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Middle East Digest - March 26, 2009


March 26, 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 26, 2009

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MR. DUGUID: Yes, please.

QUESTION: The Iranians today said that they would be sending somebody to the Afghanistan conference, and the Dutch organizers have also confirmed this. Is the Secretary planning on meeting with the Iranians on the sidelines at this conference? And then more generally, what is your response to Iran’s acceptance of going to the conference? Do you see this as a positive overture towards the United States?

MR. DUGUID: Well, we welcome an Iranian participation in the conference in The Hague. We have not yet been officially notified by the organizers that they have accepted. But I am speaking from the press accounts that we have both seen – you and I – that if this is indeed the case, and I’m sure that the organizers will communicate that to us at some point shortly, then it is a welcome move, because we do want this conference to be a regional conference. A regional conference would be incomplete without Iran. Iran does share a border with Afghanistan and that border is strategic. The Iranians have not always played a helpful role in Afghanistan. We are hoping that their attendance here is a demonstration that they are planning to play a positive role in regards to Afghanistan.

On your question about meetings. No substantive meetings are planned with Iranian officials at this time.

QUESTION: When you say no substantive meetings, are you – is the Secretary planning on having a chit-chat over coffee, you know --

MR. DUGUID: A chit-chat over coffee is --

QUESTION: -- on the sidelines of the meeting?

MR. DUGUID: -- is a substantive meeting. And a non-substantive meeting is a meeting in the way in and on the way out. So the answer is we had plans for no substantive meetings at this time.

QUESTION: Well, my question then is, why not? You have a lot of issues between you and consular issues these – the case of Roxana Saberi – I mean, and many other issues. Why not break the ice?

MR. DUGUID: And my answer to you is that this conference is about Afghanistan. It’s about reaching a regional consensus about Afghanistan. It is not a conference about U.S.-Iranian relations, as much as everyone would like to try and report that. It is an attempt to try and get all of Afghanistan’s neighbors engaged in a process of trying to help stabilize Afghanistan, so that is why there are none planned.

QUESTION: But since Iran is part of the conference and Afghanistan is the topic, why wouldn’t she talk to the Iranians about Afghanistan?

MR. DUGUID: Well, we will in the multilateral setting. Of course, the Iranians will be around the table. They will speak. We will listen to them. We will hear their points of view. And they will also hear our points of view in a discussion about Afghanistan. That is not, I think, the particular question. The particular question, as Sue defined it, was the U.S. and Iran using this particular meeting to sit down and talk about other things. There are no plans for that at this time.

QUESTION: Gordon, the Iranian foreign minister --

MR. DUGUID: Yes, please. You’ve been waiting.

QUESTION: The Iranian foreign minister said that Afghanistan’s crisis has a regional solution. And when Iranians say regional solution, kind of indicating – including Afghanistan’s neighbors, but excluding the U.S. and NATO. How do U.S. officials address that (inaudible)?

MR. DUGUID: Well, I haven’t heard these particular comments.

QUESTION: (Inaudible.)

MR. DUGUID: Perhaps at the conference they will elaborate more. I would see – I would find it hard to see how you could have a solution in Afghanistan absent the very real efforts that the U.S., NATO allies and the non-NATO allies who have been present in Afghanistan for the – you know, the past years have been engaged in. The amount of developmental aid that NATO and its allies provide, the stability in the PRTs, the training of the police forces, the training of the Afghan National Army are all things being done by the very people that you’ve just mentioned. But we will hear their viewpoint, I suspect, at the conference.

Kirit’s been waiting. We’ll go to him.

QUESTION: Could you say, as a neighbor of Afghanistan, how you would like Iran to play a helpful role? What specifically would you like them to do to fulfill that role of a helpful neighbor?

MR. DUGUID: I think what we will do is we will listen to Iran’s view of how it can play a positive role and see what they have to offer to the process before we start making any generalizations about where we will go. We will see if they are ready to play a positive process, and then we’ll work on from there, but we’ll see what they have to say.

QUESTION: So you don’t have any ideas how they can do this?

MR. DUGUID: I have no ideas to share with you at the moment. We’ll hear what they have to say at The Hague, and then we’ll carry on from there.

I’ll come back to you. There’s one back there.

QUESTION: Why isn’t Ambassador Holbrooke talking to Iran when he’s handling Afghanistan? He has been talking to India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. Why he’s missing Iran on these dialogues?

MR. DUGUID: The travels of Ambassador Holbrooke have taken him to those areas for which the President has tasked him specifically. The President has not specifically tasked him to do anything with Iran; however, Ambassador Holbrooke will be in The Hague, he will hear the Iranians when they make their interventions there, and he will gain, I suspect, some knowledge of their positions at that time.

QUESTION: What has Iran done that’s been unhelpful in Afghanistan?

MR. DUGUID: The early part of our involvement in Afghanistan has been, as you know, focused or was focused on the border areas. We did have some early cooperation with Iran. I know that we’ve said that before. And then our cooperation ended and we did not enjoy that cooperation furthermore.

QUESTION: So the unhelpfulness consists of the withdrawal of that cooperation, or has there been some active frustration of our efforts by the Iranians?

MR. DUGUID: I think that I’ll just leave it that their cooperation did not continue after the early days for our intervention in Afghanistan. Leave it at that.

Yes, please.

QUESTION: The Iranians haven’t said at what level they’re going to be sending their representative. Would you like them to send the foreign minister because this is a ministerial meeting?

And then secondly, you said that the Secretary has no plans for any substantive meetings. What about at a lower level, and what about Holbrooke, or is Dennis Ross going, for example?

MR. DUGUID: There are no plans for U.S. officials to have substantive meetings with Iranians at the conference.

QUESTION: So nothing at a working group level; for example, Holbrooke or one of his assistants?

MR. DUGUID: I think my statement is fairly definitive.

Yes.

QUESTION: I would like to follow up on Kirit’s question. Kyrgyzstan today confirmed that they are going to close the base in Bishkek. Would U.S. want Iran to – or ask Iran to allow passage through the Iranian territory toward Afghanistan to help the efforts in Afghanistan?

MR. DUGUID: I have no indication that that is one of the options that would be pursued. I’ve only just heard now from you that the Kyrgyz have made this statement. We did have an ongoing negotiation with them, so I had not heard before just now that somehow that that has not progressed to a successful conclusion.

The Pentagon, as you know, has contingency plans for all sorts of outcomes. We have been working to maintain our position at the Manas air base, and the last information I had was that we were continuing to do that. But we do have contingency supply routes. The Pentagon will, of course, be looking at all of those. We will make sure that U.S. and NATO forces receive the supplies that they need in order to carry out their mission.

QUESTION: Still on Iran.

MR. DUGUID: Still on Iran, please.

QUESTION: Just wondering if there have been any updates on the Roxana Saberi case.

MR. DUGUID: I have nothing new for you today on that case.

QUESTION: On Sudan?

QUESTION: On Iran.

MR. DUGUID: On Iran, please.

QUESTION: The Iranian parliament speaker yesterday had some harsh words regarding President Obama’s videotape, and he said it’s not a sentimental issue can be resolved by just celebrating – congratulating Iranian and so – and before that, the Iranian leader also had, you know, some reactions. Is a U.S. official planning to address the issue again and clarifying the --

MR. DUGUID: Sorry, I’m not following. Which particular issue addressed?

QUESTION: That they have already official – Iranian official, supreme leader, and now Iranian parliament speaker reacted to President Obama’s videotape.

MR. DUGUID: I don’t have any reactions to their comments. The President made his address. He addressed the Iranian people. It was a gesture of goodwill and it stands as a gesture of goodwill.

Yes, please.

QUESTION: On Sudan. If you could just please comment on reports about an alleged weapons convoy that was destroyed in Sudan, with weapons supposedly headed for Gaza. I believe the attack happened in January. Was the U.S. aware of this attack? Reports are saying that it was either carried out by the U.S., others are saying that it may have been carried out by Israel.

MR. DUGUID: I’ve seen no reports that suggested U.S. involvement in this particular case. I’m aware of the media reports. I don’t have any information on that for you. It would be a defense issue, in any event. But I am unaware that there is any suggestion of U.S. involvement.

QUESTION: Sudan’s – I believe it was the transport minister – has acknowledged that his country in the past has sent weapons to Hamas but says that is no longer the case. Is there a U.S. concern that Sudan is still providing weapons assistance to – through Gaza or to Hamas?

MR. DUGUID: I don’t have any information for you on that. We are concerned that weapons are being sent to Hamas, that smuggling has been a problem in the Gaza Strip, and that is one of the things that everyone is working to resolve, particularly the Egyptians are working to resolve, in order to help bring peace back to the Gaza.

QUESTION: Can I just clarify something?

MR. DUGUID: Yes.

QUESTION: Your remarks were a little unclear. Are you saying the U.S. did not have any involvement in that at all, just flat out?

MR. DUGUID: I am unaware of any suggestion that the U.S. did.

QUESTION: But there is a suggestion. There’s a Sudanese report saying that.

MR. DUGUID: I am unaware of the report. I haven’t seen it and I don’t have any information on that.

QUESTION: But Kirit isn’t asking whether you’re aware of any suggestions. He’s asking whether there was any involvement, to your knowledge.

MR. DUGUID: But I am – and what I am telling you is that because I was unaware that there was any suggestion, I have not been informed that there was any sort of U.S. involvement. I will be happy to refer you to the Pentagon if this is something that would involve military action, but nothing I have seen indicates any U.S. involvement in this incident at all.

QUESTION: And just on the same point then, do you have any indication of Israeli involvement?

MR. DUGUID: I would refer you to the Israelis about their involvement in any particular military action.

Anything else? Charley.

QUESTION: As the Administration prepares to roll out the results of its review on Afghanistan, can you bring us up to date how many State Department officials are in Afghanistan now and how that’s set to increase?

MR. DUGUID: We have had some statements earlier about what we’re looking at by way of increases. I don’t have the number for you. I’ll ask that we take that question and post that for you on the numbers of Americans. Now, the actual numbers of the increase depends on several things: It, first of all, depends on the completion of the report, which should be very soon, and the strategy that it lays out; and then the – obtaining the adequate resources to deploy a number of people. The number of State Department officers, both Foreign Service, Civil Service, will increase, but I don’t have the exact number of the increase for you at this particular time.

QUESTION: Can you do a briefing here tomorrow to lay out what the State Department’s role is in the new strategy?

MR. DUGUID: We normally do a briefing every day.

QUESTION: I mean a special briefing on this.

MR. DUGUID: A special briefing? When we have word that the strategy will be rolled out, we will, of course, let you know what all of the events in that rollout are and where.

QUESTION: Is Holbrooke holding forth on this?

MR. DUGUID: As soon as we have word that the rollout is going to happen, we will let you know which media events are available for you.

And – yes.

QUESTION: Just quick on – going back to Israel, the Human Rights – Human Rights Watch’s report saying that Israel has absolutely used white phosphorous against civilians during its incursion into Gaza, do you have any reaction to the report or any concerns over the use of phosphorous by Israel?

MR. DUGUID: I have seen the media reports of this report. I haven’t seen the detailed description of it. The United States looks to all nations to respect international norms in the use of arms and munitions, and abide by international laws in these cases.

Thank you.



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