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Middle East Digest - April 3, 2009


April 3, 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 April 3, 2009

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11:20 a.m. EDT

QUESTION: Today, President Obama talked about a core disagreement with Moscow. Are you aware of this latest --

MR. WOOD: I haven’t seen the actual latest remarks. I apologize. I’m not sure what you’re referring to exactly about a core disagreement. I mean, we have – there are issues that remain between the United States and Russia and, you know, our relationship is complex. And – but it’s an important relationship not only for us, but for the rest of the world.

And as the President has said, as Secretary Clinton has said, we want to work with Russia on a whole host of issues, you know, including cooperation on missile defense. And – but again, I haven’t seen those comments. So unless you can flesh them out for me, I’ll --

QUESTION: So what about missile defense? There are some disagreement on that regard, right?

MR. WOOD: There’s no question we have had a series of talks about missile defense with the Russians. But we have said we’re engaging in missile defense in Europe to protect us all from the threat of future Iranian missile threat. We’ve made that point clear to the Russians many times. We look forward to cooperating with them on missile defense. And the Secretary recently had a meeting, as you know, with Foreign Minister Lavrov in Geneva. They also met briefly in The Hague. We’re putting together a team that’s going to work on arms control issues with the Russians.

So, you know, it’s an important relationship. There are a lot of elements to it. We look forward to working with our Russian partners to deal with a lot of these challenges that we face.

QUESTION: (Inaudible.)

QUESTION: (Inaudible) the Iranian nuclear program, like – not missile issue, but cooperating in – under UN --

MR. WOOD: The Russians --

QUESTION: They haven’t been that helpful.

MR. WOOD: Well, that’s your characterization. I mean, certainly, we have heard Russian officials speak to the issue of Iran’s nuclear program. They remain concerned about it. I’d have to refer you to the Government of the Federation – the Russian Federation for their specific views on it. But they have certainly made very clear that they remain concerned about what Iran is doing with regards to its nuclear program.

QUESTION: Can you confirm that the U.S. is going to sign today bilateral agreement with Uzbekistan for the transit of U.S. troops through Uzbekistan toward Afghanistan?

MR. WOOD: Yeah, Sylvie. The Department – the U.S. Department of Defense and the Uzbekistan Ministry of Defense agreed through an exchange of letters earlier today to establish commercial shipping routes to – for nonlethal supplies across Uzbekistan territory to support our operations in Afghanistan. So --

QUESTION: If I – my memory’s good, there was such an agreement in 2005, 2006, which has been cancelled by U.S. because of the terrible human rights situation in Uzbekistan. The fact that there is a new agreement, does it mean that the U.S. thinks the human rights situation improved in Uzbekistan?

MR. WOOD: Look, we’ve said for some time now that there are some human rights concerns that we have with the Government of Uzbekistan. But I think, you know, it’s important that we look at this agreement that was reached earlier today, and what that agreement does for our ability to support our operations in Afghanistan against the Taliban and al-Qaida.

And so obviously, the United States and Uzbekistan have interests in trying to prevent the Taliban and al-Qaida from becoming more powerful in Afghanistan. So yes, we do have concerns with regard to human rights, but we also have other interests as well with Uzbekistan. And we’ll continue to raise our concerns on the human rights front.

QUESTION: But does it mean that human rights have been put on the backburner?

MR. WOOD: No, not at all, not at all, not at all.

QUESTION: What did you say it had to do with, the agreement?

MR. WOOD: No, I said --

QUESTION: Shipping routes?

MR. WOOD: Commercial routes. Did I say shipping? I don’t --

QUESTION: Yeah, you said shipping.

MR. WOOD: Did I say shipping? Well, commercial --

QUESTION: Since Uzbekistan is landlocked, it’s kind of like (inaudible) signed the maritime agreement with Mongolia.

MR. WOOD: Yeah, I didn’t mean – commercial transit routes is what I meant to say. Shipping just was a word that popped up. I meant to say transit routes, so my apologies.

QUESTION: And nonlethal supplies, does that include personnel or --

MR. WOOD: Well, I mean, nonlethal – food, medical supplies, you know, building materials, those types of items.

QUESTION: Different subject. Europe is apparently refusing to work with the new Israeli Government until they talk about a two-state solution. What’s the U.S. prepared to do to sort of broker this or intervene or --

MR. WOOD: Well, the Secretary, as I mentioned yesterday, had a very brief conversation with Foreign Minister Lieberman. She had a conversation yesterday with Prime Minister Netanyahu. The Israeli Government has just come into place. We are going to be working with that government and with our Palestinian partners to try to move toward this two-states solution I think we all want to see happen. We want to do this as quickly as possible.

I’m not going to kid you. There are a lot of challenges here to try to get toward that two-state solution. But we need commitments from both sides. That’s going to require a lot of hard work. It’s not going to be easy. But that is our goal. We think it’s in the best interest of not only the United States, Israel, and the Palestinians, but the rest of the world that we reach some kind of a two-state solution. So again, it’s a new Israeli Government, a relatively new Administration. Senator George Mitchell is going to be going to the region very soon, and continue the process of trying to get the parties to focus on this two-state solution.

QUESTION: But one thought, what about the whole European component that I --

MR. WOOD: I can’t speak to, you know, Europe’s concerns. You know, I can only tell you what the United States wants to see happen. But I will say this: the Europeans, like the United States, want to see a two-state solution to this Palestinian conflict. And we’ll be working as partners to try to get the parties moving in the right direction.

But it – you know, as I said, it’s going to be a challenge.

QUESTION: Is Ambassador Mitchell going to be there next week?

MR. WOOD: I’m not sure. When we have some details on his travel itinerary, we’ll certainly make them available.

QUESTION: Okay.

QUESTION: Yesterday at a seminar at a think tank, Dr. Jalal, she was the first Afghan woman president – in the last presidential election. She said the recent talks of reconciliation with Taliban is giving confusion inside – domestically inside the country, and giving a sense of victory among the Talibans. Can you give us a sense of what is your definition of reconciliation with Taliban, what are the broader parameters?

MR. WOOD: Consul --

QUESTION: Reconciliation, talks.

QUESTION: Oh, reconciliation, yeah. Look, we have said very clearly that any type of reconciliation that takes place in Afghanistan has to be Afghan led. And there, obviously, are differences of opinions in Afghanistan’s democracy about how to engage various elements of the Taliban. And I think the Afghan Government has been very clear that it would engage those elements that renounce violence, that are willing to adhere to Afghanistan’s constitution. But that is going to be a process that has to come out of Afghan society, you know, and be Afghan led.

So it’s not surprising that you’re going to have these differing views about how you approach this issue. But we’re confident that the Afghans will take the right approach and make decisions based on international interests.

QUESTION: Just follow, one quickly. As far as the terrorism and al-Qaida is concerned in Afghanistan, the Secretary and President both have spoken many times, has been a safe haven in Pakistan. Now both are victim now of the terrorism, Pakistan and Afghanistan. Do you think this new aid will change any – bring new results to Pakistan?

MR. WOOD: Well, that is certainly the hope. Pakistan and Afghanistan face enormous challenges, as you know. And as you also know, we had a very thorough, exhaustive review of how best to go forward in Afghanistan. And again, we are not going to be wedded to a particular policy. We will see how things evolve, and if we need to, you know, make changes to our approach, we will do so. That’s the prudent thing to do.

But we think the policies that we’re now beginning to undertake and implement are going to be in the best interest of the United States, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and frankly, the rest of the global community. And so there’s a lot of work ahead. Ambassador Holbrooke, as you know, will be in the region shortly. And you know, we look forward to working with all of our partners to try to do what we can to bring some stability to not only Afghanistan, but the border area with Pakistan.

Okay, thank you all.

(The briefing was concluded at 11:44 a.m.)

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