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Middle East Digest - July 13, 2009

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Washington, DC
July 13, 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 July 13, 2009

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12:50 p.m. EDT

QUESTION: Change of subject?

MR. KELLY: Yeah, uh-huh.

QUESTION: The Secretary of State in May said that the Iranians are building a huge embassy in Managua.

MR. KELLY: Yeah.

QUESTION: And today, The Washington Post published a story as quoting some Nicaraguan official saying there is no such an embassy, there is no such project, and that the Iranian influence – in Latin America has been largely overestimated. So I wanted to know how the Secretary could be so wrongly informed about the embassy, that --

MR. KELLY: Well, I think what we can say is that right now, there is no major Iranian presence in Nicaragua. Regarding their plans for a larger diplomatic presence, I mean, that would really be something that would be for the Iranian Government to address.

We, of course, respect the sovereign right of every country to determine the size of their diplomatic missions. We would always hope that the size of the mission would reflect the bilateral interests in that country. We also would expect that countries would recognize in their dealings with Iran that Iran has certain obligations to the international community, especially regarding its plans to develop nuclear weapons and also its support for terrorism. So we would hope that in any of the bilateral dealings that they would have with Iran that they would stress these important issues. But --

QUESTION: But before saying to us that the Iranians are building this embassy, did the Secretary consult the Embassy, the U.S. Embassy, in Managua to check?

MR. KELLY: She does consult via Assistant Secretary Shannon, and – but what – I mean, who exactly she consulted with in May, I’m not sure.

QUESTION: And is the Iranian influence in Latin America even – it overestimated?

MR. KELLY: Is it overestimated?


MR. KELLY: Compared to what?

QUESTION: Do you think you evaluate correctly the influence of Iran in Latin America?

MR. KELLY: I’m not sure I could answer that question, Sylvie. I do know that we are concerned about Iranian activities in the past in Latin America, their possible involvement in some terrorist activities in the past. But as I said before, it’s a sovereign right of every country to determine their diplomatic presence.

QUESTION: Same thing?

MR. KELLY: Yeah, go ahead.

QUESTION: Same subject. Iran is reportedly coming up with some new nuclear proposals. Is that something that you’re aware of?

MR. KELLY: I’ve seen the media reports on that, but I don’t have any firm information about any specific overtures.

QUESTION: And one more. Do you have – has the United States made any specific representation, perhaps third-party, in the case of the Newsweek correspondent who has been imprisoned in Iran for several weeks?

MR. KELLY: Well, as you know, we don’t have an embassy there, so it would be difficult for us to make a diplomatic representation on his behalf. But – and I saw the very compelling article in the pages of The Washington Post today, and I would just say that we are deeply concerned by any harassment, intimidation, and imprisonment of journalists on groundless charges. And I don’t know the specifics of this case, but of course, Newsweek believes that he was doing nothing contrary to his journalistic mission. And this kind – that kind of harassment is unacceptable.

QUESTION: Do you have any update at all on the Iranian American scholar who was detained last week?

MR. KELLY: Yes, I do, if you’ll just wait a moment. Yes, we’re deeply concerned of reports that an Iranian American scholar has been unjustly detained in Iran. Due to Privacy Act considerations, we’re not able to comment on the details of his arrest and imprisonment. It’s unfortunate that the Iranian Government is making choices that only serve to isolate Iran from the international community. We urge the Iranian authorities to immediately release Kian Tajbakhsh as well as return the passports of all Americans being kept in Iran on groundless charges. This includes Esha Momeni, who has been banned from departing Iran since her release from Evin prison in November of 2008. And we additionally call again on Iran to be forthcoming with information toward determining the whereabouts of Robert Levinson, who’s been missing in Iran since March 8th, 2007. And we, of course, here at the State Department and across the U.S. Government is committed to making every effort to reunite these American citizens with their families.

QUESTION: How many American citizens are we talking about here whose U.S. passports have been confiscated by the Iranian authorities?

MR. KELLY: Besides the Iranian American scholar who’s been detained, and I assume they’ve confiscated his passport, the only other information I have here is about Esha Momeni. But if there are others, I’m not sure of the exact number.

QUESTION: Okay. Could you check --

MR. KELLY: Yeah.

QUESTION: -- if it’s just those two or if it’s more than two?

MR. KELLY: Yeah, we’ll see if there’s more than two.

QUESTION: And have you – even though you don’t have a U.S. embassy there, obviously you have a protecting power.

MR. KELLY: Yeah.

QUESTION: Have you asked the Swiss to raise this matter with the Iranians?

MR. KELLY: We have. And we’ve also asked our Swiss protecting power to go in and get consular access to --

QUESTION: Mr. Tajbakhsh.

MR. KELLY: To Mr. – is it Tajbacksh or Taibarbakhsh?

QUESTION: Tajbakhsh.

MR. KELLY: Tajbakhsh.

QUESTION: Tajbakhsh.

MR. KELLY: Tajbakhsh.

QUESTION: And has – have they succeeded in doing so, or you’ve not had any – or they haven’t --

MR. KELLY: I don’t believe that they have gotten access, just that they’re requesting it.

QUESTION: And do you know when he was – this time around, when he was detained?

MR. KELLY: I believe it was late last week. If I can get you the exact time, I will.

MR. KELLY: No, I don’t. But let me see if I can get you a specific answer on that rather than try and wing it.

QUESTION: And one question which was asked last week on Afghanistan. The Afghanistan president has released five drug lords, one of which the (inaudible) is campaigning for him in his presidential election. Do you have any comment on that?

MR. KELLY: Boy, that question was asked last week, I think.


MR. KELLY: Yeah.

QUESTION: Thursday.

MR. KELLY: Okay. We’ll have to – sorry, once again, we’ll have to ask your question to be answered.


QUESTION: These are quick ones. We have a report out of Xinjiang that Chinese police shot dead two people. This is according to Xinhua, and the report said that the police were trying to stop these two people from attacking another Uighur. One, do you have any comment on this specific incident? And two – and I realize you – I guess it took you a day or so to get a U.S. diplomat on the ground there, but do you have any – do you believe that the Chinese authorities are using excessive force?

MR. KELLY: We – I mean, we do have a team on the ground from the U.S. Embassy. Arshad, as you point out, that team got there a day or two after the incident started. The short answer to your question is: We’re still gathering information. We have expressed our concern to the Chinese Government about the situation in Xinjiang. We are urging China to handle the situation as we go forward in a transparent manner, also to – in their assessment of what’s happened, to do that in an open and transparent manner. And of course, as they work to restore order, we believe that it’s important that they respect the legal rights of all Chinese citizens. But right now, we don’t have the – we don’t have sufficient information really to comment on the reaction.

QUESTION: You’re urging them to handle the situation in an open and transparent manner?

MR. KELLY: Mm-hmm.

QUESTION: They’ve pretty much been openly and transparently beating the crap out of all these people who are protesting, and even their own state media is reporting it. So what exactly does that mean, deal with an open and transparent --

MR. KELLY: Well, we have had our issues with the Chinese Government that we have been open and transparent about in terms of respecting the rights of all of China’s citizens, in terms of respecting the right of Uighurs to practice their own religion, not put restrictions on the – on their religious activity, on their manner of worship. We have also had some issues with the Uighurs –with restrictions on Uighurs’ ability to express their cultural identity. And this gets back to the need for China to respect the right of its citizens to freely express themselves.

QUESTION: But if they restrict that right openly and transparently then – I’m not sure I understand. What do you want? You say handle the situation in an open and transparent manner.

MR. KELLY: Yeah.

QUESTION: What does that – how?

MR. KELLY: There are – the situation did not emerge out of a vacuum. I mean, there are issues that we think – relating to the Uighurs that we think that the Chinese Government has to address. But in terms of how they have specifically dealt with a very difficult situation on the ground there, I just – we don’t have sufficient information for us to be able to pronounce how they’ve handled it.

QUESTION: Didn’t you last week – or maybe I’m mistaken, but I thought last week you had called for them to exercise restraint.


QUESTION: Based on --

MR. KELLY: We still do.

QUESTION: Okay. But that wasn’t totally absent from all of your preceding remarks on this, which makes --

MR. KELLY: That’s my fault.

QUESTION: No, no. Well, I mean --

MR. KELLY: We continue to call on all sides to exercise restraint and refrain from violence.

QUESTION: And just last question. When do you think you’ll have enough information given that you do have a team on the ground, to make those assessments? Or are you, in fact, sort of making the assessments, but you’re just not going to make them public?

MR. KELLY: Well, we are making the assessments. As I said, we have a team from Embassy Beijing. We also are gathering – or requesting more information from the Chinese Government. So when the time is appropriate, we will make that assessment.

QUESTION: Well, okay. When might that time be? Is that going to be before the release of the Human Rights Report in about a year or --

MR. KELLY: Well, I’m --

QUESTION: -- a little less than a year, eight months from now or less?

MR. KELLY: I’m not going to put a deadline on it. I would imagine it would be before then.


QUESTION: Last thing.

MR. KELLY: Yeah, go ahead, Arshad.

QUESTION: You said, you know, dealing with what is a very difficult situation, which made me think that it’s almost as if the U.S. Government’s sympathies here are with the Chinese Government for the difficult situation that they’re dealing with rather than with – I mean, here, you have – you know, I don’t know the circumstances. I wasn’t there, but when police shoot two people dead, that’s an unusual act, you know. And it’s almost as if the balance of concern is sort of toward the government, not toward the people.

MR. KELLY: Yeah. Well, I’m certainly not trying to convey that impression. What we have been trying to do is trying to lower the temperature as much as we can. We had a very overheated situation last week with a lot of lawless violence on the streets, much of it, if not all of it ethnically motivated. And in that kind of situation, I think the best thing that we can do is try and call for restraint on all sides and not try and fan the flames of a very, very volatile situation in the streets of Urumqi. So that’s really what we – what I’ve been – what we’ve been striving for in this.

QUESTION: Just – can I clarify one thing?

MR. KELLY: Yeah.

QUESTION: When you said you have issues with China regarding the religious and cultural --

MR. KELLY: Yeah.

QUESTION: You haven’t made that clear to China recently. This is just – and previous concerns that you’ve raised with them – have you specifically raised these issues recently?

MR. KELLY: Well, I mean, that’s something that I think that we’ll have to – I mean, we have raised our concern with the way the situation is developing out in Xinjiang. We have an embassy that is in constant communication with Chinese authorities. I don’t have a specific answer to your question if we’ve raised it recently, but as Matt points out, we do raise it every year in the Human Rights Report. And there is a constant dialogue with the Chinese authorities on all these issues. We don’t just issue the report and then not follow up on it.

(The briefing was concluded at 1:23 p.m.)

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