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Middle East Digest - December 22, 2009

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Washington, DC
December 22, 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 December 22, 2009

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MR. CROWLEY: This morning here at the State Department, Under Secretary of State for Policy[1] Bill Burns participated in a teleconference with his P-5+1 counterparts at the political directors – as part of their regular consultation on developments related to Iran. Their last meeting was in November, so it made sense to touch base before the holidays about the path ahead. As we have said many times, the President has stressed that we and our partners will be assessing Iran’s responsiveness here as we approach the end of the year, and we’ll be talking about future steps in that respect.

I think you saw – might have seen a statement out of our Embassy in Islamabad that we strongly condemn the vicious terrorist attack on the Peshawar Press Club. I’m sure that those of you here in the room understand the importance of freedom of the press, and we feel very strongly that this was a direct attack on that hallmark of Pakistan. And we certainly will continue to support Pakistan as it builds and strengthens its institutions of democracy.

Over the past several days there have been a number of detainees who have left Guantanamo for multiple destinations. But I just want to take note of the fact, as we approach the end of the year, that the number of detainees at Guantanamo has now dipped below 200. I think we’re at 198 today. When the Obama Administration started back in January, there were 242 detainees there. But through a lot of hard work across the interagency, but here the State Department spearheaded by Ambassador Dan Fried, we have worked intensively with a number of countries around the world in terms of repatriations and resettlements, and we just want to pay tribute to Dan and the hard work of his team in working collaboratively with various countries around the world as we continue our efforts to close Guantanamo.

QUESTION: And it’s gotten that bad, huh? She’s got to go ask Santa for this stuff? (Laughter.) That’s a pretty damming statement.

MR. CROWLEY: Whatever it takes. With that, I’ll be happy to take your questions.

QUESTION: Can I ask about the conference call?


QUESTION: What, if anything, was accomplished on this call?

MR. CROWLEY: I don’t think it was – it was intended just as we described it, touching base here at the end of the year. We’re in this period where we’re taking stock of Iran’s inability, unwillingness to respond to the – our offer of dialogue and the specific offer regarding the research reactor that was put on the table in Geneva and now sits on the table at the IAEA.

So we’re coming up on the end of the year. This kind of period of assessment will continue. But we would expect coming into the new year that we’ll be prepared to take steps on both tracks. As we’ve said many times, the offer of engagement is still there. We have offered Iran an open hand out of mutual interest and respect. And as the Secretary said, they have really failed to respond meaningfully to that gesture.

We continue to see and have concerns about the ongoing efforts by the Government of Iran to suppress freedom of expression and assembly in Iran. But at the same time, there are consequences and implications for Iran’s failure to meaningfully respond to our offer of dialogue and the specific arrangements that we’ve put on the table.

The international community is united in its resolve that Iran must either answer the questions that we have about its nuclear aspirations or face additional pressure that we will be consulting broadly across the international community in the coming days and weeks.

QUESTION: Well, I guess I’m just confused as why you even had this call. I mean, it was no secret that you wanted to have a meeting – the U.S. and all but one of the other members of the P-5+1 wanted to have an in-person meeting last week. The Chinese didn’t want that, and it didn’t happen. So I guess I just don’t understand what the point is. If they all get on the phone and just say, well, here’s where we are, Iran still isn’t responding, they’re still working on their nuclear program, what’s the point of that other than just talking?

MR. CROWLEY: Well, I mean, we have – I mean, this is an issue that is not about the United States alone. It’s about the international community. We are not the only ones who have concerns about the current trajectory. And so this is part --

QUESTION: I understand that --

MR. CROWLEY: I mean, this is what you do --

QUESTION: How did this improve anything? What’s different after the call than before?

MR. CROWLEY: I wasn’t signaling that this is the end of a process. We are in the middle of a process, and we are continuing to assess where we are. And we are continuing and have had a number of consultations in recent days and weeks about steps that are prospectively available to us as we move into 2010, as we pledged, that, as the President said, we will take stock at the end of the year, see what has been accomplished on the track of engagement. But we have always indicated that available to us would be additional steps and – that would increase the pressure on Iran.

And we are at that point where we are consulting broadly within the P-5+1, but beyond that, so that come 2010, should Iran continue in its current posture, that there will be implications and consequences for their failure to take advantage of this opportunity.

QUESTION: How far into 2010 --

QUESTION: Do you want to tell us about any of the next steps --

MR. CROWLEY: Hold on.

QUESTION: -- that are being contemplated? Do you want to tell us about any of the next steps specifically --


QUESTION: -- that are being contemplated?

MR. CROWLEY: I mean, we have a range of – I mean, we’ve – there are sanctions that are available that are on Iran right now. We will continue to look at ways both bilaterally and multilaterally that we can add to that mix and increase the cost to Iran of its inability or unwillingness to resolve the concerns the international community has about its nuclear program.

QUESTION: But, I mean, how far into 2010? I mean, you said that you would take stock at the end of the year, but you’re already talking about if Iran continues with its current course into the next year. So I mean, is the end of the year kind of – you know, keeping in mind that you’ll still have this dual track, is the end of the year a kind of deadline and then you’re definitely going ahead with, you know, one of the tracks, which is not engagement because you don’t have any? But, you know, is this – are you going ahead with the sanctions track come the beginning of the year, or are you giving them more time?

MR. CROWLEY: I mean, these are not mutually exclusive. The offer of engagement remains available to Iran, but at the same time, we have said that we are prepared to take additional steps. And to Matt’s question, this call today was part of our ongoing consultation to both express what we’re thinking, hear from other countries that play a critical role, particularly within the UN Security Council, about the path forward.

QUESTION: No, I understand that, that you’ll always have this kind of dual track available. But come the beginning of the year, keeping in mind that you always have the option of engagement if that becomes available – come the beginning of the year, are you going to move towards imposing new sanctions against Iran?

MR. CROWLEY: I wouldn’t put a particular date or deadline on this. This is an ongoing process. In terms of steps that we might take from a national standpoint, there are things that are available to us. Obviously, there are things that are happening on the Hill that will have implications on this. At the same time, we are well on the way to building and strengthening the consensus within the international community that since Iran has failed to follow up on our offer of dialogue in a meaningful way – we had a constructive discussion in Geneva, but since then, Iran has largely prevaricated.

And obviously, going forward, will something dramatically happen on January 4th? No. But there is a point at which we will intensify our discussions around the country, and I would think at some point, we would be in a position to take some action with our partners through the various fora that are available to us.

QUESTION: I’m sorry, could you just – can you just kind of specify or put a finer point on “at some point?” I mean, what is the – are you moving in that direction? And I understand that on January 1st you’re not going to have sanctions to impose, but you keep saying at some point down the road, at some point down the road. You know, is this where it’s moving, I guess, is --

MR. CROWLEY: Well, I mean, this is where it’s always been, which is we have a two-track strategy. One track is engagement, one track is pressure. And these have never been mutually exclusive. Even today, we continue to look for ways to strengthen and fully implement the sanctions that are already on Iran. At the same time, we’re looking at additional steps that we could take nationally and internationally should the President make that determination.

QUESTION: Given that this deadline seems to be a little bit soft, do you think in the future you’ll --

MR. CROWLEY: Let me just – Andy, sorry to interrupt you, but what we have always said throughout the year was that at the end of the year we would assess where we are. But that’s not a deadline; it’s a point in a calendar at which the President said, okay, where are we and what are the steps that are available to us. Now going forward, we already are, but we will intensify our dialogue within the --

QUESTION: But don’t we have to reconcile what’s coming from you and then what’s coming out of the White House? Robert Gibbs this morning again used the word “deadline.”


QUESTION: I mean, these are two different messages that need to come together. But going forward --

MR. CROWLEY: I defer to Robert Gibbs.

QUESTION: And in these talks, perhaps maybe in the talks this morning – you talked about a broad unanimity about where we need to go and that – with the second track, should we not get movement on the first track. In the call this morning, was there any movement toward getting specific unanimity on certain steps? Were those discussed? Is that consensus getting stronger, or did it become stronger as a result of this call?

MR. CROWLEY: I think the consensus is there that the current trajectory is of great concern to the United States and great concern to the international community. Clearly, to Matt’s point, we have in the past, I think – currently have perhaps some differences over specific tactics and specific timing. We are going to continue to work with those who will play a role in this and we’ll build towards a point at which we can put some additional steps on the table for consideration. And at that point, whenever that happens, then I think we’ll send a very clear and compelling signal to Iran that there are consequences for their inability to respond to the international community and to answer the questions that were posed to them in Geneva.

QUESTION: P.J., in response to one of Elise’s questions, you said Iran has prevaricated. What exactly have the Iranians lied about?

MR. CROWLEY: They --

QUESTION: Do you have proof that they’re lying about something?

MR. CROWLEY: Well, they – for example, they are not --

QUESTION: The whole point of this was that they – that there isn’t any proof; you don’t know; you’re asking them.

MR. CROWLEY: Well, we do know. I mean, no, no – I mean --

QUESTION: You just said – you just accused them --

MR. CROWLEY: They have --

QUESTION: You accused them of lying, and I’m just --

MR. CROWLEY: All right. They have said for a long time that they were in compliance with their international obligations when, in fact, as we’ve seen in – with the revelation of the facility in Qom, that they were not. So that is a perfect example of where intensive effort on our part has opened up a slight window to reveal the fact that they are not in compliance with their international obligations. So – but this is expressly why we think it’s important now for – and the opportunity is still available to Iran to come to the table to work constructively with the international community. And – but because they have been unable or unwilling to do that, we’re also signaling that we’re at that point where there will be clear consequences for their inability to respond and to answer the questions that we’ve raised.

As to a specific timeline as to how this will unfold, that is expressly why we continue our close consultation with our international partners, so that at the point at which we are ready to put proposals on the table, there is consensus not only on what we think is necessary and that the timing is correct to do that.

QUESTION: I have one on the death of the cleric Montezeri over the weekend.

MR. CROWLEY: Mm-hmm.

QUESTION: Do you think that his death and the – do you think that the protests that have ensued since then are the mark of a kind of reemergence of the opposition in a strong way that we saw after the election? How closely are you watching this? Is there a concern about a crackdown?

MR. CROWLEY: Of course there’s a concern about a crackdown. I mean, this is a continuation of a challenge that has confronted Iran for several months, going back to the election in June. The fact is that there is a fissure inside Iranian society, and the government is pushing by the various means that are available to it, including the use of various security forces, to kind of put this genie back in the bottle. And it is increasingly difficult for them to do that.

Montezeri was a significant figure in Iranian society. He had given voice to the universal rights that we think should be available to all the people of the world, including the people of Iran. He had directly challenged the legitimacy of some of the actions that the Iranian Government has taken, both recently and historically. And we certainly express our condolences about his passing. But again, is it incumbent upon the Government of Iran to satisfy the aspirations of its people.

And there is something happening inside Iranian society. It’s hard to predict how it will unfold. But certainly, the angst that we continue to see within Iranian society is of great concern to us, and we think that ultimately, the Government of Iran has to change its relationship with its own people. And that’s certainly consistent with the universal principles of freedom of association, freedom of expression, open political processes, and so forth.

QUESTION: Can I – if I could ask about START --

QUESTION: Oh, wait, wait. Can we stay on Iran?


QUESTION: Just on the hikers, is there any update on --

MR. CROWLEY: We have --

QUESTION: -- on consular access?

MR. CROWLEY: Yeah. We – there’s – we have – we continue, through the Swiss protecting power, to request consular access for the hikers. It has not yet been granted.

QUESTION: The prosecutor – or a prosecutor in Iran today appeared to link the case of the hikers with the cases of 11 Iranians who are either detained in U.S. prisons or missing in the ether someplace. Are you aware of any attempt to link the --

QUESTION: It’s not the first time that --

MR. CROWLEY: There have been – we sense that in the Iranian Government there is some kind of equivalency that they offer with regard to the hikers and Iranian citizens who have left Iran. There really is no equivalence at all. The hikers were – are five innocent young people --

QUESTION: There were three.

MR. CROWLEY: I’m sorry, three. Different country. Sorry.

QUESTION: You’re talking about the five Iranians that you have?

MR. CROWLEY: Thank you. The three hikers had crossed an unmarked border. We think they pose no threat to Iran. This was a case that could have been easily resolved so that they could be back home with their families.

On the 11, I would just caution you that just because they’ve left Iran doesn’t mean they’re in any particular location or --

QUESTION: You said that there were five, right?

MR. CROWLEY: I mean, in one case I know of, an Iranian citizen was recently convicted of arms dealing in violation of sanctions against Iran. But I mean, this is expressly the reason why we have always thought that it was important to have dialogue with Iran so that we could express our concerns directly to Iran about our citizens who are in their charge. And if they have questions for us, we’ll be happy to take those questions and answer them.

The fact is that the Iranians have a channel available to us. Pakistan serves as its protecting power here in the United States. And as far as I know, lately they have not taken advantage of that channel to ask us specific questions about any particular case. If they --

QUESTION: Have they gotten consular access?

MR. CROWLEY: If they ask them, we’ll be happy to answer them.

QUESTION: Have they had consular access?

MR. CROWLEY: To the individual in New York? I’ll take that question.

QUESTION: Well, I mean, wait – just to follow up on that, I mean, first of all, how many Iranians do you have in custody besides the one that you just said?

MR. CROWLEY: I’m – there are a number of cases I’m aware of where Iranians are in various jails around the world on charges relating to violating arms laws. But like I say --

QUESTION: Well, in U.S. jails.

MR. CROWLEY: -- I’m only aware of one case, and I do not know if they have requested consular access.

QUESTION: On the P-5+1 talks, did that conclude with – what’s the next – when is the next meeting, or it’s going to be back in person, on the phone?

MR. CROWLEY: I think my sense is that we’ve touched base with our counterparts in the P-5+1 process and we’ll pick it up again early in 2010.


QUESTION: On Afghanistan. The last week, President Hamid Karzai announced his new cabinet ministers. How does it reflect his commitment towards fighting corruption and other issues which the U.S. (inaudible)?

MR. CROWLEY: I think, first of all, as I think Special Representative Holbrooke has said, this is a government that we think broadly we can do business with. There are a number of familiar faces, and we think a number of ministers have been retained who are quite effectively helping to build a stronger Afghan Government and extend its influence to greater sections of the country.

That said, without going through ministry by ministry, we – our judgment is not universal regarding every single minister that he’s announced. We have said to President Karzai, quite specifically, that we remain concerned about the performance of his government and will be both working with him directly, but also judging as we go on the progress that is being made, and we will continue our process of certifying very specific ministries and channeling our assistance through those ministries that we think are being run well and address the concerns that we have for performance and corruption.

QUESTION: So have you communicated your concerns about any ministers or ministries that you --

MR. CROWLEY: Well, again, these were his decisions to make. We like many of the choices that he’s made. We have concerns about some of the choices that he’s made. We’ll continue to work with the government, and more specifically, in particular, we’ll continue to channel our support through those ministries that we think have the kind of standards of accountability that we think are important.

QUESTION: Another one on Pakistan?


QUESTION: There’s a report in the Guardian newspaper about the U.S. special forces having conducted special raids inside Pakistan. Do you have any --

MR. CROWLEY: I’ll defer to my colleagues at the Pentagon, but I would question the validity of those reports.

QUESTION: And turning to South Asia --

QUESTION: (Inaudible) detainees in Pakistan?

MR. CROWLEY: Hang on a second. Go ahead.

QUESTION: Can we go back to Pakistan just for a second?

MR. CROWLEY: Mm-hmm.

QUESTION: Just an update on the detain – the Americans detained there?

MR. CROWLEY: The investigation continues. I’ve got – there’s no further update.

QUESTION: There’s not been any new consular visit?

MR. CROWLEY: Not to my knowledge. But there are – I think there is a limit to what we can say due to privacy concerns.

QUESTION: What kind of conversations have taken place with the government of President Zardari about the Supreme Court ruling? And if you could talk about any concerns you have about the stability of the government?

MR. CROWLEY: This is really an internal matter for the Pakistani Government. We continue to work closely with the government of President Zardari. Our concern is to – and we continue to work to try to help build up the capacity of the Government of Pakistan to meet the needs of its own people. We just last week sent up the first report on our civilian assistance programs under Kerry-Lugar-Berman. But as to what is happening with the president and other ministers, this is an internal matter.

QUESTION: But you don’t have any opinion or concerns if the government of President Zardari were to be deemed unconstitutional and, therefore, illegitimate?

MR. CROWLEY: That ultimately is a judgment for the Pakistani people to make. You have an ongoing process between two branches of the Pakistani Government. It’s not for us to try to get in the middle of that. What is important is that the Pakistani Government and its leadership be seen as legitimate in the eyes of the Pakistani people.

There was an election in Pakistan. President Zardari came to office through a legitimate parliamentary process. Prime Minister Gilani was elected by the Pakistani people. If there’s a legal judgment that changes the status of the government, that is really an internal matter for Pakistan.

[1] Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs

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