U.S. Department of State Press Briefing - January 2, 2018 (Excerpts)

January 2, 2018

Weapon Program: 

  • Nuclear

MS NAUERT: Hi, everybody. Happy New Year.

QUESTION: Happy New Year.

MS NAUERT: How’s everyone today?

QUESTION: Good.

[...]

QUESTION: Let’s start with Iran.

MS NAUERT: Okay.

QUESTION: The ambassador to the United Nations just gave a press conference at which she said that the U.S. is calling for an emergency meeting of the Security Council on the situation there. Can you explain exactly why? What do you – what would you like the Security Council to do or to say about the situation in Iran?

MS NAUERT: Well, I think that many nations around the world are watching what is happening in Iran and watching it very closely. The United States is. Certainly our allies and partners are – France, Germany, the UK. You’ve heard a lot from them in recent days expressing their concerns, just like we’ve expressed our concerns about a crackdown on human rights. We are keeping an eye closely on that. That includes arresting people for peacefully protesting.

So that is an area of major concern of ours, and I think that that is a concern of the United Nations. I don’t want to get ahead of what might happen at the United Nations and what Ambassador Haley and her counterparts will be calling for, but I think it’s an issue that the world shares a concern about, and that is the ability for people to be able to speak openly and freely without fear of imprisonment.

In addition to that, the government had claimed that the JCPOA was basically the elixir, the fix for its economic problems. We have not seen that fix made. We have seen the economy stagnant there; in some situations, for some families, it has become worse than it was before. Many people there will complain that their paychecks have not been made, that they’ve not gotten a paycheck, that their paychecks are late – all of that. So people have a right to be concerned about the government’s treatment of its citizenry, and so they’re speaking out, and they’re brave in doing so.

QUESTION: Okay. Well, then never mind about the UN, if you’re going to leave that to them as to what actually the Security Council will do. What is this administration in Washington – what is this administration doing?

MS NAUERT: Well, we’re watching the situation very closely. We are expressing our support, as we have many occasions before, for the Iranian people, understanding that it is brave, that they are courageous in speaking out and speaking out publicly and forcefully. And these are folks who are the working class. You’re seeing this in many towns across the country, people going out at their own risk, at their own peril, speaking out about their concerns. And as Americans, we can all support the right of a freedom of expression, something we support, and they – we are watching them do just that.

We’re talking with our allies as they express their very same concerns about the situation there.

QUESTION: When you say that you’re watching it very closely, monitoring, as everyone knows quite well, the U.S. doesn’t have an embassy in Iran, it doesn’t have any – at least no publicly known presence there. So how exactly are you following the situation? News, social media?

MS NAUERT: Well, Matt, this would go back to how we watch many nations when things are going on, especially when we don’t have a presence there. We get our information from a variety of sources. Some of that can come from NGOs. Some of that can come from media reports. Obviously, that’s a little more difficult right now because the government has clapped – clamped down not only on media but, as we’ve seen, social media too. We expect and we certainly hope that people will be able to access social media and speak freely there, just like we’ve seen them speak on the streets.

QUESTION: Right. Last --

MS NAUERT: So we’ll get that from a variety of sources. Some of that will include intelligence, our partners on the ground, and many other nations as well.

QUESTION: Last one. So you are, in fact, calling on the Government of Iran to restore any social media that has been – that may have been blocked?

MS NAUERT: Well, I think that would certainly be an important thing for them to do. We support a freedom of the press here in the United States. We support the right of voices to be heard. And when a nation clamps down on social media or websites or Google or news sites, we ask the question, “What are you afraid of?” What are you afraid of? We support the Iranian people and we support their voices being heard.

QUESTION: And are you considering sanctions?

MS NAUERT: We don’t get ahead of sanctions, but that is one toolkit, a couple things that we have in a very broad and wide toolkit. It’s – there are a range of options that we certainly have going forward. And that’s why I say we are watching reports very carefully of any potential human rights abuses of these protesters who are protesting peacefully.

Okay. Hi, Andrea. Nice to see you.

QUESTION: Hi, Happy New Year to you.

MS NAUERT: Thank you.

QUESTION: Is there – first of all, is there anything that the U.S. can do to help restore access to social media to the Iranian people?

MS NAUERT: Not that I’m aware of. I mean look, I’m not a tech expert. There are lots of ways that people can get information through different sources and different apps and all of that, but I’m not aware of anything particularly that we as a government are able to do. But we’re watching it carefully.

QUESTION: And speaking of social media, one of the President’s first tweets on this was – he said change is needed.

MS NAUERT: Mm-hmm.

QUESTION: Is he calling for regime change?

MS NAUERT: No, I think what the President is talking about is exactly what the Iranian people are saying, that they want change. They want the government to start taking care of them. We’ve heard from some of the protesters their concerns about that nation’s money being spent on exploits in other countries – Syria, Iran’s support for Hizballah, Iran’s support for weapons being sent around the world – as opposed to spending that money on its own people. So I think when the President calls for change, he’s calling for the Iranian Government to make changes for its own people and the same thing that the Iranian people are calling for.

QUESTION: And is there a risk that some experts are expressing about modulating the tone in that the President’s tweets, if they are too strong in solidarity with the protesters, could backfire, could support the hardliners, could lead to a crackdown?

MS NAUERT: The Iranian regime is always going to come up with reasons to try to claim that other governments are responsible for some of their own problems at home, that other governments are responsible for their own people speaking out. This is not the first time that we’ve seen the Iranian people speak out, speak out about their concerns of their treatment under their regime. We saw that almost 10 years ago. We’re seeing it once again – the issues slightly different, but they remain the same.

Okay.

QUESTION: So when you say that the U.S. has expressed support for these protesters, what is it that the U.S. wants them to do or accomplish?

MS NAUERT: This is largely the same as we would say in any country, whether it’s Venezuela and people conveying their concerns about the humanitarian situation in Venezuela, in other countries where people protest. We want them to have the right to speak freely, to peacefully protest, just as people do in the United States, and to be able to do that without fear of retribution.

QUESTION: So does the U.S. want them to continue to protest?

MS NAUERT: Look, that’s up to the Iranian people. We are not going to tell the Iranian people what to do. But we do believe that if Iranian people are going to peacefully protest that they should be allowed to do so.

QUESTION: Could you explain something --

QUESTION: You mentioned working with allies but in the --

MS NAUERT: Okay, last one there.

QUESTION: -- in the past couple of days I know that there has been this work among several to craft this strongly worded joint statement condemning Iran. But that hasn’t happened yet, and it seems like there were a number of problems. Can you talk about the status of that? And if there can’t even be consensus on a strongly worded statement --

MS NAUERT: Michele, I think you’re getting way too far ahead on this one, okay? A lot of people want to see statements. We’re having very good conversations with our allies. We have seen that we are in agreement with our allies – with France, with Germany, with the UK as well. You’ve read their statements. Boris Johnson, for example, calling on all concerned to refrain from violence and international obligations on human rights to be observed. The French foreign minister, a number of victims of arrest, tremendous concern of theirs, “The right to protest freely is a fundamental right.” Those are the same things that we are calling for.

I’m not going to adhere – I don’t think the U.S. Government and the other governments are going to adhere to any kind of arbitrary timeline for getting something on paper. I have to remind you all yesterday was a holiday. This is our first day back from a holiday. There is no disagreement where we stand.

QUESTION: You talked about --

MS NAUERT: Okay. Hi, Arshad.

QUESTION: Hey. You talked about your concerns about human rights. Are you calling for the Iranian security forces to exercise restraint in their treatment of protesters?

MS NAUERT: Yes, absolutely. I mean, anytime you have people out there who are protesting peacefully – and that’s what we’ve seen. We’ve seen people holding up signs. We’ve seen people walking through the streets. That has been the primary kind of protests that we have seen. Security forces – we would always urge them to use restraint, use restraint, to not overstep the bounds and harm protesters unnecessarily.

QUESTION: And do you think that they have – because you’re aware, obviously, of the number of deaths and the increasing number of deaths – do you believe that they have – any of the Iranian security forces have used excessive force thus far?

MS NAUERT: Arshad, I’m obviously not there on the ground, so I’m not at liberty to characterize what has actually happened and whether there are instances of excessive force that were used or not. But I can tell you, we’re following this carefully.

QUESTION: And one more for me on this. You mentioned 2009. One of the challenges that the administration faced, that the former U.S. administration faced in 2009 after the elections, was one of not tarnishing the protesters by too warm an American embrace. Do you see any concerns that in your statements of support for peaceful protest, you may in fact be hurting the protesters themselves by ginning up government opposition to them? And might it be better to be more restrained in your own comments?

MS NAUERT: Look, I think any time you look at people who are protesting in any nation around the world, who are protesting because they want greater economic freedom, because they want to be paid on time, because they want their government to stop spending money on terrorism and start spending their money at home – any time that people are willing to stand up in the face of an oppressive regime and have that conversation publicly, have that conversation publicly despite the potential threat, despite potentially being thrown in jail, we ought to support them. That is the right thing to do.

But to put this solely on America is not correct. You see France, you see the U.K., you see Germany and other nations standing up to support those protesters. I’m not aware of any other place in the world where we would actually look at it and say, oh, United States, don’t support those people; don’t support those people who want your encouragement. We hear from around the world other countries – Venezuela is a perfect example – when we have spoken out on their behalf or – let me back up – not on their behalf, but when we’ve spoken out in support of their voices being heard, they have said to us, “Thank you. Thank you, thank you, United States. We appreciate that support.”

Hi. Barbara.

QUESTION: Could you (inaudible) on --

QUESTION: Heather, one more question about this. You said that the nuclear agreement had not been the economic fix that the government said it would be. But Iranians – many Iranians say part of the reason for that is because the Trump administration has thrown the certainty of the deal in doubt, and so that contributes to economic confidence in the deal. And therefore, the support that the --

MS NAUERT: I can only point to many European --

QUESTION: Just – let – can I just finish question?

MS NAUERT: -- many European country – companies --

QUESTION: Yes. Let me just --

MS NAUERT: -- are still doing business with Iran, so --

QUESTION: Okay. I just want to finish my question --

MS NAUERT: -- they are able to do those deals.

QUESTION: So my question is: This sort of weakens the support they see from the United States on this factor. Is this going to – is this going to have any effect on the decision this month about whether to weigh the sanctions again, whether to decertify again?

MS NAUERT: This administration looks at Iran through a much broader lens than just the JCPOA. The administration is taking steps to fix its flaws. I’m not going to get ahead of what Congress is working on, but those conversations are taking place. And some of those negotiations are taking place between Republicans and Democrats and the White House to fix the fundamental flaws of the JCPOA so we can look at Iran through a broader lens than just the JCPOA and look at its destabilizing activities, as we talked about with Syria, in places like Yemen, you name it – Iran involved in some of those nefarious activities.

Hi, Said.

QUESTION: Can – can I take you to another place where there are protests and so on?

QUESTION: (Off-mike.)

QUESTION: Wait, can we finish --

MS NAUERT: Wait.

QUESTION: -- finish Iran?

MS NAUERT: Okay.

QUESTION: I have a question related to what you’ve been saying about Syria, Yemen, Iranian intervention in – outside its borders and its aggression. An envoy of Ayatollah Khamenei met yesterday with the head of the al-Nujaba militia in Iraq. It’s an Iraqi – part of the Hashd al-Shaabi, and Khamenei’s envoy praised its role in Iraq and Syria. What is your comment on that, particularly as you’ve just condemned Iranian involvement in Syria?

MS NAUERT: Yeah. I’m not aware of that meeting, so I don’t want to comment – if that did even take place, so I just don’t want to comment on that.

QUESTION: It was in the Iranian press. I’d be happy to share it with you, because --

MS NAUERT: Okay. Well, I’m not going to necessarily believe the Iranian press, but I just am not going to comment on something --

QUESTION: How about the Iraqi press? You don’t see Iranian aggression in Iraq, like in Kirkuk?

MS NAUERT: Look, we have discussed many times our concerns about Iran’s activities. Okay.

QUESTION: Heather --

QUESTION: Just a very specific technical point on the sanctions and on the social media.

MS NAUERT: Yeah.

QUESTION: One of the social media platforms that’s not available in Iran is Signal, and that’s a useful one because that’s an encrypted one. It’s one that activists or journalists, including myself, can use to communicate secretly. It’s not available in Iran not because it’s been blocked but because Google doesn’t provide one of the platforms which services this to Iranians because of the sanctions. Is Google overinterpreting the sanctions, or --

MS NAUERT: Dave, I have --

QUESTION: It’s an American company that could be providing a helpful tool to them.

MS NAUERT: I’m going to answer you as honestly as I can: I have no idea. I can connect you with some of our sanctions experts who might know more about Google and Signal and their relationship and how they operate or don’t operate in Iran. I’m afraid I just don’t have any information on that.

QUESTION: Without asking you to speak on behalf of the protesters, you do support their aims?

MS NAUERT: We support peaceful protest in Iran, in Venezuela, in other places.

QUESTION: Yeah, but – you – yeah, but do you support what these specific protesters are protesting?

MS NAUERT: Well, I can’t comment specifically on what every protester is calling for --

QUESTION: Well, the general theme.

MS NAUERT: -- but in general, when they ask for their voices to be heard, when they ask for a better economy, when they ask for the government to spend money on their own country as opposed to terror exploits overseas or in other countries, sure, we would certainly support that.

QUESTION: So when they say death to Khamenei, you would support that?

MS NAUERT: I – Matt, I’m not going to go – I’m not going to – see, that’s why you’re trying to trap me into something like that. I’m not going to go there.

QUESTION: No, I’m just trying to figure out, because --

MS NAUERT: That is not our policy, but we hear what the Iranian people are saying. And just like people in the United States can say things that are very inflammatory – and they’re allowed to say that here; the right to free speech – people say that in other countries as well. They have a right to have their opinions on that matter.

QUESTION: But one of the administrations – and this – not just this administration – a longtime U.S. policy goal has been for Iran to stop supporting Hizballah in Lebanon and, at least going back to 2014, to stop intervening in Syria. So when the protesters say get out of Lebanon, stop supporting Hizballah, get out of Syria, stop supporting Assad, you do agree with that, right?

MS NAUERT: Well, we certainly have expressed – and you know this – we’ve expressed our concerns many times about Iran’s activities in Syria, in Yemen, elsewhere. I mean, you’ve asked me numerous times here name the countries of concern that Iran is involved with and I have named those for you on many occasions. Iran, Yemen, Syria, you name it, where they’re --

QUESTION: (Off-mike.)

MS NAUERT: Thanks, Laurie.

QUESTION: So as long as what the protesters are protesting – or as long as their message lines up with this – with the administration’s policy position, you support them?

MS NAUERT: Matt, I think you’re wrong there, and here’s why: because as a general matter we support peaceful protest, protests and conversations that may not always be convenient to the United States, that may not always be convenient to that host country. We talk about that. We talk about the right to free speech. We believe that that is a fundamental human right. Whether it’s here, whether it’s in Iran, whether it’s in Russia. You name the country – we support that free speech. You know that.

Okay.

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