SECRETARY POMPEO: Good morning, everyone. Happy New Year. I haven’t been down here in the new year yet. I want to just take a moment, send out my personal condolences to former Congressman Mike Fitzpatrick. He was a friend of mine who I served alongside. He passed away earlier this week, leaving a lovely wife and a family. I wanted to express my condolences to him. His service to America was noble. As a member of Congress, we worked together on pro-life issues during my time in Congress.
I know lots of you have questions about the Middle East and Iraq. I’ll certainly take some questions today. But first, too, I want to offer my condolences to the people of Australia for the tragic loss of life and property caused by the devastating wildfires across that region. America’s thoughts and prayers are with the victims, their families, and the emergency service personnel putting themselves in harm’s way. And the same goes, too, for the dozens of U.S. firefighting personnel who are standing side by side with our Australian friends, fighting the flames together. As I said when I was in Sydney just this past summer, we have a truly unbreakable alliance. They are great friends, and we’re happy to be able to help the Aussies in this time of need.
Staying in Asia, we noted the appointment of Luo Huining, the new head of the Hong Kong Chinese Central Government Liaison Office. He’s expressed hopes that Hong Kong will return to the, quote, “right path,” end of quote. The right path, as I’ve said before, is for the Chinese Communist Party to honor its commitments made to Hong Kong in the Sino-British Joint Declaration filed at the United Nations, a commitment that guarantees the territory’s independent rule of law and freedoms that the Chinese living on the mainland unfortunately do not enjoy.
The United States will continue to work with Hong Kong and the Chinese Communist Party officials to protect human rights and fundamental freedoms in Hong Kong, and to promote Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy.
In Afghanistan, there was an aspect of that conflict that deserves more attention, and that is the Islamic Republic of Iran’s involvement there. Iran has refused to join the regional and international consensus for peace and is, in fact, today actively working to undermine the peace process by continuing its long global efforts to support militant groups there. Most people know about Iran’s proxy networks in the Arab world, but the regime also has a relationship with the Taliban and related groups, such as the Haqqanis, the Tora Bora, and the Mullah Dadullah group. The Taliban’s entanglement in Iran’s dirty work will only harm the Afghanistan peace process.
A couple items here in the hemisphere. In Venezuela, I want to thank and congratulate Juan Guaido on his reelection as the president of the Venezuelan National Assembly, a legitimate reelection by a quorum of 100 deputies. The Maduro regime’s campaign of arrests, intimidation, and bribery could not derail Venezuelan democracy, nor could its use of military forces to physically bar the National Assembly from accessing the parliament building. I applaud how Venezuela’s political parties came together to support Guaido’s reelection. The United States will continue to support President Guaido and the Venezuelan people, and we will continue to rally all other freedom-loving nations across the globe to do that same thing.
We support the Venezuelan people because we believe the Western Hemisphere should be a hemisphere with freedom everywhere.
I also want to highlight the work of the OAS, which has been an instrumental tool in moving the region in that direction. It’s an example of truly outstanding, effective multilateralism. Secretary-General Luis Almagro is the leader we need for the OAS to continue proactively addressing the central challenges facing the region: promoting democracy, upholding human rights, advancing security, and fostering economic development throughout it.
I have more to say about the OAS and the multilateral forum in the coming weeks.
On the theme of basic freedoms, I want to commend members of Bahrain’s Council of Representatives for their January 2nd statement, in which they expressed deep concern over the inhumane and painful conditions to which Uighur Muslims in China are subjected. Bahrain is recognizing what I’ve been saying for months: the Chinese Communist Party is committing mass human rights violations and abuses against Uighurs, ethnic Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, and other Muslims held in detention in Xinjiang. We’re happy with what Bahrain did, and we ask all countries, particularly those belonging to the Organization of Islamic Cooperation and the Arab League, to denounce the Chinese Communist Party’s brutal treatment of Uighurs, which is part of the party’s broader war on faith.
Moving to Europe. As many of you know, Prime Minister Mitsotakis is in town this week. I’m looking forward to welcoming him here. I’ll be with him today at the White House, alongside President Trump.
I also want to announce that our Under Secretary for Political Affairs, David Hale, will be traveling to Brussels later this week, where he’ll have conversations with 28 European counterparts. This is a recurring meeting that happens about every six months. This particular gathering is important because it immediately precedes an EU foreign ministerial on Iran that has just been scheduled. And it shows, too, once again, our close cooperation with our European partners on issues of mutual concern.
I’m sure, while David’s there, the issue of Iran and Iraq will feature prominently in their conversations, and they’ll have an opportunity also to discuss priorities such as Syria, North Korea, and China as well.
Finally, one more personnel matter. I want to thank Ambassador John Bass, who I’ve come to know in my time in service both as the director of the Central Intelligence Agency and now as Secretary of State. His two-year tour of service in Kabul was remarkable. It’s one of our most important missions. Ambassador Bass is a respected strategic thinker, a man of incredible integrity. He’s helped that country move forward to a brighter, more peaceful, and more secure future for all the Afghan people.
And I, too, want to welcome our new 11 ambassadors, and two ambassadors-at-large, who were confirmed since the end of November, including Ambassador Sullivan, who will be heading off to Russia before too long. I’m glad they’re finally getting out to the field, and we hope to have more follow them out there.
With that, I’m happy to take a few questions.
MS ORTAGUS: Matt.
QUESTION: Thank you. Happy New Year, Mr. Secretary.
SECRETARY POMPEO: Hello, Matt.
QUESTION: And in honor of the new year, I have exactly 2,020 questions to ask you. (Laughter.) But I’ll pare them down for the sake of brevity.
SECRETARY POMPEO: Thank you, sir.
QUESTION: One is there continue to be questions about the nature of the intelligence that led to the strike on – that killed General Soleimani. Can you be at all more specific about how imminent this was, what exactly it was? Secondly, why not allow Foreign Minister Zarif to come to the UN to speak at the Security Council? And then lastly, did the situation in Iran have any – contribute at all to your decision not to run for the Senate from Kansas? Thanks.
SECRETARY POMPEO: Thank you. Last one’s easy. I said the same thing yesterday that I said for months – no real news there. I’ve said that I’m going to stay serving as Secretary of State so long as President Trump shall have me. So, no, if I – you can accuse me of being inconsistent elsewise, but not on that one.
Second, we don’t comment on visa matters, those traveling here to the United States on visas, so I can’t add much more to this issue of Foreign Minister Zarif’s travel to the United States. I’ll say only this: We will always comply with our obligations under the UN requirements and the Headquarters Agreement, and we will do so in this particular instance and more broadly every day.
And finally, there’s been much made about this question of intelligence and imminence. I answered it multiple times on Sunday. I’m happy to walk through it again. Anytime a president makes a decision of this magnitude there are multiple pieces of information that come before us. We presented that to him, in all its broad detail. We gave him all the best information that came not only from the intelligence community but for those of us who have teams in the field. We evaluated the relevant risks and the opportunity that we thought might present itself at some point.
And we could see clearly that not only had Soleimani done all of the things that we have recounted – right, hundreds of thousands – a massacre in Syria, enormous destruction of countries like Lebanon and Iraq, where they’ve denied them sovereignty, and the Iranians have really denied people in those two countries what it is they want, right, sovereignty, independence and freedom. This is all Soleimani’s handiwork. And then we’d watch as he was continuing the terror campaign in the region. We know what happened at the end of last year, in December, ultimately leading to the death of an American. So if you’re looking for imminence, you need to look no further than the days that led up to the strike that was taken against Soleimani.
And then you, in addition to that, have what we could clearly see were continuing efforts on behalf of this terrorist to build out a network of campaign activities that were going to lead potentially to the death of many more Americans. It was the right decision. We got it right. The Department of Defense did excellent work. And the President had an entirely legal, appropriate, and a basis, as well as a decision that fit perfectly within our strategy and how to counter the threat of malign activity from Iran more broadly.
MS ORTAGUS: Kyra.
QUESTION: Thank you, Mr. Secretary.
SECRETARY POMPEO: Yes, ma’am.
QUESTION: Two questions, if you don’t mind. Iran’s Foreign Affairs Minister Zarif granted an interview saying that Soleimani was on a diplomatic visit to Iraq, that the U.S. strike to take him out was state terrorism, that President Trump has prepared to commit war crimes, and that Iranians are enraged. First – that’s the first question. I’d like your reaction to that.
Second question. President Trump has indicated that Iran’s cultural sites could be targeted. Is that true? Are they on the target list, and if so, do you consider that a war crime?
SECRETARY POMPEO: So, let’s see – so Zarif’s statement. His first statement that Soleimani was traveling to Baghdad on a diplomatic mission – anybody here believe that? Is there any history that would indicate that it was remotely possible that this kind gentleman, this diplomat of great order, Qasem Soleimani, had traveled to Baghdad for the idea of conducting a peace mission? I made you reporters laugh this morning. That’s fantastic. We know that wasn’t true. We not only know the history, we know in that moment that was not true.
Zarif is a propagandist of the first order, and most of what you suggested in his text message or email or message that you laid out there was, indeed, Iranian propaganda. It’s not new. We’ve heard these same lies before. It’s fundamentally false. He was not there on a diplomatic mission trying to resolve a problem. I know there’s been some story that he was there representing a Saudi peace deal. I’ve spoken to my Saudi counterparts at great length. I’ll leave to them what the contents of their messages may be. But I can assure you that they will share my view, that he was not there representing some kind of agreement that was going to reduce risk or reduce the risks to the lives of Americans when he was on that trip.
Your last piece was about cultural sites. I said on Sunday – I will reiterate it again – every target that’s being reviewed, every effort that’s being made will always be conducted inside the international laws of war. I’ve seen it. I’ve worked on this project, and I’m very confident of that.
MS ORTAGUS: David Brunnstrom.
QUESTION: Thank you.
SECRETARY POMPEO: Yes, sir.
QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, it’s an election year, and you’re now facing two nuclear-related crises in – with Iran and North Korea. Are you optimistic about resolving either of those without them sort of blowing up, so to speak, at inopportune moments?
And on the Iran front, Iran’s breakout time when you came into office was considered to be about a year. Is it now longer or shorter?
SECRETARY POMPEO: I’ll leave it to the intelligence team to talk to you about the details of Iran’s breakout time for the moment, but President Trump could not be more clear. On our watch, Iran will not get a nuclear weapon, and as we came into office, Iran was on a pathway that had been provided by the nuclear deal, which clearly gave them the opportunity to have those nuclear weapons. We won’t let that happen.
As for the first question, which was more broadly, what President Trump laid out is a national security strategy, with respect to both North Korea and Iran, is the plan that we have executed, the strategy that we have executed for this past three years. We have put Iran in a place that it has never been before, where they’ve had to make some very difficult choices – choices about how to pay for and underwrite their proxy militias around the region, whether and how to build out their missile program. This is a flip from where we were eight years before. It’s not political. Previous administration made a different choice. They chose to underwrite and appease. We have chosen to confront and contain. Those are different strategies. We believe ours is successful, and we ultimately believe it will be successful at making Iran behave like a normal nation, will deny them the capacity to build out their nuclear program and threaten not only Americans and our lives – to keep Americans safe, which is our mission set – but also to create enhanced stability throughout the Middle East. We’re confident that that’s the case.
On North Korea, which you asked about, we still are hopeful that we will be able to head down a path. I was here with you all in December sometime when there was lots of talk about what might happen at the end of the year. We’ve not seen that yet. We still remain engaged and hopeful that we could have a conversation about how to get the denuclearization that Chairman Kim promised to President Trump back in 2018.
Take one more.
MS ORTAGUS: Okay. James.
QUESTION: Thank you very much. Mr. Secretary, two quick things here on the Soleimani strike. Since the Trump administration withdrew the United States from the Iran nuclear deal – what, about two years ago or so – the Trump administration has said repeatedly that it is pursuing against Iran a maximum pressure campaign. First question: The Soleimani operation, was that part of the maximum pressure campaign?
SECRETARY POMPEO: Do you have a second one?
QUESTION: Yeah, let’s – we’ll come back to it if you —
SECRETARY POMPEO: If you’d just ask them both, then I’ll tackle them both together.
QUESTION: To your knowledge, was any legal counsel in the Executive Branch consulted for his or her input surrounding the legal aspects of the strike prior to its execution?
SECRETARY POMPEO: Yeah, I’ll leave to others to comment on that, but I can say, as a pattern of practice, I have never seen this administration engage in an activity of this nature without a thorough and complete legal review of what the bases would be if the President were to make a series of decisions. Often, the lawyers review all of the options that are being presented to the President of the United States in advance of them being presented, such that every option that is presented to him has been fully vetted through the legal process. I – I’m confident that that was the case here, although I don’t have specific knowledge of that. I’m confident that that was the case.
Second, you asked about the scope of the – the strategy and the maximum pressure campaign that we’ve had in place. It has a diplomatic component, it has had an economic component, and it has had a military component. And what you have seen over the course of these past – May 2018 when we withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal – you’ve seen us execute that with enormous vigor and energy. You’ve seen it diplomatically. We’ve built out coalitions around the region – with the Israelis, with the Gulf states – on certain files, on the missile file and on the terror file, with our European partners as well, not just the E3. Go back and look from May of last year, go look at the statement that was made in Warsaw, a united statement centering the instability in the Middle East on the Islamic Republic of Iran. We’ve got a coalition now in the Straits of Hormuz. We’ve diplomatically isolated the Iranian regime.
Second, economically, we’ve all seen the sanctions put in place. It’s now over some thousand sanctions. We’ve watched the regime struggle to figure out how it was they were going to make it through 2020. They’ve got a budget that will fall short by a significant amount in 2020 as a direct result of the pressure that we’ve put on the regime. And then you saw, over not just this past week but over the last year, you’ve seen our security component to this. You’ve seen us reinforce allies in the region by ensuring that the Emirates and the Saudis and all of the others were prepared for what might happen if Iran decided to make choices that were bad for the Iranian people. And then you saw more tactically, just these last few days, the President’s response when the Iranians made a bad decision to kill an American. We hope they won’t make another bad decision just like that one.
QUESTION: So just to be clear, the Soleimani strike was part of the administration’s maximum pressure campaign, and going forward, the Iranians should understand, as they develop their calculus, that similar actions such as the Soleimani strike could well continue to be a feature of this maximum pressure campaign?
SECRETARY POMPEO: I think the President’s been unambiguous in his – both the remarks he made down in Florida as well as the tweets that he’s put out – about the seriousness with which we take this, the risk attendant that we are deeply aware of, and the preparations we’ve made to prevent those risks, as well as our determination that in the event the Iranians make another bad choice, that the President will respond in a way that he did last week, which was decisive, serious, and messaged Iran about the constraints that we are going to place on that regime so that it doesn’t continue to put American lives at risk.
At the end, our Iran policy is about protecting and defending the homeland and securing American lives. I know that the efforts that we have taken not only last week with the strike against Soleimani, but the strategy that we’ve employed, has saved American lives. I’m highly confident in that.
QUESTION: Thank you.
QUESTION: On – on Nasrallah?
SECRETARY POMPEO: I can take one more. Take one more.
MS ORTAGUS: Andrea.
SECRETARY POMPEO: Yeah.
QUESTION: Mr. Secretary —
SECRETARY POMPEO: Andrea, yes, ma’am. How are you?
QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, thank you very much. A question about the issue of cultural sites, because the President said on Air Force One coming back, after you had been on the Sunday talk shows, that “They’re allowed to kill our people. They’re allowed to torture and maim our people. They’re allowed to use roadside bombs and blow up our people. And we’re not allowed to touch their cultural sites. It doesn’t work that way.”
Defense Secretary Esper has made it clear that he would not follow an order to hit a cultural site, would – would be a war crime. I’m wondering whether you would also push back in your advice or in your role. And secondly —
SECRETARY POMPEO: You’re not really wondering, Andrea. You’re not really wondering.
QUESTION: Well, the President is saying this repeatedly —
SECRETARY POMPEO: I was unambiguous on Sunday. It is completely consistent with what the President has said.
QUESTION: No, but the President has —
SECRETARY POMPEO: We will take – every action we take will be consistent with the international rule of law. And you – the American people can rest assured that that’s the case.
QUESTION: But are cultural sites ruled out, sir?
SECRETARY POMPEO: Let me tell you who’s done damage to the Persian culture. It’s not the United States of America; it’s the ayatollah. If you want to look at who has denied religious freedom, if you want to know who has denied – the Persian culture is rich and steeped in history and intellect and they’ve denied the capacity for that culture to continue. If you go back and look at the holidays around Cyrus and Nowruz, they’ve not permitted people to celebrate. They’ve not allowed people that they’ve killed – that Qasem Soleimani killed – they’ve not allowed them to go mourn their family members. The real risk to Persian culture does not come from the United States of America.
QUESTION: Can I ask a —
QUESTION: Sir, could I follow up? And so —
SECRETARY POMPEO: That – there is no mistake about that.
SECRETARY POMPEO: Thank you, all. Everybody have a good day.