US State Dept Presser

State Dept Press Briefing – May 18, 2023

15 Min
State Dept Press Briefing – May 18, 2023

The State Department held a presser on May 18, 2023 with Principal Dy Spokesperson Vedant Patel fielding a wide range of questions.  

Some Excerpts

MR PATEL: Good afternoon, everybody. Happy Thursday. I have one thing at the top, and then we’re happy to dive right into your questions.

We are aware that Iranian authorities may imminently execute Majid Kazemi and Saleh Mirhashemi, and Saeed Yaghoubi in connection with their participation in protests in Iran.

We join the people of Iran and the international community in calling on Iran to not carry out these executions. The execution of these men – after what have been widely regarded as sham trials – would be an affront to human rights and basic dignity in Iran and everywhere.

It is clear from this episode that the Iranian regime has learned nothing from the protests that began with another death, the death of Mahsa Amini in September of last year.

We once again urge Iran’s leadership to stop the killing, stop the sham trials, and respect people’s human rights. We are continuing to work in close coordination with our allies and partners around the world to condemn and confront these appalling human rights abuses.

And with that, happy to dive into your questions.

QUESTION:  Two questions please, one on India, and one Pakistan.


QUESTION: As far as a recently released religious report, it is talk of the town in India and the media and also government. The foreign ministry is saying that this was a propaganda against India by some groups in the U.S. or outside which have – or has not been properly investigated by the State Department. And what the ministry is saying, that India is a rule of law and freedom of religion and worship of law and all that, like in the U.S. But at the same time, Mr. Sudhir Chaudhary of the Aaj Tak V channel, he highlighted the report in a very vigorous way, and he’s saying that Hindus or BJP was named in the report many, many, many, many times or maybe more than 100 times, but PFI, which is a Muslim organization who has killed so many people in India, only one time, and they receive funding from the NGOs and anti-India groups or ISI or – among others.


QUESTION: What he said, that what kind of message that State Department or U.S. is sending to India or the people of India when prime minister comes —

MR PATEL: I’m going to jump in, Goyal, because I think I have a sense of where you’re going with this. Let me say broadly that we carefully monitor the religious freedom situation in any country, and we encourage each government to uphold its commitments to protect religious freedom, to protect human rights for all. And officials from the Secretary and the President on down engage regularly on steps to – that they can take and engage with their counterparts on to advance religious freedom and human rights. Again, we strongly oppose laws and actions around the world that impede the ability of any individuals to practice a faith, choose their faith, participate in religion in any which way.

QUESTION: Second, on Pakistan, sir.


QUESTION: I’m sure you must be watching – or State Department must be watching what’s going on in Pakistan right now. Imran Khan, he has been called that he’s a traitor and he should be put to death by the National Assembly in Pakistan. And now all the action is in Lahore, where Imran Khan is there, police and military and all that. What (inaudible) that Imran Khan is talking about breaking up Pakistan and all that, and now he said he will be killed. So how much – where – how much we have to believe in media in TV or there, and what is reality? What is the actual – are you getting any information or you’re – see in Pakistan? Because Lahore is not far away from Islamabad.

MR PATEL: This is a situation that is internal to Pakistan. And as you have heard me say before, the United States does not choose a particular candidate or political party in Pakistan. Our view is that a strong, prosperous, secure Pakistan is key to U.S.-Pakistan bilateral relations, but I don’t have any other comments to add on the situation there.

QUESTION:  you said rightfully that Iranian regime has not learned from the protests. One thing they have learned, it looks like, that they can get away with it. They can murder their own —

MR PATEL: I would reject the premise of that question. I don’t think the United States has allowed them to get away with it in – we have taken since the death of Mahsa Amini, since the immense protests that we’ve seen break out in Tehran and other parts of Iran, you have seen this country in alignment with our allies and partners take appropriate steps to hold the Iranian regime accountable, whether that be direct sanctions on the human rights abusers, direct sanctions on security officials involved in some of these human rights abuses, bringing licenses on board with our colleagues at the Department of Treasury to allow the further flow of information within the Iranian people. We’ve not hesitated to take action. This action, we know, is having a direct impact on Iran both just as it relates to their own country but also the standing that it has in the international community.  So they are not getting away with anything.

QUESTION: Thank you. Will the administration sanction Iranian supreme leader for this very action?

MR PATEL: Again, Alex, I have never been in a place to give you a list of things that we will or will not do when it comes to holding people accountable. We continue to have tools at our disposal to hold the Iranian regime accountable, and we have used those tools and we’ve used them quite regularly. If you look, dating back to the fall of last year, just the regular clip of which we have announced designations relating to the Iranian regime. We’ve done so regularly, consistently, and in close coordination with our allies and partners.

 QUESTION: The head of the Syrian regime will be welcomed to a big hall tomorrow in Jeddah at the Arab Summit League. What’s your take on that, and especially one of your important allies in the region invited him for the summit and most likely they are naturalizing the relationship with the regime.

MR PATEL: So I spoke a little bit about this yesterday and I will reiterate what I said that – and what you heard the Secretary say. We do not believe that Syria should be afforded re-entry into the Arab League. Of course, we are not a party to the Arab League, so this is a decision for the body to make. And as it relates to normalization, we don’t support normalization with the Assad regime and we don’t support our partners doing so.

That being said, we have a number of shared objectives as it relates to the Syrian regime. One of those pieces, of course, is bringing home Austin Tice. Another piece of that is ensuring that ISIS does not re-emerge and continue to have destabilizing impact in the region. Another piece of that is ensuring that we can counter the illicit captagon trade in Syria. These are all objectives we know are shared by our partners in the Arab world and by – while we might disagree on the ways about going to get there, we know and we hope that our Arab partners will use these avenues to raise these directly with the Syrian regime.

QUESTION: So it is okay for the administration or top officials to meet secretly with Syrians in Oman like the last meeting to talk about Austin Tice? This is appropriate, right?

MR PATEL: You heard me say from here yesterday that the U.S. is willing to engage with anyone who can help secure the progress toward the release of U.S. nationals.

QUESTION: Even U.S. officials themselves to meet with Syrian delegations?

MR PATEL: I think I am very clear in what I’m saying.

QUESTION: Can we expect the release of Austin Tice after the Arab summit?

MR PATEL: What I will say, Michel, is that we are working around the clock. We continue to engage extensively to bring Austin home. This of course includes discussing this case with a number of countries in the region. We have pursued every channel, we will continue to pursue every channel, to seek his safe return to his family.

QUESTION: And one more. The Syrian regime is saying in Jeddah that it took all the necessary steps and decisions related to the refugees return to Syria, but the problem is the sanctions that prevent the reconstruction of Syria. My question is are you planning to lift the sanctions on Syria to allow the reconstruction and the return of the refugees?

MR PATEL: Well, let me be very clear that we intend to stand by our core sanctions principle, and we’ve been clear about that with our partner countries in the region. We will not normalize relations with the Assad regime, and our sanctions efforts will remain in full effect. That being said, we do share the objective of creating safe conditions within Syria for the eventual safe return of refugees and will continue to work on that in accordance with our partners in the Arab world.

 QUESTION: On the Armenia and Azerbaijan talks in Moscow at the ministerial level. So the two ministers were here not too long ago, about 10 days ago or two weeks ago. There was progress made, but there was obviously no conclusion to those talks. And so now they’re ongoing in Moscow, and Moscow has invited the two leaders to Moscow in end of May, I think. The Armenian prime minister has accepted; I don’t know about his counterpart from Azerbaijan. But my – I was wondering, I mean, how does the State Department, the United States view those talks in Moscow and Russia’s role in these talks, given the context, of course, of the war in Ukraine and —

MR PATEL: Well, we continue to provide full support and engagement of the United States as these two countries work to secure a durable and dignified peace. We welcome the reports that the parties are going to continue to engage in these discussions, and we reiterate that – our conviction that peace is within reach and that direct dialogue is key to resolving these issues.

Our view is that direct talks between the parties are of utmost importance, and we’re glad to see them happen and take place. Whether they are taking place in Arlington, in Brussels, in Moscow, our support with this effort will continue to endure.

QUESTION: Okay. Just a follow-up. Are there any back channels with Moscow on this – Moscow on these talks, sharing information between U.S. and Washington on these —

MR PATEL: Leon, I’m not – without getting into specific diplomatic engagements, of course, one of the many reasons why we continue to maintain bilateral relations with Russia, even in a time of immense tension, is because there are, of course, issues between our two countries that we need to ensure are talked about responsibly, appropriately. And so I will just leave it at that.

QUESTION: A group of U.S. senators is introducing a bill called the No START Treaty Act that would recommend withdrawing from New START. I’m guessing you’re not going to comment directly on pending – potential legislation or that element of it. But since they’re suggesting – basically they’re suggesting that Russia has already withdrawn itself from the treaty or said it will no longer comply with the requirements of the treaty. Is the administration’s intention to continue to comply with a treaty where the other side is basically saying, we don’t respect this anymore?

MR PATEL: We are complying with the treaty, and Russia’s decision to unilaterally suspend its participation in New START is unfortunate and irresponsible. You heard the Secretary speak to this quite clearly. Our view is that mutual compliance of New START strengthens security interests of not just the United States but our allies and partners. It strengthens the security interests of Russia and the rest of the world as well. And that’s why we are continuing to work to preserve the treaty.

I’ve not seen this legislation, so I, of course, am not going to comment on it. But we think the world is better off when both of our countries are in compliance of New START.

QUESTION: Starting with Nigeria has it been determined how many U.S. Government employees were killed in the attack on the convoy?

MR PATEL: it has not been determined. We’ve not been able to ascertain that information. That could potentially take some time and may require some additional steps, such as DNA testing. What I can add is that it is our assessment that the assailants killed at least four but probably seven members of the convoy. But again, we are not at a place where we can ascertain how many of those were our personnel or not.

QUESTION: You said seven out of nine in total. So what is the status of the other victims? Is there a search ongoing? Is there a potential they’ve been kidnapped or –

MR PATEL: There is. We are continuing to work urgently to ascertain the location of the other convoy members.

QUESTION: Has the department received a response from the House Foreign Affairs Committee to its letter regarding the dissent channel cable yesterday?

MR PATEL: I am not aware of a formal response back. Yeah.

QUESTION: There were, of course, remarks by the chairman in the media yesterday indicating he’s amenable. He’s encouraged by the offer but would like it to be expanded to the entirety of the committee. Is that something that the State Department would entertain?

MR PATEL: We will look forward to receiving a formal response from the committee, and we’ll take it one step at a time. I’m not going to speculate further from here.

QUESTION: But if the final compromise is to expand the universe of people who can see this from two to more than 50, is that something that you think the department would sign off on?

MR PATEL: I think in – it is natural in these discussions for there to be deliberations and accommodations about the path forward, and I’m certainly just not going to speculate and hypothesize on how we continue to further engage with the committee. What I will reiterate, though, is that at every turn we have offered tangible, fair, and realistic accommodations that we think have sufficiently met and continue to sufficiently meet the committee’s request for information.

And I’ll remind that at this – from – up until this point, we have already offered a classified briefing. We have offered a written summary of the dissent channel cable and the department’s response. And additionally, we have now made the offer that we – that I shared with you all yesterday for Chairman McCaul and Ranking Member Meeks to come to the department and view a version of the cable with personal information redacted. So continue to engage with the committee, but I don’t want to get ahead of the process.

QUESTION: Can I just follow up on the Nigerian comment?


QUESTION: And you still don’t know the motivation for the attack. Is that right?

MR PATEL: Our assessment still is that the – there’s no evidence to point to that these – this convoy was targeted due to its affiliation with the United States or the U.S. mission.

QUESTION: Very quick question on – the Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported that the Israeli Finance Minister Smotrich has asked to prepare for 500,000 more settlers in the West Bank, in the settlements, in illegal outposts. I mean, I know the position of this administration on settlements. But what measures are you willing to take to deter or to dissuade him from pursuing this, actual measures?

MR PATEL: Said, we regularly engage with Israeli officials on this issue and we’ll continue to do so. You have heard me say this before, that like most administrations previously, we view the expansion of settlements as an obstacle to peace that undermines the geographic viability of a two-state solution. And we continue to oppose any unilateral steps that incite tensions, harm trust between the parties, and undermine this viability of a two-state solution.

QUESTION: So if in fact they begin to allocate funds and so on to pursue this goal, would you say that that is unacceptable to the United States of America? Would you declare such a thing as being unacceptable?

MR PATEL: Said, we have been clear and have not parsed words that actions such as these, like the expansion of settlements, they undermine the ultimate goal – our ultimate goal – for the region, which is a two-state solution. And we raise this issue directly with our Israeli partners, with our partners in the Palestinian Authority, and we will continue to do so.

QUESTION: Today Chinese embassy in Tokyo has delivered grave concern to Japanese Government, saying the G7 summit is taking negative posture against China, and at the same time Chinese foreign ministry also criticized United States and Japan that they have responsibility to growing tension in Taiwan Strait. So I’m wondering if you would – how you would react to this allegation?

MR PATEL: The G7 is about tackling the many pressing global challenges that are in front of us, and it is about the world’s most advanced economies working together through international cooperation to address some of these very serious challenges, whether that be addressing climate change, whether that be addressing health insecurity, food insecurity, Russia’s barbaric and unjust war in Ukraine. The G7 is not about one country or another; it is about what these collective economies can do as a whole in partnership for the world, for the international community. And that is what you are going to see President Biden, Secretary Blinken, and other leaders who are there right now reiterate in their engagements while in Hiroshima.

QUESTION: Thanks, Vedant. Two topics. Let me get your reaction quickly to Russia’s freezing Finnish embassy’s bank accounts in response to what it’s called unfriendly actions of the West.

MR PATEL: I’ve not seen those reports, so I don’t have any assessment to offer. Broadly, though, Russia should make sure that it obliges with appropriate auspices under the Vienna Convention as it relates to whatever engagements that they have with this particular diplomatic facility. But I’m not going to – I’m not aware of this, so I don’t have anything else to offer.

QUESTION: And next to Karabakh, if you don’t mind. Not to beat around the bush, I’m just curious: How confident are you that Moscow process will serve in terms of carrying out the peace process for – till the desirable outcome? We’re talking about different format, different mediator. Do you have any concern that given Russian officials —

MR PATEL: I’m just not going to prescribe or hypothesize or speculate from here, Alex. Our view is that the countries – that peace between the countries is possible, and the U.S. continues to welcome and work towards a durable and dignified peace in this case, and don’t have anything else.

QUESTION: Just one clarification, because this question was asked previously.

MR PATEL: Uh-huh.

QUESTION: Ambassador Reeker was on the record last fall saying that he tried to reach out to his Russian colleagues and they did not return his call. I was wondering if Special Advisor Bono has done the same. And where is he these days since the end of Washington talks?

MR PATEL: He continues to be deeply engaged in this issue, as you know, Alex. I don’t have specific diplomatic calls to read out, but again, I’ll reiterate that we found the talks that we hosted in early May as constructive. The parties themselves agreed to certain terms and believe have a better understanding of each other’s points of view, and we continue to welcome the continued dialogue on this.

 QUESTION: I was wondering if you had any concerns about the summit that’s taking place today and tomorrow, I think, in China with the five Central Asian republics. There’s a big push, obviously, by China to create ties with these five republics, which are moving a little bit away from Moscow given the war in Ukraine   and all of that. And I know obviously the Secretary was there not so long ago in two of these republics. But should the U.S. be concerned about this summit and should you be doing a little bit more in terms of trying to reel in these five ex-Soviet republics?

MR PATEL: Leon, we’ve been doing a lot. I will let —

QUESTION: But should you be doing more? (Laughter.)

MR PATEL: I will let the PRC – I will let the PRC and the C5 countries speak to their own engagements. These are sovereign decisions for them to undertake on their own. But we strive to be a reliable and steadfast partner to countries in Central Asia. As you so noted, Secretary Blinken in Astana, in I think it was March, had the opportunity to convene a C5 ministerial. That was at that point his fourth engagement with the C5 in two years. He previously had the opportunity to host the C5 on the margins of UNGA High-Level Week as well as hosting a virtual convening in the early months of 2021.

We look forward to continuing to collaborate with Central Asian partners on a number of bilateral issues, whether that be strengthening our cooperation in the energy sector; there is, of course, a security nexus given their proximity in certain regions of the world; as well as deepening our important people-to-people ties as well as deepening important trade relationships as well.

I will also note that when Secretary Blinken was in Astana and Uzbekistan earlier in this year, we were happy to launch $45 million of U.S.-funded Economic Resilience Initiative in Central Asia to diversify some of these many issues that I was talking about: Central Asia’s trade routes, expand investment in the region, increase employment opportunities. So our engagement with Central Asia continues to be robust. The examples I have given are just from what the Secretary has done, but others in this department continue to be deeply engaged, as does the Secretary.

QUESTION: Yes, but that’s what I mean. You just said $45 million, compared to a lot more money being engaged by China on the Silk Route and things like that, and this is a summit, obviously, at the leaders level. The Chinese leader penned it as a new era, new opening. So are you – question is, are you concerned about that and do you have to step it up?

MR PATEL: We are very confident about the engagement and the inroads that we continue to make in Central Asia, specifically through the C5, and we look forward to continuing to engage with the region.

Simon, go ahead.

QUESTION: I wanted to move to the Pacific Islands because the Secretary —

MR PATEL: Sure. Yeah.

QUESTION: The Secretary is supposed to be in or will be in Papua New Guinea. The last couple of days there have been announcements of – that you guys have agreed to renew these Compact of Free Association agreements with Micronesia and now Palau. We believe the Marshall Islands is the outstanding one that you’re trying to get agreed. I wonder if you could sort of explain what’s the sticking point there, why haven’t you been able to get an agreement with the Marshall Islands so far, and do you think you can get that agreed so that something could be signed when the Secretary is there.

MR PATEL: I’m certainly not going to get ahead of the Secretary’s trip. We of course look forward to his trip to the U.S.-Pacific Islands Forum in Port Moresby, and as it relates to your question about the COFAs, I’m going to have to check with the team and get back to you, see if we have any additional information for you there.

QUESTION: Actually, is that – is the premise of the question correct? I thought all three of them were done and basically what’s waiting is congressional approval for the money.

MR PATEL: Well, I’ll have to double-check on that, Simon, and can get back to you.

QUESTION: Can I ask you a very quick question on the Jeddah summit?

MR PATEL: Sure, Said. Yeah.

QUESTION: In the past, American diplomats participated in these summits. Do we know who is participating this time around?

MR PATEL: I talked about this last week.  I said that Assistant Secretary Molly Phee and Ambassador Godfrey are leading the U.S. delegation to Jeddah, and they continue to be deeply engaged in that process.

 Thanks, everybody. Happy Thursday.

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