Ned Price, Department Spokesperson fielded a wide range of question as always. Some excerpts
QUESTION: As you know, Taliban establishing a good relationship with India. Indian officials visited the Taliban in Kabul, and they agreed to train some personal security people, maybe army, police or something else. Do you have any comment on that? Although Pakistan and Indian relationship is worse. They don’t have any good relation. Taliban, they get two parts. One goes to India and the other one maybe there. (Inaudible.)
MR PRICE: Well, there are a number of countries around the world that have a discrete set of interests in Afghanistan and who predicate their engagement with the Taliban on those interests. We too have interests when it comes to Afghanistan. We’ve spoken to many of them. It is human rights, respecting the basic and fundamental human rights of all of Afghanistan’s citizens, including its women and girls, its minorities; ensuring safe passage for those who wish to depart the country – of course, that includes for U.S. citizens, for LPRs, for those who have worked on behalf of the United States Government over the years as well.
It is inclusive governance and doing what we can to support the formation of a government that represents the Afghan people, including their aspirations; the counter-terrorism commitments that the Taliban has committed itself to, both publicly and privately, including vis-à-vis al-Qaida, but also ISIS-K; and of course, the idea that no legitimate entity should hold hostages, and in the case of Afghanistan, Mark Frerichs continues to be on our mind. We’ve made very clear that for our relationship to improve whatsoever with the Taliban, we’ll be looking very carefully at their actions towards Mark Frerichs, who has been in custody for far too long.
India similarly has a set of interests when it comes to the Taliban. Different countries will engage with the Taliban in different ways. We have a team on the ground in Doha that is responsible for, as appropriate, engaging with the Taliban on our set of interests just as other countries do.
MR PRICE: We have – we continue to discuss with our NATO Ally how we can work together as Allies. Of course, we don’t speak to any transactions that have not been notified to Congress. Turkey has made no secret of its desire to invest more heavily in the F-16 program. That’s not something that we’re in a position to speak to publicly.
QUESTION: And then the SDF commander in Syria, Mazloum Abdi, he says that in the event of Turkish invasion into northeast Syria, they will allow Assad regime’s air defense to protect the region’s skies. Do you have a position on that?
MR PRICE: Well, our position is one that you’ve heard for some time now, ever since this hypothetical, ever since this potential operation was first raised. We have emphasized that we remain deeply concerned about discussions of potential increased military activity in northern Syria, and in particular, its potential impact on the civilian population there. We have continued to call for the maintenance of existing ceasefire lines. We would condemn any escalation beyond those lines. It’s crucial for all sides to maintain and to respect those ceasefire zones to enhance stability in Syria and to work towards a political solution to the conflict.
I’ve previously made the point that we expect Turkey to live up to the commitments that it made in October of 2019, including the commitment to halt offensive operations in northeast Syria. Any new escalation beyond those existing ceasefire lines could prove to be especially costly setbacks – costly setbacks to our collective efforts to counter Daesh, the efforts of the counter-ISIS coalition, but also to our efforts to promote political stability within Syria.
QUESTION: If I may, Ned, in the previous administration, before the last Turkish invasion into northeast Syria, the administration was calling on Turkey the same things that you’re calling Turkey, and that didn’t work, obviously. Are you optimistic that this time there will be anything different?
MR PRICE: Look, I want to be optimistic about it. I don’t want to be pessimistic about it. What we can do is to make very clear where the United States of America stands on this. This is something that we have had an opportunity to discuss, including at senior levels, with our Turkish allies. We’ve made very clear to them our concerns with any renewed offensive in northern Syria.
QUESTION: Hi. There was a Washington Post story saying that the PRC is secretly building a naval facility in Cambodia for the exclusive use of its military. That’s supposed to be a ground station for the BeiDou navigation technology. Do you have any comment about that?
MR PRICE: I don’t have a comment on the specific story you reference, but it is consistent with credible reporting we’ve seen from the PRC – that the PRC is engaged in a significant ongoing construction project at Ream Naval Base. As we’ve said, an exclusive PRC military presence at Ream could threaten Cambodia’s autonomy and undermine regional security as well. We and countries in the region have expressed concerns about the lack of transparency on the intent, the nature, the scope of this project, as well as the role that the PRC military is playing in its construction and in its post-construction use of the facility.
The Cambodian people, neighboring countries, ASEAN, and the region more broadly would benefit from more transparency. We’ve made a very similar point in terms of the Pacific and the Pacific Island nations. We have seen the PRC attempt to put forward a series of shadowy, opaque deals that they would like to see signed in the dead of night with no input or transparency, and even limited visibility on the part of the governments in question. So this has been a pattern on the part of the PRC.
QUESTION: Sorry, Ned. What’s the date on that guidance you just read?
MR PRICE: Sixth of June, 2022.
QUESTION: Well, okay. Does it give any metadata? (Laughter.) When did you first start raising your concerns about the Chinese construction at Ream?
MR PRICE: It was last year; I can tell you.
QUESTION: Was it more like two years ago? Maybe it was before – before your time.
MR PRICE: I wasn’t here two years ago, but I can tell you this administration has been consistent in that.
QUESTION: Yeah, well, is there something that has happened new other than this just one report that has increased your concern?
MR PRICE: I will tell you, Matt, we – I am happy to take any and all questions that people throw my way. Your colleague asked me a question about —
QUESTION: No, no, I understand that. I’m just wondering —
MR PRICE: — concern of Ream Naval Base, so —
QUESTION: No, I just want to know if there’s any – why – is the concern greater than it was, like, a year ago?
MR PRICE: I don’t – I can’t tell you why The Washington Post wrote that report.
QUESTION: I’m not asking you that. I’m asking you about your response to the question, which is that – like, has the concern increased for some reason?
MR PRICE: Our concern certainly has not abated.
QUESTION: Just a more general question on nuclear threats, because the IAEA chief pointed to evidence that both North Korea and Iran are making great strides in this arena. Now, you’ve outlined the administration’s strategy for diplomacy, but taken as a whole is any of this a wakeup call that it’s time maybe for a recalibration?
MR PRICE: For a recalibration of?
QUESTION: Of your strategy.
MR PRICE: Of our strategy towards the DPRK and Iran?
QUESTION: On non-proliferation.
MR PRICE: Look, we have a strategy towards both countries. Obviously, they’re very different countries entailing very different strategies.
When it comes to the DPRK – we have already talked about this to some extent during the briefing – our objective is to see the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. We believe we can achieve that most effectively through dialogue and diplomacy. We are doing what we can to signal very clearly to the DPRK regime that we are ready, willing, and able to engage in that dialogue and diplomacy.
Now, it is no secret as we’ve already talked about in the course of this briefing that the DPRK appears to be in a period of provocation. This has tended to be cyclical. We’ve seen periods of provocation; we’ve seen periods of engagement. It is very clear at the moment that we are in the former. We are doing what we can to give way to a period that is marked more by the latter.
When it comes to Iran, look, the unfortunate reality is that Iran’s nuclear program was in a box. It was in a confined box until May of 2018, when the decision was made on the part of the previous administration to essentially give Iran a get out of nuclear jail free card. And since then Iran has been in a position to advance its nuclear program in ways that would have been prohibited under the JCPOA and to do so in the context – in a context where we have not had the stringent verification and monitoring regime that the JCPOA affords us.
So in one sense we know a very credible solution to the challenge we face with Iran’s nuclear program, and that’s the JCPOA. Now, it remains a very big question mark as to whether we will get there. Regardless of whether there is a JCPOA or not, President Biden has committed that Iran will never be in a position to obtain a nuclear weapon. If we are in a position to mutually return to compliance with the JCPOA, that will be the vehicle by which we fulfil that commitment, but we are equally determined and we are engaging with allies and partners around the world in the absence of a JCPOA to ensure that even in the case that we are unable to get there that Iran will not be able to acquire a nuclear weapon.
QUESTION: On Saudi Arabia, there appears to be two major delegations coming to visit the United States, the commerce minister in the middle of this month and the investment minister at the end. Are those precursors to a meeting with MBS, or is there any more detail you can provide on a potential meeting there?
MR PRICE: I’m not in a position to provide any more detail on potential presidential travel. As you know, the White House has said that they are working on a visit to the Middle East. He has accepted an invitation from Prime Minister Bennett of Israel to travel to Israel in the coming weeks, and we may have more to say, or I should say the White House I expect will have more to say on that front at the appropriate time.
What we are doing with Saudi Arabia is precisely what we are doing with countries around the world, and that is forging a relationship that first and foremost advances U.S. interest. Just as the President was recently in Japan and South Korea engaging with the leaders of ASEAN, he’ll be at the Summit of the Americas this week. Our engagements with countries around the world are predicated on the idea that these relationships need to serve American interests and to be consistent with American values.
I think over the course of the past 16 months we have been in a position to forge a relationship with Saudi Arabia that does that. And you saw another piece of evidence just last week when it was announced by the UN another extension, or I should say an extension, a two-month extension, to the humanitarian truce in Yemen. This, of course, would not have been possible without the tireless efforts of Special Envoy Lenderking under the direction of Secretary Blinken and President Biden, but of course the UN Special Envoy Hans Grundberg, but also the support of our Saudi partners. We have also worked and Saudi Arabia has done quite a bit to mend regional divides – the exchange of ambassadors with Lebanon, healing rifts within the Gulf as well.
And of course, we have common interests in terms of the threats that Saudi Arabia faces, has faced, from Yemen. There are – these are not only threats to the kingdom and to Saudi Arabia’s citizenry, but there are 70,000 Americans who live in the kingdom who have been put at risk by the spate of hundreds of cross-border attacks that we have seen in recent months.
So we are working with our Saudi partners on all of these common interests. We can do all of that while keeping human rights at the center of our foreign policy.
MR PRICE: Sure.
QUESTION: I think it was last year that Blinken continued to say that the relationship between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia needs to be recalibrated, and you reiterate that as well. Has that process of recalibration concluded, or are you guys still in the process of recalibrating the relationship?
MR PRICE: Well, in some ways our relationships with countries around the world is like our efforts here at home; we’re always striving for a more perfect union. We’re always striving for a more perfect relationship. The same could be true of countries around the world. I think what we’ve seen over the course of the past 16 months with our Saudi partners, compared to where we were in January of last year to where we are now just a few days after the humanitarian truce was extended in Yemen, speaks to the progress that we’ve seen. It’s a relationship that is now on steady footing. It’s a relationship that allows us to advance, to protect, to promote our interests, just as we have continued to put values – values we share with countries around the world – front and center in that.
QUESTION: So, it’s on more steady footing now than it was last year at this time?
MR PRICE: I think that is safe to say.
QUESTION: So Sunday’s strikes on Kyiv. Ukraine demands new sanctions in response to Sunday’s strikes. It’s the first time in weeks. And also characterizes missile attack on Kyiv as an act of terrorism. Do you share that characterization? Was it an act of terrorism?
And secondly, you mentioned Ambassador Sullivan’s interview. He was quoted today as saying Russia should not close its embassy in the U.S. I get the sentiment that when ambassador talked about that, this is two-way road. But I wonder how comfortable you are in terms of seeing Russian diplomats wandering around, feeling they are part of international community just as normal after everything they have done on Ukraine, just pick up from where they left off.
MR PRICE: Well, I would dispute somewhat that characterization. Not only is Moscow’s economy in shambles, we’ve seen sky-high inflation; we have seen estimates that the Kremlin – that the Russian economy will contract by between 11 and 15 percent this year; more than a thousand multinational companies have fled the Russian marketplace. But Russia is diplomatically isolated in a way that it never has been before. You should ask Moscow how it plans to vote in terms of the next Human Rights Council meeting, just to give you one example. This is a country that is now, in many ways, a pariah on the international stage. We have seen countries distance themselves from Moscow. This is not only confined to private sector companies.
So that said, the ambassador’s point is a completely valid one and one we believe in. We believe that lines of communication, lines of dialogue, are always important, but they are especially important at – during times of increased tension or, in this case, even conflict or war. We want to see those lines preserved. It’s why we have been very vocal in speaking out against the unjustified steps that the Russian Government had taken vis-à-vis our diplomatic presence in Moscow. Our goal is to see those lines of communication maintained.
QUESTION: And on Sunday’s strike, isn’t it – was it an act of terrorism, as Ukraine wants?
MR PRICE: You can attach any number of labels to it. What we are doing is working with our Ukrainian partners to provide them with the support they need – security assistance, economic assistance, humanitarian assistance – just as we impose costs on the Russian Federation.
QUESTION: And lastly, you mentioned direct engagement on Azerbaijan/Armenia. The Secretary, in fact, offered his help with border efforts. Other than just bringing both sides together, what does that mean in practice? Do you have different maps, or what are you offering that – if Brussels does not —
MR PRICE: During a recent engagement, the Secretary did allude to support for those efforts. It includes border demarcation efforts, ways that we can help Armenia and Azerbaijan continue to make progress in terms of this conflict.
Thank you all very much.