MS ORTAGUS: Okay, you’re stuck with me for the rest of the briefing. Good morning, or afternoon. I’ve got several things to start this off today for all of you, so just be patient with me, please, as we get through them.
Okay, first. On Friday the U.S. Treasury designated Iran’s largest petrochemical holding group, Persian Gulf Petrochemical Industries Company, and its network of 39 subsidiary petrochemical companies and sales agents for supporting the IRGC, a designated foreign terrorist organization and WMD proliferator. We intend to target any company in the petrochemicals sector or elsewhere that provides financial support to it. The maximum pressure campaign continues and will continue.
Germany’s Foreign Minister Heiko Maas is in Tehran. Japan’s Prime Minister Abe will be there this week as well. There is no daylight between us and our allies on the objective of denying Iran the ability to ever acquire a nuclear weapon. We also agree about the threat of Iran’s ballistic missile program, its terrorist activities, and human rights abuses. Iran has threatened to violate some of the JCPOA’s key restrictions, and today Zarif threatened the U.S. that it cannot expect to stay safe because our – because of our maximum pressure campaign. Making threats, using nuclear blackmail, and terrorizing other nations is typical behavior for the revolutionary regime in Tehran.
Tomorrow they will probably threaten once again to close the Strait of Hormuz. We aren’t impressed. Iran faces a simple choice. It can either behave like a normal nation or watch its economy crumble. Iran’s recent threat to cease performing key nuclear commitments under the JCPOA is a big step in the wrong direction and it understores the – underscores the continuing challenge Iran poses to international peace and security. The international community must remain united on this issue and hold the Iranian regime accountable for its threats to expand its nuclear program. We will hold the Islamic Republic of Iran accountable for any actions against our people and our interests, regardless of whether they come from Iran or from its proxies.
The only solution is a newer better – a new and better deal that addresses the full scope of Iran’s threats. Those threats form the basis of the 12 demands. As President Trump and the Secretary have said, we stand ready to talk. Iran’s leaders know how to reach us.
QUESTION: How were they operating outside the scope? I mean, they were clearly going after, quote/unquote, “disinformation” but not from the Iranian government, which was their charge. How specifically did they go outside their mandate, and where have there been steps taken to make sure that they stay within their remit?
MS ORTAGUS: Yes. So the funding does remain suspended for this entity, and there’s a review process that’s ongoing right now. The review process continues, and that is going to, of course, ensure that the implementer’s activity is consistent within the scope of work. And of course, it needs to be consistent within the Department of State’s guidance on conducting these sort of activities within the GEC.
I think we use GEC as shorthand, but many people know that the Global Engagement Center is committed to its mission, which is to counter foreign state and nonstate propaganda and disinformation that comes from a variety of places, but that includes the Iranian regime’s propaganda disinformation. So I’m not going to get into the specific details up here, but the review is ongoing, and the implementer remains suspended at the moment.
QUESTION: Well, is it possible that this implementer will not – so that the money won’t be reinstated? Is that a possible option?
MS ORTAGUS: I think all options are possible while we’re undergoing the review.
QUESTION: And then just lastly on this. It appears since the first reports came out and the suspension was announced, it has come out that this organization that was getting U.S. taxpayer money was – some of the people that it was attacking worked for U.S. taxpayer-funded organizations. Is that in any way appropriate?
MS ORTAGUS: Again, the GEC found that their implementer went beyond the scope of their contract, and that’s why their contract has been suspended. They’re under a review, and the GEC’s leadership has, of course, spent time and had a meeting with them to outline initially what they did that went beyond the scope.
QUESTION: Right. But what —
MS ORTAGUS: I think that’s all I have, Matt, on that. Thanks.
QUESTION: Well, what are they going to do, not specifically on this —
MS ORTAGUS: Yeah, that’s all I have on it, Matt.
QUESTION: — what are they going to do to make sure this doesn’t happen in the future with this or any other project?
MS ORTAGUS: Whether it’s the GEC or any other institution within the Department of State, we work judiciously to review what our implementers and contractors do around the world, and we have a variety of mechanisms, including the IG, which does its own internal reviews for every contract that the State Department produces, and we’ll follow the same guidelines with the GEC.
QUESTION: I have two questions on Iran.
MS ORTAGUS: Sure.
QUESTION: The IAEA chief has said that Iran is now producing more enriched uranium than before. Are you aware of that? And —
MS ORTAGUS: Did you say that he said more?
MS ORTAGUS: Yeah, okay. Go ahead. Sorry, just want to make sure we’re on the same page.
QUESTION: Yeah, this is my first question. And my second is: Lebanese national and
U.S permanent resident Nizar Zakka has been released from prison and he will be going back to Lebanon tomorrow. How do you view this this development?
MS ORTAGUS: So on your second question, we’re aware of those public reports, but we don’t have anything to comment on from the podium today. As it relates to your first question on Iran, I mean, obviously we see these reports as showing that Iran is going in the wrong direction, and it underscores the continuing challenge Iran poses to international peace and security. This is something that I’ve been a part – many of you know I was traveling for the last week with the Secretary – part of many conversations with our European allies on this topic, and we think it’s important for the international community to remain united to hold the Iranian regime accountable. And I know that we left those meetings very encouraged that our European allies will do so.
Said, how are you?
QUESTION: Thank you.
QUESTION: Yeah, thank you. I want to move on another topic.
QUESTION: Can we stay on – also on Iran, please?
QUESTION: Follow-up on Iran?
QUESTION: Can we stay on Iran?
MS ORTAGUS: Go ahead, Lesley.
QUESTION: So has the U.S. been – given that Mr. Zakka is a U.S. – has a green card, has the U.S. been involved in any of these discussions? And is there a possibility that this involves some kind of a swap with an Iranian businessman that is being held here, according to reports?
MS ORTAGUS: If – we certainly hope that these reports are accurate that he has been released, and if they are accurate, we will certainly come back to you with more information. But for now, that’s the only comment that we have.
Are you – on Iran?
QUESTION: On Iran, yes.
MS ORTAGUS: Okay.
QUESTION: What’s your view of Germany —
MS ORTAGUS: I’ll get back to you, Said. I promise.
QUESTION: What’s your view of Germany’s proposal for a European payment system for trade with Iran that he raised when he was in Tehran?
MS ORTAGUS: Yeah. I mean, I think the Secretary spoke about this, and he has said, of course, any payment systems in which there are goods or services or whatever the commodity might be that is not sanctioned by the U.S. government is fine, but we would not support any payment mechanism from any country in the world that would allow businesses or entities or countries to engage in transactions with Iran that are sanctioned entities. And we are very grateful to the number of European businesses and banks who have taken these sanctions incredibly seriously and are complying with them.