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Middle East Digest - May 11, 2009


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Washington, DC
May 11, 2009

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The Middle East Digest provides text and audio from the Daily Press Briefing. For the full briefings, please visit daily press briefings.

From the Daily Press Briefing of May 11, 2009

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QUESTION: The Secretary talked about Roxana Saberi. I’m wondering if you – the Administration, since the Iranian judicial system is not exactly the most independent in the world, and I think that the State Department recognizes that, do you see any sign in this move by the court today of a thaw, of this possibly being a positive response to your overtures?

MR. KELLY: Well, I think that we see it as it is. We see it as a humanitarian gesture. We welcome it as such. We continue to have a lot of concerns about Iran. We have concerns about the human rights situation there. Even though, as I say, we’re very pleased that Ms. Saberi has been released, we will continue to press for the safe return of all American citizens detained in Iran, including Esha Momeni.

QUESTION: And there’s also the case of Silva Harotonian. Are you – there’s an appeal that’s supposed to be heard on that – in that case. Is there any update on that?

MR. KELLY: I don’t have anything, unfortunately, on Ms. Harotonian.

Still on the same subject? Libby.

QUESTION: Yeah. I know that since January you’ve been working on this with the Swiss, sending messages to the Iranians, but what can you tell us about maybe the past week, the last-minute negotiations that were going on, what role the U.S. played, if any, in securing her release?

MR. KELLY: Well, I mean, this was a very important issue. Obviously, it was something that we had very deep concerns over. And we, you know, right up to today, were working through our Swiss colleagues in Tehran who represent our interests.

QUESTION: Can you be more specific about what you were doing, working through the --

MR. KELLY: I think – beyond that, I don’t think I want to get any more specific.

Also on the same question?

QUESTION: Yeah.

QUESTION: On Saberi, with the speed with which her plea was – you know, it went through and all that, do you think that the whole case might have been, in the Iranian regime’s eyes, a statement, a show of power, or something of that sort?

MR. KELLY: You know, I just – I think as I – you know, as I said before, we saw this as a humanitarian issue. We were very focused on her safety and her security, and trying to get her released. But I just am not going to speculate on any kind of political motivations that the Iranian Government might have had.

Also on Iran? I think, Nick, you were next.

QUESTION: Well, I think what we’re trying to figure out is was there any sort of – if not negotiation or pleas back and forth between you and the Iranians, do you – did you have to – if not commit to anything, at least articulate to them that you will be more favorable in reviewing certain policy aspects of the United States towards Iran? There are Qods Force prisoners in Iraq that the United States has captured, so you have leverage in that respect. Was there any back and forth on any of those issues?

MR. KELLY: You know, again, we saw this as a humanitarian issue. We saw this as an – we called on Iran consistently to release her. We found the charges against her to be baseless. But I’m just not going to go into any kind of political motivation or anything like that.

QUESTION: Is it fair to say, though, in your messages to the Iranians that you took – you wanted – you said – the message to them was this is a humanitarian issue, let’s take the politics out of that? Is that –sort of --

MR. KELLY: Well, I’m not – you know, I’m not aware of what exactly we said to the Iranians, but I think it is fair to say that we did see this as a humanitarian issue.

QUESTION: Can I just follow up? The five that are – the five Iranians that are in Iraq, are they still in Iraqi or U.S. custody?

MR. KELLY: You know, I think you have to ask the Iraqis and the Iranians about that. I’m just not sure.

QUESTION: Well, that’s actually taking place at the UN. And I’m just – I’m wondering, this morning as the Secretary was addressing the high school and middle school students at the Model UN, there was a ministerial meeting going on in New York of Security Council members. I believe Foreign Minister Kouchner, Foreign Secretary Miliband, Foreign Minister Lavrov were all there. Can you explain to us why the Secretary did not go, why Susan Rice is representing the United States up there and – for a ministerial meeting? And if this is a harbinger of things to come, will --

MR. KELLY: A harbinger in what sense, of things to come?

QUESTION: Well, I mean, for the UN General Assembly, will the Secretary be representing the United States at the UN, or will it be Susan Rice?

MR. KELLY: Well, the – Susan Rice does represent the United States at the United Nations. And we made the determination that she was the most suitable person for this meeting. As the Secretary said, I was in the meeting last week with Foreign Minister Lavrov. They talked about this. She explained her reasoning and he accepted it, but I wouldn’t read into it any kind of sign. We take this meeting very seriously.

QUESTION: Okay. Well, then – so these foreign minister – well, as you mentioned, Foreign Minister Lavrov met here separately last week, Foreign Minister Kouchner is coming tonight, Secretary Miliband tomorrow. Why – if Ambassador Rice is representing the United States, why is there the need for the Secretary to meet with these foreign ministers?

MR. KELLY: This was at their request. I mean, they – Foreign Minister Kouchner is going to meet with her today. Foreign Minister Miliband is coming tomorrow. And I’ll just repeat what I said a few minutes ago. We made the determination that Ambassador Rice was the most appropriate person for the meeting in New York.

Yes.

QUESTION: What was the explanation that the Secretary gave to Foreign Minister Lavrov about that decision?

MR. KELLY: Well, I’m going to say something that I’ll probably say a lot at this podium, in that we don’t really go into the details of private diplomatic exchanges. But as I said, we just made the determination that Susan Rice was the best person.

QUESTION: A follow-up on that?

MR. KELLY: Yeah.

QUESTION: Is that a suggestion – given that Russia stated that the purpose for this meeting was to try to move the Mideast peace process along, should this be interpreted in any way as a dis by the U.S. to Russia’s efforts to move the process along? Because for so long, it has been the U.S. acting as the broker between the Israelis and the Palestinians, or at least the perception has been that.

MR. KELLY: No, it shouldn’t be interpreted as a dis of the Russians.

QUESTION: Afghanistan?

MR. KELLY: Mm-hmm.

QUESTION: And this is just in regards to the assault in Farah. There have been some reports that white phosphorous was used, and it didn’t indicate whether it was from the U.S. or from the Taliban. And has the Karzai government expressed any concern with the U.S., if they did, using this kind of warfare in heavily populated areas of civilians?

MR. KELLY: No, I’m not aware that they have expressed concern about this. You know, of course, we’ll take – I mean if there’s any – if there’s been any – I mean, we’ll obviously investigate it, but the – I think any questions regarding the use of it should be directed at the Department of Defense.

QUESTION: Does this hinder your operations in Afghanistan? I know the State Department is doing something separate from the Department of Defense. So how is this going to bother your operations there if the Afghans in that area believe that the U.S. did use white phosphorous --

MR. KELLY: Well, you know, I --

QUESTION: -- in a village?

MR. KELLY: I’m not going to comment on the impact of something that I don’t know the details of. So I’ll just decline to comment at this time.

QUESTION: Same region?

MR. KELLY: Yeah.

QUESTION: In light of last week’s meetings with President Karzai and President Zardari, in particular with Pakistan, is there increased assurance within the State Department and within the U.S. Government that Zardari has the full support and command of the military and is fully committed to dealing with the Taliban and with sympathetic elements, particularly in the Swat Valley?

MR. KELLY: Yeah, I think that’s fair to say. I think the President spoke extensively on that subject. I think that the meetings last week were very productive. And we look forward to continuing to help the Government of Pakistan in their battle against the extremists and their attempt to establish democratic institutions.

QUESTION: Were there any promises made by the U.S. in terms of helping to protect Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal?

MR. KELLY: We were assured by President Zardari that they have complete command and control of the nuclear weapons in Pakistan.

QUESTION: But how do you verify that? I mean, they can say it, but how do you verify that?

MR. KELLY: We have full faith and confidence in President Zardari.

QUESTION: On this, but it’s kind of a technical, logistical thing. You know, these meetings last week were pretty high profile and very – presumably, you regard them as pretty significant.

MR. KELLY: Mm-hmm.

QUESTION: So I’m wondering why on earth you would put out at 1:22 a.m. Saturday morning a statement about the trilaterals? I mean, it was only on Friday morning that I brought up the fact that you put out the new Mexico travel alert at 5:27 a.m. Do you really think putting something out at 1:22 a.m. Saturday is going to give it the oomph that you’d like to see?

MR. KELLY: Well, we’re a 24-hour operation, Matt. And I mean, I could have waited until you were having your coffee the next morning, but we decided to put it out when we had it.

QUESTION: At 1:22 a.m.?

MR. KELLY: At 1:22 a.m.

QUESTION: So there was someone awake who had to sign off on --

MR. KELLY: Absolutely. There’s someone awake --

QUESTION: Who hadn’t signed off on it until 1:22?

MR. KELLY: Well, you know, it was a weekend night, people stay up later. (Laughter.)

QUESTION: Well, I’m serious. Something should be done to address this because it’s --

MR. KELLY: All right, fair enough. I said that I’m committed to you and your work, and so I’ll take your concern.

Yes.

QUESTION: This morning the Secretary talked about how the United States wanted to see what it could do to aid the situation of people fleeing Swat, refugees uprooted by the Pakistani military offensive. I’m wondering what she and you might have in mind about what the United States is concerned about and will do.

MR. KELLY: Well, whatever we do, of course, will be in close consultation with President Zardari and his government. I think at this point we’re assessing what the needs are and we’re assessing where our aid can fit in and be of use. But we support, of course, the operation in the Swat Valley, and we will stand ready to help with any kind of humanitarian situation that might evolve out of it.

QUESTION: So how quickly do you expect this aid to move in (inaudible) the Swat Valley (inaudible)?

MR. KELLY: That’s really difficult for me to say. Of course, we already have a lot of ongoing programs. I don’t know what’s prepositioned in the area out there, and I don’t know what kind of specific assistance is needed.

QUESTION: Are the USAID people on the ground looking at the situation there?

MR. KELLY: You know, I’m not sure. Yes, I mean, of course, they’re on the ground looking at the situation, but I’m not sure if they’re actually in the area. So let me see if I can find out the information and get back to you.

QUESTION: Have you had a specific request from Pakistan for humanitarian aid?

MR. KELLY: I’m not aware that we have a specific request at this time. But that’s information we can fold maybe into the same question.

Same issue?

QUESTION: No, I’m just wondering when Mubarak and Netanyahu will be here. Do you have --

MR. KELLY: When we have dates, we’ll let you know.

QUESTION: Can you update us a little bit on the trip to Syria? And also, is it true that the U.S. is concerned that the – that suicide bombers are using Syria once again to get into Iraq?

MR. KELLY: Yes, I do have something on Syria, if you’ll just hold on a second. Sorry I have to use this a lot, but in the first few days you can expect me to do that.

On the issue of the foreign fighters, Assistant Secretary – or Acting Assistant Secretary Feltman and Mr. Shapiro from the NSC did raise the issue during meetings in Damascus. We continue to have very deep concern about this issue of the flow of foreign fighters going into Iraq via Syria. And we also continue to call on Syria to take immediate and decisive action, including better screening of individuals entering Damascus airport, increased security on the Iraq-Syria border, better cooperation with the Government of Iraq, and denying foreign fighter facilitators safe haven within Syria.



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