2:09 p.m. EST
MR PRICE: Good afternoon. Now, if you’ll bear with me, I have only seven or eight toppers to get through today.
No, actually, I only have one. As many of you may have surmised, this will be my last on-camera briefing. And so, with your forbearance, I want to spend just a couple minutes offering some parting thoughts.
As I was thinking about what to say, I took a look back at my first briefing on February 2nd of 2021. I realized in doing so just how much has changed over the past couple of years.
First, that briefing was only 38 minutes long. (Laughter.) Could you imagine? I know many of you have pined for those days.
Here’s what else has changed: You were all so polite, you were introducing yourselves, you were limiting yourselves to a single question, to being judicious with follow-ups. I’ve since pined for those days.
And looking out on this room now, there are now many more of you than there were on February 2nd of 2021. Now, perhaps that has something to do with the fact that we’ve lifted the COVID capacity limits. But, again, it’s my last briefing, so let me think for just a moment that it has more to do with making this room the place to be for foreign policy reporters.
Let the transcript reflect there was no laughter. That’s great. (Laughter.)
QUESTION: That’s because they’re all watching Kirby’s Zoom call. (Laughter.)
MR PRICE: Thank you, Matt. I would expect nothing less on my last day.
And maybe they’ve since done something with the lighting in this room, but looking back at that first briefing, I think my hair looked distinctly darker at the time. Now, I’d never want to imply that this group made me go even grayer.
But on the other hand, so much has remained the same over the past couple years. Some of my answers to those first questions a couple years ago, while wordy, may not have been entirely responsive. I used plenty of references to “allies and partners.” We started that briefing by calling on our distinguished colleague from the AP. We also heard from said colleague during the middle of the briefing; we heard from said colleague at the end of the briefing.
And speaking of Matt, he at one point interjected to offer his own thoughts about how I should run the briefing room. So, as I said, not much has changed over the past couple years.
In all seriousness, though, there is so much else that has remained constant. Every day since then I’ve walked into the briefing room with a team by my side, and the team you see here today — Vedant, Nathan, Jen, Julia — is just a sliver of the larger enterprise without which I could not do my job. The podium may be made for one person, but the briefing requires the support and teamwork of so many more, from my colleagues across the bureaus who brief me every day to come out and to field your questions to the members of the press team who oversee that process, to our video team and technical experts across the building, to those who have the onerous chore of transcribing and later disseminating every single word that’s uttered in this room.
I said during my first briefing that I was proud to call the public servants across the State Department colleagues. That was more than 200 briefings ago. And now that I’ve reached the last in-person briefing, I should say that I’m both proud and immensely grateful to call them colleagues. As I told my colleagues last week, any success I’ve had in this job is a product of that very partnership. All of my failures, on the other hand, are attributable to me and to Matt Lee. (Laughter.)
And speaking of those failures, I’ve been able to do this job taking the tough questions on difficult, complex issues because I’ve always known that my colleagues at all levels will have my back – even, and especially, when I may have missed the mark.
I told this story when Secretary Blinken surprised all of us — me most of all — here last week. But on his first day in office, in his first meeting, the first guidance out of his mouth was to convey that we should be operating on our toes, not on our heels, in telling the story of America’s role in the world. And he hastened to add that, when you’re operating on your toes, there are times when you’ll lean too far forward and perhaps fall flat on your face. I can relate.
But just as he said he would, the Secretary and his team, along with Deputy Secretary Sherman and all of my seventh floor colleagues, have had my back each time that’s been the case. I’m immensely grateful to them for this opportunity, but also for the trust, the confidence, the grace that they have demonstrated to me and to all of our colleagues who have done our best to lean forward every single day.
There’s a reason I’m not going far after leaving this job. I deeply admire this institution. I deeply admire the people who make it tick. There’s no better mission, there’s no finer set of colleagues. I truly mean that, and I’m truly grateful to all of them.
Finally, that brings me to all of you. I said this to several of you last week in a very different setting, but I’m so appreciative of the relationships that we’ve developed. There’s always going to be, of course, an inherent tension between the person in my job and those of you in your jobs. If there weren’t, one of us wouldn’t be doing our job.
Through it all, though, we’ve never doubted each other’s intentions or our integrity, and we’ve recognized that we have ultimately the same objective: providing audiences around the world with accurate and timely information.
There is also something very special about the State Department press corps: You care about these issues. You all know about these issues. Some of you know far too much about these issues. (Laughter.) But in the end, I wouldn’t want it any other way. Your questions are good ones, and you, in turn – you, and, in turn, the American people, deserve answers to all of them. It’s all part of making real the idea of an informed citizenry, which is the bedrock of any democracy, including, of course, our own.
Everyone who has sat in this room is committed to that. I mean, one of our colleagues nearly paid for it with his life when his car came under attack from Russian forces in Ukraine last year. I’m confident my successor will have the opportunity to welcome Ben Hall back to the briefing – a moment we’ll all relish, no matter where we are.
Let me conclude with this. As I was preparing to take on this job in late 2020, a predecessor of mine told me the – it would be the best job I would ever have. To be sure, there were days when I doubted her; there were days when I outright cursed her. But the longer arc and perspective of the past two years has left me convinced that she was right. She was right.
I’m grateful to everyone for this opportunity, to all of you in this room, to everyone in this building. I’m very deeply appreciative. Thank you.
QUESTION: Okay. Well, thanks for that, and thank you to you. Who was that predecessor, by the way? (Laughter.)
MR PRICE: I will leave the innocent nameless.
QUESTION: I mean, we know that it’s a woman, right? So anyway, let me just make – a couple things on timing here. It did not escape my notice that your departure coincides exactly with the start of the NCAA basketball tournament.
MR PRICE: Our –
QUESTION: And now that you’re going to be – yes, and our team is, like –
MR PRICE: Our beloved Hoyas are – yes, yes.
QUESTION: Yeah, yeah, nowhere; not even in the NIT, I don’t think. But anyway, I hope you enjoy watching the next couple weeks in your free time.
MR PRICE: Thank you.
QUESTION: And then secondly, the other thing on timing is that it won’t – as everyone knows, the Academy Awards were last night. And I’m pretty confident that, if there were a category for best State Department spokesman for 2022 – (laughter) – you would have been a shoo-in, or at least a relatively high competitor.
MR PRICE: (Laughter.) I appreciate that. I appreciate that.
QUESTION: But anyway, listen, we all – on behalf of everyone in here, we appreciate your returning to the podium daily, and your willingness to engage even questions that are irritating or uncomfortable for you, at length, and even though your responses may be infuriating to us. So anyway, thank you.
MR PRICE: I appreciate that.
QUESTION: And good luck in your next assignment.
As the Secretary said on Thursday when he was here, one of his – well, one thing that he noticed was our sparring on the JCPOA. So I figured I’d start with Iran.
MR PRICE: Excellent.
QUESTION: Not – first the JCPOA. But you guys had some pretty harsh – not just you, but the NSC did, as well – had some pretty harsh reaction to the Iranian foreign minister’s comments yesterday, that there was at least an interim or an initial deal in place to – for a prisoner swap. You called it a cruel lie. I’m wondering if you can expand on that at all. Why – is he just making this up out of thin air?
MR PRICE: So Matt, thanks for that. First of all, it was a particularly harsh response, but deservedly so. We often deal with the lies that emanate from senior regime officials in Tehran; that’s nothing new. But we did call this one especially cruel because there are lives, families, loved ones that hang in the balance. This is about the fate of three Americans who have been wrongfully detained going on years now. And the fact that the foreign minister would state something that was as untrue as this is just a sad reflection on the way the Iranian regime has engaged in this practice, a practice that should have been relegated to the dustbin of history many years ago, a practice that should not be alive and well in the 21st century.
What I can tell you is that we are working relentlessly to secure the release of these three Americans. We have made this – we made this an early priority of this administration. We conveyed in no uncertain terms to the Iranians that this would be a priority of ours. We were going to do everything we possibly could to secure their release. The fact that these three Americans still languish behind bars, wrongfully detained, is, unfortunately, a reflection of the fact that the Iranians have so far not been willing to budge.
But we are going to keep at it. It is not helpful for our efforts to secure the release of these Americans for us to detail exactly and precisely what we’re doing, but it is something that we’re working on every, every single day.
QUESTION: Okay. Well, then, the idea that this money that is being held or is frozen right now in South Korea as part of the deal, can you rule that out? Can you say that that’s not part of a potential agreement?
MR PRICE: I just can’t speak about our efforts to secure the release of these Americans. It is not helpful to their freedom.
QUESTION: All right. And then my last one is then if, as you say, the Iranians are that untrustworthy and they lie all the time, as what you just said, why on earth would you ever trust them to uphold a nuclear deal?
MR PRICE: Because, Matt, the nuclear deal – the JCPOA – and this goes back to the 2014-2015 period now; we’re not talking about this —
QUESTION: I know. And —
MR PRICE: We’re not talking about this in the current context, but the JCPOA was not built on trust. If it was an agreement that was built on trust, it wouldn’t have been worth the paper it was written on. The JCPOA was built on verification. It was built on monitoring. It was the most rigorous and stringent verification and monitoring protocol that was ever peacefully negotiated. And through the verification and monitoring protocols, the international weapons inspectors, the U.S. Intelligence Community, this building over the course of successive administrations were able to determine that Iran was in fact abiding by the terms of the JCPOA. That was the case until mid-2018 when the last administration decided to abandon the Iran deal, and Iran has since developed its nuclear program in ways that are entirely inconsistent with the JCPOA, but more concerning to us, in ways that are dangerous, in ways that are a threat to peace and stability, potentially, in the region and beyond.
QUESTION: Okay. And you still believe that despite all the lies, everything that they’re saying that you say is untrue and duplicitous, that a return to the JCPOA, if it were possible, is the way to go?
MR PRICE: We’re not —
QUESTION: Is the way to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon despite all of your misgivings?
MR PRICE: A return to the JCPOA hasn’t been on the agenda for months now, Matt.
QUESTION: Well —
MR PRICE: And it —
QUESTION: It was, and you just said that they have repeatedly lied —
MR PRICE: And it —
QUESTION: — over and over and over.
MR PRICE: And it hasn’t been on the agenda for one primary reason, and that’s because when it was on the agenda, there were concrete opportunities that the United States and our partners in the P5+1 had really at our fingertips to go back in to the JCPOA. We thought we were on the precipice of it, only for the Iranians to once again prove that their word was unreliable and to pull back what they had agreed to.
So that’s not on the agenda. What is always going to be on our agenda as a first resort is diplomacy. We continue to believe that diplomacy is the only permanent, durable, verifiable means by which to address Iran’s nuclear program. We’re not giving up our ambitions and our hope on that, even as we’re preparing for all potential contingencies.
QUESTION: I want to just follow up on a related issue regarding China and Iran and the Saudis, but first I just want to say as a matter of personal comment that when I first came here as a very inexperienced correspondent, Tom Donilon was the spokesman and then Richard Boucher and then Nick Burns and a whole series of very credible people – then more recently Kirby and Psaki of course. But what you have done after an interregnum was to restore the credibility of a podium, the frequency of the briefings, the knowledge of the spokesperson what – in terms of policy, which made all the difference, and the willingness to grant access on the plane, on travel, as well as in this room and outside of this room.
So we’re just very grateful, and I think it’s – it extends to the foreign press corps, many of our colleagues who attend your other briefings, and just the importance that you from the top on down, but that you carried out – the 24/7 access, and we all know what that means. So thank you.
MR PRICE: Thank you very much. Appreciate it.
QUESTION: I want to ask you about China’s involvement in the Middle East and what that means. Does this in fact sideline the United States to have China mediating between Iran and the Saudis? And also the New York Times and Wall Street Journal reporting from Friday that the Saudis are pressuring the U.S. – in order to grant Israel diplomatic recognition, pressuring for some major concessions from the United States. If you could take both of those.
MR PRICE: Sure. So you’re asking in the first instance about the PRC’s role because of the announcement between Iran and Saudi Arabia in recent days of the steps that those countries have pledged to take. First, I think it’s worth noting that this has been a question that I have been asked over the past couple years from this podium. And each and every time, starting in 2021 and 2022, that I was asked this question, I made a very simple point: We support dialogue, we support direct diplomacy, we support anything that would serve to de-escalate tensions in the region and potentially help to prevent conflict. If this is the end result of what was announced in recent days, that would be a very good thing. This is something that has – this is a process that has unfolded over the course of some two years now. We have, as I said before, encouraged it. We have supported it. The substance of the joint statement that was issued late last week is quite similar to what has been discussed during previous rounds. This is a process that has gone through Oman. It has gone through Iraq. And we have been there supporting it in every – at every step of the way.
We’ve been doing that because, again, anything that would serve to de-escalate tensions and to prevent conflict is in our interest. It’s in the interest of the region. Any efforts that would help to end the war on Yemen, also manifestly in our interests; of course in the interests of the countries in the region as well. We believe it’s long overdue that Iran cease activities aimed at destabilizing its neighbors. Should Iran, as an outcome of this agreement, again, change its longstanding behavior and actually take steps to respect the sovereignty and noninterference in the internal affairs of its neighbors, that would be beneficial to the region; that would very much be in our interest.
When it comes to our role in the region, Andrea, and let me address your question, this was not about the PRC. This was about what Iran and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia committed to. When it comes to our role in the region – and whether, as I’ve read, our role may be being supplanted, some allege – I have a difficult time wrapping my head around our role could be supplanted when no country on Earth has done more to help build a more stable, a more integrated region.
This goes back to the first days of this administration. I think one of the big – one of the first personnel announcements we made was the appointment of a special envoy for Yemen. We were determined in the earliest hours of this administration to do everything we could to bring an end to the violence in Yemen, to save lives, to inject humanitarian assistance. That’s precisely what we’ve helped to do over the course of these past two years. We’ve supported our Gulf partners as they’ve enhanced their defensive capabilities; we’ve done that in very real and tangible ways – these same partners that have been subject to outrageous attacks, including cross-border attacks from Yemen and from elsewhere as well.
Our engagement with the Gulf has led to more opportunities for people throughout the region: Omani airspace, Saudi airspace, other tangible steps; the Negev process that the United States has been deeply invested in, bringing together foreign ministers and senior leaders from countries throughout the region with Israel as part of our staunch efforts to build bridges across the region and beyond; I2U2, the partnership that we’ve conceived of together with our partners, to stitch together our own longstanding partnership with Israel, with India, and with the United Arab Emirates in a novel partnership that is reflective of our broader efforts to stitch together our longstanding allies and partners into something that helps to serve the common good; and of course our engagement on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
I don’t think there is any other country around the world who has worked more concertedly and intensively with Israelis, with Palestinians to, in the first instance, de-escalate tensions, and to preserve the viability of a negotiated two-state solution. You’ve seen us do that in particularly acute and even dangerous moments, as in mid-2021, in the conflict between Israel and Gaza then. You’ve seen us do that when tensions are at a heightened state in the West Bank; we’re in one of those periods now.
And you’ve seen our officials engaging directly on the ground. Secretary Blinken was in the region. Jake Sullivan was in the region. Secretary of Defense Austin was in the region just last week, not to mention many other lower-level officials. And our humanitarian assistance – our humanitarian assistance to places like Yemen, to the Palestinian people, a relationship that we made an early point of restoring with the Palestinian Authority and with the Palestinian people.
So I think in any way you look at it, America is deeply engaged with the Middle East. We have, I think, demonstrated results in those efforts to leave a region that is more stable, is more integrated, is more prosperous. We have a long way to go, but everything we’ve done over the past couple years points to what we’re trying to achieve.
QUESTION: And the other question was: Is the United States going to even consider nuclear – nuclear reactors or nuclear civilian reactors to the Saudis in exchange for them recognizing Israel?
MR PRICE: Let me just say that of course we support normalization between Israel and its Muslim and Arab majority neighbors. And I use that term “neighbors” loosely because we want to broaden the aperture and look at opportunities for countries around the world to normalize their relationship with Israel. Of course we support normalization between Israel and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. This is going to have to be a process that those two countries, in the first instance, are engaged in, but we are going to do what we can as a partner to both to support that process. It’s something we’ve discussed at great length, the potential for normalization, but as for the content of those discussions, we’re going to leave that to what we’ve said behind closed doors.
QUESTION: Would you rule out the nuclear piece?
MR PRICE: I’m just not going to weigh in on a specific proposal.
QUESTION: Hi, Ned. Thank you. Of course I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge how you have engaged with me, and I thank you for that all throughout. I appreciate it.
I wanted to follow up on the Iran-Saudi deal, and then I want to ask any – a question on the Palestinian issue, if I may.
On the Iran-Saudi deal, do you feel that this deal can actually bring tensions down? Does it scale back the tension that was building up and the fear of some sort of a military confrontation with Iran?
MR PRICE: If the deal is fully implemented, of course it has the potential to de-escalate tensions between these two rather large countries in the Gulf. Of course it does. I think you have to take a look at where we were just a couple years ago and even in some ways just a couple months ago. Several years ago – 2019 I believe it was – the attack on the part of the Iranians to – against Saudi Arabia, the potential for attacks that our Saudi partners have endured since then, including as recently as late last year when the United States worked with our Saudi partners to enhance defensive and deterrence capabilities that ultimately mitigated what was the real – very real possibility of further Iranian aggression against Saudi Arabia.
So yes, both in the theoretical sense and in a very real and practical sense, if Iran takes the steps that it has pledged to take, we believe it would.
QUESTION: On the Palestinian-Israeli issue, and in my tradition of asking the simple question on this Palestinian issue: Today an Israeli court added another 180 days to the Palestinian Ahmad Manasra, and of solitary confinement. He was in – he’s been in solitary for 480 days. I believe the internationally sanctioned solitary confinement thing is like 15 days. He’s been in prison since he was 13 years old. He is 20 today. He has mental issues. He has physical issues. He’s isolated. He cannot get visitation and so on. I want your reaction to such a draconian measure.
MR PRICE: Said, I am not immediately familiar with the details of the case, so I can’t offer an immediate reaction. But this is all part and parcel of what we have sought to encourage on the part of both sides. We’re at a very dangerous period. Tensions are running high. Israel obviously faces very real risks to its security. We’ve seen – we’ve seen vivid demonstrations of that in recent days. We’ve encouraged all parties to avoid steps that serve only to exacerbate tensions and raise the potential for even greater violence. This is a period in recent months that has seen an unprecedented number of Palestinians killed. It has seen a large number of Israelis killed. We have been deeply engaged with Israelis, Palestinians, with our partners in the region, the Egyptians and the Jordanians, as part of that to do what we can to de-escalate tensions.
As it pertains to this case, if we have a particular comment, we’ll let you know.
QUESTION: But, Ned, I mean, we’re not asking Israel to stop imprisoning Palestinians or stop killing them. It would be nice if it did, but we’re not asking them that. We’re asking them to abide by international law when they imprison these boys – I mean, 13 years old and 14 years old – and keeping them under administrative confinement, which nobody else in the world does except for the state of Israel. What is your position on this? Is this part of collective punishment? Do you consider that to be part of a collective punishment?
MR PRICE: Said, we’ve been very clear that collective punishment is never appropriate. I’m going to hesitate to put a label on this particular case or this particular practice. But what we have sought across the board is for our Israeli partners, our Palestinian partners, to avoid the type of steps that only serve to exacerbate tensions. We need the opposite. We need the opposite especially now, and especially as we’re entering a period where the three great faiths that in many ways have their roots in this very region will coincide in the coming weeks.
So we’re deeply engaged and we’ll continue to use our voice and to meet with and to do what we can to see to it that the violence – the cycle of violence – comes to an end.
QUESTION: Can I just do a follow-up on Andrea’s question and try to get you to talk a little bit about these conversations with Saudis on normalizing relations with Israel? Is it the U.S. assessment that after this Iran-Saudi development, it would be more complicated at least? Like, when you were in discussions with your Saudi partners, what are – what did they say on the prospects of normalization? That’s a – that’s very broad.
MR PRICE: So first, the potential implications of what we saw late last week on Israel, on normalization, on Israel’s security – this is – this is about an agreement that was reached between Iran and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, so of course this is going to be about those two countries. There is no greater supporter of Israel’s security than President Biden. As you’ve heard him say consistently, our commitment to Israel’s security is ironclad. We are going to continue to do everything we can not only to make good on that commitment to Israel’s security but, where we can, to help expand the bridges that have been built in recent years.
And I think you look at the engagement that we’ve undertaken in the region, including when President Biden traveled to the region, to Israel and to the Gulf last summer, you see the very tangible results of that. Saudi airspace that for the first time has been opened up, again, creating opportunities for Israelis, creating opportunities for people across the region. You see that in terms of what we’ve been able to achieve with the help of many of our partners around the world, including the UN, on Yemen. A more integrated, a more stable region is good for our interests, it is good for Israel, and it is good for people across the region.
QUESTION: You literally repeated what you answered to Andrea. But did the – I’m basically wondering in what —
QUESTION: (Off-mike.) (Laughter.)
QUESTION: I mean, we can’t expect anything else on your last day (inaudible). (Laughter.)
What was the – I mean, what did the Saudis say? And then I’m going to repeat myself: What did the Saudis say on their normalization prospect, or what is your assessment whether you think it’s going to be more complicated, or is this going to somehow help at all?
MR PRICE: This ultimately is a question for Israel and Saudi Arabia. It is a process that we support. It’s a process that we’ve supported. It’s a process we’ve discussed with both of our partners. But this is a question for Israel and Saudi Arabia.
As for the contents of our discussions, just as a general rule, you know that we don’t read out private diplomatic conversations. But we’ve remained engaged on this and we’re going to do everything we can to be a supportive partner to both countries.
QUESTION: And one last thing. When the Saudis were informing you of the – of what was happening, were you in turn informing Israelis? Like, were you keeping them in the loop on a daily basis or frequently?
MR PRICE: We have close relationships with both countries. We consult regularly. As we’ve said before, we were not taken by surprise by the announcement that came out on Friday. Our Saudi partners had kept us up to date. We engage regularly with our Israeli partners. Secretary Austin was there just last week, and there are many levels at which these conversations occur.
QUESTION: And I take it the Chinese weren’t in touch?
MR PRICE: I’m not aware that we heard from the PRC on this.
QUESTION: On that note actually, the newly named Chinese Minister of Defense General Li Shangfu has been subject to CAATSA sanctions since 2018. Those include visa restrictions. So what is the administration’s plan to potentially ameliorate some of that – the challenges that might pose to Secretary Austin being able to meet with his counterpart?
MR PRICE: Well, Secretary Austin now has on a couple of occasions attempted to reach out to his counterpart. Unfortunately, it has been the PRC that has failed to reciprocate. Each time we’ve made the point that we believe as a responsible country that it is in our interests, it’s in the interests of the PRC, it’s in the interest of countries around the world, for us to maintain open dialogue – multiple, even redundant channels of dialogue – as we attempt to perform what is our most important and pressing task: to establish a floor on the relationship and to establish those guardrails to see to it that the competitive aspects of the relationship between us can’t veer into conflict. That’s why Secretary Blinken has picked up the phone and been in touch with Wang Yi. That’s why he met Wang Yi in Munich. That’s why we’re regularly in touch with the PRC embassy in this country and vice versa from Beijing. When it comes to Secretary Austin, you saw the readout that the Defense Department put out several weeks ago now making clear that the PRC refused to engage.
When it comes to this individual, as I understand it, this is a largely ceremonial role. It’s a different one than the role that Secretary Austin has in our system. But we are prepared to engage when it’s in our interest to do so. We’ve made that clear from the very start. Many of you recall the first foreign trip that we took, took us to Japan, took us to South Korea. On the way back we stopped in Anchorage with Secretary Blinken and Jake Sullivan to engage very early on with our PRC counterparts. There have been in-person meetings since, there have been phone calls since, there have been video teleconferences ever since, precisely because we do believe what we say about establishing those communications channels as part of an effort to prevent that conflict – that competition from veering into conflict.
QUESTION: Thank you, Ned. Well, as one of the beneficiaries of these daily briefings, not only on behalf of colleagues, also on behalf of my audience, so I just – everything has been said. After 200 and plus briefings, I have two more questions to ask. So on – all on Iran. So let me throw them all at you so you can maybe take a note on that.
One is Russia is sending apparently captured U.S. weapons to Iran. There’s a report about that. What is your level of concern on that?
And another one, we heard – we have seen videos of President Lukashenka meeting with Iranian president today, and one of the topics that they have been discussing was apparently basic coordination on how to evade sanctions. Iran wants to share its experience on that. I just want to get a reaction to that.
And lastly, there is an increasing tension between Azerbaijan and Iran after Iran last weekend tried to basically influence flights – jet, fighter jet, on the border, and just – may I get a reaction to that, as well? Thank you so much.
MR PRICE: So first, on Lukashenka’s visit to Iran, we see this as, in some ways, an extension of the deepening relationship between Iran and Russia. We’ve been – had no shortage over the past year of sharing our concern of the deepening relationship between Iran and Russia. We’ve talked about it in terms of the security assistance that those – that Iran is providing Russia, and vice versa, and we’ve also made the point that, in what Lukashenka has offered to Russia, he has essentially ceded his sovereignty to the Kremlin, to Russia.
And so now, with Lukashenka in Iran, in some ways you can see that as an extension of the deepening partnership between Iran and Russia. But it’s something we’re watching very closely. These are two birds of a feather, and oftentimes they do flock together.
When it comes to the Iranian weapons – or, excuse me, the weapons that have reportedly been captured, I’ve seen those reports. I’m not in a position to confirm those reports. As you know, we have a robust monitoring plan in place that takes a look at any potential instances of diversion. We are still where we have been for – since the start of this conflict. We have not seen any credible indications that security assistance that we have provided to our Ukrainian partners have been diverted to any other actor, but we’re watching this very closely.
And on Azerbaijan, and Iran, of course Iran is a – has long been a malign actor in the region. It’s engaged in malign activities, activities that threaten its neighbors both near and far. So we watch these types of tensions with concern. Our approach has been to invest in our engagement with Azerbaijan, with Armenia in the South Caucasus to, as we were saying in a very different context a moment ago, to create a South Caucasus region that is more stable, that is less prone to conflict, that is less prone to tension.
QUESTION: Thank you. Thank you, Ned. Thanks for the wonderful briefing during your last hour, and thanks for sharing your knowledge with us. Good luck.
MR PRICE: Thank you.
QUESTION: Yeah. My question on the North Korea. North Korea launched strategic cruise missiles from a submarine last Sunday. What kind of diplomatic action is the United States currently taking in response to North Korea’s high-intensity provocations?
MR PRICE: So, Janne, we’re aware of the DPRK’s submarine launch cruise missile test. As we’ve said in the context of similar actions, these only serve to heighten tensions in the region. The DPRK’s unannounced cruise missile tests are yet another example of DPRK actions that threaten regional peace and stability. They also present an unacceptable safety risk to civil aviation and to maritime operations, as well.
We remain focused on close coordination with our allies and partners to address the multitude of threats that’s posed by the DPRK, and to advance the shared objective that we put forward in the early months of this administration, namely the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.
We have had an opportunity in recent weeks to engage in depth with our Japanese allies, with our ROK allies. We’ve had the very happy opportunity to welcome deepened cooperation between those two allies, and to make the point that we are going to continue to engage bilaterally, but also trilaterally, knowing that the trilateral relationship between the United States, between the ROK, between Japan is critical to our shared efforts. Because we share, along with the ROK and Japan, a vision of an Indo-Pacific that is free and open. That’s going to be the crux of what you hear today from President Biden when he travels to San Diego and he meets with another one of our partners in the Indo-Pacific.
But Japan, and the ROK, the United States, others, we share this vision. The DPRK has consistently posed a challenge to the rules-based order and to the vision of a free and open Indo-Pacific. As we continue to see these provocations, we are going to work with our partners in the Indo-Pacific, we’re going to work with our partners on the other side of the Atlantic to hold the DPRK accountable.
We are going to look at additional ways to do that. Just within recent days you’ve heard from us on some of the steps that we have taken to clamp down on sanctions evasion and to pursue targets that support the DPRK’s WMD programs.
We are also going to continue to make the point, and to find ways to reinforce the point, that it requires concerted action on the part of – especially on the part of all members of the UN Security Council, especially permanent members of the UN Security Council. The DPRK is subject to a number of UN Security Council resolutions owing to the provocations that it has engaged in in recent years. Each and every one of these UN Security Council resolutions were voted on and approved by the permanent five members of the Security Council. It is incumbent on all five of those members – including Russia and the PRC – to uphold the commitments that they’ve made, to uphold the commitments that have been signed into international law, and to recognize that a DPRK that is not held to account, that is able to engage in these type of provocations without concerted accountability from the international community, is not in the interest of Russia, it’s not in the interest of China, it’s not in the interest of any country around the world.
And so our task is to continue to work with our partners and allies to hold the DPRK accountable while we are recommitting to the commitment we have to the security and to the defense of our treaty allies in this case.
QUESTION: Do you think North Korea will conduct another nuclear test during the U.S. and ROK’s joint military exercise now ongoing (inaudible)?
MR PRICE: I would hesitate to offer a prediction, but we’ve said for a number of months now that the DPRK has finalized all of the steps it would need to take to conduct what would be its seventh nuclear test. A seventh nuclear test would be a dangerous provocation that would itself constitute a significant threat to peace and security in the region. The entire world would need to respond in a case like that. Countries on the Security Council, especially the permanent five, we would expect to see – hope to see, I should say – concerted action in response to such a destabilizing event.
QUESTION: Yeah. Question on Russia. But before I ask you that question, just a follow-up on North Korea. Is it useful in the context that you mention, that we all know, these escalating tensions, to have these, the most important maneuvers in five years with South Korea, military maneuvers between Washington and United States and South Korea? I mean, how useful is that in the context to try and de-escalate the situation?
MR PRICE: So Leon, a couple points. We’ve made abundantly clear early on in this administration – and I’ve repeated it too many times to count since – that we harbor no hostile intent towards the DPRK. We believe that dialogue and diplomacy would be the most – would constitute the most effective means by which to advance in practical ways our policy objective of the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. We’ve made clear that we harbor no hostile intent, we’ve made clear that we’re ready to engage in dialogue and diplomacy. It’s the DPRK that has consistently rebuffed that, both by its silence, its failure to respond meaningfully to those overtures, but also by taking the actions that it has taken, including the provocations the likes of which we are talking about now.
Look, the exercises that you’re referring to are longstanding, they are routine, they’re purely defensive in nature. They support the security of both the United States and, in this case, the ROK. And unfortunately, the DPRK has put us in a position to have to reinforce in tangible ways the security commitment that we have. They have made the security environment in Northeast Asia and the broader Indo-Pacific region all the more dangerous, all the more threatening to our deployed troops, to Americans in the region, and of course to our treaty allies, the – Japan and ROK.
So it is as a result of that security environment that we are – as a result of that, we are continually in a position to have to reaffirm that security commitment to make sure that we’re able to make good on that commitment. We would much rather be engaging in dialogue and diplomacy, and advancing in real ways the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.
QUESTION: Thanks for that. Question on – related to news of today on the Black Sea Initiative. The Russians have agreed to – if I understand it correctly, the Russians have agreed to a 60-day extension. On the table, I think, unless I’m mistaken, it was 120 days. What are your thoughts on that? Would you accept a 60-day extension, or are you – or not?
MR PRICE: So first, let me just say we’re at a critical moment in these negotiations. Extending the Black Sea Grain Initiative requires the consent of all the parties, and that’s something the UN secretary general is working on, including at this very moment. So we’re going to defer to the UN secretary general, we’re going to defer to the other parties that are directly involved in the Black Sea Grain Initiative.
And I need to be circumspect about the details beyond that, because this is a critical moment. But our position has always been clear: The world needs this. The world needs the Black Sea Grain Initiative. We believe it should be extended. We believe it should be expanded. And we believe that because we’ve seen the implications of a world with the Black Sea Grain Initiative, and we’ve seen a world without the Black Sea Grain Initiative. After Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February of last year, we saw this price in – this spike in world food prices. World food prices spiked nearly 30 percent. Wheat and fertilizer prices spiked nearly 30 percent in the immediate aftermath of Russia’s full-scale invasion. It wasn’t until the Black Sea Grain Initiative was put into place with a great deal of diplomatic support from the United States and of course the parties themselves – the UN secretary-general, Türkiye, Ukraine, and also with the cooperation of Russia – that these crises started to actually go down.
And we have seen millions of metric tons make it to the countries that need food the most. Over 4 million metric tons of wheat have gone directly to developing countries as a result of the Black Sea Grain Initiative that may not – that may seem like an abstract number, but it boils down to 8 billion loaves of bread to the developing world. The World Food Program has been able to take advantage of the Black Sea Grain Initiative. 16 World Food Program ships have left Ukrainian ports as a result of this initiative, taking wheat to places like Ethiopia, Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia – the places around the world that need it most. So this is a critical instrument at a critical time. We know that the world needs this. We certainly hope and expect to see it extended and expanded.
QUESTION: But you don’t want to say 60 or 120? You’re not going to —
MR PRICE: We’re going to let the parties themselves speak to it before we do.
QUESTION: Hey, Ned. I’d like to ask you about a report that the Times had last week on the Biden administration so far refraining from turning over evidence of Russian war crimes to the International Criminal Court. And apparently the main reason this is – that they’ve refrained from doing so is because the Pentagon objects to that action, saying that that might open the way in the future for easier prosecutions of U.S. troops. Can you address that and talk about the rationale behind this? And related to that, in your 200-plus briefings at the podium, one phrase you’ve mentioned repeatedly is “the rules-based international order,” and you say the U.S. defends this order. Can you give us a more precise definition of that and when the U.S. decides to opt into these international institutions and norms and when it decides to opt out of those?
MR PRICE: So a couple things, Edward. First, on your first question about the ICC, this goes back to a point I was making in response to a very different region, to a very different question about our inheritance when we came into office in January of 2021.
Over the past two years, we have worked very hard to reset and to improve our relationship with the International Criminal Court. In the first instance, we lifted the sanctions that never should have been imposed in the first place. We returned to engagement with the court and the Assembly of States Parties. We have identified specific areas where we can support ICC investigations and prosecutions, including steps to support the court’s work in Darfur and assistance in locating and apprehending fugitives from international justice, and that includes high-profile fugitives like the LRA’s Joseph Kony. We also offer rewards for information leading to the arrest, the transfer, the conviction of foreign nationals accused of committing war crimes and crimes against humanity or genocide before the ICC. So we do provide many forms of support.
What we don’t do, however, is detail in a specific – in specific forms what that support looks like or what we may be providing directly to the ICC. And we don’t do that for a very simple reason: this is an international court that is pursuing accountability, it’s pursuing justice. We don’t want to do anything or to say anything that could jeopardize the sanctity of an investigation, that could set back the pursuit of that justice.
I’d make one other point on this, Edward, that your paper reported on one form of support that we’re allegedly not providing, but you’ve heard us over the course of the past year speak to the efforts we are resorting to around the world to empower a number of organizations to collect, to preserve, to analyze, to disseminate precisely the kinds of information that would be court admissible, that international tribunals – whether it’s the ICC, whether it’s the UN’s Commission of Inquiry, whether it’s the OSCE’s Moscow Mechanism – could in fact use to pursue and to advance cases that could culminate in accountability and justice for those who are responsible for some of the most heinous war crimes and crimes against humanity that we’ve seen in Ukraine.
The virtue of this type of support is we are empowering organizations to collect open-source information, information that is available to everyone but that in turn these organizations package in such a way that they are comprehensive, they are done in a rigorous way, and they’re court admissible.
So beyond the categories of support that I just listed, we are enabling a number of actors around the world to do what they can to support the ICC, to support other venues including courts of national jurisdiction in places like Ukraine and other countries around the world that have universal jurisdiction where war criminals – or accused war criminals, I should say, could be tried.
On the second part of your question, Ed, this is not a rules-based order that the United States created. It is not – created alone. It is not a rules-based order that is a product of the West. This is a rules-based order, when we talk about that rules-based order, that emanated from the ashes of the Second World War that was created in the aftermath of that to see to it – at least in every reasonable way – that the Second World War wouldn’t one day give rise to a third. It is enshrined in so much of what the United States is committed to and where you see us engaging every single day. The UN system, the UN Charter, international law, the UN Declaration of Human Rights, whether it’s the Ukraine context, whether it is any other context – just about every single day you hear us speaking to the importance of these elements. You’re seeing us taking actions around the world to preserve, to promote, to defend these elements. And where countries around the world are flouting the rules-based order, you see the United States oftentimes leading the charge for accountability. That takes us back to your first question.
QUESTION: Can I just – I’ve got just a quick one.
MR PRICE: Sure.
QUESTION: I mean, as I understand it, the answer you just gave now in response to the first question is that nothing has changed since you answered the question on Thursday.
MR PRICE: That is correct.
QUESTION: Okay. So you’re saying – but then the second thing is that you brought this up in talking about the LRA and how you cooperate with it. But in that case, with the Obama administration, they actually did provide specific intel to the ICC.
MR PRICE: But Matt —
QUESTION: And the Pentagon or whoever, if they had an issue with it, it didn’t seem to stop it. So what’s the difference here? Because the LRA didn’t – don’t have nukes?
MR PRICE: No. So, Matt, I’m not saying that there is a difference because we are just not speaking to the forms of support we provide to the ICC. It —
QUESTION: Well, but okay. But the administration that you previously served in did speak to that.
MR PRICE: But the administration did not speak specifically to forms of support that we provided to the ICC.
QUESTION: No, but you gave them a satellite photo and (inaudible).
MR PRICE: And we are – we are taking precisely the same approach in this administration in this case. Yes.
QUESTION: So you’re just not telling the Pentagon? You’re doing it over their objections and not telling them? Is that it?
MR PRICE: No, no, no, Matt. I’m speaking about what we talk about publicly. In the Obama-Biden administration, we didn’t detail specifically the type of support and assistance that we provided to the ICC. In –
QUESTION: Well, then I’m just saying you’re not going to do it at all because —
MR PRICE: No. I just –
QUESTION: Well, it’s the story –
QUESTION: The Times report says they will refrain –
MR PRICE: And I – and I am –
QUESTION: The Times report that you just talked about on Thursday —
MR PRICE: Yes.
QUESTION: – and gave the exact same answer to, you didn’t say that it was wrong. In fact, you’ve now said that it was correct.
MR PRICE: I’m just —
QUESTION: And now we’re —
MR PRICE: I didn’t comment on the veracity of the report. I’m not speaking to the veracity of the report. What I’m saying as a general matter, whether it was in the last administration, the administration before that, we don’t speak in specific terms to the type of support that we do or do not provide to the ICC.
QUESTION: Well, the last administration actually spoke. But the point of —
MR PRICE: I stand corrected there, yes.
Yes, go ahead.
QUESTION: Thanks, Ned. Jackson Richman with The Epoch Times. I have two questions. The first one is: Based on reports from the field, the conflict in Ukraine shows no signs of ending any time soon. Meanwhile, public support for continued U.S. assistance for Kyiv appears to be waning. In light of these realities, is the State Department prepared to reconsider its policy of backing Ukraine, quote/unquote, “for as long as it takes”?
And then my second question is: Two big name banks in the U.S., Silicon Valley Bank and Signature, have been shut down by the Feds. This has ramifications not just in the U.S. but also abroad. How do these shutdowns reflect the United States on the global stage?
MR PRICE: So a couple things. First, let me just take the second question first. I’m going to let my colleagues at the Treasury Department, the FDIC, and other colleagues handle these questions. I don’t want to say anything from here that could roil financial markets, certainly not on my last day. (Laughter.)
Your first question – your first question about standing with Ukraine. We are committed to standing with Ukraine for as long as it takes. We are committed to our Ukrainian partners. But ultimately, what we are committed to is, to go back to Edward’s question, the rules-based order. What is at play when it comes to Russian aggression against Ukraine is yes, about Ukraine in the first instance, Russia attempting to deny Ukraine the right to exist, to dictate Ukraine’s foreign policy, the choices that should be and must only be up – only to Ukrainians.
But in some ways this is much larger than Ukraine or any single country. It is about the basic notions that are at the heart of the UN Charter, that are at the heart of the UN Declaration of Human Rights, at the heart of international law. And they basically boil down to, whether you call it the rules-based order or the rules of the road, but very simple premises: big countries can’t bully small countries; might doesn’t make right; countries have a sovereign right to determine their own future, their own partnerships, their own alliances, their own aspirations.
If Russia is permitted to challenge that in an unchecked way in Ukraine, countries around the world may well take license to challenge that in other regions. When the rules-based international order comes under threat anywhere, we believe it comes under threat everywhere. And so it’s important for the United States to be resolute, along with the dozens of countries around the world who have not only stood with Ukraine but endorsed the UN system, the UN Charter, international law, the UN Declaration of Human Rights.
More than 140 countries around the world have done that three times now. And that is because this is not a Western construct, it is not an American construct; this is an order that countries around the world believe in. It is an order that countries around the world have witnessed undergird unprecedented levels of stability, of security, of prosperity since – over the 80 years or so since the end of the Second World War.
QUESTION: Then why not send Ukraine fighter jets and enact maximum sanctions against Russia similar to the U.S. maximum pressure campaign on Iran?
QUESTION: Well, I think you look at the sanctions that we’ve enacted against Russia, and what you see is a comprehensive sanctions regime that is – that has in the first instance crippled the Russian economy. It has caused the Kremlin to have to resort to extraordinary measures to prop up Moscow’s economy, to prop up the currency, to prop up financial markets in a way that is just not sustainable over the longer term. And you look at the broader set of measures, the export controls that we’ve put in place that have systematically deprived Russia of the ability to import the raw materials that it will need over the longer term to project aggression against Ukraine or any other country for that matter. And so however you look at it – whatever economic, financial metric you look at, you see that the sanctions the United States and our dozens of partners around the world have implemented have had tremendous effect.
On the question of the F-16, what we have done is to provide our Ukrainian partners with what they need for the battle they are facing at the moment and the direction in which that battle is evolving. And you don’t have to take our word for the effectiveness of that approach. You can look at the determination, the resilience, the grit of our Ukrainian partners but also the success that that has translated to, and that in some ways has been enabled by the massive amounts of security assistance that the United States and some 50 countries around the world have provided. These are decisions that we make on a dynamic basis, looking at precisely what the needs are in conversation with our Ukrainian partners, in conversation with our partners in Europe, in NATO, and around the world as well.
QUESTION: Thank you. Ned, over the weekend, CENTCOM Commander General Kurilla was in Syria, and he visited two camps – two ISIS detainee camps. He said there is no military solution to the ISIS detainee population. There are thousands of detainees, and including new generations are being raised in these camps. What is the department doing in order to empty these camps?
MR PRICE: We are focused with countries around the world on what will be the sustainable solution, and that’s repatriation. We have applauded a number of countries, including in recent days, who have been able to repatriate their citizens from al-Hawl, from other detainee camps. We believe that’s the only means by which to address this challenge. Our Bureau of Counterterrorism has been going around the world, as have our regional bureaus, to make specific, general asks of countries as well to do everything we can to lesson the detainee population and to do what we can to responsibly close these detention facilities.
QUESTION: Most of countries try to appear indifferent to their citizen in those camps. Isn’t there a concern that these people are further radicalized in those camps and converts the U.S. mission in Syria into a creep mission?
MR PRICE: Into a what mission? I’m sorry.
QUESTION: Into a mission creep, like a —
MR PRICE: A mission creep. Well, there are a number of reasons why we want to sustainably lesson the population at these camps. Some of it has to do with humanitarian conditions. Some of it has to do with the ability for individuals to be radicalized in a place like this. But it just speaks to the urgent need that we see for countries around the world to take decisive and bold steps to repatriate their citizens. We have attempted to lead by example. There are a number of countries around the world who have also sought to lead by example, and we’re encouraging more of that.
QUESTION: Thank you, Ned, and congratulations on your last briefing.
MR PRICE: Thank you.
QUESTION: I for one appreciated your gratitude for this press corps. I believe it was the previous Secretary who described us as hyenas, so I’m not going to ask you what group of animals this State Department —
MR PRICE: I appreciate that.
QUESTION: — may compare us to – (laughter) – but thank you.
MR PRICE: Not lapdogs; I will tell you that.
QUESTION: But I would be remiss not to ask you one of your favorite topics: On Afghanistan. Representative Michael McCaul told CBS on Sunday that he’s given the Secretary until March 23rd to hand over what he describes as outstanding documentation regarding the administration’s withdrawal from Afghanistan. That includes a dissent cable, Ambassador Dan Smith’s after-action report, and the Kabul Embassy emergency action plan. I was just wondering if you had a response to what he said.
MR PRICE: Sure. Look, we are committed to working with all congressional committees with jurisdiction to appropriately accommodate their need for information to help them conduct their oversight for legislative purposes. We had a very productive, very constructive relationship with the 117th Congress. We hope and expect to have a very similar relationship with this Congress. We have provided more than 150 briefings to bipartisan members and staff on Afghanistan policy since the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan. Additionally, senior officials from this department have appeared in public hearings and answered questions on Afghanistan, and the department has responded to numerous requests for information from members and their staffs related to Afghanistan policy.
As Chairman McCaul said, I believe, on your network yesterday, he and the Secretary had a very constructive discussion when the chairman was here at the department earlier this year. It was then that the Secretary reaffirmed directly to Chairman McCaul his commitment to cooperate with the committee’s work, and we’ve since provided hundreds of pages of documents responsive to the chairman’s requests on Afghanistan. We’re working as expeditiously as possible to accommodate what was just about by any measure an extensive and detailed request, and our provision of information and documents to the committee will continue as we collect and process additional responsive records.
QUESTION: Thanks, Ned. I want to echo everyone else’s thanks for all your work.
There are reports that three American women went missing in Nuevo León, Mexico several weeks ago. Does the State Department have any information on this?
MR PRICE: I’ve seen those reports, but we’re not in a position to confirm them, and in fact, we are not aware that these reports are accurate. We are aware of three Mexican nationals who resided in Texas who have been reported missing, however.
QUESTION: Can I follow up on that?
QUESTION: Senator Markey is calling for a higher Travel Warning against travel to Mexico?
MR PRICE: Our Travel Warnings to Mexico, as they are to countries around the world, are dynamic. They are based on the conditions on the ground. When it comes to Mexico, our Travel Warnings are especially dynamic in that they are organized by state, and so the travel guidance that we provide to American citizens is tailored to each individual Mexican state and the security situation that we assess on the ground at any given time.
QUESTION: Are you considering upgrading?
MR PRICE: We are always looking at information to determine whether it is necessary to move our Travel Warnings in one direction or another. These —
QUESTION: In this case, are you considering a higher level of warning?
MR PRICE: Again, our —
QUESTION: I mean the – I mean just because of the recent kidnappings.
MR PRICE: The – our Travel Warnings for Mexico, again, are organized by state, and so we’re looking at conditions state by state to determine if an upgrade, if a downgrade is necessary. That is a process that happens every single day between our embassies; between, in this case, our Western Hemisphere Affairs Bureau, our Bureau of Consular Affairs. As soon as we have made the decision that a change in our Travel Advisory is warranted, it will be updated online and we’ll alert the American citizen community.
QUESTION: Ned, just in response to your – so you think that this report, the report that there – another three American women may be confused or may be inaccurate because they’re actually Mexican citizens?
MR PRICE: I couldn’t say. I —
QUESTION: Would they have had – do you know if the three Mexicans who – Mexican women who you believe have been reported missing had U.S. residency or —
MR PRICE: Matt, I couldn’t say, and I wouldn’t want to speak to the details, but we are aware of reports of three missing Mexican citizens who previously resided in Nuevo León.
QUESTION: Where are the – so they resided, they lived in Texas?
MR PRICE: That’s right.
MR PRICE: Correct, yes.
QUESTION: Was State under the impression that they were Americans? Because over the weekend we got a response that you were aware of three U.S. citizen – reports of three U.S. citizens missing in Mexico.
MR PRICE: We’ll check on that, but we’ll get back to you if I have anything else to offer.
QUESTION: I obviously haven’t been here always, but we’ve always been watching, so thank you for bringing back the daily briefing.
Questions about AUKUS. I know that you won’t get ahead of the President, but a few questions I think you can answer. First one: Xi Jinping last week accused the U.S. of containing – trying to contain China. How is sending American submarines and helping Australia build Virginia-class submarines not an example of the U.S. containing China?
MR PRICE: So first, Nick, I don’t want to get ahead of the President, and he’ll be speaking to this later today, I believe in the 5 o’clock hour Eastern time, so I will refer you to his remarks on AUKUS specifically.
On the broader question, however – and this is something we talked about last week – our goal is not to contain China. It is not the case that we or any other country could even if we wanted to, and again, that is not our goal. Our goal is not to hold China back. Our goal is to uphold the rules-based order that applies equally in the Indo-Pacific as it does in Europe and places in between. Our concern is that contrary to our goal of preserving, defending, promoting the rules-based order, we have seen the PRC attempt to challenge it, to challenge it in a number of important and in some ways destabilizing and dangerous ways.
We share the vision – the vision we share with our partners in the Indo-Pacific, and it’s certainly the vision we share with our Australian allies, in this case, is one of a region that is free and open. That is what our work together in the Indo-Pacific is about. Every time we see the PRC attempt to challenge the rules-based international order, attempt to challenge the status quo in various places, that is of concern to us. It’s of concern to countries around the world.
QUESTION: I’m trying to stay broad, but I do have to ask one question about AUKUS. There’s been bipartisan questions, as you know, about the submarine industrial base, the U.S.’s ability to actually build their own submarines, let alone lend them or rotate them or sell them to Australia, and some people who are in favor of AUKUS are worried about this. Is it the administration’s belief that Australia’s first nuclear-powered submarine in some ways provides more deterrence to China than the U.S.’s 22nd Virginia powered submarine, and is that part of the effort behind AUKUS, the overall complication of China’s efforts when it looks at the military across the Pacific?
MR PRICE: Our colleagues from the Defense Department offered some words on this last week. I suspect you’ll hear more about this later today. But let me just make the broader point that this is about a vision of the Indo-Pacific that is free and open. It is a vision that we share with our Australian partners in this case, but it’s a vision that we share with our other allies and partners in the Indo-Pacific.
AUKUS itself is also a reflection of what we’ve sought to do around the world, not only to revitalize the alliances and the partnerships that were in many cases deeply frayed or atrophied when we assumed office in January of 2021, but to take those longstanding partnerships and alliances and to stitch them together – to stitch them together within theaters, in some cases to stitch them together across the globe, bringing our Australian allies together with our British allies in this case.
We’re doing that because we share, again, these common interests, common values, in the Indo-Pacific. It’s a vision of the Indo-Pacific that is free and open and that in too many places is coming under challenge.
QUESTION: And in terms of – sorry, just the last one, on coming under challenge. Has the U.S. done enough not only to deter China with militarily but also with investments and political participation, especially in the Pacific Islands? Some people still criticize you for not having enough of an answer, for example – Chinese investment, Chinese 5G, and only threatening people when they consider partnering with China.
MR PRICE: Nick, look, I can’t speak to the approach of previous administrations. I wouldn’t want to speak to the approach of previous administrations, I would say. But you’ve heard consistently from us this is not about forcing countries to choose between the United States and China, the United States and any other country. This is about providing countries around the world with choices – affirmative choices, desirable choices, choices that would allow the United States and countries in the Indo-Pacific, in this case, to pursue our collective interests.
We talked about the funding and the infrastructure element a bit during the budget rollout late last week. But the point I made then is that we are not seeking to match the PRC dollar for dollar in the amounts that they provide to let’s call them infrastructure projects around the world. In some ways we couldn’t do that, given that they have a state-run economy and a command-style economy that we don’t, obviously.
But what we bring to bear is a whole-of-society approach, an approach that not only harnesses what the federal government does, and obviously the budget request the President sent forward on Thursday to Congress has a tremendous amount of resources that would allow us to compete and ultimately to outcompete with the PRC in the Indo-Pacific. But we have an American private sector. We have ingenuity within the American people. We have a system of alliances and partnerships that is unmatched by any other country.
And when you bring all of those to bear, we believe that the United States, and acting together with our allies and partners, present that affirmative, desirable choice that so many countries around the world want and seek. One tangible illustration of this is the Partnership for Global Infrastructure and Investment. Again, this is not about matching the PRC’s spending dollar for dollar from the federal budget, but this is bringing to bear funding from our respective governments, the governments with whom we partner on PGII, but also the private sector to mobilize over the course of five years hundreds of billions of dollars for high-quality, transparent, eco-friendly infrastructure projects the likes of which no other country could provide and the likes of which would be a difficult proposition to turn down for any country in that region or elsewhere.
I’ll take a final question or so. Abbie, go ahead.
QUESTION: Yes, thank you.
MR PRICE: Abbie, go ahead and I’ll come back to you. Yeah.
QUESTION: Thanks so much, and I want to echo, obviously, the thanks of my colleagues —
MR PRICE: Thanks.
QUESTION: — for bringing back the briefings. And I wanted to ask – follow up on Mexico. There’s been reports that there’s more than 550 Americans missing in Mexico. Can you speak to that report or offer an alternative number if —
MR PRICE: I can’t – I can’t speak to that figure specifically, and I understand this is a figure that was aggregated over the course of many years now. And so I can’t speak to that figure specifically. But we – whenever we receive a report of a missing American citizen, our team on the ground, the team back here, springs into action to support the family, to support the loved ones in every way we can.
The other complication when it comes to missing American citizens – and this is not unique to Mexico; this happens around the world – oftentimes our embassy will receive a report of a missing American only for the family to be reunited with that American hours or in some cases slightly later, and without that follow-up to the U.S. embassy. So there are many cases that, while they may look unresolved on our books, cases that have been long resolved, where families and loved ones have been reunited. But I’m just not able to comment on that figure specifically.
Yes, in the back.
QUESTION: Yeah, thank you. First of all, best wishes for your next professional move.
MR PRICE: Thanks.
QUESTION: And we heard recently voices out of Israel expressing concern about violence and even civil war in that country. And we’ve also heard from the former Israeli prime minister a call for civil disobedience if the current status of the Israeli supreme court were to be changed. And I just wanted to ask you if you had – or to what extent you are concerned, the U.S. is concerned, about its – about the future of its interests in the Middle East in light of what’s currently going on in Israel?
MR PRICE: We are always going to have an abiding interest in the Middle East. We are always going to have an ironclad partnership with Israel because it is a relationship – the U.S.‑Israel relationship is one that since its first moments in 1948 has been predicated on, yes, those shared values, but also shared interests as well.
Our goal in our engagement with our Israeli partners has been – and with our Palestinian partners for that matter – has been to encourage de-escalation. This is a volatile moment for many reasons on – in different realms. When it comes to tensions between Israelis and Palestinians, we’re engaged on that. When it comes to the vibrant and dynamic debate that is taking place within Israel, we are speaking to our Israeli partners as a fellow democracy. We are offering the perspective that we have as a fellow democracy, again, offering the idea both publicly and privately that from our vantage point building consensus for fundamental changes is the most effective way to see to it that any change is durable, any change is sustainable. There is a dialogue going on now between the prime minister, between the president, between citizens of Israel at every level. This is a dialogue for them to have, but we have offered our perspective, again, as a fellow democracy.
QUESTION: And to the extent that the U.S. describes Israel as a democracy, as you’ve just said, there are now Israelis who are saying that it’s not so until the Palestinians are free of Israeli occupation. I just wanted to see to what extent you agree with that parameter for describing – for continuing to describe Israel as a democracy.
MR PRICE: We have a vision, as do so many countries around the world, as do Israelis and Palestinians, for a negotiated two-state solution, the end goal of which would be a Jewish democracy living side by side next to a Palestinian state with security and stability afforded to both.
Our goal at the moment is not to set the parties on an immediate path to discussions towards that negotiated two-state solution, but initially at least to preserve the viability for a two‑state solution. Our concern is that both parties – Israelis and Palestinians – not take steps that put that viability of a negotiated two‑state solution further out of reach. It’s important for the near term, but it’s also quite important for the longer term as we hope to do everything we can to advance the shared vision many of us have for that negotiated two-state solution.
QUESTION: Can I follow up with this?
MR PRICE: Sure.
QUESTION: It’s one thing to say that there should be de-escalation on both sides, but we’re at a – Israel is at a pivotal point. According to President Herzog, leaders of – former leaders of Mossad and Shin Bet, as well as the 37 elite pilots who refused to train last Wednesday and half a million people in Tel Aviv on – protesting. So civilian society is torn apart. Does it still remain a democracy if these proposed changes go through as proposed and there is no compromise? Does the – doesn’t the U.S. have a view about Israel as a democracy based on our economic, military, and other commitments to it that are based on it being a democracy?
MR PRICE: What you are saying and what you’ve just pointed to, we think is a reflection of the vibrancy of Israel’s democracy. This is a conversation that is taking place across Israel. As it so often is in democratic systems around the world, it can be messy, it can be ugly, but ultimately this is a conversation between Israelis to determine the types of steps that they think is appropriate or not.
Our perspective on this is not to weigh in on specific reform proposals, but we have perspective gained over the course of our 250-year history on how to achieve a degree of durability, how to achieve a degree of sustainability, when it comes to any proposals, reforms that have put forward – that have been put forward. That’s the kind of guidance – that’s what we’re offering to our Israeli partners. That’s what you heard the President speak to and the Secretary as well.
QUESTION: There’s no step that they could take that would get us to rethink some fundamental aspects of the relationship?
MR PRICE: Andrea, it’s hard to envision a day when we do not share interests and we do not share values with our Israeli partners. We are fellow democracies, we have been fellow democracies since 1948, and we are fully confident that that is not going to change as this debate plays out in Israel.
I’ll take a final question. Yeah.
QUESTION: I have one. Thank you, Ned. I personally want to thank you as well, especially for the respect you have given to the foreign journalists, and I personally enjoyed your metaphors a lot. In every press briefing, you have some metaphor, and today the metaphor was “two feathers from the same bird.” That was the metaphor. And I think you have done a great job in telling the American – President Biden’s story in the foreign relations.
So I want to start – just one question about the UK. Ambassador Craig Murray just tweeted a couple of days ago that President Biden has basically removed the former prime minister of Pakistan, Imran Khan, from power. And since he has been removed, 80 cases has been registered against him, which includes terrorism, murder, sedition, and all these things. And I’ve heard you say this several times on this – standing here, that President Biden stands with countries, not individuals. So anything about that? Like, what is the – what is the stand on Pakistan? Since 11 months, I’m very confused how – what’s the position of Biden’s administration on Pakistan.
MR PRICE: Well, you just said it yourself. I think we’ve been clear and consistent on this. We support the peaceful upholding of democratic, constitutional, and legal principles around the world, and of course that includes in Pakistan. Regarding the specifics of domestic politics between parties, we don’t take a position. We don’t favor one political candidate. We don’t favor one party over another. What we do favor is a constitutional system, is a legal framework, and all parties – including in Pakistan – abiding by that constitutional framework.
QUESTION: Okay. Then how can President Modi, about whom New York Times has written two editorials in last one month about the way he’s treating journalists?
And lastly, I want to ask you about the BBC documentary. You had not watched that documentary. Have you read the New York Times editorials of how journalists and Muslims are being treated in India under his rule? Because I understand India is the partner, but should you defend President Modi to this extent?
MR PRICE: We defend our shared values. We defend our human rights around the world. We make the same points when it comes to civil society, human rights in Pakistan, as we do in India, as we do in other countries around the world.
Yes, go ahead.
QUESTION: Hi. (Inaudible). So on reports that Xi Jinping is going to talk to Vladimir Zelenskyy after his Moscow visit, an attempt to become more engaged in negotiation and conflict resolving, does the U.S. believe that these efforts can lead to any meaningful and positive outcomes? So what are your expectations?
MR PRICE: Well, we would certainly like to see and hope to see an engagement between President Xi and President Zelenskyy. It’s our understanding from our Ukrainian partners that there is not an engagement yet on the books, but we’ll see what develops and what the parties say.
There are countries around the world that have a relationship with Russia that we do not have. China is at the top of that list in terms of the relationship it has with Russia and the leverage that it has with Russia. We would like to see counties around the world use those relationships and use that leverage to help encourage the Russians to end this brutal war of aggression, to put an end to the violence and the killing that has claimed far too many Ukrainian and far too many Russian lives as well.
Unfortunately, we’ve yet to see the PRC do that. Even as the PRC professes to have this veneer of neutrality, the PRC has supported Russia’s aggression in important ways – economic support, political support, diplomatic support, rhetorical support in terms of parroting and echoing the dangerous messaging and lies that we’ve heard from Moscow.
So we would certainly like to see the PRC use the leverage that it does have to bring about an end to this invasion. We haven’t seen that yet. We’ll wait and see if there’s an engagement between President Xi and President Zelenskyy.
Yes, final question.
QUESTION: Thank you. Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Vershinin said today that the sanctions relief on Russian agricultural products and fertilizers doesn’t work. Do you have any comments here? And does the U.S. stand ready to consider legitimate Russian concerns here?
MR PRICE: We find it difficult to believe that when we know, and the rest of the world knows, that Russia’s exports of food and fertilizer are back up to pre-war levels. This has been the case for some time now, but when we hear the Russians saying that they are being held back from exporting grain, from exporting fertilizer, it’s just not true. We have made very clear in the imposition of sanctions on Russia for this brutal aggression that we’ve exempted food, we’ve exempted fertilizer. We have gone to extraordinary lengths to communicate to the private sector, to communicate to governments around the world that all of our sanctions have carve-outs. All of our sanctions have carve-outs for food, fertilizer, other important humanitarian carve-outs, as they do in our sanctions regimes around the world. So it’s just not true.
We’ve heard a number of excuses from Russia in recent days and weeks as to why the Black Sea Grain Initiative might not be extended. We believe it boils down to the fact that the world needs this Black Sea Grain Initiative. The world needs grain from Ukraine, wheat from Ukraine. The world needs to be able to feed itself and to take advantage of this initiative that, since its launch in of August of last year. has decreased food prices, has led to an influx of wheat and other foodstuffs on the global marketplace, and in the end has certainly saved lives.
QUESTION: One more? Last one.
MR PRICE: Okay.
QUESTION: Last week —
MR PRICE: Thank you. Thank you.
(The briefing was concluded at 3:40 p.m.)