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Middle East Digest - August 10, 2009


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Washington, DC
August 10, 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 August 10, 2009

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1:37p.m. EDT

QUESTION: Do you have any update for us on the three Americans in Iran? I heard General Jones yesterday say that he believes they are in Iran. Have you heard this from the Swiss?

MR. WOOD: Well, as General Jones said yesterday, the Iranian Government confirmed that these three individuals are being held in Iran. That, however, has not been communicated through our Swiss protecting power. And so I know that the Swiss are trying to gain consular access, but have not been able to do so. And we would just remind the Iranian Government of its responsibilities under the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations, which is to provide consular access for – to people that have been detained in what we would call “without delay.” So we believe that these people need to have – receive consular visits. And we await confirmation, official confirmation from the Iranian Government.

QUESTION: And has a official consular request been put forth through the Swiss or no?

MR. WOOD: The Swiss have been trying – tried a few times to get information and get access to these individuals.

Yes.

QUESTION: Robert, the –

QUESTION: I’m sorry. One follow-up. Can you confirm that they’ve been moved to Tehran?

MR. WOOD: I cannot confirm that at all.

QUESTION: Okay.

MR. WOOD: Yes.

QUESTION: The Iraqi foreign minister today asked Iran to release the three, although you haven’t been officially notified of their detention in Iran, and could that have been – the Iraqi request been at the behest of the State Department?

MR. WOOD: No. The Swiss Government serves as our protecting power in Tehran. And so I’ve seen those reports as well that the Iraqis have gone in to ask for information regarding these three Americans. But again, we have not yet received that official confirmation that they are in Tehran. No reason to doubt what the Iranians have said publicly and what others have said. But until we have the official confirmation, we can’t confirm it from here.

QUESTION: Then how come General Jones – how did he – on what basis did he announce the –

MR. WOOD: Well, General Jones said basically what I said, that the Iranians have confirmed publicly that they have these people. But that communication has not been made directly to the United States Government or through the Swiss intermediary.

QUESTION: Do you have any further update on Baitullah Mehsud? Any confirmation?

MR. WOOD: No, I don’t have any confirmation.

QUESTION: And what impact this incident would have on your operations in Afghanistan?

Mr. Wood: Well, again, we’re engaged in a long-term struggle, as I’ve said before, against violent extremism. And whether he is dead or alive doesn’t impact our understanding of what continues to need to be done to fight extremism. And so as I’ve said before and as others have said, that we’re going to continue to work with a host of governments and to do what we can to try to prevent these types of terrorist acts from taking place, to try to bring to justice these individuals who perpetrate these terrorist acts. But it is – we’re under no illusions; this is a long-term struggle that we’re engaged in. And I might add that it’s not just the United States, but it’s a number of governments around the world. So we have to strengthen our cooperation and do what we can, as I said, to defeat this scourge.

QUESTION: And Afghan presidential elections are scheduled for August 20th.

MR. WOOD: That’s right.

QUESTION: Do you think the security situation is conducive enough to let people go in and cast their votes without any fear?

MR. WOOD: Well, look, the security situation in Afghanistan is problematic. But the Afghan forces, forces from other governments, are doing their best to provide adequate security for these elections to go place – to go forward. We want to see them take place in a fair and transparent manner. But security is something that is going to be a challenge for Afghanistan for some time to come. But working with other countries like the United States, we believe in the long run that Afghanistan will be a better and more secure place. But it is indeed a challenge and we’ll continue to work with our Afghan partners.

QUESTION: Yes, Robert, on the peace process, Fatah movement has adopted a new political plan in Bethlehem. This plan says that peace is a strategic choice, but Fatah maintains the right of resistance by all means possible. Do you have any comment?

MR. WOOD: No, I haven’t seen the plan, but again, I would just reiterate, Michel, right now the importance of both parties – the Israelis and the Palestinians – implementing the Roadmap obligations, not taking steps that in any way prejudge the outcome of future negotiations.

And Senator Mitchell, as you know, is trying to create the conditions on the ground so that we can move to negotiations that will eventually get us to a two-state solution. And so that’s where the parties need to be focused, on living up to their obligations, implementing those Roadmap commitments, and that’s where our diplomacy is focused right now.

QUESTION: But Israeli foreign minister has said today that attempting to impose a Middle East deal – or Israel will be against attempting to impose a Middle East deal. And he added that the most peace talks can achieve for the coming year is improving security and the Palestinian economy.

MR. WOOD: Well, Michel, one of the things we try not to do is respond to every single comment that’s made by leaders of the region. What we’re doing is staying focused on trying to create those conditions on the ground so that we can go forward and have negotiations. You have to have – you have to have a situation where there’s a bit of trust between the two sides so that they can get forward into negotiations. And confidence-building measures are critical elements of getting the parties to the next step, which is negotiations.

And so Senator Mitchell, the Secretary, and the President have all spoken about this, the need for the parties to not take steps that are in any way going to prejudge the outcome of negotiations, and to also work on confidence-building measures so that we can get to that next step. And without being able to – without the parties taking the essential steps in terms of confidence-building, it’s very hard to see getting to the next step.

QUESTION: Yes, thank you. Secretary Clinton said yesterday that the U.S. should support the Iranian protestors, she said behind the scenes. Can you comment or clarify on what she meant?

MR. WOOD: What was the last part of it, I’m sorry?

QUESTION: The U.S. should support to the Iranian protestor behind the scenes, quote.

MR. WOOD: Well, let me just say this. The United States condemns the arbitrary arrest, harassment, and detentions that are continuing to take place in Iran. Among those on trial are students, lawyers, human rights activists, journalists, academics, as well as ordinary citizens who are simply seeking their universal right to express themselves peacefully and live their lives free of intimidation. Of particular concern is the continued detention of Iranian American scholar Kian Tajbakhsh. We urge Iran’s leadership to release Mr. Tajbakhsh without further delay. The Iranian Government’s decision to hold individuals such as Kian Tajbakhsh on groundless charges and without the benefit of legal representation clearly violates its international obligations.

Yes, sir.

QUESTION: On – can you just clarify the U.S. Government’s position on the --

QUESTION: But what about support that the U.S. provides to the opposition in Iran? Is that the same question?

MR. WOOD: We’ve been very clear in terms of our support for democratic activities not only in Iran but in other places around the world. But I don’t have any specific comments on – with regard to the Iranian opposition.

QUESTION: How does this complicate the Administration’s attempts to broker some kind of outreach with Iran? Is there now a mid-September deadline? Does the fact that there are reports now coming out of Iran that perhaps some of the protestors may have died while in custody complicate the situation? Really, where is the U.S. attempt to reach out to Iran in light of the political events of the last two months?

MR. WOOD: Well, I mean, clearly, our offer still stands. We made a strategic decision some time ago to engage Iran in direct diplomacy. We stand by that decision. We decided to do that because we have very, very strong and serious concerns about Iran’s nuclear activities. And I might add, it’s not just the United States, but a number of countries around the world who share that concern. And Iran has shown no interest in wanting to engage the United States or other members of the P-5+1. As I mentioned last week, Javier Solana’s invitation to the Iranians to participate in a P-5+1 meeting with the United States as a full partner, Iran has not responded to that.

Clearly, we have spoken out against what’s happened in the aftermath of Iran’s elections. In the end, Iran is going to have to deal with the concerns of its people. And in terms of whether it complicates our ability to go forward, we will deal with whatever authority emerges in Iran if indeed Iran is interested in engaging the United States.

So again, as with North Korea, we believe the ball is in Iran’s court, and we hope that Iran will take up our offer of direct dialogue. But that remains to be seen.

QUESTION: Do you worry – does the U.S. Government worry, I should say – that those who have been protesting might feel that they’re being abandoned for the sake of this political and diplomatic opening that the U.S. is seeking?

MR. WOOD: Well, I don’t think the Iranian people view the United States as having abandoned them. This is – basically, what the Iranians are fighting for within their society is the ability to express themselves and to be able to peacefully demonstrate. They have some clear, serious concerns about the people who run their affairs. Whatever authority is in power in Iran will have to deal with these questions. This is not – the United States is not involved in this. This is something that is transpiring between the Iranian authorities and their people. And we will continue to speak out when we see human rights violations committed, where freedom of the press or freedom of assembly is violated. But in the end, this is something that the Iranian people are going to have to deal – this is a question between those who govern and the governed. And that’s where we stand.

QUESTION: Okay.

MR. WOOD: Yes, Kirit.

QUESTION: Anything else on Iran, or no? Can you clarify the U.S. Government’s position on the ICC? Last week, Secretary Clinton seemed to make some comments in favor of joining it. Can you clarify whether there’s been a policy shift on that?

MR. WOOD: Well, the ICC – our policy toward the ICC is currently under review, so I really can’t help you very much on that at this point. But clearly, the Secretary spoke out about the International Criminal Court, and this is – this review is underway, and so we’ll just have to see where that comes out (inaudible) at this point.

QUESTION: I mean, she took a position on it. I mean, she made it sound like she would be in favor of the U.S. ratifying it.

MR. WOOD: Yeah. I mean, she indeed said that. And the Secretary is a key player in this overall review. And – but at this point, that review is underway but – and hopefully will be completed soon. But I don’t have anything further on it.

QUESTION: Well, wouldn't – I mean, you’re blocked by U.S. law from ratifying --

MR. WOOD: Well, there are a number of issues. I mean, clearly, with regard to Congress, we are not a party to the Rome Statute. And we obviously would need to have consultations with Congress and others, so – and the Pentagon will clearly – clearly has a – some strong views on this issue. All of this will be factored in to our review, and then we’ll be able to go from there.

QUESTION: Just a last one. Have you talked to members of Congress? Do you think you have – have you already talked to them, and do you feel like you’ve been able to allay some of their concerns?

MR. WOOD: Well, I don’t want to get into discussions we’ve had with individual members of Congress, but we’re certainly aware of the concerns that there are in Congress about this issue. We’ll continue to try to work with Congress. But we haven’t made a decision in terms of where we’re going to come out on the ICC, and that won’t happen until we’ve completed the review.

Yes.

QUESTION: Over the weekend, as you know, al-Jazeera released a poll conducted by Gallup International’s Gallup Pakistan unit, and it found that 59 percent of Pakistanis consider the U.S. the greatest threat to their country, five times as many people voting that way as they did for India, their traditional rival, or even the Pakistani Taliban. What is the U.S. Government’s reaction to this finding?

MR. WOOD: Well, I saw that poll, and it’s obviously very concerning. We clearly have a lot of work to do. But I think the United States has been one of the largest contributors of humanitarian assistance, development assistance, to Pakistan. We need to obviously do a better job of telling our story to the Pakistani people and to others around the world. But the United States is committed to a set of values. We promote those values worldwide. We want to help Pakistan improve its economy, its security, to try to help the Pakistani people.

I think this Administration has done a lot to address a lot of concerns in not only the Muslim world but in other parts of the world about our sincerity in dialogue and reaching out and trying to make the world a better place. And we’ll continue to do that. And I know the Secretary is very committed to that. Whenever she travels, she engages with citizens of all – from all parts of society. And I think that’s a strong example of this Administration’s commitment. If you look at our aid numbers, they’re up. If you look at what we’re trying to do in Afghanistan, other places around the world, I think the U.S. has a very good track record. We’ll continue to work on trying to tell our story better. There’s no question we need to do a better job of that. But that’s a work in progress, and we’ll continue to work on it.

QUESTION: Does it – is that work undercut, though, by the ongoing drone attacks going after the Taliban, either with or without Pakistan’s tacit agreement to have those go forward in search of extremists?

MR. WOOD: Well, as standard practice, I don’t comment on that particular – we don’t comment on that particular issue. But let me just say we’re well aware of the challenges that the people of Pakistan face. And as we’ve said, we’re Pakistan’s partner. We’re with Pakistan in this battle against violent extremism, and we will be with them every step of the way. But the problems, the challenges we face in the Muslim world, we’re under no illusions they’re difficult. But as the President said in his Cairo speech, the United States is a partner; it wants to reach out and engage Muslims around the world. The President is very sincere in that. And we will continue to do what we can to address their concerns and to tell our story a bit better, because we do have a very positive story to tell, not just in the Middle East but in other parts of the world.

QUESTION: And one more.

MR. WOOD: Yes.

QUESTION: And what do you say to ordinary Pakistanis who may be concerned about the U.S.’s growing relationship with India? We saw the Secretary and the foreign minister sign a series of accords just a couple of months ago promoting better economic and other ties between the two countries. You know, how do you address that anxiety that Pakistanis have about India?

MR. WOOD: Well, the first thing I would say to Pakistanis is that this isn’t a zero-sum game. We have a very strong and growing partnership with India. We have a partnership with Pakistan that we’re trying to improve on. And we need to get away from these views of if you’re – if I’m – if we’re a supporter or we have a good relationship with India, that impacts the relationship with Pakistan. I understand that that’s how people in the region see it, but I think we really need to move away from this type of view in the 21st century.

Countries of that region have some very difficult challenges to face. As I’ve said, we are doing what we can to try to support them as they confront these challenges, not only from terrorism but from poverty, illiteracy, drought, disease. We’ll continue to work with both India and Pakistan and other countries to try to deal with these challenges. But we have to move away from these old stereotypes and work with one another in the 21st century to defeat these common enemies that we do face, as I said – drought, disease, hunger, illiteracy, poverty, terrorism.

QUESTION: Thank you.

MR. WOOD: Thank you all.

(The briefing was concluded at 2:07 p.m.)



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