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Diplomacy in Action

Briefing by Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Jeffrey Feltman


Special Briefing
Jeffrey D. Feltman
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs
Waldorf-Astoria Hotel
New York, NY
September 26, 2009

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STAFF: I’d like to introduce Assistant Secretary Feltman, who I’m sure you all know. He’s here to give a readout on the Secretary’s meeting with Iraqi President Talabani and also to preview the GCC meeting.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY FELTMAN: Hi. Good morning, everybody. This is my first experience as UN General Assembly and I sort of feel like I’m doing the diplomatic equivalent of speed dating.

(Laughter.)

There have been a number of meetings that you guys have been following, but I was asked specifically to talk today – before we open it up for questions – about the Secretary’s meeting last night with President Talabani.

The Secretary met last night with Iraqi President Talabani, who was accompanied by his Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari, as well as other officials. They discussed a number of issues. One of the points of emphasis, again, was the strategic framework agreement, that we see as governing a very strong bilateral relationship that goes into the future. This, of course, is distinct from the security agreement, because the strategic framework agreement defines areas in which we and the Iraqis are going to be working together as partners, whether it’s education and health, science, exchanges, things like this. And it’s an exciting part of the relationship because it really is one where we are acting in accordance, with the full sovereignty of Iraq, and according to the requests, desires, needs of the Iraqi Government for cooperation with us.

There was also, of course, discussion of the upcoming elections in Iraq. The Secretary asked the president for an update on the legal and regulatory framework for election. The president assured her that elections would take place on time in January.

We – the Secretary expressed our commitment to working with the Iraqi Government on promoting business and commercial ties to help Iraq realize its potential, its economic potential. There was also discussion, of course, of the aftermath of the August 19th explosions in Baghdad, given that Secretary Clinton had been the first foreign minister to visit the Iraqi ministry of foreign affairs that was one of the buildings badly damaged in that attack, with Iraqi diplomats killed.

Today, the Secretary will be meeting with representatives of the GCC countries, the six Gulf Cooperation Council Countries – Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Oman. Afterwards, she’ll be meeting with an expanded group, which the GCC countries I just mentioned, joined by Egypt, Jordan, and Iraq. The issues that we plan to raise with our Gulf and Arab counterparts include regional issues such as the challenges posed by Iran, ways to work with the Iraqi Government to fully integrate Iraq into the region. We’ll be briefing them, of course, on efforts to resume negotiations on Middle East peace as quickly as possible. And we will also be touching on Afghanistan and Pakistan.

With that, I think, I would prefer opening for questions and comments.

QUESTION: On the resumption – on the hopes of resuming Israeli-Palestinian talks as soon as possible, have you yet heard any push back from Arab foreign ministers or Arab officials over – first, Senator Mitchell and then the President’s statement that negotiations should resume as soon as possible without preconditions. Rightly or wrongly, that’s been seen as laying the groundwork for punting on the Administration’s desire to see a settlement freeze in place on the part of the Israelis.

And so I have two questions: One, to what extent do you anticipate some unhappiness about that, or have you heard some already? And secondly, do you intend to use either of these meetings – or I guess the GCC meeting, to push for more – to push first steps for normalization with Israel and do you think you’re likely to make any headway on that, particularly given the way the settlements’ issue has been perceived?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY FELTMAN: Arshad, thanks. Let me start off by referring to President Obama’s speech before the General Assembly, because President Obama made a very clear statement of U.S. policy regarding settlements, and this is a policy that is – it is unchanged. The – and we, of course, have referred to this policy, to the words that the President stated in our discussions with the Arab foreign ministers this week, because we have had a number of meetings with Arab foreign ministers this week in the aftermath of the trilateral meeting that the President had with Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Abbas. So I think that they – the Arabs, at this point, should know what our policy is on settlements.

I’d like to add something to your reference to our desire to start negotiations without preconditions, because the President said something in the trilateral meeting that was also important, which is that negotiations are not starting from zero; negotiations do not start from scratch. The Palestinians and the Israelis have made a number of commitments to each other via previous agreements already. So when we talk about no preconditions, we’re also not talking about going back to zero.

The – I guess our view is that to address the issues that divide the Israelis and Palestinians, to tackle the permanent status issues, to answer questions about a settlement, one needs to get back to negotiations. A lack of negotiations does not, in itself, solve any of these issues. So one of the reasons why President Obama was expressing such urgency to the parties about getting back to negotiations, was the recognition that an absence of negotiations cannot address the issues. The Palestinians will not achieve their aspirations, the Israelis will not achieve their aspirations without a negotiating process that leads to a successful conclusion.

When we meet with the – when we’ve met with the Arab foreign ministers throughout the week, when we see the GCC+3 colleagues today, we will be talking about these issues. We believe that everybody has the responsibility to create the right atmosphere not only for a negotiating process, for a successful conclusion to a negotiating process. We hope that the Arabs would find ways to demonstrate to the Israeli public that Israel will be an accepted, normalized part of the region, which reflects the reality – which actually reflects reality. We would hope that the Arabs will find ways to support President Abbas and his team as they go into negotiations. President Obama is committed to pursuing this to a successful outcome. And we hope that we will have partners in the Arab world and beyond to help us do that.

QUESTION: Why isn’t the Arab initiative enough to demonstrate to the Israeli public that – I mean, it offers full relations with all of the Arab states, so why isn’t that enough to demonstrate that they will be part of the larger Middle East?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY FELTMAN: We all recognize the importance of the Arab Peace Initiative. You’ve heard us refer to this repeatedly. It is important. But we also would like to see tangible steps that would demonstrate to the Israeli public the seriousness with which the Arabs view this process that would help provide the right political climate in Israel to support negotiations, and we’re looking for the same the other way as well. We all recognize political realities. And part of our efforts have to be to create the right political atmosphere on the Arab side, on the Israeli side, among the Palestinians, where the leaders know they have the support to enter into and conclude serious negotiations that lead to a two-state solution.

QUESTION: Yeah, but Jeff, with all due respect, the Israeli Government has stiffed you or –more diplomatically – not given you what you want on settlement freeze. And the Arabs have stiffed you, or not given what you want, on overflight rights or anything else. So you’ve still got this conundrum. I don’t see where you’re going to break it. I mean, the President comes and has a three-way, and all he can announce is George Mitchell’s going to have more talks next week and report to the Secretary by the middle of October – question mark.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY FELTMAN: And Charlie, are we any closer without having negotiations? Are we any closer to addressing these things without negotiations – is the other question to ask.

We’d like – we would like to see a credible package of steps from both sides that help to change – that help promote a political climate, conducive to successful negotiations. But we also would like to see the two sides begin to grapple together, with U.S. leadership, the challenges that they face in order to get to a two-state solution. We don’t want to have the perfect be the enemy of the good. It would be good to get back to negotiations and start addressing these issues.

QUESTION: The GCC leaders made a positive reaction to Obama’s speech. I mean, do you think there is an opening that they still will make steps towards normalizing with Israel? Do you think that reaction to the speech meant that they’ve not closed the door on that, and you’re going to ask them today for specific steps?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY FELTMAN: Every Arab foreign minister that we have talked to, whatever their hesitations are about this or that, have welcomed the President’s speech at the General Assembly. In fact, the meetings that we’ve had at all levels tend to start out with the Arab foreign ministers or the Arab leaders, the heads of the delegations here, saying, that was really a great speech, thank you for saying those things, tell your President thanks for saying those things. So we have gotten positive – a very positive response. And the GCC statement, I think, was a reflection of a sense of almost relief that the President is showing real leadership on issues that are of great concern to the entire Arab world.

In the short term, I hope what this means is that the Arab leaders will help provide the background and the support to President Abbas and his team to go into negotiations. We will still continue to talk to them about ways that they might be able to send different signals to Israel. But at this point, I think we’ll be concentrating on what will it take to get the parties into a sustained and meaningful negotiating process, and that will require some Arab help as well.

QUESTION: I just wanted to sort of follow up on Lach’s question. Do you intend, or do you expect the Secretary at this meeting, to explicitly make the case for them to make gestures toward Israel or not? I mean, is she actually going to make that case, yet again, in the GCC meeting?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY FELTMAN: She will make that case again today.

QUESTION: Okay.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY FELTMAN: Along with many other topics.

QUESTION: And then is it fair to say that the Administration is expected to make a judgment some time fairly soon, after the middle of October, about whether to continue to try to put together this package of simultaneous or near-simultaneous steps, or whether to just push straight for negotiations? Or have you already reached that decision and you’re just going for negotiations, because you think the package simply isn’t going to happen?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY FELTMAN: We’re still going for both, Arshad. But we’re not going to make one contingent on the other, because we believe that the time is ripe, that the urgency – there’s sufficient urgency, we need to get back to negotiations as quickly as possible. We’re not going to wait for the perfect package before we start negotiations. That’s the message we’re trying to convey to the parties, that it’s time to start negotiations now, and also let’s continue to work on a package.

QUESTION: And last thing, if you come to the conclusion that – I mean, you have clearly come to the conclusion you’re not going to let the perfect be the enemy of the good; therefore, you’re not going to wait for the perfect package, what, short of the package, can the Arab states do to help create the political space for negotiations?

QUESTION: Are you asking what are the gestures that will be important?

QUESTION: No, not the gestures. But in other words, if you don’t think you can get the package together, what are you looking for them to do absent the package? In other words, what’s the --

QUESTION: Provide background support to Abbas, what does that mean?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY FELTMAN: There are several things here. There’s a constant consultative process going on among Arab leaders, whether it’s formal, through the Arab League, or whether it’s informal through the shuttle diplomacy that Arab leaders tend to take. Given the fact that the Arab leaders have all welcomed what President Obama said at the General Assembly, we would hope that these – that in these consultations that the Arab leaders would provide their own support to President Abbas in terms of entering into negotiations now, serious negotiations now.

There’s also a question of sustaining Palestinian institutions. We want to see a Palestinian state emerge at the end of this process. A Palestinian state needs to have governing institutions. Right now, the Palestinian state-to-be, needs budget support. We would hope that the Arabs would be forthcoming, as Saudi Arabia recently was, with a $200 million contribution to the Palestinian Authority. These are the sorts of things that Arab leaders could do now to help the process move forward.

QUESTION: And today in this meeting?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY FELTMAN: Yes.

QUESTION: Can we talk about Iran? Do you feel that the disclosure of the new clandestine facility and the display of solidarity on the part of the U.S. and its allies will have any important ripple effect in the GCC countries? Is there evidence that the GCC countries are thinking of, or maybe even willing, to join in efforts to (inaudible) Iran in some ways? And what specifically will the Secretary say to the GCC leaders about Iran?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY FELTMAN: I think the Secretary will describe to the GCC and GCC+ 3 countries’ representatives today the background to what was this information, how – why did we come forth now, things like that. I will say that whenever we meet with these countries, Iran will come up in one form or another. So it’s natural, given the disclosure from yesterday, that we’re going to talk about this.

The GCC countries live in the neighborhood of Iran. They have a keen interest in understanding what it is that we’re trying to achieve, whether we’re talking about the October 1st meeting, whether we’re talking about the other aspects of the dual-track approach. They have – the GCC countries are close allies with us on a number of issues, so it is – I think, we consider it to be almost an obligation that we share our thinking with these countries that could be affected by what happens vis-à-vis P-5+1 discussions with Iran.

They have – the GCC countries have requested that we have ongoing consultations with them about Iran. And this is another – this is an example of their doing so. There was, in fact, a meeting a couple of days ago – a lunch meeting a couple of days ago – that British Foreign Secretary Miliband hosted with all of the EU-3+ 3, or P-5+1, with all of the GCC+3, and a couple of additional countries, such as – Turkey was there, the Swedes were there from the EU presidency. So I would look at today as part of this ongoing consultation with our Gulf friends about what is our policy toward Iran, how are we going to address October 1st dialogue with Iran. They –there’s a profound concern on their part that we not do anything that would sort of trade their interests for our interests.

QUESTION: Well, specifically – (inaudible) Mark’s question – what specifically are you looking, if the talks don’t materialize, and you obviously are considering talking to people in the P-5+1 about stronger sanctions and building that case – what specifically would you – what steps are you going to ask these countries to take?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY FELTMAN: I’m not going to speculate on what the Secretary is going to say in terms of that specificity, Elise. The GCC countries are – as I said, are concerned about the P-5+1 discussions with Iran and what it means for them. They see what Iran does in their own neighborhood, so I think that they have an interest in the P-5+1 discussion with Iran being successful. They have – so we would hope, given that they all have various channels to the Iranians, some closer than others, we would hope that they would be encouraging the Iranians to take advantage of the opportunity that October 1st offers.

QUESTION: So it’s more about – just quickly to follow up – it’s more about trying to get Iran to come to the table in a productive way than what happens if these talks don’t produce anything. You’re not kind of lining them up to impose their own measures?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY FELTMAN: We’re going to have to talk to them about both tracks today. But the immediate focus is going to be on October 1st. And I would expect that they would have the same interest that we have, that Iran come to the table on October 1st, able and willing, to talk about the nuclear file with full transparency. Iran can raise other issues. But what will define how we move forward after October 1st is how Iran reacts to the nuclear questions.

QUESTION: You said that she was going to go in and talk to them about the background and what was the information and why we’ve come forth now. Can you answer those two questions, for us?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY FELTMAN: Yeah, I think there’s been a lot of – reading all of your reports today, I think there’s been quite a lot of background briefings provided already. But you know, this is information that we’ve had for some time, that we’ve developed with the British and the French. And it took some time to have as much confidence, as we wanted the information, before we would come forth in saying anything about it.

QUESTION: But the Iranians said this morning that – say that they basically forestalled -- that they (inaudible) their letter on Monday with the IAEA, that basically they preempted any negative reactions.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY FELTMAN: That doesn’t seem to be an accurate description of what the international reaction has been to this news.

QUESTION: Well, they said they got it out in time. They weren’t going to put any fuel into it for six months so they reported it before they even needed to, I think. Right, Matt? Is that what you meant to say?

QUESTION: No. It’s not .what I meant to say

QUESTION: Another angle on – I don’t need to --

QUESTION: Iran (inaudible) will allow the IAEA in--

QUESTION: Right.

QUESTION: It said that they preempted a conspiracy against Tehran by the U.S. and its allies by reporting the site voluntarily to the IAEA.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY FELTMAN: Yeah, I’m not an IAEA expert. But I understand that the information that Iran provided was not sufficient for the type of IAEA investigations and verifications, and that the information that we have provided, along with the French and the British, is much more in line with what the IAEA would need in order to follow up.

QUESTION: I want to ask a non-Iran, non-peace process question --

QUESTION: I do, too.

QUESTION: Let’s go do some non stuff. You went to Libya right before President Muammar Qadhafi came here. Can you give your assessment now of the relationship in the wake of his visit here and this display at the UN? Or what your concerns are about Libya now?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY FELTMAN: We can’t pretend that the Megrahi release and reception in Libya didn’t have an impact on the bilateral relationship. And I think that Qadhafi’s words at the General Assembly, as somebody said from the podium, pretty much speak for themselves.

We have a long-term commitment to this relationship, in that Libya has taken a historic decision in terms of renouncing terrorism, moving away from WMD, giving up a non-transparent nuclear program. These were – these are extremely important developments that basically remove a threat to the United States, remove a threat to the region, remove a potential international threat. We can’t forget those.

At the same time, I hope that the Libyans now understand the sensitivity with which we view anything related to American victims of terrorism. Americans were sincerely outraged by the reception of Megrahi, and this does have an impact on the bilateral relationship. Over the long term, we hope to work with Libya in accordance with those historic decisions that Libya made a few years ago. But I would say that for right now, we need to manage the political realities that the Libyans did something that was deeply offensive to us.

QUESTION: The Hill has said that – I’m sure you’ve seen the letter from Nita Lowey and the ranking member on the subcommittee, asking you to freeze the $2.5 million that were going to go to (inaudible). Are you going to freeze that or not?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY FELTMAN: It was an earmark. It’s worth noting the $2.5 million was an earmark from Congress, and so Congress’s views on how – on that $2.5 million are very important, since Congress put it in there. And there haven’t been awards given on that, so we do have time to look at this.

QUESTION: Thank you.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY FELTMAN: Thank you.



PRN: 2009/T12-28



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