A small group of reporters had what can only be characterized as an incredulous set of questions for State Department Spokeswoman Heather Nauert during Tuesday afternoon’s briefing: Why wasn’t the United States siding with Canada over Saudi Arabia over the arrested human rights activists? What on earth was going on with the North Korean negotiations? Was their any progress with Turkey releasing the detained American pastor and the foreign staff of the embassy there?
Nauert, a former journalist with a generally genial rapport with the press, deflected most of these questions by saying that things were being discussed privately, or that conversations were being had on different levels but that she wasn’t ready to share any outcomes yet. Or maybe she just didn’t have those numbers in front of her. She can’t confirm anything. You know how it is.
One reporter managed to throw Nauert for a loop, though.
“On Iran, you’re basically saying to the country, ‘Change your entire foreign policy and we’ll talk to you, if you agree to change everything…'” said the journalist, who was off camera.
This was in reference to the United States unilaterally withdrawing from the 2015 nuclear deal, which lifted sanctions off Iran in exchange for strict limits on its nuclear energy program. In doing so, President Donald Trump re-imposed those sanctions, with the first round of them going into effect on Tuesday.
His administration also requires Iran to meet a long list of demands before it can renegotiate the deal.
“I would think that we should ask another country to stop attacking other nations and to stop fomenting terror,” said Nauert, who clearly was not ready for the follow up.
“How do you square that with the stance on Saudi Arabia and U.A.E. and Yemen?” asked the reporter, referring to U.S. support of the Saudi-led intervention into Yemen’s civil war. Saudi Arabia, which has been supported by the United States with weapons and intelligence, has been accused of targeting civilians in Yemen, bombing schools, markets and town halls alike. It is being investigated by the United Nations for war crimes.
“You don’t see. I’m sorry. What do you mean by that?” said Nauert, who looked like she was buying time. The reporter repeated how the United States is “siding with Saudi in Yemen.”
“Um, we have concerns about what the Houthi rebels have been doing for quiet some time, that is well documented,” said Nauert, pivoting from focusing on the Saudis, who are launching airstrikes, to the Houthis, who are not. The Houthis, it should be noted, are fighting in their own country.
“They have been terrible and conducted many, many attacks against their own people of Yemen,” she said, adding that the attacks in the port of Hodeidah are of particular concern.
Humanitarian agencies — as well as the United Nations — had called on Saudi and U.A.E. forces to hold off on launching a major operation at that port, which is where 90 percent of the supplies come into Yemen (a country on the brink of famine).
To no avail. The operation has been deadly and continues, and interestingly, this is the point that Nauert focused on as a defense for Saudi actions in Yemen.
“We’ve seen what’s happened at the port there, the Hodeidah port, and the inability to have a good free flow of goods coming in and Saudi Arabia certainly has the right to a… to take out some of those bad actors,” said Nauert, who earlier justified the renewal of sanctions against Iran, accusing the country of spending its money on “terror attacks” and “bombs and launching weapons against other countries” rather than on its own citizens.
She wrapped the presser after up moments after that.