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Special Briefing with Timothy Lenderking, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Arabian Gulf Affairs

العربية العربية

Department of State
Office of the Spokesperson
For Immediate Release
Special Briefing via telephone
Timothy A. Lenderking, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Arabian Gulf Affairs
September 17, 2020

 

Moderator:  Greetings to everyone from the U.S. Department of State’s Dubai Regional Media Hub.  I want to welcome our participants dialing in from the Middle East and around the world for this on-the-record briefing with Tim Lenderking, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Arabian Gulf Affairs and the Near East Bureau at the U.S. Department of State.  Deputy Assistant Secretary Lenderking will provide brief remarks on the latest developments in the U.S. relationships with our Gulf Arab partners and then take your questions.   

 We are pleased to offer simultaneous interpretation for this briefing in Arabic.  We request that everyone keep this in mind and speak slowly.  I’ll now turn it over to Deputy Assistant Secretary Lenderking for his opening remarks.  Sir, the floor is yours.  

 DAS Lenderking:  Thank you very much and good afternoon to all of you.  Thank you very much for joining us today.  I will give a few opening remarks, and I’ll try to do that fairly slowly, as I know that some of you are getting the translation.  But first of all, it’s a pleasure to be with you.  And I think it’s not an overstatement to say that this has been an historic week.  If we go back to last Friday when Bahrain joined United – UAE in the decision to formalize relations with Israel.  And then of course on Tuesday, September 15th, we had the Abraham Accords signing ceremony at the White House, where the leaders of all three countries – UAE, Bahrain, and Israel – joining us, formalized their commitment to the accords and signed peace agreements between themselves.  And our president, of course, witnessed this signing.  

 These breakthroughs, I think, have really been at the core of our recent diplomatic engagements in the Middle East and feature very prominently in our ongoing dialogue with the Gulf allies if you look at the official travel in just the last three weeks:  Secretary Pompeo to Israel, the United Arab Emirates, and Oman, and also to Sudan on the first flight from Israel to Sudan, and he was again in Qatar this past weekend for the past weekend for the Afghan peace negotiations.  David Schenker, our assistant secretary for Near Eastern Affairs, was in Kuwait, Qatar, and Lebanon two weeks ago and has been in Israel this week.  And of course, Senior Advisor Jared Kushner and National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien flew to Abu Dhabi on the first direct flight from Tel Aviv, and also went on to Saudi Arabia and Bahrain.  So we feel that all of this – all of this engagement from the White House, from the National Security Council, from the State Department, is really helping to open up opportunities for peace in the region. 

We think that the movement towards rapprochement and the potential it has to be transformative is not a realignment of our relationships, but an expansion formed by the desire to have a more prosperous and secure Middle East.  We didn’t pressure the Emirates to sign with Israel.  We didn’t pressure Bahrain to sign with Israel.  They’re doing this of their own accord, recognizing their own national interests here.  And we do anticipate and hope that other countries will be coming forward in the near future.  The Abraham Accords, we feel, have shown the potential to ignite new diplomatic possibilities and partnerships.  So in addition to the flights that I mentioned, we know that there are phone calls happening between Israel and Bahrain and the UAE.  MOUs are being signed.  Cooperation is underway already in key areas such as combatting the COVID pandemic.  

 So I think we’re very optimistic about the possibilities that are represented here.  We think that the Abraham Accords show that a step towards unity opens up opportunities for better security, economic development, and opportunities particularly for the young people of the Middle East region, where we know that the countries are determined to create additional prospects and better employment opportunities.

Obviously, one of the factors that brings this change is the fact that from our point of view, the Islamic Republic of Iran remains a revolutionary jihadist regime that has violated UN Security Council arms embargo restrictions repeatedly since they were first established in 2007.  And the UN’s own independent experts back up this assertion with evidence.  So last month we saw a powerful step forward when the six members of the Gulf Cooperation Council asked the UN Security Council to extend the arms embargo against Iran.  This was an important reminder that the collective strength of a united Gulf is needed for the sake of advancing greater security and peace.  

 We think that allowing the arms embargo to expire would strengthen Iran’s terrorist partners and proxies, potentially spark a destabilizing arms race in the Middle East and imperil the security of our partners in the region, including the Gulf States and Israel.  So recognizing this threat, the United States will implement UN sanctions snapback midnight Greenwich Mean Time on Sunday, September 20, so this weekend.  

But uniting against Iran’s malign interference is just one example of security partnership.  This week we also hosted on Monday and Tuesday the U.S.-Qatar Strategic Dialogue, which gives us an opportunity to assess, as a larger group of agencies in the U.S. Government and across the Qatar – across the Qatar Government, an assessment of our bilateral relationship, and also to reaffirm the intersecting interests that all our Gulf countries share.  

So for example, in that strategic dialogue, we had an opportunity to talk about our efforts to defeat ISIS, our work to end the conflicts in Libya, Syria, and Yemen, and our efforts to combat terrorism and terrorism financing.  And I mentioned the Afghan peace talks, but Qatar has also played an indispensable role in peacemaking by bringing the Taliban representatives to the negotiating table.  

 We talked to the Qataris about plans to expand Al Udeid Air Base and align operating procedures with NATO standards, and that we are going to move ahead, we hope, with designating Qatar a major non-NATO ally.  We also discussed ways to support humanitarian assistance through various UN agencies, including combating – sorry, in assisting refugees and other displaced populations.  

So in all of these discussions – both the Abraham Accords, the Qatar Strategic Dialogue, trade and investment, and economic development – all featured prominently.  For example, we had, of course – with the Qatari counterparts, we had Secretary Mnuchin, our Treasury Secretary, and Secretary Ross, our Commerce Secretary, signing important agreements and stressing the importance of economic dialogue in our conversations.  We also signed a “Year of Culture” with Qatar, 2021, to expand the cultural exchanges.  It’s not all about security.  It’s also about cultural exchange, museum collaborations and events that we can do to bring our two countries closer to each other’s peoples. 

 So we see similar interlocking interests in all of this, and we will continue building on these important contacts and look forward to hosting strategic dialogues later this fall with Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the UAE, and of course over the summer we had Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi come to Washington; we hosted a strategic dialogue with Iraq as well.  

 So there’s lots of – lots of really active diplomacy happening by the United States in the region, and we think that this is to the benefit of security, peace, and to the peoples of the Middle East.  Thank you very much.  Happy to take your questions.  

 Moderator:  Thank you, Deputy Assistant Secretary Lenderking.  We will now begin the question-and-answer portion of today’s call.  Our first question will be one of those questions submitted in advance, from Osama Deyab from the Alanbaa Newsletter in Kuwait.  And Osama asks, “How would you describe the future of U.S.-Gulf relations after the normalization with Israel by the UAE and Bahrain?”  Over.  

 DAS Lenderking:  Thank you very much from Kuwait.  Appreciate the question.  Look, I think we see lots of promise and possibility, and that is in part because we have relations with each of the Gulf countries even if their relations aren’t where they should be between them.  But we have strong relations with each of the Gulf countries that go back decades.  And in those decades, if you look at the example of Saudi Arabia or Kuwait where we’ve been through a great deal together, we have important bedrocks of our relations going back to working on the development of energy infrastructure in a country like Saudi Arabia, cooperating very closely with all of the Gulf countries on counterterrorism issues, and working with them to tackle the broader challenges in the region.  

 For example, if you look at the Libya conflict or at the Yemen conflict, those are conversations that we also have with the Gulf countries because they have influence.  As you know, Kuwait for example hosted peace talks on Yemen in 2016, did a phenomenal job of bringing all of the key parties together for more than two months.  And we hope to get back to that stage in Yemen with a similar round of peace talks in the future.  

So the future, from our point of view, looks very bright.  There’s still the menace of Iran, and I think we need the – and asking the Gulf countries to join together and unify to end the Gulf rift and focus more on the common challenges and the common threats, be they the immediate ones, such as Iran’s malign behavior, or longer-term ones, such as managing water resources and developing economic relations, and using the wealth of the Gulf to help stabilize neighboring countries like Iraq.  So we think there are tremendous opportunities going forward, and we look forward to really strong U.S. collaboration with all of our Gulf partners.  

Moderator:  Thank you.  Our next question is going to be from Michel Ghandour from Al Hurra. 

Question:  Yeah.  Hello.  Thank you for doing this.  Mr. Secretary, what is your reaction first to the Qataris’ reaction to the peace agreement between Israel, UAE, and Bahrain?  Qatar was the first Gulf state that opened an Israeli office in Doha.  Where is it today in this process?  And do you think that Turkey is playing any role preventing Qatar from normalizing with Israel?  Thank you.  

 DAS Lenderking:  Thank you very much, Michel.  Qatar’s reaction, I think you’ve seen in their public comments, has been to emphasize the difficulties or the challenges of normalizing with Israel given the status of the Palestinian issue.  And of course we’ve seen the reaction from the Palestinians to the – to the normalization efforts.  It’s very much our hope that the Palestinians, rather than being discouraged and deflated by all this, will find this as an opportunity and work with us to come back to the negotiating table.  And that is very much our intent, and was very much the intent behind the unveiling of the Vision for Peace last year, and remains a priority for the United States.  

So we understand Qatar’s reaction, and several countries have reacted in the same manner.  But you’re right to point out that Qatar also engages with Israel, and has done so openly, on and on for a number of years.  And we can – we can point to Qatar’s resolution of a – of a ceasefire here with Hamas, between Hamas and Israel two weeks ago, an excellent example of Qatari sort of boutique diplomacy, where they can use their influence and bring about a better situation.  Of course, we see that with the Afghan talks as well.   

So – and by the way, our experience with Qatari officials who work on that file is that they’re very open about those engagements with Israel.  They’ve developed positive relationships with the Israeli officials involved.  And so we think there’s a lot to build on, and that every country will move at its own pace of normalization, according to its own criteria, but we’re eager for that to happen sooner rather than later because that does, we feel, put in more building blocks in the region for regional peace and stability. 

Moderator:  Thank you.  Our next question is a question submitted in advance by Fathima Saleem from The Peninsula newspaper in Qatar.  And Fathima asks, “It was said earlier that the Gulf crisis would be solved within weeks.  What is the current situation now regarding the Gulf rift?”  Over. 

 DAS Lenderking:  Thank you.  As noted, it’s been our goal since June of 2017 when the unfortunate blockade was placed on Qatar to resolve the rift, and you’ve seen we’ve on numerous occasions, both at the Secretary of State level, at my level, with General Zinni, we have – and recently with Jared’s, Jared Kushner’s trip to the region – we have done a lot of engagement.  We’ve looked at a lot of different papers.  We’ve considered a lot of different ideas.  Most recently, we have been very keen to see that the airspace is opened for aircraft not to have to fly over Iran, for overflights in Iran bring money into Iranian coffers.  We’ve seen, of course, a very negative and unfortunate experience of Iran shooting down the Ukrainian aircraft in January.  And so these are unfortunate – really unfortunate circumstances that put more pressure, we think, on the necessity of the Gulf to reunify.   

So though it may not be a matter of weeks, we’re still very dedicated to resolving the rift.  We’re in contact with all of the parties on a pretty vigorous basis.  And by the way, I would add that if it’s – if it’s possible for countries to normalize with Israel, it ought to be possible for Arab countries to normalize amongst each other.  So we have wanted to see that the Abraham Accords could be used as a platform or a springboard to help generate some momentum to break down some of the concerns that the two sides have in the Gulf conflict and try to resolve it. 

 We’re not going to be able to impose a solution.  We need the countries of the – involved in the rift, the Quartet plus Qatar, to make some compromises and particularly to work together.  And we’ve appreciated Kuwait’s mediation; it’s still very active and we are very grateful for that, for the role that Kuwait has played.  But ultimately, these countries are going to have to come together and talk and resolve the differences.   

Moderator:  Thank you.  Our next question is from Mr. Edward Wong. 

Moderator:  Do we have Mr. Wong? 

Question:  I’m right here.  Sorry.  Yes.  I have two questions, both related to weapons sales to the Gulf.  One is, in the momentum on selling F-35s, EA ATGS, and other arms to the UAE, how do you propose addressing the QME question with Israel and also the question of whether there would be theft or proliferation of those technologies which – to rival nations? 

The second question is on the Saudi-led coalition’s war in Yemen.  U.S. arms continue to be used in the killing of civilians, and the State IG found that the State Department hadn’t taken appropriate measures on legal risk to U.S. officials for those arms sales as well as civilian mitigation measures.  So I’m wondering what the State Department says about that.  Thanks. 

 DAS Lenderking:  Thank you, Ed.  QME – on your first question, qualified military edge – is a sort of a bedrock principle.  So any sales – any sales, not just the F-35, have to be evaluated against those set of criteria.  So that’s – that’s a process that’s underway.  Similarly, we would have – we have to be very gravely focused on any technology transfer.  That is a big red line for us.  We do not wish that kind of sophisticated technology to fall into the hands of any other player who’s not directly involved in the sale.  So that’s a major concern.  So these are two things that we will be looking at very closely. 

With regard to U.S. arms in Yemen, yes, U.S. arms are, unfortunately, involved and that is a – that is a major concern for us.  We have been working with the Saudi-led coalition for five years now on trying to improve and mitigate some of their procedures so that there would be no civilian casualties from the Saudi-led coalition’s side.  We do not have that same influence over the Houthis, who are also guilty of massive numbers of civilian casualties, and in our view show even less regard for Yemeni civilian life than the coalition.  But we do use our leverage and our strong relationship with Saudi Arabia to provide training, to provide coursework.  I will tell you – I won’t tell you that we are 100 percent satisfied, and that’s why the OIG report has reported as it has.  But it remains a priority.   

 More generally, we want the Yemen conflict to come to a close.  That’s really the key issue here.  And our efforts are very much engaged still with the UN special envoy to build a political process.  We had a P5+3 meeting this morning at the ministerial level in which all of the participants, led by the UN Secretary General and the hosts, the Swedes, the Kuwaitis, and others, all agreed that there’s no military solution.  We all have to collectively use our political muscle to help bring about a sustained political process and to address the humanitarian needs in Yemen, which are very dire, as you know. 

Moderator:  Thank you.  Our next question is from Arshad Mohammed. 

 Question:  Hi.  I wanted to ask about resolving the Gulf dispute.  Is it conceivable to you that there might be an interim agreement under which, say, Saudi and Qatari trade could resume and Saudi airspace could become available for Qatari overflight?  Are you getting any closer to that?  Does that seem like a possible interim step prior to a full resolution?  

DAS Lenderking:  Thanks, Arshad.  I mean, we are looking at – we are looking at interim steps.  I think we’ve recognized that from the early days, 2017 and 2018, we kind of charged at this thing as a comprehensive – as a comprehensive problem and sought to lay out more of a comprehensive type of agreement.  But we have looked more at interim solutions.  As I mentioned, focusing in particular on the airspace is one area where we could possibly make some progress for the reasons I outlined.  There is a direct Iranian component there, and if we’re going to do a maximum pressure campaign on Iran, then let’s not put money in Iran’s coffers needlessly, particularly if it’s a result of problems that the Arab countries themselves can get fixed.   

So the kinds of things that you talk about where we could increase trade or cross-border activity, particularly across that Saudi-Qatar land border, those are things that we’re very open to.  And we remain open to really any ideas that help build confidence.  At the end of the day, though, I think it’s our sense that we can help coax the parties and pressure the parties back to the table.  And we also, by the way, don’t necessarily view that all parties need to be at the table at once.  We could look at smaller arrangements where you have Qataris and Saudis, or Qataris, Saudis, and Emiratis, or some – some cluster like that that could make some progress. 

So this is all very much a part of what we are trying to do in our diplomacy with the Gulf countries.   

Moderator:  Thank you.  We have a number of pre-submitted questions about Iran, so if it’s okay with you, Deputy Assistant Secretary, I will ask two of those questions that are related.  We have a question from Bander Alwarthan from the Alyaum newspaper in Saudi Arabia, and he asks, “What will the next stage of American pressure on Iran look like given that Iranian threats in the region continue through its terrorist militias?”  And a related question from Waleed Sabry from the Al Watan newspaper in Bahrain.  Waleed asks, “What are the latest developments regarding the existing cooperation between the U.S. and Gulf countries to secure navigation in the Arabian Gulf, Strait of Hormuz, and the Sea of Oman to confront Iran’s threats against navigation in the region?”  Over. 

 DAS Lenderking:  Thank you.  On the first question, in terms of the next stage of Iranian pressure, many of the – many of the countries in the region have some sort of Iran nexus.  For example, if you look at Lebanon, where this very unfortunate blast took place a month ago, and the efforts of the government to reconstitute itself.  Well, one of the – one of the factors that plays very strongly into our policy on Lebanon is the recognition that Hizballah is helping to strangle the country.  And so we do not see that Hizballah’s influence is helpful to the proper functioning of the Lebanese state, and it is not helpful to have Hizballah in control of southern Lebanon.  As you know in that regard, Hizballah is a terrorist organization. 

 But there – so there are numerous, numerous touch points, I think, for our Iran pressure campaign, not just with – not just with the Iranian regime, but you have to look at where their tentacles are spreading.  And obviously, Iraq is another situation where we’re trying to build up our support for the Kadhami government.  I mentioned the strategic dialogue, which is a very comprehensive set of engagements with the Iraqis, not only the security piece but also looking at other elements of the relationship where we can continue to build.  And then, of course, there’s a military part of this as well and that’s why we moved a lot of assets into Saudi Arabia after the Iranians – after the Iranians struck their oil platforms in September of last year.  We believe that a strong, strong military presence is very important as a deterrent to dissuade the Iranians from taking further action as a military.  But we realize we have to be smart.  It’s a capable enemy and we have to be smart about the ways that we go about it.  It’s not all about military; we also have to use the diplomatic pieces to try and influence countries like Lebanon and Iraq. 

 And then we look at – if you look at the straits and the waterways around the Arabian Peninsula, the Straits of Hormuz, the Bab al-Mandeb, vital, vital waterways for international security.  And of course, last summer we saw a sort of a conflict where tankers were set on fire, threatening shipping and commerce in these vital waterways.  And so we’ve built up our capabilities through our Naval Central Command there based in Bahrain, which is responsible for patrolling and keeping security in these vital waterways.  And you’ve seen that we’ve had to push back and – on Iranian aggression on a couple of occasions in the last six months and have also sent warnings to the Iranians about further provocations. 

 So combining the two questions, I think in essence it has to be a full – sort of a full-court press with Iran, looking at its proxies, looking at its financial capabilities, cutting off terrorism, cutting off financial links where possible.  We just designated, as you know, two organizations in Lebanon for ties with Hizballah.  So it’s got to be multifaceted and we have to use all the tools available to us in our system to bring about what we hope is better behavior that would bring Iran to the negotiating table.  That, after all, is the objective here.  It’s not a military confrontation.  It’s to bring Iran to the negotiating table and have a genuine conversation about how we can change Iran’s behavior. 

 Moderator:  Thank you.  Our next question goes to Ray Hanania from Arab News. 

Question:  Hey, Secretary Lenderking.  Thank you so much for this briefing.  My question has to do with Qatar, and I’m just wondering why isn’t the U.S. – why is the U.S. so tolerant with Qatar given their ties to these extremist elements and being named in several lawsuits recently?  Does the U.S. expect Qatar to follow the UAE and Bahrain and normalize with Israel?  Or are we willing to just kind of let that go the way it is? 

DAS Lenderking:  Thank you, Ray.  No, we’re not willing to let that go.  We want all the Gulf states to normalize.  I do – I did say that there are certain individual characteristics or peculiarities to each of the Gulf states’ approaches.  But yes, it’s very much our hope that – and our intention – that all of the countries of the Middle East, not just the Gulf, will normalize with Israel.  And so our conversations both at the strategic dialogue last Monday, David Schenker’s visit out there last – in the last two weeks, Jared Kushner’s visit, all had components where we are working with the Qataris to normalize and that’s very much a goal of ours. 

Getting to the first part of your question, we think a lot is made about Qatar’s being soft on terrorism.  That isn’t actually accurate.  I mean, we have a very vigorous counterterrorism engagement with them that I would say that has stepped up and gotten stronger in the last couple of years, partly because of the embargo against Qatar, but also I think because of strong U.S. engagement focusing on key areas that may have been weaknesses in the Qatari system before, and where U.S. engagement on a regular basis is helping to bring about a much stronger response and develop Qatar’s counterterrorism capabilities. 

So we know there’s more room for improvement.  That’s part of our CT Bureau, our Counterterrorism Bureau’s engagement with Qatar.  But these are issues that we discussed very directly with them during the strategic dialogue, and I think we’re confident that we’re going to see continued improvement over the course of the next year. 

Moderator:  Thank you.  We have time for one last question, and the last question goes to Karen DeYoung.  

[Background conversation.] 

Moderator:  Hello, Karen, are you with us? 

[Background conversation.] 

 Moderator:  Okay.  Joseph Habboush. 

 Question:  Thanks for doing this.  Just to kind of go back to Michel’s previous question, how much do you think Turkey is pressuring Qatar or any other countries in the region from normalizing with Israel?  Thank you. 

 DAS Lenderking:  Thanks for asking that.  I realize I left that part off and so I was looking for an opportunity to talk just briefly about Turkey.  Obviously, a key ally for us and I’m not going to say a lot of negative things about Turkey, despite the fact that they came out very strongly against normalization and, obviously, we think that’s – that’s not only the wrong posture, it’s against the trend, and the trend is going to build for more normalization because it’s going to be good for the region and it’s going to be good for the Islamic world as well to get over some of these age-old animosities and start working together on common challenges, whether they’re in the economic sphere or the security sphere. 

 So I don’t have a lot of insight into what kind of pressure that Turkey may be placing on Qatar.  I know that they have a – they have an important relationship, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they will do everything in concert or everything at the same pace.  So we are engaging with both of them.  As I say, Qatar has already responded to the normalization issue, has already a track record of working with Israel that we think will eventually get them to a broader – a broader agreement with the Israelis. 

 Moderator:  Great, thank you.  And now, Deputy Assistant Secretary Lenderking, if you have any closing remarks, I’ll turn it back over to you. 

DAS Lenderking:  No, just to thank everybody for the participation and for the opportunity.  We welcome the chance to share with you some perspectives on how we see things from inside the State Department and inside the – inside Washington, D.C.  And we look forward to other opportunities to have similar conversations.  Thank you very much. 

Moderator:  That concludes today’s call.  I would like to thank Deputy Assistant Secretary Lenderking for joining us and thank all of our callers for participating.  If you have any questions about today’s call, you can contact the Dubai Regional Media Hub at [email protected]  Information on how to access an English recording of this call will be provided by AT&T shortly.  Thank you and have a great day.


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