Department Press Briefing – June 17, 2019 (Excerpts)

June 17, 2019


QUESTION: Okay. On Iran, I want to ask a variation of the question I asked you last week —


QUESTION: — which was when your ambassador to the IAEA noted that Iran was potentially or possibly in violation of the JCPOA on advanced centrifuges and she called for the IAEA, in particular the European parties to the deal, to urge Iran to stay in compliance. Now today, we have a situation where the Iranians say they’re going to bust through the limits on their low-enriched uranium stockpile, and maybe even start enriching up to 20 percent. Do you see – does this administration see any value in Iran staying within the limits outlined by the JCPOA?

MS ORTAGUS: So I would say that we are unfortunately not surprised by the Iranian announcement. As we’ve talked quite a bit from this podium, this is a pattern of 40 years of behavior. It’s consistent with how the Iranian regime behaves. They did this when we were in the JCPOA, right? They continued to build their missile program, we relieved sanctions, they took American sailors hostage. We have seen no moderating behavior by this regime, and in fact what we’re seeing here of course over the past week is – constantly threatening to close the Strait of Hormuz, a number of activities – not just the two commercial shipping vessels that we discussed this week, but four other commercial ships.

So I think what we’re seeing here is really a challenge not only in the JCPOA, but really a challenge to the international norms on how a country behaves, a challenge to the international norms on freedom of navigation and freedom of the seas. And so we would say to the international community that we should not yield to nuclear extortion by the Iranian regime.

QUESTION: Okay. I just want to focus on the nuclear deal, the JCPOA —

MS ORTAGUS: Sure, mm-hmm.

QUESTION: — and nothing else.


QUESTION: Just that. Not taking hostages, not malign activity, not things that are not covered in the JCPOA. Does the administration believe there is value in Iran staying – continuing to comply with the JCPOA, which the President called the worst deal ever negotiated?

MS ORTAGUS: Listen, we continue to call on the Iranian regime not to obtain a nuclear weapon, to abide by their commitments to the international community. And I think it’s unfortunate that they’ve made this announcement today. As I said earlier, it doesn’t surprise anybody. I think this is why the President has often said that the JCPOA needs to be replaced with a new and better deal. Iran, as evident by their announcement today but also their pattern of behavior over the past few years, is keen on expanding – or seems to be keen on expanding their nuclear program, and it now wants to exceed these nuclear limits in advance of these so-called sunset clauses.

QUESTION: But that suggests that you believe that there is —


QUESTION: — values in these limits, no? Does it not? I mean, if you look at —

MS ORTAGUS: We call on the Iranians not to obtain a nuclear weapon and to abide by the commitments that they’ve made to the international community.



QUESTION: Morgan, is the Secretary disappointed with the response from the international community so far? You’ve said you would like to say to the international community they should not yield to nuclear extortion. So has the administration been disappointed by the response, for one thing, for the attacks on – last week, and more broadly on viewing the threat and the way to respond to Iran?

MS ORTAGUS: No, not at all. I mean, in fact, I think that we have seen the international community and our allies step up to condemn this behavior. I mean, this clearly – what we’re seeing in the Strait of Hormuz defies the pattern – the tenets that we all hold dear as it relates to freedom of navigation, freedom of the seas. The Secretary has been working of course incredibly closely within the government with secretary – Acting Secretary Shanahan on multiple times, working on ensuring that we are – excuse me – able to defend our people and our interests. We’re of course working on the diplomatic solution while Secretary Shanahan and the team at DOD is focused on our military options to keep our people, our interests, and our allies safe.

Over the weekend, as almost every weekend with the Secretary – he’s probably the hardworking – most hardworking person I’ve ever worked for – the Secretary had a number of calls with the NATO secretary-general, with a Chinese politburo member, with a Singaporean foreign minister, a Kuwaiti foreign minister, UK foreign minister, Emirati foreign minister, Republic of Korea foreign minister, Qatari foreign minister. We obviously don’t have readouts from every single call that he has, but we have worked incredibly hard with our allies on this assessment as it relates to Iran’s actions last week in the Gulf of Oman.

QUESTION: Just a quick follow-up to that.

MS ORTAGUS: I’m going to mispronounce the names, so I’ll get it to you, so —

QUESTION: What, the title?

QUESTION: The position, yeah, I didn’t hear it.

MS ORTAGUS: It’s a politburo member.


QUESTION: Does the Secretary believe that the U.S. strategy, as he laid out when he set forth these 12 demands – I mean, given the tensions only seem to be escalating, does he believe that the U.S. strategy toward Iran is currently working?

MS ORTAGUS: Our maximum pressure campaign continues, and it will continue to be what we pursue. We think it’s incredibly unfortunate, of course, the Iranian announcement today. But when we – again, when we look and see what’s happened in the region, again, this is – as we always say, I know, 40 years of behavior – but especially over the past few years, when you look at this assessment that the Secretary gave here from this podium, I want to reiterate something that he said, because I think it’s sort of gotten lost in the media coverage. He said our assessment is based on the intelligence, the weapons used, levels of expertise needed to execute the operation, recent similar Iranian attacks on shipping, and of course the fact that no proxy group in the area has the resources and proficiency to act with this high degree of sophistication. So we will continue to work with our allies and work with our international partners who would like to help us deter this Iranian behavior, who would like to help us get them back to the negotiating table, who would like to help us get them to behave like a normal nation. That’s the whole goal here. Our demands are not high. Our demands are that they stop terrorizing the region.

QUESTION: Thank you. Just to follow on Matt’s question, so while there is no new deal between the U.S. and Iran, you ask Iran to abide by the JCPOA even though you left – the U.S. left this deal. When you say you ought to abide to their international commitments, you mean to abide to the JCPOA, which the U.S. left?

MS ORTAGUS: Yeah. We have made it very clear since this President came into office and since the Secretary came here that we will not tolerate a – Iran obtaining a nuclear weapon. Full stop. So any actions that they take to get a nuclear weapon will be countered by a maximum pressure campaign by the United States Government that continues to this day. There should be no relieving of sanctions for their malign and unacceptable behavior.

Rich. Finally, Rich, you showed up.

QUESTION: I know. I finally got the directions. The Secretary last week when he was discussing this, he used the phrase that Iran was “lashing out.” In the calculation when the administration decided a year ago to withdraw from the nuclear agreement, did it anticipate or expect that there would be a greater level of this lashing out as a result of the U.S. withdrawal?

MS ORTAGUS: Well, I think that the United States and the Secretary and this administration in general were well aware of the pattern of behavior from the Iranian regime. Anybody who’s studied them more than a hot minute, who have looked at them for the past 40 years, knows how they will behave. I would love for someone to give me an example of some sort of moderating behavior that the Iranian regime pursued post-JCPOA. I have no evidence of that. I have evidence of them taking U.S. sailors as hostages. I have evidence of the IRGC having millions if not billions of dollars to fund terrorism around the world, to fund Houthis, who we saw hit yet another airport in Saudi Arabia where American civilians go through. All of you just saw that report. There’s been no moderation. They continue to terrorize.


QUESTION: I have two questions, one on Iran and one on Egypt.


QUESTION: Iran said today that it had exposed a large cyber espionage network run by the U.S. – by the CIA. Do you have anything on this?

MS ORTAGUS: I don’t. (Inaudible) from that.

QUESTION: And on the death of former Egyptian President Mohamed Morsy, do you have anything?

MS ORTAGUS: No. We saw – we saw that the death was reported. So —

QUESTION: (Off-mike.)


QUESTION: Just to go back to Iran briefly. Have you been speaking to Congress about the oil tanker attacks, and in particular, using that as an argument to get lawmakers to back down on their attempts to block the arms sales to Saudi Arabia? Because they were still quite determined to try after the briefing last week.

MS ORTAGUS: I – that’s an interesting correlation that you just made. I mean, the Secretary, of course, said very publicly, whenever he made this decision to continue the arms sale, which I would reiterate that those arms sales are to many countries in the Middle East, not just Saudi Arabia. We’re talking about Jordan. We’re talking about the United Arab Emirates and some smaller arms sales in there as well. But one of the justifications was, of course, because of the imminent threats from Iran.