US State Dept Presser

State Dept Press Briefing – Aug 14, 2023

18 Min
State Dept Press Briefing – Aug 14, 2023

US State Department held a Press Briefing on August 14, 2023 with Principal Dy Spokesperson Vedant Patel fielding a wide range of questions.  The Q-A on Afghanistan is tweaked to appear upfront.

Some Excerpts

MR PATEL: Good afternoon, everybody.  I have nothing at the top today.

QUESTION:  I need to ask you your opinion about a recent statement of Dr. Zal Khalilzad, former U.S. representative in Afghanistan. Recently, he encouraged Afghan politician to go back to Afghanistan and make a unity government and negotiate with the Taliban. Some politician is happy; some is unhappy. And also, he said that United States is not any more committed to send you guys to Afghanistan or help you to go to Afghanistan. This is the only way, that go and negotiate with the Taliban to make a unity government. People reaction was very negative. Just I would like to ask you: Does Zal Khalilzad talk as an official – I mean member of the U.S. or just this is a personal opinion?

MR PATEL: He does not speak on behalf of the U.S. State Department or the U.S. Government. He is a private citizen so I will let you parse through his comments with him as you so will. What I will say is that the U.S. ultimately wants to see an Afghanistan that is at peace with itself, at peace with its neighbors, able to stand on its own two feet, and our policy towards Afghanistan centers around this goal. Supporting the Afghan people, including by helping addressing Afghanistan’s ongoing humanitarian and economic crises, is an urgent priority for us. The U.S. remains the single largest provider of humanitarian assistance to Afghanistan, and we have provided more than $1.9 billion in lifesaving assistance to the Afghan people since August of 2021.

QUESTION: Can I start with Niger?


QUESTION: The military rulers have said that they’re going to try former President Bazoum. Do you have any reaction to that? And do you have any update on further contact from this building with President Bazoum?

MR PATEL: Sure, Shaun. So first let me just say we are incredibly dismayed by the reports that President Bazoum’s unjust detention has gone an even step further, and now that the CNSP is threatening prosecution. This action is completely unwarranted and unjustified, and candidly, it will not contribute to a peaceful resolution of this crisis. It is a further affront, in our opinion, to democracy and justice and to the respect of the rule of law. And a threat like this underscores the urgency of respecting the constitutional order in Niger.

And in terms of – I believe you also asked about engagements. We’ve continued to remain deeply engaged in the region. I don’t have any additional calls to read out at this time, but I’m sure we’ll be able to share with you more on that throughout the day.

QUESTION: Sure. In diplomacy with the military leaders, of course, Victoria Nuland, Deputy Secretary Nuland was there recently. Has there been any further contact with the military rulers to convey this message directly?

MR PATEL: I’m not aware of any additional contact. But you all heard from Acting Deputy Secretary Nuland last week as she was getting ready to leave Niamey, and the message that the United States sent was quite clear. We expect to see President Bazoum and his family unharmed; we expect to see them released, and we expect to see an immediate respect for the constitutional order in Niger.

QUESTION: Can I just do one more on ECOWAS?


QUESTION: ECOWAS made the decision last week to have sort of a military standby force. What’s your interpretation of that? Is that helpful at all towards reaching a resolution where – to what extent does U.S. support that?

MR PATEL: First let me just say  ECOWAS has shown immense leadership throughout this crisis, and the United States has appreciated their work and leadership as well as the work and leadership of the African Union throughout this crisis.

As you said, ECOWAS has been also very clear and very clear publicly that military intervention should be a last resort, something that we agree with. And we continue to be focused on finding a diplomatic solution and are in close contact with ECOWAS and their leadership on this. At the end of the day, we are all in alignment that we want a peaceful resolution to this crisis and the preservation of constitutional order in Niger.


QUESTION: After the announcement of a deal on detainees last week, the Secretary was asked whether he was aware of any Americans that are still in Iranian prison. He said he’s not – he wasn’t aware of anyone. I wonder – I guess he’s not including permanent residents in that because there’s an LPR, Shahab Dalili, who is still in prison there. His son is outside the White House today, I believe, and has been there protesting about that. What’s the administration’s position on Shahab Dalili?

MR PATEL: So let me say a couple of things. If you double-check the totality of the transcript, I believe the Secretary was asked if he was aware of any American citizens or LPRs who were designated as wrongfully or unjustly detained in Iran, and that’s what he was speaking to.

And what I would say in the case of Mr. Dalili is that that case has not yet been determined wrongfully detained. We obviously don’t discuss the specific details of individual cases who have not deemed – been deemed wrongfully detained. But what I can say is that Abram Paley, the deputy special envoy for Iran, has had the opportunity to speak with the Dalili family. Of course, we – there is a process that is ongoing as it relates to actively reviewing and assessing individual cases for indicators for wrongful detention. I’m certainly not going to get into those – get into those. But let me just be very clear about this so there is no confusion: Every U.S. citizen wrongfully held in Iran has been released on house arrest as part of the news that we shared last week.

QUESTION: Sure. And just to follow up on the deal in general, I wonder what’s the thinking behind this staggered approach where these people have been released into house arrest – what’s the order of things and how we can expect things to unfold now in terms of the transfer of funds, the release of Iranian prisoners in the U.S., and their release from Iran? Will they – will those other steps sort of – can you sort of say whether those other steps won’t be taken until the Americans are outside of Iran?

MR PATEL: So I’m not going to get into the specifics of the process as it continues to be a very active and ongoing situation. But Simon, to be quite clear, we would want nothing more than for these American citizens to be back in the United States immediately, and we continue to believe that to be the case because they are wrongfully, unjustly detained. And we continue to that – that to be the case for every American national who is wrongfully detained around the world. But this is an ongoing process. This, as we were quite clear last week, is a positive step. It’s an ongoing negotiation, but we’re certainly not going to rest until we have brought them back to the United States.

Jenny, go ahead.

QUESTION: Following up on Daliliwas the conversation with Abram Paley the first time anyone from the State Department had spoken with his family, and was there ever any indication that he would be included as part of this deal given that he is a permanent resident?

MR PATEL: I’m just not going to speak to the specifics of some of these private discussions, especially as these are conversations that are ongoing and cases that are still active.

QUESTION: And then more broadly, has anyone from this building spoken with the five who are on house arrest since the Secretary’s remarks last week? How frequent is that conversation?

MR PATEL: So the department had the opportunity to speak with these five individuals the day that they were moved to house arrest. Our engagement with them as well as the families continues. We’ve also been in touch with these individuals’ families’ members. I’m not going to read out specific conversations, but our engagement in this continues and will continue to be robust, and we’ll make sure to share with you all as we have more.

QUESTION: Can you give us a sense of how frequent it’s been? Has it been daily, every couple days?

MR PATEL: I’m not going to – I’m not going to offer an exact cadence just because these are active and ongoing negotiations and for security reasons.


MR PATEL: Guita, go ahead.

QUESTION: Thank you. Does the Robert Levinson Hostage-Taking – Hostage Recovery and Hostage-Taking Accountability Act apply to Dalili?

MR PATEL: Apply to?

QUESTION: Shahab Dalili.

MR PATEL: So I’m not going to speak about specific cases, Guita. I think, again, the important thing to remember is that in cases that have not been deemed wrongfully detained, we regularly and actively review individual cases for indications and indicators of possible wrongful detention. I’m not going to get into that process – not just Iran, in countries around the world – that is – that is those assessments and reviews are happening, and so I just am not going to get into further specifics.

QUESTION: The act itself – okay, one aspect is wrongfully detained persons. The other is – it says United States nationals. If somebody’s not a citizen, it wouldn’t – if the person is a permanent resident, it wouldn’t apply to that person?

MR PATEL: Guita, you have seen us in a number of cases from before – well, not a number, but I can think of one in which someone has been an American – not an American citizen, an LPR – and they have been deemed wrongfully detained. The most recent case that I can think of is the successfully resolved case of Paul Rusesabagina. So to – that was a roundabout way of answering your question. No, that is not necessarily a requirement. But again, I’m just not going to get into specifics as these are active and ongoing processes.

Go ahead, Alex.

QUESTION: Thanks, Vedant. Happy Monday. A couple of questions on that. When you say there’s a process that’s going on, is it fair for us to expect that the deal is not done yet? You still can squeeze in new names?

MR PATEL: Alex, I would not – what I would just say is that this is an active process and an active negotiation. It is indicative of these five individuals who were moved to house arrest last week. I’m not going to speak about it further as it continues to be an active and ongoing process. And I will just leave it at that

QUESTION: I know you don’t want to talk about cases, but I want to bring another name to the table. Jamshid Sharmahd, U.S. resident for more than 20 years, has been almost killed in L.A. and then got kidnapped in 2020. Are you considering his name as a potential hostage that needs to be released?

MR PATEL: So Mr. Sharmahd is a German citizen, and I will leave it to our partners in Germany to speak to his situation. What I can say is that the Iranian regime’s treatment of Mr. Sharmahd has been reprehensible. He has been sentenced to death after a legal proceeding that has been widely criticized as a sham trial. And we condemn this kind of treatment in the strongest of terms.

QUESTION: My last question is on the deal more broadly.

MR PATEL: Uh-huh.

QUESTION: You spent a month – certainly since last September – in this podium trying to explain to us how dangerous this mullah regime is not only for the Iranian people, for American citizens, for the region; you talked about Azerbaijan-Iran relationship, Ukraine. My question is: Do you think the mullah regime with six additional billion dollars in hand will be – is less dangerous today than it was yesterday?

MR PATEL: Well, Alex, I kind of reject the premise of your question, and let me say this in a couple of ways. First, as I said to Simon, negotiations and this process is ongoing. Secondly, any – and you saw the Secretary speak to this a little bit last week on Thursday – any of this public reporting and discussions about money is money that is held in South Korea which is in – which is Iranian money. It’s Iran’s money. And allowing Iran to use such funds for humanitarian purposes is consistent with longstanding U.S. policy to ensure that our sanctions do not prevent humanitarian goods and services from flowing to ordinary people no matter how objectionable or problematic their government is.

Let’s also take a step back to remember, Alex, that the reason these funds are in South Korea in the first place is because the previous administration allowed several countries to continue purchasing oil from Iran and to place those funds in special accounts. These funds have been available to Iran to use for humanitarian transactions, like food and medicine, since the previous administration.

Iran’s accounts in other countries have been used to purchase humanitarian goods and services and to conduct other non-sanctionable transactions. And this money, as we continue to move along the process and have these negotiations and discussions, any kinds of funds that move will be subject to the same rigorous restrictions once it moves out of South Korea.

QUESTION: Do you find it troubling that Iran will get access to this funding on the first anniversary of Masa Amini’s —

MR PATEL: Let me say one more thing on your last question. At every instance since we’ve talked about this, including when the Secretary spoke about it last week, we have been quite clear, and I’ll be clear about it again, that this does not change – this does not change the continued problematic, malign destabilizing actions that Iran has taken, not just in the region but in the region broadly, actions that we continue to take serious issue with, actions that we will continue to hold them accountable for, many of which you just said they’re egregious human rights violations, their continued support for the Russian war machine by the provision of drones to be used in Kyiv. All of these things the United States will continue to hold the Iranian regime accountable for.

What this is about, ultimately, though, Alex, is about bringing American citizens home. And we hope that – a process has started last week, and we hope that at the end of this process, these five American citizens will be able to come back to the United States, and that’s what we’re going to continue to work for.

Janne, you’ve had your hand up.

QUESTION: Thank you. If U.S. lifted Iran’s frozen funds in South Korea for release of the detainee in Iran, the Congress, U.S. Congress, is concerned that Iran will use this money for terrorism. What is the State Department position on this?

MR PATEL: I think I just answered your question in answering Alex.


MR PATEL: So I will just – let me be very plain and simple. The use of funds like these for humanitarian purposes – for food, aid, things like that – has always been applicable and allowed under U.S. sanctions. As it relates to Iranian destabilizing activities in the region – their funding of terrorism, their provision of drones to the Russian Federation, their crackdown on human rights, all of those things – countering them is something that the United States is going to continue to pursue. It’s something that we will continue to remain vigilant on. And you’ve seen us take steps at regular intervals to continue to hold the Iranian regime accountable – not just for their human rights violations, but also for the things that they have done to support the Russian Federation as well.

Julia, go ahead.

QUESTION: What indications does this deal have for potential nuclear deal talks with Iran?

MR PATEL: So this – as I – as you heard me say, this is a positive step. It’s a positive step – let me re?clarify. It is a positive step in our hope and desire for these American citizens to be able to come home. But it is not linked to any other issue. And we have not changed any aspect of our overall approach to Iran. Whether it be their nuclear program, our belief continues to be and our goal continues to be that Iran will not obtain a nuclear weapon. But also as it relates to the other issues that I mentioned – their malign activities in the region, their human rights crackdowns – our views, our work on that, has not changed.

QUESTION: So there hasn’t been any movement on the nuclear front (inaudible)?

MR PATEL: As I said, these are unlinked issues.

QUESTION: (Inaudible.)

MR PATEL: Go ahead.

QUESTION: You talked about the (inaudible) for the medicines and also for the humanitarian, but Iranian —

MR PATEL: It’s not that they will, it’s that that’s the only way they can use it. Let’s get it clear.

QUESTION: What the Iranian officials say – what the Iranian officials say, including that said Mohammad Marandi – he’s the top advisor for the Iranian negotiation team – he says that this is unfair claim and it’s not true because we have the full access to this money and there is no Qatari company’s involvement, and we can purchase any goods that we want. How could you make sure that Iran will not use this money to buy any goods that for their benefits; at the end, this money will not go to the IRGC and they are not using against you in the Gulf?

MR PATEL: Well, I’ve not seen those specific comments, but there are pretty clear and strict guardrails in place, and I’m happy to have my colleagues at the Department of Treasury walk you through how our sanctions regime and sanctions enforcement works, if that’s what you’re interested in.

But to be very clear, again, this is longstanding U.S. policy, to ensure that our sanctions do not prevent humanitarian goods flowing where they need to go. And as I have said before, this money has been available to use by Iran for humanitarian transactions like food and medicine since the previous administration. And this money will continue to have rigorous restrictions and guardrails. It can only be used for humanitarian purposes.

QUESTION: And one more question.


QUESTION: One more question. The new Twitter account for the U.S. envoy for Iran – you changed the picture of this Twitter account. Does that mean that Rob Malley has been dismissed from the State Department, or is there any view that Rob Malley will not come back to the office for a long time?

MR PATEL: I have no specifics to offer other than what you’ve heard me and my colleagues say previously, which is that Rob Malley is on leave; Abram Paley is leading the department’s work in this area, and I will leave it at that.

 QUESTION:  You said there were guardrails or are guardrails for Iran not to use the money for any other purposes than that intended. The same applied years ago when Iran also had money in Türkiye, but eventually it turned out – and the Justice Department has the file on it – that Iran used the money for – to buy gold and other sanctionable actions. What’s the difference now? Is there any – going to be – how is this money going to be monitored, or just made sure that it’s really going to be used for that?

MR PATEL: Again, Guita, I think our colleagues at Treasury can give you a full 101 on how our sanctions enforcement regime works. What I will just reiterate again is that this money will continue to have the same restrictions on it that it has – has had, which is that it can only be used for humanitarian purposes. And I will just leave it at that. This is something that has existed even before our administration and the administration prior, when these kinds of accounts were set up, and they had the same kind of guardrails on them.

Said, go ahead.

QUESTION: The Israeli police, they downgraded the homicide charges in a settler case, which you designated as a terrorist, as a matter of fact, and you lauded the fact that he was arrested, a fellow by the name of Yehiel Indor, who killed a Palestinian in cold blood, obviously – Qusai Matan. I wonder if you have any reaction to this since you designated the person and the act as a terrorist act.

MR PATEL: So we have been clear that accountability and justice should be pursued with equal rigor in all cases of violent extremism, whoever the perpetrators. And we expect the Israeli Government to ensure full accountability for those responsible for such attacks, including appropriate legal action and appropriate restitution for lost homes and property. On this specific case, Said, I will just let the local and appropriate law enforcement entities speak to whatever updates there might be. In this case, we have made our views in this circumstance quite clear.

QUESTION: Yeah, but when you term something, when you designate someone as a terrorist, you expect that the full weight of the law should be brought against them. You don’t – you are disappointed. Aren’t you disappointed that he was let go?

MR PATEL: We have been clear that accountability and justice should be pursued within – with equal rigor in all cases.

QUESTION: And one more question. The former IDF commander Amiram Levin called what goes on in the West Bank by Israel as not only apartheid but harkens back to Nazi Germany. It was written in The Jerusalem Post. Are you aware of that report? Do you have any comment on such a report?

MR PATEL: I will refer to General Levin to address his comments. I’m not going to parse through those remarks from up here. What I will say is that this is not a term that we have used to describe Israel’s action. But as a general matter, Said, our views have been clear and consistent on this that the expansion of settlements, they undermine geographic viability of a two?state solution, they incite tensions, and they further harm trust between the two parties. And that is we strongly oppose the advancement of settlements and urge Israel to refrain from this kind of activity.

QUESTION: But you would agree that as – from his vantage point, I mean, this is a man who ruled the West Bank. When he says something, he knows what he’s talking about. Do you agree?

MR PATEL: I will let you and him parse through his own comments.

QUESTION: Recently the drone attacks are being visited in the Kurdistan region of Iraq, and you may aware – in the last three days, three drone attacks occurred in a rural and in the main roads between two cities; even civilians were killed. What’s your reaction to that? Are you condemning these attacks, especially the one that targeting civilians in Iraqi Kurdistan?

MR PATEL: We have urged the Government of Türkiye to coordinate more closely with Iraqi and IKR authorities on some of these cross-border military operations so that we can, again, as I said, ensure the protection of civilians from harm. We recognize the security threat the PKK may pose to Türkiye inside its borders, and we urge the Turkish Government to respect Iraqi sovereignty and to coordinate its military operations with relevant authorities also.

QUESTION: And do you condemn these attacks that targeting civilians?

MR PATEL: As I said, we’ve urged the Government of Türkiye to coordinate with the Government of Iraq and the IKR on these cross-border operations.

QUESTION: Last week, minutes before she was meeting with Secretary Blinken, the foreign minister of Mexico said and criticized actually the delivery of weapons to Ukraine, saying that the conflict was getting worse and worse because of these deliveries. Did the Secretary address this issue with the foreign minister of Mexico? And in general, do you agree with her position?

MR PATEL: I’m not going to get into the specifics of the bilateral engagement beyond what both the Secretary and the foreign minister spoke about in the press conference. You heard them talk quite a bit about the number of issues we discussed with our Mexican partners – addressing synthetic drugs, migration, other important bilateral issues. So I will just leave it at that.

On the subject of Ukraine, it is – it is a sovereign decision for countries to take on the kinds of aid and assistance that they provide. What I can speak about as the United States is that we have, including to the tune of $200 million announced today, have further made a commitment to our Ukrainian partners so that they can continue defending themselves, defending their territorial integrity and democracy.

QUESTION:  On Gershkovich, Evan’s situation.

MR PATEL: Uh-huh.

QUESTION: As I understand this, the ambassador met today with him. Is there anything new you have learned about his situation and where do you guys stand in terms of getting him out of jail?

MR PATEL: So Ambassador Tracy visited Evan Gershkovich today at Lefortovo Prison in Moscow. Ambassador Tracy said that Evan appears in good health and remains strong despite his very challenging circumstances. Embassy officials will continue to provide all appropriate support to Evan and his family, and we expect Russian authorities to provide continued consular access. Once again, we call on the Russian Federation to immediately release Evan Gershkovich as well as fellow wrongfully detained U.S. citizen Paul Whelan as well.

QUESTION: Thanks. And my final question is on Russia-Ukraine. Do you have any comment on Russian actions in Black Sea given what happened over the weekend when they targeted Sukru Okan vessel?

MR PATEL: So Alex, Russia has publicly announced that all ships proceeding to Ukrainian ports in Black Sea waters will be considered as potential carriers of military cargo. This is, in our view, an unacceptable escalation that again demonstrates Moscow’s responsibility for grain not reaching the places where it needs to go. Since Russia’s termination of its participation in the Black Sea Grain Initiative, Ukraine’s ministry of foreign affairs has reported that Russia has attacked 26 port infrastructure facilities and destroyed over 220,000 tons of grain. We’re continuing to monitor this situation carefully, and we of course are concerned that Russia’s military may expand their targeting of Ukrainian grain facilities to include attacks against civilian ships in the Black Sea.

The other thing, Alex, that’s important to remember is that Russia should rejoin the Black Sea Grain Initiative immediately. It is something that we know works. It worked to the tune of more than 32 million tons of grain, and it was instrumental in stabilizing global prices as well as a key factor in ensuring that grain gets to the places it needs to go.


QUESTION: On Yemen, can you brief us on Mr. Lenderking’s trip to the Gulf? And is this a new option (inaudible) since he talked about sustaining the ceasefire and maybe pushing forward for the political process by the UN? Do you think this – the prisoners deal has anything to do with it, that maybe Iran is putting pressure on the Houthis to come to the negotiations?

MR PATEL: So I don’t have any updates at the moment on Special Envoy Lenderking’s travels. I’m happy to check back and we can make sure the team fills you in. What I can say is that you know, Nadia, as someone who’s covered this for some time, this is something that we are going to continue to remain deeply engaged on in terms of playing a role in getting to a peaceful resolution, but we’ll see if there’s more specific updates for you.


QUESTION: Could I go to Taiwan?


QUESTION: Okay. China said it’s going to take strong countermeasures over the vice president’s stopover here on his way to Paraguay. Do you have anything to say about the nature of the vice president’s visit here or about any U.S. interactions or any direct response to what China said?

MR PATEL: So first what I would say is that there is no reason to over-torque this transit into anything escalatory. This is consistent with our “one China” policy. We are not interested in deviating from the status quo. It is not any kind of pretext for coercion or provocative activity. What I can offer on this transit is that Vice President Lai transited the U.S. on August 12th through 13th for the outbound leg of his journey to Paraguay. He will transit San Francisco on his – on the return leg. Such transits are routine and given the distances involved – and they are common. There have been 10 vice presidential transits in the last 20 years; all have occurred without incident. This transit by VP Lai is the 11th transit and his second. He’s previously transited in 2021.

QUESTION:  The Human Rights Watch is calling on the international community to intervene faster in Haiti given the escalating violence there. What is the status of the U.S. introducing a Security Council resolution for the Kenyan-led police force? And do you think that the UN is moving too slowly on this issue?

MR PATEL: So, let me say a couple things about this. The Department of State and interagency partners will support and participate in the Kenyan technical assessment trip in Haiti that will be going soon, as well as participate in consultations in New York and Washington in the coming weeks. Due to operational security and other concerns, I’m not going to put a finite date on when that visit will take place, but we will be deeply engaged in this. And the Secretary spoke about this a little last week, saying that the U.S. is going to undertake significant financial contributions to this multinational force. We are actively engaging international partners to contribute funding, equipment, training, and personnel to this effort as well, and our hope is – is that after this trip concludes will be another important step in the progress.

QUESTION: How quickly of a timeline would it be once the trip happens?

MR PATEL: I’m just not going to put a timeline on it.

All right. Thanks, everybody.

(The briefing was concluded at 2:07 p.m.)