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Middle East Digest - August 3, 2009

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Washington, DC
August 3, 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 Aug. 3, 2009

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MR. CROWLEY: Good afternoon, and welcome to the Department of State. Just to start off and reiterate – (cell phone rings). Hello? Now, if I was Robert Gibbs, I’d be asking for the phone at this point.

The Secretary – just to reiterate for those who were not upstairs – met this morning with Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh of Jordan, and they had an excellent discussion, comparing notes on steps to move all the parties towards negotiations as quickly as possible and towards a comprehensive peace in the region. I think as – the minister said in public what he also repeated to the Secretary in private, which is it’s not only getting to a negotiation and getting the parties to the finish line, but this time it’s trying to make sure that everything is possible to get them across the finish line. And they compared notes on where we are now and the way forward in the coming days and weeks.

And with that, I’ll take your questions.

QUESTION: Yeah. Can I – just before we go to the Middle East, can – is there any update on the situation with these hikers in Iran from what the Secretary said? Have you heard back from the Swiss at all?

MR. CROWLEY: The Swiss ambassador to Tehran, obviously our protecting power representing our interests there, met with representatives from Iran’s foreign – ministry of foreign affairs yesterday. They could not confirm the detentions, but agreed to obtain information and report back.

QUESTION: I’m sorry, who could not confirm? The Iranians?

MR. CROWLEY: The Iranian foreign ministry could not confirm the detention of these Americans.

QUESTION: But they said that they would --

MR. CROWLEY: Well, I mean, they’re – you’ve reported on public reports. We have no reason to doubt those public reports. But as of yet, we have not obtained any specific information as to where they are and who is holding them.

QUESTION: That was yesterday. Was there an update with the Swiss meeting with them today?

MR. CROWLEY: No, not to my knowledge.

QUESTION: And then can you tell us anything about this fourth American? There’s some reports suggesting he’s in the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. Can you tell us if he is, in fact, there and what condition he’s in and if he’s been able to help you with identifying --

MR. CROWLEY: I believe he has been the source of a lot of information that we have on these individuals. He has been in touch with our consular officials in Baghdad. Obviously, we are both supporting him and gaining whatever perspective he has. And we have also been in touch with the families of the three who are missing.

QUESTION: Is he at the Embassy?

MR. CROWLEY: He – I --

QUESTION: Or was he? I mean, I don’t know.

MR. CROWLEY: I don’t know. But we – obviously, we’ve had a conversation with him.

QUESTION: P.J., do you have any reason to believe that the Kurdish authorities had alerted the Iranians to the fact that they might have crossed over the border into Iran?

MR. CROWLEY: I have no information to support that.

QUESTION: Did this individual say whether the hikers had intended to go into Iran, or is it your understanding that perhaps they crossed the border and didn’t know it?

MR. CROWLEY: I think at this point, we have lots of very good questions and very little information. Obviously, at some point in time, once we are – we know where they are and we have consular access to them, then we can begin to figure out what happened.


QUESTION: Secretary Clinton had a videoconference this morning on Iran. Can you tell us about that?

MR. CROWLEY: She had a video teleconference this morning here in the building with diplomats from around the world who work on Iranian issues. I would just characterize it as kind of a routine discussion of both assessment of what’s happening in Iran and various policy options.

QUESTION: And was the embargo of petroleum goods considered? Can you say to what extent others have discussed or opened this to moving forward along that avenue?

MR. CROWLEY: Well, I will say that this was something that was on the schedule, so I wouldn't tie it to any particular issue. Obviously, as the Secretary said in her comments a few minutes ago, we are interested in engagement with Iran. At the same time, there are sanctions that are in place, and we continue to work hard to enforce the sanctions against Iran based on our concerns about Iran’s behavior and the unanswered questions about its nuclear aspirations.

QUESTION: Back on the hikers, do you have any reason to believe that they did not voluntarily cross the border?

MR. CROWLEY: Again, we’re doing everything in our power to try to figure out what happened, and I would not feel comfortable at this point saying that we have definitive answers yet.

QUESTION: Well, I’m just bringing this up because this is the second time in a couple months that Americans, plural, have strayed into the territory of "axis of evil" members. Are you at all concerned that there’s something going on here, there’s some kind of a trend? Perhaps, does there need to be kind of a special notation in people’s passports now warning them to stay away from sensitive border areas?

MR. CROWLEY: Look, at this point in time, we have three Americans, they’re missing. We’re concerned about them, as we would be any Americans in these circumstances, working hard to try to ascertain what happened, and most importantly, to get them back as quickly as possible.

QUESTION: You said you had no reason to doubt these public reports that the three are in Iran. Can you elaborate a little bit more?

MR. CROWLEY: Well, I mean, it’s really the obverse, which is we do not yet have firm confirmation from the Government of Iran that in fact have these three Americans in custody.


QUESTION: But two Iranian television stations have reported their detention, the Arabic language service and the English language service – both of them – and they’re state-owned.

MR. CROWLEY: Again, we have no reason to doubt these reports. By the same token, we have no official confirmation from the Iranian Government. I think even you would admit that occasionally, there are reports on television that turn out not to be entirely accurate. But we – that’s why we requested the Swiss ambassador go in, talk to the MFA. And obviously, they had no details about detention either.


QUESTION: Can I change the subject? On the Israel home evictions, I know the Secretary said that they were deeply regrettable. Do you consider this like a legal violation of Israel’s obligations under the Roadmap? And did Senator Mitchell know about this when he had traveled to Jerusalem, and did he raise it with the Israelis?

MR. CROWLEY: Well, I mean, basically, this is not a new issue. This particular case has been working its way through the Israeli courts for some time. So in that sense, everyone was well aware of this particular case. That said, at this point in time, we are looking for all of the parties to take meaningful steps to return to a negotiation. And as the Secretary said, this is a step in the wrong direction.

QUESTION: So I mean, if it’s not kind of a legal violation, then certainly it’s a violation of the spirit of what you’re trying to do with Israel right now.

MR. CROWLEY: Well, certainly the Israel Government, the Palestinian Authority made commitments under the Roadmap, and this is a violation of those commitments.

QUESTION: P.J., you said earlier that – you described earlier the conversation between the Secretary and the Jordanian Foreign Minister as an excellent – as excellent. You said it was an excellent discussion on this. And yet, for the second time in three days, you’ve had an Arab foreign minister come out and basically say, “No way, we’re not going to do anything that Mitchell or you or whoever has asked us to do.” How can you say that there’s progress being made and that Mitchell is close to getting the two sides back to the table?

MR. CROWLEY: Well, obviously, I think that we are working hard to put ourselves in position for negotiations to begin. I think we are saying that there’s still work to do and – even as we have experienced some progress.


MR. CROWLEY: But to finish the point, I think that both on Friday and today, you had strong statements by both the foreign minister of Jordan and the foreign minister of Saudi Arabia, first of all supporting the reengagement of the United States in this process, supporting the efforts to begin a negotiation, acknowledging that once you get to a negotiation, all of the issues are on the table. And certainly, they’re very supportive of our efforts, supportive of the Arab Peace Initiative.

Clearly, we have to – we still have work to do to create the conditions to get a negotiation restarted, and that is what George Mitchell will continue to do in the days and weeks ahead.

QUESTION: Well, is the Secretary disappointed that these foreign ministers are coming here and standing or sitting next to her, are coming out and saying –

MR. CROWLEY: Not at all. I think what she said on Friday and I think inferred today, part of her purpose is to touch base regularly with her counterparts in the region. We’re comparing notes on countries that we’ve talked to, countries that Jordan ,which has been invested in the peace process for many, many years, what they’re saying, what they’re hearing. We have reason for optimism that we continue to make progress towards a restart of negotiations. George Mitchell will continue to work intensively on this in the days and weeks ahead. So I think you have two strong reaffirmations of the importance of this effort, the critical role played by the United States, the willingness of countries to step up and take meaningful steps towards normalization. And –

QUESTION: Wait, wait. No, I’m sorry. You did not have a reaffirmation of countries taking meaningful steps towards normalization; you had the exact opposite.

MR. CROWLEY: I think you had – you have two strong affirmations –

QUESTION: Was that – were you listening to the same comments that –

MR. CROWLEY: -- that the elements of the Arab Peace Initiative, the discussions that George Mitchell, the Secretary, at times the President, had. This is precisely the right course. We are not there yet. We still have to put together, we think, the conditions that allow us to call for negotiation to resume. I mean, George Mitchell will be the first to tell you that on the one hand, we still have work to do, but on the other hand, we think that progress is being made.

QUESTION: I have a couple more on the evictions.


QUESTION: Why didn’t the State Department issue some kind of statement criticizing when the United Nations and the British did, as well?

MR. CROWLEY: Well, I think you heard from – the Secretary used the term “very regrettable.”

QUESTION: Well, that was because she was asked.

MR. CROWLEY: Yesterday, Assistant Secretary Feltman was on the phone to Israeli officials to express our concern about the step. So we are, in fact, in close communication with the Israelis, and we have conveyed our deep concern about these efforts.

QUESTION: Do you think that there’s any connection to the Fatah Party congress meeting that’s starting this week? Because the Palestinians are certainly going to raise this in a way that kind of will make Israel question that they don’t have a partner for peace.

MR. CROWLEY: I think, clearly, this step was unhelpful, not only because of what happened, but also because of the timing.

QUESTION: Have you seen these reports that al-Qaida number two Ayman al-Zawahiri has offered a truce with the U.S. in a new interview posted on the internet? And if not, what would the Administration’s position be to such an offer?

MR. CROWLEY: Obviously, we believe that this is a struggle that we are now – we have turned the tide. We’re seeing success in Afghanistan, often difficult as it is. The Pakistani Government next door has taken some meaningful steps against various forces, either al-Qaida or those that are aligned with them, and we believe very strongly that al-Qaida – this is not a struggle that al-Qaida is destined to win.

As to a truce, I have no further comment.

Yeah, go ahead.

QUESTION: Civilian deaths are up dramatically in Afghanistan, and they’re expected to continue to go up. And I was wondering how this was affecting diplomatic relations with the other countries in that region, with the Afghanistan Government, and with just military efforts.

MR. CROWLEY: Well, actually, I think that since he has arrived in the region, General McChrystal is working very hard and has made some adjustments, and those adjustments will continue so that, in fact, over time, we would see the civilian impact of military operations go down. I mean, yes, you’re right, currently the impact on the Afghan civilians is up, that is primarily the responsibility of the Taliban. Obviously, there have been episodes where there has been civilian deaths due to military operations by the United States and by ISAF, and I think we’re making adjustments on the ground to try to minimize that impact.

QUESTION: To re-address the Iranian sanctions issue, a majority of members of both the House and the Senate have co-sponsored the Iran sanctions petroleum – I don’t know the exact title. But at what point does it become appropriate to address that particular law? Is this something that the Secretary just doesn't feel is appropriate at this time, or that’s not a tool that she would prefer to have in the sanctions arsenal?

MR. CROWLEY: Well, I think right now there are sanctions in place. We are working hard to fully implement the sanctions that do exist. I think as the President and the Secretary have said, while we have an offer of engagement both bilaterally and multilaterally, that offer is not unlimited, and that perhaps next month we’ll have the opportunity to assess where we are. But at this point in time, this is not a either/or proposition. We have the offer of engagement because it is in our interest to do so and to clarify Iran’s intentions on a range of issues. At the same time, we have sanctions options, both multilaterally, bilaterally, and we’ll continue to employ those to demonstrate the determination of the international community that it’s Iran has to change course and an Iran that has a fundamental change to make.

QUESTION: So she wouldn't reject that type of sanction outright unilaterally?

MR. CROWLEY: We have a lot of options going forward, but we hope that Iran will make the right choice, come to table and help us clarify where it stands on nuclear programs, on terrorism, on its future place in the world.

QUESTION: Thank you.

QUESTION: Can I follow up on that?


QUESTION: But how much do you think the kind of political chaos that’s going on in Iran right now affects your ability not only to get an answer on, you know, your offer of talks with the P-5+1, but also trying to find out what happened with these hikers, just like the fact that no one really knows, you know, who’s running Iran right now and, like, where the political center is, given all this crisis?

MR. CROWLEY: Well, tell you what, let’s separate those out. First of all, we have the issue of the three hikers, and we are doing everything in our power to there to find out what happened. And once we ascertain where they are, who has them, what their status is, and we can get them back as quickly as possible.

QUESTION: Well, do you think that the political crisis is stopping the Swiss from able to get an answer?

MR. CROWLEY: But – let’s say we’re – that that’s in one basket. Now, in a separate basket, you ask a fair question: Has the current turmoil in Iran affected its ability to respond to both the offer of the United States and the offer of the P-5+1, for example? Clearly, it has. Iran has its hands full right now. Even today, two days before the inauguration of a president, it still has not yet convinced its people that this is a legitimate government. It continues to take steps – these forced detentions, even now criticism that – criticism of the legal process can bring you into the legal process. This kind of suppression of the right of expression and the right of participation in the political process is not going to make this issue go away for Iran.

And so – but clearly, I think, yes, the turmoil in Iran has affected its ability to respond to the international community. But we’re still awaiting its answer.

QUESTION: Just to follow up, I mean, why are you separating the – I mean, I understand that they’re two separate issues, the nuclear deal and the hikers. But why are you saying that there’s turmoil in one is preventing you from getting an answer on that, but you’re – you clearly are making an effort not to say that it could be affecting what they’re talking about the hikers?

And then also, Secretary Clinton said that not only could the Iranians be holding them, but or an instrument of the Iranian Government. I assume she was referring to the IRGC. And do you think that perhaps, given the political turmoil that’s going on right now, the IRGC took this as an opportunity to – you know, when the government was distracted?

MR. CROWLEY: I mean, Elise, it’s a fair question, but it requires a leap of faith on our part. We simply do not know what happened along the Iranian-Iraqi border, and it would be speculation on my part to try to figure that out.

QUESTION: Also on Iran, do you have any specific comment on the trial beginning --

QUESTION: Can I just stay on the hikers real quick?


QUESTION: Do you have anything – how worried are you that these guys could become kind of a bargaining chip between the U.S. and Iran, and how much does this complicate your efforts to do to get them to make the concessions on the nuclear program?

MR. CROWLEY: Well, as a universal principle, we think that for any country, particularly a country that has offered its citizens rights and responsibilities under its constitution, has signed the UN Universal Declaration on Human Rights, we believe in transparent processes and the rule of law. This has been an issue. It’s a current issue with respect to a handful of Americans that are still detained in Iran. Obviously, it was an issue when it came to the Saberi case that was recently resolved. But we would expect Iran to act according to both its laws and universal principles. Obviously, we have three Americans that are missing. We want to know what happened to them. We want to know who has them. We want to know the basis upon which they might be in custody. And clearly, we want them back as quickly as possible. So that is something that is our immediate focus.

As to the other – the show trial, trying to frighten your people into silence only amplifies the problem. It’s the kind of action that has gotten Iran into the box that it finds itself in. Throughout this process, it has taken heavy-handed action, and the Iranian people are responding to that pressure. And so Iran has to satisfy both the questions that its people have, and going forward it has to satisfy its people that it is acting at the behest of and in the interest of all of its people.

QUESTION: That wasn’t really what I asked. I asked kind of whether you thought that these three missing Americans could be a bargaining chip in the U.S.-Iranian relationship.

MR. CROWLEY: I think we tend to believe that on the treatment of our citizens, just as we treat the citizens of other countries fairly, that we expect countries, particularly those that want to earn the respect of the international community, behave through the rule of law, transparent processes. It’s why we sent the Swiss ambassador in yesterday and why we raised these questions and we still seek answers to those questions.

QUESTION: Is that also why you ignore foreign countries when they complain that the U.S. is executing their citizens?

MR. CROWLEY: Well, which is one of the reasons why we want to see the end to Guantanamo, a return to transparent legal processes. As the Secretary said many times, we cannot afford to both be acting based on some double standard and we cannot afford to have the perception that we play by a different set of rules.

QUESTION: Okay. Was that – was your comment before, the trying to frighten people into silence, is that the reaction to the trial?


QUESTION: And you don’t have anything specific about the Iranian American scholar who is among that group of people who are being --

MR. CROWLEY: Well, we are concerned about reports that the scholar, Kian Tajbakhsh, was charged on Saturday by an Iranian court without the benefit of a lawyer. Our thoughts are with he and his family. And we would expect our citizens, just as the citizens of other countries, to be accorded basic legal rights.


QUESTION: Just one more on the East Jerusalem issue. Can you confirm reports that State Department officials had a conversation with the Israeli ambassador here in Washington? And what was the nature of that?

MR. CROWLEY: Yesterday. Assistant Secretary – Acting Assistant Secretary Jeffrey Feltman had a conversation with the Israeli ambassador. He expressed our concerns, and he promised to report those concerns back to the Israeli Government.

(The briefing was concluded at 2:11 p.m.)

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