Remarks by Rex W. Tillerson, Secretary of State
Hilton Midtown Hotel, New York City,
September 20, 2017
SECRETARY TILLERSON: Well, good evening, all. I want to begin, first, by extending our condolences to all those who have suffered, continue to suffer, from the devastation from the natural disasters that we are witnessing around the Western Hemisphere.
Obviously, this succession of massive hurricanes in the Caribbean are really testing, I think, the will and the spirit of the people that live in that area, and it’s also testing our response capabilities. What I would tell you is our response capabilities have been extraordinary. We’re really grateful for the cooperation with other nations. As you know, there are many nations involved in these string of islands that have been affected, and the cooperation’s just been tremendous in terms of our ability to address the needs of our own citizens, the American people that are in those areas, but also to work cooperatively with other nations and help them as well.
I also want to extend our thoughts to the people of Mexico and let them know that we stand with you in the aftermath of two very bad and massive earthquakes. I know many of you are following the most recent quake in Mexico City, a very heartbreaking situation to watch unfold.
The President did speak to President Pena Nieto earlier today, expressed his own deep concerns about the situation, also indicated though his immediate deployment of assistance to Mexico City of search and rescue expertise, a team – very large team – of people who are trained for these specific type of circumstances. Immediately he deployed those towards Mexico City with heavy equipment. President Pena Nieto obviously thanked the President for that, said he welcomed and accepted that assistance.
And the President assured him if there are other ways in which we can help, notwithstanding the fact that we’re continuing to deal with some significant aftermaths of Hurricane Harvey, Hurricane Irma, and now to the extent we will be dealing with Hurricane Maria. This, I think, is a real testament to the relationship between the United States and Mexico. And again, our thoughts and prayers are with the Mexican people as they’re dealing with this terrible tragedy, and again, ready to help them in any way we can.
I know you want to get to your questions quickly, so I’m not going to make a long number of comments, just to make a couple of remarks. I did just come from a meeting of the parties responsible for the JCPOA, the Iranian nuclear deal. This was a ministerial-level meeting that the EU high commissioner convened so that we could have an exchange of views around the table of all the parties to the agreement as to how implementation is performing. It was not a technical discussion; it was a political discussion of the political aspects. So we had a very open and candid exchange of all of the parties to that agreement. I think it was – I hope it was useful to others. I found it useful to hear their perspectives. I hope they found it useful as well.
We clearly have significant issues with the agreement. The President’s been quite clear and articulate as to his concerns about the agreement itself, the thoroughness of the agreement, the enforcement of the agreement. And I think, really as he has said and I’ve said many times as well, that when look – when one looks at – he uses the word “spirit of the agreement,” I use the word “expectations of the agreement” – that even contained in the preamble of the agreement there’s a – there was clear expectations of the parties who were negotiating this nuclear deal that a conclusion of the nuclear agreement, which set aside, obviously, a serious threat to the region and to the relationship, and that by doing so this would allow the parties to seek a more stable, peaceful region. That was the expectation of the parties.
And regrettably, since the agreement was confirmed, we have seen anything but a more peaceful, stable region. And this is the real issue. And that’s why we talk about Iran defaulting on these expectations, because those expectations clearly have not been met. Since that time, Iran has continued to prop up the Assad regime and its horrible way in which it has brought violence to its own people. They have continued to engage in malicious cyber activity. They have aggressively developed and tested ballistic missiles in defiance of UN Security Council Resolution 2231, thereby threatening the security of the United States and the stability of the region. They’ve provided weapons and training forces to deploy to create instability throughout the region in Yemen, in Syria, and in Iraq. And I think we even see them carrying out provocative operations in the Gulf itself against our naval and coalition vessels as they try to peacefully transit the Gulf, threatening the very freedom of navigation through this very important waterway.
So I think it’s pretty difficult to say that the expectations of the parties who negotiated this agreement have been met. Perhaps the technical aspects have, but in the broader context the aspiration has not. So recently, the U.S. has taken action to counter those activities. As you know, additional sanctions were recently put in place to deal with the ballistic missile testing, the cyber activity, these other destabilizing activities. And we’re going to continue to monitor Iran’s activities and we will take additional steps, none of which put us in any way contrary to our – or are contrary to our obligations under the JCPOA. We are fully compliant with the JCPOA. The activities we are sanctioning Iran for carrying out are not covered under the technical agreement, the JCPOA itself.
But I think in particular, the agreement has this very concerning shortcoming that the President has mentioned as well, and that is the sunset clause, where one can almost set the countdown clock to when Iran can resume its nuclear weapons programs, its nuclear activities. And that’s something that the President simply finds unacceptable. All of you are keenly aware of the circumstances we’re dealing with with North Korea. When we look at the history of North Korea’s weapons development program, in many senses we’ve seen this before – agreements that just simply pushed it to another government, another administration, to deal with.
The President has made it clear he doesn’t intend to do that in this case. He takes his responsibility in this particular matter quite seriously, and that is the reason he is very, very carefully considering the decision of whether we find the JCPOA to continue to serve the security interests of the American people or not. We expect Iran to fulfill its commitments. We’re going to – until that time, we’ll fulfill our commitments, and the President has the matter under consideration.
So with that, let me stop. That’s the most recent event I came from. There have been a number of UN-related events, and I’m happy to do the best I can to address questions you may have around the many, many activities that are going on. And I’m going to allow Heather to referee for me.
MS NAUERT: Thank you, sir. Let’s start with Matt Lee from the Associated Press.
QUESTION: Thanks. Mr. Secretary, the President said this morning that he had actually made a decision on what to do about the Iran nuclear deal, and I’m wondering, one, if you can share with us what that decision is. And secondly, about the meeting that you just came from, the European foreign policy chief, Ms. Mogherini, said that all the members, all the parties who were there, agreed that the deal is working towards its purpose. And from what you said just now, you don’t seem to fully agree with that. So is she – is that characterization from her correct or not?
SECRETARY TILLERSON: First, as to the President making a decision, as he indicated earlier I think in a press avail or spray somewhere that he had made a decision – he has not shared that with anyone externally. Prime Minister May asked him if she – if he would share it with her, and he said no. So I think, as the President has always indicated, he will let you know when he thinks it’s useful to let you know, and he doesn’t share his forward planning with people. But he, I believe, has made a decision.
With respect to the high commissioner’s characterization of the meeting, I think, again, it’s important to think about – and I don’t want to go into a lot of detail of our discussions out of respect for the way we agreed we’d treat those discussions – from a technical standpoint, the IAEA reports continue to indicate and confirm that Iran is in technical compliance of the agreement, and no one around the table took exception to that. The political side of the discussion is what I shared with you, and so I think the high commissioner was reflecting the rigid and strict contours of the agreement itself.
MS NAUERT: Elise with CNN.
QUESTION: Thank you. Mr. Secretary, you made the correlation between North Korea and Iran, so if I could follow up on that. First of all, you said the other day that North Korea was starting to show some effects of the sanctions. Could you expand a little bit on that? What are you seeing so far?
And when you say – when you talk about the deal – that you want an agreement with North Korea, and then you seem to kind of move the goalpost a little bit on Iran, I mean, I think your counterparts would say that yes, that the expectation was always there that this might – and the hope, I think, that Iran would improve its behavior, but that was never written into the agreement. And so what do you say to those that are concerned that if you – why would North Korea make an agreement with the United States if it’s going to go back on its word and its – on its agreement, and does this hurt the credibility of the United States in making deals in the future? Thank you.
SECRETARY TILLERSON: Well, I think in terms of an agreement that we would strike with North Korea would be of a very different nature than the Iranian JCPOA, which by its title is a joint commission plan of action. It doesn’t even contain the word “agreement” in its title, and this is one of the challenges. So what we really have is a plan that was – that then was agreed and memorialized.
We – again, we would take a very different view of the nature of the North Korean agreement. And it is because while the threat is the same – it’s nuclear weapons – the issues surrounding North Korea are very different than the issues surrounding Iran. Iran is a large nation, 60 million people; North Korea is a smaller nation, the hermit kingdom, living in isolation. Very different set of circumstances that would be the context and also the contours of an agreement with North Korea, many aspects of which don’t apply between the two.
So the threat’s the same, but the nature of the agreements are going to be quite different in terms of what’s necessary to achieve the objective: a denuclearized North Korea, an Iran that never pursues nuclear weapons. So the endpoints, obviously, are the same, but the elements that allow you to achieve that are very, very different.
QUESTION: On the sanctions?
MS NAUERT: Dave Clark from AFP.
SECRETARY TILLERSON: I’m sorry, on the —
QUESTION: On the North Korean sanctions?
SECRETARY TILLERSON: We are – we have some indications that there are beginning to appear evidence of fuel shortages. And look, we knew that these sanctions were going to take some time to be felt, because we knew the North Koreans, based on information that the Chinese had shared with us and others had shared with us, had basically stockpiled a lot of inventory early in the year when they saw the new administration coming in in anticipation of things perhaps changing. So I think what we’re seeing is a combined effect of these inventories are now being exhausted, and the supply coming in has been reduced. But there are indications that there are shortages, of fuel in particular, and I think we will see latent evidence of the impact of the other sanctions that have been put in place.
MS NAUERT: Dave Clark with AFP.
QUESTION: Thank you. Mr. Secretary, this was your first encounter with the Iranian foreign minister, Mr. Zarif. How did that go? Is there – do you – given the deep concerns you have about Iran’s behavior, do you think their officials are people that you can negotiate with?
SECRETARY TILLERSON: Well, the Iranian people – first, let’s talk about the Iranian people – are a very well educated, very sophisticated population, so their leaders similarly are well educated, very sophisticated. And Foreign Minister Zarif certainly is in that category. So yes, the – whether we can agree, that’s another thing. We certainly have – we have very different views of this relationship. And I think in many respects, one of the great challenges for us is coming to some understanding of what defines this U.S.-Iran relationship. Because it is not a – it’s not a particularly longstanding relationship. It’s only been in – the current relationship in place for about 40 years. It was borne out of the revolution with our embassy being seized; it’s been scarred by terrible attacks against our men and women in uniform, enabled by Iranian capability.
So this is a very – it’s a relationship that’s never had a stable, happy moment in it. And I think if we ever get the chance to talk, perhaps that’s where we ought to start talking, is: Is this going to be the way it is for the rest of our lives and our children’s lives and our grandchildren’s lives? And we’ve never had that conversation.
So I don’t know. We’ll see. It was a good opportunity to meet, shake hands. The tone was very matter of fact, it was not – there was no yelling, we didn’t throw shoes at one another. It was not an angry tone at all. It was a very, very matter-of-fact exchange of how we see this agreement very, very differently.
MS NAUERT: Dave Jackson, USA Today.
QUESTION: Oh, I —
MS NAUERT: (Off-mike.)
MS NAUERT: Go right ahead.
QUESTION: Secretary Tillerson, why is Mr. Trump – Mr. Trump keeps suggesting that he’s going to kill the Iran deal, but he won’t tell us exactly what he – why is he stringing this out and why is he speaking of the agreement in the way that he is?
SECRETARY TILLERSON: All in due time.
QUESTION: Well, why not go in and say what the decision is now rather than keep people in suspense?
SECRETARY TILLERSON: Well, there is additional work that goes with that decision, so – I mean, yes, it’s very easy to make a unilateral decision, just say, “I’m doing it,” and then let the cards fall where they may, let the dust hit the ground where it hits – but in terms of how do we want to prepare ourselves and others for a decision. So I think – and I think the President, I think he’s going about it in the correct way. He’s being very deliberative. He has heard all – he’s heard the arguments from both sides. If no one wanted to make that argument, then someone would put that case together and say, “But we have to think about it from this perspective.” He’s listened to all of that and I think we’ve had sufficient time to get our own kind of direct understanding of this agreement and how it functions and see how the implementation works, see how the IAEA works.
And so I think – I think the time has come for a decision to be made, and it is the President that has to make the decision, and he has really considered the input, thinking about it from all the angles. And so I didn’t know he was going to say today he’s made a decision. I knew he had, but I didn’t know he was going to say he had. (Laughter.) So if he had just not said that, you wouldn’t have been asking me this question.
QUESTION: If he does recertify, what happens then?
MS NAUERT: Margaret Brennan with CBS.
QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, thank you very much. President Rouhani said today there would be no alterations to the existing deal and that it would be, frankly, a waste of time, he said, to talk to the Trump administration about a new one. He also said the Iranian people deserve an apology for President Trump’s insulting UN address. All of this together looks like the atmosphere to diplomacy is getting worse. How do you respond to this?
SECRETARY TILLERSON: Well, first, as a longtime negotiator, I learned to never say never. And second, it always gets the darkest before you might have a breakthrough.
QUESTION: So you think one is possible?
SECRETARY TILLERSON: As I’ve said to people many times, as the nation’s chief diplomat, I better be the most optimistic person standing in the room.
MS NAUERT: Final question, Jeff Mason from Reuters.
QUESTION: Thank you very much. Mr. Secretary, if the President decides or has decided to end this agreement, one of your jobs no doubt would be to articulate that to some of your other allies who are pressing the U.S. to stay in. Have you laid the groundwork for that? And you said —
SECRETARY TILLERSON: We —
QUESTION: Let me just throw one more question in.
SECRETARY TILLERSON: Go ahead.
QUESTION: You said you had a matter-of-fact conversation with your Iranian counterpart. Can you envision having that kind of a conversation with North Korea?
SECRETARY TILLERSON: I’ll take the second question first. I don’t know whether I can have the same kind of a matter-of-fact discussion with North Korea, because we don’t know how their means of communication and behavior will be. We do have – we have very, very limited contact with their representative here at the UN from time to time, but how the decision maker or the people that are closer to the decision maker are going to behave is something we will have to understand and learn, so I can’t really answer that question.
The first part of your question was?
QUESTION: It was reaching out to allies that want the U.S. —
SECRETARY TILLERSON: Yes. Well, we – look, the allies have known, because President Trump – this was – he has talked about in his campaign, he’s continued to talk about it every time the – we had to come up on the 90-day certification. He’s talked about it. So we have been in discussion with our allies for quite a long time, and I have been in contact with my counterparts, including I’ve been in contact with heads of state that are signatories to the agreement. It was on – up for discussion when I was in London last week.
So we’ve had a lot of exchange over what – how would they view this, how would this affect them. One of the things that we – and I mentioned all these other activities of Iran that we think really do violate the expectation and that we are sanctioning them for those. We also have been making the case to our allies that you share our concern about Iran’s behavior; please join us in sending that strong message to them, and you’re not violating the agreement. And I think they are looking more carefully. I think there’s been a bit of a hesitancy because of their commitment to the agreement to think about sanctioning some of these same activities. We believe they’re now looking more carefully and seriously at that as a means to push back on this other behavior of Iran’s that they agree with us is just simply unacceptable.
So in answer to your original question, there’s been a lot of dialogue about it, a lot of discussion. So we’ve heard from them; they’ve – and we’ve listened a lot to them as we’ve walked up to making our own decision.
QUESTION: One last question, sir?
MS NAUERT: Thank you, everyone.