Senior State Department Officials On U.S. Airstrikes in Iraq and Syria (December 30)
MODERATOR: Hey, everybody. Thanks for joining us. Happy New Year, happy 2020. I have a couple of people that all of you know very well. On the phone, we have [Senior State Department Official One], [Senior State Department Official Two], and we have [Senior State Department Official Three]. We will, of course, allow for time for questions and answers.
And I think what I’m going to do is just turn it over right away to [Senior State Department Official One] and let him give some opening statements. But if you have specific questions on Syria, we have [Senior State Department Official Two], and we have [Senior State Department Official Three] for Iraq questions. And of course, [Senior State Department Official One] can answer everything Iran-related.
Okay, [Senior State Department Official One].
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: All right, sorry, it was on mute. Thank you, [Moderator], and thanks everybody for joining us. I think it’s essential to understand that the strikes that the President ordered yesterday, those are – it was a defensive action designed to protect American forces and American citizens in Iraq, but it is also aimed at deterring Iran.
It is clear that under the nuclear deal, Iran was able to run and finance an expansionist foreign policy, and we are trying to restore deterrence against Iran’s regional aggression, against its missile proliferation around the region that finds its way into conflicts, as we have seen recently in Iraq. In the past two months alone, there have been 11 attacks on Iraqi bases that host coalition forces. And then the most recent attack, which was a barrage of rockets on the base near Kirkuk, killed one U.S. citizen and injured American and Iraqi soldiers.
So President Trump and Secretary Pompeo have been making clear for some time now that we will not tolerate this sort of behavior, not tolerate attacks on U.S. citizens, its military, or our allies. And it was just a few weeks ago that Secretary Pompeo, on December 13th, said – he reminded “Iran’s leaders that any attacks by them, or their proxies… that harm Americans, our allies, or our interests will be answered with a decisive U.S. response.” That was delivered yesterday. And it shows that the President has done a very good job of balancing and calibrating our diplomatic efforts in terms of our foreign policy in Iran, Iraq, Syria, and also backing that up with the hard power.
And we are not looking for any conflict in the Middle East. These were defensive strikes. But we are not going to let Iran get away with using a proxy force to an attack – to attack American interests, and we will hold Iran accountable for these attacks, which we have done.
We are standing with the Iraqi people. You’ve seen the protests in Iraq. They are tired of the corruption from the political class. You have Iraqi soldiers and American soldiers who have fought and died for a sovereign and independent Iraq, and the Iraqi protesters are demanding it. And that’s why we support their demands. They do not want to see Iraq fall under the domination or the influence of the ayatollah and his cronies, Qasem Soleimani and others.
What we are also seeing regionally – the protests in Iran, the protests in Iraq, and the protests in Lebanon are a consistent rejection of the Iranian model of undermining the sovereignty, endemic corruption, weaponizing sectarian grievances, and destabilizing the region broadly. And so – since May of 2018, I would refer you to Secretary Pompeo’s speech in May of 2018. He also said that all Iranian-commanded forces must leave Syria. And it’s important to recognize that the strikes were conducted not only in Iraq but also in Syria, and I’d like to have [Senior State Department Official Two] speak a little bit about that.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Sure. As [Senior State Department Official One] just said, it’s been longstanding U.S. policy, reiterated by the President to Congress, Mike Pompeo, and the rest of us many times publicly, that all Iranian-commanded forces – which would include, in our view, KH – leave Syria. They are a threat to our interests and to those of many of our partners and allies in the region.
Secondly, we have seen attacks by Iranian-supported or Assad-supported elements against American or coalition forces or our partners on the battlefield, the SDF, repeatedly since 2017 inside Syria. Finally, we do see threat streams and threatening activities by all of these forces that are of concern to us from a force protection standpoint.
But lastly, again, as [Senior State Department Official One] indicated, this shows that we can respond not just in Iraq, but we can respond anywhere that we think it makes sense to us and to the interests and security of our partners and allies in dealing with this threat to the region.
MODERATOR: [Senior State Department Official Three.]
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL THREE: I have nothing to add. Excuse me.
MODERATOR: All right. So now we have some time for some questions. We’re going to just pause for a moment while everyone queues up.
OPERATOR: And ladies and gentlemen, as a reminder, if you do have a question, please press 1 then 0 on your touchtone phone. You’ll hear a tone indicating you’ve been placed in queue. You may remove yourself from the queue by repeating the 1 then 0 command. If you are using a speakerphone, please pick up your handset before pressing any buttons.
Again, if you have questions, please press 1 then 0 on your touchtone phone at this time. One moment, please, for our first question.
MODERATOR: For our first question, can you open the line of Kim Dozier?
OPERATOR: One moment, please.
QUESTION: (Inaudible) there was also a report that the Iraqi prime minister, the former – resigned prime minister, asked the U.S. not to go ahead with these strikes. How do you respond to that, and what do you fear they might do?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL THREE: Kim, it’s always a pleasure to hear from you, but I didn’t hear the first part of the – this is [Senior State Department Official Three] by the way. I did not hear the first part of your question.
QUESTION: Trying again. Kim Dozier at Time asking – there were reports that the former Iraqi prime minister had asked the U.S. not to go ahead with these strikes, and now Iraqi officials are vaguely warning of some sort of consequences. What do you fear those consequences might be, and why did you go ahead with the strikes?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL THREE: Well, Kim, this is [Senior State Department Official Three] again. We don’t have any fears in this regard, but we have warned the Iraqi Government many times, and we’ve shared information with them, to try to work with them to carry out their responsibility to protect us as their invited guests. The U.S. Military is there, as you know, upon the invitation of the Iraqi Government, and the U.S. diplomatic presence there is there as well at the – under the agreement with the Iraqi Government. So it’s their responsibility and duty to protect us, and they have not taken the appropriate steps to do so.
MODERATOR: Okay. For our next question, can we go to Alexandra von Nahmen from Deutsch Welle?
OPERATOR: One moment, please, while I open your line. One moment.
QUESTION: If I may —
OPERATOR: And Alexandra, your line is open. Go ahead.
QUESTION: Okay, thank you so much for doing this. I have two questions, if I may. Are you not concerned that the airstrikes could lead to further escalation on the ground, taking into account how unstable the situation in Iraq is right now and considering the new threats from the Iranian proxies that they are going to respond?
And the second question is the Iranian foreign minister reacted to the airstrikes during his visit in Moscow, where he met with the Russian foreign minister to discuss brokering a peace deal for the region. Could you comment on that, on both talks? Thank you so much.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Well, we – the State Department and the Defense Department – regularly update our threat assessment. There have been – as I mentioned earlier, you’ve had 11 attacks against Iraqi bases that host coalition forces in just the last two months, and so it’s very important that we not tolerate that kind of behavior, because if we don’t respond, it will invite further aggression. And so if you’re going to have in place a deterrent effect, this is the kind of action that is required. President Trump directed our Armed Forces to respond in a way the Iranian regime will understand. And this is the language they speak, and so we’re confident about that.
And the second question was about – what was it?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: The Moscow meeting.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Oh, Moscow. There was a Reuters report recently out that had the regime having murdered 1,500 of its own citizens. You have thousands that were injured and well north of 8,000 innocent Iranians have been put into jail for protesting – basic human rights, demanding basic human rights.
Now is not the time for governments to be doing any sort of military exercises with this regime. We think now is the time to be sanctioning the Iranian leadership for the human rights abuses that it has committed against its own people and to be diplomatically isolating the regime in every way possible.
I would just ask those nations that don’t – they are sending a very clear message to the Iranian people that they’re siding with their oppressors and their murderers.
MODERATOR: Okay. For our next question, we’ll go to Julian Borger with The Guardian.
OPERATOR: Thank you. And ladies and gentlemen, as we open up your lines, please allow me a moment to locate and open up your line before you ask your question. And Julian, your line is open. Go ahead.
QUESTION: Hi, thanks very much for doing this. You talk about 11 attacks over the last couple of months. Does this, in your mind, represent a campaign, an Iran-directed campaign to go after coalition forces? And how tight would you characterize Iranian control over KH?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: I’ll give you sort of my answer – this is [Senior State Department Official One] – to the second part of your question, and ask [Senior State Department Official Three] to answer the first part. On September 11th of 2018, the White House issued a statement saying that we do not make a distinction between the Iranian regime and any of its proxies that they organize, train, and equip. And Kitaib Hizballah certainly is an entity that the regime organizes, trains, and equips, and as a consequence, we took the necessary action. And so this idea – I mean, Iran has been – it has been a feature of Iran’s expansionist foreign policy to conduct deniable attacks. We are not giving Iran the fiction of deniability any longer.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL THREE: This is [Senior State Department Official Three]. I would say that this obviously is a campaign. Back in May of this year, the Secretary visited Baghdad and very dramatically and publicly said that we were very concerned about new credible threats against us by the Iranians – excuse me – and their proxies in Iraq and elsewhere throughout the region. And I think over the following months, you saw this come to pass, and so now, unfortunately, we’ve seen Iraqis and Americans killed because of it. And if there’s any further escalation, it lies directly at the feet or Iran’s proxies in Iraq, not on us.
MODERATOR: All right, for our next question, can we go to Jennifer Hansler from CNN.
OPERATOR: Thank you. One moment please. And Jennifer, your line is open.
QUESTION: Thank you. Thanks for doing the call. Could you talk us through a little bit of the conversations you had ahead of this strike with Iraqi officials and in the – approximately a day since the strikes have taken place? Has the Secretary of State spoken to anyone in the Iraqi Government?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL THREE: Jennifer, this is [Senior State Department Official Three]. We have frequent and robust exchanges with the Iraqi Government about these threats, and have for some time. And we absolutely told them that we were going to be taking action against this particular attack.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: And we have also – we have been – this is [Senior State Department Official] – we’ve been voicing our concerns over these kinds of attacks against bases that are hosting coalition forces. We’ve voiced our concerns with senior Iraqi Government officials repeatedly. We have asked them to arrest and bring to justice the perpetrators. And as [Senior State Department Official Three] said, the Iraqi Government needs to ensure the safety of American forces, and there’s just been too many attacks, attempted attacks against American and Iraqi forces.
MODERATOR: Okay, before we move to our next question, I just want to reinforce that this is being provided on background. So our next question will be Joel Gehrke from Washington Examiner.
OPERATOR: Thank you, and Joel, your line is open.
QUESTION: Hi. Thanks for doing this. I wondered – we’re talking about this just a few days after China and Russia conducted joint drills with Iran in the Gulf. Do you assess that China, for instance, has provided any kind of strategic support to Iran of the sort that would embolden Iran to launch this campaign of attacks that you observe against bases where there are U.S. forces located?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL THREE: No, we have not seen that level of assistance.
MODERATOR: Okay. Moving on to our next question, could you open the line of Lahav Harkov from Jerusalem Post?
OPERATOR: One moment, please. And here we are, and your line is open. Go ahead, please.
QUESTION: Is this a one-time thing, a response to the sort of specific attack on specific U.S. interests and that killed a civilian, et cetera? Or is this a sort of – marks a sort of a return by the U.S. to play a more active role?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: We don’t preview future military action. We don’t discuss our military options. Since May, we have moved an additional 14,000 troops to the region. We have established the International Maritime Security Initiative. We’ve enhanced our intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance assets, which we know has helped to disrupt and deter many of the attacks that Iran had been plotting, either by land, sea, or air. And then now we have the President responding decisively with military strikes yesterday in both Iraq and Syria. So we’re very pleased with the response package that we’ve put in place, the overall enhancing our force posture, but we have also deepened Iran’s economic crisis over this same period, and over the same period we have also weakened Iran’s proxies financially.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: And [Senior State Department Official Two]. In short, we’re not returning to the front in the Middle East. We never left it.
MODERATOR: Okay, thanks. For our next question could we turn to Nick Schifrin from PBS?
OPERATOR: Your line is open. Go ahead, Nick.
QUESTION: Hey, guys. Thanks very much for doing this. For [Senior State Department Official One], you just listed some of the steps that you guys have taken, some of the major steps you guys have taken over the last few months. You also used the word “restore deterrence.” Have you had any concerns or has there been any concerns at all that the lack of response to the attack in Saudi Arabia on the oil fields and the lack of response to the U.S. drone being shot down has lost some deterrence?
And to [Senior State Department Official Three], to go back to Kim’s question, do you have any concerns about the Iraqi Government’s statements of negativity since this attack, and that will impact your overall relationship with the Iraqi Government? Thanks.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Thanks, Nick. I’ll do the first one. I think Iran, from about 2007 until about 2017, was able to run an expansionist foreign policy without negative consequence, and when President Trump came into office he took an entirely different approach. We don’t believe that we – that we need to be telling our allies in the region that they need to share it with Iran. So we reversed that policy. We started sanctioning Iran. We have now had – I think we’re at or over 1,000 individuals and entities that have been sanctioned during this period. We are trying to reverse the gains that Iran enjoyed prior to this administration. And obviously this is the work of many months and years. Our sanctions have only been in place – because the President got out of the Iran deal in May, we had a six-month wind-down period, and so we didn’t have all of our sanctions in place – it’s been within a year.
So we have had enormous success even in that short period of time to try to re-establish deterrence, because Iran, they were in compliance with the Iran nuclear deal. That’s a low bar for compliance. And while they were in compliance, there was an incentive for countries to look the other way on Iran’s ballistic missile testing, their missile proliferation, their regional aggression, the hostage-taking. And so now we are taking a comprehensive approach to the entire range of threats that Iran presents, and we’re able to do that because we are outside of the nuclear deal and we’re much better postured to achieve our national security objectives this way than inside the deal.
And I’ll ask [Senior State Department Official Three] to answer the second part.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL THREE: Yeah, the question was about whether we’re concerned about Iraqi politicians’ statements condemning us instead of Hizballah. We’re disappointed with those statements. We’re disappointed that every time that Kitaib Hizballah controls and moves weapons and people on behalf of the Iranians, there’s no condemnation. Every time Hizballah represses protestors peacefully out there in the streets, there’s no condemnation. Every time Hizballah sends fighters off into Syria without the authorization of the Iraqi Government, there’s no condemnation. Yeah, it’s disappointing. But it’s moments like this when you see people’s true colors.
MODERATOR: Okay. For the next question, can we turn to Bryant Harris from Al-Monitor?
OPERATOR: Your line is open. Go ahead.
QUESTION: Hey, thanks so much for doing the call. Two questions. Number one, I think the Iraqis initially claimed that the attack on the base was from the Islamic State, so can you just kind of lay out how you arrived at the determination that it was Kitaib Hizballah? And number two, earlier this year, in June I believe, you submitted a legal opinion to Congress that said the 2001 and 2002 AUMFs could be used against Iran in the context of defending U.S. forces in Iraq from Iranian proxies. Do you at this point in time have any plans to retaliate against Iran itself for the recent attacks? Thank you.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Yeah, can you give us the second question one more time? Because obviously the AUMF does permit us to operate defensively, and so in this case, we were attacked by a militia in Iraq, and then we took strikes as a matter of self-defense, which is consistent with the AUMF.
With respect to the first question on – we know that KH was responsible for the attacks. But we – but we’re not worried about our confidence level on that one. Kitaib Hizballah is very well armed and trained by Iran, and they are responsible for many of these attacks against American troops and Iraqi troops.
MODERATOR: All right, we have time for one more question. We’ll go to Amanda Macias from CNBC.
OPERATOR: Amanda, your line is open. Go ahead, please.
QUESTION: Thank you. I just wanted to go back to the sanctions issue. So despite the near-1,000 sanctions on Iran, they’ve still been able to carry out attacks and even sophisticated attacks that we saw earlier this year with the oil tanker. So I just wanted to get your analysis on this one more time that you do think that these economic sanctions are working on Iran.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: The nature of modern terrorism is terrorists enjoying asymmetric advantage in any theater, and so Iran uses modern terrorism. And we have never claimed that our sanctions will eliminate the asymmetric capability of your modern terrorists.
What we are doing is denying the regime the revenue that it needs to run an expansionist foreign policy. We are also – and by that policy, Iran has less money to spend today than it did three – almost three years ago when we came into office. There have been front-page stories in The New York Times and The Washington Post in March and in May documenting how our sanctions are financially weakening Iran’s proxies. That is going to continue. There will be more sanctions to come.
Iran’s economic problems and challenges are going to compound in 2020. They’re already deep into a recession. And we’re also seeing Iran come under greater diplomatic isolation. The leaders of Germany, the UK, and France condemned Iran’s attack on Saudi Arabia on September 14th. Prime Minister Johnson called for Iran to come to the negotiating table to address the challenge of Iran’s missile proliferation. That has been our position as well for some time.
I think over the life of the Iran nuclear deal, because the missile proliferation has been neglected, we have been accumulating risk of a conflict in the Middle East, and we are now focused very aggressively against Iran’s missile program, its missile testing. We’ve sanctioned many of the individuals and entities that are responsible for Iran’s missile program, and we invite other countries to do the same.
MODERATOR: All right. That’s all the time we have. Just a reminder this briefing was provided on background, and in the transcript that we’ll put out later, our speakers will be referred to as Senior State Department Official One, Two, and Three. Thank you for joining the call and thanks to our briefers for being part of this.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Thank you all.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Thank you.