Background Briefing on Secretary Kerry's Travel to Saudi Arabia

Special Briefing
Senior State Department Officials
Via Teleconference
March 3, 2015


MODERATOR: (In progress) background briefing for attribution to senior State Department officials. We have on the phone with us [Senior State Department Official], who will preview both the Secretary’s trip to Saudi Arabia as well as his meeting with ministers from the GCC. With that, I will turn it over.

QUESTION: Is this embargoed, [Moderator]?

MODERATOR: No, it’s not embargoed. You can use it whenever you like.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Okay. First of all, welcome and thanks for joining us today. We’re looking forward to the Secretary’s arrival and participation in a number of meetings in Saudi Arabia, largely on Thursday. He gets into Saudi late on Wednesday, overnights there, and then during the course of the day on Thursday he will have about a three-hour meeting with GCC foreign ministers in Riyadh at the Riyadh Air Base. Following that, he will go up to King Salman’s ranch in Diriyah and meet with the king, followed by a lunch with the deputy crown prince, Mohammed bin Nayef – also minister of interior. And then concluding with a press availability with Foreign Minister Saud, and after that we’ll depart Saudi Arabia.

So a pretty full schedule. The meeting with the GCC foreign ministers is a follow-on to his meeting with them. That took place in Munich a few weeks ago on the margins of the Munich Security Conference, and it was agreed among the participants then that it would be a good idea to get together and spend a little more time focused on what are obviously the key issues of concern to us and to them in the region at this time. We’re looking forward, I think, to good conversations with the foreign ministers on a broad range of issues – Iran and the Iran nuclear talks, of course, as well as Syria, Iraq, Libya, Yemen, and also things that we can do, things that we can do together to strengthen our joint security framework, and then how we can work together to improve regional security and stability.

With the king, of course, it’s a follow-up to the meeting that President Obama and the Secretary had with King Salman when they stopped there for the follow-up to King Abdullah’s funeral. This is a really a get-to-know-you kind of opportunity for the Secretary to really begin to build the kind of relationship with King Salman that the Secretary had previously with King Abdullah. And also, of course – although – excuse me – although Mohammed bin Nayef is no stranger here – the Secretary knows him well – this would be a good opportunity, given MBN’s new roles and responsibilities, to deepen our engagement with him and also covering any issues where Mohammed bin Nayef has a lead in the Saudi Government and issues that are of importance to us.

So that’s kind of a quick overview, and let me try to respond to your questions.

MODERATOR: Great. Arshad?

QUESTION: How do you respond to the Saudis’ and other Gulf states’ fears that an Iranian nuclear deal could be the first step toward an eventual renewal of U.S.-Iranian close ties over the longer term, thereby marginalizing them? And how do you respond to their concerns in the shorter term that a deal leaves Iran with sanctions relief and hence more money to pursue its regional agenda in all the countries that you mentioned – Syria, Yemen, et cetera?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, I think – and the important thing is to remember that this is not a unique engagement with the GCC. We have kept the GCC fully informed of our negotiations with the Iranians throughout the course of our engagement on the nuclear issue. Under Secretary Sherman meets with GCC counterparts often and regularly to debrief them on her engagement. Secretary Kerry has had these conversations before.

We’ve been very clear throughout all of these engagements in saying that the negotiations that we’re conducting as part of the P5+1 with Iran is specifically focused on the nuclear file. It does not touch on any issues outside of that. And regardless of the outcome of those negotiations, it does not change the concerns that we have and that we share with our partners in the Gulf over other Iranian activities in terms of their regional activities in Syria, in Yemen, in Iraq. Nor does it touch on issues related to Iranian engagement in terrorism or anything else, and nor does it affect any of the sanctions that are related to any of those issues.

So if we have an agreement on the nuclear file, our view is that that is something that will contribute directly to regional stability, as well as global security and stability. And beyond that, it does not affect and does not change in any way any of the other concerns that we have, nor will it affect our approach to Iran in dealing with those other concerns.

QUESTION: But as far as I understand, Gulf officials are still very worried about both the factors that I suggested, and I don’t feel that you’ve made an argument of what the Administration is doing or saying to try to ease those concerns – both that it’s eventually going to lead to greater entente between the United States in Iran, and in the short run, that an Iran with fewer oil-related sanctions on it is a wealthier Iran, in a better position to exert influence in the region. And what are you doing to counter – to convince them that you can counter that?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, I think, again, one should not – well, you can’t read into the nuclear negotiation any kind of determination of where the U.S. relationship with Iran may go in the future. The fact of the matter is that regardless of what happens with the nuclear file, we will continue to confront aggressively Iranian expansion in the region, Iranian aggressiveness in the region. We work very closely with our partners in the Gulf on mutual security arrangements, on trying to build up their capabilities, and in partnership with us, our joint capabilities to defend them, to defend their interests.

We’re working very closely in Syria with our partners in the Gulf to confront not only ISIL, but to make very clear that we believe that we won’t see peace and security in Syria unless there is a change in the regime in Damascus. We continue to work with them very closely on Yemen, and we can talk more specifically about where we are on the Yemen issue.

So all of the things that are of concern – and obviously, the Gulf states are watching the negotiations very carefully. They have a legitimate reason to want to understand better what it is that we’re trying to achieve through the nuclear negotiations. I think that we have been extremely forward-leaning in trying to explain what our strategies are, but also to explain that this is not going to change any of the other aspects of our approach to Iran in regard to all of the other things that are of concern to the Gulf.

MODERATOR: Jo, and we’ll go to you next, Pam.

QUESTION: Hello, this is Jo Biddle at AFP. You just mentioned Yemen, and of course, the ambassador went to see President Hadi at the – in Aden yesterday. Can you address whether there’s going to be any – whether you’re going to – what you’re going to tell the GCC about your position on Yemen and whether you, like the Saudis, are planning to move the embassy to Aden, and more generally, what it is that you could do to help try and restore stability in Yemen with – through the GCC? Thank you.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Right. Ambassador Tueller had a very good meeting with President Hadi yesterday morning, about 80 minutes the meeting lasted. I think it was quite useful. And to answer one specific question, (inaudible) do not have any plans to open our embassy in Aden. Ambassador Tueller, in order to be closer to the situation in Yemen, will be establishing an office in Jeddah and will be operating out of there. We hope that he’ll be able to travel into Yemen, into Aden, on a fairly regular basis to continue our engagements with the Yemenis there. But we won’t have a permanent diplomatic presence there.

What we will tell the GCC states, what we’ve already told the GCC states, is that we believe that the correct way forward, the only way forward in Yemen that we believe will preserve security and peace there and could lead to an acceptable outcome, is a continuation of the political negotiations that are being led by the representative of Ban Ki-moon, Jamal Benomar. We support the continuation of that. We, of course, were very much on board with the UN Security Council press statement that was issued a few days ago, which made clear that the international community wants to see a successful negotiation and a return to the political transition based on implementation of the GCC initiative and the implementing mechanism, as well as the outcomes of the National Dialogue Conference, the PNPA that was signed in September, and the various UN Security Council resolutions.

So that’s the way that we see it going forward. President Hadi in his conversation with Ambassador Tueller reaffirmed his own commitment to a political negotiation. We were very clear in saying that we don’t believe that there is any kind of military solution to this problem. We are very concerned, of course, that neither side takes steps that would lead Yemen closer to civil war. And so we’re continuing to work on the political aspects, and we’ll say so to the GCC.

QUESTION: Thank you.

QUESTION: That was my question.

MODERATOR: All right, you answered Pam’s question proactively. Barbara.

QUESTION: Hello, Barbara Usher from the BBC. With regards to Saudi Arabia, can you just give us a summary of where it’s at in terms of ISIS, the security threat? Has that increased? I know there was an attack on the border recently – and whether and how Saudi Arabia has followed up on the requests of the United States since the coalition meeting in September in terms of countering extremism. And then also, to what degree does the situation in Syria and the GCC’s participation in the anti-ISIS coalition factor into how you approach them on the Iran negotiations, because of course, their big concern in Syria is that they want to counter Iran there? And if they feel what you’re doing is strengthening Iran otherwise in the region, how do you deal with that?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, certainly, the Saudis have been concerned about potential spillover. There was, as you mentioned, an incident on the border. Several Saudi border guards were killed in an attack. They have been very aggressive and we’ve been working with them with the ministry of interior forces to help them strengthen their border security as well as improve their critical energy infrastructure security for a number of years now. The GCC states have been strong partners with us. The Saudis as well have been strong partners with us in the ISIL coalition not only participating in the military campaigns, but of course, also helping on counterterrorism finance, the – trying to prevent the flow of foreign fighters. As you know, the Saudis passed legislation earlier this year that criminalized anyone traveling to Iraq or Syria to join ISIL. Several of the other GCC states have also taken steps to strengthen their legal structures on both foreign fighter flows as well as counterterrorism finance, which is an important issue.

The Saudis have also been strong partners with us in our efforts to build the capabilities of the moderate Syrian opposition, the military capabilities. The Saudis have agreed to establish with us a facility for training and equipping the armed moderate Syrian opposition. We’ll be launching that facility in Saudi Arabia in the coming months. And so they’ve been strong partners in the overall effort.

Now one of the issues, of course, vis-a-vis Iran, is again this issue of a regime change in Damascus. And here again we and the Saudis and the other GCC states recognize that securing peace and stability inside of Syria and unifying Syrians in the fight against ISIL and al-Nusrah Front and other violent extremist organizations inside of Syria is dependent on achieving a change in the leadership in Syria. And so we’ve had a number of conversations with the GCC states, with the Saudis. We’ll continue those conversations.

Now basically to try to coordinate and to understand better how we can go forward and achieve that important objective, Saudis and others have supported, for example – as you know, the Egyptians hosted Syrian opposition forces in Cairo a few weeks ago. The Saudis were supportive of that, as were we. And we’ll continue to look for opportunities to strengthen the Syrian opposition and hopefully create an environment that both the Bashar al-Assad regime in Damascus as well as their supporters in Tehran and in Moscow understand requires that they negotiate seriously for some kind of a political transition in Syria.

MODERATOR: Carol.

QUESTION: Hi. Would you talk a little bit more about the decision to open the office in Jeddah instead of in Aden? Why do that, and does that present any particular difficulties in keeping track of what’s going on as opposed to having an office in Aden?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, I think that we – certainly we wanted to be in the region and we wanted to be close to Yemen. And so Jeddah makes a certain amount of sense. We have, as you know, a consulate general there, so we have a facility there that we could use. We do not have a facility in Aden that we could use for diplomatic representation. We had an embassy there very briefly, many years ago, before the unification of Yemen in 1990, but it was not a – it wasn’t our facility; it was just a rented building.

And also I think that there are a number of practical issues. I think because we don’t have a facility, we would, of course, be concerned about having an environment that was secure for us to operate out of. And also we didn’t want to send any mixed signals in terms of where we believe that the situation in Yemen was going. We want to very clear in saying that U.S. policy supports a unified Yemen, the preservation of Yemen’s territorial integrity. And we didn’t want to do anything that might signal to other observers that perhaps we were thinking about the division of Yemen, the reestablishment of a south Yemen.

So for a lot of reasons, it made sense for us not to be in Aden. Jeddah is close, and it’s easy for Ambassador Tueller to be able to move back and forth.

MODERATOR: Felicia.

QUESTION: Just a quick follow-up. There have been conversations about finding a protecting power. Does the office in Jeddah and what’s happened in Aden recently preclude those conversations?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: No, absolutely not. We would still be interested in doing that. Unfortunately not only the United States but so many other embassies closed in Sana’a that the ones that are left are quite small and may not have the capacity to take on a protecting power responsibility. But it is something that’s still out there and something that probably we would like to do.

MODERATOR: We can do one or two more. You have other questions? Terry or – all right. Thank you so much for joining us and for previewing the next couple of stops. We appreciate it. We’ll have a transcript that we will also send around as soon as we have it. Thank you so much.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Great. Thank you.