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Middle East Digest - February 25, 2009


February 25, 2009

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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 25, 2009

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10:38 a.m. EST

MR. WOOD: Good morning, everyone. Welcome to the briefing. I’m just going to start off with some words about the crash of the Turkish airliner in Amsterdam. I’ll give you what I have.
At 10:23 am local time today, a Turkish airliner, flight 1951 from Istanbul to Amsterdam crashed outside Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport. We express our deep condolences to the families of those killed. As of the time of my remarks here, no deaths of U.S. citizens have been reported.

The U.S. Consulate General in Amsterdam will be in direct contact with the families of any U.S. citizens who were passengers on the plane. A consular officer has been dispatched to the airport. Inquiries should be directed to the Turkish Airlines’ Family Assistance Center. At this time, Turkish Airlines has established a passenger information center, and the toll-free number will be available shortly for family or friends of those who may have been on board flight number 1951. That number is 90-212-463-6363, extension 4312.

Okay, with that, I’ll take your questions.

QUESTION: Iranian official today announced that they have started carrying on the power plant in Bushehr. Any comment on that?

MR. WOOD: Well, we are aware of the reports about, you know, the Bushehr nuclear reactor. But I’d have to refer you to the Russian Government for more details of that.

But you know, the fuel supply and spent fuel return arrangements that have been worked out between Iran and Russia are an appropriate mechanism for Iran to receive the benefits of the peaceful use of nuclear energy. And so it also, I think, demonstrates that Iran does not need to develop any kind of indigenous, you know, uranium enrichment capacity. So that’s all I have for you on that.

QUESTION: This plant still needs some testing -- that it could take several months. Are you going to ask the Russians to delay the opening of the plant or, do you think it’s a good thing if it works, actually?

MR. WOOD: Well, again, what we want to – what we have been trying to emphasize is that Iran doesn’t need to develop its own nuclear capacity. We think the – what the Russians are doing with regard to the fuel supply and spent fuel arrangements are an appropriate mechanism. And so, I’ll just leave it at that.

QUESTION: But what about the centrifuges?

MR. WOOD: Well, again, I’m just referring specifically to what the Russians and the Iranians are talking about. I don’t have anymore details on the – with regard to the centrifuge aspect of this.

Yes.

QUESTION: A new topic? On Gaza, there have been some reports that the United States is quite displeased with the Israeli government about the amount of goods that the Israeli government is allowing into Gaza. For instance, they’re making such restrictions on dual use that is kind of arbitrary and not necessarily in line with what the humanitarian needs are in Gaza. Can you say what, at this point, the State Department assessment of the amount of aid that’s going into Gaza right now?

MR. WOOD: I’m not prepared here to give you an assessment of the type of aid that’s going in, but we have --

QUESTION: Are you satisfied with the level of aid?

MR. WOOD: Well, look, the situation on the ground there, as you know, is very complicated. And what we have been trying to do is ensure that, you know, humanitarian assistance gets to the people of Gaza. We will continue to try to do that, but as I said, it’s complicated. And we have had discussions with the Israelis about the situation. Other countries have, as well. And we’ll continue to push to get as much in the way of humanitarian supplies into Gaza as we can. It’s the best assessment I can give you.

QUESTION: Well, just one example that is (inaudible) on the press that the Israelis are not letting pasta into Gaza, only rice, because that’s a humanitarian – because that’s only on their humanitarian things. Do think that all food and medicine should be allowed into Gaza right now?

MR. WOOD: Well, look, there are a number of players on the ground trying to deal with the humanitarian situation. I, from the podium here, can’t tell you whether, you know, pasta should fall into a specific category – into that category of humanitarian assistance or not. But what we’re trying to do is to make sure that the supplies that –

QUESTION: Well, apparently, U.S. officials have been complaining about this particular example. So, I mean, I’m just saying, like, shouldn’t all food and medicine be allowed into Gaza at this point? I mean, is that really a -- even a question about dual use?

MR. WOOD: What we want to see get into Gaza are humanitarian supplies that, you know -- that the Gazan -- the people of Gaza need. I can’t give you an assessment of, you know, whether all of these things are absolutely necessary to meet the humanitarian needs of the Gazan people. That’s better left to those international organizations and NGOs, you know, who are in the area trying to work on this issue. I just can’t make that kind of determination.

QUESTION: Do you think that Israel should be tying the amount of aid and supplies getting into Gaza to the release of Corporal Gilad Shalit? Because as you know, the -- some people in Israeli Prime Minister Olmert’s staff have complained that this – that aid is being used as a political tool.

MR. WOOD: Well, it’s not for me, from the podium here, to engage in these types of -- on these issues. I mean, this is --

QUESTION: Well, should aid -- you don’t -- you can’t say whether you think aid should be used as a political weapon?

MR. WOOD: Well, aid should never be used a political weapon. But again, I’m not engaged in those discussions that are going on with regard to, you know, the opening of the borders and with regard to the ceasefire. Those are decisions that will have to be made at an appropriate time. I’m not able to do that from here.

QUESTION: Well, but I mean, do you think that the ceasefire is being honored? I mean, obviously, there have been complaints that Hamas is not honoring the ceasefire. But is Israel honoring the ceasefire in terms of allowing the aid and – under their obligations? Are they meeting their obligations?

MR. WOOD: Well, I’m not able to give you that kind of assessment from here. But my understanding is, is that there are discussions going on amongst a wide variety of parties with equities with regard to this conflict, and they are trying to bring about, you know, a durable ceasefire. They’re trying to make sure that the, you know, humanitarian supplies reach those who need them in Gaza. I just can’t give you that kind of assessment at this point. It’s a very complex situation on the ground, and that’s something we have to be aware of.

QUESTION: (Inaudible.)

MR. WOOD: Mm-hmm.

QUESTION: No, go ahead.

MR. WOOD: No, I was just going to say – and you have to understand that because it’s complex and there are a number of parties working on it, that you’re not going to get – necessarily get immediate results. But we’re going to continue to push, as I said, to get humanitarian supplies in to the people of Gaza.

QUESTION: But can you imagine any circumstance under which pasta could be considered a dual-use item? Or is there some -- you know, is rigatoni somehow going to be used as a weapon? (Laughter.)

MR. WOOD: I’m not involved in those discussions, so I –

QUESTION: Well, I mean -- I mean, it just seems to be absurd on the face of it, if that’s what happening.

MR. WOOD: Well, there are people on the ground who are dealing with these issues. And I think we should leave it --

QUESTION: Dealing with the pasta dual-use issue?

QUESTION: Yeah, can you take a question on the pasta, please?

MR. WOOD: I’m not going to take the question on the pasta --

QUESTION: Why?

MR. WOOD: -- because it’s –

QUESTION: Well, the United States is obviously pushing it, so obviously it’s something --

MR. WOOD: We’re trying to get humanitarian supplies in – on the ground to the people in Gaza.

QUESTION: Do you think food is a humanitarian supply?

MR. WOOD: Food certainly is.

QUESTION: All kinds of food?

MR. WOOD: I – I’m not able to tell you from here whether it –

QUESTION: Can you get a – can you take the question of what kind of food that the U.S. thinks is a humanitarian supply?

MR. WOOD: I’m not going to take that question, because I don’t think it’s a legitimate question.

QUESTION: You don’t think it’s legitimate that the Palestinians need certain foods and is – should Israel decide what food the Palestinians need?

MR. WOOD: I’m sorry, Elise, I’m not going to – I’ve spoken on it.

QUESTION: Have your ace geographers been able to determine what Southwest Asia is and thereby figure out what exactly Dennis Ross’s mandate is?

MR. WOOD: I’m so shocked that you asked that question. Let me give you my best – our best read of this. From our standpoint, the countries that make up areas of the Gulf and Southwest Asia include Bahrain, Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Yemen, and those are the countries.

QUESTION: Not – not Afghanistan and Pakistan?

MR. WOOD: Look, Ambassador Ross will look at the entire region, should he be asked to, including Afghanistan. But this is something that would be worked out. You were – you asked the question yesterday about Ambassador Holbrooke and whether there was going to be some kind of, I don’t know, conflict over who is working in – on that particular issues in that country.

Look, Ambassador Ross and Ambassador Holbrooke will work together where necessary if they need to, if there’s some kind of overlap. But that’s, in essence, the State Department’s geographical breakdown of Southwest Asia.

QUESTION: Okay. So it does not – it is not the same breakdown as the military uses?

MR. WOOD: No, the military uses a different breakdown, but I’d have to refer you to them for their specific breakdown.

QUESTION: So it doesn’t include Jordan? It doesn’t include --

MR. WOOD: I just gave you the breakdown as I – as the State Department breaks it down.

QUESTION: So if Ambassador Ross is special envoy – special advisor for Gulf and Southwest Asia, what is the difference between Gulf and Southwest Asia?

MR. WOOD: Look --

QUESTION: For me, this is Gulf.

MR. WOOD: Well, it may be for you. For others, it may be different. I’d have to – I’ve given you what the Department’s position is with regard to the geographic makeup of the region.

QUESTION: Okay. But on Iran, like for instance, if someone – if the United States wanted to engage Iran on, for instance, Afghanistan, and you’ve said before from this podium that Afghanistan could play – Iran, sorry, could play a helpful role in Afghanistan – who would be kind of handling that? Would that be the special advisor for Southwest Asia in Iran, or would it be the special advisor for Afghanistan and Pakistan? Because Ambassador Holbrooke has said that he thought Iran could play a helpful role, and that suggests that he might be handling that kind of dialogue.

MR. WOOD: Well, this is—again, this is speculation. You know, we’ll have to see what happens if, indeed, we get to that point about who handles an issue with regard to Iran. It really depends on, you know, a variety of factors. I can’t – it’s hypothetical, so I just can’t give you an answer specifically on that. So --

QUESTION: Was Saudi Arabia on that list?

QUESTION: Yes. You know, I’m a little confused because in your statement to announce Dennis Ross’s appointment as the Southwest Asia person, you referred to two wars in the region. So which is the other war? Iraq – was Afghanistan part of that and then you took it away because of Holbrooke’s complaints or --

MR. WOOD: No.

QUESTION: Just a wee bit confused here.

MR. WOOD: No, there are two wars that are raging in that region, and I’m talking about the larger region.

QUESTION: But that was included within the Southwest Asia that you demarcated in the statement.

MR. WOOD: Right. Like I said, Afghanistan is one of those issues where you have a lot of individuals who have some interests and equities in dealing with it. And as I said, if we get to a point where there is a need to have both Ambassador Ross and Ambassador Holbrooke engaging on different elements of it, they will. And they will certainly – you know, they’ll do that. But we are very clear in that statement, I think, in terms of where we see wars raging and the need to have appropriate people working on these issues.

QUESTION: Because in the CIA fact book, a book which a lot of people use, Southwest Asia does include Afghanistan. So --

MR. WOOD: Well, that’s the CIA. I’m giving you – again, I gave you what the State Department’s position is on the region.

QUESTION: Well, it sounds like you – it sounds like you have a turf battle brewing, if not already begun. Maybe you should lock Holbrooke and Ross up in a room and fight it out?

MR. WOOD: That’s your characterization. There’s no turf war going on here.

QUESTION: Well, no, Robert, because I believe that originally, Afghanistan was included in this – in Dennis’s (inaudible) here, and it’s interesting that it’s been taken out, so --

QUESTION: So was it removed, though, because – with the wars referring to the war in Afghanistan? I mean, was it removed because --

MR. WOOD: I just spelled this out for you. I don’t have anything more to say on it.

MR. WOOD: Yes.

QUESTION: The Syrian ambassador, do you have anything to announce? Is he going to meet with the deputy --

MR. WOOD: Yeah, there – apparently, there’s a date. Does anybody know the date? We can get it for you because I think I’ve seen it. I just can’t remember what the date is off the top of my --

QUESTION: Is it today?

MR. WOOD: I don’t believe it’s today. I don’t – but I’ll have to check. We’ll get back to you on that.

QUESTION: Yes, I have two questions on Sharm el-Sheikh. First, is there any Quartet meeting in Sharm el-Sheikh?

MR. WOOD: I think the schedule is still being worked out, so we’ll get you that information once we have it. But I don’t have the details yet.

QUESTION: The second: Is Secretary Clinton planning to meet with the Syrian foreign ministers – foreign minister in Sharm el-Sheikh?

MR. WOOD: Not that I’m aware of.

QUESTION: Thank you.

QUESTION: The Spanish foreign minister yesterday said they’re willing to take prisoners from Guantanamo. What’s your understanding of the status of that agreement, and who might be stepping up at this point?

MR. WOOD: Well, as you know, we never really get into the specifics of discussions with regard to detainees in terms of our conversations with countries. I know that Minister Moratinos did mention that in a press conference. I don’t want to go into specifics of those conversations, but yes, the question of detainees at Guantanamo did come up in the meeting.

Yes.

(The briefing was concluded at 10:57 a.m.)



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