Daily Press Briefing - March 20, 2014

Index for Today's Briefing:

    • Special Envoy for Syria Daniel Rubinstein's Travel
    • Jen's Psaki's Mother in Attendance
    • Sanctions
    • Review of Ukraine's Military Requests
    • Secretary Kerry's and Foreign Minister Lavrov's Phone Conversation / Concerns about the Illegal Referendum
    • Illegal Annexations
    • Commitment to a Peaceful Resolution
    • P-8 Poseidon Search for Missing Plane
    • Special Envoy Rubenstein to Engage with Opposition
    • OPCW's Announces Removal of Half of Syria's Declared Chemical Weapons / Maintain Pressure on the Assad Regime
    • UN Convoy of Humanitarian Aid
    • More to Do
    • Cooperate with Russia on the Chemical Weapons Removal Process
    • Assad Allows Humanitarian Aid
    • Secretary Kerry's Conversation with Uruguayan President / Closing Guantanamo / Transferring Detainees
    • Arrests of Opposition Mayors
    • Secretary Kerry's Speaks with French Foreign Minister Fabius / Human Rights is Part of the Agreement
    • U.S. Remains Committed to Alan Gross's Release
    • Discussions with UN Human Rights Council Special Rapporteur on Counterterrorism Issues
    • Secretary Kerry and Egyptian Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy Talked on Monday
    • Defense Secretary Hagel and Israeli Defense Minister Ya'alon / Secretary Kerry Expressed Concern to Prime Minister Netanyahu
    • Peace Negotiations
    • Visas
    • U.S. Remains Committed to Six-Party Process
    • Violation of International Law
  • DPRK
    • Special Envoy for North Korean Human Rights Issues Robert King's Trip to Geneva
  • IRAN
    • Conversations about Nuclear Program
    • Readout of Assistant Secretary Victoria Nuland's and Deputy Assistant Secretary Rubin's Meeting with Turkish Cypriot Negotiator Kudret Ozersay
Jen Psaki
Daily Press Briefing
Washington, DC
March 20, 2014


1:39 p.m. EDT

MS. PSAKI: So I have one item at the top for all of you. Special Envoy for Syria Daniel Rubinstein is on travel to the region starting today for consultations with Syrians and others seeking an end to the horrific conflict and a different kind of future for all Syrians. From March 20th through 30th, he will travel to Turkey, Paris, and Jordan where he will meet with members of the Syrian opposition, government officials, and Syrian activists.

As the Secretary said earlier this week, Special Envoy Rubinstein’s leadership and counsel will be vital as we redouble our efforts to support the moderate opposition, shore up our partners, counter the rise of extremism that threatens us all, and address the devastating humanitarian crisis and its impact on the neighboring states. We remain committed to the Geneva process and to all diplomatic efforts to find a political solution as the only way to a lasting and sustainable end to the conflict.

And also, my mother is here today at the briefing, so for anyone who has concerns about your behavior in here, she’ll be speaking with you afterwards. (Laughter.) Just stay here.

QUESTION: I’ll try to be extra special nice today.

MS. PSAKI: On cue, Matt. (Laughter.) Go ahead, Matt.

QUESTION: That’s Matt.

QUESTION: Just one thing first. Turkey, Paris, and Jordan?

MS. PSAKI: Yes, that’s correct.

QUESTION: But France has not somehow migrated into the region, has it?

MS. PSAKI: No, it has not.

QUESTION: Okay, all right.

MS. PSAKI: But obviously we are --


MS. PSAKI: -- closely coordinating with them on future steps.

QUESTION: Fair enough. Ukraine, please.

MS. PSAKI: Mm-hmm.

QUESTION: The sanctions that the Russians announced today – one, do you think that they are appropriate? Do you – does anyone really care? And perhaps most importantly, is anyone in this building disappointed that they did not make the list?

MS. PSAKI: Well, we, of course, have seen the list of sanctions, as I’m sure all of you did, or individuals. A number of officials have released statements. I know I saw one from Senator Menendez. I think what we’ve seen pretty universally is pride to be on the list, to be standing up for what they and what we feel is right, which is preserving the territorial integrity of Ukraine. I am personally, of course, disappointed I won’t be able to vacation with Ben Rhodes and Dan Pfeiffer in Russia, but perhaps we’ll wait on that for a future.

QUESTION: You mean you’re trying to get on the list?



MS. PSAKI: They’re on the list.


MS. PSAKI: They are on the list.

QUESTION: Okay. But when you guys announced your first round back earlier this week, the Russian Foreign Ministry came out and said they were unacceptable, this is not the way you do business. You don’t have the same reaction to these sanctions, or do you?

MS. PSAKI: Well, Matt --

QUESTION: Do you think that they’re unacceptable?

MS. PSAKI: Matt, I think it is an important point here that they are announcing sanctions in response to us sanctioning their illegal actions. We had a specific reason for it – the illegality of the steps they took.

QUESTION: So you would say that they have no legitimate reason to enact tit-for-tat sanctions?

MS. PSAKI: It’s hard to see what the reason is.


QUESTION: I was wondering – the Ukraine has asked the U.S. for help on military equipment.

MS. PSAKI: Mm-hmm.

QUESTION: Today, Ben Rhodes said that was not going to happen, but the Europeans are giving a different answer on that one. What exactly is the status of that? And I understand that the State Department is the one considering this too.

MS. PSAKI: Well, we have a longstanding defense and security assistance relationship with the Ukrainian military. That will continue. Without addressing specifics, I can say we are reviewing their requests. Our focus continues to be on supporting economic and diplomatic measures to de-escalate the situation. No one wants to see a military outcome here, so our focus remains on those measures, including the ones that we announced this morning.

QUESTION: So from what you’re saying, you’re still considering it? It’s not that it’s been taken off the table completely?

MS. PSAKI: In terms of assistance in what capacity?

QUESTION: Military assistance.

MS. PSAKI: Well, I think the President pretty clearly stated yesterday that there’s no plans for a military engagement. That is not our preferred step, not a focus of our efforts. So I think that answered it pretty clearly.

QUESTION: Can I ask – Secretary Kerry spoke with Foreign Minister Lavrov this morning?

MS. PSAKI: Mm-hmm. He did.

QUESTION: Could you give us a readout on that call?

MS. PSAKI: Well, I would say that they’ve been speaking very regularly, as you know, almost every day, if not every other day. There’s ongoing discussions about our concerns – well, I should say the Secretary expressed our continued concerns about the illegal referendum and the steps Russia has taken to annex Crimea about continued escalatory steps of the Russian military, and they’ve also continued to talk about a diplomatic path forward. So these conversations are happening regularly, and we’re not going to give an extensive readout of each one for obvious reasons.

QUESTION: According to the Russian Foreign Ministry, Foreign Minister Lavrov said that the decision to reunite, he’s calling it, Crimea and Russia, is not going to be revisited. And it would seem to say that he’s closing the door on that prospect.

MS. PSAKI: Well, it should come as no surprise that that’s what they’re stating. We don’t consider it reuniting. We consider it an illegal annexation. So there certainly is a difference of opinion there.

QUESTION: And the other thing – the Secretary said that he was going to meet – or wanted to, hoped to meet with Foreign Minister Lavrov in The Hague next week. Is that on? Is that actually happening?

MS. PSAKI: It is not scheduled. Obviously, there’ll be a range of officials in town over the course of the travel coming up, but --

QUESTION: Is that something that is being scheduled or that you’re actively trying to schedule, or is there any point?

MS. PSAKI: It hasn’t been scheduled yet. It certainly is possible. They’ve, of course, been engaging over the phone in diplomatic discussions.

QUESTION: Right. Do you know, did they talk – realizing that you don’t want to give an extensive readout of the call, did they talk about the possibility of getting together in Europe next week?

MS. PSAKI: I don’t have that level of detail on the call, Matt, but again, they’ve been talking over the phone, so it should come as no surprise that if they’re in the same place, that that would be possible.


QUESTION: Jen, just to follow up, the Ukrainian request, as I understand it, was for the sharing of intelligence, for vehicles, for logistics, for medical kits, mine-clearing equipment in order to enhance their capabilities and deter a Russian intervention.

MS. PSAKI: Mm-hmm.

QUESTION: It wasn’t for the United States to engage in a military engagement with the Russians.

MS. PSAKI: Mm-hmm.

QUESTION: So what is the reason for not meeting this request?

MS. PSAKI: Well, we’re reviewing their requests. I don’t have anything to announce for you in terms of what we may be able to deliver on. And of course, DOD would have the lead on the majority of that.

QUESTION: At the briefing this morning – the conference call briefing the White House organized – one of the senior officials asserted that the United States was or intended to provide nonlethal equipment to the Ukrainians. Is that accurate?

MS. PSAKI: Again, I don’t have anything beyond that to state for you or any specific details. We have a longstanding relationship with them, but this is something that we’re continuing to review every day.

QUESTION: So what you’re saying is the U.S. might indeed, in the NATO context, provide equipment and support, that this is under consideration?

MS. PSAKI: Sure. We’re considering a range of their requests. I just don’t want to get ahead of the official process.


QUESTION: In the Ukraine, the Russians today – or I think it was yesterday, maybe – started issuing passports to citizens in Crimea – Russian passports. Will the U.S. be recognizing these passports?

MS. PSAKI: I would have to talk to our team, but we don’t recognize the steps they’ve taken, so I’d have to talk to our Consular Affairs team.

QUESTION: Could you take the question and get back --

MS. PSAKI: I’m happy to, mm-hmm.

QUESTION: Thank you.


QUESTION: Jen, can I go back to a question that Matt asked yesterday --

MS. PSAKI: Sure.

QUESTION: -- which was just happening during the briefing, which was the --

MS. PSAKI: Right.

QUESTION: -- that the Ukrainian authorities have given orders to start withdrawing the military from Crimea?

MS. PSAKI: Mm-hmm.

QUESTION: I wonder if you had a reaction to this and whether that’s now – if they’re accepting almost that this is a fait accompli, maybe it’s time to – for the international community to start moving on as well.

MS. PSAKI: Well, I think they would hardly say this is an indication of a fait accompli. This is pragmatic steps they’re taking to protect their own people. So in drawing up plans to withdraw its forces from Crimea, Ukraine, unlike Russia, continues to demonstrate its commitment to a peaceful resolution of this crisis. It doesn’t change the fact that Ukraine – that Crimea is a part of Ukraine, and that’s our belief. That is the belief of the Ukrainian Government.

Any more on Ukraine? Ukraine? Okay. Should we do a new topic?

QUESTION: Change of subject, please. There have been reports coming out of Malaysia that the Malaysian authorities have been requesting satellite information from the United States through the co-controlled Pine Gap facility in Australia, and that there were suggestions that some of that information may be withheld. Can you tell us anything about that and what information is being shared via that facility?

MS. PSAKI: I’m not going to detail specifically. What I will say is that we have put every necessary resource that we have available at the disposal of the search process. As you all know, the Malaysian Government has the lead. We receive, the President receives, our national security team receives regular updates. I know there has also been reports of objects found in the Indian Ocean and efforts to pursue that. We are assisting the search efforts as part of a broad team of international partners. We have a P-8 Poseidon searching that specific area. But beyond that, I’m not going to outline specific forms of assistance or cooperation.

QUESTION: Is there any NSA-gathered satellite imagery that’s being shared or might be shared?

MS. PSAKI: I’m just not going to – we’re working very closely across the interagency with the Malaysians who have the lead, but I’m not going to share more details of that.

Do we have any more on that topic? Okay. Go ahead.


MS. PSAKI: Sure.

QUESTION: Can you give us – could you share the – with us the agenda of Special Envoy Rubinstein before his visit to the region of Syria, and Turkey especially?

MS. PSAKI: His agenda while he’s in Turkey?


MS. PSAKI: I think we’ll probably be putting out a more detailed Media Note. We just were announcing that he’s going to be on this trip. But as he – as the specific countries come upon us, we’ll be putting out more details, I would expect.

QUESTION: I have a specific topic that I will like to ask.

MS. PSAKI: Okay.

QUESTION: There’s a special religious site within Syria which is belonging to Turkey. It’s an exceptional area, actually.

MS. PSAKI: Mm-hmm.

QUESTION: This is the only area outside of Turkey that Turkey is controlling, and it’s protected by the Turkish army. And after the threats coming from the civil war, Turkish Government – according to the press reports and according to some cabinet members, Turkish Government is really, I mean, seriously considering to take a unilateral military action against this area to provide the security of this site. And also, main opposition party leader urged not to that – not to do that – the Turkish Government – just before the election. Such an action would be provocative for the civil war in the region too. So do you have any comment on that?

MS. PSAKI: I don’t. (Laughter.) Go ahead. I wanted to let him get it all out.

Go ahead, Samir.

QUESTION: The timing of his trip to the region, is it --

MS. PSAKI: Daniel Rubenstein’s trip?

QUESTION: Yes, Mr. Rubenstein. Is it coming with any new military supplies to the Syrian army, Free Syrian Army?

MS. PSAKI: It’s not an indication of anything other than his desire to engage as quickly as possible with the opposition, with important partners in the region and allies who are not in the region, who are working on these issues. And as you know, he just started on Monday, so he wanted to hit the ground running.

QUESTION: What do you expect him to tell the opposition after the fall of the city of Yabroud by the Syrian military and Hezbollah?

MS. PSAKI: Well, I think he will convey to the opposition that we support them, we are with them, and that’s a consistent message we’ve been conveying. But I expect he’ll have some lengthy meetings with him over the coming days.

QUESTION: Could I move us way far out of the Middle East?

QUESTION: Very quickly on Syria?

MS. PSAKI: Can I do one more update on Syria? And then – go ahead, Lesley.

QUESTION: I wanted to ask about the chemical weapons --

MS. PSAKI: Okay.

QUESTION: -- because today, well, the UN has said that half of Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal has been shipped out.

MS. PSAKI: Mm-hmm.

QUESTION: Do you see this as progress? Just generally a comment.

MS. PSAKI: Sure. Well, as you mentioned, OPCW announced this morning that the removal of half of Syria’s declared chemical weapons has happened. Syria remains behind the schedules agreed by the OPCW Executive Council and has provided only one-third of the highest priority chemical weapons for removal. It is imperative, in our view, that we maintain pressure on the regime to live up to its obligations and expeditiously transport all remaining chemicals to Latakia to facilitate their removal by sea. So this is a step forward, but there’s a great deal more that needs to happen, and we believe the international community should keep the pressure on.

Can I do one more Syria update? One more Syria update and then we’ll go to you. Earlier today, a UN convoy of desperately needed aid reached the residence of Qamishli in northern Syria – did I pronounce that correctly? Okay – via the Turkish border crossing. We’re relieved that aid is finally reaching people who desperately need it. As we’ve said before, the international community is ready to deliver humanitarian aid through every available channel.

It’s been the Assad regime which has prevented delivery of assistance. As we saw today, the Assad regime can allow humanitarian access when it chooses to do so. We hope today’s delivery means the Assad regime will immediately approve all of the UN’s requests for access to areas in need, including across conflict lines and from neighboring countries as called for by UN Security Council Resolution 2139.

Do we have one more on Syria before we move on?

QUESTION: Yes, please.

MS. PSAKI: Okay, go ahead.

QUESTION: You mentioned about the shipment of the chemical weapons, and it seems that reports are coming as, like, hopeful, and in the same time you are talking about that it’s not good result, I mean, up till this moment. What is the right --

MS. PSAKI: Well --

QUESTION: -- evaluation of what’s going on?

MS. PSAKI: It is positive that they hit the nearly 50 percent mark. I think it’s just slightly under that. However, there’s more they need to do. There are aggressive timelines in place. So the point is keep it going, let’s keep the – let’s keep moving the chemical weapons out. And that’s what we want to see, because as you know, they were behind the timelines for quite a long period earlier this year.

QUESTION: So the second question, related to this one, which is, like, how much and how far the Russians are cooperating with this. Still they are cooperating, or they took off their hands?

MS. PSAKI: We continue to cooperate with the Russians on the chemical weapons removal process. But obviously the OPCW and many countries in the international community have the lead in the implementation phase.

QUESTION: Regarding the humanitarian aid, you mentioned the Qamishli issue. Are there other places the humanitarian aid is flowing, or it’s like this is what was news – I mean, that it’s came through?

MS. PSAKI: This is one indication that the Assad regime can allow humanitarian assistance through, but to your point --

QUESTION: If they want.

MS. PSAKI: If they want. To your point, there are many, many high target, high priority areas, as identified by the United Nations, where aid is not getting through and people are starving, don’t have the medical assistance they need. So that’s why more needs to be done.

QUESTION: Thank you.

MS. PSAKI: Did you want to move to a new topic?

QUESTION: Yeah. I wanted to know: Has the Secretary spoken to the President of Uruguay in the last, say, 36 hours or so? And if so, what was the topic of their conversation?

MS. PSAKI: He did not speak with him in the last 36 hours.


MS. PSAKI: He did speak with him --

QUESTION: Forty-eight hours?

MS. PSAKI: Actually, what day is today? (Laughter.)

QUESTION: Thirty-seven hours?

MS. PSAKI: Sorry, my math is a little off.

QUESTION: Thirty-six and a half hours?

MS. PSAKI: None of us are math majors. He did speak with him on Monday, Matt.

QUESTION: Monday. Okay. And the subject of that call was?

MS. PSAKI: Well, I don’t have a specific readout of the call. Obviously, we engage with a range of countries, but I’m sure you have more of a question beyond what you just asked.

QUESTION: I did, but I was hoping you were going to volunteer it. But I --

MS. PSAKI: Okay. Go ahead.

QUESTION: Has – have the Uruguayans agreed to take in five Guantanamo detainees?

MS. PSAKI: As with many governments, we remain engaged with the Government of Uruguay to discuss the issue of closing the detention facility at Guantanamo. However, I have nothing to announce for you. There’s obviously a process in place for how these decisions are made, including through working with Congress and others.

QUESTION: Right. Okay. Well, the president of Uruguay has actually come out and said that they’re willing to take five. Are you aware of that?

MS. PSAKI: I’ve seen those comments.

QUESTION: You can’t – you don’t know if – or you can’t say if Uruguay has expressed a willingness or an interest in taking any, without a number attached?

MS. PSAKI: Well, clearly, they’ve indicated publicly. Obviously, we have a process on this end. You know how committed we are to closing Guantanamo, but we have to let that process see itself forward.

QUESTION: Okay, so – well, can you say at least that there is the process for transferring X number to Uruguay is underway, and it just hasn’t been finalized because, I don’t know, congressional notifications or whatever haven’t gone --

MS. PSAKI: I can’t go that deeply into the process, otherwise – other than saying, obviously, we’re talking with a range of countries, including Uruguay, about their – about the transfer of detainees.

QUESTION: Okay. I have one other Latin America one.

MS. PSAKI: Sure, go ahead.

QUESTION: It’s very – probably very brief. You’ve seen reports from Venezuela about the arrests of several opposition mayors. Do you have any comment on that?

MS. PSAKI: Sure. Reports of the arrests of the mayors – of San Cristobal, Daniel Ceballos; of San Diego, Enzo Scarano – deeply concern us. The Venezuelan Government should stop the violence against its citizens and opposition officials who are exercising their freedom of speech. We call again on the Venezuelan Government to release those it has unjustly jailed, lift restrictions on freedom of the press, and engage in an authentically inclusive dialogue with Venezuelans across the political spectrum.

QUESTION: I have a – staying in Latin America – I have one as well.

MS. PSAKI: Okay.

Fabius is going to Cuba soon he says. And this will be the first kind of level visit on the French side for something like three decades. I just wondered if you had spoken, this building or this Administration has spoken to the French, sort of to voice any concerns about such a high-level visit, given where you are with your relations with Cuba.

MS. PSAKI: Sure. The Secretary did speak with Foreign Minister Fabius this morning, but I’d have to check and see if this topic came up. Obviously, there’s a range of issues we work with the French on. I’m happy to do that.

Broadly speaking, we understand that the issue of human rights and fundamental freedoms in Cuba would be part of the negotiation of a new EU-Cuba agreement. That is important, important to the United States. We have a very good dialogue with our EU partners on Cuba, including the French, and regularly share information on the human rights situation there and our concerns about that.

We also encourage all nations with diplomatic representation in Havana, including France, to openly engage with Cuba civil society through their embassies in Havana and during visits of officials to Cuba.

QUESTION: Will you be asking the foreign minister perhaps to press the case for the release of Alan Gross?

MS. PSAKI: That is an issue we bring up on every occasion where there’s an opportunity. I will check and see if that’s a message we will be asking them to transfer to --

QUESTION: It would be interesting to see if what – if during that conversation they talked about – they spoke – what else did Secretary Kerry and Fabius talk about?

MS. PSAKI: Sure. Why don’t we get you a readout of the call after the briefing.

QUESTION: Can I – just on the Alan Gross thing, it has bubbled up to the surface once again, this allegation that the U.S. has somehow abandoned Mr. Gross and is letting him – is doing nothing to and get him out of prison. Is that – do you agree with that characterization?

MS. PSAKI: Absolutely not. We remain as committed as we have been to his release. It’s an issue we raise regularly through many channels, and that will continue.

QUESTION: On Pakistan.

MS. PSAKI: Sure.

QUESTION: Do you have anything for us on the decision to – of the U.S. to sit out talks at the UN Human Rights Council on Pakistan’s draft resolution regarding drone strikes?

MS. PSAKI: Sure. Let’s see here. It is incorrect that we are unwilling to deal with important counterterrorism issues at the HRC and with its mandate holders. We have met with the UN Human Rights Council Special Rapporteur on CT at senior levels when he traveled to Washington, and since joining the council we have regularly participated in negotiations on resolutions dealing with the need to protect human rights while countering terrorism.

But this particular resolution deals solely with the use of remotely piloted aircraft. We don’t – we just don’t see the Human Rights Council as the right forum for discussing narrowly focused – for discussion narrowly focused on a single weapons delivery system. That has not been a traditional focus area for the HRC, in part for reasons of expertise. We do not see how refinements to the text can address this core concern. We know others may have different perspectives, and we, of course, respect their right to do so.

Do we have a new topic?

QUESTION: Well, I was, but that’s a really kind of bizarre answer, I think, to the question. Do you not agree that it could – that this idea of drones could be raised in a broader human rights – in a broader resolution that talks about human rights and counterterrorism?

MS. PSAKI: Well, again, I think, obviously, we speak with the Human Rights Council about a range of issues. But we just didn’t think with this specific resolution it was the appropriate venue. I don’t have much more detail than that, but I can talk to our UN team and see if there’s more we can share.

QUESTION: Okay. I’d be particularly interested to know if you regard the deaths of civilians by drone strikes to be a human rights issue or not, because it seems to me that although you may be correct that this resolution is very narrowly focused and it’s not the way it’s been done in the past, I’d be – I want to know if the issue of human rights and drones – the issue of drones is an appropriate thing in the view of the Administration to bring up in a wider – in the wider context of counterterrorism and human rights.

MS. PSAKI: I will see. I will talk to our team and see if there’s more to convey.

QUESTION: A follow-up?

MS. PSAKI: Sure.

QUESTION: If that’s not the right venue, can you tell us what would be?

MS. PSAKI: Well, we discuss issues in a range of venues, but I don’t have anything more to share with all of you.

Go ahead.


MS. PSAKI: Egypt?

QUESTION: Yes, please.

MS. PSAKI: Mm-hmm.

QUESTION: It was reported today that Egyptian Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy had a phone call with Secretary Kerry. Do you have any update about that?

MS. PSAKI: I think this was a couple of days ago. And he’s been in regular contact with him about the importance of our long relationship with Egypt, the importance of our security relationship and our strategic relationship. But I will check with our team and see if there’s more to share from the call. It was on Monday.

QUESTION: Yes. There is a follow-up question about --

MS. PSAKI: Okay.

QUESTION: One of the issues it was raised last week when Secretary Kerry was on the Hill the necessity of Apache helicopters in the counterterrorism effort, especially in Sinai. And he stressed more than a time that it was an important not just for Egypt; it’s for U.S. and for Israel and others in the region. And it was – he mentioned more than one time that very soon or soon – I don’t know what is the difference – it’s going to be decided to restore this relation. Do you have anything to say about that?

MS. PSAKI: I think he – I don’t think that was the exact quote. But obviously, there’s an ongoing review of our relationship. As you know, we put a range of assistance on hold. Last year there was some assistance, security assistance, that moved forward because it was in our national security interest. But I don’t have any prediction for you on when any decision will be reached on the rest.

QUESTION: So you mentioned that it was not – I’m sorry, correct me if I am wrong. You mentioned that is not exact words. So what was --

MS. PSAKI: I don’t have the quote in front of me. I recall it more along the lines of there’ll be a decision made. So --


QUESTION: Back to the Middle East?

MS. PSAKI: Sure.

QUESTION: Yesterday we had a little bit of a discussion about Defense Minister Yaalon’s --


QUESTION: -- recent comments. And since that – since our discussion here, he has called Secretary Hagel and, whether it was an apology or not, tried to make up or tried to make things better. I’m wondering if you – if the Administration now believes that this is a case closed, if it’s a done deal, or if you --

MS. PSAKI: Sure.

QUESTION: -- still have concerns, given the frequency and – given the frequency of the defense minister’s disparaging comments, if this is not the end of the matter.

MS. PSAKI: Sure. Well, and I also saw that the Pentagon put out a readout of that call this morning. As I said yesterday, Secretary Kerry expressed his concerns directly to Prime Minister Netanyahu during their call. He has remaining concerns about this pattern, but we are continuing to move forward on the peace process. And he is working with Prime Minister Netanyahu, and the negotiating team is working with the negotiators. So we’re focused on those engagements.

QUESTION: Okay. So it’s not over for you guys. You still have --

MS. PSAKI: Well, he has remaining concerns about the pattern. But again, our --

QUESTION: From this particular official?

MS. PSAKI: Mm-hmm.

QUESTION: Okay. And now just in the same region but on the other side of the equation, the Palestinians – several senior Palestinian officials have said in the last several days that if the prisoner release does not go ahead as planned or expected or agreed, depending on which word you want to use, that they will immediately go to the United Nations and seek whatever it is they want to seek, recognition, before the end of the nine months – in other words, like, next week. I’m wondering what you think about that.

MS. PSAKI: Well, I spoke to the issue a couple of days ago.

QUESTION: Well, you spoke to the prisoners.

MS. PSAKI: Sure.

QUESTION: But do you believe that the Palestinians are committed to not going at least until – not going to the UN at least until the end of that nine-month target?

MS. PSAKI: Well, the nine-month timeframe was a commitment that both parties made in terms of taking steps or not taking steps that would be – taking steps that would be conducive to a peace negotiation. So certainly going to the UN would not fall into that category. This is an issue that is being worked out through the parties. I don’t have anything new to update you on. Obviously, we have a little bit of time until the next tranche is scheduled.

QUESTION: Well, yeah, a little bit. Not very much at all. The time is ticking. I’m just curious: Do you think that this is – you don’t have any way to describe it? It’s not constructive, it’s not helpful to the process – this kind of a threat; if you don’t – if the Israelis don’t do this, the hell with the timeframe, we’re going to the UN?

MS. PSAKI: Well, we’re familiar – everybody’s familiar with the timeframe. We are not surprised that there has been an increase in rhetoric over the past couple of weeks given where we are in the process in the pivotal period. But we’re just going to keep our head down and focused on the process.

QUESTION: And the --

MS. PSAKI: Sure.

QUESTION: Just a quick --

QUESTION: Hold on, I got one more on it. Yesterday – or not yesterday, last week on the Hill, when he was testifying, the Secretary was asked some questions by lawmakers about their concerns over high rejection rates of Israeli visa – tourist visa applications. He responded that it was well within the normal rejection rate, or whatever. But I’m just wondering – he said he would get back to the senators with more details on this issue. And I’m wondering if he has, in fact, or if he – even if he hasn’t, if you can enlighten us about what the actual rate of – the rejection rate is.

MS. PSAKI: Sure. Well, I don’t have the exact rejection rate, but let me convey – because I think there have been some rumors about kind of specific targeting of rejecting specific groups. All visa applications, as all of you know, are reviewed individually in accordance with the requirements of U.S. immigration law. That’s the case as well, certainly, for any young Israeli, any defense official, any of the range of individuals where there have been rumors that there is a broad policy here.

So we have no policy of denying visas to young Israelis. We have no policy of denying visas to Israeli defense officials. Each individual applies and each individual application is considered when it’s submitted. I can check on the specific statistics, but part of this discussion has been about whether we had a broad policy in this case, and so I just wanted to clarify that.

QUESTION: Right. Not a policy of denial, a policy of presumption of denial; in other words --

MS. PSAKI: Sure.

QUESTION: -- you would have to prove certain things to overcome that presumption. But the – there was a report the other day that cited some --

MS. PSAKI: Mm-hmm.

QUESTION: -- specific statistics from the State Department that said that the rejection rate for Israeli tourist visas had jumped like 400 percent without, I presume, a corresponding increase in the number of applications you’ve gotten. I think the number 400 percent is wrong; it’s close to 300 percent if the numbers that you all provided were correct. Can you explain that? Or was there, in fact, a 300 percent jump in – or a close to 300 percent jump in the number of applications received?

MS. PSAKI: I just have to – we just have to take a closer look at the statistics. But there’s no sweeping policy that would predict that.

QUESTION: Thank you.



QUESTION: -- just to clarify, it’s – I’m sure you addressed this earlier, but it’s the U.S. view that the prisoner release should go ahead at the end of this month even if the Palestinian side does not commit to extend the negotiations beyond the end of April as the Israelis would like?

MS. PSAKI: I’m just not going to get into that level of detail. These are all being – these issues are being discussed by the parties, so we’re going to let them stay in the negotiating room.

QUESTION: Jen, can I – more broadly then, are you still hopeful that come April the 29th, there’ll be something to show for the fruit of all these labors over the last nine months?

MS. PSAKI: Of course we are. That’s why we’re working so closely with the parties. Ambassador Indyk is headed back to the region tomorrow to work closely with them, and the Secretary has been closely engaged on the phone. And always the heat is on in the final weeks, and that’s where we are.

QUESTION: Do you have a Plan B? Is there, come April the 29th, if there isn’t a framework – there’s obviously not going to be a full peace treaty, but if there’s not a framework, what’s Plan B?

MS. PSAKI: Our focus is on the framework and continuing to narrow the gaps between the parties.

QUESTION: On East Asia?

MS. PSAKI: Do we have more – just more on Middle East peace just to make sure. Middle East peace? Okay. Go ahead.

QUESTION: Not Middle East.

MS. PSAKI: Oh. Well, okay. Why don’t we go to you first, then? Go ahead.

QUESTION: Yes. On East Asia?

MS. PSAKI: Mm-hmm.

QUESTION: So after having unofficial talks in China, Japan and North Korea agreed to have official talks concerning North Korea’s abduction of Japanese citizens, as well as North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs. Do you have any reaction to that? Do you welcome these talks?

MS. PSAKI: Well, naturally, I’d point you, of course, to the Government of Japan on these specific – and I think I spoke to this the other day, but I could be wrong – to the specific nature of these talks. Obviously, we remain committed to the Six-Party process. We’re engaged with our – all of our partners in the region, including Japan on that, and stay very closely linked up as it relates to meetings and engagements.

QUESTION: So the U.S. won’t have any role in these direct talks between Japan and North Korea?

MS. PSAKI: Well, we’re engaged closely with Japan, and all of our – all of the parties in the Six-Party Talks about engagements and steps. But again, I’d point you to the Government of Japan for any specifics.

Uh-huh. Or do we have any more on Asia? Asia. Let’s go ahead.

QUESTION: Yeah. In terms of the Crimea crisis, President Obama announced more sanction against Russia and asked more support from international community.

MS. PSAKI: Mm-hmm. Sure.

QUESTION: Having said that, how do you assess the Asian countries’ support on this issue? Do you expect more voice from the U.S. alliance country such as Korea and Japan and Australia?

MS. PSAKI: Well, I know a number of these countries have made public statements about the illegality of the referendum and the steps Russia has taken to annex. Every country’s going to make their own decision about any economic sanctions steps they’re going to take, but certainly, as you’ve seen through the President’s – the range of the President’s calls over the past couple of weeks, and the Secretary’s as well, that we’re engaging very broadly with the international community beyond Europe about our concerns about the violation of international law here. And we continue to encourage countries to join us in that effort.

QUESTION: Sorry, can I just follow up on that earlier --

MS. PSAKI: Sure.

QUESTION: -- question before we move on? When you say the U.S. is – remains committed to the Six-Party process, it is still your position, though, that before actual talks could resume, you would need to see some kind of steps taken on the North Korean side, correct?

MS. PSAKI: Absolutely. What I was conveying there – and thank you for the question – was that we’re in very close contact and coordination with our partners, but certainly, the ball remains in North Korea’s court --


MS. PSAKI: -- and they have not taken steps to abide by their international obligations.

QUESTION: Would you see a positive outcome from these talks such as some kind of movement, progress made on the abduction issue as something in – a step in that direction?

MS. PSAKI: There are very specific steps that North Korea needs to take. You’re familiar with them – abiding by the 2005 Joint Statement, taking steps on their nuclear program. I think it’s pretty clearly laid out, so that’s what they would need to do.


MS. PSAKI: Go ahead.


MS. PSAKI: Well, okay. Go in the back and then we’ll do Scott and we’ll come back to you, okay? Okay. Go ahead.

QUESTION: So I was just wondering if you had anything to – like a readout from Ambassador King’s trip to Geneva?

MS. PSAKI: Mm-hmm.

QUESTION: And more so, he also said that there will be pressure on North Korea whether – even if China blocks the UN Security Council resolution. So if you could talk a little bit more about these pressures?

MS. PSAKI: Sure. Well, Special Envoy for North Korean Human Rights Issues Robert King traveled to Geneva March 17th through 19th to participate in the UN Human Rights Council’s 25th session. He had productive meetings with the members of the UN Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in North Korea, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay, and other officials. He’s returning – he returned to Washington, I should say, on March 19th.

As Ambassador King said in Geneva, we strongly support the commission’s final report and its calls for accountability in Geneva. We have urged the Office of the High Commissioner to establish a field-based mechanism for continued monitoring and documenting human rights abuses in North Korea which will carry on the investigative work of the commission and support the work of the Special Rapporteur. More broadly, we are still considering possible next steps. We look forward to supporting a strong Human Rights Council North Korea resolution that pursues actions that lay the groundwork to hold North Korea accountable for its continuing and systematic violation of human rights.



MS. PSAKI: Mm-hmm.

QUESTION: Treasury Department sanctions would appear to indicate that al-Qaida continues to operate in Iran. So what do you ascribe of this rather unlikely alliance? And is it an issue you had discussed with the Iranians in this new dialogue?

MS. PSAKI: Sure. Well, I believe this was an announcement from February related to Treasury sanctions. We have and will continue working extensively with our partners to address Iran’s support for destabilizing activities in the region and to expose Iran’s sponsorship of terrorism, as you know. While we are continuing engagement on the nuclear program and our concerns about that in a comprehensive deal, we have remaining concerns about human rights violations, about terrorist activities that they are up to.

The conversations are focused on the nuclear program, and so that’s what our team has been engaged in in Geneva. That’s what I expect they’ll be engaged in in April. Certainly, I don’t think there’s a secret about our concerns, given we expressed them very publicly, about Iran’s engagement and efforts to assist Hezbollah and others who are encroaching into Syria. And if you recall, when the Secretary was in Germany and he met with Foreign Minister Zarif, while Foreign Minister Zarif did not – does not have the Syria account, or that is what he conveyed, the Secretary expressed his concerns about some of the steps they’re taking. So we do do that when the occasion presents itself.

QUESTION: But most of those concerns have focused on Hezbollah --

MS. PSAKI: Mm-hmm.

QUESTION: -- not on al-Qaida.

MS. PSAKI: That’s true. I mean, I think, broadly speaking, our concerns are about their terrorist engagement. And it has, obviously, a range of capacities. In the – the sanctions that the Treasury Department announced give an indication of that, but --

QUESTION: Can we stay in Iran just for a second?

QUESTION: (Off-mike.)

MS. PSAKI: Sure. Iran or --

QUESTION: Yeah, on Iran.

MS. PSAKI: Okay. Both Iran. Okay.


MS. PSAKI: I’ll go to you next.

QUESTION: This morning, both the Secretary and – well, the President and the Secretary both had these statements to the Iranian people on the occasion of Nowruz, and the Treasury announced this kind of – this new general license, which --

MS. PSAKI: Mm-hmm.

QUESTION: -- essentially eases sanctions on cultural and educational exchanges. There’s an interpretation out in the ether, or out wherever --

MS. PSAKI: The interwebs?

QUESTION: -- that this is a gift to the Iranian people for Nowruz, for the – for new year. Is that a correct interpretation?

MS. PSAKI: Well, our issue has never been with the Iranian people.

QUESTION: No, I understand. I’m just – is this – is – they didn’t do any – in other words, they didn’t take any step or didn’t do anything that resulted in this; this is kind of you being nice, it’s a present?

MS. PSAKI: Sure. It reinforces our commitment to cultural and academic ties between the Iranian and the American people.

QUESTION: Okay. Let me try --

MS. PSAKI: Okay. Sorry. Go ahead.

QUESTION: -- just to put a fine point on this.

MS. PSAKI: Okay. Go ahead.

QUESTION: No, no. This – the – this was announced today because of the holiday, right?

MS. PSAKI: Yes. Mm-hmm.

QUESTION: Okay. All right. The second thing on that is that the President’s statement this morning, which I’m sure you’re familiar with, said last year you, the Iranian people, made your choice heard when you elected Dr. Hassan Rouhani as your new president. During his campaign, blah, blah, blah. He was elected with your strong support. I’m wondering if this statement means that the Administration considers that the Iranian election, presidential election, was a free and fair election, and that it demonstrated the will of the Iranian people, given the fact that all of the candidates were hand-picked by the – Khamenei and his --

MS. PSAKI: And no women.

QUESTION: And no women, right.

MS. PSAKI: Our concerns about that haven’t changed, Matt. We expressed them at the time. I think what the statement is conveying is that we had our first opening, as you all know, in a decade, if not longer, to negotiate a process for bringing an end to the nuclear program in Iran and for taking responsive steps on sanctions in return. So it was more an indication of the fact that we’ve been able to work with this leadership more than we have in the past.

QUESTION: Okay. Well, so the statement from the President saying he was elected with your strong support and you elected is not – does not – is not intended to confer some kind of electoral legitimacy on Rouhani, or is it?

MS. PSAKI: I think it is more a conveying that – of Rouhani as representing – President Rouhani as representing the people. He ran on a platform of improving the economic situation. There are obviously an ongoing effort on nuclear program. But I don’t think it was to take away any of the concerns we’ve had in the past about the electoral process.

QUESTION: And those concerns remain today?

MS. PSAKI: They remain, sure.


MS. PSAKI: Go ahead, Samir.

QUESTION: Yes. You just said that the Iranian foreign minister told Secretary Kerry in Germany he wasn’t authorized to discuss Syria?


QUESTION: And on Tuesday, he met with the UN Arab League envoy, Mr. Brahimi --

MS. PSAKI: Mm-hmm.

QUESTION: -- and the Iranian news agency that the talks between the Iranian foreign minister and Mr. Brahimi focused on the war in Syria. Would do you say --

MS. PSAKI: Well, I would point you to the Iranians, Samir. Obviously, there are different topics of different meetings and different discussions, and as you know, the United States is a very active partner in the P5+1 negotiations, in discussions. That was the focus of their meeting, and was always meant to be. So it was still an opportunity for the Secretary to express his concerns about steps and activities that Iran had taken as it relates to Syria.

Go ahead.

QUESTION: A follow-up on Iran first --

MS. PSAKI: Okay.

QUESTION: -- and then I’ll ask another question. Related to the nuclear program and the people designated by the Treasury Department, Iranian Government are – is prosecuting some designated people in Iran, and some of them are in jail right now, and they are conducting a very comprehensive investigation going to top officials --

MS. PSAKI: Mm-hmm.

QUESTION: -- of the former government, Ahmadinejad government. What is your assessment about this investigations, and what – is it positive step?

MS. PSAKI: I really don’t have details on that, in terms of that, specifically who they are prosecuting and anything like that, so let me check into that and see if we have more to add.

QUESTION: Okay. Do you have any update about Cyprus talks? The chief negotiator of the Turkish Cypriot site was in building yesterday. He met with Victoria Nuland and another official.

MS. PSAKI: Yes, yes, I do. As you mentioned, Assistant Secretary Nuland and Deputy Assistant Secretary Rubin met with Turkish Cypriot negotiator Kudret Ozersay -- did I say that right, okay – on March 19th to discuss Cyprus settlement efforts. The meeting is part of our periodic consultations that the Department conducts with all parties involved in the Cyprus talks. We, of course, reaffirm our full support for the Cypriot-led process under the auspices of the United Nations Good Offices Mission to reach a comprehensive settlement. And we continue to urge both sides to make real and substantial progress towards reunifying the island as a bi-zonal, bi-communal federation.

QUESTION: Do you have any timeframe that you – I mean, what --

MS. PSAKI: I do not. These are ongoing consultations. As you know, they’ve been meeting somewhat regularly, but I don’t have any prediction for you of the future.

QUESTION: Thank you.

MS. PSAKI: Thanks, everyone.

(The briefing was concluded at 2:23 p.m.)