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Diplomacy in Action

Middle East Digest - June 15, 2009

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Washington, DC
June 15, 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 June 15, 2009

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MR. KELLY: Afternoon, guys. I’m just going to make a very short statement at the top and then we can go right to your questions.

Along with the rest of the international community, the United States is closely watching events unfolding in Iran. We are deeply troubled by the reports of violence, arrests, and possible voting irregularities. As the President indicated last week, the enthusiasm and robust debate these elections engendered captured the attention of the world, and the essential right of people to express themselves peacefully needs to be respected.

The international community remains committed to seeing Iran living up to its international responsibilities, and we will continue to use all avenues to try to convince Iran to meet its international obligations.

And with that, I’ll take your questions.

QUESTION: Do you have any reason to believe that the allegations of fraud have merit?

MR. KELLY: Well, as I just said, we are concerned by these reports. They are deeply troubling. But we are in a position, as is the rest of the international community right now, too; we are in a position of still assessing what went on. And it is difficult to assess, because there weren’t any international monitors at the election.

QUESTION: Right. But given the developments in the run-up to the actual election on Friday, were you – was this building or was the Administration surprised at the announced results?

MR. KELLY: I think that, as the Vice President said on Sunday, that there was such concern expressed by a number of the candidates that of course it led to doubts on – regarding the election results.

QUESTION: So you have doubts regarding the election?

MR. KELLY: We do have doubts about the election results.

QUESTION: Ian, some of the European countries, the Germans and the Brits and others, have called for an investigation into the voting irregularities. Does the United States support that?

MR. KELLY: Well, I haven’t seen these reports of calling specifically for an investigation. I would say that Iran needs to take seriously these allegations and needs to examine these accusations very thoroughly.

QUESTION: Ian, was this –

QUESTION: Is Iran denying their right to free speech? You mentioned that in the opening remarks.

MR. KELLY: I’m sorry, say that again, Lach.

QUESTION: Well, you mentioned the need – you wanted them to respect the essential right to freedom of speech.

MR. KELLY: Right.

QUESTION: Has Iran, the authorities, been denying them that right -- the citizens -- for protesting the result?

MR. KELLY: Well, I’m just referring to the same kinds of images that you’ve been seeing and the same kinds of reports that you’ve been hearing in terms of the reaction of some of the law enforcement authorities and news of access to the internet being blocked and certain newspapers being closed.

QUETSION: How concerned is the U.S. that this is going to affect its attempts to engage Tehran, or are people already recalibrating what’s happening?

MR. KELLY: Well, we have – as you know very well, we’ve had very – we’ve had very serious concerns about Iran living up to its international obligations, particularly regarding its nuclear program and its support for terrorism.

What we’re going to do going forward is that we are going to continue to try and address these concerns with Iran. And of course, this is – these concerns that we have about their nuclear program is – it’s very much – these are very serious concerns. These get to the very heart of this Administration’s priorities in terms of nonproliferation concerns, about the possibility of an arms race in that part of the world.

So we’ll continue as the Vice President said on Sunday, we’ll continue to pursue, particularly, the multilateral avenues. You know that Iran has this standing – or that we have expressed our willingness to sit down with them in the P-5+1 context. And we’ll look at all kinds of different avenues to get Iran to live up to its international obligations.

Yeah, Elise.

QUESTION: Well, Ian, can you – Ian, can you – you said that you were concerned by reports of irregularities.

MR. KELLY: Yeah.

QUESTION: But like, can you talk about the picture that the U.S. has of the election results? I mean, how do you put together your view of the election results? I mean, do you have a full picture? And what – you say you’re concerned by the reports, but based on what you know so far, can you talk about whether you think that it’s possible that Ahmadinejad could have won 65 percent in the first pass?

MR. KELLY: Well, as I said before, we’re hamstrung by the fact that there weren’t – that Iran didn’t allow international monitors. Of course, we don’t have diplomats on the ground. I think what we’re doing is we’re – we are consulting with a number of our allies, particularly with the EU, and we are trying to develop a picture of exactly what happened.

I mean, all of you guys are helping us, of course, when you’re reporting from Iran. And there were some very dramatic scenes being broadcast live on CNN and everybody else here. So, I mean, that – a lot of what we have, of course, is based on what you report on, as well.

QUESTION: But when you say you’re concerned about reports of irregularities --

MR. KELLY: Yeah.

QUESTION: -- in your kind of first view, does this election appear to be credible to you or not?

MR. KELLY: Well, I’m just not prepared to make a statement right here, right now from this podium about whether or not these – we can pronounce one way or the other. We’re still assessing.

QUESTION: Does that mean that if Ahmadinejad is able to remain as president, that the U.S. is prepared to go ahead and to try to deal with the questions of nuclearization with him at the head of the government?

MR. KELLY: Well, as I said before, this is a very serious issue, the issue of Iran acquiring nuclear weapons. As we go forward, we are going to make our decisions based on U.S. national interests. And of course, we’re following the situation very closely. But as the Vice President said yesterday, we’ve made the decision to pursue direct diplomacy with Iran, particularly through the multilateral context.


QUESTION: Ian, a few different aspects of this, if I may. First, with regard to the street protests and the response from the security forces in Iran, this is different from the election results, because while the United States might not have a diplomatic presence in Tehran and might not have access to the balloting --

MR. KELLY: Yeah.

QUESTION: -- and those kind of things, you do have access to the media. And you are seeing very stark imagery on --

MR. KELLY: Yeah.

QUESTION: -- your television screen where the protests and the response from the security forces are concerned. And so how would you characterize what you’ve seen so far about the way the security forces in Iran have handled the protestors?

MR. KELLY: Well, I think what we’ve seen so far is – gives us some very deep concerns.


MR. KELLY: Well, I think that there has been doubt cast on the outcome of the elections. We see a real desire of the Iranian people to express themselves, to be involved in the political process. And that right needs to be respected.

QUESTION: What leads you to say so? Are you seeing – what are you seeing that gives you these concerns on the actions on the part of the security forces? What are you seeing?

MR. KELLY: Well, I’m referring to what we’ve seen on Fox and on CNN, ABC, CBS, NBC of some violent responses to peaceful protests, and that does give us concern.

QUESTION: The supreme leader apparently reversed himself after initially issuing a statement that called the elections fair and final by now having issued a statement declaring that the Guardian Council in Iran will conduct a probe into the balloting. Would you regard any verdict rendered by the Guardian Council as credible?

MR. KELLY: Well, again --

QUESTION: Any verdict? Is there a single verdict the Guardian Council would come back with that you would regard as credible?

MR. KELLY: As I said before, there have been some serious doubts cast on these results, and that we think that Iran, the authorities in Iran, need to take these concerns seriously. They need to look into them. I am – but I’m not going to stand here today and predict how we are going to judge whatever the outcome is.

QUESTION: Well, what I’m saying to you is the supreme authority in Iran has indicated that an investigation will be conducted by a specific body in Iran. Are you pleased with that development?

MR. KELLY: Well, again --

QUESTION: That it’s – that the concerns you’re talking about are being taken seriously?

MR. KELLY: Well, I – we – it’s difficult for us to assess. I mean, not having
had access as many international monitors have in elections to exactly what happened. And it’s just – I’m just not going to be able to really say one way or the other.

QUESTION: So you don’t have any response? You have no response to the supreme leader’s announcement that he is convening a probe?

MR. KELLY: Just to repeat what I just said, that Iran needs to take these allegations of misconduct or of election irregularities seriously.

QUESTION: Well, but isn’t the – is the fact that he called for an investigation a positive development in taking them seriously?

MR. KELLY: I just – let’s see how things work out. I mean, a lot will depend on the kind of investigation that’s conducted. And I’m just not prepared right now to pronounce one way or the other on it.

QUESTION: So are --

QUESTION: Can you say that the U.S. can trust what the supreme leader is calling for? You can’t – you don’t – you have no way of trusting what they’re doing.

MR. KELLY: When it happens, well, we’ll maybe have something to say.

Yeah, Matt.

QUESTION: Tangential to this, what – there seem to be a – well, not seem to be, there are a lot of reports about Dennis Ross based on one specific report in an Israeli newspaper. What’s his status? Has he been fired?

MR. KELLY: He has not been fired.

QUESTION: Is he being ousted?

MR. KELLY: He is not being ousted.

QUESTION: Is there an abrupt change to his responsibilities?

MR. KELLY: I – there is --

QUESTION: Is he being reassigned?

MR. KELLY: Look, he’s in the building today. I was in his office today. He’s working very hard on the same issues that we’ve been discussing the last, whatever it is, 15 minutes. And you know, if and when there is some kind of personnel announcement, I’ll be happy to let you know.

QUESTION: Isn’t it – isn’t he being reassigned to another position at the White House?

MR. KELLY: Anything is possible. I could be fired today too, I mean, if you guys keep probing me on this.

QUESTION: Isn’t it true that he’s being – isn’t it true that he’s being reassigned to another position at the White House?

MR. KELLY: Like I said, I have – there – I have no personnel announcements.

QUESTION: So the Secretary has full confidence in Dennis Ross to continue in his present role?

MR. KELLY: Absolutely.

QUESTION: So Dennis Ross – Dennis Ross is going to continue in his role as advisor to the Secretary on, what was it, western Gulf –

QUESTION: Southwest Asia.

QUESTION: – southwest Gulf affairs?

MR. KELLY: He is – as I say, he is working very hard. He worked hard throughout the weekend, and he’s continuing to do his job today.

QUESTION: Has the book that he and David Makovsky published recently caused any problems for him internally in this Administration that you’re aware?

MR. KELLY: No, no. It’s a very good book, by the way. I started reading it over the weekend.

QUESTION: Was there any --

QUESTION: Oh, so you’re doing reviews from the podium.

QUESTION: Was there any concern about this book --

MR. KELLY: It probably was inappropriate, but there it is. It’s out there.

QUESTION: Was there any concern about his authorship of this book of some of the opinions that he and his coauthor expressed in the book --


QUESTION: -- during the time leading up to his appointment?

MR. KELLY: No, not at all.

QUESTION: Why not?

MR. KELLY: Well, I mean, Mr. Ross is – I mean, he is in the Administration now. He is a very close advisor of the Secretary on a number of issues related to Iran and the region. But he also came out of the academic community, and he’s entitled – he was entitled to his opinion. He wrote the book before he came on board here.

QUESTION: But I mean, his opinion in his book and everything notwithstanding, are you saying that Dennis Ross is not being reassigned to another position at the White House?

MR. KELLY: I’m saying he’s working very hard here at the State Department.

QUESTION: Well, you’re not saying no.

MR. KELLY: I’m saying he’s working very hard here at the State Department.

QUESTION: I’m not saying he’s – I’m not saying he’s not working very hard. There’s a lot going on in Iran.

MR. KELLY: I can’t predict the future, Elise. I don’t know --

QUESTION: No one asked if he was, you know, lollygagging –

QUESTION: No one is questioning that he works very hard.


QUESTION: But yes or no? I mean, is he being reassigned to --

MR. KELLY: I – you know, I don’t have a crystal ball. I can’t predict what’s going to happen tomorrow.

QUESTION: You can’t predict till tomorrow when you’re going to announce it?

MR. KELLY: I may be reassigned, God knows where, tomorrow. I don’t know.

QUESTION: Can we stay with Iran and --

MR. KELLY: And I can be. I signed something saying I was worldwide available. So I can – at any time, I can be shipped off somewhere.

QUESTION: Can we stay with the Iran situation for just a moment? Two questions. Do we see in the events that you’ve been describing an authoritarian regime revealing itself as such?

MR. KELLY: Well, I think our concerns about Iran and the lack of transparency, accountability is well known. I mean, it’s been said from this podium, it’s been said in our human rights report. Right now, we’re focused on what’s unfolding in Iran. And we and a lot of our allies, including the foreign ministers of the EU today, have expressed our concerns about the allegations of election irregularities. We’re concerned about some of the treatment of the demonstrators, and we’re calling for the Iranian authorities to respect the right of people to express themselves peacefully. But we’re – what we’re focused on is that, on the unfolding events. And we’ll also continue to focus on the need to get Iran to adhere to its international obligations.

QUESTION: What message does it send, Ian, to pro-democracy dissidents around the world when the United States very clearly indicates that regardless of the election results in Iran and regardless of how much brute force is used to suppress the demonstrations that are going on in Tehran now, the United States will simply pursue its policy of engagement with whatever rogue regime turns up in Tehran?

MR. KELLY: Well, I don’t think I said that. But

QUESTION: You’re --

MR. KELLY: Well, I’m – what I said is that we have very – we have concerns about the – what’s going on on the ground in Iran. We have concerns that the right of the Iranian people to self-expression – that we want to see that right to express themselves peacefully be respected. We also have serious concerns about Iranians – the Iranian authorities’ refusal to abide by its international obligations and allow the IAEA to come back in and verify in a transparent way that they are not working on a nuclear weapons program.

QUESTION: So when you’re saying – so when you’re saying that you’re going to engage with Iran regardless of the outcome of --

MR. KELLY: I didn’t say regardless of the outcome.

QUESTION: Well, I mean, that’s what Vice President Biden seemed to suggest yesterday. So are you saying that when you have real national security concerns that are pressing and urgent, that democracy takes a back seat?

MR. KELLY: No, not saying that at all. What I am saying is that we will call things like they are when we see irregularities and – or problems with elections. But we also have to – as we’re going forward, we have to look at our own national interests too. Nonproliferation is a very serious, very important priority of this Administration.

QUESTION: So do you just express concerns about all this, or do you condemn it? Do you condemn what we’re seeing in Iran, or are you just expressing concern?

MR. KELLY: Well, what we’re doing is we’re consulting with our allies, and we’re doing basically what we would do in any of these kinds of situations: We would consult with them and come up with a multilateral solution.

QUESTION: So you don’t condemn what we’re seeing in Iran?

MR. KELLY: Well, I haven’t used that word, “condemn.”

QUESTION: Yeah, that’s what I’m asking. So you’re not – and you’re not prepared to?

MR. KELLY: Well, we still need to see --


MR. KELLY: We need to see how things unfold.

QUESTION: You need some more heads cracked in the middle to see --

MR. KELLY: No, no, no. We need to have a deeper assessment of what’s going on.

QUESTION: To follow up on what President Obama said Friday that there’d be good opportunities for engagement no matter who wins, standing as it is right now, would you say there are fewer opportunities for engagement?

MR. KELLY: Well, I think what we need to do is we need to get Iran to take seriously the reports of violence and arrests and election irregularities. We also need to get them to take seriously the will of the international community to get them to live up to their responsibilities and obligations.

QUESTION: And if not?

MR. KELLY: If not – you asked – you used the word “if.” We’ll – I mean, we will make all our decisions based on our national interests.


QUESTION: Can I follow up on Israel?

QUESTION: With North Korea now with all its belligerent activity and threatening nuclear attack and nuclear war, South Korea seems to want to extend the nuclear umbrella deterrents to a written agreement. Do you think this would be a good opportunity at this point to extend that agreement to send a sign of unity to North Korea by putting something down in writing or something?

MR. KELLY: Yeah, I haven’t seen that report and it – if there’s – I mean, if there is a formal proposal, we’ll look at it. But beyond that, I really don’t want to say.

Also North Korea?

QUESTION: Yeah, one more.

MR. KELLY: One more on North Korea, okay.

QUESTION: The two journalists in North Korea. On May 15th when North Korea announced the trial date for the journalists, Secretary Clinton said, I quote, “A trial date being set we view as a welcoming timeframe.” So does the State Department still see the legal process so far as a welcoming timeframe?

MR. KELLY: Well, I think there’s been a number of developments since the Secretary made that statement. And as I’ve said before, I really – I don’t want to get too deep into the details of characterizing our approach, their approach. This is a sensitive issue, and I think I’ll just leave it at what I said in answer to Charlie’s question, is that we continue to call for the immediate release of these two young women on humanitarian grounds.

QUESTION: So can we change?

MR. KELLY: Yeah, sure.

QUESTION: One or two on Israel. Are the conditions set yesterday by the Prime Minister of Israel acceptable to the Administration? Is it wise to have a Palestinian state in the form and unarmed, as Prime Minister Netanyahu is suggesting or demanding (inaudible)?

MR. KELLY: Well, I think, Nick, you saw the President – well, I guess it was Robert Gibbs’s statement. It was the White House’s statement yesterday.

QUESTION: Well, but they didn’t say much, though.

MR. KELLY: Well, it welcomed that – the fact that Prime Minister Netanyahu made an important step. We are committed to two states living side by side in their historic homeland. We believe this solution can and must ensure both Israel’s security and the fulfillment of the Palestinians’ legitimate aspirations for a viable state. And so we welcome Prime Minister Netanyahu’s endorsement of that goal.

QUESTION: With all these conditions, can it be a viable state? I mean, that Israel would maintain, I think, rights --

MR. KELLY: Yeah.

QUESTION: -- over Palestinian airspace, it has to be demilitarized --

MR. KELLY: Well, I mean, our policy is clear on this, that we want the conditions of – in the Roadmap fulfilled, we want Israel’s security to be ensured, we want the Palestinians to have their own homeland. In terms of what Prime Minister Netanyahu said yesterday, we have our policy. This is the – of course, we’re involved in a negotiation now, and we’ll just see how things go forward in this negotiation. But our goal remains the same: a two-state solution, the two states living side by side in security and prosperity.

QUESTION: So you have your policy --

QUESTION: But on settlements --

QUESTION: Here you have your policy, the Israeli Government has its own policy, and you’re saying that in the near future there is no hope of perhaps aligning those two policies?

MR. KELLY: Well, this is – we’re going to sit down, I hope soon, and with all the different stakeholders and work out a solution. But I’m just not going to – I’m not going to characterize the prime minister’s situation in terms of – I’m not expressing this right.

We’re going to have – it’s going to be a complicated negotiation. And Prime Minister Netanyahu has laid out his point of view as he sees it, as the head of the Israeli Government. We’ve seen the reaction of various Palestinian officials and leaders. And we just want to reiterate that it is in the interests of everyone in the region to come up with a solution whereby you can have the state of Israel and a Palestinian state living side by side and looking to the future, a future of security and prosperity for both peoples of the two states.

QUESTION: Does the Obama Administration endorse Netanyahu’s view that the Palestinians must recognize Israel as a Jewish state?

MR. KELLY: I know you’re focusing on the adjective there. We do think that, yes, the Palestinians need to recognize the right of Israel to exist, and I’ll just leave it at that.

QUESTION: But hold on a second. Do you – is the position of the Obama Administration that Israel should be defined as a Jewish state?

MR. KELLY: I’m going to let the President’s words stand. You know that yesterday he said that he was committed to the Jewish state of Israel. Senator Mitchell said it. And I’ll just let it stand at that.

QUESTION: President Clinton said when he was trying to work a deal in 2000, I believe, that demilitarization was acceptable. And I’m paraphrasing, but he did use the word “demilitarization.” Has the Obama Administration tacitly agreed with Israel that any Palestinian state would not be allowed to have a standing military?

MR. KELLY: Well, I think I’ll just say that in any solution that we work out, we need – Israel needs to have its security concerns taken very seriously and worked out. But I’m not going to jump ahead and say what exactly – what that package would entail specifically. This is something for the two parties to work out for themselves.

QUESTION: Can you say whether Secretary Clinton has communicated with any former Bush Administration officials in order to help clarify her own understanding of what commitments the United States may or may not have made to Israel in relation to settlement activity?

MR. KELLY: No, I don’t have anything for you on that.

QUESTION: What about settlements? The White House statement said nothing about settlements, this after two very clear statements from both the President --

MR. KELLY: Yeah.

QUESTION: -- and the Secretary about this issue. There are some on the Israeli right who are suggesting that perhaps the Obama Administration has backed itself into a corner. There’s also the policy concern of trying to reposition the U.S. as an honest broker according to some analysts. Where is the U.S. on the settlements?

MR. KELLY: Well, it couldn’t be clearer. The President has said it very clearly. My boss, Secretary Clinton, has said it very clearly. And that’s that we oppose continued settlement activity. Israel has an obligation under the Roadmap to freeze all settlement activity. Our position is that it has to stop. We know it’s a difficult issue, but it’s one that has to be addressed. And we’re continuing to discuss this issue with the Israeli Government, and we prefer not to conduct diplomacy from this podium.

QUESTION: Yeah, but this –

QUESTION: But still, though, is the U.S. willing to push that point enough for –

MR. KELLY: You’re asking me to get into what we may or may not do, and –

QUESTION: See, now you sound like the Bush Administration at this point.

QUESTION: But I mean, it sounds like you’re really making the settlement issue –

MR. KELLY: Are you trying to get me fired? (Laughter.)


QUESTION: It sounds like you’re really making the settlement issue one of the main issues in your discussions with Israel. I mean, up until, you know, President Obama and Secretary Clinton have spoken on settlements, the traditional policy has been that settlements are unhelpful and you know our position on that. But now, I mean, for you to continue to say from the podium that settlements should stop indicates that this is one of the main points that you’re pushing with Israel.

MR. KELLY: Yeah. We’re focused on the goal here, and we think – and the goal is peace. The goal is two peoples living in their historic homelands. And there are a number of obstacles to this ultimate goal.


MR. KELLY: I’m not saying that settlements is the main obstacle. It’s just one of the obstacles to this ultimate goal.

QUESTION: The Israeli prime minister on the Today Show this morning said that he hoped there was room for negotiation on the issue of natural growth. They seemed to indicate that there will be discussion on kind of how to finesse that with the Obama Administration. Is that your understanding?

MR. KELLY: Well, again, you’re asking me to get into what’s going to happen when we actually sit down and negotiate these things. But it has to be worked out first and foremost between the two parties themselves. We are a facilitator in this process.

QUESTION: But as far as the settlement freeze and negotiation on natural growth and what the understandings are, is there room for negotiation?

MR. KELLY: Well, as I said, our policy is clear. The settlement activity must be freezed. It’s an obligation under the Roadmap.

QUESTION: So why not criticize Prime Minister Netanyahu’s speech? Because he fell short in that area, didn’t he? It doesn’t meet your conditions.

MR. KELLY: We – again, we want to focus on how we can get to this ultimate goal that the whole world wants. And we take it as positive that he accepted this idea of two states living side by side beside the --

QUESTION: Well, it’s not the whole world, because we –

MR. KELLY: All right. Okay, well, much of the world.

QUESTION: -- just had an election in a country which is pretty much opposed to any –

MR. KELLY: Much of the world.

QUESTION: Can I change the subject?


MR. KELLY: Good.


MR. KELLY: Yemen.

QUESTION: The bodies of these missing people, the missing Europeans who have turned up?

MR. KELLY: I’m afraid I don’t know what you’re referring to.

QUESTION: Okay. Maybe you can ask and take a look.

MR. KELLY: Can you give me a little more detailed –

QUESTONI: Well, they were killed. They were Germans, a Brit, and a South Korean.

MR. KELLY: Mm-hmm. Yeah, we’ll – I’ll have to look into that. We’ll get you –

QUESTION: All right, but I’m just looking for a comment on that, but also on if there are any – does this mean that there are increased security concerns for your people there?

MR. KELLY: Okay. We’ll look into it.

QUESTION: Thank you.

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