Senior State Department Official to Traveling Press

NOVEMBER 22, 2020

MODERATOR:  Let’s go ahead and get this started.  Good morning, everyone.  This briefing is provided on background.  Attribution is to a senior State Department official.  [Senior State Department Official], who you all know, will talk to you about the stops in the Middle East and provide a little context and answer some of your questions.

And with that, I’ll turn it over to [Senior State Department Official].

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL:  Thanks.  Good morning.  So this is the third country on the – third stop for me on Secretary Pompeo’s trip.  I started in Israel and here we are in the Emirates and yesterday in Qatar.  And I think certainly, the time in Israel was spent with a key ally of – in the region with which we are only getting closer.  The relationship is so deep on so many levels.

But I think in terms of the Emirates and in Qatar, the Secretary had very good meetings yesterday and the day before.  I think the takeaway for me that – is really that this administration has really, I think, transformed the relationships here in the Gulf with both the Emirates and Qatar, and then this is beyond the Abraham Accords, which are – themselves are a substantial accomplishment.  The relationship that we have strategically, the shared vision, the economic cooperation with both the Emirates and Qatar has increased dramatically over the past four years, and the kind of work that we do together and the investments, the economic cooperation and the strategic, are the full range.  And I think the Secretary, who was here, who was in Qatar talking about the broad range of mutual interests and how we move forward on those – in those fronts.

So I could go on, but I think these are all excellent and important and burgeoning relationships for the United States, and will continue to be so.  So I’m happy to talk about whatever you want to discuss.

MODERATOR:  Okay.  Francesco.

QUESTION:  Thank you, [Senior State Department Official].  There’s a lot of speculation in the region about what the administration is going to do to stress one more time and to strengthen this maximum pressure on Iran before January 20th.  I have a lot of friends who ask me, are they going to strike Iran military site – nuclear site, et cetera.  They really think it’s going to happen, by the way.  Is – I want – was all this discussed during these meetings in the Gulf and in Israel?  Is the military option of the strike on the table or was it put off the table from here till January 20th?

And also, is the administration going to designate the Houthis as a terrorist organization?  Is that an option as well?  And the question behind that is how far can you go in a transition period not to – giving the impression you just want to make things more complicated for the next administration?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL:  Thanks.  Well, I don’t remember the exact quote, but I do recall that Secretary Pompeo himself said that all options are on the table.

MODERATOR:  Yeah, he said that in an interview with JNS[1].

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL:  Right, so the – Secretary Pompeo’s statement stands.  And it comes – it should come as no secret the administration has, for several years, been focused on this maximum pressure campaign against Iran, which has been enormously successful at denying the regime billions of dollars in revenues that it would have poured into regional militia, whether it be the Houthis, his campaign in Syria, this genocidal campaign in Syria, the Hashd Shaabi in Iraq or Hizballah, among others.  So it has denied them funds, and I think has really succeeded in increasing U.S. leverage in the drive to bring them to the table to discuss how they are going to become a normal state.

So this administration, as far as I know, is here until January 20th.  And it is – the American people elected this administration and it’ll continue to pursue its policies until it’s not in office anymore.  So that’s that on the maximum pressure.

I’m not going to prejudice or talk about possible designations in the future.  I wouldn’t do that on Lebanon.  I’m not going to do that in – about Yemen.  But certainly, there have been reports of this that are out there, and we would hope that the Houthis would negotiate in good faith with the Saudis and with the UN representative, Martin Griffiths, toward finding a political solution for the war in Yemen that has gone on too long and has really resulted in enormous suffering and in a humanitarian capacity for the Yemen people.

About how far you can go during a transitional period:  Once again, this administration is in office for a couple more months, and the administration will continue to pursue its policies for a couple more months.

QUESTION:  Just to follow up, how many of the 12 conditions set by Mike Pompeo in May 2018 would you say are being respected by Iran, just to understand it’s – I understand the success of the maximum pressure in denying money and increasing leverage, but —

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL:  Yeah, no, that’s – it’s just – so it’s good that the Iran —

QUESTION:  — but the ultimate goal was the 12 conditions?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL:  Yes, and I think that the Iranians, that the regime in Tehran, has endured enormous hardship, has forced people to endure enormous hardship prioritizing monies to militias or humanitarian goods and food for its own people in hopes that there would be a change in American politics in November.  And they waited, and we’ll see what happens.  I would hope that this leverage that has been – that the administration worked so hard to get would be – will be used to good purpose to get the Iranians once again to start behaving like a normal state.

QUESTION:  But [Moderator], again, what are – sorry – oh, sorry.

MODERATOR:  Whoever wants to.  Go ahead.

QUESTION:  Yeah, I’m happy to.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL:  For your dime.  (Laughter.)

QUESTION:  Yeah.  Francesco’s question made me think about the broader contents of the Iran strategy.  Yeah, they haven’t necessarily – look, they’re 12, 13 times past the enrichment caps.  They continue to march down that road that you guys have labeled extremely problematic.  But yet there is a different feel in the region.  So talk to me a little bit about how regionally you guys have made it so Iran is more isolated than they probably have, here specifically in the past.  I’m interested by that.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL:  Well, certainly, we’ve been consulting with all of our allies routinely throughout the region, talking about these topics wherever we go, wherever the Secretary goes.  He is discussing this with the leaders, the foreign ministers, the emirs, and there is a shared, I think, threat reception.  Then you have layered over that the Abraham Accords and sort of efforts to sort of integrate like-minded states to that strategic cooperation, intelligence cooperation.  And so you have this sort of emerging consensus in the region vis-a-vis Iran, that I think, in part because of our efforts, has really made it a lot more conducive to regional cooperation vis-a-vis that threat.  So I think it’s a good news story.

QUESTION:  Yeah, and the feeling is from your all’s perspective that that is a fundamental realignment here?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL:  Yes, absolutely, I think transformational.

QUESTION:  Will that continue if – in a next administration?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL:  I think it’s been a great success, and I would hope that the policy and the encouragement for that continues.


QUESTION:  Yeah.  I’m just curious for – going off of that, how much of what we’ve seen, from the Abraham Accords to the maximum pressure campaign to every other aspect of this administration’s strategy in the region, is kind of baked in, is not going to be reversible under a future administration, (inaudible)?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL:  Well, let’s put it another way.  I think that there are some natural inclinations that the administration has encouraged and nurtured and helped brought them to fruition.  There were ongoing Israeli-Emirati ties, there were ties in Bahrain, there had been back in the ’90s (inaudible) Qatar, and so they (inaudible) Qatar.

We encouraged it.  We nurtured them.  They’re blossoming.  But these – in view of Iran and the desire for economic strategic cooperation, these things are – the roots are present.  So I do not – I don’t think these are going to go away.  I think that we play an important role in helping to strengthen that, these ties, bring them along, but the inclination has already (inaudible).

QUESTION:  [Senior State Department Official], can you talk a little bit more about the Saudi stuff?  Is that – as sort of a check-in, what – there’s a notion that this part of the trip is in some ways essentially a victory lap.  Abraham Accords are a significant achievement by this administration.  I think even the President’s critics agree with that.  So can you talk about – a little bit about what that means?

And then second, on the Israel issue, by far the most controversial stop on this trip.  And one of the big criticisms that came out of that was that the Secretary’s statements, the visit to the settlement winery in particular, totally failed to or ignored the claims that Palestinians – Palestinians and families have particularly on that land, but also in the broader settlement debate.  And there was criticism in Haaretz and in other Israeli media that these moves by the Secretary essentially make it impossible for Palestinians to have any standing in a discussion about what to do about land that they regard as rightfully theirs that they say they were kicked off of.  So how do the Secretary’s statements and actions in Israel bring or take into account the fact that there are many, many, many Palestinians who also have claims on a lot of that land?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL:  (Inaudible) as you know, there – this is a working trip for the Secretary.  There are – just because it is November going on December (inaudible), just because there is COVID, et cetera, the business of the U.S. Government interest does not stop.  It wouldn’t stop amidst the transition, either.  These are pressing issues.  These meetings are important and they’re substantive.  And relationships – you need face-to-face and nurturing, whether that is at the Secretary’s level, my level.  We do these things because they matter and because they’re important to do and, once again, they’re substantive.

So vis-a-vis Israel, let me just say the visit to the (inaudible), I know it made headlines.  It was – you’ll recall a year ago in November the Secretary issued a statement that it was the policy of the U.S. Government that the settlements were not illegal, per se.  This is entirely consistent with that statement.  It is not a diversion.  It’s – the policy is not setting new policy or blazing new ground.  This is just a reflection of that policy.  So – and as far as the Palestinians are concerned, I saw the story, like you did in The New York Times, that referenced somebody about claims on this land.  I don’t know.  I don’t have enough background about their experience in the Israeli court system.  I know that some of you said the case is getting adjudicated in the Palestinians’ favor.  But I don’t have any background on this particular claim.

QUESTION:  But, I mean, if you’re speaking more broadly, I think the impression is that some of these moves are needlessly inflammatory, or at least that’s the criticism from the PLO in some of the statements they made.  I mean, how does the Secretary’s action further the cause of peace?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL:  Well, the Secretary has said all along, as has everybody in the administration, that the sine qua non of furthering the cause for peace is for the Palestinians actually to come to the table and engage in a discussion, something they haven’t done in the better part of a decade.  So I think they would say that – I think it’s best said that the Palestinians’ refusal to come to the table is probably the leading obstacle to peace.

QUESTION:  Would you go as far as saying that this visit was kind of a (inaudible) for the Israeli Government to go ahead with the annexation or —

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL:  No.  The Israelis have an agreement with the Emiratis that there is not going to be annexation, right, that they have suspended plans for an annexation.

QUESTION:  Yeah, (inaudible).

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL:  Right.  And as you know, we were involved in the Abraham Accords, we support the Abraham Accords, and we would expect and believe that the Israelis and the Emiratis are enjoying these accords.  I went to a trilateral with the Bahrainis also sitting here as the – the Abraham Accords, and they advocated for a warm peace.  I do not anticipate that the Israelis would – we would not, in any event, encourage the Israelis to break elements of their commitments to the Emiratis.

MODERATOR:  One more?

QUESTION:  The transition has come up a couple of times.  So just to kind of tie a bow in it, it – what has been the department’s messaging to the Biden transition team?  Is that a dialogue that’s been open?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL:  The Secretary has addressed this again and again.  We have a process.  Count the votes, and then we will follow the framework as laid out in the Constitution.

QUESTION:  We haven’t had the chance to ask the Secretary on this trip.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL:  The Secretary answered that question in a briefing at the podium —

QUESTION:  We haven’t had a chance to ask —

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL:  — and has answered it multiple times since then.

QUESTION:  I wanted to make that point.

QUESTION:  But [Senior State Department Official], has it come up at all in the – in the meetings?  Has this come up at all in your meetings with the Secretary?  Are people sort of wondering about it or are curious about it?

MODERATOR:  I’m not going to get into the substance of a diplomatic discussions.

QUESTION:  Last question:  The – I know that this administration has taken the abduction of Americans very seriously.  Did Mark Frerichs come up at all?  I think there’s some belief that maybe he’s being held by people that —

MODERATOR:  Again, that’s a South Central Asia question, and our briefer was not in those meetings.  But I think you can – you can look to, actually, a statement that the deputy spokesperson made on the record that expressed our continued commitment to bringing American hostages home.

All right.

QUESTION:  Thank you.

MODERATOR:  Thank you.


QUESTION:  Thanks, [Senior State Department Official].

  1. The Jerusalem Post