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Diplomacy in Action

Middle East Digest - January 29, 2009

January 29, 2009


Bureau of Public Affairs
January 29, 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 29, 2009

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QUESTION: All right, okay. About a month or two ago, there was an IG report that warned that Blackwater was likely going to lose its license to operate in Iraq. That has now happened. What – considering that you guys have been aware of this impending decision for some time, I presume that contingency plans have been made. What are those? What are you going to do to protect your people?

MR. WOOD: Well, let me just say, first off, you know, contingency plans are obviously being looked at, but I think it was on January 23rd when the Ministry of Interior informed the Embassy in Baghdad that Blackwater’s applications for an operating license was not going to be approved. And so we’re going to encourage, of course, contractors working for us to comply with Iraqi law. We’re right now looking at the implications of this decision by the Iraqis on – for us. But let me just make clear that we will do everything necessary to make sure that our personnel are – have the, you know, security that they need.

QUESTION: Well, what do you mean you’re looking at the implications? Isn’t the implication that they can’t work there anymore and that you’re going to lose your main contractor?

MR. WOOD: Well, again, we’re looking at, you know, the decision and we’re going to study and see what the implications will be, and then we’ll go forward.

QUESTION: Is it – I’m sorry, maybe I’m being dense here, but it seems to me that the obvious implication that you should already be aware of is that Blackwater can’t work in Iraq anymore.

MR. WOOD: I understand the decision. They were not granted an operating license.

QUESTION: What more is there to look at?

MR. WOOD: Well, we have to study and see what we’re going to do next.

QUESTION: Right. Well, but you’ve been – this building has known for some time that this decision is coming down the pike, so --

MR. WOOD: Right, right, but we don’t have a decision ready to announce. We have to --

QUESTION: So Robert, who is protecting them today?

MR. WOOD: I’ll have to take a look at that. I’m not certain. I haven’t had a chance to look into that, but I’ll get the – we’ll get you something on that. I have to see who’s actually on the ground doing it. I’m just not sure at this point.

QUESTION: Do you intend to comply or do you intend to tell Blackwater to – if you’re going to – if you – you said you’re --

MR. WOOD: We have to comply with Iraqi law, period.

QUESTION: Exactly. So that means that you can’t – that your guys cannot use Blackwater as – for security guards, so --

MR. WOOD: Well, again, we’re going to comply with the Iraqi decision. We have no choice but to do that. So we’re just right now trying to formulate how we’re going to go forward. But I just wanted to make clear that we’re going to do everything, you know, to make sure that our Embassy employees have the security they need.

QUESTION: How long do you have to comply? I mean, when this is to take effect?

MR. WOOD: I don’t know, haven’t seen the details on that yet.

QUESTION: Wouldn’t you have decided how to go forward already since you knew it was coming?

MR. WOOD: Well, it’s not a question of knowing that it was coming. We wanted to make sure that we had a clear-cut response from the Iraqis, an official response. We have now – you know, we received that on January 23rd, as I said, and we’re looking at next steps. That’s about as much as I can give you at this point.

QUESTION: Would next steps be just, what, another contractor?

MR. WOOD: We’re looking at a variety of possibilities, but I’m not here to outline those possibilities at this point.

QUESTION: While you’re not here to outline the possibilities, wasn’t this contract part of the global contract where there were three that – companies that bid on the security? So couldn’t one of the other ones step in?

MR. WOOD: Well --

QUESTION: I mean, isn’t that the whole idea of having these massive* contracts?

MR. WOOD: That’s a possibility, but we haven’t made a decision on how we’re going to go forward yet.


QUESTION: But you have two other contractors that are working in Iraq, DynCorp and Triple Canopy, right?

MR. WOOD: Right. That’s right.

QUESTION: So you could ostensibly just move Triple Canopy or DynCorp over, because you’ve done all the RFP work and other stuff, right?

MR. WOOD: Well, we haven’t made a decision as to how we’re going to go forward yet, as I said. So I really don’t have any more to give you on that.

QUESTION: Is there a temporary security in place? I mean --

MR. WOOD: Like I said, I’m going to find out and get an answer to that question, because I’m not sure at this point.

QUESTION: It would – you know, I don’t want to beat a dead horse here, but it seems to me --

MR. WOOD: But you always try to beat some dead horses.

QUESTION: It seems to be a bit irresponsible for the State Department not to have a backup plan and especially --

MR. WOOD: I think --

QUESTION: -- since you knew this was coming.

MR. WOOD: I did not say the State Department didn’t have a backup plan, but I said we’re looking at options and we haven’t made a decision as to how we’re going to go forward.

QUESTION: Well, doesn’t it seem to be – I mean, wouldn’t it be appropriate to have had an idea in place so --

MR. WOOD: I’m not saying we don’t have ideas, you know.

QUESTION: Well, one that you were – had been approved and you were ready to go ahead with?

MR. WOOD: Matt, as I said, when we have something in terms of a way forward, we’ll certainly be happy to let you know. But at this point, we’re looking at our options, and that’s the prudent thing to do.

Any other questions on Blackwater? Can we go to somebody else? Blackwater, Jill?


QUESTION: Can you give us an update on the Robert Levinson case? What efforts are being made now there’s a change in administration? What contacts have been had?

MR. WOOD: Yeah, I don’t know if there have been any recent developments with regard to Levinson, but of course, we – I know that we have – through the Swiss, have called on the Iranians to do what they can to provide information on Mr. Levinson. This is an issue of great concern to the Levinson family, as you can – as you can understand. And we want them to provide all the information they can about him.

It’s a very sad case. We are very – we feel for the family. It’s a very difficult time that they’re going through. But I – you know --

QUESTION: The Secretary mentioned him specifically in her testimony --

MR. WOOD: Yeah.

QUESTION: -- so is that an indication that there’s going to be – greater efforts are going to be made?

MR. WOOD: Well, certainly, we’re going to do what we can to try to find out all the information we can about the Levinson case.

QUESTION: And when were the last contacts? What – did you ever get anything back from the Iranians?

MR. WOOD: I don’t think we’ve gotten anything back. I’ll check and see if we have anything from --

QUESTION: *Could you give us* the chain of events thus far?

MR. WOOD: Since --

QUESTION: Could you – as a taken question, can you detail what that --

MR. WOOD: Yeah, I’ll see what I can get you in terms of what efforts we’ve made beyond what I’ve said.

QUESTION: Just to follow up on Nina’s question, Senator Nelson said in that hearing that Mr. Levinson was being held in a secret prison in Iran. Do you have any evidence that, from your investigations, that he’s being held in a secret prison? Do you think he’s alive? Do you think that this is a case of somebody who’s just --

MR. WOOD: The problem here, Sue, is we just don’t, and that’s why we’ve been trying to get this information from the Iranian Government on what it knows about Mr. Levinson. We just – I just don’t know at this point.

QUESTION: Have you asked them specifically about the secret prison where he’s apparently being held, according to Senator Nelson?

MR. WOOD: Well, I haven’t been privy to those messages that have, you know, gone through the Swiss, but I do know that we have asked that Iran provide us with any information it has with regard to where he may be, his condition, anything that it can provide us with, because there is great concern, as I said, about his situation.

QUESTION: Well, in response to Senator Nelson, the Secretary-designate then – then Secretary-designate Clinton did not dispute the idea that he was – that Levinson was being held in a secret prison. Is there --

MR. WOOD: Well, I – again, what I --

QUESTION: I believe that you were sitting – what, a row behind her when she said that.

MR. WOOD: I heard the Secretary when she said that. I think the best way I can sum it up, Matt, is that we just really don’t have all of the facts, except to say that he is missing, we want the Iranians to do everything that they can to find out where he is, and go from there.

Let me go to Sue – I’m sorry – Sylvie.

QUESTION: Sixty senators yesterday asked the Secretary to send some emergency aid to Gaza. Do you have any – do you know about this letter and --

MR. WOOD: I haven’t seen the letter, but we’re going to look to see what we can do in terms of enhancing our assistance to, you know, the people of Gaza. We’re very – as the Secretary has said, she is very concerned about the plight of, you know, the Palestinians in Gaza, and we’re going to look to see what more we can do in the coming days to help, you know, provide additional assistance to the people of Gaza.

QUESTION: So it would be announced in the coming days?

MR. WOOD: No, I just said we were going to see – we’re going to see what we can do in the coming days to provide some additional assistance. I just don’t have anything more for you at this point.

QUESTION: On Iran --

QUESTION: Wait, wait, can we stay on the Middle East, or on that part of the Middle East?

MR. WOOD: Sure.

QUESTION: Senator Mitchell’s trip – do you have anything to say about --

MR. WOOD: Yeah, let me give you the latest readout that I have. Senator Mitchell was in Jerusalem this morning. He had productive meetings with Mossad Director Meir Dagan, Israeli Security Agency Director Yuval Disken, Israeli Defense Forces Chief of Staff Gaby Ashkenazi, and our Consul General Jacob Walles.

Secretary Mitchell – excuse me, Senator Mitchell arrived in Ramallah in the afternoon and met with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. He will be – he is scheduled to return to Jerusalem later in the day and meet with Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad.

Tomorrow, he is scheduled to meet with --

QUESTION: I’m sorry, he’s meeting with Fayyad in Jerusalem?

MR. WOOD: It says here he is – he is scheduled to return to Jerusalem late in the day and meet with Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad. That’s what I have.

He is scheduled tomorrow – he is scheduled to meet with Benjamin Netanyahu early tomorrow morning. And that’s the latest I have on his trip.


QUESTION: Yeah, on Iran. Is the State Department --

MR. WOOD: Did you want to, Charlie, follow up?

QUESTION: Yeah, I just want to follow up. And from Israel, he proceeds on his – on his planned itinerary?

MR. WOOD: Yeah, that’s right.

QUESTION: No other – no other stops?

QUESTION: There are no changes?

MR. WOOD: No change that I’m aware of.

QUESTION: Yeah, keep trying. So is the State Department helping President Obama draft a letter to President Ahmadinejad, and what’s the status of that letter?

MR. WOOD: Look, what I can tell you – and I’ve had a number of conversations this morning about this issue. Nobody from the Administration has tasked anyone within the White House, the State Department, to draft any letter to the Iranians.

Now, there is a review underway, as you know, on Iran, and there are lots of ideas that are being bandied about. But until that review is completed, we’re not going to be able to outline how we’re going to go forward with regard to engaging Iran.

Could somebody in this building at some point have taken it upon his or herself to draft something? You know how large this building is. It’s hard to know. But I can tell you with certainty that no one – the Secretary, the President, no one has tasked anybody within the Administration to draft any kind of a letter to Iran.

QUESTION: You’re not encouraging freelance diplomacy among your colleagues? Is that the message to take away here?

MR. WOOD: Well, we don’t do freelance diplomacy here. It’s coordinated diplomacy.

QUESTION: And there is no coordinated effort at this moment to prepare a --

MR. WOOD: As a said, there is a review. Nobody has been tasked with --

QUESTION: Yeah – no. As part of the review, nobody has been tasked to write this letter?

MR. WOOD: Not that I’m aware of.

QUESTION: Or a letter.

QUESTION: One more --

MR. WOOD: On this question? Please.

QUESTION: Is the new Administration concerned about Iranian influence in Iraq in the wake of the troops’ withdrawal from Iraq? And secondly, do you think the – in the current election a wider participation by the Sunni in Iraq will – would curb this influence?

MR. WOOD: Well, we’ve been concerned for a long time about Iranian behavior in Iraq and throughout the Middle East, and we’ve called on Iran to play a – you know, a positive role, a productive role in the region, to try to facilitate peace, whether it be in the Middle East, whether it be in Iraq.

With regard to the second part of your question, you know, Iraq is a democracy. There’s lots of – there are lots of various groups who are competing to try to win in the upcoming elections. What we want to see in Iraq, as we do in many other – in every place else around the globe, is a free, fair, and democratic election. So that’s all I can offer you at this point.

QUESTION: Yeah, but do you think that the Iranian will have more influence in Iraq after the withdrawal or --

MR. WOOD: It’s hard for me to say, but one of the things we do want to see happen is that Iran stop playing a negative role and stay out of Iraq’s internal affairs.

QUESTION: What kind of negative role are they playing now?

MR. WOOD: Well, I think it’s quite clear some of the things that they’ve been doing, and not just in Iraq but around the region. So --

QUESTION: No, I’m talking about Iraq. Like, are they still supporting insurgency the way you say --

MR. WOOD: Well, let me just say -- I don’t want to get into specifics, but they certainly have not been very helpful in terms of trying to reduce the level of violence that’s going on inside Iraq, and we’re concerned about it. We’ve been concerned for some time. And we continue to call on the Iranians to play a positive role.

QUESTION: Burns, when he goes to this P-5+1 meeting, he is – you don’t expect the review to be done by – your own policy review to be done by the time of this meeting, do you? So he’s --

MR. WOOD: No, but the outcome of that meeting will be factored into the review.

QUESTION: Well, so what’s the purpose of this meeting?

MR. WOOD: I think --

QUESTION: What would the U.S. like to see come out of it? If you’re not bringing any kind of a new – new ideas into it, what is it you expect or hope for?

MR. WOOD: Well, Under Secretary Burns is going out to engage his counterparts in a discussion of Iran. He wants to hear what some of their thinking is. He’s certainly spoken to his counterparts before. He’ll be speaking about some of the ideas that, you know, the new Administration has. And then once he comes back, as I said, the results of that trip will be factored into --

QUESTION: So he is bringing new ideas then?

MR. WOOD: It’s not like he’s bringing proposals. He’s going there to talk with his counterparts. And of course, his counterparts are going to be interested in what the thinking is inside the Administration about going forward with regard to Iran. And he will share initial thoughts that he has.

QUESTION: All right. Well, but --

MR. WOOD: So we don’t have – we don’t have the policy --

QUESTION: The answer --

MR. WOOD: -- outlined*.

QUESTION: Well, exactly. The answers that we were getting to your questions about what Iran policy is from – the answers that we get are not particularly meaningful. There isn’t – there’s no “there” there.

MR. WOOD: Well, there’s not going to be any “there” there until we have actually formulated, you know, a complete policy on* Iran. And it’s a wide-ranging review that’s underway, so you’ll just have to be patient.

QUESTION: Robert, on – you mentioned the Swiss earlier. Are they playing a role in your review, and are you continuing to use them with Iran?

MR. WOOD: Well, again, the whole Iran policy is under review, so I don’t want to say what we may be doing, what we are currently doing. I think the best way to look at this is that the new Administration realizes that Iran is a very serious issue for us and that we want to take a look at the entire policy, all of its elements, and formulate something that truly makes sense. We want to discuss that with our allies and look for the best way we can to engage Iran and, of course, to try to get Iran to play a much more positive role than it has played up until now.

QUESTION: On a related point, what sort of a role would you like Iran to play in Afghanistan? Would you foresee in the future some sort of, you know, reconstruction effort by the Iranians, some sort of intelligence sharing? Do you think that Iran would be a useful transit route through to Afghanistan?

MR. WOOD: Look, Iran has to make a decision with regard to how it is going to engage with Afghanistan. I, you know, can’t speak for what they may or may not do. I can tell you that Afghanistan, as all of you know, is a high priority for this Administration. We will be having discussions with a number of countries in the region. We will also be having discussions with our allies about how we can help improve the situation on the ground in Afghanistan. And that’s basically how I’d like to leave it at that.

QUESTION: But the former administration spoke with the Iranians with respect to Iraq. But do you perceive the same kind of discussions with the Iranians over Afghanistan? I mean, if this is such a huge national security priority now, wouldn’t that be a useful vehicle?

MR. WOOD: Well, certainly, the Administration is going to look at Afghanistan in a regional context as well as just a one-country context, because there clearly are a number of regional elements that have to be factored in. I don’t want to get ahead of the review that you know is ongoing with Afghanistan. But as I said, we’re approaching it from a regional standpoint, as well as looking at Afghanistan from a bilateral standpoint. The border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, as you know, is – dealing with that is a high priority as well. But this is a complex review, with regard to Afghanistan, so we want to make sure it’s as comprehensive as possible. And when we have something to say more about it, we will.

QUESTION: So there’s going to be some cross-pollination between the Iranian and the – the Iran and the Afghanistan review. Do you have, like, separate sections between the two that are dealing with Iran, Afghanistan, or how is --

MR. WOOD: I’m not able to get into specifics of the review at this point.

QUESTION: Okay. All right.

QUESTION: Is it too early to say that the Iranian Ambassador in Kabul and the U.S. Ambassador could meet?

MR. WOOD: Speculation. I can’t speculate.

QUESTION: Can I follow up on that?

MR. WOOD: Sure. Jill.

QUESTION: I’m curious about, you know, Ambassador Holbrooke and also Mitchell, whether there were any limitations on who they can meet, for instance, if they wanted to meet with Iranians?

MR. WOOD: Well, I mean, those are discussions that Ambassador Holbrooke and Senator Mitchell will have with the Secretary and the President. Again, as you know, Senator Mitchell is out in the region trying to take the pulse, the temperature of – with leaders on the ground. Ambassador Holbrooke, by the way, just -- since you mention that, he is going to be going, I think, on Tuesday to attend the Munich Security Conference, and then he plans to travel subsequently to the region. I don’t have any dates, details, other than what I’ve just given you, but we’ll let you know as soon as we have the itinerary outlined.

QUESTION: So he’s going with the Vice President?

MR. WOOD: That’s – well, he’ll be there. I don’t know if he’s actually traveling with the Vice President, but he certainly will be in Munich.

QUESTION: And then immediately after Munich, he is going to the region?

MR. WOOD: He’s planning to go to the region. That’s correct.

QUESTION: Do you mean Pakistan and Afghanistan?

MR. WOOD: I don’t know.Just to the region. We don’t have the itinerary worked out yet, but as soon as we do, we’ll --

QUESTION: From Germany? He’s not going to come back and then --

MR. WOOD: No, I think he’s going from Germany.

QUESTION: Is this a fact-finding, listening mission in the same vein as the Mitchell mission?

MR. WOOD: Of course. I mean, he wants to go and, you know, touch base with various leaders in the region, and also to hear what they have to say in terms of what needs to be done to improve the situation in that region.

QUESTION: Will he be looking for certain things from the Afghan Government or the Pakistani Government specifically that – to start putting into effect?

MR. WOOD: I don’t want to get ahead of his trip to the region. When – once we have some more details in terms of itinerary and what, you know, specific areas that he’s going to be focusing on, we’ll let you know.

QUESTION: (Inaudible.)

MR. WOOD: On this issue still?

QUESTION: (Inaudible.)

Okay. Lambros, on this issue?

QUESTION: Afghanistan.

QUESTION: On Iraq, not --

MR. WOOD: No, okay.

QUESTION: I have a question on Iran.

MR. WOOD: We’re going to Afghanistan.

QUESTION: When you talk about the region, do you also mean India as part of that region?

MR. WOOD: As I said --

QUESTION: Is he going to India, too?

MR. WOOD: As I said, once we have details on the itinerary, we’ll let you know. I don’t have those countries right now that I can give you.

QUESTION: And secondly, the elections have been announced there in Afghanistan. Do you think this – the security condition is conducive enough to have free and fair elections later this summer?

MR. WOOD: Well, security is an issue. But again, it’s important to see the elections go forward. I believe they are going to happen some time in – toward the end of August. But, you know, Afghanistan’s got a lot of problems, but we have a – you know, we have an elected government there. It’s a democracy trying to find its way. It’s a difficult situation. We’re going to try to do what we can to help Afghanistan. And we look forward to seeing those elections happen. It’s all I have on it.

QUESTION: Yes, on Iraq. Mr. Wood, Iraq’s upcoming elections have exacerbated tensions among the ethnic (inaudible) between the traditional Arab parts of the country and its Kurdish autonomous region in the north. What is the U.S. position of this division?

MR. WOOD: Look, Iraq is – the situation in Iraq is a complicated one, and the situation in the north is – you know, is very complicated. But what’s important is that Iraqis, whether they be Kurdish, whether they be Kurds or Arabs, need to find a way to come together and work for the betterment of Iraq and the Iraqi people. And it’s complex; there’s no question about it, Mr. Lambros. But Iraq is a democracy, another democracy trying to find its way, and we just hope that Iraqis will find a way to make sure, through their constitutional processes, to find a way to bring about a much better, improved standard of living and security for the Iraqi people.

QUESTION: Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shia, and Masoud Barzani, the President of the Kurdistan Regional Government, have exchanged heated accusation recently, underscoring the intensity of conflict that the U.S. officials have come to view as Iraq most potential destabilizing. Are you concerned, Mr. Wood, since you have forces in Iraq?

MR. WOOD: Well, look, Iraq – it’s a vibrant democracy. There are lots of – you know, lots of different opinions as to how Iraq should be governed, what that structure of governance should look like. That’s not unusual. We obviously don’t want to see, you know, various parties engage in any kind of violent activity, but, you know, these types of discussions, heated exchanges, they go on in a democracy. So there’s nothing new there.

QUESTION: The last – the last one, (inaudible). Are you concerned about the perception that unfair elections on the part of either side or both could trigger (inaudible) way for violence?


QUESTION: Yes, it’s important.

MR. WOOD: Look, we’ve said time and again, Mr. Lambros, we are trying to do what we can. The Iraqi Government is very interested in trying to make sure that these elections can happen, can take place in a secure atmosphere and environment. Concerned – are we concerned about any potential violence? Certainly, we would be. But again, I’m not going to stand up here and try to pretend that there – you know, that there won’t be any types of security problems during the election. There are a lot of parties that don’t want to see Iraq function as a democracy.

So let’s see what happens. But we want to see a free and fair election take place in Iraq, and we’re going to work with the Iraqis as best we can to help try to bring about a more secure environment for the people of Iraq.


QUESTION: This is about the investigation of the CIA station chief in Algeria. Can you talk about the role of Diplomatic Security investigating the case, and whether it was the Ambassador Pearce who sent this gentleman home?

MR. WOOD: Elise, I’m not going to get into the details for obvious reasons with regard to this incident, but we – again, we take very seriously, as I mentioned in a statement yesterday, accusations of any type of misconduct on the part of U.S. personnel abroad. And, you know, as I – as we noted, the individual in question has returned to Washington and appropriate U.S. Government officials are looking into the matter. But, you know, for any other details about --

QUESTION: Well, why can’t you say what – why can’t you say whether DS has a role? I mean, there is a sworn affidavit by several DS agents – they’ve been investigating the case.

MR. WOOD: What I would do is refer you to the Department of Justice for the details of any type of follow-up investigation with regard to this case.

QUESTION: But I mean, if this building is involved in the investigation, you should be able to say that.

MR. WOOD: I’ve given you all I’m going to give you on this.

QUESTION: But can you at least say – I mean, what kind of consequences do you think this will have, or impact in the Muslim world? I mean, the gentleman is accused of raping Muslim women, and the President himself has made a special effort to kind of reach out to the Muslim world to say that the U.S. has repaired – wants to repair relations.

MR. WOOD: Well, Elise, I really can’t go any further. I mean, we’re obviously – any time you have, you know, these types of – this type of – these accusations of misconduct on the part of any U.S. official serving abroad, that’s of great concern. But, you know, because this is a legal matter, I don’t want to go beyond what I’ve said. And I would just have to refer you to the Department of Justice for any further details on that.

QUESTION: Is there any kind of cooperation with the Algerian Government on this – on this issue?

MR. WOOD: I really don’t want to get into any more specifics than what I’ve said.


QUESTION: Getting back to Iran, what’s the status of Dennis Ross? And is he in this building?

MR. WOOD: I don’t have anything on Dennis Ross at this point. Anything else?

QUESTION: So he’s not in this building?

MR. WOOD: I haven’t seen him.


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