Daily Press Briefing - April 6, 2016
Index for Today's Briefing:
1:42 p.m. EDT
MR TONER: Welcome to the State Department on this Wednesday in April.
In fact, today, April 6th, marks the third anniversary of the death of Anne Smedinghoff, a bright, rising star in the Foreign Service who was taken away from her family, her friends, and the department in an attack that took place three years ago in Zabul Province, Afghanistan. Anne was 25 years old and on her second tour as an FSO, Foreign Service officer, serving as a press officer at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul. In Secretary Kerry’s words at the time, Anne was a, quote, “vivacious, smart, and capable individual,” end quote. And as he wrote in a note that went out to all State Department employees at the time – well, shortly after that tragic event he wrote, “that no one anywhere should forget for a minute that the work of our diplomats is hard and hazardous or that as you serve” – you being the diplomats – “serve on the frontlines in the world’s most dangerous places, you put the interest of our country and those of our allies and partners ahead of your own safety,” end quote.
We would also pay tribute, obviously, to the memories of the three U.S. soldiers as well as an Afghan American translator and an Afghan doctor who were also lost on that tragic day, as well as to those who were injured in that incident. We honor their memories and their service to the United States and Afghanistan. And with that said, Matt.
MR TONER: Go ahead.
QUESTION: -- knowing that you’ll probably refer me to the Department of Justice. But – so yesterday or late yesterday there was a filing in the FOIA – the email FOIA – one of them, on the discovery – the order to grant discovery.
MR TONER: Right.
QUESTION: And I’m just curious about this, because I haven’t actually seen the order, I’ve just read the stories about it. What does the department, through its lawyers, claim to be its standing for trying to limit the scope of questions asked of ex-employees?
MR TONER: So --
QUESTION: I mean, I can understand why you would be making a motion on behalf of current employees. And I could probably even understand why you say that this – they are being asked about their activities while they were in government. But this seems to be something – I mean, shouldn’t their own lawyers be making this kind of a motion? Why is the State Department making it?
MR TONER: So I appreciate the question and understand your interest in the story. You are correct insofar as – well, first of all, we did submit a filing with the court last night on this matter. But I cannot comment on the actual content of that court filing, because this is something that’s already – or that is a matter of ongoing litigation, so I can’t even comment on your question because it would speak to this matter that’s still in litigation.
QUESTION: Can you tell me if it says in there – I mean, maybe I’m just completely naive and ignorant --
MR TONER: I don’t have it in front --
QUESTION: -- about this.
MR TONER: Yeah.
QUESTION: But does it explain in this motion how it is that the department has standing to make such a request on behalf of a former employee?
MR TONER: Again, I can’t speak specifically to this matter, but I can say that the department’s engaged on any given year in litigation before federal courts, administrative and arbitral tribunals. And depending on the facts --
MR TONER: -- applicable procedures, and nature of the claims, we do – there may be discovery, but it is case by case.
QUESTION: No, I understand that.
MR TONER: And so – yeah.
QUESTION: I mean, the answer to my question could be very, very simple, that it’s – that it – it could be that it’s completely normal --
MR TONER: You’re asking whether it applies to ex-employees?
QUESTION: Well – no, it does. I know that the motion does cover them. I’m just curious as to what the --
MR TONER: What the rationale is?
QUESTION: Right. I mean, it may be very straightforward, that because they’re being asked to talk about stuff they did while they were in government that you do have some kind of standing to speak on their behalf.
MR TONER: And I will see if I can get you any --
QUESTION: And I’m just wondering if --
MR TONER: -- more clarity on that.
QUESTION: Right. Thanks.
MR TONER: But I have to just preface that by saying --
MR TONER: -- I am restricted in what I can say when something – it’s an ongoing litigation.
QUESTION: Can I raise – change the subject?
MR TONER: Of course you can.
MR TONER: I did.
QUESTION: And I know you’ve, ahead of time – I think it was Friday – the State Department encouraged the Dutch voters to obviously vote yes in favor of this treaty with Ukraine, saying that it would help the country and push reforms. But it looks like a no vote’s going to go through. Do you think in any way that this could change the dynamics for Ukraine? Do you believe that this vote was not about Ukraine, that it might be about an EU-wide unification vote instead? Poroshenko called it unfair timing on Friday at the nuclear summit. So just trying to get your --
MR TONER: No, that’s – and I appreciate the question. I just am not going to go further; (a) we don’t have a clear – clear results yet in the referendum, so it would be premature for me, even if your – if speculation indicates that it may be a no vote, it’d be premature for me to declare one way or the other. So my understanding is that it’s still – the final results are still pending. And like any referendum – and I think we said this on Friday – this is ultimately something that – a question for the Dutch people to decide. So I’m not going to speculate about next steps or possible outcomes.
As you noted, what we said on Friday was that we believe – or we support the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement, because we believe it is in the interest of the United States, of the Netherlands, of the EU to help ensure that Ukraine becomes a democratic and economically stable country. And we believe that this agreement can help foster that. We believe it will also help bring new economic opportunities for the EU, which includes the Netherlands, and for Ukraine.
QUESTION: Do you think --
MR TONER: Yeah, go ahead. Please.
QUESTION: Do you think a no vote would hand a symbolic victory to Vladimir Putin?
MR TONER: Again, I’m not going to – and I’m not going to speculate about the outcome of the vote until we have firm results. And as you said --
MR TONER: -- let me finish – and as you said, it is – like any of these votes, it’s unclear what the motivation of the voters may have been when they cast their votes. Our intent in the statement that we gave on Friday was simply to express our views why we believe an EU-Ukraine Association Agreement is in the best interests of EU – of the EU and of Ukraine.
As to Monday morning quarterbacking our analysis or after the – we have the final results, I’ll wait for that.
MR TONER: Please, sir.
QUESTION: As you say, you believe that a future association agreement between the Ukraine and the European Union is to be wished for. Do you think the United Kingdom should maintain its current relationship with the European Union?
MR TONER: Well, you know what we say about that, which is we support a strong UK within a strong EU.
QUESTION: Mm-hmm. And just a – it’s a separate thing, unless anyone wants to follow up on that.
QUESTION: Well, I just want to know – so you’re going to be prepared to do some Monday morning quarterbacking after the election results are in?
MR TONER: I think Kirby will be well prepared. No. Look, I mean, we’re not – look, I mean, in all honesty --
QUESTION: So – no, I mean, are you seriously prepared to make some kind of an analysis of what it was, once we know what the results were, of what it meant? Or are you going to say, “Well, the people of the Netherlands have spoken, and c’est la vie,” or whatever that is in Dutch?
MR TONER: Whatever it is in Dutch. (Laughter.) I was going to say. I think what we would be prepared to do is, again, to speak to why we believe that a positive vote in support of an association agreement is in the best interests. And – which is what we’ve already stated --
QUESTION: Right. But the --
MR TONER: -- which is our sole intent behind the statement that we gave Friday, was to simply --
QUESTION: I understand this.
MR TONER: Yeah.
QUESTION: But you’re saying you don’t want to talk – speak to it now because the vote isn’t in. So when the vote comes back --
MR TONER: Well, I don’t want – so I don’t want to speak to the outcome now.
QUESTION: I understand that. So, but you’re suggesting that it’s possible that you might speak to the outcome once we know what the outcome is. So does that mean that you will be prepared to congratulate or to welcome the choice of the people of the Netherlands if they vote in favor of the agreement, or you will condemn the people of the Netherlands for their horrendous choice in voting against it? What – I mean, are you going to make a judgment as to --
MR TONER: Wait and see. (Laughter.)
QUESTION: All right.
QUESTION: My other question’s on --
MR TONER: Yes, sir.
QUESTION: -- was on Libya. I had planned to ask --
QUESTION: -- I had planned to ask you about the Tripoli government’s decision to support the UN government, but since I planned that question, apparently they denied having said that. So I suppose my question is: Do you know what’s happening in Libya, and do you welcome or deplore it?
MR TONER: Well, we certainly welcome what we see as the continued and positive steps in Libya since the Government of National Accord entered Tripoli a few days ago, March 30th. And yesterday there was a significant step, which is that the state council, which is a senior advisory body for the new unity government and is made up of members of the GNC, the General National Congress, did meet officially for the first time. We also welcome the announcement by some former GNC members on the dissolution of the Tripoli-based National Salvation Government. More broadly I’d just say now is the time for all Libyans to continue to support the Government of National Accord, and we urge all Libyans to continue facilitating a peaceful handover of power so Libya’s new leaders can begin the hard work of restoring stability to the country, which is absolutely urgent and vital.
QUESTION: Can we change topics?
MR TONER: David, you done?
QUESTION: Yeah, I’m fine with that.
MR TONER: Good. Please.
QUESTION: I’m fine with --
MR TONER: Yeah, sure.
QUESTION: I wanted to ask you about something that the Secretary said when asked by Charlie Rose last night --
MR TONER: Okay.
QUESTION: -- on what could be done. He said that we could develop, or do some development, in Area C, which is really --
MR TONER: In the? I’m sorry, I apologize.
QUESTION: In Area C of the West Bank.
MR TONER: Okay.
QUESTION: Okay, which is really a far cry from the enthusiasm where he started in 2013. Is the Secretary giving up on the peace process?
MR TONER: Not at all, and I’m certainly aware of what he said yesterday. I think what he was simply pointing to was sort of concrete gestures or steps that could be taken, and we’ve talked about this a lot. The climate obviously has not been conducive to even getting back to a position where we can begin peace talks or negotiations again. So what we have said all along are the kinds of – we want to see the kind of affirmative steps that reduce tensions and then promote this kind of climate. That’s simply where we’re at right now. But to say we’ve given up or to say that we’re not as ambitious as we once were I think is incorrect. I think we’re simply looking at the reality of the situation, and I think the Secretary was simply trying to lay out what he felt could be done given the current climate.
QUESTION: I understand.
MR TONER: Yes.
QUESTION: But all things considered, is it plausible that we would see something that is an initiative of some sort, perhaps undertaken by the Secretary himself, to get some sort of process going?
MR TONER: Sure. Well, the Secretary remains in close contact with, obviously, Prime Minister Netanyahu and the Palestinian Authority as well, and we certainly – our folks on the ground do, and Frank Lowenstein as well. We don’t have anything to announce, obviously, right now, but we continue to look at a variety of options, as I said, that will hopefully start a trajectory that is more positive to future negotiations.
QUESTION: During the period of Monday into Tuesday, the 24-hour period, the Israelis demolished a number of Palestinian homes – seven homes over a period of 24 hours. And I wonder if you have any reaction to that, and whether that does fall in your estimation or your judgment under collective punishment.
MR TONER: Well, we are closely following the demolitions and evictions, as you mentioned, that have been undertaken by Israeli authorities I think in several locations along the West Bank and East Jerusalem, which have left many Palestinians homeless. In answer to your second question, I’d just say that we believe these actions are indicative of a damaging trend of demolition, displacement, land confiscation – we’ve talked about that – that alongside the settlement-related activity and continued construction simply works against the possibility of a two-state solution and calls into question the Israeli Government’s commitment to that two-state solution.
QUESTION: And finally --
MR TONER: Yes, sir.
QUESTION: -- today, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told – he lauded his troops, which is – I guess he can do that. But he also encouraged them to continue doing what they are doing in suppressing and neutralizing terrorism, which is for the Palestinians really a call for more sort of extrajudicial executions and so on. I wonder if you have any reaction to that kind of talk that the prime minister – or that kind of tone that the prime minister is using.
MR TONER: Well, we have always supported Israel’s right to defend itself. We strongly support that. I don’t necessarily know that I would – well, I don’t think it’s proper to extrapolate what – from what he said that he was somehow promoting extrajudicial killings. We obviously have that particular case that you’re referring to – incident that is under investigation. Let’s let that run its course. We have long called for, as Israeli security forces have reacted to these violent attacks and to the climate of tension and violence that is currently taking place and – or existing in Israel, that they exercise restraint and that they work to avoid any kind of innocent civilian casualties, and we would simply reiterate that.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MR TONER: Yeah. Please.
QUESTION: I have a different --
MR TONER: And then I’ll get to you, I promise. Sorry.
QUESTION: Who, me?
MR TONER: You, it’s your turn. Yes, I’m sorry. (Laughter.)
QUESTION: Oh, right, it’s a different subject --
MR TONER: Yeah. Yeah, of course.
MR TONER: Right. You’re talking about the – right, the Chibok girls from Nigeria. Well, it’s the second anniversary, I think, coming up on that. And of course, we call for all hostages, including these young women and girls who’ve been held by Boko Haram, to be released immediately without preconditions. We support Nigerian efforts to bring about the safe recovery of those kidnapped and we continue to advise them on their response to this, as well as on general counterterrorism and counter-Boko Haram efforts.
And that assistance takes a number of – or is – there’s a number of forms, I guess. One is intelligence training – one is intelligence, of course, training, advice on strategic communications, but also victim support services and assistance to those who have been – who have suffered under Boko Haram. I think we’ve given upwards of 198 million in humanitarian assistance to the populations in Nigeria that have been affected by Boko Haram’s continued attacks, terrorist activity.
But it’s a heartbreaking story, the situation of these young women who, as I said, were kidnapped. We continue to work and provide any assistance we can to obtain their eventual release.
QUESTION: As you said, it’s been two years. Has there been any – is there any plans to ramp up efforts?
MR TONER: Ramp up efforts in this particular regard? I mean, look, we – we’re working closely. I mean, this is obviously a Nigerian Government-led effort. I would say we’ve continued to ramp up efforts over the past couple of years, not only because of this incident but because of repeated ongoing Boko Haram terrorist activity attacks on innocent civilians across Nigeria. I think, certainly, we recognize – and this terrible kidnapping was just a very vivid and heartbreaking example of it – but we realize that there’s an urgency here, that Boko Haram is exerting a terrible influence and is really a scourge on the Nigerian population.
So of course we’re looking at ways that we can ramp up our support for Nigeria’s security services. But as I said, also the other aspect of this is assistance – any assistance that we can provide to help the victims of these attacks, whether they’re from the terrorist attacks or kidnap victims as well.
QUESTION: And --
MR TONER: Please, go ahead and finish. Yeah.
QUESTION: Sorry, one final.
MR TONER: No, that’s okay.
QUESTION: And have these efforts been unilateral or have you been working with other governments outside of the Nigerian Government as well?
MR TONER: We have been working with other governments in the region as well as, I believe, some other governments. I don’t have a list in front of me, but --
QUESTION: Can I get that later?
MR TONER: -- I think it’s been a joint effort. We can certainly get that for you, of course.
QUESTION: Great. Thank you.
QUESTION: On the same topic – on the same topic --
MR TONER: Yes, sir. Yeah.
QUESTION: Yeah. Why is Boko Haram not getting the proper attention like, let’s say, ISIL and so on? Is it something that’s – does it seem real far away, is it out of the public eye? Although it was the First Lady herself that basically carried a sign that said, “Bring our girls home.” Why is that? Why in your opinion?
MR TONER: So I would – just circling back to her question – I will get to you – but we do actually – another aspect of our efforts to assist in the – in – is that we do have a team in Abuja who consists of specialists on temporary assignment from a variety of U.S. Government agencies who are trying to work on assisting the Nigerian Government on this particular case.
So your question, sorry, is just --
QUESTION: My question is --
MR TONER: Yeah.
QUESTION: -- it seems off the radar screen, Boko Haram. Although there was at the beginning a great deal of spotlighting of the issue, but then it seems to have faded away. Why is that?
MR TONER: I mean, we do speak publicly about these attacks when they take place – condemning them, obviously, very strongly. I think, as we’re doing even in – against ISIL, part of the challenge in all of these is trying to build the capacity of local government and local security forces to take the fight to these terrorist groups, because that’s the ultimate solution, right? I mean, we’ve seen it in Iraq as well is – the ultimate endgame here is to build the capacity of local authorities to deal with these terrorists. And I think that requires a lot of effort, a longer period of training and assistance, but ultimately, as I said, is the better long-term outcome – to build that capability, that capacity. And we’ve been doing that. That’s – as I said, we’ve been working with the Nigerian Government over the past years.
I certainly don’t want to give the impression that it’s somehow off the radar screen, because they have consistently carried out, as you note, a series of terrible attacks on innocent civilians – attacking churches, attacking villages, attacking innocent civilians in a variety of circumstances – and they need to be stopped.
QUESTION: And last time President Buhari of Nigeria was in Washington, or the last time he was here bilaterally – I think he attended the nuclear summit. The last time he was here bilaterally, he complained that the degree to which he received direct military assistance from the U.S. is curtailed by the Leahy Act because Nigerian security forces are not regarded as proper partners because of their human rights record. Given who else you’re working with around the world – I’m thinking about the Middle East – is it still the case that you can’t give as much military assistance to Nigeria as Nigeria would want, and is it in fact the case that it’s the Leahy Act that restrains that, that there are concerns about the human rights records of the Nigerian forces?
MR TONER: I mean, to be perfectly honest, I’d have to – and candid, I’d have to look into those – his alleged – or his remarks about that. I can say that, just as they are in the Middle East, any military equipment or assistance we have – or we give, rather, whether – as I said, to whatever country, whether it’s in the Middle East or elsewhere in Africa, is subject to Leahy vetting. That’s just something that we’re required by law to do, for good reason. We cannot, obviously, give military equipment to units, battalions, what have you, that have been allegedly carrying out human rights abuses. That’s just something we have to do for any of this stuff.
That said, there are ways that we can still – and I believe we are working effectively with the Nigerian Government to provide them with the support they need. But if – yeah.
QUESTION: It’s just to clarify your answer to the previous question – instead of doing “everything we can,” “everything we can within the limits of U.S. law.”
MR TONER: Precisely, yeah.
QUESTION: When you say that --
MR TONER: Yes, sir.
QUESTION: -- you can’t give anything to military units that have carried out alleged human rights abuses – I mean, you – can you make that – you can’t make that as a blanket statement, can you?
MR TONER: I just mean within the strictures of the Leahy vetting process.
QUESTION: Yeah. I know you’re not supposed to under the law, but that doesn’t always mean it happens, does it?
MR TONER: Well, again, I mean, we always apply – we have a team in our democracy and human rights bureau that works --
QUESTION: Yeah, but you --
MR TONER: -- all the time on these allegations and follows through on them and makes sure that – so, I mean, I can’t --
QUESTION: Yeah, but the allegation isn’t – an allegation of human rights abuse --
MR TONER: They investigate credible allegations.
QUESTION: -- isn’t enough to stop the aid or assistance to a unit, is it? It has to be – I mean, there are --
MR TONER: No. It has to be – it has to be investigated.
QUESTION: There have been plenty of cases, I think --
MR TONER: Yep.
QUESTION: -- in which allegations of rights abuses have been made and assistance to those units has continued. Sometimes it has stopped if the allegations have been proven.
MR TONER: Right, right.
QUESTION: But a mere – the allegation isn’t what triggers the --
MR TONER: No, no. That’s --
MR TONER: That’s a perfectly valid point.
QUESTION: Can we change --
QUESTION: I would like to go for a minute to a subject of the latest Secretary’s trip to Moscow.
MR TONER: Okay.
QUESTION: Foreign Minister Lavrov, when he was wrapping up talks with the – with Secretary Kerry, said, and I would like to quote him, that among other things, the two sides have agreed to, quote, “establish a regular review of our” – meaning U.S. and Russian – “relations, with an aim of finding mutually acceptable solutions to a number of problems.” I was hoping --
MR TONER: Excuse me.
QUESTION: I was hoping you could give me some details on that, what specifically those arrangements entail. Is he speaking about a creation of some new mechanism, institutionalizing it, or it’s just a part of a regular bilateral diplomatic dialogue?
MR TONER: It’s a good question, and I – let me – let me look into it. I’m not aware of any mechanism. My sense is that, as we’ve often talked about when we speak about U.S.-Russian relations, we have areas such as Ukraine that we disagree on, that are irritants, if you will, in the bilateral relationship or challenges within the bilateral relationship, but as we’ve said before, there are also areas where we can work constructively with Russia – for example, on the Iran nuclear deal. And so as much as we can work effectively to discuss the full range of issues between our two countries to mitigate the challenges but also – and then to obviously --
QUESTION: Yeah, but he was referring specifically --
MR TONER: But yeah, it sounds like he was, so I – that’s why I don’t want to – yeah. I don’t want to speak and not have the correct information for you, so we’ll take that.
QUESTION: Can I stay with the Russian --
MR TONER: Of course you can.
QUESTION: The Russians have just said that and are backing what the Syrian army said yesterday, was that a Su-22 was shot down yesterday in Syria. The Syrian army said it was shot down by an antiaircraft missile. Has the U.S. been asked to – have you been asked about this by the Russians?
MR TONER: We’ve not been asked about it. I mean, the general procedure for this, as with any allegation of a violation, we would – it would go to the task force and then be discussed there and determined whether it’s an accurate allegation or not, and then action would be taken.
QUESTION: Is this in any way a breach of the ceasefire agreement? I don’t know.
MR TONER: Again, without having kind of firm – a firm understanding of what happened, I think what I had just seen about that shootdown or alleged shootdown yesterday was that we just didn’t have the details.
QUESTION: The Russians are in the task force and they’re speaking about it publicly.
MR TONER: Correct.
QUESTION: Do they know more than you do?
MR TONER: But I don’t – again, I’m not – I just don’t have any more information to provide in terms of whether we believe it was – we, the United States, believes – believe it was shot down by opposition forces. But as I said, there’s a mechanism in place to discuss all of these violations. And let’s not forget that there are also allegations of cessation of hostility violations on the part of the regime. So that’s the function of the task force, to look at all of these, and where we do find credible evidence, to address them working with the parties involved.
QUESTION: So you’ve just seen reports – reports that it was shot down. You haven’t --
MR TONER: I think that’s correct.
QUESTION: So you haven’t got a --
MR TONER: We just don’t have – no, we don’t have any – yeah.
QUESTION: You haven’t got individual confirmation?
MR TONER: I do not.
QUESTION: So from the reports that claim that it was shot down by a MANPAD, an American-made missile --
MR TONER: Yeah, I’ve seen all the reports. I just don’t have any --
QUESTION: So you – do you have any (inaudible) on that?
MR TONER: I’ve seen those reports. We don’t have any – we don’t – I don’t have any more details to provide.
QUESTION: Some, they even go as far as saying that it was actually supplied by the Saudis last February to the opposition and somehow al-Nusra got ahold of it and so on. Would that be a – like a warning that some of this weapon that finds its way into al-Nusra --
MR TONER: Well, again, not speaking about this specific incident, but we’ve said in the past about some of the equipment that we’ve seen either through social media or what have you in Syria displayed by various groups, it’s unclear to us, frankly, given the dynamic environment – let’s put it that way – on the ground there that – how somebody might obtain some of this equipment.
QUESTION: Mark --
MR TONER: It’s not necessarily – my point is it’s not necessarily indicative or proof that somebody was given a particular type of weaponry.
QUESTION: Would you encourage or discourage your Arab allies and partners from supplying such weapons to various groups that act in Syria?
MR TONER: Well, what I would say to that is --
MR TONER: -- given the current environment, which is that there is a cessation of hostilities in place, that we would encourage all sides to – or all parties to refrain from that kind of activity.
QUESTION: Wait. There clearly isn’t a cessation of hostilities in place if people are not --
MR TONER: It’s not --
QUESTION: -- ceasing to hostile or whatever you --
MR TONER: I mean, we’ve never – I mean, we’ve never claimed that this is free of any violations. It’s not perfect, but we’re going to continue to work at making it stronger.
QUESTION: Has the U.S. slowed its arming of the factions that you support in Syria since the start of the cessation?
MR TONER: Well, we never provided direct arms. What we’ve done is provided assistance, as we’ve talked about, to some of the groups fighting ISIL in the north. But that’s all.
QUESTION: On the Syria talks --
MR TONER: Yes, sir.
QUESTION: -- today, a spokesman for de Mistura – I believe Ahmad Fawzi – said that the government delegation would arrive late to the talks, to the April 11th talks, because of the election in Syria. Do you have any comment on the elections in Syria? Or on the whole thing?
MR TONER: Sure. And – well, I think we’ve already spoken about --
MR TONER: -- our views on holding elections in the current environment. We believe that really the focus should be on these proximity talks, on working towards a political transition that is acceptable to all the Syrian people. We don’t believe the current environment is conducive to any kind of free and fair election.
But in speaking to the timing or when they might arrive in Geneva to begin this next round of talks, that’s something really – that’s a question for de Mistura to answer. But I think, without speaking for him, he – I think he’ll simply take advantage of the fact that he’ll have a couple days perhaps to work closely with the HNC to sort of lay the groundwork until the regime negotiating party arrives.
QUESTION: And finally, today I think Jabhat al-Nusra said that their spokesman, Abu Firas al-Suri, was killed by an American strike. Can you confirm that?
MR TONER: I cannot confirm that at this time.
MR TONER: Are we – China, sure.
QUESTION: China has begun an operation with the lighthouse on the Subi Reef in the South China Sea. Do you have any comment on that?
MR TONER: Aware of the reports. You’re talking about on the Subi Reef?
MR TONER: Yeah. Well, this is, of course, a disputed area of the South China Sea, and I just would say that constructing new facilities in these areas risks exacerbating or escalating what is already a tense situation. So we’d urge China to focus on reaching an understanding with other claimants, as we often have, on acceptable behavior in these disputed areas.
QUESTION: Well, does that mean that you think that the lighthouse should be taken down?
MR TONER: Well --
QUESTION: One of your – I mean, I don’t know --
MR TONER: I think we have --
QUESTION: I’m not aware of the --
MR TONER: I think what we – sorry.
QUESTION: Do you know – do you know that a lighthouse has been constructed?
MR TONER: No, no. I said we’ve seen reports stating that they will begin operating a lighthouse.
QUESTION: Right. Okay. One of the reasons that you guys have taken an interest in this is – this area and expressed your concern about what the Chinese, and indeed the other claimants, are doing in terms of unilateral actions is for the protection and safety of maritime shipping zones. Now, it seems to me that a lighthouse is not an inherently provocative thing. It’s, in fact, there to be a safety measure. So I mean, do – should no lighthouses be allowed in the South China – on disputed areas in the South China Sea, even if they help with maritime safety?
MR TONER: No, but it’s unclear to us whether this is in the interest of maritime safety.
QUESTION: All right. I have --
MR TONER: Sure. Go ahead.
QUESTION: There are reports and some talk actually around town that makes it more than just reports about the U.S. wanting to withdraw its troops from the Sinai force. Do you have anything to say about that?
MR TONER: Yeah. Our – I mean, we haven’t – sorry. We remain fully committed to our Multinational Force and Observers mission and the maintenance of the peace treaty between Israel and Egypt. So no change in policy, no change in our force structure or whatever.
QUESTION: So – okay. So when you say you remain committed --
MR TONER: Yeah.
QUESTION: -- to it, that you remain committed to keeping the same --
MR TONER: The same structure, the same footprint or – yeah.
QUESTION: All right. So these reports and chatter are wrong?
MR TONER: Yes.
QUESTION: Can you admit that you’re reviewing the commitment?
MR TONER: I think what I said stands, is that we remain fully committed to the MFO.
QUESTION: I have one more.
MR TONER: Yeah, sure.
MR TONER: Okay.
QUESTION: But Senators Rubio and Kirk introduced today a legislation this – late this morning that would bar the Administration from permitting kind of one-step-removed dollar transactions for Iran, the kind that we were talk – we’ve been talking about and others have been talking about.
MR TONER: Right.
QUESTION: Do you know, recognizing that this is mainly a Treasury thing, but do you know if the Administration has a – is this a necessary piece of legislation, or do you think it is unnecessary? And if you do think it’s unnecessary, why?
MR TONER: So let’s – I would hate to speak on it before I’ve actually seen it or that we’ve actually properly studied it. I can simply say what we said and what Tom Shannon said yesterday on the Hill, which is that the Administration has not been and is not planning to grant Iran access to the U.S. financial system. I understand that’s not what you’re asking. You’re asking about this other --
QUESTION: Well, frankly, I’m not sure exactly who it is that is saying that you’re going to grant Iran access to the financial system. We certainly haven’t said that in our reporting. The – what – the question that was raised to Ambassador Shannon yesterday in the Foreign Relations Committee that was both – that more directly addressed what it is that we understand the Administration is considering was raised by Senator Rubio, and that is the allowing non-Iranian and non-U.S. banks to do trades in dollars for deals that involve Iran as long as the dollars don’t end up in the Iranians’ hands.
MR TONER: So my understanding is that is not what’s under consideration at all.
QUESTION: Oh? What is under consideration?
MR TONER: I’m not going to say – (laughter) – except to say that --
QUESTION: Is something --
MR TONER: No, but I mean, like – no, no, Matt, just to clarify, I mean – I mean, okay, let me --
QUESTION: Because, in fact, that is what we understand is being considered, is being --
MR TONER: I understand that you believe that’s what’s being considered.
QUESTION: Well, we – okay, go ahead.
MR TONER: What I would say is that we continue to advise banks and other governments on ways that they can conduct business with Iran in a way that does not violate existing U.S. sanctions. And there are ways to do that, but it does not involve banks converting money to dollars or otherwise --
QUESTION: Well, it inherent – it actually inherently does, so – but – and it does because, as you know, the international commerce finance is structured in such a way that huge amounts of transactions from currency A to currency C go through currency B, which is the dollar. But anyway --
MR TONER: I understand that, but there are other currencies. I understand currencies.
QUESTION: -- so you’re saying right now that you guys are out there – you guys are out there coaching --
MR TONER: Not – not – it’s – look --
QUESTION: Well, advising.
MR TONER: Advising. But that’s --
QUESTION: Okay. That’s coaching.
MR TONER: But that’s --
QUESTION: Coaching banks and businesses how to do deals --
MR TONER: Coaching is what --
QUESTION: -- in such a way – well, you say you’re advising them how to do deals in such a way --
MR TONER: Yeah, of course. But, I mean, that’s --
QUESTION: -- that you can avoid the U.S. sanctions --
MR TONER: So, Matt, what I --
QUESTION: -- without penalties for violating U.S. sanctions.
MR TONER: What I would say in response --
QUESTION: Is that really the role of the U.S. Government?
MR TONER: So what I would say in response is that as Iran complies with the JCPOA and receives a certain amount of sanctions relief, it is incumbent on us – and the Secretary spoke about this the other day – it is incumbent on us to live up to our end of this deal, which is to – and part of that is to advise these banks and governments on ways that they can --
QUESTION: Avoid U.S. sanctions.
MR TONER: -- that they – precisely, that they can – well, I mean, that they can work --
QUESTION: Okay. Is that the role of the U.S. Government --
MR TONER: -- within the --
QUESTION: -- to go tell people how it is they can get around --
MR TONER: No, but it’s – but it is a – I don’t – I don’t necessarily – the idea of coaching – I think it’s simply – it’s our obligation as part of the JCPOA to advise them that they don’t – I mean, these banks don’t want to violate existing U.S. sanctions.
QUESTION: Right. So you’re telling them how – here’s how you can do it --
MR TONER: But they are – but they are --
QUESTION: -- without violating the sanctions?
MR TONER: No, but they are – sorry, but they are allowed to, under certain conditions, to do business with Iran. So it’s – we do consider it an obligation on how to – how to counsel them on that.
QUESTION: Right, but you’re basically telling foreign banks and foreign companies how they can use loopholes in U.S. sanctions.
MR TONER: It’s not – no, that’s not --
QUESTION: (Laughter.) Yeah, it is.
MR TONER: That’s inaccurate, but --
QUESTION: To get – to avoid --
MR TONER: That’s inaccurate, but --
QUESTION: Well, okay. Well, what – then, what is it? What are they – they’re telling them, “Here’s what you can do to not violate U.S. sanctions.” I understand the way you’re putting it is you’re telling them what they can do that is legal, but --
MR TONER: I just think it is – again, it’s part of an effort to provide guidance to ensure that they understand clearly the extent of U.S. sanctions relief, and it’s complicated. And to advise them on that is not necessarily giving some kind of tacit approval to – or somehow some workaround by which they can avoid – or loopholes, as you put it. I think that’s just not what we’re trying to do, but --
QUESTION: You’re telling them how they can do business with Iran without falling foul – without falling afoul of U.S. sanctions. Is that not correct?
MR TONER: It’s advising them on how they can do – I guess that they understand the extent of U.S. sanctions relief that’s been provided under the deal so that they can carry out appropriate actions – again, as stipulated under the JCPOA with – yeah, sorry --
QUESTION: Right. Getting back to the legislation, you think it’s unnecessary? You don’t think --
MR TONER: Let’s – in my answer to that – sorry – was, before I got sidetracked, was let’s look at the legislation.
QUESTION: All right.
QUESTION: Could I – I’m just --
MR TONER: That’s okay, Lesley.
QUESTION: Tom Shannon’s testimony caused some confusion, because he blankly said no, you’re not considering it. Or was he – actually I’m thinking – was he particularly talking about not access to the financial – the U.S. financial system. That the President and John Kerry as well as Jack Lew have basically admitted you’re looking at this issue to clarify to businesses what is acceptable and what is not.
MR TONER: Correct, which is what I was trying – perhaps not well – to explain to Matt, is that we are trying to counsel them. But that does not mean that we’re saying that or we’re planning to grant Iran access to financial – U.S. financial systems. And I think that was the point that the President made, Kerry’s made – Secretary Kerry’s made.
QUESTION: So what --
MR TONER: Sorry.
QUESTION: Are you --
QUESTION: No one, no – it’s --
QUESTION: -- answering their questions when they come to you, or are you proactively going out – the Financial Times yesterday described it as a roadshow. Are you approaching foreign banks and telling them this stuff, or do you wait until they say, hey, we’re planning to do such-and-such a deal with Iran? Is that what --
MR TONER: I wouldn’t refer to it as a roadshow. I think we’re advising them as appropriate.
QUESTION: But you’re proactively advising them, or you’re responding to queries?
MR TONER: I don’t know, David.
MR TONER: I’ll have to – I just don’t know the extent of how proactive we are about it. I think we’re trying to do it within what we feel is our obligations under the JCPOA.
QUESTION: (Inaudible) about this. I mean, I think this is a straw man argument that people have set up based on maybe some incorrect assumptions or interpretations or whatever was said before. The question is not whether you’re going to give them access – Iran access to the U.S. financial system. No one that I know of has --
MR TONER: Well, that has been levied, charged --
QUESTION: Well, yeah, it’s a – well, it has been out there --
MR TONER: -- whether it’s a straw man or not.
QUESTION: But it has been – but it has been denied. That is no longer the issue.
MR TONER: But I understand what you’re asking, which is through various – or whatever, that your – that it will somehow allow them to transfer --
QUESTION: Yes, manipulate – no. That – the whole idea --
MR TONER: -- money into dollars.
QUESTION: -- is that – the whole idea is that the Iranians never touch the dollars themselves, that the – that – but that they are able to take advantage of transactions that occur in dollars – shorthand being dollarized transactions.
In other words, Country X wants to sell – or buy something from Iran. And that country’s currency gets converted, Iran wants to be paid in Euros, that country’s currency gets converted into Euros – through dollars, as it often happens on the international exchanges. That’s – that is the question. And when Ambassador Shannon was asked that question directly yesterday, he didn’t – he certainly didn’t deny it. So anyway, that’s the point about this – what brings about the question about this legislation that was introduced today.
So if you say that no, that is not at all what is part of – then I think logically you would say, “Well, this legislation is unnecessary because we weren’t planning to do --
MR TONER: Haven’t seen the legislation. I simply was stating that we don’t believe that that’s a necessary formula as well in order to comply with the JCPOA and our obligations under it. But I would defer, obviously, to numerous experts at the Department of Treasury.
QUESTION: All right. Okay.
QUESTION: Can I ask you a quick question --
MR TONER: Yes, sir.
MR TONER: Yes.
QUESTION: Are you aware of efforts last week to basically force Haider Abadi, the prime minister of Iraq, out of office because he wants to introduce or re-introduce a number of new ministers and so on to fight corruption, and that in fact, in that effort, you and the Iranians work together to prevent such a movement by certain coalitions within the government? Are you aware of that?
MR TONER: That we work with Iranians?
QUESTION: Yes, yeah.
MR TONER: I’m not aware of that.
QUESTION: That you and – whether directly or indirectly, you and Iran work to prop up Haider Abadi, the prime minister of Iraq.
MR TONER: I’m not aware of that. I mean, as I think we already said, we do support his reform efforts. Frankly, this is an internal matter, though, for the Iraqi Government. But I don’t have anything to specifically talk about any kind of collaboration we may have carried out with the Iranians. I just don’t have any --
QUESTION: Okay. But all reports suggest that --
MR TONER: I haven’t seen those reports.
QUESTION: -- there was actually a list of 14 new members that he’s shared with you on a possible replacement for existing ministers and so on. Can you confirm or deny or --
MR TONER: I can’t, no. Sorry.
(The briefing was concluded at 2:27 p.m.)