Department Press Briefing – May 10, 2021
Ned Price, Department Spokesperson
May 10, 2021
- ISRAEL /PALESTINIANS
- ISRAEL / PALESTINIANS
1:57 p.m. EDT
MR PRICE: Good afternoon. I have a few elements at the top before we get started. I know we also have a bilateral engagement just after this, so we'll conclude before that.
Let me start by saying that the United States condemns in the strongest terms the barrage of rocket attacks fired into Israel in recent hours. This is an unacceptable escalation. While we urge de-escalation on all sides, we also recognize Israel's legitimate right to defend itself and to defend its people and its territory. It is critical for all sides to ensure calm and de-escalate tensions and avoid violent confrontations, such as the responsible decision to reroute today's parade.
More broadly, we're deeply concerned about the situation in Israel, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip, including violent confrontations in Jerusalem, particularly in the Haram al-Sharif Temple Mount that has resulted in at least 180 additional injuries, as well as the rocket fire from Gaza hitting houses in Jerusalem and the threat of further rocket attacks. The United States will remain fully engaged to promote calm in Jerusalem, and we welcome the steps the Israeli Government has taken in recent days aimed at avoiding provocations, including the decision to avoid confrontations during the Jerusalem Day Commemoration and the delay in the decision regarding the Sheikh Jarrah evictions.
Next, I am pleased to announce that U.S. Ambassador to Libya Richard Norland will now serve in the capacity of Special Envoy for Libya in addition to the Chief of Mission for Libya. In his role as Special Envoy, Ambassador Norland will lead U.S. diplomatic efforts to promote international support for a Libyan-led, inclusive, and negotiated political solution to the conflict, facilitated through the UN.
Ambassador Norland, a Career Minister in the Foreign Service and a three-time ambassador, has served as Chief of Mission at the Libyan External Affairs Office in Tunis since August of 2019.
The addition of the Special Envoy role to Ambassador Norland's Chief of Mission responsibilities signifies the importance we attach to focused, high-level diplomatic outreach in support of the Libyan political process culminating in elections in December of this year. Ambassador Norland will work closely with key partners to strengthen efforts to keep the political process on track and to ensure the removal of foreign forces from Libya.
Ambassador Norland also will work closely with interagency colleagues in Washington, civil society, and humanitarian partners to further the U.S. role in actively supporting the Libyan people as they seek lasting peace, security, and prosperity in their country. The Special Envoy will also keep Congress closely informed of our efforts.
We congratulate Ambassador Norland on his new and expanded role leading U.S. efforts in Libya and internationally to support a political solution to the Libyan conflict.
Next, the United States condemns the horrifying attack in Kabul on Saturday targeting an innocent Afghan girls' school – innocent Afghan girls at their school – excuse me. The death toll in that attack is now over 80 individuals, most of them girls in their teens – killed for nothing more than pursuing an education and a brighter future. We wish a speedy recovery to the many wounded and grieve with the families of the victims. We are still looking into what or who is responsible, but I would note that ISIS has been responsible for similar attacks on Shia communities in Kabul in the past. We note the Taliban has denied involvement in the attack, and we welcome their announcement of a three-day ceasefire over the upcoming Eid holiday. We call on the Taliban and Afghan leaders to engage seriously in the ongoing peace process to ensure the Afghan people enjoy a future free of terrorism and of senseless violence.
Although the United States is withdrawing our troops, we are not disengaging from Afghanistan, and we will continue to use our diplomatic, economic, and humanitarian toolset to ensure that the gains of the past 20 years, particularly those made by women, girls, and minorities, are preserved.
So with that, I am happy to take your questions.
MR PRICE: Yes.
QUESTION: I'm having trouble figuring out what exactly he's going to be doing different today than he was doing, like, last week.
MR PRICE: Well, so obviously, last week he was not the special envoy. He is —
QUESTION: Yeah, I know. But other than having a new title, it sounds like he's doing exactly the same thing as he was before. So why give him – why does he need this new title?
MR PRICE: Because the mandate he is taking on now will require him to engage on behalf of the U.S. Government with other partner nations —
QUESTION: Yeah, but —
MR PRICE: — serving beyond his role of chief of mission in Libya. As special envoy, he'll have the remit to engage other governments, civil society, congress as well.
QUESTION: He didn't before? I mean, he lives in Tunis, which is a different country.
MR PRICE: Right. But this gives him an elevated profile —
QUESTION: So he didn't have the latitude to deal with the Italians or with the Maltese or with the Tunisians before?
MR PRICE: I think we wanted to make it very clear the priority we attach to this, and naming Ambassador Norland as a special envoy would give him that added remit.
MR PRICE: Yes.
QUESTION: When you talk about supporting Israel's right to defend itself, that includes – I'm assuming, but correct me if I'm wrong – that includes their retaliatory strikes against Hamas targets in Gaza, right?
MR PRICE: We're speaking of the principle of self-defense. We certainly —
QUESTION: No, no. I'm asking you if you think that the principle of self-defense applies to the retaliatory – the air strikes that they're conducting in response to the —
MR PRICE: Matt, this is a very fluid situation. I would hesitate to comment on operations beyond the rocket fire that is clearly targeting innocent civilians in Israel. So I would hesitate to speak to specific operations that have just occurred, but the broader principle of self-defense is something we stand by on behalf of Israel and every other country.
QUESTION: Yes. But do you think that Israeli military response to the rockets coming in – a military response to the rockets coming in is covered by this broader rubric of self-defense, right?
MR PRICE: Self-defense often does authorize the use of force.
QUESTION: And secondly on this, there was – there is an attempt, or was an attempt earlier and maybe I've missed something since we've been in here, but at the UN Security Council for there to be a presidential statement —
MR PRICE: Right.
QUESTION: — about the situation. And it looks like you guys were holding it up. Can you explain what the issue is?
MR PRICE: Well, as you know, Matt, as we have commented on different contexts we don't discuss our actions during private consultations. What I will say, however, is that we want to see whatever comes out of the UN Security Council, we want to see to it that those products, be they statements or anything else, don't escalate tensions. That's our overriding priority.
QUESTION: Thank you, Ned. I want to ask you about East Jerusalem, but let's talk about what you said about the principle of self-defense. Does that in any way apply to the Palestinians? Do they have a right to self-defense? Do Palestinians have a right to self-defense?
MR PRICE: I'm – in – broadly speaking, Said, we believe in the concept of self-defense. We believe it applies to any state. I don't think that —
QUESTION: All right. I —
MR PRICE: I certainly wouldn't want my words to be construed as —
QUESTION: No, I understand. I want to ask on East Jerusalem. I don't want to harp on this either. But the Israelis killed 13 people just now, including maybe five or six children. Do you condemn that? Do you condemn the killing of children?
MR PRICE: Said —
QUESTION: I'm asking: Do you condemn the killing of Palestinian children?
MR PRICE: Obviously – and these reports are just emerging. And I understand – I was just speaking to the team. I understand we don't have independent confirmation of facts on the ground yet, so I'm very hesitant to get into reports that are just emerging.
Obviously, the deaths of civilians, be they Israeli or Palestinians, are something we would take very seriously.
QUESTION: Okay. Now, you recognize that East Jerusalem is occupied Palestinian territory, and as such Israel has no legal claim whatever. The Israeli Supreme Court weighing on this is really absurd, because all the documents are there – the Jordanian document, the Ottoman document, and so on. But you are really unwilling to hold Israel responsible for what's going on in Sheikh Jarrah. I mean, you have to look at where this whole thing started, correct?
MR PRICE: And that's why we've spoken about what has – what was set to take place in Sheikh Jarrah. As you know, Said, we issued a statement on Friday.
QUESTION: That's correct.
MR PRICE: The White House issued a statement yesterday in conjunction with the readout of National Security Advisor Sullivan's call with his counterpart. We have been clear about where we stand in Sheikh Jarrah. We've been clear in urging the Israelis to act responsibly, to treat Palestinian residents with compassion and with humanity in this case.
I will – because I just wanted to make sure there is clear understanding about what I said before and what I didn't say before.
MR PRICE: The question before was in terms of occupation. What I said before was the West Bank remains occupied.
QUESTION: So is East Jerusalem.
MR PRICE: Jerusalem, of course, is a final status – is a final status issue to be determined by the parties.
QUESTION: Okay, but one last thing. There seems to be a great deal of – some people are upset, pro-Israeli, like the Free Beacon and so on. They're upset with Jalina, what Jalina said, although what she said really was no different than what you said. What is your reaction to that? They are saying that you have distanced yourself from what she said.
MR PRICE: I am aware of what you're referring to. I think if you look at the report that you're mentioning, Jalina is quoted in that report as offering additional context to the statements she made last week.
QUESTION: I just want to follow up on something that isn't happening right now, that happened 48 hours ago, which was credible reports from the ground that there were rubber bullets fired into the al-Aqsa Mosque. And what responsibility does the IDF have not to violate the third holiest site in Islam and where children and elderly people are in prayer?
MR PRICE: Well, and that's something we were extremely concerned about. It's precisely why we took the pretty rare step of issuing a late-night Friday night statement. I think it came out after 10 p.m. just —
QUESTION: I just want to give you the opportunity now that you're on camera to – I mean, because this didn't just start this morning.
MR PRICE: No, of course. Of course not. And this has been ongoing for days. Unfortunately, we've seen tensions escalate over the course of days. On Friday, our statement was very clear that we called on both sides to de-escalate, and we continue now to call on all sides. Obviously, Hamas is now in the mix with this rocket fire. But yes, peaceful protest is something that – it's a concept that we support, whether that's in Israel or anywhere else.
QUESTION: So to follow up on those, Ned, you just said that on Sheikh Jarrah you are calling Israelis to act responsibly, with compassion. So are you basically telling them to not go ahead with the evictions? Is that your – is that U.S. Government's recommendation to Israel?
MR PRICE: What we have said, we are concerned about the potential eviction of these families, many of whom have lived in Sheikh Jarrah for generations. As I understand it, this is now an issue before the Israeli Supreme Court. That decision was supposed to come out today. It has now been delayed by some time. I don't want to get ahead of where the supreme court might come out, but our position has been clear. We are concerned, very concerned about the potential for those evictions and that's why we spoke out.
QUESTION: Okay. A couple of more. I'm sure you've seen some of the videos from the city and, like, protesters and IDF. To follow up on Andrea's point, do you think Israeli forces – do you think Israeli authorities have used excessive force? And if yes, have you guys urged them not to do so, and what was their response?
MR PRICE: There have been a series of engagements not only in recent days, but, of course, prior to that even. Our statement on Friday night; the White House read out National Security Advisor Sullivan's call; our deputy secretary of state over the weekend had a call with her Israeli counterpart; and, of course, there have been at various levels engagement with Palestinian leaders. Our message to both Israeli and Palestinian officials has been one of de-escalation, urging de-escalation, knowing that the conditions on the ground are especially volatile, now that we're in the month of Ramadan, a confluence of events, a series of escalations.
Look, I am not – I don't want to be in the business of arbitrating, especially from up here, when it comes to those issues. What I will say is that we have urged Israelis to de-escalate, we have urged Palestinians to de-escalate, and we have condemned in the strongest possible terms the Hamas rocket fire that is – within recent minutes, has been raining down on Israel.
QUESTION: And then one final one on Israel, although I don't think you've clearly answered my question on whether or not you think Israeli authorities have used excessive force, so if you want to answer that now, please feel free to. But this flare-up seems to be one of the most tense in many years, and I'm seeing various commentators, experts talking about saying it might be the beginning of another intifada. Do you have any reason or intel to believe that might be the case?
MR PRICE: Well, look, our goal in the near-term is to de-escalate. I don't want to speak to hypotheticals. I don't want to speak to what would happen in the absence of de-escalation. But, of course, the possibility of additional violence, of extended violence is something we're concerned about. It is why we have been so ardent and so proactive in our outreach to Israeli leaders and Palestinian leaders and also in our public statements. We are doing everything we can. The Quartet issued a statement over the weekend as well. The international community is weighing in. Of course, we've seen this UN Security Council session. The international community as well as the United States – there is a collective interest in seeing a de-escalation here. That's what we're trying to achieve.
QUESTION: Ned, more broadly, this administration hasn't placed at least a visibly high priority on playing some role in trying to restart the peace process. Does the current – the seriousness of these current tensions and conflicts have the administration reconsidering whether the U.S. might want to again resume some kind of a more active role in trying to restart a peace process?
MR PRICE: Look, I wouldn't say that it's – I wouldn't characterize it as us not prioritizing it. We continue to believe deeply in the principle of a two-state solution to this conflict. It is precisely why we have urged both sides not to take unilateral steps, because unilateral steps – whether it's incitement of violence, whether it's acts of terrorism, whether it's demolition of homes, whether it's expansion of settlements, or anything else – it moves – it has the potential to move a two-state solution further out of reach. And we all know that a two-state solution, it's in the interest of Israelis, it's in the interest of Palestinians, it secures Israel's identity as a Jewish and democratic state while bestowing upon Palestinians their legitimate aspirations for statehood and dignity. And so, of course, we are continuing to do everything we can to support that outcome.
I think right now as we've just been talking, our priority is on de-escalation. Our priority is on restoring calm. Our priority over the longer term may move towards playing some sort of mediating role between Israelis and Palestinians. But given circumstances on the ground right now, and even before this current flare-up, we're just not in a position, I think, to see meaningful progress, and our policy has recognized that.
QUESTION: But either way, they keep saying both sides, when in fact one side has F-35s that are bombing the Palestinians – in fact, that's the only place on earth where the F-35 has been used in combat. And the others have stones – I mean, what is this both sides thing? One side is occupying and the other side is being occupied. Would you care to explain what is the both side-ism here?
MR PRICE: Well, most recently, we have called on all sides to de-escalate. That includes Hamas. So that has been our message since late last week; it is our message now. We're calling for de-escalation.
QUESTION: Just a – it will be extremely brief. One, in your response to Said's earlier question about whether the Palestinians have a right to self-defense, your answer, you're going to know as soon as I read what your answer was that there's a big problem with it. You said – well, not a problem, it just doesn't answer the question. We believe that it, meaning the right to self-defense, applies to any state. Well, you see the problem, right? Yes?
MR PRICE: Do you want to —
QUESTION: Do regard Palestine as a state?
MR PRICE: I wasn't referring —
QUESTION: Do you think —
MR PRICE: But it —
QUESTION: You don't in the context of the ICC and the UN.
MR PRICE: I —
QUESTION: So are you saying that you do not – if it applies to any state, are you saying the Palestinians don't have a right to self-defense?
MR PRICE: I was making a broader point not attached to Israel or the Palestinians in that case.
QUESTION: So they do have a right to self-defense?
MR PRICE: Matt, I'm not —
QUESTION: No, no, no, it's not that difficult a question.
MR PRICE: I'm not in a position to debate the legalities from up here.
QUESTION: All right.
MR PRICE: What – our message is one of de-escalation.
QUESTION: All right. And then just – from this administration's point of view, is the previous administration's peace plan, the much vaunted Peace to Prosperity, is that just off the table? Is that – or is it something that you're willing to look at and extrapolate on if necessary?
MR PRICE: As we have said in any number of contexts, most recently in North Korea, we are always seeking to learn lessons not only from our immediate predecessors, but predecessors before that. I think it is safe to say there are elements in that so called peace plan that are not a constructive starting point.
QUESTION: I just want to ask who Secretary Blinken or others work within the Israeli government. Is it a problem right now that there's a change in power? Does that make it especially dangerous, and where are they working to try to figure that out?
MR PRICE: There are – I wouldn't want to weigh in on the government formation process and where we are. Our officials have appropriate counterparts, both within the Israeli Government at the moment as well as Palestinian counterparts. We have not had an issue when it comes to any element of transition.
QUESTION: A follow-up. Isn't it a problem that there is, for all intents and purposes, a power vacuum in both sides?
MR PRICE: Well, it is a problem, as I said before, that there are a confluence of factors that are in many ways converging and have converged over the past 72 hours. It's precisely why we are engaged so concertedly, both at the moment, over the weekend, late last week, even before that to try to de-escalate the situation on the ground.
QUESTION: Thank you, Ned. Amr Sayed, Al Jazeera Mubasher. Two U.S. legislators have described the situation in Sheikh Jarrah as ethnic cleansing. This is Congresswomen Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib. Do you agree with this characterization? And if not, how would you describe it? And also, the Israeli ambassador to the U.S. have described those comments by Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib as inciteful, and I quote, "[encouraging] terror groups such as Hamas to…carry out attacks against Jews." Do you think that such accusation from a foreign diplomat against a U.S. legislator is acceptable? Thank you.
MR PRICE: So in terms of the statement you mentioned, the tweet you mentioned, I'm not going to comment on that from here. I'm going to leave it to the ambassador, to the Israeli Government to make any comment they see fit on that tweet. And when it comes to the terminology used, that's nothing that we have used before. That's not something that our analysis supports.
QUESTION: Just want to follow up on what you said, and I just want to make sure that I got it correctly. This so-called peace plan, it might have some points that are not constructive. You said you mean the Abraham Accords?
MR PRICE: No, no, no, he was asking about the – at least I took it to mean the so-called – right.
QUESTION: Right. Okay. So then let me ask something on the Abraham Accords. Do you think it might actually be counterproductive in that they make it easier for the Israel Government not to meet the aspirations of Palestinian people for an independent state?
MR PRICE: The normalization agreements, and – is something that we support. It is something that we think is not only good for Israel, it is good for the region. Improved ties between Israel and its Arab neighbors is something that we will continue to support in our diplomacy and engagement, both with the Israelis and Arab states.
QUESTION: But could it be counterproductive because it doesn't actually give any leverage or any benefit to the Palestinians?
MR PRICE: The normalization agreements are one element of our engagement in the region. Of course, we continue to engage in the context of a two-state solution, and I think if you saw Jake Sullivan's readout, if you've seen our recent statements, if you were provided with call transcripts – most of which we read out – you would see our emphasis on a two-state solution. So we can do both. We can work to see improved ties between Israel and its neighbors, just as we work to forge some advance in the prospects of a two-state solution.
QUESTION: And we'd be happy to look at any transcript of any call that you would like to provide.
MR PRICE: Noted, noted. Thank you, yes.
QUESTION: Switch topics?
MR PRICE: Anything else before we switch topics? Kylie?
QUESTION: I was going to Russia.
MR PRICE: Okay. We'll start with you and then we'll go to Kylie, yeah. Please, please.
QUESTION: Iran first.
MR PRICE: Yes.
MR PRICE: Well, as you know, Rob Malley recently returned to Vienna. This is now the fourth round of what we fully expect to be multi-round negotiations. You heard not all that long ago about our assessment of where this is. I think as you heard, it continues to be our analysis that there are significant challenges that remain, and there remains a wide gap in between where the Iranians are and where we think they need to be if they are to agree to resume compliance with the JCPOA.
QUESTION: Have you made any progress in the last two days or three days?
MR PRICE: I don't want to go day by day. I think where we are is what you heard last week, that significant gaps remain.
MR PRICE: Well, I wouldn't want to comment on the actions of another government when it comes to Lebanon. Of course, we do cooperate closely with the French in this context, but our position is that we have long been concerned by developments in Lebanon, the apparent inaction of the country's leadership in the face of multiple ongoing crises. We continue to believe that the Lebanese people deserve a government that will urgently implement the necessary reforms to rescue their deteriorating economy, and we note that Lebanon's political leaders must work to address the country's crises and meet the urgent needs. It's important for them to focus on building a government, not blocking a government, and that remains our line.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MR PRICE: Kylie.
QUESTION: Just on the Colonial pipeline attack, I know the administration has said they are looking for any ties to a nation-state actor, but can you just elaborate a little bit more on the State Department's role in that and the ongoing investigation, what role – if at all – State is playing at this point?
MR PRICE: Well, you mentioned the operative phrase right there, "ongoing investigation," so unfortunately I'm not able to weigh in from here.
QUESTION: Okay. And then will Secretary Blinken be speaking about this at all with Foreign Minister Lavrov? Is this something that would even elevate to the level of his engagement with his Russian counterpart, or are we not there yet?
MR PRICE: Well, I don't – could you expand? When would they do that?
QUESTION: Over the phone or something.
MR PRICE: Oh, okay. I see.
QUESTION: I'm not – not a meeting, I'm just saying engagement.
MR PRICE: Got it, got it. So look, I don't have any calls to preview at the moment, and also I wouldn't want to get ahead of any investigative equities there, so I'll probably decline to weigh in.
Yes, in the back. Yeah.
MR PRICE: Conor, yeah.
QUESTION: Just following up on your topper on Afghanistan, does an attack like this give the administration pause at all about the plans for a U.S. withdrawal and the possibility that violence like this will become more and more frequent?
MR PRICE: Well, you called it a withdrawal. I would contextualize that. It's a military withdrawal. As the President has said, we will be withdrawing our military forces, except those required for the protection of our embassy in Kabul. And that's the other important point: We are going to retain an embassy in Kabul precisely though – so that we can continue to partner and to provide support for not only the Government of Afghanistan, but the people of Afghanistan. The circumstances of the bombing over the weekend, they are not yet crystal clear. As I said before, there are some indications that this may have been attributable to ISIS and not the Taliban. We don't want to get ahead of information as it comes in.
But the President made very clear why he made the decision he did. We went into Afghanistan 20 years ago – just about 20 years ago – with a singular mission, and that was to go after the group that was responsible for the 9/11 attacks and to see to it that Afghanistan could not again be leveraged as a staging ground for attacks on the United States. We were able to achieve those goals. We believe that – and we will do everything we can to support those who have made the important gains over the past 20 years, including women and girls and minorities, in Afghanistan. That will not change even as our troops leave the country, and we will seek to find ways to continue to partner with the Afghan people going forward.
QUESTION: You say you've been able to achieve those goals, but an attack of this scale by a group that looks perhaps like ISIS – doesn't that give you any pause about the source of terror – the terror threat in Afghanistan?
MR PRICE: We have long been concerned about the growth of ISIS in Afghanistan, but these are separate issues. As you know, we have had a military presence in Afghanistan to see to it that the country could not be used as a staging ground to attack the United States, to propel force beyond – well beyond Afghanistan's borders. We have been able to accomplish that goal. We continue to have important humanitarian goals when it comes to Afghanistan. We will continue to carry out and to move forward with those objectives, even as our military withdraws from the country.
QUESTION: And on the – go ahead, Matt.
QUESTION: Well, I was just going to say, by that logic, though, you should never have gotten into Syria or gone back into Iraq to deal with ISIS, because if you remember, ISIS was responsible for a whole bunch of attacks outside of Syria, and you're there. So if now they are coming in – constituting themselves as a force in Afghanistan, I mean, does it really matter if their name isn't al-Qaida?
MR PRICE: No, but – and again, I don't want to go back to 2011. I don't want to go back to 2014. But I will make the broader point —
QUESTION: Well, how about going back to – how about going back two days to the bombing at a school that killed more than 70 people?
MR PRICE: But I will – I – I will make the broader point that when we went into Afghanistan in October of 2001, we went in to take on the group that was responsible for the deadliest terrorist attack on U.S. soil at that time, and, of course, to date.
MR PRICE: ISIS in the context of Iraq and Syria has posed a thread beyond the borders of Iraq and Syria. Ask the people of Paris, ask the people of Brussels. And so that is why —
QUESTION: Exactly. But that's my point in asking you the question.
MR PRICE: No, but – and that – no, I think it's my point. That's why we have —
QUESTION: So we have to wait until ISIS stages an attack on U.S. soil before you – before you even have pause, as Conor was asking?
MR PRICE: No, I was answering your question about why it was important to engage militarily in the use of force in that context, because there was a threat well beyond the region. As we have said, even as we withdraw militarily from Afghanistan, we will have adequate resources in the region and over-the-horizon capacity should threats emerge that require us to leverage the use of force.
QUESTION: On the Taliban, then.
QUESTION: Will the U.S. make I guess accommodations for interpreters and people that worked for the U.S. military and so on? There has been a great deal of anxiety and fear expressed.
MR PRICE: Well, and that is why we have placed such a premium on the special immigrant visa program. It is something that even as, again, we have withdrawn – beginning the process of withdrawing militarily, we have actually added resources to help process the special immigrant visa applicants, knowing that as the United States, we have a special responsibility to those who have helped us along the way, who have helped the U.S. military, who have helped the U.S. Government, oftentimes placing themselves in harm's way. Our commitment to these people, to these individuals will continue, and we are doing all we can to process them as expeditiously as we can.
QUESTION: Can I just —
QUESTION: Can we move to Ethiopia?
QUESTION: Can I just ask that one last one on the Taliban?
MR PRICE: Sure.
QUESTION: You said that you welcomed their three-day announcement of – or announcement of a three-day ceasefire. Has Ambassador Khalilzad been in touch with any of the Taliban leadership? Why – have you put any more pressure on them to announce a full, permanent ceasefire?
MR PRICE: Well, we do welcome this announcement and any move that allows the Afghan people a reprieve from violence. We urge the Taliban to extend the ceasefire and order a significant reduction in violence. We all know that a return to violence would be senseless as well as tragic. We remind the Taliban that engaging in violence will not afford it legitimacy or durability. That has been our point all along. Engaging in serious negotiations to determine a political roadmap for Afghanistan's future that leads to a just and durable settlement will.
A just and durable settlement has been at the center our – of our efforts. It's in no one's interest – we know this – for Afghanistan to once again devolve into civil war. It's not in the Taliban's interests, it's not in the Government of Afghanistan's interests, it's not in the interests of Afghanistan's neighbors, and it's certainly not in the interests of the people of Afghanistan.
In terms of Ambassador Khalilzad, he has returned to the United States, but he had been in the region, as you know, for some time, engaging with the parties from there.
QUESTION: Can I follow up on the question about interpreters and translators? There are tens of thousands of Afghans who are at risk. You've got a bipartisan group of legislators, veterans' organizations, and refugees' organizations saying that there is no sense of urgency about what the administration is doing, that there should be an evacuation before our troops withdraw, and the troop withdrawal is already taking place.
Can you address the lack of urgency that is perceived by all of these groups?
MR PRICE: Well, I would absolutely dispute that characterization. We have been acting with the utmost urgency knowing that, again, we have a special responsibility to the women and men who have, in many cases, placed themselves in harm's way to assist the U.S. Government over the years. We certainly appreciate the interest on the part of Congress. I know that discussions with Congress on this are ongoing in terms of resources or other matters.
What I will say in the interim is that additional resources, including augmenting domestic staff in Washington to process applications, has already been put in place. In addition, we approved a temporary increase in consular staffing at our embassy in Kabul in order to conduct interviews and process visa applications. And we'll continue to do that contingent on the security situation in the country. We will continue to look for ways to speed up this process, to facilitate the processing of – for these brave individuals.
QUESTION: Well, could you say that, at the end of the process of speeding up the applications and the bureaucratic pieces of this, there will be an evacuation?
MR PRICE: Look, I don't want to get ahead of things. Right now, we are focused on processing these claims knowing that, again, we have a special responsibility to those who have placed themselves in harm's way to help the United States.
MR PRICE: Well, that's one of the reasons why he's there. He is there to engage on the crisis in Tigray. He's also there to engage in discussions regarding the GERD, the dam. I don't have any additional details to read out right now, but as – I expect when he returns, we'll be in a position to offer some more detail on his precise itinerary, on those engagements, and the progress that has resulted.
QUESTION: Is cutting off all non-humanitarian assistance programs to Ethiopia on the table to pressure the government to do more to end the crisis?
MR PRICE: Well, as we have said, we – the suffering of the people of Tigray is immense. It's extraordinary. And so as we consider our aid to Ethiopia, we want to make sure that in the first instance, we're not doing anything that would place a further burden on the people of Tigray who are in such humanitarian plight. So we want to make sure that, as we consider any future steps, that we continue to do all we can to support them. As you know, we have – given the current situation in Ethiopia, we have decided not to lift the assistance pause for other programs, including most programs in the security sector.
QUESTION: Is the election – I'm sorry, the final question: Is Ethiopia election on the agenda when he meet with the Ethiopian Government? And does the United States have a position on the June 5 and June 12th elections?
MR PRICE: Well, we, of course, strongly support democratization in Ethiopia, but free, fair, and credible elections in June can happen only with a conducive electoral environment. If that is to be achieved, the Government of Ethiopia must respect the freedom of assembly, the freedom of speech, political participation, and access to internet and information. Political parties, we know, should discourage violence, and state security forces must demonstrate restraint in the use of force and partisan tactics. Ethiopian Government support for political dialogue among key stakeholders on inclusive electoral processes – we believe that to be critical. We're also working closely with international partners to promote community-based dialogue to minimize violence surrounding the elections.
QUESTION: Just two quick things on Afghanistan again: Just wondering if United States plans to continue close air support for Afghan Government forces after the U.S. completes its withdrawal in the absence of a peace deal, which is looking much more likely?
MR PRICE: Well, what I would say is that we have made it very clear that if there are Taliban attacks on American forces as they withdraw, we reserve the right to respond and we certainly will. I would refer you to DOD, though, for operating posture beyond that.
QUESTION: And on the visa thing Andrea asked, you talked about, like, moving expeditiously and all that. When we speak with some, like, advocacy groups about this, they're talking about thousands or sometimes tens of thousands of people. Are you able to give, like, a number, how many interviews have you set up? Do you guys have, like, a target, "We're thinking about issuing this many visas until September 11th"? Or do you think that's, like, cutoff date?
MR PRICE: Well, I would say a couple things. Number one is that we hope to be in a position to add even more resources to this. So I think as we take into account what we're – both what we're doing now, we are also cognizant that we hope to be in a position to do even more, to move even more quickly as we go forward. So this is not going to be a static picture, we hope. And certainly, as we've already added resources to this challenge, we're looking to find ways to add even more to reduce that backlog.
QUESTION: And you think you're going to be able to process these visas past September 11th as well?
MR PRICE: Again, we certainly plan to remain engaged diplomatically with the people of Afghanistan. We plan to retain an embassy on the ground of Kabul and – on the ground in Kabul, and so that is certainly our intention.
QUESTION: Thank you, Mr. Price. Samira Gharaei for Iran International. My question is, of course, about Iran. There are so many unanswered questions. What I want to ask is about the Biden administration's strategy as to the arms embargo on Iran expired in October. Also, what is the strategy for approaching expiration of the ballistic missile restriction based on the UN Resolution 2231? Are you negotiating any of this? Are you modifying any dates or any content of JCPOA?
MR PRICE: Well, I would say a couple things. Number one, what we have talked about in the context of Vienna is the proposition that President Biden, then a candidate at the time, put on the table, and that was the proposition of compliance for compliance. So what we are testing right now in Vienna is the proposition that we can arrive at a compliance-for-compliance deal, meaning that Iran would resume its full participation in the JCPOA, meaning that Tehran would once again be subject to the most stringent verification and monitoring regime ever negotiated.
The fact is that Iran's nuclear program has accelerated in recent years as Iran has distanced itself from the nuclear deal, installing new centrifuges, new technology, shortening that breakout time. We want to ensure that Iran is once again permanently and verifiably prevented from obtaining a nuclear weapon, and we continue to believe that the JCPOA is an appropriate tool for doing that.
But as you've heard us say before, a resumption of so-called compliance for compliance is necessary but not sufficient. We also believe that the nuclear deal should be strengthened, made longer and stronger in the parlance, but we also seek to negotiate what we call follow-on agreements, agreements that would cover precisely the issues that you've talked about: ballistic missiles, support for terrorism and proxies, other issues of regional concern. So that is a longer-term goal for us as well as we focus in these first days on restoring that nuclear deal.
QUESTION: Supporting proxies is a very good example nowadays with what is going on in Israel and Palestine. I want to know, regarding Gaza and all the rest that other people were talking about, how Biden administration is justifying the Iranian terrorism sanction relief with what we are seeing now. Iran – Iranian partners have manpower and money in Gaza. That's undeniable.
MR PRICE: I don't think you're hearing us justifying sanctions relief when it comes to terrorism sanctions. As we have said, when it comes to what we would need to do – well, let me back up. We have a clear idea of what Iran would need to do to resume its compliance with the nuclear deal. It would need to once again subject itself to the most stringent verification and monitoring regime ever negotiated. We also have a sense of what we would need to do, and put very simply, it is to remove sanctions that are inconsistent with the JCPOA.
Now, even if we were to get to a point where both sides would resume compliance and Iran would once again subject itself and permanently and verifiably bar itself from ever obtaining a nuclear weapon, and if we were to remove sanctions that were inconsistent with the JCPOA, we would still vigorously hold to account Iran for its behavior in other areas – its terrorism, its support for proxies, its human rights abuses. And among the policy tools that we would have in doing so are sanctions. There is nothing in the JCPOA that removes sanctions as a policy tool to address those specific areas, and we would continue to hold Tehran to account.
QUESTION: Ned, you keep saying – and you said it twice in two answers in response to her question – that Iran is subject to the most – the, quote, "most stringent monitoring and inspection regime ever negotiated." But that – the JCPOA, in fact, does not allow inspections of some of the most problematic sites that Iran has – military sites. Isn't that correct?
MR PRICE: Matt – and the IAEA can give you a chapter and verse, but if there is a site —
QUESTION: Precisely. But you're the one who keeps saying that this is the most stringent monitoring and inspection regime ever negotiated.
MR PRICE: Well, it is. It is. And —
QUESTION: Yeah, well, it may well be, but it also omits the most problematic areas that are —
MR PRICE: It does not omit anything. That is a myth that unfortunately has persisted from 2015. And unfortunately, there has been some misreporting that I think has allowed that myth to persist. The JCPOA —
QUESTION: You're telling me that right now the IAEA can go into any facility in Iran —
MR PRICE: If there are —
QUESTION: — that it thinks might be being used for nuclear reasons, even if it's a military site?
MR PRICE: If there is an area of concern, the IAEA has recourse for that. I would refer you —
QUESTION: Well, has that recourse ever once been used?
MR PRICE: But you're shifting the goal post now.
QUESTION: No, I'm not. Can they get in right now? Do they have free access to do their most stringent monitoring and inspection at any site that they want to?
MR PRICE: Well, but you raise a good point. Now that Tehran has been allowed to distance itself from the JCPOA, of course the IAEA is more limited. And of course, the director general, Mr. Grossi, has been very engaged with Tehran in seeing to it that they have an accommodation that will last a shorter period. We want to see to it that Tehran is once again subject to the stringent verification and monitoring regime that was in place when the nuclear deal was fully in effect.
QUESTION: What would be some of the other things that the U.S. would like to renegotiate with Iran other than the sunset clause? There was a sunset clause. It talks about 15 years, maybe moving it to 25 years. Now, in reality, are there any other issues that you would like to renegotiate?
MR PRICE: But before we get to how we would want to make the nuclear deal longer and stronger, I think we're focused on testing the proposition of compliance for compliance. So I wouldn't want to go beyond that at this point.
Seeing no more hands – seeing one more hand and the fact that we need to quickly go to the – a bilateral – yes, we'll conclude.
MR PRICE: We don't. Given that there – it's a matter of ongoing investigation, we'll refer to law enforcement authorities and the White House.
Thank you all very much. We'll see you tomorrow.
(The briefing was concluded at 2:42 p.m.)
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