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Daily Press Briefing

Jeff Rathke
Acting Deputy Spokesperson
Daily Press Briefing
Washington, DC
May 12, 2015

Index for Today's Briefing




12:59 p.m. EDT

MR RATHKE: Good afternoon.

QUESTION: Good afternoon, Jeff.

MR RATHKE: So I have a couple of things to mention at the top. As you probably are aware, the Secretary will be doing a press availability shortly. His meeting is still ongoing. So we'll get through as much as we can today, and then once we get word that the press availability is about to start, we'll cut things short here so folks have a chance to watch that.

So in that connection, the first thing I would mention is the Secretary is traveling today in Sochi, Russia, where he is meeting with President Putin, Foreign Minister Lavrov, and other Russian officials to discuss the full range of bilateral, regional – and regional issues, including Iran, Syria, and Ukraine. This trip is part of our ongoing effort to maintain direct lines of communication with senior Russian officials and to ensure U.S. views are clearly conveyed. Secretary Kerry will travel later this afternoon to Antalya, Turkey to consult with allies and partners gathered for a meeting of NATO foreign ministers on May 13th.

The second item is Nepal. I would express our deepest condolences to all of those who continue to be affected by the earthquake in Nepal. Today, a magnitude 7.3 earthquake struck the Dolakha district in the central region of Nepal, approximately 50 miles east/northeast of Kathmandu. The U.S. Geological Survey considers this earthquake to be by far the largest of over 100 aftershocks that have followed the April 25th 7.8 magnitude earthquake. U.S. Government personnel remain engaged in response and relief operations.

Let me highlight the work of our USAID Disaster Assistance Response Team. The urban search-and-rescue personnel who had been preparing to depart but were still in country have gotten back to work, and they are working in coordination with the U.S. military and are conducting aerial assessments of Dolakha and the surrounding areas to view the extent of recent damage. There are also members of the search-and-rescue team on the ground conducting search-and-rescue operations in affected areas in the city of Kathmandu as well.

In that connection, Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs Nisha Biswal will proceed with a previously planned trip to Nepal later today. She will meet there with Nepali Government leaders, with Ambassador Bodde, and U.S. Embassy Kathmandu staff and other U.S. officials to discuss ongoing response and relief operations as well as to review the long-term recovery effort.

And then the last item at the top and then we'll turn to you. This is Bangladesh. The United States condemns the brutal murder of writer/blogger Ananta Bijoy Das in Bangladesh, the latest in a recent string of attacks against writers and bloggers in Bangladesh. We offer our heartfelt condolences to his family and friends. We hope that the Bangladeshi authorities will find and bring the perpetrators to justice, and that all Bangladeshis strive to ensure space for the peaceful expression of ideas without fear of violence, as enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

And with that, Nicolas.

QUESTION: Thank you. Can we start with Cuba?


QUESTION: The President Raul Castro just announced that the two embassies, the U.S. Embassy and the Cuban Embassy, will be reopening after May 29th. That's what he said. So do you have a date for this reopening?

MR RATHKE: Well, I don't have an announcement to make about a date or a confirmation of that. Certainly, an exchange of ambassadors would be a logical step once we – but only once we reestablish diplomatic relations. We do not have a fixed time for that. We are still in negotiations, as you all are well aware – negotiations with Cuban authorities about re-establishing diplomatic relations. But we don't have any announcements to make at this time.

QUESTION: So you don't have a schedule? Because it was supposed to happen in April during – before the Summit of Americas. You don't have a schedule?

MR RATHKE: Well, I think we've always said that this would be driven by the substance, that we've been working through those issues with Cuban counterparts. It has taken a lot of effort thus far and there's still more work to be done, so we're not quite ready to announce anything yet.

QUESTION: Jeff, real quickly?

QUESTION: Okay. And just to follow on that – sorry if you talk about that yesterday. But what's your take on the president – the French president's visit to Cuba, and especially his meeting yesterday with Fidel Castro? Do you think that it was appropriate?

MR RATHKE: I don't have any comment on the French president's visit. Certainly, the – it's – we've certainly taken note of it, but I don't have any specific comment about his visit. He's welcome to travel to Cuba, but I don't have any comment to offer.

Ros, did you have a follow-up on that?

QUESTION: Yeah. Do you have any confirmation that there are going to be another set of talks between the U.S. and Cuba as early as this Friday on normalization?

MR RATHKE: Well, as with the question Nicolas asked, I don't have any schedule announcements to make. Of course, there will be an upcoming round of talks, but the – we don't have dates confirmed for that, so we don't have an announcement to make. As soon as we have anything, of course, we'll share that with you all.

QUESTION: Would that be here or in Havana?

MR RATHKE: Well, again, nothing has been confirmed yet. You're aware, of course, that these have alternated location, so that would make Washington the logical choice. But as I say, I don't have any announcements to make about that. We'll wait until we have confirmation and then share that.

QUESTION: Are you able to say whether there have been lower-level discussions between the two teams at – apart from these face-to-face meetings? And if so, what issues have they been focused on?

MR RATHKE: Well, there have been a variety of meetings on a number of issues, which there are a number of groups that are getting together to talk about some of the specific issues. Of course, there are the discussions on re-establishing diplomatic relations, which you are familiar with. There have been migration talks and there have been talks about maritime issues and so forth. So those things all continue, but I don't have a specific update on the talks on re-establishing diplomatic relations.

Yes, Said.

QUESTION: I just wanted to follow up. How would this happen? I mean, mechanically, how would it happen? Would it be announced by the State Department and the Cuban foreign ministry at the same time that on this day we are exchanging diplomats? Is that how it would happen?

MR RATHKE: Well, I think we'll worry about that once we get there. We still have some work to do before we're ready to make such a step.

QUESTION: Yeah. But the issue that Nicolas raised that – on the 29th, I mean, that's like a fixed date. Does that --


QUESTION: Doesn't that tell that something is going to happen in the following week or something?

MR RATHKE: Well, again, my answer to Nicolas stands. We don't – we're not operating on a set timeframe. We have issues we need to work through. We've talked about that in the past. And so we're going to work on that, but we don't have a deadline that we're working toward.

QUESTION: Now, would it be prudent, let's say, to announce the exchange of diplomats before the – let's say June 30th, which is the deadline for the Iran deal? Do you know --

MR RATHKE: I'm not sure what kind of connection you're trying to draw.

QUESTION: Let me – I'm trying to say that maybe this is something that you're trying to (inaudible) put behind real quick so it can deal with real controversial issues.

MR RATHKE: There's – no, we don't have a connection between these two. So I don't – I'm not going to draw any linkage.

Did you have a question, Sharifat?

QUESTION: Yes, I have a question in Bangladesh. You mentioned that the blogger has been killed. So the blogger – do you have any update or idea or message that who killed him, which group? Because in Bangladesh, there's so many contradiction in news media; somebody does one thing, and blame goes to other people. So do you have any clue that who killed him and has been killing so many bloggers?

MR RATHKE: Well, this has just happened. There is an investigation ongoing which the Bangladeshi authorities will lead, so I would refer you to them for any information of that sort. Of course, we are in contact with the Government of Bangladesh about the case, but I don't have any announcements to make.

QUESTION: And could I have another one, a question about – I've been – I raised question regarding former State Minister Salahuddin Ahmed. He was the spokesman for BNP, the opposition leader. And he found in India yesterday and he called his wife, and Indian police been caught. It's like three different (inaudible) morning. So he found in India – he was kidnapped like 63 days ago, so is there any way you have any message that what's going on with him?

MR RATHKE: I'm sorry, we're not involved in that case. I don't have any update to share with you on that.


MR RATHKE: Namo, yes.

QUESTION: In Mahabad, the Kurdish region of Iran, there were riots over the past few days over the unexplained death of a woman who had worked in a hotel, a Kurdish woman, and then police crackdown ensued there. The protest seems to have tapered off for now. Do you have any comment on those protests?

MR RATHKE: No, I don't have any information about that situation.

QUESTION: Okay. And then some Sunni – Iraqi Sunni leaders are here in town in Washington, D.C., including Rafe al-Essawi, who is wanted by the Iraqi court. Can you tell us why they are here and whether they have met any State Department officials?

MR RATHKE: Well, we're aware that the former Iraqi deputy prime minister and the governor of Nineveh province are visiting Washington this week. It's an unofficial visit, not organized by the U.S. Government. They have requested meetings at the Department of State, so we expect that senior department officials who work on issues related to Iraq and ISIL will meet with them during their stay, but I don't have further --

QUESTION: Are they going to meet Mr. Essawi?

MR RATHKE: I'm sorry?

QUESTION: Are they going to meet Mr. Essawi as well?

MR RATHKE: I don't have further information on the meetings. As again – as I said, this is an unofficial visit. So they've requested meetings here, and we will meet with them. I don't have a full lineup of exactly who's going to participate.

QUESTION: Well, when you meet with them, will you be able to share some more information?

MR RATHKE: I don't have any further information. I'd refer you back to their delegation to talk about the details.


QUESTION: On Somalia?

MR RATHKE: Yeah, we'll come to you in a second, Ros. Yes, yes.

QUESTION: Still on Iraq. The Iraqi prime minister --


QUESTION: -- apparently signed a deal with the Russians to supply them with Sukhoi fighter jets because they are unhappy with the delivery of the F-16. Do you have any comment on that?

MR RATHKE: Well, first, I'm not familiar with that report, so I'm not going to comment on the details of it. I haven't seen that. I think we've talked quite a bit in the past about the F-16 sale. The – if I recall correctly, the pilots are undergoing training in the United States right now. That's moving ahead on schedule, so I don't have any --

QUESTION: But they are being trained for the past seven, eight years. I mean, they have been – sorry. I mean, they are being trained for many, many years, and these deliveries should have taken place a couple years back. So why do they keep holding them --

MR RATHKE: Happy to get you an update on that, but I'm not aware of any specific delay.

QUESTION: Are you concerned that these F-16s might actually fall in the wrong hand?

MR RATHKE: We've got a security partnership with the Government of Iraq. We work closely with them. And so no, we're not --

QUESTION: Then why the holdup on the delivery?

MR RATHKE: Well, I'm not agreeing with you that there's a holdup on the delivery. We've – it remains on the schedule that we've discussed in this briefing room. I'm not aware of a delay.

Ros, go ahead.

QUESTION: Somalia.


QUESTION: The White House announced on Monday that the career service officer who was supposed to be the new U.S. ambassador to Somalia is withdrawing her name. Can you explain why?

MR RATHKE: Yes. There was a – the nomination was withdrawn. This was a decision made by the nominee for personal family reasons. Our policy on Somalia has not changed, so there's no news to report on that. This was simply a decision for personal reasons.

QUESTION: Well, it's curious because the Secretary of State just had his unannounced visit to Mogadishu, where he met with the top leaders in the government and talked about having a U.S. ambassador at least in the country on a day-to-day basis while being based in Nairobi. And we were all told this was a sign of the U.S.'s commitment to helping the new Somali Government stand upright.

MR RATHKE: And that commitment remains.

QUESTION: So what happens now? Who is going to be that face of the United States in Mogadishu on a day-to-day basis until the President nominates another person to be the ambassador to Somalia?

MR RATHKE: Well, we have a unit at our embassy in Nairobi now that covers issues related to Somalia. So we are already – we are following now Somali issues from our embassy in Nairobi. This nomination was with the Senate. It had not been – it had not come to a vote, so I would refer you to the White House on any specific decisions about a new nominee. They will have the lead on that. But this in no way changes the commitment that the United States Government has to Somalia and the specific steps that the Secretary mentioned when he was in Mogadishu.

I think he, as you will recall, he also said at that time that we didn't have a fixed timeline for having an on-the-ground diplomatic presence in Mogadishu.


MR RATHKE: We're working toward that. We are committed to that. But this withdrawal of nomination, which happened purely for personal reasons is – doesn't affect in any way that --

QUESTION: Did this just happen in the last five or six days, the decision to withdraw the nomination?

MR RATHKE: Well, I think – I don't recall the date on the withdrawal that was sent out by the White House; it was just a couple of days ago. So I think it was last – it was either last Friday or it was yesterday. So it's been in just the last couple of days subsequent to the Secretary's visit.

QUESTION: And has this – and was the Somali Government notified that the nominee would not, in fact, be the new U.S. ambassador, and what was their reaction?

MR RATHKE: I don't have information on that, and that would be in the category of our diplomatic exchanges with other governments that we wouldn't be commenting on. But I think the Secretary's visit to Mogadishu is a clear testimony to our commitment to the progress that's been made in Somalia and to continuing to support it, and to doing so by having an enhanced presence in Mogadishu.


QUESTION: Is there urgency – this is my final one. Is there urgency in getting a new nominee before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and getting that person confirmed, given the tenuousness of the situation politically in Somalia?

MR RATHKE: Well, I would refer back to the White House for nomination questions. I'm sure they will go to that with deliberate speed, but I don't have a timeline for – to announce on their behalf.

Samir, go ahead.




QUESTION: Did you say – did you comment before about reports that the U.S. and Iran are changing their Interests Sections' offices in the two capitals to better locations?

MR RATHKE: I think this came up last week, if I'm not mistaken. The – and as – I think – I don't know if it came up in the briefing, though.

So on – in that regard, the Iranian Interests Section requested last year to relocate to a new address, and permission was granted in accordance with standard protocol. We expect they will relocate soon, but we would refer you to their interests section for any details about the exact address and when they will move.

Let me highlight – this is not connected; this is a long-planned relocation. It is not connected with the ongoing, EU-led P5+1 negotiations. Those, of course, are focused on addressing the international community's concerns over the nuclear program. The foreign interests section of the Swiss embassy in Iran, which serves as our protecting power there, as you all know, remains at its current location. I know there had been some questions about whether there was a new location. Any new location would be announced by the Swiss embassy in Iran.

QUESTION: But did the U.S. start taking any steps or any action to improve relations with Iran?

MR RATHKE: Again, this was handled according to standard protocol.

QUESTION: Besides this issue, because there are visitors – American and Iranian business people are exchange visiting to improve --

MR RATHKE: I'm not aware – there have been a lot of reports about – where purportedly American businesses have been traveling to Iran and some of this has come up in the last week or two. And in particular, there was a report about – where allegedly oil executives were going. We found no evidence to back that up, and in fact, I think even some Iranian officials backed away from those earlier statements. So I would not put this relocation of the interests section into any other context. It was handled according to protocol, is not connected to other issues.

QUESTION: But there's a report about Iranian business delegation visiting this week to improve Iran's image in the United States.

MR RATHKE: I'm not familiar with that report. I don't have any comment on that.

Michel, did you have a question?



QUESTION: On Iran, just --

MR RATHKE: Yeah, same topic, John?

QUESTION: (Inaudible) question.


QUESTION: Very quickly on Iran, is there anything ongoing now? Are technical teams meeting? What is the status of the Six – the 5+1 talks?

MR RATHKE: So as we announced yesterday, talks on Iran's nuclear program are resuming this week in Vienna. Under Secretary Wendy Sherman and the U.S. – Under Secretary Sherman is with the Secretary right now, but tomorrow she and the U.S. negotiating team will join those negotiations in Vienna.

QUESTION: And do you believe that – well, the talk between the Secretary of State and the Russian president focused a great deal on Iran or partially on Iran?

MR RATHKE: Well, that meeting is ongoing, to the best of my knowledge – at least it was when I came out there. So we'll let the Secretary speak to his meetings in a few minutes, once those have concluded.

Iran? Or --


MR RATHKE: Okay. Then let me go to John and then we'll come back to you.

Go ahead.

QUESTION: I just have a couple of questions on the summit this week. Do you have any new --

MR RATHKE: You mean the GCC summit?

QUESTION: Yeah, GCC summit.


QUESTION: Right – at this point, do you have any new military sales that you'd be able to announce that might be part of the deal?

MR RATHKE: Well, this is a White House-led summit, so for any deliverables and outcomes, I will certainly defer to them. Meetings get underway tomorrow, so I'm not going to preview anything right now.

QUESTION: Mm-hmm. And would these – any negotiations about a potential military sales take into account U.S. law requiring that the U.S. is on guard for Israel's qualitative military edge?

MR RATHKE: Are you trying to suggest we would engage in negotiations that are outside the scope of U.S. law?

QUESTION: Well, I'd just let you answer the question.

MR RATHKE: Well, I mean, of course, we take all those factors into account, and I think yesterday there was an on-the-record call from the White House where they also addressed some of those issues. So, certainly.

QUESTION: Yeah. Does it appear that that – do you think that might be a factor in these discussions, in the sense of: Is Israel's qualitative military edge so much vastly superior than gulf allies that we have that the likely sales will probably not even have implication for QME at all?

MR RATHKE: Well, again, I'm not going to get into any particular possible deliverables, similar to my answer to your first question. I think I would take a step back, though, and say that this summit is an opportunity for the leadership from the U.S. and the GCC to discuss a variety of ways to enhance our partnership and to deepen our security cooperation. And that holds in a variety of areas. So we certainly expect that political and security issues are going to be high on the agenda, but we'll wait until the talks have happened before we give any readout.

Michel, you were next.

QUESTION: Can we ask on the summit?

MR RATHKE: Let me – Michel's been waiting, so – yeah?

QUESTION: On the summit.

QUESTION: On the summit. We already asked on the summit.

MR RATHKE: Pardon?

QUESTION: On the summit.


QUESTION: Okay. I mean, do you believe that the conversation between the king of Saudi Arabia and the President of the United States put to rest the issue of the controversy over the snub or not-snub? And has there been any change on who is likely to attend? Because there were also some reports that the King of Bahrain might come. Could you --

MR RATHKE: Well, any participation questions I would defer to the White House. They – they're the organizers of the summit, so they will have the most up-to-date information about participation. But with respect to your first question, certainly I think the Saudi foreign minister spoke to this yesterday as well, Foreign Minister Jubeir. Foreign Minister al-Jubeir was, I think, quite clear. And we share that view that in rebutting any notion of any sort of snub or any other kind of tension in the relationship. I think, as the foreign minister pointed out, the crown prince and the deputy crown prince, the number two and three people in the Saudi hierarchy, the people who are responsible for security issues, are coming to this summit, and we welcome the opportunity to continue discussions.

I would also remind that the Secretary was just in Riyadh, had very productive meetings with the king and with the top Saudi leadership, and that was followed the next day by meetings with the foreign ministers of the GCC countries in Paris, which also were extremely productive. So we see the summit as continuing along those lines. My colleagues over at the White House will be able to tell you more.

QUESTION: Last one on this issue. Back in April, on April 5, the President gave an interview in which he said that there are internal problems and issues that Saudi Arabia and the Gulf countries must deal with. And he's talking about political sharing of minorities and so on; he's talking about liberalizing issue, giving freedom to women and so on. Is this going to be also on top of the agenda that the President is likely and the Secretary of State likely to discuss?

MR RATHKE: Again, I'd refer you to the on-the-record call that the White House did yesterday, where I think they addressed that specific question.

Michel, go ahead?

QUESTION: Yeah. Is Assistant Secretary Nuland participating in the meetings in Sochi with Secretary Kerry, or no?

MR RATHKE: Yes. She's traveling with the Secretary.

QUESTION: We didn't see her in the picture. That's why I was curious. (Laughter.)

MR RATHKE: Oh. I haven't seen the picture. I'm not sure which picture, so – but anyway, yes, she's part of the delegation.

QUESTION: Thank you.

QUESTION: Will that be her first visit to Moscow since she assumed her --

MR RATHKE: Well, they're in Sochi.

QUESTION: I mean, I'm sorry, Sochi.

MR RATHKE: I don't know. I don't know when her last visit was there.

Please, go ahead.

QUESTION: Jeff, the Pentagon said this morning that there is a Iranian flag cargo ship making its way toward Yemen. Do you guys – are you aware of this ship? Are you concerned that it could be something nefarious being transported on the ship under the guise of relief aid during the ceasefire?

MR RATHKE: Well, so there was a report about that, and I think my colleague, Colonel Warren, over at the Pentagon spoke to that just about an hour or so ago. We are monitoring, on the one hand, Iran's latest maritime shipment to Yemen, and on the humanitarian side, we expect Iran's humanitarian support for the people of Yemen to occur within the process established by the UN for all international donors. Donor countries know how to work with the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Assistance, OCHA, within the framework that they have set.

Now, with regard to the report about Iranian warships, we've seen those reports and we are certainly tracking this convoy closely. We would discourage any provocative actions, and for further details about that I would refer you back to the Pentagon, who are certainly following this extremely closely.

QUESTION: Speaking of Yemen --

MR RATHKE: Yes, Ros.

QUESTION: -- is the U.S. confident that the humanitarian pause or ceasefire is going to take effect at 4 p.m. Eastern Time, as had been announced by the Saudi-led coalition?

MR RATHKE: Well, yes. We understand, and we've seen no reason to change that understanding, that the five day renewable ceasefire and humanitarian pause should begin at 11 p.m. tonight in Yemen, which is 4 o'clock here, Eastern Time. And we view this Saudi initiative, as well as signals from other parties, that the ceasefire is viewed favorably and will be honored. So yes, we're expecting the parties to hold to it.

QUESTION: On Friday, the Secretary and Foreign Minister Jubeir both acknowledged that they would be spending what were now the past five days engaged in a lot of diplomacy to try to persuade the Houthis and partisans supportive of the former President Saleh to lay down their weapons and to allow this ceasefire to take effect. Is there a sense going into the final minutes before the ceasefire starts that the efforts were successful?

MR RATHKE: Well, we understand that the Houthis have indicated that they are willing to accept the ceasefire. We're not in a position to definitively confirm that they have fully done so, but we certainly urge the Houthis and their supporters to welcome this opportunity, to take advantage of this opportunity for a ceasefire and a humanitarian pause which will facilitate urgently-needed deliveries of food, fuel, and humanitarian supplies.

Now, I would highlight in this regard as well the role of the UN Special Envoy Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed. He's now in Sana'a, and we welcome his active engagement with all Yemeni parties in an effort to try to move the UN-led political dialogue forward. And we encourage the Houthis and their allies and all parties to work with the special envoy to return to that political dialogue.

All right – yes.

QUESTION: Is the ceasefire holding? Is the ceasefire --

MR RATHKE: Well, it hasn't – it commences in a few hours.

QUESTION: It starts --

MR RATHKE: It's 4 p.m. Eastern time --

QUESTION: Oh, Eastern time, not their time.

MR RATHKE: -- 11 p.m. time in Yemen, yes.

All right. Anything else? Thank you.

QUESTION: Thank you so much.

(The briefing was concluded at 1:27 p.m.)

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