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Middle East Digest - March 2, 2009


March 2, 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 March 2, 2009

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11:36 a.m. EST

MR. DUGUID: Good morning, everyone. I hope you all had a safe commute into the State Department today. I would like to begin just giving you a rundown of Secretary Clinton’s meetings in Sharm el-Sheikh today.

She began with a meeting of Prime Minister Nazif and Foreign Minister Aboul Gheit – that’s from Egypt – followed up with a meeting with President Mubarak. She also, during the course of the day, in addition to attending the plenary sessions of the conference, met with French President Sarkozy and Italian Prime Minister Berlusconi, with Bahraini King Hamad. There was an informal Quartet meeting, as well, on the margins. And she then met with the UAE Foreign Minister Al Nuhayyan before meeting with Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud Al Faisal.

She also had meetings with the Norwegian Foreign Minister Stoere and UN Secretary General Ban, as well as Lebanese Prime Minister Siniora, in addition to other chance meetings or pull-asides, if you will, with Moroccans, Algerian, Tunisian, and Libyan representatives there, all foreign ministers.

And with that rundown ––

QUESTION: You don’t count the Syrians as a –

MR. DUGUID: No, I do not have that information here, so I take it that that did not happen.

QUESTION: Okay. Can you explain a little bit further what this 900 million in assistance is going for?

MR. DUGUID: I can give you a general breakdown. We are working with our colleagues at USAID to try and get you a fact sheet. But in general, in three tranches, if I can do it that way, up to $300 million will go to meet urgent humanitarian needs, including those identified under the UN appeal, and support for the Palestinian Authority’s plan for Gaza. This is to be provided through USAID in coordination with UN agencies, international organizations and USAID grantees, and through the Department of State for the UN agencies, ICRC, and other humanitarian organizations. So that’s 300 million in the first bit.

200 million in budget support to address the Palestinian Authority’s anticipated 1.15 billion budget shortfall for 2009. And then a third block of funding, up to 400 million in 2009, to support priorities identified in the Palestinian Reform and Development Plan that will help the Palestinian Authority solidify economic and institutional reforms in the West Bank. This includes support for private sector development, essential public infrastructure improvements in the West Bank, and security sector assistance coordinated by the U.S. Security Coordinator.

QUESTION: So the only bit that’s going to Gaza is the – up to 300 million?

MR. DUGUID: That is new money that is going to Gaza. That is correct. But there has been funding previously that has been earmarked for Gaza.

QUESTION: How much of that 300 million is actually for reconstruction and – rather than for –

MR. DUGUID: I don’t have that breakdown for you. That’s the breakdown that we’re hoping to get by (inaudible).

QUESTION: Right. I think you’ll find that the answer is zero when you do get the answer. So –

MR. DUGUID: Well, we’ll wait and see what answer we get from USAID.

QUESTION: And where is the – where does this money come from? How much of it has been previously pledged?

MR. DUGUID: It is my understanding that this is new funding. We released a short statement on Friday giving the previously pledged levels of funding for the Palestinian Authority.

QUESTION: The 200 million in budget support is not from previous pledges?

MR. DUGUID: Again, we’ll wait for the fact sheet to come out to get the breakdown between what is new in ’09 and what was planned for fiscal ’09.

QUESTION: Is any part of the 300 million for the humanitarian aid? You mentioned it’s going to go towards what the PA says that is needed in Gaza and UNRWA. So based on those, can – how much of that is actually reconstruction, i.e., buildings, roads, reconstruction?

MR. DUGUID: Again, I don’t have a breakdown between humanitarian aid – that is, food and medicine, and reconstruction – that is, bricks and mortar dollar figures – for you. We’ll try and get that.

QUESTION: Can you – for the 400 million, which you said would include priorities identified in the Palestinian development plan that would include essential public services infrastructure, can you – just so taxpayers can understand what the money is going for, if you could actually get details on whether that means roads or telecommunications, electricity?

MR. DUGUID: We will. We will ask. We’ve asked the questions. The details haven’t come to us yet.

QUESTION: Change of subject?

QUESTION: Well, just how much is for food and medicine, then, if it’s the urgent needs of the 300 million?

MR. DUGUID: If I can’t give the breakout for the reconstruction part, then I can’t honestly give you a breakdown for the food and medicine.

QUESTION: Okay. If you could find out, and if it does turn out that, in fact, the reconstruction part of the 300 million is zero, can you explain why that is?

MR. DUGUID: We’ll always explain why, Matt.

QUESTION: To our satisfaction?

MR. DUGUID: Well, as detailed as I can possibly get.

QUESTION: Different subject?

MR. DUGUID: Different subject? Yes, please. Go ahead.

QUESTION: Can you tell us what the U.S. Government’s understanding of the status of American citizen Roxana Saberi in Iran is, and what action State has taken in relation to it?

MR. DUGUID: The – her status is unclear at the moment. We asked the Iranian authorities to help by providing information about her status. We have engaged the – our protecting power, Switzerland, in contacting the Iranian authorities to try and locate Ms. Saberi and find out exactly what is the case. The State Department has been in touch with her family and we’re working with them, offering them what assistance that we can. At the moment, we don’t have details back yet from our request through the Swiss.

QUESTION: You said that they will be asked – the Iranian authorities?

MR. DUGUID: Yes.

QUESTION: But you do that only through the Swiss, correct?

MR. DUGUID: Yes, correct.

QUESTION: And is she indeed a dual national, Iranian and U.S. –

MR. DUGUID: I don’t have a Privacy waiver, but she is an American citizen.

QUESTION: And how long have these discussions been going on?

MR. DUGUID: This took place over the weekend.

QUESTION: Any comment on the statement out of Iran that the reason for her arrest appears to have been related to the purchase of wine and activity – journalistic activities?

MR. DUGUID: I don’t have a good report from our protecting power on exactly what her disposition is, let alone what the charges are, so I would withhold comment right now on it.

QUESTION: When you say you don’t have a good report, you don’t have any information on what occurred?

MR. DUGUID: I don’t have any information other than what I’ve just shared with you.

QUESTION: Do you have any sense whether this is Tehran trying to send some kind of message?

MR. DUGUID: I wouldn’t speculate. I wouldn’t speculate.

Yes.

QUESTION: Neighboring country. Over the weekend, Afghan President Hamid Karzai called for bringing forward the Afghan elections from August to April. It’s not clear whether this is actually going to happen, and the election commission, I don’t believe, has yet commented on this. Does the Obama Administration think it would be a good idea to move the election forward, in line with the constitution, but not in line with the electoral commission’s previous decision to hold it in August?

MR. DUGUID: The timing of the elections must be resolved in a way that leads to credible and secure elections accepted by the voters. This also needs to be an Afghan process. The United States is interested only in a credible and open process that will support the outcome of such an election. Our interest, of course, is in supporting stability and security and the constitutional Government of Afghanistan, to which we are contributing significant assistance.

The problem is one that has been discussed for some time, and the electoral commission has made an announcement. The president has now weighed in on what he thinks might work. But I think our parameters are clear.

QUESTION: Well, do you think a credible and secure election can be held in seven weeks?

MR. DUGUID: The Afghans will have to decide whether or not they can do that. I don’t have a barometer for you from this podium on that.

QUESTION: Can you describe how the Secretary has reached out to President Karzai and how other U.S. officials have engaged him on this issue?

MR. DUGUID: I don’t have details to discuss with you on discussions of this topic. The Afghans, as you know, had a high-level delegation here last week and met with senior levels of the U.S. Government.

QUESTION: And was that broached?

MR. DUGUID: The – they talked about a wide range of issues leading to greater security in Afghanistan, and having good democratic elections is one of those that comes up, yes, when we do discuss that.

QUESTION: What light can you shed on reports that Secretary Clinton says that she doubts whether Iran will respond to Obama Administration diplomatic overtures?

MR. DUGUID: I think that, you know, as the party is traveling in this fishbowl that – of international attention on the issues, we need to remember that we’re currently under a review of our Iran policy and the conclusions of which we’ll lay out in a framework at a future date.

But the President and the Secretary have stated that the United States is committed to engaging Iran, but we have no illusions about the difficulties of doing that. It’s clear that there are differences between us and the Iranian Government, and at least one purpose of our engagement is to see if it’s possible to overcome these difficulties. And I will not re-interpret the Secretary’s words, but I see it as a restatement that we are willing to engage, but there is no guarantee that the Iranians, who have not been very forthcoming heretofore, are at the same stage as we are.

QUESTION: And meanwhile, Iran is coming out and again insisting that its economic – I mean, its nuclear development is solely for civilian energy purposes. Any reaction to that?

MR. DUGUID: I would just refer you to the IAEA reports and comments by the people who are doing the inspecting on the ground.

QUESTION: Just regarding the IAEA meeting in Vienna –

MR. DUGUID: Yes.

QUESTION: – can you list your expectations for that meeting, or is it because the policy is under review that you can’t really enunciate a position?

MR. DUGUID: I think we’ll wait and see what the meeting has to produce, and then we’ll take that into account in the policy review as we go forward.

QUESTION: Mr. El Baradei said that it would be helpful to the IAEA’s efforts if the United States were to do more to try to engage the Iranians. Does that make you any more inclined to try to coax Iran into a dialogue?

MR. DUGUID: I don’t see any coaxing going on here. The Administration is prepared to engage with Iran at a time and place that the President should choose. But if I can fall back on his metaphor of the clenched fist, an open hand has not been extended to us yet.

QUESTION: Yeah, are there discussions underway with China about providing a supply route to Afghanistan?

MR. DUGUID: I’ve seen these press reports just before coming in. I would refer you to the Department of Defense for any discussion of the operational means by which we will further our options for supplying troops in Afghanistan.

QUESTION: Was there any hesitation about Secretary Clinton going to Israel in the midst of parliamentary maneuvers to create a government there?

MR. DUGUID: The Secretary, as you know, is traveling in conjunction with the conference on Gaza at Sharm el-Sheikh; therefore, her view is not one looking at Israeli politics, but one looking at trying to help resolve the immediate problem in Gaza and building ties to resolve the long-term problems in the region.

QUESTION: Just –

MR. DUGUID: Yes, sorry. Same subject?

QUESTION: Well, related. Israel demolished two Palestinian homes in East Jerusalem. The stated reason was that they were built without permits. The Palestinians argue that it’s almost impossible to get permits to build. And do you have any comment on this? Do you object to the destruction of such homes?

MR. DUGUID: I saw a press report just before coming in, so I don’t have the details. I will see if we can find anything for you on that one.

Sorry, behind you, Lach, and then up. Yes, please.

QUESTION: Sorry for bouncing around, but just to return to the Roxana Saberi issue. I mean, if State is undertaking a review of Iran policy, is this something that factors into that review and could it affect the outcome?

MR. DUGUID: Protection of American citizens is not subject to any review. It’s something that we do. It’s our first duty as the State Department. Our consular duty is our first and foremost duty.

QUESTION: Just back to Israel. Do you have any comment on the Israeli army radio report that settlements are set to double? I forgot exactly over what period of time, but do you have anything to say about Israeli settlements at this point?

MR. DUGUID: What we do have to say we have said many times from this podium, that we call on both sides not to do – take any actions that exacerbate tensions in the region. But I don’t have any particular information on this report that you mention.

(The briefing was concluded at 11:59 a.m.)



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