Department Press Briefing – May 29, 2019 (Excerpts)

May 29, 2019


MS ORTAGUS: [...] Next, moving over to Iran, and we should have some graphics for you on this one. Our maximum pressure campaign on Iran is designed to deny the Iranian regime, the world’s foremost state sponsor of terrorism, the means to conduct its destructive foreign policy. Our campaign is working. The campaign is starving Iran’s proxies of the funds they rely on to operate on behalf of the regime. For the first time ever, Hizballah, Iran’s top beneficiary, has been forced to publicly appeal for financial support. The Washington Post reported this month that our sanctions have forced Hizballah to make draconian spending cuts.

The images behind me depict Hizballah’s desperate plea for public donations via billboards, posters, and collection cans. Hizballah’s desperation is evident not only on the streets and in grocery stores, but also on the battlefield. Iran is withdrawing Hizballah fighters from Syria and cutting or canceling their salaries. A fighter with Iranian-backed militia in Syria told the New York Times in March the golden days are gone and will never return.

Hizballah isn’t the only Iranian-supported force feeling the pinch of our sanctions. Hamas has enacted what it calls an austerity plan to deal with the lack of funds from Iran. The IRGC has told Iraq Shia militia groups that their bankroll will dwindle and they must find new sources of revenue. The Assad regime now faces a fuel shortage crisis, having been cut off from the one to three million barrels per month since supply – once supplied by Iran. And the IRGC cyber command is short on cash.

We will continue to apply maximum pressure on the Iranian regime to deny it the means to conduct its destructive foreign policy and compel the regime to negotiate a comprehensive new deal that addresses the full scope of its malign behavior.


QUESTION: Can you confirm that the administration has warned the Europeans that their mechanism to circumvent the U.S. sanctions on Iran, INSTEX, could be itself subject to U.S. sanctions? And if yes, what was their response? Are there discussions ongoing on this?

MS ORTAGUS: So your – and I think this story is a few months old. You’re talking about the —

QUESTION: The INSTEX mechanism.

QUESTION: Special purpose —

MS ORTAGUS: Yeah, yeah. We wouldn’t – we would not be supportive of anyone evading U.S. sanctions, whether it’s the Europeans or anyone in the world. We clearly have a difference of opinion as it relates to the JCPOA with our European allies, but we work with them incredibly closely on a number of issues. We have – the Secretary has been on, I’m trying to remember, at least two or three trips in the past month that I have been on with him. We have more coming up, which some of you are aware of, and we’ll give more detail on tomorrow.

And so we work with them on a range of issues, but as it relates to U.S. sanctions, whether it’s on Iran or related to Venezuela or relating – related to North Korea, we expect all countries, allies, friend or foe alike, to comply with U.S. sanctions.


QUESTION: Thank you. So with the waivers – we talked about oil waivers a lot, but we’ve got this Iraq energy waiver. It was granted a 90-day waiver to keep importing energy from Iran. That waiver runs out on June 16th at 12:01 a.m. I’m wondering if the Secretary plans to renew that waiver. Iraqi officials have said it’s going to take them up to two years to try to make up the difference if they lose that ability to import that. And does the U.S. have any kind of alternative for Iraq if they say they can’t import the energy anymore?

MS ORTAGUS: So the Secretary has not made a decision on this yet. On March 18th, he did grant a 90-day waiver, as you said, to engage in financial transactions. I think it’s important to note that those were related to electricity, not to gas, from Iran. But he has – the Secretary has not made a decision yet. I’ll certainly let you know.


QUESTION: One, that was – this was the second time the U.S. asked India to cut off Iranian oils. First it happened during President Obama. Any alternative for the energy needs of India?

MS ORTAGUS: Any alternative? Is that what you said?

QUESTION: Yes, ma’am.

MS ORTAGUS: So we work – we coordinated closely, of course, with them to minimize any negative impact. And our goal and what we’ve said quite a bit from this podium, the Secretary and I have as well, is for everyone to cease importing Iranian oil entirely. And we appreciate everyone who has worked with us steadfastly to get to zero.


QUESTION: Back to Iran. You may have seen the comments by Iranian President Rouhani saying that the road is not closed to negotiations, and with President Trump —

MS ORTAGUS: I concur. Agreed.

QUESTION: — also saying that he would like to negotiate, do you see any way forward that there might be, with help of perhaps somebody else arbitrating or negotiating any way forward on that?

MS ORTAGUS: I see 12 ways forward. I think that we have been very explicit here: We do not want a war with Iran. We want to de-escalate with Iran. We do not seek any of the things that have been alleged over the past few weeks. In fact, what we seek is to end economic sanctions, to end the maximum pressure campaign. That’s where we want to get.

We want the Iranian regime to see these 12 things that Secretary Pompeo laid out and to come to the table to talk to us, to behave like a normal nation. Stop with the assassination plots in Europe. It’s intolerable. We will not stand for it. Stop supporting terrorism, stop malign regional behavior, stop trying to control Manama – excuse me, Beirut, Damascus, Sana’a. There is a path forward and we will talk tomorrow if they would like to see the bright future that we believe is there for the Iranian people.

QUESTION: Thank you.

QUESTION: And can I ask —



QUESTION: Are you willing to talk to them about anything other than the 12 points that the Secretary is —

MS ORTAGUS: Well, I think that would be a part of a comprehensive discussion that the Secretary would certainly be willing to have. I mean, we think that those – taking a realistic look at those 12 points – stop being the world’s largest state sponsor of terrorism. Behave like a normal nation, come into the international fold. We’re willing to help you get there.

QUESTION: Right, I know. But I – well, if you’re willing to help them get there, are you willing to talk to them to get to the point where you’re able to talk about those things? So what I mean is that are you willing to discuss confidence-building measures, something short of any of the 12 steps if that’s on the road to talks about the 12 points?

MS ORTAGUS: I think that the Secretary has made his position very clear, that there is a path forward as it relates to these 12 steps. I don’t think it’s too much to ask for for them to stop trying to assassinate people on European soil.

QUESTION: I’m not suggesting that it’s not too – that it is too much.

MS ORTAGUS: Yeah. I don’t think I’m —

QUESTION: I’m just wondering if —

MS ORTAGUS: No, I understand your question.

QUESTION: — if you’re willing to talk to them about lesser issues of importance to you on the way to those discussions.

And then secondly, do they have to be direct talks? Are you willing to begin the process in an indirect, through a third party as suggested?

MS ORTAGUS: I don’t think – there are no plans or discussions of that that I’m aware of, and I don’t think – indirect talks. I think that there’s no discussions or plans, again, that I’m aware of and I would say that the Secretary has made it quite clear the mechanism by which he would speak to the Iranians. I think that we have discussed a very overtly – I think all of you are probably tired of hearing me say the same thing, but we keep saying it because we think it’s important.


QUESTION: Thank you. The Japanese prime minister is considering a visit to Iran. Do you think that Japan would work as an intermediary to ease the tension between U.S. and Iran? And do you want an intermediary in the first place?

MS ORTAGUS: So the question is about the Japanese relationship with Iran. Is that the question?

QUESTION: I mean, Japan is making efforts to ease the tension between U.S. and Iran.

MS ORTAGUS: I see what you’re saying.

QUESTION: Do you support this action?

MS ORTAGUS: So we welcome the efforts by any country, whether it’s Japan, whether it’s our European allies to help deescalate the situation. We encourage all of our allies, including Japan, to remind Iran that we do not want to see them get a nuclear weapon, that we do not want to see them fomenting terrorism and paying for terrorism around the world. And so if the Japanese would like to reiterate that message on our behalf, we certainly welcome it.


QUESTION: Morgan, can I just ask you quickly —


QUESTION: These 12 steps, are they an ultimatum or are they an opening position to start talks?

QUESTION: Precondition to any talk or —

QUESTION: Yeah, preconditions or are they just the opening statement to get talks going?

MS ORTAGUS: I think it’s the open – I think we’re – let me just say, I think we’re reading a little bit too much into this. I think that it’s the opening statement —

QUESTION: Well, you keep saying the 12 steps are necessary.

MS ORTAGUS: Yeah, because I think that this is very, very – things that we are asking every country to behave by. We’re asking them not to terrorize the region, and we just don’t think that’s too much to ask for.


QUESTION: Yeah, because some critics say that the arms sale to Saudi Arabia undermines U.S. values.

MS ORTAGUS: So listen, we see this – we see the authority that the Secretary used under section 36 to be a one-time event. We’ll continue to, of course, work with Congress on this – on these, but we, due to the deteriorating situation that we saw in the region directly related to Iran of course, and their regional threats, we thought that we had to take this action because it helps our partners better defend themselves. And given this crucial period that we’re in, delaying any of these shipments any longer – they’ve been delayed I believe for about a year and a half – it could cause degraded systems, lack of necessary parts, and maintenance concerns. And we certainly can’t have our allies in that position whenever we’re under heightened threat from the Iranian regime.