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Middle East Digest - March 3, 2009


March 3, 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 3, 2009

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11:11 a.m. EST

MR. DUGUID: Good morning, everyone. I’d like to again lead off today with a brief rundown of Secretary Clinton’s meetings on her visit to Israel, and then I’ll go to your questions after that.

She has met today with Israeli President Peres, with also Foreign Minister Livni, and with Defense Minister Barak. She’s also had a meeting with the Israeli Prime Minister-designate Benjamin Netanyahu. About now, if my time zone calculation is correct, she should be having a working dinner with Prime Minister Olmert.

I know that many of you have followed the discussions and the press briefings that she has given. She has been doing public events on her visit. Today she visited the Holocaust art museum and had a wreath-laying ceremony with the chief rabbi in Israel at the Hall of Remembrance.

I also know that many of you have followed her statements earlier today that the State Department will be sending a representative to Damascus as part of her visit to the region, in an effort to look at the comprehensive peace process that we are trying to build there. Senator Mitchell is with the Secretary today and will be with her tomorrow in the West Bank.

With that, I’m ready to go to your questions.

QUESTION: When are – when are they – as part of this trip, they’re going to be going to Damascus?

MR. DUGUID: As part of – as a separate trip during this current visit by the Secretary to the region, yes, there will be a two-person team that goes to Damascus. We are finalizing the details today. And as soon as we have more of those, we’ll be happy to get that to you.

QUESTION: So in other words, between now and Saturday?

MR. DUGUID: Yes, indeed.

Okay, yes.

QUESTION: Do you expect for Shapiro and Feltman to go with her to Europe?

MR. DUGUID: I do expect that Acting Assistant --

QUESTION: Or will they stay behind?

MR. DUGUID: -- Secretary Feltman and Dan Shapiro will visit Damascus and will be able to calculate their other travel, depending on how the meetings go and how the schedule develops.

QUESTION: Yeah, I know. But I mean, are they going to go with her to Brussels and Geneva?

MR. DUGUID: We don’t have the final details yet on --

QUESTION: Right.

MR. DUGUID: -- when they will break off. But as soon as we have those details, we will get them to you.

QUESTION: And Mitchell’s not going?

MR. DUGUID: No, sir.

QUESTION: So the Syrian ambassador was right last week when he said the talks here would lead to another round of talks, when the State Department – when Robert Wood himself – said there would be no guarantee of further talks.

MR. DUGUID: Well, they’re not --

QUESTION: This is very clear.

MR. DUGUID: They’re not there yet. We’re working on the details to get them there. And this is one effort, on our part, to engage with the Syrians on what productive roles they could play, not only for Middle East peace, but also on Iraq.

Do we want to engage with the Syrians? Yes, we do. Yes, indeed we do. Is this meeting a meeting that will help us see if that process can continue? Yes, it will. But I don’t want to predict for you that there will be a series of meetings or that this will become a regular feature. We’ll see what this meeting – next meeting produces, and then we’ll go from there.

QUESTION: Are they going to discuss the possibility of restoring a U.S. ambassador to Syria?

MR. DUGUID: Since no decision on that has been made, I can’t predict what will come up in the discussions. We’ll be talking about a range of bilateral and multilateral issues. But as these discussions go, it’s very hard to predict what will and won’t come up.

QUESTION: How does it advance U.S. interest not to have an ambassador there?

MR. DUGUID: How does it advance the U.S. interest to put an ambassador in place before we’ve come to an understanding on what it is we want to work with the Syrians on? The talks have never stopped with Syria. We have had a chargé in place. We have also had discussions here. It’s – it would in a normal relationship be unusual to have – not have an ambassador in place. We’ve not had a normal relationship for some time. We’re working with the other foreign policy agencies in the U.S. Government to develop a better relationship, or the means for a better relationship with Syria. But this can’t be unreciprocated. We have to have some form of moving forward positively before we’re going to consider how we’re going to staff the embassy there.

QUESTION: So you need something from them before you’re going to send an ambassador?

MR. DUGUID: I’m just saying we are looking at our Syria policy right now. We are discussing our relationship with the Syrians. I don’t have to go down for you the list of things that we are – you know, differences that we have with them at the moment. We’ll see where these meetings go before we go to a next step.

QUESTION: Did you consult ahead of time with the Turks on this? Because the Turks have played mediator between Israel and --

MR. DUGUID: I don’t have anything on the diplomatic discussions that may have preceded this.

QUESTION: When was the last time the assistant secretary went – an assistant secretary went to Damascus?

MR. DUGUID: The only – the last visit by any U.S. Government official was in January of 2005 by Deputy Secretary Armitage.

QUESTION: Are you --

MR. DUGUID: I don’t know --

QUESTION: No, no.

QUESTION: Hasn’t Mr. – Ambassador Foley gone several times to talk about the Iraq refugee issue?

MR. DUGUID: I have here that it was Secretary – Deputy Secretary Armitage was last U.S.G official to travel to Damascus. If I’m in error, I apologize. And we’ll find out something for you.

QUESTION: Yeah, that’s definitely wrong. But I mean, I don’t know, maybe if you’re talking about deputies and secretaries then. But I’m asking specifically the last time that an NEA assistant secretary went.

MR. DUGUID: We’ll get an answer for you. Because if my information is wrong, then we’ll completely revise and find out what the answer is.

QUESTION: There are stories from Beirut that Assistant Secretary Feltman is going to visit Beirut this week, too.

MR. DUGUID: I don’t have more information on any further travel by Assistant Secretary Feltman. If I get something more on his travels, I will let you know. Obviously, we’ll have to see what the arrangements are with Syria before I can give you any more information on further travels.

QUESTION: One more on Iran. Iran’s foreign minister said yesterday that an American Iranian freelance journalist Roxana Saberi was detained more than a month. Do you have anything on that?

MR. DUGUID: I addressed this yesterday. We have seen press reports that Ms. Saberi has been detained under a judicial order. I don’t have an official communication of that from our protecting power, but we continue to request assistance from the Iranian Government in identifying Ms. Saberi’s whereabouts. We’re working with the Swiss Embassy in Tehran to seek additional information, as I noted, about her whereabouts and circumstances.

If Ms. Saberi is being detained by Iranian authorities, we urge the Government of Iran to provide access to legal advice, a transparent judicial process, and consular access for a Swiss consular official.

QUESTION: Thank you.

MR. DUGUID: You’re welcome.

QUESTION: Can we stick with this for a second?

MR. DUGUID: Yes.

QUESTION: At a congressional hearing this morning about Iran, one of the witnesses, who’s a think-tanker, said she was being held in Evin prison, which is where a number of the other Iranian Americans who were detained in 2007 were held. Do you have any reason to believe that that is indeed where she is?

MR. DUGUID: As I noted, we’ve seen press reports of a statement by Iranian judicial officials. That same information we have not received through the Swiss, which we would consider to be an official response. So I don’t have that information for you.

QUESTION: And one other thing. Yesterday, the – an Iranian Government official said that she had been acting as a journalist following the withdrawal of her press card, in effect. Her father said that she had – that it was true that her press card had been withdrawn, but that she had stayed to do research on academic work and was not working as a journalist.

Do you know what is the case? Do you believe – do you have any sense of what she has been doing for the last couple of years and whether it was journalism, and possibly without authorization – you know, the press card necessary?

MR. DUGUID: The --

QUESTION: If you don’t, that’s fine.

MR. DUGUID: No, and the answer – the short answer is no. We’ve asked for contact with her through the Swiss, and we hope to gather more information that way.

Same subject, different subjects?

QUESTION: Same subject.

MR. DUGUID: Same subject. Yes, please.

QUESTION: Senator Klobuchar has written to Ban Ki-moon calling for her release and saying that her detention is unjustifiable. Is the State Department prepared to endorse that?

MR. DUGUID: As soon as we know what the facts of the matter are, I am sure that we will be able to make a statement of our own based on what the facts are. We are still looking for our protecting power to provide us with as much information as possible.

MR. DUGUID: Yes.

QUESTION: President Dmitriy Medvedev in Madrid said it was not constructive to link talks over a U.S. missile defense system in Europe with the perceived security threat from Iran. Do you have a reaction to that?

MR. DUGUID: Our reaction is that our missile defense program is about Iran. It is to deal with the threat from the Iranian regime that we perceive through Iran’s pursuit of not only nuclear weapons but missile technology. And our efforts in our discussions with the Russians have been to explain that.

We are, with our NATO allies, are also interested in exploring the possibility of cooperation with Russia on new missile defense configurations which might take advantage of the assets that each of us had, but that offer has always been there through NATO.

QUESTION: So are you disappointed that the message you’re sending to the Russians is just not getting through despite some warm statements about the arrival of President Obama?

MR. DUGUID: I think – but I would differ with that, that despite this particular statement, I think that the way that the discussions have been going have shown that the Russians are seeing that our worries about the Iranian threat are serious, and that missile defense is our way of countering that.

QUESTION: So this is just a setback?

MR. DUGUID: I wouldn’t describe it that way at all. I haven’t – again, you guys are much better (inaudible) of getting the latest statements that are coming in, and I haven’t seen this one or the context it was given in. But I know that in the context of our discussions, that our presentation of the reasons why we’re pursuing missile defense have been clearly explained to the Russians, and I believe they understand that Iran is a threat to all of us.

QUESTION: On Russia?

MR. DUGUID: Yes.

QUESTION: Gordon, according to New York Times, President Obama sent a secret letter to Russia’s president last month, suggesting that he would back off of deploying a new missile defense system in Eastern Europe if Moscow would help stop Iran from developing longer-range weapons. I’m wondering if you have anything on that.

MR. DUGUID: If it’s in The New York Times, it’s not very secret. Yes, we – the President did send a letter, and it was to explain our position on missile defense. You have all heard that position from this podium, you’ve heard it from the Vice President, and you’ve heard it from the Secretary of State, that missile defense is a way to protect ourselves and our allies against Iranians’ nuclear capability – or the nuclear capability we believe the Iranians are pursuing, and that is – it is not anything directed against Russia.

QUESTION: Any reaction from Moscow?

MR. DUGUID: I haven’t – other than the things that you’ve noted.

QUESTION: I have something. I just – I want – are you saying that this letter did, in fact, say that the U.S. is willing to pull back or suspend --

MR. DUGUID: No, I’m not divulging the contents of the letter at all, and nor am I affirming the story that’s out there in the media that there’s some sort of grand bargain going on here. We explained clearly our position that missile defense is in response to the Iranian threat that we perceive. We believe that this threat is not only against the United States, but our European allies and a threat for Russia as well. Missile defense is not directed against the Russians. It does not have the intent of being so, nor does it have the capability of being so.

QUESTION: Gordon Brown, he comes during a time that’s quite difficult for him at home where there’s calls for an inquiry into whether or not the UK assisted the U.S. in so-called renditions. Do you hope his meeting with President Obama can perhaps alleviate some of these domestic pressures at home for Gordon Brown?

MR. DUGUID: Well, this is a state visit, after all, so I refer you to the White House for comments on Prime Minister Brown’s visit. Our Deputy, James Steinberg, will be involved in those meetings, but this is really something that’s better addressed from the White House.

QUESTION: What are your views as to the fact that many in the UK are saying that, because of previous counterterrorism cooperation with the U.S., it is now sort of difficult to have that same level of ability that they once had?

MR. DUGUID: I only refer you to the strong cooperation that the United States and Great Britain have enjoyed over a number of decades. We work together very well to protect one another from – excuse me – from common threats. And I would – I know that the Secretary would hope to see that continue.

Michel, and then we’ll come over here.

QUESTION: Yes, International Criminal – excuse me – Criminal Court is scheduled to announce tomorrow whether it will order the arrest of President Omar Bashir. How do you view this event?

MR. DUGUID: I will have something to say should that happen tomorrow. I won’t preempt the ICC or our position.

(The briefing was concluded at 11:32 a.m.)



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