Secretary Michael R. Pompeo Remarks to the Press
Michael R. Pompeo, Secretary of State
Press Briefing Room
November 18, 2019
SECRETARY POMPEO: Good afternoon, everyone. I have several statements I want to make today, starting with a statement about the Islamic Republic of Iran.
The United States is monitoring the ongoing protests in Iran closely. We condemn strongly any acts of violence committed by this regime against the Iranian people and are deeply concerned by reports of several fatalities. We've been at that since the beginning of this administration.
The Islamic Republic must cease violence against its own people and should immediately restore the ability of all Iranians to access a free and open Internet. The world is watching.
The Iranian people will enjoy a better future when their government begins to respect basic human rights, abandons its revolutionary posture and its destabilizing foreign policy in the region, and behaves simply like a normal nation.
The choice is clearly with the regime.
Continuing with Iran, President Rouhani recently announced that Iran will begin uranium enrichment activities at the Fordow facility. Therefore, the United States will terminate the sanctions waiver related to the nuclear facility at Fordow, effective December 15th, 2019. The right amount of uranium enrichment for the world's largest state sponsor of terror is zero.
Iran originally constructed Fordow as a fortified, underground bunker to conduct secret uranium enrichment work, and there is no legitimate reason for Iran to resume enrichment at this previously clandestine site. Iran should reverse its activity there immediately.
Iran's supreme leader is reverting to his tried-and-true method of using nuclear brinksmanship to extort the international community into accepting the regime's destabilizing activity. The United States rejects this approach completely and calls on all nations to do the same.
The only viable way forward is through comprehensive negotiations that address the full range of Iran's threats in their entirety. Iran's most recent action is yet another clear attempt at nuclear extortion that will only deepen its political and economic isolation from the world.
I also want to spend just a minute talking about Iraq.
For the last few weeks, the United States has watched the protests very, very closely. We support the Iraqi people as they strive for a prosperous Iraq that is free of corruption and Iranian malign influence. We've stated clearly that Iraq's leaders must protect human rights as Iraqis lift their voices to secure a flourishing democracy.
Our calls are consistent with the Trump administration's track record as being a force for good throughout Iraq. We have worked with the Iraqi security forces to take down the ISIS caliphate, and we will continue to make sure it cannot re-emerge.
The United States remains the largest humanitarian donor to Iraq, providing more than $2 billion in food, water, medicine, and shelter since 2014 alone. And we are the largest donor as well to stabilization, rebuilding more than 500 schools, 100 health centers, 50 water treatment plants, with many more projects coming online soon.
Now our commitment continues. We will not stand idle while the corrupt officials make the Iraqi people suffer. Today, I am affirming the United States will use our legal authorities to sanction corrupt individuals that are stealing Iraqis' wealth and those killing and wounding peaceful protesters.
Like the Iraqi people taking to the streets today, our sanctions will not discriminate between religious sect or ethnicity. They will simply target those who do wrong to the Iraqi people, no matter who they are.
Turning now to Israel, the Trump administration is reversing the Obama administration's approach towards Israeli settlements.
U.S. public statements on settlement activities in the West Bank have been inconsistent over decades. In 1978, the Carter administration categorically concluded that Israel's establishment of civilian settlements was inconsistent with international law. However, in 1981, President Reagan disagreed with that conclusion and stated that he didn't believe that the settlements were inherently illegal.
Subsequent administrations recognized that unrestrained settlement activity could be an obstacle to peace, but they wisely and prudently recognized that dwelling on legal positions didn't advance peace. However, in December 2016, at the very end of the previous administration, Secretary Kerry changed decades of this careful, bipartisan approach by publicly reaffirming the supposed illegality of settlements.
After carefully studying all sides of the legal debate, this administration agrees with President Reagan. The establishment of Israeli civilian settlements in the West Bank is not per se inconsistent with international law.
I want to emphasize several important considerations.
First, look, we recognize that – as Israeli courts have – the legal conclusions relating to individual settlements must depend on an assessment of specific facts and circumstances on the ground. Therefore, the United States Government is expressing no view on the legal status of any individual settlement.
The Israeli legal system affords an opportunity to challenge settlement activity and assess humanitarian considerations connected to it. Israeli courts have confirmed the legality of certain settlement activities and has concluded that others cannot be legally sustained.
Second, we are not addressing or prejudging the ultimate status of the West Bank. This is for the Israelis and the Palestinians to negotiate. International law does not compel a particular outcome, nor create any legal obstacle to a negotiated resolution.
Third, the conclusion that we will no longer recognize Israeli settlements as per se inconsistent with international law is based on the unique facts, history, and circumstances presented by the establishment of civilian settlements in the West Bank. Our decision today does not prejudice or decide legal conclusions regarding situations in any other parts of the world.
And finally – finally – calling the establishment of civilian settlements inconsistent with international law hasn't worked. It hasn't advanced the cause of peace.
The hard truth is there will never be a judicial resolution to the conflict, and arguments about who is right and wrong as a matter of international law will not bring peace. This is a complex political problem that can only be solved by negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians.
The United States remains deeply committed to helping facilitate peace, and I will do everything I can to help this cause. The United States encourages the Israelis and the Palestinians to resolve the status of Israeli settlements in the West Bank in any final status negotiations.
And further, we encourage both sides to find a solution that promotes, protects the security and welfare of Palestinians and Israelis alike.
Turning now to Hong Kong, the United States is gravely concerned by the deepening political unrest and violence in Hong Kong, including the standoff between protesters and police at Hong Kong Polytechnic University and other campuses.
We have repeatedly called for restraint from all parties in Hong Kong. Violence by any side is unacceptable.
The Hong Kong Government bears primary responsibility for bringing calm to Hong Kong. Unrest and violence cannot be resolved by law enforcement efforts alone.
The government must take clear steps to address public concerns. In particular, we call on Chief Executive Carrie Lam to promote accountability by supplementing the Independent Police Complains Council review with an independent investigation into the protest-related incidents.
As the United States Government has said repeatedly, the Chinese Communist Party must honor its promises to the Hong Kong people, who only want the freedoms and liberties that they have been promised in the Sino-British Joint Declaration, a UN-filed treaty.
And finally, Bolivia. The Bolivian Government announced Friday the expulsion of hundreds of Cuban officials from their country. It was the right thing to do. Cuba wasn't sending doctors and officials to Bolivia to help the Bolivian people, but rather, to prop up a pro-Cuba regime headed by Evo Morales, who sought to maintain his grip on power through electoral fraud.
Bolivia now joins Brazil and Ecuador in recognizing the Cuban threat to freedom.
In each case, these governments, free of outside interference, have acted to protect their own national sovereignty and to defend their own citizens' interests.
I'm happy to take a couple of questions.
MS ORTAGUS: Matt.
QUESTION: Thank you, Mr. Secretary. On the settlement announcement, I'm wondering if you are at all concerned that this position – this reversal of the previous administration's position – is going to increase your – the isolation of the U.S., particularly in the UN and around the world. Because pretty much everyone else has held the position that, if not illegal, they are at least inconsistent with international law.
And then secondly, if I could, there is a lot of questions – there are a lot of questions about why you have not chosen to speak up publicly in defense of your employees, including those who testified before the impeachment inquiry. Can you explain why you haven't chosen to make comments in their support? Thanks.
SECRETARY POMPEO: So first question – well, I must say, sadly, there hasn't been much support for Israel in the years leading up to this. It's hard to imagine more isolation, unfortunately, at the UN as a result of this decision. We've been challenged to convince nations all across the world to stand up for the people of Israel and their nation's right to exist. So no, I don't think this increases that.
I'm happy to talk about Ukraine policy today. I'm not going to get into the issues surrounding the Democrat impeachment inquiry. I'm just not going to do it today. It is worth noting that Ambassador Yovanovitch's departure preceded the arrival of Bill Taylor. So some – there's some ideas out there that somehow this change was designed to enable some nefarious purpose; you should all just look at the simple fact that it was Bill Taylor that replaced Ambassador Yovanovitch – who, in each case, has been driving towards the appropriate Ukraine policy, which I am happy to talk about.
I am proud of what this administration has done with respect to Ukraine. We reversed the massive failures of the Obama administration's policy towards Ukraine, which truly did risk the lives of Ukrainian people and allowed Vladimir Putin to take Crimea and to fight in the Donbas against a group of Ukrainians who wanted nothing more than to defend their nation but were given just blankets and nonlethal equipment.
I am proud of what we've done. President Trump's policy has been consistent throughout. The State Department is fully supportive not only of what we've done but our Ukraine policy moving forward.
QUESTION: But no defense of your employees?
MS ORTAGUS: Nadia.
SECRETARY POMPEO: I always defend State Department employees. It's the greatest diplomatic corps in the history of the world. Very proud of the team.
QUESTION: Thank you, Morgan.
Mr. Secretary, first on Iran. How do you balance your support for the Iranian people and the request to topple their government – or sorry, the request to hold their government accountable, and your support for them that has been seen and criticized by the Iranian regime as interference?
And I have another question on the Palestinian issue.
SECRETARY POMPEO: We – I remember how the previous administration treated the Iranian people. I remember the signs that said, "Are you with us? Are you with the regime?" I don't think anybody in the world has any doubt about where this administration stands. We want Iran to be a normal nation, and we want the people there to have the freedoms to which they're entitled, and we want the – we want the regime's monies to be spent on things that benefit the Iranian people, not proxy forces in Iraq, not underwriting Hizballah, not conducting assassination campaigns throughout Europe. We want the Iranian regime to behave like a normal nation, to take care of their people, and I think that is what you are hearing and seeing in these protests that are taking place in the Islamic Republic of Iran over these past few days.
QUESTION: And on the Palestinian issue, sir, with your decision today about the settlement, in addition to declaring Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and the Golan Height under the Israeli control, do you believe that we're getting closer to a one-state solution as the two-state solution is no longer viable? And how do you bring the Palestinians to the negotiation table considering your decision today?
SECRETARY POMPEO: We've had a long time with the policy, the legal interpretation announced today being the other way and it didn't work. That – that's a fact in evidence. We believe that what we've done today is we have recognized the reality on the ground. We've now declared that settlements are not per se illegal under international law, and we have provided the very space that your question suggests, the very space for Israel and the Palestinians to come together to find a political solution to this very, very vexing problem.
We think, in fact, we've increased the likelihood that the vision for peace that this administration has, we think we've created space for that to be successful. I'm hopeful that we'll be able to move forward on that before too terribly long.
MS ORTAGUS: Courtney.
QUESTION: Thank you. Just on the –
SECRETARY POMPEO: Yes, ma'am.
QUESTION: – practical implications of the decision, does it – I understand that you're referring to the decision not to declare these settlements per se illegal. Does that also apply to East Jerusalem, or is that primarily just the West Bank?
SECRETARY POMPEO: It applies – we're making – as the President said when he made the decision about Jerusalem, the final status, those boundaries will be – will not be determined until the parties reach a resolution.
QUESTION: And then are you concerned –
SECRETARY POMPEO: And so there's no – in that sense – go ahead, yes.
QUESTION: Are you also concerned about the timing, given that the deadline for Benny Gantz to form a government is Wednesday? Is there a concern about the timing of this announcement perhaps affecting domestic politics in Israel?
SECRETARY POMPEO: We've told the team that was doing this review now for quite some time, we've told them do your work, do it thoroughly, do it completely. When we have the analysis correct, when we reach a final decision, we will provide that analysis and we'll share that with the world. So the timing of this was not tied to anything that had to do with domestic politics anywhere, in Israel or otherwise. This was about we were done, we finished, we'd conducted our review, and this was the appropriate time to move forward.
MS ORTAGUS: Okay. (Inaudible.)
SECRETARY POMPEO: Yeah, I'll take one more, sure.
MS ORTAGUS: Okay, Shaun.
QUESTION: Can I have a question –
QUESTION: Thanks, Mr. Secretary.
SECRETARY POMPEO: Yes, sir.
QUESTION: Could I follow up on the Israeli settlements? What is the message that you are sending to Israel? You say that, for example, the Reagan administration – Reagan had a particular view on that, but in terms of the – and is this effectively a green light? I mean, Reagan has also said they were an obstacle to peace. Is there – is this effectively a green light for Israel to build more settlements if they want? Will Israel still face criticism for – as an obstacle for peace if it builds settlements? And if you will, can I just follow up on Matt's question as well. I know you said you didn't want to talk about the impeachment –
SECRETARY POMPEO: No, I said I wasn't going to. I didn't say I didn't want to. I said I wasn't going to.
QUESTION: Right. But could I just ask you – sure, but can I just –
SECRETARY POMPEO: There are things I would dearly love to say about it, but I don't intend to.
QUESTION: Sure. Just specifically one thing.
SECRETARY POMPEO: Yes.
QUESTION: Just specifically one thing. When Ambassador Yovanovitch was on the Hill on Friday, the President made a tweet right when she was appearing saying that everything – everywhere that she went turned bad. Is it an assessment that you agree with? You've known her.
SECRETARY POMPEO: Your first question about is this a green light. Back to first principles. What we did here was conduct a legal analysis. We took international law, we had our lawyers review it. So this was not meant to send a message in any – you're describing a message about should there be more settlements, should there be fewer settlements, how should Israeli – look at the courts. This wasn't intended that at all. This was intended to be a legal review. We do believe that the result of this legal review creates the political space for a more likely resolution of the situation there. We think ultimately this must be resolved politically, and we think taking away this impediment, this idea that somehow there was going to be a legal resolution to this, we think it's – we think it has failed, and so we do think we have gotten to a place which creates more likelihood.
And I don't have anything to say – I'll defer to the White House about particular statements and the like. I don't have anything else to say about the Democrats' impeachment proceeding. If somebody else has a substantive question about something that the world cares deeply about, I'm happy to take it.
QUESTION: Peace process.
MS ORTAGUS: Christina.
QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, do you have any guidance or announcement on the peace plan, the peace process, how that's going? And you said you'd talk about Ukraine policy, so I'm curious if you think Ambassador Taylor has been an effective envoy of that policy and if he is going to remain in his job, or if the President has lost confidence in him.
SECRETARY POMPEO: Yes. State Department's doing a fantastic job. I think we've delivered in a way that the Obama administration has not delivered on Ukraine. I think the Ukrainian people – and if you listen to their leadership, I think they'd think the same.
Your question is – first question was about the peace plan. When the time is right our vision will come forward. The Israeli Government's got to find its way. They've got to get through their government formation process. We're – we are hopeful that they will. And when they do, and the conditions are right for us to release our vision, we'll do that. I hope that can be before too long.
QUESTION: And do you still have confidence in Ambassador Taylor?
SECRETARY POMPEO: Thanks, everybody. Have a – have a fantastic day.
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