QUESTION: (In Arabic.) Mr. Secretary, thanks for sitting down with us.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: It’s good to be with you.
QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, since we are in Saudi Arabia, I have to start by asking about the relationship with Saudi Arabia. We saw this drama in October over OPEC+ decision, and you said at that time that you would review the relationship. Also you said that at the beginning of the first term of the administration. You kept saying as well that this relationship is strategic. But does a strategic relationship or partnership require periodic reviews? And if I may ask, is it a strategic relationship or a transactional?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Well, it is a strategic relationship. And, so you see, we had a difference in views in October over the OPEC+ decision, but I think what we’re seeing is an increasing convergence in our partnership to advance in issues of mutual interest to Saudi Arabia, to the United States, and, for that matter, to countries in the region and beyond. Look, we’ve had a partnership together for decades that was grounded in security, in cooperation, energy, and, in recent years, counterterrorism. And that foundation remains.
But what we’re also seeing – and what this visit reconfirms – is that there are important opportunities for our two countries to work together to advance some very positive issues, very positive trends. De-escalation of tensions in the region – that’s important, and we’re working together on that. Greater integration of the region – there are real opportunities that we’re working on together. Collaboration between our countries in addressing some of the challenges that not only are of concern to our people, but to people around the world, from health security to climate security to energy security to food security. And of course, the transition to clean energy, working on emerging technologies.
So there’s a longstanding foundation, but there are also increasingly areas where we have convergence, and we’re working together to advance the mutual interests of our people. So in that sense it is strategic, and I think that’s important.
Second, I think if you look at the work that we’ve been doing together – just to cite two examples, Yemen, ending a horrific war, Saudi Arabia is playing a critical and very positive role in trying to bring that war to an end, and then just in recent weeks, the partnership we’ve had in Sudan in trying to end the violence that’s emerged there.
So I see this as being a positive trajectory based on the interests that we share. And as I said, it’s happening in a – almost in a broader terrain than just, as important as they are, the military, energy, and counterterrorism cooperation we’ve had for decades.
QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, you arrived here on Tuesday, the same day the Iranians – they opened their embassy in Riyadh. And it was the outcome of a deal brokered by the Chinese. I know people are realistic about the deal and the expectations, but would it (inaudible) to see this move by the Chinese – does it concern you to see in this region this assertive diplomacy by the Chinese?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: We applaud what happened. Anything that de-escalates tensions, that takes at least one problem off of the agenda, and in this case also may have the additional benefit of helping to advance a peace in Yemen, we think is a good thing.
QUESTION: Even if the Chinese have a role in Yemen, you don’t mind that?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: If countries, whoever they are, can play a positive role in helping to advance peace, de-escalate tensions, again, we think that’s a good thing. And of course, the Saudis and Iranians have been talking together for at least a couple of years to get to this place. We’ll see what happens now. But again, if it reduces tensions, if it at least takes one problem off of the board, that’s very positive.
QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, I’m asking here about the Chinese role in the region. It’s growing. We’re noticing that. Everybody is saying that. Does it concern the U.S.?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: If countries can play – including China – can play a positive role wherever it is in helping to advance peace, to reduce tensions then, again, I think that’s positive. That’s what we should all be trying to do. And more broadly, any actions that major powers, including China, take that are positive, that advance peace, reconciliation, that’s good.
QUESTION: Are you trying to revive the negotiations over the JCPOA?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: So we, from day one, sought to determine whether a return to mutual compliance with the JCPOA was possible, and we made a significant effort in that direction, as did the European partners, and, for that matter, Russia and China. But Iran either couldn’t or wouldn’t do what was necessary to get back into compliance with the JCPOA. So the JCPOA is not our focus.
We continue to believe that diplomacy is the best way more generally to sustainably, verifiably, and effectively ensure that Iran doesn’t acquire a nuclear weapon. So we remain open to diplomacy, and that is clearly the best path. At the same time, we’re also very determined to stand against the actions that Iran takes that are dangerous, destabilizing, and that was very much the – part of the conversation that we had yesterday with our colleagues at the Gulf Cooperation Council.
QUESTION: You said many times – and the President as well said – that you will do what it takes to prevent Iran from having a nuclear weapon. The Israelis are currently promoting a military option. Is this option on the table?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: President Biden has been very clear – repeatedly, consistently – that, again, all options are on the table to ensure that Iran doesn’t get a nuclear weapon.
QUESTION: Are you trying to get Israel and Saudi Arabia closer for this purpose, for preventing (inaudible)?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: So what we’ve seen in the region is greater integration, and we’ve seen that in part through the process of normalization between Israel and its neighbors, between Arab countries, Muslim-majority countries beyond the region. And that’s a very positive trend. It’s something that we’ve been determined to help work on, both to deepen some of the existing agreements and also to broaden the effort. So if there are things we could do to support further normalization, the further integration of the region, we will.
QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, you spoke about Sudan, and the negotiations are now suspended. You imposed sanctions, but what’s next? What tools are you going to use to bring the parties, again, to the table? And how do you respond to the critics that say the conflict could have been avoided, had you decided to engage with (inaudible)?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Well, second part first, we’ve been engaged from day one on Sudan. And in fact, until the generals decided to go to war with each other, we were on a positive track in advancing a transition to the civilian-led government. That had made significant progress, including as a result of our very engaged diplomacy.
But tragically, the two generals in question decided to go at each other and inflict terrible violence on the entire country. And even then, we immediately engaged to try to stop the violence, to try to get ceasefires, to get humanitarian assistance flowing, and to get Sudan back on the track it had been on – toward a transition to a civilian-led government. We had working – by the way, in very close partnership with Saudi Arabia, we had some success in getting very limited ceasefires that were highly imperfect, but did allow more humanitarian assistance to get in and reach about 2 million people that otherwise would not have had this assistance provided to them.
But we’ve also reached a pointed where increasingly both sides are not respecting the commitments they make in terms of these ceasefires. So we’re really looking to see, in the days ahead, whether they are serious about this process, serious about a hearing to the ceasefires that they commit to, and serious about them, hopefully, broadening that to get back to looking at a broader cessation of hostiles and a transition process. If not, we will have to look at other options for dealing with the situation.
QUESTION: Are sanctions an option?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Again, we’ll – we have various tools at our disposal. I think we’ve made that clear in recent days. I’m not going to get ahead of ourselves. First, we want to see if they’re genuinely serious about a ceasefire process. And if they’re not, we have tools at our disposal to try to move this in another way.
QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, you said, and everybody in this administration is saying, that you will support Ukraine as long as it takes; it’s an open-ended commitment. I mean, can you elaborate a little bit about the outcome acceptable to you and Ukraine as well?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Well, first, I think it’s important to note that the outcome that Vladmir Putin sought is already, for him, unachievable. He’s already failed in what he was trying to accomplish, which was to erase Ukraine from the map, to eliminate its independence, to absorb it into Russia. That has failed; it can’t succeed. Where exactly this settles and under what conditions and when, that does remain to be determined.
And I think what we’ve heard, not just from us, not just from the more than 50 countries that are actively supporting Ukraine in helping it to defend itself, but from more than 140 countries at the United Nations, multiple occasions, in resolutions at the Security – at the General Assembly, are a commitment that countries want to see peace, but they want to see a peace that is consistent with the principles of the United Nations Charter, notably territorial integrity and sovereignty.
So this is not just us. This is countries around the world saying yes, we want peace; we want to see this aggression end; we want to see it settled in a good place, and that means a just and durable peace. And a just peace means it has to be consistent with the principles of the United Nations Charter. A durable peace means one in which we don’t simply press the pause button, allow Russia to rearm and rest and then reattack, and repeat this exercise in six months or a year.
QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, I have to ask two quick questions, and we know we’re running out of time. On Syria, I watched your interview in 2021. You said you weren’t able to prevent a big loss of life there, and you will take this with you for the rest of your life. What’s your thoughts (inaudible)?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: What has happened, what Assad has inflicted on his own country and on his own people, is a tragedy. And as someone who was in a previous administration – the Obama administration at the time that this happened – yes, I very much regret that we couldn’t do more – couldn’t do more effectively to stop the killing, to stop the slaughter of the Syrian people, to stop the abuses being committed against them. And so that is something that I feel very, very strongly. Our policy remains to see the actual application of the relevant UN Security Council Resolution 2254 so that there is a genuine political transition in Syria that reflects the rights and aspirations of the Syrian people.
But short of that and until then, there are a number of things that are absolutely critical that would actually improve the lives of Syrians. One is greater access to humanitarian assistance. We go through this exercise every few months of renewing the United Nations mandate for that. We need to see that renewed for a much longer period of time, and we need to see a greater number of crossings allowed so humanitarian assistance can flow into Syria to all communities on all sides, particularly in the wake of the earthquake. We need to have – see an environment in which it would be possible for people to return to Syria, but under the right conditions where they’re safe and protected. We need to see access to the prisons, to the detention centers. We need accountability for what’s happened to tens of thousands of people, hundreds of thousands of people.
And, of course, we also need to see Syria take responsible action to end the trade in Captagon which is devastating communities throughout the region. Synthetic opioids are having a horrific effect here in the Middle East – and in this case, Captagon originating in Syria – also, by the way, in the United States, where a different synthetic opioid, fentanyl, is doing tremendous damage to the United States. It’s one of the reasons we’ll be bringing countries together in an effort to form a coalition to deal with synthetic opioids, but in this case, this is something that Syria and the Saudis will take action on.
QUESTION: One final question: Mr. Secretary, I am from this region. In 1991, the U.S. convened Tel Aviv peace conference between the Israeli and the Palestinians. (Inaudible) was on the table. And the U.S. was the sole superpower in the Middle East and beyond. More than three decades, the Chinese are here. The Russians are here. Are you leaving this region? What happened to the superpower in the Middle East?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Well, I think modestly, I would say that my presence here over the last three days is one element to demonstrate that, no, we’re certainly not leaving. We’re here to stay. President Biden, of course, was here last year and (inaudible) brought together the GCC and many other countries. Day-in, day-out, we’re working with partners throughout the region. And what I hear in almost all of my engagements is the United States remains the number-one partner of choice. That is clear in what I hear, what we hear from all of our partners.
And we’re engaging with them, working with them both to deal with many of the challenges that you just talked about, which are real and urgent and acute, but also – and this is so important – on an affirmative agenda for the future, not just dealing with the crisis, but actually trying together to build a better future for our people in the United States and for people throughout this region.
And you see that in the collaboration that I noted earlier that we have that’s growing stronger and stronger in dealing with issues like food insecurity, like the transition to clean energy, like how to deal and make sure that emerging technologies are used for the good, like addressing climate change – COP 28 will be here in the region, in the Emirates in just a few months — making sure that we have investments in infrastructure, for example, that are a race to the top that protect the rights of workers, the environment, and really address the needs of local communities. These are the kinds of things that we’re working on together, and that’s incredibly positive and incredibly affirmative for the future.
So, yes, we’re dealing with crises, we’re dealing with security challenges, but we’re also dealing with an affirmative agenda. And across the board on all of that, as I said, what I hear again and again is the United States is our preferred partner. We are a partner, and we’re here.
QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, 10 minutes – 15 minutes are not enough. Thank you. Thanks for sitting down with us today.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: My pleasure. Thank you.
QUESTION: Thank you.