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Middle East Digest - March 09, 2009


March 9, 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 9, 2009

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11:35 a.m. EDT

QUESTION: Two years today since Robert Levinson disappeared. Do you have any statements or any updates on that?

MR. WOOD: Well, we issued a statement, I think you saw, over the week – or did you guys not – okay, well, let me give you what I have on that.

MR. DUGUID: It came out yesterday.

MR. WOOD: Yeah, that’s what – I thought it did. I mean, I – apparently. But if you want, I’m more than happy to read it again. And this is effective March 8. So we are marking the two-year anniversary of the disappearance of American citizen Robert Levinson, a retired FBI agent who went missing in Iran during a business trip to Kish Island in 2007.

We reiterate our commitment to determining Mr. Levinson’s welfare and whereabouts, and reuniting him with his family. Mr. Levinson is the father of seven children and grandfather of two; his second grandchild was born in his absence. The Levinson family misses him desperately. In December 2007, Mrs. Levinson traveled to Iran, accompanied by her son and sister, where she met with Iranian officials, who expressed a willingness to share information about their investigation into her husband’s disappearance with the family.

However, to date, no information has been forthcoming. We continue to call on Iran to stand by its commitment by providing details about the authorities’ investigation both to his family and to the Swiss Embassy in Tehran, which looks after U.S. interests in the absence of normal diplomatic relations.

We ask anyone who may have information about the case to contact us or the Levinson family via their website, www.help – let me read that again -- helpboblevinson.com. I’ll spell it out for you. h-e-l-p-b-o-b-l-e-v-i-n-s-o-n.com. [www.helpboblevinson.com]

QUESTION: New topic? It’s on Afghanistan. There’s been a lot of talk about whether the U.S. should talk to the Taliban. Over the weekend, President Obama said in an interview in The New York Times that he’s willing to talk to some members of the Taliban that – and is exploring that option. And I was just thinking, given that it’s Women’s History Month and Senator – Secretary Clinton has spoken a lot about how – violence against women by the Taliban, I was wondering how you can square talking to the Taliban but not, you know, having opposition to the way that they treat women?

MR. WOOD: Well, first and foremost, the President’s remarks stand for themselves. As you know, we have a review ongoing with regard to Afghanistan and Pakistan, so I don’t have much further on that subject than that. But as you know very well, the Secretary feels very strongly about how women are treated in Afghanistan, and that’s an important subject to her. But again, we’re in the midst of an overall policy review, so I really don’t want to get beyond what the President has said.

QUESTION: Yeah, but I mean, how – you said the President’s comments stand for themselves.

MR. WOOD: Right.

QUESTION: Okay, so I’m not asking you to parse them. But how does that fit below with what Secretary Clinton said in her confirmation hearing, talking about women against – violence against women by the Taliban, talking that it’s heartbreaking beyond words when young girls are attacked on their way to school by Taliban sympathizers, and speaking in very harsh terms about how they treat women?

MR. WOOD: I don’t see the problem there. Yes, she has spoken very clearly about that. The President cares very deeply about that as well. The President’s remarks, I think, were very – clearly pointed out that Afghanistan is – the situation there is problematic, and we are engaged in a review so that we can figure out the best way forward. I don’t see any contradiction at all there. I mean, the Secretary spoke very clearly in her confirmation hearing about how she feels about the treatment of women in Afghanistan. I don’t see any connection.

QUESTION: You don’t see any connection between negotiating with members of the Taliban and abhorring the way --

MR. WOOD: Well, first of all, no decision has been made to engage --

QUESTION: See, his comments seem to be pretty explicit that he will be talking to --

MR. WOOD: Well, I think you have to wait until our policy review is done before, you know, drawing any conclusions on anything.

QUESTION: Well, if – will women’s issues, you know, become an issue if this – if you indeed do talk to the Taliban?

MR. WOOD: Women’s issues are going to be a part, an integral part, of our overall policy with regard to Afghanistan in terms of how we go forward. But you know, again, Elise, we’re involved in a review. I don’t have anything more to add to what the President said.

Let me go to somebody there – Michel.

QUESTION: Sudan. On Sudan. President Omar Bashir has warned yesterday diplomatic missions, the NGOs, and the peacekeepers in Sudan to obey Sudan law or face expulsion. Do you have any comment on that?

MR. WOOD: Well, as we said in our statement, we condemn the expulsions of international humanitarian organizations from Sudan, and we’re engaged right now in diplomatic efforts to try to get the Sudanese to reverse their decision. We’re very concerned about the impact of this decision out of Khartoum on the people of Darfur, and we’re very concerned about what comes next for them. So we’re actively engaged, as I said, in diplomatic activity to try to bring about a reversal of this decision.

QUESTION: On Roxana Saberi, she’s still being held in detention in Iran, and that’s just by officials saying that she would be released within days. And over the weekend, her lawyer went to meet her in court and said that she’d been held basically in virtual solitary confinement. Are you concerned about these reports, and do you have any updates?

MR. WOOD: What I can tell you is that the Swiss, as our protecting power in Tehran, have – we have requested that they go in and seek additional information from the Government of Iran on this particular case. And I understand that, as you pointed out, that she’s had access to legal counselor, but we also want – legal counsel. But we also want to see – we want our Swiss protecting power to have consular access, to be granted consular access, and that there be a transparent judicial process along the way.

But as the Secretary said previously, we want to do everything we can in our power to bring her home. And that’s the latest I have on that. We’re working with the Swiss to try to see what we can do in terms of getting more information.

QUESTION: Robert, on that, as a follow-up, did the – when the Secretary met with the Swiss foreign minister, was that topic discussed? And if so, did the Swiss have any information other than just the Secretary asking him to do something?

MR. WOOD: Well, certainly, Charlie, that issue is something that we have discussed with the Swiss. I don’t want to get into much more details because this is a sensitive issue. We want to try to resolve this case as quickly as possible. I think you’ll understand why I don’t want to really go beyond that.

QUESTION: Iran?

QUESTION: Well, can I – on this?

MR. WOOD: Sure.

QUESTION: You said you wanted transparency in the judicial process? So you’re not calling for her release?

MR. WOOD: I mean, that goes without saying we want her released. But --

QUESTION: Well --

MR. WOOD: Without question. But if indeed there is going to be some kind of a process with regard to, you know, expediting her return in some way, we want to make sure that it’s transparent. It’s what we would want in all of these cases.

QUESTION: On Iran?

MR. WOOD: On Iran. Yes, please.

QUESTION: The Turkish prime – I’m sorry, foreign minister has said that, if asked, Turkey might consider mediating the talks between Iran and the U.S. Is that something that you might have considered, or might the U.S. Government go – the Syrian way, just go directly and talk to them?

MR. WOOD: Well, again, we’re still in the midst of that review. I don’t want to speculate as to what we might do. But let us just say that – let me just say that we have offered our hand to the Government of Iran, and we hope to be able to engage this government on a whole range of issues. But a lot of it’s going to depend on, you know, Iran and its willingness to engage and its willingness to change its behavior in a number of areas where we have concern.

QUESTION: Can I follow up on Turkey, please?

MR. WOOD: Sure.

QUESTION: The Turkish Foreign Minister Babacan said Ankara would look favorably on a U.S. request – I guess that hasn’t been made, but you tell me if it has – for U.S. troops to transit through Turkey as they withdraw from Iraq.

MR. WOOD: I haven’t seen this report, but I don’t have anything further than just that I’ve [1]seen the report.

QUESTION: The reasons of which Mrs. Clinton proposed Obama trip to Ankara next month for the first time in U.S.-Turkish history on a bilateral level?

MR. WOOD: Well, I think it’s quite significant that the President – President Obama will be going to Turkey. They’re working out the details of that visit. But Turkey is an important ally, and there’s a lot of business to do with Turkey, and we think it is significant that the President has decided to go.

QUESTION: Did Mrs. Clinton discuss the Armenian issues of genocide with the Turks?

MR. WOOD: All right, look, that issue certainly was a subject that was discussed, but I’m not going to get into the details of the discussion.

QUESTION: How does Mrs. Clinton feel on the Armenia genocide since President Barack Obama is very supportive?

MR. WOOD: Look, I’m not going to get into a discussion of that issue here from the podium.

QUESTION: Just on Syria. I know we had the call over the weekend. I know it’s hard to get into specifics, but just, you know, for the sake of on camera, can you just give a general kind of sense of tone of those meetings over the weekend?

MR. WOOD: Well, I think the meetings that Acting Assistant Secretary Feltman and Dan Shapiro at the NSC had were very constructive. You know, I don’t want to get beyond this initial characterization, but there still remain a number of issues that we need to resolve with the Government of Syria. And I know that we here in the Department will continue to engage the Syrians on these issues of concern. But I don’t have a readout beyond that. Jeff – I haven’t had a chance to talk to him. I don’t know that he’s even back. I didn’t see him this morning. But once he’s back, I can get, you know, a further readout.

QUESTION: Yeah. But a sense of – sorry – could you give any sense of next steps? I mean, are the Syrians asking that this ambassador be appointed soon? Is that number one? Is that top of the agenda – what’s?

MR. WOOD: Well, the agenda are a number of concerns that we have about Syrian behavior around the world. You’re aware of all of those issues. But I don’t – again, until I have a chance to speak with Jeff, I don’t have much more to provide you.

QUESTION: Well, it sounds like – you keep saying that the engagement is to resolve these issues of concern that you have.

MR. WOOD: Mm-hmm.

QUESTION: But it sounds like you’re engaging the Syrians as well to help to get them to help you in the region to play, you know, a kind of constructive role. So it’s not really just about getting them to, like, improve their behavior, but working together in the region for all of your policies.

MR. WOOD: Well, look, we’ve said for quite some time that Syria – Syrian behavior in the region has been of great concern to us, and we want to work with Syria. But it does take, you know, two to tango here. And up until now, Syria hasn’t played that positive role that we’ve wanted to see in a number of areas with regard to foreign fighters in Iraq, with regards to interference in Lebanese affairs. We hope to see Syria take a different path.

And I think the fact that we decided to reach out to the Syrians and engage them shows that we believe that they can play a productive role should they want to. And so what our goal here is to try to get Syria to walk down that path, change its behavior, and you know, be a more positive element in the region and not be part of the problem. We want them to be part of the solution.

QUESTION: So would you say at this point, now that you’ve had the meeting with the ambassador and Feltman and Shapiro have gone to Damascus, would you say that you would expect a kind of resumption of diplomatic dialogue on a regular basis now?

MR. WOOD: Well, again, it will depend. I don’t want to lock us into some kind of a regular, you know, dialogue. I mean, we’ll clearly be talking to the Syrians in the future. We do on a daily basis, frankly, with regard to our Embassy in Damascus. So let’s just see how things play out. I’m not ready to go beyond what I’ve said on the subject.

QUESTION: Well, are you waiting for some kind of deliverable from Syria before you kind of take it to another level or --

MR. WOOD: Syria knows what it needs to do to satisfy some of our concerns. We hope that they will meet – you know, they will satisfy some of those concerns. But I don’t want to get ahead of the process. Let Jeff come back and Mr. Shapiro and then we will have, you know – they’ll be able to give us a better assessment of how we’re going to go forward.

QUESTION: What about – I mean, I think some officials over the weekend have said, and – I think maybe even from this – I mean, Syria has concerns on the United States. So what about addressing some of their concerns?

MR. WOOD: Well, again, at the meeting that was held over the weekend, I can assure you that Syria raised some of its concerns. And so what we’re trying to do is, as I said, work out some kind of a pathway that will, you know, ensure that Syria plays a much more positive role in the region. I know they have concerns about the U.S., and obviously, the fact that we’ve agreed to sit down with them at a high level says a lot. So let’s just wait until, you know, Ambassador Feltman and Dan Shapiro come back, so we can give a further assessment.

QUESTION: A follow-up on that?

MR. WOOD: Yes, Kim.

QUESTION: What exactly do you want from the Syrians? You list the issues of – that are of concern to you. But what do you want them to do and at what point are you satisfied that they’ve addressed those concerns? I mean, do you want them to stop supporting Hezbollah and Hamas?

MR. WOOD: Well, I just gave you a few examples of things that have concerned us. And part of that dialogue --

QUESTION: But what does it require for them to do?

MR. WOOD: Well, I’m not going to spell out, you know, all the specifics that we have asked them to do, beyond what I’ve said. But again, our priority is trying to address Syrian behavior in an important part of the world where we have important national interests, and we want Syria to take steps to address those concerns. They’re certainly well aware of them. They were well aware of them before this meeting that took place in Damascus. And so we want to see some – we want to see if Syria is going to be willing to meet some of those concerns. And if they do, then obviously the dialogue will continue and go further and strengthen.

QUESTION: Well, are you sensing that there is any shift in their position? I mean, they’ve held fast for the last five years.

MR. WOOD: Not ready to give an assessment yet, as I said, until Jeff Feltman and Dan Shapiro come back, and then we can give you a better assessment.

QUESTION: Just one last question.

MR. WOOD: Sure.

QUESTION: Any sense of the reviews – policy towards Afghanistan and Pakistan and Iran might be coming up?

MR. WOOD: The Afghanistan policy reviews, I think we’ve said we expect to be done some time, fairly soon, I’d say within –you know, and I think we’ve said mid-March. But the Iran review – I don’t have a timeframe on that for you at this point.

QUESTION: Mr. Wood, on Turkey.

MR. WOOD: Sure.

QUESTION: Turkey did not allow U.S. troops to go in Iraq in 2003 up to the present. Why Mrs. Clinton, when she was in Ankara, wants American troops to leave Iraq via Turkey and not via Kuwait, the way they entered?

MR. WOOD: I would probably refer you to the Pentagon for questions about troop removal.

QUESTION: She proposed that. Forget the Pentagon.

MR. WOOD: Well --

QUESTION: She proposed that.

MR. WOOD: No, I – look, you’ve seen the remarks from the Secretary coming out of Turkey. I don’t have anything more to add to that, Mr. Lambros.

QUESTION: Do you know – do you know how much money Mrs. Clinton promised to the Turks for this kind of services?

MR. WOOD: I’m not aware that any kind of money was promised for anything, Mr. Lambros.

Let me go to another --

QUESTION: One more question, one more.

MR. WOOD: One more.

QUESTION: Do you know if Mrs. Clinton promised to the Turks to abandon Turkey all the U.S. equipment in Iraq, as Ambassador Morton Abramowitz did in the end of the Persian war, and he has been fired by the Department of Defense?

MR. WOOD: I’m not aware of that, Mr. Lambros. I’m sorry.

(The briefing was concluded at 12:06 p.m.)


[1]I haven’t



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