Vedant Patel, Principal Deputy Spokesperson
2:20 p.m. EST
MR PATEL: Good afternoon, everyone. Before we get started, I wanted to offer some comments on the news out of Jerusalem. This event just unfolded before I came down, and we are still gathering information, but the public reporting states that a gunman opened fire near a synagogue in Jerusalem. This is absolutely horrific. Our thoughts, prayers, and condolences go out to those killed and injured in this heinous act of violence. We condemn this apparent terrorist attack in the strongest terms. Our commitment to Israel’s security remains ironclad, and we are in direct touch with our Israeli partners. And our thoughts are with the Israeli people in light of this horrific attack.
With that, Shaun, I don’t know if you want to start us off.
QUESTION: Sure. Can I follow up on that?
MR PATEL: Sure.
QUESTION: The – I know it’s just unfolding. It seems to be quite a few people killed. You said that you’ve been in contact with the Israelis, not you personally but the State Department. What’s the messaging? Is there a sense that this could accelerate the cycle of violence? What’s the sense of what is happening now and what you’re expecting and what you’re fearing in the —
MR PATEL: As it relates to this specific incident, Shaun, we’re just working to unearth as much information as we can, as this just happened. But broadly, of course we’ve been in touch with our Israeli partners on a number of issues over the course of the past days, and I’m sure that we will talk about a lot of these issues or at least the Secretary will in the lead-up to his trip this weekend also.
QUESTION: Can I just —
QUESTION: Can I ask a quick question?
QUESTION: Yeah, go ahead. But just to reframe —
MR PATEL: Go ahead.
QUESTION: Does it affect the Secretary’s —
MR PATEL: I’ll get to you, Said.
QUESTION: Does it affect the Secretary’s trip at all either in terms of – presuming he’s still going ahead —
MR PATEL: I have no changes —
QUESTION: — but in terms of what —
MR PATEL: — in the schedule to announce, and nor would I expect any changes for the trip at this time.
QUESTION: Just – I know you guys are still collecting information, but is there any indication that this shooting is at all related to frustrations that came as a result of the raid that happened in the West Bank earlier this week?
MR PATEL: I don’t want to speculate or get into hypotheticals, Kylie. As I said, this just – this just happened before I came down. And so our thoughts are with the Israeli people. We stand with the Israeli people in solidarity. And we’re working directly with our Israeli partners to assess as much as we can about what happened and continue to offer our direct support.
QUESTION: A follow-up on Kylie’s. Actually, that was —
MR PATEL: Go ahead.
QUESTION: I wanted to ask that question. So you don’t find any connection between the deaths of Palestinians over the past 27 days – 30 Palestinians have been killed and most recently yesterday, which we talked about at length here – you don’t find any connection between these kinds of events? Because if they are related, then we are likely to see more of these incidents. Do you agree with that?
MR PATEL: Said, we have – first, first, I want to reiterate again that this just transpired, and we’re working to unearth as much information as we can. And we’re in direct talks and in close touch with our Israeli partners about that. But broadly Said, I want to be very clear about this, we have been consistent and clear, as recently as yesterday from both myself and Assistant Secretary Barbara Leaf, from Ned earlier in the week, from the Secretary as often as he is asked about this, about condemnation of any kind of violence against civilians and the need broadly – again, not talking specifically about this situation Said because it just happened, but the need broadly for steps to be taken to de-escalate tensions.
QUESTION: But at least generally in theory, you will agree, no doubt, that violence begets violence anywhere, correct?
MR PATEL: Said, of course, we condemn any kind of violence against civilians.
QUESTION: Okay. Let me just – a couple more questions on this issue. It seems there are reports in the Israeli media that Abbas tried with the National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan when he was there last to actually arrange for a meeting with the new prime minister, Netanyahu, and apparently the idea was not either taken seriously in terms of pursuit on behalf of the National Security Advisor with the Israelis. Do you have any information on that?
MR PATEL: What I would say about that, Said, is I would let the White House and the National Security Council comment on any of NSA Sullivan’s trip to Israel and the West Bank. As you saw, they read out that trip pretty extensively.
In regards to the Secretary’s trip, I don’t want to get ahead of that process beyond what we’ve said, but I know that he is looking forward to holding meetings in Jerusalem and Ramallah with senior officials to discuss a range of the key issues that a number of State Department officials, including myself and others, have talked about extensively this week.
QUESTION: And lastly, there is going to be a meeting between Palestinian Americans and the Secretary of State today. Can you give us an update on what are they likely to discuss, how was this meeting arranged and so on, if you have information on that.
MR PATEL: Said, what I – I will speak broadly about this because I don’t want to get ahead of a meeting that has not transpired. But of course, this department engages with members of civil society both as it relates to Palestinian Americans, Jewish Americans, Israeli Americans. We take part in that quite regularly. But I will see if we have a specific update about today’s engagement.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MR PATEL: Anything else on this, Alex, or are we —
QUESTION: In the region, but not necessarily Israel.
MR PATEL: Okay. Let me — go ahead. On the region or —
QUESTION: On the region.
MR PATEL: Okay. I’ll —
QUESTION: On Israel. Israel, actually.
MR PATEL: Okay. Go ahead.
QUESTION: Archbishop Desmond —
MR PATEL: I’ll come to you after that, Alex. Go ahead.
QUESTION: Thank you. Archbishop Desmond Tutu died a year ago – a little over a year ago. His last published article was an admonition to this administration entitled, “Joe Biden should end the U.S. pretense over Israel’s, quote, ‘secret’ nuclear weapons.” “The cover-up has to stop,” read the headline. And with it, he called for the U.S. to use laws to cut off funding to human rights abusers, citing Israel’s oppression of the Palestinians as well as nuclear proliferators.
Tutu, of course, headed the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. He ended the piece, “There are a few truths more critical to face than a nuclear weapons arsenal in the hands of an apartheid government.” Will you here today acknowledge the obvious truth that Israel has a nuclear weapons arsenal, or will you continue with this “cover-up,” as the archbishop referred to it?
MR PATEL: What I will say is that we recognize the very real security challenges facing Israel and the Palestinian Authority and condemn terrorist groups planning and carrying out attacks against innocent civilians. And we also mourn the innocent – loss of innocent lives and regret injuries to civilians. But I don’t have any specific comment to offer on what you asked.
QUESTION: Israel has had nuclear weapons for decades, and you can’t acknowledge that Israel has a nuclear weapons arsenal?
MR PATEL: I’m going to work the room a little. Alex, go ahead.
QUESTION: You expect us to believe what you’re saying from that podium, and you can’t acknowledge the empirical reality of Israel’s nuclear weapons?
MR PATEL: Go ahead, Alex.
QUESTION: My question is about same region, different attack, in Iran against Azerbaijani embassy this morning.
MR PATEL: Sure.
QUESTION: I’ve seen your – well, Ned’s statement on that. Give us – help us a little bit to put it in the context, because this is not the first time the Azeri diplomatic mission is under attack by Iran’s – Iran-related, let’s say, groups. You have spoken behind this podium and you mentioned that Iran is becoming more and more dangerous in the region. Is it getting bolder, more provocative, and is there anything we can learn from this – today’s attacks in terms of Iran’s danger in the region?
MR PATEL: Alex, I want to be very careful about attaching causation or anything like that as it relates to the attack at the Azerbaijani embassy in Tehran, as we are still figuring out exactly what happened, and motive and all of those things still remain to be unearthed. So I want to be very careful about that, Alex.
But broadly, what I want to say is that we express our condolences to the Azerbaijani Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the families of those hurt and killed in the attack of Azerbaijan’s embassy in Tehran. The U.S. condemns any form of violence and is committed to ensuring the safety and security of foreign diplomatic missions.
While, as I said, the details of this incident are still emerging, what we are doing is we are calling on the Iranian authorities to investigate and to hold those responsible for the attack, hold them accountable. We note that Azerbaijani missions in several other countries have also experienced security issues in recent months, and we reiterate our support for the safety and security of all diplomatic missions. We also would remind the Government of Iran of its responsibility under the Geneva Convention to protect foreign diplomats in Iran.
QUESTION: The reason why I’m asking that because we just have learned that DOJ charged three men in murder attempt here in the States. Iran is proving to be capable to even hire Azerbaijani nationals even – not only at home, even abroad, even here in the United States. Do you feel that – do you feel that – I’ll now go back to my first question – that the threat that we are seeing basing from Iran is becoming much more aggressive, much more bolder, and is there any implication to the (inaudible)?
MR PATEL: Alex, we broadly – first on the piece about the Department of Justice, I will let – refer you to the Department of Justice to speak to that. Jake Sullivan from the White House just put out a statement on that as well, and I don’t have anything additional to offer beyond that.
But broadly speaking, we have not parsed our words as it relates to Iran’s deeply destabilizing and deeply malign activities not just in the region but across the world more broadly. We have seen that take form in Ukraine through its provision of UAV technologies to the Russian Federation for them to wreck havoc on Ukrainian infrastructure. We have seen it take form in a number of other instances as well.
So as the United States, we’ll continue to take steps to hold the Iranian regime accountable, to – we’ll do so in close coordination and contact with our allies and partners across the world.
QUESTION: I have two questions on Mexico.
MR PATEL: Sure.
QUESTION: The first one is related to the press release that you, the State Department, put out yesterday about a call between the Secretary and the minister of foreign affairs of Mexico. The press release only said that they dealt with fentanyl and the fight that both countries are dealing against the trafficking of this substance. Can you provide more information on what exactly was discussed – operations, collaboration with China? What exactly was the nature of the conversation?
MR PATEL: I’m certainly not going to get into specific diplomatic discussions and certainly don’t have more to offer beyond the readout of the call that we put out – the Secretary’s opportunity to chat with Foreign Minister Ebrard. What I would say though of course is that addressing fentanyl is a important priority for Secretary Blinken. And of course Mexico is an important partner on a lot of these priorities, not just as it relates to the illicit fentanyl trade but also a number of other priorities between the United States and Mexico as well – security cooperations, trade cooperations. And in addition to of course speaking to Foreign Minister Ebrard about that, the Secretary had the opportunity to discuss some of this in person at the North American Leaders’ Summit earlier as well. But I don’t have anything specific to add beyond that.
QUESTION: And the second question I have is you may be aware that there have been some harassment incidents against tourists in Cancun, which is one of the top ports in the world for American tourists. Do you have any reports of any violence directed specifically to – against American citizens there by taxi drivers?
MR PATEL: I don’t have any specific advice to offer from this podium. But of course any American citizen traveling abroad to any country, we would encourage them to not only enroll in our Smart Traveler program but to make sure to check the State Department’s website for specific guidance as it relates to not just the country that they are visiting broadly – in this case, Mexico – but also a specific region that they might be visiting in that country as well.
QUESTION: Can we stay in the region?
MR PATEL: Sure. Go ahead.
QUESTION: Broadly the region – Latin America.
MR PATEL: Of course.
QUESTION: Peru. President Boluarte today moved ahead elections to 2023. That was of course at least in part a demand of protesters who wanted the elections pushed forward. Does the United States have a view on this step, whether it could help de-escalate tensions? How do you see things going forward in Peru?
MR PATEL: Sure, Shaun. So our understanding was that this was a call as part of a national truce. And we, frankly, support continued efforts for open avenues of dialogue with relevant actors and groups around the country, and we continue to call for calm dialogue and for all parties to exercise restraint and nonviolence. This of course is an internal Peruvian democratic process and one that we support. We support the internal democratic processes of Peru.
QUESTION: Just briefly on that, some of the violence we’ve seen in recent months – I think there have been calls for – from some sides for accountability and that. How do you see the violence in the recent months? Do you think that there’s been enough of an investigation or would you like to see more?
MR PATEL: Well, Shaun, we remain concerned about the violent demonstrations. We also recognize the right of peaceful assembly, and we call for calm and dialogue, as I said. And we also support the Peruvian Government’s commitment to investigate all deaths related to the protests in an effort to ensure that its security forces uphold law and order consistent with human rights and Peruvian laws as well. And we also remain committed to helping Peru strengthen its democratic institutions and will work with regional governments and the Organization of American States to assist Peru in these efforts as well.
QUESTION: Can I do a Syria question?
MR PATEL: Sure, go ahead, Said.
QUESTION: The World Food Program has warned that hunger related to Syria in Syria has reached record levels, and – because of the collapse of the financial and economic system. But it’s also exacerbated by the sanctions imposed by the United States of America, especially the Caesar law or the (inaudible). Are there any plans to lift these laws or these sanctions any time soon in view of what might happen in Syria?
MR PATEL: There are not, Said. The United States, I will say, is the leading donor of humanitarian aid for the Syrian people, including Syrian refugees and their host communities. Our humanitarian aid includes funding for early recovery programs implemented by independent and impartial humanitarian agencies on the basis of need. These programs ensure Syrians in need have more sustainable access to basic services for themselves and their families.
As it relates to sanctions, though, Said, the United States will continue to hold Assad and his regime to account for their atrocities against the Syrian people, some of which amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity. Our sanctions, including the ones under the Caesar Act, as you noted, remain in full force and are an important tool to press for accountability for the Assad regime. We condemn in the strongest possible terms any use of chemical weapons anywhere by anyone under any circumstances.
QUESTION: But these sanctions are really hurting the average Syrian more than anyone. And it may usher in a new wave of refugees leaving the country.
MR PATEL: Said, I don’t want to get into a speculative debate. But what I will say is reiterate that we are the leading donor of humanitarian aid for the Syrian people, and we will continue to use the tools in our arsenal to hold the Assad regime accountable for its actions against the Syrian people.
QUESTION: On Syria?
MR PATEL: I’m going to work the room a little bit. Michele, go ahead.
QUESTION: I have two very different questions, one on Russia. I saw your statement about the closing of the Helsinki Commission or whatever in Russia. And I wanted to know why put that statement out now? What are you guys going to do about that? How can you support Russian civil society in those circumstances?
And then separately on Haiti, I just wonder if you can give us any update on the situation around the airport there and about U.S. personnel.
MR PATEL: First, on your first question, I don’t have anything additional to offer beyond the statement that we put out. But if you’ll give me the opportunity, I will reiterate that in the recent days the Kremlin has struck more blows against independent civil society and media. On January 25th, a Moscow court ruled to close the Moscow Helsinki Group, Russia’s oldest human rights organization and something that was the inspiration for citizens’ groups monitoring human rights in the Europe/Eurasia region and around the world. This crackdown on independent civil society and media creates a climate of impunity that enables the Kremlin’s aggression against its neighbors. And can you repeat your question about Haiti?
QUESTION: I just wanted to know if you – if the situation has eased around the airport, if there are any U.S. officials still in Haiti, because I understand that the situation around the airport forced them to move some of their meetings yesterday.
MR PATEL: So we remain deeply concerned by the ongoing lawlessness associated with armed gangs and condemn, in the strongest terms, the violent gang activity that led to the death of several members of the Haitian National Police on January 20th and January 25th. As it relates to U.S. officials, a group of U.S. Government officials who were in Haiti for a previously scheduled visit moved the location of some of their scheduled meetings out of an abundance for caution before continuing with their schedule.
We have accounted for all U.S. personnel. We understand that the airport is functioning normally and airlines are operating normally scheduled flights. The Haitian National Police continue to fully cooperate with us and maintain their presence around the U.S. embassy and housing compounds as well.
QUESTION: And any status of Henry, the prime – the leader of – or de facto leader of Haiti?
MR PATEL: I will refer you to the Haitian authorities to speak about that.
QUESTION: Can I ask about semiconductor export control, Netherlands and Japan?
MR PATEL: Sure, go ahead.
QUESTION: I think along with the United States, Japan and Netherlands are planning to agree on new Chinese semiconductor declarations. What is your reaction, or do you have anything for this new agreement?
MR PATEL: I will let those two countries speak specifically to their own announcements that they’ve announced today. Both Japan and the Netherlands are important partners to the United States on a number of issues, including in the trade and technology space as well. But I will let them speak to this specific announcement today.
QUESTION: Thank you.
Go ahead, Alex.
QUESTION: Thank you. A couple questions on Ukraine and Russia.
MR PATEL: Yeah.
MR PATEL: Can you repeat the first part?
QUESTION: The blast that – explosions that IAEA reported near Zaporizhzhia power plant.
MR PATEL: Sure. So I have not seen that reporting, Alex. We of course continue to monitor very closely the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant. I’ve said this a number of times from this podium, and I will say it again: Any kind of violent and volatile activity close to a nuclear power plant is not only reckless, it is unsafe. But I don’t have any specifics on this to offer.
QUESTION: That’s fair. Thank you so much.
MR PATEL: Yeah.
QUESTION: On Wagner, we have seen congressional legislation – the HARM Act was introduced recently on Wednesday, actually, urging the administration to go even further with a FTO designation, which will provide you with more tools. Is there any change on your end? I know we have discussed it before, but I’m just wondering, given this latest development, if you are reconsidering your position.
MR PATEL: I have no updates or change or new policy to offer, Alex, beyond what was announced earlier this week as it relates to the Wagner Group. But I think an important perspective to have as it relates to this conversation is: What are the tangible impacts of the designations and the actions that we undertake, and what impact are they having on the group’s ability to operate? And I think we were very clear about that earlier this week when we announced these new package of sanctions.
To reiterate, we, along with Treasury, took actions against individuals and entities linked to the Kremlin-backed paramilitary group and its head, Mr. Prigozhin. This action supports our ultimate goal, which is to degrade Moscow’s capacity to wage war against Ukraine, to promote accountability for those responsible for Russia’s war of aggression and associated abuses, and to place further pressure on Russia’s defense sector.
QUESTION: And last, this is on behalf of my colleagues in Spain, in Madrid at La Razón. They’re asking – as you know, Spanish police recently arrested a man involved into their bomb case last year. There were speculations that Russian GRU was behind it, but the police didn’t mention anything based on his early comments of Russian involvement. I’m just wondering if there’s any back-and-forth, any communication between you guys and Spanish Government on this. And what is your assessment of the latest —
MR PATEL: I don’t have any specific update to offer on this, Alex, beyond – we mentioned this a little bit earlier in the week. We thank the Spanish authorities and law enforcement for their persistent investigation into this matter and would refer to the Government of Spain for information regarding the information, investigation, and arrest.
QUESTION: But the suspect did mention that he was targeting Spanish Government’s support for Ukraine. I’m just wondering if the department’s concerned that there might be more and more terror attacks through Europe, particularly in the countries that are supporting Ukraine.
MR PATEL: I don’t have any kind of causation or preview to offer as it relates to that.
QUESTION: Thank you.
QUESTION: On the Russian embassy.
MR PATEL: Can I come back – I’ll come back to you right after that, okay?
QUESTION: So – yeah, so Russia.
MR PATEL: Go ahead.
QUESTION: Back to Israel. The Israeli author Miko Peled, author of The General’s Son, has talked about the U.S. – the Israeli context as on the one hand you have Netanyahu, who will not acknowledge that Israel drove out Palestinians in 1948; and now you have people on the right wing in Israel calling for another expulsion of Palestinians that Netanyahu claims never happened. Will you call on Israel to acknowledge the past expulsions and condemn the Israeli right wing, which is calling for other expulsions?
MR PATEL: What I would say is I would echo what Secretary Blinken has said a number of times in that our engagement with the new Israeli Government will be rooted in the policies it pursues, not in personalities. And I don’t have anything else to offer on this right —
QUESTION: I’m not talking about personalities.
MR PATEL: I understand.
QUESTION: It doesn’t matter if I like Netanyahu or you like Netanyahu. Israel should acknowledge the past expulsions of Palestinians. You condemn ethnic cleansing in other situations.
MR PATEL: I understand your question and I don’t have any additional comments to offer on that.
QUESTION: Can I have an answer next time?
MR PATEL: Go ahead, Said.
QUESTION: I wanted to ask about the Russian embassy. They issued a statement yesterday calling your sanctions frivolous because they have come – they have become sort of a knee-jerk reaction to everything, and that your naming the deputy prime minister and others as connected to the Wagner Group is ridiculous. Do you have any comment on that?
MR PATEL: What I would say, Said, is if our sanctions were frivolous, then why are we seeing Russian GDP shrink? Why are we seeing Russian – why are we seeing multinational corporations, American ones and others, choose to leave doing business in Russia? Why are we seeing Russia further isolated than ever before because of its unlawful and its unjust aggression in Ukraine and its very blatant infringement on Ukrainian territorial integrity and sovereignty?
QUESTION: All right.
MR PATEL: All right, everybody. Thank you today. Thanks.
(The briefing was concluded at 2:46 p.m.)