Multiple arrests reported, deeply concerning
MR PRICE: Good afternoon.
MR PRICE: Happy Wednesday.
MR PRICE: I just have one announcement at the top, and then we’ll turn to your questions.
We are deeply concerned by the reported arrests of multiple political figures, business leaders, and journalists in Tunisia in recent days.
We respect the aspirations of the Tunisian people for an independent and transparent judiciary that is able to protect fundamental freedoms for all. We are engaged with the Tunisian Government at all levels in support of human rights and the freedom of expression.
It is a core U.S. principle that people around the world should be able to express themselves without fear or reprisal. All governments have a responsibility to uphold this basic tenet.
QUESTION: Great. That’s it?
MR PRICE: That is it.
QUESTION: Oh, okay. You don’t want to say anything about the trip, because the announcement just came out?
MR PRICE: We just announced it, and my colleague will have an opportunity to speak to it in some detail at 3:30.
MR PRICE: So I will leave that to her.
QUESTION: But that’s two – almost two hours from now – or from now – an hour – hour, hour and 10 minutes from now. So can you be anymore specific about the kinds of meetings that he’ll have in Munich and Germany and Türkiye and in Greece?
MR PRICE: We will walk through all of this in some detail in the next 70 minutes, so I will leave it to my colleague to do that.
MR PRICE: (Laughter.) Go ahead.
QUESTION: Armenia’s foreign minister visited Türkiye in the wake of today’s – in the wake of the earthquake, and Armenia’s help. What is your reaction on its implications particularly for the peace efforts in the region? Overall, how do you view that trip?
MR PRICE: Well, I will leave it to those two governments to speak to their engagement. Our message to both Armenia and Azerbaijan, to the parties themselves, but also to the entire region is the need to find a way to de-escalate tensions to put this back on a path towards a comprehensive and lasting peace. We have been engaged in that effort; we’ve been engaged in that effort bilaterally, we’ve been engaged in that effort multilaterally, and we’ll continue to do everything we can as the United States directly with the parties, through multilateral institutions and groupings, to advance that cause. It is our hope that other countries will send precisely the same message, but I’m not in a position to speak to the messages that other countries are sending.
MR PRICE: Well, we certainly welcome countries around the world stepping up and showing up for the people of Türkiye, for the people of Syria who have been devastated by these massive earthquakes that struck on February 6th. A number of countries have demonstrated a generosity of spirit that will be necessary if we are going to be able to address the full consequences and implications of these massive earthquakes. The United States has attempted to lead by example. So far, we have already contributed or announced $85 million in support from the U.S. Government to the response in Türkiye and in Syria. The Secretary, as Matt just alluded to, will have an opportunity to travel to Türkiye in the coming days, he’ll have an opportunity while there to witness some of what the U.S. Government is doing, and I think he’ll also be in a position to speak to what more the United States will be prepared to do for our Turkish allies and for the people of Syria in the days to come.
QUESTION: A follow-up on this.
MR PRICE: Sure. We’ll, I’ll come right back to you.
QUESTION: Yeah, on the earthquake.
QUESTION: Do you have any more specifics?
QUESTION: — Syria. Now, in the area, your ally, the YPG, are they coordinating with the Government of Syria, with the regime of Syria? And are you aware of any coordination between them in terms of search and rescue?
MR PRICE: I’m not in a position to speak to that. You would need to speak to the elements you mentioned regarding their operations. What we are committed to doing is to seeing as much humanitarian assistance flow to the people of Syria as the international community can accomplish. And I think you’ve seen, Said, the United States speak to the contributions that we have made both in terms of funding, in terms of personnel, in terms of equipment that, again, will facilitate a response on both sides of the border, just as over the past 12 years we have supported the people of Syria to the tune of some $15 billion. We’ve led the global response in terms of the humanitarian response in terms of the humanitarian emergency that has transpired in Syria in recent years.
The fact that as soon as those tremors started on February 6th in the earthquake and the aftershocks struck there were aid organizations, independent aid organizations on the ground ready to go to conduct search and rescue operations, to pull people from the rubble, to save as many lives as possible – those groups were there in large part because of the generosity of the American people and the United States Government over the past 12 years. That generosity, that commitment to the people of Syria, we’re just going to double down on that in the coming weeks and months.
QUESTION: And lastly, today the Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi, a close friend of the United States and so on, was in Syria and met with President Bashar al-Assad. Do you have any comment on that? Did they – did Jordan coordinate with you? Did they let you in on what transpired and so forth?
MR PRICE: I don’t have a comment on that. I would of course refer to our Jordanian partners to speak to that. The fact is our focus right now is on the humanitarian needs of the Syrian people. We are encouraging all parties to set aside divides so that we can focus on getting humanitarian support to the people of Syria who need it most.
As we’re focused on the humanitarian imperative, we’re also mindful of the history here. There is not a single entity that has done more to devastate the Syrian people than the Syrian regime. So as we weigh the humanitarian imperatives ahead of us, we’re very mindful of the humanitarian predicament the Syrian people are in. We are also mindful of precisely why they are in such dire humanitarian straits.
QUESTION: And on the drone, the Americans shot a drone over Syria. Can you comment on that?
QUESTION: An Iranian drone.
MR PRICE: I will leave it to my colleagues at the Department of Defense to comment on that. I understand they have issued a statement on that. I will just say it speaks to the fact that we are committed to protecting our people, to protecting our interests. That is a commitment we have and it’s a commitment we’ll make good on.
QUESTION: Thank you, thank you. I have two questions. Thank you, Ned. The United States congressional foreign committee pointed out that China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea as threatening countries to United States, and said that they should be reserved a priority. The former President Bush called North Korea as the axis of evil. However, President Biden did not mention North Korea’s threatening behavior in his State of the Union address this year. Does the Biden administration regard the North Korean issue as less important than Ukraine, China, and Taiwan issues?
MR PRICE: Janne, all of these issues are important. We don’t have the luxury of being able to prioritize. But in some ways, all of these same issues are made of the same cloth. All of these challenges that we face, very different challenges that we face from the PRC, from Iran, from Russia, from the DPRK, in some ways this all boils down to the rules-based order and the role the United States and our partners and allies and the rest of the world has played over the course of some 70 or 80 years now to build a rules-based order, a rules-based order that is codified not in anything the United States wrote or anything that our partners alone wrote, but that’s codified in the UN Charter, that’s codified in international law, that is codified in elements that all of the countries you just cited have signed on to.
So whether it’s Russia’s unprovoked, brutal aggression against Ukraine, whether it is the PRC’s attempts to change or undermine the status quo in the Taiwan Strait, whether it is Iran’s provision of support to malign actors that in turn destabilize the Middle East, or whether it’s the DPRK’s nuclear weapon and ballistic missile programs – all of these in different ways pose a challenge to the rules-based order. Everywhere and anywhere it comes under assault, the United States and countries around the world are standing up for that rules-based order. It’s what we’re doing in Ukraine. It’s what we’re doing in the context of the DPRK too.
QUESTION: Yeah, one more. Regarding the discharge of radioactively contaminated water from the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant in Japan, South Korea and the international community are very concerned about Japan’s decision to release contaminated water into the sea and arising issues. What is the United States position on this?
MR PRICE: We strongly support the nuclear safety and security standards championed by the International Atomic Energy Agency, or the IAEA, and we welcome Japan’s continued openness and close coordination with the international community as Japan prepares to disperse the treated water in a manner that appears to be in line with the internationally accepted nuclear safety standards. We are aware that the Government of Japan examined several options related to the management of the treated water currently being stored on site at the Fukushima – Fukushima installation. In this unique and challenging setting, Japan has weighed the options and effects; it has been transparent about its decision-making in doing so; and it appears to have adopted an approach in accordance with globally accepted nuclear safety and security standards. We look forward to the Government of Japan’s continued coordination with the IAEA as it monitors the effectiveness of this approach.
QUESTION: Yeah. Sorry to change regions. Robert Malley is in Oman, or was – I’m not exactly sure of his schedule. Could you tell us, give us an idea of what kind of meetings he had there, give us a readout on what topics were broached and all that? And unrelated, presumably, but there are reports out there that there have been talks in Oman between Iran and Ukraine at a level – I don’t know at which level, but there are reports out there saying that there was at least one meeting between Iranians and Ukrainians in Oman. Any thought about that?
MR PRICE: To the second part of your question, that’s not one I could comment on; I would, of course, need to leave it to the Omanis or the Ukrainians in this case to speak to any engagements. But more broadly, much more broadly, Oman has played a constructive role across the Middle East and across regions in the past. It has been a bridge-builder between countries that don’t always see eye-to-eye, and that may be putting it too mildly.
Rob tweeted this morning that he had a very good set of meetings in Oman. They discussed a number of issues related to Iran. Rob Malley is, of course, the special envoy for Iran, so you can imagine that all of his engagements will be primarily focused on Iran. To the point I made earlier about the instrumental role Oman has played in helping to solve challenges, helping to bridge divides, Oman did play a very useful and important role in the decision on the part of the Iranian regime to release Baquer Namazi. They were very supportive of part of our longstanding persistent efforts to see all of our wrongful detainees freed and to help effectuate the release from Iranian custody of Baquer Namazi not all that long ago.
So we thank Oman for the role it has played. We continue to consult closely with Oman on challenges near and far, and Rob’s engagement there was a part of that.
QUESTION: Could you – just to follow up on that, could you be a little bit more specific as to what exactly he would be looking for in those talks in Oman vis-à-vis Iran?
MR PRICE: Unfortunately not. Unfortunately not. But again, when Rob travels around the world, Iran is always top of the agenda. It is questions of Iran’s nuclear program, it’s a question of the other challenges that Iran poses to the rules-based order that I mentioned to your colleague a moment ago, it’s a question of the repression and violence that we’re seeing on the part of the Iranian regime towards its own citizens. It’s a question of the provision of support that Iran is providing Russia in the form of UAVs that Russia is in turn using against the people of Ukraine, and it is always a question of our wrongfully detained American citizens. As I mentioned before, Oman has played an important role in helping us to resolve one of those cases recently, and the detention, the wrongful detention of our citizens is always going to be at the top of the agenda.
QUESTION: Ned, I will follow up on your answer to Said. When he asked about the Jordanian foreign minister visit to Damascus, you said we called on everyone to set aside divides. Who you are calling here, the opposition or – and can you please explain and clarify what’s the U.S. position on this – on these visits? They are visiting Damascus also; they are focus – they are saying they are focusing on humanitarian side as well. So do you support that? Do you support the engagement with Assad regime under the humanitarian aspect?
MR PRICE: Here’s what we support: We support countries around the world doing all that they possibly can to get as much humanitarian assistance into Syria as quickly as we collectively can. Here is what we don’t support: We don’t support normalization of relations with the Assad regime. This goes back to the second part of my answer I gave to Said. We are urgently mindful of the humanitarian needs of the Syrian people right now in the wake of the earthquake. We are also mindful of the history, and we are mindful of precisely why the Syrian people are in such a perilous predicament that the earthquake has compounded in just devastating ways. And that’s the responsibility primarily of Bashar al-Assad and his regime.
So we – every time this issue comes up, we continue to convey to our partners around the world that now is not the time for normalization of relations. The only context in which we would encourage normalization or improvement of relations would be were the Assad regime to fulfill the political guidelines, the political roadmap that has been spelled out in UN Security Council Resolution 2254. Until and unless that happens, our approach to the Assad regime itself will remain the same, but I would stress: We want to see humanitarian assistance get to all parts of Syria where it’s needed. It does not matter to us whether it is regime-held areas, whether it’s opposition-held areas. What matters most to us is that humanitarian assistance is getting to those who need it as quickly as that can be managed.
QUESTION: Are you ready to engage with Assad for humanitarian purposes?
MR PRICE: We are ready to engage with partners around the world for humanitarian purposes. We believe we can do that most effectively given the approach that – using the approach that we’ve adopted over the past dozen or so years. Our assistance is continuing to flow, not through the regime but to the independent humanitarian organizations that have been present on the ground for much of the past 12 years, the humanitarian organizations that were able to respond so swiftly to the earthquake precisely because we had been funding them to the tune of billions upon billions of dollars over the course of the past 12 years.
We are not changing our approach to the Assad regime. The humanitarian situation on the ground is our overriding focus on the moment. It is the humanitarian situation that has been made all the more dire and urgent by the earthquake, but it is a humanitarian situation that didn’t emerge on February 6th. It’s a humanitarian situation that in large part has its roots in the Assad regime’s treatment of its own people.
QUESTION: One more question on Iran. Are you exchanging message with the Iranian – messages with the Iranian now regarding the revival of the JCPOA?
MR PRICE: We are not. We are not. The JCPOA has not been our focus for a number of months now. Our focus has been on three things: on making clear to the Iranian regime that it should stop targeting and killing and repressing its own people; making clear to the Iranian regime that it should stop providing security assistance in the form of UAV technology to Russia; and making clear to the Iranian regime the priority we attach to the safe and prompt return of the Americans it has continued to wrongly detain.
MR PRICE: Anything else on this?
MR PRICE: Sure, go ahead.
QUESTION: As you well know, there is five crossing point on the border in Türkiye and Syria, I think, plus Bab al-Hawa. There is a conflicting report about whether all of them are open now or some of them. Did you ask Türkiye or work it out with Türkiye to open all those crossing point?
MR PRICE: So you’re referring to the cross-border transit points that we’ve talked about over the past couple days. The UN has been engaged on this. Martin Griffiths has engaged directly with relevant stakeholders, including relevant stakeholders inside of Syria. As a result of that UN engagement, two additional border checkpoints have been opened in recent days. It’s our understanding that additional convoys of trucks have been able to use at least one of those border checkpoints over the past couple days.
Our focus remains, as I said before, on the need to keep aid flowing into Syria at the – as quickly and as in – with as much aid as we can muster. That’s what matters most to us. It’s – the overriding imperative is to provide assistance to the Syrian people. We also want to ensure that as these border checkpoints are now on the table, that they cannot be turned off on a whim. And we believe that a Security Council resolution codifying the opening of additional border checkpoints in a Security Council resolution would do just that.
In the meantime, we’re going to continue to monitor the flow of this aid to see to it that the parties are living up to their commitments and will continue to consult very closely with our partners on that.
QUESTION: Are you going to go to the Security Council for that, Ned?
MR PRICE: So again, we believe that the most effective means by which to ensure that these checkpoints can’t be shut down by a change of heart on the part of the Assad regime or a whim by any particular actor in Syria is to codify these border crossings in a UN Security Council resolution. That’s something we are discussing with our partners, but in the interim, we’re monitoring the flow of aid across these checkpoints. We hope to see that flow continue. And we’ll decide the next steps in coordination with our partners from there.
QUESTION: Thanks, Ned. Can you confirm reports that the U.S. had been tracking the Chinese spy balloon ever since it took off from the Chinese south coast?
QUESTION: Any reactions to China threatening today that it will take actions against U.S. entities following the latest U.S. sanctions against China following the balloon incident?
MR PRICE: My only point on that would be that the United States is always going to take responsible, prudent, and appropriate actions to protect our people, to protect our interests. That is precisely what this government did in response to the PRC violating our sovereignty, violating international law by sending a high-altitude surveillance balloon deep into the heartland of the United States. This is not the type of program that the United States is conducting over China. The PRC’s attempts to accuse us doing the same, it is just more misinformation, disinformation. It is just not true.
QUESTION: After yesterday’s press briefing, Professor James Cavallaro said that he had deleted his tweets because he was, quote, “addressing concerns the State Department had raised during the vetting process about public expressions of my personal views.” Which of his views did you raise concerns about during the vetting process?
MR PRICE: Look, I’m not going to speak to the vetting process for any particular individual, including this individual. I’ll just make the point – and this is something I know you’re familiar with – his social media commentary covered many issues, not just Israel. I know that’s been the focus of much of the commentary, but it went well beyond that. Some of his commentary, as I alluded to yesterday, was inappropriate, was deeply inappropriate. Once that information came to light, we lost confidence in this individual and his ability to serve as a successful nominee.
QUESTION: Yeah, on this – on this – okay. I’ll come back to it.
MR PRICE: Let me move around to people who haven’t – yes, go ahead.
QUESTION: Thank you, sir. Jahanzaib Ali from ARY News. Former Prime Minister Imran Khan once again took a big U-turn from his statements/allegations. In his recent interview with Voice of America, he said United States was not involved in any conspiracy to oust him from the PM office. It was actually former military chief General Bajwa. So how much relief it is for Biden admin that a man who started the blame game ended it by himself?
MR PRICE: I’m just not going to comment on the evolution of the blame game, as you say. Our – we have spoken clearly about this ever since these erroneous allegations surfaced. We’ve consistently said there is no truth to these allegations. We value our longstanding cooperation with Pakistan. We’ve always viewed a prosperous and democratic Pakistan as critical to our interests. That very much remains unchanged. Whether it has come to an end or not, we don’t let propaganda, misinformation, disinformation get in the way of any bilateral relationship. And that of course includes our valued bilateral relationship with Pakistan. When it comes to various political players inside of Pakistan, we don’t have a position on one political candidate or party versus another. We support, as we do around the world, the peaceful upholding of democratic, constitutional, and legal principles.
QUESTION: Sir, a defense delegation from Pakistan is in – is here in D.C. for military-to-military talks. I just heard that the security cooperation with Pakistan, which was suspended by the Trump administration, is going to be revived soon. Any update or information on that?
MR PRICE: Nothing I’m in a position to share publicly beyond the fact that Pakistan is a valued partner of the United States. It’s valued across many realms. Of course we have a security relationship that is important to us knowing that many of the threats Pakistan faces could well in turn be threats to us. And so we value the work we do together, but I’m just not in a position to offer anything beyond that.
QUESTION: Sir, one last question, please. (Inaudible) BBC documentary. After banning the BBC documentary in India, the Indian Government is now raiding the offices of BBC in New Delhi and Mumbai. Sir, your thoughts? Any concern? Because all of the journalist organization, including National Press Club here in D.C., termed it an assault on the media freedom.
MR PRICE: I spoke to this yesterday, and what I said is that we’re aware of the search of the BBC offices in Delhi by Indian tax authorities. I’m going to have to refer you to the Government of India for any further information about this. The broader point, without speaking specifically to this search, is that we support the importance of free press around the world. We continue to highlight the importance of freedom of expression, freedom of religion or belief as human rights that contribute to the strengthening of democracy here in this country, in India, and in our fellow democracies around the world.
QUESTION: Oh, thank you. The UN yesterday reported that al-Qaida has a new leader, Saif al Adel, and he might be in Iran at the moment. In the past he had been in Iran and released once from an Iranian prison. And also the UN reported that another key member of al-Qaida network, Abu (inaudible) al-Masri, is probably in Afghanistan and he is active again. I would like to ask you on that: Any concern for the United States, since we have an interior minister for the Taliban in Afghanistan who has a 10 million bounty off of FBI on his head right now?
MR PRICE: A couple points. First, on Saif al Adel, our assessment aligns with that of the UN, the assessment that you referenced that Saif al Adel is based in Iran. When it comes to his presence there, offering safe haven to al-Qaida is just another example of Iran’s wide-ranging support for terrorism, its destabilizing activities in the Middle East and beyond.
When it comes to other al-Qaida members, including those who are in Afghanistan, our message is twofold. One, to the Taliban, the Taliban has a commitment. It has made private commitments, it has made public commitments to uphold that it not allow Afghanistan’s territory to be used as a safe haven for those who would plot against the United States. Our second point is that we are prepared, willing, and able to take action ourselves if the Taliban is unable or unwilling to fulfill the commitments that it has made. I think you saw that perhaps most vividly late last year when the United States took out the then-leader of al-Qaida, Ayman al-Zawahiri, who was being provided safe haven in Kabul. We – if we – the President has said we are not going to allow threats to emerge that pose a challenge to the United States, to our partners, to our allies. We’re going to act decisively to disrupt such threats.
QUESTION: One follow-up on that. Sorry. If Saif al Adel is in Iran, what is next for the United States?
MR PRICE: Again, I’m not in a position to go beyond what I’ve said. We have taken action against Iran for its support to terrorist groups, to other malign actors throughout the region. But this would just be another indication of Iran’s provision of support to international terrorist groups, its wide-ranging actions that only serve to destabilize the region. We are and we have been focused on working with our allies and our partners since the very start of this administration to reverse the dynamic that we previously had where the United States was on one side of the table, and it wasn’t Iran on the other side of the table, it was our closest allies and partners, including our European allies on the other side of the table. By engaging in concerted diplomacy, by coordinating closely with our closest allies and partners, we are more effectively able to take on all of the challenges that Iran poses to our interests, to the stability of the region, and to the interests of countries well beyond. We’re going to continue to focused on – focus on the full range of challenges, including its support to terrorist groups.
QUESTION: My question is about NBC’s report on indirect talks between Iran and U.S. on a possible prisoner exchange with UK and Qatar as mediators. First, do you confirm this report? And if yes, how much progress has been made so far?
MR PRICE: I’m not in a position to confirm every detail in the report, but at the core of the report as I read it is an indication that we are committed to doing everything that we can to secure the freedom of the U.S. citizens who continue to be wrongfully detained in Iran, to bring home Siamak Namazi, Emad Shargi, and Morad Tahbaz just as soon as we can. I’m of course not able to get into the details of what it is that may be underway. As you can image, such discussions with allies and partners around the world are sensitive. But what is not sensitive and what I repeat just about every time the question is posed, including earlier today, is that we’ve been unambiguous with the Iranian regime about the priority we attach to seeing the safe and prompt returns of the three Americans that are currently wrongfully held in Iran.
QUESTION: And also about the possible release of Iranian frozen fund – the billions of dollars in South Korea. Can you explain the technicalities and what sort of assurance can you give to the Iranian people that that money is not going to end up in IRGC’s hand?
MR PRICE: That’s just one of the details of the report I’m not in a position to confirm or to speak to. We engage regularly with our partners around the world to thank them for upholding the sanctions regime that is in place and that will be in place until and unless Iran addresses the challenge that its nuclear program poses to the United States, poses to our allies and partners, and poses to the broader region.
QUESTION: And if this happens, is it going to pave the way to the starting of talks or revival of JCPOA – if it happens?
MR PRICE: Without commenting specifically on this, I will just make a broader point. We have demonstrated in other contexts that even when relations are at a low, we are able to pursue our interests and to pursue them effectively. In the midst of Russia’s brutal war against Ukraine, despite everything that we were doing to support and are doing to support our Ukrainian partners and everything we imposed on Russia as a result of its brutal aggression, we’ve been able to bring home Trevor Reed; we’ve been able to bring home Brittney Griner. Now, that is not dispositive. It doesn’t say anything about what may or may not happen with Iran. But bringing Americans home will always be profoundly in our interest. And even when relations are at a low or maybe close to that point, we’re determined to do everything we can to secure the safety and the well-being of our citizens.
QUESTION: Thank you, Ned. Two questions, please, India and China. As far as India is concerned, now there’s an airshow going on in India, largest Asia – largest airshow in Asia, and the U.S. is also among the almost 100 countries, and Air India have now ordered civilian planes – almost 470 of them – and that will create millions of jobs in the U.S. My question is if diplomatically this building is playing any role as far as this airshow is going on?
MR PRICE: I couldn’t speak to this particular airshow, but you did point to the deal that was announced yesterday, including by President Biden. It is something that we’ve heralded. It is an opportunity not only for the American economy and for workers here in this country, but it’s an opportunity for the Indian people as well. It’s an opportunity to deepen what is already a profoundly intertwined relationship based on shared interests, based on shared values, based on our deep economic ties. And with the announcements between Boeing and Air India yesterday, those ties are all the deeper.
The United States is engaged around the world – not just in India but around the world – in what we refer to as commercial diplomacy, seeking to find concrete, tangible, practical ways to deepen our economic ties with countries around the world in a way that benefits the American people back here at home. And I think the agreement that was announced yesterday between Boeing and Air India is a vivid example of that – the number of jobs it creates here, the number of opportunities it creates in India, and the possibility it provides to deepen that partnership even further.
QUESTION: And as for China, a different question a different way. Can you say that China is spying on the United States in a different way, is collecting military or cultural or maybe nuclear or other types of espionage against the United States and hurting the national security of the U.S.? But also, if you can say what is different between these balloons and also TikTok, which we have been hearing about TikTok also related to the Chinese military directly.
QUESTION: Collecting information from the U.S., sir.
MR PRICE: Sure. And you can understand I am not going to offer too much here. But what I will say is that we are acutely aware of the challenges that the PRC poses to the United States, and those challenges come in many different forms – the threat of espionage or the misuse of private or confidential information on the part of private American citizens, American companies, the U.S. Government. Of course that is something we are acutely aware of when it comes to the PRC, and we’re determined to do all we can to counter it.
It is part and parcel of the broader set of challenges that the PRC poses to our interests, to our values, and it’s also why we believe in the importance of maintaining open lines of communication. We are highly attuned to these challenges. We are also highly attuned to the need to do everything we can to see to it that the competition and the potentially conflictual elements between our two countries don’t actually veer into conflict, to see to it that there are guardrails on this relationship. It is what we hope to establish. It is what we seek to do as a responsible country. It is also what the rest of the world expects our two countries to do.
QUESTION: Despite all this, where is the relations between the U.S. and China today?
MR PRICE: The relationship today is where it has been for some time. It is the most complex and consequential relationship we have on the face of the Earth. The same could be true for any number of countries around the world in their own bilateral relationship with China. We are clear-eyed to these areas of competition, and it is competition that we think dominates this bilateral relationship. We’re clear-eyed about the profound challenges and even potentially conflictual elements that divide us as two countries. We’re determined to establish guardrails and to see to it that competition doesn’t veer into conflict, but we’re also aware that there are areas where it would be profoundly in our interest to cooperate and to coordinate with the PRC and perhaps even to deepen that cooperation with the PRC.
It’s also, by the way, what countries around the world expect us to do. They recognize, as we recognize, that as two leading powers in the world, there are challenges that the world simply could not address unless the United States and China were able to find some way to cooperate together. Climate is a prime example of that. It is why we not only want to keep the lines of communication open, but we want to manage this relationship in a way that is responsible for our interests and a way that is prudent for countries around the rest of the world as well.
QUESTION: Thank you, sir.
QUESTION: Thank you. On Serbian National Day, Secretary Blinken sent a strong message of support and empowerment to Serbian people and the Western Balkans at large. He said (inaudible) with news items. So I would like to ask you several questions, but before I go into the statement I would like to ask you, as someone who speaks with Secretary Blinken on a regular basis, can you perhaps give us a window into his thinking and optimism that he expressed in this statement and how this thinking resulted in this statement?
And specifically, I’d like to ask you to talk to the three aspects of the statement Secretary Blinken made. First, he said, “The United States values the strategic partnership we enjoy with Serbia.” So what does he mean by strategic partnership, if you can unpack this a little bit?
The other interesting news item is that he said that the leaders of Serbia and Kosovo will need to have – will need to make difficult compromises, but the rewards for the people of the region will be vast. So can you speak a little bit about the rewards Secretary Blinken has in mind?
And finally, he revealed that the two countries recently signed a memorandum of understanding to create liaison positions for Serbian diplomats within the U.S. Department of State. So can you share more about that initiative? Are they going to be based here? How is this going to work?
So, I mean, lots of questions, but I feel like this is a super newsworthy statement that came out today.
MR PRICE: Sure. Yes, so to the first part of your question, Secretary Blinken is to his core optimistic. I think you have to be optimistic if you’re going to be in the business of diplomacy. It’s what motivates, I think, many of us, knowing that, through U.S. engagement, through American leadership on the world stage, we have an opportunity to change the world for the better, to leave the world a little bit more secure, a little bit more stable, more prosperous, and filled with economic opportunity for people in this country but also for people around the world. And so I think you see that optimism reflected in the statement that he issued today.
In terms of our relationship with Serbia, we do consider it a strategic partnership because it is multifaceted. We have a longstanding relationship with Serbia. We’ve been with Serbia over the course of decades now, standing by its side as a partner in the face of various challenges that have appeared in those decades, whether those are security issues, whether they’re political issues, economic issues, and also the people-to-people ties, the ties between the American people and the people of Serbia and the broader region.
As you know, the Secretary has been personally invested in many of these issues in the region, and the tensions between Kosovo and Serbia is something that does have his full attention. This department has been engaged on it. The Secretary himself spoke to President Vučić on February 1st to thank him for the constructive engagement that we had seen from the president and his team in the context of the EU dialogue to find a way out of these tensions.
And the Secretary has consistently, as have Gabe Escobar, our deputy assistant secretary who oversees many of these issues – they’ve underlined, to your question, the opportunities that could come with a resolution to some of these very complex and thorny issues. There are opportunities for the people of Serbia, opportunities for the people of Kosovo, opportunities to leave the broader Western Balkan region a bit more stable, a bit more secure, building – in some cases literally – roads and bridges between countries and people in the region. That is very much what we’re seeking to do in this case, but it’s what we’re seeking to do really with our diplomacy across regions, to foster more interconnectedness, and through interconnectedness building understanding, building partnership, building security, stability, and prosperity.
QUESTION: And the program, the memorandum of understanding he mentioned, the liaison positions?
MR PRICE: If we have any more details to share on that, we’ll be able to provide that.
QUESTION: Thank you. I want to follow up on the Chinese balloon issue. Do you think it’s possible that Chinese balloon flew off course and China didn’t intend to penetrate the U.S. continental and – with the surveillance balloon? So does the U.S. assess this possibility?
MR PRICE: In some ways, it doesn’t matter. And I’m not going to opine on what the PRC may or may not have intended, but in key ways it doesn’t matter. It’s completely immaterial. It’s immaterial because this was a high-altitude surveillance balloon that did violate our airspace; it did violate international law. And that’s why the President did order the action that was undertaken a number of days ago now to disrupt any potential threat that this high-altitude surveillance balloon posed.
QUESTION: Can I go to the Palestinian issue?
QUESTION: Yeah, but before that I – on the James Cavallaro issue, I mean, he had a string of tweets – I think you probably saw them, like 11 of them and so on – explaining that basically it was because he criticized Israel. That was really his undoing. And in fact, last month Sarah Margon was also almost forced out, decided to withdraw her name because there’s a lot of pressure – there was a lot of pressure on her because she criticized Israel. And my question to you: Is criticizing Israel a career buster?
MR PRICE: Said, I would hesitate to compare these two cases. These two cases are not at all alike. Sarah Margon was a highly qualified nominee, someone we very much wanted to see confirmed, someone we very much looked forward to welcoming to our Bureau of Democracy, Rights, and Labor. She’s a distinguished leader with much experience in the field, and it was her decision to withdraw her name from consideration before the Senate. Of course we’re going to respect her wishes even if we had wished that the process would have culminated with Sarah Margon as an assistant secretary in this building.
To your broader question, look, we always respect American citizens’ bedrock First Amendment rights to freedom of speech, to freedom of expression. But that doesn’t mean that we’ll hesitate in any way to condemn speech or expression that unfairly singles out or seeks to delegitimize Israel. In this case – and I know the coverage has focused on this one aspect – the commentary from this individual spanned a wide array of topics, and I’m sure you’ve seen that if you’ve seen some of the coverage.
QUESTION: Yes, I’ve seen – yeah. Okay, just to follow up that Israeli soldiers were filmed yesterday assaulting Palestinian activist Issa Amro. Now, he – doesn’t it bother you that he gets beaten almost once a week because he’s just showing people what’s going on, what – he takes on journalists and so on. He’s a man who’s never raised his arm or threw a stone and so on. What’s your comment on that?
MR PRICE: It’s concerning, Said. Anyone who saw that video couldn’t walk away unconcerned. Issa Amro is someone who met with the Secretary in the Secretary’s first travel to the West Bank in 2021. He’s someone who I know. He actually showed me around the streets of Hebron. We’ve seen the reports. We’ve also seen the reports that the IDF recognized that the soldier involved violated its code of conduct and disciplined him subsequently. When such cases occur, we believe there should be timely and appropriate accountability.
QUESTION: And lastly, there was a meeting between, of course, the Secretary of State and the UAE foreign minister yesterday, and apparently, according to a statement, they discussed the Palestinian issue and I think maybe the settlement issue. My question to you that, again, the – Channel 13, the Israeli Channel 13, insists that you are able to actually press upon the Israelis not to do the 14 proposed outposts and actually draw them down to nine. Is that – can you confirm that?
MR PRICE: I’m not in a position to confirm that report. When it comes to our Israeli partners, we’ve had a single message to them. It’s precisely the message that you all heard from the Secretary on Monday, that you heard from our Quint – our so-called Quint partners – the following day, and it is a message of deep concern over the announcement of outpost legalizations and additional settlements. We believe these are obstacles to peace. What we seek to do is to preserve the prospects for and the viability of a negotiated two-state solution between Israelis and Palestinians. We believe that this announcement, the announcement from earlier this week – just as previous announcements have – set back that cause rather than advance it.
We are going to look for ways to support the parties as they take steps that keep the viability of a two-state solution on the books and that, in tangible ways, seek to improve the lives of the Palestinian people in the meantime. We have focused on that from the very start of this administration, undertaking the task of reinitiating a relationship with the Palestinian Authority and the Palestinian people and subsequently providing to the Palestinian people nearly a billion dollars, some – more than $900 million in humanitarian assistance as a means by which to tangibly improve their lives, but also to, we hope, instill a bit of hope, perhaps a bit of optimism that wasn’t there before.
We know that within the West Bank, within Gaza, too many Palestinians are living without hope, without something better on the horizon. It’s our goal to ensure that a better reality – a two-state solution, in this case – remains on the horizon, and to do everything we can in the interim to support the humanitarian needs and to support their welfare and their well-being.
QUESTION: Thank you so much. Moving to Russia and Caucasus, if you don’t mind, you probably have seen Lavrov’s statements today. Basically he was previewing his renewed foreign policy concept and targeting, as he’s put it, a “Western monopoly,” quote/unquote, on international standards or way of living, he says. How did you interpret that?
MR PRICE: Alex, these are not what the West or what the United States and our allies and partners have constructed. As I mentioned to your colleague a moment ago, what Foreign Minister Lavrov is referring to is the rules-based order, and these are rules that were written by the international community in the aftermath of the Second World War in an attempt to prevent and to forestall a third world war. These are concepts that were written into the UN Charter, that were written into the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, that were written into international law, and that all member-states of the UN – and last time I checked, Russia still is a member-state of the UN – that all member-states subscribe to, that all member-states pledge to uphold, that all member-states are bound to uphold. So any effort to paint these as the West imposing its rules or its views on any other country is nothing more than just more hot air, just more disinformation from our Russian counterparts, who have had no shortage of it in recent months.
QUESTION: Real life consequences – we have seen how Russian officials recently publicly going after several countries, like Armenia – only is latest example. Russian parliamentary speaker said do not go towards the Western institutions. So do you see this as part of Russia’s anti-West foreign policy strategy?
MR PRICE: We see it as Russia attempting to impose its will on sovereign countries. We see it most vividly on Ukraine, where Russia has sent its forces, with all of their brutality, in an effort to impose its will over the people of Ukraine, to remove the government of Ukraine, and to deprive Ukraine of its sovereignty, its independence, its democracy. We’ve seen Russia act that way in less acute – using less acute tactics in the context of countries throughout the region.
But again, the UN Charter, international law, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – all of these things uphold the concept of sovereignty, or independence, of territorial integrity. And it is precisely those elements that Russia is violating in the case of Ukraine, and in some cases violating in the case of countries well beyond Ukraine.
QUESTION: And my final question is on Georgia, if you don’t mind. I’ve seen new legislation that was introduced to parliament in Georgia – so targeting media and those who particularly receive more than 20 percent of its income from foreign sources. And they are demanding them to register as foreign agents. But also, some Georgians will argue that it is some similarity with American FARA, foreign registration act. I was just wondering, how do you view that? And also, do you have any concern on your end in terms of the backsliding of democracy in Georgia?
MR PRICE: We do have concerns. We have deep concerns. We are aware of the draft legislation in the Georgian parliament. We are deeply concerned about its implications for freedom of speech and democracy in Georgia. We’ve expressed those deep concerns directly to our interlocutors in the Government of Georgia. The proposed law would stigmatize and silence independent voices and citizens of Georgia who are dedicated to building a better future for their own communities. We believe such a law could potentially undermine Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic integration.
To your question about erroneous comparisons to our laws, including FARA, these statements that the Georgian draft law is based on FARA – these statements are patently false. And in fact, this draft legislation appears to be based on similar Russian and Hungarian legislation, not on FARA or any other American legislation.
QUESTION: A couple of questions on Russia. Thank you. Yesterday you said that the U.S. will pursue accountability for Russia’s war crime in Ukraine. Does the U.S. stand ready to do the same with respect to the war crimes committed by the Ukrainian armed forces against Russian prisoners of war? Last week we all saw this video of execution of Russian prisoners of war. And my second question is about the UN. Russia requested a UN Security Council meeting on February 22nd to discuss the blast of the Nord Stream pipelines. Does the U.S. consider that the UN should play a more active role in the investigation? And are you ready for this meeting?
MR PRICE: To the first part of your question, there has been extensive documentation of the war crimes committed in Ukraine, and every single objective study shows overwhelmingly that Russia’s officials, that Russian service members, are responsible for the overwhelming number of war crimes and potential war crimes that have been committed in Ukraine. We are dedicated to pursuing accountability for war crimes, and I’ll be clear that a war crime is a war crime. It doesn’t matter who commits it. To the extent that there are allegations that Russian forces or Russian individuals have been subjected to war crimes, we would call for an investigation. And I’m aware that our Ukrainian partners have spoken to their own investigations into such allegations.
But there’s no denying the massive scale of criminality, of war crimes, that Russia’s forces have committed on sovereign Ukrainian soil, and we are prepared – and in fact we are – supporting every potential venue to hold accountable those who are directly responsible for committing those war crimes on Ukrainian soil and those who may have given those orders as well.
When it comes to the UN Security Council, I’m not in a position to speak to any forthcoming session of the Security Council. But I will repeat what we’ve said before, what we have heard from Moscow, what we’ve heard from the Kremlin, is nothing but a lie. It is pure disinformation that the United States was behind what transpired with Nord Stream 2 – the Nord Stream blasts. This is the message that we have conveyed consistently in the face of these lies that have been parroted by Russian officials, and we’ll convey them again if we need to in any forum.
QUESTION: Do you think that UN should play any role in the investigation?
MR PRICE: These blasts did not occur on U.S. soil. I would leave it to our partners on whose territory, on whose soil, as it were, these blasts occurred to speak to the appropriate investigative mechanisms.
QUESTION: I want to follow up on the question about Said al Adel, al-Qaida leader in Iran. Are you ready to go after him on Iranian soil? You went after every al-Qaida leader, and you announced the operation after that. Are you ready to do that on Iranian soil?
MR PRICE: We have a commitment that we are prepared to act, and to act decisively, if our people, if our interests come under threat from terrorist groups. We’ve demonstrated that before in any number of cases, but I’m just not in a position to preview or to speak to the specifics of that.
QUESTION: The U.S. chargé d’affaires for Afghanistan tweeted this morning quote, “Are Afghans familiar with #blackgirlmagic and the movement inspired? Do Afghan girls need a similar movement? What about Afghan women? Teach me, ready to learn.”
Is it appropriate for a U.S. diplomat to ask women and girls who are being systemically denied an education to teach her about a hashtag?
MR PRICE: I became aware of those tweets just before I came down here. Those were tweets that were, as I understand it, drafted by the chargé herself. Those were not tweets that were cleared with the Department of State here in Washington. I will say that there’s sentiments in her tweet thread that one can appreciate. I think the messaging in this context is rather inappropriate and ineffective, and it is not messaging that we would issue from here.