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Secretary Michael R. Pompeo and Ambassador John Abizaid Remarks to the Traveling Press

Michael R. Pompeo, Secretary of State
Prince Sultan Air Base
Saudi Arabia
February 20, 2020

MS ORTAGUS: Okay. The Secretary and the Ambassador are going to give some remarks, and we have a little bit of time for questions. We are tight. We'll try to get to everybody, but please raise your hands. Let's keep it orderly.

SECRETARY POMPEO: Well, thanks to everybody for joining us. I hope you all had a good visit and got a chance to see when I talk about the economic pressure campaign and the diplomatic pressure campaign and our military deterrence, you got a chance to see a significant piece of that today, what we're doing to keep the peace here in the region, how our partners – this is a facility where we work side by side and work on lots of important deterrence problem sets right alongside our partners from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and we got a chance to see that up close and personal today.

The President's mission set that you see in the National Security Strategy and you see that we've been working on with respect to the threat from the Islamic Republic of Iran are real. We're not far from there where we're sitting right now. And you can see the good work that's being done by our young men and women in uniform to keep the peace, keep the deterrence, work with our partner to deliver us to a place where I, as the Secretary of State, can get the diplomatic outcome that the President is seeking.

John, you want to say anything?

AMBASSADOR ABIZAID: Well, I'm glad that the members of the press came to Saudi Arabia. Glad that you're here. It's so important for people to come here, look at it, and think about it, understand what's happening in this country.

I've spent a lot of time in this part of the world, and the amount of reform that's taking place here, especially down at the lower levels – it's just not about women and driving; it's about society changing. And it's changing in a way that's good for the people of Saudi Arabia. Ultimately, it's good for us. Our partnership militarily is strong, economically is strong. There are so many things that are so important about stability in this region that depend upon Saudi Arabia.

And then the last thing I would say is, look, that the kingdom has done a tremendous amount to suppress Sunni Islamic extremism within their own borders, and they have been a great cooperation partner with us, and they will continue to do that. Now what the next job is, at some point in history – hopefully soon – Shia Islamic extremism led by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards' Qods Force gets rolled back.

MS ORTAGUS: Okay. Who's got a question? Katie.

QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, how has the Soleimani strike played into the defensive calculation here and the conversations you've had?

SECRETARY POMPEO: Well, I think you had multiple impacts. The first is I think it demonstrated resolve not only from the United States, but all of the forces that are working to push back against the Islamic Republic of Iran. He was actively plotting to kill Americans. He had killed Americans. It was an important strategic strike that was taken. And I think you can see that it's now provided the Iranians with a deep knowledge that our notion of deterrence is real.

MS ORTAGUS: Courtney.

QUESTION: Thank you. I know we didn't get to visit the oil site today, but can you tell us a little bit about whether the facilities are better protected now than they were in September and how those defenses have improved? And are you confident that they're able to withstand a precision strike of the sort that we saw in September?

SECRETARY POMPEO: I don't want to say much about the tactical pieces of this. I'll leave that to the Department of Defense to talk about those kinds of things. But the force posture that's here today – not only the American presence here today, but the work we've done alongside our Saudi partners to better prepare for strikes of that nature – is very real. And so there is a heightened sense of security for facilities like that, and we're more capable today than we were. But I'll leave the details of how that's all been done to the Department of Defense.


QUESTION: Thank you. Just talking from the political side, could you talk a little about your conversations with the Saudis when you decided to send more troops here? Kind of what was the main motivating factors, and looking forward, what their – what the main mission is?

And if I could, if you would have a reaction to the re-election of Afghan President Ghani.

SECRETARY POMPEO: Yeah. You want to talk about the first piece, your conversations with the Saudis here on the ground and then I'll talk about what happened at – between Washington and Riyadh and the capitals? And then I'll try and take that last one too.

AMBASSADOR ABIZAID: Yeah. Certainly, in the early days, where I first got here right in the May period, when we started having problems in the Arabian Gulf with ships being attacked and then in the Red Sea – also, of course, a lot of people don't understand there's been an awful lot of missile strikes that have been supplied by missiles, supplied by the IRGC Qods Force launched from Yemen, 400 strikes, as a matter of fact, on – about – on Saudi Arabia. I mean, they were in a position of realizing that as the temperature was going up in their own region that they're facing an opponent on the other side that is very, very large in terms of population and capability.

So they naturally turned to us for support, and our support has been defensive. They've never asked for offensive support. It's always been defensive support. And I think it was not only the right thing to do, but to add to what – the question that was previously asked, the defensive posture is much improved not only for the United States but for Saudi Arabia. And so our ability to withstand something that might come from that direction is much improved, but it's not perfect.

SECRETARY POMPEO: You asked, too, for our strategic objective. Remember we laid it out in May of '18 that behavioral changes we're seeking from the Islamic Republic of Iran have not changed. They're not going to get nuclear weapons. We're going to prevent that. The previous administration had taken a very different approach. They underwrote these very capabilities, right. The very missile systems that are being launched today were funded by the plan that the previous administration had put in place, supplying hundreds of billions of dollars to the Islamic Republic of – to the regime.

And we've taken a radically different approach. We are draining their capacity to conduct strategic activity in the region and destabilize the Middle East. They're having to make harder choices today. It'll take time. There remains work to do. But you can see they've gone from delivering 2.7 or 2.8 million barrels per day to a couple hundred thousand barrels a day. We're going to try and tighten that down even further to deny the regime the capacity to underwrite Hizballah, underwrite the Shia militias, underwrite Hamas and the PIJ in the Gaza Strip, all of the stuff that we've now got hundreds of thousands of refugees in Syria as a direct result of what the Iranian regime is doing.

We're trying to deny them the resources to inflict this kind of harm throughout the Middle East. Part of that has to be at the same time. The Iranians will respond. We've seen that. And so you have to establish the deterrence that's connected to that. So while that – while you are demonstrating the resolve to convince the Iranian regime to behave differently, you have to maintain military deterrence as well. And so we're working across each of those.

I don't have anything to say about Afghanistan, other than we've been following the election results very, very closely. We want to make sure that we've got it exactly right, and we'll make a statement on that before too terribly long.

MS ORTAGUS: Abbie. Abbie, go ahead.

QUESTION: The U.S. just revealed further evidence that Iran was behind the missiles that were used by the Houthis to attack the oil facilities in Saudi. Has this evidence helped you to further convince your partners to take action at the UN, and what are your next steps there?

SECRETARY POMPEO: Yeah. No reasonable person has any doubt about where these missiles came from.

QUESTION: Okay. Can I ask one more, then? (Laughter.)

SECRETARY POMPEO: They – I mean, let's just be clear. There's never – this is not an intelligence problem or a dataset problem. This is – this was – everyone's known who this was from the get-go. It was very clear. The Iranian fingerprints are all over this thing. Anybody who suggests otherwise is – has got another motive in denying that this was an Iranian attack launch. This was an act of war in violation of all kinds of UN norms and rules.

And so, yeah, we'll continue to – as we – there's additional data, but I must say we're at the margins now. The decisive dataset that demonstrates that this was an Iranian attack has been clear from hours after the attack.

AMBASSADOR ABIZAID: By the way, the missiles that are being used and fired from Yemen by the Houthis are all coming from the Iranians. This is so clear. We've just recently interdicted two dhows down there filled with Iranian-produced equipment that is being used by the Houthis to attack Saudi Arabia. So I think it's really important for us to understand who is the aggressor in the region, and it's no doubt it's the Iranians.


QUESTION: Just to talk about some of the concerns around the relationship. Obviously, the Khashoggi killing and the detention of the Saudi American citizen, and then you have the Pensacola attack. Is there concern that the Saudis may be leveraging this close relationship to get away with stuff or that they're not facing the opprobrium they might face given some of these actions that have you – you mentioned when you were coming in here you were going to talk about human rights. Can you talk a little bit about the leverage you're applying to the Saudis to address some of the concerning elements of the relationship?

SECRETARY POMPEO: Yeah, we often have multiple components of a relationship with countries all across the world. This is pretty common. I don't know that I've had a conversation with a senior Saudi leader that didn't involve us trying to both make clear to them our expectations with respect to human rights and offering to provide assistance, right, trying to help them put in place the processes and systems so that they can deliver on the human rights obligations that I'm confident, that in nearly every case, the leadership wants to engage in.

And so the Saudis share our strategic objectives. They are an important ally and partner, and we continue – want to continue to make that and we – at the same time, we continue to make clear to them our expectations with respect to a broad range of human rights issues, which include the return of people that are being held that aren't being held in a way that we think is consistent with the rule of law. Anything you want to add to that, ambassador?

AMBASSADOR ABIZAID: No. Look, I – well I agree with what the Secretary said there. I mean, it's – we constantly talk to our Saudi interlocutors about these issues, and you shouldn't think that we just sit here and ignore them. We don't. We talk about it a lot. We have made a difference, and I expect that as time goes on and as they liberalize their own society, there will be more differences made by them. So this partnership is hugely important for a lot of different reasons, but as they go through this system of reform, we need to be their primary partner. We need to be their partner of choice so that the model that they have for the reforms is an American one and not a Chinese or a Russian one.

MS ORTAGUS: Last question. Adam.

QUESTION: Following up more on the military side – I know you were briefed. It's been outwardly, I guess, a bit quiet since the oilfield strike, but it does feel like that tension is still there. What is that threat landscape look like? Is there (inaudible) concern that this will continue?

SECRETARY POMPEO: Yeah, the fact that we're here today, the fact that so many young American men and women are here and at other facilities, not only here in Saudi Arabia but in Iraq and in Al Udeid in Qatar and folks – part of the NAVCEN Fifth Fleet – I think demonstrates that the demand for deterrence remains. You need look only at the ayatollah's Twitter feed to know that these are people who have a deep disdain for the very fundamental ideas that we hold so dear in the United States and that their desire to wipe the state of Israel off the map and to do harm to the United States of America remains. And our aim is to change that behavior from the regime, but it remains a great deal of work to do to deliver on that ultimate objective.

QUESTION: Thank you.

MS ORTAGUS: Ambassador, anything else?

AMBASSADOR ABIZAID: Great to see you all. I'm glad you're in Saudi Arabia. (In Arabic.)

MS ORTAGUS: (In Arabic.)

SECRETARY POMPEO: We were going to do it all in Arabic, but you know. (Laughter.)

QUESTION: Thanks, guys.

SECRETARY POMPEO: Thanks, everybody.

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