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Middle East Digest - July 17, 2009

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Washington, DC
July 17, 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 17, 2009

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QUESTION: Do you have any comment on the demonstrations in Iran today and whether it’s going --

MR. WOOD: I’ve seen some of the footage from the demonstrations and certainly saw a number of press reports, but I think this is just another example of how divided Iran is right now. This is just another example, as I’ve said, of Iran needing to – the Iranian Government needing to come to grips with the reality it faces within its borders. And I don’t think I have very much more to add than – to what we’ve said all along.

QUESTION: And what is the reality that Iran faces? I mean, how do you see that reality?

MR. WOOD: Well, clearly, the people of Iran are not happy with the current situation. Of course, we are all familiar with the aftermath of the Iranian elections. The Iranian Government is – has a crisis of confidence with its people. And so it needs to address that crisis of confidence. And until it does, it’s going to be very hard for that government to gain legitimacy in the eyes of its people.

QUESTION: So are you saying that the government is not legitimate, then, in the eyes of its --

MR. WOOD: It’s not for me to say whether it’s legitimate or not. I think we’ve said this over and again. This is something that has to be determined by the Iranian people. It’s only a decision that the Iranian people can make, not any outside government.

QUESTION: Today, Mr. Rafsanjani was – well, spoke openly about, and with – and critically about the election. And he said that the media should be more open in Iran. Do you consider this comment as significant, or is it for you something, you know, as usual?

MR. WOOD: Well, I mean, the fact that you have a major clerical figure, a former president, making those types of comments is clearly something that one has to pay attention to. It’s no secret that there have been problems with freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, in Iran, and we’ve been mostly concerned, of course, about the violence that has taken place in the aftermath of the election.

But again, this is something that the Iranian Government is going to have to square with its own people. As I said, there’s a crisis of confidence, and we’ve said from the beginning we in no way want to interfere with what’s going on in Iran. But the world is concerned about – particularly in the aftermath of the violence and where Iran seems to be heading.

QUESTION: Next door – can I go next door?

MR. WOOD: Let me just – Samir’s been waiting.

QUESTION: On Iran, would the --

MR. WOOD: On Iran?


MR. WOOD: Okay.

QUESTION: Would the offer for engagement with Iran go ahead before the government in Iran settled this confidence problem with its people? I mean, do you condition that or you are willing to negotiate with this situation?

MR. WOOD: Well, Samir, as you know, there has been an invitation out to the Iranian Government to engage in a dialogue with the United States. There was an invitation sent by Javier Solana, if you remember, for Iran to attend a P-5+1 meeting. Iran has not responded to these overtures. It’s hard for us to say what kind of a dialogue we’re going to be able to have with Iran if Iran is not willing to engage back.

But as I said, going forward, the Iranian leadership is going to have to deal with the crisis of confidence that the people of Iran have with its leaders – with their leaders. So it’s really up to the Iranian Government as to whether it wants to go down the path that we, the United States, and others in the international community have offered it. And again, our main interests are seeing that Iran not develop a nuclear weapon.

And it’s in our interests, as we’ve said many times, to have this type of direct diplomacy with Iran so that Iran can address some of the concerns that we and others in the international community have, not only about their nuclear program, but other activities around the region.


QUESTION: Robert, the (inaudible) president has been reelected. He has reacted very sharply to Secretary Clinton’s speech the other day this week. She talked about Iran, told her – said that, you know, time for Iran to accept the offer, it’s not indefinite, it’s not unlimited. Do you think this is a sign of what you’re to expect in the future? And any reactions to what he has said?

MR. WOOD: Well, I don’t know what to expect from Iran’s – the Iranian leadership in the future. We’ll have to see. But again, the Secretary is very clear: We want to engage Iran and we want to do that. But that offer is not going to be out there forever. Iran needs to take advantage of the opportunities that the international community has put forward to engage.

So far, they haven’t chosen to do that, and it’s really – it’s up to Iran whether it wants to pursue a path of engagement or a path of isolation. It’s really up to Iran, but we have been very clear in terms of where our national interests lie, and that direct engagement is the method that we would like to pursue in terms of dealing with these problems that we face with Iran.

Matt had a – you had something?

QUESTION: Yeah, I wanted to ask you, but go to someone else first and I think --

MR. WOOD: Okay. Please.

QUESTION: In that same vein, I was just wondering, at that same speech at CFR, she said that the U.S. is standing up for human rights everywhere, but when the U.S. makes statements that it’s going to sit down at the negotiating table, considering the government treatment of protestors in Iran, isn’t the U.S. sending mixed signals? Are we concerned about that? I mean – or is it just that we put keeping nuclear weapons out of Iran as a higher priority over human rights?

MR. WOOD: No. The Secretary spoke very clearly in her speech about human rights. And we’re very concerned, as we’ve said many times, about human rights violations in Iran. But we’ve also said at the same time that Iran’s nuclear program is something of great concern to not only the United States, but other countries of the world. And we’re going to do what we’ve can. We’ve said that we want to engage Iran on not only the nuclear issue, but other issues, as I mentioned. Human rights would certainly be one of those issues, and I don’t see them as separate. I mean, they’re all important. That’s why we want to have this dialogue with Iran, so that we can try to get to the bottom of some of these differences that we have.

But again, Iran needs to respond to our offers of engagement. And we still await their response.

QUESTION: Can I go to Iraq for a second?

MR. WOOD: Anything else on Iran? One more.

QUESTION: I just had a question on a statement you made previously. You said that the offer is not going to be on the table forever. What’s the next step that the U.S. makes after – if Iran fails to accept our offer of engagement?

MR. WOOD: Well, let’s see. I mean, it’s still on the table. We’re not putting a timeline on it, obviously, but we need to see if Iran is going to engage. But we’re not going to keep that offer out there indefinitely.


QUESTION: There are going to be some prisoner exchanges in Iraq. You’re going to be turning over detainees that you have, or the military is, to the Iraqis. And I’m just wondering if you’re confident that these prisoners, once they’re transferred, will be well treated or not mistreated.

MR. WOOD: Well, Matt, I’m not aware of any additional transfers of prisoners. You might want to check with the Pentagon. But clearly, should there be that type of a transfer, we wouldn’t do so unless we were confident that the rights of these individuals were respected and that they would be treated humanely. But that’s about the best I can tell you because I’m not familiar with this particular group of prisoners.

QUESTION: On that subject, is that required in the agreement with Iraq, that they guarantee that those prisoners will be treated humanely?

MR. WOOD: I don’t know that that’s necessarily in the agreement, but we certainly had assurances from the Iraqis that people that are turned over will be dealt with humanely. That’s what we would expect, and I’m sure the Iraqi leadership feels the same way in terms of how it will deal with individuals. But I don’t remember exactly in the agreement. You might want to go back and check, but certainly we’ve been given those assurances from the Government of Iraq about the transfer of individuals to their custody.

MR. WOOD: Michel.

QUESTION: Robert, have you got any information regarding the explosions that occurred in the south of Lebanon two or three days ago?

MR. WOOD: I’ve seen the reports about them, but I don’t have anything to give you on that, any confirmation of that. But I do understand – my understanding is that the Government of Lebanon and UNIFIL are conducting a joint investigation of these reported explosions of munitions. And for us, we again want to see the full implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 1701, and we’re committed to that. But there’s an investigation going on, as I said, so I – but I don’t have anything more on that.


QUESTION: Robert, any plans for George Mitchell to go to Israel?

MR. WOOD: My understanding is that Senator Mitchell plans to go fairly soon. They’re still working out the itinerary, so I don’t have any dates or locations to announce. But he is planning to go very soon to the region.

QUESTION: Is Fred Hoff still in Syria or what will –

MR. WOOD: I don’t know if he has left at this point. He may still be in Syria, I believe, but I’m not certain. You might just want to check with the NEA folks and see.

QUESTION: So where does he plan to go? Is he going to Israel, Palestinian territories, Egypt, Middle East, any –

MR. WOOD: I just said that itinerary is still working out – being worked out, so I really don’t have that information for you at this point.


MR. WOOD: Yes, ma’am.

QUESTION: Just a quick question on China. Recently, President Erdogan of Turkey has been calling the Uighur treatment in China a genocide. Is there any change in the position of the United States on the uprisings or any new information?

MR. WOOD: No. I mean, I don’t have any update for you. Our policy remains the same in terms of what we’d like to see happen.

QUESTION: Another travel question.

MR. WOOD: Yes.

QUESTION: P.J. earlier announced that Holbrooke is going to be off to his region soon, and –

MR. WOOD: And Brussels, I believe.

QUESTION: Yeah. And then he’s also going to India. So why isn’t he with the Secretary in India?

MR. WOOD: Well, look, Holbrooke’s itinerary is still being worked out, although he’s planning to travel to the countries that P.J. referred to earlier. But he’s – remember, he is very focused on Pakistan and Afghanistan. And you know, there’s a lot of work to be done there. He’s preparing – doing a lot of preparatory work for this visit. So that’s the best answer I can give you on that.

QUESTION: But why would he not accompany – if he was going to go to India, why would he – I mean, the Secretary just landed in India about an hour ago.

MR. WOOD: Well, look –

QUESTION: Not enough room on the plane? (Laughter.)

MR. WOOD: We can always find room for Ambassador Holbrooke. That’s not an issue. It’s just there is a lot of work that he’s doing to prepare for his trip. The Secretary is not going to Pakistan and Afghanistan on this trip. She looks forward to going to Pakistan, I know, in the fall. So Ambassador Holbrooke is preparing for his visit. He’s got a lot of challenging work to do. And he felt that being back here and preparing for this visit was the best thing to do.

(The briefing was concluded at 1:34 p.m.)

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