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Middle East Digest - February 11, 2009

February 11, 2009


Bureau of Public Affairs
February 11, 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 11, 2009

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MR. WOOD: Good morning, everyone.

QUESTION: Good morning.

MR. WOOD: That sounded like “good morning, class.” (Laughter.) I don’t have anything, so why don’t we go right to your questions.

QUESTION: There was an election yesterday in Israel. It doesn’t look like we know what exactly is going to emerge out of it, but what are your thoughts about what happened?

MR. WOOD: Well, the official results are not in, so we’re not going to speculate on what kind of a government may be formed. But Israel’s a thriving democracy and it’s in a middle of a constitutional process for selecting a government. And we look forward to working with that new government once it’s formed. We have a robust agenda with the Government of Israel, as you know. And so we’re looking forward to getting down to business with the new government, with –

QUESTION: But that robust agenda may not be able to be satisfied with a center-right government, don’t you think?

MR. WOOD: Why don’t we let a new government come into being, and then we can talk about, you know, the agenda going forward.

QUESTION: Well, maybe you could talk about your robust agenda, and then we can analyze how it won’t work with this government.

MR. WOOD: You had a question?

QUESTION: Yeah. So you’re – once the government is in place, you’re ready to – ready and willing and able to work with it no matter who is leading the government and what the government’s policies might be.

MR. WOOD: The government needs to be formed. It’s obviously – it has to look at what types of policies it’s going to undertake with regard to a number of areas. And we will have discussions with that new government once – as I said, once it’s in place and go forward. But I’m not going to speculate on what type of government’s going to be formed. But the important thing here is that we look forward to working with that new government.

QUESTION: Whoever is leading it?

MR. WOOD: Whoever is leading it. That’s a decision for the Israeli people, not for the United States Government.

QUESTION: But getting it in place could take a while. I mean, how badly is this going to delay and complicate their development –

MR. WOOD: Well, you’re speculating. Look, it’s very hard to say right now as to how long it’s going to take before that government is formed. The government will be formed when the government is formed. And I can’t say anything more about it than that.

QUESTION: Would you share some of the concern expressed by U.S.-Arab allies in Egypt and other places about Avigdor Lieberman if he enters a new government?

MR. WOOD: Look, it’s not for the United States to make that kind of a characterization. This is a choice that the Israeli people will have to make. Once that new government is formed, regardless of who is in that government, we will work with that government. As I said, we have a very full, robust agenda with the Government of Israel. And that’s about all I can say on it.

QUESTION: Even with the uncertainty that there is right now, can you say if former Senator Mitchell still intends to make a trip, as announced, toward the end of this month?

MR. WOOD: I have heard nothing to indicate that he plans to, you know, change his plans.


MR. WOOD: Yes.

QUESTION: The Palestinians are saying that any future Israeli government, no matter who it may be, needs to honor Israel’s past agreements with the Palestinians, freeze all settlement activity, deal seriously with some of the Arab peace initiatives that have been out there for a comprehensive peace between Arabs and Israelis, and needs to believe and promote a two-state solution. Do you think that the new Israeli government, no matter who it should be, should stick to those principles?

MR. WOOD: Look, we’ve been working over the years with governments in Israel on trying to bring about – or trying to affect a peace process, and that’s still going to be our goal. And I believe that, you know, once a government is formed, we’ll be able to sit down with that government and talk about the various issues involved in the Middle East. But I’m not going to get ahead of the formation of a new Israeli government.

QUESTION: No, but would you expect that any Israeli government would continue on the idea of a two-state solution?

MR. WOOD: Certainly, that’s what we have been pursuing. And you know, again, let’s let a government be formed. We certainly hope that a new government will continue to pursue a path to peace. I see no reason to think that a new government would do something otherwise. But again, let’s wait for a new government to be formed, and then we can talk more about the issue.

QUESTION: Yes. Nazira Karimi for Ariana Television from Afghanistan. As you know this morning, five suicidal attack happen in Kabul and too many people died and injured. What’s the State Department reaction? And also, these attacks come the time that Mr. Holbrooke expect to visit Kabul. What do you think about these attacks? And also, do you think that Mr. Holbrooke is still planning to visit Kabul?

MR. WOOD: Well, let me just say we condemn this attack. It’s a heinous attack of terrorism. I know that the Afghan Government is going to investigate this. We hope that the culprits of this attack are brought to justice.

With regard to Ambassador Holbrooke’s visit, I can give you a readout right now of what we have in terms of what he’s done, if you all are interested in that. Want me to go forward and do that?

QUESTION: Yeah, sure.

MR. WOOD: Ambassador Holbrooke continued his visit in Pakistan. He visited tribal areas along the border with Afghanistan earlier today. He met with government and military officials, as well as leaders from civil society. In the tribal areas, Special Representative Holbrooke visited the Khyber Pass and the Bajaur Agency, where Pakistani security forces have been fighting insurgent extremists.

Ambassador Holbrooke met with local military commanders and the political agent of Mohmand Agency, and in Peshawar he met with Northwest Frontier Province Governor Ghani, the Army and Frontier Corps commanders, and NGO representatives from the Swat district, the Waziristan Agency, and the Northwest Frontier Province.

This was Ambassador Holbrooke’s second trip to Peshawar and the tribal areas in the past 10 months.

QUESTION: Do you think these attacks has a connection between – to this events, Mr. Holbrooke’s trip to Kabul?

MR. WOOD: I have no reason to be able to draw that kind of a conclusion. We just don’t know. That – those attacks are being investigated by the Afghan authorities. I cannot –

QUESTION: Robert, while Holbrooke was in the region, there was an attack actually there in Pakistan. Can you – was he anywhere near where that happened?

MR. WOOD: I don’t believe so, no.

QUESTION: Can I just follow on that?

MR. WOOD: Sure.

QUESTION: Robert, as far as Mr. Holbrooke’s appointment, and also now I heard yesterday that Mr. Bruce Riedel also in the game, you think somebody didn’t like Mr. Holbrooke or his mission already, or what will be the mission, or how do they divide between the two?

MR. WOOD: Well, again, as was announced by the White House yesterday, by Spokesman Gibbs, that Bruce Riedel is going to chair this Afghan review and – this policy review on U.S. policy toward Afghan and Pakistan, I should be more specific.


MR. WOOD: Yes. And Ambassador Holbrooke is going to be one of the co-chairs. Michelle Flournoy, who is the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, is the other co-chair. And they’re looking to conduct an expeditious review of our overall policy toward those two countries. Ambassador Holbrooke, being a co-chair, will have a very active role in this. And you know, we look forward to seeing a review completed, you know, as quickly as possible.

QUESTION: How is that going to fit into the review that’s being done by General Petraeus?

MR. WOOD: Well, look –

QUESTION: Are they parallel? Are they going to be working together to come up with, you know, one strategy or –

MR. WOOD: Well, the overall review with regard to Afghanistan and Pakistan that we’re very focused on right now is a much broader review than the one being conducted by General Petraeus, although that will feed in overall to this review being undertaken by Bruce Riedel, Ambassador Holbrooke and Michelle Flournoy. So that’s my description.

QUESTION: (Inaudible.)

QUESTION: Much broader in what sense? I mean –

MR. WOOD: Well, it’s looking at it, again, across the various elements that we’re working on: political, military, economic, development. And so that’s what the overall review that’s being conducted will –

QUESTION: So who will be –

QUESTION: And – just one more. I mean, do you expect General Petraeus just to confine himself to making, sort of, military recommendations with no sort of –

MR. WOOD: You know, look, General Petraeus will make recommendations across – on various issues, should he choose to. You know, his advice is well-respected by all senior officials in the U.S. Government. So I would, you know, expect that he would make other types of recommendations outside of the military arena.

QUESTION: So then who will be the boss between the two and who will report to whom?

MR. WOOD: I don’t understand the question.

QUESTION: The two of them. I mean, are they going to report directly to the President or to the Secretary?

MR. WOOD: Which two are you talking about?

QUESTION: Mr. Holbrooke and Mr. Riedel.

MR. WOOD: Well, look, this is a review. And once that review is done, that review will be presented by the three to the President. And so that’s the best way I can describe it to you.

QUESTION: And one more, finally.

MR. WOOD: Sure.

QUESTION: As far as A.Q. Khan’s mission or network is concerned, as we know in the past already, now he’s a free man to travel anywhere and then – and now we have (inaudible) direct threat from Iranians on which he was the source to give technology to Iran. What surety or assurance you have now from the new government or from the military government or from the both in Pakistan that he will not continue his network or he will not deliver all this technology to the al-Qaida or Usama bin Ladin, which they had been seeking?

MR. WOOD: Well, as I mentioned yesterday, Deputy Secretary Steinberg met with the Pakistani foreign minister in Munich and expressed our concern about the court decision. And we were looking – you know, Deputy Secretary Steinberg was looking for assurances from the Pakistani Government that Mr. Khan would not continue to be a proliferation threat. We were given those assurances. We’ll have to see how things go. We certainly don’t want to see that black market up and operating, and we’ll continue to follow the issue very closely. But we’ve – you know, the Deputy Secretary received assurances from the Pakistani Government, so –

QUESTION: And can you say definitively whether Holbrooke raised this or not in his meetings?

MR. WOOD: I think he certainly raised this issue.

QUESTION: And was given the same assurances?

MR. WOOD: I haven’t gotten a readout from Ambassador Holbrooke, you know, on that.

QUESTION: But, Robert, how can they stop him when they couldn’t do it in the past? When he’s a free man now, I mean, of course, the assurance has been given, but –

MR. WOOD: Well, as I said, we were concerned by the court’s decision, and that’s why, you know, Deputy Secretary Steinberg wanted to make sure that the Pakistanis understood how seriously we take this and wanted assurances, and was given verbal assurances. And we’ll just have to see how that plays out.

QUESTION: Robert –

MR. WOOD: Let me go to someone else for just a –

QUESTION: Apparently, Russia agreed to allow shipment of U.S. goods through its territories to Afghanistan (inaudible). U.S. officials are there in Russia these days?

MR. WOOD: Yeah, there was a team led by Deputy Assistant Secretary Pat Moon that recently was – I think was in Moscow for talks with Russian officials on a wide range of matters concerning Afghanistan. Of course, one of those issues was the transit agreement which the Russians have said that they would support, and that’s basically allowing us to ship – to transport nonlethal supplies to ISAF forces through Russian territory into Afghanistan. So they had meetings yesterday and today. I don’t have a further readout on that, other than they were very good discussions.

QUESTION: You can’t say what the Russians are offering?

MR. WOOD: I haven’t gotten a readout yet, as I said.

QUESTION: Is Kazakhstan now providing transport for nonlethal aid as well?

MR. WOOD: Well, I have to look at that. I don’t know.

QUESTION: Another subject?

MR. WOOD: Yes.

QUESTION: I have a question on Iran. The U.S. has been sending signals to the Iranian Government that it’s ready for talks. The Iranian president yesterday sent the same signal that it’s ready for talks with the U.S. on mutual respect basis. What’s next? Who’s going to have to take the next step?

MR. WOOD: Well, look, the President and the Secretary were very clear in terms of what we want to do with regard to Iran in terms of engagement. We will be spelling out more specifics, of course, once that review is completed. But certainly, we look forward to having direct engagement with Iran. And we’ve said that we want to reach out to the Iranian people. The Iranians are a proud people. It is a very important nation. There are a lot of regional issues where Iran could play a helpful role. We want to see Iran play a much more positive role in the Middle East, in South Asia, and, you know, our hand is extended to Iran. So –

QUESTION: So basically, are you going to wait until the review is done to make any decisions on –

MR. WOOD: Well, I mean, the review is important to our going forward with regard to our policy vis-à-vis Iran. So we hope to complete that review, you know, as quickly as we can and go forward. But again, as the President and the Secretary have said, we really do want to engage Iran and – but we still remain concerned, of course, by Iranian behavior around the world, so – I’ll leave it at that.

QUESTION: Can I follow up on that?

MR. WOOD: Yes, Michelle.

QUESTION: Last week, the Treasury Department put an Iranian Kurdish group on a terrorism sanctions list, PJAK, and a lot of Iran watchers saw that as an overture. Was it?

MR. WOOD: Look, I can’t tell you what Iran watchers are thinking or saying, but as I’ve said, we remain concerned about a number of things that Iran has been doing. But we want to reach out to Iran, and we will be outlining, as I said, those steps once that review is completed.


QUESTION: Yeah, the review – can you give us any ideas how long it will take? Will it be before the Iranian elections? Can you give us any idea?

MR. WOOD: It’s hard for me to give you that kind of an idea, but it’s going to be a very thorough review, and we’re going to be looking at all aspects of our policies toward Iran, and try to do what we think makes best sense in terms of reaching out to Iran. But I couldn’t put a timeframe on it for you at this point.

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