Bureau of Public Affairs
January 28, 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 28, 2009View VideoQUESTION:
George Mitchell’s trip – do you have any readout of his talks in Cairo with President Mubarak? And also, I think he’s with the Israelis right now.MR. WOOD:
Yeah, let me give you what I just received. Senator Mitchell was in Cairo this morning. He met with Tony Blair and Egyptian President Mubarak. Following his meeting with President Mubarak, Special Envoy Mitchell gave a statement in which he reiterated our belief that is – it is of critical importance that the ceasefire in Gaza be extended and consolidated. In that regard, he thanked Egypt and reiterated our support for its efforts.
Senator Mitchell arrived in Jerusalem in the afternoon. He was scheduled to meet with President Peres, Prime Minister Olmert, Minister of Defense Barak, and Foreign Minister Livni today.
As we have said, the President and the Secretary have sent Special Envoy Mitchell on this trip to hear the views of and consult with the parties and our Arab and European partners on ways we can best work toward achieving a lasting peace between Israel and the Palestinians.
Yeah, a follow-up on the Middle East. Peace Now has come out with a report that Israeli settlements in the West Bank have increased by about 60 percent in the last year, and I noticed that nobody in the new Administration has even mentioned the issue of settlements. Can you at least respond to this report --MR. WOOD:
Well, one, I haven’t --QUESTION:
-- and why you haven’t said anything about settlements until now?MR. WOOD:
Well, first of all, I haven’t seen the report. And as we’ve said, Senator Mitchell is out in the region. He’s going to be talking to Israeli leaders. He’ll be talking to others. And as I said, that will all be fed back to the Secretary and the President. And we will – the Administration will be formulating its Middle East policies. But again, Senator Mitchell is out there to hear from people in the region, and then he’ll bring that information back.QUESTION:
Why don’t you want to talk about settlements? Even the previous administration mentioned it – Secretary Rice.MR. WOOD:
Well, I don’t want to talk about settlements right now is – because the Administration is going to be further outlining its views. But it wants to wait, of course, until Senator Mitchell has returned and talk to him.
Robert, was – Senator Mitchell’s talk with the Egyptian included any possibilities of deploying Egyptian troops on the border with Gaza?MR. WOOD:
I don’t want to get into the substance of his discussions with Egyptian officials. But obviously, we want to do what we can to be supportive of efforts to prevent Hamas from rearming. But let’s wait for Senator Mitchell to come back and report, and then we can go into more details in terms of what was said.QUESTION:
But would it be that – something that you would consider, you would like to see?MR. WOOD:
I don’t want to get ahead of what’s going on on the ground there, so I’d prefer to wait until we have heard back from Senator Mitchell and then be able to respond.
Nina. Sorry. Nina, please.QUESTION:
Okay. There was a story we ran at Fox about a security breach concerning the U.S. Consulate in Jerusalem, where there was an auction, some filing cabinets were sold and some very sensitive documents and things, personal documents, were found in it. Are you overseeing an investigation on this?MR. WOOD:
Yes, there is an investigation underway. I believe the file – the components of the file cabinets have been returned. I believe they were purchased from – this was an auction that the Consulate in Jerusalem held in, I think, this was December of 2005. So the contents of the file cabinets have been returned. We are reviewing them and investigating, and I don’t have anything further at this point on that.
When were they returned? I mean, can you --MR. WOOD:
I don’t have the date as to when they were actually returned, but I believe they were recently returned. QUESTION:
Robert, on --QUESTION:
Can I ask you to --MR. WOOD:
-- to clarify the itinerary of Senator Mitchell? You – I think you said on Monday that he is going to be also traveling to Europe, right? MR. WOOD:
Where, exactly?MR. WOOD:
Well, I’ve already provided that information. You can check with the Press Office. There hasn’t been any --QUESTION:
That’s okay.MR. WOOD:
There hasn’t been any update to his travel, as far as I know.
Secretary Clinton said yesterday that Iran has an opportunity to open dialogue with the U.S. And today President Ahmadinejad said that – he demanded that President Obama apologize for past U.S. crime before opening such a dialogue. What is your reaction? MR. WOOD:
Well, again, haven’t seen his comments, but I think it’s clear from what the Secretary said yesterday and what the President has said that we obviously are reviewing our policy toward Iran. We are certainly interested in having a dialogue with Iran. But with regard to those remarks from President Ahmadinejad, haven’t seen them. But I think we’ve been pretty clear, and the Secretary certainly was yesterday, in terms of how we plan to at least proceed with regard to dealing with Iran. QUESTION:
Do you think that would fit in well with the President’s comments, I think on Inauguration Day, that the U.S. would take – would be – would act with more humility worldwide? MR. WOOD:
That’s what the President said. He was very clear that this Administration is going to make diplomacy and dialogue the center. And I just don’t have anything more on –QUESTION:
But what the --MR. WOOD:
But what President Ahmadinejad was saying was it’s nice to say that you want a dialogue with Iran, but not only, like – you know, he didn’t – obviously didn’t talk about his own policies, but he said that, you know, it can’t just be the tone, U.S. policy towards Iran had to change. MR. WOOD:
Well, I think what we want to see is improved behavior on the part of Iran internationally. We’re certainly interested in having a dialogue with the Iranian people. Americans are – have a lot of respect for Iran, its culture, and its people. But there are certain things that Iran knows it needs to do if it wants to get back into the good graces of the international community, particularly with regard to its nuclear program, in terms of its activities in supporting terror in the Middle East region. So Iran needs to take a number of steps before the international community is going to welcome it back into its good graces. QUESTION:
Do you think that this position of President Ahmadinejad could have to do with the fact that there are elections scheduled in --MR. WOOD:
Honestly, Sylvie, it’s hard for me to say. I don’t know what Ahmadinejad is thinking or what the motivation is for his comments.
You said that Iran knows what it needs to do. Does that mean suspending its uranium enrichment? Is that what you’re referring to? In other words, does that precondition remain? MR. WOOD:
It’s been very clear what Iran needs to do. We’ve said from – many people have said from the U.S. Government that Iran needs to play a positive role in the region of the Middle East. And its nuclear program is one that’s of great concern. The Secretary and the President have said it would be unacceptable for Iran to obtain a nuclear weapon. And again, there are a number of steps Iran needs to take before it can get back into the good graces of the international community. QUESTION:
But what about specifically the suspension of enrichment? Is that one of those things? I mean, you’ve said – I’m not sure that I know what Iran has to do anymore because there’s been a change of administration.MR. WOOD:
So maybe if you could --MR. WOOD:
Well, one of the things --QUESTION:
-- maybe if you could just illuminate me on that. MR. WOOD:
Sure. One of the things that the Administration has said is that we are undertaking a review of our policy on Iran. That review is ongoing. And before I get into more specifics about where we’re going to go with regard to various positions on Iran, that review has to be completed. However, it is very clear that Iran’s nuclear program is of trouble to not just the United States, but to a number of countries around the world. And it needs to take – it needs to take steps to address those concerns of the international community, and I think we all know what they are. QUESTION:
So in other words, until you’ve finished your review, there’s going to be no real change? You’re just going to be in a sort of coasting along? MR. WOOD:
That was your word, coasting. It’s not ours. There’s going to be – there’ll be a P5+1 meeting coming up, as I spoke to yesterday. And we’re going to be engaging with our partners to try to figure out how we go forward. And those partners are going to be interested in hearing what Under Secretary Burns is going to have to say, and we go from there. QUESTION:
Do you have any time and– sorry, Sylvie. Do you have any time and date and who’s -- you just said Ambassador Burns will be attending. Is that --MR. WOOD:
That’s right. QUESTION:
Yeah. MR. WOOD:
I don’t have the dates. As I said yesterday, refer you to the Germans. Yeah. QUESTION:
But is the suspension of nuclear activity or enrichment activity still a precondition to a dialogue? MR. WOOD:
Sylvie, I think I’ve spoken to that already what needs to be done. Iran’s nuclear program is of concern. QUESTION:
What needs to – no, you – you weren’t specific about what – you said there needs to be a review. You didn’t say what they need to do. MR. WOOD:
I said there’s a review. It’s underway. You got to let me finish. There’s a review that’s underway. Iran’s nuclear program, regardless of conditions, it is of serious concern to the international community. And Iran knows the steps that it needs to take, it’s been outlined, and we want to see Iran take those steps. And that’s about as far as I’m going to go on that. QUESTION:
It is not a precondition anymore? QUESTION:
I don’t understand --MR. WOOD:
Just a second. QUESTION:
It’s not a precondition anymore. MR. WOOD:
I’ve said what I can say on that subject right now. QUESTION:
I just don’t understand what the difference between prior Secretary Rice’s preconditions for meeting are and Secretary Clinton’s preconditions are. President Obama indicated that there would be a change of policy and openness. But clearly, you’re saying that there are preconditions for a meeting and we’re just not clear about--MR. WOOD:
I didn’t – I did not say there are preconditions for a meeting. I said, first of all, our Iran policy is under review. But I said there are international concerns about Iran’s nuclear program that are known, and the international community wants to see them addressed. That’s what I was saying. QUESTION:
Robert, this is – with Iran being such a high-profile issue with this Administration, when can we expect to see somebody, like a special envoy, who will be tasked specifically with looking at this? MR. WOOD:
I can’t say when that will happen. But clearly, the focus of our efforts here, once the review is complete and once we have the – you know, the complete team in place, will be how we can convince Iran to -- you know, to back down from moving forward with its nuclear program. As I said, it’s a major concern. QUESTION:
But it seems quite noticeable at this point that there is a lack of a special representative on that issue when you have two other very important places that very quickly got somebody in command.MR. WOOD:
Well, look, when we’re ready to announce someone to, you know, deal with the Iran portfolio, and somebody will do that -- it’s a concern – Iran’s program and Iran’s behavior worldwide, but I can’t tell you when that’s going to happen. But we’ll certainly let you know as soon as we can on that. QUESTION:
Are you in the process of reviewing candidates? Is that what’s holding it up? MR. WOOD:
I’m not going to get into the --QUESTION:
It’s part of the review. MR. WOOD: --
process of what’s goingon.QUESTION:
How long will that review take?MR. WOOD:
It’s hard to put a timeframe on it.
Change of subject? On Pakistan.MR. WOOD:
Anybody else on this subject?QUESTION:
Does the – to the apologies to Iran about the U.S.’s past conduct issued by President Clinton in 1999 and Secretary Albright in 2000, do those still apply?MR. WOOD:
This is a new Administration, so – those were previous administrations, so I don’t have anything more to say on that.QUESTION:
On Afghanistan?MR. WOOD:
During her confirmation hearing, Secretary Clinton had said that the U.S. would be putting more of a kind of robust civilian effort into Afghanistan to complement the increase in troops. Yesterday, Defense Secretary Gates kind of said that – you know, that the Administration needed to set priorities for Afghanistan and can’t get too bogged down trying to create what he called a Valhalla.
So, I mean, is this – you know, how do you kind of square that circle in terms of there’s been some reports that the Administration is going to focus more on the military component, but that’s not really in line with – Secretary Clinton kind of said it would be a hand-in-hand effort?MR. WOOD:
You know, we’ve said – and the Administration’s been, I think, very clear on this, Elise – Afghanistan is – we’re not solely focused on a military strategy. We’re not going to be successful in Afghanistan unless we have a political solution. And so therefore, you need to address all three areas of the Afghanistan issue: political, economic, military. And you come up – and what we want to try to do is come up with a comprehensive strategy that adequately addresses all the concerns.
Afghanistan is a huge problem. There’s no question about it. And it’s, you know, one of the highest priorities for the Administration in terms of foreign policy, and we want to make sure we get it right. And it’s – we’re under no illusions. It’s going to be a very difficult thing to do. It’s a huge challenge for us in Afghanistan. And – but we’re going to continue to try to pursue those three areas, and do that in a broad way with our partners around the world, because we can’t afford to fail in Afghanistan. It’s too important to our security.QUESTION:
Robert, on Pakistan?MR. WOOD:
On Pakistan?MR. WOOD:
The Pakistani Prime Minister complained about the recent American military action inside the Pakistani-controlled areas, and he said it’s very – it’s counterproductive. Do you think that this is – will complicate in the future relationship with Pakistan and whether the U.S. will carry further military attack without consultation with the Pakistani Government?MR. WOOD:
I don’t have anything to add at all.QUESTION:
Have you received any complaint officially from the Pakistani Government?MR. WOOD:
I’m just – I’m not aware of any recent message from the Pakistani Government to us, but I’m just going to leave it at that. I don’t have anything further to say on that.
Nina, you had a question.QUESTION:
Any sense of when Holbrooke would go out there?MR. WOOD:
Not yet. I will work on that today and see if I can find out the answer to that question. I haven’t had time to check today.
Well, just speaking on – referring to the news – asked about Gates’ comments. Now that you have these players – and we talked about that with Secretary Clinton – in communication apparently constantly, was there any attempt to clarify – did the State Department attempt to clarify exactly what he meant by that? Because it did seem different from what he has said before in terms of reconstruction. MR. WOOD:
No, I think – again, I think if you ask Secretary Gates, he would tell you that there are serious problems in Afghanistan, and we have got to find the right mix of the three elements I spelled out in order to improve the situation on the ground in Afghanistan. Corruption is a problem we’re worried about. You know, the growth of poppies. You know, we’re trying to help the Afghans extend government outward so that it can really have an impact on the people.
It’s a complex problem, and as I – as I said earlier, the military isn’t – the military – or military activities are not going to be the solution to this problem. We need a political solution in Afghanistan. Again, but what we need to have is that right mix of the three elements – political, economic, and military – to really make a difference long-term in Afghanistan.
May I change the subject here?MR. WOOD:
I wanted to go back to Senator Mitchell. Can you tell us whether he has any particular message or agenda for his discussions in the region, and how soon after he gets back we can expect to hear some kind of unified, newly formulated policy towards the region?MR. WOOD:
I think I addressed both of those earlier. Going to the second part, I just can’t tell you when we’ll be able to basically announce, you know, how we’re going to go forward with regard to our policy in the region. He has said, with regard to your first question, that he’s going out to hear from leaders of the region, and also to try to help, you know, sustain this ceasefire and make it lasting.QUESTION:
Robert, same subject. By saying that he’s trying to help sustain the ceasefire, does that include presenting new ideas or proposals to strengthen it, or is he just listening?MR. WOOD:
I think at this point he’s just going to the region to hear what the people have to say about the various issues and concerns, and then as I said, bring those – you know, have him report back to the Secretary and the President, and then we go forward from there, Ron. But I don’t have anything further.QUESTION:
Well, but (inaudible) has said it’s going to work with the Israelis and others on the anti-smuggling --MR. WOOD:
-- programs. So he’s not offering any U.S. proposals along those lines about stopping smuggling, or just --MR. WOOD:
I’m not going to – it wouldn’t be fair for me to talk further about what he’s trying to do in the region, except to say what I’ve already said. QUESTION:
Under the Iran Sanctions Act, there have been several violations of international companies investing more than $20 million that have stockholdings in the U.S. The prior administration did not choose to follow through in prosecution – prosecuting that. Is the new Secretary going to change that policy or review those violations?MR. WOOD:
We’ll have to see. I just don’t know. I haven’t spoke to her about those issues. We’re looking at a wide range of issues, as I think you understand, right now within the Administration. So when we have something to say on it, we certainly will be happy to get back to you.
Any further questions? Thank you all.
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