STATE DEPARTMENT - With both Iran and the United States appearing to deescalate tensions, the focus again turns to diplomacy. Last week, a U.S. drone strike killed Iran's most influential military leader, Qassem Soleimani, and Tehran retaliated by firing a volley of missiles at two bases in Iraq that house U.S. troops, without causing casualties. VOA spoke with State Department Spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus on what the next steps might be.
Q: President Trump announced yesterday that the U.S. would impose new economic sanctions against the Iranian regime.
Q: Are they related to the assets of Iran’s Supreme Leader or IRGC? What more sanctions could be done?
ORTAGUS: Well, as you know from covering the State Department, we don't preview sanctions here but we do announce sanctions quite regularly on Iran, and it's important for your viewers to know that sanctions are a part of what we have called for the past year and a half, ‘the maximum economic pressure campaign’ against the regime in Iran, and that pressure campaign is diplomatic, it’s economic, of course as you've seen this last week, it’s military as well. What's really the three legs of the stool that we'd like to say, is a part of our efforts to get the regime to behave like a normal nation. So without giving away the specifics of the announcements that will happen very soon. The President did indicate yesterday that he has authorized more sanctions, and we will continue to pursue a campaign that diplomatically and economically isolates the regime in Iran until they come into compliance and behaving like a normal nation.
Q: Moving forward, what are the specific diplomatic efforts to deescalate?
ORTAGUS: Well, President Trump said yesterday that he believes that the remaining signatories of the JCPOA should withdraw from that flawed deal. We have actually had a diplomatic offer and for the past year and a half, and we have said this routinely, every time we have extended the hand of diplomacy to the regime in Iran. That regime has made the choice to meet our diplomacy with kinetic actions. So, what we constantly say is that we are willing to speak with regime without preconditions, to talk about how they can start to behave like a normal nation. So what does that involve? That means no longer being the world state sponsor of terrorism, that means no longer funding training and equipping and using their Shia militia proxies in the Middle East attack the U.S., our allies, our interests, and innocent people, whether they're in civilian airports like in Saudi Arabia where we see the Houthis do, or Saudi oil fields, or ships in the Persian Gulf, shooting down American drones, attacking American embassies. This sort of malign behavior, this sponsoring of terrorism through proxies, that the Iranian regime pursues as a strategy has got to stop. They also need to start, to stop being in defiance of U.N. resolutions like 2231, that talks about their ballistic missile production. They need to never have a nuclear weapon. This, the President and the Secretary have said that. President Trump said yesterday that as long as he is president, Iran will never have a nuclear weapon. That's incredibly important. We just want them to behave like a normal nation. The Vice President said, I believe it was last night, that we're not seeking regime change in Iran, rather we’re seeking the change of the behavior of the regime in Iran.
Q: Is Special Envoy Brian Hook talking to the Iranians? I understand he's traveling.
ORTAGUS: I believe he's here in Washington, so. He was in Los Angeles, he was at some public events but he's in Washington right now.
Q: Has he been talking to the Iranians after the death of Soleimani?
ORTAGUS: Yeah, so we don't talk about any private conversations that Brian Hook may or may not have. What we have said is that we don't really, there's sort of this assumption that we're always having these private talks, and I think that it's important for everybody to know that we do not communicate anything to the regime in Iran privately that we don't communicate publicly. So everything that we, that we communicate is very out in the open. The regime in Iran who's probably watching this interview knows exactly where we stand, knows exactly where President Trump stands – do not harm American citizens or members of our military or diplomats, or our interest, or our allies, whether it's directly from attacks that take place from Tehran, or through the proxies. We've made that abundantly clear.
Q: With President Trump threatening to hit the cultural sites, and with our Defense Secretary and Secretary of State saying that the U.S. will adhere to international law, and with the DOD the drafted letter to the Iraqi government was a mistake. Are you concerned the Trump administration is sending a mixed message?
ORTAGUS: No, not at all. I think our message cannot be more abundantly clear.
Q: About what?
ORTAGUS: The regime in Iran must behave like a normal nation. They must not attack us directly or through their proxies. They need to abide by UN Security Council Resolution 2231. They need to not get a nuclear weapon. That’s it.
Q: Has the State Department been getting any pushback from the nations in the Middle East about the threat to hit the cultural site?
ORTAGUS: Again, I think the President cleared that up, and that news story, in my opinion, is a few days old.
Q: On Iraq, moving forward. What is a diplomatic strategy to manage relations with Iraq?
ORTAGUS: Yeah well as you can see, we have been putting out readouts from Secretary Pompeo’s numerous calls with the leadership in Iraq at all levels. We have David Schenker, who's our Assistant Secretary here at the State Department for Near Eastern Affairs. In the whole string of people, all of our ambassadors are working incredibly closely with all of our allies in the Middle East, especially in the Gulf, to make sure that they can take all measures necessary to protect themselves. But remember that, you know, these governments are used to being attacked, unfortunately. Saudi Arabia saw, for a temporary time, almost 60% of their oil supply taken off the market due to attacks from Iran. They have seen civilian airports attacked. Again, we've seen ships in the Persian Gulf attacked. So, unfortunately, the reality that many of these countries live in in the Middle East, is that reality of being terrorized by the regime in Tehran.
Q: Can you clarify the veracity of some Iraqi media reports saying that Iraqi presidential office has been presented with potential sanctions?
ORTAGUS: No, that, we have not presented sanctions to the Iraqis. That's inaccurate.