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Excerpts of the Department Press Briefing – November 13, 2018

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U.S. Department of State
Department Press Briefing
Tuesday, November 13, 2018
Briefer: Spokesperson Heather Nauert

 

2:44 p.m. EST

MS NAUERT:  Good afternoon, everybody.  Hope you’re all doing well.  Great to see you again.

Today we’re going to begin with a special briefing by some of my colleagues.  We will be joined by our Assistant Secretary of Diplomatic Security, Mike Evanoff, and also our Ambassador-at-Large and Coordinator for Counterterrorism, Nathan Sales.  They will talk about new measures that the U.S. Government is taking against Lebanese Hizballah and also Hamas.

First up, I’ll invite Assistant Secretary Evanoff, and then we’ll – and then Nathan Sales, and then we’ll take a few questions.  I’ll moderate, and then we’ll go on to the regular briefing.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY EVANOFF:  Thanks.  Good afternoon, everyone.  So today the U.S. Department of State’s Rewards for Justice program is offering rewards of up to 5 million each for information leading to the identification or location of Hamas leader Salih al-Aruri, and Lebanese Hizballah leaders Khalil Yusif Mahmoud Harb, and Haytham Ali Tabatabai.

Salih al-Aruri is a deputy of the Hamas’s political bureau and one of the founders of Hamas’s military wing.  Al-Aruri is currently living freely in Lebanon, where he is reportedly is working with the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Quds Force.  Al-Aruri raised funds for and directed Hamas military operations in West Bank and has been linked to several terrorist attacks, hijackings, and kidnappings.

In 2014, al-Aruri asserted Hamas’s responsibility for the June 12th, 2014 terrorist kidnapping and murder of three teenagers in the West Bank, including dual U.S.-Israeli citizen Naftali Frenkel.  The U.S. Department of Treasury designated al-Aruri a specially designated global terrorist in September 2015.

Khalil Yusif Mahmoud Harb is a close advisor of Hassan Nasrallah, leader of Lebanese Hizballah, and has served as the group’s chief military liaison and Palestinian terrorist organizations.  Harb has commanded and supervised Lebanese Hizballah military operations in the Palestinian territories and several countries throughout Middle East.  The U.S. Department of Treasury designated Harb as a specially designated global terrorist in August of 2013.

Haytham Ali Tabatabai is a key Lebanese Hizballah military leader who commanded Hizballah special forces in both Syria and Yemen.  The Department of State designated Tabatabai as a specially designated global terrorist in October of 2016.  The Hamas and Hizballah organizations receive weapons, training, and funding from Iran, which the Secretary of State has designated as a state sponsor of terrorism.  The Department of State designated both Hamas and Hizballah as foreign terrorist organizations in October 1997, and as specially designated global terrorist entities in October 2001.

We urge anyone with information on the whereabouts of these individuals to contact the Rewards for Justice Program via the RFJ website at www.rewardsforjustice.net, or via email at [email protected].  The individuals outside the United States may be – also contact the nearest U.S. embassy or consulate.  All information submitted to us will be kept strictly confidential – I repeat, confidential.

The Rewards for Justice Program has been an effective tool in our fight against international terrorism.  Since its inception in 1984, the program has paid in excess of $150 million to more than a hundred individuals who provided credible information that prevented international terrorist attacks or helped to bring terrorists to justice.

Through the efforts of courageous people who have stepped forward with information about wanted terrorist suspects, the Rewards for Justice Program has helped law enforcement authorities throughout the world to stop terrorists and save innocent lives.

I’m hopeful that the rewards offers we are announcing today will play a similar role in bringing Salih al-Aruri, Mahmoud Harb, and Haytham Tabataba’i to justice.  Thank you.

And now I would like to turn over the microphone to Ambassador Nathan Sales, who will then give you a – our government’s view on Iran going forward.  Thank you.

AMBASSADOR SALES:  Thanks, Mike.  I’d like to say a few words to put into a broader strategic context the RFJ reward offers that Assistant Secretary Evanoff has just announced.  Before I do so however, I’d like to pause for a moment to acknowledge that today is a very sad anniversary.  This is the three-year anniversary of the ISIS attacks on Paris in November of 2015.

Iran is the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism.  It has held that dubious distinction for many years now, and it shows no signs of relinquishing the title.  Let me give you some numbers.  Iran spends $700 million a year on Lebanese Hizballah.  It gives another $100 million to various Palestinian terrorist groups, including Hamas.  Combined with the money that Tehran provides to other terrorists, the total bill comes close to $1 billion a year.

Sadly, it is the Iranian people who are forced to pay this price.  The resources that Iran uses to fund its global terrorist ambitions are resources that come directly out of the pockets of everyday, average Iranians.  The regime robs its own citizens to pay its proxies abroad.

Inside Lebanon, Hizballah’s destructive actions have endangered the Lebanese people.  Thanks to Iran’s backing, Hizballah has built a fearsome arsenal.  The group has stockpiled more than 100,000 rockets and missiles inside Lebanon, and we see this as a massive and destabilizing buildup.  As we all know, Hizballah hides its missile factories in population centers, effectively using innocent civilians as human shields.

Hizballah’s ability to destabilize is not confined to the Middle East, however.  It is able to destabilize inside Lebanon itself.  As Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri told media outlets earlier today, Hizballah continues to block Lebanon from forming a new government.  This is all at the expense of the Lebanese people in an effort to extract more concessions for Hizballah’s own benefit.

We are also deeply concerned about Tehran’s growing ties to Hamas.  After a brief split early in the Syria conflict, Hamas and Iran have rebuilt their relationship.  Iran is once again providing Hamas with much-needed funding.  Salih al-Aruri has been a major player in the Hamas-Iran relationship, serving as one of Hamas’s key liaisons with Iran and playing an important role in the reconciliation between the two sides.  As has been widely reported, Aruri is currently living freely inside Lebanon, where Hizballah’s leadership has welcomed him with open arms.  This is simply unacceptable.  It is intolerable for a leader of Hamas to enjoy safe haven in Lebanon.

In addition to the reward offers just unveiled by Assistant Secretary Evanoff, I announced several new actions to combat Iranian terrorism earlier today in a speech at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.  Today, the State Department is designating Jawad Nasrallah and the al-Mujahidin Brigades as specially designated global terrorists, or SDGTs.  Jawad Nasrallah is the son of the group’s secretary general, Hassan Nasrallah.  AMB is an Iran-backed terrorist group that has been operating in the Palestinian territories since 2005.

In addition, we’re maintaining Hizballah’s designation as a foreign terrorist organization, which was up for a mandatory five-year review.  Likewise, the Treasury Department is designating a number of Hizballah-related individuals as SDGTs: Shibl al-Zaydi, Yusuf Hashim, Muhammad Farhat, and Adnan Kawtharani.  All told, the Trump administration has already designated more than 40 Hizballah-related individuals and entities this year alone, with a total of 160 to date.

The actions we’re announcing today are one more step in our campaign to build the toughest sanctions regime ever imposed on Iran.  More sanctions are coming, and they will continue until Iran and its proxies change their behavior.  Iran must follow the same rules that every other civilized nation follows and renounce terrorism as a basic tool of statecraft.  We will continue to ratchet up the pressure until Iran joins the community of civilized nations and ceases its support for murder and mayhem around the globe.

Thank you very much.

MS NAUERT:  Have time for a few questions.  Nick, we’ll start with you.  Nick Wadhams from Bloomberg.

QUESTION:  Can you tell us – you said I think it’s Aruri is living freely in Lebanon.  So what pressure are you putting on the Government of Lebanon to detain him, if any, and will they face any punishment or sanction for allowing them to go free?  And then can you also just explain, given that these men have been on various terrorist lists since 2013, why now with the rewards?

AMBASSADOR SALES:  Let me take the first piece and then turn it over to the assistant secretary.  What we expect of Lebanon is what we expect of any government when dealing with a designated SDGT.  So a person who is designated as an SDGT is subject to having all of their assets that are subject to U.S. jurisdiction frozen, and individuals are prohibited from engaging in any kind of transaction with them.  Doing so subjects those individuals to secondary sanctions.

It’s intolerable, as I said, for a senior Hamas figure to enjoy freedom of movement in any country.  And what we expect of Lebanon is what we’d expect any responsible country to do, and that is crack down on any terrorists in their borders.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY EVANOFF:  The Rewards for Justice Program is an interagency program with the Secretary of State having the final say in it.  This has taken time to get processed, and once the time has come, we have now unveiling it.  So it’s nothing – there is nothing that shows that we have an issue with it right now.  It’s just coming up through the process.

QUESTION:  The Treasury Department – the Hizballah people that Treasury Department designated today include people from Iraq, Kata’ib Hizballah.  Could you explain the relationship between Kata’ib Hizballah and Lebanese Hizballah?  Is it the same organization?  And secondly, the lead figure there in Kata’ib Hizballah is actually the head of the Popular Mobilization Forces.  Are you doing anything against him, al-Muhandis?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY EVANOFF:  Let me speak about the relationship between groups.  We see a number of similarities in objectives and tradecraft between these various Iran-backed terrorist groups.  They seek to destabilize the regions where they’re active.  They have access to weapons and training provided by Iran.  They receive funding from Iran.  And that’s the reason why we are grouping them together in today’s announcements.  Today’s announcements are about increasing our pressure campaign on Iran proper but also on the various different proxies that Iran uses throughout the region and around the world.

QUESTION:  Thank you.  Is it just Salih al-Aruri or other Hamas leaders?  Because the other Hamas leaders are constantly going and coming back to Cairo, one of your allies, where you can freely take them if you wanted.

AMBASSADOR SALES:  Well, we have –

QUESTION:  They are different because they are involved in negotiations.

AMBASSADOR SALES:  We have used a number of tools to amplify the pressure on Hizballah, so today’s announcement, as assistant secretary – Hamas, thank you for correcting me.  Today’s announcement is limited to Mr. al-Arouri, but in the past we have taken a number of other steps against Hamas as an organization and Hamas-related individuals.  Hamas was one of the first groups we ever designated as at FTO back in the late ‘90s after Congress enacted the statute providing for that authority.  In addition, in January of this year, we designated Haniyeh, Ismail Haniyeh, the leader of Hamas’ political bureau, as an SDGT.  So today is just the tip of the iceberg.

QUESTION:  Good afternoon, thank you for doing this.  Two quick questions for you.  The first one:  There had been some reporting that the administration is considering designating the Houthi rebels in Yemen.  Can you speak to whether or not that is actively under consideration?  And then secondly, the administration’s been in office for nearly two years now with this unprecedented sanctions regime on Iran and their proxies.  Have you seen any change in their behavior to date because of these sanctions?

AMBASSADOR SALES:  On the Houthis, I’m not going to comment on speculation in the press.  What I can tell you is that we’ve been very clear.  It’s intolerable that the Houthis are launching Iran-origin munitions into Saudi Arabia.  We expect that any country will abide by the standard rules that apply to the international system, one of the most basic of which is do not lob missiles at your neighbors.

And your second question about the effects of our sanctions.  The President has been clear.  We want to squeeze the Iranian regime as tightly as possible.  And the reason to do that is to deprive them of the resources they need to commit terrorism and acts of violence around the world.  Sadly, this is a core component of Iranian policy, so we’re going to have to keep squeezing them.  Seven hundred million dollars a year for Hizballah can buy a lot of bullets and a lot of bombs, so we’re going to continue to ramp up the pressure.

QUESTION:  Thank you so much.  To what extent the Lebanese Government is coordinating with the U.S. to arrest these people?

AMBASSADOR SALES:  Well, I can’t comment on any diplomatic conversations that may or may not be taking place.  But what I can tell you is that whether it’s Lebanon or any other government around the world, if terrorists are present on your territory, we all have an obligation to prevent them from spreading bloodshed around the world.

QUESTION:  Did you mean that there is a coordination or no coordination?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY EVANOFF:  We believe the terrorists – these three will move around in the area, so it doesn’t have to be in Lebanon.  It could be any country in the area.  It’s – RFJ is a tip line.  It’s an informational thing.  So if they do move and the government that they are in spot them, they tell us, then it’s up to the interagency to decide how they pick them up, and the country.

MS NAUERT: The first is Secretary Pompeo met earlier today with His Majesty King Abdullah II of Jordan here in Washington, D.C.  During the meeting, Secretary Pompeo conveyed his condolences to the victims of recent flooding in Jordan and reaffirmed the United States steadfast support for Jordan.  Secretary Pompeo underscored the importance of the bilateral relationship between our two countries and thanked the king for his efforts to promote peace and stability in the Middle East, and sought King Abudllah’s views on regional developments and other matters of mutual interest.  Secretary Pompeo also congratulated King Abdullah on his receipt of the 2018 Templeton Prize.

Next and final thing is Secretary – Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan is traveling right now to Japan, Singapore, Australia, and Papua New Guinea through November 18th on behalf of Secretary Pompeo.  The deputy secretary will accompany Vice President Pence as he represents President Trump at the U.S.-ASEAN Summit and the East Asia Summit in Singapore, as well as the APEC Economic Leaders Meeting in Port Moresby.  The U.S. participation in these events demonstrate our continued commitment to advancing a free and open Indo-Pacific.  President Trump outlined our vision for the Indo-Pacific, a constellation of nations that are sovereign, strong, and satellites to none in his speech last November at the APEC CEO Summit in Vietnam.

One year later, we’ve effectively advanced our vision by building on our principles that are widely shared throughout the region:  ensure the freedom of the seas and the skies; raising our concerns about sovereignty with other nations who may be open or –  to external coercion; and promoting market-based economics, open investment environments and fair and reciprocal trade; and supporting good governance, transparency, and respect for individual rights.  In bilateral meetings and in multinational events throughout this trip, the deputy secretary, the Vice President, and other U.S. officials will continue to work with our allies and partners to ensure an open, rules-based system, which has benefitted the entire region and will remain essential for future prosperity of all countries in the region.

QUESTION:  All right.  I wanted to start with something that’s – what I assume is – will be related to the Secretary’s meeting with King Abdullah, and that is the issues of – regional issues of mutual concern that you mentioned.  Is one of those issues the flareup of – or intense flareup of violence in Gaza over the course of the last 48 hours?

MS NAUERT:  Yeah.  In my experience, when the Secretary has sat down with the king, that has been a big topic of conversation, Israeli-Palestinian peace effort and the situation going on there.  I wasn’t at the meeting that took place just a short while ago today, but I would imagine that was a part of the conversation too, but I have not confirmed that yet with the Secretary.

QUESTION:  Okay.  Well, as you are – you’re probably aware, it looks like there is a chance that a ceasefire could be arranged, or maybe even has been arranged and is in its early stages.  I’m just wondering, in the reporting on this, Egypt has been involved, some European countries have been involved in this, but there’s been no mention of the United States, of this administration at all.  Are you at all engaged in trying to bring an end to this current round of fighting or are you guys just sitting this one out?

MS NAUERT:  No, we are hardly sitting this one out.  The United States Government at many levels remains engaged in talking to our partners, our allies, and others in the region about our concerns.  We certainly want regional peace and stability.  What we’re seeing right now take place is not regional peace and stability.  We condemn in the strongest terms those rocket missile and mortar attacks that are taking place from Gaza into Israel.  We call for the sustained halt of those attacks.  We stand with Israel as Israel defends itself against these attacks.  It is simply unacceptable to target civilians.

As you know, we have an ambassador over there, Ambassador David Friedman.  He has been hard at work in voicing his concerns about the situation over there.  Our presidential advisor Jason Greenblatt as well has been involved in this, and the United States Government continues to have conversations with the various governments of the region at different levels.

QUESTION:  But can you be a little bit more specific?  I mean, who – has anyone from this building actually picked up a phone or gone to see anyone to help try and organize a ceasefire?

MS NAUERT:  We have been engaged at the highest levels in this, but we’re not going to get into our diplomatic conversations.

QUESTION:  And the reason I ask is it just seems that previous administrations would – were in similar situations extremely active at very high and very public levels with secretaries of state flying out to the region, trying to – and really exerting some pressure, and this administration seems to be content to do – whatever it is it’s doing, to do it completely behind the scenes.  Is that an accurate characterization?

MS NAUERT:  I would not confuse hopping on a plane and flying all over the world with positive activity necessarily.  Just because you’re hopping on a plane does not always bring about positive results.  We can have conversations, whether it’s by phone or in person with our representatives on the ground that we think can effectively advocate our views and concerns.

QUESTION:  Yeah, two question.  One question:  Any comment about Moscow conference?  And the second question:  Any update for Ambassador Zal Khalilzad?  Because this is the second round that he started to travel to Pakistan, Emirate, Qatar.  There are so many different opinion and idea.  What’s going on?  Do you have any update?

MS NAUERT:  Yeah, I think it shows the fact that Ambassador Khalilzad is in – that he’s in the region shows our commitment to a lasting peace agreement, hoping that we can facilitate the Afghans and the Taliban coming to some sort of lasting peace agreement.  Our officials have long said, including the DOD, that we don’t see a military solution to this outcome – to this in Afghanistan.  Ambassador Khalilzad has been hard at work.  I think he’s spent more time on an airplane or traveling overseas than he has back in Washington in the past month and a half or so since he’s taken on these duties.

In terms of the first part of your question, with regard to the Moscow meetings, we see Russia, the Russian Government doing this, where they will hold meetings related to hot topics around the world.  That is certainly their right to do so.  The United States Government sent a representative simply at the working level, not to participate but just to observe in those discussions, and I don’t have anything more for you on that today, okay?

QUESTION:  Did you see the report that the administration is trying to push for the Afghanistan election to be delayed?  Do you have anything to say about that?

MS NAUERT:  Yeah.  I mean, I’ve seen that report.  One of the things that is important to us is we’re committed to the overall electoral process.  If there were to be any changes made to the scheduling, that would entirely be a decision on the part of Afghanistan, one in which we would not interfere.

QUESTION:  But you’re not – so you’re not suggesting or advising one way or another?

MS NAUERT:  As you can see, I’m not there with Ambassador Khalilzad, but I can tell you that our support for an Afghan-led, Afghan-owned peace process is our policy.  In terms of elections and if they were to make any changes, that would entirely be up to the Government of Afghanistan and not the United States Government.

QUESTION:  Both the Iraqi prime minister and president have said that they are too dependent on Iran specifically for its gas and oil, for its electricity, to abide by U.S. sanctions.  You’ve given them a 45-day waiver.  Are you considering their appeal or do you consider the matter settled?

MS NAUERT:  Well, I mean, we watched, right, over the summer how Iraq suffered from a lack of electricity, especially in the south, and that was a real problem.  That is part of the reason that the United States Government granted a 45-day waiver to allow Iraq to continue to pay for electricity that its people desperately need.  We also saw some of the rioting and protests that took place in the southern part of the country.  So we recognize that and understand that.  We’re confident that this waiver will help Iraq limit its electricity shortages into the south.  I’m not going to get ahead of any of the decisions or actions that we might take in the near future, but 45 days we think is important.  We’ll continue to discuss this with Iraq.

QUESTION:  And are they reducing their import of Iranian energy?  I mean, that’s one of your conditions for these waivers.

MS NAUERT:  Yeah, I don’t have any information for you on that at this time, but I can take a look and get back to you, okay?

QUESTION:  Hey.  I actually wanted to ask about the announcement you made today regarding the Humanitarian Assistance Steering Council.  Can you explain a little further on what the intention of this is, that – what it will accomplish that it hadn’t accomplished before?

MS NAUERT:  Sure.

QUESTION:  And what role that it will play in the foreign assistance review.

MS NAUERT:  Yeah.  I think what this is – and we just put out this statement today, and I can get you more information after discussing this with my colleagues over at USAID.  This is a new approach, a new way to be able to come together in the U.S. Government and look at some of our assistance proposals and how money is being spent, but I don’t want to say much more without having the opportunity to discuss this with USAID first.  I’ll gladly get back with you.

QUESTION:  A few quick questions:  Have the Saudis been forthcoming in their dealings with the U.S. in this investigation?

MS NAUERT:  Well, I can tell you the Secretary spoke with MBS over the weekend and had a conversation with him in which we reiterated the importance of holding all of those involved in the killing of Jamal Khashoggi accountable.  The Secretary has spoken to the fact that the United States Government is compiling some of its own data and taking a look at those facts.  We’re getting information from a variety of sources, as any government would.  And we’ll —

QUESTION:  But have the Saudis been forthcoming?

MS NAUERT:  And we’ll take a look at all of the information.  I’m going to get – I’m not going to wade into our private diplomatic conversations at this time, but we have been very clear with the Government of Saudi Arabia that we expect transparency and accountability and also speed to the ability that those countries are able to make a speedy determination in terms of what happened to Jamal Khashoggi.

QUESTION:  And in working with Turkey, can you say whether the Secretary has now viewed all of the evidence that the Turks have?

MS NAUERT:  I’m not aware if he has or has not.  The Secretary is not an investigator.  I imagine that he will be looking at some information, but I just don’t have anything for you on that.

QUESTION:  Well, but there have been reports that he has heard the audio.

MS NAUERT:  Okay, let me make this clear one more time.

QUESTION:  Okay.

MS NAUERT:  Okay.  The State Department has not heard any audio.  There was one report about that, and I think we attempted to clarify that.  I think the Secretary was very clear that he had not heard any audio.

QUESTION:  Well —

QUESTION:  So that still stands today?

MS NAUERT:  That still stands today.

QUESTION:  Ambassador Bolton said this morning in Singapore that the tape that the Turks turned over does not directly implicate the crown prince.  Is that your understanding?

MS NAUERT:  I have not seen Ambassador Bolton’s actual quote from what he had apparently said this morning, so I’d have to refer you to the NSC for questions about what Ambassador Bolton had said.  But I will reiterate that the Secretary has said that we will hold those accountable – people will be held accountable.  The Secretary outlined some visa revocations a couple weeks ago.  We are also blocking some Saudi officials from coming into the United States.  But the Secretary was also clear in saying that things will not end there.  So you know we don’t forecast sanctions, but our actions that we take did not end and will not end with the visa revocations and the blocking of certain Saudi officials from coming into the United States, okay.

QUESTION:  Heather, why has the Secretary not heard the audio?  Why?  I would think that as the former director of the CIA he’d be very interested in it.

MS NAUERT:  I think the Secretary is in the role of being the nation’s chief diplomat at this time, and it wouldn’t be appropriate to hear.  Okay.

QUESTION:  Heather, I’m sorry.  I didn’t understand your answer to Carol.  Why would it be inappropriate for the top diplomat of the United States to listen to this tape or to look at all of the evidence?  I mean —

MS NAUERT:  The Secretary – and guys, I don’t want to go down this road another time.  The United States Government has said that people will be held accountable.

QUESTION:  Well, I —

MS NAUERT:  We expect accountability.  We expect a speedy investigation.  We expect a thorough investigation in which people are held accountable.

QUESTION:  I get that.  I’m not —

MS NAUERT:  The Secretary has not listened to a tape, and I’m not going to get into it beyond that, okay.

QUESTION:  Well, okay.  But why?  Does he think it would be inappropriate for him to listen to it?

MS NAUERT:  I’m not going to get into it beyond that.

QUESTION:  Well, I don’t get why it would be inappropriate.  You would think that even that anyone who is going to be looking into how you respond to this would want to have the entire plate of evidence to – would want to review the entire docket.

MS NAUERT:  Matt, we will be taking a look at a lot of different pieces of information and developing our own data set.


This translation is provided as a courtesy and only the original English source should be considered authoritative.
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