Daily Press Briefing
Mark C. Toner
Daily Press Briefing
January 13, 2016
Index for Today's Briefing
1:41 p.m. EST
MR TONER: Hey everybody.
MR TONER: Hello. I left my glasses on. Excuse me.
QUESTION: That's okay. They give you an air of erudition. (Laughter.)
MR TONER: Wouldn't want that.
QUESTION: No, no, you do want that.
MR TONER: No, I'm just kidding. So let me get started here, folks. And I do have to step down in about a half hour or so, I apologize. A couple of things at the top, and then I'll get to your questions.
I can announce that Secretary Kerry will be traveling to London. He'll be leaving later this afternoon. He'll be there January 13th through 15th and he'll meet with Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir, where they'll discuss a range of issues, bilateral and global issues, including, obviously, Iran, and the ongoing crisis in Syria.
Also wanted to touch on a readout of yesterday's meetings with the Philippine foreign minister and minister of defense. Yesterday, as you all know, Secretary of State John Kerry and U.S. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter met with Philippine Secretary of Foreign Affairs Albert del Rosario as well as the Secretary of National Defense Voltaire Gazmin on January 12th for the U.S.-Philippines 2+2 ministerial dialogue. That was here at the Department of State.
Secretary Kerry welcomed the recent Philippine Supreme Court's decision to uphold the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement, which will further strengthen the U.S.-Philippine relationship, and the two sides also reaffirmed their commitment to the U.S.-Philippines alliance and mutual defense. They discussed strategic and security issues of concern, including maritime and territorial issues in the South China Sea as well as ways to enhance defense and security cooperation. They noted ways to build a stronger and more robust economic partnership to increase bilateral trade and investment, and the secretaries also previewed the upcoming special U.S.-ASEAN summit which will take place in Sunnylands, California, and expressed their commitment to implement the Paris agreement to combat climate change.
Just a side note, Secretary Kerry and Secretary del Rosario continued their discussions on these same themes during a follow-up meeting held on Wednesday morning here at the State Department.
I do want to note some concerns about ongoing crackdown against lawyers in China. After holding them for six months, Chinese authorities are now reportedly charging lawyers from the Beijing Fengrui law firm with now state subversion. These lawyers, such as Zhou Shifeng and Wang Yu, as well as Li Heping, now face sentences ranging from 15 years to life imprisonment for their efforts to represent clients, including a number of prominent human rights activists. The United States urges China to drop these charges and immediately release these lawyers and others like them detained for seeking to protect the rights of Chinese civilians – or citizens, rather.
And with that, I will hand it over to you, Matt, for your first question.
QUESTION: Right. So before we get to this potentially intriguing travel announcement, I want to start with Iran and --
MR TONER: Of course.
QUESTION: -- the sailors and the ships. I realize a senior official just said that it was up to the Pentagon to determine whether the treatment of the sailors while they were being detained was in violation of any kind of international agreement, but my question is: Is this being investigated by the Pentagon or the State Department? And if – and please don't say this is hypothetical, so you won't answer it. But if it was found --
MR TONER: I would never say that. (Laughter.)
QUESTION: Really? Well, let's bet. Let's see what happens here. If it is found or if it is determined by who – the competent authorities here in the States, whether that's the Pentagon or here or wherever, that they were in fact mistreated or treated in violation of some kind of – any kind of international agreement per what we've seen on the video and the pictures, will the Administration make the appropriate complaint to Iranian authorities or to international authorities?
MR TONER: Sure. So starting with your first question, look, we've seen no indications thus far that they were mistreated during their period of detention. In fact, it was our understanding that they were given blankets, a place to sleep, as well as fed. That said – and it speaks to your second question – of course, there's going to be a period of debriefing of these sailors. That's ongoing and that's really a matter for the Pentagon to speak to. But in answer to your question, will there be some kind of follow-up or assessment, well, of course. They're always going to talk to these sailors, get firsthand knowledge of how they were treated, and modify our assessment of their treatment based on their input. Clearly, that's going to be a part of how we assess the – their overall treatment.
In answer to your third question, it is speculative or hypothetical. Let's wait and see what we hear back as we assess the situation. Again, our initial assessment is that they were treated humanely. I know there's some videos out there circulating. We'll obviously have to validate their veracity and their authentication – or authenticity, rather. As we look at this, we'll continue to assess and, if appropriate, comment further on how we viewed them – how we view their treatment.
QUESTION: Okay. So you failed the test, because I had --
MR TONER: Not true.
QUESTION: You said it's a hypothetical and --
MR TONER: I did say it was a hypothetical, but what I --
QUESTION: But why can't you say --
MR TONER: No.
QUESTION: -- that the Administration will complain or take the appropriate action if it is --
MR TONER: I said – if I --
QUESTION: -- determined that they had been treated in violation of the law?
MR TONER: If I was not direct enough in my response, what I'm trying to say is we're going to assess, we're going to continue, we're going to talk to the sailors. Obviously, their firsthand impressions and – obviously are the most important here. We're going to look at the videos. We're going to assess all of that. And if we need to adjust what we said publicly and privately, we'll adjust.
QUESTION: But right now --
QUESTION: So does that mean that you will take whatever action is appropriate if there was a violation – if you determine there was a violation? You're saying that you'll adjust your assessment of how they were treated. I'm saying that if you do adjust your assessment of how they were treated and find – based on the interviews with them as well as the video and the photographs that have appeared – and find that that they were not treated in compliance with international rules, why won't you say that you will make – that you'll take appropriate action against the Iranians?
MR TONER: I think we would take appropriate action but – if our assessment changed.
MR TONER: But at this point we have not – we have made an --
MR TONER: -- initial assessment. We're still in the process of gathering that information.
QUESTION: And might you say that right now so far you're generally happy with how this all --
MR TONER: I did say that. I said our initial impression was that they were well treated.
QUESTION: And that includes what you've seen in the video of the sailor --
MR TONER: Again, we're – the videos actually just broke and – or just came across. I've seen them but --
QUESTION: Yeah, but people have seen it?
MR TONER: Right.
QUESTION: But on the – at first glance, that doesn't equate to a violation?
MR TONER: Again, I think that'll be part of our overall assessment.
QUESTION: If it was found that these sailors did venture into Iranian territory, would it be appropriate to apologize for that?
MR TONER: Well, first of all – and I know that a senior State Department official just spoke to this – there was no official U.S. apology given to the Iranians. I think that's been a little bit of a canard or whatever out there in the press this morning that there was the impression given that there was some kind of apology. Categorically, there was not.
QUESTION: Well, for one thing, the sailor did apologize on camera. Whether that was coerced or not, we don't know, but --
MR TONER: Exactly.
QUESTION: -- there was certainly --
MR TONER: Precisely.
QUESTION: -- an apology issued by the party involved.
MR TONER: Precisely. But that was not an official – but not an official U.S. Government apology.
QUESTION: Right. And – but again, my question is if you did venture into those waters, would there be reason – would an apology, therefore, be appropriate?
MR TONER: Justin, how I'd put it is – and again, this is really for the Department of Defense to speak to – but that said, just speaking broadly about the incident, Secretary Kerry was, as many of you know, very quick to respond to Iran, to his counterpart, give the details of what we knew the situation to be, and I think it was simply – again, according to what we know about this – an accident, a mechanical malfunction. I think it was handled diplomatically, which is always the ideal way. Certainly, we here at the State Department believe that. But I don't think there's necessarily a need for any kind of apology here. This was --
MR TONER: -- handled professionally, at least – and again, in our initial assessments, professionally by both sides.
QUESTION: But since the apparently successful denouement, people including Secretary Kerry have been quick to link this to – the success of this to the closer ties that the United States and Tehran have built up since the Iran nuclear program. You're not worried there'll be a perception that you're exploiting what could have been a very dangerous incident, and that there's been a very quick political recuperation of what happened there?
MR TONER: So --
QUESTION: What happened yesterday was an accident, but today --
MR TONER: Of course.
QUESTION: -- we're being told the successful resolution of this is a tribute to Secretary Kerry's excellent work in Vienna last year.
MR TONER: Well, I think what it is is it's a testament to the lines of communication that were opened through those negotiations. The fact that Secretary Kerry had a relationship with Foreign Minister Zarif, that he could pick up the phone and explain to him what our assessment was of what had happened and ask for his help and assistance in resolving the situation diplomatically and professionally – I think it does speak to that kind of relationship that they're able to discuss matters now beyond the nuclear talks.
QUESTION: But Americans are watching their sailors with their hands on their head on television, and Secretary Kerry is saying that what happened shows how friendly we are with Iran now.
MR TONER: Well, look, I mean – and Secretary Kerry was very clear in his statement this morning. I mean, he's a former naval officer himself. He knows the vital work that these sailors do. He – his – first and foremost in his mind, certainly yesterday and obviously today, is the safety and well-being of these sailors. And that was always his – foremost in his mind as he sought to resolve this situation.
QUESTION: Mark --
QUESTION: Can I ask if you accept the premise of Dave's question, which was that this was an accident – not on your part, not on the part of the Navy – but do you – have you come to the assessment – has the Administration come to the assessment that what the Iranians did was accidental in taking them, or was somehow wrong?
MR TONER: Again, I can only speak to what is the official --
QUESTION: The question is premised on this --
MR TONER: -- chronology of events --
QUESTION: -- being an accident.
QUESTION: Although my premise was that it was an accident that you strayed into their waters (inaudible).
MR TONER: Correct, that's right, and that is my understanding as well – is they had mechanical problems. Again, I --
QUESTION: You are sure that this was not --
MR TONER: I would refer you to Department of Defense.
QUESTION: I'm not talking about the U.S. part of it. I'm talking about the Iranian part of it. Are you satisfied that the Iranian intention here in taking these – detaining these people was --
MR TONER: I don't know if they would characterize it – I would refer you to the Iranians, but I don't know that they ever characterized this as an accidental – a detention of the sailors.
QUESTION: No, I know. It was – it was – it was intentional --
MR TONER: Oh, I understand what you're saying. Okay, sorry. I apologize. Yeah. I mean, I think – yes, I mean, I think that we're --
QUESTION: So the question, then, is that – don't you think it's a bit unusual, given the fact that you're hailing these warmer ties, that they would have detained them in the first place and subjected them to this treatment --
MR TONER: Well, again --
QUESTION: -- where their hands are over their heads and being photographed --
MR TONER: Again, really --
QUESTION: -- which is a violation of the Geneva convention, which I assume applies --
MR TONER: I'm going to refer you to the Department of Defense to talk about the chronology and the events that led up to their detention. It's not – what I can speak to is Secretary Kerry's role in reaching out to his counterpart and trying to resolve the situation.
QUESTION: Mark --
MR TONER: Please.
QUESTION: Didn't you say that taking them with their hands over their --
MR TONER: Said, then you.
QUESTION: -- yeah, yeah – over their heads, that is a violation of the Geneva convention?
MR TONER: I'm not --
QUESTION: Is that a violation?
MR TONER: -- able to give that kind of legal adjudication at this point, no.
QUESTION: Okay. But the Secretary of State would --
MR TONER: I mean, in – generally speaking, you're not supposed to show images of detained or prisoners of war, but again --
QUESTION: Right. So that part – showing them – showing --
MR TONER: -- we've got some videos out there circulating.
MR TONER: We don't know if they're authentic, we don't know much about them other than they're out there circulating right now. We're going to assess.
QUESTION: Do you think that the Secretary was too quick to say that they were treated well, they were given food and blankets and so on? Was he quick to say that?
MR TONER: No. I think – again, the Secretary is a former naval officer. He has – he understands more than anyone, as I said, the role that these sailors play, the – and the risks that they take. But certainly, I think he was just providing his assessment that the Iranians – at least from our initial assessment – appear to have handled this professionally.
QUESTION: My last one is really a quick one.
MR TONER: Sure.
QUESTION: Now, there are a lot of reports that, basically, this illustrates a conflict within Iran itself between the Revolutionary Guard and the government. Do you agree with that assessment?
MR TONER: Well, I'm not going to – no, I'm not going to agree or disagree with that assessment. That's really something for the Iranians to speak to.
QUESTION: If you say, as you just did --
MR TONER: Sorry, Pam.
QUESTION: -- sorry, Pam, this will be really quick. If you say, as you just did, that it is a violation of the Geneva convention for the photographs and the films to be taken, how can you say that you don't know or you don't think that they were mistreated?
MR TONER: Again, Matt --
QUESTION: But generally speaking, if what we have seen on Twitter and on TV is a violation of the Geneva conventions, I don't understand how you can say that your initial indications are that they were not mistreated.
MR TONER: I'm going to let legal professionals make any kind of evaluation or assessment as to (a) the authenticity of these videos, and (b) whether there are any kinds of violations of the Geneva conventions.
QUESTION: So is it your understanding that the Geneva convention would apply in this kind of a case?
MR TONER: That's also unclear to me.
QUESTION: All right.
MR TONER: Please, Pam.
QUESTION: Mark, I want to circle back to the apology for just a moment.
MR TONER: Sure. Yeah, sure.
QUESTION: You mentioned that efforts are still underway to authenticate some of these videos, but you also seem pretty clear in saying the portion in which a sailor appears to apologize for the incident did take place, and that was something that was broadcast by Iranian TV. Are you confirming that that is authentic?
And then secondly, what is your response – even if the U.S. did not issue an official apology, what is your response to this apology coming from the sailor?
MR TONER: Well, first of all, no, I'm not trying to say that that was authenticated, that we stood behind that actual piece of video in any way, shape, or form. Again, we're still assessing whether these videos are authentic or not. And certainly, as I said, the Department of Defense, the Pentagon will be debriefing these sailors about the conditions under which they were detained. So frankly, it's premature for me to really get into much detail about how they were treated as well, other than, as I said, our initial assessment was that they were treated humanely – provided with blankets, food, et cetera.
Thirdly – I forget the last part of your question. Sorry. (Laughter.) I apologize.
QUESTION: What is your reaction on the --
MR TONER: Oh, okay, on the apology.
MR TONER: Again, I think we're going to wait for these sailors to be debriefed, to speak to the appropriate authorities within the Department of Defense. I'm not going to in any – make any effort to evaluate from here what he may or may not have said and whether he was under duress when he said it.
QUESTION: If only we could speak to a former Navy admiral.
MR TONER: Exactly.
QUESTION: Maybe we --
MR TONER: Too bad. (Laughter.)
MR TONER: I'm a former Peace Corps volunteer. Does that help? (Laughter.)
MR TONER: Yeah.
QUESTION: Is --
MR TONER: Sorry, are we done with Iran? One more on Iran. Thanks, I'll get to you.
QUESTION: I just wanted to check: Will this incident in any way affect the upcoming implementation day of the Iran nuclear deal? Is there any concern --
MR TONER: Fair question. I mean, honestly, and it was in the background call that we just completed. I think one of the things that the Secretary was very mindful of yesterday, and spoke about it candidly with Foreign Minister Zarif, was not just on implementation day, but that this could really become a very – very quickly escalate into a very sensitive and risky situation. So the fact that we were able to de-escalate, were able to resolve this situation diplomatically, again, speaks to the fact that we have this dialogue now with the Iranians.
So to answer your question more directly, no, we don't see this as being any impediment.
QUESTION: Sorry, if we're going to talk about implementation day, then let's stay there.
MR TONER: Of course.
QUESTION: The Secretary in his comments this morning suggested that it was coming imminently. How imminent does the U.S. see it? And when it happens, what should we expect in terms of announcements from the U.S. Government about sanctions relief?
MR TONER: In terms of sanctions relief?
MR TONER: Okay. I mean, all that is spelled out in the – under the JCPOA, and all of that, as we've said, will be part of the immediate days after the – sorry, the implementation day. I apologize. I don't have an exact date on implementation day. The Secretary said it was imminent. His words obviously stand. I think we're still waiting. We've seen progress in the last couple of weeks. There's still steps that need to be taken.
In terms of sanctions relief, I don't have a direct – I'd have to check on that and find out.
QUESTION: Right, but what I'm asking is more – I guess this is kind of a logistical question.
MR TONER: Sure thing.
QUESTION: Which is once it – once it is announced --
MR TONER: Right.
QUESTION: -- that the deal has been implemented, should we expect to see from the U.S. immediately thereafter statements or notices from the Treasury Department or whoever --
MR TONER: Sure.
QUESTION: -- outlining what the immediate steps are in terms of sanctions relief?
MR TONER: I think you can expect kind of a next-steps – first of all, an acknowledgment of the event. I'm not sure which shape or form that's going to take, whether it'll be a statement or something else, and we'll obviously keep you informed as we get closer to implementation day and as we have a fixed date of when that date is going to be. And then in terms of sanctions relief or what's going to follow, certainly we'll keep you guys informed about that as well.
QUESTION: Iran says this weekend. Is that something you can rule out or in?
MR TONER: I would rule it neither out nor in.
QUESTION: So Mr. Kerry could always go from London to Geneva quite quickly?
MR TONER: When we have something to announce, we'll announce it.
QUESTION: Can we change topics?
MR TONER: Sure, but he asked Turkey, so --
QUESTION: Thank you.
MR TONER: -- we'll talk Turkey. Sorry.
QUESTION: Thank you. Yesterday there was a apparent attack in Istanbul, Sultanahmet square, and you issued statement. So far ISIS has not claimed attack. Do you have any further comment? What's your understanding, whether is this ISIS? And have you reached the Turkish Government? Today Turkish Prime Minister Davutoglu said secret actors are behind Istanbul attack; we are trying to reveal who used Daesh in this particular instance.
MR TONER: Well, in terms of investigation into the attack, I'd have to refer you to Turkish authorities, who are best positioned to speak to who – likely culprits and who is behind it. We obviously issued a statement yesterday strongly condemning this attack and we extended our condolences and continue to extend them to those who were killed, to the victims and those who were injured, and wishing them a speedy recovery. And we stand in solidarity with the Turkish people and reaffirm our determination to continue to work with Turkey to combat our shared threat of terrorism.
QUESTION: And there is – are --
MR TONER: Please.
QUESTION: There is this particular area by the Syria border, it's this 98 kilometers. Do you have any update on that? It's supposed to be some kind of movement or campaign was supposed to be launched against ISIS on the other side of the border as well.
MR TONER: Sure. I don't have any update specific to that region. It's something – and Brett McGurk has spoken to this in his briefings here – it's something we continue to work at with the Turkish Government and with other groups who are active in northern Syria fighting ISIL. We've got to close it. We've got to secure that space. We all realize that and we're making steady progress in doing so.
That's it, and then why don't you – yeah.
QUESTION: Thank you. So this was after the U.S. dropped bombs in central Mosul and destroyed a building full of ISIL's cash – CNN reported that U.S. commanders had been willing to consider up to 50 civilian casualties from the airstrike due to the importance of the target. Do you agree with the Pentagon when they say 50 civilian casualties could be tolerated for this kind of a target?
MR TONER: I've not seen any statement, so I have no idea what you're referring to. Look, we always say that – and we both say it and through our actions, I think, live up to it – is the fact that we seek to minimize civilian casualties in any kind of military action or airstrike that we undertake.
QUESTION: Previously, you called reports about civilian casualties in Russian strikes disturbing. What does that number – what does the number of civilian deaths have to be for you to call it disturbing?
MR TONER: Well, again, I don't think – again – so when we're talking about civilian casualties, what we always say and I think live up to is the fact that we always seek to minimize civilian casualties in any kind of operation, military operation, airstrike that we carry out. What we have also said about what we've seen as a result of Russian airstrikes that have been carried out in Syria thus far are what appear to be excessive civilian casualties in some of these airstrikes. We base that on, as you know, a number of NGO reports, as well as information that we're able to gather from our own sources, that we've seen excessive numbers. I'm not going to give you a number certain that over five civilians – really, any civilian death is a matter of concern. And we have been very candid about that. But we also recognize – and I think what's important here is when we do cause civilian casualties, we recognize that. And in the case of Afghanistan, certainly we conducted a thorough investigation into that incident in Kunduz where a Medecins Sans Frontieres hospital was struck by ordnance from the U.S. military.
QUESTION: But --
MR TONER: So I think – a couple points here. One, there's accountability when and if civilian casualties are caused by U.S. forces. And then secondly, always an effort at the root of all of our military operations to minimize civilian casualties, if not avoid them altogether.
QUESTION: Just to clarify --
MR TONER: Sure.
QUESTION: -- what is the standard by which you judge – when deciding to criticize civilian casualties? Is it a number or is it --
MR TONER: No, I wouldn't say it's a number. But it's – I would say that it's – again, and I would preface my remarks by you should really speak to the Pentagon, who are much better at assessing these types of incidents. But I think clearly we want to see any use of force seek to minimize civilian casualties. If we see a pattern of excessive civilian casualties or if we see airstrikes that seem to be carried out --
QUESTION: What is excessive civilian casualties? Do you have a number – numbers for such an assessment?
MR TONER: I just said I don't have a specific number, but I think if we see a pattern emerge where it appears that civilian casualties are the result of continued airstrikes – and again, that's not just what's happening in Syria; it's elsewhere in the world as well – then we would be – we express concern about that.
QUESTION: Do you think --
MR TONER: Yeah, sure.
QUESTION: I'm sorry.
QUESTION: Isn't one civilian casualty really too many?
MR TONER: I said that. I said we seek to minimize and obviously avoid civilian casualties altogether.
QUESTION: But if your overriding concern was to minimize the number, you'd never drop a single bomb. So the value of the target is a relevant calculation.
MR TONER: Yes, but I would also say, again – and I'm speaking as someone who is a non-military, so – but from our vantage point and what I think we've said publicly about this is that we always consider in the calculus the possible effects on the civilian populations of any military operation we carry out.
QUESTION: But there is a calculus. So a particularly important target you'd be prepared to tolerate a great number of civilian casualties.
MR TONER: Again, I'm not going to give you a formula for that. I think --
QUESTION: No, but --
MR TONER: I mean, obviously – but I think --
QUESTION: -- you used the word calculus. I'm just trying to --
MR TONER: No, no, I understand, David. I'm not trying to be facetious at all. I'm just trying to say that these are very difficult processes and very difficult decisions to make, and obviously we're dealing with high-value targets. But I just would say that that's always part of our calculus when we're looking at this.
QUESTION: But isn't that – do you find it disturbing that the U.S. was willing to accept 50 civilian deaths for this target initially?
MR TONER: Again, you – your initial comment was that that was somehow accepted as a part of it. I don't know that that's the case.
QUESTION: Go to the Palestinian-Israeli issue --
MR TONER: Sure.
QUESTION: -- and talk about the excessive use of force there. I asked John last Friday, but since then, more than 15 Palestinians have been killed since last Friday and hundreds have been wounded. At what point would you consider Israel's response to be the excessive use of force?
MR TONER: Sure. Well, I would put it this way: Again, we've – we would say it's critical that every possible effort be taken to show restraint and guard against unnecessary loss of life and de-escalate tensions, recognizing that that's a part of the problem as well. And we're – with regards to – and – I would clarify this. With regards to reports of protesters being killed – and we said this before – we're concerned over instances of death and injuries due to live fire from security forces. That's different from terrorist attacks, and obviously we're very strongly in support of Israel's right to defend its citizens.
QUESTION: Mm-hmm. Well, as more and more reports come out that Israel is actually using live ammunition in quelling these demonstrations and so on – and, in fact, to the point where countries like Sweden, possibly other European countries are beginning to look into these allegations of summary executions and so on – will you consider the same? Will you look into these incidents to see where Israel has used these methods, basically, to eliminate protesters rather than neutralize them?
MR TONER: Sure. Said, with respect to the Swedish Government's remarks or the Swedish foreign minister's remarks, I'm not going to – I would refer you to him to clarify his remarks. I'm also not going to adjudicate these kinds of things from the podium other than to say, as we've said before, we strongly condemn all unlawful violence. And we remain concerned about the situation and continue to urge affirmative steps to restore calm and prevent further escalation. So again, back to my original point about excessive force against protesters, it's critical that every possible effort be taken to show restraint and to de-escalate tensions.
QUESTION: And my last question --
MR TONER: Yeah, sure.
QUESTION: -- on the Palestinian-Israeli issue: I mean, lately in high-profile speeches such as the State of the Union, other speeches --
MR TONER: Of course.
QUESTION: -- by the Secretary of State and so on, there is no mention whatsoever of the Palestinian-Israeli issue or the pursuit of peace or a peace process of some sort. Is it completely off the radar or off the – sort of the attention focus by the Administration?
MR TONER: It's never off our radar, and certainly not this Secretary's radar. As you know, he's worked tirelessly on – in the pursuit of Middle East peace in the past. He continues to remain engaged, speaking with both sides. Again, we want to see affirmative actions and steps taken to de-escalate tensions and would lead to the possibility of beginning such a process in the future. That's never off our diplomatic radar.
Please. Sorry, go ahead, Arshad. I apologize.
QUESTION: I know this was addressed --
MR TONER: You said go back to Iran?
QUESTION: Yeah. I know this was addressed at great length in the background call, but I want to ask a question that I don't think was quite touched on there.
MR TONER: Sure.
QUESTION: There have been a whole series of events in the last few weeks, months, where the United States could have found itself directly at odds, or has found itself at odds with things that the Iranians have done: the ballistic missile tests; the firing of missiles in the vicinity of U.S. naval vessels; and then, of course, the – their taking into custody of these two ships, although that was obviously resolved very quickly. Can you give us a sense of what, if anything, the Secretary has tried to do to preserve a cooperative working relationship on issues not related to the nuclear deal? Has he made any kind of a concerted effort to make sure – I mean, many people have said, well, you have a line of communication. I get that. But has he made any other kind of – any kind of a concerted effort to make sure that even where you do have differences, they don't get out of hand?
MR TONER: Sure. Well, a couple of thoughts on this. And we shouldn't undersell the value of that, just having that line of communication. Like I said yesterday when we received our initial reports about this incident, the Secretary was able to, once he collected information from our side, from various interagency folks, he was able to reach out to his counterpart and have a very frank and honest exchange, and specifically, make the point that this was either an opportunity for both countries or a possible situation that could escalate. And just having the value of that, or having the ability to reach out like that, frankly, at a moment's notice is invaluable and is, frankly, essential to this kind of real-time diplomacy.
So that's a direct result of these Iran nuclear negotiations. Now, we've also been very cautions to say that none of us have rose-colored glasses on. None of us believe that suddenly, once we reach implementation day, that a whole new world is going to open up and we're suddenly going to cooperate with Iran. And we retain the ability through sanctions, both unilateral and through the UN Security Council, to penalize them for bad behavior writ large. And we know that they're still playing a role that's, shall we say, less than productive in many countries, including Syria. But there is at least the beginnings of an ability to at least talk to Iran about issues like Syria and get a process, a political process in play that they buy into.
So that's, again, significant. I don't want to oversell it by saying that we're – that all is forgotten or forgiven and we're ready to move on and make progress by leaps and bounds. But this is a long game and I think that these kinds of lines of communication and ability to talk beyond the scope of the nuclear agreement are promising.
QUESTION: And just one other one for me on this --
MR TONER: Yeah.
QUESTION: -- and I apologize if this was in the briefing, parts of which I did not hear. Did the Secretary ever say that, or suggest, or hint, or – that implementation day could be jeopardized if the sailors were not returned promptly?
MR TONER: I think he made the point that – and I was not on these conversations. I think he did make the point that this was an opportunity for both countries to show that they could rise above a situation like this and resolve it peacefully and diplomatically. I don't think he necessarily spoke specifically about how this might threaten implementation day, but I can't confirm that.
QUESTION: Mark, just right back on this, can I ask you a question?
MR TONER: Yes.
QUESTION: What does it say to you that in a relatively short period of time, the Secretary and Foreign Minister Zarif managed to get – managed to resolve this situation and – over the course of five or so phone calls, and yet over the course of three years and far many, many, many more face-to-face and telephone – face-to-face meetings and telephone calls at which you guys say he raises the cases of the detained American civilians in Iran on every occasion, that that has not yet been resolved? What does that say to you?
I mean, Zarif apparently delivered here, and on these other cases he either hasn't delivered or you haven't made as forceful an argument, and I think you would reject that.
MR TONER: Well, yeah. I was about to say, on the second point I know the Secretary at every occasion raises --
QUESTION: Exactly, so – so what gives?
MR TONER: I mean, you know our side of this equation, or our side of this story. We believe they should be home yesterday. We continue to make that case. We continue to call on the Iranians to release these individuals. I can't speak to the inner workings of the Iranian judicial system or even the political system that they can't resolve this issue and return these individuals home. We – it's our strong belief that they should be released immediately and be home with their families.
MR TONER: But I'm not going to draw a comparison between the two.
QUESTION: Okay. But you say you shouldn't undersell the value of this line of communication, and shouldn't you also not oversell it when --
MR TONER: And if I didn't make that clear, I said that. I said nobody's under any illusions that all is forgiven, we can move forward into a bright, sunshiny future.
QUESTION: Okay. Well, you're not at all concerned --
MR TONER: And I think we're – no. And I think we – sorry, Matt, I'm not trying to over – or speak over you. But I think we're clear-eyed about the challenges that remain in the relationship, and that's one of them.
QUESTION: Okay. But you're not at all concerned that the hailing of this diplomatic triumph by Administration officials in – all over town, not just here, but the Pentagon and the White House as well, is not overselling the value of this line of communication, when on issues such as the detainees, the civilian detainees, the bad acts in the region, the missile tests, this line of communication hasn't produced anything?
MR TONER: It's a legitimate point and Arshad raised it as well and you have as well, is to say we still have issues of serious concern with Iran and we need to work at resolving those issues.
QUESTION: Okay. But you don't think you're – you're not – no one's concerned that you're overselling the value of the line of communication? That's my question. No?
MR TONER: Right, no.
QUESTION: Okay, then one very brief one on the trip.
MR TONER: Guys, I got to – I'm sorry, I can take a --
QUESTION: On Saudi Arabia.
MR TONER: Sure, sure.
QUESTION: Do you expect – you've seen perhaps that the sister of the imprisoned blogger has been released on bail. I'm wondering if you have any comment on that and whether or not you know if it will be raised or this whole issue of human rights in London with Foreign Minister Jubeir.
MR TONER: So you're talking about --
QUESTION: Samar Badawi.
MR TONER: -- Samar Badawi, right --
QUESTION: Samar Badawi.
MR TONER: -- who was the 2012 recipient of the International Women of Courage Award. Yes, we are aware of reports that she was detained yesterday for questioning and has subsequently been released. We're in the process of trying to get more information about the incident and the case. We're aware of reports that she was detained related to questions about postings on her husband's social media account, but frankly, at this point we can't confirm those details.
Look, we have an ongoing dialogue with Saudi Arabia, obviously. The Secretary's going there to meet with Foreign Minister al-Jubeir tomorrow.
QUESTION: Really? He's not going to Saudi. He's going to London, right?
MR TONER: Right, of course. I apologize. Yeah, right, in London, of course. And it's on an array of issues. One of those issues is human rights, reflecting the concerns that we raise consistently in our human rights – our annual Human Rights Report. As a matter of general policy, we certainly oppose laws that restrict the exercise of freedom of expression and we would urge all countries, including Saudi Arabia, to protect those rights.
QUESTION: And that – does it go without saying that he'll also raise the concerns that you had about the mass executions that sparked the whole Iran --
MR TONER: I think we've raised those concerns and we'll continue to.
QUESTION: Would you --
MR TONER: Please – last question, guys. I apologize. Please.
QUESTION: Would you consider 50 civilian casualties to be an excessive number?
MR TONER: Again, I've – I'm not going to put a number on it. I'm just not going to do that, and for not reasons specific to this case. We look at patters. We look at actions on a whole where we see kind of blatant disregard for civilians on the ground. And again, we hold ourselves accountable to the same standards that we project onto other countries as well.
That's it, guys.
QUESTION: On the same subject, American NGO reportedly bombed in Idlib over the weekend by the Russian forces. Do you have any confirmation of that?
MR TONER: I don't have any comment, and I apologize. Sorry, guys. Thanks.
(The briefing was concluded at 2:22 p.m.)
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