Daily Press Briefing - August 3, 2016

Mark C. Toner
Deputy Spokesperson
Daily Press Briefing
Washington, DC
August 3, 2016


1:42 p.m. EDT



MR TONER: How are you, Matt?

QUESTION: I’m well. And you?

MR TONER: Good. I’m hanging in there. Hey, everyone, welcome to the State Department. I can see there’s a packed crowd today, I think, of outgoing PAOs and IOs; is that right? Anyway, welcome and happy Wednesday. Just one thing to read at the top and then I’ll take your questions.

As many of you know, Secretary of State Kerry met today with the foreign ministers of the five states of Central Asia for the second C5+1 ministerial, and that was upstairs in the Benjamin Franklin Room. You all saw we put out a media note as well as a joint statement. And obviously, the group discussed issues of economic connectivity, regional security, the environment, and climate change as well as humanitarian issues, and they also agreed to launch five joint projects that were developed by the C5+1 working groups that met after the first ministerial in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, which was last November 2015. The United States is excited to be continuing the C5+1 format as we broaden and deepen our relationship with the Central Asian states.

Over to you, Matt.

QUESTION: Okay. There’s a lot to go through. Let me start with Iran, and I know that this was raised ad nauseam at length during the White House briefing, but – so I’ll try and make mine extremely short.


QUESTION: As has been pointed out over and over and over again by your colleague over there, the agreement on The Hague claim was settled and announced by you all publicly in January.

MR TONER: Correct.

QUESTION: Do you know why at that time you guys were not prepared to say that the 400 million that Iran was owed – why you were not prepared to say or describe the manner in which that was transferred to the Iranians?

MR TONER: Well, I think – and I’m still, frankly, not prepared to talk about the mechanics of how that transfer was made.

QUESTION: Okay. My question is: Then why?

MR TONER: Well --

QUESTION: What is the big secret here? Why is this such an issue?

MR TONER: Well, that’s a fair question. I think, look – I mean, first of all, let me tell you what I can say about it.

QUESTION: Well, don’t just repeat the same --

MR TONER: I won’t. I don’t know – I didn’t see – I didn’t see --

QUESTION: I mean, we’ve all heard this on --

MR TONER: If I repeat myself, then – or I repeat Josh, rather, then --

QUESTION: Well, it went on for almost over – it went on for over an hour.

MR TONER: No, I mean, what I can – what I would say is, without getting into the nitty-gritty details of how that payment was made, what I can say is that Iran was at that time, and frankly still is to some degree, relatively disconnected from the international financial system. And so that raised certain challenges in getting them their money. It couldn’t be done over wire transfers or any of – kind of the legal methods that – or the legal – the financial methods, rather, that are commonly used to transfer large sums of money. So, bearing in mind that, we had to figure out ways to get them the money. We don’t have – we’ve never re-established a direct banking relationship with Iran and still, frankly, don’t intend to do so.


MR TONER: So, I mean, those are the limitations under which we were operating to --

QUESTION: But it seems like there may be other ways to – I mean, were other ways considered and discarded? I mean, you could have sent them gold bars or something, I suppose, but – that’s pretty heavy, but – and I don’t know --

MR TONER: Although I don’t know that that’s any --

QUESTION: -- how much 400 million in euros and Swiss francs weighs, but there’s bitcoin --

QUESTION: (Off-mike.)

MR TONER: Yeah, I would say so, too.

QUESTION: Couldn’t you have gotten like a cashier’s check from some European bank and presented that to them?

MR TONER: Well, again, we’ve seen – again – and I don’t want to weigh too deeply into this, but we’ve seen – subsequent to the JCPOA implementation day and the lifting of some sanctions, we have seen – in a separate channel altogether but we’ve seen a reticence by some banks to engage or do business or financial transactions with Iran due to several reasons. One is, as the President has made clear, that Iran’s continued bad behavior does make them reluctant. Let me finish. The other is that – sorry, I thought you were looking at me like you’re getting impatient. (Laughter.)


MR TONER: And the other is that there are sanctions laws – there are sanctions, rather, that are still in place that financial institutions, international banks still don’t have a clear understanding of, and all of that weighs on, again, our ability or anyone’s ability to engage in financial transactions with Iran.

QUESTION: So physically whose cash was it? Was it the governments of the --

MR TONER: I’m not going to get into the details. I’m just not.

QUESTION: Did you have to give the governments that supplied these bank – this currency the equivalent?

MR TONER: Again, I --

QUESTION: I mean, it seems like you could have gotten a great deal post-Brexit if you had paid them in sterling, per se, you know?

MR TONER: Matt, I --

QUESTION: Did you have --

MR TONER: I’m not privy to those details and I don’t have them and I don’t know that I could get into that level of detail.

QUESTION: Why – I just don’t get why not.

MR TONER: Again, I don’t think – I don’t know how common it is for us to get into the details of these kinds of transactions.

QUESTION: Well, you see what happens when you don’t and then it comes out how – I mean, the amount of --

MR TONER: I guess so. I mean --

QUESTION: -- the amount of --

MR TONER: Frankly, if we’re – but --

QUESTION: -- conspiracizing or whatever, without you giving a definitive account of it, people are – draw their own conclusions.

MR TONER: But we did acknowledge that this took place at the time. The President and the Secretary both spoke to it. I mean, frankly, other than some of these salacious details that they’re trying to put forth as to the transactions --

QUESTION: Salacious?

MR TONER: Well, in terms of --

QUESTION: I thought it wasn’t salacious.


QUESTION: Your whole point, the Administration’s whole point is that it’s not salacious.

MR TONER: That’s not true. I’m saying that the article alleges that --

QUESTION: Well, we can get to that later.

MR TONER: -- there’s very little news to this. We have been out, from the day or the time that the implementation – or the JCPOA was signed on implementation day and have talked about all of these – all the elements: the freeing of the detainees, obviously the agreement signing and reaching implementation day, but as well as resolving this claim.

QUESTION: Do you know why it was this claim – there are more other outstanding claims --

MR TONER: There are.

QUESTION: -- that Iran has against the United States. Why was it decided – back a year ago, whenever it was, that the litigation on this really got heated up in the course of the nuclear talks, why was this one the one that was chosen to be settled?

MR TONER: Sure. I think my understanding was that they were close to reaching a settlement, so it was within grasp. I think there was concern – and we’ve talked about this – from legal experts that if it didn’t – and it went to the tribunal that we would – frankly, it would not be favorable, the tribunal’s decision to us.

QUESTION: And my last one on this is just --

MR TONER: Yeah, please.

QUESTION: Does the – if a private citizen owed the Iranian Government, let’s say, a more modest amount of money – say $40,000, still more than 10,000 that would – required to be transferred, would it be legal for that person, whoever it is, to send cash to the Iranian Government? Would it be legal under current U.S. law to send that cash to Iran?

MR TONER: Good question. I’m not sure the answer. I mean, it’s not – I mean, obviously, there’s no applicable sanctions that I’m aware of, but I know we’re not doing – from U.S. financial institutions, we’re not engaged --

QUESTION: Well, did the Administration require to get from itself, from Treasury, a special, specific license to do this --


QUESTION: -- 400 million cash transfer?

MR TONER: I’m not aware of that, but I can certainly ask.

QUESTION: All right.

QUESTION: I got a couple of --

MR TONER: Yeah, go ahead.

QUESTION: One – and you used the word “salacious” – do you feel that there’s something unseemly about having made this transfer to the Iranians in the form of cash?

MR TONER: I mean, I was being a little glib and I should never do that from the podium. What – the point I was trying to make was that other than some of the, again, alleged details – because I’m not going to speak to the mechanics beyond what I just said – that there really wasn’t much new to this article. It made a lot of allegations that this was ransom. It is not, it was not, we said from the beginning. But again, there’s not really anything that all of you weren’t aware of at the time that this happened other than, as I said, some of the – we have not gotten into the details of how that transfer took place.

I’m sorry, your question one more time on this?

QUESTION: My question was: Is it unseemly that you paid this in cash?

MR TONER: I mean, there were – so there were reasons to do so, again, operating under the constrictions that we were operating under, which was that the – at the time, that – and to an extent, it remains the case that Iran is, frankly – or was disconnected from the global financial system. And so this is not something new, it’s not – it’s – again, we’ve seen this manifested elsewhere as it tries to get back into the international marketplace. It’s having a hard time connecting with banks and other institutions. So, no, I mean, I don’t – I think it was – we were – all options were vetted. This was considered to be the most efficient way to do it. And again, I’m not trying to confirm the details in that article. I don’t want to do it.

QUESTION: Well, can you say what other options that were considered?

MR TONER: I don’t. I don’t have them in front of me. I apologize.

QUESTION: (Inaudible) ask about one particular option?

MR TONER: Please.

QUESTION: I mean, you’ll recall that when Treasury designated Banco Delta Asia as – under the Patriot Act as a primary money laundering concern and then froze about $25 million in North Korean accounts and then you guys – the U.S. Government ended up giving the money back – and as I recall, that transfer also to a country with very little access to the outside banking world, you ended up having the New York Federal Reserve execute that transfer through an obscure third or fourth or fifth-tier regional Russian bank. I mean, was there any way of doing it through the Russians or through the Chinese or through somebody else?

MR TONER: In all honesty, Arshad, I don’t – in answer to Matt’s question, I don’t have kind of a list of the various options that were looked at. I just know that in the effort to conclude this settlement as quickly and as efficiently as possible, that they did clearly vet all of the available options and arrived on a solution.

QUESTION: And one other thing for me.


QUESTION: The coincidence, or near coincidence, in terms of timing of the release of the four and eventually a fifth U.S. --

MR TONER: Right.

QUESTION: -- person detained in Iran and this payment naturally leads people to wonder if they are causally related. Without using the word “ransom,” why shouldn’t people believe that the two events are somehow linked and that you would not have gotten the Iran – the U.S. citizens out absent the resolution of this matter and the payment of these funds?

MR TONER: Sure. I mean, it – and honestly, it’s a fair question given how these all came to a head at the same time, and I think we’ve addressed that in – at the time we addressed it, obviously. And what I think is that you saw these were three very separate efforts, and in fact, with regard to the tribunal and the settlement of those claims, I mean, that tribunal was established in 1981. Some of these claims have been – had been in process or in train for – the settlement of them – for many, many years, decades in fact.

I think what one can fairly say is that – and I think we acknowledged this at the time – is that our negotiations to reach the nuclear deal with Iran did open up enough space, if you will, for us to reach a resolution on other outstanding issues. We were very clear all along and – that there was never a linkage between reaching the JCPOA and freeing the Americans, but we never failed to advocate for their release, and every time we met with the Iranians. And similarly, there was no linkage between the settlement and the freeing of these Americans, but we saw an opportunity to resolve these three separate pieces concurrently that were being resolved at the same time, and of course that was two what we believed are national security interests in our advantage. And in the case of the settlement, we’ve made the case – the President on down has made the case that because of this settlement, because it wasn’t – it didn’t – wasn’t decided by the tribunal, we believe we saved American taxpayers lots of money.

QUESTION: And by “no linkage,” is it fair – I got two more quick ones. Sorry.

MR TONER: Sure, sure, go ahead. Please, I’ll get to you.

QUESTION: By “no linkage” --


QUESTION: -- you mean no quid pro quo?

MR TONER: Exactly, thank you.

QUESTION: Okay. And then second, do you understand why the Iranians may themselves see a quid pro quo here?

MR TONER: Yeah, I – and it’s hard for me to speak to that, and I saw the quote in the article by an Iranian commander. I mean, we’ve said before we see things in the Iranian press all the time by senior Iranian officials. We try not to respond to them, frankly, because they’re largely meant for domestic consumption. They have their political sphere, as we do, or their political environment. It’s just, again, I – I would just say there was no quid pro quo, and I don’t know for what reason they would be saying there was.


MR TONER: Please.

QUESTION: All the politics aside --


QUESTION: -- I’m a little bit confused on a couple things regarding this issue.


QUESTION: One, these are Iranian money that were unfrozen because --

MR TONER: That’s right.

QUESTION: -- legally unfrozen, correct?



MR TONER: Yeah, this was money that --

QUESTION: Second --

MR TONER: Yeah, go ahead. I’m sorry.

QUESTION: Right, okay. Second, I understand you’re saying that the global financial system was not open to the Iranians, but explain to me, why couldn’t this be done like a straightforward financial transaction through a third party? I mean, directly with – through one of your allies, and so on? I mean, this gets done every day hundreds of times. I mean, not in terms of cash that is carried in bags and so on, but in terms, let’s say --


QUESTION: -- upfront, open, declared kind of a financial transaction.

MR TONER: Sure. Again, I don’t want to go down – get too far into the details of how the financial transaction took place other than to say that we were operating under certain limitations, that all of the various options were looked at and vetted, and we went with an option that succeeded in getting the Iranians the money that they were owed through the settlement.

QUESTION: Now, there is still some money for the Iranians, as you said to begin with. Is it likely to happen the same way, or is it going to be done differently?

MR TONER: I can’t speak to that. I mean, we’ll obviously make good on all our commitments that we’ve reached with them legally through the settlement process. But I can’t speak to even what the timeline is for that.


QUESTION: On the same.

MR TONER: Go ahead, Tejinder.

QUESTION: The – I just want to clarify this, that the Executive Branch can go ahead and do what it wants to do to carry out, and in this case I have no questions on that. But have you – does the Executive not supposed to inform the Legislative, the Congress or Senate, about these actions? Because just --

MR TONER: Yes, we always inform them, yeah.

QUESTION: -- less than – I think less than an hour ago, Senator McCain has issued a statement. And in that he says – I’ll quote – “It is clear that this payment was a ransom for Americans held hostage in Iran,” quote closed. So if he was privy – if he knew about this, he will not make that statement like that. So how are you going to – if this had not come out in that story of – how this would have been a hush-hush thing, or it would have – you would have put out a statement saying that we have transferred 400 million --

MR TONER: Yeah, I can --

QUESTION: Didn’t you put a statement out in January saying --

MR TONER: Yes, we did. Yeah. And I can assure you that we don’t do anything without notifying Congress, regardless of what that may be. We always make Congress aware of whatever actions we’re taking. With all due respect from – to Senator McCain, I would also object to his comparison that this was – or his allegation that this was some kind of ransom. As I said, it was not. It was not a quid pro quo; it was not a ransom. What you saw was the culmination, as I said, of several lines of effort, in particular this one that had been ongoing over the course of many years, that we saw an opportunity to resolve quickly and to our advantage.


QUESTION: Just a --

MR TONER: Yeah, go ahead, Tejinder. One last question and I’ll get to you, James.

QUESTION: Going back to the Matt’s question about the --


QUESTION: -- whether it was more than 10,000 or – I went through the Government of U.S. rules about taking out money out of the country. And so in that there is no exception that the government can do this. So it is something – who authorizes it? Is it – how this is done? Is – are those rules not applicable to the government around sanctions? Because – or is it the first one? Because we have heard about sacks of – suitcases of cash to Afghanistan or other places. So can you just throw some light on what exactly goes on? Like --

MR TONER: Well, again, I said this before several times, Tejinder. I’m not going to speak to the mechanics of how this settlement payment was made. If you have broader questions about how money is exchanged for these kinds of settlements, I would probably direct you to the Department of Treasury.

Please. Go ahead, James.

QUESTION: Can you at least assure us that the hostages were in the process of being set free prior to the touching down of this plane with the pallets of cash?

MR TONER: I’m – so – and I’m going to be very precise here. So – and I was actually with the Secretary in Vienna, I want to say, when we did reach the – this was the night of the implementation of the JCPOA. And as I said, it was a moment where three separate lines of effort were culminating at the same time. And all of them were, as I said, separate but distinct lines of effort operating concurrently. You had the JCPOA implementation day, you had the freeing of the American hostages or detainees, and you also had this Hague settlement taking place. So as to the timing, I simply don’t – I can’t answer conclusively that these hostage – or these detainees, Americans, were on a plane before that money arrived. I might be able to get you an answer on that, but what I can say --

QUESTION: If you could take it as a taken question.

MR TONER: Sure. What I can say though categorically is that there was not any kind of understanding on the part of the Iranians and certainly not on the part of us that these two were linked, that one had to happen before the other would.

QUESTION: Was this a U.S. military plane that transported this currency?

MR TONER: I’d have to refer you – I apologize for doing that – to Department of Defense to really answer how that was – if that was the case. And again, I can’t speak to the mechanics of how the --

QUESTION: Do you happen to know the answer to my question, whether you see fit to address it from this podium?

MR TONER: Not with 100 percent certainty, no.

QUESTION: Would you describe this arrangement whereby the United States wires a large amount like this to European central banks for the purposes of conversion of the currency, and then the stacking of it in this way on pallets aboard an unmarked plane for delivery to a foreign government, is that typically how we do business?

MR TONER: No. And again, I don’t want to – I’m not going to confirm the allegations that are made in this article. What I will say is that when we’re forced to get a little creative – let me put it this way – when we’re dealing with a country that was largely cut off from international financial institutions and the international banking system due to years of sanctions, and so operating in that environment we had to look at available options to us in order to get that money to them – money that, frankly, was their money, plus interest.

QUESTION: And one other development that appears to have taken place roughly around the same time was the capture and release of the U.S. Navy sailors by Iran, which was just a few days before the arrival of this unmarked cargo plane. And so can you assure us that no ransom was paid for those hostages?

MR TONER: Absolutely no linkage on that, absolutely no linkage at all. I can absolutely 100 percent confirm that there was no linkage in that regard. In fact, I thought that was – and forgive me if I’m – my timing – sense of timing is wrong, but I thought that was several weeks after the fact[1]. But no quid pro quo, no ransom, nothing to do with the freed American sailors.

QUESTION: Thank you.


QUESTION: The idea – this is a question about the actual deal itself.

MR TONER: Yeah, okay.

QUESTION: It’s a question that I asked earlier this week, yesterday.


QUESTION: You have seen the report from David Albright’s ISIS, the good ISIS, on breakout times after year – after year 13?

MR TONER: Yes. This involves the – also the AP story that was from last month.

QUESTION: Correct. In fact, the ISIS – that the – their estimate is that the breakout time after year 13 doesn’t go down by six months as we had calculated it, but goes down to four months, even less. What is --

MR TONER: This is after year 10?

QUESTION: Thirteen.

MR TONER: Thirteen, rather. Okay, sorry.

QUESTION: I asked Kirby about this yesterday. He hadn’t – said he hadn’t seen it, so I’m just --

MR TONER: Yeah, and I apologize, Matt. I don’t have it in front of me. I think we would stand by what we’ve said previously. We’ve had this – we’ve had all of our experts look at this, and we would stand by what we’ve said, which is six months. If that changes, I’ll have to get back to you.

QUESTION: Which is six months. No, that’s what we estimated it to be.

MR TONER: You’re talking about the report that --

QUESTION: They said that – well, the AP report calculated it as six months breakout after year 13. ISIS says that it’s not six months, it’s four months.

MR TONER: I know. Yeah.

QUESTION: It’s actually less. The breakout time would be less after year 13.

MR TONER: All I can say, we haven’t changed our assessment. Let me put it that way.

QUESTION: Well, listen, back in April of last year, before the final deal was done --


QUESTION: -- but after the interim agreement was reached, President Obama did an interview with NPR – this was on April 7th – and he was asked about concerns about the deal and especially in the out years of it. And he said: what is more – what is a more relevant fear would be that in year 13, 14, 15, they have advanced centrifuges that enrich uranium fairly rapidly, and at that point the breakout time would have shrunk to almost down to zero.

Now, that would seem that the Administration – four months is not zero, but it would seem that the Administration had this same concern. Does it not? Has that concern faded?

MR TONER: Well, I mean, not at all, Matt. And I think we’ve – when we’re addressing the initial leak of the report in the AP story that did so, I think we were very clear in saying that what we believe the JCPOA has allowed us is to have eyes on Iran’s nuclear program so that if after year 15 we see a concerted effort for them to attain a nuclear weapon, we will be able to detect that with enough time.

QUESTION: Okay. Well, breakout year 13 not 15. That’s just one, but --

MR TONER: Sorry.

QUESTION: But anyway, the same day that that interview aired on NPR, your – one of your predecessors was asked about this comment and whether or not – well, asked about – it was unusual because the President was trying to sell the deal as something good, and yet here it was saying – he was saying or appeared to be saying that the breakout time would shrink – would shrink almost down to zero, he said. We’re now talking four months, according to independent experts. And what your predecessor said was that the quote was garbled and it was not – it was a little confusing, but that the President was referring to a scenario in which there was no deal at all, not to a scenario in which you had reached a final deal.

MR TONER: Yeah, I --

QUESTION: And that just seems to be now flat out wrong, so I’m wondering if you can explain that.

MR TONER: I can’t. I don’t have the President’s transcript in front of me.

QUESTION: I have it right here.

MR TONER: I don’t have the – I mean, I can --

QUESTION: So I’ll show it to you afterwards and --

MR TONER: Why don’t we do this – yeah, I mean, I’m happy to try to get you answers to your questions. I would just say that, in general, we understand that the breakout time will be diminished after specific years. We’re aware of that. But part of the JCPOA is to provide us with the access, the eyes on Iran’s nuclear program – civilian now – nuclear program so that we’re able to detect any shift whatsoever towards the possible attainment of a nuclear weapon and address it accordingly.

QUESTION: Okay. So then just to put a very fine point on it, and I’ll stop then.

MR TONER: Yeah, yeah.

QUESTION: You – the Administration concedes that the year-long minimum breakout that you had sought, breakout time that you had sought in the negotiations, essentially disappears after year 13, not after year 15?

MR TONER: I don’t want to confirm that. I want to look at what – sorry.

QUESTION: Can I change topics?

MR TONER: Sure thing.

QUESTION: Before we do, I just wanted to --

MR TONER: Oh, wait. I’m sorry. Please, go ahead, James.

QUESTION: -- express my gratitude that you agreed earlier to accept as a taken question the matter of whether or not this plane carrying all this cash touched down before or after the process had begun to release these detainees.

MR TONER: What I will say to you, James, is that whatever transfer of funds took place to the Iranians – I can try to see what the timeline was – but again, making very clear that there was no quid pro quo, there was no tit for tat involved.

QUESTION: My inbox is always open.

MR TONER: Thank you, sir. (Laughter.)

Why don’t I go back? I’ll get to you, Said. I’m going to go to the back here.

QUESTION: Okay. So the Russian ministry of defense reports that in Aleppo there was recently --

MR TONER: Are we ready to switch to Syria?

QUESTION: -- a chemical weapons attack.

MR TONER: I’m happy to do so.

QUESTION: I just had one more on Iran.

MR TONER: Oh, let’s finish. I promise I’ll get to you. I just wanted --

QUESTION: Okay, right.

QUESTION: So just really quickly – CNN. Is there any concern in this building about the optics? I mean, I know you’re saying there’s no quid pro quo, but when you’re doing it on the same day and that much cash, I mean, was there not that both in Iran or – and just internationally, this would be seen as potentially linked? I mean, was that not a concern?

MR TONER: It’s a fair question. And of course, yes. I mean, look, we were aware that this was the – of the optics. However, one of the reasons we tried to address it up front – and as I said, the President spoke to this settlement, Secretary Kerry spoke to the settlement at the time and tried to say, “Look, guys, I know it looks like, but there’s no there there.” And so we’ve always been aware of it, but that didn’t keep us from, frankly, sealing a deal that saved the American taxpayers a considerable sum of money.

QUESTION: And then just on the fact that it was cash – I don’t want to go too much into the mechanics – was there any – also concern that bulk cash like that could be used by Iran to fund some of its more --

MR TONER: Nefarious activities?

QUESTION: -- nefarious activities? I mean, just the --

MR TONER: I mean, what we’ve seen – and I think it was Brennan who spoke about this a week or so ago. What we’ve seen thus far, and that’s not saying that there’s any guarantees to any of this, but so far what they’ve used the settlement for has not been for any nefarious activities. In fact, it’s been directed towards development projects, infrastructure projects. Now, I say that with no guarantees, but that’s what we’ve seen so far.


QUESTION: Wait, wait. Just one more and this will be very brief.


QUESTION: I just want to know – did the Iranians agree or demand that this, whatever form of payment it was, did they agree on a specific form --

MR TONER: I don’t know.

QUESTION: -- or did they demand a specific form?

MR TONER: I don’t know.

QUESTION: I mean, did you guys offer them, “How about 400 million in diamonds?” And they said, “No, no, no. We want cash.” Or can you give us – did they have to agree to the method of payment?

MR TONER: I honestly don’t know the answer to that, but you go back to the diamonds and gold like that’s some easier currency. (Laughter.)

QUESTION: Well, it’s outside the international financial system --

MR TONER: I guess so. I guess so.

QUESTION: -- which seems to be your biggest concern here.

MR TONER: Anyway, I don’t have the answer for you. If I can get an answer, I’ll let you know.

QUESTION: (Inaudible) --

MR TONER: Please.

QUESTION: On Syria. The Russian ministry of defense says that in Aleppo there was recently a chemical weapons attack and that it was conducted by the Harakat Nour al-Zenki organization, which is an opposition group that has received support from the United States. Is the United States still supporting this organization?

MR TONER: So – unaware of that allegation. The only thing I’m aware of is the alleged chemical weapons attack on the town of Saraqeb. I don’t – I think we’re talking about separate incidents if I’m correct. I don’t know.

QUESTION: I’m referring to something in Aleppo.

MR TONER: This was – you’re talking about something in Aleppo. So haven’t seen those reports. Obviously, as we said with the incident that took place I think two days ago, allegedly, there were reports of chemical weapons being used in another town. But the same would hold true with this, is obviously we condemn strongly the use of any chemical weapons, and any credible allegations of their use in Syria we’ll investigate. And I believe it’s the purview of the OPCW that would carry out such an investigation.

As to your follow-up question about this group, I don’t have in front of me that we actually fund them. I mean, we – you’re saying we provide them with assistance?

QUESTION: Yes, as part of the so-called moderate opposition.

MR TONER: Yeah. I don’t know what --

QUESTION: Now, the group also --

MR TONER: Again, I haven’t seen the allegations yet, so I think it’s too early for me to (a) make that assessment and (b) make that connection.

QUESTION: It’s been said that the State Department is also investigating allegations – I mean, there’s a video of this group beheading a 10-year-old Palestinian boy.

MR TONER: Yes. Yeah, I’m aware of that.

QUESTION: How are those investigations going? Has there been any result?

MR TONER: Yeah. So we did talk about that. We were looking into those – that incident. Obviously, we condemned – if it were true. I know that the group itself said that they had also made some arrests and then set up a commission of inquiry into the incident. I don’t have any updates at this point in time, but I can certainly check and get back to you.

QUESTION: So what does a rebel group in Syria have to do to not receive U.S. funds any longer? What is the line that they must cross? What kind of controversial incident must take place for a group to stop receiving U.S. funds?

MR TONER: Well, first of all, there’s a lot of vetting of the Syrian moderate opposition that has already taken place, and it’s not just by the U.S., but it’s by all the members of the ISSG and, frankly, the UN. And it was established that al-Nusrah as well as Daesh or ISIL were considered to be by all members and by the UN to be terrorist organizations. I think, again, these are not easy processes, and one incident here and there would not necessarily make you a terrorist group.

Now, let me be very clear that we don’t condone any of the activities that you just cited. Possible use of chemical weapons, possible beheading of a young child, any human rights abuses – any of those things would give us serious cause for concern. That said, where we are in the broader geopolitical or political situation in Syria is – and one of the ongoing discussions that we’ve been having with Russia is how do we clearly delineate between these known terrorist groups – Nusrah and Daesh – and the moderate opposition, and how do we have a clear understanding of who is where so that we can, longer game here, get back in place a cessation of hostilities that is credible, that can also then jumpstart the political process.

QUESTION: So it sounds to me like what you’re saying is that even if these allegations are true, there’s still a chance that the United States would continue supporting these groups. Is that what you’re saying?

MR TONER: I’m not making any – I’m not, frankly, answering any hypotheticals. We just don’t know at this point. As I said, we would regard any of the acts that you mentioned or cited – and again, they are just allegations at this point – we’d take them very seriously and look into them and investigate them.

QUESTION: They’re not a red line. They’re not a red line to end U.S. support.

MR TONER: Again, I – so for a terrorist organization, there are fundamental actions, one of which is an intention to carry out terrorist attacks both within Syria but as well as on the West. Some of these groups – as I said, Nusrah and al-Qaida – or – well, al-Qaida is al-Nusrah; they’re one and the same – and Daesh – have expressed and indeed acted on these intentions. But as to the other members of the moderate Syrian opposition, look, we’re constantly evaluating their behavior. And frankly, for them to be a member of the moderate Syrian opposition and to be part of the cessation of hostilities and the Syrian Democratic Forces, it requires that they meet the standards. And those standards are respect for human rights and adherence to a cessation of hostilities.

QUESTION: And does that include not using chemical weapons?

MR TONER: Of course.

QUESTION: Is that part of the standard?

MR TONER: Of course.

QUESTION: So you – you’re just – you’re still looking into the chemical weapons charges?

MR TONER: Yes. Yeah, I don’t have any updates on that.

QUESTION: There’s no --


QUESTION: Just to be clear, if a group was using chemical weapons, their funding would be cut off?

MR TONER: Again, I will not make any statements of one or the other until we know all the facts and have determined who is to blame for any – I mean, honestly, this is the first time I’m hearing about a report for use of chemical weapons. But again, we have also seen reports of the use of chemical weapons on another town, and we’re looking into that. So I mean, again, we just don’t have --

QUESTION: Does the State Department have a policy not to support groups that use chemical weapons?

MR TONER: We condemn the use of chemical weapons.

QUESTION: Yes, but do you have a policy of not supporting groups that do such things?

MR TONER: Again, we would evaluate any support for any groups that are engaged in any kind of activity that, frankly, go against international norms.

QUESTION: The other thing you said about --

QUESTION: A related question on ISIS?

QUESTION: The other thing you said was the possible beheading. Are you not convinced that the video is accurate?

MR TONER: No, I apologize. I’m just not aware that we’ve determined --

QUESTION: Who exactly is behind it?

MR TONER: -- who is actually behind it.

QUESTION: All right.

MR TONER: Thank you.


MR TONER: Your turn.

QUESTION: Today marks the second anniversary of the beginning of ISIS’s genocide against the Yezidis --


QUESTION: -- including wholesale murder and institutionalized rape and sexual slavery of Yezidi women. And the Yezidis and the Kurdistan Regional Government, because of the nature of these crimes – crimes against humanity – are trying to get these crimes referred to the International Criminal Court. But they are not getting support from the United States, or not enough support from the United States, for this referral. And why doesn’t the U.S. do more to help the Yezidis and the Kurdistan Regional Government get these crimes referred to the ICC?

MR TONER: Sure. So a couple of points to make. One is there’s no doubt, obviously, that those responsible for the heinous acts that have been carried out against the Yezidi people should be held accountable for their actions. And there are certainly venues at national and international levels in which accountability could be pursued, and that includes the International Criminal Court in appropriate circumstances. I think I would just say that our focus, immediate focus, is on supporting the efforts of the Iraqi Security Forces and authorities to hold the perpetrators of Daesh’s atrocities accountable. And in both Iraq and Syria, we are supporting ongoing efforts to document and to analyze and preserve evidence of the atrocities that have been committed there that could serve a wide range of future justice purposes, accountability purposes.

So I’m not going to say that we want them to pursue this at the International Criminal Court. I would just say, as we’ve said in the past, it’s often for these countries, these nations, and these people to decide for themselves how they want accountability to be held. I think our goal here is to see that there is accountability, and that’s something we always would encourage.

QUESTION: These are crimes against humanity, and trying them in a national judicial system like Iraq doesn’t seem sufficient, plus which a large number of these crimes took place in another country like Syria. And they’re asking for the United States to support their efforts to try them in some international forum.

MR TONER: And we have not excluded that. I think there’s – as I said, there’s a number of venues at which accountability can be pursued. And that includes the International Criminal Court. I think at this point, in this stage, we’re still, frankly, in the process of trying to work with the Iraqi Security Forces to destroy, degrade Daesh on the ground. I mean, it still holds territory in Iraq. We’ve made tremendous progress, but our focus is still on defeating Daesh on the battlefield. But as we do that, we’re certainly working with Iraqi authorities to collect evidence – as I said, to preserve evidence that can be used in whatever process of accountability that eventually takes place.

QUESTION: The Yezidis feel that the Iraqi Government does not pay attention to their problems.

MR TONER: Again, I’m – I – we’re obviously acutely aware of the Yezidis’ suffering. We’ve been a huge advocate for them, including the gestures that – or the airstrikes that took place to save a large portion of them. But unfortunately, many of them were systematically killed and wiped out by Daesh, by ISIL. And as I said, we’re committed to helping them and helping Iraqi authorities find justice.

QUESTION: Can I change topics?

MR TONER: Of course.

QUESTION: Can I go to the Palestinian-Israeli issue?

MR TONER: Of course.

QUESTION: Last Wednesday the department issued a very strong statement that was really kind of – encompassed the protesting home demolition, expansion of settlement, the maltreatments of Palestinians – I mean, the whole gamut and so on. But ever since then, the Israelis have done many, many things, including demolishing more homes, demolishing more agricultural outposts, enforcing administrative arrest law and imprisonment law against children and so on.

It seems that every time – every time that you say something or issue a statement expressing displeasure, the Israelis – they double down on what they’re doing. And this is really happening on the eve of maybe concluding the largest deal in history in terms of arms. We’re talking about $40 billion over 10 years. So why or what will the United States do to make good on its expression of displeasure?

MR TONER: Well --

QUESTION: We don’t want to go through all the things that they have done.

MR TONER: I understand that. And it’s --

QUESTION: There are so many.

MR TONER: Look, we don’t hesitate to speak to our concerns about Israel’s behavior when we believe it is counterproductive to what our goal, and frankly, the stated goal of Israel and the Palestinian people is, which is a two-state solution. So we’re forthright and we’re transparent about our concerns when they arise. And certainly, that speaks to ongoing settlement activity. And that was, as you noted, the statement that came out I think on July 27th. And we’re going to continue to make those concerns clear to the Israeli authorities as appropriate both in our diplomatic engagement with them, which is nearly constant, daily, at all levels, but also publicly where we see fit.

Speaking to the broader relationship, though, we have an ironclad commitment to Israel’s security, and our MOU, as you alluded to, is evidence of that. And it’s – look, I mean, our relationship with Israel is vast but very strong. We believe they are a strong democratic force in the region. We understand the need they have to protect their citizens against terrorism and violence, but in all cases, we always ask that they act with restraint and with respect for the human rights of the Palestinian people.

QUESTION: I understand. But I’m saying that the United States has a great deal of leverage basically to say, “Listen, you’ve got to stop doing this.” I mean, not only say, “We disapprove, we condemn,” and so on, but, “You’ve got to stop doing it.” Because a lot of this money goes directly to aid the settlements, to expanding the settlements and do other things.

MR TONER: Well, look, I mean, all I can say to that is in diplomacy and in bilateral, and frankly, multilateral relationships, you need to have multiple channels and multiple levels of engagement. And you’ve got to be able to say, “We disagree here, but we’re going to continue to provide for your security as much as possible because we value your friendship and your alliance in a region where it is valuable and in our national interest.”

QUESTION: Okay. Well, okay --

MR TONER: I’m just saying, like, you’ve got to compartmentalize. And I’m not trying to trivialize one or the other.


QUESTION: I’ve got a related question. Are you aware of this incident in which apparently some five Americans were detained and then expelled by Israel at the airport?


QUESTION: Do you know anything about that?

MR TONER: So yeah, thanks.

QUESTION: Have you said anything to the Israelis about it, or is it something that you regard as their right, just as any other country’s right, to allow or deny entry?

MR TONER: So first of all, we are aware of these reports. It was a group of citizens that were denied entry into Israel and deported. In answer to your question, I can’t speak specifically due to privacy considerations. I know that’s a sensitive topic for you, but we’re unable to comment on these specific cases.

But generally speaking, the U.S. Government seeks equal treatment and freedom to travel for all U.S. citizens regardless of national origin or ethnicity. And specifically, the U.S. Government remains concerned about unequal treatment that Arab Americans – some Arab Americans receive at Israel’s borders and checkpoints. And we regularly raise with Israeli authorities our concerns about the issue of equal treatment for all U.S. citizens at ports of entry. And I’m sure, without speaking to this specific case, that we’ll do the same.

QUESTION: So you believe – without getting into the details of this, you believe that this is a case of unequal treatment?

MR TONER: We have --

QUESTION: You said you’re sure --


QUESTION: -- that you’ll raise these concerns again, which suggests that you do believe that this is a case of unequal treatment. Is that correct or am I reading too much into it?

MR TONER: No, no, no, that’s okay. It’s a fair question. I would just say that we’re – we have seen cases of this in the past. We’ll look into this incident. If it is indeed a case, we’ll raise it.

QUESTION: But this happened time and again.

MR TONER: I know.

QUESTION: I mean, time and again, because --

MR TONER: Guys, I apologize for this --

QUESTION: Let me just very quickly ask you on --

MR TONER: -- (inaudible) couple more questions.

QUESTION: -- one last thing.

QUESTION: (Inaudible) on Asia.

MR TONER: I’ll get back to you. Yeah, yeah. I promise.

QUESTION: One last thing. One last thing: Did the Secretary agree when he met with Abbas to support the French initiative?

MR TONER: I don’t believe any decision was made categorically to – I know that we’ve had ongoing discussions, and in fact he met with Ayrault when he was there in Paris, and we have been in continual contact with the French, but we’ve not made any specific decisions on whether to support it.



MR TONER: And then I’ll get back to you, I promise.

QUESTION: -- a quick question on the Japanese cabinet reshuffling. Do you have any comments, particularly on the defense minister? She’s been seen as very conservative. Both China and Korea have made complaints.

MR TONER: No, I mean, look, we’re aware obviously of the new Japanese cabinet. From our perspective, we’re going to maintain, sustain, and frankly, work to deepen our close cooperation with the Government of Japan, and that’s across a range of regional and global issues. And we want to obviously, as I said, strengthen our cooperative efforts. Specific to your question about the defense minister, I don’t want to get into commenting on what we consider to be really domestic politics in Japan.

QUESTION: Well, in the past she’s made regular visits to Yasukuni Shrine, and when asked earlier today, she did not rule out a visit later this month.


QUESTION: And visiting – is visiting the shrine something you would discourage given that you have spoken about --


QUESTION: -- shrine visits in the past?

MR TONER: I mean, I’d just say we continue to emphasize the importance of approaching historical legacy issues with – in a manner, rather, that promotes healing and reconciliation, and that’s always been our position regarding the shrine.

QUESTION: Just a quick one.

MR TONER: I’ll get in the back, and then if I have time.

QUESTION: Thank you. Me?

MR TONER: Yeah, you. No, it’s okay.

QUESTION: Thank you.

MR TONER: Sorry.

QUESTION: Oh, my God – so confused. On North Korea, as you know, that the North Korea launched two ballistic missiles to sea over Japan yesterday. Do you have any comment on this?

MR TONER: Any comments? Yeah, we’re aware of the reports. Obviously, we’re monitoring and continue to assess the situation with – in close coordination with our regional allies and partners. We strongly condemn this action as well as North Korea’s other recent missile tests, which, it goes without saying, violate multiple UN Security Council resolutions explicitly prohibiting North Korea from using ballistic missile technology. We intend to raise our concerns at the UN to bolster international resolve and commitment to hold the DPRK accountable for these provocative actions. I don’t want to speak to the outcome of any meetings, but I think there – the Secretary Council consultations will take place sometime this afternoon to address last night’s launch.

QUESTION: But regarding on the North Korean continue to launch the ballistic missiles or No Dong missiles, does the U.S. have any strong another sanctions against North Korea? Do you have any plans for --

MR TONER: Sure. Well, I mean, look, I never want to preclude any additional sanctions, but we did pass a very strong sanctions package several months ago – sorry, I can’t remember the exact date – and as we always say, with sanctions, they’re only as effective as as well as they’re implemented. And so what our focus has been is working with other likeminded partners in the region – certainly that includes China – in trying to ensure that these sanctions are implemented to the full extent possible so that the DPRK, the North Korean regime, feels the squeeze and is encouraged to then engage with the international community and address the concerns about its nuclear program.

Guys, I have to end there. I’m sorry.

QUESTION: Mark, you’re going to have to make time. Sorry, there’s too much going on here. One, South Sudan.


QUESTION: Well, I mean --


QUESTION: -- schedule the briefing so you have enough time to answer the questions around the world. Don’t just, like, try to run away after --

MR TONER: I’m sorry, has anyone seen me run away from this podium?

QUESTION: South – no. Well, that’s --

MR TONER: I think I’ve been up here --

QUESTION: Fair enough. You have been.


QUESTION: South Sudan, right? The place is on the brink of collapse. Not so long ago, this was being hailed as kind of a triumph for U.S. and other diplomacy. I’m just wondering if you have any specific concerns about the situation there today.

MR TONER: We do.

QUESTION: See, you wanted to say this. You wanted to have the time to say this.

MR TONER: Yeah, exactly. I mean, we’re obviously very concerned about the current violence. We’re calling on all sides to abide by the ceasefire and refrain from any more destabilizing rhetoric. We’re doing everything we can to press actors on both sides to end the current violence. We’ve also called for an immediate halt to combat operations in full compliance with the peace agreement that was signed a year ago. I think that I would say that the United States is deeply disappointed in the leadership of South Sudan, that given the opportunity of independence and then, frankly, a second chance that came with the August 2015 peace agreement, have thus far failed to put aside personal power struggles for the good of their people. But we are working still to address the crisis and that certainly includes almost $1.6 billion now in emergency humanitarian assistance that dates back to 2013, but certainly that’s something we continue to address. And we work with our likeminded regional partners to address the crisis, but obviously it’s of tremendous concern and the killing continues and the disregard for the peace agreement continues.

QUESTION: All right, two very extremely brief ones --

MR TONER: Please. Yeah, please.

QUESTION: -- having to do with congressional letters. One, on Haiti.


QUESTION: Are you aware of a letter that was sent by numerous members of the House asking for the Secretary to push or press the UN harder on dealing with the cholera epidemic in Haiti? And if you are familiar with it, are you aware of any response, and is the Secretary willing or able to do that?

MR TONER: So you’re talking about – yes, a congressional letter on cholera – excuse me. I apologize.


MR TONER: I’ve been up here so long my voice is waning. (Laughter.) No, certainly we appreciate I think it was Representative Conyers’ leadership on this issue. We’re going to continue to work with him and the United Nations. We did receive his letter, as you note, of June 29th. We’re going to respond. We do plan to express in the letter our agreement that the devastation and human suffering caused by the cholera outbreak is tragic and to underscore our commitment, first and foremost, to a robust and sustained response to the epidemic itself, one that is designed to leave Haitian communities stronger, healthier, and more resilient in the future. So we have thus far provided more than $95 million for cholera treatment and prevention efforts in Haiti. This assistance is complemented by a substantial U.S. assistance package for Haiti’s overall health system. And we obviously continue to work intensively to work with the UN to support and amplify its efforts in Haiti to contain the disease. There have been significant gains in cholera prevention and control since the peak of the outbreak in 2011, but there’s more work, obviously, to be done.

QUESTION: All right. Last one, on Brazil.


QUESTION: A number of lawmakers have also written to the Secretary, considering he’s going to be in Brazil albeit for the Olympics later this week. These lawmakers are asking him to express concerns or to push the Brazilian authorities on democracy and rule-of-law issues while he’s there. Do you know if he has any plans to do that?

MR TONER: So, first of all, let me just – as you noted in your preamble to your question – congratulate and wish Brazil a very successful and safe Olympics – very excited about the games. Although I’m more of a track and field guy; I’ll wait for the second week.

But be that as it may, we have received the letter. We will respond, obviously, as we do to any congressional correspondence. Look, we continue to follow political developments in Brazil. As we’ve said, we are confident that Brazil can work through it – the current political challenges – and by working within its constitutional framework. But as you note, the Secretary is going to be in Rio tomorrow and he will meet with the Foreign Minister Jose Serra, and we can expect that they’ll discuss the full range of issues, including some of these domestic political issues as well.

QUESTION: Thank you.

MR TONER: Yep, thanks for asking.

QUESTION: Just one on India. You can take it and give an answer. During Indian prime minister’s visit in June, it was with big fanfare announced that U.S. is returning 200 culture artifacts estimated at around 100 million at a ceremony. But the Indian Cultural Minister Mahesh Sharma in a written reply to the upper house of the Indian parliament said U.S. authorities have returned only eight antiques to – so can you explain what is going on?

MR TONER: Yeah. I can’t – I don’t have any update on --

QUESTION: You can’t? Can you take the question?

MR TONER: I assure you we’ll take the question. We’ll get you answer.

QUESTION: Thank you.

MR TONER: Thanks, guys. Thanks, everybody.

(The briefing was concluded at 2:39 p.m.)

[1] The United States Navy riverine command boats were seized by Iranian forces on January 12, 2016.