Remarks by Acting Secretary Esper in a Press Conference on June 27, 2019 (Excerpts)

June 27, 2019


Lastly, I offered an update on Iran.  The Iranian regime has been sowing chaos and conflict in the Middle East for 40 years.  The United States is by no means the instigator of recent tensions in the Strait of Hormuz.

Iran's hostile actions are an international problem that affect many nations.  They include pursuit of nuclear weapons, a growing ballistic missile program, support for international terrorism, and assaults on freedom of navigation in the Arabian Sea, Strait of Hormuz and the Gulf of Oman and in international airspace, as the world saw last week.

But let me be clear:  The United States does not seek war with Iran.

In focused conversations with allies, I discussed the need to internationalize this issue, by encouraging NATO allies and regional partners to voice their opposition to Iran's bad behavior and to help us deter further provocative acts by improving maritime security and demonstrating resolve.

I appreciate the many insights I heard these last 48 hours in response to requests for more information.  I also directed my team to provide a detailed brief to my counterparts on the degree and depth of Iranian malign influence.

The United States continues its maximum pressure campaign to -- to deprive Iran of the revenues it needs to prop up terrorist organizations and to fund proxy groups.  Our goal is to bring Iran to the negotiating table to conclude a comprehensive, enduring deal that addresses Iran's nuclear program, its ballistic missile development and proliferation, its support for terrorism and other malign activities.

Our strategy is at its core an economic and diplomatic one.   Again, we do not seek armed conflict with Iran, but we are ready to defend U.S. forces and interests in the region.  No one should mistake restraint for weakness.

With that, let me close by saying I am well aware that this year marks NATO's 70th anniversary.  Our security guarantees have been the bedrock of European security for all that time.  Those guarantees remain.

I thank the secretary general and my fellow ministers for our excellent work these past two days.  And I thank all of you.

And so now I will be glad to take your questions.

STAFF:  Thank you, Mr. Secretary.

Lita with A.P.

Q:  Hi.  Lita Baldor with the Associated Press.

Mr. Secretary, you talked about efforts to talk to allies, particularly about maritime -- the maritime coalition in the gulf.  Can you tell us specifically what, if any, commitments did you get from any allies to support this effort?  What was the reaction that you got from the allies when you asked for this internationalization of this effort?  And what more does the U.S. have to do to convince allies to go along with this?

SEC. ESPER:  Yes, so we did have a discussion in one of the sessions, what I did was lay out what we view as the history of this case.

I wanted to make clear up front that, again, the United States does not seek war with Iran.  But I did want to point out that after 40 years in the past two or three months we've seen a noticeable uptick in Iran's activities.

We've had at least six ships attacked by Iran or its proxies.  We've had mortar attacks in Saudi Arabia.  We've had a cruise missile attack on Saudi Arabia.  We, of course, had the shoot-down of our unarmed aircraft in international airspace.  And the list goes on.

And one of the things I committed to my colleagues was to come back, I think it's set for mid-July now, to give a detailed brief of what we see to be the history of Iran and how this is escalating.

What I asked them to do is to urge them to consider public statements condemning Iran's bad behavior and making the point that we need to have freedom of navigation in the Strait of Hormuz and other areas, that that should be protected.

And along those same lines, as we map out our own thoughts, to consider joining a group of like-minded countries that in order to enforce the rule of law, in order to support the freedom of navigation, that we look at everything from broader maritime surveillance -- and that should also include air surveillance -- all the way up to a picket line of ships to help protect the international waterways and to include maybe even escorts.

We have to flesh out on our end and we'll see what makes most sense.

I will tell you again, we just had a broad discussion in the ministerial, but privately I had – certainly, broadly, I had all -- most partners in the room acknowledge the challenge that we face.  I think they appreciate that the United States is not seeking war with Iran, that we want to get this off of a military track and onto a diplomacy track.  And privately, I had a few come up to me and express interest in pursuing further what our requests were of them.

And I think over time we will develop that.  It is working through the foreign ministry side as well.

But that looks -- that is our end game, again, is to get this off the military track.  We don't want some provocative action by -- by Iran to lead to an escalation that stays on the military side.  We want to get it into the diplomatic track.  We want to get them back to the negotiating table and resolve this through diplomacy.

Q:  (Inaudible).

SEC. ESPER:  Not yet, I think, again, we'll work that over time.  This is the early days of this initiative.  Secretary Pompeo is obviously out there working this, as well.

And so we will continue to move forward and I hope we will continue to consult closely with our allies and partners in fora such as this.

STAFF:  Other questions? Teri Schultz from Deutsche Welle.

Q:  Hi.  Teri Schultz with Deutsche Welle.  Thank you very much.

Sir, as you understand, it's complicated for the European nations that are also signatories to the JCPOA, the Iran nuclear deal.  So how are you discussing with them ways to both keep Iran inside that deal, not to re-enrich uranium -- although that already seems to be underway -- to the point of getting a nuclear weapon, at the same time as they may be supporting actions that have at least military back up?

I'm sure they discussed with you the complications of their positions on this.  How do you intend to help?

SEC. ESPER:  It's hard for me to see a conflict between asking a country like Iran to follow the international rules of order when it comes to freedom of navigation, when it -- when it requires them to behave properly as we expect normal nations to do.  I don't see a conflict in that.

I -- I think what they need to message is to -- for Iran to stop these activities, to de-escalate from their side, and to meet with the United States and its partners to discuss the way forward.  The president has been very clear.  We will meet with them anytime, anywhere without precondition.  It's -- it's hard to get a clearer or more -- or more open outreach to the regime than we have done.

And so I think that's what we need our European partners to message to Iran is that, look, the United States is willing to sit down and talk with you.  You should come to the negotiating table and let's begin a dialogue.  Let's have a discussion.  Let's get off the military track.  Let's get on to the diplomatic track.

STAFF:  Other questions?  Reuters, in the second row?

Q:  Hi, Mr. Secretary.

So just getting back to your announcement, I think, that you're going to come here in July and -- and -- and brief on -- on the history of this Iranian threat and apparently, you know -- can you flesh that out a little bit?  Did you call that meeting?  Is it going to be -- is it going to be with the entire alliance?

And then, also, could you explain a little bit about how you see the alliance as a whole participating in this maritime safety mission?  Would it be just individual countries who choose to engage in it or would it be a NATO mission?  Thank you.

SEC. ESPER:  Well, again, let's go back to the purpose.  The purpose here is to avoid war with Iran.  So what we want to do is get it off the -- again, the military track and on to the diplomatic track.

We obviously have a lot of -- all of our allies are here at NATO and we have partners here as well, at least in the last 48 hours.  And so the purpose of the briefing was to come in and give them our perspective on what's happened, certainly in the last two or three months, and how we see the uptick in Iranian provocative activities, whether by themselves or by their proxies, and how -- demonstrate our concern that this could escalate out of control if we don't get it back in the box.

And so, obviously, we'd want to open up -- open that up to our allies.  We would want to -- we want to continue to consult closely with them and inform them.  And again, at the end of the day, what our ask is here near term is publicly condemn Iran's bad behavior, privately message to Iran or publicly message to Iran the need to get back on the diplomatic track.  And in the meantime, in order to avoid a military escalation, help us maintain the freedom of navigation in the Strait of Hormuz, and the -- and in the Persian Gulf and wherever, and put us in a defensive posture so that we deter any type of further bad behavior by the Iranians.

STAFF:  We have time for one more question.  In the back, NTB?

Q:  Thank you.  It's (inaudible) from the Norwegian News Agency, NTB.

So regarding the INF Treaty and your response to Russia, one of the options that was mentioned by Secretary General Stoltenberg yesterday was to look at your missile defense and can you tell us more about what exactly you are discussing?  And earlier on, when it comes to your existing missile defense, the -- the message as far as I understand has always been that it's not directed towards Russia.  I'm -- I'm sure that will change now.

And also, being Norwegian, I would also like to ask, we have two ships that have been attacked in the bay of Oman -- Gulf of Oman.  Is there anything you can say on your dialogue with Norway on that issue and have you invited Norway to join your coalition?

SEC. ESPER:  Sure, I will answer both on this one, you know, and I'll take your last question first.  Clearly, Norway was in the room when we had this discussion.  And you're right that Norway has suffered the attacks, and Norway does a lot of shipping through the straits and I certainly think that they and other countries want to avoid further attacks by Iran or its proxies.

So I think that's a good reason -- a very good reason why, certainly, regional partners in -- in that area and other countries outside the region who rely on the freedom of navigation, who rely on those straits or the gulf for commerce, should join us, again, in voicing opposition and condemning the Iranian behavior and encouraging Iran to get back to the negotiating table.  And then further, to the degree they have the capability, assist us as we flesh out this idea, again, about helping us deter further Iranian aggression in the strait.