Ned Price, Department Spokesperson
2:09 p.m. EST
MR PRICE: Good afternoon. Happy Monday. Happy Thanksgiving week. We have a couple items at the top, and then I look forward to taking your questions.
First. Today the United States is designating three ISIS-K leaders in Afghanistan, including Emir Sanaullah Ghafari, as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist. We are committed to using all of our counterterrorism tools to counter ISIS-K and ensure that Afghanistan cannot again become a platform for international terrorism. These designations expose and isolate terrorists, preventing them from exploiting the U.S. financial system and assisting with relevant law enforcement activities.
Second, we welcome President Radev’s clarifying statement today in which he reiterated Bulgaria’s support for Ukraine’s territorial integrity and its sovereignty, and makes clear that Crimea belongs to Ukraine. The United States, G7, the European Union, and NATO, we’ve all been clear and united in our position that – despite Russia’s attempted annexation and ongoing occupation – Crimea is Ukraine. All of us, including Bulgaria, declared at the Crimea Platform Summit in August that Crimea is an integral part of Ukraine and that we do not and will not recognize Russia’s efforts to legitimize its seizure and occupation of the peninsula.
With that, happy take your questions. Shawn.
QUESTION: Sure. First of all, if I’m not mistaken, happy birthday.
MR PRICE: Thank you very much. Thank you.
QUESTION: Happy birthday.
MR PRICE: Matt Lee has given me the best gift anyone could offer today. (Laughter.)
QUESTION: He actually tipped me off that it was your birthday, so —
MR PRICE: I see, I see.
QUESTION: — happy birthday on behalf of the pool.
MR PRICE: I appreciate it.
QUESTION: Concerning Sudan, the deal that was reached this weekend with Prime Minister Hamdok being reinstated, I saw the Secretary’s tweet yesterday. I wanted to pursue that to see how significant you think this is. Is this a breakthrough? And some people on the street are saying that actually effectively the military is co-opting Prime Minister Hamdok. How do you see it? And then how does this relate to United States assistance? The U.S., of course, has suspended $700 million in economic assistance. Is that now – is there some talk about resuming that at this point or is that (inaudible)?
MR PRICE: Great. Let me say a couple things on that. First, we are encouraged – we are encouraged that the November 21st agreement is an important first step to put a civilian-led democratic transition back on track. Specifically we’re encouraged by the release of Prime Minister Hamdok from house arrest and his reinstatement to office. But let me just underscore this is a first step. This is nothing more than that and we’ll be watching very closely.
And specifically, to build on this first step, we call on Sudanese leaders to implement the agreement and key transitional tasks that includes creating a transitional legislative council, judicial structures, electoral institutions, and a constitutional convention. We urge the immediate release of all other civilian leaders and all those detained in connection with the military takeover as is called for in this very agreement that was finalized on November 21st. We reiterate our call for the lifting of the state of emergency as well.
Look, the resumption, the reinvigoration of Sudan’s civilian transition remains a top priority for us. We have been very engaged on this, supporting that process, working very closely with the international communities. We’ll continue to press on all of the relevant actors and stakeholders to work towards this goal and to ensure that the first step that was announced in recent hours is not the last step.
To that end, I can relay that the Secretary had an opportunity today to speak to Prime Minister Hamdok, to speak to General Burhan, and that was essentially his message, that we must continue to see progress, we must continue to see Sudan move back down the democratic path, and that starts with the reinstitution of the prime minister, but it certainly doesn’t end there.
QUESTION: And the U.S. assistance, is that still severed indefinitely?
MR PRICE: Well, this goes to the first point, that this is a first step; it’s not the last step. We’ll be watching very closely. We don’t have any announcements to make at this time regarding our assistance, any changes to our posture. But clearly those decisions will be predicated entirely on what happens in the coming hours, in the coming days, in the coming weeks.
QUESTION: So when you say “first step,” are you specifying, like, four or five steps before they can get the $700 million in assistance?
MR PRICE: We’re – look, what we are saying publicly – and obviously, we are communicating with the parties as well, including the Secretary today. As you know, Molly Phee was in Khartoum last week now where she had an opportunity to meet with Prime Minister Hamdok, where she had an opportunity to meet with military leaders, including General Burhan.
But what we’re making clear is that there is a ways to go before this process is fully back on track. We are invested in this process precisely because the Sudanese people are invested in their democracy, in the democracy that they worked so hard to achieve in the first instance. And now they are very clearly taking to the streets peacefully to make clear that their aspirations for democracy, for a constitutional government – they are undiminished.
And so we continue to stand with the Sudanese people as together we support that goal of a reinvigorated democratic transition in Sudan.
QUESTION: Yeah. Well, today there was a protester was killed, 14 other were injured. But that’s not my question, because Mr. Hamdok said that the reason he’s back is to maintain economic accomplishment. And there was an obvious reference in the aid that they are receiving from you, from others, and so on. So if he put that as a condition that you guys will restore this aid – I mean, we’re confused on the time frame. I know you’re saying first step, but we don’t know what the coming steps ought to be.
MR PRICE: Well, we’ve talked about some of those steps, and I mentioned some of them in my opening comment.
QUESTION: I – yes, go ahead.
MR PRICE: Again, to build on the first step that we’ve seen enacted, we call for these key transitional tasks to be completed: creating a transitional legislative council, judicial structures, electoral institutions, and a constitutional convention. So we are encouraged by what we’ve seen so far, but this cannot – it must not – be the final step in what we see going forward.
QUESTION: Okay. Were there any reciprocal kind of assurances given to Mr. Burhan that you will stay where you are, you will stay in the position of leadership, in return that he will allow the transitional process take place? Was there any kind of quid pro quo with Mr. Burhan?
MR PRICE: The Sudanese stakeholders, they have spoken to the contours of this agreement. Our only role in this was to support, to encourage productive negotiations to reinstate Prime Minister Hamdok. We didn’t facilitate. We didn’t mediate these discussions. But again, we were there as a supporting actor, supporting at our core the aspirations of the Sudanese people themselves.
QUESTION: Perhaps on other – another issue?
MR PRICE: Anything else on Sudan before we move on? Sorry, sure.
QUESTION: Just quickly, just on the issue of debt relief that has been cited as one of the concerns of this military takeover was that it was going to set them back in terms of receiving that debt relief as well as the aid. Does it – does this deal change your view on that?
MR PRICE: Well, again, this is a first step, and so we are still evaluating the best path forward to support Sudan’s civilian-led transition in light of recent events. But what will contour our approach is what happens next: whether this first step is met with additional steps in the right direction, additional steps in the right direction in furtherance of what the Sudanese people have so very clearly been calling for by peacefully taking to the streets and having their voices heard.
Anything else on Sudan? Okay, great.
MR PRICE: We will have a readout for you later today. Obviously, our relationship with Morocco, it’s an important one. We share many common interests in the region, plenty for them to discuss. He’s had several engagements with the foreign minister previously, and this was an opportunity today to build on those. But we’ll have a readout for you.
QUESTION: On the Western Sahara, the administration supports the UN (inaudible). At the same time, the UN still recognizing the Moroccan sovereignty on the Western Sahara. Is there any conflict in the U.S. position, and how will you deal with this issue?
MR PRICE: Well, the Secretary had an opportunity to speak to this when we were in Senegal over the weekend, on Saturday in fact, and what he said then is that what we support is personal envoy Staffan de Mistura’s leadership in resuming the UN-led political process to advance what is our ultimate goal, and that’s a durable and dignified resolution to the conflict in Western Sahara.
We have and will actively support the efforts of personal envoy de Mistura to promote a peaceful, to promote a prosperous future for the people of Western Sahara and for the broader region as well. We remain engaged with all sides to do just that in support of this diplomatic effort, and we will support a credible UN-led process to stabilize the situation and secure a cessation of any hostilities. So we’re consulting very closely with the parties as we continue to support Staffan de Mistura.
QUESTION: And meanwhile you’re still recognizing the Moroccan sovereignty on the Western Sahara?
MR PRICE: As we said, we are consulting privately with the parties and supporting the diplomatic efforts of Staffan de Mistura and the UN-led political process.
QUESTION: Haiti. (Inaudible) say whether or not U.S. officials have been able to (inaudible) two Americans who were released by the kidnappers? And any update on your efforts to free the other Americans?
MR PRICE: Well, this is something that since last month, mid last month when these reports first emerged, that, as you know, the U.S. Government and the State Department in particular has been deeply engaged in. We are in regular contact with the missionary group. We’re in regular contact with Haitian counterparts at the highest levels both at the political level and also within the Haitian National Police. We’ve been working closely with our Canadian counterparts as well, given that one of the hostages has Canadian citizenship.
You have likely seen the reports that two of the individuals who were previously held have been released. Out of concern for their privacy, we’re not going to offer further comment, but this is something that we are and remain deeply engaged in to try and see a successful resolution.
QUESTION: Can I change topic?
MR PRICE: Sure.
QUESTION: I’ll go to the Palestinian-Israeli issue. Ned, Ambassador Greenfield met with Palestinian civil society groups and so on. Which group did she meet with? Do we know the names of these groups that she met with?
MR PRICE: I imagine USUN could get you a readout of that engagement.
QUESTION: Okay. Now that she met with them and she said what she said – she issued a very clear statement – are we likely to see any kind of American pressure on Israel to sort of delist these groups from the terror list? Are you demanding that?
MR PRICE: Said, what Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield did is precisely what the U.S. Government does from afar and when we are in the region, is exactly what Secretary Blinken did. We regularly engage and meet with when we’re there in person civil society organizations. We reaffirm the importance of civil society organizations wherever we go. The Secretary did this when we were in Africa last week. The Secretary did it when we were in Ramallah earlier this year, met with a group of civil society organizations. That’s precisely what the ambassador was doing.
QUESTION: But yeah, in the meantime they remain listed on the terror list, which disallows them from performing their function. How will they go about performing their function?
MR PRICE: Said, I think you’re conflating two issues.
QUESTION: No, I’m not. I just want to understand you clearly. Are you saying to these groups that we are – we met with you, we’re going to support you, we’re going to support your efforts, you’ve proven in the past that you have the kind of transparency that we can support – you and the Europeans. I mean, the Europeans are saying the same thing. So naturally, what the next step should be is some sort of an effort to delist them from the terrorist list.
MR PRICE: Said, the ambassador met with civil society groups. I think you’re conflating the issue of the groups that – at the center of the Israeli announcement in her meeting. But she met with civil society groups to reaffirm the importance of civil society all around the world, and of course, that includes in the Palestinian territories.
QUESTION: The Israelis are also expressing confidence in the support of this administration and so on. And in exchange, are you going to sort of leverage this mutual confidence – the reciprocal confidence – to sort of, let’s say, perhaps get the Israelis to stop settlements, to sort of ease the checkpoints? Because you keep saying the same thing – we want both people to have freedoms and so on and live in peace and all these things – but obviously the Palestinians are the ones that have to endure the checkpoints and endure the settlements and so on.
MR PRICE: Well, we are fortunate to have a very positive and a deep and strong relationship with our Israeli partners, and through that relationship we can best accomplish our mutual goals. These are issues that we continue to engage our Israeli partners on.
We’re also fortunate to have a strengthened relationship with our Palestinian counterparts. And as you know, deepening and re-establishing in many ways our ties with the Palestinian Authority and with the Palestinian people has been a key goal of this administration from the earliest days. So we’ve been gratified to see that progress as well.
QUESTION: Including reopening of the consulate?
MR PRICE: We’ve spoken to this issue. I just don’t have an update for you on it.
MR PRICE: Sorry?
MR PRICE: Sure.
QUESTION: The Secretary on the weekend spoke again about unusual military activity close to Russia’s border with Ukraine and some reporting that the Ukrainians believe Russia is preparing for an invasion. I wondered how likely do you – does the U.S. see that. What kind of analysis or assessment do you guys have behind these phrases that you’re using, like unusual military activity? Can you tell us what is it exactly that’s occurring there that’s giving you these concerns, and how likely do you think an invasion might be?
MR PRICE: Well, many of these reports about the unusual military activity are, in fact, public, and so the predicate of our concern is available to all of you, just as it is to us, with information that is both public and some that may not be. But on the basis of that, and as we’ve said, as the Secretary had an opportunity to reiterate on Saturday in Dakar, we are concerned. We’re concerned knowing that, of course, we can’t speak to the intentions of the Russian Federations – of the Russian Federation, but we are concerned because we are familiar with the playbook that Moscow has used in the past. And if you look back, as the Secretary has said, to 2014, you saw Moscow amass forces on the border and then claim a pretextual provocation that caused them to go into Crimea and to eastern Ukraine.
So that is why we have spoken out very clearly on this, making the point that any escalatory or aggressive actions would be of great concern to the United States, but not just to the United States. We’ve had an opportunity to compare notes with many of our partners across Europe, to do so in the context of our NATO Allies, but also with our partner Ukraine. And of course, the President had an opportunity to see President Zelenskyy, as did Secretary Blinken, at COP26 just the other week. The Secretary later engaged in a strategic dialogue with Foreign Minister Kuleba where this was also a primary topic of conversation.
In each of those meetings, not only did we express our concerns, but we made clear our support – our unwavering support – for Ukraine’s sovereignty and its territorial integrity as well.
QUESTION: And is there something that you’re considering, some action you’re considering taking that could happen in the case of more activity short of an invasion? Are you sort of saying to Russia if this continues, if more activities like this happen, this will be our response? Or what kind of responses do you have?
MR PRICE: Well, as I said before, part of what gives us concern is that we are familiar with Moscow’s playbook. What we don’t want to do at this point is to telegraph our playbook. What we have said is that any escalatory or aggressive actions on the part of Moscow would be of great concern to the United States, to our European partners as well.
QUESTION: Stay on the region?
MR PRICE: Sure.
QUESTION: Marcin Wrona, TVN Discovery from Poland. So what is your current assessment of the situation on the border between Poland and Belarus? Because this crisis is far from being over. Only yesterday there were almost 350 attempts to illegally cross the border. And when are you planning to impose new sanctions on Belarus?
MR PRICE: Well, we are and we remain deeply concerned by the Lukashenka regime’s inhumane actions. We strongly condemn their callous exploitation and coercion of vulnerable people, of people who have been seeking nothing more than a better life, with the regime’s inhumane facilitation of irregular migration across its borders. As I mentioned last week, we are in close consultation with our European partners, preparing follow-up sanctions to hold the Lukashenka regime to account for these hybrid operations, but also for its ongoing attacks on human rights, on international norms, on democracy or what is left of it inside of Belarus.
To that end, we call on the regime to immediately halt its campaign of orchestrating and coercing irregular migrant flows across its borders into Europe. As long as the regime in Belarus refuses to respect international obligations and commitments, as long as it undermines the peace and security of Europe, as long as it continues to repress and to abuse its people, we will continue to pressure the Lukashenka regime and not lessen – and our calls for accountability will increase; they will not diminish. We are deeply appreciative of the leadership, of the approach shown by Lithuania, shown by Latvia, shown by Poland in confronting the challenges created by the Lukashenka regime and its actions. And we stand with the European Union, we stand with our other partners and allies in supporting the democratic aspirations of the Belarusian people.
QUESTION: Are you also in direct consultations with Poland?
MR PRICE: We have been in close consultation with our Polish counterparts as well. These are countries that, of course, have a right to regulate the entry of foreign nationals into their territory, including with respect to these irregular migratory flows from Belarus. We’ve urged Poland, we’ve urged Latvia, we’ve urged Lithuania to continue to do so humanely and in a way that is consistent with applicable international law.
QUESTION: And the last one. Were you consulted or informed before the phone calls by Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron to Alexander Lukashenka and Vladimir Putin?
MR PRICE: We have, of course, been consulting closely with our European allies regarding the inhumane, the coercive tactics of the Lukashenka regime. That coordination and consultation has been very close and very deep, but I’m not in a position to read out specific phone calls.
MR PRICE: He returned this weekend. He is now back in Washington.
QUESTION: Do you have a readout of his meetings there? Who did he meet with?
MR PRICE: Sure. So as you alluded to, we are continuing to support the diplomacy that in the first instance is being led by President Obasanjo, the AU envoy to the region. We’ve done that in a number of ways. Special Envoy Feltman, as you know, has had an opportunity to travel to Ethiopia and the broader region several times in recent weeks. He just returned from Ethiopia over the weekend. He had productive meetings with the High Representative President Obasanjo. He also met with senior Ethiopian government officials, African Union representatives, and international partners to discuss opportunities that advance a negotiated and sustained – and sustainable cessation of hostilities to bring this conflict that has now raged for more than a year to a close.
We have continued to call for an end to the fighting. We have continued to call for the parties to engage in diplomacy in furtherance of a cessation of hostilities just as we have reiterated the calls of the international community for an end to the human rights abuses and violations that we’ve seen, as we have also urged the provision of humanitarian access to those in Tigray, to those in northern Ethiopia.
The other point that we have been consistent in saying is that our embassy as of early this month is on ordered departure status. We have reduced the size of our footprint there, but our embassy is still very much open, our USAID mission is still very much open and operating to support the people of Ethiopia, but in the case of our embassy to support those with U.S. citizenship who may still be in Ethiopia. The point we have made is that Americans should depart the country immediately using commercial options which remain readily available.
Over any given 72-hour period there are dozens of commercial flights to international destinations, within Africa but also elsewhere, that Americans are able to avail themselves of, and we encourage them to do it because the security situation continues, of course, to be tenuous. Even as we have reduced the footprint of our embassy, we have actually increased the hours within our American Citizen Services section within the embassy to help Americans make those travel arrangements, to help place them on flights, and to facilitate the logistics involved in all of that. As we’ve made clear before, we will do everything from help them book a flight to pay for that flight with a repatriation loan should American citizens not be in a position to pay those upfront costs.
Our commitment to the safety and security is a top priority for us, and that’s why we are working literally overtime to do all we can to ensure that Americans – to see to it that Americans take advantage of the many options to depart the country via commercial air.
QUESTION: Sorry, can I —
MR PRICE: Sure.
QUESTION: — quickly follow up? So did Special Envoy Feltman meet with any members of the TPLF?
MR PRICE: We’ve been able to engage the TPLF and we have engaged the TPLF, but I don’t have —
QUESTION: But he did not —
MR PRICE: I don’t have anything else for you on that.
QUESTION: What do you make of the disappearance of Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai? Do you have any concerns for U.S. athletes as they head over there to the Olympics? Do you think now is the time to call for a diplomatic boycott of the Olympics or any other sort of boycott?
MR PRICE: Well, there have been a number of statements that have been made on Peng Shuai. I just saw a recent statement from the Women’s Tennis Association. Of course, all of us, the State Department included, we are closely monitoring the situation surrounding Peng Shuai. We share the concern that has been expressed around the world as we all want her, of course, to be safe. I’m not in a position to offer updates from here, but rest assured we are closely following her and the situation more broadly. As a general matter, as a broader matter, we’ll continue to support the ability of individuals to report sexual assault and to seek accountability. And we believe that any report anywhere in the world should be investigated. We will continue in the PRC context and in all contexts to stand up for the freedom of speech, especially in light of what we’ve seen from the PRC, and that is essentially a zero-tolerance approach for criticism and a record of silencing or attempting to silence those who do attempt to speak out.
QUESTION: Should U.S. athletes be extra vigilant when they go to China for the Olympics? Are you going to issue any warnings for them? Do you feel that they are – if they criticize the government while they’re out there, is that something you would advise them against doing?
MR PRICE: Well, look, I don’t have an update in terms of our approach to the Winter Olympics. They are still a number of months off. But when it comes to what our presence should be, there are a range of factors, including the – our deep concerns with the human rights abuses in Xinjiang. And we have talked about that both in the context of our bilateral relationship, but also specifically in this context as well. Our position on Xinjiang, our position on the PRC’s continued human rights abuses is very clear. We have taken a number of steps to promote accountability for the ongoing human rights abuses – in the case of Xinjiang, genocide –there and we’ll continue to do that. But I just don’t have an update on the Olympics.
QUESTION: Follow up (inaudible)?
MR PRICE: Sure.
QUESTION: Just the – the IOC President Bach said that he spoke with Ms. Peng. Does the United States have any assessment of that, whether there’s any coercion involved and – I mean, do you have any general assessment of whether that was productive or not?
MR PRICE: I don’t have any assessment to share publicly. As I said before, we are closely monitoring the situation. We are closely following developments. But we’ll leave it to the IOC, to the WTA, and others to speak to that.
MR PRICE: Sure.
QUESTION: Iranian top nuclear negotiator in an interview with us in Al Jazeera, he said that U.S. must accept reality and lift sanction immediately, and that Iran is entitled to further advance its nuclear program, citing article 26 and 36 of the Iran deal. Do you have a comment on that?
MR PRICE: I don’t have a specific comment to that, and that’s precisely because the issue of sanctions and the issue of nuclear steps and nuclear restrictions, that’s at the crux of what it is that the six rounds that have been concluded of indirect negotiations with Tehran and Vienna have been all about. It’s also why we have very consistently called for the resumption of diplomacy – indirect diplomacy in the case of the United States – so that we can determine whether we can finalize the remaining issues, we can build upon the progress that had been achieved in those six rounds on the question of, on the one hand, the nuclear steps that Iran must take to resume its compliance with the JCPOA, and on the other hand, the steps regarding sanctions that the United States and the international community would be willing to take should Iran be willing to resume its compliance with the JCPOA. So we’ll leave that to the negotiations in Vienna.
QUESTION: There is —
MR PRICE: Please.
QUESTION: There are some reports in The New York Times that you – Biden administration is trying to give incentive to Iran by easing some sanctions to encourage them to negotiate faithfully in Vienna. Is this true?
MR PRICE: We have been very clear all around that we are not willing and will not take unilateral steps as sweeteners to sweeten the pot just to get negotiations going. A mutual return to compliance – it is in the interests of the United States; it is in the interests of the other members of the P5+1; it is also, as previous governments in Iran have concluded, in the interests of Tehran if we are able to get there. So we will let the – we will be clear that we’re not going to engage in unilateral steps for the sake of just getting back to the table.
QUESTION: Ned, also The New York Times reported that U.S. officials have warned Israel that its attacks against the Iranian nuclear program are counterproductive and have enabled Tehran to rebuild an even more efficient enrichment system. Could you elaborate on this? I mean, have you been in touch with Israel on this issue and trying to persuade them not to attack?
MR PRICE: Well, what I will say broadly is that we have been in regular, almost constant contact with our Israeli partners, to include on this issue. Special Envoy Malley was just in Israel last week, I believe it was. He had an excellent visit there where he engaged in consultations with Israeli Government counterparts and also with senior intelligence officials as we prepare to resume negotiations in Vienna.
What he was doing there is not unique, however. We have regularly engaged with our Israeli partners before each round, in many cases during each round, and after each of the six rounds of negotiations that have been completed.
Look, at the end of the day, the United States and Israel, we share a common objective here, and that is to see to it that Iran is verifiably and permanently prevented from obtaining a nuclear weapon. And we continue to believe that diplomacy in coordination with our allies and partners – and that, of course, includes Israel – is the best path to achieve that goal. It’s the best path because it sets us out on an approach that is verifiable and that is sustainable and that is permanent, and that is one of the key advantages that the JCPOA conveys.
So we will continue to consult very closely with our allies and partners. Special Envoy Malley in recent days alone has had discussions with his Chinese, his Russian counterpart as well. We have been in close contact with the E3. He had an engagement with the E3 members on his travel. He engaged with our GCC partners on the travel – during that travel as well. And in all of those engagements, there was a broad and shared agreement that – on the need for a mutual return to full compliance with the JCPOA.
QUESTION: So do you expect the talks to go on without a hitch next Monday, a week from today, on the 29th?
MR PRICE: I certainly don’t want to be in the business of predicting how this will unfold.
QUESTION: You don’t see them being scuttled for any reason?
MR PRICE: As of right now, talks are still slated to resume next Monday, November 29th.
QUESTION: At the IAEA Board of Governors meeting later this week, will the U.S. support a censure of Iran given the steps it’s taken outside of the nuclear deal?
MR PRICE: Well, we have been very clear that Iran’s provocative nuclear steps are of great concern to us. They are of great concern to our partners as well. We have made very clear that these continued nuclear escalations are unconstructive and they are at their core inconsistent with the stated goal – with Iran’s stated goal of returning to mutual compliance with the JCPOA.
We’ve also been very clear that they serve no constructive end. They will not provide Iran with any negotiating leverage when talks resume in Vienna next week. Look, we’ve noted with concern statements from Iran, statements to the effect of only countries with nuclear weapons have taken such steps with respect to enrichment. The JCPOA – one of, again, its core advantages was the fact for us that it imposed strict limits both on the level and the quantity of enrichment of enriched uranium in Iran. And Iran’s continued escalations, its continued escalations beyond JCPOA limits, they’re a clear reminder for us, for our partners as well, of the importance of seeing to it or at least testing the proposition that we can achieve a mutual return to compliance with the JCPOA.
QUESTION: But they haven’t faced any repercussions for the repeated steps that you’ve, again, criticized. At what point are you willing to censure them for what they have done and make them pay a price for it?
MR PRICE: Well, we have been very clear for a number of reasons, including for these continued nuclear escalations, that this approach to the JCPOA, what we are trying to test out in Vienna, is not an approach that we will take indefinitely. It is not an approach that we can or should take indefinitely, because eventually Iran’s continued nuclear advances will render the advantage, the utility of returning to the JCPOA as it was crafted and ultimately implemented in 2016 as not worth it – not worth it for the United States, not worth it for our international partners as well. We’re not at that point yet. We continue to believe that diplomacy provides the most sustainable, the most durable, and really the only permanent and verifiable means of seeing to it that Iran can never again obtain a nuclear weapon. And so that’s why we are returning to Vienna to see to it if we can achieve that mutual return to compliance.
QUESTION: But short at that point, like, why not censure them now for the steps that they have already taken, as you said, for a program that otherwise would not need to take the steps –60 percent enrichment, uranium metal enriched – why not censure them?
MR PRICE: Well, you referred to it. There is a Board of Governors meeting in the coming days. I don’t want to get ahead of that meeting. We have full faith and confidence in the director general, Mr. Amano. We have full faith and confidence in the IAEA itself. We’ve been consulting very closely with the IAEA. The director general had an opportunity to meet with Secretary Blinken here at the department several weeks ago. But we have been in regular contact with the IAEA to determine the best approach and the best response to these continued nuclear escalations.
QUESTION: Can I ask one on Iran? There’s a been a statement previously that they would pursue the release of the Americans detained in Iran separately from the negotiations over the JCPOA. Is that still the case going into this next round?
MR PRICE: That’s still the case and it’s still the case for one very simple reason. We have gone to Vienna to test the proposition as to whether we can achieve a mutual return to compliance with the JCPOA. The very fact that we would like to see this happen but we are not sure if it can happen suggests to us very strongly that the fates of these detained Americans should not be tied to an uncertain proposition, and that’s a mutual return to compliance with the JCPOA. So even as we continue to see to it – continue to test whether we can affect a mutual return to compliance, we are working nonstop to see to it that these Americans can be reunited with their families, in some cases after years and years of separation.
QUESTION: Why not make it a precondition, though, for a return to the JCPOA?
MR PRICE: Precisely because what I said. The mutual return to compliance with the JCPOA is a very uncertain proposition. It is something that remains in our interest. We would like to see it happen precisely because it is in our interest, precisely because it is in the interest of our international partners in the context of the P5+1 and more broadly as well. But because it is uncertain, it would not be prudent to tie the fates of Americans to this issue. We feel that by working these issues on parallel tracks, separate but parallel tracks, we in an ideal world will be in a position to achieve both: a mutual return to compliance even as we work overtime to return these Americans to their families as soon as we can.
QUESTION: Sorry, can I quickly ask one more? Was there any discussion on the fates of these Americans while there was a hiatus on the JCPOA talks?
MR PRICE: We are in regular contact with our partners – we are in regular contact on the issue of these American detainees. I’m not going to detail the form, the channel that that takes, but again, we have no higher priority than the safety and security of Americans overseas. And of course, that includes Americans who are unjustly held, as is the case in Iran.
QUESTION: Thank you. The Secretary just returned from his first official visit to sub-Saharan Africa. He was in Kenya, Nigeria, Senegal. He said really great things about those countries – jollof rice in Nigeria, teraanga hospitality in Senegal. I was wondering if you can go back to that trip and give us the key agreements, achievement. And also, in his discussion with President Kenyatta, Buhari, and so on, what was the feedback like? Do they believe America is really back, diplomacy is really back? And was the Secretary given a new name and a traditional title in Nigeria? And I have one more.
MR PRICE: Sure. So as you know, as you alluded to, the Secretary did return from his first travel to sub-Saharan Africa – I suppose it was late Saturday night, early Sunday morning by the time we got back. And it really was a productive, a constructive, an excellent trip to all three countries.
You had an opportunity to hear from the Secretary in each stop in the context of his bilateral engagements, in the context of his civil society engagements, in the context of his press conferences with his counterparts, of the broad agenda that we share not only with these three African countries but with many countries across the continent more broadly. And in each stop, you heard an emphasis on the challenges that, if we are going to be in a position to solve, we have to work on together, including with the countries of Africa. And of course, on that list are issues like climate, issues like COVID. It is achieving a sustainable global economic recovery, including for these three countries and for the broader continent, countries that in some cases, like many countries around the world, whose economic growth has been stunted by the onset of COVID-19.
We also share a number of interests with these countries – security interests. Our economic ties, in many cases, are quite deep and have the potential to become even deeper. And in all three, we discussed the values that need to be at the core of these relationships, including human rights, democratic governance. These are three countries that, in a couple cases, will have elections within the next two or so years, and both have before been a model for the rest of the continent and beyond, and again, have the potential to be a model when it comes to democracy and democratic governance for the continent and well beyond.
But this was a trip that was more than about just those three countries. We spoke to themes on this trip – again, climate change, COVID, shared security challenges, economic ties – that are broader than those three countries. And they’re themes that are transcontinental in their nature in that they apply equally to many countries across the continent. And in Abuja, the Secretary laid out in a speech, an extended set of remarks at ECOWAS, an important regional institution, the approach we take to the continent. And that is one of partnership, of true partnership, and he explained at some length what that true partnership means.
Final points on this: We often think of and talk about partnership in the bilateral context or in the regional context, government-to-government partnerships. But our relationships with these three countries, with many countries across Africa, transcend the official relationships. And there are people-to-people ties that are really at the heart of many of these relationships, and that is why this administration and previous administrations have invested so heavily in the human capital across Africa with programs like the Young African Leaders Initiative, or YALI.
While he was in these countries, the Secretary had an opportunity to meet with several YALI alums to hear about their tremendous successes in using the skills, using the connections, taking advantage of the experiences that they had in YALI or other IVLP programs, taking those back to their home countries and really being leaders in their own right to help shape, to help craft the more secure, more prosperous future that the United States seeks to partner with these countries and with the continent at large to achieve.
Yes, please. A follow-up?
QUESTION: Yeah, I have a second question. President Biden last week announced they’ll be hosting a U.S.-Africa summit next year. Can you tell us more about that? When, where, who will be invited, and who would be excluded?
And you forgot to respond to the question on the traditional tie to (inaudible).
MR PRICE: (Laughter.) I am actually not aware that a traditional name was bestowed, but if one was, I’ll follow up with you on that.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MR PRICE: In terms of the U.S-Africa Leaders Summit, the Secretary announced this in his speech in Abuja, and what he said, what he spoke to was President Biden’s intention next year to convene a summit with the leaders of our African partners. This is something that the Obama-Biden administration did in 2014 – in August of 2014. As I recall, it was an opportunity to bring to Washington dozens of heads of state, heads of government, to deepen at the time our cooperation on the sets of issues that were most relevant then. We are now some seven years, we will be perhaps closer to eight years, removed from that opportunity to bring to the United States many heads of state in government from Africa.
So there are in some ways old challenges, traditional challenges that remain, but in many ways new challenges that confront us. And the leaders summit that the President intends to convene next year will be an opportunity to address those issues as well. I know it’s something the Secretary looks forward to and the President as well.
QUESTION: Do we know when? When, where?
MR PRICE: We haven’t announced a date formally yet, but we will as it gets closer.
QUESTION: A new report came out last week that shows coronavirus samples from a cave in Laos had been taken to the Wuhan lab up until a few months before the virus broke out. So I wondered if it was still the administration’s position that the lab leak theory was very possible and why it was dropping down the agenda. It wasn’t mentioned in the ministerial. It wasn’t mentioned between President Xi and President Biden. Has that just hit a dead end?
MR PRICE: I would refer you to my White House colleagues, but I believe it was a topic of conversation between President Xi and President Biden, not because – and Secretary Blinken has spoken to this – this is not an issue that is solely about accountability for what happened. This is about preparing the world, ensuring that the world is most prepared for, most resilient against, a potential future pandemic. And this is something that the Secretary discussed on his recent travel to Africa as well: It’s not a question of if; it’s a question of when we have another pandemic.
And so that is why we are so focused on understanding the origins of the coronavirus pandemic, because only by understanding what has happened in the past will we believe able to best defend ourselves here in the United States – but knowing that these pathogens, these viruses, don’t respect borders, we have to ensure that the world, too, is as best prepared as possible. And so that is why you saw a focus, including in Dakar where the Secretary visited the Pasteur Institute, such a focus on not only COVID and recovering from COVID but also building that resilience, building that global health security broadly in Africa, around the world, knowing that we are only as strong as the weakest link when it comes to this.
As you know, the Intelligence Community has been looking at this issue very closely. They have now issued a couple public reports. I’d refer you to those public reports, public assessments, for the current state of our analysis. But I can reassure you certainly that understanding the origins of this virus remains a priority for us so that we can best protect ourselves the next time around.
Let me just move around to the —
QUESTION: Quickly – quickly on Lebanon?
MR PRICE: Okay.
QUESTION: Very quickly. The Lebanese foreign minister met today in Moscow with his counterparts and so on, and he invited Russian companies to come to participate in rebuilding the port. Is that – would that be fine with you? Would that – would you look favorably at Russian companies working in Lebanon restoring or rebuilding the port?
MR PRICE: Look, I would refer you to the – to Lebanese authorities for details of that overture. I can tell you from our perspective we’ve been working very closely with our partners, with our counterparts in the Lebanese Government, our partners in this case being the French, being the Saudis, being a number of other countries, including countries in the Gulf, who have a shared interest in seeing to it that Lebanon is a country that enjoys more stability, more security, and more prosperity as well.
We have been working and the President – the Secretary, I’m sorry, had an opportunity to meet with Prime Minister Mikati when we were in Europe late last month, I believe it was, where we discussed the issue of seeing to it that the Lebanese people are afforded humanitarian relief, they are afforded the opportunities that for far too long have been deprived from them in terms of safety, in terms of security, in terms of economic development and prosperity as well.
And secondly, last Wednesday the United States, Japan, Republic of Korea had a trilateral vice ministerial meeting here at the State Department, but Japan skipped the joint press conference due to the territorial issues between ROK and Japan. So do you think the bilateral issues had effect trilateral cooperation among the United States and Japan and ROK? What’s your take on Japan’s refusal to the joint press conference?
MR PRICE: In terms of your first question, the U.S.-Taiwan Economic Prosperity Partnership Dialogue, we did announce, I believe it was last night, that the dialogue, which is conducted under the auspices of the American Institute in Taiwan, or AIT, and under the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office here in D.C. We noted that it provides an opportunity to exchange views on priority policy issues when it comes to our economic relationship. Its goals are to promote further cooperation and growth in our vibrant and dynamic economic partnership. Through this dialogue, it is our hope that we can explore new areas of cooperation and identify ways to jointly address shared concerns. I expect we’ll have more to say after the dialogue concludes tonight.
When it comes to the relationship between our allies Japan and the Republic of Korea, you’re right that Secretary – Deputy Secretary Sherman had an opportunity to meet trilaterally with her counterparts here in Washington last week. All throughout, we have underscored the importance of not only our bilateral relationships with these two allies, but also the trilateral relationship, knowing that when it comes to all of our common interests – and we share many, including a free and open Indo-Pacific and when it comes to North Korea, when it comes to issues like climate change, economic prosperity and growth – that everything we’re trying to achieve will be more successful if we have a deep trilateral relationship. And so Secretary Sherman had an opportunity to meet with her counterparts last week. Secretary Blinken on several occasions now has had an opportunity to meet in a trilateral format with his Japanese and ROK counterparts as well.
I can tell you – and I think you heard this directly from the deputy secretary – that the bilateral session – the trilateral session, excuse me, itself was very constructive. It was a good meeting. It was an opportunity for the three countries to compare notes, to discuss these many areas – shared areas of concern, to discuss our common objectives. And of course, you had an opportunity to hear directly from Deputy Secretary Sherman in the aftermath of that trilateral engagement to add a bit more texture and detail to those discussions.
QUESTION: One more on Taiwan?
MR PRICE: Sure.
QUESTION: Lithuania – China downgraded its relations with Lithuania over the opening of a Taiwanese mission in Taiwan’s own name. Do you have any reaction to this? Do you – is there any support that the United States could potentially give to Lithuania to withstand the influence of Beijing?
MR PRICE: Well, what I will speak to is Lithuania and its – the steps both it and Taiwan have taken to deepen their cooperation, including through the opening of Taiwan’s representative office in Vilnius and Lithuania’s plans to open a reciprocal offer – office in Taipei. We see this as an important step to expand Taiwan’s meaningful participation in the international space. The opening of these offices will help expand economic and technological cooperation between Taiwan and Lithuania. Lithuania, as you know, it’s a valued NATO Ally. It’s a partner for the United States across a range of issues. That includes our strong defense and economic ties and when it comes to the promotion of shared values, and among them are democracy and human rights among many others. We reaffirm our support for Lithuania and we’re working to expand and deepen our already robust bilateral relationship.
Okay, a final question here?
MR PRICE: Sure.
QUESTION: The UNDP is pushing for urgent action to prop up the banks in Afghanistan, warning of a collapse within months. What’s the U.S. doing to try to stop the banking system there collapsing?
MR PRICE: Well, we are working very closely with the United Nations, with other multilateral organizations, and in the bilateral context as well to support the needs of the people of Afghanistan. When it comes to our direct humanitarian support, you’ve heard us speak to the $474 million that the United States has committed to the people of Afghanistan this year alone. We know that the Afghan economy, even before the fall of the previous government, was in dire need of international support.
And so we are working very closely with the UN, with the UNDP, with other countries in that context, and bilaterally and multilaterally as well, to find ways to offer liquidity to infuse, to see to it that the people of Afghanistan can take advantage of international support in ways that don’t flow into the coffers of the Taliban. We believe that we can continue to support the humanitarian needs of the people of Afghanistan even as we continue to make clear to the Taliban the expectations that we have of them when it comes to the priority issues that we’ve laid out. That includes free passage, it includes its counterterrorism commitments, of course, it includes the commitments they have to human rights, to inclusive governance as well.
So we’ll be watching very closely on that front as we continue to support the needs of the Afghan people.
Thank you all very much.
(The briefing was concluded at 3:06 p.m.)