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Middle East Digest - March 23, 2009


March 23, 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 23, 2009

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MR. WOOD: Okay. Good afternoon, everyone. Happy Monday. Welcome to the briefing. Let me just start out with a brief statement on secretarial travel, which I think most of you have seen but I’ll just go ahead and read it for those who have not.

At the invitation of Dutch Foreign Minister Maxime Verhagen, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton will travel to the Netherlands to attend the “International Conference on Afghanistan: A Comprehensive Strategy in a Regional Context” in The Hague on March 31. Building on the achievements of the conferences held in Bonn, in London, and most recently in Paris last year, The Hague Ministerial should reaffirm the solid and long-term commitment of the international community to supporting the Government of Afghanistan in shaping a better future for Afghanistan and its people.

Special Representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan Richard Holbrooke will accompany Secretary Clinton. The ministerial discussion will be co-chaired by the Special Representative of the UN Secretary General for Afghanistan Kai Eide, Afghan Foreign – Afghan Minister for Foreign Affairs Spanta, and Foreign Minister Verhagen. While in the Netherlands, Secretary Clinton will also have a bilateral meeting with Foreign Minister Verhagen to discuss issues of mutual interest.

And with that, I will take your questions.

QUESTION: There’s no mention of the Iranians in that. Have you reached out? I suppose – who would you reach out to for a bilateral on that? With the Swiss? I’m not --

MR. WOOD: I don’t know, but I had mentioned to you in the email –

QUESTION: But – yes – yeah, yeah, okay.

MR. WOOD: I don’t have anything on any kind of meetings at this point.

QUESTION: Just also on that, I think the Secretary had mentioned that she was hoping to hold a trilateral meeting at some point with the Pakistanis and Afghans. Is that going to happen before she goes out there? I mean, what --

MR. WOOD: I’m not aware. I mean, I’m not going to rule something like that out. But I haven’t heard of any trilateral meetings. I think there may be one coming up – now that I think about it – some time in the next couple of months. But I don’t think there’s anything scheduled right at this point.

QUESTION: Not before --

MR. WOOD: No.

QUESTION: Did you --

MR. WOOD: On the same subject? Sylvie.

QUESTION: Did you get any sign from the Iranians that they are going to attend this conference?

MR. WOOD: I haven’t heard anything about the Iranians attending. But I would refer you to the host of the conference or to the Iranians.

QUESTION: Is the Secretary still meeting with Kai Eide today? And can you give us a flavor on what that meeting is going to address?

MR. WOOD: Well, obviously, she will be discussing with Kai Eide, you know, how we go forward in Afghanistan, talk about the ongoing review that the Administration is conducting. And we’ll try and see if we can get you a readout following the meeting. But that’s --

QUESTION: I mean, is this – like, I know that you said it’s going to be – the meeting is going to be run by him, but is she, I mean, working in terms of helping set the agenda for the meeting or is it a complete UN −

MR. WOOD: Well, they will talk about the upcoming meeting. But again – but the UN and the Dutch are the – excuse me, the UN is the host.

QUESTION: But it was her idea to hold the meeting in the first place, so I mean, that may be --

MR. WOOD: It was certainly a proposal, yes.

QUESTION: The Dutch may be the venue, but it was certainly her brainchild, so --

MR. WOOD: Well, I mean, you can expect that the Secretary’s going to share her ideas on conferences. I said last week that we would be involved in terms of contributing to planning. But we are not the planner of the conference. This is something that is being hosted, as I said, by the UN and, you know, with the co-chairs being the Government of Afghanistan and the Government of the Netherlands.

QUESTION: But Iran could be very helpful in – with the United States in terms of Afghanistan. So would the Secretary find it useful maybe to have a separate meeting with the Iranians? Because the President has already said you’d like to have constructive ties with the Iranian people and its government, and that this would be a fabulous opportunity for you to do that.

MR. WOOD: Sue, as I mentioned many times before, we are in the process of reviewing our policy toward Iran, so let me leave it at that.

QUESTION: Well, aren’t you – I mean, the – never mind, actually. It doesn’t matter.

MR. WOOD: (Laughter.) Okay, sure. Yes.

QUESTION: Yes, Robert, apparently – well, on March 27 there will be Shanghai meeting in Moscow, Shanghai group. Apparently, the United States will be represented there by Assistant Secretary of State level --

MR. WOOD: That’s right.

QUESTION: Deputy Assistant Secretary of State. At the same time there will be Iranians there.
Do you expect any contacts between U.S. and Iran officials?

MR. WOOD: This came up during Friday’s briefing, and as I said, there were no planned meetings scheduled between Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary Moon and the Iranians.

QUESTION: On that, one thing very, very briefly on this. Once she – is that her full list of activities that she’s going to be doing in The Hague? She doesn't plan on, you know, stopping by a certain court that happens to be located there that is --

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

QUESTION: A different subject. I mean, just sort of a return to another subject. I just wondered if you had any response to the rather cool reaction by the Iranian supreme leader to the Obama message.

MR. WOOD: I’ve seen some news reports on his response. I don’t have much I can offer on that except to say that our hand, you know, is still outreached to the Iranian Government and people. It’s a question of whether Iran will reciprocate. I can only go by actions and not so much in the way of words.

Elise.

QUESTION: A new subject. It’s on Egypt. Apparently, there are some American – a handful of American citizens in jail who have tried to adopt children and were arrested. Basically, they are charging that the U.S. turned them in to the Egyptian authorities because they’re – they’ve said that it’s illegal to adopt in Egypt and said that their documents were forged and that the U.S. turned them into Egyptian authorities. Can you --

MR. WOOD: I’ll have to look into that. I haven’t heard anything about it, sorry.

QUESTION: You haven’t heard anything about, like, six Americans that are in an Egyptian jail right now?

MR. WOOD: This particular case, no, I haven’t. So I’ll look into it and see what I can get you.

QUESTION: Can I go back to Afghanistan?

MR. WOOD: Mm-hmm.

QUESTION: Yesterday on 60 Minutes, President Obama said in regards to troop escalation to Afghanistan, he didn’t want it to drift towards a perpetual end. Will Secretary of State Clinton be discussing an exit strategy in Afghanistan on her trip?

MR. WOOD: She will be discussing the entire situation in Afghanistan in terms of how we go forward, we the U.S. Government, in consultation with the international community. Look, there have been lots of reports, I know, written over the weekend about our review and what’s going to come out of the review and what we may or may not be doing in Afghanistan. Let me just say that, look, the situation in Afghanistan, as you well know, is very complex. It’s complicated. We’re working to try to get the right mix of contributions in terms of dealing with political, economic, and military issues.

The President, I think, in the 60 Minutes interview was very clear in saying that, you know, we – in essence, what we want to do is be able to allow Afghans to eventually take responsibility and control for their security. We don’t want to be there forever. The Afghan people will not want us to be there forever. And once our review is completed, and I think you all know that that’s coming very soon, you’ll see that we will hope to be able to get the right mix so that we can deal successfully with the problem. We’re very concerned about the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan and along the border, its border with Pakistan.

So once that review is done, we will be making very clear and articulating what our policies are going to be and, as I said, consulting closely with the allies, because this is a situation that’s only going to be solved – and I’m talking about the situation on the ground in Afghanistan – if we’re all working closely together and cooperating on dealing with the major challenges that confront the Afghan people.

QUESTION: Can I just follow up with that?

MR. WOOD: Sure.

QUESTION: I think a lot of that criticism was focused on how that – a lot of what you said sounds a bit similar to the response during the Bush Administration in regards to Iraq, that you want to give Iraq back to the Iraqis, you want to – you know, escalating violence, you want to see that go away. So just your thoughts on that criticism, and also if you engaged the Chinese and Indians and Iranians, as I’ve seen in some reports recently.

MR. WOOD: Well, look, with regard to the previous administration’s policies, look, it was working with a certain set of facts on the ground, as we are. We are inheriting some of the – you know, we are inheriting – we, the international community, are having to deal with some very severe challenges on the ground. And there are no easy answers to dealing with the security situation on the ground in Afghanistan.

But we’re conducting this thorough review. And we’re – we’ve incorporated the views of our allies. We will have further conversations. As you know, the Secretary is going to The Hague for that conference on Afghanistan. And we will try to chart the best possible path forward. It’s not easy. It doesn't mean we’re going to be successful right away. It’s going to take time. But as the President made very clear, and it doesn’t matter whether it’s the, you know, old administration or the current Administration, we don’t want to be in Afghanistan any longer than necessary. The Afghan people do not want us in Afghanistan any longer than necessary.

So the challenge for us as an international community is to try to make sure we’re marshalling our resources, our efforts, so that we can do the job and leave. And that’s – and what we’re trying to work out now in our review is what are the best modalities for taking that effort forward.

QUESTION: And will you be engaging the Chinese, Indians, and Iranians?

MR. WOOD: Well, we’ve engaged the Chinese and the Indians on this question. We’ve – of course, in the past, we’ve engaged Iran on discussions with regard to Afghanistan. Iran is going to be at this conference with – in The Hague. And we go from there. It’ll be a broad dialogue of the international community in trying to go forward in Afghanistan.

QUESTION: Thank you.

QUESTION: Is Iran going to be at the conference? Do you know that for certain?

MR. WOOD: I shouldn’t have spoken for certain. I don’t know. I’m assuming that they will be there. But to be honest, you probably just need to confirm that with the host of the conference.

MR. WOOD: Next question.

QUESTION: Does the United States support the call by the UN rapporteur Professor Falk before the UN Human Rights Council for an independent inquiry into possible war crimes in Gaza by both Israel and Hamas?

MR. WOOD: Look, we’ve expressed our concern many times about the special rapporteur’s views on dealing with that question, and we’ve found the rapporteur’s views to be anything but fair. We find them to be biased. We’ve made that very clear.

QUESTION: But my question is: Do you support the call that was also echoed by Archbishop Tutu and Amnesty International to call for an independent inquiry – committee of inquiry into possible war crimes?

MR. WOOD: Well, as I’ve said to you before, those types of investigations with regard to where there are charges being made, whether it being it’s one side or the other, there will be, I’m sure, people, organizations will be looking into these. And we need to let those go forward. I don’t have anything further beyond that.

QUESTION: In the framework of the Human Rights Council?

MR. WOOD: I’m just saying – I’ve already spoken to, I think, our view about the Human Rights Council, certainly to the UN special rapporteur’s role, and we viewed them as biased. And I don’t have anything further to add to that.

QUESTION: Wait, I just want to make sure I understand. You do – you support an investigation into war crimes?

MR. WOOD: No. I’ve said – you are trying to twist my words.

QUESTION: No, no, no, I’m not.

MR. WOOD: What I said --

QUESTION: I’m trying to make sure I understood what you just said.

MR. WOOD: What I said was --

QUESTION: You said there are going to be calls and inquiries.

MR. WOOD: I said there will be calls and --

QUESTION: And that they should go ahead.

MR. WOOD: No, no, no. What I --

QUESTION: I’m not trying to twist your words. I just want to make sure I understood what you said.

MR. WOOD: What I was trying – what I’m saying here is that you’re going to have these types of investigations and calls for, you know, there to be investigations, whether it be of one side or the other. And that’s likely to be something that will happen, and that’s not going to be anything that we’re going to be able to do – excuse me, to prevent. What we want to see, if there are going to be these types of investigations, they need to be non-biased. They need to take into account the situations on the ground, the realities on the ground, and go from there.

QUESTION: Okay.

MR. WOOD: Okay. Thank you all.

QUESTION: Thanks.



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