Department Press Briefing - February 27, 2018
Index for Today's Briefing:
MS NAUERT: Hi, everyone. Good afternoon. I’m so sorry for the delay today. My apologies.
A couple announcements I’d like to get started with today. First, this is coming in from our folks who are in Afghanistan now, from the Acting Assistant Secretary Alice Wells, who is traveling in the region for the Kabul process:
Delegations from the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, the Republic of India, and the United States of America met today, February 27th, in Kabul on the margins of the Kabul Process Conference for the fourth round of U.S.-India-Afghanistan trilateral consultations. Afghan Deputy Foreign Minister Hekmat Karzai, Indian Ministry of External Affairs Joint Secretary Deepak Mittal, and U.S. South and Central Asia Senior Bureau Official Alice Wells met to discuss U.S. and Indian civilian assistance to Afghanistan, as well as regional issues of mutual interest to the three countries.
All sides welcomed discussions focused on political, economic, educational, and developmental goals and agreed that trilateral cooperation strengthens the economic and regional stability across many sectors in Afghanistan. The United States, Afghanistan, and India should continue and increase initiatives that support economic and developmental reforms in Afghanistan.
All sides agreed to continue to work together toward a safe, peaceful, democratic, pluralistic, and prosperous Afghanistan that is free from terrorism. They agreed that the dialogue continues to advance shared values and goals, and decided that the next meeting should take place on the margins of the United Nations General Assembly in September later this year.
Secondly, I’d like to say that the United States is shocked and saddened by the murder of a Slovak investigative reporter named Jan Kuciak, and also his partner Martina Kusnirova. We extend our deepest condolences to their family, friends, loved ones, as well as Mr. Kuciak’s colleagues at Aktuality.sk. That is a new site in Slovakia.
There appears to be evidence that the murder was connected to his work as an investigative journalist. If that is true, we echo the prime minister’s statement that this is an unprecedented attack on freedom of the press and democracy in Slovakia. Journalists must be able to work freely and safely to safeguard open and democratic societies. The crime calls for a swift, determined investigation to bring those responsible to justice.
Next, I’d like to say that the United States is deeply concerned by the death of a Georgian citizen, Archil Tatunashvili, during his February 22nd arrest and detention in the Russian-occupied Georgian territory of South Ossetia. We express our condolences to his family. The United States is also deeply concerned by the arrest of other Georgian citizens, Levan Kutashvili and Ioseb Pavliashvili, and call for them to be allowed to return freely across the administrative boundary line. The United States calls for a full accounting of circumstances of the tragic incident and continues to encourage all sides to agree on additional measures to strengthen mutual confidence and transparency in the affected region.
Next, on Yemen, I know a lot of you are interested in what’s going on in Yemen. I want to share with you that the Hodeidah Port, which is the largest port in the country, now remains open. It has been open since December the 21st. You may recall that the Government of Saudi Arabia initially – pardon me – reopened Hodeidah for a minimum of 30 days back in December. We strongly commend the Saudi-led coalition’s decision to keep the port open. The gesture signals the coalition’s serious intent to support the international community’s efforts to address the humanitarian crisis in Yemen. Hodeidah is the country’s largest port and is a critical entry point for much needed humanitarian aid, commercial goods, including food, fuel, and also medicine. We urge commercial shippers to continue to use Hodeidah Port and U.S. Government-funded cranes to transport vital supplies into the country.
And then lastly, later this week, on Thursday afternoon at the White House, our Deputy Secretary John Sullivan will participate in the White House Cabinet-Level Opioid Summit to publicly highlight the agencies that are paying a – playing a key role in addressing America’s opioid crisis. At the summit, Deputy Secretary Sullivan will join Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kristjen Nielsen and the Attorney General Jeff Sessions on a law enforcement panel to discuss the State Department’s aggressive global counter-drug efforts to stop the overseas supply of illicit opioids.
Since the vast majority of illicit opioids like heroine and fentanyl come from overseas, the State Department has a crucial role to play in stopping the sources of supply as part of the broader U.S. Government effort. According to the most recent CDC data, in 2016, nearly 64,000 Americans died from drug overdoses, and two-thirds of those were from opioids. In response to the epidemic, the State Department is leveraging its partnerships in Mexico and China and the broader international community to choke off illicit supplies. We are supporting Mexican authorities’ efforts to more aggressively eradicate poppy crops, build law enforcement capacity, enhance border security, and also bring transnational criminal organizations and drug traffickers to justice.
Energized by President Trump’s visit to China last November, we’re building a more productive relationship with China to address the synthetic drug problem. As a result of our cooperation, China has established domestic restrictions on the production and distribution of 143 substances, including a number of Fentanyl-related compounds. On Thursday we’d be more than happy to share the remarks of the deputy secretary after his meetings at the White House.
And with that, I’d be happy to take your questions. Josh.
QUESTION: Sure. Thanks, Heather. I want to talk about Syria, but before I do I wanted to know if I could defer to my colleague from NPR, who I know is under a tight deadline today, and then if you could come back to us.
MS NAUERT: That’s so nice of you. Hi, Michele.
QUESTION: Back here. Thank you. I’d like to ask about Joseph Yun’s departure. Why now, just when North Korea is indicating its willingness to talk? And how do you keep open channels of communication with Pyongyang without an experienced diplomat like Joseph Yun in that position?
MS NAUERT: Well, again, first I would say that we want to thank Joe Yun for his many years of service here at the State Department. Many of you know him as someone who handled some of our North Korea issues, as well as somebody who helped facilitate the bringing home of Otto Warmbier last year. He also has served as an ambassador. So we want to thank him for his many years and congratulate him for his many years of service.
The State Department has 75,000 people that work for us around the world. To imply that Ambassador Yun is the only one who’s capable of handling North Korea would simply be wrong. We have a deep bench of very experienced people. Our Acting Assistant Secretary Susan Thornton, who is now a nominee to be the assistant secretary for East Asia Pacific, for EAP, is more than capable of handling that job. She is a fantastic diplomat and well-respected across the Foreign Service and across the world as well.
In addition to her we have Marc Knapper, who serves in South Korea. He is very experienced in these matters. And we have our Director for Korea Policy Mark Lambert here at the State Department. Some of you, I know, have had the chance to meet him as he’s briefed some people on issues related to the DPRK.
This was a personal decision. It’s something that Ambassador Yun had made clear to the State Department. He had a conversation with Secretary Tillerson about it. We are certainly sorry to see him go, but we are fully confident that we have terrific, qualified, experienced people who will take this on and continue our maximum pressure campaign. Our policy has not changed. We continue to push ahead and forge ahead with our maximum pressure campaign. That extends well beyond the State Department, also to the Department of Treasury, the White House, the NSC, and other cabinet departments as well.
QUESTION: Are you going to replace that position, though? Because that was someone dedicated to the – of having openings, and he was the one who was going up to New York for the New York channel as well.
MS NAUERT: Look, we have other people who are fully capable of having conversations with any other country, whether it’s North Korea or another nation, if that instance arises and if it’s appropriate to do so. So just because Ambassador Yun has decided to retire – and I want to congratulate him on his decision to retire. After working in any one place for 34 years, I imagine you’re ready to move on to your next chapter. We look forward to having Susan Thornton and also our other colleagues fill in on the gap.
Okay? Anything else related to North Korea before we move on to other issues?
QUESTION: Yes, Heather. North Korea.
MS NAUERT: Okay, we’ll do North Korea, and then we’ll move on to something else.
Hi, Janne. How are you?
QUESTION: Hi, thank you. I have two question for you.
MS NAUERT: Yes.
QUESTION: Yesterday President Trump said that United States will talk to the North Korea under appropriate conditions. What is the appropriate conditions?
Number two, second question: The U.S. has preconditions for the talk with North Korea, but North Korea have no preconditioned talk with United States.
MS NAUERT: Our condition is denuclearization. Our policy has not changed. We have talked about this policy since day one of this administration; and that’s maximum pressure, but it’s also the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. Let me remind you it’s something that China agrees with, it’s something that South Korea and Japan agree with, it’s something that Russia agrees with, along with many other countries – the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, and we stand firmly behind that. Okay?
QUESTION: But the U.S. mention about the appropriate conditions? President mentioned that.
MS NAUERT: Look, we would certainly talk about the steps that one would take to get to denuclearization. And that’s it. I’ll leave it at that.
Okay, anything else on – anything else on North Korea?
QUESTION: On North Korea.
MS NAUERT: Okay. Hi.
QUESTION: And kind of Syria-related. There’s a report in The New York Times that North Korea has been shipping supplies to Syria that can be used in or for producing chemical weapons. I wanted to know, if you are familiar with that report, what your reaction is to it.
MS NAUERT: Sure. I’ve certainly seen that report. That is something – I’ve seen reports of that report – let me say that, because the actual report itself has not been released.
This is something that the United States has had concerns about for quite some time that North Korea, especially as North Korea becomes more desperate, that they look for different, creative, and horrific ways to try to make money to fund their criminal regime. And when I say criminal regime, I mean their illegal nuclear and ballistic missile programs. If they are selling goods, material, whatever you want to call it to Syria, it shows the depravity of that regime. And that is exactly why we stand so firmly behind our policy of denuclearization on the part of this administration and on behalf of the world.
Okay. Anything else on North Korea?
QUESTION: (Off-mike) --
MS NAUERT: Okay. Okay, hold on.
QUESTION: -- can I just --
MS NAUERT: Yeah, go ahead. Kylie, hold on.
QUESTION: I just want to clarify, when Michele asked about if you’re going to actually be filling the North Korea envoy position that Joe Yun had, you didn’t give a direct answer. So are there plans to fill that and the person hasn’t been chosen yet, or is there consideration to get rid of the position fully?
MS NAUERT: I believe that – in addition to having our people, who are fully qualified and capable of picking up the work and handling that work, we have not selected another person, but there is another office that will be handling some of the humanitarian issues, which was some of – a part of some of his portfolio. So we have somebody else under a different under secretary in this department. I’d have to check exactly which one it is, but we do have somebody else lined up to handle some of those humanitarian issues.
QUESTION: And that’s for the long term, or for the interim?
MS NAUERT: I don’t know if that structure will hold over the very long term, but at least for now, that that will be the case. Okay.
QUESTION: But your going from having an envoy for North Korea to not having an envoy for North Korea should not be seen, just as the North Koreans are coming out and saying that they’re interested in talking to the U.S., as a sign that we’re not interested in that? You would push us away from reading into the fact that you’re going from having an envoy to not having an envoy for that specific purpose --
MS NAUERT: The top national security issue for this administration has been and remains to this day the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, working on the maximum pressure campaign to try to stop North Korea from developing its ballistic and nuclear weapons programs. That is clear all along. If somebody chooses to retire, that does not change our policy. This is not a change in our policy or our intent in pushing forward with that policy in any way. Okay.
QUESTION: Can we go to Syria now?
MS NAUERT: Yeah, sure. Anybody else on North Korea?
MS NAUERT: Okay. Wait, hold on. You had --
QUESTION: Can I have one?
QUESTION: I have a very quick one.
MS NAUERT: Yes, and then we’ll go – then we’ll get on to Syria.
QUESTION: Did Secretary Tillerson ask him to stay, given we’re at a very critical moment with North Korea and given – if you really value his experience, did the Secretary ask him to stay?
MS NAUERT: The Secretary reluctantly accepted his request to retire. When somebody comes to you and says, “Hey, look, I really want to retire. I’ve been here 34 years and I want to spend time with my family,” it’s hard to argue against that. Our policy has not changed. The Secretary is certainly not going to force somebody to stay on the job. We thank him for his many years of service. He was very good at what he did. He is very well respected across the administration and in other places as well, but I feel fully confident that we have the appropriate people in place who can handle everything he did and more. Our policy remains the same. We are just as engaged in North Korea. Taking one person out of the mix does not change things in any way. Okay?
QUESTION: Heather, one more question.
MS NAUERT: Go ahead.
QUESTION: Can we move on?
QUESTION: The Washington Post reported that Ambassador Yun’s departure, quote, “reflects widespread frustration within the State Department at diplomats’ relative lack of power in the Trump administration.” Do you have any response to this sentiment, that the State Department lacks sway within the administration?
MS NAUERT: I would say that that’s wrong. It’s altogether wrong, and here’s why: Our maximum pressure campaign has been successful. We have seen that North Korea has had to go to extreme ends to try to get money to fund its weapons programs, okay. That’s first and foremost. Secondly, we have succeeded at bringing many countries on board in working on our maximum pressure campaign. That has influence, the fact that the State Department and other leaders are leading on this issue of denuclearization on the Korean Peninsula. The President, of course, spearheads that. It’s also backed by the Vice President; it’s backed by Secretary Mattis, Secretary Tillerson, National Security Advisor McMaster, and also Nikki Haley as well, Ambassador Haley.
So across the administration, we have many people who are engaged in this. We cannot say that diplomacy is failing. We are succeeding. Is it taking a lot longer than we would like? Of course. But diplomacy is not something that happens overnight. So this – our program continues. Our – the work that we are doing here at the State Department continues, and I can assure anyone who has any questions about that that that is valued by this administration, by the evidence of where we are today.
Okay. Let’s move on.
MS NAUERT: You want to go to Syria.
QUESTION: So the ceasefire that the United Nations has agreed on – what is the U.S. understanding about what part or parts of Syria that ceasefire covers?
MS NAUERT: So let me refer you to the resolution itself, which I have a copy of and I can read part of that. But the resolution itself, the ceasefire that 15 countries, members of the United Nations Security Council, all unanimously agreed upon calls for a ceasefire throughout Syria. There are some exemptions – exemptions to al-Nusrah Front, al-Qaida, and also ISIS. Okay, they are considered the groups and entities that coalition partners and others can go after. Other than that, the UN agreed to – the Security Council agreed to a ceasefire. That happened on Saturday. It took far too long to get that ceasefire into effect. We’ve been calling that – for that for quite some time, as have many other countries.
I want to point out some of the countries that are backing that ceasefire: China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, the United States, Bolivia, Cote d’Ivoire, Equatorial Guinea, Ethiopia, Kazakhstan, Kuwait, Netherlands, Peru, Poland, and Sweden. All of those countries coming together to call for a ceasefire in Syria. Why are they doing that? Well, we are watching what is going on – and I spoke to this on Thursday – the horrific attacks taking place against civilians in Eastern Ghouta. It is not too dissimilar from what happened last year in Aleppo. It is horrific.
I will point out, though, that Russia supported the ceasefire. Russia is certainly not adhering to the ceasefire. They’re not adhering to the ceasefire because they continue to sponsor and back Bashar al-Assad’s government. That is tragic. As a result of that, we are seeing innocent civilians – and you’ve all seen the video. Many of you are parents; you have seen the children who are suffering and dying. You’ve seen the innocent people doing that. The world has come together. The world has said that this has to stop. I find it ironic when Russia calls for a humanitarian road, a humanitarian zone. You know what the humanitarian zone is? It’s the entirety of Syria, not just one little area that Russia cutely tries to carve out. It should be the entire country, because that is what Russia and those 15[i] other countries agreed to in the UN Security Council resolution.
QUESTION: So you said the entirety of Syria. Would you agree that the district of Afrin is in Syria?
MS NAUERT: The district – yes, if you look at a map, it is certainly within Syria, yes.
QUESTION: So then when Turkey says that it is not bound by the ceasefire and is free to continue going after the Kurds there, would you agree that Turkey is violating the UN ceasefire?
MS NAUERT: I would encourage Turkey to go back and read this resolution, the unanimously agreed upon resolution on Saturday, and I will quote some of this to you – I won’t read the entire thing to you – “demands that all parties cease hostilities without delay and engage immediately to ensure full and comprehensive implementation of this demand by all parties for a durable humanitarian pause for at least 30 consecutive days throughout Syria to enable the safe, unimpeded, and sustained delivery of humanitarian aid and services and medical evacuations of the critically sick and wounded in accordance with applicable international law.”
Hold on. Let me get to that point. “It affirms that the cessation of hostilities shall not apply to military operations against the Islamic State of Iraq in the Levant, ISIL, also known as Daesh, al-Qaida, and al-Nusrah Front, and all other individuals, groups, undertakings, and entities associated with al-Qaida and ISIL and other terror groups as designated by the Security Council.” So I think the resolution was clear here in naming exactly which groups are considered to be exempt from the ceasefire.
QUESTION: So if our NATO ally Turkey is going to flout this UN ceasefire, then why should Russia feel more bound by it than Turkey does?
MS NAUERT: Russia signed on to this. That’s first of all. Russia signed on to this as an entity that agreed to this UN Security Council resolution. Let me remind you also that Russia had agreed to help, years ago, Syria with getting rid of its chemical weapons. Russia has failed to do that. I want to point that out as well.
Turkey is more than welcome to go back and read the exact text of this UN Security Council resolution, and I would suggest that they do so. Okay?
QUESTION: Can we move on, please?
MS NAUERT: We probably have a few more questions. Laurie, go right ahead.
QUESTION: Would you encourage Turkey to reach some sort of ceasefire in Afrin?
MS NAUERT: I would encourage Turkey to go and read this resolution, see what the world and the international community is saying about this.
QUESTION: It sounds like that – if I could ask you about Masrour Barzani and the Iraqi issue of the airports. Masrour Barzani, who is chancellor, as you know, of the Kurdistan Region Security Council is here. He met with people at the White House and in this building. He was told repeatedly the U.S. supports a strong, united Kurdistan and a federal, democratic Iraq. But just yesterday the prime minister extended this ban on Kurdish airports for another three months. Do you have any comment on that? Is it consistent with your policy?
MS NAUERT: It’s consistent with what we’ve said all along, that we would encourage the Regional Government of Kurdistan and also the Iraqi Government to sit down and have talks. We are – want them to resolve their remaining differences. They haven’t done enough, certainly, to do that, to resolve those remaining differences. But we also believe that they have to swiftly compromise as a sign of good faith. So we would encourage them to sit down and have talks and figure this thing out.
QUESTION: Are you disappointed in the renewal of this airport ban?
MS NAUERT: Look, I think that’s up for them to decide, but we have made our positions clear with both the Iraqi Government and the Kurds as well, okay?
QUESTION: Can we move on to the --
MS NAUERT: Okay. Okay. Okay.
QUESTION: Yeah. I want to ask you about the embassy --
MS NAUERT: Yes.
MS NAUERT: The Secretary has been involved in this process all along. All along.
QUESTION: Right, but – but is it – yeah, all along. So – but isn’t that in contradiction of what he said like three weeks ago when he said that this is going to take three years, four years down the line; this not going to be happening anytime soon?
MS NAUERT: No --
QUESTION: Isn’t that in contradiction with what he said?
MS NAUERT: That is not what the Secretary said. When we first announced --
MS NAUERT: -- that we would be moving our embassy, we said it could take up to a certain number of years. And the fact that we were able to come up with a different kind of process, a different type of structure right now, is just an extension of what the Secretary had said back then. The Secretary signed off on the security details of this. You all very well know that the Secretary puts safety and security as his top issue for our personnel and for American citizens.
MS NAUERT: I’m sorry?
QUESTION: It’s not done in any way to help an embattled or besieged Israeli prime minister, who is under charges of corruption?
MS NAUERT: Oh, goodness no. I mean, this is something that the U.S. Government has been talking – the President talked about this on the campaign trail as he was running for President.
QUESTION: Right, right. But it’s quite a departure from the time that the President set this on this – on September – December 6th and now. I mean, we were talking about three, four years down the line. Now it’s done by May 15th.
MS NAUERT: I think I answered that question --
MS NAUERT: -- that initially, depending on where we decided to put this and how we decided to structure a facility, it could take up to that period of time. We have settled, at least for now, on our new embassy in Jerusalem, and it’s also – it coincides with Israel’s 70th anniversary.
QUESTION: Okay. Now, let me ask you couple of things, with my colleagues’ indulgence, on this very issue.
MS NAUERT: Okay.
QUESTION: Now, the consulate in Jerusalem has always worked as some sort of a diplomatic mission to the Palestinians. Now, I know in your statement you said that it will continue to have that mandate. How will that work out? How does it work out?
MS NAUERT: Well, it will continue to operate as an independent mission with an unchanged mandate. So it will continue all of the same functions.
QUESTION: My last question on the embassy: It – is – the State Department is apparently – that lawyers of the State Department are looking into the legality of Mr. Sheldon Adelson, a private citizen, paying for the embassy. Could you confirm that or could you update us on this issue?
MS NAUERT: I --
QUESTION: Is it allowed that a private citizen can pay for an embassy?
MS NAUERT: I can just say that it’s premature to discuss financing arrangements. We have not had any formal discussions or any formal proposals of the sort, and when it comes to overall cost estimates, that’s something that we’ll have to work out with Congress.
QUESTION: But it has never happened in U.S. history that a private citizen has paid for a diplomatic mission.
MS NAUERT: Not that I am aware of, but perhaps, perhaps very long ago, the first missions were perhaps paid by Americans.
QUESTION: And I promise, my last question.
MS NAUERT: Okay.
QUESTION: Several months back, the Israelis arrested a 16-year-old girl. Couple days ago, or last night, they arrested another 10 members of her family, including a 15-year-old and so on. You have any comment on that?
MS NAUERT: I think, as it pertains to that --
QUESTION: The Tamimi family.
MS NAUERT: -- it would be – yes, the Tamimi family – it would be a – an internal matter for the Israelis and Palestinians. You well know our position, and that is we believe all individuals, especially children, should be treated humanely and their human rights respected and upheld.
QUESTION: So would you call on them to release --
QUESTION: Same issue. Same issue.
QUESTION: That was not an internal matter.
QUESTION: The facility in the Arnona neighborhood where the U.S. plans to open the embassy in May – does the U.S. consider that piece of land to be in East Jerusalem or in West Jerusalem?
MS NAUERT: The new facility we – the Arnona site you’re referring to is located partly in West Jerusalem and what’s called the no man’s land. If some of you have been there – Said, I’m sure you’ve certainly seen it before – it’s a zone that was formerly demilitarized between 1949 and 1967, and it lies actually between the 1949 armistice lines. So it’s partly in West Jerusalem and partly in what’s considered no man’s land.
QUESTION: Same issue, please.
QUESTION: Will you compensate the Palestinian family that owned that land?
MS NAUERT: Pardon me?
QUESTION: Will you compensate the Palestinian family that owned that land before?
MS NAUERT: Said, I don’t have any information on that, okay? That’s news to me.
QUESTION: Hi. You know that May 14th is not independence day this year in Israel. The Hebrew calendar is different every year and it’s actually on April 18th. Was that taken into consideration? You didn’t want to actually coincide with the holiday?
MS NAUERT: I’m --
QUESTION: Or you weren’t aware --
MS NAUERT: I’m sorry, I don’t – I’m not aware of the actual holiday scheduled calendar. My understanding is that it’s to coincide with Israel’s 70th anniversary.
QUESTION: But it’s not. That’s the point. So --
MS NAUERT: Okay. Well, I will see if there’s some sort of change on that for you.
QUESTION: Would you look into – (Laughter.)
MS NAUERT: Thank you.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MS NAUERT: Thank you.
Okay, let’s move on.
MS NAUERT: Nazira, hi.
QUESTION: Well, it’s 70 years. The --
QUESTION: Hi, Heather. Thank you very much. You mention about Kabul conference.
MS NAUERT: I’ll check our calendar. Go ahead, Nazira.
QUESTION: I forget my question. (Laughter.)
MS NAUERT: Yes. You can – you get your question.
MS NAUERT: She comes all the way from Afghanistan, Dave. By the way, welcome back. Nazira, go right ahead, Kabul conference.
QUESTION: Yeah, how is the conference? What’s your expectation? And also Tashkent conference coming soon too.
MS NAUERT: Right. So a couple things going on, and a lot going on in the region from where you’re from. And we’re pretty enthusiastic about it, at least in terms of our participation and our long-term hopes for Afghanistan, despite the horrific attacks that we have seen taking place.
And I am constantly reminded by the resilience of the Afghan people. Remember last year, there was a Kabul conference and they held that Kabul conference immediately after, or not long after, there were some horrific attacks as well. So the fact that the Afghans are willing to go forward with that is impressive and a testament to their bravery.
The Kabul Process Conference in general, it takes place tomorrow, it begins tomorrow. It’s an Afghan-led, Afghan-owned initiative to try to bring together different international partners to coordinate international efforts to support Afghanistan’s pursuit of peace.
The Afghan Government – the United States is participating in this as well, as well as international – other international countries. We anticipate they will have candid conversations about peace, about security, about overall connectivity, building and those types of things regarding Afghanistan, but also the broader region. The fact that the meeting is happening is something that is really impressive, and we look forward to being a part of that meeting.
In terms of – you were asking about Tashkent in Uzbekistan. There is a conference that is being held there. It’s being led by the Government of Uzbekistan. The Government of Afghanistan will take part. Uzbekistan has really what’s considered a historic role. Our Acting Assistant Secretary Alice Wells, who is participating in some of these overall broader discussions, has spoken about this.
And she’s really pointed out that she sees a new – a new Tashkent, and how helpful they have been to the overall process and growing prosperity in Afghanistan. Among the things she said about this: “It’s a real opportunity for the region to embrace what we think is going to come out of the Kabul process – an Afghan call for peace, for reconciliation and affirmation. That is the answer to Afghanistan.”
And so to be able to gather in Tashkent and to have the regional powers and important global powers there to be able to take that proclamation and endorse it, and look at how the region can support this, is very important. We consider Uzbekistan as having a historic role in supporting stability in Afghanistan, and that conference is considered a real return to the international stage in a lot of ways. So we look forward to that. Okay.
QUESTION: Thank you very much
MS NAUERT: Anything else on Afghanistan?
QUESTION: Yes, please.
MS NAUERT: Okay, go right ahead.
QUESTION: Thank you, thank you so much. Jahanzaib Ali from ARY News TV. A few weeks ago, President Trump said that no more talks to the Taliban, but Taliban release a letter asking American people to press their government to withdraw from Afghanistan. Taliban also offered to participate in the peace talks. So what is the future of peace talks, and will U.S. be a part of any dialogue with the Taliban?
MS NAUERT: Would you mind backing up and restating part of that question? I didn’t catch the top part of it.
QUESTION: Taliban released a letter.
MS NAUERT: Oh, a letter. Yes, yes, yes.
QUESTION: Yes, yes, in which they said that they can be a part of the dialogue process. So will U.S. be a part of that dialogue process if it happens in near future?
MS NAUERT: So we certainly saw this letter and are aware of this letter. Any peace talks with Afghanistan have to be Afghan-led and Afghan-owned. That has long been our policy. The Taliban, unfortunately, does not seem ready at this point to sit down and have conversations about peace talks. We hope eventually they will, because that is the best way to be able to have peace in Afghanistan. Ultimately, we don’t see there being a military solution to the situation in Afghanistan. Ultimately, it has to be a political situation, a political solution. And that can best be done, if the Taliban is willing to sit down and have talks – certainly the United States Government could have a role in that. But that is up to – that’s really up to Afghanistan, but it has to be Afghan-led and Afghan-owned.
QUESTION: The Secretary General of United Nations Mr. Antonio expressed his concern on the tensions between Pakistan and India, and he offered a role of mediator between the two countries.
MS NAUERT: I --
QUESTION: I’m just saying – I’m just asking what role U.S. can play to ease down the tensions there, because lot of fighting incidents and a lot of civilians and security officials lost their lives during the last few days.
MS NAUERT: Understood. We think that both sides would certainly have to sit down and have talks about that. And – okay? Okay. Hi.
QUESTION: Senator --
MS NAUERT: Dave, hi.
QUESTION: Yes, thanks. Senator Markey wrote a letter yesterday to Secretary Tillerson about – saying that the Trump administration is pursuing a deal to sell nuclear reactors to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. He has a long list of detailed questions; I won’t repeat all 12 of them. But the topline question, I suppose, is: Are you negotiating with Saudi Arabia to sell them nuclear reactors? And if so, would you conclude a so-called 123 Agreement in order to insist Saudi Arabia forego uranium enrichment and spent fuel reprocessing, which apparently is a thing that we’ve insisted upon in the past?
MS NAUERT: I have not seen Senator Markey’s letter to the State Department, so I cannot confirm that we’ve – okay, I haven’t seen it. I haven’t had time to review it. (Laughter.) I can take it back, and I can sit down and spend some time reviewing it if you like.
QUESTION: Yeah. Yes, please.
MS NAUERT: If – okay.
QUESTION: I’ll leave this with you.
MS NAUERT: Okay. I’ll just leave, then.
QUESTION: All right. This – it’s also addressed to Secretary Perry in Energy.
MS NAUERT: Okay. We’ll take a look at this and we’ll see what you can back with you on. It’s certainly an issue that we’ve been tracking. We know that Saudi Arabia has expressed an interest in possible U.S. supply of nuclear equipment and material, but I’d have to take a look at this and get our experts to chat with you about that a little bit more.
QUESTION: Heather --
QUESTION: You wouldn’t be opposed to Saudi Arabia utilizing nuclear power, do you? In principle --
MS NAUERT: Look, let me get with our experts, and I will get back to you all on that, okay?
QUESTION: Aside from – the letter aside --
MS NAUERT: Yes.
QUESTION: -- are you sympathetic to Saudi Arabia’s concerns that in a civilian nuclear agreement they should not be held to a more stringent standard – in other words, no reprocessing, no enrichment – than we are currently holding Iran to under the JCPOA?
MS NAUERT: I’m going to have to check with our experts on that, okay? Apparently you all are better scientists than I am today, so I congratulate you on that one. But I’ll get back with you on that, okay? All right. Let’s move on to something else.
QUESTION: To Russia?
QUESTION: On Egypt?
QUESTION: To Russia?
MS NAUERT: Kylie, go right ahead.
QUESTION: I just had a follow-up. Are State Department officials headed to the meetings in London on Friday on this topic?
MS NAUERT: I’m not aware if our people are involved with that or not. We will certainly look at it and see what we get for you, okay?
QUESTION: Okay, cool. Thank you.
MS NAUERT: Conor, go ahead.
QUESTION: On Egypt.
QUESTION: On Russia. Today before the Senate, the chief of U.S. Cyber Command, Admiral Rogers, told the Senate that after interfering in the 2016 election, Russia still had not paid a price sufficient to change their behavior in terms of interfering again in United States elections. Tillerson had previously said that he wanted to move forward in the relationship. So does he share the admiral’s views?
MS NAUERT: Does he share the admiral’s views about Russia meddling in the election and concerns?
QUESTION: No, no, no, about not paying enough of a price.
MS NAUERT: Look, I think we have laid out – and I’ve covered this many times before, so I don’t want to spend our time going over this again and again – but the Secretary has expressed our grave concerns with what Russia did with regard to our election. The Secretary has also alerted the world and has had numerous conversations with his counterparts not only in Europe, in the Western Hemisphere as well, where see attempts – Russia attempting to meddle in other elections. It is not unique to the United States. We remain concerned about this. Russia is certainly formidable in this. There are other countries that do the same types of activities; North Korea is one of them.
We continue, as the government, as a whole-of-government approach, to take a look at different ways of hardening our overall electoral process. Some of that is being handled by the Department of Homeland Security. There are some efforts on the part of the State Department, although what we do here tends to be outward looking to other countries, not inward here in the United States, because we do diplomacy with other countries. But there are a lot of activities in place.
We have talked many times, and I can go over the exhausted list – exhaustive list of sanctions and other things that the State Department, Treasury, and others have been imposing on Russia as a result of its activities. Just because Russia is called out or penalized for its activities does not mean that Russia is necessarily going to stop, and I say that in a broad fashion. If we look at what Russia has done in Ukraine, if we look at Russia activities in Syria, if we look at Russia activities in Georgia – I talked about part of what has happened in South Ossetia and Abkhazia as well, years ago. So we see that they’re involved in other things.
The world has called them out for some of their activities. Russia eventually is going to – if they want to be seen as a valued partner and a responsible partner for the world, they’re going to have to step up and refrain from some of these activities.
QUESTION: But so in terms of moving the relationship forward, does the Secretary believe that Russia has paid a sufficient price and therefore we could begin to move forward?
MS NAUERT: I’m not sure that we’re there yet. I’m not – I’m really not sure that we are. It is – and the Secretary’s been clear about this – we’re at a low point in our relationship with Russia. There are other countries that share that with us, where we’re at a low point; they may be at a low point with other countries as well.
QUESTION: Want to name them?
MS NAUERT: No, I will decline to name it. But he’s been very clear about saying we are at a low point. Are there some areas where, as two nuclear-powered countries, that we will have to work together? Certainly there are. And there are some areas, despite all of our differences, where we are still working together, and I’ll go back and I’ll name that southwestern ceasefire in Syria, where the U.S., Jordan, and Russia are working successfully to have a ceasefire. That has been in effect since July of last year. It would be nice if that could be used as a model in other parts of Syria. That’s what – one of the things that we’re trying to push for. Okay?
QUESTION: A follow-up? A follow-up?
MS NAUERT: Anything else related to Russia?
QUESTION: Yes, Russia.
QUESTION: Yeah, yeah.
QUESTION: So today, the D.C. City Council, working with U.S. lawmakers including Senator Rubio, held a ceremony with Russian dissidents to rename a plaza in front of the Russian embassy on Wisconsin Avenue. It’s now on Boris Nemtsov Plaza in honor of the slain liberal politician. Now, obviously, this was an initiative that an external group of people came up with, but I noticed that Assistant Secretary of State Wess Mitchell was there. Does the State Department support this decision and does it – do you think it would be helpful in bringing pressure on the Russian mission and on the Russian administration more generally?
MS NAUERT: I can certainly tell you that this was a D.C. Council decision. I can confirm that Assistant Secretary Wess Mitchell was there. I also want to reiterate what happened three years ago earlier this week – actually, it was just yesterday – and that’s when the opposition leader Boris Nemtsov was assassinated just outside of the Kremlin.
I’d like to read for you a little from the statement that we put out, because it was yesterday and I know we didn’t brief yesterday: “[In honor of] the memory of Boris Nemtsov’s life and his work, we renew our call on the Government of Russia to uphold its obligations to promote and protect universal human rights, including freedom of expression, peaceful assembly, and freedom of association. We…urge the Russian Government to ensure that all involved in [the] crime [of his death], including those who organized it or ordered it, are brought to justice.”
QUESTION: Now, the Russians are going to rename the street outside the U.S. embassy in Moscow. Is that something that --
MS NAUERT: They’re certainly --
QUESTION: -- you’re at all worried about?
MS NAUERT: One fundamental freedom that we hold here, and very dear to us in the United States, is the freedom of expression and freedom of the press. If Russia should choose to rename the road in front of our embassy, that is certainly their choice. That is certainly their choice. And I think that would, in fact, be a good example of our support of freedom of the press and freedom of expression. We hope that journalists will be able to cover various news events in Russia or things that take place here in the United States, and that they could report as freely as all of you can.
QUESTION: Department issue – can I ask about a department issue --
MS NAUERT: Okay. Hold on.
QUESTION: -- a department-related – yes, the Radio – the Radio Sawa --
MS NAUERT: Let me – Said, let me get to some other people here, okay? I’ll come back to you after I call on some of our other journalists, okay? Go right ahead.
MS NAUERT: To?
QUESTION: -- on China. Do you have anything on Chinese proposal to abolish the presidential term limits?
MS NAUERT: Certainly. So we’ve been following very closely what has happened in China and the response to the China Communist Party seeking to abolish term limits there. Strong institutions – and this is another fundamental freedom of the United States – we believe that strong institutions are more important than individual leaders. Promoting human rights and democratic governance is a core element of U.S. foreign policy. It’s an essential foundation of a stable, secure, and functioning society. The United States remains unwavering in its commitment to advance personal liberty, human dignity, and global prosperity globally, and that’s all I have for you on that. Okay?
MS NAUERT: I’m not aware of that.
QUESTION: Are you aware of that?
MS NAUERT: I’m not aware of that, but I will --
QUESTION: Okay. Well, it’s an Arabic service radio that the State Department has sponsored since 2003.
MS NAUERT: I will take --
QUESTION: And in fact, we had a colleague come in here every day for a long time until last year. So what is the status on Radio Sawa?
MS NAUERT: I will take a look at that.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MS NAUERT: We will take that question and I’ll get back with you on that. Okay.
QUESTION: Thank you, Ms. Nauert. The 4th of March is fast approaching and we wanted to know if the U.S. has decided to replenish its diplomats in the embassy in Havana. That’s the first question. And the second question would be that an agreement should be signed on the 8th or 9th of March between Cuba and the United States regarding oil spills. Have you any information on that as well?
MS NAUERT: In terms of our ordered departure status, which is the current status at our embassy in Havana, we have to review that every 30 days, and the next time that that is up is actually March the 4th, so that’s coming up on us quickly. In the reviews, the department weighs various factors as to what – in determining if we wanted to open up our embassy to having more employees and more colleagues back in the embassy. We have to determine if conditions on the ground warrant lifting that departure status, so we’re still in conversations and discussions and deliberations about that. We haven’t made a decision just yet, but we’ll let you know hopefully by March the 4th.
QUESTION: And regarding the agreement on oil spills between Havana and Washington, in case there were an oil spill, given that there’s exploration taking place – that should there be an oil spill, the United States would also be affected. Have you any information on that?
MS NAUERT: I think that’s a hypothetical situation. I don’t have anything specific for you on that today.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MS NAUERT: Okay.
QUESTION: On Cuba, the Secretary’s previous comment that the current status of the embassy will remain in effect until Cuba can tell the United States that the attacks have stopped, is that still an operative statement?
MS NAUERT: I believe it is. I’d have to check with the Secretary on that. You all know that he’s out this week unfortunately, but that’s something I’ll just have to check on, but we have until March the 4th to make our final decision about ordered departure. Okay?
We’ve got to wrap it up, guys. Thanks.
(The briefing was concluded at 3:43 p.m.)