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Middle East Digest - March 6, 2009


March 6, 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 6, 2009

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11:11 a.m. EST

MR. DUGUID: Good morning. I’d like to lead off today’s briefing with a statement.

The United States condemns the expulsions of international humanitarian organizations from Sudan by the Government of Sudan. These organizations provide critical humanitarian assistance to millions of Sudanese. And the forced departure of these organizations immediately and seriously threatens the lives and well-being of displaced populations. The United States fully supports the work of humanitarian aid organizations in Sudan and the need for them to continue their life-saving work unobstructed. We call on the Government of Sudan to allow these organizations to continue their operations and provide the necessary humanitarian space for them to do so. The decision to expel the very organizations that provide aid to vulnerable populations will result in a further deterioration in the humanitarian situation throughout Sudan. We continue to urge the Government of Sudan and all armed rebel groups and their proxies to take no action that would imperil the safety and security of civilians, humanitarian workers, and peacekeepers in the country.

And with that, I will take your questions.

QUESTION: Can I just ask you a technical question about that? Why didn’t you say this yesterday?

MR. DUGUID: Yesterday we had not had all of the information on whether this was – decision was taken at the top of the Sudanese Government. We had not had consultations with our counterparts in the UN Security Council and at the UN, and we had not met with NGOs to discuss their concerns about this move. We have done all that.

QUESTION: Right. Well, you know, that didn’t stop the Secretary General of the UN from making a similar statement yesterday mid-afternoon.

MR. DUGUID: That is quite true. He did make the statement. You will notice as well, that yesterday from this podium, we also expressed our concern at the situation. We worked with our partners. We have worked with NGOs to understand fully what the implications will be and what has happened. And now we have made our statement.

QUESTION: Yesterday, Secretary Clinton proposed inviting Iran to a conference on Afghanistan. Will the U.S. be involved in (inaudible) the invitation of Iran?

MR. DUGUID: I believe we’ve made, you know, many statements on this yesterday. The conference itself is still being worked out, the details of where it will be and the exact date on which it will be held. And the idea is that it should be regional, that all of the countries affected in the region should be invited. Afghanistan, of course, shares a border with Iran, which makes Iran a country that is concerned with what’s going on in Afghanistan. Whether or not an invitation goes forward to them is something that will be decided shortly, as we finalize all of the details for the meetings.

QUESTION: Is it going to be on – what are the issues of mutual interest, besides narcotraffic that Secretary Clinton mentioned?

MR. DUGUID: The issues between Iran and Afghanistan or – sorry.

QUESTION: In that – in that conference, yeah. No, between U.S. and Iran.

MR. DUGUID: The issue of bilateral interest would be Afghanistan and the stability of that nation.

QUESTION: Gordon, can I --

MR. DUGUID: Yes.

QUESTION: There seems to be some confusion about this. I mean, is this conference going to be – is the United States going to be extending an invitation itself to Iran, or is the host, whoever that might be --

MR. DUGUID: Those details are what we are working out today.

QUESTION: Right, but there – people have been reporting that the U.S. is inviting Iran --

MR. DUGUID: That is based on statements yesterday in which we said that Iran should be invited.

QUESTION: Well – well, you --

MR. DUGUID: Yes --

QUESTION: Exactly, but is that correct? Is the U.S. inviting Iran to this or is --

MR. DUGUID: That has not been --

QUESTION: -- whoever the host of the meeting is going to invite Iran?

MR. DUGUID: Those details we will communicate as soon as we have them. It hasn’t been decided yet if we will host or someone else will host, and then we’ll see how we go from there.

Okay. Same subject, different subject?

QUESTION: Iran.

MR. DUGUID: Iran, then stay on Iran.

QUESTION: A prosecutor in Iran has indicated through the official media that Roxana Saberi should be released within a few days, I think was the phrase. Have you seen that? Do you have any alternate confirmation of that through the Swiss or any other avenue?

MR. DUGUID: We’ve seen the press statement. As you may have noticed earlier in the week, the Iranian authorities have made statements through the press before they have communicated decisions to the Swiss, and then the Swiss to us. So no, we don’t have a Swiss confirmation of that yet. But earlier in the week, the authorities made a statement that was later confirmed, so we will go back today and ask the Swiss to please seek out clarification of that.

QUESTION: I’m sorry, you have?

MR. DUGUID: I said we are doing that. I don’t know if the channel went forward right now or not, but I will check on that.

QUESTION: Do you know if there has been any contact in between when Secretary Clinton spoke on this yesterday and now?

MR. DUGUID: I don’t. I don’t know. I don’t – we will find out for you.

QUESTION: And the U.S. position is still that she should be released immediately?

MR. DUGUID: Yes, it is. Yes, it is.

QUESTION: Yes. Britain announced yesterday that it would engage in direct contacts with the political wing of Hezbollah in Lebanon. What do you think about this engagement, and are you ready to take the same steps that Britain took?

MR. DUGUID: We are not ready to take the same step, no. Our position on Hezbollah has not changed.

QUESTION: Well, what do you make of the British decision?

MR. DUGUID: The British decision is something that they are going to pursue, and we will watch how that proceeds. But our position has not changed.

QUESTION: Yeah, but what do you think of the British decision?

MR. DUGUID: I have said we will watch how they proceed closely. They made this decision and we will see how it goes from --

QUESTION: So sorry, let me just ask again. What does the United States – what is the United States’ reaction to the British decision to recognize and deal with the political wing of Hezbollah?

MR. DUGUID: Our reaction is that the British have made a decision to proceed on a political dialogue --

QUESTION: Do you like that decision? Is that a good decision from your point of view?

MR. DUGUID: -- from their point of view. It’s not my space here to pass a judgment on the Government of Britain. In this particular case, I am here, however, to tell you that the United States’ position on Hezbollah has not changed.

QUESTION: Did Prime Minister Brown give any indication when he was here that his government was about to do this?

MR. DUGUID: I don’t know if the prime minister communicated this directly. But I do know that U.S. officials were alerted by the British Government that they were taking – they were considering this action.

QUESTION: And what did they say?

MR. DUGUID: I am not at liberty to discuss diplomatic exchanges on this.

QUESTION: Gordon, this is – this is one of your oldest allies in the world, and they’ve just done something that is fundamentally at odds with the U.S. position. And there must be something that the Administration is willing to say or can say about this.

MR. DUGUID: I’ve just said that our position is not changing --

QUESTION: Can I take one?

MR. DUGUID: -- based on this particular action by the UK Government.

Yes, please, Elise.

QUESTION: Given the fact that you don’t talk to Hezbollah, and now the British do, will you be asking the British to kind of use their influence with Hezbollah to kind of embark on the kind of behavior that you’re looking for from them? I mean, basically that’s what you do with all terrorist groups that you don’t have contact with. You ask your allies that are talking to them to have --

MR. DUGUID: We’ll watch and see how this proceeds and we’ll move along from there.

QUESTION: Well, how do you think that Britain can play a positive role in talking to Hezbollah?

MR. DUGUID: Britain already plays a positive role in the Middle East.

QUESTION: Well, in terms of talking to Hezbollah?

MR. DUGUID: I said we’ll be watching and see how this proceeds before we’ll come out with anything further on it.

Yes, Michel.

QUESTION: What do you think about differentiating between the military wing and the political wing in Hezbollah?

MR. DUGUID: I’m only going to speak to the United States’ position on Hezbollah. If you want me to reiterate that, I will do so again. If you wish me to speculate on other nations relations or contacts with Hezbollah, I think we’re going to have a very long briefing today.

QUESTION: Back to the ICC and Sudan.

MR. DUGUID: Yes.

QUESTION: Will this decision by the ICC for the arrest of the president of Sudan – will this cause the Administration to delay its decision to appoint an envoy for Sudan?

MR. DUGUID: I don’t believe any decision has been taken on an envoy for Sudan at this time, and therefore, it’s hard for me to say if the decision will have an impact. I do not believe so, that the United States will move forward with what we want to do and want to accomplish as far as the conflict in Darfur is concerned, and Sudan in general.

QUESTION: But the President is considering appointing an envoy for Sudan, isn’t he?

MR. DUGUID: There is – there has traditionally been an envoy for Sudan. And as we review all of our policies, that is one of the options that is there.

QUESTION: Gordon, can you – just back on Iran for a second.

MR. DUGUID: Yes.

QUESTION: There’s just been a report, and I don’t expect you to – that Saberi has been released already. Can you check on that after?

MR. DUGUID: Yes, please – if something has happened. As I’ve noted, we’ve often heard media reports before we’ve had --

QUESTION: Right.

MR. DUGUID: -- official confirmation.

Dave. You had a question?

QUESTION: Well, okay.

MR. DUGUID: Well, make one up and we’ll go along. (Laughter.)

QUESTION: There are – there’s a report in the press today that Kyrgyzstan may be sort of reconsidering its decision to evict the U.S. The president said he remains open to discussion. Can you tell us what the state of contacts, if any, are with Kyrgyzstan on this?

MR. DUGUID: We are in discussion with the Kyrgyz on the disposition of the Manas Air Base, and we will continue to engage them as long as they want to talk to us about it. It would be good to be able to stay. Moving is a disruptive process. However, as I have noted before, we did have other options. But we are in discussion with them to remain at Manas.

QUESTION: Israel has closed down today its embassy in Mauritania. In the wake of Gaza war – and Mauritania has asked the – Israel to freeze ties or has decided to freeze ties with Israel. Do you have any comment on that?

MR. DUGUID: I have not heard this before, so I am unable to comment on it. I will see if we have anything to say and get back to you as I can.

QUESTION: Thank you.

MR. DUGUID: So I will go to the back, the gentleman there. Yes, please.

QUESTION: Gordon, as far as fighting terrorism in the Afghanistan-Pakistan area, in the past eight years, there was some problem between the U.S. and Pakistan as far as intelligence was concerned. And now, Carnegie is saying today that Pakistan needs some reforms as far as their intelligence is concerned, and also Secretaries Gates and Clinton both have said that Pakistan is a safe haven.

Do we see any changes that Pakistan should make some reforms on those?

MR. DUGUID: For Pakistan’s internal reforms, the – you know, Carnegie is free to speculate on those. I would refer you to the Pakistani Government. For the United States, we have obviously made a determination that we are going to review our policies towards Afghanistan and Pakistan in a serious and broad-based manner. We have appointed a special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan. We are looking at all aspects of our policy on how we can help both countries to address the serious problems that exist in the region and along the border that they share.

QUESTION: Thank you.

QUESTION: Gordon.

MR. DUGUID: Yes.

QUESTION: I need to go back to Lebanon and Hezbollah. It seems bizarre that you don’t have anything to say about this British decision. Are you – is your silence – is this – does that suggest that you think there might be something positive in this?

MR. DUGUID: I am only stating what our policy is, which I’ve done, and I have said we will watch and see – we will – our policy right now is we will see what it produces.

QUESTION: Well, what is your policy toward other governments (inaudible) allies of (inaudible) who are going to talk with – who decide that they’re going to deal directly with organizations that you consider to be terrorists?

MR. DUGUID: I believe the term was they were going to open contacts with Hezbollah, and it was the political wing, so we need to narrow this down a bit.

QUESTION: So in other words --

MR. DUGUID: But the --

QUESTION: In other words, you are accepting the distinction between the political and the military wings?

MR. DUGUID: No, I am only pointing out the facts – I am only pointing out the facts of the case.

QUESTION: All right.

MR. DUGUID: And what we will do is we will watch and see how this proceeds.

QUESTION: I believe you have their two senior U.S. officials in Beirut today?

MR. DUGUID: That is correct.

QUESTION: And are they going to be talking with Hezbollah?

MR. DUGUID: No.

QUESTION: Okay. Well, then --

MR. DUGUID: Not to my knowledge.

QUESTION: Then you are obviously not happy or – I mean, you’re not obviously anything, because you don’t seem – there doesn’t seem to have been much thought given to this. And it’s a little bit surprising to me, since you said that the British had given you a heads-up that they were going to do this, so that would – must have been at least two or three days ago.

MR. DUGUID: The thought process – the thought process --

QUESTION: And I can’t understand why the Department or why the Administration can’t come up with a response, when one of your closest allies in the world decides that it’s going to have, you know, contacts with a group that you consider to be a terrorist organization.

MR. DUGUID: I’m afraid that I have come up with a response. It’s just not one that you are willing to accept.

QUESTION: Your response is no response. Your response is nothing.

QUESTION: Well, let me say – well, let me try one.

MR. DUGUID: Okay. You try from this side.

QUESTION: Don’t you think that the fact that the political wing of Hezbollah at least, not only is a political party, but has members in parliament and ministers in the cabinet, don’t you think that – your not talking to Hezbollah closes you off from dealing with a whole sect of the Lebanese population that prevents you from dealing fully with Lebanon?

MR. DUGUID: I believe that our position on Hezbollah is not going to change until we see changes on the part of Hezbollah. And this is the organization, if you will remember, that had killed more Americans than any other terrorist group before 9/11.

QUESTION: Right, but --

MR. DUGUID: Our stated position on Hezbollah has been consistent. Other nations will have from time to time, positions that differ with those of the United States. We will watch in this case and see how this event or how this policy from the UK proceeds. And at some future point, we may decide to say something or we may decide to --

QUESTION: Well, wait a minute, wait a minute. Let me --

QUESTION: You just mentioned that Hezbollah killed more American citizens than any other group before – you know, before 9/11. I mean, the fact that you just mentioned that makes it all the more odd that you don’t have anything to say about the British deciding --

MR. DUGUID: I believe we have spent --

QUESTION: -- to have contacts with --

MR. DUGUID: -- a goodly portion of this briefing on this issue, and therefore --

QUESTION: We have –

QUESTION: Well, I have another question, but not about your response.

MR. DUGUID: Well – yes, please.

QUESTION: You have this whole new policy of engagement. You’re trying to find constructive actors in the region. And you – and the Administration seems to have an approach now that – more like how can you play a more constructive role, versus we’re not going to talk to you, you play a negative role? So why in your – now you’re trying to engage Syria and Iran, which are both state sponsors of terrorism? So why can’t you start to see if – test the waters or – and see if, you know, possibly you could do the same with Hezbollah?

MR. DUGUID: You’re quite right that our entire policy on the region is under review.

QUESTION: Well, it’s not --

MR. DUGUID: There are some – there are some --

QUESTION: It’s not really under review.

MR. DUGUID: There are some underlying principles that we have not changed at this point.

QUESTION: -- I mean, it’s not really under review. You’ve decided to engage state sponsors of terrorism.

MR. DUGUID: And we are not at the end of our review on our policy. We do want to see --

QUESTION: So are you reviewing talking to Hezbollah yourself?

MR. DUGUID: -- we do want to see a comprehensive peace reached in the Middle East, both between Arab states and Israel, between the Palestinians and Israel and we would like to see the region stable and free from terrorism.

QUESTION: But --

MR. DUGUID: There are groups that don’t see it that way. And at the moment, we are not changing our policy on either Hezbollah or Hamas for those reasons.

QUESTION: Why? Is that part of the review, whether you should talk to those groups?

MR. DUGUID: We are looking at the ways that we can bring about a peaceful Middle East.

QUESTION: Well, could talking to them be part of that?

MR. DUGUID: It could be, but it is not a position on which we have changed our policy at this point.

Yes, David.

QUESTION: (Inaudible) Misters Shapiro and Feltman now have firm plans to go to Damascus?

MR. DUGUID: I don’t have an update for you right now, and I’ll see if we can get one for you before the end of the day.

(The briefing was concluded at 11:37 a.m.)




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