WASHINGTON, D.C. – The U.S. State Department held a press briefing on November 29, 2021, touching on subjects ranging from Travel restrictions for African countries, Iran uranium enrichment, East China Sea hijinks, and more.
Jalina Porter, Principal Deputy Spokesperson
2:02 p.m. EST
MS PORTER: Hello. Good afternoon, everyone. Thank you for joining today’s State Department press briefing. I only have one update at the top, and then will continue taking your questions. But I’d like to start off by taking a moment to say Happy Hanukkah to those around the world who may be celebrating. And with that, we’ll just give it a few minutes for folks to chime in the queue.
On the advice of the President’s chief medical advisor and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the administration will restrict travel from Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa, and Zimbabwe starting today, November 29th, 2021. The policy does not apply to U.S. citizens, lawful permanent residents, and certain other categories of travelers. These measures apply to foreign national travelers regardless of nationality based on the traveler’s physical presence in Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa, or Zimbabwe. Current U.S. visa holders who have been present in Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa, or Zimbabwe, including for transit during the 14 days prior to entry or attempted entry to the United States, will be subject to these entry restrictions.
This proclamation does not dictate whether commercial airlines should or should not continue. Any flight changes are dependent upon commercial airlines’ individual decisions. U.S. citizens can continue to travel from Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa, and Zimbabwe to the United States, and foreign nationals from these eight countries can continue returning to these eight countries from the United States. Cargo shipments on passenger flights and cargo-specific flights may also continue.
President Biden has promised to take every measure necessary to keep Americans safe and defeat the pandemic, and this is a step recommended by U.S. Government medical experts and the COVID-19 response team. We are in close contact with public health officials in southern Africa and are working closely with them to understand more about the Omicron variant. We value our longstanding public health cooperation with South Africa, and we also praise South Africa’s skilled scientists for the quick identification of this variant and South Africa’s Government for its transparency in sharing this information, which can also serve as a model for the rest of the world.
Let’s go with Jenny Hansler.
OPERATOR: We go to Jennifer Hansler with CNN. Please go ahead.
QUESTION: Hi. Thanks, Jalina. There is a report that Israel shared intelligence with the U.S. suggesting Iran is taking steps to enrich uranium to 90 percent purity. I was wondering if you had any comment on that report. Can you confirm it? Is it the U.S. assessment that Iran is taking these steps to enrich uranium at this purity level? And then do you have any sort of readout from the Vienna talks that kick off today? Thank you.
MS PORTER: Thanks, Jenny. I don’t have anything to preview or read out from the Vienna talks that started today. I suspect we’ll have more to come. But to your first question, I’ll just say that we’ve made clear that Iran’s continued nuclear escalations are unconstructive. They’re also inconsistent with what’s stated with the goal of returning to a mutual compliance with the JCPOA. It won’t provide Iran any negotiation – any negotiating leverage as we return to the talks.
Let’s go to Simon Lewis, please.
OPERATOR: Simon Lewis of Reuters. Please go ahead.
QUESTION: Hi. Thanks, Jalina. I hope you had a good holiday weekend. Also on Iran. After the talks in Vienna, the indirect talks in Vienna today, the European impression and Iranian diplomats all sort of sounded upbeat and seems to be some sort of optimism coming out of the talks. But I wonder, given Iran – that Iran is still insisting that all U.S. and EU sanctions have to be lifted, is there reason for optimism from the talks?
And just secondly, I wanted to see if you could respond to some comments by Ali Bagheri Kani, the Iranian top negotiator, who said, “It’s a major achievement that all parties in the meeting accepted Iran’s demand that, first, the situation of illegal and unjust U.S. sanctions should be cleared.” It continued a bit after that. But yeah, basically the Iranians are saying that there’s a – there seems to be agreement from – obviously, they’re indirect talks and you guys aren’t in the room. But is that something that the other parties in the talks agreed upon, and is the U.S. okay with that? Thank you.
OPERATOR: I’m sorry. Did you want me to go to the next person?
MS PORTER: No, no. Simon, hi, this is Jalina. We’re back here. Simon, I won’t get into the specific details on the talks as they’re imminent right now, but I can just underscore that the talks, of course, will remain indirect, which is at Iran’s request, and the United States has not participated in any of these meetings directly with Iran. And from the top, the Biden administration has been consistent, and we’ve also been sincere and steadfast in pursuing a path of meaningful diplomacy to achieve a mutual return to compliance with the JCPOA and also to address our full range of concerns with Iran.
Let’s go to Jiha Ham, please.
OPERATOR: Jiha Ham with Voice of America, please, go ahead.
QUESTION: Good afternoon, Jalina. Thanks for taking my questions. I have two questions today.
Recently, there was a news report that Canada has spotted dozens of vessels doing ship-to-ship transfers in the East China Sea. Those were possible activities that are related to North Korea. I mean, they’re violating sanctions on North Korea. Do you have any concerns? Do you have any messages to any countries that may be involved in these kinds of activities?
And my second question is from one of my colleagues. I would like to know if you have any updates on the appointments of some positions related to the Korean Peninsula, a new ambassador to the Republic of Korea and the special envoy for North Korea’s human rights. So do you have anything to share on these? Thank you.
MS PORTER: Thanks, Jiha. I’ll start with your first question first.
It’s important for the international community to send a strong message and also a unified message that the DPRK must halt provocations, abide by its obligations under the UN Security Council resolutions, and also engage in sustained and intensive negotiations with the U.S. The UN Security Council resolutions regarding the DPRK remain in effect, and we also urge all UN member-states to fulfill their obligations under those regulations.
To your second question, I’m going to have to take that back to the team.
Let’s go to Conor Finnegan, please.
OPERATOR: Next we go to the line of Conor Finnegan with ABC. Please, go ahead.
QUESTION: Hey, can you hear me?
MS PORTER: Yes. Hey, how are you? Can hear you.
QUESTION: I’m good. Great, I just wanted to press you on your topper there about the new travel restrictions. Some of the countries that you’ve banned travel from have not yet confirmed any cases of this new variant, and then obviously there are some other countries that have confirmed cases that are not facing these restrictions. So can you explain why some of these African countries are facing restrictions, speak to the criticism that you’re disincentivizing countries from coming forward and sharing their data, and then respond to the World Health Organization and the UN secretary general, among others, who say that these countries shouldn’t be penalized for sharing information? Thanks.
MS PORTER: Thanks, Conor. Well, I’ll just start off by saying that President Biden has made a steadfast promise to keep Americans safe and defeat the pandemic, and this was a step that was recommended by U.S. Government medical experts as well as the COVID-19 Response Team.
We are in close contact with public health officials in Africa, and we continue to work closely with them to understand more about this Omicron variant. And we certainly value our longstanding public health cooperation with South Africa, and we praise South Africa’s skilled scientists for the quick identification of this variant.
To your other point, more than a dozen other countries have taken similar action, which includes the UK, Canada, Australia, as well as some other European countries. As well as over the past 10 months, the United States has worked closely with southern African states and others impacted – other impacted nations to help them vaccinate their populations and try to combat the impacts of COVID-19.
Let’s go to Michele Kelemen.
OPERATOR: Next we’ll go to the line of Michele Kelemen with NPR. Please, go ahead.
QUESTION: Thank you. I have a question about Russia. Russia’s ambassador says that 27 of his colleagues and their family members have to leave the U.S. by January 30th. Why is that? Are they being expelled? And do you expect the Russians to retaliate on that?
And then secondly, do you have any update on Thomas West’s meetings in Doha with the Taliban? Thank you.
MS PORTER: Thanks, Michele. I’ll just start off by saying just as the Russian Federation grants our diplomats with an initial three-way stay in Russia, the U.S. also informed Russia about a year ago that its diplomats would be subject to the same three-year assignments, which is not abnormal.
The diplomats that the Russian ambassador references will have been in the United States at – for at least more than three years, and they also have been informed that they will need to depart when their assignments end. The U.S. approaches – approach creates greater parity with our diplomatic missions, as both will rotate their staff with some level of frequency, and we will continue to discuss this matter with Russia.
To your second question on Special Representative West, he departed to Doha on November 27th for two days of meetings with Taliban leaders on November 29th and November 30th. The United States continues to pursue the priorities in Afghanistan, which includes counterterrorism, respect for human rights, as well as safe passage for U.S. citizens and our Afghan allies to whom we have a special commitment. These goals – the goals of these meetings, of course, is to advance our interests in Afghanistan through candid dialogue with Taliban representatives.
Let’s go to Michel Ghandour.
OPERATOR: Next we’ll go to the line of Michel Ghandour with MBN. Please, go ahead.
QUESTION: Yes, thank you for the call. I want to go back to Iran. Is the U.S. ready to lift all the sanctions imposed since the withdrawal from the JCPOA, as Iran requests?
MS PORTER: Thanks for that. I won’t get into the details or any hypotheticals from here, but I’ll just focus on the goal, which is a mutual return to compliance. And of course, as you know, that’s in America’s national interest, and we believe it’s the best available option to restrict Iran’s nuclear program and also provide a platform to address Iran’s destabilizing conduct. If Iran demands more or offers less than a mutual return to compliance, these negotiations will not succeed.
Let’s go to Kylie Atwood.
OPERATOR: Go to Kylie Atwood with CNN. Please, go ahead
QUESTION: Hi. Thanks for doing the call. Just wanted to follow up quickly on the Russian diplomatic question from Michele. Could you just clarify: The Russian diplomats are going to have to leave because of the three-year visa. Russia is allowed to backfill those diplomats – is that correct – they just have to apply for visas here to the United States?
MS PORTER: Thanks, Kylie. So just to double down on the question from both you and Michele, so what’s happening is not an expulsion. The Russian Government has been informed, of course, and it can replace those who are departing by finding other members of its diplomatic corps to the positions. These new procedures are not punitive, but they’ve been introduced to enable greater parity between the U.S. and Russian bilateral mission.
Let’s go to Pearl Matibe, please.
OPERATOR: Pearl Matibe with Power FM 98.7, please, go ahead.
MS PORTER: Thank you. Happy Monday, and hopefully you had a good Thanksgiving, Jalina. At the top I just want to let you know – in a prior briefing I had mentioned that a friend and cabinet minister in president – in Prime Minister Hamdok’s team had been arrested and I feared he had been killed. I just want to correct that on the 26th I found out that he has in fact been released – that’s Khaled Omar – he has in fact been released. I just wanted to alert you on that one.
So moving on from Sudan, I would like to go to Southern Africa. Jalina, I have three – a three-part question for you. Last night, President Cyril Ramaphosa addressed his citizens of South Africa, and the language that he used in his address – he talked of being deeply disappointed and he talked about discrimination he felt was made against South Africa. I’d like to find out from you: Does the Biden administration have anything beyond that’s something maybe that you can assuage the remarks that Cyril Ramaphosa made in his address yesterday?
The second part of my question is: Do you have any comment at this point? I know that investigating the variant, the Omicron variant, will take a couple of weeks, but is there anything that the United States Government can do in terms of the IP waiver that President Cyril Ramaphosa has been talking about and trying to lead on for a few months now? So maybe if you can comment on that.
And my last part of my question is really to speak to our audiences – these are the general people, Main Street Southern Africa – not to the leaders, not to the elderly people, to the young people, the families who, going into the Christmas period, they have this culture in Southern Africa which is generally called the Christmas Box. This is a period where they are – these long-suffering Southern Africans, this is like the one time in the year that they can feel happy. Right now there’s a general frustration towards the United States because the United States does lead on the global stage. Can you maybe speak to them about – they’re going into this period without these travel where they might look to their diaspora who might be coming home, bringing things, but – and coming back here but cannot travel. Could you speak to Main Street Southern Africa in view of – of course today FOCAC is starting today in Senegal – where they might feel the disappointment towards the West, they may lean East. Maybe if you could comment on that – I’d appreciate it. Thanks.
MS PORTER: Thanks, Pearl. I’ll start with your last question and try to get through all of them as best as possible. I want to repeat something I said at the top about what’s going on with the travel restrictions and just underscore that the reason we have them in place is to keep people safe. So I hope that when your audience hears this they know it’s in good faith to make sure that their family members are being kept safe not only where they are now, but with any travel or anything they’re trying to do over the holidays. So again, these measures that are in place apply to foreign national travelers regardless of nationality, based on the travelers’ physical presence – excuse me – in Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa, or Zimbabwe. So current U.S. visa holders who have been present in those key countries, including for transit during 14 days prior to entry or attempted entry into the United States, will be restricted to entry with these restrictions. And again, the overall goal is to beat the pandemic and keep everyone – our partners and allies and friends all over the globe – as safe as possible.
To your second question, I won’t speak about ongoing investigations from here. If we have anything more to share with you, we will at a later time. To your first question, the Secretary spoke with his South African counterpart and we do have a readout to point from the website for that, but I just want to underscore from here that the administration views African countries as our partners in pursuing shared interests, which obviously include global health, climate, inclusive economic growth, democracy, peace, and prosperity. We also value a strong U.S.-African relationship that also enables – will address the shared challenges that we face across the globe.
Let’s go to Mike Crowley.
OPERATOR: Go to Michael Crowley with New York Times. Please go ahead.
QUESTION: Thank you, Jalina. Question on the variants: Has the variants’ emergence caused the administration to reassess or consider updating its international vaccine distribution policies, both in terms of vaccine donations and any efforts involved in – related to getting vaccines from shipment into people’s arms?
MS PORTER: Thanks, Mike. I don’t have any policy changes to announce from here, but what I will say is that the Biden administration has been committed to being the leader in vaccine diplomacy, in getting shots in arms, and, of course, that includes keeping Americans safe and everyone safe around the world. If we have something to share with you later, we will, but for that I actually would refer to my colleagues at the White House.
Let’s go to Rosiland Jordan, please.
OPERATOR: Rosiland Jordan with Al Jazeera English. Please go ahead.
QUESTION: Hi, Jalina. Thanks for doing the call. I want to come back to the Iran enrichment story. Two questions: One, does the U.S. believe that Iran has any equipment in which it could use highly enriched uranium as a weapon? Alternatively, is the thinking in the U.S. Government that Iran might be enriching the uranium in order to sell it to some other party in order to bring in cash?
And then the larger question in light of this week’s talks in Vienna: If the U.S. and its allies believe that Iran has in fact enriched uranium beyond the terms allowed in the JCPOA, does the JCPOA need to be updated before the U.S. can actually become a party to it again? Thanks.
MS PORTER: Thanks, Rosiland. To your second question, I’ll just say that right now we’re focused – hyperfocused – on the negotiations. And to your first question, I’d say that we’re just not going to comment on some of the information that’s being shared here, and the enrichment to 90 percent obviously would be a provocative act. And I’ll just underscore that we’ve made clear that Iran’s continued nuclear escalations are unconstructive and they’re also inconsistent with what’s stated in the goal of returning to a mutual compliance with the JCPOA. Of course, they won’t provide Iran any negotiating leverage as we are in the talks.
Let’s go to the line of Alejandra Arredondo.
OPERATOR: Alejandra Arredondo with Voice of America, please, go ahead.
QUESTION: Yes, hello. Can you hear me well? Thank you so much for doing this. My question is regarding the recent elections in Honduras. I want to know if State can comment on how Xiomara Castro seems to be the candidate that is heading – ahead in the election’s results, and how – and also State’s comments on how the elections were developed and what happened during the weekend. Thank you so much.
MS PORTER: Thanks, Alejandra. So we are following the election proceedings in Honduras very closely. We urge patience and calm as the National Electoral Council carries out its role in counting the vote. In the run-up to the election and on election day, the United States supports the conditions for the peaceful conduct of free and fair elections in Honduras, and we also call on all parties to commit themselves to this objective. We also congratulate the Honduran people for the high turnout as well as the active civil society participation in the election just yesterday. They made clear that their aspirations are for progress, and the United States renews its commitment to accompany that progress with the next government of Honduras.
As we’ve said during the campaign period, of course, the decision of who will lead Honduras is for the Honduran citizens to decide for themselves. The United States supports the democratic process but, of course, not any candidate in particular. Throughout the election cycle we have been a part of an international effort to support the peaceful and transparent conduct of free and fair elections.
Let’s take the final question from Nadia Bilbassy, please.
OPERATOR: Final question from Nadia Bilbassy with Arabiya. Please, go ahead.
QUESTION: Hi, Jalina. Actually, my question was about Iran but all my colleagues asked all my questions. Let me try one last attempt. Is this administration understanding that the Iranians insisting on lifting the sanctions without compliance before entering this seventh round – do you know this in advance before you sent your envoy to Vienna? And if this is the case, how do you expect the talks to go ahead? Thank you.
MS PORTER: Thanks, Nadia. What I’ll say is that it’s no secret that sanctions relief issues have been a priority for Iran throughout the entire negotiation process, but we won’t negotiate in the press or comment on specific claims about those negotiations. The precise nature and sequence of the sanctions-related steps that the U.S. would need to take to achieve a mutual return to compliance with the JCPOA is a subject of the talks. A mutual return to compliance with the JCPOA is the best option to restrict Iran’s nuclear program and also provide a platform to address its destabilizing conduct. And, of course, if Iran demands more or happens to offer less, these negotiations will not succeed.
That concludes today’s daily press briefing. Thank you all for joining, and I hope you have a great rest of your week ahead.
(The briefing was concluded at 2:35 p.m.)