- Saudi Arabia
MS NAUERT: Hi, everybody. Boy, it feels so nice to walk out here with just a file folder and not a big briefing book. This is going to be our last briefing of the year, so I wanted to take the opportunity – I know, I know, really looking forward to that. And I brought with you a couple of fantastic guests as a part of our way to bring more information to you from our experts. Nobody knows these issues better than our colleagues here at the State Department.
So today, we’re here to bring you two senior State Department officials to brief you on two important foreign policy issues. First, I’d like to introduce you to our Deputy Assistant Secretary for Arabian Gulf Affairs, Tim Lenderking. Many of you perhaps know Tim. He is here to speak about the humanitarian crisis in Yemen. You may have seen a short while ago that the White House put out an announcement on Yemen and the changes, we believe, to the humanitarian situation there. In addition, USAID put out a statement as well.
MR LENDERKING: Well, thank you very much, Heather. And good afternoon, everybody. Very glad to be here. Happy Holidays to all of you.
I really want to emphasize the importance that we’re placing on the Yemen conflict right now. I think you’ve seen, as Heather mentioned, the statement that was just released by the White House. This caps a very, very, very busy couple of weeks of statements and very aggressive diplomacy on the part of the President, the Secretary of State, the Deputy Secretary. A lot of very positive interaction between us and members of Congress who are keenly interested in this conflict as well.
One very concerning element to all this and very consistent throughout the last couple of years of the conflict has been Iran’s support for the Houthis. We believe that there is room for the Houthis in a political settlement. We welcome that, but not when the Houthis continue to rocket and – rocket our – a key ally like Saudi Arabia on a regular basis, and also not – not when the Houthis are menacing the border of Saudi Arabia, which is something that goes on very consistently.
So with that, I would be very happy to take any comments or questions.
QUESTION: Hi, thank you very much. Obviously, the United States has given strong support to Saudi Arabia and to the Emirates in their battle against Iranian influence and in the – against the aggression of the Houthis. Is there a risk though that they’ve misinterpreted this as a green light for destabilizing activity? The blockade of Yemen obviously has created a humanitarian problem there that you then had to call them out in recent weeks, as you’ve noted. Do you – does the United States bear some responsibility for the aggression of recent Saudi actions in Yemen, and did they misinterpret your support?
MR LENDERKING: Well, we’ve been very, very – I think the benefit of having a strong relationship with Saudi Arabia is that we’re very clear and very frank in our private conversations. You’ve seen a lot of the political – sorry, the public messaging on this, but privately we’ve been very, very direct. We’ve had numerous, numerous venues and numerous opportunities to talk to the Saudi leadership, whether it’s the President with King Salman yesterday or the Secretary with his counterparts. As I’ve said, there’s very active dialogue going on.
I think what we have in Yemen is a situation that, given turmoil and chaos, the Iranians have been able to exploit this situation to their own benefit. What that has meant is strong developments inside the country that are very fundamentally against U.S. interests.
So I wouldn’t say the Saudis have misinterpreted anything. I think we’ve been – and I think if you look at the openings on the humanitarian front, that is a situation of message received, and I think we can – we should be glad about that, but there’s a lot more work to be done.
And by the way, when the Saudis closed the border after the November 4th missile attack, we were not in favor of that. We did not think that that was an appropriate response. We’ve encouraged the Saudis – as difficult as it may seem, you’ve got to separate the humanitarian piece from the military piece. We understand that your country is being aggressed and menaced on a regular basis by the Houthis, that the response to that cannot be cutting – shutting off of humanitarian outlets and access that are essential for the Yemeni people. So that’s been a core part of our message as well.
MS NAUERT: Arshad from Reuters.
QUESTION: One question about the White House statement this afternoon. After condemning in the strongest terms the latest missile attack, the next sentence says the Iranians have also enabled, then you refer back to the attack on the airport. Is it the U.S. Government’s judgment that the Iranians enabled the most recent missile attack? Do you have any granular information on what kind of a missile, whether it was an Iranian-provided missile or what exactly the Iranians did to enable this?
MR LENDERKING: I’m not going to speak to the real specifics of that because I think we’re still working through. This is a very recent attack; we’re working through some of the information as we’re collecting it, which the Saudis are helping us to do. I encourage you all to go and visit the display that Nikki Haley highlighted last week, the display of Iranian missile parts. These are parts from actual missile impacts inside the kingdom or the Arab Emirates. They’ve been collected. They are on display there.
I think it’s one very important data piece in understanding what the Saudis and the coalition face, which is this Iranian assistance to the Houthis. I think the Houthis have been able to do in a very short amount of time what other organizations like Hizballah took a long time to develop.
And so what we’ve seen is this kind of Iranian support for Houthi ballistic missile capability, which is extremely worrisome when a missile lands four kilometers from Riyadh International Airport, King Khalid International Airport. Our diplomats use that airport; the UN uses that airport; foreign embassies use that airport; the Saudi leadership uses that airport. It’s an unconscionable display of aggression, I think, when we are faced with that kind of a threat.
So it’s not going to be easy to blunt that, but we’re trying to enable the Saudis to be able to blunt that kind of threat on their own as we work on the margins with resolving some of the issues in the Yemen conflict that give Iran the ability and the – and a seat at the table, if you will, that we wish to deny them.
QUESTION: But did the Iranians enable the December the 19th missile attack? Do you believe that they did?
MR LENDERKING: Oh, yes. Yes, I certainly do. And I think if you go out and visit the display, you will see the irrefutable evidence of Iranian parts. There is a very key relationship between the Iranians and the Houthis. I don’t want to overstate it. I don’t want to suggest that the Houthis operate entirely at the behest of the Iranians. But it’s an important relationship and one that the Iranians are able to exploit.