State Department Briefing by Jeff Rathke, Nov. 24, 2014

Washington, DC–(ENEWSPF)–November 24, 2014.



1:19 p.m. EST

MR. RATHKE: Good afternoon.


MR. RATHKE: So I have one thing to mention at the top. You probably have seen the Secretary’s press conference in Vienna where he spoke about the next steps in the P5+1 negotiations. The Secretary is departing Vienna and headed back to Washington. Our negotiating team is still there working through all the details, so I don’t want to get ahead of that work. And as you heard the Secretary mention, I think he is very keen not to get involved in the substantive details that are happening inside the room in the negotiations, but certainly happy to address questions to the extent I can.

And with that, over to you, Lara.

QUESTION: Great, thank you. Already Republicans in Congress are saying that the extension should be coupled with new sanctions and also allow Congress to give a final vote, an up or down vote on whether or not a final agreement would be approved. I’m wondering how the State Department plans to deal with this. I believe I heard Secretary Kerry implore Congress to not impose new sanctions while the negotiations were ongoing.

MR. RATHKE: Right. The Secretary did speak to this in his press availability, and certainly our position on this hasn’t changed. We certainly believe Congress has a role to play, and just as one – to mention one factor, that is sanctions, there is no question that we have reached the point where we are now because of the impact that sanctions have had. On the other hand, sanctions are not going to – alone going to get us the comprehensive deal. That’s why we’re negotiating.

And I think the Secretary indicated that he has been in contact with members of Congress and the leadership as well have – as members of our negotiating team have been, even over the weekend while they’ve been going through the negotiations. He will certainly be coming back to Washington to speak with the President. We will remain in consultation with Congress. So that’s certainly the way he views it, and our position on the question of additional sanctions hasn’t changed.

QUESTION: Let me put it this way: Is there anything that the State Department can do to prevent Congress from imposing new sanctions as the negotiations are ongoing?

MR. RATHKE: Well —

QUESTION: Sort of a veto or something like that?

MR. RATHKE: I think that question was also asked. I think we’re way – it’s way too early to be talking about any kind of a situation like that. The Secretary reminded that our team is going to come back. We will continue the very intensive consultations we’ve been having with Congress over the last few days, and we will – and I think the Secretary also mentioned that there are certain things that are only – are best discussed in closed setting so that they can be more open about the content. And so that, of course, can only happen once they’ve come back from Vienna and had the chance to have those discussions.

QUESTION: Okay. But you already have members of Congress putting out public press releases saying that they are looking to do this. So why is it too early to talk about it? And are these the types of things that are being brought up in the consultations with Congress? I mean, clearly they’re talking about it not behind closed doors.

MR. RATHKE: Well, again, I don’t want to read out the Secretary’s conversations with leaders of Congress which he’s had in private, but he and the members of the team have been in close touch with the leadership in both houses. And they’ve remained in contact on the substance, and they will come back and have further discussions as well.

QUESTION: With current leadership – is that fair to say – as opposed to next year’s leadership or to committee chairmans in next year’s Congress?

MR. RATHKE: Well, I’m not going to get into the list of every single person he’s spoken with. But he’s been speaking with the congressional leadership and ranking members as well. So this has been a bipartisan effort to engage with congressional leaders.


QUESTION: Jeff, if I’m – if I understood things correctly, the JPOA in effect is going to be extended until July of next year. Correct?

MR. RATHKE: Right. The idea is that the terms of the JPOA remain in effect.

QUESTION: So one of the terms of the JPOA was – specifically had to do with the imposition of additional sanctions. And in it there was very careful language that said something like, “bearing in mind the differing responsibilities of the legislative and executive branches in the U.S. system.” And as I understood that and as it was subsequently, I believe, publicly stated by the Administration, that meant that President Obama was committing himself to veto any additional sanctions that might be imposed by any Congress while the negotiations were going on. Is that not – is that provision not still – do you not plan to have that provision in the extension —

MR. RATHKE: Well, nothing —

QUESTION: — and therefore you’re – the President is committed to vetoing additional sanctions?

MR. RATHKE: Well, nothing has changed in the JPOA. And as we were just discussing, it’s the Secretary’s view – and he expressed it pretty clearly just about an hour or so ago – that he is confident that the same way that we do not negotiate in public we also don’t brief Congress in public, so that when he and his team have had the opportunity to come back and to continue their discussions with Congress that Congress will see the reasoning behind the positions that we’ve taken, including the decision to prolong the negotiations.

QUESTION: I’m not talking so much about briefing in private or in public. I mean, I’m talking about the public provisions of the JPOA —

MR. RATHKE: Right.

QUESTION: — which, of course, was published a year ago.


QUESTION: And I just want to make sure that since nothing has changed in that document, that indeed the Administration is still committed to veto – even, I mean, it may not be politically convenient to mention it right now, but you guys have said before that that meant that you were committed to vetoing sanctions if there were any during the period of applicability of the JPOA. I mean, you’re not willing to repeat that now?

MR. RATHKE: No, I’m simply saying that nothing has changed in the JPOA and our position on that hasn’t changed.

QUESTION: What is the danger – I mean, members of Congress have made the argument in public many, many times, including last week at deputy – at the confirmation hearing for Tony Blinken to be Deputy Secretary of State that they believe that the pressure engendered by U.S. sanctions, particularly the central bank sanctions, are what got Iran to this point. Why are they wrong that additional pressure would not be a good idea?

MR. RATHKE: Well —

QUESTION: Why is that wrong? Why shouldn’t they pass more sanctions? Why shouldn’t the President not veto them? And why shouldn’t – why doesn’t that send you to into the negotiating room over the next seven months with a stronger hand?

MR. RATHKE: Well, the Secretary, when he was in the Senate, played a central role in putting into place the sanctions regime that exists now and that – as I discussed with Lara – that has been essential to bringing Iran to the negotiating table. Now the factors that went into the JPOA that you outlined, those remain the case. We are committed to the negotiating process not for negotiation’s sake but because we believe progress is being made. And that’s why we have on the one hand the four-month deadline for a political agreement and then three months after that to do the technical work. The Secretary outlined all that in detail. And our reasoning about the efficacy of additional sanctions during that period also remains the same as it has been throughout the period when the JPOA has been in effect.

QUESTION: And what is that? That the Iranians won’t want to talk to you if you – if additional sanctions – I mean, what is – why isn’t more pressure useful?

MR. RATHKE: Well, I think it’s important to remember that the pressure that has been brought to bear thus far has gotten us a JPOA which has made the world safer both with respect to the 20 percent enriched uranium and access and inspections and a whole host of other factors. So we continue to believe that keeping the JPOA in effect during this additional period serves the security interests of the United States and our negotiating partners and our partners and allies in the region and indeed the whole world.

QUESTION: I still – I still don’t feel like there’s a clear answer —


QUESTION: — to what was originally Lara’s point and is now the question that I’m asking, which is you are being criticized by some members of Congress. There are people already out there making the case for additional sanctions. And I don’t feel like you’ve properly or fully or directly addressed the question of: Why isn’t additional pressure useful? I mean, there are potential answers. One answer would be, well, we committed that we wouldn’t under the JPOA a year ago and we have to keep to our commitment. Another might be, well, we think that the Iranians won’t negotiate with us if they feel that we’ve broken a commitment. Or I mean, there are potential answers, but I don’t feel like I understand what is your point of view on why you shouldn’t pressure them more.

MR. RATHKE: Well, with respect I’ll say it again, but the JPOA envisions those steps by both sides which – one of which was the – not imposing additional sanctions. And we have agreed to extend the JPOA throughout the additional period of negotiation. So I think that’s —

QUESTION: You need to keep your word.

MR. RATHKE: Well, I think that’s an essential part of the negotiation, the same way that we expect Iran to keep its word with respect to all of the requirements of the JPOA, on which the Secretary spoke at length.


QUESTION: Yeah, thanks. Could I ask you to address why in this extension there was like a two-step process laid out with the political agreement reached by end of March and the whole comprehensive agreement with the I’s dotted and T’s crossed reached by the end of July? Why was that approach taken this time?

MR. RATHKE: Well, I think as you heard the Secretary describe it, we have made progress, we believe, and narrowed some gaps, while, of course, important significant gaps remain. And it was our judgment that four months is sufficient time to achieve political agreement, and that’s why there was a decision to extend the talks for that period. As the Secretary also said, if after four months there’s no progress and no clear path to a comprehensive agreement, then we’ll revisit how to proceed.

QUESTION: I guess I’m not clear why you’re now separating the political agreement and the comprehensive agreement, whereas previously that didn’t take place. Was it – is it some kind of lesson learned that you took away from previous negotiating rounds that led you to this approach?

MR. RATHKE: Well, I don’t want to draw that conclusion, but I think the Secretary was pretty clear in saying that we will – if we see a path to a final comprehensive agreement, then that will be clear and that there would then be some technical work that would be required to outline all the specific details. But that the – in four months we’ll look at what progress we’ve made, and if the way isn’t clear then we would revisit.

QUESTION: Is it fair to say that those – that four months is meant to put a little bit more pressure on the negotiators to try to get them to reach an agreement a little bit sooner than the whole time period?

MR. RATHKE: Well, I would say that we’ve always – that the negotiators have been meeting at technical, at political directors, and at times at ministerial level throughout the period since the JPOA was originally concluded, and we expect that to continue. Certainly, the Secretary – you heard him say that we expect the next meetings to happen in December. And so we intend to keep up the pace – the pace of work and to keep working toward an agreement.

Anything else on Iran?

QUESTION: And who decided on the time – like seven months, four months, and three months?

MR. RATHKE: Well, that was an agreement of the – of all the parties to the negotiation.

QUESTION: Didn’t Iran push for that – the lengthy period of time? Tried to buy time?

MR. RATHKE: Well, again, the agreement on the extension was mutually agreed among all the participants in the negotiation.

QUESTION: Is this the final extension?

MR. RATHKE: Well, this is an extension. I’m not going to get into characterizing it. The Secretary described why we thought an extension now was in the interests of the United States and our negotiating partners in the P5+1. I would leave it at that.

QUESTION: Doesn’t the original JPOA only allow for two extensions though, or did they – or did I not read that right?

MR. RATHKE: I’d have to check the text. I don’t have it.

QUESTION: To be extended by mutual consent.

QUESTION: Oh, okay.


MR. RATHKE: Anything else on Iran?

QUESTION: What about the March deadline for the political agreement? Is that open to an extension, that specific part?

MR. RATHKE: Well, again, the Secretary was pretty clear, I think, in saying that we – if we aren’t able to reach political agreement in four months then we’ll revisit, but that’s the time that they fixed for reaching that understanding.

All right. Anything —

QUESTION: Not on Iran.

MR. RATHKE: No? Okay. New topic?

QUESTION: I just have —

MR. RATHKE: Or same topic?

QUESTION: — one more question.

MR. RATHKE: Yeah. Please, Abigail.

QUESTION: Was the extension something that was agreed to earlier in the weekend? Was that conclusion arrived at or was it a last-minute decision to —

MR. RATHKE: Well, I’m not going to characterize the ebb and flow of negotiations inside the room. I think we have been pushing for a comprehensive agreement as long as possible and because we thought that was in our best interest and in our partner’s best interest. But it turned out gaps remained, and so this was the arrangement arrived at. I’m not going to put a specific timeline though on when that was reached.

Same topic, Ilhan?

QUESTION: Turkey/Syria.

MR. RATHKE: Yes, go ahead.

QUESTION: Vice President Biden’s visit concluded yesterday. Is there any way you can tell us what has issued during the visit?

MR. RATHKE: Well, I think, of course, for the Vice President’s meetings and the particulars, you should start with the White House and his staff. I would give them the opportunity to comment. But clearly, the Vice President’s visit was an opportunity to – again, to compare notes and to talk about the many ways in which we and Turkey are helping to address the conflict in Syria. Turkey is a key partner for all the reasons that we’ve discussed in recent days, both on the humanitarian side, on the humanitarian corridors, on foreign terrorist fighters, on financial flows, and indeed through the hosting of the train and equip program. But for any additional characterization of the Secretary – of the Vice President’s, sorry – of the Vice President’s conversations with President Erdogan, I’d refer you to the White House.

QUESTION: Is there any way you can confirm that this train and equip program is indeed finalized, and the terrain or camp of these 2,000 fighters – Syrian opposition fighters location is also now clear (inaudible) —

MR. RATHKE: Well, that’s a DOD-led program, as I think we’ve said a number of times in recent days. So for details about those kinds of particulars, I’d refer you to the Pentagon.

QUESTION: Is there any way you can tell us whether the no-fly zone – how the no-fly zone and buffer zone discussions —

MR. RATHKE: Again, for specifics of the Vice President’s discussions with President Erdogan, I’d refer you to the White House.

QUESTION: Were you just asked about the reports about Turkey to train 2,000 Syrian opposition forces in a particular town that —

MR. RATHKE: I think that’s what Ilhan was —

QUESTION: Okay. I’m sorry. Yeah, yeah.

MR. RATHKE: — referring to, yeah.

QUESTION: Okay. So you can’t confirm that?

MR. RATHKE: Again, Pentagon-led program. They will —

QUESTION: (Inaudible.)

MR. RATHKE: — have the details about those kinds of particulars.


QUESTION: What’s the U.S. reaction to Israel’s nationality law approved by the government?

MR. RATHKE: Well, this is the beginning of a process, and so I don’t want to speculate on the outcome. It would be our general view, though, that we would expect any final legislation to continue Israel’s commitment to democratic principles.

QUESTION: That means that every person should have a vote, not just Jewish people?

MR. RATHKE: Well, the United States position, which is unchanged, has been clear for years – and the President and the Secretary have also reiterated it – is that Israel is a Jewish and democratic state in which all citizens should enjoy equal rights.

QUESTION: Yeah, but you’re not sort of – when you – I mean, you’re saying it should – and I’m sorry, I forget the verb now, but you stressed the importance of any final outcome on the legislation being one which strengthens or is in line with —

MR. RATHKE: Or continues.

QUESTION: Continues the —

MR. RATHKE: “Continues” was the verb, if that’s —



QUESTION: — democratic principles. That means you’re worried that it won’t continue democratic principles, and it suggests that you’re worried that Israeli Arabs may be disenfranchised. Is that your concern here?

MR. RATHKE: Well, I would say also that this is a process that is underway. It is not final. And naturally, it has aroused quite a bit of interest, so I think it’s not strange that we would be expected – that we would be asked and that we would offer our view.

QUESTION: And is it fair, then, to say that your concern is that it will not continue – that it’s possible it won’t continue democratic principles?

MR. RATHKE: Well, I’m not going to speculate about the shape and final outcome of the legislation, but simply to point out that we would expect it to continue Israel’s commitment to democratic principles.

Something on the same topic? Same topic? No? Okay, you first.

QUESTION: Thank you. On Cuba, the Spanish foreign minister arrived last night in Cuba and – which has – officially, it has been labeled from Spain with very concrete messages from the U.S. Government to Havana. And this also – all comes ahead of – days ahead of Alan Gross’s fifth anniversary of imprisonment and also amidst the talks about the Summit of the Americas. I was wondering if you can confirm that there’s been any kind of messaging or talks that Spain might deliver a message from the U.S. to the Cuban authorities.

MR. RATHKE: I’m sorry. What sort of a message are you referring to?

QUESTION: If – Spain is saying that he comes with very concrete messages from the U.S. to the Cuban authorities.

MR. RATHKE: And this was said by whom?

QUESTION: The official source is from the Spanish foreign ministry.

MR. RATHKE: No, I have nothing to confirm about that.

A new topic? Yes, Pam.

QUESTION: This is a follow-up, actually, from a question on Friday concerning the GAO report that came out earlier this month on human trafficking.


QUESTION: The report indicated that there is still the potential for trafficking in persons on State Department contractors involved – contracts involving foreign workers, in some cases in high-risk environments. What – first of all, what concrete steps is State taking to address these concerns?

MR. RATHKE: Okay. Well, yes, the GAO did release a report last week which discussed agency oversight of contractors that employ foreign workers. The State Department concurs with the GAO’s two recommendations to improve contract oversight: first, to develop a more precise definition of recruitment fees, of permissible components and amounts; and second, to ensure that there are trafficking monitoring plans, a process for auditing efforts, and also enhanced monitoring in any case where a risk of trafficking might be heightened.

But I think it’s also pointed out in the GAO report that the Department of State already forbids charging any recruitment fees to the recruited individual. And I think the GAO report also recognizes that we are providing training on contract monitoring to prevent and mitigate the risk of trafficking in persons. So in short, it’s certainly a situation we take seriously. We welcome the report, and we agree with its recommendations.

QUESTION: Can you go a little bit more into the particulars of what State is doing to address the potential abuse in terms of the recruitment fees, which could, of course, open the way for the possibility of debt bondage?

MR. RATHKE: Well, we, of course, on the one hand provide training to our contracting officials, as well as we’ve implemented – there are new federal acquisition regulations, which implement the relevant executive order on this, which is 13627, if you want the number. And these will be published soon and they will prohibit charging employees recruiting fees on a government-wide basis.

Lara, yes.


MR. RATHKE: Please.

QUESTION: There are reports out today that there was a Yemini national working at the U.S. Embassy in Sana’a who provided visas to 50 other people to go travel to the United States to visit some bogus oil thing – an industry conference in Texas, apparently. Do you have any comment on that? And apparently, only the one person has been tracked down in Brooklyn, according to court-sealed – or court documents that had been unsealed in Brooklyn.

Do you know anything about the whereabouts of the other 49 people who were given visas or who obtained visas illegally and what their interest was in coming to the United States, if it wasn’t for this oil conference?

MR. RATHKE: Well, we’re aware of the – of these reports, and we are looking into this matter with the appropriate authorities. Of course, we take any allegation of visa fraud seriously. Ensuring the integrity of the visa process is really essential. We have, of course, extensive programs to combat visa fraud and investigate any allegations. I don’t have further comment, though, on current cases. We don’t comment on ongoing investigations.

QUESTION: Okay. Well, I mean, the court documents have already been unsealed in Brooklyn, like I said. I’m just wondering, is there any cause for alarm here in terms of security breaches or mishaps of – since we don’t know or it’s not clear, at least, where these other people are?

MR. RATHKE: Well, we are working closely with our law enforcement partners, as we always do, to investigate all allegations of visa fraud. But I don’t have anything further to report.

QUESTION: Okay. But aside from visa fraud, is there any reason to believe that these people are dangerous to the United States?

MR. RATHKE: Well, again, we are working with our law enforcement colleagues. I don’t have any further information to share publicly. And – but naturally, we take these cases seriously.

QUESTION: Do you happen to know why or how this worker in Sana’a was able to obtain these visas and issue them illegally?

MR. RATHKE: I’m not going to be able to comment on an ongoing investigation.

QUESTION: New topic?

MR. RATHKE: Yes, Elliot.

QUESTION: There was a report last week out of IHS in London that new satellite imagery shows that China is constructing basically a new island in the Spratly Islands that would eventually be capable of hosting an airstrip and a harbor. Do you have confirmation or any comment on that?

MR. RATHKE: Well, I would go back to the Declaration of Conduct, which goes back to 2002. Under Article 5 of the Declaration of Conduct among China and the members of ASEAN, the parties committed themselves to exercise self-restraint in the conduct of activities that would complicate or escalate disputes and affect peace and stability. Large-scale construction or major steps to militarize or expand law enforcement operations at outposts, such as dramatically expanding the size of a feature through land reclamation, would seem to complicate or escalate the situation in our view. So we believe that an announcement by the claimants that they would avoid certain actions during the negotiating process for the code of conduct would create a conducive and positive environment and dramatically lower the risk of a dangerous incident.

QUESTION: But clearly in this case, they’re proceeding in – not in that direction. I mean, their foreign ministry has already said that the project is intended for humanitarian and public service reasons, and that essentially that they have – they’re within their full rights to build it.

MR. RATHKE: Well —

QUESTION: “Indisputable sovereignty” is what the spokeswoman said.

MR. RATHKE: — the Chinese Government can speak for themselves, but we would urge China, as well as all of the claimants in the South China Sea, to be transparent about their activities in disputed areas of the South China Sea.

So yes, you had a question earlier.

QUESTION: Yeah, it was about China as well. So do you have any comments to – a comment on the claims of a Chinese general that China’s the only one that doesn’t have an airstrip in this region? I mean, balance seems like it would help prevent conflict, right?

MR. RATHKE: Well, again, I would go back to the declaration of conduct, which has been in effect for about 12 years and which China and all of the ASEAN countries committed to, and in which the parties committed themselves to self-restraint. So I think this is also something that the President spoke to in his press availability with President Xi on his recent visit to Beijing. While the United States does not take a position on competing claims in the East and South China Seas, it’s clear that we have a fundamental – we, the United States – have a fundamental interest in freedom of navigation and that the territorial disputes in the region should be resolved peacefully and in accordance with international law.

New topic?

QUESTION: (Inaudible.)

MR. RATHKE: Yeah, go ahead.

QUESTION: Would there be any way that China could demonstrate that its construction is purely humanitarian, or is any construction escalatory?

MR. RATHKE: Well, I’m not going to issue a blanket statement of that sort. But again, the declaration of conduct is pretty clear in our view. And, of course, there is an ongoing process to negotiate a code of conduct between China and the ASEAN countries, and it’s the United States point of view that avoiding certain actions during the negotiating process would create a conducive and positive environment.


QUESTION: Armenia. OSCE monitors have still been unable to visit the site of the Armenian helicopter that was shot down by Azerbaijani forces earlier this month. Is the U.S. doing anything to try to get the monitors in?

MR. RATHKE: Well, we are of course following the operation to recover the bodies of three crew members killed in the November 12th downing of a military helicopter along the line of contact. This incident and the subsequent violence underscores once again the need to find a peaceful resolution to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, and we urge all sides to show restraint and avoid actions that would increase tensions along the line of contact. And we also urge the sides to refocus their efforts to negotiate a peaceful and lasting settlement to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. As a co-chair of the Minsk Group, the United States remains ready to assist.

Now, as far as the OSCE, we do understand that an OSCE representative may have been refused access to the site. We would refer you to them for further details, but clearly, we see a need to find a peaceful resolution in Nagorno-Karabakh.

New topic? Okay. Thanks.

QUESTION: Thank you.

(The briefing was concluded at 1:49 p.m.)