Briefing with Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs David Schenker, at the Department of State, December 6, 2019.
[Reporter] This morning.
[Matt] Welcome back!
Thank you, happy holidays. I’m your Christmas present. Okay, good morning, afternoon.
[Matt] You’re kinda dressed as.
I know, and the shoes.
Thank you for joining us for this important briefing. With us today is Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs David Schenker. He’ll be addressing the protests in Iraq and announcing the designation of individuals under the Global Magnitsky Act. Assistant Secretary Schenker will begin with some opening remarks, and then we will take a few questions. David.
Thanks, Morgan. Good afternoon. Today the United States is sanctioning three Iraqis for their involvement in the brutal crackdown on peaceful protesters in Iraq, and a fourth for corruption and bribery. Treasury designated Qais al-Khazali, Laith al-Khazali, Husayn Falih ‘Aziz al-Lami, pursuant to Executive Order 13818 for their involvement in serious human rights abuses in Iraq. Additionally, OFAC designated politician Khamis Farhan al-Khanjar al-Issawi for bribing government officials and engaging in widespread corruption at the expense of the Iraqi people. According to the UN, over 400 Iraqis have been killed while protesting for better governance and a brighter future. For several months, the Iraqi people have led a patriotic quest for genuine reform and transparency in government. They have gone to the streets to raise their voices for a just government with leaders who will put Iraq’s national interests first. Frankly, without that commitment from Iraq’s political leaders, it makes little difference who they designate as prime minister. As I said last week, Iraqis are fed up with economic stagnation, endemic corruption, and mismanagement. They want better from their leaders, and they want accountability. Iraqis are also demanding their country back. Three of today’s designees, al-Lami, Qais al-Khazali and Laith al-Khazali, were directed by Iranian regime when they or the armed groups they lead committed serious human rights abuses. Iraqis have paid a steep and bloody price for the malign influence of Iranian regime. Tehran claims it is exporting revolution. It is increasingly clear to us and the people of the region, however, that the theocracy’s top export is corruption and repression. As for Khamis al-Khanjar, he’s wielded significant political influence through the bribery of Iraqi political figures. The Iraqi people are protesting corruption of this very sort. The U.S. Government continues to support Iraq’s security, stability, and sovereignty. As the Secretary has said on many occasions, we are a force for good. We are the largest donor of humanitarian, stabilization, demining, and security assistance to Iraq, and we want to maintain and expand that role to include helping with economic reform to create jobs for Iraqis and Americans alike. We offer an unparalleled partnership for the Iraqi people, but we need to see Iraqi leaders committed to that partnership, equally committed to that partnership. With that, I’ll now take some questions.
just, so when the Secretary and you have, in the past, over the past couple weeks, warned that Iraqi officials themselves, not only militia leaders or politicians, but actual government officials, could be subjected to sanctions for their actions, why not take that step today?
Well, thanks, Matt. Listen, GLOMAG in particular has a very high evidentiary standard. They take a long time to put together packages. If you want to know all the details and how long they take in particular, we’ve got Marshall Billingslea sitting over here somewhere. Where is he?
Over here, from Treasury. He’s gonna, we’re gonna answer some questions.
[Matt] You let him in the building?
[Morgan] It’s Friday.
But we’re not done. This is an ongoing process. We’re, these designations don’t prejudice future announcements—
[Matt] No, I’m not suggesting—
And we will be doing further designations in the future, which I can’t comment on right now.
Well, does your, does that answer mean that you just haven’t compiled enough evidence against actual official, government officials?
I’m not gonna say which ones that we’re working on or we’re not working—
[Matt] No, no, I’m not asking for names, but is that still in the works? And do you still, do you put out the same warning to them that if this continues, they’re going to get—
Yeah, so if you are a gross violator of human rights, if you are perpetrating violence against protesters, regardless of whether you are in the government or outside the government, you’re at risk of being designated, absolutely.
How are you?
Good to see you, David. So some people say, well, three of these people that you have listed are in militias that belong to Asaib Ahl al-Haq, I believe?
Some people will say, what is the effect of these sanctions? These guys don’t have bank accounts in the U.S., they don’t travel to the U.S., so it’s just symbolic sanctions. So how do you respond to that?
Well, we are holding these people to account. When possible, we’re going after the assets. Regardless of whether the Iraqi Government holds these people to account, we are holding them to account in the ways that we can. And there is an impact, but it is first and foremost symbolic, but in many cases also has a financial impact on the ability of these people to travel and do business elsewhere.
Would you also, sorry, would you also hold the Iraqi Government officials who deal with them accountable? Will they be also under sanction if they deal with them directly, with—
I’m gonna defer to Marshall on that. My belief is yes.
[Morgan] We’ll follow up. We’ll get that answer for you. Francesco.
How worried are you about Iran, Iran’s involvement in the negotiations for the formation of the new government in Baghdad, and will you be ready to work with any prime minister if he’s, you feel he’s too close to Iran?
Well, okay, there’s two parts to that question. Listen, the United States Government will work with anyone in the Iraqi Government who is willing to put Iraqi interests first. Right, this is a sine qua non. But we see in the process of establishing a new government or determining who the next prime minister will be that Qasem Soleimani is in Baghdad working this issue. It seems to us that foreign terrorist leaders, or military leaders, should not be meeting with Iraqi political leaders to determine the next premier of Iraq, and this is exactly what the Secretary says about being perhaps the textbook example of why Iran does not behave and is not a normal state. This is not normal. This is not reasonable. This is unorthodox and it is incredibly problematic, and it is a huge violation of Iraqi sovereignty.
Thank you for this. Over the past couple of days, there has been some reports about Pentagon officials citing fresh intelligence about maybe potential new aggression from Iran. Do you have similar intelligence? What targeted and specific and new steps would you be taking to counter that to avoid another Abqaiq?
Listen, there’s a couple of different reports coming out about Iran. There’s been great attention lately being paid to these reports about Iranian ballistic missiles being stored in Iraq. This is something that actually Secretary Pompeo tweeted about in 2018, and something that I have said for the past four or five months on the record and on background to the bullpen and elsewhere, to all of you. And I think this is drawing greater attention particularly as Iranian-backed militias are now shelling Iraqi bases with American and Anti-ISIS Coalition forces on them, Balad, al-Asad, et cetera. So this is something of great concern. The Iranians oftentimes, or have certainly in the past taken aggressive action when they feel under pressure. We see that in the response to, for example, the maximum pressure campaign working over the months. The past five, six months, Iran has become increasingly more aggressive. There is a trajectory, right, where they have first increased the operational tempo of the Houthis against the Saudis, then raised the rhetoric and the temperature in Iraq against U.S. personnel, moving on from there scuttling boats in Fujairah, then kidnapping boats, then shooting down U.S. drones in international airspace, and most recently Abqaiq, targeting directly with their own missiles Saudi oil facilities.
There, sorry, so you can confirm that attack on Balad? Is that what, you just mentioned, I just want to make sure.
An attack on Balad occurred.
[Matt] There’s one that was just reported I guess overnight.
An attack occurred, what would I—
[Matt] I mean, you mentioned it.
I’d say that we’re waiting for full evidence, but—
[Matt] All right.
If past is any, if past is prologue, I’d say there’s a good chance it was Iran that’s behind it.
And then you seem to suggest right now that the maximum pressure campaign is a success because it has resulted in greater Iranian aggression and shooting down U.S. drones.
Maybe that’s what you inferred.
[Matt] No, no, no, that’s, that’s, well, no, that’s I think the way—
The pressure campaign is working. They are clearly under fear and pressure, and then they are lashing out. They are also—
[Matt] Yeah, but if that’s a success, I mean—
They’re also having double-digit negative growth.
[Matt] Fair enough.
The people in the streets are protesting against the regime for its corruption and for its economic mismanagement—
[Matt] Yeah, but surely there’s—
For spending all the money of the Iranian people on militias abroad, like in—
Surely the metric, surely the metric for the success of U.S. policy, foreign policy anywhere, not just with Iran, is that the country, the other country is less aggressive and less likely to shoot down U.S. drones or attack U.S. bases or threaten—
There is, no, Matt, there’s, to be fair, there, things sometimes get worse before they get better in those terms.
Thank you. Thank you, sir. Should the United States take some blame for the current situation in Iraq? I mean, after all, Qais al-Khazali, Laith al-Khazali, al-Lami, Asaib Ahl al-Haq, al-Hashd Shaabi, they were all, they have been there for a very long, long time. In fact, they were, they flourished during the years of the occupation and sometimes cooperating with the Americans and so on. That’s one, and second, would you support, let’s say, redrafting another constitution, because this constitution is really what thrusted Iraq to where it is today, thank you.
Yeah, thank you. So I’m not gonna weigh in about whether we should take blame for Qais al-Khazali or Laith al-Khazali. These people were there. They’re indigenous to Iran. They existed, U.S. Forces did not kill them. We tried to work with whoever we could work with at the time. That said, whether Iraq should have a new constitution, this is up to the people of Iraq. I can tell you right now they are working on a new electoral law. They are working on developing an independent electoral commission. But yeah, they certainly need reforms. The politicians, many of the people on the council of representatives, Iraqi people say that they are not accountable to their constituents. And I don’t know what the solution is for that, but the Iraqi people, I think, want some significant reform, both economic reform, fight against corruption, and in terms of their political system.
Yes. Yesterday in a briefing, a senior official said “Iraq is limited in what they can do “in terms of sovereignty.” How you are planning to help them? What is the U.S. strategy, just only sanctions?
We’re doing sanctions. We’re working to help Iraq Government strengthen institutions. We are encouraging neighbors not to meddle and undermine these institutions within the country and to corrupt politicians. So we are doing what we can. We are 5,000 miles away. We are the leading provider of foreign assistance to Iraq, and we work very closely with the Iraqi Government. But as Adil Abdul-Mahdi has said, “Iran is our neighbor, the United States is our friend.” I believe we are a force of good there, but we are also 5,000 miles away. We are helping fight ISIS in Iraq, and we are helping to build a capable security apparatus, and we are trying to hold accountable those who are killing protesters, inciting violence, and undermining the basic rights of the Iraqi people. At the same time, we are helping the Iraqi people by doing things that the Iraqi people are demanding that their government has not been successful with. We have, over the past four months, I believe, rehabilitated some 500 schools, 100-plus hospitals, 50 water treatment facilities. That’s over, sorry, over the past four years. So we are doing things that create a better environment for the government to be able to handle difficult problems.
Thanks. The sanctions against the three people who are linked to Iranian-backed militias, I’m wondering if the State Department is also considering sanctions or Treasury considering sanctions against the sovereign government forces of Iraq that have cracked down on the Iraqi people. And secondly, I just want to clarify something. When you’re talking about the maximum pressure campaign and how that has spawned more aggressive actions by Iran, would you include its crackdown on its own people? Is the maximum pressure campaign a driver for these protests in Iran?
Well, I’ll start with Iran. Listen, I think that the sanctions have put additional pressure on the Iranian Government financially, forcing it to make more difficult choices, and so maybe this has brought into clearer relief for the Iranian people just how corrupt and I think callous their leadership is to the needs of the Iranian people, that they would be prioritizing at a higher level, for example, sending missiles to the Houthis or backing the Assad regime in Syria or funding Hizballah to several hundred, $700 million a year perhaps rather than providing basic services to their own people. So I think this has exacerbated an already frustrated situation for an already frustrated people. As for whether the United States Government will sanction the institution of the security forces in Iraq, we don’t comment on things like that.
Or its leaders?
Individuals, like I said, if we can ascertain who they are, certainly they would be something that would be well within the purview of our legal authorities.
[Morgan] Okay, we’ll do one more. Go ahead.
Thank you. Ahmed of Voice of America Persian Service. My question is about Iran, mentioned one too many times here.
Do you have any, I mean, can the State Department verify any number of death tolls in Iran? Is it around couple of hundreds, is it 1,000? And my second question is that—
[David] Did Brian Hook say that yesterday?
[Morgan] He talked about it yesterday, yeah.
I think it’s hundreds.
[Morgan] Do you have something that Brian, a question about something Brian didn’t brief yesterday, something related to today?
Yes, yeah, more or less, so.
[Matt] I have something.
No, you’re done for today.
So this is, December is a month that the U.S. would be the rotating head of the United Nations Security Council.
[David] Yes, yes.
Would you take this opportunity to exert any kind of pressure on the regime in Iran, especially the United Nations Security Council Resolution 2231? On October next year it’s coming to an end, and there are two issues there: Iran can buy arms, and also Qasem Soleimani will be released of his restriction to travel.
Yeah, listen, the Soleimani UNSCR that banning, bans his travel is, obviously we consider this to be a very important resolution. Likewise, the Secretary has spoken many times publicly about Iran’s problematic behavior and how much worse it would be in some, I don’t know, what is it, 12 months from now, when Iran can, according to the UN could, when the ban or the limitation on their export, arms export stops. So yeah, it would be something that I’m sure that USUN is looking at and would be a priority for us.
[Morgan] I think Kelly Craft did a press conference today, so you might want to check, I think it was today.
Yeah. So you might want to check her. She might be talking about this, yeah.
Yeah, yeah, was there anything else I missed on—
[Ahmed] You don’t have the, any figures that, I’m sorry, the State Department can state and verify?
Oh, the figures. Yeah, no, I, it was, I think it was in the, I don’t know if we verified them. I think the figure that is generally being bandied about is in the low hundreds.
To a, yeah, we don’t—
But we really don’t know.
Can, you probably won’t have an answer to this, but the House, can you take this question if you don’t have an answer? The House just passed a legislation opposing settlements, Israeli settlements, and also—
[Morgan] That’s a big surprise. No, we can’t take the question.
Why not? And also saying that Israel should not be allowed to annex the Jordan Valley. So since the Secretary just met with Prime Minister Netanyahu and you were there, presumably, right? Both of you.
Well, it was actually, it was a four eyes meeting, but I did talk to the Secretary—
Meaning it was the two of them. It was a one-on-one.
Yeah, sorry, I can tell you that—
Oh, oh, oh, oh. Sorry, I thought you were being—
So I can tell you that there’s—
[Matt] I thought we were going back to the schoolyard insult.
Sorry, yeah, no, no, no. So it was a one-on-one, but I can tell you I spoke with the Secretary. I can tell you that there was no annexation plan, full or partial, for any part of the West Bank was presented to, by Israel to the United States during the meeting, and that has long been the U.S. Government position, that the ultimate disposition of territory is to be determined between the parties.
Okay. Well, could you find out, Morgan, or could you from your bureau people whether there is any response to the bill that just passed the House?
To the House?
The House of Representatives.
Yeah, yeah, thank you, I figured that.
[Matt] Well, (laughs) thanks.
Okay, happy holidays, everybody. Did you get the holiday invitation?
They just haven’t checked their email.
Did David get one too?
I didn’t get one!
Is there gonna be alcohol?
Hey! (laughs) Morgan, Morgan.