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Department Press Briefing – December 20, 2021

28 min read

Ned Price, Department Spokesperson

WASHINGTON, D.C.

2:12 p.m. EST

MR PRICE: Good afternoon. Sorry for the false start on the two-minute warning. My fault entirely. We have a few things at the top and then look forward to taking your questions.

So first, today I’d like to note Secretary Blinken’s designation of Under Secretary for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights Uzra Zeya to serve concurrently as the U.S. special coordinator for Tibetan issues.

Special Coordinator Zeya will coordinate U.S. efforts to advance the human rights of Tibetans, including freedom of religion or belief; increase access to the region; protect the environment and sustainably manage water resources of the Tibetan plateau; and address the humanitarian needs of Tibetan refugees and Tibetan diaspora communities, many of whom continue to face threats, including in the United States.

The United States is committed to supporting the aspirations of Tibetans to safeguard their distinct identity.

We congratulate the people – next – excuse me. We congratulate the people of Chile on the exemplary December 19th democratic presidential runoff election and President-elect Gabriel Boric for his decisive victory. The United States and Chile are longstanding partners with shared democratic values. We look forward to working with the incoming Boric administration to continue our active collaboration on human rights and democracy, economic prosperity, climate issues, COVID-19, science, migration, and development, among other urgent matters.

And finally, we’re disappointed by the verdicts issued today by Egypt’s State Security Court in the trials of Alaa Abdel Fattah, Mohamed El-Baqer, and Mohammed “Oxygen” Ibrahim. Journalists, human rights defenders, and others seeking to peacefully exercise their freedom of expression should be able to do so without facing criminal penalties, intimidation, harassment, or any other form of reprisal. We have emphasized to the Egyptian government that our bilateral relationship will be strengthened by improving respect for human rights, and we will continue to engage the Egyptian government to promote freedom of expression and other universal human rights.

With that, I’m happy to take your questions. Francesco.

QUESTION: (Inaudible.) Just to follow up on Egypt, have you directly talked to the Egyptian government about this after the court decision? And are you making this or a reversal of this decision part of the conditions for the aid that was conditioned to human rights respect?

MR PRICE: Well, as I said a moment ago, we have made very clear that our relationship will be improved with progress in human rights broadly, and we have also made very clear to the Egyptian government specific concerns we have in various cases. I’m not in a position to read out those private conversations.

What I can tell you broadly, however, is that in just about every senior-level engagement with the Egyptian government, human rights is a topic of discussion. That was certainly the case when Secretary Blinken met with President Sisi. It was certainly the case when President Biden spoke to President Sisi. It was certainly the case when Secretary Blinken has spoken to his Egyptian counterpart.

These are issues that we consistently raise with Egypt, noting that we share a mutual desire to strengthen the bilateral relationship. We’ve been able to do that in some areas and we’d like to be able to do more, and a priority of ours will continue to be human rights in the Egyptian context.

QUESTION: If I can —

MR PRICE: Sure.

QUESTION: Is it on the same topic, or —

QUESTION: Yeah.

QUESTION: Okay.

QUESTION: Oh, okay, thanks. The U.S. had already raised with Cairo the issue of human rights and had withheld a small portion of military aid. Will you consider suspension of further aid over this?

MR PRICE: Well, again, the point is that our bilateral relationship can be improved if we see progress on human rights. We have made that very clear, including today, including before with the announcement of the FMF funding. But we’ve also made that very clear in private, and we have discussed human rights in the abstract in private, but we’ve also discussed specific cases. And so even though we are not going to go into specific cases from the podium, the Egyptian government is very aware of the concerns we have both broadly and specifically.

QUESTION: Ned, just to follow on this very point, now, you said that you made it very clear to Egypt that your relationship will be strengthened by adhering to human rights and so on. Conversely, do you see that relationship sort of losing strength or not becoming as strong, as friendly if they don’t adhere to these human rights values that you espouse?

MR PRICE: Well, again, we think that we can improve upon the relationship if we see progress in human rights. We have an important relationship, an important partnership with Egypt. It is a partnership that has important security elements, important political elements, important regional elements. Egypt has been a constructive influence for the region, and you only need look at the brief conflict over the summer between Israel and Gaza, to see the constructive role that Egypt has played in that context.

And so, we certainly value our partnership with Egypt and that is why we have placed this emphasis on trying to see if we can strengthen that relationship even further. And there are a number of areas where we seek to do that and human rights is certainly one area where we will be looking to see just how much we can strengthen and enhance this partnership.

QUESTION: Can I ask about Ukraine and Russia?

MR PRICE: Sure.

QUESTION: So, on Friday and again today, I think Jake Sullivan spoke to his counterpart. You said that you are ready to engage in diplomacy. Is there any path forward you’re considering more concretely about this engagement? Is there something that in the Russian response may give you the idea of what will be the next steps? And, also, simultaneously, do you believe that there is a de-escalation on the Russian side at the border or not at all?

MR PRICE: Well, you heard from one of our administration colleagues on Friday who went into some detail about this, but Russia, as we have said and as everyone knows, has put on the table its concerns with – its stated concerns with American and with NATO activities. We are going to put on the table our concerns with Russian activities that we believe are harmful to our collective interests and our collective values – collective with our European allies and partners.

The White House today noted in the readout of National Security Advisor Sullivan’s call with his counterpart, Mr. Ushakov, that we are prepared to engage diplomatically through multiple channels, and that includes through the NATO-Russia Council, through the OSCE, and also, if appropriate, bilaterally.

We have made clear through all of this that any dialogue – and dialogue is what we’re after, diplomacy is what we’re after. But any dialogue, any diplomacy has to be based on the principles of reciprocity; it has to address our concerns about Russia’s actions; and importantly, it has to take place in full coordination with our allies and partners in Europe. Nothing about them without them. There will be no talks with Russia on European security without our European allies and partners.

The point we have repeatedly made is that we are having this discussion in the context of Russia’s ongoing aggression against Ukraine, but in some ways, this is bigger than any one country. It’s bigger than any two countries if you want to look at it through the lens of Russia and Ukraine. This is about one of the foundational principles of the international order, and that is that no country, however large, however powerful, however much military might, whether a country has nuclear weapons or not, no country has the right to dictate borders, to bully smaller countries, to intimidate, to coerce, to pursue their own interests.

That is not something that the United States, that is not something that our partners, our allies will stand for, whether that is in in the context of Europe, whether it’s in the context of the Indo-Pacific, whether it’s in the context of anywhere in between. That has to be one of the foundational principles of the international order, the order that has in some ways propelled security and prosperity and promise for the past 70 years. If we allow that principle to be eroded in this context, we allow it to be degraded going forward, and that’s not something we wish to see happen. It’s not something we will allow to see happen.

QUESTION: So, there’s no agreement for now on the format on how – what this dialogue could (inaudible)?

MR PRICE: We have made very clear that we are prepared to engage diplomatically through multiple channels, but we don’t have any announcements at this time. Obviously, the Russians have put their concerns on the table. We have our own concerns. And if we have additional details about how we’re going to engage on that, we’ll share those at the appropriate time.

QUESTION: And any de-escalation at the border?

MR PRICE: I don’t think we’ve seen anything that would allay our concerns.

Yes.

QUESTION: Afghanistan?

MR PRICE: Sure.

QUESTION: Aid groups, the international community, lawmakers are all intensifying their calls on the Biden administration to take action to help Afghanistan as millions are in need of food and medicine. Does the United States agree with the urgency of the situation, and if it does, what, if any, action will it take to help mitigate the crisis?

MR PRICE: We absolutely do. We absolutely believe there is an urgent humanitarian situation in Afghanistan at the moment. This is not something that is entirely unique to the present. This is something that was pre-existing before the withdrawal of American military forces, but it’s also something that has become more acute. And it’s become more acute for a number of reasons: years of war, the ongoing drought, the – an economy that over the course of years and even a couple of decades has – had become dependent on international assistance. And of course, our concern is growing even more acute as we are now in the winter months. And our concern for the welfare and the wellbeing of the Afghan people is further pronounced.

I’ll make a couple of points on this. First, when it comes to humanitarian assistance, the United States is the global leader in providing humanitarian assistance to the people of Afghanistan. We have provided since August $208 million alone; we’ve provided nearly 475 million over the course of this year. We have taken other steps as a government to do what we can to facilitate the provision of additional humanitarian assistance to the Afghan people. The Department of the Treasury, for example, has issued general licenses to offer a degree of reassurance to other countries and entities that – to essentially signal that we support the provision of humanitarian aid to the Afghan people.

We are working with various UN bodies, including the UNDP, to find creative ways that we can infuse not only humanitarian aid but also liquidity into the Afghan economy. As you know, our Special Representative for Afghanistan Tom West was recently in Pakistan, where he attended a meeting of the OIC. And the OIC recently announced in the context of that meeting the establishment of a trust fund, which will provide another important tool to provide money to the people of Afghanistan.

We supported the release recently of $280 million from the so-called ARTF, the fund that the World Bank administered. When it comes to our public health response, especially when it comes to COVID, just within the past few days we have announced an offer of 1 million additional doses of vaccine through COVAX for Afghanistan. That brings our total donation to 4.3 million doses for the people of Afghanistan.

But we also recognize that even as we will continue to be the world’s humanitarian leader for the Afghan people, that this is not something the United States can do alone. And so that is why we’ve been working with multinational, multilateral international bodies, but also with other countries to make the point that the international community, as a whole, needs to step up when it comes to what it is prepared to provide for the Afghan people. The United States has attempted to do that in a number of ways, including by demonstrating our leadership and underscoring our action on this. We have seen generous donations, seen generous offers from some countries, but there are other countries – including countries very nearby, regional countries – that can and should do more for the Afghan people, the region, and beyond.

We all have a stake in an Afghanistan that is stable and secure, but also a country where the humanitarian needs of its – of the Afghan people are being addressed. That is what we’re seeking to do. If there are additional ways that we can support that, whether it is through our own humanitarian efforts, whether it’s by galvanizing action on the part of other countries or other bodies, we will do that. We have done that. But our work here is ongoing.

QUESTION: Which nearby countries would you like to see more from?

MR PRICE: I don’t think it is helpful for the cause of the humanitarian plight of the Afghan people for me specifically to call out countries by name, but I think there are some perhaps fairly obvious countries in the region that have the ability and the stake in seeing an Afghanistan that is stable and secure, an Afghanistan where the people and their humanitarian needs are being addressed.

Courtney.

QUESTION: Staying on Afghanistan, the Secretary is set to meet with some Afghan refugees today. I’m just curious, what is the status of the department’s efforts to help the tens of thousands of SIV principal applicants and their families that are remaining in the country, particularly as the humanitarian situation deteriorates? I know we now have a protecting power in the country. I mean, is that – is that accelerating efforts to bring people out?

MR PRICE: Well, as you know, our efforts to relocate not only American citizens and lawful permanent residents, but also Afghans at risk, have been ongoing. We made very clear when the military mission came to an end at the end of August that our commitment to these groups would be enduring, and I think it should be clear that we have made good on that commitment. We have, as you know, since August 31st, directly assisted the departure of 479 U.S. citizens and 450 lawful permanent residents. There are now fewer than a dozen Americans in Afghanistan with whom we’re in contact who are prepared and ready to depart. There are about 150 additional Americans with whom we’re in contact who are not, for one reason or another, prepared to depart.

We have continued as well to do what we can to support Afghans to whom we have a special commitment, and that includes those who fall within the category of the SIVs. We are undertaking efforts to relocate those with visa foils in their passport. We also from there are prioritizing those with foil-less visas. We are looking at alternatives to processing for the larger cohort within this category knowing that, even though our presence on the ground in Afghanistan is no more, we are doing what we can from other posts and looking at creative solutions to continue our efforts to safely relocate those individuals who wish to depart the country.

We issued a pretty comprehensive update on our relocation efforts – I believe it was early last week. We made the point and we have made the point that, in addition to the Americans, to the lawful permanent residents, our efforts have facilitated the departure of a couple thousand additional individuals from Afghanistan. And again, that is not a mission that has any expiration date attached to it. We made that point in August, we made that point in September, and now that we’re in December and approaching 2022, I think that point is – we have made very clear.

Yes.

QUESTION: Marcin Wrona, TVN Discovery from Poland. Ned, on Friday, the parliament in Poland passed a law which will force Discovery, which is one of the biggest American investments in the country, out of Poland. But on the other hand, as I understand, President Duda made a commitment to a group of U.S. investors that he would veto the law. So, what is your understanding of this situation? What are your plans, your next steps?

MR. PRICE: Well, we had an opportunity to address this on Friday. But what we said then and where we are now is this: We are deeply troubled by the passage in Poland of the law you referenced, a law that would gravely weaken media freedom there. We encourage President Duda to reaffirm his past statements in support of freedom of expression, the sanctity of contracts, and the shared values that underpin our relationship. And we strongly encourage him, we strongly encourage President Duda to act on these values in regard to this legislation, because if it becomes law in its current form, it could severely affect media freedom and the foreign investment climate in Poland.

You noted that TVN is owned by a parent company, an American parent company, Discovery, and of course we like to see our companies treated fairly around the world, but this is bigger than any one company. This is also about media freedom; it is about the media space in Poland. And if allowed to go into force in its current form, our concern is that this legislation would severely impinge on that. That’s something we would not like to see happen. There are many things that cement our bilateral relationship with Poland – shared values, is one of them, and certainly, we don’t want to see one of those shared values undermined or diluted in any way.

QUESTION: How would this impact the Polish-American relations, if it’s implemented?

MR. PRICE: Well, again, I don’t think it’s helpful for us to entertain a hypothetical, and because we – precisely because we hope it remains a hypothetical. We hope that President Duda will, in fact, act on his prior statements – his prior statements on media freedom, the sanctity of contracts, and of course, his belief in the shared values that really underpin our relationship.

So again, we would like for this to be a hypothetical. We would like to see this legislation not enter into force.

Yes.

QUESTION: Thank you, Ned. The first meeting of states party to the UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons is scheduled for next March. There was a Japanese media report that just came out saying the U.S. has made a request to the Japanese government through diplomatic channels to not attend this meeting as an observer. I’d just like to ask if you can confirm this.

And also, I know the U.S. is not a party to this treaty, but could you just explain what the U.S. stance is on the treaty and also towards Japan?

MR PRICE: Sure. So, I’ll make a couple points. We certainly understand and we share the desire to advance our collective nuclear disarmament goals. But we don’t support the treaty, the Treaty on Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. And we categorically reject any claim that it would contribute to the goal that is the stated goal that’s at the heart of the treaty.

The U.S. position on this issue has spanned administrations. It is shared by all other nuclear weapons possessor states and our NATO Allies as well. We stand ready to work with all countries on tangible and verifiable measures to reduce strategic risks, and to enable real progress when it comes to our shared nuclear disarmament goal.

We don’t question at all the motivations, the intent, of supporters of the treaty. We just don’t believe that the treaty would aid in meeting the underlying objectives that those behind it seek to achieve.

QUESTION: And did the United States ask Japan not to attend?

MR PRICE: I can speak to our position on this. I just don’t have anything to say to any private discussions we may have with allies on this.

Yes.

QUESTION: Thank you.

MR PRICE: Please, Said.

QUESTION: Yes, thank you. A couple questions. Actually, the same question I asked Jalina on Friday, and she was kind enough to respond to me, but I’m still unclear. I mean, why all this vagueness on the consulate? Why the vagueness? I mean, the Israelis swear up and down that you guys have backtracked and so on. Could you make it very clear that the United States is committed to reopening of the consulate in Jerusalem?

MR PRICE: Said, we’re not trying to be vague, but you’re asking for updates, and we just don’t have an update to provide.

QUESTION: No, but I’m not – I’m asking: Are you still committed to the reopening of the consulate?

MR PRICE: We just do not have an update to provide. You have —

QUESTION: What does that mean? Because you used to say without any – without hesitation that you are reopening the consulate. Are you or are you not? I mean, either you fish or you cut bait.

MR PRICE: We’ve spoken to this. You’ve heard from the Secretary on this on a couple of occasions now. It’s just that we don’t have an update to offer.

QUESTION: So, can we take this to be an affirming of your commitment to reopen the consulate?

MR PRICE: I would take this to mean that we just don’t have an update as to where we are on those plans.

QUESTION: All right. So let me ask – let me go to another issue. On the removal of the seventh family, an Israeli journalist just posted that it’s been put off till January. But why can’t you tell the Israelis that according to the ICC or international law the removal of a population or any part thereof is a war crime? You agreed to the —

MR PRICE: Well —

QUESTION: The move – the forced movement of a population is a war crime. You just spoke that you adhere to the principles of borders and so on about Ukraine. I mean, we hope that you also hold that principle to be true in occupied Palestine.

MR PRICE: We’ve consistently said, and our Israeli partners know that we’re following the Sheikh Jarrah case very, very carefully. We have also been very clear about our concerns. We remain concerned about the potential eviction of Palestinian families, many of whom have lived in these homes for generations. We’ve said that publicly. We’ve said that privately. We’ve done so in both contexts repeatedly.

QUESTION: Let me ask you one last question. Jerusalem church leaders say that radical Israeli groups are trying to force Palestinian Christians out of the areas in which they have inhabited for literally hundreds of years and so on. And I was talking to a Palestinian Christian leader last week, just last week, and he talked about all the harassment, all the difficulties that they face every day. Do you have any position on this?

MR PRICE: Well, we’re aware of the statements you referred to. We call on all parties to engage in peaceful dialogue and to promote freedom of religion or belief for all people in Israel, including members of religious minority groups.

Sir.

QUESTION: To put a nail on Yemen, a couple days ago, the Wall Street Journal citing Western official said the Houthis wanted the Iranian – their – the ambassador to them out of the country, in a sign of maybe heightened tensions. He has left on an Iraqi plane out of the country. Could you comment on that or confirm it?

And then what’s the latest on the situation in Yemen from a U.S. perspective? I mean, there’s a special envoy. Just as we were walking in, I think, I read a report that the Arab coalition struck the Sanaa airport citing threats and targeting military – or against military targets. Could you just give us an update on that?

MR PRICE: Well, when it comes to the first element of your question, we do hope that the departure of the Iranian ambassador from Yemen – we hope it is a sign that Yemenis understand the profoundly destabilizing role that Iran has been playing in their country for some time now. Iran’s support for armed groups threatens international and regional security. It threatens our forces, our diplomatic personnel, and our partners in the region and elsewhere. We as an administration are committed to countering the destabilizing influence and role that Iran is playing throughout the region, including with its support to proxies and other elements in Yemen.

We welcome direct talks between Saudi Arabia and Iran. We hope this dialogue will contribute to a de-escalation of tensions. Both countries have a potential constructive role to play in helping to ensure regional security, but of course, we’d refer you to those respective governments for updates on the situation.

When it comes to the broader situation in Yemen, as you know, this is something that Special Envoy Tim Lenderking and his team have been focused on ever since he was named to the role. It was one of the first major foreign policy announcements, and I believe President Biden himself named Tim Lenderking when President Biden was here in the first days of the administration. What we know is that the Houthi offensive continues to pose a serious obstacle to peace efforts. It is also exacerbating the humanitarian conditions on the ground. Yemen has long been home to one of if not the world’s worst humanitarian catastrophes, and the ongoing military offensive on the part of the Houthis is only, unfortunately, contributing to that.

We welcome the efforts of the Security Council recently to condemn and to press for an end to this offensive. There have been recent sanctions against Houthi military officials associated with the Marib offensive and other Houthi attacks. This, I believe, was the largest package of UN sanctions since the beginning of the war.

As I said before, we are committed to helping advance a durable resolution that improves the lives of Yemenis and creates a space for them to collectively determine their own future. And to that end, our support for the Saudi-led offensive operations in Yemen, it ended in February, including relevant arms sales. We have suspended, as you know, proposed sales of certain air-to-ground munitions, but we are committed to continuing to provide to Saudi Arabia – support to Saudi Arabia to improve its ability to defend its territory against these threats, and even in recent days our Saudi partners have continued to come under threat from attacks emanating from Yemen.

As of recent days, there had been nearly 400 cross-border attacks since the beginning of the war. It endangers our – they endanger our Saudi partners, but they also put in harm’s way more than 70,000 U.S. citizens who are residing in Saudi Arabia. And so, of course, it’s something we continue to work with our Saudi partners to address as we continue to engage diplomatically to see if we can find a durable solution to the conflict in Yemen.

QUESTION: And if I may, shifting a bit, another area there’s a special envoy for: In Ethiopia, Ambassador Feltman was there I guess, what, a few weeks ago now. Situation seems to continue to unravel. What are you guys seeing there? Any changes on the outlook? Any success in the mediation efforts on the part of Washington?

MR PRICE: Well, in terms of what we seek to achieve, we continue to seek an immediate cessation of hostilities, an end to ongoing human rights abuses and violations, unhindered humanitarian access to Tigray and other parts of northern Ethiopia, and a negotiated resolution to the conflict, which not only puts at risk those throughout the country but also poses a threat to regional security in the Horn of Africa. We know that there is not a military solution to this conflict. We – and to that end, we support diplomacy as the first, the last, really the only option to resolve the ongoing conflict. We reiterate our call for the Ethiopian government to start a credible, inclusive national dialogue.

Now, of course, today we’re aware of reports of Tigrayan withdrawal from some regions in northern Ethiopia. We have long, as you know, urged a cessation of hostilities, including the return of TPLF forces to Tigray. We have long urged that humanitarian access I spoke to. We have long urged an end to human rights abuses and violations and for a negotiated resolution to the conflict. So, in fact, if we do see a movement of Tigrayan forces back into Tigray, that is something we would welcome. It’s something we’ve called for. And we hope it opens the door to broader diplomacy.

QUESTION: Could I ask about Julian Assange, please? I think it was on the 10th of this month a London court or a British court lifted the ban on his transfer to the United States. Do you expect him to be transferred anytime soon?

MR PRICE: I would need to refer you to the Department of Justice when it comes to extradition cases. We just don’t weigh in on the specifics here.

Francesco. Sure.

QUESTION: So, the Secretary said – I think that was in Stockholm and it was 20 years – days ago – not 20 years but 20 days ago he said that the U.S. wouldn’t allow Iran to continue building their nuclear program while dragging their feet on talks, and it seems to me that’s exactly what you guys think it’s continuing: nothing happening on the negotiation front and Iran continuing to develop its nuclear program. So, how long can you just say that without changing your stance and continuing – allowing, actually, them to do so?

MR PRICE: Well, Francesco, you heard from one of my colleagues on Friday a summary of what we experienced in the second act of the seventh round, if you will. As my colleague said, at the time there was some modest progress. I believe the way he put it was that it was better than it might have been, but it was worse than it should have been. And so that leaves us in a fairly uncertain posture when it – fairly uncertain position as to whether we can achieve what we have sincerely and steadfastly sought to do for a number of months now, and that is to test whether we can achieve a mutual return to compliance with the JCPOA.

As you heard, though, there has been – there was some progress in the most recent element of the second round. We, of course, noted the announcement between Iran and the IAEA of the arrangement to restore elements of transparency to the IAEA monitoring program on the ground in Iran, to reinstall the cameras at Karaj. That’s an important step. It’s a welcome step. But again, we are clear-eyed about this, because this was a step that never should have been necessary in the first place.

The second element of modest progress that you heard about from my colleague is that we now have a common understanding of what the text will be that will serve as the basis for negotiations on nuclear issues. And he went on to make the point that we don’t yet have the text, but we have an outline or we have an agenda for discussions of that text when they resume.

So that’s all positive. That’s all good and well. But in many ways, that really only takes us to where we were as of June, and so we’re, as he put it, I believe, curbing our enthusiasm for where we are and where we might go. There’s still a lot of work to do.

At the same time, and this was the point of your question, all of this is still taking place in an atmosphere of provocation, what we have seen from the Iranians, and an atmosphere in which time is running out because of – owing in part to these provocations and advancements in Iran’s nuclear program. It’s the accelerating pace of that program. We have said this on many times. We – and you repeated it in your question, we can’t accept a situation in which Iran is dragging its feet at the negotiating table but accelerating the pace of its nuclear program back home.

What we experienced, what the team experienced on the ground in Vienna until the talks adjourned late last week, it was progress, but it wasn’t at a pace that was sufficient to get us to where we need if we are to render the JCPOA as a viable vehicle going forward. If the pace of diplomacy on the one hand continues to lag far behind or continues to lag at all behind the pace of diplomacy on the other, the JCPOA, as you heard from the E3, will be an empty shell. As you heard from my colleague, it will be a corpse that cannot be revived.

Obviously, we don’t want to see either of those happen. We still continue to believe we still have a window of opportunity in which a mutual return to compliance with the JCPOA would be the best option for us, it would be the best option for the other members of the P5+1, it would be the best option for the international community because it would still accomplish what we need it to do in terms of verifiably preventing Iran from ever obtaining a nuclear weapon.

But we’ve talked about this clock. We’ve talked about the calendar. We’ve made the point consistently that it’s not chronological so much as it is technological and technical. And so, we’re taking a very close look at the pace of Iran’s nuclear program, we’re taking a close look at what a mutual return to compliance with the JCPOA would mean in terms of the protections and guarantees.

And so, as we continue to watch what Iran does and what Iran says publicly, privately in the context of these indirect negotiations in Vienna, we’ll make a judgment based on that as to whether the JCPOA remains in our interest. And all along, we are not wasting any time in thinking about those alternatives, and we’re doing more than thinking about alternatives. We’re actively discussing those alternatives to this variety of diplomacy. That is to say, this diplomacy focused on a mutual return to compliance with the JCPOA. We’re discussing alternatives to that with other members of the P5+1, with other partners in the region and beyond.

QUESTION: Could you explain the sanctions and lifting of sanctions that were imposed after the United States withdrew from the deal in May 2018? I know your colleague spoke about this, but could you —

MR PRICE: Well, it’s —

QUESTION: Could you probably elaborate on this?

MR PRICE: Well, there’s not too much to elaborate on. It’s actually quite simple. We are prepared, as we have said, to lift sanctions that are inconsistent with the JCPOA. The Iranians know that. It is something that the P5+1 knows. It’s something that we have been quite clear about. It is essentially the formula that was deemed appropriate in 2015, when the deal was consummated, in 2016 when it was implemented by the P5+1 and Iran. It essentially says we’re prepared to lift sanctions inconsistent with the JCPOA, as long as Iran places itself back within the strict confines, the strict nuclear confines of the JCPOA in terms of the stringent verification and monitoring, in terms of the other restrictions that the JCPOA places on Iran’s nuclear program.

QUESTION: Thank you.

MR PRICE: Please.

QUESTION: On that front, also last week, a colleague of yours from the White House told reporters that the U.S. expects or anticipates attacks to increase in the coming weeks on – in the context of Syria and Iraq, presumably by Iranian-backed forces or militias. Do you share that assessment?

MR PRICE: Well, we certainly – I would hate – and from here, I’m not going to prognosticate what we might see from Iranian proxies. What I will say and what I will reflect on is what we have seen.

The undeniable fact is that in 2018, the – we were promised by the previous administration a decision to walk away from the JCPOA that would result in a so-called better deal, that would cow Iran and its proxies, that would leave the United States in a stronger position and so much more. And across every one of those promises, we’ve actually seen the opposite take place.

Of course, there was no better deal to be had, during the last administration. We’re still trying to determine if we can achieve a mutual return to compliance with the JCPOA, if we can get Iran back into the JCPOA and the restrictions that it places on Iran’s nuclear program. We have seen the attacks by proxies in the region not decrease, but in fact, increase. And we have seen these groups become unfortunately emboldened with consequences that have been deadly for our partners in the region and attacks that have implicated our interests as well.

And so, across all of our concerns with Iran whether it’s its nuclear program, whether it’s support for terrorism, whether it’s support for proxies, whether it is destabilizing influence in the region, I think it is fair to say that every single one of our concerns has become more pronounced since 2018. And so, as our first priority, we are still seeking to determine whether the JCPOA is a viable vehicle for achieving that top priority: putting Iran’s nuclear program back in a box. And it’s our top priority because a nuclear-armed Iran, of course, is unacceptable. It is something that President Biden has committed he will never allow to happen.

But we also know that Iran with a nuclear weapon would be an Iran that would act with even more impunity across all of these categories. So right now, that is why we are urgently seeing – seeking to see whether we can achieve that mutual return to compliance, just as we are working with allies, working with partners, to take on the broader array of Iran’s destabilizing activities throughout the region.

QUESTION: But you guys have said that these discussions, the Vienna talks, are about the – Iran’s nuclear program and that it’s not tied to their other – the malign activities or behavior in the region. So, what makes you think that reaching a deal, if one is able to be reached, is going to help decrease these attacks on U.S. interests or forces – look, I mean, let’s call a spade a spade. They want the U.S. out of the region completely.

MR PRICE: Well, I would say a couple things. One, it’s a point I made before: We know that Iran with a nuclear weapon or closer to a nuclear weapon would be an Iran that would act with even more impunity, an Iran that would be even more emboldened. We have seen Iran emboldened since 2018. We’ve seen its proxies emboldened since 2018. We’ve seen the tragic and deadly consequences of that. And so conversely, an Iran that is – whose nuclear program is once again back in a box, we think that would redound positively on the broader set of challenges that we face with Iran.

But secondly, we are not sitting on our hands when it comes to the broader activities, malign activities that Iran is undertaking. We are working in various ways, some of them public, with allies and partners around the world, including those in the region, to counter these. But we’ve also made the point that even as we’re focused in Vienna on the nuclear program we want to address, see if we can address diplomatically with Iran and our allies and partners to build on the JCPOA, to see if we can talk about something that addresses those broader set of concerns. That’s still something we seek to do, even as we are very much in the midst of seeing if we can achieve that mutual return to compliance when it comes to the nuclear program.

All right. Thank you all very much.

(The briefing was concluded at 2:57 p.m.)

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