Press Briefing by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Secretary of Treasury Steven Mnuchin on Iran Sanctions

James S. Brady Press Briefing Room

10:27 A.M. EST

SECRETARY MNUCHIN: Good morning, everybody. Thank you for being here today. I’d just like to make a brief comment before we talk about Iran sanctions. I’m sure everybody saw that the DOW hit 29,000. The President’s economic plans are clearly working. We’re looking forward to the China signing, USMCA, and a very strong economy this year.

As previously announced by the President, we are announcing additional sanctions against the Iranian regime as a result of the attack on U.S. and allied troops.

First, the President is issuing an executive order authorizing the imposition of additional sanctions against any individual owning, operating, trading with, or assisting sectors of the Iranian economy, including construction, manufacturing, textiles, and mining. And let me be clear: These will be both primary and secondary sanctions. The EO also allows us to designate other sectors in the future as Secretary Pompeo and me think is appropriate.

Second, we are announcing 17 specific sanctions against Iran’s largest steel and iron manufacturers, three Seychelles-based entities, and a vessel involved in the transfer of products. As a result of these actions, we will cut off billions of dollars of support to the Iranian regime, and we will continue our enforcement of other entities.

Third, we are taking action against eight senior Iranian officials who advanced the regime’s destabilizing activity and were involved in Tuesday’s ballistic missile strike. Secretary Pompeo will comment more on this.

Today’s sanctions are part of our commitment to stop the Iranian regime’s global terrorist activities. The President has been very clear: We will continue to apply economic sanctions until Iran stops its terrorist activities and commit that it will never have nuclear weapons.

I’ll now turn it over to Secretary Pompeo.

SECRETARY POMPEO: Thank you, Steven. Good morning, everyone.

Today, President Trump is delivering on the pledge that he made the day after Iran attacked American forces in Iraq: There will be a series of new sanctions.

Secretary Mnuchin just mentioned eight senior Iranian officials that are responsible for the regime’s violence, both at home and abroad. We’re striking at the heart of the Islamic Republic’s inner security apparatus. These sanctions targets include the Secretary of the Supreme National Council and the Commander of the Basij Forces; that’s the regime’s brute squad, which has, in the last few months, killed approximately 1,500 Iranians who were simply demanding freedom.

Our action targets other senior leaders close to the Ayatollah. They’ve carried out his terrorist plots in destabilizing campaigns across the Middle East and around the world. They’ve employed soldiers across the region’s battlefields. They’ve trained militias in Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere in the arts of domestic repression.

Today, they’re accountable for murder and mayhem. The goal of our campaign is to deny the regime the resources to conduct its destructive foreign policy. We want Iran to simply behave like a normal nation. We believe the sanctions that we impose today further that strategic objective.

Our campaign is composed of diplomatic, economic components that have deprived the regime of billions in revenue the regime has used to fuel death and destruction across the Middle East and all across the world.

Sadly, the previous administration had opened up revenue streams for Iran. But under our administration, oil revenues are down by 80 percent and Iran cannot access roughly 90 percent of its foreign currency reserves. And not even two weeks ago, President Rouhani of Iran admitted that our sanctions have cost Iran over $200 billion in lost foreign income and investment. As long as Iran’s outlaw ways continue, we will continue to impose sanctions.

Finally, I want to reiterate President Trump’s concern for Americans and dual national citizens detained inside of Iran. Iran knows these individuals have committed no crime. They know the charges against them are fake. And we will do all that we can to get each of them returned home safely to their families.

With that, we’ll take just a few questions.

Yes, ma’am.

Q Mr. Secretary, the administration said this strike was based on an imminent threat, but this morning you said we didn’t know precisely when and we didn’t know precisely where. That’s not the definition of “imminent.” The President has also suggested that there was some sort of attack being planned against an embassy, perhaps several embassies.

Can you clarify? Did you have specific information about an imminent threat, and did it have anything to do with our embassies?

SECRETARY POMPEO: We had specific information on an imminent threat, and those threats included attacks on U.S. embassies. Period. Full stop.

Q So you were mistaken when you said you didn’t know precisely when and you didn’t know precisely where?

SECRETARY POMPEO: Nope. Completely true. Those are completely consistent thoughts. I don’t know exactly which minute. We don’t know exactly which day it would’ve been executed. But it was very clear: Qasem Soleimani himself was plotting a broad, large-scale attack against American interests. And those attacks were imminent.

Q Against an embassy?

SECRETARY POMPEO: Against American facilities, including American embassies, military bases. American facilities throughout the region.

Q Mr. Secretary —

SECRETARY POMPEO: Yes, sir. John?

Q Mr. Secretary, in the initial hours after the missile attacks on Al-Asad, in Erbil, it was believed that Iran may have taken steps to avoid U.S. casualties. But then, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Mark Milley, came out, the Secretary of Defense came out, other officials came out to say, “No, these missiles were intended to kill Americans.”

If it was Iran’s intent to kill Americans, does that not deserve some sort of response? I mean, if somebody takes a shot at you and they don’t hit you simply because you duck, does that mean that they weren’t trying to kill you?

SECRETARY POMPEO: So, look, I’ll defer to the Department of Defense on the details, but there’s no doubt in my judgment, as I observed the Iranian activity in the region that night, they had the full intention of carrying — killing U.S. forces, whether that was our military folks or diplomatic folks who were in the region. And I am confident that the response the President has taken is appropriate.

The President said we don’t want war; we want Iran to behave like a normal nation. The reason that the Secretary of Treasury and I are here this morning is to continue this campaign — our strategic effort to get Iran to behave in a way that doesn’t continue their 40-year-long effort to terrorize the world.

Q Mr. Secretary and Secretary Pompeo, do you believe that the Iranians shot down the Ukrainian International Airways [sic] plane? And if the Iranians shot that plane down, will there be consequences?

SECRETARY POMPEO: We do believe that it’s likely that that plane was shot down by an Iranian missile. We’re going to let the investigation play out before we make a final determination. It’s important that we get to the bottom of it.

I’ve been on the phone — I was on the phone with President Zelensky. Just before I came here, I was on the phone with my Canadian counterpart. They’re working to get their resources on the ground to conduct that thorough investigation. We’ll learn more about what happened to that aircraft. And when we get the results of that investigation, I am confident we and the world will take appropriate actions in response.

SECRETARY MNUCHIN: And let me just —

Q Will you allow the NTSB to work with the Iranians?

SECRETARY MNUCHIN: Yeah, I was just going to comment on that. The Treasury will issue waivers for anybody, whether it’s Americans or others, that can help facilitate the investigation.

Q The last time that you both joined us in this room, it was back in September and you were announcing additional sanctions, including on the Quds Force. And, Secretary Mnuchin, at that point you said, “I think we’ve done more sanctions on Iran than anybody, and it’s absolutely working.”

Since then, we’ve seen an escalation in violence from Iran: shooting down the drone, attacking the embassy, a contractor who was killed, U.S. troops that were wounded. How are sanctions keeping the United States — economic sanctions keeping the United States and United States’ interests more secure?

SECRETARY MNUCHIN: I think we have 100 percent confidence, and we are consistent in our view that the economic sanctions are working; that if we didn’t have these sanctions in place, literally Iran would have tens of billions of dollars. They would be using that for terrorist activities throughout the region and to enable them to do more bad things. And there’s no question, by cutting off the economics to the region, we are having an impact.

And as the President has said, the fact that the Obama administration turned over $150 billion to the regime, we think we wouldn’t be in this situation had that not been the case.

SECRETARY POMPEO: May I just add, it’s important to keep in mind what’s taking place in Iran today. This country has never been in the place that it is today. Big, challenging problems. Their budget — they’re going to fail by tens of billions of dollars of achieving their revenue for this year. They’ve got real challenges, and figuring out how to make difficult decisions: Do you underwrite Hezbollah? Do you pick Hamas? Do you underwrite the Shia militias in Iraq? Or do you allow your people to have the opportunity to live the life they want and grow your economy? Those are the difficult choices that the regime is facing.

And you can see the protests — protests that we expect will continue — that we’ll demand from the Iranian regime that they begin to treat the Iranian people in the way that they so richly deserve. And this administration will continue to support those efforts as well.

SECRETARY MNUCHIN: In the back.

Q Thank you, Mr. Secretary. You mentioned secondary sanctions here. What is your message to our European allies who continue to do business with the Iranians? And then, specifically, if you can, will this impact the INSTEX barter mechanism, which was set up by a number of European countries to avoid U.S. sanctions and continue to do business without using the U.S. dollar?

SECRETARY MNUCHIN: Sure. Thank you. I think those are both very important questions.

So let me first comment on INSTEX. I don’t believe there’s been any INSTEX transactions. As we’ve made clear, we are working on a Swiss channel that we have approved for humanitarian transactions. We’ll continue to allow humanitarian transactions. We’ve warned INSTEX and others that they will most likely be subject to secondary sanctions, depending on how they use that. So that’s absolutely the case.

As it relates to the Europeans, both the Secretary and I have spoken to our counterparts in Europe several times over the last few days. We’ve emphasized the impact and the issue of — Iran has announced that they are no longer part of the JCPOA. And we’ve had very direct conversations with our counterparts about that.

Q Secretary Pompeo, what is your definition of “imminent”?

SECRETARY POMPEO: This was going to happen, and American lives were at risk. And we would have been culpably negligent. As the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said, we would have been culpably negligent had we not recommended to the President that he take this action at Qasem Soleimani. He made the right call, and America is safer as a result of that.

Q But then why has there been these — Secretary Pompeo, why have there been these shifting definitions —

(Cross-talk.)

Q Thank you. Thank you, sir.

SECRETARY MNUCHIN: Go — go ahead. We’re going to —

Q — shifting explanations of the intelligence?

SECRETARY MNUCHIN: We’re going to try to do one question for everybody, just —

Q Were they trying to hit Iranian troops — was Iran trying to hit our troops or not?

SECRETARY MNUCHIN: — so that as many people can get questions. So I don’t mean to cut you off, but we’re trying to — go ahead.

Q I mean, let me defer to my colleague — but, sir, six months ago, Secretary Pompeo, the President said that U.S. intelligence agencies had been running amok. He spent most of the past three years he’s been in office denigrating and attacking the intelligence community and disputing findings, whether it’s on Russia or North Korea, or really any area that contradicts things that he has said publicly.

Why then should Americans suddenly believe your assertions that you had good intelligence on this when the head of the Executive Branch has been casting aspersions on the intelligence community for most of his time in office?

SECRETARY POMPEO: Look, I served as the CIA Director for the first year and a half of this administration. I watched the President rely on the work that the intelligence community did for the entire time I served as the head of the Central Intelligence Agency. I watched him rely on the capable men and women who are delivering exquisite information to the Executive Branch. I watched the President have confidence in that information.

We all challenge their work. We have to make sure we get it right. The intelligence community is not flawless. We — we get it wrong. In this case, the intelligence community got it fundamentally right. Even the reflections we’ve seen after the after-effect, after the strike that Qasem Soleimani took, has demonstrated that we were quite right. There was an imminent attack. There was active plotting. And we took an action that we thought was likely to create less risk for the American people, and I’m confident that we did that.

SECRETARY MNUCHIN: Go ahead, in the back. In the back.

Q Thank you. This question is for Secretary Pompeo. There are reports that the Iraqi Prime Minister has asked you to start negotiating some withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq immediately. Is that the case? Can you comment on that?

SECRETARY POMPEO: Yeah, he didn’t quite characterize the conversation correctly. But to the larger, more important point, we are happy to continue the conversation with the Iraqis about what the right structure is. Our mission set there is very clear: We’ve been there to perform a training mission to help the Iraqi security forces be successful and to continue the campaign against ISIS, the counter-Daesh campaign.

We’re going to continue that mission. But as the — as times change and we get to a place where we can deliver upon what I believe and the President believes is our right structure, with fewer resources dedicated to that mission, we will do so.

We also have today a NATO team that’s here at the State Department working to develop a plan, which will get burden-sharing right in the region, as well, so that we can continue the important missions to protect and defend and keep the American people safe while reducing our cost, our resources, and our burden, and the risk to our soldiers and sailors who are in the region.

Q Secretary Pompeo, if I can — here, today, at the podium, you said that the imminent threat was a threat to U.S. embassies. You didn’t know precisely when or where. Last night, the President said it was a threat to embassies, including to our Baghdad embassy.

Why can you say that here, and the President could say it at a rally in Toledo, but no one said it to lawmakers behind closed doors in a classified setting, as multiple senators have since said?

SECRETARY POMPEO: We did.

Q You said —

SECRETARY POMPEO: Yes.

Q So the senators are lying when they say that (inaudible) imminent threat was a threat?

SECRETARY POMPEO: We told them about the imminent threat. All of the intelligence that we’ve briefed, that you’ve heard today, I assure you, in an unclassified setting, we provide in the classified setting as well.

Q To be clear, you told them that embassies were the — were to be targeted? That was the imminent threat?

SECRETARY POMPEO: I’m not going to talk about the details of what we shared in a classified setting. But make no mistake about it: Those leaders, those members of Congress who want to go access this same intelligence, can see that very same intelligence that will reflect what I described to you and what the President said last night, as well.

Q Is that threat now gone with Soleimani gone?

SECRETARY POMPEO: Threats are never gone. Uh, right? It’s always — a lot of danger in the world.

Q The next general will pick it up?

SECRETARY POMPEO: Always — always a lot of danger in the world, throughout the region. Nobody believed that a single mission, in any respect, took down the risk of terror — terror from al Qaeda, terror from ISIS, terror from al-Shabaab. No — no one believes that. The President doesn’t.

Look at the list though; look at the achievements in the administration. We took away the caliphate in its entirety. We took down Hamza bin Laden. We took down al-Baghdadi. We took down Qasem Soleimani. This is a list that has reduced the capacity for terrorists around the world to perform the functions that put American men and women and the homeland at risk. We’re very proud of what we accomplished. We’re going to stay the course.

SECRETARY MNUCHIN: Why don’t we take one more over there? Yes. Thank you.

Q I’m curious —

SECRETARY MNUCHIN: No, no. Next to you. Right there. Yes.

Q Me?

SECRETARY MNUCHIN: Yes.

Q Thank you. Secretary Mnuchin, this is a question for you too about the China trade deal. So the Chinese side is going to be here next Wednesday to sign the phase one part of that deal. But China is also a big importer of Iranian oil and Iranian minerals, and that’s a big part of their economy as well. So how do you balance the two? And are you concerned about the Iran issue coming up in either the signing of the phase one deal or the negotiation for the phase two deal?

SECRTEARY MNUCHIN: Well, let me just comment: I had no idea you’d ask that question, but that’s a good last question to end on.

So let me first say that we are looking forward to the Chinese delegation coming next week. Phase one is very significant. It includes very significant components of changes to technology issues, intellectual property issues, and $50 billion of purchases for our farmers.

I would comment: I don’t agree with your comment that China is a big buyer of oil. The China state companies are not buying oil from Iran. And I would just say we are having conversations with China, as well with any other counterparty on sanctions evasion.

So thank you very much. Thank you, everybody.

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