of war. And as a party to the Additional Protocol to the Geneva Convention, Russia has an obligation not to attack certain areas and facilities. But I don’t have any other assessments to offer.
QUESTION: One more —
MR PATEL: Janne, go ahead. Or – on this?
QUESTION: One more.
MR PATEL: Go ahead.
QUESTION: Admiral Kirby also said that this would have significant repercussions for Ukraine’s energy security. Is this department preparing any sort of specific response to mitigate this incident?
MR PATEL: I don’t have any new announcements to share, but obviously mitigating energy concerns and Russia’s continued weaponization of energy as it relates to invasion in Ukraine continues to be a top priority. The administration has taken a number of steps to support our Ukrainian partners in that effort, but I don’t have any announcements to share today.
Janne, go ahead.
QUESTION: Thank you, Vedant. A couple of questions. South Korea was elected as non-permanent members of UN Security Council today. Any comment on this?
MR PATEL: Well, we congratulate South Korea on its election and have no doubt that the Republic of Korea will be a credible voice in contributing to the maintenance of international peace and security.
QUESTION: Second question.
MR PATEL: Sure.
QUESTION: A Chinese and Russian military aircraft invaded Korean Air Defense Identification Zone without prior notice. How can you say on this?
MR PATEL: I’m not aware of these reports, and I would let ROK officials speak to any incursions into their airspace.
QUESTION: Just one more on North Korea. North Korea continues to use the incompetence of the UN Security Council to provoke. How can the United States evaluate the role of the UN Security Council?
MR PATEL: Well, the UN Security Council continues to be an important forum for us to continue to hold the DPRK accountable. And there are voices on the Security Council who we believe have sway with the DPRK and should use their role to further rein in and influence the malign and destabilizing activities that we’re seeing from the DPRK in the Indo-Pacific region broadly.
QUESTION: Sorry, just on the UN —
MR PATEL: Yeah.
QUESTION: — the vote at the UN, you will have seen I’m sure and taken note of, with pleasure, that Belarus lost its bid in the only contested – I mean, the South Koreans got on, yes, but that was an uncontested vote.
MR PATEL: That is correct, yeah.
QUESTION: Slovenia beat Belarus in a – do you have anything to say to that?
MR PATEL: In addition to congratulating our partners in the ROK, we also congratulate Slovenia in its election. As you so note, Matt, Belarus has repeatedly demonstrated its complicitly – complicity in Russia’s war of aggression in Ukraine. We think that those actions and many others deem them unfit for a position on the UN Security Council. So again, we congratulate our partners in Slovenia as well.
Simon, you had your hand up.
QUESTION: On to this Air India flight that would – that had to land in Russia.
MR PATEL: Yeah.
QUESTION: I wonder if you guys have worked that out yet. What – how many Americans are on board?
MR PATEL: Sure. So, we are aware of a U.S.-bound flight that had to make an emergency landing in Russia and are continuing to monitor that situation closely. I’m not able to confirm how many U.S. citizens were aboard the flight at this time. Of course, Simon, as you note, it was a flight that was bound for the United States. So, it is, of course, likely that there are American citizens on board. As you probably also saw, there’s public reporting from Air India that they are sending a – what my understanding is – a replacement aircraft to the destination to have the passengers carry on for their route, but I would defer to the air carrier to speak to anything further on this.
QUESTION: If it comes to – maybe that’s not the case since if there’s a replacement, but if there needed to be parts – export of parts that needed to have exemptions for the various embargoes and sanctions for Russia, is that something that you would allow to —
MR PATEL: I’m just not going to speculate on that here. And of course, we’ll let Air India speak to any steps that they’re taking as it relates to mitigating the technical issues.
QUESTION: And your efforts to work out more details on that, has that involved contacting Russian officials? Has there been any —
MR PATEL: I’m not going to get into specifics, but, of course, there are steps that we can take in assessing manifests and passengers who may be bound for the United States. But again, I’m just not going to get ahead of this process beyond saying that we are continuing to monitor the situation.
Anything else on this before we move away?
QUESTION: Can I just stay on Korea?
MR PATEL: Sure. Go ahead.
QUESTION: Actually, not stay, but go back to Korea. Just —
MR PATEL: Yeah. And then I’ll come to you, Jenny. I know you had your hand up.
QUESTION: Just briefly, the – I think Jenny have mentioned this slightly, but the – but China and Russia had air exercises over the body of water between the Korean Peninsula and Japan. Is there – does the U.S. have any comment on this? I know it’s not the first time, but in terms of Chinese-Russian cooperation, what that means.
MR PATEL: Look, part of the reasons why we continue to invest and align in our close partnerships and alliance with our Japanese and ROK partners is continue to deepen this cooperation in – as it leads to what our view is a free and open Indo-Pacific, one that is governed by a rules-based order. I will refer to these own countries to speak to any incursions in their airspace. But we, of course, are – continue to be mindful of any kind of destabilizing or kinetic activity that could be interpreted as destabilizing or as reckless.
Anything else? Jenny, go ahead.
QUESTION: On Sudan —
MR PATEL: Yeah.
QUESTION: — can you confirm that the talks have resumed in Jeddah and is the U.S. playing a mediation role in them again?
MR PATEL: So, I don’t have any updates on the specific talks, Jenny, but it is our resolute belief that only a diplomatic solution will resolve this conflict. There is no military solution in our point of view. And as a reminder, as it’s related to efforts to continue to press both parties, we have imposed visa restrictions. We have levied economic sanctions. We have updated our relevant business advisories. And we stand ready to take additional steps as needed. But specifically, as it relates to the Jeddah talks, we continue to remain deeply engaged on those, and we will continue to be focused on facilitating not just humanitarian assistance but pressing for agreement on near-term and confidence building steps between the parties.
QUESTION: And on Sudan still, do you have an update on how many Americans are seeking assistance to get out of the country? Is there still a robust effort by this department to assist them now that the evacuations have ended?
MR PATEL: I don’t have any updated metrics or numbers beyond when we last spoke about this a number of weeks ago. But since the – at the time of the heightened violence and the heightened operations that were taking place, the U.S. Government facilitated the departure of more than 2,000 people total from Sudan: 1,300 of those were U.S. citizens and approximately 700 were on the convoys to Port Sudan. We continue to provide information for remaining U.S. citizens in Sudan, including the various exit options that exist. U.S. citizens who remain in Sudan, who need assistance, should contact the closest embassy or consulate and information on possible options to depart Sudan continue to be found available in the security alerts that we’ve offered.
Said, go ahead.
QUESTION: Thank you, Vedant. Last Thursday, the Israeli army – well, soldiers – shot a two-year‑old boy. He died yesterday: Mohammed Tamimi. And I mean, I have a grandson who is almost two years old. If he gets a mosquito bite, we go – the whole family goes nuts. I mean, can you imagine how his parents and grandparents and his family and the people in his village feel? Do you call on the Israelis to do an investigation and those responsible be brought to justice?
MR PATEL: I can’t imagine, Said, because the thought and pain that must be involved in losing a child, I’m sure, is unimaginable. And I spoke a little bit about this when you asked another question earlier in the week. We express our sincere condolences to the family of this child who was tragically killed. It’s our understanding that the IDF is investigating the incident, and broadly speaking, we urge investigations into any operations that result in civilian casualties.
QUESTION: Mm-hmm. But the IDF does not have a very good record of investigation. It seems that Senator Chris Van Hollen just issued a statement yesterday on the letter that he received – finally after questioning the diplomat Barbara Leaf, last week. He got the summation by General Fenzel and they clearly state that they were not allowed to see the evidence and so on. Do you have any comment on that? So, Israel investigating itself is – has a horrible, horrific record of not really telling the truth.
MR PATEL: Said, I – these are very complicated circumstances. But you are talking about two very different circumstances.
QUESTION: It’s all investigations. It all involves killing Palestinians.
MR PATEL: As it relates – as it relates to this investigation, we have condemned the tragic killing of Shireen Abu Aklehm and continue to do so. And our hearts remain with her family and her friends and her loved ones even currently. As you all know, not only was Shireen a U.S. citizen but she was a reporter. And press freedom – our belief is that it remains the bedrock of democracy. We’ve also been clear about the importance of accountability when it comes to this. Part of accountability is preventing similar tragedies from occurring in the future. And we have engaged directly with Israel and other countries on this to ensure that rules of engagement and various things are looked at appropriately to ensure that the risk to journalists, risks to civilians are significantly mitigated.
QUESTION: Let me – I – my last question. Yesterday, Secretary Blinken alluded or spoke about how settlements are an obstacle to peace, and then we saw that the Israelis are now meeting to actually launch new major settlements, perhaps dividing the West Bank in half, and then we see the plans for demolishing homes and so on. Do you have any comment on that? It seems that the Israelis – you say something, “don’t do this,” they turn around and do it because you don’t leverage it.
MR PATEL: I take issue with that, Said, that we don’t – that we don’t leverage it. We engage on this, and raise directly with our partners in Israel, with the Palestinian Authority. And we have been very clear in public and private that the only realistic path to compromise and lasting peace that permanently ends this conflict is through direct negotiations between the parties – not unilateral actions. Our view has been clear and consistent, and you heard the Secretary speak a great deal about this yesterday morning. The expansion of settlements undermines the geographic viability of a two-state solution. It incites tensions, and it further harms trust between the parties. And when we from the United States see steps taken, by either side, that undermine or harm that trust, we are vocal about it – not just with the parties directly, but with our regional partners and others in the region who are also part of this process as well.
QUESTION: So are you saying then that you – when you say that you do leverage it, leverage your influence, that you have been successful in convincing the Israeli Government not to – or not to proceed with certain settlement expansions —
MR PATEL: Matt, what I’m saying is that —
QUESTION: — activity?
MR PATEL: — we have – we have not hesitated to raise directly —
QUESTION: Yeah, but to what end? What’s been the result? Are you saying that – it seems like in response to Said’s question you’re saying you have had some success when you come out and tell the Israelis that you think that it’s a bad idea.
MR PATEL: I’m not going to get into the – I’m not going to get into the specifics of —
QUESTION: But if you have had some success, please tell us what they are.
MR PATEL: I am certainly not going to get into the —
QUESTION: What projects have you successfully lobbied the Israelis against? What? I’m just —
MR PATEL: I’m certainly not going to get into the specifics of diplomatic engagements and what the end product of those engagements are, Matt. I will reiterate again, though, that we have raised these issues directly.
QUESTION: Okay. Well, then let’s just put it this way. Have you seen settlement expansion increase over the course of – since you’ve been in – since this administration has been in office or decrease or stay the same?
MR PATEL: Matt, I will just leave it at that we have raised these issues directly with our Israeli partners and with the Palestinian Authority.
QUESTION: Is it correct that there has been an increase in settlement – settlement expansion activity since – over the course of the last two years?
MR PATEL: Matt, we have been clear that when we have seen settlement activity take place, including over the course of this administration, we have been vocal about it. We have expressed our serious concern and the steps that are – that it does to the overall process.
QUESTION: Okay. And no one is – no one – I don’t think anyone is saying that you haven’t done that. The question is whether you’ve seen any results from that.
MR PATEL: I’m not going to get into the specifics of our diplomatic engagements, Matt, while what – and what those end products are.
QUESTION: On China, quick questions.
MR PATEL: Nike, go ahead.
QUESTION: Have you had any – yeah, thank you. Do you have any update on Kritenbrink’s meetings in Beijing? And is he on the way back to the United States? And is it fair to say that his meetings in Beijing is paving a way for Secretary Blinken’s – to reschedule his trip to China?
MR PATEL: As it relates to the Secretary’s travel, I spoke a little bit about this yesterday. Don’t have any updates or – on that. I would just note that as we have previously said, we look forward to rescheduling that visit when conditions allow. But Assistant Secretary Kritenbrink is – was in China with NSC Senior Director Sarah Beran, where they had a number of meetings with MFA officials. They had candid and productive discussions and they met with Executive Vice Foreign Minister Ma Zhaoxu and Director General for North America Yang Tao. These meetings focused on a number of bilateral issues, cross-strait issues, and addressing challenges.
I spoke a little bit yesterday that they spoke about things that we view as very important to the bilateral relationship – addressing climate change, addressing fentanyl precursors, addressing human rights, as well as wrongfully detained American citizens. Our viewpoint is that there is no substitute for in-person meetings or engagements, whether they be in Washington, in Beijing, to carry forward our discussion. But I don’t have anything else to offer on his travels.
QUESTION: Is it the U.S.’s assessment that China is ready to take steps to stabilize relationship with the United States, given reports that Secretary Blinken is visiting China in upcoming weeks?
MR PATEL: I’m not going to characterize, and it’s not for me to characterize how another country views their relationship with the United States. What I can share is that our viewpoint continues to be – and this is, Nike, not something new you’ve heard me say – that our viewpoint is that the international community expects us to manage our relationship with the PRC responsibly. And that’s something that we intend to do.
And these engagements from Assistant Secretary Kritenbrink and NSC Senior Director Beran are part of that. There are a number of issues that are of immense importance to us that have a nexus to the PRC – whether that be addressing the climate crisis; a significant portion of the world’s trade flows through the Taiwan Strait; addressing fentanyl precursors. These are all things you’ve heard the Secretary speak to. And we view that, because of all of these things and many more, it is in our interest to manage this relationship responsibly, and we will intend to do so.
Abbie, go ahead.
QUESTION: Does the State Department have any comment or concerns about the agreement to merge the PGA Tour with LIV Golf, which is backed by the Saudi Arabia Public Investment Fund, which is controlled by the crown prince?
MR PATEL: I don’t. I don’t have an assessment on that from the State Department.
QUESTION: Can I ask an unrelated question?
MR PATEL: Sure.
QUESTION: The State Department announced the departure of first Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer Gina Abercrombie-Winstanley today. After more than two years, can you talk about some of the progress that has been made to diversify diplomatic ranks, and to increase the representation of minorities at senior levels?
MR PATEL: Certainly. So, we are – after two years of [outstanding] service, we are very sad to see Ambassador Abercrombie-Winstanley go. She’ll be leaving this role at the end of June. And to take a little bit of a step back, the Secretary appointed her as the department’s first chief diversity and inclusion officer and launched the Office of Diversity and Inclusion at the beginning of this administration to ensure – something that you see him talk about very clearly – that our foreign policy delivers for the American people; and a key tenet of that being that our workforce look like and be reflective of the country that we serve.
And so just to offer some thoughts on Ambassador Abercrombie-Winstanley’s tenure here, it was during her time that she was very integral in developing our five-year plan on – our DEIA strategic plan that we see as a roadmap for how we can continue this important work. I will also note that this office is not going anywhere. We look forward to announcing Ambassador Abercrombie-Winstanley’s replacement very soon. In the interim, there will be a senior official from her office assuming duties.
But also, I will note that it is because of the ambassador’s work that the advancement of DEIA became, and continues to be, a requirement for all State Department employees. It is a factor when factoring in promotions for the Foreign Service and Civil Service, and the Senior Executive Service, and things like that. Her work has also been integral in establishing a demographic report, so that we can ensure that the measures and the steps that we are taking in the department can be cross-referenced against our goals.
A number of bureaus across this department have senior advisors focused on this DEIA work, and so this continues to be something that is of utmost importance to the Secretary, and we look forward to having more to announce soon.
QUESTION: Do you have any specific metrics, though, that you can speak to as far as the increase at senior levels of —
MR PATEL: I’m happy to see if we have specific data points that we can share.
Anything else on this before we move away?
MR PATEL: All right. Hudson, go ahead.
QUESTION: Vedant, pertaining to Secretary Blinken’s attendance of Henry Kissinger’s birthday party last night, I wanted to ask, what does Secretary Blinken like about Henry Kissinger? Obviously, there is extensive documentation associating Kissinger with bombing campaigns in Cambodia and Vietnam and overthrowing democratically-elected governments in the developing world and allegedly supporting genocidal policies in Bangladesh.
But to be fair to Dr. Kissinger, he also was a key architect of the outreach to China, and he transformed the U.S.-China relationship. Of course, in this administration you’ve seen the U.S.-China relationship take a plunge – and really have officials question the fundamental premises of the U.S-China relationship. It just has me sort of curious: What does Secretary Blinken like about Henry Kissinger?
MR PATEL: Well, John, I – first, to take a step back, this was a private event that the Secretary was invited to. I’m not going to get into so many specifics as it was a private closed-press event. That being said, the Secretary has a relationship with a number of his predecessors, and has remained in touch with them over the course of his tenure as Secretary. And there is, of course, important perspective to be gained through those conversations with predecessors. And it is – Dr. Kissinger, or Secretary Kissinger, is someone who the Secretary has the – has had the opportunity to engage with at a number of instances throughout the Secretary’s tenure. But I’m just going to leave it at that, as it was a private event yesterday.
QUESTION: So, it’s just sort of like an alumni club and whether there are differences on policies, that’s not relevant?
MR PATEL: John, of course, there are differences in policies. There’s differences in policies across administrations. The point that I am making is that, one, this was a private event; two, I am not going to parse these specific relationships. The Secretary has a good and cordial relationship with a number of his predecessors. And has had the opportunity to engage with them at a number of events over the past two years since Secretary Blinken has been Secretary. And there is important perspective to be had and gained as it relates to the role regardless of the very distinct policy difference that – policy differences that have existed across administrations. But I’m not going to —
QUESTION: This is the last – last thing. But the reason, one of the reasons I ask is he also – the Blinken State Department also hosted Dr. Kissinger at an event when the French president was visiting and – when the Secretary was working on his thesis, also interviewed Dr. Kissinger. So, it just – it does seem like there is a longstanding interest that he’s had in him. I just was wondering if you had any more flesh on the bone.
MR PATEL: Secretary Kissinger, obviously, has a very storied and experienced career when it comes to national security and foreign policy. It would make sense that any enterprising student who may or may not be writing a thesis – that he would be an interesting person for them to speak to. But again, these events were private events, at least the one yesterday, so I don’t have anything additional to offer.
QUESTION: Can I drill down – hold on, can I drill down into this? You say he has a – the Secretary has a warm and cordial relationship, with a number of his predecessors? Would you say with all of his predecessors?
MR PATEL: I’m not going to parse them, Matt. I appreciate —
QUESTION: Or are there some predecessors who are still living who he does not have a warm and cordial relationship with?
MR PATEL: I certainly appreciate the question, and I am not going to parse it any further. But I —
QUESTION: But you don’t have —
MR PATEL: But nice try.
QUESTION: So, but it’s not – so it’s not all?
MR PATEL: You’ve heard me say he has a cordial and close relationship with a number of his predecessors.
QUESTION: A number.
QUESTION: I know. Well, I’m asking about the other ones who are still alive.
MR PATEL: I know what you’re asking about. I know what you’re asking about. But we’re going to move on.
QUESTION: So, what about – what about the point that he made about Laos or Chile, about Bangladesh?
MR PATEL: Said, I know what —
QUESTION: You don’t have —
MR PATEL: One of the first things I said was that we have differing – we have a number of differing viewpoints when it comes to foreign policy. We’re talking about an administration that – that Secretary Kissinger served in that at least was before I was born, so I really don’t have any further assessments to offer beyond that.
MR PATEL: Guita, go ahead. (Laughter.) Sure, Matt.
QUESTION: I was.
MR PATEL: Guita, go ahead.
QUESTION: Thanks. I want to go back to your topper about Vahid Afkari being imprisoned in Iran.
MR PATEL: Yeah.
QUESTION: Numerous U.S. officials have talked about prisoners in Iran. Human rights violators have been sanctioned for this purpose, but clearly hasn’t really made any impact on how the Islamic Republic treats people when they’re talking about their human rights. Don’t you think a new strategy is required, something like – I don’t know, maybe tying this to Iranian assets that Iran is seeking to be released, as reportedly is also involved in the release of dual-nationals?
MR PATEL: Guita, I think if you were to ask the Iranian regime, they would tell you that American sanctions are significantly impacting their economy. They are contributing to inflation and unemployment in the Iranian republic.
QUESTION: But that’s not changing their behavior.
MR PATEL: But it is having a direct impact on their country and their people. And that’s not to say we couldn’t take additional further action. I’m certainly not going to read out all the tools that we have at our disposal from here. But as it relates to Iran, and continuing to hold Iran accountable for its egregious human rights abuses, for its malign and destabilizing activities – of course, a big piece of that is their continued arbitrary detention of citizens, not just of American descent but from others around the world. We’ll continue to take steps to hold the Iranian regime accountable.
QUESTION: Okay. One more, please, about —
MR PATEL: She’s still asking – I’ll come to you after. Go ahead.
QUESTION: About 12 hours before the Treasury today announced sanctions against a number of companies involved in Iran’s missile program. They unveiled – Iran unveiled its hypersonic missiles. Any comments?
MR PATEL: So, we’re aware of those claims by Iran. Our concerns about Iran’s missile program are well-established, Guita. They continue to – the Iranian regime continues to destabilize the Middle East region, including by developing and proliferating dangerous weapons. The U.S. continues to work with allies and partners, including in the region, to deter and counter Iran’s destabilizing behavior. And we’re committed to using a range of available nonproliferation tools to address Iran’s missile development and proliferation efforts. The sanctions that we announced today on Iran’s missile procurement reaffirm that commitment.
QUESTION: Could I ask one on Afghanistan, please?
MR PATEL: Sure.
QUESTION: Can we stay with Iran for a minute?
QUESTION: Russian Foreign Minister —
MR PATEL: I’ll come back to you. Go ahead.
QUESTION: — Lavrov has reportedly said that the United States is supporting ISIS and al-Qaida in Afghanistan. How would you categorize this comment?
Go ahead, Alex. Yeah.
QUESTION: Just to follow up, I have two questions on Iran.
MR PATEL: Yeah.
QUESTION: Going back to your topper again, can you just give us more details on why did you pick particularly this case for today’s topper? He has been – other than the fact that he has been in solitary confinement for more than 1,000 days.
MR PATEL: There, of course – as you said, Alex, there are a number of examples. I hate to use that word, because these are very serious human cases in which real lives are affected. But there are a number of examples in which Iran has taken egregious actions – has egegiously violated people’s human rights, have not respected fair trial guarantees or other basics, when it comes to these kinds of things. We wanted to just draw attention to this particular case given the longevity – certainly not the longest time or anything like that, but we wanted to draw attention to his case.
QUESTION: Do you have anything to say on this particular case or any news about —
MR PATEL: I don’t have any updates to offer.
QUESTION: And you supported – Vedant, you supported the sanctions policy in your response to Guita, which I couldn’t agree more. But I don’t understand why when it comes to human rights the administration is so timid in terms of sanctioning Iran’s supreme leader for this very crime that he’s committing.
MR PATEL: Alex, when we take a look at our designations – first, I’m not going to preview designations or actions that the government may take from here. But when we take actions or designations in any country, we do so in close coordination with our allies and partners. We do so in close coordination across the interagency, and we do so in a way to ensure that they are the most potent and have the most impact. And I would say that American sanctions, regardless of what the specific entities and targets are – those of course have an impact, but broadly, if you – across the board as it comes to Iran’s economy, what we’re seeing – the suffering from the Iranian people, that our sanctions have held to account and will continue to hold to account the egregious violations that we’re seeing, not just as it relates to the Iranian people, but its activities in the region broadly.
QUESTION: Yeah, excuse me. How would the USA – how does the USA see the rapprochement between Egypt and Iran, which is – seem imminent after the visit of the Oman sultan to the – last month to the Egypt and the Tehran, and the welcoming of supreme leader in Iran, Khamenei? And the second part, like, did Egypt or Oman as a ally or partner with the USA share or participate any talks about this rapprochement between Egypt and Iran – specifically that seen as, like, success for Iran in diplomatic levels after the rapprochement too with Saudi Arabia with the, like, coordination of China?
MR PATEL: I’m certainly not going to get into specifics of our diplomatic engagements, but when it comes to the challenge posed by Iran and the malign and destabilizing activities that it conducts, not just in the region but across the international community broadly, one of our key tenets continues to be close coordination with our allies and partners as it relates to this. And of course, in the region Egypt continues to be an important partner on a number of fronts. There are avenues for security cooperation and collaboration on other areas as well, but I’m not going to get any more specific.
QUESTION: Yeah, but so how you evaluate this, like Egypt and Iran? If they’re going to a rapprochement in their relationship, it’s going to be like a – like a big deal in the Middle East.
MR PATEL: Well, of course, we would certainly take issue with countries that are going to take steps to further normalize or deepen their collaboration with or cooperation with the Iranian regime. But as it relates to tackling the challenge posed by Iran, we’ll continue to consult with our allies and partners in the region.
Shannon, go ahead in the back.
QUESTION: Thank you. Could I just ask you on a topic related to the PGA’s intention to merge with LIV Golf?
MR PATEL: Sure.
QUESTION: Because your White House counterparts are also declining to offer a position. I was wondering if I ask more broadly if you could respond to the allegations from many, including family members of 9/11 victims, that Saudi Arabia is attempting to sportswash its reputation now. And on Saudi Arabia’s purported human rights violations, does the State Department see any room for sports diplomacy on these fronts, or is it – does it require more intense, serious diplomacy?
MR PATEL: What I will say broadly – and you have seen us engage in – on this issue – is that we think that across our diplomatic efforts as it relates to the whole world, we think that there is an opportunity to engage via sports diplomacy and engage with allied and partner countries over some of these many shared cultural endeavors.
Specifically, as it relates to this forthcoming deal, I just don’t have anything to offer as these are two private entities, and I don’t have anything to offer from the State Department.
QUESTION: Thank you so much. Jahanzaib Ali from ARY News. Former Prime Minister Imran Khan has reiterated his U.S. conspiracy claims in an interview with The Intercept. He also blames Former Pakistani ambassador and military chief, General Bajwa, of convincing U.S. that Imran Khan is anti-American. So, the question is that: Was U.S. manipulated in backing overthrow of Imran Khan, as he’s claiming right now?
MR PATEL: These allegations are categorically false; you have heard me say this before. Pakistani politics are a matter for the Pakistani people to decide and for them to pursue within the auspices of their own constitution and laws. The U.S. values our longstanding cooperation with Pakistan, and we’ve always viewed a prosperous and democratic Pakistan as critical to U.S. interests. And that remains unchanged.
QUESTION: But there are a couple of American citizens arrested in Islamabad after the May 9th protest. Their family is trying to reach the U.S. Government to help their release. Is there any contact with them, any update on that?
MR PATEL: So, I’m certainly not going to get into the specifics of each case given privacy concerns. But of course, whenever a U.S. citizen is arrested overseas, we stand ready to provide all appropriate assistance. And we expect Pakistani authorities to respect all free – all fair trial guarantees owed to these detainees.
QUESTION: So, one last question.
MR PATEL: Sure.
QUESTION: Prime Minister Modi is coming to Washington very soon. So, sir, will U.S. discuss the democratic backsliding and human rights issue with him?
MR PATEL: Well, I spoke about the forthcoming state visit a little bit yesterday, and I will reiterate again that our partnership with India is one of the most consequential. It is a consequential relationship. We work closely with the Indian Government on some of our most vital priorities. And we look forward to hosting them here later this month and continuing to deepen our engagement on these issues, whether it be concerning the climate crisis, fostering an open and accessible secure technology ecosystem, upholding a free and open Indo-Pacific, deepening our trade and security cooperation as well. And as we do with nations around the world, we will also regularly engage on human rights issues directly with governments as it relates to issues that are in the American interest.
QUESTION: Quick follow-up on Pakistan briefly?
MR PATEL: Sure.
QUESTION: Do you have a number of American citizens who have been detained since Imran Khan’s removal – I mean, since his arrest?
MR PATEL: I don’t have a specific number for you, Shaun. I’m happy to check. Obviously these circumstances, depending on privacy considerations, we’ll have to circle back on that.
QUESTION: Can I ask you just about one particular case? Khadija Shah, she’s a fashion designer of some prominence that – who I believe is also a U.S. citizen. Do you have anything specifically to say about her case? She – reports that she was arrested because of tweeting criticism of the army.
MR PATEL: We’ve been following the case of Khadija Shah and have asked Pakistani officials for consular access to her. As we – I’ve previously said, we always urge foreign governments to allow and follow consular notifications for procedures when American citizens are detained. I believe Ms. Shah is a dual national, and so we continue to engage directly with the Government of Pakistan on this.
QUESTION: But no consular access yet to her?
MR PATEL: I have nothing additional to report.
Okay. Go ahead. Yeah.
QUESTION: On June 8th, Secretary Blinken will cohost the ministerial meeting about Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS. And this meeting comes at a time that there’s thousands of ISIS militants – and also the family members are being held in the SDF camps in Syria. Then do you think those ISIS militants and also their families in the (inaudible) child facilities in Syria is a good solution? If not, then how the U.S. will help to bring this issue to an end?
MR PATEL: We have talked about it as a good solution. I’m not going to get ahead of the ministerial. The Secretary, of course, will finish up his program in Jeddah and then head on to Riyadh for the D-ISIS ministerial. And I’m certainly not going to get ahead of that process. But you’ve heard me previously speak about, broadly, that the repatriation of foreign nationals has been a key priority for the D-ISIS campaign broadly. We believe that that is an important step to stabilize the security situation in places like Al-Hol, but also it is important for lessening the burden on the camps themselves. And we think that it is an important, durable solution to address the security situation writ large.
QUESTION: The countries are not willing to repatriate their nationals to the country – if they are not willing to do that, what’s the alternative?
MR PATEL: This is something we continue to engage on directly, and I have no doubt it will be something that is discussed through the auspices of the ministerial.
QUESTION: And another question on ISIS, then. The U.S. is going to address the continued threats of ISIS. We know that the ISIS has zero lands in control, but they are still active in certain areas, and they are doing attacks on different fronts in Syria and Iraq. As you have no combat forces in Iraq and also few hundred troops in Syria, how are you going to make sure that ISIS will be defeated, endured, and are you giving any sophisticated tools to the local forces that are fighting ISIS on ground?
MR PATEL: Well, our viewpoint has long been that there cannot be progress in Iraq without security, and – which means the continued – ensuring the enduring defeat of ISIS. Iraqi security forces are leading the fight, and the United States and a global coalition are supporting them to ensure the enduring defeat of ISIS. Together, Iraq, the United States, our coalition partners have freed millions of Iraqis from ISIS’s campaign. We’ve liberated nearly 20,000 square miles of territory from ISIS. I don’t have any specific updates to offer as it relates to support to Peshmerga or some of the specific security forces. And I’ll let our colleagues at the Pentagon speak to that any further.
Simon, go ahead.
QUESTION: A question on Nigeria.
MR PATEL: Yeah.
QUESTION: Some of my colleagues and, also, Human Rights Watch have some reporting out today about a military airstrike on January 24th that killed estimated 39 civilians. And this seems to be part of a broader pattern of airstrikes that the Nigerian air force has engaged in that seem to be hitting a lot of civilians, and there isn’t very – there isn’t accountability or sort of justice for the victims of these – according to these reports, according to what my colleagues have found.
I wonder, since the U.S. has a relationship with the Nigerian military, is this something that you’re expressing concerns about to them? Are you putting any conditions on cooperation with the Nigeria military in terms of them making sure that they’re not – these airstrikes are not hitting civilians?
MR PATEL: So, we are aware of the January 2023 incident described in the Reuters reporting. We take all reports of civilian casualties seriously. Reports of civilian casualties should be thoroughly and transparently investigated. I will let the Nigerian military speak to details of the incident and any training and technical assistance that the U.S. is involved in – as it relates to preventing civilian casualties, are central to our security cooperation with the Nigerian military, but I don’t have any other specific assessments to offer from here.
QUESTION: Well, I have two questions on Ukraine. Are you aware that Ukrainian authorities revoke accreditations of American journalists who do not cover the conflict in Ukraine the way they like? And there was an example of a New York Times reporter who had his accreditation revoked after he reported that Ukrainians used cluster munitions in this war? Have – has the State Department raised this issue with Ukrainian authorities?
MR PATEL: We engage with the – our Ukrainians partners on a number of issues. Of course, broadly, press freedom and access and appropriate access by journalists is something that we engage with directly with countries around the world. I will let our Ukrainian partners speak to whatever mechanisms that they have in place for their visaing and accrediting. That’s certainly not something that the U.S. would have visibility into.
QUESTION: Also, could you please explain why the State Department so far has been completely silent on the detainment of Gonzalo Lira. He is a U.S. citizen and journalist. Does the State Department has been very vocal when Evan Gershkovich was arrested, and so far we haven’t heard anything about Lira.
MR PATEL: Well, whenever an American citizen is detained abroad, we ensure to raise to, directly, with governments the ability for consular access and that they are affronted all basic access for consular notifications. But I don’t have any other specifics to offer there.
QUESTION: So, this —
MR PATEL: And then we probably need to wrap. Go ahead.
QUESTION: This just broke in The Washington Post today, and it kind of corroborates some other reports that have come out in the last couple months. It says the Biden administration was warned by a close ally several months before the Nord Stream attacks that the Ukrainian military was planning that sort of covert attack. So, if this is true, that the administration was being warned about this – and like I said, there’s been some other reports in the last couple months – why was the determination so strong in the beginning that this was Russia bombing its own pipeline?
MR PATEL: So, I’m not going to comment on or confirm reports about purported intelligence that includes information that even The Washington Post says that U.S. intelligence agencies were unable to corroborate. As it relates to the Nord Stream pipeline, several of our European partners – Germany, Sweden, and Denmark – have open investigations into what happened, and those investigations are ongoing. I’m not going to get ahead of that process, and we’ll refer you to those capitals to speak to the ongoing work happening there.
All right. Thanks, everybody.
(The briefing was concluded at 2:59 p.m.)
# # #