US State Dept Presser

State Dept Presser – Sept 12, 2023

19 Min
State Dept Presser – Sept 12, 2023

The US State Dept held a press briefing on Sept 12 with spokesperson Mathew Miller fielding questions.  The Q-A on B’desh is tweaked to appear upfront.

Some Excerpts

QUESTION:  Just before the G20, Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov visited Bangladesh, and in Dhaka he said Moscow would prevent any attempt to establish dictates and interference by the U.S. in this region, and ruling Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wazed accused U.S. as she said that U.S. in the name of Indo-Pacific Strategy, they wants to come here and gain control over the region. So, what is your response and what is your position on the Indo-Pacific Strategy?

MR MILLER: I would say with respect to Russia, a country that has invaded two of its neighbors, is prosecuting an aggressive war where it bombs schools and hospitals and apartment buildings on a daily basis, should not be talking about any other country imposing dictates. It’s a fairly – it’s not the most self-aware comment that Sergey Lavrov has ever made. But I would say that with respect to United States policy, that the United States and Bangladesh share a vision to ensure the Indo-Pacific region is free and open, connected, prosperous, secure, and resilient. That’s the intent of our Indo-Pacific strategy and that is our position.

QUESTION: Can we – can I please confer in the G20 summit, any meeting – sideline meeting between the Bangladesh prime minister and the President Biden as foreign minister told the reporters that Biden had a – and Prime Minister Hasina had a good conversation, though we did not see any readout or anything from the White House or from the State Department?

MR MILLER: I believe the White House did make public the meetings that the President had with other leaders.

QUESTION: If I may, for press freedom, very quick: Bangladesh government-controlled court sentenced seven years two senior journalists, and 90 years old who used to work for the BBC, Shafik Rehman and Mahmudur Rahman, including three American citizens and one journalist who is exiled in New York. Government ordered seized his property. Journalist name: Eleas Hossain. So what is your comment? The government is harassing journalists and reporters and the senior editors?

MR MILLER: We believe, as we’ve said on a number of occasions, that journalists play an essential role in any democracy. Their work uncovers corruption, safeguards the public’s right to know information that affects their lives. They need to be able to make the public aware of the issues that they face in their daily lives. They need to ensure accountability for elected officials the way that you all show up and ensure accountability for what I say here every day. They must be able to do their jobs without fear of harassment, violence, or intimidation. And we are concerned with the Government of Bangladesh’s systematic and pervasive oppression of journalists and media personalities who attempt to hold the government accountable.

QUESTION: All right, sure. Can you explain exactly what the waivers the Secretary signed on Friday

MR MILLER: Sure. So the waivers that the Secretary signed on Friday that were notified to Congress yesterday were to effectuate the transfer of funds from accounts in South Korea, Iranian funds that had been held in accounts in South Korea, through accounts in Europe, ultimately to accounts in Qatar, where they will be available for use for humanitarian transactions with strict Treasury Department oversight, and ultimately they’re to, as we said before, effectuate the release and bring home five American citizens who have been wrongfully imprisoned in Iran.

QUESTION: Okay. Can you explain why these waivers were necessary? Because it’s my understanding that the administration did not believe, and had told the European banks even though they were extremely leery of being involved in any kind of conversion of money or transfer of money, and they didn’t want to do it. So is that why the waivers were finally granted and why it took so long? This deal was announced back in – over a month ago.

MR MILLER: It’s a good question; let me explain it with a little background context, which is that – I think you’re aware of all of this, but some others may not be tThat there were $6 billion that were held in these funds; the previous administration set up these accounts or allowed these accounts to be set up so countries could purchase Iranian oil. The money would then go into these accounts. Iran has always been able under the regime set up by the previous administration to access the funds in these accounts. And in other places, we saw them spend down the funds in these accounts that were set up for purchases of oil, for example, from – in India or Brazil, and under the previous administration were spent down with no restrictions at all.

When this administration took office, we put restrictions on these accounts to ensure that they could only be used for humanitarian purposes. However, a number of banks, despite the assurances we had given, did not want to allow – did not want to participate in transactions related to these accounts. So, it was necessary to – for the Secretary to make these waivers to allow the transfer of money from these accounts, through bank accounts in Europe, ultimately to Qatar (inaudible).

QUESTION: So why did – why did it take so long, then, for you guys to come around to deciding that, okay, this isn’t going to happen unless we actually do the waivers?

MR MILLER: I would just say this has been a complicated process from the beginning, as you can imagine, dealing with all of the moving pieces and dealing with this – dealing with moving this money from accounts in Korea where it had to be converted into euros, ultimately to a supervised account in Qatar.

QUESTION: Right. But if, as you say, under the previous administration – and I’m going to take a little bit of issue with that momentarily – but if, as you say, Iran was able to spend down money in similar accounts that have been in – set up in Brazil and India, why were there not the same concerns by – from banks?

MR MILLER: I’m not going to speak to why banks were willing to participate in the previous administration. We did make a change at the outset of this administration where we made clear that the funds in these accounts could only be used for humanitarian purposes.

QUESTION: Okay. And are you suggesting that the previous administration allowed Iran to spend down money in these restricted accounts for nefarious purposes, or for purposes other than humanitarian assistance?

MR MILLER: I will say that we don’t know what they were used for, because we can find no record of how these funds were spent down. Certainly not that they were required to be – what we can – what we can say is that they were not required to be spent only for humanitarian purposes, and we can’t tell what they were used for.

QUESTION: Okay. And once this money gets to the bank in Qatar, even though you say that it’s restricted for use for humanitarian goods, items only, does that not allow – or does that not free up $6 billion from Iran’s treasury, from its internal accounts, that they might otherwise have to spend on the same humanitarian items and now they can spend it on, I don’t know, arming the Houthis or supplying Assad with stuff, or even with sending drones to Russia?

MR MILLER: No, and here’s why. I think it’s important to remember that our sanctions regimes – with respect to Iran, and with respect to the country – to all of the countries where we impose sanctions – have always contained exceptions for food, for medicine, for other humanitarian purposes. That has always been the case, that was the case with these accounts. It was difficult to transfer these accounts for the reasons – the money from these accounts for the reasons that we just went into. But it has always been Iranian money in accounts that were – was available to them for humanitarian purposes if they could be able to use it.

QUESTION: I don’t —

MR MILLER: But let me just say one other thing, which is I do recognize that there are tough choices involved here, and the Secretary has been forthright about this. He’s been upfront about this; the President has been upfront about this. There are always tough choices involved in bringing home American citizens, but we – the President and the Secretary have decided that their first priority is to bring these American citizens home, and that’s why we agreed to this arrangement to do that.

QUESTION: Okay. So you’re not suggesting that somehow these restrictions impact fungibility of these funds.


QUESTION: In an interview with NBC this morning, President Raisi suggested that  these are Iran’s funds, that they can decide how the money’s spent, whether that be on humanitarian goods or whatever it is that the Iranian people need. Why do you think that he’s under that impression?

MR MILLER: Well, follow up a little bit what I just said to Matt, that may have been the policy under the previous administration, where these accounts were allowed to be spent for purposes that we cannot track. It is not the policy of this administration and it is not the arrangement that will be in place here. I understand why the foreign minister may need to say – may need to make those remarks, but the facts of this arrangement are when this money arrives in these accounts in Qatar, it will be held there under strict oversight by the United States Treasury Department and the money can only be used for humanitarian purposes, and we will remain vigilant in watching the spending of those funds and have the ability to freeze them again if we need to.

QUESTION: But what do you say to critics who are looking at this and saying this is a pretty clear, direct payment for the release of hostages? Is there any change in policy as far as willing to pay a ransom?

MR MILLER: I will say two things about that. Number one, again, when you refer to it as a payment – again, this was Iran’s money in accounts in South Korea that has always been – they have always been legally allowed to use for humanitarian purposes. So the United States is not giving Iran anything or is not paying Iran any amount of money.

But the second thing I will say is I see a lot of what I will call kind of false choices and maybe wishful thinking – is probably – “wishful thinking” is probably too benevolent a way to describe it – by some of the critics of our work to bring American citizens home. I see people all the time that will say, “Of course I want to bring these American citizens home, but I don’t think that the United States should allow this transaction to go forward.” Iran is not going to release these American citizens out of the goodness of their heart. That is not real life. That is not how this works. That was never going to happen. We have to make tough choices and engage in tough negotiations to bring these American citizens home. There were five American citizens who have been jailed under brutal conditions, one of them for more than eight years, and the Secretary and the President decided that we need to do everything we can to bring them home, and that’s what we’re doing.

QUESTION: Thank you, Matt. Just want to ask an update on where we are on the unfreezing of the funds. I mean, is it 80 percent complete, almost complete? Just trying to get a sense of the timeline that was said weeks – like, weeks ago.

MR MILLER:  I’m not going to get into specific details, other than to say that the funds are in the process of being transferred to their ultimate destination, which is – are these accounts in Qatar. They are not there yet, but we are in the process of transferring them there.

QUESTION: And based on that, when would you expect the swap, the actual swap, to take place?

MR MILLER: I don’t have any announcements to make about when that will occur.

QUESTION: Right. And I just want to sort of follow up on something that you just said. You said the U.S. will have the ability to freeze Iranian funds, transfer to Qatar, if necessary? Is that —

MR MILLER: Correct.

QUESTION: Is there going to be some sort of a criteria for that? And you’re going to be monitoring it throughout what period? Can you talk a little —

MR MILLER: The criteria is that these funds, when they are deposited in these accounts, can only be spent for humanitarian purposes, so the purchase of food, the purchase of medicine, the purchase of other humanitarian products. The Treasury Department has strict oversight over the use of those funds. We have visibility into how they are used, and we have the ability to police their use.

QUESTION: Right. And one more thing. I know you guys have kept saying these are two separate tracks, like we’re not – we’re not in a place with – to revive JCPOA and all that. But if this all goes just fine, what is next for U.S.? Are you going to – are you thinking about trying to revive the nuclear talk, one way or the other?

MR MILLER: I think what’s next ultimately depends on Iran and what it’s willing to do. These are separate matters. This has been a policy we have pursued or an action we have pursued to free these five wrongfully imprisoned American citizens. Separately, we do remain focused on constraining Iran’s nuclear program, constraining its destabilizing behavior. We remain committed to ensuring it never obtains a nuclear weapon.

And the reason I said it’s up to – to some extent to the actions by the Iranians, you just saw the remarks from the director general of the IAEA yesterday, who said that Iran is not cooperating with the IAEA in a satisfactory way. So if Iran wants to – I mean, we have always said that we welcome diplomacy and would be open to diplomacy to seek a resolution to Iran’s nuclear program. But if you just look at their actions and the fact that they are not fully cooperating with the IAEA, that’s a sign that they are not taking those steps they need to at this point.

QUESTION: Follow-up on that? Can you – would that explain from what you just said why the – apparently the U.S. would not support a resolution in front of the IAEA condemning the non-cooperation of Iran?

MR MILLER: I think I said we don’t have any specific action to preview today about what the IAEA may do. But you should expect us to coordinate with other members of the board of likeminded nations who share our concern with Iran’s nuclear program to once again call on Iran to cooperate fully with the IAEA.

QUESTION: Yeah, but it’s our understanding that you would support some sort of common declaration or what have you, but not a resolution per se, as the —

MR MILLER: I don’t want to speak to what exact form or actions with the IAEA or what actions the IAEA may take other than just what I said, which is you should expect to see us working with other members who share our priorities to clearly express that Iran should cooperate fully with the IAEA.

Alex, go ahead.

QUESTION: Follow up. Going back to this question on Raisi, when he said that we will be spending the $6 billion, quote/unquote, “Wherever we need it.” Do we understand it correct that he was lying? Somebody’s lying.

MR MILLER: I’m not going to characterize his remarks that way, other than to say what I said before, which is the funds that are in those accounts in Qatar can only be spent with strict oversight by the Treasury Department and only for humanitarian purposes.

QUESTION: What if we find out that they did sponsor – we have been talking about how Iran being destructive in the region, how they have been sponsoring Russian war in Ukraine. If you find out that Iran has been continuing by using $6 billion that you said is not yours, but is Iranian people’s money, not the Iranian Government’s money, what are you doing to do?

MR MILLER: I don’t want to try to get into hypotheticals. I mean, again, I don’t think you should take this action as anything other than the United States doing everything it can to bring home five wrongfully imprisoned Americans. We will continue to take all the steps that we have taken, that we continue to take, to constrain Iran’s destabilizing actions in the region. We have hundreds, if not thousands, of existing sanctions on the Iranian Government and on various entities inside Iran. We will continue to impose sanctions when events warrant that.

Bless you.

But in this instance, we decided it was important to bring these American citizens home, and if we see Iran acting in ways that do not comply with the arrangements that are agreed to in this transaction, we will take actions to ensure that those funds cannot be spent for anything but humanitarian purposes.

Abbie, go ahead. I’ll come to you next.

QUESTION: One more on Iran. In advance of the anniversary of Mahsa Amini’s death, President Raisi also issued a threat to protestors, warning that they would pay a big cost for sowing instability in the country. Does the State Department have any response? And given these discussions over the prisoner release, what are you doing right now to help protestors on the ground there?

MR MILLER: I will say those comments are particularly offensive coming when they do, the week of the anniversary of the protests last year, the one-year anniversary. And I will say that we will continue to support the Iranian people. During the – at the height of the protest last year, when we were providing internet access to the Iranian people when it had been shut down by the Iranian Government, as many as one in three Iranians used U.S.-supported anticensorship and digital security tools. We held accountable those responsible for Mahsa Amini’s death, and we will continue to do so. And I would call on the Iranian Government to respect the rights and wishes of its citizens and not stifle their voices.

QUESTION: Coming back to the transfer of the money, can you say that all of the funds are out of the South Korean bank accounts and are in Qatar? Are they in process? Realistically, how long will it take for the money to get to this custodial bank account?

MR MILLER: They are not all in Qatar yet. I don’t want to speak to where along the process they are, other than that they are in the process of being transferred, and I wouldn’t want to put a timetable on it. I would say, just for your planning purposes, you should not expect to see any movement in terms of the American citizens being released this week.

QUESTION: In terms of once the money is verified to be in the custodial bank account, what is the timeline then for Iran to release the five Americans? What is the process for the U.S. to release the five Iranians reportedly going to be sent back? What’s the process here?

MR MILLER: Again, I don’t want to get into exact timetables, other than to say it is our top priority that those Americans not spend any extra day or minute or hour than is necessary – no time is – they shouldn’t have been imprisoned in the first place – but we want to get them home as soon as possible. So as soon as we can effectuate their release, we will do so.

QUESTION: Do you – are you prepared to say that the Iranians being held here in the U.S. are not going to be put on a plane until the U.S. knows that its citizens are on a plane to Doha?

MR MILLER: I’m just not going to speak to the exact logistics of it at this point.

QUESTION: And then my final question: How worried is the U.S. Government about this deal – about this whole process falling apart?

MR MILLER: I will say this is not a country with whom we have the most trusting relationship to understate matters. So it’s a process we are monitoring very carefully. It’s why you have seen us always be measured in the way (inaudible) described this, since it was first reported several weeks ago. Nothing is final here until we see those Americans having left Iran. But we are hopeful that that will happen, and we continue to work to make it so.

Matt, go ahead.

QUESTION: Can I just say – just one more and it’s very – it’s your contention that this money that was frozen and – or that was being held in South Korea could always have been used by Iran for humanitarian purposes. Is that correct?

MR MILLER: That is true under sanctions now. It has – it was difficult to do so. It’s hard to find banks to conduct those transactions in a number of cases. But under the rules, the law, the legality of our sanctions, that’s true.

QUESTION: Well then why didn’t it happen before?

MR MILLER: Well, the point I just made is that it’s difficult to find banks that are willing to engage in those transactions.

QUESTION: Okay. So when you have – when you – unless you guys grant a wavier?

MR MILLER: Correct. Correct.

QUESTION: So this whole thing about we’re not giving it, we’re not – I mean, you’re doing every – you are unblocking it, basically. You’re telling international banks in these European countries and in Asia and in the Middle East that you’re fine, go ahead and do it. So the idea that you don’t have anything to do with it is —

MR MILLER: I did not say that and would not say that. We are, of course, taking steps to effectuate the transfer of these funds, these Iranian funds. However, the point I take issue with – to give something it must be something that’s yours, and this is not our money. This is Iranian money.

QUESTION: Yeah, but if you didn’t give the waiver – sorry, grant the waivers – then they wouldn’t get the money.

MR MILLER: I’m not disagreeing with that. Although it’s their money in the first place, they wouldn’t have access to it for – they wouldn’t be able to effectively —

QUESTION: All right. Well, we had the same argument back – we had the same argument back in 2016, so —

MR MILLER: History repeats itself.

QUESTION: One question.

MR MILLER: Michel, go ahead.

QUESTION: Do you have any guarantees from Iran that it won’t detain any U.S. citizen in the future?

MR MILLER: I would say that guarantees from Iran about how it will behave in the future is not something that we typically put a lot of stock in. This is a deal to secure the release of these five American citizens. We continue to have concerns about all of Iran’s destabilizing activities, and we will continue to monitor and take action to constrain those activities in the coming months and in the coming years.

QUESTION: Also Iran. Israel accused Iran on Monday of building an airport in southern Lebanon to be used as launchpad for attacks against Israelis across the border. Any comment on this matter?

MR MILLER: We have seen the reports and are monitoring them, but I don’t have anything to add.

 Janne, go ahead.

QUESTION:  I have two questions, one on North Korea, one on China. First question is: It is reported that the lifting of sanctions against North Korea will be discussed at the talks between Kim Jong-un and Putin.

MR MILLER: The lifting of which sanctions?

QUESTION: I was told the sanctions against North Korea.

MR MILLER: Yeah, yeah, yeah, I just didn’t know —


MR MILLER: I just didn’t know if it was a report about which specific sanctions imposed by whom.

QUESTION: (Inaudible) said that can Russia unilaterally lift UN Security Council sanctions by themselves?

MR MILLER: No, Russia cannot. No, Russia cannot take – Russia cannot take unilateral actions relating to the United Nations Security Council.

QUESTION: Okay. And second question is: Chinese Government said that it would not interfere with arms deals between North Korea and Russia. What can you say about China’s neglect?

MR MILLER: I’m not going to speak to China’s reaction other than to say we have been very clear about what our position is, which is that any transfer between – of arms from North Korea to Russia would violate multiple United Nations Security Council resolutions. It would be a sign of the desperate state in which the Russian Government finds itself a year and a half into this war that it has been prosecuting unsuccessfully against Ukraine. And we will monitor what happens and won’t be – will not hesitate to take action to hold those accountable if necessary.

QUESTION: Two questions on Syria. Are you working to repatriate an American family of 10 in northeast Syria? An American family of 10 in northeast Syria that have been held in the ISIS families detention centres in northeast Syria. And are there any other American citizens being held in these detention facilities?

MR MILLER: Yes, we are working to repatriate that family. Repatriation is the only durable, long-term solution to the humanitarian and security situation in northeast Syria. We urge every country of origin to repatriate, rehabilitate, reintegrate, and, when appropriate, prosecute their nationals from detention facilities and displaced person camps in northeast Syria in a manner consistent with their obligations under international human rights law and international refugee law. I don’t have an update on the number of U.S. citizens who might be there.

QUESTION:  I have a question about Israel. Thank you, Matt. Okay. In light of Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s invitation to the White House, will President Biden be requesting Prime Minister Netanyahu to adopt his two-state policy that divides Israel despite the Jewish scripture Joel 3:2 warning of doing that? And I have a follow-up question.

MR MILLER: We have been very clear that we strongly support the two-state policy. We make that clear in all of our conversations with leaders of the Government of Israel.

QUESTION: Okay. And then finally, will the U.S. demand the repeal of Palestinian Authority Chairman Abbas’s law which provides a salary for life for anyone who murders a Jew? And this is a concern that Israel Behind The News has.

MR MILLER: Let me take that one back to give you a precise answer.

Shannon, go —

QUESTION: Are you accepting the premise of the question that Prime Minister Netanyahu has been invited to the White House?

MR MILLER:  I’m not. The White House has made clear they expect the President to have a meeting with prime minister….I have made clear a number of times from this podium I do not speak to the President’s schedule.

Shannon, go ahead.

QUESTION: Thank you very much. I want to ask about the case of James Frisvold, the American citizen who was held in Mexican prison for 13 years before he was ultimately found not guilty. Advocates who worked to free him have been critical of the State Department for what they claim is a lack of involvement in the case. Matt, do you have a response to that criticism? And can you speak to if the department was providing consular assistance to Frisvold while he was in custody and tracking the serious issues in his trial?

MR MILLER: Yeah. We are aware of the release of that U.S. citizen from detention in Mexico. I will say, as is often the case unfortunately where there are places I’d like to speak in detail, due to privacy considerations – I think you’re familiar with the law that restricts us from saying more unless we have a waiver – I’m not able to speak in detail to this case, but of course, any time a U.S. citizen is detained abroad, consular officials seek to aid him or her with all appropriate assistance.

QUESTION: One follow-up if I can, just more broadly, can you speak to the department’s view of these outside entities like the Richard – Richardson Center, rather, that practice unofficial diplomacy? Do you see their role in – their involvement with detained Americans, is it a helpful or a harmful role they play?

MR MILLER: I don’t want to speak – I don’t want to give a blanket statement because there are a number of organizations that do a number of different things, but it is our priority to secure the release of – first of all, to ensure the safety and security of Americans overseas; and second of all, to secure their release when they’re wrongfully detained, and we do work with a number of organizations in that capacity.

Go ahead.

QUESTION: Thanks, Matt. Moving to Ukraine, if I may.

MR MILLER: Yeah. Go ahead.

QUESTION: German foreign minister was visiting Ukraine, as you know. She appealed to international partners to boost Ukraine’s air defense. I know that he – she is planning to visit Washington. There are multiple reports about that. Is Secretary open to that conversation to To boost Ukraine’s air defenses.

MR MILLER: I will say that boosting Ukraine’s air defense has been something that the Secretary as well as Secretary Austin and the National Security Advisor and the President himself have worked on since even before the beginning of this war, working to provide air defense systems to Ukraine. We’ve transferred a number of U.S. air defense systems to Ukraine. In this last set of military assistance that the Secretary announced when he was in Ukraine, it included components of air defense systems that we have previously provided, and we have worked with other countries to – for them to provide air defense systems. So we will continue to do that. I’m sure it’s a matter that he will speak with his German counterpart later this week.

QUESTION: My final question, different topic, Azerbaijan and Armenia. Putin today made multiple statements about the conflict. He is into blame game, blaming Pashinyan over everything is going on right now in the region. There’s conventional wisdom that he is trying to use the conflict to topple Armenia’s democratically elected president. As you know, there have been some reports about Wagner mercenaries being sent to Armenia to engage in that kind of activity. Do you have any concern about —

MR MILLER:  I’ll just say that we continue to work to resolve the situation between Armenia and Azerbaijan. As I spoke yesterday, the Secretary has been personally involved in this, with multiple conversations just in the past week. We did note – I will say – you brought up the topic – that in the last 24 hours one shipment of humanitarian supplies passed through the Aghdam route into Nagorno-Karabakh, and so we will reiterate our call on the specific question about the importance of opening both corridors into the country and as a more – as a short-term matter, and as a more long-term matter, the two countries coming to an ultimate agreement.

QUESTION: Thanks. Can you just give us an update on the conversations with Morocco about potential U.S. assistance in the earthquake recovery?

MR MILLER: The conversations are ongoing. We’re in close counterparts – or close conversations with our counterparts. USAID has been in conversation with them about what assistance that we can provide. We have yet to receive an official request, but we are standing ready to provide all the assistance we can when we get that request.

Okay. Thanks everyone. Thanks.

(The briefing was concluded at 1:59 p.m.)