THE WHITE HOUSE
Office of the Press Secretary
For Immediate Release September 23, 2013
BY PRESS SECRETARY JAY CARNEY
AND DEPUTY NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISOR FOR STRATEGIC COMMUNICATIONS BEN RHODES
En Route New York, New York
12:10 P.M. EDT
MR. CARNEY: Welcome aboard Air Force One as we make our annual trip to New York for the United Nations General Assembly. As you know, the President will be speaking tomorrow. He will also, very importantly, be attending the Clinton Global Initiative, where he and former President Bill Clinton will be discussing the importance of health care reform and health insurance.
I have no other announcements to make. I have Ben with me — Ben Rhodes, Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications — to help provide you more information about the events in New York, the UNGA events. And I’m here, obviously, to take questions on other subjects.
Ben, do you have a topper?
MR. RHODES: Just quickly, as you know, the schedule today when we get to New York, the President will meet with President Goodluck Jonathan of Nigeria to discuss our cooperation on security issues, democratic governance, economic development, Power Africa. And then he will attend and host a high-level meeting on international civil society with other governments, civil society organizations, U.N. representatives, to discuss how we can better support civil society around the world. Then he will be hosting his annual reception tonight. So that’s just his schedule for today.
MR. CARNEY: Questions.
Q Any more on a Rouhani meeting?
MR. RHODES: We do not have a meeting scheduled with President Rouhani. As you heard us say repeatedly, we are open to engagement with the Iranian government at a variety of levels provided that they will follow through on their commitments to address the international community’s concerns over their nuclear program.
I would note that in addition, Secretary Kerry will be meeting with his P5-plus-1 counterparts as well as the Iranian foreign minister, so that’s an opportunity for us to reaffirm, together with our P5-plus-1 partners, the importance of Iran coming in line with international obligations. We welcome Iran engaging seriously through that process given that it represents the international community’s commitment to holding Iran accountable, but also being open to a diplomatic resolution.
But we have no meeting scheduled with President Rouhani, though, as you’ve heard us say repeatedly, we don’t rule out that type of engagement.
MR. CARNEY: I think it’s important if I could just note, and I know Ben would agree with me that from the beginning from this President’s time in office, our position on Iran has been consistent, and that is a willingness to meet with the Iranians, a willingness to have bilateral conversations and obviously to pursue negotiations through the P5-plus-1, commensurate with a willingness by Iran to be serious about dealing with its nuclear weapons program.
And the approach we’ve taken has obviously united the international community in a way that it was not united in dealing with this issue prior to President Obama taking office.
Q So if there’s a handshake it will be purely by happenstance?
MR. RHODES: I don’t think that anything would happen by happenstance on a relationship and an issue that is this important. So I think, clearly, this is an issue that we devoted as much time to as any other issue on our national security agenda for the last five years. We have had a very carefully structured policy both in terms of the sanctions that we put in place on Iran and in terms of how we engage with the Iranian government and the international community on this issue.
So this is something that we will, of course, continue to pay very careful attention to.
Q The mall attack in Kenya, has the U.S. figured out yet whether there are any Americans who were involved in that attack?
MR. RHODES: We’re working with our embassy to determine the safety of our citizens. We have accounted for the personnel from our mission, but now we are working to address concerns about American citizens who may have been wounded in that attack. The State Department is in the best position to speak to that specifically.
I’d just add that President Obama spoke to President Kenyatta and reaffirmed that the Kenyan people are in our thoughts and prayers and that we stand ready to assist them in any way, both with the current investigation and our shared efforts against al-Shabaab in the region.
Q There’s no evidence that we know of as to whether Americans were involved in perpetrating the attack?
MR. RHODES: All we’ve seen are the same reports coming out of al-Shabaab that indicate information along those lines. But we have to run those to ground, of course. We do monitor very carefully and have for some time been concerned about efforts by al-Shabaab to recruit Americans or U.S. persons to come to Somalia. So this is an issue that has been tracked very closely by the U.S. government, and it’s one that we’ll be looking into in the days ahead.
Q Do you expect the President to discuss this or mention this in his speech tomorrow?
MR. RHODES: I think it will be an issue that comes up not just in his speech but in some of his discussions here in New York. The fact of the matter is al-Shabaab is precisely the type of issue that we are increasingly confronted with. As al Qaeda core is degraded in Afghanistan and Pakistan, we see affiliates take root in different parts of the world.
The fact of the matter is we’ve actually had a very aggressive effort to go after al-Shabaab in Somalia, both through direct U.S. counterterrorism efforts, but also through support for AMISOM, the international force, including Kenya, that has pushed al-Shabaab out of a number of its strongholds in Somalia. And, frankly, I think it was that pressure on al-Shabaab that, in terms of their own professed motivation, led them to pursue an attack against Kenya.
But the clear message that we need to send in response is the resolve of Kenya, the international community and the United States will not be shaken at all, and, in fact, our determination will only be increased to keep the pressure on al-Shabaab and to make sure that they cannot have a safe haven in Somalia to launch these types of attacks.
Q In terms of Iran and Syria being neighboring countries, how much are the situations intertwined in what’s got to happen and what the dealings will be with Iran based on how things have gone so far in Syria?
MR. RHODES: Well, I think there are two separate issues. The issue of Iran’s nuclear program is a distinct issue that we’ve been dealing with since the President came into office and the international community has been dealing with for well over a decade. And this is an issue that is not just a bilateral one between the United States and Iran; it’s an issue between Iran and the international community in the fact that Iran has consistently failed to meet its obligations with respect to its nuclear program. That’s why we have a P5-plus-1 process. That’s why we have a unified international community that has sanctioned the Iranian government.
With respect to Syria, they are clearly — Iran is clearly Syria’s closest ally in the region. And with respect to the political resolution that we seek in Syria, we have called upon nations like Russia and Iran to acknowledge the fact that Assad cannot regain legitimacy after slaughtering his people and that part of a political process inside of Syria will involve, necessarily, Assad stepping down from power. That is an issue that we have been pursuing through the Geneva process and it’s an issue that we are going to redouble our efforts onto, not just here at the U.N., but going forward.
I think as a general matter what you see here is diplomatic openings to resolve the Syrian chemical weapons issues by destroying those weapons under international control, diplomatic efforts to resolve the issue of Iran’s nuclear program and to assure that they do not pursue or development a nuclear weapon, and also diplomatic efforts to address regional tensions — most urgently, a long-term resolution to the Syrian civil war.
So there’s a lot of diplomatic activity taking place as we head into the U.N. General Assembly, and we want to take advantage of those opportunities.
Q Do you think that the Iranians are going to — is there a concern that the Iranians may look for a deal with the negotiations into inspections of their nuclear facilities to be similar to the kind of deals that are being worked out with Syria?
MR. RHODES: Well, the bottom line is if those deals succeed in destroying Syrian chemical weapon stockpiles and addressing the international community’s concerns over Iran’s nuclear program that would be an extraordinary success for the stability of the region, the interests of the United States, and for international nonproliferation norms.
We don’t link the two. I think it’s very important to understand that this process with Iran has been ongoing for many, many years. It long predates the Syrian situation. But the fact of the matter is in both instances we would insist that actions are verified, that commitments are kept whether it’s the Syrian regime’s commitment to destroy its chemical weapon stockpiles under international control or whether it’s the Iranian government’s commitment to follow through on meeting the international community’s concerns with respect to its nuclear program.
Q Can you just clarify — I think you used the words “willingness to meet Rouhani” and I apologize if you’ve spoken to this before — is that just an invitation — so, in other words, the ball is in their court? Are you pursuing this? Or are you saying if they want to take the initiative, you’re there?
MR. RHODES: I’m not saying anything different than what we’ve said, which is the President is open to engagement. He’s exchanged letters with Rouhani. We simply have not had a meeting scheduled. I was just indicating that this is not something that we object to in principle. The President has said since 2007 that he’s willing to engage the leaders of Iran in pursuit of an agreement. We will do so if we believe it’s in our interests and if we believe it can advance our objectives.
Clearly, this is going to take time. You’re not going to solve all the issues with Iran in any one meeting or encounter. But what we’re signaling is that we’re open to engagement generally towards resolving this issue. We don’t have anything scheduled between the President and President Rouhani. We do now have Secretary Kerry meeting with his Iranian counterpart as part of the P5-plus-1 process.
Q But there’s been no invitation per se to meet or shake hands?
MR. RHODES: We have nothing scheduled with the Iranians at this point.
Q An update on the budget talks? Are there any talks? Is the President going to meet with congressional –
MR. CARNEY: Sure. Sorry, Steve. We read out a conversation the President had with the Speaker of the House in which the President made clear again his very firm views about the need to ensure that we don’t inflict wounds on the economy unnecessarily by allowing the government to shut down, that Congress needs to fulfill its responsibility to ensure that Congress keeps the operation of the government funded; secondly, that Congress must, in keeping with the entirety of our history, ensure that we do not default, that we pay our bills, the bills that we’ve already racked up, that Congress has already racked up; and that he will not under any circumstances negotiate over Congress’s responsibility to prevent us from defaulting.
We have always said that within the context of a broader budget agreement, the President is willing to make tough decisions. And tough decisions are embedded within his budget proposal. His budget proposal has been on the table for a long time now. It includes entitlement reforms, additional spending cuts and other measures that would achieve $4 trillion in deficit reduction — significant deficit reduction — while allowing us to invest in key areas of our economy so we can grow. And that proposal remains on the table.
In keeping with House Republican demands and Republican demands, the Senate passed a budget — a strong budget — and the House passed a budget. Once the Senate did what the House demanded, what Republicans demanded, the House abandoned its plan to have regular order and appoint conferees. They have still not done that after six months.
So we expect, as we said before, that conversations will continue. But Congress needs to act to ensure that we do not do harm to the recovery, which continues to produce jobs and continues to have the economy grow.
Q So there’s no session with the congressional leaders scheduled as of yet?
MR. CARNEY: I think it’s likely that the President will meet with leaders. I don’t have a time for that or a day for that. But here’s the bottom line. Congress needs to act responsibly in order to ensure that the government does not shut down.
Unfortunately, the House acted irresponsibly as an opening salvo in this engagement by passing a continuing resolution that has no chance of becoming law. And now we’ll have to see how this plays out.
But the President has made clear his willingness to accept a short-term CR so that we can continue to have broader discussions about our fiscal challenges. But he’s made it abundantly clear that fiddling around with the prospect of default is utterly irresponsible and we cannot do it. And the fact of the matter is until 2011, it has not been done. Despite all the efforts by Speaker Boehner to suggest that this is common practice, history proves otherwise. Something like 40 times since Ronald Reagan took office, Congress has raised the debt ceiling, often alone, without any attachments at all, sometimes folded into other budget agreements, but never with the threat of default we see today.
Q Can I ask a quick question? Netanyahu is comparing Iran to North Korea. Where do you guys see that? Do you think that’s a fair comparison?
MR. RHODES: What’s that?
Q Netanyahu comparing North Korea and Iran.
MR. RHODES: Well, look, the comparison is simply that they are two nations that have not abided by international nonproliferation norms. But the fact of the matter is North Korea already has a nuclear weapon. They acquired one, tested one in the beginning of 2006. And Iran does not yet have a nuclear weapon. And that’s all the more reason why we need to take steps to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon so that we’re not presented with the type of situation that we have in North Korea where you’re seeking to denuclearize a country that has already crossed that threshold.
So I think the comparison is that the international community is dealing with this issue on the front end before Iran acquires that capability. That’s why we’ve put in place a sanctions regime. That’s why we’ve also held open the door to a diplomatic resolution so that we can achieve a resolution to this issue that prevents Iran from getting a nuclear weapon while allowing them access to peaceful nuclear power consistent with the nonproliferation obligations.
Q So apples to oranges?
MR. RHODES: Well, they are in the sense that North Korea is in a different stage of its nuclear development. They’ve already tested a nuclear weapon. But I think what they both reinforce is the need for the international community to clearly enforce nonproliferation norms so that countries do not destabilize global security through the pursuit of these weapons.
Q Did the President telephone Chancellor Merkel to congratulate her?
MR. RHODES: I meant to do that. The President this morning called Chancellor Merkel to congratulate her on her showing and her party’s showing in the recent German election. He indicated that he very much has appreciated her friendship and partnership over the last several years. They’ve worked very closely together, as close as any other leader in the international community. And he indicated that he’s looking forward to working with her going forward.
Q Jay, on the budget, you’ve said repeatedly that the Republican leadership knows that politically it would be bad for there to be a shutdown. Does that mean that at this point you guys in the White House believe it would be good for you politically for there to be a shutdown?
MR. CARNEY: No. Because we’re not looking at it that way. We’re looking at what’s good for the economy and what’s good for the American people. Shutdowns are bad because it would create inflicted wounds on the economy. They have numerous impacts that are negative to the American people and it would be a terrible thing. And default is just the same, but exponentially. Default would invariably lead to a global financial and economic crisis. And just toying with the prospect of it, as some Republicans continue to do, is harmful.
And I think you’ve seen leaders from across the board, including Republican Party leaders, including important people within the broader Republican Party, including business community leaders say, cut this out; this is bad for everybody. And most importantly, it’s bad for the middle class because they get left holding the bag when Congress messes around with the economy and delivers a setback, which shutdown or default would be.
Q But you’ve said that it would be bad politics for the Republicans, so it would be bad politics for the Republican –
MR. CARNEY: This is not a zero-sum game. This is not a zero-sum game. Everybody gets hurt when Washington does something stupid like inflict a wound on the economy unnecessarily, in which, in this case, Republicans would be doing it.
And this is not about — as far as we’re concerned, it’s not about politics. We’re pressing comprehensive immigration reform. We’re begging John Boehner to put that bill on the floor right now; it would get a majority, it would pass, and that would do a lot of good for the Republican Party politically. And you know what, that would be great. We would sign it tomorrow.
So we’re not looking at this in terms of politics. We’re looking at it in terms of what’s best for the economy and what’s best for the American people.
Thanks. Hold on tight.