printable banner

U.S. Department of State - Great Seal

U.S. Department of State

Diplomacy in Action

Middle East Digest - March 18, 2009

March 18, 2009


Bureau of Public Affairs

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 18, 2009

View Video

11:10 a.m. EDT

QUESTION: Yes. Yesterday, Czech Government announced the decision to postpone the ratification of the treaty about the deployment of the ABM system in the Czech Republic with the U.S. Do you have any comments about that?

MR. WOOD: The only thing I would briefly say is that we’re consulting with our Czech allies about the future of this agreement. But I just want to draw you back to the reasoning behind our desire to move forward on, you know, employing missile defense, you know, considering putting a missile defense system in Europe. And that, again, was to deal with future threats that we – you know, we certainly can see emanating from the Middle East region, specifically from Iran. So we will continue to have discussions with the Czech Government on this and – you know, as we go forward.

QUESTION: Do you feel that it’s an indication of their reluctance to locate the ABM or not?

MR. WOOD: No, that’s an internal matter for the Czech Government as to whether, you know, it was going to put this treaty forward in parliament. And as I said, we will have discussions with our allies, our Czech allies, and go forward from there. But I don’t have anything further to add.

QUESTION: About missile defense.

MR. WOOD: Sure.

QUESTION: From Polish public television – I assume that after signing treaties with Poland, the Czech Republic – there was a certain schedule of work. Is it in progress right now? What – at what state is it now?

MR. WOOD: Well, I – what I would do is refer you to those governments to give you an accurate assessment of how far work has come, how far work has gone forward. I can’t give you that from here.

QUESTION: But from the U.S. side, what is done so far? What was done so far?

MR. WOOD: Well, what I can tell you is that we have mentioned from – we have mentioned many times that we are going to consult with, you know, both the Czech Government and the Polish Government and our other allies. And as you also know, we – the Obama Administration is looking at the whole concept of missile defense, particularly with regard to this system that had been proposed for Europe, and we want to make sure that it is cost-effective, that it works, and, you know, once that review is completed, we’ll be able to say more about that.

But in terms of where things are on the ground, I’m not in a position to give you a good assessment at this point, but I would, you know, suggest that you talk to both the Czech and Polish governments.

QUESTION: When Secretary Clinton met Foreign Minister Lavrov, there were indications that there was wiggle room for some sort of compromise with the Russians in terms of missile defense. Where are you at the moment with the Russians on missile defense? Because there were some new ideas being bandied around.

MR. WOOD: Well, I think where we are is that the Russians share our view about the concern of a future threat emanating from Iran. The Russians are under no illusions about Iran’s behavior. And as I said, they share our concerns. We have said, you know, that this missile defense system that was proposed for both Poland and the Czech Republic was in response to our concern about Iranian behavior and a future threat emanating from Iran. And so, you know, that’s why the previous administration went forward with – or, you know, launched into this concept because of that concern about Iran.

And so, you know, if that threat from Iran no longer is real, then obviously, we would, you know, adjust our policies accordingly. But our concern remains Iran and what – and that threat posed by Iran. So – and the Russians, as I said, see it the same way we do, and we look forward to cooperating with Russia on missile defense as we’ve said many times.

QUESTION: Other subject?

QUESTION: Can we stay on Iran?

MR. WOOD: Please.

QUESTION: The president of the UN General Assembly has said that the U.S. has been demonizing people forever and specifically spoken about Iranian president. Any comments on – any reaction on that?

MR. WOOD: I actually haven’t read the remarks, but in terms of demonizing a country, we’re – look, Iran is isolating itself and its people by its behavior in the international realm. And we and other countries, specifically our allies, have called on Iran to change its behavior. If it wants to have a better relationship with the international community, it needs to behave differently. And we look forward, as the Secretary and the President have said, of engaging Iran to see what Iran’s intentions are, is it really interested in a better relationship with the international community. And we’ll have to see how that goes.

But with regard to, you know, Brockmann’s specific comments, I don’t really have anything to say about them.

QUESTION: On a separate issue, in – Syria’s president said that he’d very much like to meet President Obama at some stage and that he’s looking forward to improved relations. Have there been any follow-on discussions following Ambassador Feltman’s visit to --

MR. WOOD: Not that I’m aware of.

QUESTION: -- Syria?

MR. WOOD: Not that I’m aware of, Sue. Not yet.

QUESTION: And are you calling in the Syrian ambassador anytime soon again for a chat or --

MR. WOOD: For a chat, not that I’m aware of, but we’ll certainly let you know.

QUESTION: This is (inaudible) from BBC Arabic.

MR. WOOD: Yes.

QUESTION: I have a couple of points, one on the Middle East and the other on Darfur. As Mr. Omar Suleiman is here and he’s seeking a flexible U.S. stance, as being reported, toward Hamas in order for the upcoming unity government to gain international support or world support, do you accept the idea of supporting any unity government that include Hamas or the condition – the U.S. condition toward Hamas is still the same?

MR. WOOD: Our conditions toward Hamas remain the same. As we’ve said many times, Hamas needs to, first of all, recognize Israel, accept previous agreements that have been agreed to by the Palestinian Authority and the PLO, and renounce violence. And those have to happen, and until they happen, we are not going to deal with Hamas. And I think we’ve made that very clear over and again.

QUESTION: So does that mean that the flexible U.S. stance as – toward Hamas, as Mr. Omar Suleiman is seeking, is something likely not to get support from this government?

MR. WOOD: I think Secretary Clinton and others have spoken very clearly on this issue what Hamas needs to do if it wants to be a partner for peace. Up until now, Hamas has chosen not to be a partner for peace. And so, you know, our three conditions remain, and I don’t have anything further to add on it.

QUESTION: And the other point I’m trying to make is today, it’s expected that President Obama will announce a U.S. envoy to Sudan. And as I was told by the White House, you are reviewing the policy toward Sudan. What are your objectives for this envoy?

MR. WOOD: Well, first of all, let’s wait for an announcement. When there’s an announcement, you’ll all know about it. With regard to our policy towards Sudan, I think I’ve spelled out quite clearly some of the concerns that we have about Sudan, particularly regarding its decision to expel those international humanitarian workers.

And Darfur will remain a concern of this Administration. It’s a high priority. And we want to see the Sudanese take the steps necessary to ensure that what’s already a very serious situation does not, you know, get any worse. And if indeed there are further deaths that take place in Darfur, there will be only one person responsible for those deaths, and that will be President Bashir.

QUESTION: And talking about responsibility, what do you think about this ICC thing, because the Sudanese Government is fighting their positions, like expelling this – the aid organization by the decision of the ICC? So how do you see that?

MR. WOOD: I spoke to this yesterday. We don’t see any link between what was decided in The Hague and what’s going on on the ground in Darfur. So I don’t have anything more to add than to what I said yesterday.

QUESTION: Can I just ask you to clarify that point? You don’t see any link, yes. But do you see that the Sudanese link the two?

MR. WOOD: It’s not my – what the Sudanese decide --

QUESTION: Pretending that their – pretending that these things are not related is not really going to help the situation.

MR. WOOD: No, no. I’m not standing up here to try to pretend. What I’m saying to you is that we don’t see any linkage.

QUESTION: Right, I understand that.

MR. WOOD: Where we do see a linkage – what we see as linkage is what – the steps --


QUESTION: -- that were announced by President Bashir to expel these foreign aid workers, and to the impact that it is having and will continue to have on the people of Darfur.

QUESTION: No, I understand that. But I don’t understand how you can close your eyes and say that there is no link when the Sudanese – do you recognize that the Sudanese Government sees that there’s a link?

MR. WOOD: I don’t speak for the Sudanese Government.

QUESTION: Or it is purely coincidental that less than a day after the indictment comes out, they order the expulsion of these aid groups?

MR. WOOD: I’m sorry, Matt. I don’t --

QUESTION: They don’t (inaudible).

MR. WOOD: -- see the linkage. I cannot speak for the Sudanese Government. All I can tell you is that there is a crisis in Darfur, and it is being exacerbated by the steps that President Bashir took. And by those steps, I mean kicking out those foreign aid workers. That’s the only linkage I see here.

QUESTION: Different topic?

QUESTION: No, same topic.

MR. WOOD: We’ll go back here.

QUESTION: Secretary Clinton said yesterday that those governments that were basically supportive of Bashir would – and were not critical of his decision to kick out the foreign aid workers should fill the gap and try and – if they’re not going to put pressure on him, then they need to fill the gap. But Saudi Arabia has been quite critical of the ICC ruling, for example, which led to the expulsions. Have you reached out or spoken to Saudi Arabia, a close ally on their position on this? And there are many other Arab and African governments who really feel that your position is the wrong one.

MR. WOOD: Well, I certainly disagree with that characterization of our position. We have had conversations with a number of Arab states. We will have conversations with others – other Islamic states to talk about our concerns. And I think the Secretary made very clear yesterday where we stand on that. But if – that if indeed there is no decision to reverse the expulsion of these, you know, international humanitarian workers, that other states need to step up and provide assistance and relief to the people of Darfur who are suffering. And you know, we plan to continue to push that line because what President Bashir is doing is just creating a much, much worse situation on the ground, and he needs to be held accountable for that, as the Secretary said.

QUESTION: What about the issue of no-fly zones and also, you know, some sort of military action against Bashir? I mean, are these all options that are being reviewed?

MR. WOOD: I’m not going to talk about options being reviewed, except to say that we are obviously taking a much closer look at how we’re going to go forward with regard to our policy with Sudan.

QUESTION: Well, yeah, but Robert, I mean, President Obama during the campaign, like, these were specific things that he said that he wanted to push for if elected president. And I mean, obviously, he wasn’t elected on this, you know, solely on this particular pledge. But don’t the campaign pledges that elect a president mean anything when you’re reviewing policy?

MR. WOOD: Well, we haven’t finished reviewing policies. So let us finish the review and then we can –

QUESTION: Well, I think – is it safe to assume that there are going to be more measures against Darfur – against Sudan, because of Darfur? Because the President said during the campaign that he promised that he would make --

MR. WOOD: Let’s wait until the review is completed. What’s important right now, Elise, is what’s going on on the ground in Darfur, and the impact of that decision by President Bashir to kick out those international humanitarian workers. That’s what we need to focus on. People are suffering. Our policy with regard to Sudan, once that review is completed, we’ll be more than happy to make it known to you and everyone else. But right now what we’ve got to try to do is get Bashir to reverse that decision. Or if, in the absence of a reversal of that decision, then other states who have been supportive of President Bashir need to step in and help provide assistance to these people who need help.

QUESTION: Well, what leverage do you have on President Bashir, if you’re not going to take measures against him to --

MR. WOOD: Again, I haven’t said here that we are or are not going to take additional measures. I said we’re reviewing our policy. But what we’re trying to do right now is deal with the situation on the ground and to get a reversal of President Bashir’s decision.

Kirit. Kirit’s been waiting.

QUESTION: You said that the – I think just now, that the move by President Bashir has already worsened the humanitarian situation. Is that based on Alberto Fernandez’s trip? Do you have any readout from that yet?

MR. WOOD: I don’t have a readout from Alberto’s trip, but I can tell you it’s based on things we have heard from others who are on the ground, who have been doing this kind of work from independent reporting, from other member-states. There’s a clear concern about, you know, a humanitarian catastrophe being exacerbated in Darfur. And that’s why I’m – from here, I’m saying so strongly that we really need to deal with this issue right now, so that it doesn’t get worse.

QUESTION: Can you, in any way, even generally quantify the effects so far?

MR. WOOD: I can’t give you a quantification of the effects. But I can assure you things are not better because of the decision taken by President Bashir.

QUESTION: Who’s conducting – who’s in charge of this review on Sudan? When do you think it’s going to be finished? The envoy is being rolled out possibly today or tomorrow. How far are you along?

MR. WOOD: There is a very thorough interagency review going on with regard to Sudan policy. I don’t know that there’s a specific individual who is leading this review. But this review has, as a few of the others that we’ve talked about before – it’s a high priority.

QUESTION: Just a quick – I’m sorry.

QUESTION: Sorry. Secretary Clinton’s husband President Clinton says one of the great regrets of his presidency is that he didn’t act fast enough in Rwanda and that the genocide took place there without the U.S. acting fast enough. Is it the Secretary’s concern that this might be repeated again in Darfur and with this increasing violence and humanitarian crisis in Darfur that she’s going to repeat the same mistake that her husband made?

MR. WOOD: Well, we’re very concerned about the situation in Darfur, as I’ve said. And I’m not able to make any kind of comparison. We’re obviously not at a similar stage in Darfur as we were in Rwanda. But there is growing and great concern about what will happen to the innocent people of Darfur if, indeed, aid workers are not allowed to carry out their work. And I can’t emphasize any more than I already have about the importance of getting President Bashir to reverse that decision. And if he refuses to do that, then he must be held accountable for what’s to follow.


MR. WOOD: Let me – please.

QUESTION: On the Middle East. I just wanted to check with you. Do you have – can you tell us anything about what your approach is likely to be to the next Israeli Government, which is just in the offing, obviously, on settlements, particularly, and what do you expect, how do you expect to approach that and what will the line be?

MR. WOOD: Well, look, with regard to a new Israeli government, there is not one in place yet. We look forward to dealing with that new government once it is in place. Our policy on settlements remains the same. It hasn’t changed. Settlements are not helpful. We will obviously be discussing that issue with the new Israeli government, as well as other issues with regard to the Middle East. With that government, we look very much forward to having those discussions.

QUESTION: And can you give us any kind of readout on Omar Suleiman’s visit and meetings?

MR. WOOD: I don’t have a readout for you on that.

QUESTION: Are they finished?

MR. WOOD: I don’t know. I honestly don’t know if they’re finished.

QUESTION: Can you try to get us something?

MR. WOOD: I will try to get you a readout, absolutely.

QUESTION: And also just on this and the new Israeli government, there have been, you know, these reports starting last month in the Israeli press, and then this week in the U.S. press about the presumed national security advisor – Netanyahu’s presumed national security advisor and his visa status. Can you say anything about that, one?

And two, it’s my understanding that the Secretary actually met with this guy, Uzi Arad. He was one of several people who was in a meeting with her when she was recently in Jerusalem, and I’m just wondering if there were any security concerns about that meeting.

MR. WOOD: Well, I don’t --

QUESTION: Can you confirm that it happened, that he was there?

MR. WOOD: Well, I don’t know. I wasn’t in that particular meeting. I don’t know if that individual was there. But with regard to visa records, as you know, Matt, they’re confidential under U.S. law, so I’m not able to discuss any particular case.

QUESTION: Again, on the Middle East, do you have any --

MR. WOOD: Oh, I’m – Lach, let me go here because this gentleman has --

QUESTION: On Afghanistan and the UN-sponsored meeting in The Hague, what specific goals would – the U.S. would like to achieve at that meeting? And secondly, would the U.S. delegation be planning to meet the Iranian delegation at the bilateral level there?

MR. WOOD: I’m not aware of any plans to meet with – for the U.S. delegation to meet with the Iranian delegation. I will not rule out the fact that there could be some kind of a – you know, a greeting of some type. But there’s no plan, as far as I know, for there to be any – a meeting between the two delegations.

With regard to what our goals and objectives are, I think I spelled them out yesterday for you. One of the things we want to see is a coherent international policy going forward and dealing with the situation on the ground in not only Afghanistan, but Pakistan as well.

QUESTION: May I – can I follow up?

MR. WOOD: Oh, yeah. And Lach, I’m sorry.

QUESTION: Yeah. No, it was on the Middle East.

MR. WOOD: I’m sorry.

QUESTION: Do you have any comment on – well, Hamas claims that Israel is to blame for the collapse of the prisoner swap. Do you have any comment on these negotiations and its broader impact for the stability in the region?

MR. WOOD: I don’t have any comment on those specific remarks. But I think if we’re looking – if there is any group to blame for what’s been going on in the region, it’s Hamas.

QUESTION: Yeah, I’m --

MR. WOOD: Let me go to Nina.


MR. WOOD: Well --

QUESTION: On the Afghanistan conference, I’m a little confused. I mean, the whole idea of this Administration is to, you know, reach out your hand if people unclench their fist or whatever. So why are you saying, you know, there are no particular plans to meet the Iranian delegation? I mean, part of the plan was to invite them.

MR. WOOD: Because I’m saying I’m not aware of any plans. I’m not ruling out, as I said, some type of a, you know, chance interaction. I just – I’m not aware of any plans at this point --

QUESTION: But this --

MR. WOOD: -- for the delegations to engage.

QUESTION: But this is exactly the same language that Secretary Rice always used: Oh, if I happen to bump into him, I’m a polite woman, I’ll greet him. I mean, it’s the same --

MR. WOOD: Well, again, as I’ve said over and again, we are still in the midst of a review of our Iran policy. And I think it’s important for us to be able to finish that so that we can give you a clear outline of what our policy objectives are, how we plan to go forward in engaging Iran in the future. So let us complete that review, and then I think we’ll be able to deal with your questions.

QUESTION: Yeah, but, I mean, you’ve invited them to the conference, so obviously you want them to --

MR. WOOD: The UN invited them.

QUESTION: Well, it was your idea for the conference – your idea to invite them.

MR. WOOD: It was our idea for the conference, that’s right.

QUESTION: Do you know that the UN invited them?

MR. WOOD: As I said to you yesterday, you’ll need to check with the UN.

QUESTION: Okay. But the U.S. – it was Secretary Clinton’s idea for the conference?

MR. WOOD: That’s right.

QUESTION: And it was Secretary Clinton’s idea to invite them?

MR. WOOD: Well --

QUESTION: So if you’re going to have them there, I mean, what’s the point of having them there if you’re not going to talk to them about how you can cooperate on Afghanistan? Just so that you can say that you invited them, is that really engagement, or is it engaging them on an issue of mutual concern, like why do you need a review for that? If they’re going to be at the conference, obviously, before the review is out, you’ve decided that you want to have them there.

MR. WOOD: Well, look, it’s important to have all of the key regional players at this conference, as we’ve said.

QUESTION: But it’s not important to talk to all the key regional players?

MR. WOOD: I didn’t say it wasn’t important to talk to them. I just said that before we engage in a real dialogue with Iran on a number of these issues, we need to finish our review. And I think that’s only fair.

QUESTION: Fine. So you might not want to talk to them about all of the litany of issues that you have with Iran, but specifically on Afghanistan, I mean, if there was an opportunity to talk to the Iranian foreign minister about how the U.S. and Afghanistan could cooperate, I mean, if you’re going to invite them, why not talk to them about it there?

MR. WOOD: Well, as I said, Elise, this conference is about Afghanistan and, you know, obviously, Pakistan. And we are going to have discussions with a wide range of people – of governments who are in attendance and international organizations. And what’s important here is that we all try to agree on some basic principles in terms of going forward with regard to dealing with the problems in those two countries, specifically focused on Afghanistan. And there will be plenty of interchange amongst the delegations at this conference. I’m just not aware that there are any plans to have our two delegations engaged.

Is it possible that that could change? You know, I’m not going to rule anything out. Anything is possible. But this conference is more than just the U.S. and Iran. It’s – as I said, it’s about Afghanistan and the situation in the region, and that’s where we need to keep our focus.

QUESTION: Well, why not – I know you don’t have diplomatic relations with them, but why not use this opportunity to push the case, for example, of the Iranian American journalist who is – can’t be released? Why not approach it from – that’s pragmatic?

MR. WOOD: Well, we are already – with regard to that journalist, we are having – we are communicating through the Swiss in dealing with that issue. Again, this conference is about that region of the world. And as I said, there are no plans at this moment that I’m aware of. But is it possible that we could have discussions or there could be, you know, a – you know, chance greetings, that type of thing? Yeah. I mean, I can’t say with exact certainty that that won’t happen.

But what I’m trying to – the message I’m trying to communicate is that what you need to look at is how all of the countries who have equities in that situation in the region need to cooperate and don’t focus solely right now on the U.S. and Iran. As I said, this Administration is interested in engaging Iran. We want to do that. But we also need to complete our review so that we can spell out for you and all others in the international community who are interested in this subject of how we plan to go forward.

QUESTION: Just from a policy perspective, one thing is that the Bush Administration, when they met the Iranians in terms of discussing Iraq, if only Iraq was on the table, all other subjects were taboo. What’s your policy in terms of meeting the Iranians if you are going to see the Iranians on Afghanistan --

MR. WOOD: Sue, I have just said we are in the midst of a policy review. So once that review is completed, then we can go forward.

QUESTION: On Turkey, Robert. Yesterday, a so-called Armenian genocide resolution was introduced to the House of Representatives, and the previous administration was against such a resolution. What is your position on that? Are you in favor of it?

MR. WOOD: Look, we’re looking at that resolution. I know it was introduced yesterday. We obviously want to take a close look at it. I don’t want to give you – I don’t want to go any further on it until we have had a chance to take a closer look at it and discuss it within the government, and that’s where I’m going to leave it.

QUESTION: But in principle, are you –

MR. WOOD: I just gave you my answer.

QUESTION: But both Senator Biden, Senator Clinton, and Senator Obama, at the time – obviously, they’re different positions now – but they all supported that resolution previously, so --

MR. WOOD: You just answered the question, Sue.

Kirit, if that’s the question you’re going to ask, I’ve already answered it.

QUESTION: Well, it was a campaign promise that -- you know, it was –

MR. WOOD: I’ve already answered it. Anything else?

QUESTION: Well, I have one thing about the – now, I have another thing. Chris Hill, any change in position? It seems that there might be a little bit more opposition growing?

MR. WOOD: You mean in terms of our support for Chris.


MR. WOOD: Absolutely no change. We think he is a great candidate for this job. He’s got great experience, and we think he’d make an excellent ambassador.

QUESTION: Okay. And then my last thing is on Yemen. The other day there was this attack on some South Korean tourists, and now there’s been an attack on a South Korean diplomatic vehicle.

MR. WOOD: I saw the report.

QUESTION: What’s your understanding of what’s going on in Yemen? Is there some push to go after South Korea?

MR. WOOD: I don’t know, but these two particular incidents are very troubling. And you know, our sympathies go out to, you know, the people of South Korea. Everyone is trying to understand what’s going on on the ground in Yemen. And we continue to work with the Yemeni Government on trying to, you know, combat al-Qaida.

And it’s a difficult situation. We’re concerned about it. The South Koreans are obviously very concerned. But it’s important that all of us in the international community be united in terms of trying to deal with this threat. And the threat just doesn’t emanate from Yemen, it emanates from a lot of places around the world. So – and this is going to require a great deal of intensified cooperation to fight al-Qaida and other groups that practice terrorism.

(The briefing was concluded at 11:45 a.m.)

Back to Top

Do you already have an account on one of these sites? Click the logo to sign in and create your own customized State Department page. Want to learn more? Check out our FAQ!

OpenID is a service that allows you to sign in to many different websites using a single identity. Find out more about OpenID and how to get an OpenID-enabled account.