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Middle East Digest - February 4, 2009

February 4, 2009


Bureau of Public Affairs
February 4, 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 February 4, 2009

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MR. WOOD: Okay. Good morning, everyone. Let me just start off with some remarks on Ambassador Holbrooke’s travel, because I know a few of you have asked and I just want to give you what I can. I don’t, unfortunately, have dates other than to say that I believe he’s leaving for London today. And from London, he is going to go to the Munich Security conference, and then from there he will head to Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India, in that order.

I spoke to him briefly yesterday and he said, in essence, this is an orientation trip. He’s not carrying any messages to any of these governments from either the Secretary or the President, and he’s not going there to lecture. He’s going there to listen, and then he’ll report back to the Secretary and the President. So that’s what I have on Ambassador Holbrooke’s trip.

QUESTION: I thought India was not in his – on his agenda; he was not supposed to deal with India.

MR. WOOD: He’s going to India. You know, India’s an important country in the region and has interests in Afghanistan, and he wants to hear from the Indian Government in terms of how we can all better contribute to peace and stability in Afghanistan.

QUESTION: So are we talking about him getting there into the region in that order that you said – Pakistan, Afghanistan, India – next week?

MR. WOOD: I don’t have dates for you, but that would be certainly –

QUESTION: Well, is he planning to stay at the Munich conference for the whole time, or is he –

MR. WOOD: I don’t know. He didn’t –

QUESTION: – leaving early?

MR. WOOD: He didn’t indicate whether he was going to stay for the whole time or not. I would suspect he will stay there the entire time and then make his way to the region.

QUESTION: Is he planning on bringing up the Kashmir issue?

MR. WOOD: Kashmir was never part of his portfolio.

QUESTION: Well, seeing as he’s there, it could be –

MR. WOOD: He’s dealing with Afghanistan-Pakistan.

Yes, sir.

QUESTION: When is he coming back?

MR. WOOD: I don’t know. I don’t have dates on that yet. We’ll let you know as soon as we –

QUESTION: And how long he’s going to stay in the region?

MR. WOOD: I said I don’t have dates for you, but he’ll stay there as long as he feels he needs to.

Did you want to stay on that?

QUESTION: Well, do you have anything else on this?


QUESTION: I have something else.

MR. WOOD: Well, let me go to – Libby – you want to stay on this?


MR. WOOD: Please.

QUESTION: Just for a second. How come he’s not traveling to Russia? I think Foreign – Deputy Foreign Minister Karasin said that there is new agreement about transit route through Russia with the United States to Afghanistan –

MR. WOOD: Well –

QUESTION: – is not going to be discussed?

MR. WOOD: He is going to the region, and his portfolio, as I said, is to deal with Afghanistan-Pakistan. And he’s going to India because India is an important player in that region, and that’s his itinerary.

Libby, you had a question.

QUESTION: I wanted to ask you about issues that the U.S.A. Badminton team has been having with visas into Tehran. Is the trip going to go on as scheduled?

MR. WOOD: Yeah. Apparently, Libby, the Iranian Consulate in Dubai did not provide – did not issue visas to the American team in time to participate in the tournament that I believe is scheduled February 5 through 8. The team is returning tonight. The team is made up of 12 representatives. I think it’s eight players, a coach, a manager, and two officials from the U.S. Badminton Federation. My understanding from reports is that the U.S. Badminton Federation has been in touch with the Iranian Badminton Federation. And in fact, I think the Iranian Badminton Federation was – expressed their disappointment that the visas were not granted.

My understanding is that all of the paperwork and – was supplied in time. We had – they had everything that was required, but again, the visas were not issued. So this is a very unfortunate situation, and that’s where we are.

QUESTION: Did they give you any reason why?

MR. WOOD: Well, we have not received any, you know, communication through the Swiss from the Iranians as to their decision. You’ll have to go to the Iranians to find out why indeed they denied these players and other travelers their visas.

QUESTION: Well, did they deny them –


QUESTION: I’m sorry. Did they deny them or they just didn’t process –

MR. WOOD: Well, I should say they didn’t issue the visas, so –

QUESTION: They weren’t officially, like, denied, like –

MR. WOOD: Yeah, they weren’t officially – that was a bad choice of words – denied. They were not issued visas.

QUESTION: The – part of the policy is to increase sporting and cultural links with Iran. I mean, does this bode ill for those attempts to reach out to the Iranian people and to, you know –

MR. WOOD: Well, I mean, it’s not a good sign. You know, as the Secretary and others have said, when the Iranians unclench that fist, there will be a hand waiting to greet them, and so it’s unfortunate. The Iranians are the only ones who can give you the explanation. As I said, all the paperwork – all the required paperwork was submitted in time.

QUESTION: When was that?

MR. WOOD: I don’t have the specific –

QUESTION: When was the invitation actually issued by the Iranian Badminton –

MR. WOOD: I don’t have that. I’d have to refer you to the U.S.A. Badminton Federation for those details.

QUESTION: Do you know how long the Department has been working on this?

MR. WOOD: Been working on it a while, all right? I can’t give you an exact answer, but –


MR. WOOD: I would say probably months, yes.

QUESTION: Do you see this as a snub to U.S. efforts to improve your relations with them? I mean, do you see the Iranians as, sort of, playing little games with you?

MR. WOOD: It’s hard to say what the Iranian motivation is here. I’d have to refer you to them. I would just say that this is a people-to-people exchange program. We are very interested in trying to improve relations between the American people and the Iranian people, and this is not a good step forward in terms of trying to promote people-to-people exchanges.

QUESTION: Are there any – go.

QUESTION: Well, a part of this whole thing was that the – you were hoping to invite the Iranian team to come to the States in July. Is that still going to happen?


QUESTION: Will they get visas?

MR. WOOD: I haven’t been – I would assume that would still – that’s still the plan. But I can’t tell you what will happen in the future. We’ll just have to wait and see. But that’s certainly –

QUESTION: Who is that up to? Is that up to the Badminton Federation here, or is that up to the State Department?

MR. WOOD: Well, I think there will be a lot of parties that will be discussing that, but it would certainly be up to the federation.

QUESTION: Are there any other –

QUESTION: Whether to invite them?

MR. WOOD: Yeah. I mean, I would just – we’re getting way ahead of things right now. I can only basically brief you on what I know about this particular situation right now.

QUESTION: Are there any other people-to-people exchanges of a like nature between the United States and Iran in the works right now?

MR. WOOD: I’ll have to see if I can get you some more information on that. There are a number of them planned for 2009, but they’re still being finalized and scheduled, so I don’t have anything more than that.

QUESTION: Are they also athletic or are they cultural, or –

MR. WOOD: I would say both.

QUESTION: Hey, Robert?

MR. WOOD: Yes.

QUESTION: You may have said this, but are you seeking clarification through the Swiss about what happened?

MR. WOOD: Well, we’re obviously trying to find out the reasons behind that. And the Badminton Federation, as I said – the U.S. Badminton Federation has been in touch with the Iranian Badminton Federation. So we’re trying to get information on this – on both – you know, through both fronts.

QUESTION: Excuse me, there have been other delegations, college presidents, academics. Have there been other cases recently, say in the past year, that you know of where delegations have not got their visas?

MR. WOOD: I don’t know. It’s hard for us to say. I will see if we can get you something. I can’t promise you anything on that, but we will look into it.

QUESTION: Other topic?

MR. WOOD: Same topic?

QUESTION: A related topic on Iran? Related topic on Iran, on the P-5+1 –

MR. WOOD: Sure.

QUESTION: – meeting. Do you have a readout of that? And then secondly, David Miliband today said that there needs to be a great urgency in dealing with the Iranian issue, and there are some concerns that the U.S. review is going to take too long and that valuable time is going to be lost while you mull your own options.

MR. WOOD: Well, let me just say – take the second question first. We want to do a very swift review, but the review is going to be comprehensive. So what’s important is getting the review right and not rushing it. But it is something that the Secretary and the President are very committed to and trying to get, you know, a policy in place with regard to Iran as early as possible.

With regard to the P-5+1 meeting, I spoke with Under Secretary Burns this morning, and he reported to me that they had very positive and thorough discussions. They were – I think the discussions lasted about five hours. And they all reaffirmed P-5+1 unity.

One of the things that he said that he was – he found important and wanted me to point out was that everybody welcomed the willingness of the United States Government to engage in talks with Iran, and that they would – basically, the P-5+1 would meet again after our policy review had been completed. But there will likely be telephone conversations amongst the P-5+1 prior to that.

And so – one of the other points that everyone agreed on was that Iran needed to comply with its IAEA obligations.

QUESTION: When is the –

QUESTION: (Inaudible) spoke of P-5+1 unity?

MR. WOOD: Yeah, reaffirmed P-5+1 unity. Yes.

QUESTION: About what?

MR. WOOD: About the importance of the dual-track approach with regard to Iran.


MR. WOOD: Yeah.

QUESTION: That includes the Chinese and the Russians?

MR. WOOD: Last time I checked, they were members.

QUESTION: And the idea of new sanctions?

MR. WOOD: Well, look, they want to talk and have been talking about the way forward with regard to Iran. And Under Secretary Burns went to Germany to sit down with his counterparts to talk about that way forward. And again, he heard from his counterparts. He is going to report, you know, what he heard back to the Secretary. He’ll be coming back straightaway, and we’ll go from there. But again, everybody is committed to the two-track policy –

QUESTION: Was he able to give them – was he able to give the other participants any indication of when the Obama Administration might be ready to, you know, move forward, to declare some kind of a policy?

MR. WOOD: Again, he obviously is not able to communicate any kind of a timeframe. As I said, that process will have to run its course. But obviously, we’re very committed to trying to do it as swiftly as possible.

QUESTION: Well, is – Secretary Clinton spoke yesterday about the consequences that Iran should face if it does not comply with – is the Administration’s position the same as the last administration’s position that, you know, that urgent action is needed at the UN on more sanctions?

MR. WOOD: Iran policy, Matt, as I’ve said, is under review. But the Secretary made very clear yesterday that, you know, Iran’s behavior, you know – or shall I say, negative behavior on the part of Iran has consequences. And we’re not ready to spell out consequences, of course. But the important thing is here – the important thing here is that the President and the Secretary want to reach out to the Iranian people and –

QUESTION: Well, that doesn’t seem to be going so well, so far.

MR. WOOD: Well, look, our policy is still under review. And again –

QUESTION: Does the issue with the badminton team play any – will that have any effect on the review?

MR. WOOD: Obviously, the fact that this happened is something we will look at. How much of an impact it will have on the review is hard for me to tell you at this point, but it’s certainly not a good sign that, you know, this team was not able to obtain visas. So let’s just leave it at that.

QUESTION: Robert, on another subject.

MR. WOOD: On the same subject?

QUESTION: Yeah. Robert, does the policy review preclude you moving ahead on action with the P-5+1? I mean, is all P-5+1 action halted until you finish your policy review? Or can you go ahead with this track and your policy review will fit into whatever the –

MR. WOOD: As I said, you know, between now and when that review is completed, there will likely be phone conversations amongst the P-5+1 members. But we’re not looking at another meeting until after that review is completed. So in terms of action, in terms of conversations, those were some of the –

QUESTION: So then the P-5+1 – like the work of the P-5+1, even though you may have some phone discussions, is pretty much kind of on a halt until you finish your policy review?

MR. WOOD: I didn’t say that at all. I said there will be conversations. There could be other discussions that are held. We are just saying that until that policy review is completed, we likely won’t have a meeting.

QUESTION: So that means that there won’t be any action by the P-5+1?

MR. WOOD: Well, I’m not sure what you mean by action.

QUESTION: Well, any Security Council action, any move toward sanctions, something like that.

MR. WOOD: Look, it’s hard to anticipate what may come in the future. But at least right now, as I said, there will likely be telephone conversations amongst the P-5+1 members, but unlikely that there would be any kind of meeting amongst the members until after the review is completed.

QUESTION: German officials said that you were likely to meet again in – at the end of March in London. Is – would that be an indication of when your policy review will be finished?

MR. WOOD: It’s hard to say. I don’t want to – as I said, I don’t want to put a timeframe on that.

Someone – please.

QUESTION: Still on Iran.

MR. WOOD: Are we still on this subject?


QUESTION: Yeah, I’d like to stay on this subject, if I may. Sorry.

MR. WOOD: Please, James. It’s okay.

QUESTION: You just stated that Secretary Burns[1] reported to you that among the points agreed on by the P-5+1 PDs was that Iran needed to comply with its IAEA obligations. Was there also agreement among the P-5+1 PDs that Iran needs to comply with its United Nations Security Council obligations?

MR. WOOD: Well, of course, Iran needs to comply with its UN Security Council obligations. Those are codified under international law, and there’s no question about that.

QUESTION: And so it remains the view of the United States Government that by Iran continuing to enrich uranium at this very moment remains in violation of international law?

MR. WOOD: Well, look, we have spoken many times about what Iran needs to do with regard to the question of uranium enrichment. Overall, our – as I said, our policy with regard to Iran is under review. It has IAEA obligations – I’m talking about Iran – and UN obligations that it must meet. I don’t want to get into more detail than what I’ve said because we’re in the midst of a review. So – and I’ve given you the readout of my conversation with Bill Burns. So that’s where we are.

QUESTION: But my question is a simple one: If those are obligations that Iran has and those obligations, particularly with regard to the UN Security Council, carry the force and weight of international law, it follows logically that it is the view of this government that Iran, by continuing to enrich uranium, remains in violation of U.S. law. And I wonder what prevents you from agreeing to that proposition.

MR. WOOD: And my answer is very simple: Iran needs to comply with its obligations.


QUESTION: It’s Indira from Bloomberg.

MR. WOOD: Oh, Indira. I’m sorry.

QUESTION: That’s okay. Today in Baghdad, the U.S. military – the number two military commander expressed concerns about possible outbreak of violence when the results of the election are going to be announced, presumably tomorrow, and he said they’re especially concerned about that violence being instigated by the losers. Can you comment on that, and what are your concerns about that?

MR. WOOD: Well, we certainly hope that there won’t be any violence. I don’t want to speculate on what may or may not happen. But obviously, any kind of violence would be of great concern, and we obviously don’t want to see that happen.

QUESTION: What provisions are being taken? I mean, is the State Department, in cooperation with the military, doing anything in a preparatory way? Because the military has, on the record, said today that they’re concerned and bracing –

MR. WOOD: Well, I’m not going to talk to you about operational plans or anything like that. But of course, it’s something that we have to, you know, prepare for. The Iraqi Government, you know, is very concerned, obviously, about any kind of violence that could break out. But beyond that, I don’t have anything more on that.

QUESTION: Robert, what’s the status of this air base in Kyrgyzstan? What’s your understanding of the situation there? And what are the details of the lease and –

MR. WOOD: Well, Matt, I’m not going to get into the details of the lease. I’d refer you to the Pentagon for those types of things. But we are discussing the matter with – are you disappointed with my answer?

QUESTION: Well, I thought you were going to say it was under review, but you know. Have the Kyrgyz told you that you have to leave?

MR. WOOD: Look, we have not received any formal communication from the Kyrgyz authorities of any decision to close the base. But as I initially said, we’re having discussions with the Kyrgyz about this, and we’ll continue to do so.

QUESTION: Where are the – those discussion are here or in Bishkek or where?

MR. WOOD: Well, certainly our Embassy there has been engaged with the Kyrgyz authorities. Where necessary, we will back here – people are working on it back here in the Department.

QUESTION: What about in Russia?

MR. WOOD: Well, what about in Russia?

QUESTION: Well, is anyone talking to the Russians about this? They seem to have inserted themselves into the situation.

MR. WOOD: Well, you know, certainly there will be some engagement with Russia. I don’t know if that has already happened or when it will happen, but clearly that’s something that would be a topic of conversation with Russia.

QUESTION: But as you far as know, they have not formally communicated to you any decision to close the –

MR. WOOD: Absolutely no formal communication.

QUESTION: This decision –

QUESTION: Can I follow up on that?

QUESTION: This decision has been announced by the President of Kyrgyzstan, the day after a trip to Moscow. Do you see the hand of Moscow in the decision?

MR. WOOD: Again, I’m not going to draw conclusions. All I can tell you is that it’s something that we are working with the Kyrgyz authorities, and I’d like to kind of leave it at that.

QUESTION: Can I follow up?

MR. WOOD: I’m sorry?

QUESTION: Can I follow up? It’s Michele.

MR. WOOD: Yeah, I see you, Michele. You’re all the way back there. It’s hard to see.

QUESTION: Can you give us a sense of what – if there are discussions already on possible alternatives, either moving back into Uzbekistan or working more with the Russians? Because as my Russian colleague said, they say that they’re ready to cooperate.

MR. WOOD: Well, I mean, we’ll always look, you know – if necessary, we will obviously do contingency planning, you know. But right now, what we are engaged in are discussions with the Kyrgyz authorities to deal with this question of the base.

QUESTION: A different subject?

QUESTION: Same subject. I’m a little confused. You’re in discussions with them, but yet – you must have asked them, straight out, are you planning on closing the base. Why have they not been able to –

MR. WOOD: I’m not getting into the substance of the discussions, but I’m just saying that the discussions are certainly ongoing.

QUESTION: So would you say that they’re wavering over whether to close it or not or –

MR. WOOD: I’m not going to say anything more than what I’ve said.

QUESTION: Well, that just seems –

MR. WOOD: Anybody want to follow up? Please.

QUESTION: Yeah. How sensitive is this particular air force base for operation in Afghanistan?

MR. WOOD: Well, let me – you know, I’m – I don’t work at the Pentagon. I’d have to refer you to the Pentagon for any type of operational, you know, information. I’m just not capable of giving you that kind of assessment.

QUESTION: One on Britain, please. There is a – there’s a court ruling in the UK today that alleges that the United States threatened not to cooperate with intelligence with the UK if Britain released information about possible torture of a British detainee in Guantanamo. Can you tell us if at any point the U.S. told the UK not to release this information? And under the new Administration, does this still stand?

MR. WOOD: Well, first of all, it’s the first I’ve heard of it, so I’m not sure what the reports are. I certainly wouldn’t talk about, here from the podium, discussions that we’ve had with the United Kingdom on issues such as this. So I just don’t have anything for you.

QUESTION: But under the new Administration, would any rules like this stand that, you know, another country cannot release – the courts of another country cannot release –

MR. WOOD: I just don’t have anything for you on it. Hang on one second.

QUESTION: On the Guantanamo issue, the Canadians apparently are saying that they’re prepared to accept three Uighurs. Have you had – been in consultation with the Canadians? And do you have a deal for them to take some of the Uighurs?

MR. WOOD: Well, as you know, from the podium here, we have never talked about those countries with which we’ve had discussions with regard to the transfer of detainees from Guantanamo.

QUESTION: Actually, you have.

QUESTION: That’s not true.

QUESTION: That’s not true. You have.

MR. WOOD: I have?

QUESTION: Frequently.

QUESTION: Yes. Well, I don’t know if you have, but from the podium, yes. You used to talk about Albania.

MR. WOOD: Well, I’m not talking about any here.


QUESTION: Yes, a Palestinian official has said today that President Abbas will meet with George Mitchell on February 26 in Ramallah. Do you have anything on this? And does Ambassador Mitchell or Special Envoy Mitchell – or is he planning to establish an office in Jerusalem?

MR. WOOD: Well, first of all, the only thing I can tell you with regard to his travel is that he plans to – the Secretary has asked him to go back to the region, and he plans to do some – do that sometime before the end of the month. I know that he is – Senator Mitchell is looking to have a much more sustained presence in the region. I think we’re still trying to work out the details of that footprint and where it will be. So I don’t have anything new on that for you at this point, but he’s clearly very committed to going out and working on these issues, you know, as frequently as he can.

QUESTION: Are you – the Secretary and Senator – former Senator Mitchell are meeting with the President today – soon, if it’s not already happened. Are you expecting any decisions to be made on the permanent or relatively permanent presence of –

MR. WOOD: I don’t know that discussions will come out of that.

QUESTION: (Inaudible.)

MR. WOOD: Yeah, I don’t know that – you know, that – you know, decisions will come out of that meeting. They are meeting today. Senator Mitchell is briefing the President and the Secretary will be at that meeting, which I think – my schedule is somewhere around noon, so –

QUESTION: As a budgetary matter, which bureau and office is funding the work of Senator Mitchell?

MR. WOOD: Well, that’s a good question. I’ll have to look at that, but I imagine that it will come from a number of different pots, and the Near East Bureau will obviously, you know, have some – will be involved in terms of providing support. There will be others. I’m just – I am not quite clear at this moment. I can check and see.

QUESTION: Is Senator Mitchell himself drawing a salary?

MR. WOOD: Don’t know, have to look into that for you.

Let me go back to Jay.

QUESTION: I have kind of an Iran-related question and Palestinian. Admiral Mullen last week said yes, they kind of pulled over this ship, they let it go cause they didn’t think it had legal – that it had legal rights, but it’s still being basically held in Cyprus. And I’m trying to get a sense on – do you know the status of that ship? Cause people definitely believe it was carrying Iranian arms either to the Syrians or to Hamas.

And who in the U.S. Government made the legal decision that we didn’t have legal authority to either send it back to Cyprus or send it to Egypt? Because I guess there’s a debate still about, did the international community have the legal right to board that ship, and under UN resolution. And it seems like it’s still not resolved cause the Cypriots haven’t allowed the ship to go on to Syria.

MR. WOOD: Well, look, in terms of the ship and where it is and all of that, I really just don’t have that kind of information available at this point. But there are obviously some concerns about what was being carried on this ship. I’d have to refer you to Pentagon for more details of it.
QUESTION: It was a legal decision made at State? I mean, I’m just trying to get a sense of which office would make –

MR. WOOD: Well, it – well, obviously, officials from the State Department and the Defense Department and other U.S. Government agencies would obviously have discussions about this. But I don’t have anything more for you on that.


MR. WOOD: Please.

QUESTION: On United Arab Emirates, has the Department of State been in touch with the U.S. citizen that’s been arrested there, a gentleman by the name of Naji Hamdan?

MR. WOOD: Yeah, I don’t have anything. I think we may have something for you in the Press Office. I think we may have had something – we were seeing yesterday, but you might just want to check with the Press Office on that.

QUESTION: Under what scenario would the U.S. get involved with a U.S. citizen who is detained or arrested overseas? Would the Department ask for him to be returned to the U.S.?

MR. WOOD: It depends on – obviously, we are concerned about any American citizen that, you know, is detained. But with regard to the specifics of this case, I would just check with the Press Office, because I think we did – we had something to say on it. I just don’t have it off the top of my head.


QUESTION: And on Afghanistan, with the current review process going on, is the State Department consulting the Government of Afghanistan for the review process, taking their concerns and feedback?

MR. WOOD: Obviously, yes.

QUESTION: And following on that, is the State Department doing its own policy review separate from the Petraeus review in CENTCOM, separate from the Lute review that came out of NSC, its own Afghan policy review?

MR. WOOD: Well, we obviously will take a look from the State Department standpoint at our overall contributions to overall U.S. policy in Afghanistan. But – and that will feed into a much larger review of our overall policy toward Afghanistan.

Lambros, last question.

QUESTION: My last question. Mr. Wood, could you –
QUESTION: (Inaudible.)

MR. WOOD: Hang on, Lambros. Let me just finish here.

QUESTION: Hold on a second. So there isn’t a separate State Department review –

MR. WOOD: Well –

QUESTION: – separate from the military?

MR. WOOD: We will obviously do our own internal – if you want to call it a review, fine – that will feed into a much larger review on Afghanistan.

[1] Under Secretary for Political Affairs Bill Burns

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