Press Availability With Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal
Secretary of State
FOREIGN MINISTER AL-FAISAL: (Via interpreter) In the name of Allah, the most gracious, the most merciful. At the beginning, it pleases me to extend thanks and appreciation to the custodian of the two holy mosques, King Salman Bin Abd al-Aziz for the care and attention the – accorded to me during my recent treatment period recently. I also express sincere love and cordiality to the current Saudi people for their noble feelings. Moreover, I would like to seize this opportunity to express the national happiness for the return of the Saudi diplomat, Abdullah al-Khalidi, to homeland with the protection and care of Allah. In this connection, I extend many thanks and appreciation and great (inaudible) to all the government, but as – and security agencies that participated in his safe return with direction from the generous leadership, particularly His Royal Highness, the deputy crown prince, second deputy premier, and minister of interior, Prince Muhammad Bin Nayef Bin Abd al-Aziz, who accorded this issue extreme care since the first day of the diplomat’s abduction.
I welcome now Secretary John Kerry and his accompanying delegation to Saudi Arabia. His extensive schedule was full of meetings that started this morning by meeting the GCC foreign ministers, then he was received by King – by the king, and then we held bilateral talks. Overall, the talks were fruitful, constructive, in-depth, and transparent, as always the case of our meetings. We examined a wide range of bilateral relations, issues, between our two countries, in addition to discussing the regional and international issues of mutual interest. The meeting explored the developments in Yemen, Syria, Libya, and the efforts of the international coalition for countering terrorism, in addition to the developments of talks on Iranian nuclear program, the Middle East peace process, and other issues.
With regard to Yemen, as you all see there is full international accord on rejecting the Houthi coup d’etat on the legitimacy and their endeavors to impose the status quo with force and refusal of the procedures resulting from this coup d’etat, including the so-called constitutional declaration by the Houthi militia. The international community expressed its full support to the legitimate government in Yemen led by President Abd Rabu Mansour Hadi. This is clearly reflected in the statements issued by GCC, the Arab League, and the UN Security Council.
Noting these positions and efforts and resulting resolutions and measures, Saudi Arabia renews its emphasis upon the importance of resuming the political process based on the GCC initiative and its executive mechanisms and the outcomes of the Yemeni national dialogue. Saudi Arabia stresses the importance of helping the (inaudible) Yemeni people out of their ordeal that led to these hazardous actions in a way that maintains Yemen’s stability, territorial integrity, stability in the region. We discussed the efforts of the international coalition to fight terrorism, and the ISIL in particular, including the ongoing military efforts to fight the organization, the ongoing military security, intellectual, financial and media actions. Saudi Arabia underscores the importance of this coalition in fighting ISIL both in Iraq and Syria.
Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia opines the importance of providing the military the necessary means – necessary military means to fight this challenge on the ground, and that campaign should have comprehensive strategic perspective fighting terrorism, wherever it may be, and whatever the organizations that stands behind it in order to uproot terrorism. Our talks included as well the negotiations of the Iranian nuclear program. Saudi Arabian Government supports the efforts of 5+1 in view of its keenness to solve this file peacefully, to reach successful agreement that dissipates the doubts and ensures not shifting to a military program that threatens the region and the world. Saudi Arabia also supports the 5+1 position in seeking a firm international and inspection system to ensure that Iran is not seeking manufactured opposition of nuclear weapons, together with maintaining Iran’s right and all regions – countries of the region rights to the peaceful use of nuclear energy according to IAEA standards, requirements, and inspection.
As for the Syrian crisis and its common efforts here, we all feel – I think that we all felt that the continuity of this crisis not only led to the destruction of Syria, displacement of its people, and deepening their humanitarian suffering, it also made Syria a safe haven for terrorist organizations with endorsement of the legitimate – of the illegitimate Bashar al-Assad’s regime. This entails a threat to Syria, the region, and the world – the whole world. This urges us to intensify efforts to promote and support the moderate opposition with all ordnance and training to counter al-Assad’s terrorism and the terrorist organizations as well. And to expel the foreign occupier from the Syrian territories, we – at the same time, we stress that reaching the business solution, based on Geneva I conference, requires a military balance on the ground.
We have also discussed the peace process in the Middle East within the framework of the efforts exerted by the United States recently to revive the peace negotiations to reach a just, permanent, and comprehensive solution. These efforts are supported by the Arabs, Palestinians, and with patronage of the Arab League. Our view of the desired solution will always be based on the principles of the international legitimacy, its resolutions, and the Arab Peace Initiative aiming at creation of a viable, independent Palestinian state.
Unfortunately, these efforts are still not yielding its fruits. This is due to the Israeli stubbornness and procrastination and its unilateral forcible measures against the rights of the Palestinian people. A case in point: The recent Israeli detention of a 14-year-old girl, Malak al-Khatib – not exceeding 14 years old – and indicted by an Israeli military court and imprisonment for two months and a fine with the pretext of hurling stones. This verdict calls for severe rejection and grief. Particularly, it’s being passed under the sight and hearing of all the world and its justice organizations in a flagrant defiance to all human rights and agreements and women and children rights agreements.
On our part, we stress the importance of international community shouldering of its responsibility towards the inhumane practices of Israel against the Palestinian people, also to obligate Israel to respect the peace process and its principles and not to infringe the legitimate rights of the Palestinian people.
I reiterate this is long, I renew my welcome of Secretary Kerry, and I leave the floor to him.
SECRETARY KERRY: Let me begin by saying how very pleased I am to be back here in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia here in Riyadh, and I am particularly pleased to be able to be here with His Royal Highness, Prince Saud al-Faisal, as he comes back from a brief period of dealing with medical issues and now returning to his full responsibility. And all of us, all of the ministers here today, we’re really pleased to be able to welcome Prince Saud back. We value his wisdom. He’s the longest-serving foreign minister of any country, and he has become a very good friend as well as a good counselor with respect to issues in this region. So I’m particularly personally appreciative that we are here today.
I want to begin by underscoring an important point that is on a issue different from those we discussed here today. The safety and security of our diplomats abroad is a top priority for me and for President Obama. And even as we join in congratulating Saudi Arabia on the skillful return of their diplomat from detention – and I congratulate Deputy Crown Prince Minister Mohammed bin Nayef on his role together with the foreign ministry – but we in the United States were deeply concerned to learn about a very vicious attack on our ambassador in South Korea in the Republic of Korea – Mark Lippert. And this attack took place earlier this morning, and I want to be very, very clear to anybody who contemplates or thinks about this kind of tactic – the United States of America will never be intimidated or deterred by threat or by anybody who harms any American diplomat. We will remain as resolved as ever to pursue what we believe is in the interests of our country and with respect to universal rights and values. And whoever threatens or harms our diplomats, I can assure them, will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.
I had the opportunity to talk to Mark earlier this morning. He was in the hospital. I’m enormously relieved to be able to report that thanks to the care and the support that he is receiving in South Korea, he’s doing okay. I’ve known Mark for years, as has President Obama. One thing both of us could tell anybody is this man is as tough as they come. And as I told him over the phone this morning, the State Department is a family, and so we are all sending the thoughts of a family his way, we’re sending our prayers his way to his wife, Robyn, and to their baby boy, and we are wishing him a fast and complete recovery.
This morning, as Prince Saud said, we have discussed a great many issues. We’ve had a very full day. And that’s partly because we have a very full agenda, not all of it by our choice, but all of it we are determined to deal with. We joined with our counterparts from the rest of the GCC, the UAE, Bahrain, Qatar, Oman, and Kuwait, in order to meet for the second time in the past month, which tells you something about the order of priority and the importance of the challenges we face. President Obama and I know that partnerships with the Gulf nations are absolutely essential in meeting any number of urgent challenges. It’s critical that we therefore keep in very close touch, particularly at such a complicated time when there are so many moving pieces in so many different places.
For that same reason, I also met today with His Majesty King Salman, with whom the United States looks forward to pursuing the very same kind of close and very personal relationship that we enjoyed with his predecessor, King Abdullah. And I also had a very productive lunch just now, a working lunch with Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef as well as with His Royal Highness, the Foreign Minister Prince Faisal.
As all of you know, I came here to Riyadh directly from Montreux, Switzerland where I spent the past few days engaged in with – negotiations with Iran on the nuclear issue that Prince Saud just discussed. Obviously, the outcome of these negotiations will be of major consequence to the United States, yes, but really to the entire world – and particularly to this region, and we understand that. With that fact comes a responsibility to all of us in the P5+1 to get it right. Preventing a nuclear-armed Iran will, as Prince Saud just said, address many of the concerns of the region. It will alleviate tension and remove barriers to regional security. It will reduce the pressure for a regional nuclear arms race, and it will increase the strength of the international nonproliferation regime. It will also vastly improve the prospects for peace both here and elsewhere.
So a large part of why I wanted to come to Riyadh today is to update our Gulf partners on exactly where the negotiations stand, on what our standards are, on what we are looking to achieve, and what we have done since the talks first started. And let me underscore: We are not seeking a grand bargain; nothing will be different the day after this agreement if we were to reach one with respect to all the other issues that challenge us in this region, except that we will have taken steps to guarantee that Iran will not have a nuclear weapon. And that is a critical component of security for the region and for the world.
We are seeking to show that Iran’s program is exclusively peaceful and that we can block all of the pathways necessary to acquire the fissile material for a nuclear weapon and then to be able to move towards the production of that weapon. To date, we have made progress, but there do remain serious gaps, and those need to be resolved. We still don’t know whether we’ll get there. I said that in Switzerland; I say it again today. It may be that Iran cannot say yes to the type of deal that provides assurances that the international community requires. But we plan to return to the talks on the 15th of March, and we expect soon thereafter to know whether Iran will, in fact, be able to make the tough decisions that are required to get where we need to be.
Now, I also want to make clear, as I did in every one of my meetings today: Even as we engage with these discussions with Iran around its nuclear program, we will not take our eye off of Iran’s other destabilizing actions in places like Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, and the Arabian Peninsula – Yemen particularly. And whether or not we are able to reach a deal on the nuclear program, the United States will remain fully committed to addressing the full slate of issues that we have with Iran, including its support for terrorism.
Beyond Iran, we also discussed the situation in Yemen, where we recognize that it’s more important than ever for the United States and the GCC states to coordinate closely and where we need to continue to press all of the political parties, especially the Houthis, to commit to a consensus political solution that is based on the GCC initiative and the national dialogue outcomes.
We also, as Prince Saud said, discussed the situation in Syria. I think the whole world needs to see the war in Syria come to an end. Three quarters of the country are now displaced people, and the country is being torn apart by a leader who places his personal preservation ahead of the preservation of the state or the preservation of all of the people of his state. As President Obama and I have repeatedly made clear that we don’t see how a man who has gassed his people; dropped barrel bombs on children and on women, on schools; a man who has tortured more than 10,000 people, according to the evidence of photographs – how that person can become a leader in the future is beyond our consideration or capacity. He has lost any semblance of legitimacy.
But we have no higher priority than disrupting and defeating Daesh and other terror networks in order to give the people of Syria the chance that they deserve to recover and to build – rebuild their country. Ultimately, a combination of diplomacy and pressure will be needed to bring about a political transition. Military pressure particularly may be necessary, given President Assad’s unwillingness to negotiate seriously. And what we must do is strengthen the capacity for this political solution.
Now, obviously, everything we have just talked about emphasizes the fact that there is no shortage of urgent and complex challenges that face Saudi Arabia, the United States, the Gulf states, and our allies and friends. In the weeks and months and even years ahead, we will remain in close contact with our partners on the issues that I mentioned and more. And I am confident that based on the conversations with the king today, with all of our meetings, with the determination of the Gulf states, we will remain united and we will continue to examine how to best coordinate our efforts and bring the peace and the stability and the possibilities of the future that this region so deserves. Thank you.
MODERATOR: Let’s go to the American press first.
MS. PSAKI: Arshad Mohammed from Reuters.
QUESTION: Your Royal Highness, what concerns did you and your fellow GCC foreign ministers express today about the emerging Iran nuclear deal? And specifically, are you concerned that giving Iran sanctions relief will simply allow it to pursue its regional agenda in countries like Syria and Yemen more aggressively? Are you concerned that any deal would have an expiration date? And has the United States offered you and your fellow GCC countries any additional security assurances to guarantee your security once a deal has expired?
And Secretary Kerry, the State Department has said that it will review for public release the emails provided by former Secretary Clinton. My question is: Why shouldn’t the Department review all of the emails, including those that former Secretary Clinton has withheld from the Department, so that it is the U.S. Government that is determining what should ultimately go to the national archives or what should be released publicly rather than former Secretary Clinton’s office that is making that judgment?
FOREIGN MINISTER AL-FAISAL: (Inaudible) Iran (off-mike).
SECRETARY KERRY: He asked about Iran.
FOREIGN MINISTER AL-FAISAL: I don’t think I can be more specific in relating what guarantees the Secretary gave and he himself has done in this press conference. He has been very clear in the assurances he gave the country. And he has been very transparent in saying what the United States will adhere to in negotiating a deal with Iran. He has specifically specified that Iran – the intent is to keep it from developing an atomic bomb, which is to the good of all, international community as well as the Gulf countries. But he said that is not at the expense of forgetting everything else that Iran does. And that is really the main concern of the Gulf Cooperation Council.
We are, of course, worried about atomic energy and atomic bomb. But we’re equally concerned about the nature of action and hegemonistic tendencies that Iran has in the region. And these elements are the elements of instability in the region. We see Iran involved in Syria and Lebanon and Yemen and Iraq and God knows where. This (inaudible) must stop if Iran is to be part of the solution of the region and not part of the problem.
SECRETARY KERRY: If I can, Arshad, I’m just going to comment very quickly on that also, because I want to emphasize a couple of things. First of all, making the Gulf states safer and providing for greater security begins, notwithstanding Iran’s other activities, which we all object to – it begins by preventing them from having a nuclear weapon. So the first step is make sure they don’t have a nuclear weapon.
But nothing else changes the next day with respect to our joint commitment to stand up against any other kind of interference or violation of international law or support for terrorism. And Iran remains a labeled state supporter of terrorism. So those efforts will continue.
And in order to make sure that everybody is clear as we go forward and we work together cooperatively, we are inviting our GCC friends to come to Washington sometime in the next month or so – somewhere in the next months, certainly in next couple of months – in order to continue to review together those cooperative efforts and arrangements that can be made with respect to security and cooperation as we go forward in this endeavor.
We have a long task ahead of us, and it’s not going to be solved by one agreement, nor deterred by one agreement. And I think we’re all in agreement on that.
With respect to Secretary Clinton’s emails, the State Department has had access to a wide array of Secretary Clinton’s records, including emails, between her and Department officials with the state.gov accounts, as well as cables, as they do for every secretary of state. And last year, the Department sent a letter to representatives of the former secretaries of state requesting that they submit any records in their possession for proper preservation. In response, Secretary Clinton provided the Department with the emails that span her time at the State Department. And after reviewing those emails, the Department produced about 300 responsive to the requests from the select committee.
So we are now in the process of appropriately reviewing those for public release, as we do for any document for public release. And we will undertake this task as rapidly as possible in order to make sure that we’re dealing with the sheer volume of this in a responsible way and we’ll conclude it as soon as we can and get those released publicly.
QUESTION: But my question is why couldn’t the Department look at all these emails and make its own judgment about which ones should go to the archives.
SECRETARY KERRY: Well, the Department has the emails. We’re --
QUESTION: Has every one of them, or just the ones that were provided?
SECRETARY KERRY: I’d have to check on that. I believe we have all the ones that – I think we have all the ones that are state.gov, which are appropriately the ones in the purview of the Department. But let me check on that when I actually have time to pay attention to such an important issue when I get home.
QUESTION: (Via interpreter) (inaudible) newspaper. Your Highness, what is – what are you going to do since the stubbornness of the Houthis in Yemen?
FOREIGN MINISTER AL-FAISAL: (Via interpreter) In fact, GCC countries took the initiative in taking procedures in this direction since the Houthi coup d’etat of the state, as the president was held a legitimate president. We are trying to stress the legitimacy and this is the only way for the safety of Yemen.
Consequently, we were happy for the arrival of Mr. – President Hadi to Aden, to southern Yemen, and the statements he made from that, that he stresses his legitimacy and he stresses not accepting any of the procedures taken by the Houthis, so that even GCC countries took the initiative to support this president. And the secretary general of GCC went to Aden, other ambassadors of GCC countries were supported this position of the president, and as you know, the president is holding meetings outside of Yemen and he wants – and particularly the meeting for the negotiations will be most likely in Saudi Arabia. If he asks this, we agree to this. We will take the help of what is in the GCC initiative to help him restore the order in Yemen.
MS. PSAKI: Jo Biddle from AFP.
QUESTION: Thank you very much. (Inaudible) thank you for your gracious hospitality to us all today. Shukran. Could I ask you how concerned Saudi Arabia is about the reports of deep Iranian involvement in Iraq at the moment, particularly for the battle of Tikrit, with reports that General Qasem Soleimani is actually on the ground, the head of the Qods Force, coordinating the battle?
And if I may, could I also ask you: After your talks today, have your received assurances from Secretary Kerry that the United States is committed to regime change in Syria? And what role do you believe Saudi Arabia could do to help the Syrian people?
And Secretary Kerry, if I could just quickly ask for your view on what is happening in Tikrit. What is the U.S. involvement? How much are you monitoring the situation? And how concerned are you about the civilians who are trapped in the town?
And finally, just one other quick question, my apologies. The King Faisal Foundation has just given a $200,000 award to a leading Islamic scholar from India who apparently called the 9/11 attacks in the United States an inside job, suggesting that the Bush Administration was behind it. Could I have your reaction to that? Thank you.
SECRETARY KERRY: Whose reaction?
QUESTION: That was for you, sir.
SECRETARY KERRY: Can I have the – what foundation? The King Faisal --
QUESTION: The King Faisal Foundation. And the name of the scholar was Zakir Naik.
SECRETARY KERRY: And they gave it to whom?
QUESTION: To this gentlemen, who is an Islamic scholar who claims that the 9/11 attacks were an inside job. Thank you.
FOREIGN MINISTER AL-FAISAL: (Inaudible) if you keep asking more than one question we tend to forget. (Inaudible) I’ve already forgotten the second question.
And the situation in Tikrit is a prime example of what we’re worried about. Iran is taking over the country. The act of the war and peace is no longer in the hand of the countries involved with Iran (inaudible) but in the hands of Iran. And these (inaudible) in Iraq. This is what is fomenting sectarian struggles in Iraq. We shared no sectarian struggles before the involvement of Iran in Iraq (inaudible).
The second question was --
QUESTION: Syria. Syria. Whether you have assurances now that the United States will (inaudible) regime change.
FOREIGN MINISTER AL-FAISAL: Well, we all agree with the United States that Bashar al-Assad has lost legitimacy. We all agree that the solution – and it must be based on Geneva I. That means that the transition government is going to be established, and that means that Saddam Hussein and those involved --
PARTICIPANT: Bashar al-Assad.
FOREIGN MINISTER AL-FAISAL: -- that Bashar – it’s the same, anyways – (laughter) – that they have to follow the political solution, as is suggested by the Geneva conference. We don’t have any differences at all on the basis of a solution or settlement in Syria. We want a political settlement. We want a political settlement giving peace and stability to Syria and unity of (inaudible) and territorial integrity. We want the troops that are illegally there to be withdrawn. We want the Syrians to unite under one house where there is no difference between Shia and Sunni, a Christian or (inaudible) nationality or sects in Iraq, and that is what we hope for.
SECRETARY KERRY: So with respect to Tikrit, Prime Minister Abadi himself has confirmed that this is an operation of Iraqi forces, consisting of a regular Iraqi Security Force militia – regular Iraqi Security Force contingent of militias and tribes, and it is specifically underway in order to liberate the Salahuddin province from ISIL control, and it is an Iraqi-led operation – Iraqi-designed, Iraqi-led. Is General Soleimani – has he been on the ground, is he playing a role? The answer’s yes. We’ve got information to that effect. But we are encouraged that as part of this operation, Prime Minister Abadi ensured the support of the Sunni leaders, including the governor of Salahuddin province and other local tribal leaders, as well as the speaker of the parliament, Salim al-Jubouri.
Now, there’s close coordination between the national and the local leaders throughout this operation. That’s the only way it’s ultimately going to be successful. Everybody has known that there are some movement of Iranian forces, both in and out of the northern part of Iraq, who have been engaged in fighting since the very beginning. But it is not coordinated. We are not coordinating with them. And Prime Minister Abadi went to the front a day or two before this initiative began and made it clear that this is Iraqi-sanctioned and Iraqis’ design and Iraqis’ desire to achieve.
Additionally, the spokesman for the Sunni tribal council of Salahuddin province issued a statement calling for all of the tribes of Salahuddin who are Sunni to stand side by side with the Security Forces and support the restoration of the province and stressing that they want to avoid any kind of risk to unarmed civilians and to do as much as possible to preserve homes and property.
Prime Minister Abadi also committed to take the upmost care to protect civilian lives during this operation, and we have urged all Iraqi forces to avoid and prevent the abuse to civilians of any kind of activity that violates international norms, fuels the sectarian fears, and promotes sectarian divides, and that includes Iran in terms of their activities or perception or whatever.
So I think it’s clear as the Iraqi army stands up more and more, militias and external actors are going to be less and less imperative and needed. But that’s not where they are, and this is – and I emphasize this is not American-designed operation. This was put together by the Iraqis, formulated by the Iraqis, executed by the Iraqis, and that’s the best thing all of us could, frankly, ask for. So we take it the way it is and we’ll hope for the best results and move from there.
With respect to your other question, I really don’t know anything about the award, the process, the – I know, obviously, something of the individual, but let me find out more before I make any comment on it.
QUESTION: (Via interpreter) (inaudible) from Riyadh Radio. Your Highness, so far Iran was not nominated as a terrorism-supporting country, despite Iran is occupying two islands from Emirates and an Arab country as well, also Syria. You’re always blessing the Iranian fight. So far, you have not talked about the Iranian – the Israeli nuclear file. Israel is acting against the human rights. You say the – are trying – so as not to attack any civilians in Iraq. Israel is always infringing the rights of the population in Palestine. The nuclear – the Israeli nuclear file have not been – has not been studied here.
FOREIGN MINISTER AL-FAISAL: (Via interpreter) Let me tell you, Iran doing what it is doing, interference in affairs of Arab countries, it is always a neighbor – it’s also a neighbor. We do not harvest any antagonism against it. If it’s – if it continues on its current positions, (inaudible) it will place itself directly against the Arab interest and against the moral values the international – against the international values. It promotes terrorism and occupies lands. These are not the features of countries which want peace and seeks to improve its relations with the neighboring countries.
We hope that Iran – before the situation develops and antagonism takes place between its neighbors, Iran should stop and listen to the advices of the wise Iranians and leave intervening in the internal affairs of Arab nations. Thank you.
SECRETARY KERRY: Is that it?
FOREIGN MINISTER AL-FAISAL: (In Arabic.) Thank you.