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Middle East Digest - June 2, 2009

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Washington, DC
June 2, 2009


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 29, 2009

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QUESTION: Just staying on the schedule of the Secretary for a second, she arrives in Cairo a day or so before the President. What will she be doing during this time? Will she be having any meetings or –

MR. WOOD: I don’t have any further information on her itinerary. We’ll be happy to provide that once we have it.

QUESTION: Can you confirm reports that the State Department has authorized the U.S. embassies to invite Iranian officials to Fourth of July celebrations?
MR. WOOD: Well, the State Department recently provided some guidance to our posts regarding governments whose officials may be invited to U.S. Government hosted representational events this year around the Fourth of July. And we review these types of invitations every year, and the decision was made this year to invite officials from Iran. So – and this is very much in line with our policy of trying to engage the Iranian Government.
QUESTION: I understand that the invitation went out on Friday. On the same day, the bombing in Zahedan happened and some Iranian officials blamed the U.S. for it. Do you know which -- was the invitation sent out after this (inaudible)?
MR. WOOD: I have no way of knowing, and there’s clearly no connection as far as we’re concerned.
QUESTION: Of course. But would it have affected the decision to send it out still?
MR. WOOD: I – you know, you’re asking me to – you’re asking a hypothetical. I just couldn’t answer that for you.
QUESTION: Well – sorry, go ahead.
QUESTION: Go ahead.
QUESTION: Has the – has the general policy that, I believe, barred contact among U.S. diplomats and Iranian diplomats been – without explicit authorization been relaxed?
MR. WOOD: I think that’s safe to say.
QUESTION: When was – when did that happen?
MR. WOOD: We’re talking about the fact that we’re allowing – oh, I’m sorry. Yeah. I see what you’re saying, Arshad. As far as I know, since 1980, we have not had any kind of – our diplomats were not allowed to have substantive discussions with Iranian officials. This is just for the purposes right now of inviting Iranian officials to U.S. Government events, you know, in connection with July 4.
QUESTION: So they’re not allowed, however, to have substantive discussions?
MR. WOOD: Well, again, this is – this cable that went out was specifically addressing the question of inviting representatives.
QUESTION: Just so that we have clarity, just as U.S. diplomats also need clarity, can you state then that the prohibition on substantive contacts with Iranian officials absent explicit direction from the Department is still in force?
MR. WOOD: Yeah, I think that’s safe to say. We have not issued any instructions with regard to substantive discussions with Iranian officials at this point.
I mean, certainly, at a July 4th type of event, you’ll have a lot of meeting and greeting of various officials, but in terms of the substantive policy, I don’t believe at this point there has been a change.
MR. WOOD: That’s not to say that—
QUESTION: There won’t be.
MR. WOOD: -- there won’t be a change. I’m just saying, as I’m aware of right now, there has not been. We have only – again, as part of our policy, trying to reach out to Iran, we’ve decided that, you know, for this year’s July 4 that Iranian diplomats can be invited to those receptions.
QUESTION: And when it says that they can be invited –
MR. WOOD: Or they may be –
QUESTION: -- do you expect them to be invited?
MR. WOOD: I would assume that a number of them would be invited. That’s going to be up to the post. The language is certainly may be invited, so it’s really going to be up to the chief of mission to decide. But clearly, our policy here is to reach out and engage Iran. And so this is just one way of doing that.
QUESTION: But it’s just for chit-chat, not for anything –
MR. WOOD: This cable was solely for the purpose of inviting Iranian officials to attend July 4 celebrations.
QUESTION: But if you invite people, you have to speak to them.
MR. WOOD: Yes, and there’s no – you know, there’s no ban against, you know, greetings and speaking to officials. What we’re talking about here is engaging in substantive discussions about policy issues.
QUESTION: But is this a one-off? So it’s not about substantive discussions, you still can’t have those. We have can have chit-chat with them. Can you have chit-chat beyond Fourth of July at other locations? Is the invitation just for – is this cable just for the Fourth of July?
MR. WOOD: Just for the Fourth of July, yes.
MR. WOOD: For this year.
QUESTION: So there will be no further invitations?
MR. WOOD: For this year. That’s correct.
Yeah, I mean, look, as I said, our policy is to try to reach out to the Iranian Government and people. The President and Secretary have made very clear that this is what we want to do. And you know, certainly, there are going to be other opportunities to reach out to Iran. We, again, still wait for Iran to reach back. And what I’m specifically referring to is, you know, Iran informing us as to whether they’re going to respond positively to Javier Solana’s invitation to attend the next P-5+1 meeting.
QUESTION: So if American diplomats bump into Iranian diplomats at another reception at some other embassy, are they allowed to chit-chat with them?
MR. WOOD: Look, it’s always been the policy that if you’re at an official function and you’re approached by an Iranian official who wants to greet you, certainly it’s common courtesy to send a greeting back. And that has basically been the extent of our, you know, engagement with Iranian diplomats.
But again, as I said, we’re moving in a new direction. We want to engage the Iranian people, and through them, their government, and so this is just one way of doing so.
QUESTION: I hope the hot dogs are halal.
QUESTION: If this is also – if the common courtesy has always been the courtesy of U.S., how does it differ to be courteous on the Fourth of July instead of being, you know, courteous the rest of the year?
MR. WOOD: This is not --
QUESTION: What’s the difference? What is --
MR. WOOD: Well, this is – the difference is our diplomats – our missions abroad are allowed now to invite Iranian officials for –to attend a July 4th celebration. Whereas what I was talking about in addressing Kim’s question was that if you are at some type of an event, third country event, and you’re approached by Iranian --
QUESTION: So then we get into U.S. territory?
MR. WOOD: That’s correct.
QUESTION: No one is to speak with their mouth full, correct? (Laughter.)
QUESTION: Well, I certainly hope not. That’s not polite.
QUESTION: Then Robert --
MR. WOOD: You wouldn’t do something like that.
QUESTION: Robert, does it follow, if you’re reaching out to the Iranians, that if they, in fact, accept a hot dog, they would have to unclench their fists?
MR. WOOD: That’s good, Charlie, but I’ll –

QUESTION: Any comment on this report – McClatchy report on – the source – virtually to the State Department that President Obama declined to release these photos of detainee abuse after President Maliki warned Chris Hill that Baghdad would burn if he did?
MR. WOOD: Well, look the – how can I say this? The President decided that the release of these photos would inflame the situation in Iraq and put our troops at risk. And so consistent with that decision, the Department of Justice is pursuing a legal strategy to try to prevent the photos from being released. But you know, other questions in connection with that, I’d have to refer you to the Department of Justice.

QUESTION: Do you have detail on the whereabouts of Senator Mitchell next week? Does he go to the Middle East, and where exactly?
MR. WOOD: Yeah, Sylvie, the only thing I can tell you at this point is that Senator Mitchell does plan to travel to the region, you know, in the coming days – next week or so. But I don’t have a specific itinerary. Once we have that, we’ll be very happy to share that with you. But I don’t have anything beyond that at this point.
QUESTION: But we know from other sources that the U.S. delegation has requested a visa to Syria. Can you confirm at least that it’s his intention to go to Syria at some point?
MR. WOOD: Well, clearly, at some point. And I think at the time the Syrian Ambassador to Washington Mustafa had done an interview saying that, you know, some officials from the State Department were over at the Embassy trying to get visas, I mean, he said that publicly. And we obviously, you know, concurred that that was indeed the case.
But that doesn’t necessarily mean that he’s planning to travel right away. You get those visas, you know, in advance because he does a lot of travel, and you know, you want to make sure that you have those visas when – you know, when you decide that you’re going to travel, so –
QUESTION: Trying to get visas for Senator Mitchell?
MR. WOOD: Yeah.
QUESTION: And can you confirm that at least that he will go – he will attend the meeting of the (inaudible) committee for Palestinians in Oslo June 8 and 9?
MR. WOOD: Yeah – Sylvie, I don’t have itinerary. As I said, once we get some itinerary --
QUESTION: This is not Middle East even, this is Oslo.
MR. WOOD: I’m sorry?
MR. WOOD: Yeah, I don’t have information on it. You know, I will try and see what I can get you in terms of an itinerary. And as I said, we’d be happy to share it with you once I’m able to get it.

QUESTION: On Pakistan, you may have covered this previously during the week, but I’m wondering whether you could tell us a little bit more about what Ambassador Holbrooke’s going to be doing, who he’s going to be meeting.
And also, how – what is your assessment of how the Pakistani authorities have dealt with the influx of refugees and the aid that they’re providing? They seem to have missed an opportunity to get close to people. They didn’t seem prepared for dealing – to deal with the influx of refugees. And the gap is being filled by Islamic charities, which seems to be a rather sadly missed opportunity to get people on board.
Could you comment on both of those, please?
MR. WOOD: Well, let me just say, you know, Ambassador Holbrooke’s going to be leading a presidential mission to Pakistan to take a look at the situation on the ground with regard to IDPs and refugees. It’s a very troubling situation on the ground. We’re very concerned about it. The Secretary and the President have spoken to this issue, as you know.
And with regard to what Pakistan is doing, it’s a very difficult situation. It’s clearly made a strategic decision to take the fight to the Taliban. And it’s also trying to do everything in its power to deal with the refugee and the IDP outflows. And we’re providing as much assistance as we can right now. We have regular discussions with the Government of Pakistan on how we can help support them, and we’ll continue to do so. I mean, the situation is one of great concern for these people who are now displaced. And we’re going to – as I said, we’re going to stand by the Government of Pakistan and do what we can to support them and the people of Pakistan in this hour of need.
QUESTION: And you’re – but you’re satisfied with the Pakistani authorities’ performance so far?
MR. WOOD: Look, I’m not in a position to criticize them with regard to their ability to provide, you know, for these IDPs and refugees. Pakistan, you know, is struggling to deal with a very serious economic situation, as well as dealing with a terrorist threat. And it’s incumbent on the United States and its partners and other countries in the international community to do what we can to help Pakistan.
And so I’m not going to stand here and criticize Pakistan for not being able to do enough. It needs assistance, and we want to try to help them. And that’s part of the reason Ambassador Holbrooke and his delegation are going, because they want to get a better sense on the ground as to what the needs are and what we can possibly do to help.
QUESTION: Sorry, just a last follow-up.
MR. WOOD: Sure.
QUESTION: Are you concerned about the aid that Islamic charities might be providing to the IDPs as opposed to the government?
MR. WOOD: Look, this is about helping people in need. I’m not able to, you know – you know, I’m not going to stand here and say, oh, Islamic charities trying to help people is a bad thing. That’s not – these people need help, and we want to see these people helped. And that’s the humanitarian thing to do. It’s not about politics.
QUESTION: I would like to go back to Middle East. Yesterday, you spoke about the Israeli settlements.
MR. WOOD: Mm-hmm.
QUESTION: And I didn’t understand very well what is the Obama position on – the Obama Administration’s position on the letter from the previous administration, from the previous President Bush to Israel on the settlements. Do you consider this Administration is bound by this letter?
MR. WOOD: What I tried to say yesterday, and I’ll try and say it again today, is that we are working with the two parties to implement their Roadmap obligations. And I think we’ve been very clear in terms of what our position is with regard to settlements. We’ve been extremely clear about that.
QUESTION: So it means you are not bound by this letter?
MR. WOOD: What I said, Sylvie, was we are working with the two sides to help them implement their Roadmap obligations.
QUESTION: Why don’t you want to say if you are bound are not? I don’t understand.
MR. WOOD: I’m saying what I’m saying.
QUESTION: Well, you are not answering. (Laughter.) I don’t understand why you don’t want to say it.
MR. WOOD: What I’m saying to you is, is that this Administration wants to see both sides implement their Roadmap obligations. There are a series of things that the Palestinians are required to do under the Roadmap, as well as the Israelis. Settlements – it’s one of those issues we have made very clear what our position is with regard to settlements. Why won’t you take that as the Administration position?
QUESTION: Because it’s not enough, because there is --
MR. WOOD: I’m sorry, Sylvie.
QUESTION: -- an additional letter and – I mean, it’s the big topic between Israel and U.S. right now. You will have a lot of questions about that. It’s only the beginning, so, I mean, you should prepare something a bit more clear for us to understand.
MR. WOOD: I don’t know how much clearer I can be on the subject. We are --
QUESTION: Yeah. (Laughter.)
QUESTION: Have you seen the letter? Do you know which letter we’re referring to?
MR. WOOD: I know what you’re referring to.
QUESTION: Have the Israelis brought it up in their conversations?
MR. WOOD: I haven’t been privy to those conversations with regard to this issue. But look, I’ve been very clear – we’ve been very clear about our position with regard to.
QUESTION: What? Well, we must be stupid because – (laughter) --
MR. WOOD: No, I’m not saying you’re stupid.
QUESTION: -- we don’t understand.
QUESTION: It’s a yes-or-no question, Robert. Is the Obama Administration bound by the contents of that letter or not? A yes or a no will suffice.
MR. WOOD: Well, I’m giving you the answer that I’ve given you yesterday and today.
QUESTION: What’s problematic about your answer is that we are continually calling, for example, on the Palestinians – all factions of the Palestinians – to abide by the commitments that previous Palestinian governments have made. And yet you stand at that podium unwilling to declare whether or not the United States feels obligated to abide by the commitment that a previous United States Government made, the previous United States Government.
So why are you in a position to demand such things of Palestinians, and not to abide by those kind of rules yourself?
MR. WOOD: We’re demanding things from both sides. This is not an issue of what the United States needs to do. This is an issue about what the two sides need to do.
QUESTION: It’s American policy --
QUESTION: But there is a letter, there is a document which is public, which has been published extensively, and which was signed by the President of the United States.
MR. WOOD: Mm-hmm.
QUESTION: So is it a commitment or is it not a commitment?
MR. WOOD: I will say it one more time. We – the Obama Administration is helping the two parties implement their Roadmap obligations. That’s where we are. That’s the policy.
QUESTION: Is the --
QUESTION: And elucidating what is your position on the letter would not help that?
MR. WOOD: I’m giving you what I’ve got. That’s all I can give you at this point.
QUESTION: This letter diminishes Israel’s Roadmap obligations and puts – it gives them a loophole in their Roadmap obligations. So if you’re demanding that they abide --
MR. WOOD: I don’t see it – I don’t see the situation in that way. What I see here is --
QUESTION: So they’re not bound, so you’re not bound?
MR. WOOD: What I’m saying is the two sides committed to undertake some obligations. And the U.S., of course, is helping the two sides implement these obligations, as we agreed to do. That’s what we’re focused on – the Roadmap obligations. And I can’t say it more explicitly. That’s our policy and that’s where we are.
QUESTION: I asked you at a previous briefing if the United States relationship with Israel was under review as a number of other foreign policy matters were under review at the time.
MR. WOOD: The relationship – the United States relationship with Israel is not under review. We have a very strong, solid relationship with the Government of Israel.
QUESTION: Well, one element in that relationship was this letter signed by an American president and received by the Israeli prime minister. So if that’s not under review, presumably you still feel bound by that – by the contents of that letter.
MR. WOOD: James, I’ve already – I don’t know how many times – has anybody counted how many times I’ve tried to respond to this? I don’t have anything more to say on it.
QUESTION: I’ve – we’ve counted the number of times you’ve not responded. We have not counted a single time you’ve tried to respond.
MR. WOOD: I have responded, in my view.
MR. WOOD: Yes, Samir.
QUESTION: Is the Secretary going to meet with the Israeli defense minister who is visiting here?

MR. WOOD: Well, I’m not aware – I mean, she is traveling and I don’t believe there’s any plan, not aware of any.

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