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Special Briefing with Ambassador Barbara Leaf, Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs

SEPTEMBER 14, 2022

Barbara Leaf, Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, provides a readout of her recent trip to Tunisia, Israel, the West Bank, Jordan, and Iraq, including meetings and discussions about shared priorities with government officials, civil society members, entrepreneurs and others.

MODERATOR:  Greetings to everyone from the U.S. Department of State’s Dubai Regional Media Hub.  I would like to welcome our participants dialing in from the Middle East and around the world for this on-the-record briefing with Ambassador Barbara Leaf, Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs.  Assistant Secretary Leaf will provide a readout of her recent trip to Tunisia, Israel, the West Bank, Jordan, and Iraq, including meetings and discussions about our shared priorities with government officials, civil society members, entrepreneurs, and others.  Assistant Secretary Leaf will also take questions from participating journalists.

We are pleased to offer simultaneous interpretation for this briefing in Arabic.  We request that everyone keep this in mind and speak slowly.

I will now turn it over to Assistant Secretary Leaf for her opening remarks.  Ambassador Leaf, the floor is yours.

AMBASSADOR LEAF:  Thank you, Sam.  Good afternoon, everyone.  I’m really delighted to have the opportunity to talk to you today.  As Sam said, I want to give you a brief overview of my recent trip to the region, which was my first multi-country regional trip since becoming the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for the Near East in early June.

My visit between August 29th and September 9th allowed me to reinforce many of the same things that President Biden underscored during his trip this past July to the Middle East – that the administration has an affirmative framework for America’s engagement in the Middle East and North Africa, which includes de-escalating conflicts, enhancing our partnerships for regional security, and promoting regional integration on the way to addressing problems and issues that are global and regional in nature.

The first step – stop on my trip was Tunisia, where I met with Tunisian President Kais Saied and the ministers of foreign affairs, defense, and interior, as well as with leading Tunisian experts, civil society, and journalists, to hear a range of views on the serious political and economic challenges facing the country.  I reiterated U.S. support for the Tunisian people and our commitment to a long-term partnership.  That partnership is strongest when anchored in a shared commitment to democratic principles and human rights.  I discussed in Tunis the importance of an inclusive and transparent political reform process that represents diverse Tunisian voices and protects fundamental human rights, including freedom of expression.

As Tunisians grapple with a range of economic shocks, including the food insecurity sparked by Russia’s war in Ukraine, I also stressed the importance of Tunisia moving forward with urgency in its negotiations with the IMF and undertaking meaningful economic reforms critical to arrest the ongoing economic crisis.  That package will help put Tunisia on a sounder fiscal footing and address key structural problems bedeviling the economy.

While in Tunisia, I also held discussions on Libya, including with Libyan Presidential Council President Mohamed al-Menfi and Central Bank of Libya Governor Sadiq al–Kabir.  I emphasized the urgent need for Libyan leaders to support a credible path to elections as soon as possible and underscored the importance of Libya’s economic institutions strengthening the transparent management of oil and gas revenues for the benefit of all Libyans.  I reiterated U.S. concerns about the diversion of public funds to militias and armed groups.

I next traveled to Israel and the West Bank, where I continued discussions on a range of critically important issues with Israeli and Palestinian officials.  I reiterated President Biden’s message, conveyed in his trip in July, that the U.S. remains unwavering in its ironclad commitment to Israel’s security and that we will work to strengthen all aspects of the U.S.-Israeli partnership.  In all my meetings with Israelis and Palestinians, I also stressed the administration’s commitment to keeping alive the vision of a future two-state solution so that Israelis and Palestinians can live safely and securely and enjoy equal measures of freedom, security, and prosperity.  That means working together collaboratively on key economic and security issues as well as reducing unilateral actions.

I also followed up on the range of projects agreed upon as part of the President’s visit to Jerusalem and Bethlehem, projects which will measurably contribute to economic growth and greater opportunities for Palestinians.  That includes extension of 4G cellular service for the West Bank and Gaza and expanding hours and capacity for travelers and goods at the Allenby Bridge.  It includes the $100 million the President approved, announced for the East Jerusalem Hospital Network, subject to congressional approval.  USAID recently disbursed the first $14.5 million of that healthcare assistance so that we can see it becoming a reality.

During my stop in Amman, Jordan, I met with Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi and discussed the strategic U.S.-Jordan relationship and our shared efforts to promote regional stability and security.  And as you know, we will be signing a new seven-year bilateral memorandum of understanding with Jordan this Friday.  It was announced by President Biden following his July meeting with His Majesty King Abdullah II in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.  This memorandum of understanding is the longest and largest ever agreed to with Jordan.  Under this MOU, the U.S. is committed to supporting Jordan’s economic reform efforts while strengthening its resilience, stability, and security.

My final stop was in Iraq, where I spent a full week in Baghdad and Erbil meeting with a range of senior government officials, political party figures, as well as civil society, academic, and faith leaders, young entrepreneurs, journalists, and human rights defenders.  I underscored the Biden administration’s approach towards Iraq.  All of our activities, programs, and policies are squarely framed to support Iraq’s sovereignty, stability, and security.  I also emphasized that the 2008 Strategic Framework Agreement remains a solid foundation for our bilateral relationship.

Now, the recent outbreak of violence in Baghdad was a source of great concern to us here in Washington as well as to Iraq’s international partners.  In Baghdad, I delivered a straightforward message to a range of senior governmental leaders, including the prime minister, the president, the Council of Representatives speaker, saying that there is an urgent need for Iraq’s political leaders to come together for an inclusive dialogue to make important compromises that will chart a way out of Iraq’s current crisis over government formation.  This was a message that I shared with a full spectrum of Iraqi political leaders, including those outside of government.

I reiterated this message with political leaders in the Iraqi Kurdistan Region during my two-day visit to Erbil.  And while there, I also discussed human rights.  I emphasized the importance of respect for human rights and freedom of expression.  Journalists and activists have a vital role to play in a strong democracy.  We regard Iraq as a vital partner of the United States on so many levels – a partner with which we want to accomplish much, much more on global issues, including – and regional issues, including water security, climate change, and increasing trade and investment opportunities.

The grinding impasse over government formation which flared into violence 10 days ago unfortunately only underlined the degree to which such opportunities are being squandered, and the degree to which the acute need for basic services for Iraq’s people remain unaddressed.

I’ll stop there and I’m happy to take your questions.

MODERATOR:  Thank you, Assistant Secretary Leaf.  We will now begin the question and answer portion of today’s call.  Questions submitted in advance, especially from our journalist friends over on the Arabic line of this call, have been incorporated into the question queue and I will start with one of those pre-submitted questions from Hala Yaghmour from Iraq’s Al Taghier TV.  And Hala asks: “Assistant Secretary Leaf, during your visit to Iraq you discussed with the federal government and the Kurdistan Regional Government bringing them together in order to resolve any conflicts between the two parties on energy issues and other issues.  Did you see any progress or promises made to achieve that goal?”  Over to you, Assistant Secretary Leaf.

AMBASSADOR LEAF:  Well, thank you for that very important question.  Look, I was very clear in sharing with all of Iraq’s leaders in Baghdad and in Erbil our concern that an emerging economic crisis was going to be over – was going to overlay what was already a very serious political crisis.  That is to say, the February decision by the Iraq supreme court invalidating Kurdish Regional Government arrangements for export of oil and gas was – and the enforcement of that was an issue on which the U.S., on the one hand, takes no legal position, no constitutional position, but on the other hand, pushing forward right now in the midst of an ongoing crisis over – political crisis over government formation simply would risk a widening kind of economic crisis, and that is the last thing that the Iraqi public needs.

So what I suggested was that Baghdad and Erbil discuss arrangements to take this into third-party negotiation or some other such venue such that, essentially, they could provide the space for discussions of a technical nature that on the other side of government formation could be taken up again to drive towards what everyone agrees is long overdue and quite necessary, which is a hydrocarbons law.  I think the message is well understood in both Baghdad and Erbil.  I’m quite confident that Iraq’s political leaders in both places can find a good instrument for discussing this, whether through formal mediation or directly themselves.

There’s no question that there’s a need for a larger hydrocarbons legal framework to resolve this, but in the meantime I’m quite concerned – Washington is quite concerned – that rushing forward and implementing this decision risks driving U.S. firms out of Iraq, other firms out of Iraq, which would be a terrible vote of no confidence in the business environment in Iraq and, frankly, could produce wider economic repercussions well beyond the Kurdish region of Iraq.

MODERATOR:  Thank you, Assistant Secretary Leaf.  Our next question comes from the live queue, and it goes to Hiba Nasr from Asharq News.  Operator, please open the line.

OPERATOR:  Hiba, please go ahead.

QUESTION:  Good morning, Ambassador.  Thanks, Sam.  I know you told us to stick to what – to the topic, but I have two questions.  First on Tunisia, you met with the president and many officials as well.  What did you feel?  Are you really concerned that this experience – you know that Tunisia is where the Arab Spring start, and now everybody is concerned.  What message did you convey there and are you really concerned that given the economic situation, this could – this could be worse or better?

And my second question – I know it’s not related to the topic but I have to ask this question.  Any update on the F-35 deal with UAE?  Thank you.

AMBASSADOR LEAF:  Thanks very much, Hiba, for those two questions.  First, on the F-35s, I don’t – I don’t have any updates on that at the moment.

As for Tunisia, indeed, the situation – the economic situation is of immense concern for us, and I think it is a concern for many Tunisians, as I heard throughout my stay there.  I heard from civil society, from economic experts, from journalists growing anxiety about economic conditions in Tunisia.  Now, some of those are simply the shocks that many economies around the world have felt from essentially two sorts of shocks.  One, the pandemic – countries around the world are still struggling out of the aftereffects of the pandemic and what it did to economies, especially economies like Tunisia’s, which relied heavily on tourism as one part of their economic engine.  But the second one, of course, is the inflationary – or the inflationary shocks, the fuel shocks, and the food insecurity shocks arising out of Russia’s terrible war on Ukraine.

So those are the unlooked-for, unexpected, what we call “black swan” events that have – that have made Tunisia’s economy stagger, and many others in the region and globally.  But there are underlying structural issues to Tunisia’s economic stagnation and its looming fiscal crisis, and those, in our view, can and should be addressed through a mechanism like the IMF negotiations.  So I was – I was very honest with Tunisia’s leaders in our view that it makes great – it makes great sense to move briskly towards concluding those negotiations, and from the briefings that I’ve had on the sort of general outlines of the package, I think it will help Tunisia quite a bit to deal with issues which have dogged the economy for years.

So yes, we are concerned.  There are tools available to address these, and we do think it’s quite important that Tunisia’s leadership move briskly on these – on this issue.

MODERATOR:  Great, thank you, Assistant Secretary Leaf.  Our next question is also from the live queue and goes to Ali Younes from Arab News.  Operator, please open the line.

OPERATOR:  Ali Younes, your line is open.

QUESTION:  Yes, good morning, Assistant Secretary Leaf.  My question is on Jordan.  You said this Friday the United States will sign a memorandum of understanding with the Jordanian Government that’s the largest ever.  Can you tell us how much would that be?  And did you discuss while in Jordan the state of civil liberties and the perception that the Jordanian Government is arresting civil rights activists and journalists without due process?  And was that – was there any conditions on the Jordanians as far as the aid will be conditioned on improving the civil society and – or the civil liberties in Jordan?  Thank you.

AMBASSADOR LEAF:  Thanks for the question, Ali.  So what I can say is this: Those discussions on the human rights environment and the environment for freedom of expression and civil liberties and so forth, that is very much part and parcel of our ongoing discussions with Jordanian officials.  That’s number one.

Number two, the MOU is an expression of the U.S. commitment over time to provide assistance that will go very much in the direction of sustaining a Jordanian-driven economic reform program which will put it on a solid, stable ground for economic growth and dealing with things such as Jordan’s acute water shortages, which really strangle economic growth and are very concerning in their own right in the present.

So that is a commitment over time that is – it is to assist squarely the people of Jordan in seeing economic growth take off and stabilizing the future trajectory of that economic stability and eventual prosperity.

So I would just say that, going back to your first point, that set of issues is very much an ongoing discussion that we have.  We calibrate our approach such that we can do both things at once, if you follow me.  So advocate for strengthening the space, enlarging the space for civil liberties, whether they are everyday citizens or journalists practicing their trade, and at the same time doing what is within our ability to help Jordan get on a very stable economic path and deal with some structural problems that are dogging economic growth now and that would be a very worrying trend for their future if left unaddressed.

MODERATOR:  Great, thank you, Ambassador Leaf.  Our next question is also from the live queue, and I will just ask for patience and understanding from the many, many, many journalists that are in our live queue and submitted pre-submitted questions today.  We’ll try to get through as many as we can in the remaining time we have left.

Our next question is another question from the live queue and goes to Yuna Leibzon from Channel 12 News, Israel.  Operator, please open the line.

OPERATOR:  And please go ahead.

QUESTION:  Yes, hi and thank you for this.  So my question is about your recent trip to Israel and tensions that we see now in the West Bank.  Is that something that worries you?  Has that come up?  Was there any demand from Israel about the tensions?

AMBASSADOR LEAF:  Thanks for that question.  That’s a really important one.  So I would say that the conversations I had there with Israeli and Palestinian officials were sort of a face-to-face continuation of conversations that I’ve been having really going back to the beginning of the administration when I was over at the White House, at the National Security Council as senior director for the Middle East and North Africa.

The security – the security conditions on the West Bank, yes, do concern us greatly, but they also concern Israel and they also concern the Palestinian Authority.  Our part in this is to ensure that to the greatest degree possible those – that security cooperation is robust and continuing, but that other things are done around and outside that security cooperation that sustain it.  So, thus, I had a mix of discussions that also went very directly to the economic conditions on the West Bank and Gaza, because those can help and sustain improvement in security conditions.  And as you know, we have a three-star general out there leading the U.S. security cooperation office, which helps as well in an ongoing way in ensuring that that cooperation, training, and capacity building supports efforts on the West Bank and Gaza.

But yes, I am concerned.  Thank you.

MODERATOR:  Thank you, Ambassador Leaf.  Our next question is another question from the live queue and goes to Ahmed Sawan from Masr 360/Al Bawaba.  Operator, please open the line.

OPERATOR:  And your line is open.

QUESTION:  Good morning.  (Inaudible.)  Thank you, Sam, for giving me this opportunity.  My question is about after you discussed with the Tunisian President Kais Saied.  So what the United States can do to push the democratic process – the democratic process in Tunisia?  Thank you.

AMBASSADOR LEAF:  Thanks, Ahmed.  Look, the issue of supporting and fostering the growth and the expansion of democratic space in a country like Tunisia is a constant process.  It has been since the Tunisian revolution.  And the U.S. has over time put a lot of money and training and support behind its programs and activities in Tunisia to support Tunisian voices – civil society, journalists, democracy advocates, and so forth.  Those – ultimately, we as a partner government, as a friendly government, as a friend of Tunisia, we’re going to be critical, we’re going to offer criticism where criticism is due.  And I was candid in my discussion with President Saied – and he was candid in return – about the current trajectory, political trajectory in Tunisia.  It is concerning to us.  We want to see Tunisia squarely back on a democratic path with fully functioning democratic institutions, which are so important to the development of democracy in any country.  But we want to support Tunisians to make those – to make those demands, and that was very much part and parcel of what I did on my trip.

MODERATOR:  Thank you, Ambassador.  I believe we have time for just maybe a couple more questions, so we’ll again go to the live queue and we’ll go to Toni Mrad from Lebanon’s LBCI TV.  Operator, please open the line.

OPERATOR:  And Toni, please go ahead.

QUESTION:  Yes, hello.  So my question is Your Excellency said last week that Sayyid Muqtada al-Sadr has followers and a large audience and his voice with other leaders must be heard.  Can we say that U.S. supports Muqtada al-Sadr?  And also, do you think that an early election is a solution to the political crisis in Iraq?  Thanks.

AMBASSADOR LEAF:  Thank you, Toni.  So just to be clear, we do not – we do not provide direction or guidance or our opinion on particular leaders as such.  This is very much an Iraqi-driven set of discussions that are ongoing in Iraq, and that’s the way it should be.  At this point in Iraq’s modern political development, it is quite important – going back to what I said earlier in my opening remarks, it is quite important as far as Washington is concerned that Iraqi political leaders and Iraqis themselves exercise agency, that they take upon themselves their own sovereign decisions.

When I spoke to the issue of Sayyid Muqtada al-Sadr, it was more in the sense of the fact that, for the moment at least, he is not part of this ongoing dialogue that Prime Minister Kadhimi has hosted, and he has stepped away from engagement.  Every Iraqi I met told me that their belief was that that wasn’t a sustainable situation because he does represent an important slice of the Iraqi constituency, and their voices should be heard.

So what I was arguing for privately and publicly was that Iraqi leaders above all step away from any descent into violence, as we saw 10 days ago, which was quite shocking; that they engage in a wholly inclusive set of discussions, whether it’s around the formal national dialogue table or in separate efforts; that they take all constituencies’ hopes and aspirations into consideration.

So that was the sense of what I was conveying to Iraqi political leaders in Baghdad and in Erbil.  And I will just emphasize Iraqis themselves told me how important it was that Sayyid Muqtada al-Sadr’s voice be heard, and that’s something I think the political leaders are quite capable of securing.

MODERATOR:  Thank you, Ambassador.  We’ll take one final question.

AMBASSADOR LEAF:  Sorry.  Sam, I realized I didn’t address the last piece of Toni’s question.  Again, early elections —

MODERATOR:  Please go ahead.

AMBASSADOR LEAF:  — is an issue for the Iraqi political leaders to decide.  That’s – we don’t take a stance on that.

MODERATOR:  And now we’ll go to our final question, from Michel Ghandour from MBN/Al Hurra TV.  Operator, please open the line.

QUESTION:  Hi, thank you for doing this.  Madam Secretary, did you meet with Muqtada al-Sadr when you were in Baghdad?  If yes, why?  If not, why not?

On Lebanon, how do you view the Saudi-French meeting in Paris to discuss the presidential elections?  Why the U.S. did not attend, and what is the U.S. doing to achieve the presidential elections?  And do you expect any deal between Israel and Lebanon on the maritime border soon?  Thank you.

AMBASSADOR LEAF:  Wow.  Wow.  You got a lot of questions in there.  So, Michel, I – my – let me turn one of those questions back to you: What are the Lebanese doing to ensure elections go forward?  That would be my first question.  Because this – again, this is an issue for the Lebanese.  It’s a Lebanese responsibility to take upon themselves to ensure that there is a properly elected president.

On the issue of the maritime discussions, they are progressing.  Both parties are showing a good, constructive engagement.  Our envoy, Amos Hochstein, and I talk regularly, and he is very committed to bringing this to conclusion if the spirit is willing on both sides, and so far so good.  So those differences are narrowing.

And as to the Saudi-French meeting, well, that was a bilateral discussion, but I certainly will see my Saudi and French colleagues next week in New York and we’ll continue the discussion that we’ve been having all along.

Did I leave out one of your questions?

QUESTION:  No, that’s it.  I think it’s fine.  But on the first – on the question that you asked me, I think the Lebanese people need help from the international community to press —


QUESTION:  — the parliament to elect a new president.

AMBASSADOR LEAF:  Yes.  Yes.  Well, you can be sure that we will be encouraging Lebanese political leaders, pressing them to do their duty.

QUESTION:  Thank you.

MODERATOR:  Great, thank you, Assistant Secretary Leaf.  And now, if you have any closing remarks, Assistant Secretary Leaf, I’ll turn it back over to you.

AMBASSADOR LEAF:  Thanks, Sam.  So, listen.  I was really happy to have this opportunity to talk to you all across the airwaves.  I look forward throughout the fall and winter to doing more travel to the region and engaging with you in person, and we’ll – I will definitely look forward to another opportunity to do a call like this courtesy of the Dubai Media Hub.

But in the meantime, I would just underline that the trip I made these last two weeks was very much part and parcel of the Biden administration’s approach to the region.  We are working very hard.  You don’t always see our actions because many of them are, like all good diplomacy, done behind the scenes, not necessarily out in public.  But we are working assiduously to help regional partners de-escalate, mitigate conflict; address ongoing stalemates such as we see in Libya and in Iraq; help to continue the truce in Yemen.

So doing what we can in every direction to bank the fires of conflict and then, hopefully, to resolve some of them while keeping a steady eye on all the opportunities that are out there to work on a very affirmative agenda with regional partners on issues which I know are very much on the minds of the publics out there: jobs, dealing with the effects of climate change, food insecurity, water insecurity, grooming the next generation of young leaders in the region, generating the work skills for a 21st century economy among the youth in the region.

So thank you very much for this opportunity.

MODERATOR:  That concludes today’s call.  I would like to thank Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Ambassador Barbara Leaf for joining us, and thank all of our callers for participating.  Apologies to the many of you that were on the line and wanted to ask a question that we couldn’t get to, and to the many who submitted pre-submitted questions we couldn’t get to, but we certainly hope to have Ambassador Leaf join us again in the future.

If you have any questions about today’s call, you can contact the Dubai Regional Media Hub at DubaiMediaHub@state.gov.  Information on how to access the English recoding of this call will be provided by AT&T shortly.  Thank you and have a great day.

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