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Middle East Digest - June 26, 2009


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June 29, 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 June 26, 2009

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1:28 p.m. EDT

MR. CROWLEY: Good afternoon. I’m sorry for the delay, but we thought it was useful not to step on the President of the United States. To begin, a couple of announcements. Secretary Clinton met with His Highness Sheikh Salman, Crown Prince of the Kingdom of Bahrain, today. They talked about a variety of regional issues, including the situation in Iran, Iraq, and the status of the Middle East peace process.

MR. CROWLEY: And finally, from Trieste today, Under Secretary Burns had a full day of meetings starting off with the G-8 foreign ministers meeting, followed by a press conference that you might have seen some coverage of, and there is a lengthy chairman’s statement. He attended a working lunch with foreign ministers, including the foreign ministers of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Special Representative Holbrooke joined him there. After lunch, he and Special Envoy Mitchell attended a meeting of the Quartet, and obviously, a lengthy Quartet statement on the current situation. And the Quartet welcomed the commitment of both the Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Abbas towards a two-state solution and also encouraged the parties, all parties, to continue to take meaningful steps to support the two-state solution.

With that, I’ll take your questions.

QUESTION: I just want to go to the Quartet and the – one of the most notable aspects of the statement was reiterating the longstanding position that Israel should abide by the Roadmap, and in particular, on settlement activity. And I want to know – I remember well what Secretary Clinton said about this recently, you know, no natural growth, sort of no nothing. But I wonder if the Administration is open to some kind of formula under which you would acknowledge that some construction, for example, where there are contractual obligations that have already been entered into, would have to – would go forward; in other words, they’d finish building x or y or z, because they’ve already broken ground or whatever, and they’ve signed contracts. So it wouldn’t be an absolute immediate, full, total, incontrovertible cessation, but that there would be some kind of wiggle room so that they could finish up certain contracts and then stop, as it were. Or is your view that, whenever the day comes, they should just, you know, put down the pick axes and lay down the bricks and stop full stop?

MR. CROWLEY: Well, I think that what the Quartet statement reiterated is what the President has said, the Secretary of State has said, and Special Envoy Mitchell have all said recently, which is we believe that all settlements should stop, full stop.

Now, we note that next week, Senator Mitchell will meet with Minister of Defense Ehud Barak, and we’re going to continue this conversation. But I think when George Mitchell was here the other day, he was asked about this kind of buzz regarding a deal, and he said there is a story in the replays, and had called that particular day and said, hey, that’s not where we are. So I think the United States position on this is clear. It’s reflected today in the Quartet.

But obviously, we’re going to continue to talk to both Israel and the other parties. And we are encouraging and strongly suggesting that all parties, not only the Palestinians, not only Israelis, but other countries in the region, all have a significant role to play to get us back to meaningful negotiation that moves us towards a permanent settlement and two-state solution.

QUESTION: That’s a full and total, immediate stop --

MR. CROWLEY: Arshad, I think the President, the Secretary, and Special Envoy Mitchell have all made pretty categorical statements on this, and that’s reflected in the Quartet statement today.

QUESTION: Will you be discussing settlements? Will George Mitchell be discussing settlements with Ehud Barak? And what is there left to discuss?

MR. CROWLEY: I’m certain that that will be one of the issues discussed.

QUESTION: So what is left to discuss then if the U.S. doesn’t have any wiggle room on that?

MR. CROWLEY: Well, we have a process that we hope to get restarted. So there are a number of issues; settlements are one of them. And the real question is how you can move in a meaningful way back towards a formal negotiation. So we are about setting the conditions where we think a negotiation can get restarted, and then all parties can begin to take the kinds of actions necessary for us to move towards the two-state solution that everyone believes is the right answer.

Charlie.

QUESTION: Yes, just for clarification, is the meeting on Monday in New York?

MR. CROWLEY: I’m not sure that all of the details are squared away, whether it’s Monday, Tuesday. But I think we’ll – there is the meeting early this week. But I just – it’s a question of when the defense minister will actually arrive.

QUESTION: Will you advise us --

MR. CROWLEY: Absolutely.

QUESTION: -- where the meeting is?

MR. CROWLEY: Absolutely.

QUESTION: Thank you.

QUESTION: Just to go back to the settlements (inaudible) resuming negotiation issue. Senate Mitchell, as you well know from the G-8 transcript, said that he hoped that negotiations could resume soon. Do you know what is the basis? He’s a cautious man and careful with his words. Do you know what is the basis for that hope?

MR. CROWLEY: He also said he is an optimistic man. As I seem to recall when he was here with you recently, he said if he wasn’t an optimist, he wouldn’t take this job.

I mean, obviously, you have to have the right conditions that lead to a negotiation. And we are probing all sides in this. And certainly, the Secretary’s conversation with Sheikh Salman is part of this, which is not only do you have the right conditions, do you have the right understandings, do we understand the starting positions that the Israelis would have, the Palestinians would have, to begin a formal negotiation, and are we confident that if that negotiation started is there going to be adequate support within the region to help get the kind of progress that we’re anticipating.

So we do reflect a sense of urgency here. We want to get this process restarted. But we obviously have recognized that we have to make sure that the conditions are right so that the negotiation can both get restarted and show the kind of progress that is necessary.

QUESTION: Did her conversation with the Crown Prince today specifically address that point of seeking explicit Arab support in the region for resuming negotiations? And secondly, any gestures from those Arab countries that do not have peace agreements with Israel to begin to make the steps toward normalization?

MR. CROWLEY: I was not at that bilateral, so I don’t have a real sense of the texture. But I think that we have a recognition that the Israelis, the Palestinians, all parties in this process have a significant role to play. It’s one of the reasons earlier this week we announced a resumption of – replacing an ambassador in Damascus, because we recognize that there are a variety of countries here that will have roles to play. We want to make sure that we have the right conditions in the region so that this negotiation can be restarted.

QUESTION: But even if you don’t the texture of the meeting, do you know – and you weren’t in it, do you know if those two issues were raised: seeking Arab support and seeking steps toward normalization with Arab states?

MR. CROWLEY: Let’s see if we – I’ll see – if I have anything else I can tell you, I will.

QUESTION: There are two Palestinian American boys in Gaza who are trying to get their passports renewed. Apparently, they can’t leave Gaza to go to Israel to renew that because there are no U.S. consular services in Gaza. I was curious to see what the – if you had any statement on either their case or on the case generally of Palestinian Americans who are trying to leave that territory.

MR. CROWLEY: I do not. We’ll take the question.

QUESTION: On Iran, the – regarding the statement by the cleric Khatami of advising judges to deal cruelly with protestors, do you have any reaction to that? Any response to --

MR. CROWLEY: What statement is that?

QUESTION: This is a cleric in Iran who was calling on judges to take severe action on any protestors and deal with them – he used the term cruel –

MR. CROWLEY: I’m sorry, I’m not familiar with that particular statement. Obviously, the –

QUESTION: (Inaudible) sermon (inaudible) Friday prayer.

MR. CROWLEY: Yes, but I mean the President talked about this. Obviously, as he said and the Secretary has said and we will continue to reiterate that ultimately, this situation should be resolved peacefully.

I mean, Iran has a credibility problem. The problem they face is self-inflicted. It’s not a matter of something that was brought in from the outside. It’s a matter of something that clearly has developed from the inside of Iran. A significant segment of the Iranian population believes that their voices have not been heard, and that the results that Iran – the government has announced do not reflect the will of the people.

This is – but this is ultimately something that has to be resolved inside Iran by the Iranian Government, and, obviously, respecting the will of its people. For us, the United States, we’ve obviously had concerns about Iran in a number of areas. There’s obviously, within the international community, a lack of confidence in Iran, particularly in the declarations it has made in recent years regarding its nuclear ambitions. Clearly, this current situation does not add to the international community’s confidence or their credibility.

So I think it’s important for officials in Iran, as the President said a while ago, to meet the obligations that they have to their own people.

QUESTION: Do you see the protests in Iran ebbing?

MR. CROWLEY: I can’t characterize, James, what the current situation is. I mean, we obviously – what we have seen in recent days is active attempts by the government to intimidate the population, restrict the ability of people to express themselves, reflecting that universal right of both freedom of expression, freedom of assembly. As you have characterized very well, the restrictions that the government has placed on the media and its ability to cover what’s happening in Iran.

Obviously, that intimidation has probably had an effect on the ground. They’re putting pressure on these candidates and the people, trying to restrict their ability to gather, to communicate, and to express their views. But as the President said a short time ago, we have concerns about the behavior of the government. We have concerns about what they’ve done inside their country. And we’re just going to have to see how this plays out.

QUESTION: Just a related question. Is the United States denying visas to Iranian officials who are attempting to attend a UN conference here in the United States?

MR. CROWLEY: I’ll take the question. We just spent a few minutes trying to ascertain the answer, and thus far, the answer has been elusive.

QUESTION: You just spoke about – you just said that the Iranian Government is intimidating the people, and before that you said that they should resolve the issue peacefully. But at the Friday prayers today, they just said specifically that death penalty is what will wait for those who participate in any demonstration. Now, don’t you think that would call for some sort of intervention by the international community?

MR. CROWLEY: I think as the President and others have said, ultimately, this has to be resolved inside Iran. This is about the relationship between the Iranian Government and the Iranian people. I don’t see how you can impose some sort of result from outside the country. In fact, as the President has said, we have made a conscious effort to make sure that it’s clear that this is about what’s happening – about government actions, about the will of the people. We have not interfered in this process, and nor should we.

But when you think about governance in the 21st century, what Iran is doing, what other countries are doing, is inconsistent with what we see as being both the challenges that we face in the world and the responsibilities that – and obligations that government have to pursue the interests of their people. Ultimately, a government that tries to intimidate its people will not be successful. A government that tries to suppress information will not be successful. Governments that use information to empower their people in the 21st century will be successful. And that’s where our focus will be.

We obviously have a range of programs to both support democracy around the world, civil society around the world. The Secretary has spoken on a number of occasions about how to employ technology to foster communication and to open up processes of government to greater participation, and in the process of doing so, hold the government to – hold these governments to account. If that process succeeds, then you have what we consider to be responsible governments around the world. It’s one of the reasons why we’ve focused on social media and new media such as Facebook, Twitter, other things, because we’ve seen on the ground in Iran that this has, in fact, created a different kind of political dynamic and one that ultimately will be beneficial to Iran and other countries. And we hope that as Iran seeks to resolve its current situation, it will again heed the will of its people.

QUESTION: Is engagement – how would you characterize the status of the U.S. policy of engagement toward Iran right now?

MR. CROWLEY: I think I would say the President has made clear, the Secretary has made clear that we are willing to engage countries around the world. It’s not that we do a favor to these countries. Engagement is a means to an end. Engagement is not a favor to a country. Engagement is a means by which the United States can pursue its national interest. We seek engagement with Iran through a variety of means. We’ve – as we’ve said here many times, interested in having a dialogue, a more active dialogue with Iran together with our international partners through the P-5+1 process to actually address Iran’s nuclear ambitions, its nuclear programs, and clarify what it has done and where it intends to take that program. That’s not doing a favor to Iran. It’s because we recognize that the current trend is very concerning to us, as the President said a short time ago.

So, obviously, we are willing to engage Iran. We’re willing to enter into dialogue in a variety of settings. But clearly, how current events and future events transpire and Iran’s willingness to enter into this dialogue, which we’ll just wait and see. But so far, despite the President’s offers of engagement, we haven’t seen a meaningful response from Iran materialize.

QUESTION: I know that – I understand your rationale for engagement, but the question I’m asking, I guess, is whether you think recent events have damaged the prospect.

MR. CROWLEY: Well, I think as the President said today, we’re going to wait and see how this plays out. And depending on how this plays out, it will influence what we do in the days, weeks, and months ahead.

Samir.

QUESTION: Yes. What’s the purpose of the visit of the Crown Prince of Bahrain? He is here with a large delegation, and he met today with Secretary of Defense. Are you conducting the strategic dialogue with Bahrain?

MR. CROWLEY: I mean, Bahrain is a very important partner within the Middle East. We have had long and successful workings with Bahrain. Obviously, they host one of our more important military commands in the region. We believe going forward – we’ve gone through consultations at a variety of levels with all of the countries in the Gulf to help understand how they see the situation in Iraq, Iran, other issues in the region, and it’s very beneficial.

QUESTION: Change of subject? Lebanon? The son of Rafiq Hariri, Saad Hariri has been chosen to be the next prime minister. Is it good news?

MR. CROWLEY: Well, again, there was a recent and very successful election process in Lebanon. Obviously, it stands in remarkable contrast to what has occurred in Iran. By every indication, it was a free and fair election. And this is the – it represents the logical outcome of that effort. So I think we congratulate him for being named as prime minister. We look forward to working with him and his government, and we’re happy to see the political process yield a stable government in Lebanon and we look forward to working with him.

QUESTION: (Inaudible) government. I’m not suggesting it’s unstable, but governments in Lebanon in recent years have had considerable internal tensions between the March 8th and the March 14th

MR. CROWLEY: Sure. And obviously, there is by definition a history. But this appears to be a process that has worked effectively. It was a peaceful outcome. It appears that the result here represents the will of the people and a successful outcome of an election. Obviously, I’m not trying to minimize the challenges that Lebanon faces. But obviously, you had a successful political process that has yielded in a short term the emergence of a new government, and we look forward to working with him.



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