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Middle East Digest - January 27, 2009

January 27, 2009


Bureau of Public Affairs
January 27, 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 January 27, 2009

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11:08 a.m. EST

MR. WOOD: Good morning, everyone. Welcome to the briefing. I don’t have anything, so why don’t we go to your questions.


QUESTION: Robert, I have a couple of questions for you. One is, is it this Administration’s policy that Iran cannot be allowed to get the nuclear weapon, that that’s an absolute redline, as opposed to the previous administration?

MR. WOOD: The Administration’s view is that it is unacceptable for Iran to obtain a nuclear weapon. The Administration plans to consult closely with all of its allies to see what we can do to prevent Iran from doing so, so that is indeed the position of the Administration.

QUESTION: May I ask a second question?

MR. WOOD: Sure.

QUESTION: What would be the significance of the President’s decision to give his first formal interview to an Arab network? Is that part of a broader strategy for reaching out to the Muslim world?

MR. WOOD: Well, I think, clearly, if you see some of the initial reporting that’s come from the region, there’s been a really, really positive reception to the President’s interview. And I think it shows, based on what I’ve read so far in terms of the reaction from the region, that people are very, very pleased with the President’s approach and the fact that he really wants to engage seriously in a dialogue with the people of the Middle East, a two-way dialogue. And so I’m still waiting to see additional commentary and coverage from the region. But I think it’s a clear example of this Administration’s desire to reach out to the Muslim world and to, as I said, engage. And I suspect that you’ll see, you know, other attempts to do that.


QUESTION: Back on Iran for a second. The Secretary mentioned this morning the P5+1. I wonder if you can tell us what to expect to happen next week, what format, is it going to be on the phone, is it going to be in person with the political directors or the envoys who generally meet on that subject, and where it might be?

MR. WOOD: Well, my understanding is that the P5+1 meeting will take place some time next week. It will be at the political directors level. That’s my understanding. I believe it’s supposed to take place in Germany, but I’ll refer you to the Germans for the details. And again, it’s to – it’s an opportunity for the other members of the P5+1 to hear from the new Administration in terms of what its views are with regard to Iran, and how we can best go forward in terms of trying to convince Iran to give up its nuclear desires. And so that meeting – I don’t have the exact date for you, but I believe it is coming up next week.

QUESTION: And you say that it’s a good chance for them to hear from the new Administration, but I assume that it’ll be Bill Burns who will go to that meeting, right?

MR. WOOD: I assume it will be, but I can’t confirm that absolutely for you. We’ll try to do that as close as we can to the meeting.

QUESTION: Well, promotion is – it’s quite a broad question firstly. Promotion of democracy in the Middle East was very high on the last administration’s agenda. Can – is there an ongoing review of that in this Administration? Is it going to be a priority? Can you talk about that in general terms?

MR. WOOD: Well, as I said, I believe, yesterday, that the Administration is looking at its overall approach to the Middle East, and so that is ongoing – that review. So I don’t want to get out ahead of that review. But clearly, we have an interest in seeing democracy being promoted throughout the world, and not just the Middle East. But in terms of strategy and policies, those are still to be developed, so why don’t we give the Administration some time and see where we go from there.

QUESTION: Is it fair – sorry, let me stay on this. Is it – but is it fair to say that that’s now taking a back seat to the main priority at the moment that you’re tasking, which is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?

MR. WOOD: Well, the promotion of democracy is not something that takes a back seat to any specific policy and issue. It’s, you know, important for the United States. We have a number of issues that are priorities that we have to deal with. And so right now, with regard to the Middle East, we have Special Envoy Mitchell there, who is trying to help, as I said, bring about some kind of a durable ceasefire and then look at the long term as to how we go forward in trying to get to that two-state solution. So that’s where we are at the moment.

QUESTION: Okay. Can I just move --


QUESTION: -- quickly to Egypt? Since this ceasefire that’s ongoing, have they made any concrete efforts to combat this arms smuggling in the tunnels?

MR. WOOD: Well, I don’t want to comment on the Egyptians’ activities – Egyptian activities right now because* those are ongoing with other countries in the region. So let me just leave it at that. But obviously, Special Envoy Mitchell is going to be looking at those efforts and talking to, you know, other players in the region to see what we can do to help, you know, solidify the ceasefire and make it durable.

QUESTION: And – but what about their – their activities with the tunnels in the past? Do you think that it was inadequate?

MR. WOOD: Well, it’s not for me to stand here and, you know, make a judgment on whether the Egyptian effort has been, you know – you know, good or not enough. Let us just say that those tunnels have been a problem. We’re trying to work on a way to deal with that issue so that Hamas cannot be rearmed. And we’re going to continue to work with Egypt and other countries in the region so that we can prevent, as I said, Hamas from smuggling weapons into Gaza.

QUESTION: Thank you.

MR. WOOD: Viola.

QUESTION: And a follow-up question to that. Did – did the previous administration coordinate with the incoming administration on the MOU regarding security on the borders?

MR. WOOD: I think Sean spoke to that – Sean McCormack spoke to that a couple of weeks ago about that. So certainly, this Administration has certainly looked at that MOU and, again, there’s an ongoing review of our policy in that region, and part of that review is – or what’s going to be a key part of that review is Senator Mitchell’s trip to the region and the results from that.

QUESTION: Last week, the U.S. Navy interdicted a ship carrying Iranian arms in the Mediterranean. Do you know if that was part of this MOU structure that was set up, and do you know the fate of that ship? I was told it was diverted to Egypt.

MR. WOOD: Well, I don’t really want to get into the substance of that because I’m not fully aware, but I would probably refer you to the Pentagon for more details on that.

Right here.

QUESTION: Yes. The President said yesterday that he’s willing to listen to all sides in the Middle East. Will they eventually – anyone from this Administration – talk to Hamas?

MR. WOOD: Our policy on Hamas has been very clear in terms of what Hamas needs to do if it’s going to play a – you know, a positive role in the region. Up until now, it has not. And we’ve gone over those – those criteria. And those criteria remain in place and our position toward Hamas remains the same, as I said yesterday.

Let me go here to Lambros next.

QUESTION: On Guantanamo, Mr. Wood, it is true that you are going to transfer the prisoners from Guantanamo into Alcatraz, San Francisco? There are extensive reports to this effect.

MR. WOOD: Lambros, what we are trying to do – we’ve been having discussions both internally and, of course, with other countries around the world with regard to how we deal with the question of transferring detainees from Guantanamo, since President Obama has made a decision that we’re going to close Guantanamo. So let me just leave it at that in terms of --

QUESTION: Did you reach an agreement with the European Union to take some of them?

MR. WOOD: We’re having discussions. I don’t want to get into, you know, the substance of those discussions. I’ll let those governments – the European Union speak for itself. But this has been ongoing for quite some time in terms of trying to find countries that will take back these Guantanamo detainees. So it’s ongoing, and these discussions are being dealt with in a diplomatic way quietly, and we’ll just go from there.

QUESTION: Can you update us on George Mitchell’s travel in the region, if there are any changes, any additions? And also, the Secretary said this morning that she just got off the phone with the Iraqi president and foreign minister. Was it the president and prime minister?

MR. WOOD: I think she said – I’ll have to go back and check, but I think she said she talked to Zebari. Yeah, I think it was the foreign minister. I’ll have to double-check. I don’t want to, you know, give you inaccurate information, but we can check on that. I just don’t recall off the top of my head.

QUESTION: If you can update us on her calls, too.

MR. WOOD: Yeah, we will send around a list of the calls she’s made since she has come into office. And the one I have here, she did speak with Foreign Minister Zebari this morning, so we’ll – and we’ll get that list around.

QUESTION: And George Mitchell’s travel?

MR. WOOD: Yeah, I’m sorry. George Mitchell, he’s in Cairo today. He met with EU High Representative Javier Solana, Egyptian Foreign Minister Aboul Gheit, and the Egyptian General Intelligence Services Director Omar Suleiman. The meetings, as they were described to me, were productive.

And we have said that Senator Mitchell will be out in the region trying – on basically a listening tour and hearing from our allies in the region in terms of what’s the best way to go forward in terms of not only stabilizing the situation with regards to Gaza, but also, as I said earlier, the long-term approach to how we bring about that two-state solution that we all want to see happen.


QUESTION: Today, some Israeli attacks going back into Gaza; if you could comment on that? And there is a report as well that Egypt is displeased with the foreign ships coming to the coast of Gaza, so if you could --

MR. WOOD: I don’t know anything about the second part of your question. With regard to Gaza, I don’t have anything beyond what the Secretary said earlier this morning about the attack on the IDF forces along the border. I don’t have anything more than what she said.

QUESTION: Robert, Syrian President Bashar al-Asad said in a television interview yesterday that Syria is ready for dialogue with the United States without preconditions. And the quote was “If there are conditions, then there will be no dialogue. They know that.” But he also made clear that they’re open to talking without preconditions.

And I wonder if (a), if the Administration, in line with its stated willingness to engage, has any more of an interest in either senior-level dialogue with the Syrians or perhaps just restoring an ambassador?

And then second, I know yesterday you said that to the – to your – the best of your knowledge, there were no plans at all for Senator Mitchell to go there, but, you know, I’m just double-checking today to see if his plans have changed at all on the possibility of going to Syria.

MR. WOOD: Yeah, as far as I understand, Arshad, you know, his plans have not changed. We’ll certainly keep you abreast of any changes should there be any.

As I’ve said before, the Administration’s Middle East policy is under review and is carrying out a review of, you know, its Middle East policy. And I don’t want to, you know, get ahead of that review. Clearly -- and this has been our position and still is our position -- that Syria needs to play a productive role in the region. There’s a lot more that they can do to help facilitate Middle East peace. And we want to see Syria play that positive role. To date, we haven’t seen that.

QUESTION: And as to the policy, you still plan* not to have an ambassador there, to your knowledge?

MR. WOOD: Our policy is under review, Arshad. That’s the best I can give you at this point.

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