MODERATOR: Good afternoon, good evening, good morning to everyone from the Department of State’s Dubai Regional Media Hub. I would like to welcome our participants dialing in from the Middle East and around the world for this on-the-record press briefing with the U.S. State Department’s Deputy Assistant Secretary for Iraq and Iran Jennifer Gavito.
DAS Gavito will discuss U.S.-Iraq relations and our vision for the bilateral relationship following government formation. After opening remarks, DAS Gavito will take questions from participating journalists.
We are pleased to offer simultaneous interpretation for this briefing in Arabic. We request that everyone keep this in mind and speak slowly.
I’ll now turn it over to Deputy Assistant Secretary Gavito for her opening remarks. DAS Gavito, the floor is yours.
DAS Gavito: Thanks, Sam. As-salamu alaykum and Ramadam mubarak to everybody on the line. Good afternoon and greetings from Washington. Hope everybody has been healthy and is enjoying a peaceful and fulfilling Ramadan.
I just wanted to start with a few remarks at the top. First and foremost, the United States deeply values its strategic partnership with Iraq. We have a long-term commitment to Iraq and to the region. We’ve held a series of U.S.-Iraq Strategic Dialogues, the last one in July 2021. Every time our nations meet, we reaffirm our commitment to preserve and strengthen the strategic relationship across the full spectrum of bilateral issues for the sake of both our national interests and our shared interests in regional stability.
A long-term, deep, and multifaceted partnership with Iraq serves both the American people and the Iraqi people. For example, I traveled to Baghdad and Erbil last month, and I saw some of the progress in our economic cooperation. I met with Iraqi female entrepreneurs developing the seeds of a thriving private sector. I met with the Federation of Iraqi Chambers of Commerce to discuss how the United States supports business development hubs across Iraq to conduct business incubation and acceleration programs, which helps young Iraqi startups expand their projects and secure financing. I also discussed the reforms that would be necessary for Iraq to attract world-class U.S. firms to invest in energy, health care, and other sectors.
My visit made me hopeful for our partnership, which is having a real and positive impact on Iraqis. The United States is uniquely positioned to help Iraq address its economic challenges, and we hope to continue to deepen and expand that partnership.
We’re also committed to helping strengthen Iraqi democracy and sovereignty. Iraq’s early elections last year were an opportunity for Iraqi voters to determine their future through a government that reflects the will of the Iraqi people and which can address Iraq’s governance and economic challenges. Now that the Iraqi people have made their voices heard through the ballot box, it is time for Iraq’s leaders to form a government. The United States is eager to work with that new government on key issues of mutual concern, including Iraq’s stability and sovereignty, economic empowerment for all Iraqis, anti-corruption, human rights protections, energy independence, climate, and health.
The current delay in government formation is impeding our progress on these bilateral issues, and in all sectors, including security, economy, culture, education, environment, health care, and more. Most importantly, however, it prevents Iraqi leaders from addressing important issues and providing the essential services for ordinary Iraqis for which they were elected. For this reason, the United States urges all parties to expedite government formation. Lack of a fully functional government will breed insecurity, instability, and it threatens to erode both the confidence of the international community and that of the Iraqi people who came out to vote.
Once a government is formed, we look forward to working with our Iraqi partners on further implementation of the Strategic Framework Agreement to deepen and broaden our bilateral relationship; our continuing support to the Iraqi Security Forces to ensure the enduring defeat of ISIS and defend Iraqi sovereignty; to supporting electricity grid interconnection projects to increase capacity and reliability while reducing costs; improving the investment climate for U.S. and other businesses to bring new jobs, technologies, and services to Iraq; and supporting Iraq’s priorities on climate change, environmental preservation, education, and cultural heritage preservation.
Fundamentally, the United States wants to see a strong, united, resilient, and sovereign Iraqi state. We will stay with Iraq during this journey to advise, assist, and support you and be what we have always been: a friend to the Iraqi people, a friend that wants all Iraqis, including the people of the Iraqi Kurdistan Region, to succeed and thrive. And with that, I’m happy to take your questions.
MODERATOR: Great, thank you, Deputy Assistant Secretary Gavito. So, we will now begin the question and answer portion of today’s call. Questions submitted in advance have been incorporated into the queue, and I’m happy to say we received quite a few questions submitted in advance by our journalist friends from really across the region today.
So, I’m going to start with one of our pre-submitted questions, DAS Gavito, if that’s okay, and it comes from Mina Al-Oraibi from The National newspaper in the United Arab Emirates. And Mina asks: “What are Washington’s concerns about Iraq’s delay in government formation, and what are the steps it has taken to advise officials in Baghdad?” Over to you.
DAS GAVITO: Sure. Thanks, Mina, and good to hear from you. So, first of all, as far as what our concerns are, they’re multifaceted. The ongoing delay in government formation is first and foremost a delay in a new Iraqi government being able to provide the services and deliver on the mandate for which they were elected. This manifests itself – and I covered some of this in the opening remarks, so I won’t go into great detail – but this manifests itself in the lack of a budget and being able to move forward on key priorities for us on having a partner moving forward to work on some of these key priority areas.
As far as our conversations with the Iraqis, our message has been pretty consistent throughout, and that is the U.S. first and foremost does not take a position as far as which personalities are involved in government formation. However, we were gratified, especially after the significant support that the U.S. provided for the elections – and I’m happy to go into that – voter turnout really demonstrated an interest in solidifying Iraqi democracy and putting Iraqi sovereignty at the forefront. And so our conversations with Iraqi leaders reiterate that point that there is a great opportunity to seize upon that mandate, to further advance Iraqi democracy, and to protect both Iraqi sovereignty and economic prosperity, and therefore we have encouraged all of the parties consistently to put aside their individual differences and act on behalf of the good of the Iraqi people to move this forward.
MODERATOR: Great, thank you, DAS Gavito. Our next question is also a pre-submitted question from our colleague Monalisa Freiha at An-nahar newspaper from Lebanon. And Monalisa asks: “How do you view the security cooperation between the U.S. and Iraq since the U.S. ended the combat mission in Iraq?” Over to you.
DAS GAVITO: Great, thank you, Sam. So, I think, as participants on the line will know, December 31st – and actually several weeks before that – marks the end of U.S. combat operations in Iraq. Our mission at that point changed to one of advise, assist, and enable. And this really was a watershed moment for the bilateral relationship in that it acknowledged first and foremost the extraordinary strides the Iraqi Security Forces have taken in their own capabilities to defend Iraqi sovereignty against threats of all sorts. And so, this really was notable for not only what has been accomplished, but for what lies ahead, and that is this relationship, arguably the first time in the post-Saddam era, is premised not only on security, but on all of the other key priority areas that emerged from the Strategic Framework Agreement that we seek to work on together. And so, moving forward we have an opportunity to really deepen and develop the relationship in that vein.
MODERATOR: Great, thank you. Our next question will also be a pre-submitted question, and it comes from Nawzad Hakim from Iraq’s Soraya Press. And Nawzad asks: “What is the U.S. State Department doing regarding minorities and their rights in Iraq?” Over to you.
DAS GAVITO: Great, thank you for that. So, the U.S. over the course of years has provided significant amounts of support. This has been a key priority to both protect minorities in Iraq and also ensure that they are able to return to their homes. We continue to provide that. We think, in particular, a durable agreement between the Iraqi federal government and the KRG [Kurdistan Regional Government] with input from local communities is the best way specifically in the case of Sinjar to resolve the situation. We stand behind the Sinjar agreement and have worked closely with governments in both locations to make progress on that. And frankly, we’ve been disappointed that on some key issues such as security and administration, we still have a long way to go.
This is one key area where government formation is absolutely critical. This – again, just I can’t reiterate enough – remains a priority area for us, absolutely essential for Iraq’s future that all minority groups, all displaced persons have an opportunity to benefit from a strong Iraqi state and what we view as a really optimistic future. And so, again, we can only urge in the strongest terms formation of a government that prioritizes this issue as we do.
Sam, if I can revert back, I realize I missed one key point, too, on the last question, and that is ISIS in particular. I just want to take the opportunity to say that while ISIS has been arguably territorially defeated, it remains a significant issue for the international community, and we continue our efforts with the Iraqi Security Forces to both ensure that there is no resurgence and at the same time to build the capacity of the forces there to address any future flareups.
MODERATOR: Great, thank you, DAS Gavito. I am trying to get through quite a bit of the pre-submitted questions because we did have quite a bit of pre-submitted questions come in from our colleagues on the Arabic line of this call, and so I’d like to get through a few of those if I can. And DAS Gavito, we had quite a few questions from journalists asking a similar question about press freedoms, and so I’ll just kind of combine all those questions into one question, and just in general, how do you see currently the state of press freedom in Iraq? Over to you.
DAS GAVITO: Sure, thanks very much. So, we have consistently reaffirmed our strong commitment to press freedom through both official statements, public engagements, but also in private conversations. Again, I think as everybody on this line knows, the United States strongly supports press freedom, and we believe fundamentally that access to information is key to a healthy democracy. And so, this is a frequent topic of conversation in our meetings. Again, I’m not going to go into private diplomatic conversations, but beyond that, we support journalists and advocate for press freedom through a whole variety of different means, including exchange programs and trainings, ongoing conversations with journalists and NGOs that advocate for press freedom. We’re committed in particular to fostering strong relationships with female journalists, journalists from minority communities, and journalism students. And I just know, personally, I did a roundtable about 10 days ago with a group of journalists from the KRG to talk about press freedom issues and the importance of those to the United States and to our bilateral relationship.
MODERATOR: Great, thank you, DAS Gavito. So now we’ll do a question from our live queue, and it will go to Rahim Rashidi from Kurdistan TV. Operator, please open the line.
QUESTION: Good morning. Yeah, good morning from beautiful Virginia. Thank you for this opportunity. I would like to ask you, as you know, Prime Minister Masoud Barzani was in Dubai during this week, and last week actually, and he was in London as well. He [inaudible] about Kurdistan is able to provide gas to international [inaudible] and marketing. What is U.S. position about that? And as you said, you were in Kurdistan; what you discussed over there? Thank you.
DAS GAVITO: Sure, thank you so much for the question. I was recently, as I mentioned, in Erbil and had the opportunity to meet with both the leadership there, to include [inaudible] Masoud, Masrour Barzani, Nechirvan Barzani, as well as a range of civil society and other actors. As far as our conversations there, the relationship between the IKR [Iraqi Kurdistan Region] and the United States historically is very strong and very close, and the trips are an opportunity to reiterate our commitment to the prosperity of the Kurdish people within a strong and sovereign Iraq.
So, they were good conversations. Again, I don’t want to get into specifics of what we discussed, but I can just say it ran the full range of our concern over government formation, including the need for Kurdish unity, moving forward in order to protect the well-being of the Kurdish people within the context of a federal Iraq. We talked about human rights and press freedom issues. We discussed the oil and gas sector, as you might imagine. And so, it was a wide-ranging conversation, very, very positive.
As far as the specifics of the oil and gas sector, we understand the importance of it to the Kurdistan Regional Government and to the economy of the Kurdistan region. Again, we support a stable, prosperous, democratic, and unified Iraq that includes the Kurdistan Region. And Iraq is obviously a strategic partner of the U.S. We have a long-term commitment there. Therefore, in our view, it’s important that the Government of Iraq and the Kurdistan Regional Government come to the table to negotiate a solution to the oil issue that is acceptable to both parties.
MODERATOR: Great, thank you, DAS Gavito. Our next question is another pre-submitted question from Zena Ibrahim from Al-Iraqiya TV. And she asks: “Do you think the U.S.-Iraq relationship will continue at the same level militarily, economically, regardless of who forms the next government?” Over to you, DAS Gavito.
DAS GAVITO: Thank you. It is up to the Iraqi people to determine what their next government looks like, and we look forward to working with any Iraqi government that puts the needs of the Iraqi people and the sovereignty of Iraq at the forefront. And I don’t think that the government – that the relationship between the U.S. and Iraq will stay at the same level; I think it will continue to expand. President Biden has been extremely clear that he sees Iraq as central to stability throughout the Middle East and is personally committed to the expansion and deepening of this relationship. So, this is where our great optimism comes from. This is why we’re eager for government formation to take place, so that we can start moving forward with all of those priorities that I outlined earlier.
MODERATOR: Great, thank you. Our next question is going to go to the live queue, and it will go to Dania Saadi from S&P Global Commodity. Operator, please open the line.
QUESTION: Hello? Hello?
MODERATOR: Yes, we can hear you.
QUESTION: Okay. Thank you for the opportunity. The Deputy Assistant mentioned the energy independence of Iraq, and I wanted to ask about the waivers that the U.S. Department grants to Iraq to import gas and to import electricity. For how long will the U.S. keep granting these waivers? And also, with regards to the U.S. investments in Iraq’s energy sector, ExxonMobil has a case against one of the Iraqi oil companies. How is this going to likely impact the investor confidence in Iraq, U.S. investor confidence in Iraq’s oil and gas sector? Thank you.
DAS GAVITO: Great, thanks so much. First of all, as far as the waivers go, that really is the prerogative of the Secretary of State, but these waivers have been issued on a regular basis since I believe 2018, but we can confirm that, and it is important to continue to provide Iraq with the energy needs that it has.
As far as the dispute, I’m not going to get into specifics of individual commercial disputes, but what I can say is that this once again really drives home why it is so important to have a budget, why it is so important to have a government where U.S. and international investors feel confident that they have a partner on the other side to address any concerns that they have. We are deeply committed to expanding U.S. investment, but as we have shared publicly and in private meetings, it’s absolutely essential that our companies are confident that they will be paid and that contracts will be upheld. And so, we are working closely with the parties to make sure in all cases that this is – this is indeed what is happening in order to facilitate greater investment moving forward.
MODERATOR: Great, thank you, DAS Gavito. I believe we have time for maybe one or two more questions. I’ll do a pre-submitted question next. So, this pre-submitted question comes from our colleague Waleed Alghandour from Bahrain’s Al-Watan newspaper. And Waleed asks: “What is the Biden administration’s strategy in dealing with Iran and its militias in Iraq, especially with the expansion of its influence?” Over to you.
DAS GAVITO: Sure, thank you. It won’t surprise you to hear that the U.S. is deeply concerned about Iranian malign influence, especially as it undermines the stability and integrity of Iraq’s sovereignty and national institutions. And as we candidly saw in the elections, so are the Iraqi people. President Biden has made it very clear that the U.S. seeks to resolve our differences with Iran through diplomatic means. However, the militia attacks, taking their orders from outside of Iraq, undermine the Iraqi state and serve to destabilize Iraq and the region, and they have to stop.
The problem, as I think everyone understands, is that Iran continues to support armed groups which conduct attacks to undermine its neighbors throughout the region, including attacking Iraqi bases where U.S. and coalition forces are co-located. Iran tries to deny responsibility, but, frankly, nobody is fooled. Iran cannot believe that it can continue to conduct diplomacy with one hand while deploying or supporting violence with the other. We will continue to make this crystal-clear in any conversations with partners in the region.
MODERATOR: Great, thank you, DAS Gavito. And why don’t we do one last question from our live queue, and she did submit a pre-submitted question that I read at the beginning, but she’s on the live queue. So, I’ll go ahead and ask our operator to open the line of Mina Al-Oraibi from The National newspaper here in the UAE. Operator, please open the line.
QUESTION: Thank you so much for giving me the chance to ask another question. My question is related to the attacks earlier in the year in the Kurdistan Region. The first attack the Iranians claimed; the second attack most likely is not by the Iranians but by – supported by their proxy. So, Ms. Gavito, you spoke about the importance of Iraq’s sovereignty and there’s all this concern about what that means to Iraq’s sovereignty. Are you providing any military help or supporting the Iraqis in trying to protect their air defenses, particularly in the Kurdistan regional area? Thank you.
DAS GAVITO: Thanks for that, and I’d refer back to what I just said for a good deal of that. However, just to reinforce that the assistance that we’re providing falls into the vein of advise, assist, and enable. I can’t speak to specific operations or specific capabilities, but our goal is to ensure that the Iraqi Security Forces are absolutely able to address any threats to Iraqi sovereignty – and that includes the Peshmerga, of course, which we continue to also support, including through the reform process.
So yeah, I mean, these attacks are outrageous, they have to stop, and fly in the face of what we saw as the outcome of the elections in October. So, we will continue to provide the assistance needed as Iraqi Security Forces confront this.
MODERATOR: Great, thank you, DAS Gavito. Now I’ll turn it back over to you for any closing remarks.
DAS GAVITO: Sure. Thanks, Sam, and thanks to everybody that participated today. I really appreciate having the opportunity. When we look throughout the region at where the opportunities are, Iraq really stands out as a place where there is reason for a great deal of optimism. The elections weren’t perfect, but they were the most technically credible in Iraq’s history. Through the Strategic Framework Agreement, we have a very clear agenda, positive agenda, for future cooperation, and we are eager to get that underway. And so we will continue to press for government formation, for Iraq’s leaders to implement the outcome of the October elections so that we can move forward in the areas of education, energy modernization, investment, health care, all of those things that are so important to the Iraqi people and are so natural to any bilateral relationship that we have in the world. So, I appreciate your time today in letting me get that message out and look forward to engaging again in the near future.
MODERATOR: Great. Well, that concludes today’s call, everyone. We’d like to thank you all for dialing in today. We thank our speaker, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Iraq and Iran Jennifer Gavito, for her time. If you have any questions about today’s call, you can contact the Dubai Regional Media Hub of the State Department at DubaiMediaHub@state.gov. Information on how to access the English recording of this call will be provided by AT&T shortly. Thank you for joining us and have a great day.
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