12:56 p.m. EDT
MR. RATHKE: So I just have one thing to mention at the start. As you all know, Secretary Kerry is traveling in Lausanne, Switzerland. He is accompanied by the U.S. Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz; also Under Secretary for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman; NSC Senior Director for Iran, Iraq, and the Gulf States Rob Malley; Chief of Staff Jon Finer; and Marie Harf, Deputy Spokesperson. Secretary Kerry met with Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif one-on-one, as well as with Secretary Moniz and Dr. Saleh on the Iranian side; and from the EU side, Helga Schmid is there representing them. So that’s my only update at the start.
Brad, I’ll turn it over to you.
QUESTION: Can we start with Yemen?
MR. RATHKE: Sure.
QUESTION: Can you explain what’s changed in the last 24 hours for U.S. policy? I think yesterday you were still talking about the dialogue efforts and mediation approaches, and now the U.S. is supporting what by all accounts is an active military intervention by Saudi Arabia and others.
MR. RATHKE: Sure. Well, let me just, for those who haven’t seen it, you’ve – there was an announcement last night by the Saudi Ambassador to the United States Adel Jubeir – announcement from Saudi Arabia that Saudi Arabia and GCC states and others undertook military action to defend Saudi Arabia’s border and to protect Yemen’s legitimate government, and they’re taking this action at the request of Yemini President Hadi.
Now, I’ll come to your question in one second, but one additional bit of information that is probably of interest – Secretary Kerry spoke by conference call this morning with the GCC foreign ministers about the situation in Yemen. He commended the work of the coalition taking military action against the Houthis, and noted the United States support for those coalition efforts, including intelligence sharing, targeting assistance, and advisory and logistical support for strikes against Houthi targets. The ministers all expressed their support for political negotiations as the best way to resolve the crisis, but they also noted that it is the Houthis who have instead waged a military campaign. And they all agreed to stay in close contact going forward.
So that’s a somewhat roundabout way of coming to you question, but I think, Brad, the – we still believe that there is no purely military solution to the situation in Yemen. And we, along with the GCC ministers whom the Secretary spoke to today, support political negotiations as the best way to resolve the crisis. However, we also understand the Saudis’ concerns, especially given the Houthis’ failure to engage meaningfully in the political dialogue process. And so in that regard, we understand and we support the action that they’ve taken.
QUESTION: So what changed that led you to announce last night that you were supporting this military campaign? Was it the rapid advance of the Houthis that led you to reassess?
MR. RATHKE: Well, this was – this is a Saudi-led and Saudi-organized coalition. So as far as the reasoning behind the particular timing on their side, we would refer you to them and to their partners. But we’ve certainly been in discussions with our Saudi partners over recent days. We’re well aware of their concerns. And so when they reached the point that they decided to take this action, in our consultations with them, we decided to be supportive in the ways that we’ve outlined – through some logistical and intelligence support and so forth.
QUESTION: So essentially you were waiting for them to make the move, and then you would support it?
MR. RATHKE: Well, this is a decision that they’ve taken and the Saudis are in the lead.
QUESTION: That’s fine.
MR. RATHKE: Yeah.
QUESTION: Okay. And then you said there is no purely military solution, but I guess now you believe there are at least military tactics that could lead to a non-military solution? I mean, obviously you wouldn’t be supporting this if you thought it wouldn’t help get to the solution you want, right?
MR. RATHKE: Well, our goal is political negotiations, as we’ve – as we and the international community and the UN Security Council have been supporting and trying to promote for quite some time.
QUESTION: You feel this military action will lead you closer to these political negotiations?
MR. RATHKE: Well, we would refer you back to the statement that the Saudis have made. They have their own concerns about security —
QUESTION: I’m not asking —
MR. RATHKE: — on their border, as well as the situation inside Yemen.
QUESTION: That’s fine.
MR. RATHKE: So we’re hopeful that it will lead to that.
QUESTION: That’s not a question for the Saudis. You have a stated goal in Yemen, and now you have a policy that you’re supporting a military intervention. Do you feel this military intervention will achieve your stated goal, and if – or at least help toward that? And if you don’t, that’s – raises questions.
MR. RATHKE: Well, again, we understand the Saudis’ concerns. We understand the threat that they perceive on their border to which they are responding. So – and we’re supportive of their efforts to address that. Our ultimate goal remains a political negotiation process.
QUESTION: And just one last time: So you can’t say that you think this will help in any way to achieve your ultimate goal?
MR. RATHKE: Well —
QUESTION: Which would beg the question: Why are you then supporting it?
MR. RATHKE: Well, I’m not going to – I can’t predict what the response is going to be —
QUESTION: I’m not asking you to predict. I’m just —
MR. RATHKE: — to the Saudis’ actions. But yes, we see this as consistent with our goal. We wish that there were a political negotiation – a meaningful political negotiation process happening now, but the Houthis have not engaged in one.
QUESTION: Jeff, isn’t the fact that you are supporting this military action – that you are really taking sides in this fight? I mean, you no longer, at least on practical – just to follow on Brad’s question —
MR. RATHKE: Right.
QUESTION: — you’re not following that the best solution is a political solution. In fact, you are taking sides, or your allies are taking sides, in basically a sectarian civil war.
MR. RATHKE: Well, no. We’ve said all along that President Hadi remains the legitimate authority in Yemen and so don’t see that as having changed.
QUESTION: Now, do you believe that Saudi Arabia borders were threatened? Do you believe that the Houthis were actually on their way to the Saudi border and therefore this is a defensive action and not an offensive action?
MR. RATHKE: Well, again, I think the Saudis have spoken to the concerns they’ve had about threatening activity by the Houthis, and we understand those concerns.
QUESTION: Yeah, but the statement coming out of Washington is very strong in support of the Saudi and the Gulf – the GCC and Jordan – countries. I mean, we can see almost an entrenchment of Sunni countries waging a war against what are perceived to be a Shia militia in Yemen.
MR. RATHKE: Well, I’m sorry, what’s your question?
QUESTION: My question is that you are taking sides in this civil war that is basically between Sunnis and Shias.
MR. RATHKE: Again, we – there has been a – there have been efforts at dialogue for a long time. We support President Hadi, who – indeed, who came into office as a result of a dialogue process that was supported by the international community. And the Houthis have been trying to seize power by force, and it’s that and the threats the Saudis have perceived that they have – has led them to respond.
Justin, your question.
QUESTION: Sorry, didn’t mean to step on you there.
MR. RATHKE: No, that’s okay.
QUESTION: Is he in Riyadh today?
MR. RATHKE: Who?
MR. RATHKE: I don’t have an update on his whereabouts. We understand he’s outside the country, but I don’t have any specifics to offer about his precise whereabouts.
QUESTION: Has anyone spoken to him since yesterday?
MR. RATHKE: We don’t have any new contact to readout. Of course, we remain in contact broadly, but not – we don’t have any contact to read out with Hadi.
QUESTION: Yesterday Jen said that she would seek a fuller readout of that conversation, including – I think one of the questions were who spoke with him, what did they speak about. Do you have anything on that?
MR. RATHKE: I don’t have that detail. I apologize.
MR. RATHKE: We’ll get that.
QUESTION: Is this an issue about his safety, or is it that you just don’t know? What’s the deal? Like, why can’t we say he’s – it’s being reported that he’s in Riyadh. What’s the problem with just sort of revealing that?
MR. RATHKE: Mm-hmm. Well, again, we’re aware there are reports out there. We don’t – we’re not able to confirm those reports, so I’m not going to give information that I’m not certain of.
QUESTION: And then just to go back to Said’s question, this notion that the Saudi borders were in danger or the Saudis were concerned about destabilizing activity on its border – I mean, it seemed to me the Houthis have been in the north of Yemen for hundreds of years, and they are moving south now. So how does that necessarily threaten the border on the north with – I mean, the Houthis have always been on their border, and their action has been to push southward.
MR. RATHKE: Well —
QUESTION: So if you look at a map, it’s hard to understand that. Maybe you can explain.
MR. RATHKE: Well, there have been reports as well about Houthi military activity in the region of the border. I’m not in a position to confirm that, but simply to highlight that while, yes, the Houthis have been in the north, I think it’s relevant that there are also reports of military activity near the border with Saudi Arabia.
QUESTION: That’s inside Yemen.
MR. RATHKE: Mm-hmm. Yes.
QUESTION: So what – how does that necessarily compel a Saudi Arabian military response?
MR. RATHKE: Well, as to the tactical considerations on the ground, again, refer you to the Saudis for more detail. But the reports of Houthi military activity near the border with Saudi Arabia – there have also been reports of possible rocket fire into Saudi Arabia. I’m not in a position to confirm those, but those are certainly relevant factors that I think our Saudi partners have been responding to.
QUESTION: They’re only relevant if they’re true, and if you’re not confirming them, what – I mean, then they might not be true. If – obviously, if they’re untrue it’s not relevant, correct?
MR. RATHKE: Right. Yes, naturally.
QUESTION: All right.
MR. RATHKE: I don’t have the detail to —
MR. RATHKE: — affirm on behalf of the U.S. Government each of those reports.
Yes, go ahead, Jamie.
QUESTION: Just to follow up, the justification of the U.S. support for this operation in Yemen: We’re not in open conflict with the Houthis, and there’s coups or governments are deposed from time to time around the world. I’m just curious about this specific situation in Yemen, the reason that we are supporting this mission. What is it about this situation in Yemen that is driving the United States to support the actions of the Saudis and —
MR. RATHKE: Well, we have a close partnership with the Saudis, with other countries in the GCC, and clearly this is a situation that they view with concern. It’s also a situation that the United States views with concern. Clearly, as all of you know, I think, there are extremist groups that have designs on attacking the West. I think this is something that Josh Earnest spoke to this morning. And there is certainly the possibility that groups could try to take advantage of chaos in order to advance their goals. So this is also something that has relevance for us in addition to for our partners.
QUESTION: Forgive me if this was already asked, but – or mentioned at the briefing yesterday from the ambassador, but was this decision made in consultation with the U.S. ahead of time? Or was this – I mean, you weren’t first learning about this yesterday, right?
MR. RATHKE: Well, we’ve been in discussions with the Saudis. They’ve made clear their concerns. The decision to take military action was a Saudi decision.
QUESTION: And have there been cross-border attacks by – to Brad’s question, have there been cross-border by the Houthis in Saudi Arabia from Yemen?
MR. RATHKE: Again, I’m not in a position to confirm that. I’m simply saying that there have been reports of that.
Elliot, go ahead.
QUESTION: You have seen reports that Saudi Arabia and Egypt are planning to launch a ground invasion into Yemen. Is that a step that you would support?
MR. RATHKE: I’m not familiar with those reports, so I don’t have a direct comment on them. Again, I think the goal of restoring the legitimate authorities in Yemen is what the Saudis and their partners have outlined. We’re providing logistical and intelligence support to the actions they’ve taken. I’m not going to speculate about further future actions.
QUESTION: Is it fair to say that you’re not drawing a line as to what actions you wouldn’t support in order to achieve that goal?
MR. RATHKE: Well, again, this is a situation that, as far as the action, has begun only over the last less than 24 hours. So we remain in contact with our GCC partners, and that was a key element of the Secretary’s conversation with his counterparts, is that we remain in close contact. So I’m not going to read out every detail of those diplomatic discussions.
MR. RATHKE: Yeah.
QUESTION: You’re aware that there’s a task force on its way now, I mean, steaming towards Aden as we speak, with probably 5,000 troops, Egyptian and other troops going into Yemen. Would you support that effort, just to follow up on (inaudible)?
MR. RATHKE: Again, I’m not in a position to confirm those reports, so I appreciate the observation from your part but I don’t have a response to it.
QUESTION: Okay. There is also reports that the Houthis were able to take – to capture some documents and intelligence material and so on, left behind by the Americans. Can you share anything with us on that?
MR. RATHKE: No, I don’t have any comment on any intelligence-related matters from this podium.
Same topic, Lalit?
MR. RATHKE: Yes.
QUESTION: There are reports that Saudis have requested several other Islamic countries, including Pakistan, to join them in the effort against Yemen. Do you support their move? Also other countries —
MR. RATHKE: Well, I’ll let the countries – I’ll let those countries speak for themselves. We’re certainly aware of the coalition that the Saudis have put together, and I think our support for the Saudis and the coalition has been clear ever since the statement last night.
QUESTION: Would you support other countries joining the coalition?
MR. RATHKE: Well, yes, we – again, the Saudis have organized the coalition, so we let them and the coalition members speak to their participation. But of course, we’re supporting the overall effort.
QUESTION: The timeline of the statement —
MR. RATHKE: Yeah.
QUESTION: — that was issued by the White House, it says that they “will undertake” – I mean, that’s what the statement said, as if it came before the military action was taken.
MR. RATHKE: No, it didn’t. It came – well, it came —
QUESTION: It says “will undertake.”
MR. RATHKE: It came after the announcement by Saudi authorities.
QUESTION: (Inaudible) before.
MR. RATHKE: So I don’t think there’s any question about the chronology.
Any questions on this? Yeah, same topic?
QUESTION: A couple more on Yemen.
MR. RATHKE: Yeah, go ahead, Brad.
QUESTION: Did this come up in – on the sidelines of the Iran talks today?
MR. RATHKE: So the Secretary had, as I mentioned at the start – Secretary Kerry and Secretary Moniz met with their Iranian counterparts. And then following that meeting, the Secretary met one on one with Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif. Secretary Kerry did briefly raise Yemen with his Iranian counterpart, but let me stress this was not and is not the focus of the talks. The focus remains squarely on our and the international community’s concern over the Iran’s nuclear program.
QUESTION: Fair enough. Can you give us just a sense of – the gist of the Secretary’s brief intervention on Yemen – oral intervention on Yemen, if you will?
MR. RATHKE: Well, I’m not going to get into details about it. He raised it briefly, but I’m not going to characterize it further. That was – his conversation with the GCC ministers happened this morning before the Iran meetings got underway, so he was fresh from that conversation as well. But I’m not going to read out further.
QUESTION: And then can you describe any other U.S. efforts, direct or indirect, to convince Iran not to make this a broader proxy war here in Yemen, to not ramp up its assistance to its Shia brethren in response to the Saudi intervention?
MR. RATHKE: Well, I would say, first of all, for starters, I’ve been in touch with our team on the ground in Lausanne, and the situation in Yemen is not having an impact on the talks. So – and naturally, for quite some time we’ve been stressing the importance of a political resolution, a dialogue process in Yemen, and so forth. So our views on that have not changed and they’re well known. We continue to make those points, but I don’t have any – I don’t have a diplomatic sort of game plan to read out right now about that.
QUESTION: I’m just asking if you – if anyone has spoken to the Iranians on this matter to kind of caution them against making the situation more volatile either in – directly or indirectly. And you mentioned Kerry brought it up but you wouldn’t read it out. Maybe —
MR. RATHKE: Yeah.
QUESTION: Some – maybe you’ve spoken to the Omanis who’ve spoken to the Iranians, maybe you’ve spoken to some – I don’t know.
MR. RATHKE: Yeah. I can check if there are other conversations to read out.
QUESTION: Are you doing anything to make sure this doesn’t become a terrible, terrible war that lots of people die in or —
MR. RATHKE: Well, I think it’s fair to say we are in contact with all of our partners in the region to explain our view and to stress the importance of a political resolution to the situation in Yemen. I’ll see if there’s any more detail we’re able to provide, but yes, certainly that’s our goal.
MR. RATHKE: Same topic?
MR. RATHKE: Anything on this —
MR. RATHKE: Hang on just a moment. Pam, go ahead.
QUESTION: Jeff, I have several questions, and if you’ll indulge me, I’ll just give them all to you at one time. You said at the top that the U.S. still considers Hadi the legitimate authority, but is the U.S. considering measures that would enhance diplomatic communications with Houthi leaders? In that the U.S. is concerned about al-Qaida in Yemen, is it looking at ways to reach out more and collaborate more with the Houthis in case Hadi is not able to return?
MR. RATHKE: Is – oh, I thought there were more.
QUESTION: There are more. That —
MR. RATHKE: Oh, okay. (Laughter.) All right. That pause came earlier than I expected. So, yeah. On the question of contacts, we have not had direct contacts with the Houthis. However, I think we’ve spoken to in the past that we have ways to make our views known, and we have consistently called, in a variety of fora, for the Houthis to refrain from violence, to join a peaceful dialogue with all of the parties in Yemen. Again, the goal ultimately is to return Yemen to a peaceful political transition that’s in line with the GCC initiative and the NDC outcomes. But I don’t have more specifics to provide about these channels.
QUESTION: Does the U.S. support for the Saudi-led initiative against the Houthis drag the United States in sort of a sectarian conflict in the region?
MR. RATHKE: I think this is very similar to Said’s question, so I’d refer you back to my answer to that. No, we don’t see it that way.
QUESTION: What kind of message, then, do you think the U.S. support for this effort sends to Shiites in the region?
MR. RATHKE: Well, again, I think there is – we were pretty clear in the statement last night from the White House, as was the White House spokesman this morning, that we have been in close contact with our partners in the region and with Yemen, and we urge the Houthis to halt destabilizing military actions. We have spoken out in favor of a political dialogue process. We’re not taking sides against Shia – a Shia faction against a Sunni faction. We’re trying to promote a dialogue process in which the views of all Yemenis can be taken into account, and it’s the Houthis who have refused to engage in that dialogue.
QUESTION: And one final question.
MR. RATHKE: Yes.
QUESTION: At a Washington forum today, some analysts said that the U.S. focus on al-Qaida in Yemen has been at the detriment of development projects in the country, which they say is the core of the country’s current problems. Does State believe that Yemen’s current unrest, at its core, is an economic-social development issue? And if so, has the U.S. not been focused on this issue as much as it should be?
MR. RATHKE: Well, our partnership with Yemen is broad. It covers political-security but also development cooperation. We’re happy to get additional details to you about the scope and the figures involved, but —
QUESTION: It was broad. I don’t think it’s broad at the current —
MR. RATHKE: Well, we don’t have – we don’t have U.S. personnel in the country right now, naturally. So – but we would – I’m not going to get into an analysis of all those details from this podium.
Yes, go ahead, (inaudible).
QUESTION: Thank you. Earlier this week, the United Nations said Yemen was at the edge of the civil – a civil war. And in the statement by the National Security Council, the spokeswoman says the Houthis have created widespread chaos and instability. So do you believe that the airstrikes are aimed at restoring calm and stability in Yemen?
MR. RATHKE: Well, again, we’re supportive of the actions by the Saudis and their coalition partners, and that’s – testimony to that is the fact that we’ve got a joint planning cell which is providing assistance and support. So our goal remains —
MR. RATHKE: Our goal remains the same; however, recognize the Saudis’ concerns and support the actions they’ve taken.
Yeah, go ahead, Justin.
QUESTION: Jeff, do you have an announcement about the third American killed in the Germanwings airliner crash?
MR. RATHKE: Okay. Yeah, I can give you a bit of an update on that.
Our thoughts and prayers remain with the victims of the crash of Germanwings Flight 9525. We remain in touch with French and German and Spanish officials. There were two names that we provided yesterday. We also mentioned that there was a third American citizen who was a victim in the crash. So we are able to confirm the death of U.S. citizen Robert Oliver, who was also on the plane.
QUESTION: Is that Robert Oliver Calvo? I’ve seen it written with his third name.
MR. RATHKE: According to my information, Robert Oliver is the name I have. I can’t speak to whether there might be additional permutations of it in use. But yes, we are able to confirm that.
MR. RATHKE: Same topic?
MR. RATHKE: Wait, wait, just – wait just a minute. Same topic?
QUESTION: It was reported that Robert Oliver was living in Spain. Can you tell us any more details about his residency or his citizenship?
MR. RATHKE: No, I’m not going to comment on any of the – on any kind of personal details.
QUESTION: Was he born in Barcelona, as reports have indicated?
MR. RATHKE: Also not going to get into those kinds of – those kinds of details.
QUESTION: What about the mother and the daughter? She’s living in Virginia. So how (inaudible)?
MR. RATHKE: I’m sorry?
QUESTION: Do you have anything on information that the mother and daughter, she’s living in Virginia?
MR. RATHKE: Well, again, we’re not going to comment on the personal details of the three American citizens who died in the crash. I would also highlight, as Jen did yesterday, that we are continuing to review our records to determine whether any other U.S. citizens might have been on board the flight. Matching up data and being sure about that is something that’s, of course, important to us.
QUESTION: I have a different topic, if that’s all right.
MR. RATHKE: Okay. Anything else on the airplane?
QUESTION: One more on Yemen?
MR. RATHKE: Okay, we can come back to that in a second. But anything else on the plane? No. Okay, we’ll go to Elliot and we’ll come back to you.
QUESTION: Thanks. I’ve been asked to ask a few questions about this report out of Japan which is based on U.S. archival documents that show Korean forces in Vietnam during the war operated a number of brothels for their troops. I was wondering if you’ve seen this report.
MR. RATHKE: I’m familiar – I am aware that there is such a report. I can’t say that I’ve studied it or read it in its entirety. But what’s your question?
QUESTION: I guess – well, first, I was wondering if you can confirm the validity of the documents that the report is based on.
MR. RATHKE: Well, I’m not in a position to confirm the documents. I have not reviewed the documents. I don’t know whether they – where they stem from or they – do they purport to be State Department documents?
QUESTION: They are letters that were written from U.S. Forces Command during the Vietnam War and they were from the National Archives.
MR. RATHKE: Well, then I think it would not be this building that’s in a position to speak to those documents.
QUESTION: Okay. In terms of the issue that the report talks about, do you see it as an instance of human trafficking? Do you see a need to investigate it at all?
MR. RATHKE: Well, we’re aware of the article. We don’t have any specific comment on the article. I think our policy on the trafficking of women for sexual purposes remains well-known, and so I don’t have anything to add to that.
QUESTION: Given that this is an issue that President Park has focused on, including mentioning it prominently in her UNGA address last year, would you like to see an address by the Korean – would you like to see it addressed by the Korean Government?
MR. RATHKE: I don’t have anything further to add on this at this time. You wanted to go back to Yemen?
QUESTION: I did, if I could.
MR. RATHKE: Yeah, go ahead.
QUESTION: Matthew Russell Lee, Inner City Press. I wanted to know what the U.S. thinks of the role of former President Saleh, and do you think that he has any role to play in the negotiations that are trying to be had? And also, you said repeatedly that the U.S. supports Saudi Arabia and its coalition partners, and it’s said that Sudan is one of the partners and that they’ve offered three air force planes. And I wanted to know, would the U.S. support Sudanese participation in bombing Yemen?
MR. RATHKE: So I’ll take the second one first. We are aware that the Government of Sudan has announced that it is taking part in the actions organized by the Saudis. We’re not in a position to confirm the details of or the nature of their participation. Again, this is a Saudi-organized and Saudi-led coalition, so I don’t have more to say on that aspect.
You asked about former President Saleh. And so we have long made clear our concerns about the obstructive role that former President Saleh plays in Yemen. He has consistently sought to undermine Yemen’s political transition. This is widely recognized by the international community, which, in fact, sanctioned former President Saleh under UN Security Council Resolution 2140 just a few months ago. That was in November 2014. And the reason was for his obstruction of the political transition and undermining the government.
The U.S. Treasury Department has sanctioned former President Saleh on November 10th, 2014 for engaging in acts that directly or indirectly threaten the peace, security, and stability of Yemen. So our position on him and his role, I think, is quite clear.
QUESTION: To Yemen.
MR. RATHKE: Yes. Yes, go ahead.
QUESTION: So the LA Times report that Houthis have obtained U.S. intelligence and informants –
MR. RATHKE: I think I’ve already spoken to that, so –
QUESTION: Yeah. But are you still confident – is the U.S. still confident in our ability to conduct counterterrorism operations?
MR. RATHKE: Yeah. I think Josh Earnest spoke to this just this morning, as did Jen Psaki here yesterday. We continue to have the capacity and the reach to make strikes inside Yemen, and so we are in a position to do what we think is necessary to keep Americans safe.
QUESTION: On Iran?
QUESTION: Could I – one quick question on Yemen.
MR. RATHKE: Yeah.
QUESTION: Who controls Yemen? I mean, from your view now, who is in control in Yemen?
MR. RATHKE: Well, it’s a very fluid situation, Said, as you’re well aware.
QUESTION: Well, actually, not very – given their water shortage, I think that’s probably not the best term.
MR. RATHKE: Okay. We’ll score one for you on that topic.
MR. RATHKE: Yes, yes.
MR. RATHKE: Move to Iraq. Go ahead.
QUESTION: Thank you. On the airstrikes in Tikrit, first of all, why did these airstrikes come so late?
MR. RATHKE: Well, the decision by the United States to conduct airstrikes was a decision we reached after consultation with the Iraqi authorities and in response to an Iraqi request. These strikes are designed to destroy ISIL strongholds with precision. And we are trying to minimize damage and enable Iraqi forces, under Iraqi command, to continue their operations – offensive operations against ISIL in the vicinity of Tikrit. And so that’s – and we’ve gone through a careful process of coordinating those strikes through our Joint Operation Center in Baghdad with Iraqi authorities.
QUESTION: Are you saying that you haven’t carried out airstrikes for three weeks because the Iraqis didn’t want it themselves so far?
MR. RATHKE: Well, I’m not going to get into our exchanges –
QUESTION: But you said (inaudible) just came now.
MR. RATHKE: Well, no. I said that we have gone through a careful process of determining targets and determining the capabilities that we could bring to bear and we’ve acted in response to an Iraqi sovereign government request.
QUESTION: And one more quick question. There are a lot of concerns that with having so many Shia militias around Tikrit, and as the U.S. officials, including General John Allen have said it, most of the Iraqi forces are also Shias. So aren’t you worried that your airstrikes could be seen as taking sides with those Shia militias who are mostly backed by Iran?
MR. RATHKE: Well, no, because again, the – Prime Minister Abadi as well as other authorities in Iraq have been quite clear about their efforts to generate cross-sect and inter-ethnic agreement on the way forward, and they’re acting on that basis and we’re acting in support of the Iraqi authorities.
QUESTION: Same –
MR. RATHKE: Yeah, I think Jamie had a question. We’ll come back.
QUESTION: I just had a follow-up on that.
MR. RATHKE: Same topic?
QUESTION: Same topic, yeah.
MR. RATHKE: Yeah.
QUESTION: In his testimony this morning, General Austin up on the Hill said that Shia militia are no longer engaged in Tikrit, they’ve pulled back, that sort of thing. Is that part of the condition for airstrikes to continue, for U.S. support to continue, that Shiite militias and their supporters need to stay back, pull back from the Tikrit area?
MR. RATHKE: Well, I think General Austin has spoken to some of the tactical considerations on the ground, and I think I’d let his remarks in that regard speak for themselves. We’ve, of course, been concerned about – again, about protecting innocent Iraqis, minimizing damage to infrastructure, and enabling Iraqi forces to continue the offensive effectively as we’ve discussed with them possible U.S. support, including the airstrikes that we’ve just carried out.
QUESTION: On the same lines, there are reports that Shiite militias are pulling out of the fight for Tikrit in protest of the U.S. bombings. I was wondering if you have a concern that U.S. military action could drive a wedge between the Shiite militias and the government forces. That’s my question.
MR. RATHKE: Mm-hmm. Well, we’ve said all along that our goal is to assist the Iraqi Security Forces to degrade and defeat ISIL, and so we’re working with the Iraqi Security Forces to that end. If that’s not the goal of some others in the fight, then that would be a great concern. But again, we go back to the statements from some Popular Mobilization Forces, which are Sunni as well as Shia, that they have said that they will continue to fight alongside the Iraqi Security Forces in Tikrit.
QUESTION: What was that? Popular —
MR. RATHKE: The Popular Mobilization Forces.
QUESTION: Does that mean militia in simple English?
MR. RATHKE: I don’t know if that captures all of them, but certainly some of them.
QUESTION: That’s the —
QUESTION: That’s the Iranian-supported militia.
MR. RATHKE: So again, we think it’s important to distinguish, though, between the Popular Mobilization Forces, many of which are Iraqi nationalist groups that have volunteered to participate in the defense of Iraq, and other Iranian-backed militia groups. And I think perhaps that – those statements today are some indication of where those groups view —
QUESTION: Is that a U.S. term or an Iraqi one?
MR. RATHKE: No, no, that’s an Iraqi term.
QUESTION: That’s an Iraqi term?
MR. RATHKE: To the best of my knowledge.
QUESTION: Can you —
MR. RATHKE: I can check on that.
QUESTION: Yeah, it’s an Iraqi term.
MR. RATHKE: It’s an Iraqi term, yeah.
QUESTION: Jeff, can I —
QUESTION: So I mean, sorry, just to follow up.
MR. RATHKE: Yeah.
QUESTION: Insofar as the groups that are peeling off from the fight are not those mobilization, those forces, you don’t see it as an issue? Is that what you’re saying?
MR. RATHKE: Well, again, I’m not in a position to speak to or to confirm particular statements or particular decisions by any of those groups. I’m simply pointing out that there are many groups of the popular – in the Popular Mobilization Forces —
QUESTION: There are reports —
MR. RATHKE: — who have spoken to their willingness to continue participation.
QUESTION: Perhaps you heard that Qasem Suleimani, the Iranian commander, is no longer in the area, in the vicinity of Tikrit. Can you confirm that?
MR. RATHKE: No, I’m not going to speak to his whereabouts.
QUESTION: Just to follow up on General Austin’s statement about the popular committees on (inaudible) pulling back, and the timing of the bombing – the participation of U.S. bombardment in Tikrit: Could it have taken this much time to negotiate perhaps a pullback by the Shiite militias for the United States to intervene?
MR. RATHKE: I’m not going to get into details of that sort.
QUESTION: I mean, that’s on the question of why not – why is it too late or why now.
MR. RATHKE: No, I think we’ve been involved in discussions with the Iraqi central authorities about the operation in Tikrit —
QUESTION: Has there been any change in —
MR. RATHKE: — and these discussions take time to work through, especially when you’re talking about carrying out military operations.
QUESTION: Has there been any change in the status on the ground since the intervention of U.S. bombardment?
MR. RATHKE: Well, it’s only been a few hours so I’m not going to offer a battlefield analysis from here.
QUESTION: On South Korea?
MR. RATHKE: Yes, go ahead.
QUESTION: Yeah. South Korea made the decision to joint AIIB. Why the United States has not decision to make – join AIIB yet?
MR. RATHKE: Well, I think we’ve talked quite a lot about that from this podium in the last week or 10 days. We agree in the United States that there is a pressing need to enhance infrastructure investment around the world, and we would welcome new multilateral institutions that strengthen the international financial architecture and that incorporate the high standards that the international community has collectively built. And therefore, we encourage the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank to follow those high standards, but the United States has not decided to join the bank. We have concerns about those standards and transparency, as we’ve outlined in great detail from here over the last week or two.
QUESTION: So you considering to join in the future with AIIB?
MR. RATHKE: No, we’re not considering joining any new institution at the moment. But we, of course, see – have a stake and we stress the importance of the AIIB meeting the current international high standards.
QUESTION: What’s your reaction to Korea’s decision? Are you disappointed that an ally, Korea, has decided to join this bank? Or —
MR. RATHKE: Well, I’m not going to react or comment on their decision. I’d say in general, we’ve seen a number of countries make decisions to join the bank. That is their decision. We certainly hope that, as we stress the importance of international standards and transparency, that they will also be voices for those same values.
MR. RATHKE: Yeah.
QUESTION: The countries that have joined the bank are also countries that espouse the same standards of transparency that you were concerned about. So I mean, I think there’s a question as to whether that’s the only reason that the U.S. is refusing to join the bank. I mean, UK, France – these are countries with very high standards for these kinds of things, and I think it’s a valid question as to why the U.S. is not joining only based on those reasons.
MR. RATHKE: Well, I think, again, that’s – those are the reasons for our position. We’ll let other countries make their own decisions and explain the reasoning behind those decisions.
Brad, did you have –
QUESTION: I don’t have anything on this.
MR. RATHKE: No? You have anything else?
QUESTION: I have another Asia question, though.
MR. RATHKE: Okay, happy to take another Asia question.
QUESTION: Do you have any reaction to kind of comments by the Thai leader suggesting the possibility of executing journalists?
MR. RATHKE: Is that a recent comment?
QUESTION: It is recent.
MR. RATHKE: I had not seen that.
MR. RATHKE: Although we’ve certainly been following developments in Thailand and naturally, as we’ve spoken about, in regard to many situations the importance of freedom of speech and the right of journalists to do their jobs.
Oh, I’m sorry. I –
QUESTION: You have something.
MR. RATHKE: I do have a little bit more on this. So we are, of course, troubled by reports that General Prayut spoke of executing journalists who do not report the quote-unquote “truth,” and we sincerely hope that this threat was not a serious one. We have repeatedly called for lifting restrictions on freedom of expression in Thailand, and in our view, statements like these, even if not serious, contribute to an atmosphere where those freedoms could be suppressed.
QUESTION: Will the U.S. be seeking clarification with him, or do you expect him over the course of whenever to clarify what he meant by that statement?
MR. RATHKE: Well, I don’t have any diplomatic contact to read out about it, but naturally this is something we take seriously and have concerns about. So we will certainly be discussing it further.
QUESTION: Completely separately.
MR. RATHKE: Yeah, go ahead.
QUESTION: I’m just wondering, on Cuba, there’s been some suggestion that a date for the Human Rights Dialogue has been established, maybe March 31st in Washington? Can you confirm that?
MR. RATHKE: I don’t have a date to confirm for that. I think some of you may be aware, but I’ll mention it just so you’re aware of another track of the dialogue, that our Deputy Assistant Secretary of State and U.S. Coordinator for International Communications Daniel Sepulveda visited Havana and is finishing up his visit today – March 24th through 26th – and there focused on telecommunications issues and the meetings took place in a positive atmosphere focused on developing telecommunications and internet connections between our two countries. We believe that expanding internet access to support the free flow of information is a critical focus, of course, of our policy.
QUESTION: So no date?
MR. RATHKE: But I don’t have a date to announce for the human rights dialogue, which I can see if there’s anything more to share.
QUESTION: Thank you.
QUESTION: Just a follow-up on Cuba. I visited –
MR. RATHKE: Just – yeah. Same topic? Go ahead.
QUESTION: I’m sorry?
MR. RATHKE: Yeah, go ahead. Same topic? Yeah.
QUESTION: Yes, Cuba. My apologies. Does it appear that the talks could still result in the opening of the embassies by the Summit of the Americas?
MR. RATHKE: Well, I’m not going to put a date on it. Again, we’ve always said we want this to move as quickly as possible. We remain in contact with Cuban authorities, but I don’t have any dates for a new round of talks to announce, so I don’t have any comment on that specific date.
QUESTION: Also on Cuba.
MR. RATHKE: Also on Cuba?
MR. RATHKE: Yeah, go ahead.
QUESTION: Okay. The – Cuba has complained that its diplomats accredited to the UN in New York are not allowed to go more than 25 miles outside of the city or from Columbus Circle. And I wanted to know whether this restriction is one of the things that’s being negotiated. Is it considered being lifted? Is it – where does it stand, and how do – and what’s the U.S. – given that generally people accredited to the UN can travel freely, how does the UN – how does the U.S. justify it?
MR. RATHKE: Well, we’ve said from the very start of our rounds of talks with the Cuban Government that one of the topics we want to discuss is the ability of American diplomats in Cuba to move around freely and, of course, the Cubans have a similar concern. I’m not going to get into the state of those discussions, but that’s clearly a topic that we’ve been talking about over the last few rounds.
QUESTION: It’s more than a topic. You’ve made it a condition, I think, for reestablishment of embassies, correct?
MR. RATHKE: Well, again, we’ve – it is a key concern for the United States. I’m not going to get into the –
QUESTION: And anything you would agree would in theory be – you wouldn’t expect to get that privilege and restrict it to the Cubans in return, would you? I mean, it’s reciprocal.
MR. RATHKE: Well, I won’t get into our sort of negotiating position, but we recognize –
MR. RATHKE: — we recognize, of course, that it’s a similar interest on the Cuban side.
QUESTION: And you want –
MR. RATHKE: But these are reciprocal arrangements in place, so –
QUESTION: And you want to end them, correct?
MR. RATHKE: Oh, yeah. We – certainly we want our diplomats to be able to move around, of course.
QUESTION: And you would like to extend that to them as well, correct?
MR. RATHKE: Well, that’s what we’re negotiating about.
QUESTION: You’re in talks?
MR. RATHKE: Yeah.
QUESTION: That’s what I was going to ask about.
MR. RATHKE: Go ahead.
QUESTION: Could you update us on what’s going on in their statements that much progress has been made? Could you update us on this?
MR. RATHKE: Well, I’m not going to give an update minute-by-minute, but of course, our team is on the ground. We’ve – Secretary Kerry has had his first meetings today. The focus of these meetings, as we’ve said, is closing the gaps that remain and coming to a framework understanding by the end of this month as part of the nuclear negotiations. I’m not going to give a readout of the meetings that have happened today, however.
QUESTION: What are the gaps? What are these gaps?
MR. RATHKE: Well, again, I think –
QUESTION: Are the on centrifuges or –
MR. RATHKE: Well, I appreciate the comment, the opportunity to negotiate in public, but we’re not going to do that. We’ve said all along that closing down the four pathways to a nuclear weapon is the focus of our efforts, and that’s what we remain engaged on with our international partners.
Yeah, Justin. Go ahead.
QUESTION: There are reports today that the Fordow facility, which is obviously one of the big sticking points here, would be allowed to keep some centrifuges running. And as you know, this is the deep-buried facility. Would it be – would it not be a major concession on the U.S. side to allow Iran to keep any of those centrifuges running at Fordow?
MR. RATHKE: Well, look, I think there probably will be a lot of reports over the next week that claim to address any – some specifics about what’s going on in the negotiating room. We’ve been clear all along that we’re not going to negotiate in public and we’re also not going to comment on specific reports about specific details that purportedly are coming up in the talks. Our bottom lines remain the same, that we want to come to a framework that cuts off all of Iran’s pathways to a nuclear weapon, and that’s what we’re working towards.
QUESTION: There’s rumors that Sunday the 29th could be deal day, if there’s a day to put on it. Is that true?
MR. RATHKE: Well, we’re working toward a deal. I’m not going to put a specific date on it. Clearly, our goal was to achieve it by the end of this month, but I’m not going to refine that –
QUESTION: Are you optimistic?
MR. RATHKE: — any further.
QUESTION: Can you use the word “optimistic” to describe –
MR. RATHKE: No, I’m not going to apply a label of that sort to it. We’ve – Secretary Kerry has just gotten on the ground late last night. He’s had his first meetings today, but I’m not going to characterize that in a greater degree.
QUESTION: The Iranians are saying that they want the sanctions lifted or no deal. Anything on that?
MR. RATHKE: Well, again, that’s certainly their point of view, but we’re not going to negotiate this in public. So the timing of sanctions relief is certainly one of a number of issues, but we’re working those through with our P5+1 partners in the negotiating room with Iran.
QUESTION: Do you think that what’s happening in Yemen is somehow impacting the negotiation? I think Brad asked –
MR. RATHKE: I think I spoke to that. No, we haven’t seen any indication of that.
QUESTION: That’s a completely separate –
MR. RATHKE: I’ve been in touch with our team on the ground in Switzerland, and I – our sense is that it hasn’t had an impact.
QUESTION: Different topic.
MR. RATHKE: Okay. Anything else on the Iran talks?
QUESTION: I’m just wondering how this would not have an impact on those talks. Is this kind of a contradiction of U.S. policy? Because on the one hand you have this effort to work with Iran to reach a negotiated limitation to the nuclear program, but at the same time you have U.S. policy then supporting Saudi Arabia and actions against the Houthi rebels that are supported by Iran. It seems like almost a contradiction of U.S. policy.
MR. RATHKE: No, there’s no contradiction and we have made clear throughout the process of the nuclear negotiations with Iran that we have serious concerns about Iranian behavior in a number of areas – talk about terrorism, talk about human rights, talk about the fate of American citizens who are inside Iran in detention. And so – but the focus of the nuclear negotiations is on the nuclear issue. So that’s what we’re focused on achieving in these talks.
QUESTION: I have just one more follow-up question –
MR. RATHKE: Yeah.