1:32 p.m. EDT
MR PATEL: Good afternoon, everybody. Apologies for being a little tardy today. Still starting earlier than what we’re used to, so I guess that’s a good thing. I have two very, very brief things, and then I’m happy to dive right into your questions.
So first, this morning the Secretary of State, together with the president of the World Food Prize Foundation, announced the 2023 World Food Prize Laureate. The World Food Prize is considered the preeminent award for global agriculture and celebrates breakthrough achievements in combating hunger and enhancing food security around the world.
This year’s winner is American Heidi Kühn, founder and CEO of the nonprofit Roots of Peace, which works to transform heavily mined areas into sustainable agricultural farmland.
Since its establishment, Roots of Peace has facilitated the removal of 100,000 landmines and unexploded ordnances and strengthened food security in local communities in Afghanistan, Angola, Croatia, Guatemala, Israel, the Palestinian territories, and Vietnam, among others. We offer her our congratulations and gratitude for this critical work.
The world is facing a global food security crisis of historic proportions. A combination of climate shocks and regional conflict, including Russia’s illegal war against Ukraine, have disrupted global food production and distribution, driving up the cost of feeding people and families and disproportionately impacting those in developing countries. The U.S. is committed to addressing this crisis and working with the world to build resilient food systems that support local communities.
And secondly, I wanted to offer an update on Sudan, specifically the talks that are ongoing in Jeddah. Assistant Secretary Molly Phee and Ambassador John Godfrey are leading the U.S. delegation to the Jeddah talks, which are ongoing and are focused on establishing the commitment of the two parties to recognize their obligations under international humanitarian law and to agree to arrangements to allow the safe delivery of humanitarian assistance and the restoration of essential services. In this process, we will continue to engage and press for the effective short-term ceasefire to facilitate humanitarian assistance.
The talks that are ongoing in Jeddah enjoy broad support from the AU. The IGAD tripartite mechanism, countries in the region, and many Sudanese civilian groups have also issued supportive statements. The pre-negotiation talks contribute to the goals and intent of the AU’s April 20th communique and support the AU’s forthcoming roadmap to de-escalation.
These talks are a – of course, a first step. And more broadly, we continue to engage Sudanese civilian leaders, resistance committees, and civil society to work toward the shared goal of establishing civilian democratic governance in Sudan as soon as possible, and to harmonize civilian and international assistance efforts.
With that, Matt, if you’d like to kick us off.
QUESTION: Right. Yes, thanks. I’ve got a couple, but I don’t think you’ll have any substantive answer to any of them. So they’ll be very brief, I promise. Just first on your Sudan thing, what exactly is your understanding of what pre-negotiation talks are? What does that mean?
MR PATEL: Matt, the work is ongoing to ensure that —
QUESTION: Yeah, I know it is. But what the hell does that mean, pre-negotiation talks? They’re either talks – they’re negotiations, or they’re not.
MR PATEL: What we are working towards – and you can assign any vocabulary that you like —
QUESTION: But you assigned it. I’m not assigning anything.
MR PATEL: And so can we.
QUESTION: I just want to know what is your understanding of this.
MR PATEL: What this is about —
QUESTION: What is it supposed to produce? At the end of this, if it is successful, at the end of these pre-negotiation talks, are there supposed to be negotiations? Are there supposed to be talks?
MR PATEL: What this is about is —
QUESTION: It doesn’t make any sense.
MR PATEL: What this is about, Matt, is about taking further steps to see a reduction in violence, to see steps being taken for a ceasefire to be extended and adhered to, all of —
QUESTION: Yeah, well all that is well and good. But I don’t —
MR PATEL: — all of which to get to an ultimate cessation of hostilities. That’s what this is about.
QUESTION: All of that is well and good, but it doesn’t make any sense to me. Pre-negotiation talks – they’re either talks, they’re negotiations, or they’re not.
Anyway, I want to ask you something I know you’re going to defer to Justice on. Prove me wrong. Do you have any comment on the extradition —
MR PATEL: I’m curious.
QUESTION: — extradition from Peru on the suspect in the Natalee Holloway case? And was there any State Department involvement in this?
MR PATEL: To your surprise, Matt, and as you know, as a matter of longstanding policy the Department of State does not comment on pending extradition matters. And so I don’t have anything additional for you on that.
QUESTION: All right. And then before my colleagues ask you unanswerable questions about China and Pakistan, let me just ask you about Israel and Gaza. Has there been any – we saw that Jake Sullivan spoke with the – his Israeli counterpart last night about the situation. Has there been any State Department engagement?
MR PATEL: There certainly has been State Department engagement. The department, including many who work on these issues from Assistant Secretary Barbara Leaf to Ambassador Nides, have continued to remain engaged on this. I don’t have any specific calls from the Secretary to readout or preview, but obviously we continue to call on both sides to take steps that will not incite tensions and further incite violence and, of course, would ask all sides to take prudent steps to ensure that civilian life is not harmed.
QUESTION: May I follow up on that?
QUESTION: Thank you.
QUESTION: Are you on the same issue?
MR PATEL: Is that okay, Shaun?
QUESTION: On Gaza?
QUESTION: Yeah, go ahead.
MR PATEL: Go ahead, Said.
QUESTION: Okay. I mean, I am surprised that today that you didn’t really have anything to say on what’s going on in Gaza. The Israelis broke an agreement or a ceasefire, and they killed children. I mean, they killed children in the middle of the night while they were sleeping – girls and boys, five of them – and you had nothing to say on this.
And the other thing, Vedant, today marks the one year anniversary of the assassination of an occupying army of an American-Palestinian journalist, and you have to say on this either. So can you update us on both issues? I mean, aside from the stuff that you said to Matt, we want to hear what is the United States Government’s position on what Israel did in Gaza in the middle of night killing children while they were sleeping. And the second, update us on what’s going on with the investigation for – on accountability of those responsible for the killing of Shireen Abu Akleh.
MR PATEL: Said, let me say a couple things. First, we condemned Shireen’s killing when it happened a year ago and we condemn it today as well. And we continue to pursue accountability to ensure that steps are taken to prevent similar tragedies from occurring in the future, and we continue to engage when it comes to rules of engagement not just with our Israeli partners but others in other regions where journalists may find themselves in harm’s way. We continue to underscore the importance of accountability when it comes to her killing.
But, Said, I will also note that – and we’ve spoken about this before – that both the findings from the IDF as well as the findings we discussed last summer from the U.S. Security Coordinator continue to indicate that there was not an intentionality to this very tragic, tragic incident and that we continue to still condemn. But I think that is an important piece of this to remember, Said.
Number – going back to the first part of your question, we have continued to call on both sides, on both the – our Israeli partners and the Palestinian Authority, to take prudent steps to ensure the loss of civilian life is prevented and that steps are taken to ensure that violence is reduced and these kinds of actions don’t happen. Of course, the reporting that we’re seeing from overnight is tragic and heartbreaking, but that is exactly why we continue to pursue our efforts for a negotiated two-state solution and why we continue to pursue a goal of equal measures of prosperity, security, and freedom for Israelis and Palestinians.
QUESTION: So let me just follow up on Shireen’s case. So you consider that case is closed? As far as this department is concerned, the case is over, it’s closed, right?
MR PATEL: Are you talking —
QUESTION: Because that’s what you were saying. You say that you accept the findings.
MR PATEL: Said, we have – we will never forget about Shireen and her tragic death —
QUESTION: I understand. You will not – never forget.
MR PATEL: — and the circumstances around it. But to us, pursuing accountability, what that looks like is continuing to work with our Israeli partners, with partners around the world, partners in places where journalists find themselves in harm’s way, discussing these very important issues of rules of engagement and ensuring that steps are being taken collectively to ensure that civilian risk and the risk to journalists is mitigated. That is what accountability to us looks like, and we will continue to work on these matters.
QUESTION: Okay. So on this particular case – with the indulgence of my colleagues and you, of course – on this particular case, what would you tell Shireen’s family today? Where are we with this process? Is there going to be further probing of this issue by the United States of America or is it over? That’s it. I mean, you have to live with it. It’s tragic, sorry that it happened and so on. We’ll make sure that it does not happen again, although the Israelis have killed 22 Palestinian journalists thus far, but we don’t want to go into that. What would you tell Shireen’s family today?
MR PATEL: Said, Shireen’s family has experienced something tragic, something horrific, and that is losing a family member. And losing a loved one in any way is a tragic, sad, unfortunate, and heartbreaking thing, and so I’m just not going to engage on that from here. What I will reiterate again is that the United States will continue to pursue accountability, will continue to work with our partners in the region, with Israel, on rules of engagement, on steps that are taken to ensure that this doesn’t happen again.
QUESTION: Any follow-up on Senator Chris Van Hollen’s letter to the Secretary of State?
MR PATEL: I just don’t have any updates on internal U.S. Government documents.
QUESTION: Could I just follow briefly on one of your responses? So you said that you’re calling for prudent steps to ensure that loss of civilian life is prevented. Josep Borrell, the EU foreign policy chief, today called for an immediate comprehensive ceasefire. This seems like – is that also something the United States supports? Does it support – does the United States want to – does the United States want a ceasefire? Is it working towards that end?
MR PATEL: I’ve not seen the specific reporting of High Commissioner Borrell’s comments, but certainly any steps that we can take or that the two sides can adhere to as it relates to a reduction of violence or steps that can be taken to prevent loss of civilian life, of course, would be a positive and welcome step.
QUESTION: And the ceasefire – can I switch topics unless somebody wants to stay on this?
MR PATEL: Anything else on this before – on – before we – I think you’re good to change topics.
MR PATEL: Go ahead.
QUESTION: Sure. Can we switch to Ukraine and South Africa?
MR PATEL: Sure.
QUESTION: The – Ambassador Brigety today made allegations that Russia has delivered – correct me if I’m wrong. He said that there’s – that South Africa has delivered weapons to Russia. Maybe there’s some more nuance to that. The South Africans, and sure enough, said that they’re disappointed that he went public with this. Could you explain a little bit more of the allegations about why the United States feels that this is – that this happened and the decision to go public? Does it – will it affect the relationship with South Africa?
MR PATEL: What I will say, Shaun, is that we remain committed to our affirmative agenda of our bilateral relationship with South Africa, one that is focused on the priorities the two governments share, priorities that the recent high-level delegation to Washington discussed. These include issues of global peace and security, further growing the robust trade relationship, working together on shared – a shared health agenda, finding ways in which we, the United States, can be helpful to South Africa’s energy challenges through a just transition of renewable sources of energy, as well as continued partnerships on work as it relates to addressing climate change.
That being said, Shaun, as we have previously said, the U.S. has serious concerns about the docking of a sanctioned Russian cargo vessel at a South African naval port in December of last year. And as good partners do, we have raised those concerns directly with multiple South African officials, and I will – I will leave it at that.
QUESTION: Could you say a little bit more about – share a little bit more about what you think was actually transferred and —
MR PATEL: I’m just not going to get into that from here, Shaun. Again, what I will reiterate – and this is not something new that the U.S. Government has said – is that we have serious concerns about the docking of a sanctioned Russian vessel at a South African naval port in December of last year.
QUESTION: Could I just – sorry, just one more, just one more attempt on that. In terms of the motivation for this, I mean, do you see this as a purely covert activity, perhaps not with full knowledge or do you see this as South Africa actually cooperating, actually giving – supporting Russia in some way?
MR PATEL: I’m not going to offer an assessment to that from here. What I will say is that we have been quite clear and have not parsed words about any country taking steps to support Russia’s illegal and brutal war in Ukraine, and we will continue to engage with partners and countries on this topic. But I just am not going to offer an assessment on that from here.
Only because you had a follow-up, then I’ll come to you, Simon, I promise. Go ahead.
QUESTION: Thank you. The South Africans have asked that the U.S. provide evidence or intelligence, release the intelligence supporting the ambassador’s claim. Is that something that the U.S. is going to consider?
MR PATEL: I just don’t have anything additional to offer on this given the – since the reporting this morning, and so don’t have any – I don’t want to speculate on additional steps.
Simon, go ahead.
QUESTION: I mean, I just wanted to sort of probe why the ambassador is out there speaking so strongly about this, whereas you are not able to sort of – and why – why is the ambassador saying different things than what you’re saying? Is there a disconnect between the U.S. Ambassador to South Africa and what the State Department think – believes about what happened with this ship?
MR PATEL: Simon, I’m just not going to get into how I am talking about something or how one of our colleagues is talking about an issue. What I will reiterate, though, is that, one, we continue to be committed to our affirmative agenda with our South African partners, and we are focused on the priorities that we share between our two governments. I’ve outlined a number of those. But also we continue to be concerned about the – that a docking of a sanctioned Russian vessel took place at a South African naval port. And we’ll continue to engage on this directly with our South African partners, but with allies and partners across the world as well.
QUESTION: And you mentioned the high-level South African delegation that was here. I couldn’t see the State Department – that the State Department put out specific readouts from that visit. Is there anything you can tell us about the purpose of that visit led by the national security advisor to the South African president? And specifically, was the South African – the role of AGOA with regard to trade with South Africa, was that – was that something that was discussed?
MR PATEL: I’m not going to get into the specifics of these diplomatic meetings. But what I will say is that a number of topics were discussed, including global peace and security, furthering the robust trade relationship that we have with South Africa, and of course, I have no doubt that AGOA was discussed in that context as well, as well as continuing to work together on shared – on the shared health agenda as well, as well as the numerous energy and climate issues that I mentioned also.
QUESTION: And just one more. The South African response to this is to say that they’re going to – there’s going to be investigation into what happened with this ship. Is that – does that satisfy the serious concerns that you have?
MR PATEL: It certainly would be a welcome step. But again, the deeply concerning piece of this is the docking of a sanctioned Russian vessel at a South African naval port, so.
Go ahead, Alex.
QUESTION: Vedant, it seems there’s a certain pattern they have. We have seen South Africa and other countries in Africa have been blaming the U.S. on – when it comes to Black Sea grain deal, not only about arming Russia. I’m just wondering, how much does this indicate that U.S. has been failing in terms of making your case in that part of the world?
MR PATEL: Alex, I would point you no further than the UN vote that was held on this in the clear condemnation of Russia’s aggression in Ukraine, in which more than 140 countries spoke in unison about Russia’s barbaric and unjust and unlawful actions in Ukraine, countries that – many of which are from that region and the African continent and are watching how the U.S. as well as its allies and partners engage on this.
And since you’ve given me the opportunity, on the Black Sea Grain Initiative, it is unfortunate that Moscow has continued to use and has continued to weaponize grain and hunger in a way that has forced the Black Sea Grain Initiative to be needed in the first place. It shouldn’t have been needed. But it is exactly because of this mechanism that has allowed for grain to get to the places that it has needed, including many final destinations on the African continent as well.
QUESTION: But how do you explain the fact that we keep hearing South Africa and other countries blaming the U.S. of double standards? Is it a reflection of strong Russian propaganda, or what is it?
MR PATEL: I don’t think we’re hearing people blame the U.S.
MR PATEL: Again, the United States has taken prudent steps to show leadership on Russia’s unjust and barbaric invasion in Ukraine. It has done so in a number of steps – in taking steps to hold the Russian Federation accountable through sanctions, through export controls, and doing so in a way that has ensured that humanitarian materials and goods are still able to flow freely. We have also taken steps in conjunction with allies and partners to support our Ukrainian partners to ensure that they can defend themselves, defend their territorial integrity and sovereignty, as well as reclaim territory that has been taken from them.
We’ve also seen a number of countries, including the United States, step up in the humanitarian space as well, offering and providing humanitarian goods as well as taking an active role in the – in accepting and welcoming refugees and displaced people from Ukraine as well, so.
QUESTION: Change of subject?
MR PATEL: Janne, go ahead.
QUESTION: Thank you. Thank you, Vedant. Korea and China. Chinese – China is threatening South Korea with economic retaliation again, pointing out the THAAD missile and strengthen of the U.S. and ROK alliance. What would the United States do to counter China’s economic retaliation against its allies?
MR PATEL: What – we certainly are not going to preview or get ahead of any actions or designations from here, but we will continue to work in lockstep with our allies and partners in the region and across the world, including the Republic of Korea. And we’ll continue to take prudent steps that we believe are integral to peace, prosperity, and stability in the Indo-Pacific region and around the world. And we – you’ve seen us done – do so quite clearly. The most recent state visit that the administration hosted, in which we hosted the Republic of Korea and President Yoon – you saw a number of steps and active policies come out of that, including the Washington Declaration. And so we’ll continue to pursue those lines of effort.
QUESTION: Do you think it is necessary to establish a U.S.-ROK-Japan alliance consultative group to respond to China’s economic retaliation?
MR PATEL: There are, of course, benefits to working these issues in a bilateral mechanism; there is, of course, benefit to working these issues trilaterally as well. We have important, close partnerships with both the ROK and Japan. We also have important work to be done in the trilateral auspice as well. Secretary Blinken has had the opportunity to engage with his foreign minister counterparts both in a bilateral setting as well as trilaterally, and will continue to do so.
QUESTION: Thank you so much. Jahanzaib Ali from ARY News, Pakistan. There is a political unrest in Pakistan since long, and after the arrest of former Prime Minister Imran Khan we have seen some charged crowds attacking on the military offices and their homes. How Washington observing the situation in Pakistan?
MR PATEL: Well, we continue to monitor the situation in Pakistan closely, and as the U.S. has said before, we don’t have a position on one candidate or one political party versus another. What our interest is is a safe and secure, prosperous Pakistan. That is in the interest of the U.S.-Pakistan relations, and we call for the respect of democratic principles and the rule of law around the world.
QUESTION: Sir, the Government of Pakistan also shutting down social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and others, and there are some strict restrictions on Pakistani media channels, like what to show and what not. When State Department officials engage with the Pakistani authorities, is this subject the part of discussion, media freedom?
MR PATEL: Well, this is something that the Secretary has emphasized pretty clearly before. He has been clear that access to information and diverse ideas make for a more prosperous and democratic society, and access to internet connection, for example, connects the public to information they need to advocate for themselves, to communicate with one another, to make informed decisions, to hold government officials accountable, and to exercise their freedom of expression.
QUESTION: Sir, one last question: Many analysts believe in Washington that due to the rifts in Pakistani military, and growing extremism, and the political unrest posed a big threat to the safety of Pakistani nuclear assets. I mean, does U.S. Government also have same concerns, or you think that they are perfectly in safe hands?
MR PATEL: There’s no – I’m just not going to speculate on that. That is a – something internal to Pakistan.
Go ahead, yeah.
QUESTION: So the same thing, but I want to understand it, because I heard this from Mr. Kirby as well, that the U.S. wants a stable Pakistan, and the other day I heard from Karine as well when she said that we don’t have a favorite candidate, and you said this as well today. But I am just personally trying to wonder if the – if stability is really, like – the U.S. is appreciating it or not, because you have a prime minister who runs two of the largest cancers hospitals in the world, who takes millions of donation from the U.S. every year, and then you have another prime minister who was convicted on the Panama Papers. And journalists have been killed since last one year in Pakistan. Meanwhile his colleague – my colleague who was just asking question earlier, Jahanzaib.
I mean, the U.S. has no stand on these things? The like favorite – like, you have no favorite candidate, we understand that. But, like, the U.S. is not taking any stand on some of the atrocities which has taken place since last one year?
MR PATEL: I would reject the premise of your question. I – let me say a couple things. That is true, we do not have a favored candidate or a favored political party, not just in Pakistan but as it relates to any government system around the world. And I will reiterate what my colleagues Admiral Kirby and Karine said, that the – a prosperous and strong, democratic Pakistan is critical to U.S. interests. That remains unchanged.
But on some of these areas, such as press freedom, human rights, things of that nature, we have consistently raised these issues with our counterparts not just in Pakistan but in other countries where we have a perspective to offer on that. But to give you some examples, what the United States is interested in is we look – are looking to continue to strengthen economic ties between our two countries by expanding private sector trade and investment, and there’s also an important security collaboration and areas of collaboration on renewable energy, addressing the climate crisis, increasing agricultural trade, and a number of areas. That’s what we mean by a strong, prosperous, and democratic Pakistan that is critical to U.S. interests.
QUESTION: How is it that a stable Pakistan is in the interest if, after the U.S. withdrawal – the Prime Minister Imran Khan was the prime minister at that time. The U.S. President did not call him about it. Then he gets shot, the President does not call him about it —
MR PATEL: Are you – which withdrawal are you referring to?
QUESTION: From – the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan.
MR PATEL: Got it. Got it.
QUESTION: At that time, Imran khan was the prime minister. I mean, President Biden has – is known for a long time in expertise in foreign policy.
MR PATEL: I’m certainly not going to get into a tit-for-tat of who’s called what or when.
QUESTION: Okay. That’s fine.
MR PATEL: What I will say is that Pakistan continues to be an important partner in the region – an important trade partner, an important security partner – and even in that time period we continued to engage with our Pakistani counterparts on a number of issues.
QUESTION: Okay. Just one different one.
MR PATEL: Sure.
QUESTION: Prime Minister Modi is coming to the U.S. next week. The same podium, I had asked Mr. Kirby again when he was coming here during President Obama’s days – that was President Modi’s first time coming to the U.S. after being rejected U.S. visa for 20 years. Now he’s coming again. This time President Biden had said in his elections days that he will raise the issue of Kashmir with them, he will raise the issue of how minorities are being treated in India, especially the Muslim, and especially how the journalists are being treated under his leadership. So my question is: Is President or the Secretary going to raise these issue with him here, or no, they are going to be —
MR PATEL: First, I think you meant the visit is next month, not next week.
QUESTION: I did, next month. I’m sorry, June.
MR PATEL: Secondly, we very much look forward to hosting Prime Minister Modi and members of the Indian Government at this next upcoming state visit. I’m not going to get ahead of what’s going to be discussed, but we have an important partnership with India, and we look forward to continuing to take steps to deepen that. And this next state visit will be an immense opportunity to talk about a number of shared priorities, including addressing the climate crisis, addressing trade issues, deepening our security cooperation, and a number of other areas as well.
MR PATEL: All right, I’m going to go to – then I’ll go to you.
Michel, go ahead.
QUESTION: Yeah, on Syria, a bipartisan group of U.S. lawmakers introduced a bill today to bar the U.S. Government from recognizing the Assad regime, and the bill moves to expand the Caesar —
MR PATEL: Did you say to bar recognition?
MR PATEL: Okay, go ahead.
QUESTION: And the bill moves to expand the Caesar Act and asks the administration to be more aggressive in implementing it. Any reaction to that, and is the administration ready to implement Caesar Act against the Arab countries who normalized with the Syrian regime?
MR PATEL: I just, as a general matter, am not going to get into pending or active legislation. But what I will say is that that is already our policy. We have been very clear that we do not seek to normalize relations with the Assad regime, and we would not support our allies and partners doing so either. And so that is already the posture of the United States. As it relates to any actions, I’m just not going to preview them from here, Michele, but when it has come to holding the Syrian regime accountable, when holding members of the Assad regime accountable, we have not hesitated to take actions and take steps, including through the Caesar Act.
QUESTION: Can I follow up?
MR PATEL: Rosiland, go ahead.
QUESTION: On Syria?
MR PATEL: On – okay, can I —
QUESTION: If someone has one more on Syria, sure.
MR PATEL: Yeah. Syria. Go ahead.
QUESTION: Okay. It seems that the Assad regime will be gaining more support from the Arabic countries and also from the – some EU countries. Will that impact on your military presence in northwest Syria in the short or medium term?
MR PATEL: I don’t have any posture assessments to offer from here. But what I will say – and I spoke about this earlier this week on Monday, I think – as it relates to our efforts in the region, one of our key priorities will continue to be – despite what our partners in the Arab League may choose to do or not do, one of the United States priorities in conjunction with our partners in the Arab world is to ensure that the steps that we are taking for the degradation of ISIS and the influence that they have in the region, that that work that we are doing continues and persists.
And I will just point that in – since this administration has been in this office, we have been able to take two ISIS leaders off the battlefield, and we’ve continued to take steps to degrade ISIS’s influence in the region. And so that will continue to be our priority for this part of the world irregardless of what happens else.
QUESTION: And I have another questions on Iraq and as to —
MR PATEL: I can come back to you after.
QUESTION: Okay. Thank you.
MR PATEL: Go ahead, on Ukraine.
QUESTION: Zelenskyy said today that he doesn’t feel that his country is ready for the spring counteroffensive, and this comes just a couple of days after the U.S. announced another tranche of military equipment and support for the Ukrainian army. Does the U.S. Government share Zelenskyy’s assessment that now isn’t the time for them to mount a counteroffensive? And if so, why? If you disagree, why?
MR PATEL: Rosiland, I’m just not going to get into prescriptive battlefield assessments from up here. What I will reiterate – and this is something that you saw the Secretary talk about in his engagement earlier this week with Foreign Secretary Cleverly and yesterday with his counterpart from Spain – the U.S.’s role will continue to be to ensure that our Ukrainian partners have the assets, the training, and the pieces that they need to ensure that they can defend their territorial integrity, defend their sovereignty, and reclaim the territory that was taken from them.
There has been a group of more than 50 countries that – of course – that have come together to provide support to Ukraine. That has included the United States, and this is a coalition of countries. I will let it – leave it to the Ukrainians to speak to their own next steps and to their own assessments of the battlefield. But the United States will continue to stand with our Ukrainian partners as they endure this.
QUESTION: Is the U.S. having conversations with the Ukrainians about how to prepare for the day when there is some sort of peace negotiation? Is the U.S. stressing to the Ukrainians that they can’t fight forever?
MR PATEL: Rosiland, again, I’m just not going to get into the specifics of diplomatic engagements. Even President Zelenskyy has been clear-eyed and vocal about the fact that the resolution of this needs to happen through peace and through diplomacy. But let’s not forget that that could happen at any minute if the Russians indicated that they were willing to engage in good faith. They have not. Russia could end this war right now if they wanted to by withdrawing their troops from Ukraine. They, again, have chosen not to, and instead have taken steps to further their strikes and to further their violence and attacks that have targeted civilian and energy infrastructure across Ukraine. So we will continue to take steps to ensure that our Ukrainian partners are in the best position possible to defend themselves and to reclaim the territory that was taken from them.
Shannon, go ahead.
QUESTION: Thank you. One more question on South Africa, if I can.
MR PATEL: Yeah.
QUESTION: If the State Department does come to the assessment that, in fact, arms were transferred to Russia – if that concern escalates – will there penalties that they face? Because when the administration was anticipating that China might supply lethal aid it was made very clear that they would face swift consequences.
MR PATEL: This is – I’m just not going to get into a hypothetical, Shannon. But we have not parsed our words as it comes to any country taking steps to support the Russian aggression in Ukraine. But again, I’m not going to get ahead of anything right now.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MR PATEL: Yeah.
QUESTION: I would like to ask on coming G7 leaders meeting in Hiroshima. Yesterday President Biden touched on the possibility of attending G7 summit virtually, depending on his negotiation with Congress on debt ceiling. So I’m wondering if State Department is having any discussion with Japanese Government or other G7 member countries regarding this possibility.
MR PATEL: Look, I will let the White House speak to the President’s own travel schedule. I just don’t have anything else to offer on that. We, of course, continue to engage with our Japanese partners on a number of issues, including the upcoming G7 leaders meeting. The Secretary had the opportunity to represent the United States at the foreign ministers-level meeting, and I know that the White House will be in touch about any changes that may or may not take place as it relates to the President’s schedule. But my understanding is that the plan is still on and will proceed as normally.
Nick, go ahead.
QUESTION: Thanks. The deadline to turn over the Afghanistan dissent cable is 6:00 p.m. today. Yesterday, Chairman McCaul said he had no alternative but to proceed with contempt proceedings if he doesn’t get it. I know you commented on this earlier this week, but today’s the deadline. So will the State Department comply with today’s deadline?
MR PATEL: Nick, we will continue to engage with the House Foreign Affairs Committee and discuss with them on their requests. As I have said before, the department has already offered a classified briefing and a summary of the dissent channel cable, as well as the department’s response. We believe that this information has been sufficient to meet what the committee has requested thus far, but we, again, will continue to engage with them. And I just don’t have any updates to offer right now.
Guita, go ahead.
QUESTION: Thanks, Vedant. Yesterday, Wednesday, the president of the UN Human Rights Council appointed the Islamic Republic of Iran as the next chair of the Council’s Social Forum. And the topic for the next session, when Iran’s going to president as the chair, is technology and human rights. Now, I’m not going to go into the past nine months’ developments in Iran, but given that the United States spearheaded the expulsion of Iran from the UN Commission on the Status of Women, what do you think of this appointment?
MR PATEL: Well, Guita, this is obviously deeply troubling. The appointment of the Iranian ambassador, the representative of an egregious, consistent human rights violator, to chair such a group simply undermines its already limited usefulness. As you might recall, Guita, the U.S. opposed the resolution that created the Social Forum in 2015, noting at the time that it would serve limited utility and add unnecessary and additional costs. The U.S. has not participated in the Social Forum in the past and does not intend to participate in the 2023 session either.
But, of course, we are disappointed that the president of the council made this decision. And it is not appropriate for Iran to serve in a leadership position on a body that is supposed to be associated with the promotion and protection of human rights.
QUESTION: The Biden administration has, from the very beginning, sought reforms at the UN. Don’t you think there should be a criteria for appointments like this or appointments in general, or elections, even, that whatever country is being put forward as a candidate should meet some criteria to be eligible to hold that certain post?
MR PATEL: Guita, I’m not going to be prescriptive about reforms from up here. But as you know, as someone who’s followed this very closely, when we have seen inconsistencies with the makeup of various multilateral bodies – and a recent example being this Commission on the Status of Women – the U.S. has not hesitated to take steps to ensure that the values that such a group is supposed to be working on is consistent with the values of the countries that are made up of its membership. And so I will just leave it at that.
QUESTION: JCPOA question really quick.
MR PATEL: Said, go ahead.
QUESTION: Is there anything ongoing behind the scene or overtly with the JCPOA? Where is Envoy Malley? Is he conducting any kind of talks with either signatories to the deal or anything? Can you update us?
MR PATEL: Said, as you know, President Biden is absolutely committed to ensuring that Iran never acquires a nuclear weapon. And as we have said repeatedly, we believe diplomacy is the best way to achieve that goal, but have nothing to announce or nothing to share or preview at this time.
Joseph, go ahead.
QUESTION: Thanks. It’s also on Iran and Yemen. There was a bipartisan bill introduced, I think earlier this week, on the Hill calling for sanctions on Iran’s missile and drone programs because of the looming expiration of the UN resolution that expires in October on the UN – the UN missile ban on Iran – on Iran expires. Is the – do you – is the State Department looking at extending that, seeing as it expires in a couple of months?
MR PATEL: I’m not going to preview or get ahead of any actions from here, Joseph. What I will say is that as it comes to the Iranian regime and the malign influence that Iran has had, and of course Yemen and the role that they have played in the – when it comes to destabilization in that conflict, of course continues to be of immense concern to the United States. And so we will not hesitate to take action in holding the Iranian regime accountable, but I am just not going to preview from here.
QUESTION: Okay. And just to follow up on that, this morning Special Envoy Lenderking said that Iran was still smuggling weapons and drugs into Yemen. From this podium before, you guys have stated or revealed those violate – previous violations of that. Have you seen – can you elaborate on the special envoy’s comments this morning? Has there been any recent incidents that you can point to in terms of Iran smuggling those weapons into Yemen?
MR PATEL: I don’t have any specific metrics to offer from here, but certainly you are right; we have not parsed words from this podium when it comes to the destabilizing influence and actions that the Iranian regime has taken in Yemen. And it continues to be an area of deep concern to us, and we will continue to work through UN-led efforts that we’re undertaking of course with our partners in Saudi Arabia as well. We’ll also continue to take steps to hold the Iranian regime accountable if and when necessary.
Simon, you’ve had your hand up. Go ahead.
QUESTION: Yeah, this issue has come up before, but some lawmakers, including Senator Durbin, have raised the question – or criticizing the Pentagon primarily for blocking the sharing of intelligence with the International Criminal Court for the investigation into Russia’s actions in Ukraine for war crimes, alleged war crimes in Ukraine. I wonder, as part of this it would also seem to be said that the State Department is cooperating with the ICC, so I wonder if you can clarify. Is State providing intelligence to that ICC investigation, or is the Pentagon’s opposition to that preventing the entire U.S. Government from sharing materials that could be evidence in those cases?
MR PATEL: Simon, I don’t have any updates on this from when this was last raised at the briefing. But if you’ll allow me, the U.S. of course strongly supports pathways to justice and accountability for international crimes committed in Ukraine, and we support a range of international investigations and inquiries into war crimes and atrocities in Ukraine. This includes those conducted by the ICC prosecutor; it includes the UN Human Rights Council-created International Commission of Inquiry on Ukraine; it also includes auspices through the missions under the Moscow Mechanism of the OSCE as well.
International courts such as the ICC can play an important role as the part of international efforts to ensure accountability for atrocities, and the U.S. will continue to take steps to empower organizations to collect, preserve, analyze, and disseminate open source and comprehensive information. But I just don’t have anything additional to offer on this.
QUESTION: But does that support – specifically regarding the ICC, does that support include sharing what might be evidence?
MR PATEL: There is a number of mechanisms in which we are working to support international organizations who are working on the issue of accountability for these atrocities. I am not going to get into the specifics of what those partnerships and engagements are, but I will leave it at that.
Go ahead, Shaun.
QUESTION: A question – unless Alex wants to jump in. It’s Armenia and Azerbaijan.
QUESTION: Yes, I do. (Laughter.)
QUESTION: Just I want to see if you had any comment about the violence there.
MR PATEL: Sure.
QUESTION: Obviously this comes after the Secretary’s —
MR PATEL: Yeah.
QUESTION: — discussions with the two top diplomats. Now, do you see this as setting back the diplomatic process?
MR PATEL: Well, Shaun – and Alex, I guess – we – this kind of violence, we believe it undermines the progress made by Armenia and Azerbaijan toward a durable and dignified peace, and we call on the leaders of both of these countries that when they convene in Brussels on the 14th to a – that these two parties agree to distance their forces along the border, as discussed by Secretary Blinken during their participation of these negotiations that we hosted here in Washington, D.C., at the beginning of May.
QUESTION: Just a follow-up, if you don’t mind.
MR PATEL: Yeah.
QUESTION: And Shaun, if you have one. Does the Secretary view the upcoming meeting on the 14th as a continuation of Washington dialogue or that was a separate track?
MR PATEL: We – of course we see – we see the dialogue that we hosted as important, positive steps in which we felt the two countries had the opportunity to engage on some important issues, see the other side’s point of view. And we believe that there continues to be a durable path forward. We believe that there is a peaceful solution to this. It’s why we, from the Secretary on down, have continued to be so deeply engaged on this. But I’m not going to get ahead of these talks themselves.
QUESTION: And I can’t help but ask about Russia’s position on this, because your Russian counterpart today questioned the Secretary’s optimism on the results of Washington talks. And also she laid out rules – let’s say her standards that there is no success outside of trilateral agreement they had, which, according to local experts, is about freezing a conflict, not solving a conflict. So how do you see Russia’s position in this?
MR PATEL: Alex, I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about what my Russian counterpart says from her podium. What I can say, though, is that, as it relates to this very important issue of peace between Armenia and Azerbaijan, it is something that this department will continue to remain deeply engaged on. We believe that there is a clear path forward. We obviously were happy to host these two countries at the beginning of May. We believe that those talks were fruitful and laid the groundwork for a continuation of these talks beginning in Brussels, and we’ll let that process play out.
I’m going to work the room a little bit, Alex.
QUESTION: Just very quickly.
MR PATEL: Okay.
QUESTION: Do you expect Secretary’s phone call to the sides —
MR PATEL: I don’t have any calls to preview or readout.
QUESTION: Please come back on Georgia.
MR PATEL: Go ahead. Go ahead.
QUESTION: On Iraq?
MR PATEL: Yeah.
QUESTION: Any comments related to the Iraqi draft budget revealed that Hashd al-Sha’bi, the Popular Mobilization Forces paramilitary —
MR PATEL: I’m sorry, I’m having a hard time hearing you.
QUESTION: Yeah, your comments related to the Iraqi budget, draft budget, shows that the Hashd al-Sha’bi – it’s a paramilitary groups umbrella, which there are some prominent Iranian-backed groups are in this Hashd al-Sha’bi group. And their number, in the past two years, have doubled in size. And if the budget’s passed, now it will give 2.7 billion to the Hashd al-Sha’bi, which a part of these forces they were working so hard to expel the U.S. forces in Iraq. And then don’t you have any concern about the future of the nature of the role it will play in the future in Iraq?
MR PATEL: This is largely an internal domestic matter for Iraq. I don’t have an assessment to offer from here. What we support is a stable, prosperous, and democratic and unified Iraq. We have a Strategic Framework Agreement, and that remains the foundation of our bilateral relationship, but I don’t have anything else to offer.
Go ahead, in the back.
QUESTION: Andrew Thornebrooke with The Epoch Times.
MR PATEL: Yeah.
QUESTION: I actually have two questions, both about ASEAN.
MR PATEL: Sure.
QUESTION: So this week, ASEAN announced that it seeks to strengthen cooperation with China, including hastening the development of a cooperation agreement regarding behavior in the South China Sea. Two questions on that. One, what is the administration’s hopes, if any, that China will adhere to the tenets of such an agreement? And if the agreement is solidified, how will the capabilities – maritime domain awareness capabilities – that the U.S. provides to ASEAN be used to enforce it?
MR PATEL: What I will say is that – I’ve not seen this reporting, but what I will just say – and you’ve seen us talk about this before – is that as it relates to the South China Sea, there is important work being done as it relates to maritime boundaries and international delineation. We believe that there is important space for those kinds of talks to continue, to have some kind of framework and rules of the road as it relates to that part of the world, but I don’t have anything else to offer.
All right. I can probably do a couple more. Ryo, go ahead.
QUESTION: Thank you. Today White House announced a meeting between National Security Advisor Sullivan and Chinese Official Wang Yi happened in Vienna. And at the meeting, do you think there were any progress on the future engagement with China, including possible phone call between President Biden and Xi Jinping and the possible Secretary Blinken visit to China?
MR PATEL: Well, these talks between National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and Foreign Affairs Commissioner Wang Yi, they are a part of ongoing efforts to maintain and open lines of communication and responsibly manage competition. That continues to be the case. And as you’ve heard the Secretary say previously, we intend to get this trip back on the books when conditions allow, and we’ll continue to work through that process.
QUESTION: (Inaudible.) Earlier today, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin described the Wagner Group as a terrorist organization. Is that an assessment that you share?
MR PATEL: We have been very clear in our designation of the Wagner Group as a group that is a transnational threat group. Again, our assessment of the Wagner Group is that they are motivated by profit, not necessarily fame and some of the other metrics and assessments that are made in an FTO process. That being said, processes as it relates to designations, those processes continue to be ongoing, and they are not some kind of moment in time snapshot. So I don’t have anything additional to offer.
On Georgia, go ahead.
QUESTION: Very quickly on Georgia. Russia has lifted visa regime and direct flight ban with Georgia. I’m just wondering if there’s any concern on your end that this might add up to Georgia’s sidestepping of sanctions.
MR PATEL: Look, Alex, the – many Western countries, including the U.S. prohibit, Russian aircraft from entering their airspace. If direct flights between Russia and Georgia resume, we of course would be concerned that companies at Georgian airports could be at risk for sanctions if they service aircraft subject to import and export controls.
The entire Western community has distanced itself from the Russian regime, and now is not the time for any country to increase its engagement with Russia. The people of Georgia would likely prefer that President Putin withdraw Russian troops from the 20 percent of Georgian territory that Russia occupies, rather than see direct flights restored or the visa regime changed.
QUESTION: If I understood you correctly, you call on Georgia to align with the sanctions against Russia, right?
MR PATEL: Again, it would be of deep concern to companies at Georgian airports should flights between Georgia and Russia resume.
All right. Thanks, everybody.
(The briefing was concluded at 2:27 p.m.)