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Diplomacy in Action

Middle East Digest - March 20, 2009

March 20, 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 20, 2009

View Video

11:10 a.m. EDT

QUESTION: What do you make so far of the Iranian reaction to the President’s video message?

QUESTION: Robert, can I ask you a question about the statement on Madagascar? How much money is involved in the suspension?

MR. WOOD: Charlie, we’re working to get the figures for you right now, and we’ll hopefully be able to give you that a little bit later today.


MR. WOOD: No, that’s a good question.

QUESTION: Now proceed to --

MR. WOOD: We’re working on it.

Yes, sir.

QUESTION: Yeah, your – what do you make of the Iranian reaction thus far to the President’s video message?

MR. WOOD: Well, I haven’t really seen much in terms of the Iranian reaction to it. We will – I will see more as the day goes on. But I think the importance of this message was that the President said that we are going to engage in direct diplomacy with Iran. We’re interested in working with the Iranian people, the Iranian Government to improve the relationship. There are still a lot of difficult issues that remain between us, but we’re willing to work through them if the Iranians are willing to work with us. So, you know, I’ll probably have more to say about the Iranian reaction once I have a fuller understanding of how they responded to it.


QUESTION: Do you have anything more on whether U.S. officials will meet with their Iranian counterparts either in Russia for the Shanghai grouping or the one in The Hague, the Afghanistan --

MR. WOOD: No, I don’t have anything more than what I said yesterday, but we’ll certainly keep you abreast if there are changes to that.

James, haven’t seen you in a while. Good to see you.

QUESTION: Good to be back. Robert, is the American policy toward Israel under review?

MR. WOOD: No, our policy toward – are you talking about something specific?

QUESTION: You’ve talked about how the policy in Afghanistan is under review, the policy toward North Korea is under review, Iran is under review. Is the policy toward Israel under review?

MR. WOOD: No, our – look, we have a longstanding, very good relationship with the Government of Israel. We’re – as I said several days ago and I think a couple weeks ago as well, we’re waiting for there to be an Israeli government in place. We look forward to working with that new government on trying to move the peace process forward. And that’s where we’re at.

QUESTION: The reason I ask is because that was an element of the Iranian response which the spokesman for President Ahmadinejad stated specifically. The American Government, he said, should realize its previous mistakes; supporting Israel is not a friendly gesture. But you don’t intend to diminish your support for Israel in any way?

MR. WOOD: Absolutely not.

QUESTION: And another element of the response I want to bring up with you: The spokesman for President Ahmadinejad said that unlimited sanctions against Iran, which still continue and have been renewed by the United States, are wrong and need to be reviewed. How was it that the Administration could make that determination about the need to extend those sanctions against Iran amid an overall policy review toward Iran that is still underway?

MR. WOOD: Well, our concerns about a number of – our concerns about Iranian behavior in a number of areas are still there and is still there. And that hasn’t changed. We want to engage with the Iranians to try to resolve some of the differences between us, but those difficult issues remain. And we look to work with the Iranian Government to try to resolve them.

We’re willing to reach out our hand to the Iranians, as the President and the Secretary have said. But some of those issues, like its nuclear program, it’s not just a concern to the United States; it’s a concern to the larger international community. Iran’s behavior with regard to Iraq, with regard to Hezbollah, Hamas, remain concerns. And so that hasn’t changed. The fact that we want to reach out to Iran, I don’t see a contradiction there. But those concerns remain, and they need to be dealt with.

QUESTION: Robert, on that message, since public diplomacy is what this building does, did the State Department have any input into that message, and do you know who originated the idea for doing it?

MR. WOOD: I don’t know who originated the idea, but obviously the President had an interest in reaching out to Iran, as he has said that he would do. The State Department certainly was aware of the fact that the President was going to, you know, give this message to the Iranian people and its government. So --

QUESTION: But did it help to craft that message, or was it strictly the White House?

MR. WOOD: Honestly, I don’t know where – you know, who had a role in providing language or editing it. I don’t know. But you can – certainly it’s fair to state that the State Department was involved with the crafting of the message in some fashion. I just can’t tell you how.

QUESTION: While reaching out to Iran, Israel still considers Iran to be a primary threat. Can that be sort of a source of friction between the U.S. and Israel?

MR. WOOD: No, I don’t see any source of friction. Iran’s behavior is what both the Government of the United States and the Government of Israel are concerned about. It’s about Iranian behavior that all of us in the international community are concerned about. So no, I don’t see any differences. We share that view. What we have said is that we want to engage the Iranians diplomatically to try to bridge some of these differences. But a lot of concerns remain.

QUESTION: As we pursue a diplomatic route with Iran, can we assume that sort of the Palestinian-Israeli issue will take on a higher priority, it will become issue number one for the U.S. Administration in the Middle East?

MR. WOOD: Well, it is a high priority. We’ve been working trying to bring about a two-state solution for quite some time. We’re going to continue to push that. It remains a priority. We have a number of priorities in the Middle East, but certainly the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is definitely right up there at the top.

QUESTION: A couple on Sudan, actually. Can you tell us if the Secretary has made any calls to Sudan’s neighbors or other countries of influence trying to get Bashir to reverse his decision on NGOs?

MR. WOOD: I don’t think she made any calls yesterday. She has calls planned – I’m not sure with whom – today. But there are a number of officials from the U.S. Government who are involved right now in trying to bring about a reversal of Bashir’s decision. So it’s – this is obviously something that is a high priority right now. We’re very concerned about what can – what is happening and what can happen to the people of Darfur. And we continue to call on Bashir to reverse that decision and call on, as the Secretary did previously, the Arab League, the African Union to use whatever influence they have to either get Bashir to reverse that decision or to fill in that gap in terms of providing humanitarian assistance.

QUESTION: You said that calls are planned. Is that for today, do you know?

MR. WOOD: Yeah, I don’t – she has a couple of calls scheduled, but I’m not sure with whom she’s making those calls.

QUESTION: And then what’s her message on those?

MR. WOOD: On --

QUESTION: What’s her message during those calls, or is she --

MR. WOOD: Well, I’m not saying that they are related to Sudan. I just said that she has a couple of calls on her schedule, but I don’t known to whom she is making those. I don’t have them in front of me right now. But let me just say that the Secretary has been fully engaged on this issue, as have other officials. We’re talking to our allies at the UN. There’s a whole – there’s a lot of diplomatic activity going on trying, as I said, to get President Bashir to reverse his decision.

QUESTION: And has your envoy begun doing anything on this at all, or --

MR. WOOD: Not that I’m aware of. But you know, Scott Gration looks forward to engaging as soon as possible. I mean, he was just named. But he’ll, I’m sure, at some point very soon, be heading out to the region and also, you know, speaking with some of our allies about how we can best go forward.

QUESTION: And then one last one. Sorry. Just on Alberto Fernandez. Do you have a readout of his trip to Darfur yet?

MR. WOOD: The only readout that I have is that, you know, the situation on the ground remains very severe, and we’re very concerned about the plight of the people of Darfur right now. This is a very, very difficult moment, and we’re going to be looking at what we can do to help improve the situation. But again, the important point here to understand is that the fault lies with President Bashir. He should be held accountable and responsible for what follows in Darfur, for what’s going on right now there and what’s to follow. And he needs to be held accountable. And as I said, we call on the Government of Sudan to reverse this decision and to do so forthwith.

QUESTION: But that’s not based on your assessment from Alberto. That’s just in general. You don’t have a readout from this – a readout?

MR. WOOD: Well, I don’t have, you know, a specific readout. But that was, in essence, the sense that I’ve received from his visit.


QUESTION: I just wonder, following up on that, if you could get back to us. It’s been several days since he’s been back from Darfur. I mean, there must be some specifics that you can relay to us about what he found.

MR. WOOD: Yeah, we’ll certainly try to get you a more detailed readout.

We’ll certainly try and do that.

QUESTION: Robert, the conference that’s coming up on Afghanistan and the Iranians supposedly invited. They still think they’re not invited. Now, could you – I know you went over this before, but could you explain exactly who issues the invitations and why they --

MR. WOOD: My understanding is that the invitations are being issued by the UN, along with the co-sponsors of the conference, meaning the Government of the Netherlands and the Government of Afghanistan.

Yes, ma’am.

QUESTION: (Inaudible) question. The U.S. Government has been saying, okay, we’re waiting – we’re making the overtures, we’re extending our hand and we’re waiting for a sign from Iran. What kind of a sign are you waiting for them to – for them to show their willingness?

MR. WOOD: Well, we’re waiting for Iran to reach its hand out and, you know, express its willingness to engage with the United States.

QUESTION: They’ve said so in public themselves, but --

MR. WOOD: They’re also – right. But you know, it’s important – again, we’re at the beginning of this process. The President has clearly – made it clear that we are going to engage diplomatically with Iran. We intend to do that. It will be up to the Iranians how they want to reciprocate. But I also want to emphasize that we still have some very difficult issues that divide us. And what the President has said is that we want to work with Iran on trying to deal with these differences. We’re willing to diplomatically engage. It’s really going to be up to Iran. I can’t give you a specific thing that Iran needs to do. But certainly Iran is aware of our concerns. It’s certainly aware of our willingness to engage diplomatically. And we’ll just have to see what comes from that.


QUESTION: Can I follow up on the language in the message in which the President said that the process will not be advanced by threats? What is the meaning of that?

MR. WOOD: Well, I think what the President was trying to say is that, you know, threats that have been made by the Government of Iran against Israel, you know, threats against neighbors, that type of thing, doesn’t advance dialogue and peace in the region.

And again, the President is extending the hand of the United States to the government and people of Iran. You know, Iran has a very proud culture, a very deep and rich culture. We obviously want to work with the people of Iran on a whole host of issues. But again, making threats, that’s not the language of dialogue, and that’s what he was getting at.

QUESTION: And so that language was directed toward Iran and no other party? Was it directed at the United States itself? Was it directed at any other party?

MR. WOOD: Look, the United States has not been making threats. I think you’ve seen threats coming from Iran on a number of subjects. And what the President was trying to say is that let’s get beyond this threatening language, let’s try to work together to resolve our differences, and that the United States is willing to reach out and engage.

QUESTION: Saying stop your nuclear program or we’re going to proceed with sanctions is not a threat?

MR. WOOD: Look, this – Iran’s nuclear program is a concern to not just the United States, it’s a concern to a number of countries. We’ve offered Iran a package of incentives. When I say we, I mean the P-5+1. And we want Iran to take up that offer. That’s not a threat. That’s an offer. And that’s what we’ve been saying to Iran for quite some time. And that package of incentives is important and should be looked at by Iran. But as I said, that’s not a threat. That was an offer.

QUESTION: Isn’t the package carrots and sticks? Sticks probably being a threat that if you don’t follow through with what we’re asking for.

MR. WOOD: Well, all I can tell you is that we have, with our partners, tried to reach out and deal with this issue diplomatically. That’s what we want to do. We’re not in the process of threatening Iran. But clearly, you know, this issue is not going to go away. We want Iran – if Iran is interested in peaceful nuclear energy, the international community can make provisions for that. But there are a lot of suspicions about what it’s trying to do with its nuclear program. And what we’re trying to do is resolve it diplomatically.

You know, Iran is under a number of Security Council resolutions, and it needs to comply with those resolutions. No secrets there. So I don’t view it as the United States making threats. This is the international community calling on Iran to live up to its obligations.


QUESTION: President Hamid Karzai in an interview yesterday set up three conditions for talks with Mullah Omar: one, accepting Afghan constitution; number two, renouncing violence; and thirdly, speaking the language of peace. What is the U.S. position? Would the U.S. support such talks with Mullah Omar?

MR. WOOD: Well, that’s – look, that’s a decision for the Afghan Government. You know, those elements of the Taliban that are willing to, you know, renounce violence, recognize the Afghan constitution, become a partner for peace, you know, that’s important. The decision as to whether or not, you know, the Government of Afghanistan engages with Mullah Omar is for the people and the Government of Afghanistan to decide. And it’s a very serious situation in Afghanistan right now. And we, the Afghan Government, others are going to try to work to do what we can to reduce that violence. And you know, we – as you know, we have a review on Afghanistan that should be completed fairly shortly, and we’ll have more to say about how we plan to go forward with our engagement in Afghanistan. And I’d just leave it there.

(The briefing was concluded at 11:35 a.m.)

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