Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs David Schenker On Middle East Issues at the 74th Session of the United Nations General Assembly

Washington, DC (STL.News) – The US Department of State released the following statement:

MS ORTAGUS: So everyone’s met Schenker before, right? Yeah, no? Most of you?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHENKER: Hi, everyone.

MS ORTAGUS: Okay, good.  Do you want to start with any opening comments, or do you want to go right into it? Yeah.  So this is a part of our continued effort to get as many senior officials, State Department officials as we can in here, to give you guys briefings.  And he has – Schenker’s had a lot of meetings, he’ll continue to have some.  A lot of priorities in the region.  We had some big wins on Syria yesterday.  I think all of you saw the UN Secretary-General’s announcement.  We want these to be informal, because I want to bring as many State Department officials in as I can to brief all of you.  We don’t have a ton of time, but I want it to be informal, and I want to try to – I’m doing my best to try to get as many people in as I can.

So why don’t we have a pleasant exchange of ideas. Matt.

QUESTION: Is there anything that you wanted to highlight about your week?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHENKER: Well, a lot of the focus obviously is on Iran and what happened to Saudi Arabia.  We’re talking a lot with our allies and other states about our – how we view it and our commitment to diplomacy.

QUESTION: Sorry, could you speak up a little bit?

MS ORTAGUS: Do you want to try that again?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHENKER: Yeah.  We’re talking to our allies and other states about our approach, our commitment to diplomacy, and how we want this to play out.

QUESTION: Well, I mean, so is the idea of a meeting between the President and Rouhani, is that completely out the window now?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHENKER: I saw that Foreign Minister Zarif was asked about this, and he said no.  But as we know, the President is willing to talk with anyone.  He meets with the North Koreans.  I’m sure – he said that he’d be willing to meet with Rouhani.

QUESTION: Okay, but —

MS ORTAGUS: If we told you about a secret meeting, it wouldn’t be a secret anymore.

QUESTION: Well, I know, but generally he doesn’t like to keep those things secret, right?

MS ORTAGUS: Maybe.  The Iranians —

QUESTION: So in other words, it’s still possible, is what you’re saying?

MS ORTAGUS: The Iranians are the ones that (inaudible) on the meeting, not the United States, right? It’s the Iranians that conducted the unprecedented attack last week, and it’s the Iranians that are turning down the meeting.  They’re meeting our diplomacy at every turn with kinetic action.

QUESTION: They were, though – there was some suspicion that Macron might shuttle between the two of them.

MS ORTAGUS: I’m sure he’ll try.

QUESTION: Can I ask —

MS ORTAGUS: Well, let’s finish.

QUESTION: I’m done.

MS ORTAGUS: Nick.

QUESTION: On the E3 statement yesterday, can you talk about the degree to which that was a surprise? Had there been a sort of roadshow where you were going between capitals to lay out the evidence? And was – talk about the diplomatic groundwork that went into this.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHENKER: Yeah.  No, absolutely.  Listen, the statement was great.  We really appreciate that our – that our allies in the E3 have come forward and recognized publicly the truth.

This did not come as a major surprise.  The Brits and the French are on the ground with us, with the Saudis and the UN, part of an investigative team in Saudi Arabia.  We have been transparent in terms of chain of custody, et cetera, of all the equipment that we now have from the attack, and we’re exploiting it together.  Even before we have finished this investigation – and it will take some time – the evidence as it’s emerging is incontrovertible.  So we’re pleased that they came forward and said this.

QUESTION: Do you have any expectation on how long the UN investigation is going to take?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHENKER: No idea.

QUESTION: And it is going on in parallel with yours?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHENKER: We are working together on the ground in Saudi Arabia.

MS ORTAGUS: Yeah, I mean, I think it’s important to note that there is a lot of – a lot of people around the world, former administration officials from the Obama administration, lots of the twitter glitterati, who criticized Secretary Pompeo for doing this, for saying that it was Iran over a week ago.

So it was important for the E3 to come out and to say this.  And not only say this; I think it was very encouraging to hear what the E3 had to say about looking towards a – these are my words, but what I interpreted them to say is a new and better deal.  They talked about the fact that they needed to negotiate a longer timeline on nuclear weapons, on missile production, on the malign behavior in the region.

And it’s important to remember that these are the things that this administration has been pushing on for the past year and a half. This was a – we consider this a massive diplomatic win for the Trump administration yesterday.  This is where we wanted our European allies to get to this place with us for the past year and a half.

And I think clearly, the Iranians overplayed their hand in the attacks, and it was sort of an interesting turn of events to see that the Iranians themselves were the ones that forced the Europeans to the place that they are now with us, where they understand the position that we’ve been in for the past year and a half.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHENKER: And if you go back just a matter of months, we didn’t have this type of reaction after the Fujairah attacks, where we had also, I think, extremely compelling evidence, including videotape of Iranians removing limpet mines from ships in the Gulf that they had planted that didn’t explode.  This to us was a smoking gun.  I don’t think all our allies were ready to accept that, so there’s, I think, an important progression here.

QUESTION: Pakistan is saying that President Trump has asked Imran Khan to mediate between Iran and —

MS ORTAGUS: This is NEA.  This isn’t SCA.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHENKER: Yeah, I don’t –

QUESTION: Yeah, but it’s about Iran.

MS ORTAGUS: Yeah.

QUESTION: To mediate with – between the U.S. and Iran.  I think it’s NEA.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHENKER: Well, I have no —

QUESTION: Can you confirm that and what the scope and the purpose?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHENKER: I can’t confirm it.  I can’t confirm it.

MS ORTAGUS: Sorry, I don’t know your name.

QUESTION: Humeyra from Reuters.

MS ORTAGUS: Humeyra, I’m sorry.  Yes, thank you.  Sorry.

QUESTION: No worries.  First question: Are you on the record as well?

MS ORTAGUS: Sure.  Why not?

QUESTION: Okay, yeah.

MS ORTAGUS: I’m on the record every time you see me.

QUESTION: Yeah.  The second one is yesterday Brian Hook said the pressure on Iran will intensify, but President Trump and Secretary Pompeo also said that they don’t want war.  So what’s your next step?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHENKER: Listen, there has been a progression of escalatory steps taken by the Iranians as a result of their reaction to the maximum pressure campaign, this – starting off with deciding to go nuclear, again to start reprocessing – enriching, sorry – upping the tempo of Houthi operations in Yemen, threatening us in Iraq, scuttling boats in the Persian Gulf, shooting down U.S. UAVs in international airspace.

After every one of these steps, the President reacted with enormous strategic patience and the U.S. Government took steps to increase sanctions against Iran.  The Iranians clearly are frustrated.  The pressure campaign is working.  There will be something like double-digit negative growth in Iran.  And so they felt necessary that – it seems that they felt it necessary to even further change the dynamic and then up the ante by doing a direct attack against Saudi Arabia.

These things go in parallel.  We are going to increase pressure on Iran.  We want to bring them to the table to get a better deal on nuclear and a deal that encompasses ballistic missiles and change in Iran’s malign, destabilizing, reckless behavior.  We hope they will engage in dialogue with us on this and negotiations so it can reach that end, but that pressure will continue.  We hope and we expect that the Iranians will not continue to attack their neighbors in violation of the UN Charter Chapter 4.

MS ORTAGUS: Yeah, I think, Humeyra, it’s – anyone who’s been watching the Iranians knows that this is their playbook, right? They attack, they provoke.  There’s at least 40 attacks since May that all of you in the media have documented.  We know about double of that – some of them failed attacks.

So we have – I’ve talked about from the podium how we were not going to be susceptible to the sort of nuclear blackmail that Iran had been threatening.  They’ve been threatening; they’ve been attacking.  They thought that this would get them in the better position, and I think this week they are now seeing the winds of the world sort of coming back against them for their normal playbook of tricks.  It’s not working anymore.  They were caught red-handed, and we’re very grateful to our allies for recognizing this, speaking out about it. It’s important to speak out about it.

Lara.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHENKER: So Iranian behavior is bringing us closer with our – to our European allies.

MS ORTAGUS: Yeah, go figure.

Lara.

QUESTION: So the embassy Baghdad was shelled again today.  Can you tell us what – who appears to have been behind it this time and what moves the State Department is planning to take to protect the people there?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHENKER: Yeah.  In the past, we’ve – we believe that these are some of the militias that are allied with Iran, Iranian proxy militias.  I don’t have any information on this particular attack.  Fortunately, no Americans were killed or injured.

QUESTION: And the Iranian militias, the proxy militias, do you mean those that are supported by the Government of Iraq or ones like Asa’ib al-Haq (inaudible) or —

ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHENKER: Yeah, I don’t want to get into which ones exactly.

QUESTION: I mean, it’s an important distinction, right? I mean —

ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHENKER: I’m referring to Iranian-backed militia.

QUESTION: For the GCC meeting, are the Qataris coming?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHENKER: Do we have – I believe they are, but let me get back to you.

QUESTION: And that’s – it would be a pretty big breakthrough in terms of getting – assuming this is U.S. goal of getting the GCC countries talking to each other, meeting each other.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHENKER: Well, like I said, I don’t know if they’re going to be there.  I believe they are, but I’ll get back to you.

QUESTION: And what’s the main point to this GCC meeting?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHENKER: We’re talking about MESA.  We’re talking about assessments, regional assessments.  All parties will have an opportunity to speak at the meeting.

QUESTION: Okay.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHENKER: It will be the GCC plus Jordan and Iraq.

QUESTION: Right.  Is there anything on MESA that’s getting close to being a deliverable?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHENKER: There are several states that are involved in several different aspects and pillars of MESA.  We have a lot more work to do.

QUESTION: Well, okay, so there isn’t going to be, like, some kind of grand announcement after today’s meeting?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHENKER: I don’t believe so.

QUESTION: Okay.

QUESTION: Where does the U.S. currently stand on the blockade against Qatar?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHENKER: It’s in a – we believe that the Gulf rift is a distraction from the problems with Iran.  We have been working and continue to work to try and bring Qatar together with the GCC, bring them back in as a member.  It’s difficult, as you might imagine, but we continue to make the effort and to look for inventive ways to try and – to sort of heal some of the raw wounds that are there.

QUESTION: And is that something that kind of goes to second tier importance when you’re dealing with the Saudis right now?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHENKER: It is something that is on the – I can tell you both for the Secretary, for my engagements, for the under secretary, this is something that is on the agenda.

MS ORTAGUS: Yeah.  What’s your name?

QUESTION: My name is Alexey Bogdanovsky.

MS ORTAGUS: Who are you with?

QUESTION: I’m with RIA Novosti, the Russian news agency.  I just wanted to ask you —

MS ORTAGUS: Oh, tell Putin we said hi.

QUESTION: My understanding is that the investigation of the attack on Saudi Arabia is in early stages yet, but do you plan on publishing any evidence as you did with the mine incident that the Iranians allegedly trying to remove the ordnance or something, if you have any evidence about that that can be published (inaudible).

ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHENKER: Yeah, we are looking to lay out the evidence of a clear and compelling narrative.  We are working to declassify intelligence information.  But there is —

MS ORTAGUS: Listen —

ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHENKER: What everybody finds on the ground, this will – we’ll make public everything we can.

MS ORTAGUS: It wasn’t Papua New Guinea, right.  The Secretary has said it’s Iran; the E3 has said it’s Iran.  It wasn’t the Houthis.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHENKER: Was that the direction you’re going in, to suggest that it’s somebody else? Well —

MS ORTAGUS: Yeah, it’s just the Russians.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHENKER: Yeah.

MS ORTAGUS: Okay, who’s next? Yup.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHENKER: Yes.  I’m Kawa (inaudible) from Kurdistan 24.

MS ORTAGUS: Great.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHENKER: Hi.

QUESTION: Hi.  Thank you for this time.  So just yesterday, again as they were threatening the United States, the Iranian proxies in Iraq, they did their push to the Iraqi parliament for finding legislation, asking the United States forces to withdraw from Iraq.  They’ve been trying to do that for a long time.  So they – they sent that thing to the parliament.  To what extent the United States is concerned about this? And how the negotiations or talkings with the Iraqi officials will be here?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHENKER: Listen, this is something that is on the agenda periodically that Iran’s allies in Iraq try and push forward.  The Iraqi Government wants us there and pushes back.  We are, unlike Iran, a stabilizing force in Iraq.  We provide a lot of support to the Iraqi Government, and without our support there would still be ISIS controlling large swaths of territory there.

MS ORTAGUS: Yeah.  Hey, how are you?

QUESTION: My name is —

MS ORTAGUS: Go ahead, no, let him know.

MS ORTAGUS: Oh by the way, the Qatari foreign minister did confirm for the GCC.

MS ORTAGUS: Not tired of winning this week, friends.

QUESTION: It’s all foreign ministers?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHENKER: Yeah.  Yeah, it’s at the foreign —

QUESTION: Does the President plan to come by too?

QUESTION: Sorry, can —

ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHENKER: Yeah, there will – there will be a presidential drop by.

QUESTION: On this question —

MS ORTAGUS: Hold on.  But let him go and then you can be next.

QUESTION: No, no.  Go ahead, go ahead, go ahead.

QUESTION: No, just on this topic, so —

ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHENKER: It’s a ministerial.

QUESTION: Ministerial.  GCC ministerial and Jordan and Iraq, you said?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHENKER: Well, also as you know, the GCC years ago made Jordan an honorary member of the GCC.  And part of the thinking by having Iraq there is – so we really want Iraq to be embraced and integrated once again back into the Gulf.

QUESTION: Thank you.

QUESTION: May I?

MS ORTAGUS: Go.

QUESTION: Hi.  Atsushi Takemoto with Kyodo News.  Iranian President Rouhani said today that he’s ready to make amendment in JCPOA if the U.S. Government lift sanction.  Is there any possibility for the U.S. to remove or —

ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHENKER: We’re negotiating, but we’re not going to drop the pressure.  We are very happy to come to the table and meet with the president of Iran.  That’s great.  But we’re not going to be – have the Iranians set conditions for that.

QUESTION: Is there any precondition to start negotiations?

MS ORTAGUS: All right.  You guys, I’ve answered that 50 times from the podium.

QUESTION: I know.  I know.

MS ORTAGUS: Next.

QUESTION: Thank you.  Julian Pecquet, Al-Monitor.  Has the U.S. formally opened direct talks between the Saudis and the Houthis? And could you talk about your role in these talks?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHENKER: So we have been – I made this announcement maybe two weeks ago in Saudi.  It wasn’t even an announcement.  I said we are, to the extent possible, talking with the Houthis to try and find a mutually agreeable negotiated solution to the conflict in Yemen.  We have been talking to the Houthis for some time and we will continue to do so at increasingly higher levels.  We are interested.  We think that – notwithstanding not having a whole lot of success in the past, we are hopeful and think it’s important that we engage with them.  The Houthis are a significant part of the problem in Yemen, but they necessarily will be part of the solution.

MS ORTAGUS: Okay.  We’re going to —

QUESTION: Just on —

MS ORTAGUS: Wait, let’s —

QUESTION: Have we started formal talks in Oman with the Saudis? Can you talk about —

ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHENKER: Have we, have we?

MS ORTAGUS: Hold on.

QUESTION: Have we started formal talks with the Saudis —

ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHENKER: No, that’s – I don’t know what the Saudis are doing with the Houthis, right.  We saw that there was some announcement about a ceasefire.  I’m not going to comment on where we’re at on that.  But the – I can comment on what we’re doing, and that’s what we’re doing.

QUESTION: Can I just follow up on —

MS ORTAGUS: No.  Hold on.  Do you have anything?

QUESTION: No. I’m good.

MS ORTAGUS: We have one more question.  Is it going to Humeyra or does anyone else have one? Okay.

QUESTION: You said we will – we’re working to declassify intelligence information.  When? And it’s going to be U.S. declassified or Saudi?

MS ORTAGUS: Whenever we put it out.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHENKER: Yeah.  I can’t put a – there’s no timeline on that.

QUESTION: Is it going to be you leading or Saudi leading?

MS ORTAGUS: Whenever we get it out, that’s when it’s out.  Thanks guys.

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