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Acting Secretary Esper En-Route Media Availability

STAFF:  (inaudible) We’re going to go about 25 minutes.  We've got to do some calls, but on the record, conversation with the secretary.

ACTING SECRETARY OF DEFENSE MARK T. ESPER:  Well, I think we're on European time now, so I will say good afternoon and thank you for joining me.

I'll tell you, last week when there was some doubt as to whether the acting SecDef would attend this meeting due to the transition, the first day I stepped onto the role I made clear to the team that I did want to come to NATO and meet with my fellow defense ministers to convey some key points to them.

One is that this transition is simply a change in leadership.  It's not a change in mission, it's not a change in priorities and it's not a change in the United States' commitment to NATO.  So I go into that today with that -- with that sentiment, and I will share that with our NATO allies and partners.

And then beyond that, in terms of what I hope to achieve here over the next couple of days, are a few things.

First and foremost, what we want to do is to strengthen the alliance and improve the readiness of all of our allies.  And that begins, first and foremost, by increased and more equitable burden-sharing.  That includes talking about issues ranging from how do we improve the NATO command structure?  How do we facilitate more efficient decision-making?  How do we deal with a post-INF treaty environment, if it comes to that?  And other things.

And then we'll also talk about out-of-sector issues.  So, for example, we'll talk about what -- how does NATO deal with the long-term strategic challenge of China?  Second, how do we broaden the coalition -- the Defeat-ISIS coalition in Syria?  And then third, what does the path ahead look for, with regard to Afghanistan, with the United States and its partners who are there right now?

So those are some of the critical topics we'll talk about during the sessions.  And, of course, I have many bilateral sessions planned both with fellow defense ministers, but also with the NATO secretary general.  And I've had a chance to speak to him already.  I've also had a chance to speak to some of the defense ministers.

So I'm looking for a very productive session here in the next couple of days.  There'll be no major news coming out of it, but it's with NATO -- and as many of you know, I'm not a stranger to NATO.  I served in NATO as Army officer.  I've been to NATO, to Brussels many times, either as a -- a Hill staffer or as a deputy assistant secretary of defense.  But it's a chance to keep moving the ball down the field on all these issues, and so that's what I hope to gain out of this.

So with that, I will stop and we'll open up for questions.

Q:  Can you talk a little bit about -- obviously, there are a lot of these allies that the U.S. is trying to convince on Iran.  Can you talk a little bit about what your message is going to be to some of them about Iran, and how you're going to perhaps try to convince them to cooperate with, say, the new maritime effort?

SEC. ESPER:  Yeah, so first and foremost, I want to assure them that we are not seeking conflict with Iran.  The United States is not looking to go to war with Iran.  Rather, we want to get into a diplomatic path.

And I think my discussions with them will be and has been, beginning already, is to work with us.  We need to, kind of, broaden out the engagement on this, and we all need to work together to get Iran on a diplomatic path.

This is not Iran versus the United States.  This is the Iran, certainly, versus the region, and arguably, the broader global environment.  So we need to all work together and get on a diplomatic path and reach a -- a new, better agreement than what we had before.

Q:  But do you -- are you bringing with you anything that will help convince them of Iran's involvement in, say, the -- the tanker bombings, which a lot of them were reluctant to believe?

SEC. ESPER:  I'm not bringing an intelligence suite if you -- of briefings, if you will.  You know, we can provide part and -- parts of that, as need be.

But look, it's -- it's clear:  Iran has admitted they shot down our unmanned drone.  And we know that clearly it was in international airspace.  And we know and we have photographic evidence that they were involved in attacks on some of the ships.  And those weren't just American ships.  Those were non-American ships.  And so Iran has to be held account for its actions.

Look, one of the things that we -- we need to defend is the principle of freedom of navigation.  And that's not just for the United States, but that's for all members of the international community.  And Iran is threatening that right now with its actions -- not just maritime freedom, but aerospace freedom.


Q:  Secretary, is the -- has the sentiment to have the diplomatic approach changed, considering the president was 10 minutes out from bombing Iran?

SEC. ESPER:  Yeah, the president's very clear, is we're seeking a -- a diplomatic solution.  We are not seeking conflict with Iran, and I think the president's restraint demonstrates that.

Q:  Just to get back to this idea of the maritime coalition, you know, alot of the countries that you're meeting with, Norway, for example, they've been attacked -- or their tankers have been attacked.  Do you see any -- so far, any sign that they're going to openly or publicly commit?  

And do you see any sign that European allies are going to publicly blame Iran for these tanker attacks?  So far, the countries that have been actually blaming Iran openly and publicly are the United States and then, you know, it's -- it's a very small group of people.

SEC. ESPER:  Well, we're still in the early stages right now.  Secretary Pompeo's been on the front lines now.  In the last couple days he's been to theater.  He's working that.  This is -- this is not just a military -- we're not trying to put a military coalition as much as a coalition writ large of -- of like-minded allies who share our concerns about freedom of navigation, who share our concerns about Iran's nuclear pursuits in the past, their missile technologies and, frankly, their malign activities in the region.

All those countries who -- who are concerned and should be concerned about that, I think, need to act together to deal with Iran and get us on a diplomatic path so we can come to a peaceful resolution of this.

Q:  I guess what I'm wondering is, you know, are they going to actually come out and blame Iran?  Do they see Iran as the -- as the enemy here, or is that something -- is that a work in progress?  Is that something you're working on?

SEC. ESPER:  One step at a time.  I don't want to get out in front of Secretary of State Pompeo, but one step at a time.

Q:  But what -- what would you like to see your allies -- NATO allies do in the Gulf, for example?  Would you like to see an increasing role in -- in controlling the (inaudible) forces?

SEC. ESPER:  What I think is, you -- you know, you know, there are a number of things.

The first is to politically express with us the concern, outrage, if not, with regard to Iran's activities in the region.  That would be a good first step.

And then secondly, to support any range of activities we -- we may think merits participation to help, again, deter conflict and show that we're resolute.

What we're trying to do, what we want to do is close the door to conflict and open the door to diplomacy.

Q:  Will you ask any of the European partners to, sort of, negotiate with the Iranians directly?  I mean, how do you -- how do you de-escalate it if it's just a lot of military leading it?

SEC. ESPER:  Again, I'm going to -- I'm going to stick to the DOD path here and defer to SecState on that.

Q:  On -- on the DOD path, has there been any mil-to-mil with the Iranians during this crisis?

SEC. ESPER:  I'm not going to discuss anything like that.  We're just making sure that our forces are ready, they're postured to deal with any further unprovoked attacks by the Iranians.

Q:  Can you walk us through last Thursday night at all?  We heard (inaudible) from the president about the casualty counts, and kind of how the decision-making went.  Any more light you can shed on, kind of, how that day went, and how the decision ultimately came down?

SEC. ESPER:  Yeah, no, I'm not going to give you the tick-tock.  It's just not how I operate.

But I will tell you there you know, all the -- all the right people were involved and it was a -- it was a thorough process.

Q:  Are you concerned that the diplomatic efforts could stall, considering Iran already said it's a non-starter?

SEC. ESPER:  I'm sorry.  Could you say that again?

Q:  Are you concerned that the diplomatic effort may stall, considering Iran has already come out and said, "We're not interested"?

SEC. ESPER:  Well, if the diplomatic effort's being stalled, it's because -- because the Iranians refuse to come to the table.  I mean, I think the president's been very clear that he would meet without precondition.  The secretary of state has said that as well.

And so the door is wide open.  We just need them to come to the table and meet and let's begin a dialogue on the path forward.

Q:  One thing that I think a lot of us are wondering is that the president tweeted yesterday that the -- you know, that a lot of these ships that are going through, a lot of countries besides the United States need that freedom of navigation in the strait a lot more than the United States does, given the fact that, you know, the U.S. oil production now is the biggest in the world.

So I'm wondering, you know, is that going to be one of your messages at NATO?  Is that going to be one of your messages with allies, that --


SEC. ESPER:  I think that underscores the point, that this is not just an Iran versus U.S. confrontation.  It should not be.  This -- a number of countries around the world have interests in this region.  And a number of countries get their oil through the Straits of Hormuz.  So this is a reason why we need to internationalize this issue and have our allies and partners work with us to get Iran to come back to the negotiating table and talk about the way ahead.

Q:  I guess what I was wondering is, does that mean the United States will not provide the majority of assets, the majority of ships?

SEC. ESPER:  Nobody's counting ships or compositions at this point in time.  I think the message is out there, is that it should -- we should internationalize this in terms of trying to resolve it diplomatically, okay?

Q:  Have any of the other allies agreed to do some either escorts or other maritime patrols within the gulf region?  Or is anyone else other than the U.S. doing any of that?

SEC. ESPER:  You know, there are coalition ships -- and have been -- in the region for years, right?  Patrolling.  But in terms of this -- this new initiative that's being pursued, nothing new at this point in time.  I think in due course, we'll come out and talk about that.  But this is still in the early stages.

Q:  (inaudible) suggest that, talk about NATO at all?

Q:  Yeah, well I was going to ask specifically.  You're going to meet with your Turkish counterpart.  Can you tell us what your message is?  I mean, time is sort of ticking away towards their deadline at the end of the month.  What's your message to them?

SEC. ESPER:  Yeah, actually, I think the message is pretty straightforward.  Look, Turkey has been a longstanding and trusted partner and ally for many, many years.

But this pursuit of the S-400 undermines that.  It undermines an agreement that NATO made several years ago, to begin divesting of Russian equipment.  It moves in the wrong direction.  And so as we said, the United States has said, if Turkey procures the S-400, it will mean they will not receive the F-35.  It's that simple.

Q:  How confident are you --


Q:  -- President Erdogan just said recently, they're expecting delivery as early as the beginning of next month.

SEC. ESPER:  Again, if Turkey accepts delivery of the S-400, they will not receive the F-35.  It's that simple.

Q:  Going into the D-ISIS meetings, what kind of update are you prepared to give the allies on where the fight stands, with Iran and so many other things, it falls out of the limelight.

SEC. ESPER:  Well, look, under the president's initiative, we've defeated ISIS, at least the physical caliphate.  So I think the conversation now pivots toward how do we make sure that, you know, the embers of ISIS doesn't rise again?

And so how do we broaden out that coalition, how do we make sure we keep sufficient pressure on them in a much broader way so that they don't come back to life.  And it's obviously a -- it's -- ISIS is a threat to many.  And not least of which, you know, Europe.

So I think that the discussion will center around the burden-sharing and how do we spread that burden out and get more countries involved.

Q:  How much more support do you want to see for something like that?

SEC. ESPER:  Oh, the more support, the better, right?  Particularly as we -- as we look at and work toward phasing down our participation, if you will.  Okay?

Q:  What about the detainees I mean, how have you -- are you making any progress and do you intend to talk to allies about that during this meeting?

SEC. ESPER:  Yeah, we need to keep working that issue of detainees.  I just don't have anything more to report to you on that right now.

Q:  What about (inaudible) Afghanistan right now.  There's a lot of confusion, whether or not, you know, Khalilzad's about to negotiate, you know, staged withdrawal of U.S. forces.  You know, we didn't see a ceasefire here in this negotiation process.  What is the message to NATO allies who are wondering, you know, whether or not the U.S. might make its own deal?

SEC. ESPER:  Yeah.  Well, look, the message to our NATO allies is we thank them for their -- and partners, right?  Non-NATO partners.  We thank them for their participation.  And the whole purpose of the military being there is to shape the conditions to arrive at a political settlement.

And that's the track we have right now with our ambassador, is to make sure that our forces continue to shape that environment, set the conditions so that we can have a positive political outcome at the end of the day.

Q:  Do you think there's any concern toward NATO allies about these negotiations?  I mean, Afghanistan --

SEC. ESPER:  Oh, yeah, sure.  I mean, I think as they rightly want to know, is transparency in the process and making sure they -- going forward, that they're kept in the loop every step of the way, and we're committed as best we can to make sure that happens.

Q:  Do you foresee any change in U.S. forces' size or structure there, at least in the near term?

SEC. ESPER:  You know, not something immediate, if you will.  I hope to travel to Afghanistan sometime soon to get a report.  Obviously, I'll be meeting with -- or maybe not obviously.

I will be meeting with General Miller in the next couple days.  And so I'll be able to get an update from him as well.  It'll be my first touchpoint with him in my new role.  And I look forward to having that discussion with regard to what he sees, what he thinks it needs.


Q:  How long since you have been to Afghanistan? 

SEC. ESPER:  I want to say the last time I traveled there may have been -- we can check the facts -- maybe December of last year, so seven months ago.


SEC. ESPER:  So I've been there twice now in this role.  And I've probably been there a half-dozen times before that.  I -- first time, I was actually on the ground in Afghanistan, it was in the fall of 2001, believe it or not.

And then throughout the years, I've been back and forth to Afghanistan.  So I've seen it change over time.  And I've seen different facets of it.  I've -- I remember, you know, many of the early days.  So it's a lot of progress has been made, but we need to keep pushing in the right direction.

Q:  We didn't ask about INF but, you know, Russia yesterday warned about, you know, another Cuban Missile Crisis kind of event.  What are the U.S. plans for, you know, a post-INF world?

SEC. ESPER:  Well, look, let's recall the facts.  It's been true now for two administrations, that Russia has been the ones not in compliance with the treaty, not the United States.  We have held up our treaty obligations.  And we've tried to work with them over the years to get them back into compliance, but it's been to no good end.

Obviously, we announced earlier this year, that we intend to withdraw.  They didn't come to compliance and they still have not come to compliance.  It's never too late for them to do so.  But come early August, if they aren't, we intend to withdraw.

Q:  What does that mean as far as your policy goes?  Do you have any policy for it?

SEC. ESPER:  This is one of the issues we'll talk about over the next couple days, here, with our NATO partners and make sure we have a game plan, going forward.

But for us, you know, speaking (in our former) capacity -- my former capacity -- you know, we need to build long-range precision fires.  Relief from the INF Treaty will do -- allow us to do that in a non-nuclear way, a conventional way.

It also frees us up to deal with not just Russia, but China.  China has a very, very capable and robust INF Treaty-range missile inventory, if you will.  So you can see, it frees us up to do other things.

Q:  And how would that help you compete with China?

SEC. ESPER:  Well, we would no longer have an arm tied behind our back, if you will, by prescribing this certain range of missiles between, what, 500 to 5,500-kilometer-range missiles.  So we would now be able to develop missiles of that range.  And again, for conventional is what we'd be looking at to do.

Q:  There were some reports last night that the president was, quote, "using withdrawing or renegotiating the Japanese defense treaty."  Has there been any talks about that, or --

SEC. ESPER:  I have not seen those reports, and I have not heard that, so I wouldn't comment on it.

Okay?  Anything else?

Q:  No.

SEC. ESPER:  Well, thanks.  I hope you guys enjoy the flight.

Q:  Thank you.