US State Dept Presser

State Dept Press Briefing – July 18, 2023  

15 Min
State Dept Press Briefing – July 18, 2023  

The State Department held a media briefing on July 18, 2023 with Matthew Miller, Spokesperson fielding questions on a wide range of issues.  The Q-A on B’desh is tweaked to appear upfront.

Some Excerpts

MR MILLER: Let me start with some brief remarks at the top.  Yesterday, Russia suspended its participation in the Black Sea Grain Initiative, its latest blow to the world’s supply of food.  Just hours later, the Kremlin rained missiles and dispatched armed drones on Ukraine’s grain hub, the Port of Odessa.  And then today, President Putin’s spokesman threatened the safety of Ukrainian ships that would dare to carry food through international waters. 

It is clear that Russia continues to use food as a weapon of war.  This time, the impact is not only on the people of Ukraine, but also on global food supply and prices.  Sixty-five percent of these shipments have gone to some of the world’s most vulnerable countries and people.  The world should not be fooled by Moscow’s latest lies.  The impact of these actions is already being felt, particularly in the Middle East and Africa.

Prior to the implementation of the Black Sea Grain Initiative, food commodity prices spiked nearly 22 percent due to Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine.  As a result of Moscow’s inhumane and unilateral decisions over the past 24 hours, we are already seeing a spike in global wheat, corn, and soybean prices.  Meanwhile, Russia continues to reap record profits from its grain exports. 

Despite Russia’s claims to the contrary, the UN has worked hard to facilitate Russian exports of food in coordination with the private sector, the United States, EU, and UK to clarify any concerns raised by Russia.  As we have consistently made clear, no G7 sanctions are in place on Russian food and fertilizer exports.

Since its implementation in August last year, the Black Sea Grain Initiative successfully stabilized food prices.  Over 32 million metric tons of grain and foodstuffs flowed to countries worldwide through the initiative, including the equivalent of nearly 18 billion loaves of bread, the majority of which has gone directly to developing countries and the most vulnerable populations, like the Horn of Africa, the Sahel, Yemen, and Afghanistan.

For the millions of people who depend on Ukrainian grain to feed their families, we urge the Government of Russia to reverse its decision and to extend, expand, and fully implement the initiative immediately, and cease its attacks against infrastructure critical to global food security.

We also hope that every country is watching, because they will see it is Russia who is responsible for blocking food from getting to those who need it and Russia who should change course immediately.

QUESTION: (Off-mike.)  Good afternoon.  Since U.S. State Department officials have visited Bangladesh, the violation and attack on the opposition’s been increased highly.  Do you have any comment on that? 

MR MILLER:  I’m sorry, since what visit?

QUESTION:  Since the high officials from U.S. State Department. 

MR MILLER:  Oh, it was – yeah, under-secretary – yeah, right.  Yeah, I would say that Under Secretary Zeya and other officials visited Bangladesh and met with the prime minister and other officials last week.  She also met with labor activists, civil society leaders, and human rights defenders. 

During these meetings, the under-secretary emphasized the importance of working together to achieve Bangladesh’s goal of free and fair elections; the crucial role of civil society, human rights defenders, journalists, and labor activists; accountability for human rights abuses; and the need to continue to support Rohingya refugees.  She also visited Rohingya refugees as well as humanitarian partners and Bangladesh senior government officials in Cox’s Bazar and announced $74 million in additional humanitarian assistance to support Burma and Bangladesh response efforts.  I will just say finally that the United States is dedicated to partnering with the government and civil society to address the scourge of human trafficking in the region. 

QUESTION:  A follow-up question on that. 


QUESTION:    How do you assess the current relationship between United States and Bangladesh considering the recent developments, concern expressed from this very U.S. podium recently? 

MR MILLER:  I will say that – first of all, with respect to the point you made about Bangladesh being an important country, I would say the fact that I speak about it in this briefing room almost every day, and the fact that senior officials from the United States regularly travel to Bangladesh, would show that we share that assessment. 

And I would say that one of the things that I have emphasized from this podium, that the under-secretary emphasized in her trip, is the importance of the United States and Bangladesh working together to achieve Bangladesh’s goal of free and fair elections as well as the crucial role of civil society, human rights defenders, journalists, and labor activists, accountability for human rights abuses.  These are important issues in our bilateral relationship.  So, to your question about the relationship, it is why we engage so directly with Bangladeshi officials.  Why we talk about this from this podium is because we believe these should be shared priorities for our two countries. 

QUESTION:  Okay.  … what is the State Department’s role in the situation with North Korea and this serviceperson who (inaudible)? 

MR MILLER:  Right now, we are in touch with the Department of Défense.  As you noted, it was a U.S. servicemember who wilfully and without authorization crossed into North Korea.  The Department of Défense is of course in the lead because it’s a member of their personnel, and we are in touch with them to offer whatever assistance may be appropriate.

QUESTION:  Yeah, well, so you’re only in touch with the military?  You’re not in touch with the South Koreans?  You haven’t tried to get in touch with the North Koreans? 

MR MILLER:   I’m sure that we are in touch with the South Koreans.  We have regular ongoing conversations with them.  I will say at this point   the State Department has not reached out to the North Koreans or other governments.  It is our understanding that the Pentagon has reached out to their counterparts in the DPRK.  They’re the lead agency, and I will defer to them to comment on the nature of those contacts.

QUESTION:  Is there any reason to believe that this could be resolved quickly with the contacts that the Pentagon is taking the lead on right now?

MR MILLER:  Again, I would defer to them, their contacts, that they are taking the lead.  I shouldn’t speak to them from here.

QUESTION:  The Pentagon has said that they believe that he’s in detention.  Would the State Department attempt to provide consular services through Sweden if that’s the case, he’s in detention? 

MR MILLER:  I will just say that, as always, the safety and security of any American overseas remains the top priority for the United States.  As I mentioned, the Pentagon is in the lead right now, are making the appropriate contacts.  We are in close coordination with them.  And whatever we can do to resolve this situation, we will of course not hesitate to take the appropriate step. 

QUESTION:  Do you have any indication that he was defecting or trying to defect?

MR MILLER:  All I will say is that, as I said at the top, it’s clear that he wilfully, on his own volition, crossed the border and that the matter remains under investigation. 

QUESTION:  Yeah, on Iraq.  Do you have any reaction to the Iraqi president decision to revoke a decree recognizing Cardinal Louis Sako, patriarch of the Chaldean Catholic Church, as head of the Christian Church in Iraq? 

MR MILLER:  Yes.  I will say we are disturbed by the harassment of Cardinal Sako, the patriarch of the Chaldean Church, and troubled by the news that he has left Baghdad.  We look forward to his safe return.  The Iraqi Christian community is a vital part of Iraq’s identity and a central part of Iraq’s history of diversity and tolerance.

I will say we are in continuous contact with Iraqi leaders on this matter.  We are concerned that the cardinal’s position as a respected leader of the church is under attack from a number of quarters, in particular a militia leader who is sanctioned under the Global Magnitsky Act.  Excuse me. 

QUESTION:  And to what extent do you think this decision affects the religious freedom in Iraq? 

MR MILLER:  I would say certainly it is a blow to religious freedom, and that’s why we are so concerned and why we have engaged directly with the Iraqi Government to make our concerns clear. 

QUESTION:  And do you expect any change in their decision?

MR MILLER:  I will say we have engaged with them.  I think I just made our position quite clear.  And we certainly hope that they will reverse that decision and the cardinal will be able to safely return to Baghdad. 

QUESTION:  Okay, on the Palestinian-Israeli issue, a couple things.  The Israeli Government is said to be advancing a bill that, once passed, will criminalize Palestinian Arab activism in Israeli universities.  Do you have any comment on that?  I mean, you talk about shared values all the time, but if passed, that will not be a shared value. 

MR MILLER:  I won’t comment on that bill, which I understand is in draft form.  I will say as a general matter the United States Government strongly believes that respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms and a strong civil society are critically important to responsible, responsive, and democratic governance. 

QUESTION:   Apparently, the President, President Biden, extended an invitation to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.  We don’t know when or where.  It could be on the sideline of the General Assembly – it could be – but I mean, this comes at a time when the overhaul is being advanced and of course settlements being advanced and so on, so are you okay now with the advancement of the overhaul, the judicial overhaul? 

MR MILLER:  I will say, as we have made clear repeatedly, as the White House made clear yesterday, I believe, in reading out the call that the President had with Prime Minister Netanyahu, that we continue to believe that those fundamental reforms need to be made with the broadest consensus possible. 

QUESTION:  Okay.  And lastly, I wanted to ask you about Israel recognizing the Western Sahara as part of Morocco.  First, do you have any comment on that?  I know that the last administration did recognize that as – in the leadup to the normalization between Morocco and Israel.  Do you have any comment on this, that Israel had recognized this?  How do you stand on this issue?

MR MILLER:  I would just say as a general matter the resumption of relations between Morocco and Israel has been an unequivocal positive for the region, and we look forward to working with these close U.S. partners to expand the circle of peace further.  

QUESTION:  Okay.  Do you have a comment on the position of the United States of America? 

MR MILLER:    I would say that the policy was announced in December of 2020; it has not changed.  I will say at the same time we fully support the UN Personal Envoy of the Secretary-General Staffan de Mistura as he intensifies efforts to achieve an enduring and dignified political solution for Western Sahara. 

QUESTION:  Well, back in December of 2020 when that was announced, there was also a big announcement with a great amount of fanfare that the U.S. was going to open – construct and open a consulate in Western Sahara.  That appears to have fallen by the wayside as you guys are going full-bore on opening new embassies and consulates around the Indo-Pacific.  So not to suggest that   the Western Sahara consulate, that delays in that would – are related to what’s going on in the Indo-Pacific, but is it still on hold?  Are you still planning to build one, or is this the beginning of the walking away from what the Trump administration did?

MR MILLER:  I will have to get back to you on the construction of the consulate.  I’m just not following the construction.

QUESTION:  Well, it should be in there.

MR MILLER:  No, I’m – it’s not an issue I’m following, the construction of the consulate.  But I’m happy to look into it, yeah.

QUESTION:  And then one other on Israel, because President Herzog is here today and tomorrow, and then in New York.  There’s been a lot of speculation about the visa waiver program and this pilot program.  I know Said has asked about it over the course of the last couple days – well, years, basically, months.  But is there any – is there any chance that even a pilot program could be agreed to until and unless the Israelis actually take steps to treat Palestinian and Arab Americans as the same as they treat Jewish and other Americans?

MR MILLER:  I will say as I’ve said from here before – first of all, I’m not going to comment on the reports of a pilot program, but it is an issue in which we remain in dialogue with the Israeli Government, but we have made clear what the positions are for entering into the visa waiver program.  At this point, Israel does not comply with those conditions. 


MR MILLER:  But we’re hopeful that they will come in compliance with them.

QUESTION:  Well, yeah, but successive administrations have been hopeful for that for the last, like, decade.

MR MILLER:  And we remain hopeful.

QUESTION:  — Whatever comes up in the next few weeks and so on, it will not be sort of segmented according to geography.  The Gazans will not be treated differently than West Bank American citizens and so on, correct?

MR MILLER:  Let me not try to speculate about the shape of announcements that have not yet been made. 

QUESTION:  Right.  But all Americans will be treated equally regardless?

MR MILLER:  I have made very clear that – what the requirements are for entering into the visa waiver program, and I don’t want to speculate on what any future announcements might look like. 

QUESTION:  NCG issues, nuclear conservative group meeting yesterday in Seoul, Korea.  Do the State Department officials attend this meeting?  Who is he, if he attended this meeting?

MR MILLER:  I’ll have to take that one and get back to you.  I just don’t know.

QUESTION:  Yeah, on Syria, Russia has increased their activity in the skies over Syria, and this has distracted your strikes against ISIS.  How do you address this issue in Syria, and do you have any connection, links with the Syrian forces in – with the Russian forces in Syria?

MR MILLER:  I will say that the United States and the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS continue to work with our local partners in Syria to maintain constant pressure on ISIS remnants and to ensure ISIS’s lasting defeat.  The Department of Defense has spoken to this on a number of issues, and I will reiterate the statements they have made, which is we strongly urge Russian forces in Syria to stop reckless and threatening behaviour that could result in an accident and loss of life, and adhere to the standards of behaviour expected of a professional force.  And I would refer to the Pentagon for any specific context that they might have in that regard. 

QUESTION:  Why is Russia doing this at this time

MR MILLER:  I certainly wouldn’t want to speak to Russian motivations, but I would say it’s extremely reckless behaviour, and from our perspective it should stop immediately.

QUESTION:  And one question on Iran.  Yesterday, Washington said that they are deploying fighter jets to the Middle East to deter the Iranian activities of region.  But at the same time, the Iranian foreign minister spokesperson, they warned to Washington and said that Washington’s decision to boost up its presence in the Gulf could cause insecurity and instability.  And he said that – that Iran maintains its right to defend itself against American provocative and illegal actions near its borders.  My question is that:  How do you deal with this Iranian warning to you?  And then if Iran keeps its behaviour in the region – which there is no sign to stop it —then are you going to use this military equipment against Iran?

MR MILLER:  What I’ll say about that is that in light of this continued threat and in coordination with our partners and allies, the Department of Defense is increasing its presence and ability to monitor the strait and the surrounding waters, and we call upon Iran to immediately cease these destabilizing actions that threaten the free flow of commerce through the strategic waterway upon which the world depends for one-fifth of the world’s oil supply.

QUESTION:  Is there a sign to preparing a war with Iran in the Gulf?


QUESTION:  Can I follow up on your topper on the grain deal?

MR MILLER:  Yes.  Please. 

QUESTION:  What are the next steps on this from the State Department’s perspective?  And is the U.S. looking at other routes to get grain out?  And what are those routes? 

MR MILLER:  I will say, yes, we are looking at other ways to get grain out of Ukraine.  We’re discussing options with our allies and partners, including the EU solidarity lanes and the Danube ports.  I will say these are not perfect solutions.  In fact, they’re far from perfect.  Just as an example, during the implementation of the Black Sea Grain Initiative, there were 15 metric tons of food that were being shipped outside of Ukraine every month.  The EU solidarity lanes and the Danube ports can only handle the shipping of 6 metric tons.  So, you would see the production of – or the production of grain from Ukraine cut by over half.  In addition, those are more expensive modes of transportation.  So, in addition to the price going up because there’s less supply, price would go up because these are such expensive routes. 

So, we’re going to continue to explore those options.  President Zelenskyy has a proposal that he has made to the UN.  We’re in discussions with our Ukrainian counterparts about that, and we’re going to do everything we can to help Ukraine find a resolution, to restore grain shipments. 

But again, while we look for other ways to try and circumvent Russia’s decision to continue to use food as a weapon of war, we would urge Russia to end this – to make this unnecessary tomorrow by re-entering the Black Sea Grain Initiative.  And we would urge all the countries of the world to be very clear about the role Russia is playing in the increasing global food prices and the withdrawal of food from the global market and to urge Russia to re-enter this initiative, because it’s important not just to Ukraine but to the entire world.

QUESTION:  A follow-up?


QUESTION:  I know you alluded to it in your opening statement, but the Russians – or President Putin said that they will give grain free to the needy countries and so on.  Do you put a lot of stock in that?

MR MILLER:  I put zero stock in that, especially when you look at the facts of Russia’s grain exports over the last year under the Black Sea Grain Initiative.  First of all, I’ll say Russian food exports are at an all-time high, despite their complaints, and that the majority of Russian grain does not go to developing countries but to the developed world.  It is, in fact, the grain that’s coming from Ukraine that has been going to developed countries – developing countries who need it most.  So, I would put that statement in – from President Putin in the category of a lot of the statements that he’s made about this war.

QUESTION:  So why are they doing this?  You think it’s just to gain profit, to do – why the crisis, in your view?

MR MILLER:  They are doing this, I believe, for two reasons.  One, to attempt to further choke off the – actually, two reasons.  One, to further choke off the Ukrainian economy, to try to hurt the Ukrainian economy.  Two, to use food as leverage with other countries, to try to bring countries around to their side.  And three, because they profit from it.  When the global price of grain increases, as it has already done in the last 24 hours since they announced the end of this initiative, Russia profits from that, because Russia’s grain exports can continue to move.

We have made clear we will not sanction Russian food because we don’t believe it’s appropriate to deny food supplies to people around the world who need it.  But Russia is profiting from the expiration of this initiative, and that’s why we believe they took this step.

QUESTION:  And lastly, yesterday Ambassador Antonov accused the United States of America of being involved in the bombing of the Crimea bridge.  Do you have any comment on that?

MR MILLER:  It’s absolutely not true.

QUESTION:   Do you have any comments on the Wall Street Journal story about the clash between MBS and MBZ?

MR MILLER:  I do not.  I would refer to those two countries to speak to the accuracy or inaccuracy of that story.

QUESTION:  Different topic.  On Henry Kissinger – according to the Chinese ministry of defence meeting with the Chinese defence minister who’s sanctioned by the U.S.  Did the State Department know about this meeting before it occurred?  And what’s your response just to the fact that it even happened?

MR MILLER:  We were aware that Henry Kissinger was traveling to China.  It actually came up in the meetings that Secretary Blinken had when we were in China.  The Chinese officials mentioned that he was planning to come, as he has done a number of times over the years as a private citizen.  I will say he was there under his own volition, not acting on behalf of the United States Government.  And I don’t have any further updates on his trip.

QUESTION:  And do you guys expect to get a readout from Kissinger?

MR MILLER:  I don’t know of any conversations planned with him, but I wouldn’t be surprised if at some point he briefs officials here on his conversations.  He’s done that a number of times, dating back decades, is my understanding.  So, it wouldn’t surprise me if he does so at some point, but I’m not aware of any planned conversations.

QUESTION:  Just is it at all problematic, though, for a U.S. citizen – not a diplomat, not a formal U.S. official – to be meeting with a Chinese official who’s under sanctions?  Is that problematic?

MR MILLER:  We would object to anyone violating our sanctions, but it is not my understanding that a meeting violates those sanctions.  In fact, we have said that we believe our own defense – our own Secretary of Defense could meet with the sanctioned defense minister, and that would be appropriate to do so – it would be appropriate to do, excuse me.

QUESTION:  On Sudan, the talks in Jeddah over the Sudanese conflict, I was just wanted to ask if the State Department has any updates, any conversations with Saudi Arabia on this, if you have anything you’re able to share.

MR MILLER:  I don’t have any updates, other than to say that Secretary Blinken spoke with the Saudi foreign minister – I believe it was Friday or Saturday – to discuss the conflict in Sudan, among other topics.  We continue to engage with a number of partners in the region.  Assistant Secretary Phee was in the region last week, as she has been almost continuously.  Ambassador Godfrey remains engaged, both with members of Sudanese civil society and other countries in the region.  It continues to be a very difficult situation, and we’ll continue to work to try to reach some resolution.  But I don’t have any specific update.

QUESTION:  So, the State Department hasn’t been able to glean anything from those talks that have been occurring in the past few days?

MR MILLER:  Not that I’m at liberty to share publicly.  

QUESTION:  Cambodia’s national election is coming up this Sunday.  And yesterday they blocked access to Radio Free Asia’s website, both in English and the Cambodian language.  Radio Free Asia is funded by the U.S. Government.  Do you have a comment about this?  And have you reached out to the Cambodian Government to ask why they did this?

MR MILLER:  I won’t speak to any diplomatic conversations, but I will say we always support freedom of expression, freedom of speech, and the free exercise of journalism around the world.

Thank you.

(The briefing was concluded at 1:53 p.m.)