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Middle East Digest - June 18, 2009

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Washington, DC
June 18, 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 18, 2009

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QUESTION: In view of the Israeli position that they will continue to build settlements, or natural growth as they call it, is the U.S. going to take any more steps to pressure Israel to comply with its wishes?

MR. CROWLEY: Well, as we said yesterday, George Mitchell will meet next week in Paris with the prime minister to continue this discussion. Our position is clear: There should be a stop to all settlements; there should be action by both the Israelis and the Palestinians to heed their obligations under the Roadmap. As George Mitchell said a couple of days ago briefing here, we recognize that this is a negotiation, and part of this is to actually get into a negotiation where we can take the positions that are currently held by all sides and work towards an agreement that everyone can live with, and then seek to execute.

QUESTION: The problem here is that it seems to be that the negotiation that’s going on is between the United States and Israel. And in fact, the point of this whole thing is to get a deal between Israel and the Palestinians. Isn’t this whole debate just sidetracking the real goal here?

MR. CROWLEY: Well, the real goal is a two-state solution and --

QUESTION: Well, I mean, the U.S. and Israel can – you know, can go back and forth however they want. But you know, the U.S. and Israel are friends and allies and there isn’t a – there is no need for a peace deal between – the need here is for a peace deal between the Israelis and the Palestinians, not for an agreement between the U.S. and Israel over settlements. Is that correct?

MR. CROWLEY: Well -- which is why the Obama Administration when it came into office, one of its first priorities was to reengage at a very high level involving the President, the Secretary, and appointing a special envoy. As George Mitchell said, we do feel there’s a sense of urgency here. The Israeli-Palestinian situation is central to a broader peace process, which is central to peace in the Middle East.

QUESTION: Yeah. But aren’t you concerned that the Israelis or Prime Minister Netanyahu himself may be just – you know, he’s succeeded in delaying the whole idea of restarting negotiations. But --

MR. CROWLEY: I’m not sure I necessarily agree there. I mean, I --

QUESTION: But Israelis officials say that there’s an accommodation being worked out between the U.S. and Israel over settlements. And is it the responsibility that the U.S. make an accommodation with Israel? I mean, isn’t that something you should be facilitating between the two parties?

MR. CROWLEY: Our interest is to facilitate the parties to restart a negotiation that leads to a comprehensive agreement. Again, as George Mitchell said, we want to get back into a formal negotiation. And we are working hard right now to create the conditions that would allow that to happen. We recognize that positions held by Israel today and positions held by the Palestinians today may be at odds.

QUESTION: So you’re saying --

MR. CROWLEY: What we’re saying is that – all we’re asking Israel to do, all we’re asking the Palestinians to do, is live up to the obligations that they themselves have committed to under the Roadmap.

QUESTION: Can I switch to Iran?

MR. CROWLEY: You may.

QUESTION: There was a report in The New York Times today that said Secretary Clinton believes the Administration should be taking a stronger stance on the protestors in Iran and that the Administration should be coming out more strongly in favor of their activities on the streets.

MR. CROWLEY: I don’t think there’s any daylight between the position of the President and the position of the Secretary of State.

QUESTION: Well, the public --

MR. CROWLEY: The President has talked this week compellingly about the debate that’s going on in Iran, and the Secretary has said virtually the same thing.

QUESTION: Does she think he should be putting more support – public support towards the protestors or the protestors?

MR. CROWLEY: I think clearly we are watching what is unfolding here. This is not a static situation. And what is clear is our interest here within – about the election itself. This is really about the Iranians and the relationship between the Iranian people and the Iranian Government. As I said yesterday, this is not about the United States.

Now, what is clear also is why we are focused on Iran. It’s why the President made the outreach that he did when he came into office, why we are hopeful when this process is done that we can begin to engage, not as a favor to Iran, but because it is in our interest, and we believe there is the potential for shared interests between the United States, Iran, and the rest of the international community on the nuclear issue, on the issue of terrorism, on the future of Iran in the region.

QUESTION: But Amnesty International is saying that many of the opposition leaders or – that were leading the protest have disappeared and perhaps been detained. Do you know anything about this? And I mean, why isn’t there more – as you have, not – in countries around the world, called for the release of political prisoners, why aren’t you speaking out more forcefully about that?

MR. CROWLEY: I think we are trying to assess the situation on a day-to-day basis. Clearly, as we’ve said, there are things we can glean from the various sources that we have. It is a murky situation. As you yourselves have noted, it’s very difficult to report what’s going on in Iran right now. We have made very strong statements, consistently so, about our interest in having freedom of expression, freedom of assembly. This is an election. This is a debate. It has to be resolved peacefully. The government should resolve this in a transparent process. And clearly, they should both listen to the voices that are speaking out and make sure that the result is one that the Iranian people can live with and can support.

QUESTION: And release political prisoners?

MR. CROWLEY: Yeah, we have a long track record in terms of opposing any prisoners who are put in jail on political grounds.

QUESTION: But – so why aren’t you opposing it now, though?

MR. CROWLEY: I just don’t have facts here. But to the extent there may well be people who are involved in the political process, they should be allowed to do what they need to do, to say what they should say, to help resolve this in a peaceful way.

QUESTION: The Bush Administration came under quite a bit of criticism over --

MR. CROWLEY: You think?

QUESTION: -- well, over the Iran Democracy Fund and that it made the situation much more difficult for Iranians on the ground once the U.S. started pumping money into the Democracy Fund. What are you doing in terms of funding democracy projects in Iran at the moment? Is that something that you’re looking at? And are you weighing what the benefits would be for that, because it would appear that you had put people in more jeopardy if you start pushing democracy projects?

MR. CROWLEY: I think it’s fair to say in the five months since the Administration has come into office, we’ve been reviewing and evaluating all elements of our policies towards Iran. We’ve been checking in with other countries who have the same interest that we do in resolving the concerns that we have about Iran. I don’t think that we’ve reached any conclusions yet. We’re waiting to see exactly what happens, and we’ve expected all along that Iran would have to get through this election before we understood exactly what Iran was prepared to do, and then we would respond accordingly.

QUESTION: And are you seeking the advice of Iranian Americans in how to moderate your response to the situation on the ground or what the best approach would be?

MR. CROWLEY: Well, put it this way: I think let’s lift it above Iran. Since coming into office, Secretary Clinton has been focused on how you support democracy appropriately around the world. And it’s not going to be a cookie-cutter approach. She is most interested in making sure that however we support democracy in the world, however we support human rights around the world, we should do it with understanding fully the context within which of these programs and this initiatives might take place. But we obviously want to see human rights advance. We want to see democracy advance in the world. And we’re working actively in a number of fronts, not only with respect to Iran, respect to a country like Burma, how can you work most effectively on the ground in those countries to improve political processes and to open them up to fuller participation, to make sure there is a robust debate in these countries, and to make sure that through this process you have more responsible government and you’re able to hold those governments to account.

QUESTION: P.J., you said --

QUESTION: P.J., to your knowledge, has any administration ever adopted a cookie-cutter approach to world crises?

MR. CROWLEY: I think --

QUESTION: And if not, which I suspect – if that’s not true, what’s the point of saying that?

MR. CROWLEY: Put it this way: I think the previous administration was very good in preaching democracy, and it was not necessarily very good when it came to the actual execution of those programs. I think Secretary Clinton wants to make sure that whatever we do around the world, first and foremost, is appropriate for that country and is effective --

QUESTION: Thank you.

MR. CROWLEY: -- and advances the process.


QUESTION: At the beginning of the week, the Department spokesman said that he was getting a lot of the information on Iran from traditional media outlets because you have a lack of presence on the ground. And now --

MR. CROWLEY: Did you say traditional or untraditional?

QUESTION: Traditional --

MR. CROWLEY: Traditional.

QUESTION: -- media outlets, CNN, MSNBC, et cetera.

MR. CROWLEY: Oh, that’s staid. (Laughter.)

QUESTION: And now you’ve admitted that a lot of this is coming from the new media. And I’m wondering, do you think you’re getting an accurate enough picture to understand if this moves from a street protest to an actual political movement? Will you know when that tipping point occurs with the information you’re getting right now?

MR. CROWLEY: It’s a fair question. I think we have to acknowledge that what we see in Iran is a bit of a grainy picture. We have some means of understanding what is happening there, but certainly, given the nature of Iranian society today, do we have a full picture? I don’t think so. Clearly, we just went through an election period. Normally, in other countries, you would have international election monitors; you’d be able to both see firsthand what’s going on, be able to document actions that those involved in the political process would take, and how the government would respond to that. So we are obviously looking at this from a distance. This is a reflection of the fact that we’ve had difficult and strained relations with Iran going back 30 years.

Now, that said, there are diplomats on the ground in Iraq[1]. They’re able to see things. There are journalists on the ground. Within the restrictions that Iran have put in place, they’re able to see things. It’s one of the reasons why we thought it important to take advantage of those technologies which are available to us so that we can at least understand and tap into the conversation and the debate that is clearly happening in Iran. But clearly, our ability to see into a country like Iran is more limited than it is in others.

QUESTION: And just to follow on that --


QUESTION: If a determination is made that a tipping point has been reached and that it is turning into an actual political movement, would that have any impact on your position of neutrality?

MR. CROWLEY: Well, again, as we’ve said, as the President has said throughout this, the resolution of this ultimately has to be made by Iranians, and it needs to be done for the benefit of all Iranians. So this is not something that we are going to oppose any final solution here.

This is for the government having an election, needs to listen to the voices of its people, and need to make sure that whatever result occurs eventually, however this is resolved, has to be done credibly, it has to be done in a way that the Iranian people can believe in, and believe in their government. And obviously, you’ve had an election and now you’re in this post-election period and this is continuing, and it’s likely to continue for several days.

Yes, sir.

QUESTION: Would you think the developments in Iran will have any impact on Afghanistan, your war against terror in Afghanistan?

MR. CROWLEY: I think we hope that Afghanistan is one of those areas where there is a common interest. The United States has an interest in a stable Afghanistan. Iran has that same interest. Going back to the Bonn process in 2001, there was effective cooperation between the United States and Iran in a process and an effort that produced the Karzai government. And so we will be waiting to see that once we get through this period, that it’s one of those areas where we’ll see what Iran is prepared to do.

There is this G-8 ministerial meeting coming up next week. On the margins of that will be a significant international meeting focused on Afghanistan and Pakistan. Iran has been invited to attend that meeting, and we’ll see who they send.


MR. CROWLEY: Mm-hmm.

QUESTION: Apparently, Iraq is forming a committee to assess its prisons situation there and the dire conditions of some of its prisoners. Being that the U.S. is releasing to Iraq custody some of the prisoners there, is the U.S. involved in any of the evaluation of its prison systems?

MR. CROWLEY: Well, tell you what, in about a half hour’s time, we’re going to have the U.S. Ambassador to Iraq, Chris Hill, here at this very podium. Why don’t you ask him that question?

[1] Iran

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