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Middle East Digest - April 8, 2009


April 8, 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 8, 2009

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12:43 p.m. EDT

QUESTION: Can you tell us what the latest is on this hijacked ship off the coast of Somalia?

MR. WOOD: I don’t have the most up-to-date details. The situation is still very fluid, Matt. So I – what I’d prefer you to do is to talk to the Pentagon. The Pentagon is obviously following this very closely and will have the most up-to-date information. So I apologize, but it is fluid at the moment. I’ve seen contradictory reports.

QUESTION: Can you tell us what – I understand it was carrying food aid donated – you know, U.S. food aid.

MR. WOOD: That’s right. It was --

QUESTION: Can you --

MR. WOOD: -- food assistance bound for Africa.

QUESTION: Can you be more specific?

MR. WOOD: Yeah, I think I can probably give you some more details on it. The ship apparently was bound from[1] Mombasa, Kenya. And the shipment included vegetable oil, corn soy – excuse me, corn-soy blend and other basic food commodities bound for people in countries including Somalia, Uganda, and Kenya.

QUESTION: Can you confirm that the crew took control of the ship?

MR. WOOD: I can’t, Sylvie. I just don’t know. There are a lot of contradictory reports out there, so I just couldn’t tell you.

QUESTION: Were there any U.S. diplomats onboard the ship?

MR. WOOD: Not that I’m aware of. They were all American citizens.

QUESTION: Because there was a report that --

MR. WOOD: I think there were 20 Americans.

QUESTION: -- there was one.

MR. WOOD: I haven’t seen that report. I can just confirm that I think there were 20 American citizens onboard.

QUESTION: Do you have any details on the P-5+1 meeting? There’s been a statement from London. It appears that the – in a break from Bush Administration policy, the U.S. is now going to have a – sort of a permanent seat at any negotiations with Iran. Is this indeed the case?

MR. WOOD: Would you prefer to give it or would you like me to do it?

QUESTION: No, I’d like you to. (Laughter.)

MR. WOOD: Okay, since you asked.

The P-5+1 political directors discussed next steps in addressing international concerns about Iran’s pursuit of nuclear – of a nuclear weapons capability, and affirmed their unwavering commitment to a negotiated diplomatic solution to those concerns.

We, the United States, outlined the President’s and the Secretary’s goal on Iran, which is to explore diplomatic solutions to the very serious areas of concern. A diplomatic solution necessitates a willingness to engage directly with each other on the basis of mutual respect and mutual interest. We hope that the Government of Iran chooses to reciprocate.

On the nuclear issue, the U.S. remains committed to the P-5+1 process. What is different is that the U.S. will join P-5+1 discussions with Iran from now on. The P-5+1 has asked Dr. Javier Solana, EU High Representative for Common and Foreign Security Policy, to extend an invitation to the Government of the Islamic Republic of Iran to meet with representatives of the P-5+1.

If Iran accepts, we hope this will be the occasion to seriously engage Iran on how to break the logjam of recent years and work in a cooperative manner to resolve the outstanding international concerns about its nuclear program. Any breakthrough will be the result of the collective efforts of all the parties, including Iran.

The P-5+1 strategy is a dual-track approach, as you all know. All P-5+1 members will be active in the engagement track. In addition, all will continue to hold Iran to international standards of conduct, including Iran’s compliance with its international nuclear obligations.

Yes.

QUESTION: When you meet with the Iranian – well, if they come back to you and say, yes, we’d like to meet, do you plan to give them a new offer or an updated offer from the incentives package offered last June?

MR. WOOD: Well, that incentive package remains on the table. We hope that Iran will take up that package. But we’re certainly looking forward to engaging the Iranians in a discussion of their nuclear program. As I said, we will be – we will have a seat at the table from now on.

QUESTION: But why – why do you want to meet them? You must have something to offer them. Have you come up with something new to entice them?

MR. WOOD: Well, look, we will have those discussions at that meeting. I’m not going to preview what we may or may not do, except to say that we still have some outstanding concerns about Iran’s nuclear program, and not just the United States but the other members of the P-5+1. So we’ll see if Iran accepts the invitation. We look forward to that direct engagement.

QUESTION: Is Bill Burns going to meet one-to-one with Iranian representatives as well?

MR. WOOD: I think it’s a little early to talk about that right now. Let’s see where we go with regard to the invitation that Javier Solana is going to extend.

QUESTION: It can be a good platform for that. Is that what Washington --

MR. WOOD: I just gave you what I have.

Sylvie.

QUESTION: Who will represent the U.S. at these talks?

MR. WOOD: Well, if it’s a P-5 directors-level meeting, it would normally be Under Secretary Bill Burns.

QUESTION: So he will meet on a regular basis with the Iranians if they wish to do so?

MR. WOOD: Well, let’s see what the Iranian response is to Javier Solana’s invitation.

Let me go to someone else. On the same subject?

QUESTION: Yeah. Do you have the time and place for the next meeting, or you still discuss it with the Iranians and P-5+1 (inaudible)?

MR. WOOD: As far as I know, there hasn’t been a time or date scheduled yet for the next meeting. But we’ll certainly let you know.

QUESTION: Can you give us any more – any background about how this decision was made to extend the invitation?

MR. WOOD: Well, look, as you know, we have been engaged in a review of our Iran policy. Under Secretary Burns in London shared that – the outcome of that review with the P-5 – the other members of the P-5+1. And I think many of you have seen the statement that was issued by the British, who are hosting – who hosted the meeting. And I’ve just outlined for you where we are in terms of our willingness to be at the table for the next P-5+1 meeting when Iran is taking part.

QUESTION: Different subject?

MR. WOOD: Okay.

QUESTION: Same subject. Well, it’s linked. The Iranians – have the Iranians responded yet to the aide-memoire that you handed to them last week? It appears that they’re saying they didn’t get it from the people we’re speaking to in Tehran.

And do you have anything more to say on the Saberi case?

MR. WOOD: Well, with regard to the aide-memoire, I have not – I don’t believe there has been any response to this point. So let me leave it at that.

In terms of Roxana Saberi, I don’t have anything more other than what the Secretary said just a short while ago.

QUESTION: On Roxana Saberi, they charged her with espionage, actually, and the judge said that she accepted the charges.

MR. WOOD: Well, let me just – I have no way of confirming, first of all, whether or not she has been formally charged and, of course, you know, that she’s accepted those charges. We have asked the Swiss protecting power for us in Tehran to find out more information, see whether they can confirm whether she has indeed been charged, and go from there. So we’re following the situation very closely, as the Secretary said, but I don’t have anything more beyond what she said.

On this subject?

QUESTION: Can I go back to the P-5+1?

MR. WOOD: All right. Let’s stay on this subject.

QUESTION: It’s on Iran.

MR. WOOD: Okay, and then we’ll go to you, Mark.

QUESTION: Not on P-5+1 though. Is the U.S. still looking into an interests section in Tehran?

MR. WOOD: We have not completed our formal review policy yet, so I don’t have an answer to that question yet. But we’ll certainly let you know once we have completed that.

Mark.

QUESTION: Just a clarification of what you said earlier about Ambassador Burns presenting – I think you said there was an out – the outcome of that process, which could imply that the process, the policy review, is sort of finished.

MR. WOOD: I --

QUESTION: But I don’t think it is.

MR. WOOD: No, it’s not finished. Like I said --

QUESTION: Is there a timetable on that?

MR. WOOD: No timetable at all. But you know, again, I think we’re making it very clear today with regard to our engagement with Iran how we would like to proceed with our other partners in the P-5+1.

QUESTION: I mean, could we view this as a milestone of the policy review? I’m just trying to get a sense of, you know --

MR. WOOD: Well, obviously, I don’t think it’s fair for me to characterize that right now because we haven’t completed the review. But I’ve again just outlined for you, you know, what the new Administration’s policy is with regard to engaging Iran on its nuclear program.

Yes.

QUESTION: You seem to be reaching out a lot to Iran. You’re going to be – you’ve given them this aide-memoire, which is a big departure from your previous sort of policies on dealing with Iran. You’re going to be – have a permanent seat at the table of the P-5+1 meetings. But they don’t seem to be responding in kind, particularly with the Saberi case. They haven’t responded to your aide-memoire. They’re charging – they’ve charged her with spying. That doesn't seem to be the goodwill gesture that the Secretary was asking in the aide-memoire, or whoever signed it?

MR. WOOD: Well, Sue, I think you’re right. I mean, we have been reaching out to the Iranians. And we have said from the beginning of this Administration that we want to engage in direct diplomacy with Iran. And obviously, we need a partner with an outstretched hand as well. So for questions as to why the Iranians haven’t responded, I’d have to refer you to them. But we certainly are living up to our commitments to reach out to Iran and engage them directly on these issues that, you know, come between us. So --

QUESTION: But some of your critics say you’re going too fast with this, you know, that the train is moving too fast and that you’re going to miss it because you’re not taking it steadily enough. What’s your response to that?

MR. WOOD: I would disagree with that. We have been involved in a review process on Iran for a number of months now, and some of you have said, oh, you’re moving, you know, too slowly, some you’re moving too quickly. I think it was a very prudent review, what was done. We sought out a number of different views and voices in the international community about Iran. And as I said, we’re coming to – you know, toward the end of that review process. But we felt it was important to give you a sense following the conversations that Under Secretary Burns had with the other members of the P-5+1 where we’re all agreeing to head with regard to Iran’s nuclear program.

QUESTION: So can you be a bit more specific on this mechanism? How is it’s going to look? It will be a P-5+1+1 – will it be 7-Party Talks? It would be the U.S. -- would be at the table all the time with everybody?

MR. WOOD: That’s what we’ve said.

QUESTION: Is it that --

MR. WOOD: That’s what I said. You know, in terms of P-5+1 discussions with Iran, we will be at the table from now on.

QUESTION: And so it would be – there would not be any meeting with – without Russia and China, for an example?

MR. WOOD: Well --

QUESTION: Has it happened in the past?

MR. WOOD: You can’t call them P-5+1 meetings if they’re not at the table – those two countries that you mentioned. I think it’s a little early, Sylvie, to start looking at how that – the next meeting and following meetings are going to look except to say what I’ve said, which is that in future P-5+1 meetings where, you know, Iran is going to be at the table, the U.S. will be there as well.

Yes.

QUESTION: Just back on Saberi, you mentioned the Swiss a lot in relation to this. Clearly, this is something that Secretary Clinton’s looking at because she’s made a statement on it today.

MR. WOOD: That’s correct.

QUESTION: Are there any other ways in which you’re trying to engage with the Iranians on this issue apart from the Swiss?

MR. WOOD: Well, I wouldn’t engage in discussions about other types of activities that – or other types of avenues we’re pursuing with regard to trying to get – win the freedom of Roxana Saberi. So it just wouldn’t be appropriate for me to comment except to say what I said about the fact that we have reached out to our, you know, Swiss protecting power to find out more information and try to confirm these charges.

QUESTION: Have they not – I mean, the accusations are serious – I mean, espionage.

MR. WOOD: That’s why we’re looking into it.

QUESTION: A question on Iran. I’m not sure where I saw this, but I’m pretty sure it was with an Iranian official either in the parliament or elsewhere. In the Iranian Government, I think they mentioned that the reason they haven’t extended their hand, per se, is because the United States continues with their pursuing a nuclear weapon as opposed to just nuclear energy, and for that kind of language to continue would not, you know, bridge the gap of understanding, if you will, and they wouldn’t – you wouldn’t get anywhere unless you stopped that kind of rhetoric to them. Do you think that is what’s hindering your process?

MR. WOOD: I can’t speak for why – what the Iranians are saying. I can just tell you that this is – Iran’s nuclear program is not just a concern of the United States, a concern – it’s a concern for a number of countries around the world, most specifically, the P-5+1. And so as I said, we are looking to engage the Iranians directly. What I’ve outlined to you today with regard to going forward in terms of engagement with Iran I think was very clear. It’s an extension of what the Secretary and the President have said about our willingness to engage Iran. So we’ll have to see how the Iranians respond, particularly to the invitation of Javier Solana to attend the next P-5+1 meeting.

Yes.

QUESTION: One more on the P-5+1.

MR. WOOD: Yeah.

QUESTION: Did the freeze-for-freeze come up again? Is that something you’re going to rebundle and offer them?

MR. WOOD: Sue, look, I’m not going to get into the details of the discussions. For one thing, I haven’t talked to Under Secretary Burns yet. I will once he returns. But it wouldn’t be appropriate for me to start talking about those types of issues here from the podium.

QUESTION: And this was at the instigation of the United States, this – the P-5+1 extended invitation?

MR. WOOD: This – no, this is something that was decided by the entire P-5+1. We all talked about this in London and it was agreed that a statement would be issued outlining what I’ve just outlined for you.

QUESTION: There is news reporting (inaudible) paper that a deputy to Ambassador Holbrooke met deputy leader of the terrorist organization Gulbuddin Hekmatyar in Afghanistan.

MR. WOOD: I haven’t heard anything about that at all.

QUESTION: Is the U.S. planning to have directly engage the Talibans?

MR. WOOD: No, look, as we’ve said with regard to engaging – to this whole reconciliation process, this is something that has to be, you know, as we said, Afghan-led. You know, I think the Afghan Government has spoken to this much more clearly than certainly I have here, and that’s, you know, they want to talk to those elements that are willing to renounce violence, renounce any affiliation with al-Qaida, and who are willing to recognize Afghan’s – Afghanistan’s constitution. So you know, I think, the Government of Afghanistan has been very clear on that issue.

QUESTION: And did Ambassador Holbrooke had requested for a one-to-one meeting with ISA Chief General Pasha?

MR. WOOD: I believe that he had a separate meeting with Director Pasha, so – in addition to the meeting that he had with Admiral Mullen and Kiyani and Pasha.

(The briefing was concluded at 1:10 p.m.)

# # #



[1] The ship was bound for Mombasa, Kenya.



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