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Middle East Digest - November 20, 2009

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Washington, DC
November 20, 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 November 20, 2009

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1:10 p.m. EST

MR. WOOD: Good afternoon, and happy Friday to all. Lach, it’s good to see you.

QUESTION: Yeah, good to see you at the podium.

MR. WOOD: Oh, well, I don’t know about that. I’ve got a couple of items I want to start off with and then I’ll take your questions. The first is to give you an update on the P-5+1 meeting that took place in Brussels this morning. The ministers of the United Kingdom, China, France, Germany, Russia, the U.S., and the EU high representative met, as I think many of you know, in New York on September 23. They agreed that, quote, “The meeting on October 1 will provide an opportunity to seek a comprehensive, long-term, and appropriate solution to the Iranian nuclear issue through dialogue and negotiation. We expect a serious response from Iran and we’ll decide, in the context of our dual-track approach as a result of the meeting, on our next steps,” unquote.

Today, the political directors of these countries met in Brussels to take stock of developments since the October 1 meeting in Geneva. We are disappointed by the lack of follow-up to the three understandings reached in Geneva at the Geneva meeting between High Representative Solana and Dr. Jalili. Although the IAEA has visited the Qom’s enrichment facility, we noted the IAEA director general’s assessment that Iran should have declared to the agency the construction of this facility much earlier and has, therefore, not complied with its safeguard obligations. In addition, the construction of a new enrichment facility is in defiance of several UN Security Council resolutions. The IAEA board will have to address this issue next week.

Iran has not engaged in an intensified dialogue and, in particular, has refused to have a new meeting before the end of October to discuss nuclear issues. Iran has not responded positively to the IAEA proposed agreement for the provision of nuclear fuel for its Tehran research reactor.

We urge Iran to reconsider the opportunity offered by this agreement, to meet the humanitarian needs of its people, and to engage seriously with us in a dialogue and negotiations. This remains our consistent objective. We have agreed that a new meeting will take place shortly in order to complete our assessment of the situation and to decide about next steps in the context of our dual-track approach.

Last item – bear with me a bit. This has to do with a vote that was taken earlier today with regard to Iran’s human rights violations. This was in the UN.

The United States welcomes the resolution passed today by the United Nations calling upon the Government of Iran to respect its human rights obligations fully. In addition, to longstanding concerns about the human rights situation in Iran, the resolution expresses deep concern about the brutal response of Iranian authorities to peaceful demonstrations in the wake of the June 12 election. It calls on the Government of Iran to abolish torture and arbitrary imprisonment, as well as any executions, including stoning, carried out without due process of law. The resolution also calls on Iran to cooperate fully with and admit entry to the UN Special Rapporteur on torture or other cruel, inhumane – excuse me – inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. The Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, and the Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearance.

We’ll issue the full statement after the briefing. I just want to point out this is the largest vote margin on such a resolution on Iran in the UN ever. Over 60 percent of those members voted in support.

And with that, I will take – happily take your questions.

QUESTION: Robert, on the P-5+1 statement. It said that they took stock of recent events and that the next meeting would be about next steps. Was there no discussion of the way ahead at this meeting today?

MR. WOOD: Well, I think at this meeting today what the political directors wanted to do was to take a look at Iran’s responses, or lack thereof, to a number of calls by the international community. And I think what was certainly agreed on was that we needed to have a follow-up meeting and to talk about next steps – all part of the dual-track approach that, as you know, we have taken from the beginning. So this next meeting that will take place, will obviously take a closer look at what measures we may need to take with regard to Iran.

But again, we continue to call on Iran to accept this proposal with regard to the Tehran research reactor. We think it’s a good one. We think it’s a great way for Iran to show, if indeed its intentions are peaceful, that they want to cooperate with the international community with regard to its nuclear program. So we’ll just have to see.

But no, the date – there’s been no date scheduled for the next meeting. But --

QUESTION: And the fact that you would wait to another meeting to discuss next steps would indicate you still think that the Iranians may change their mind and --

MR. WOOD: Well, we’re certainly hopeful that they will change their mind. We think – as I said, this is something that the Iranians agreed to in principle. If you remember back at the Geneva meeting, they agreed in principle to this proposal that was brought about under the auspices of the IAEA. And since then, Iran has had a difficult time saying yes to this proposal. So we’re hopeful that Iran will, but should it not, we will obviously take a look at the pressure side of our dual-track approach.

Let me go to Jill --

QUESTION: Robert, I just wanted to clarify then --

MR. WOOD: Yeah.

QUESTION: So on the two issues, you’ve got visiting Qom and you said they should have disclosed earlier.

MR. WOOD: That’s right.

QUESTION: And so the problem here is their decision not to ship out that nuclear fuel. Is that correct?

MR. WOOD: The problem here is that Iran has not responded positively to the proposal. I don’t want to get into the details of the proposal. I think most of you know what was included in the proposal. And what we’re saying to Iran is that it needs to take this offer. It committed to doing so – taking up the proposal – and we think it’s a great confidence-building measure for the international community. I don’t know why Iran hasn’t been able to say yes, up until now. It could have to do with internal political – the internal political situation of Iran, but it’s really hard to say. But we think this is a real good way forward, and Iran needs to take it up.

QUESTION: But it sounds like this is a very serious moment then, because you were saying one more meeting, that’s it.

MR. WOOD: No, I didn’t say that at all. I didn’t mean to say that that was it. I said at the next meeting we would take a look at – based on Iran’s response, up until that – at that time, or lack thereof, and take a look and see what new measures we may have to take. But I’m not saying that the next meeting is it – that’s it and then we start moving to the pressure track.

QUESTION: Then why stretch it out? I mean, isn’t it quite clear that they’re not going to do this?

MR. WOOD: Look, we are – we have said from the beginning, we’re willing to go the extra mile with regard to diplomacy. The President and the Secretary have been very clear about that. Iran has had plenty of time to consider this proposal. We still hope that they will reconsider and give the IAEA Director General a yes. But that’s up to Iran. But again, as I said earlier, Jill, we’ve – our approach has been one of two tracks. And at the next meeting we will take a look again at where things are, and then discuss the way forward.

QUESTION: Will the next meeting be weeks or months?

MR. WOOD: I don’t know yet. I don’t suspect it’ll be months, but I don’t know at this point.

QUESTION: And will it be at the political directors level or –

MR. WOOD: Don’t know. At this point, I would assume it would be, but that – there could be a decision taken later that it would be at another level. But at this point, I would assume it’s political directors.

QUESTION: On the second track, which presumably might involve sanctions, is there confidence now that the P-5+1 are agreed that that is one route that we might have to take that sanctions should be discussed as a potential next step?

MR. WOOD: Well, the issue of sanctions has been discussed before. This is certainly not new. We’ve said that we want to leave a – there’s a window of opportunity for Iran. That window is not going to be open forever. And if it doesn’t respond to the calls of the international community for it to live up to its international obligations, then we will have to look at the pressure track. But I don’t want to get a head of where we might go on that. But it’s very clear, the international community has said to Iran that if you’re willing to take important confidence-building measures, such as the Tehran research reactor proposal, that it is possible that we can move toward a better relationship, but Iran has yet to make that decision.

Yes, Lach.

QUESTION: Can you conclude that the Iranians are stringing you along and just buying time in this?

MR. WOOD: I can’t tell you what they are trying to do. But as I said, I think the international community’s patience is limited. And we’re saying to Iran, we’re reaching out our hand, we want to work with you on addressing the concerns that the international community has about your nuclear activities. We – again, this Tehran research reactor proposal is a good one. It can go a long way in addressing a number of the concerns that the international community has – not all of them – but it certainly would be an important confidence-building measure. So it’s really going to be up to Tehran.

QUESTION: Robert, just another clarification. Legally, officially, has Iran actually said we are not going to do this? There’s been so much back and forth – maybe we will, maybe we won’t – I don’t – what is the official version from the government, if there is one?

MR. WOOD: Well, as far as I know, Iran hasn’t responded formally to this proposal, but we’ve heard a lot of soundings from Iran. Ian addressed those yesterday. And we just hope that Iran will give a yes – a positive answer to this proposal. But that’s the best I can help you on that.

QUESTION: Is China and Russia on the same page? And are they ready to discuss measures, new measures against Iran or new sanctions?

MR. WOOD: Well, I certainly don’t want to speak for either government, but I can tell you that the P-5+1 has been of one mind on the need to approach Iran’s nuclear program through a two-track approach. And both countries, like the other members of the P-5+1, agree that we have concerns about Iran’s nuclear activities. Iran needs to address them. We all believe that Iran having a nuclear weapons capability is not a good thing. And so, in that particular – in that way, yes, the EU-5 – excuse me – the P-5+1 is in agreement that Iran needs to live up to its obligations.

QUESTION: But (inaudible) China or France or Russia? Even they have their economic and their political issues or their concern or they are with Iran on those issues?

MR. WOOD: I'm sorry, Goyal.

QUESTION: As far as economic and political concerns are there between those countries, especially economic, Russia, China and France.

MR. WOOD: Well, I can’t speak for what their concerns are, except to say that they have been – they’ve made it very clear that Iran’s nuclear program is of concern, and that Iran needs to address those concerns, and that having a – Iran having a nuclear weapon is just not in the best interest of the international community.

QUESTION: Another clarification.

MR. WOOD: Okay.

QUESTION: How far along are you – is the United States with its allies in determining specifically what kind of sanctions you would use if this comes to what it looks like it’s moving toward?

MR. WOOD: Well, Jill, as you can imagine, I’m not going to get into details of what types of measures we might take with regard to the pressure track. Again, what I would say from here is that Iran needs to take up this offer; that the IAEA and the United States, Russia, France worked on. Iran needs to take it up. It’s a good deal for Iran’s people. It’s a good deal for addressing confidence of the international community. And I don’t know what more to say about it, except that Iran needs to respond.

QUESTION: Well, then can you at least tell us do you have a packet of sanctions ready to go and defined at this stage? Or is it that the United States has a packet ready to go and must sell it to its allies?

MR. WOOD: Well, Jill, I don’t – as I said, I don’t want to get into a discussion of what measures we may or may not be thinking about. I think, as I said at the beginning, we have been committed to this dual-track approach. We call on Iran to address the issues that are outstanding. Should Iran not do that, then we will have to look at other measures, but I really don’t want to get into what those measures may or may not be.

QUESTION: Does there ever come a point when it becomes too late for Iran to respond? What – I mean, I realize that you don’t want to sort of draw down an official deadline, but there must be some stage of this process where an Iranian response, yes or no, is going to be too late; you’re already going to be on – entrained for doing something else.

MR. WOOD: Well, as I said earlier, this window is not going to be open forever. We’re not at that point yet, but we will certainly let you know when – if and when we reach that point.

QUESTION: But Robert, as far as sanctions are concerned, go back anywhere, really even 10 year, 15, 20 years – has they worked – any one country – any country around the globe, including Burma – any country you take actions – sanctions now? I have not seen actually, but we keep talking about sanctions – new sanctions, more sanctions?

MR. WOOD: Well, as I’ve said many times from here and others have as well, you cannot really compare the two situations anywhere. Sanctions have been used in the past as a tool to try to influence a country’s behavior, but I just don’t think it’s a good idea to compare them. And again, Iran knows what it needs to do and we continue – we and others continue to call on Iran to accept this proposal that they agreed to in principle.

QUESTION: One question more about Iran. Do you --

QUESTION: Well, we had settled – sorry.

QUESTION: Do you expect that this is going to generate more tensions in the Middle East? How the U.S. is going to address the new tensions that this kind of statement is coming to the Middle East, especially for Israel or other countries are also --

MR. WOOD: Well --

QUESTION: -- very worried about this.

MR. WOOD: Well, I think Iran’s noncompliance has raised tensions in the region. There’s no question about it. There are lots of concerns not only in the neighborhood, but throughout the international community about Iran’s activities. Iran needs to comply with its obligations, and that – once Iran does that, if and when Iran does that, it will help reduce tensions. But to date, Iran hasn’t decided to do that.

Charlie, you wanted to go to something else – on this, Dave?

QUESTION: Yeah, just an ancillary question --

MR. WOOD: Sure.

QUESTION: Ahmadinejad is going to be visiting Brazil in a couple of days. Is the fact that a friendly government like that welcoming Ahmadinejad – does that tend to dilute international solidarity on the nuclear issue?

MR. WOOD: Well, President Ahmadinejad going to Brazil, that’s an issue between the Government of Brazil and the Government of Iran. What we would hope is that the Government of Brazil would raise some of these concerns that we have, many of which I’ve just laid out here, about Iran in those meetings. But beyond that, I don’t have anything to add to that.

QUESTION: A different topic – on Afghanistan?

MR. WOOD: Sure.

QUESTION: Yeah, I wanted to ask about the raid today on the village of Hyderabad by Afghan and NATO forces. There were lots of angry villagers out all over TV screens screaming that the ISAF forces were killing innocent people. And I just wondered, as the Administration’s policy formulates, what is going to be done to placate those villagers and make them realize that these raids are important? Or are they important?

MR. WOOD: Well, let me just say as a general principle one of our concerns – and I think General McChrystal has made this very clear – is that we want to focus more on protecting civilian populations. That’s critical. Winning over the populous in Afghanistan is something – it’s a must. There is – it’s a very dangerous security environment. There’s no question about it. I mean, you’ve heard many people speaking from here, you’ve heard the Secretary, you’ve heard the President speaking about what our objectives are in Afghanistan. And we think it’s important that the Taliban and al-Qaida be defeated. Those two groups, networks, are a major threat to the security, safety, and well-being of the Afghan people.

What we’re – we realize that it’s going to be a difficult challenge for the Afghan Government to deal with the security issues, and we’re going to – we’re a partner, we’re going to work closely with them to try to do that. But we certainly recognize that it’s important to make sure that the civilian population is protected, but at the same time, we’ve got to make sure – and President Karzai has spoken to this very clearly – that we counter this violent extremism as best we can, because that’s a major cancer in Afghan society. And so we will be continuing to pursue our efforts along with our partners in ISAF and with our Afghan partner, but also at the same time, do our best to try to bring some stability and peace to Afghanistan, which it so desperately needs.

QUESTION: These villagers would clearly disagree with that. They would say that there was a raid, nobody told us what was going on --

MR. WOOD: Well --

QUESTION: -- and these were our friends.

MR. WOOD: I’d have to refer you to ISAF for that because I’m not aware of that specific incident. But I was just trying to give you a general statement of policy.

MR. WOOD: Thank you.

(The briefing was concluded at 1:40 p.m.)

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