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Senior State Department Official on Middle East Issues

MODERATOR:  Go ahead, Matt.

QUESTION:  Can I ask two really brief ones?  First of all on Iraq and your trip to Erbil, why did you not go to Baghdad?  Because it’s given rise to speculation, as all of this always does, that you guys are, like, about to endorse Kurdistan and you’re going to – the tripartite – old Biden idea.

MODERATOR:  I’m just curious, how many times have you had to ask that question in the 18 years you’ve been covering Iraq?

QUESTION:  Over the course of the – yeah, quite a few times.

MODERATOR:  Yeah, I bet.

QUESTION:  Anyway – sorry.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL:  Anyway.  Matt, so —

QUESTION:  So going there and meeting with the Kurds but not meeting with the Iraqi Central Government leads to speculation.  What can you do to either quell that or say, yeah, that’s what we’re trying to do?

And then second, I have another one on Iran, but it —

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL:  Okay.  Well, let me answer the first one.  It is our policy that we support and continue to support the Unified Government of Iraq.  But that said, I went to Erbil because, as you know, the security situation in Baghdad is still pretty intense.  The threat level is very high, and I did not want my visit to place more of a burden in terms of security on – at our embassy in Baghdad or on our security personnel.  I felt I could go to Erbil, where the Kurdish Regional Government provides outstanding protection for American diplomatic facilities and personnel.

QUESTION:  Okay.  And then – all right.  And just on Iran, and you mentioned the President’s tweet in Farsi.  How concerned are you, if at all, that if you guys are seen to be cheerleading, for lack of a better word, or actively overtly supporting this, that that will actually hurt rather than help the goals of the protesters for a change in the regime’s behavior?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL:  So I do not believe in the quote/unquote, “kiss of death.”  Right?  The United States Government has been supporting the legitimate demands.  We have been supporting the legitimate demands of protesters in Iran, in Iraq, and Lebanon since – well, for years, but in this round of protests, since October.

So no, I don’t think this risks a setback or diminishment of the numbers or the fervor that these people have demonstrated to date.  The threat is really that the government in Tehran has been brutally repressing the protesters and, as has been the case in Iraq, and this has impact over time on the number of people who come out oftentimes.

MODERATOR:  I don’t normally add into these, but I do want to actually because I was doing some Arabic media this morning and was asked that question.  And we think, obviously, we have a very big platform here in the United States to shine a light on things, and we were rightfully very concerned when we saw hundreds if not – the numbers are going all over the place, but up to 1,500 killed, at least 10,000 people jailed, the internet turned off, that sort of thing.

So for us and the President and the secretaries in all of our collective messaging over this weekend, we wanted to make sure that we were doing what we can to shine the very big, bright light that we have on these protesters.  And part of it is also to make sure that the regime knows that we’re watching and that the world is watching if they – in sort of a preventative measure to try to, not get them to kill and jail their people who are peacefully protesting.

So if we can save one Iranian life from being killed by shining a light on what their government has done in past protests, then we think it’s worth it.  And then I’ll leave everything else to [Senior State Department Official].

Christina.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL:  Yeah.  No, no, thank you.

QUESTION:  You mentioned security in Baghdad.  Speaking of, before the Soleimani strike, were you aware of a specific threat to the embassy in Baghdad – this is your region – or the embassy in Lebanon, or any of these embassies in the region?  And if so, why wasn’t a notice sent out to OSAC?  And legally, if there’s a specific actionable threat to the embassy, doesn’t the staff have to be notified?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL:  Yeah, I mean – well, as you know, there had been frequent threats on the embassy in Baghdad, and we – these were conveyed to the embassy in Baghdad through normal procedures but also through officials going out and talking to our people at the embassies.

I have seen threat information against U.S. embassies across the region.  This is –

QUESTION:  Did you see the specific to the four that were referenced?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL:  I’m not going to get into – I’m not going to get into that.  But what – so what was the second part of that question?

QUESTION:  My understanding, and again I’m newer-ish at this than people in this room, but my understanding is when there is some sort of actionable specific threat to the embassy staff and the security profile is heightened, legally that has be notified.  There has to be a notification sent out.  It goes on OSAC or, like, DS has to tell the people, like, by the way, you’re at risk.  And that didn’t —

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL:  When there’s a —

QUESTION:  That didn’t go out.

MODERATOR:  That’s not accurate.  We can get you – he won’t have everything at his disposal, but what you just said isn’t accurate, so I want to make sure to clarify that.  So we’ll follow up with that.  Also, I mean, several of you – I remember Nick was on the trip where we ended up going to Baghdad because of security threats.  What trip are we – is Nick in here?

QUESTION:  I was on that.

QUESTION:  I was on that.

MODERATOR:  You were on the trip, too.  Yeah, several of you.  I remember –

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL:  Yeah, that was the first time that the Secretary came out and said – well, not the first time, but he said in Baghdad that the Government of Iran will be held responsible for the actions of Iranian proxy terrorist organizations in Iraq.

MODERATOR:  And as you guys know, we went on ordered departure over the summer as well because of threats to the embassy.  So in terms of cataloging —

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL:  This is now more than six months.

MODERATOR:  Yeah.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL:  Right.  This is about eight months now since we’ve gone on ordered departure.

QUESTION:  No, I understand that.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL:  And we went on ordered departure because of the threat, right?

MODERATOR:  I think we had a briefing with [Official] as well where we actually – yeah.

QUESTION:  May 7th, 2019.

MODERATOR:  Look at that.

QUESTION:  A date I will never forget.

QUESTION:  But I’m talking about a separate, specific threat before the Soleimani attack to four embassies in the region.  If that was the case, why weren’t those four embassies notified?

MODERATOR:  It’s just not – we’ll get you the details of the notifications.  I just think that’s – yeah.  Let us just get the details because I think that you might be confusing a couple different issues, and so I’d rather just clarify it with the facts of all the different – there’s more than one type of notification.  And anyway, we should get somebody from DS to clarify that with her.

QUESTION:  So you’re saying there were notifications?

MODERATOR:  Yes.  Yeah.

QUESTION:  Hi.

MODERATOR:  What’s your name?

QUESTION:  Katrina Manson with the Financial Times.

MODERATOR:  Oh, that’s right.  I’m sorry.  Hi, Katrina.  I haven’t seen you in a while.

QUESTION:  That’s fine.  I know.  Thank you so much for having me.

MODERATOR:  Yeah.

QUESTION:  I was hoping I could ask in your discussions with Halbousi, did you get any sense that he felt threatened by pro-Iranian elements?  And was there any suggestion to Iraqi figures that the U.S. would withhold or freeze the funds that it holds with the Fed?  And can you give us a sense of how much money that is and anything else you’re trying with the Iraqis to make sure that the U.S. troops can stay?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL:  Yeah.  Listen, I’m not going to get into what Halbousi told me or not.  Anybody – as you know, the KH issued a threat, a very public threat, before the COR vote saying that who didn’t vote for – whoever didn’t vote for this would have – would be doxed; their names, their home addresses, the members of their family would be put up, posted on the internet, and therefore – and they would be subject to reprisal, right?

And in their case, we know what reprisal means.  It is a very serious threat.  They kill people.  This is what this organization does.

And so the speaker of the parliament obviously stood by his convictions.  He went in, but it’s no secret that he wasn’t a great supporter of the vote.  He wasn’t alone, but a lot of people voted their – voted – or let’s say didn’t vote per their conscience, right, didn’t show up.  You had an enormous number of Iraqis who refused to vote, and this was actually unprecedented that it was the first time, I think, in modern Iraqi history that one particular religious group took a vote without regard to other particular groups.  So this was a pretty big deal.  But yeah, I didn’t talk to the speaker about it, but it would not be surprising if he felt under a great deal of threat.

As for the freeze of the money, there was – you’re talking about the Wall Street Journal story?  Nobody has been threatened.  There – the United States Government is not threatening the Government of Iraq with withholding the Treasury transfers.  But as you heard – actually, I think Speaker Halbousi said it on a hot mike, right, at the end of the COR vote – he pointed out all the things that the United States does.  It’s not just that we over the past four months have provided $5.4 billion to the Iraqi army.  It’s not just that we have done 4,000 operations against ISIS in 2019, right?  Among other things, we do these Treasury – the Fed transfers, and he said all these things could be at risk, what the United States does.  So we have not come and threatened anybody.

QUESTION:  Can you give a sense of how much money is at stake?  The Wall Street Journal talked about 3 billion, but I understand that a lot more is deposited at the U.S. Federal Reserve.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL:  Well, I’d really rather not get into the dollar figures.

MODERATOR:  Nick.

QUESTION:  Thanks for doing this.  Two questions, one on strategy.  The President lightly criticized his national security advisor in talking about whether the current maximum pressure campaign would lead to negotiations, suggesting that the President himself  wasn’t sure he cared about negotiations.  Can you just reiterate: Is the goal of the maximum pressure campaign to create a new deal and to get Iran to the negotiating table?

And to go back to Christina’s question, just ask a little more generally – hopefully you can engage on this version, which is that – can you talk at all about a heightened sense of alert among embassies in the region in the days leading up to Soleimani’s death?

MODERATOR:  Your question makes me think – I will work on trying to arrange somebody from DS maybe coming and giving a —

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL:  We could get Mike Evanoff to come in?

MODERATOR:  Just to even explain writ large how this works.

QUESTION:  Sure.

MODERATOR:  And I know, I’ve been getting an education on it the past few days, and it’s so.  I will – I’ll take that as one of my takeaways to try to get one of those guys.

QUESTION:  That would be great.

MODERATOR:  We don’t have Ruben here.  He’s not feeling well.  I think Cale – did Cale leave?

QUESTION:  No, he’s (inaudible).

MODERATOR:  Oh, okay.

QUESTION:  He’s hiding.

MODERATOR:  (Laughter.)  That’s Cale’s job.  Anyway, that’ll be my takeaway because I think that might be better to help – to help.  Anyway, I’m sorry.  Go ahead.  Do you want to talk about any of the – as it – just as it – quickly, as it relates holistically to the strategy, it’s to get the regime to behave like a normal nation.  And so I think the President expressed obviously last night that he will continue the strategic restraint that he’s shown over the past year and a half that we exited the JCPOA.  We think – the administration believes that we’ve restored military deterrence, but we’re also – the other legs of the three-legged stool are diplomatic isolation, economic coercion, sanctions, that we obviously work quite closely on with Treasury.  You saw that announcement.

So them behaving like a normal nation can come in several forms.

QUESTION:  So can you —

MODERATOR:  It’s really up to the regime in Iran to determine their future.

QUESTION:  Can we not go back to the three-legged stool?  I have very uncomfortable memories of Dennis Ross.  (Laughter.)

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL:  Listen —

MODERATOR:  That’s not a bad person to be compared to.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL:  About the heightened – yeah, listen.

MODERATOR:  That’s right.  I forgot about that.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL:  About the heightened security — .

MODERATOR:  Okay, I’ll come up with a new analogy.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL:  Yeah, I mean —

MODERATOR:  Just for Matt Lee.  We’ll change U.S. Government communications.  (Laughter.)

QUESTION:  Thank you.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL:  Yeah, over the past seven months there has been a clear trajectory of escalation from the Iranians.  I started here in June.  We had the Fujairah scuttled boats, then we had kidnapped boats that were brought to an Iranian harbor, then we had increased operational tempo of the Houthis that are Iranian proxies, then we had more frequent targeting of American military bases, American – sorry, American military presence on Iraqi bases in Iraq, the drone shoot-down, two drones in Yemen, one in international airspace, right, in the Gulf by Iran, and then finally Abqaiq, and then the killing of an American.

So with this increased escalation from the Iranians, yes, there was a sense that Americans or American presence in the region was under heightened threat.  Yes.

MODERATOR:  But one thing I will – well, I’ll bring Brian back, obviously.  I’m trying to bring – the Secretary is traveling right now.  I’ve tried to bring him down as much as possible.  So I definitely want you guys – you can ask whatever you want.  I hope you can take advantage of the – of the particular expertise he has and the trip he has, but we will – I’ll try to get Brian here as soon as possible.  I know the Iran questions are going to be continuing, but [Senior State Department Official] is a fantastic subject matter expert on other things in the NEA as well.

Go ahead, Carol.

QUESTION:  I have a small-bore question to ask.  With Moustafa Kassem, are – is the United States going to do anything to penalize the Sisi government for the – for his death?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL:  Still premature to talk about that, but it’s – yes, we are really concerned about this and we’re going to – we’re going to talk about it, about what we’re going to do.  We haven’t decided yet.

QUESTION:  How many other Americans remain in prison in Egypt, do you know?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL:  In Egypt?  I’ll get back to you on the number.

MODERATOR:  We’ll follow up (inaudible).

Rich.

QUESTION:  Thanks, [Moderator].  The – we’ve heard from the administration that after the Soleimani strike that deterrence had been restored, and this is a response to the increased tempo of what the administration had seen – attacks against the tanker and the Saudi facility over the last few months.  Do you think when we look back six to seven months from now that that – we will see a reduction in that tempo, that deterrence has been restored, that in a way what we’ve been seeing over the last few months, there’ll be a change from that tempo?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL:  Well, listen, I don’t want to go into hypotheticals.  What I’ll say is that we still have concerns about Iranian proxy groups in the region.  Right.  What we saw was a retaliatory strike against Ayn al-Asad, and this was no doubt serious and quite dangerous.  We would hope based on the President’s demonstration, the administration’s demonstration of how it is going to respond – that is, that the United States has made clear that we plan on being disproportional in our response to Iranian aggression – that hopefully this will result in the deterrence that we’re looking for.  The ball is in Iran’s court.

MODERATOR:  Yeah, I would just – the other thing I would add is the – clearly the President, whether it’s with the Shia, Iranian-backed Shia militia attacks that ended up killing American – an American, or if you even look to Afghanistan – what was it, September, before we had that deal, when an American was killed and then the President ceased the talks with the Taliban at that time, this President clearly shows that killing and harming Americans is something that he’s going to respond to.

Let’s do Michel, one more.

QUESTION:  Yeah, I have three questions, if possible.  One —

MODERATOR:  Two more from Michel.

QUESTION:  On Iraq, Senator Marco Rubio was talking about the possibility of recognizing Kurdistan region as an independent area.

MODERATOR:  See what you started?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL:  As a tweet, right?

QUESTION:  Yeah, it was a tweet a couple days ago.  Are you considering this option?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL:  The United States supports a unified Iraq.

QUESTION:  Okay.  Libya – any comment on the mediation, Russian mediation between the parties and the ceasefire that was declared?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL:  Well, listen, I think the – it’s a positive development that there has been declared a ceasefire.  I think it’s tenuous and it remains to be seen whether it will hold.  But it would be a positive development if we could get a ceasefire to remain in place and proceed with some sort of meaningful negotiation.  We have been committed to the Berlin process.  There is a conference coming up on that regard.  It would be quite productive, I think, if we could have a ceasefire in place when that conference takes place later this month.

QUESTION:  And my last one, on Lebanon —

MODERATOR:  That’s three, Michel.

QUESTION:  I asked for three.

MODERATOR:  (Laughter.)  No you didn’t, you said two.  Go ahead.

QUESTION:  Lebanon.  Any – the economic, financial, and the humanitarian situation is deteriorating.  The government is still – the formation of the new government is still – it’s still there.  Any mediation, any American pressure on the parties to move forward with the formation of the new government?  Do you have anything on this?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL:  It’s striking that there appears to be a lack of urgency on the part of Lebanese to form a government to save their economy.

QUESTION:  Will you put any pressure on the parties to —

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL:  We are encouraging them to form a government that is committed to reform.  We continue to encourage them to do so.

MODERATOR:  All right.  (Inaudible) on that note.  Thank you.  I’m going to hang around with you guys for a second.

QUESTION:  Hold on.  Do you have any thoughts on Sultan Qaboos and what the – any —

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL:  Yeah, no, I was listening to – it was a loss of a remarkable leader who had tremendous mediation authority and moral authority throughout the regime, a highly respected and gifted ruler.

QUESTION:  But you guys weren’t using him nearly in the way that the previous administration – or not using him, but —

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL:  No, but listen, we still – he still was, I think, a great friend to the United States undoubtedly.

QUESTION:  Do you know his successor?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL:  Haitham?  I’m not – I don’t —

QUESTION:  Not personally, but —

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL:  Yeah, no, yeah, we know who he is, yes.

QUESTION:  And you’re not – you think that he’s sincere in carrying on —

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL:  I am sure that I am looking forward to the United States continuing its strong bilateral relationship and strategic relations with Oman.

MODERATOR:  Okay, no more sneak questions.  The end.

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