Press Briefing by Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre and NSC Coordinator for Strategic Communications John Kirby

January 4, 2024

Weapon Program: 

  • Missile


MR. KIRBY: Over the course of five days around the New Year’s holiday, Russia launched repeated waves of aerial attacks against Ukraine. These massive bombardments used drones and missiles to strike cities and civilian infrastructure all across the country. Strikes reportedly hit a maternity hospital, a shopping mall, residential areas — killing dozens of innocent people and injuring hundreds more.

As Russia continues to launch these brutal attacks, the United States has new information to share about the support that Russia is receiving from third countries.

Due in part to our sanctions and export controls, Russia has become increasingly isolated on the world stage and they’ve been forced to look to likeminded states for military equipment. As we’ve been warning publicly, one of those states is North Korea.


We’ve also said publicly that Russia is seeking to acquire close-range ballistic missiles from Iran. At this time, we do not believe that Iran has delivered close-range ballistic missiles to Russia. However, the United States is concerned that Russian negotiations to acquire close-range ballistic missiles from Iran are actively advancing.

According to press reporting, in September of 2023, Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps — the IRGC — hosted Russian Defense Minister Shoigu in Iran and showcased its Ababil close-range ballistic missile and other missile systems. This event marked the first public display of ballistic missiles to a senior Russian official visiting Iran since February of 2022.

More recently, in mid-December, the IRGC Aerospace Force deployed multiple ballistic missile and missile support systems to a training area inside Iran for display to a visiting Russian delegation. We assess that Russia intends to purchase missile systems from Iran.

So, in response to Russia’s activities with Iran and North Korea, we are taking a range of steps with our allies and our partners.

First, Russia’s procurement of ballistic missiles from the DPRK directly violates multiple U.N. Security Council resolutions. We will raise these arms deals at the U.N. Security Council alongside our allies and partners, and we will demand that Russia be held accountable for yet again violating its international obligations.

Second, we will impose additional sanctions against those working to facilitate arms transfers between Russia and the DPRK and between Russia and Iran.

Third, we will continue to release information to the public and expose these arms deals, as we are doing today, because we will not allow countries to aid Russia’s war machine in secret.

But here’s the bottom line. The most effective response to Russia’s horrific violence against the Ukrainian people is to continue to provide Ukraine with vital air defense capabilities and other types of military equipment. To do that, we need Congress to approve our supplemental funding request for Ukraine without delay.

Russia is relying upon its friends to replenish its military stockpiles and enable its war against Ukraine. Iran and the DPRK are standing with Russia.

Ukrainians deserve to know that the American people and this government will continue to stand with them. So, it’s critical that Congress meets this moment and responds by providing Ukraine with what they need to defend themselves. The time for Congress to act is now.

Thank you.


Questioner: And in regards to Iran, how close is Russia to obtaining or to purchasing missiles from Iran?

MR. KIRBY: All I can tell you is what I said at the top, which is we have not seen them consummate a deal for close-range ballistic missiles.

MS. JEAN-PIERRE: Go ahead, Michael.

Questioner: Admiral, the in- — I think you said in your topper that you sort of attributed part of the reason that — that Russia is having to go to these sources to the success of American sanctions in — aimed at their domestic production. But in our — our reporting suggests that intelligent — that there is intelligence that the domestic production of missiles inside of Russia has largely recovered and, in fact, now the daily production of missiles inside Russia by Russia’s own manufacturing system has — now exceeds what it was prewar.


Questioner: Thanks, Karine. Thanks, Admiral. There was a strike in Baghdad today that killed a military commander of a pro-Iranian group. Just wondering if you can confirm whether the United States was responsible for that strike or —

MR. KIRBY: I think I’m going to refer you to — to the Department of Defense on that — on that one.

So, it — how much does the U.S. government believe they really need these North Korean and Iranian systems? Or is it just that that is the, sort of, more scary part, that — that they’re getting some different systems than they have the capability to build?

Or what’s — what — what difference does it make that they’re — that they’re getting them from North Korea if they have the production capabilities to do it themselves?

MR. KIRBY: Well, there’s a lot — awful lot there, Mike.

Questioner: I’m sorry.

MR. KIRBY: It’s — so, first of all, it’s not just U.S. sanctions and export controls. It’s really an international effort to put pressure on his war-making ability. And we do believe it has been effective.

I mean, he — he’s now — he’s now able to produce Iranian-designed drones on Russian soil because of this deal he’s got with Iran. And as we’ve talked about, he’s going to countries like North Korea for additional munitions and missiles and artillery shells.

I can’t speak to the degree to which his defense industry has somehow managed to overcome the pressure. I would argue that we don’t believe that it has fully circumvented and — and been able to thrive under the international economic pressure that — that he’s under. We still believe that the export controls and the sanctions that we and our partners have put in place have had a detrimental effect on his ability — his defense industrial cap- — capacity.

That does not mean that he hasn’t tried to improve and increase that capacity. He has. We’ve talked about this many times. I mean, his war-making machine is still capable.

And to the last part of your question, it’s not — we’re not seeing anything that would tell us that these particular capabilities add something he doesn’t already have. He had — already had a pretty sophisticated missile capability before he decided to invade Ukraine, but it certainly is additive to his capability.

And as he tries to — again, without getting into a debate about how much he has or hasn’t improved his defense industrial base — as he certainly tries to recover from the pressure he’s under, this — these are additive elements to his ability to continue to hit civilian infrastructure.

It is, though, of a piece of a larger effort by — by Mr. Putin to weaponize the winter, to — to target specific civilian infrastructure and — and facilities to try to break the back of the Ukrainian people.


Questioner: Thanks, Karine. John, ISIS has claimed responsibility for the attack in Iran. Is that the U.S. conclusion as well? And what is your analysis or the U.S. analysis, then, of ISIS’s strength and whether it’s increasing?

MR. KIRBY: I would — we have seen the — the public credit now that ISIS-K has taken for the attack in Iran. We’re certainly in no position to — to doubt that — that — that claim by — by ISIS-K.


Questioner: Thanks, Karine. Thanks, Admiral. There was a strike in Baghdad today that killed a military commander of a pro-Iranian group. Just wondering if you can confirm whether the United States was responsible for that strike or —

MR. KIRBY: I think I’m going to refer you to — to the Department of Defense on that — on that one.


Questioner: Thank you, Karine. John, Iran made two transactions withdrawing from the previously frozen funds in Oman. What were those transactions for?

MR. KIRBY: I don’t have the details on that, Jacqui. You’re going to have to let me get back to you on that.

Questioner: Okay. I let the office know before that I was looking for this question, so I hoped to get one today.

MR. KIRBY: Sorry.

Questioner: Okay. I’ll come back to you with that then.

MR. KIRBY: Sure, of course.

Questioner: More broadly, I guess, you know, is the administration at all reconsidering its decisions to finance Iran indirectly by allowing these sanctions waivers to go forward given the pro- — the level of proxy attacks that we have seen?

MR. KIRBY: To finance — or you mean by the — from —

Questioner: Well, there’s —

MR. KIRBY: From the —

Questioner: It’s for humanitarian aid, right?

MR. KIRBY: Exactly, yeah.

Questioner: But we had these two transactions I’m talking about, and, you know, I’m hoping we can get an answer on what they were for. But the Assistant Treasury Secretary for Terrorist Financing and Financial Crimes was testifying about this to a House subcommittee and said that any details, you know, about those transactions would have to be provided in a classified setting. You know, why would we need to have that information be behind closed doors when that money is supposed to only be for humanitarian purposes? It should be, you know, transparent, I would — I would think.

And I know the administration also, sort of, quietly reversed its decision to allow, you know, withdrawals from the $6 billion that was freed up from the prisoner swap. But after that decision, the $10 billion — the waiver was extended for the $10 billion. This was money that was payments for electricity in Iraq.

So, anyway, given the level of proxy attacks and the availability of these funds, is the U.S. reconsidering these sanctions waivers?

MR. KIRBY: With the caveat that I am going to have to get back to you on whether or not there’s actually been some sort of procurement request by the Iranians for the humanitarian assistance — again, just don’t still know the answer to that.

So, with that as a caveat, I would tell you that, again, none of that money goes to the Iranian regime and none of it goes to the mullahs.

It is — it is — if it has been — if it has been allocated against, it would go to approved vendors that would purchase food, water, medicine, agricultural products, and then ship that directly into Iran for the benefit of the Iranian people.

And — and this — really, what your question kind of goes —

Questioner: Is that still appropriate, though, given the behavior of the state right now? I mean, we’ve topped the briefing with this news about —

MR. KIRBY: Our issue is not with the Iranian people. And it’s difficult to square having — anybody having a problem with the Iranian people getting food, water, medicine, and agricultural products so that they can subsist.

It’s not as if — and this is where I was getting to in the fungimil- — fungibility argument, which is kind of what your question is getting to. It’s not as if the mullahs are sitting around thinking, “Well, how can we make the lives of the Iranian people better? Let’s get them more food, water, medicine.” They’re not making that choice.

What they’re doing is investing in — in missile technology and helping Ukraine kill innocent — I’m sorry — helping Russia kill innocent Ukrainians.

So, it’s not — you know, the fungibility argument just doesn’t stand up. It’s not like it frees up money that they were — that they now — that they were going to use on food and water that now they’re going to go buy missiles with. They’ve been — they’ve been focusing —

Questioner: Your critics would say that’s exactly what it does. (Laughs.)

MR. KIRBY: Well, and I would argue that the critics are incorrect. It’s the — the mullahs, the regime in Iran has been doing that consistently over many, multiple presidential administrations, Republican and Democratic.

They mean to have — they have hegemonic ambitions in the region, and they are a destabilizer in the region. And they have been investing a lot of money into advanced military capabilities to try to push forward that vision. It’s not as if they’ve been prioritizing the Iranian people.

And this money — these funds are designed for the Iranian people —

Questioner: One —

MR. KIRBY: — and for their benefit only.