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Middle East Digest - October 20, 2009


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Washington, DC
October 20, 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 October 20, 2009

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MR. KELLY: Okay. Well, welcome and good afternoon. Let me make a few comments at the top, both regarding Afghanistan. You saw the Secretary’s statement a little earlier where she welcomes President Karzai’s announcement that he accepts the recommendations of the Electoral Complaints Commission and the Independent Election Commission’s statement on the August 20 first round election results.

The leadership shown by the president, Dr. Abdullah, and all the other candidates has strengthened Afghanistan and kept faith with the best interests of the Afghan people. Afghan plans are in place to enable a second round of voting, and we pledge our support to the election authorities to help them achieve a conclusion of the elections process.

We remain committed to partnering with the Afghan people and their government on our shared objectives of strengthening good governance, tackling corruption, increasing economic opportunities, and improving security for all Afghans.

Finally, the Secretary wanted, in particular, to thank Senator Kerry and Ambassador Eikenberry, who played key roles in this team effort, consulting frequently with the Secretary and Ambassador Holbrooke.

I’d also like to bring you up to date on the ongoing investigation into allegations of misconduct by the ArmorGroup. Yesterday, October 19, the Department of State requested the removal of four additional guards from the Kabul Embassy contract – guard contract with ArmorGroup. This was based on additional information obtained during the course of the State Department’s investigation. One of the individuals is already in the U.S. and will not return to Kabul. We are coordinating with ArmorGroup regarding the timeline for the removal of the other three guards.

To date, our office of Diplomatic Security has conducted over 225 interviews. The investigative work at the Embassy has concluded. However, DS – Diplomatic Security – continues to follow up on a number of leads here in the U.S. which were generated by the DS investigative team while they were in Afghanistan. We anticipate that the final report will be completed within the next few weeks once the remaining investigative leads have been closed.

And with that, I’ll take your questions. Christophe, yes.

QUESTION: The Secretary pledged today the help of the United States for the runoff of the Afghan election. What kind of help that – can that be?

MR. KELLY: Well, I think we have to see what the – what exactly is required. I mean, we have the political decision, which of course we welcome, and the international community welcomes. And we’ll just have to see where we can be supportive. You’ve seen the President and the Secretary and many other officials, both here in America and abroad at the United Nations pledge support to make sure that this is a successful conclusion to the process.

We have a number of nongovernmental organizations who helped out with the August 20th elections, and I anticipate that they’ll help out with this next one, too. So we’ll see what the exact requirements are.

Yeah, Bob.

QUESTION: On the same subject, could you – the Secretary mentioned yesterday that she had spoken several times to President Karzai over --

MR. KELLY: Yeah.

QUESTION: -- the preceding several days. Could you give any more detail about what her role was exactly over that period of time? And similarly, what about Richard Holbrooke? Was he ever there? Why wasn’t he directly involved, or was he directly involved?

MR. KELLY: Well, I think regarding Ambassador Holbrooke, he was involved. I mean, he was involved in – I mean, he was in close contact with Ambassador Eikenberry. He was in contact with Senator Kerry.

QUESTION: From here?

MR. KELLY: From here.

QUESTION: He wasn’t there?

MR. KELLY: He wasn’t there. And I think in terms of the Secretary’s involvement in this, I think that she told him what she’s been telling all of you, about the need for this – for the result of this to be the kind of result that is reflective of the will of the Afghan people, and that also followed certain established procedures under the Afghan constitution.

And again, we are – we’re pleased that the recommendations of the Electoral Complaints Commission are being adhered to. We don’t minimize the challenges. We didn’t minimize them for the first round in August, and it’s going to be even more difficult now, I think, with more challenging weather conditions. But throughout, from Secretary Clinton on down, we have stressed the importance of adhering closely to this process that’s established by Afghan law and is carried out by Afghan institutions.

And I think that the Afghan people should feel proud of the way this has all worked out; it hasn’t worked out completely yet, but the way the procedures have been followed scrupulously throughout.

QUESTION: Is she – did she speak to him over the last several hours during the course of the day? How many times did she speak to him? Any – do you have any more detail about that?

MR. KELLY: Well, I think over three or four days. I don’t have – maybe I do – I believe over the course of three days, she spoke to him twice by telephone.

QUESTION: Twice. And which days would that be, then?

MR. KELLY: Maybe four days – Friday and Monday, I believe. Today is Tuesday. Yeah, Friday and Monday.

QUESTION: So she didn’t speak to him as this thing kind of came down to the final hours?

MR. KELLY: I don’t think so.

QUESTION: Okay.

MR. KELLY: I don’t think so.

QUESTION: Can I just follow up on the --

MR. KELLY: Yeah.

QUESTION: -- conversations that she had? It would appear to some that the U.S. is sort of pushing him to take that route that he did today. Can you shed any light on any of that speculation, whether that was, in fact, the case or --

MR. KELLY: Well, I don’t think pushing is the right word. I think that, as I said before, throughout that we have been – we have wanted to make sure that this process, which has been very complicated and, of course, has been fraught with a lot of problems, including, as the ECC pointed out, including some problems of fraud – that this process be continued. I think you saw what President Karzai said, that he was concerned that a large number of votes would be, as he put it, disrespected and not counted. And this is a – it’s a very difficult process. But the important thing is that there’s a procedure established, and the Afghan Government is following it.

QUESTION: Did you encourage him to accept – or to pursue a runoff or --

MR. KELLY: No. Well, I think what she – what we had been encouraging the Government of Afghanistan is that they need to follow the recommendations of these institutions; again, established by Afghan law and have been put in place in order to ensure the fairest and most transparent result possible.

Michel, did you have a question?

QUESTION: No.

MR. KELLY: No. Jill.

QUESTION: Ian, given that most of the vote fraud was alleged to have been carried out by supporters of Mr. Karzai, with this next election looming, what type of guarantee do you have that this won’t happen again? And did the U.S. make that part of the conversation with him, to say, look, you know, this should not happen again?

MR. KELLY: Well, I think really the most amazing thing about this election is here you have a country that has a lot of challenges in terms of infrastructure and armed conflict going on and tremendous difficulties in transportation, that they put in place some very specific technical trip wires and mechanisms to be able to catch fraud, and the system worked.

I mean, you’re right that most of the votes were in the south. But the bottom line is the system worked. The fraud was caught and --

QUESTION: But the fraud was by the president’s supporters.

MR. KELLY: Well, I’m not going to talk about who actually orchestrated the fraud. I don’t think that’s my place. But the system worked.

QUESTION: But the second part of that question was: Was there – was that part of the discussion with Karzai to eliminate the possibility that there would be a repeat of this election fraud?

MR. KELLY: Well, I – I’m not going to get into that kind of detail. But what I think what we really focused on was the necessity to see this process through. And of course, our consistent message has been that we have to be certain that the outcome of this properly reflects the will of the Afghan people. And of course, an important part of that is having an election process that’s completely transparent, and open and fair.

QUESTION: So how does all the timing of this affect the President’s decision on the troops?

MR. KELLY: Well, I mean, clearly, it’s one of the reasons why we – why we emphasize so often the need for a fair and transparent election is because we want to ensure that there is good governance and a good partner for us in Afghanistan. But how it affects the President’s decision, it’s really not for me to say one way or the other.

QUESTION: But there was a bit of confusion with the Secretary saying – in fact, to CNN – that it wouldn’t have an effect, that all – before this decision, that it wouldn’t have an effect on the President’s timing because it was his timing to make that decision.

MR. KELLY: Yeah. Well, it is – it is his timing.

QUESTION: And then over the weekend you had Rahm Emanuel saying pretty much the opposite, saying that it wouldn’t have it --

MR. KELLY: Well, I don’t know if he said the opposite necessarily.

QUESTION: Well, he did say it would have an effect on the time, or at least seemed to indicate that. So what --

MR. KELLY: Well, I don’t think he said it would have an effect on the timing. I think what he said was that it was important for us, as we go forward, to have a legitimate and credible partner.

QUESTION: Right.

MR. KELLY: And so that – I mean, that is – that has been our focus. And that’s why we’ve been emphasizing so much the importance of these elections being seen as an accurate reflection of the will of the Afghan people.

Yeah. Any other on Afghanistan? Are you --

QUESTION: Yeah, let me follow up on Jill’s question.

MR. KELLY: Okay.

QUESTION: The Defense Secretary, though, has been quoted saying we are not going to just sit on our hands waiting for the outcome of this election and for the emergence of a government in Kabul. So how – just to follow up, how does this affect then the President’s decision with regard to General Stanley McChrystal’s troop request?

MR. KELLY: Well, again, you’re asking me to comment on how the President should – how he should make his determination, and I’m not going to do that. I mean, this is a very important, thorough and deliberative process that is being carried out right now. And of course, this – the Department of State has an important part of that, the good governance part of it and the developmental assistance part of it.

And I – you heard what the Secretary said, you heard what Secretary Gates said, this is – I mean, this is a discussion that is more on the strategic level. And we have faith in this process playing out, and we’ve seen more evidence that the Afghan Government is going to let it play out, so let’s see how it works out. But again, just – I’m not going to get into --

QUESTION: Is there some sort of timeline, though?

MR. KELLY: -- how the President should make his decision. I mean, that’s just not my role.

QUESTION: With – separate, though, from how, but the timeline – I mean, is this – some are viewing this runoff as, you know, the deep breath the Administration needs because now it buys time in order to make that decision.

MR. KELLY: Yeah. Well --

QUESTION: Is this a decision that will not be delayed?

MR. KELLY: Again, this is really a question for my colleagues over at the White House and the National Security Council.

QUESTION: Is the Secretary scheduled to attend any additional NSC meetings this week on that subject?

MR. KELLY: On this subject?

QUESTION: Yeah.

MR. KELLY: I don’t know the answer to that question. I believe so, but let’s – we’ll get back to you on that.

QUESTION: You don’t know what day?

MR. KELLY: I’m not sure which day it is.

QUESTION: What was the subject of the meetings today, do you know?

MR. KELLY: I’m sorry?

QUESTION: The meetings this afternoon?

MR. KELLY: They’re not related to Afghanistan.

QUESTION: Yeah. Can you tell me what they’re about?

MR. KELLY: No, I can’t tell you what they’re about.

Charlie.

QUESTION: Can I go to a different subject?

MR. KELLY: Yeah.

QUESTION: Can you go back to the ArmorGroup statement and clarify for me the total number of interviews now? And also, do you have a total number of ArmorGroup employees who have been asked to leave?

MR. KELLY: Yeah. On the ground in Kabul, Department of – Diplomatic Security officials carried out 225 interviews. The additional four guards, the removal of the other guards, brings the total of personnel who are no longer on the contract to 20.

QUESTION: Do you want to give us any detail, further details of the additional information that came to the investigator’s attention that led to the dismissal of these additional four?

MR. KELLY: No, I don’t have any details. I mean, all of them – as I understand it, all of them were involved in what we can call extremely inappropriate activity that was brought to light by the POGO group.

QUESTION: And has ArmorGroup --

MR. KELLY: So it’s all related to those activities.

QUESTION: Has ArmorGroup brought in additional personnel to take up the slack of the 20 --

MR. KELLY: Yes.

QUESTION: -- that you dismissed?

MR. KELLY: Yes, they have.

QUESTION: And is – has the State Department continued to beef up DS staffing as well to account for that?

MR. KELLY: I think that they’ve changed their arrangements in terms of monitoring the work of ArmorGroup, but I don’t know if necessarily they’ve beefed up their security. We probably wouldn’t want to talk about that anyway.

Yeah, Jill?

QUESTION: Another subject?

MR. KELLY: Okay.

QUESTION: Iran?

MR. KELLY: I’ll get to you, Dave, after Jill.

Go ahead.

QUESTION: Okay. Iran?

MR. KELLY: Yeah.

QUESTION: Do you have any reaction to the sentencing of Kian Tajbakhsh?

MR. KELLY: I do.

QUESTION: And also, if you could give us an update on exactly what is going on in Vienna with those discussions over the low-enriched uranium?

MR. KELLY: Okay. On the first one, we are deeply concerned that Iranian American scholar Kian Tajbakhsh has been sentenced to 15 years. We are also --

QUESTION: Twelve?

QUESTION: Fifteen or –

MR. KELLY: Fifteen is what I have here, 15 years imprisonment. I think I’ve seen some media reports of 12.

QUESTION: Yes.

MR. KELLY: Yeah, but I have 15. He may also have been forced to stand trial in the Revolutionary Court without the benefit of a self-appointed lawyer. Mr. Tajbakhsh poses no threat to the Iranian Government or its national security. Given the groundless nature of charges against him, we call on Iran to grant his immediate release.

As an independent and internationally respected academic, Mr. Tajbakhsh has always sought to foster better understandings between Iran and the United States and Iran and the international community. And then we, once again, urge Iran’s leadership to quickly resolve all outstanding cases involving American citizens, including Joshua Fattal, Shane Bauer, Sarah Shourd, Reza Taghavi, and Robert Levinson.

And regarding what’s going on in Vienna, I talked to one of my colleagues a couple hours ago. Their – they continue their informal discussions in Vienna, but I haven’t gotten the update of whether or not they’re going to wrap up today or continue tomorrow. I haven’t gotten any kind of follow-up on that.

QUESTION: So that temporary glitch where they said that they didn’t want the French or they didn’t need the French there, was that resolved?

MR. KELLY: The French are there. I’m not sure – you’d have to – you’ll have to consult with the French Government about who is there, but I understand the French are there. There is a French delegation there.

QUESTION: I think she’s referring to the fact the Iranians objected to the French participation in the process, not the talks --

MR. KELLY: Yeah. Right.

QUESTION: -- but the processing of the uranium. I mean, that’s my understanding.

MR. KELLY: Yeah.

QUESTION: Are they still objecting to that?

MR. KELLY: Well, I have no information for you on that.

Yes.

QUESTION: Can I change the topic?

MR. KELLY: Change of topic, okay.

QUESTION: The FBI has charged a Maryland scientist with purportedly spying for Israeli intelligence. You know, I want to ask, what are the implications of this for U.S.-Israeli relations? In light of reports, there have been differences between President Obama and Mr. Netanyahu, specifically on settlements. How can this affect U.S.-Israeli relations?

MR. KELLY: Well, I don’t have any details on that particular case. I know as much about it as you do. And I saw the reports on the news. I – in not having that kind of information, it’s difficult for me to comment on it. I will say that we continue to move forward with our facilitative role in trying to get the Israelis and Palestinians to have direct talks. Senator Mitchell met with the Israelis this morning. He’s meeting, I think now, with the Palestinians and I think he plans to meet with them again tomorrow.

So as you know, this is a big priority for this Administration to get to the point where we can get the two sides to sit down and come to a comprehensive peace agreement.

QUESTION: Can I --

MR. KELLY: Yes, Charlie.

QUESTION: As a follow-up, has the State Department had no contact with the Israeli Embassy or with the Israeli Government on this spy case?

MR. KELLY: I can’t give you the answer to that. I’m not sure. I don’t know.

QUESTION: Could you check and get us an answer whether there’s been any official contact about the spy case, even if you can’t tell us --

MR. KELLY: I can try. I’m not sure we can tell you anything, but --

QUESTION: Well, even if you can’t tell us what it is, has anybody been called in? Have – has there been any contact?

MR. KELLY: Okay. We’ll see if we can find that out.

You had a follow-up on that?

QUESTION: Well, if you have – just a general commentary, this is not the first time that allegedly, someone in the U.S. was being accused of spying for Israel. Is it a concern to you that one of your closest allies is actively spying on you?

MR. KELLY: Well, first of all, let’s keep that key word, allegedly, in there. It’s not for me to pronounce as to whether or not it happened or not. And I just would say, as a general principle, we’re always concerned when there is any suggestion of transfer of sensitive national security information. But I don’t have any comment on this specific case.

QUESTION: Ian, on the --

MR. KELLY: Yeah, I’m sorry, Dave, yeah.

QUESTION: I just – is there any update on the Secretary’s report to the President on the Israel-Palestine issue, and also whether she intends to go out to the region?

MR. KELLY: On the latter point, I’m not aware of any travel plans. I don’t have an update for you today on the Secretary’s plans to brief the President. I anticipate that is going to happen within the next few days, but when exactly it’ll happen, I’m not sure. I think a lot is contingent on Senator Mitchell reporting to her about his talks with the two sides. But she did tell the President that she intends to do it – intends to make this briefing, as he requested, within the next week or so. I think it’s a matter of days. But again, we’ll – I hope to have more information tomorrow, as early as tomorrow.

Kirit.

QUESTION: Any update or confirmation of Ambassador Rice’s travels and meetings in Israel and the West Bank over the next couple days?

MR. KELLY: Well, I had that yesterday, but I think I can remember. She – yeah, she was invited out there to participate in a conference.

QUESTION: Some members of the terrorist group PKK has surrendered to Turkish officials after entering into Turkey from northern Iraq, and they were released after saying they regret what they have done in the past. My question is: Do you think this process would lead to similar steps and eventually to an end of PKK’s presence in northern Iraq? And what can you say on its possible impacts on Turkish-American relations, which has faced some problems because of this PKK issue in the past? Thank you.

MR. KELLY: Well, as you know, the – we consider the PKK to be a terrorist organization. We support the efforts of our Turkish allies to deal with the problem of the PKK. We are very supportive of the territorial integrity of Turkey.

We have also called on Turkey to open up dialogue with the Kurdish population of Turkey, allowing the Kurdish population more cultural rights, more language rights, which the Government of Turkey has been doing. And I think we would welcome any steps that would lead to a dealing with the – with ultimate reconciliation of some of the differences in Turkey between the Kurdish-speaking population and Turkey. And as I say, we support Turkey’s efforts to deal with the PKK.

One more, I’ll let – go ahead.

QUESTION: Is there anything you can tell us about reports that the U.S. is preparing to give military hardware to Mali to fight al-Qaida in North African branch?

MR. KELLY: I’m just going to take that question because I have no idea.

Okay. Thanks.



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