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Middle East Digest - September 11, 2009


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Washington, DC
September 11, 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 September 11, 2009

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QUESTION: You didn’t mention the Secretary’s meeting with Senator McCain – Senators McCain, Collins, and Lieberman. Could you talk about that meeting and what her arguments were on behalf of the Administration’s policy in Afghanistan?

MR. CROWLEY: I did not get a readout of the meeting other than I think the primary focus was on the situation in Afghanistan – obviously, with Congress’s return from the recess, updated them on the situation there. It wouldn't surprise me if both in her meetings yesterday, where I think it was a two-way conversation to receive a readout on travel to the region by Senator Levin and Senator Reed and others, but it is simply to update them on how we see the situation in Afghanistan, the current status in the electoral process, and our view of – as Deputy Secretary Lew was outlining, what we’re trying to accomplish on the civilian side. Obviously, in the context of Afghanistan and Pakistan, we note that there’s some important decisions that will be coming up within the Congress on assistance to Pakistan in particular. So with these – this set of discussions, it wouldn't surprise me if ArmorGroup came up as part of it.

QUESTION: Can I follow on that --

MR. CROWLEY: Sure.

QUESTION: Just on the Levin meeting on Wednesday, could you say that the Secretary was aware of his opposition to adding more combat troops (inaudible)?

MR. CROWLEY: I wasn’t in the meeting. I just don’t know how – I’m sure Senator Levin, I think, has spoken about this issue today. I’ll just defer to his comments. I would only presume that what he said today is probably consistent with what he said last night.

QUESTION: On Iran? A question on Iran?

MR. CROWLEY: Sure.

QUESTION: Regarding the proposal the Iranians made this week, you said yesterday – and your comments yesterday seemed to be focused on the fact that they didn’t address the central – the issue of central interest to the U.S., which is the nuclear program, enrichment activity. I’m wondering if, nonetheless, the P-5+1 countries have decided that they will tell the Iranians that they accept the offer to have talks.

MR. CROWLEY: Well, I would kind of bother to turn that around, first and foremost, and recall that it was the nations of the P-5+1 who made a specific offer to Iran to engage directly to address the concerns that the United States has, the international community has, the United Nations Security Council has. So it is Iran providing a paper that responds in a way to the invitation. There was a conference call this morning of the political directors of the P-5+1, and I think we continue to study the Iran document. At the same time, I believe brief – a short time ago, there was a statement made by the EU, by Javier Solana, indicating that he will be in touch with the Iranians on behalf of the P-5+1 countries to arrange a face-to-face meeting as soon as possible.

QUESTION: Just on the one-on-one –

MR. CROWLEY: Sure.

QUESTION: The face-to-face meeting – him and – or all the P-5 --

MR. CROWLEY: I mean, the P-5+1 was put in place to provide a mechanism to address the concerns that the international community has about Iran’s nuclear program. And, clearly, the Iranian paper does not reply to these concerns. It does not cover the nuclear issue. That’s precisely why we think we need an early meeting. We’re not interested in talking for talking’s sake. We’re looking to see – and through an early meeting, should Iran be willing, we’ll be looking to see if they are willing to engage seriously on these issues, but within the context of the P-5+1, the full range of issues that we have among these countries and Iran.

QUESTION: So you’re talking about talks about talks? Because I mean --

MR. CROWLEY: We’re not interested in talks about talks.

QUESTION: Well, okay, but that’s --

MR. CROWLEY: We’re interested in finding out if – I mean, if you go to the Iran document, it says the Iranian nation is prepared to enter into dialogue and negotiation, and so on and so forth. We are going to – as Javier Solana has indicated, we will seek an early meeting and we will seek to test Iran’s willingness to engage. Clearly, from the standpoint of the international community, the central issue that we have is the nuclear issue. If we have talks, we will plan to bring up the nuclear issue. We will hope, as we said earlier this week in the IAEA, that Iran will choose to engage the international community to address the concerns that we have about the nuclear program. So we are seeking a meeting because, ultimately, the only way that we feel we’re going to be able to resolve these issues is to have a meeting. But it’s not just a meeting for meeting’s sake. It is a meeting to be able to see if Iran is willing to engage seriously on these issues.

QUESTION: But they just sent you this response to your offer. You offered them talks on the nuclear issue and other issues. They came back to you and said we’re willing to talk, but not about our nuclear program. So what’s the point of talking to them if you got your response – I mean, then how can you say these are not talks about talks? I mean, they’ve shown you through their official paper their willingness to engage on the nuclear issue, which is not to engage on the nuclear issue. So why would you want to have talks with them if it didn’t? And are you saying that you would sit down with Iran to talk about whether they’re willing to engage on the nuclear issue, or are you not going to sit across the table from Iran unless the nuclear issue is on the table?

MR. CROWLEY: We would expect, if we have a meeting with Iran, that it will be a – we would hope that it would be a substantive exchange. We will go into such a meeting, should Iran agree to prepare to talk about the substance of the issues and concerns that we have on Iran’s nuclear program, as was outlined this week at the IAEA. We feel that they are out of compliance with their obligations under the NPT, IAEA, Security Council resolutions. We wish to have a direct dialogue with Iran. We believe, and the President has said repeatedly, that we feel this is the way in which we will be able to, and hopefully can, resolve these issues. Our objective is clear: to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon. I don’t think that we can resolve this issue any other way but through the kind of direct dialogue --

QUESTION: But what in that --

MR. CROWLEY: -- that leads to negotiation that we hope will lead to an understanding --

QUESTION: But what in that letter – you said we expect that there’ll be substantive talks. What gives you that expectation?

MR. CROWLEY: Well --

QUESTION: What in that letter gives you any reason to believe that you would have substantive talks with Iran about its nuclear issue?

MR. CROWLEY: Well, and that’s why we will seek a meeting to see what is – Iran is prepared to do. We’ve been waiting for some months --

QUESTION: So you’re ignoring their letter?

MR. CROWLEY: We have been waiting for some months for Iran to respond to the – to Javier Solana’s invitation earlier this year. We are seeking a meeting now based on the Iranian paper to see what Iran is prepared to do. And then, as the President has said, if Iran responds to our interest in a meeting, we’ll see when that can occur. We hope that will occur as soon possible, and that as we head towards United Nations General Assembly, I expect there will be further meetings within the P-5+1. As the President has said, we will use this month to assess where we are in terms of our offer of engagement, and then that would lead to a conclusion by the end of the year as to what that approach has yielded.

So I don’t – we’ve gone through this situation where there have been various public statements over the past few weeks. But ultimately, the only way we’re going to resolve the serious and – concerns that we have is to have direct dialogue, see if Iran is willing to engage on these issues. If they’re not, then, obviously, that will – we’ll draw conclusions from that.

QUESTION: Just to clarify, it seems that you think the door is still open to talks on the enrichment because they didn’t explicitly refuse in the letter to talk about that subject.

MR. CROWLEY: Well --

QUESTION: Is that correct?

MR. CROWLEY: -- all I can say is our position has not changed. The United States, the other members of the P5+1 – we seek engagement with Iran, we seek to have better answers, better information, better cooperation from Iran to seriously address the issues that we have. And now it is up to Iran to determine what they are prepared to do. They have given – they’ve provided a paper. It says that they are open to dialogue. The paper itself does not address our nuclear concerns. But we will seek a meeting, as Javier Solana indicated today. And then based on that approach, we’ll see if Iran is willing to have a meeting. At that meeting, we will hope that there will be serious engagement. From that engagement, we hope there will be a willingness to address these issues. And then – but through this process, we’ll be able to determine what Iran is prepared to do, what it’s not prepared to do, and that will lead us to make judgments and there will be consequences going forward.

QUESTION: Let me put it another way. I mean, the paper, the proposals – are they better than their public statements where they refuse strictly to discuss engagement – enrichment?

MR. CROWLEY: The paper itself, I don’t think, broke any new ground. It’s, in a way, a warmed-over version of a previous paper they provided some time ago.

QUESTION: So, P.J., why wouldn’t you just see that as stalling then? I mean, the Iranians for the last several years have done this. You get right up to the deadline and then they put these papers out, then you say, okay, we’re going to go talk to them again, and it just keeps going and going down the road.

MR. CROWLEY: Well – and we will draw conclusions based on how Iran responds to the invitation by Javier Solana and the EU.

QUESTION: And their past behavior hasn’t given you any indication?

MR. CROWLEY: And we will draw conclusions if their past behavior – or their future behavior reflects their past behavior.

QUESTION: I’m sorry, but I still don’t understand – and I think probably most of us don’t – that you say that you’re going to ask Iran for talks based on their response --

MR. CROWLEY: No.

QUESTION: – based on this letter that they sent you.

MR. CROWLEY: No, no, no, no, no. We are – once again, we are making the offer of – for direct dialogue to Iran. It is a consistent approach that --

QUESTION: You made that offer, and they said we’re willing to talk to you about everything that we want to talk to you about and nothing that you want to talk to – about. So why are you – are you, like, ignoring this letter or ignoring the contents, or saying the fact that they sent us anything is a good sign and we’ll see if we could build something on that? Because if you’re saying that we’re asking them for talks based on this piece of paper that they sent you, I don’t see where there’s anything to talk about.

MR. CROWLEY: Well – and we seek direct negotiations. We want to see Iran sit down face to face with the P-5+1 countries and address all of the issues that we have concern about, including the nuclear issue. If we have a meeting, we’re going to bring up the nuclear issue, and we’ll see how Iran responds to that. And this is – this is --

QUESTION: But what – but what about this – I’m sorry, but what about this letter makes you think that they’re willing to talk to you about that? They said no thank you.

MR. CROWLEY: And we’ll find out. We’ll find out. But I – again, I go back --

QUESTION: Why aren’t you taking no for an answer, though?

MR. CROWLEY: Libby, I – Elise, I go back to the – there’s language in the letter that simply says the Government of Iran is willing to enter in a dialogue. We are going to test that proposition. Okay? And if Iran is willing to enter into serious negotiations, then they will find a willing participant in the United States and the other P-5+1 countries. If the – Iran dissembles in the future, as it has in the past, then we will draw conclusions from that.

Recall, we have a two-track strategy here. We are willing to engage, but we are also going to continue to look for ways to pressure Iran to change the path that it’s on. And we are willing to do both of those simultaneously. But ultimately, because these are serious issues, because we have a strategy that will prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear power, we feel the only way you’re ultimately going to resolve these issues is through direct dialogue. We recognize that Iran may or may not be willing to do so.

And as the President said, we’re going to assess where we are during the course of this month, including meetings that we’ll have at the UN General Assembly. And then at the end of the year, we’ll be able to draw some conclusions as to how successful our engagement offer has been.

QUESTION: P.J., can I follow up on that?

MR. CROWLEY: Sure.

QUESTION: Isn’t your second track in trouble, though? I mean, you’ve got the Russian foreign minister out there saying yesterday that new sanctions shouldn’t be considered, especially anything on petroleum. That’s the same thing the Russians have been saying since this process got underway back in 2003. It just seems – how are you going to implement the second track?

MR. CROWLEY: These are not mutually exclusive. I’ll let the Russian foreign minister characterize his own words. There is unanimity within the P-5+1 in support of our two-track approach that involves engagement and pressure. Now – and we are willing to meet with Iran. We hope to meet with Iran. We want to see serious engagement on the nuclear issue, in particular. Within the context of the P-5+1, we are willing to address any other issues that they want to bring to the table. But clearly, if Iran refuses to negotiate seriously, we the United States and the international community and the Security Council can draw conclusions from that. And then based on that, we’ll make some judgments in the future.

QUESTION: P.J. --

QUESTION: I’m sorry, a quick procedural question since the announcement happened while we were in here. What level would the talks be on? Is that – the Solana announcement, what level of talks would take place with Iran? Is it political directors?

MR. CROWLEY: I would say likely at the political director level. But again, that will be part of what will be negotiated, depending on what Iran’s response is.

QUESTION: The U.S. will be at the table for that, or would it be only Solana? *I’m trying to understand.*

MR. CROWLEY: Oh, no. I would expect – I mean, we would seek a meeting –

QUESTION: At the initial meeting here --

MR. CROWLEY: Yes.

QUESTION: – that Solana is requesting, would it be with all six parties plus him?

MR. CROWLEY: Well, again, as he indicated in his statement, Javier Solana will be in touch with Iranian authorities, look for a meeting at an early date. And then we’ll work those details based on the Iranian response.

QUESTION: So you’re not closed to being at an initial meeting, as opposed to the follow-up meeting?

MR. CROWLEY: But I would – I think we would hope that there’d be a full P-5+1 meeting at a senior level. We’ll be looking, for example, to see from the Iranian standpoint, should this happen, what level of interlocutor will they send, what kind of authority will that person have. But we’re looking for a serious engagement by Iran, address these issues that we have. If it’s there, that will be a positive development. If it’s not there, we’ll draw conclusions from that.

QUESTION: Does that –

MR. CROWLEY: Go ahead. Go ahead.

QUESTION: So, basically, this is probably a last chance for Iran to engage on its nuclear issue, which is sort of a precondition for the talks?

MR. CROWLEY: Well, I wouldn’t say – it is a – it is certainly a best opportunity for Iran. As we said at the IAEA earlier this week, we have made an offer to Iran; it’s out of mutual interest and mutual respect. But clearly, we expect to see Iran be willing to address the concerns that we have. As we said earlier this week, Iran says it has rights, but with those rights come responsibilities. So we’ll see what happens. But obviously, should Iran decide to engage, we will be at the table. Should Iran decide not to engage, that will have consequences and we’ll make judgments based on what Iran does or does not do.

QUESTION: Does that include Iran’s views on Israel and also support of terrorism?

MR. CROWLEY: We have great concern about Iran’s support of terrorism and its role in the region. At the same time, we recognize that we have potentially common interests in terms of a stable Afghanistan, in terms of a stable Iraq. As we have said frequently, we are willing to engage Iran on a full range of issues, but obviously, first on our list, first on the international community’s list, is Iran’s nuclear program.

QUESTION: And their views on Israel – wipe out Israel off the world map?

MR. CROWLEY: Obviously, that is a repugnant statement from the United States***. And we – but we are willing to – we have great concerns about Iran’s role in the region. It has been – hardly been a constructive player, and we will be clearly prepared to talk about that.

QUESTION: Can you take another one on Iran from another angle? Every year at the end of the month of Ramadan, the Iranian regime has begun this demonstration in support of the Palestinians. It’s coming up. It’s next week, actually. And today, Khamenei threatened the opposition that if they use that demonstration to voice their own displeasure with the results of the presidential elections that they would be faced with a harsh response and full force and everything.

Could that play – this recent comment play – have any room to play in your decision on the talks in general?

MR. CROWLEY: Well, I mean, as we have said many, many times, the situation in the aftermath of the election is really a matter between the Iranian Government and its people. Clearly, there are many within the political structure, within the clerical structure, that want to see a broader political process, a genuine political process, the formation of a genuine political opposition. And clearly, the regime is determined, and has taken direct actions, to inhibit that from happening both in terms of the arrest of those who have expressed their views publicly of intention* and inhibitions given to journalists, and so on and so forth. And obviously, this continues to roil within Iran.

I think it’s not for us to give the Iranian regime advice, other than they should continue to take actions, or should start to take actions, to meet the genuine aspirations of their people.

QUESTION: Well, in that proposal they mentioned that they respect the right of people for free – to have free elections, and they talk about justice and rule of law and --

MR. CROWLEY: I think we would say that actions speak more loudly than words. And clearly, their activities of the past few weeks hardly show a government that is interested in having a free and fair and open political process.

Yes.

QUESTION: On Afghanistan, the results of the parliament – or of the provincial council elections, which have been sort of overshadowed by the presidential election, might be released on Monday. And people have risked their lives to stand for those elections. The international community has spent millions of dollars to hold them. But those bodies really don’t have any power. I’m wondering whether the Obama Administration, which has – seems to be putting an emphasis on getting out into the provinces and working with the people themselves – I’m wondering whether there’s any plans in the works to interface with these provincial councils or not, whether there’s a --

MR. CROWLEY: I mean, as a broad point, you’re exactly right that there was more than one election held in Afghanistan. And the development of provincial structures, local governments, regional governments, are equally important to Afghanistan as the development of a strong national government that the people of Afghanistan can believe in, to be sure. We don’t have a – we have a multifaceted approach here. We are trying to help the central government expand its ability to extend its sovereignty to all parts of Afghanistan. That’s been part of our strategy.

But at the same time, a lot of the assistance that Deputy Secretary Lew was talking about will have to be delivered at the local level. That will require cooperation with local authorities. So I do think that we will be engaging throughout Afghanistan as we’re able to stabilize the situation across the country, and we’ll be working with local leaders, hopefully those who have been elected through free and fair means. But yes, that is a vitally important part of our strategy. Because ultimately, if you’re able to strengthen institutions at all levels, as you’re able to deliver effective government and services to the people, that’s how you build credibility within the country. And that’s going to be the best weapon that we have to defeat the insurgency that is – that Afghanistan confronts.

QUESTION: But, P.J., as far as security concern in Afghanistan, many companies are now scared to go – for rebuilding issues because they are concerned about the security for their people. So what kind of – what actions are being taken for those companies who are there to rebuild Afghanistan?

MR. CROWLEY: Well, our – what is – what we’ve described repeatedly is not just a military strategy, but a military and civilian strategy in Afghanistan. As Secretary Lew indicated, and as he observed in Afghanistan, we’re looking to see – and we’re increasing the resources that we have, and as we extend security throughout the country, as we stabilize different parts of the country, it is vitally important that we be able to deliver the kind of support to the people of Afghanistan – economic support, try to help them deal with the scourge of narcotics, which undercuts civil society. We’re trying to do all those things.

Ultimately, we will succeed if we are able to convince the Afghan people that there’s a government at the national level, at the local level, that is working on their behalf, that is dealing with corruption, that is meeting the needs of the people, is building institutions from schools to healthcare, creating jobs. These are the ways in which you build a stable civil society, and that’s the way that you ultimately defeat an insurgency.

QUESTION: A follow-up on Afghanistan?

MR. CROWLEY: Sure.

QUESTION: Ambassador Holbrooke in an interview has said that there’s no need – unlikely to be a runoff in the elections now. So does it mean that Karzai will be elected?

MR. CROWLEY: I believe he was asked will there be a rerun, and he said, no, there will not be. (Laughter.) I mean, Ambassador Holbrooke did give an interview yesterday, and he basically said, look, let’s let the process work out. You’ve got the Electoral Commission. You’ve got the Complaints Commission. They’re doing their work. I think yesterday there were a number of votes that were thrown out by the electoral bodies.

But at this point in time, I think he indicated that he did not see that there was any need for a new election. He thinks that through the processes that are in place, we will eventually reach a result that the Afghan people will support.

QUESTION: A question on India?

MR. CROWLEY: Sure.

QUESTION: There was a meeting yesterday, Secretary Clinton met India’s Home Minister Chidambaram yesterday here. Do you have any readout on the issues discussed?

MR. CROWLEY: I don’t. I think it was – as we described yesterday, it was a meeting of one among many that the home minister had here in Washington, D.C. I think the – among the topics discussed were ongoing cooperation on terrorism, following up on the Mumbai attacks, and deepening our cooperation between the two countries.

QUESTION: India has concerns about Pakistan not taking action on the people who were planning – who planned the Mumbai terrorist attack. Does --

MR. CROWLEY: And as we’ve said many times, we would hope that the Pakistani authorities will continue their investigation and will bring the perpetrators of the attacks to justice.

Samir.

QUESTION: Yes. Are you concerned about the exchange of shelling today on the Lebanese-Israeli border in the face of there is no government in Lebanon?

MR. CROWLEY: Well, obviously, we are aware of it. We strongly condemn these attacks, which were a clear violation of the cessation of hostilities called for in UN Security Council Resolution 1701. The incident, along with the explosion of a Hezbollah weapons depot on July 14, highlights the urgent need to bring arms in Lebanon under control of the state and the need for the international community to remain fully committed to supporting UNIFIL, which is the UN mission there in Lebanon.

(The briefing was concluded at 2:04 p.m.)



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