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 April 9, 2009
11:11 a.m. EDTQUESTION:
What, if anything, is the State Department doing in terms of trying to secure the release of this hostage, the captain – ship’s captain? And are there negotiations going on involving State and/or involving U.S. diplomats and any Somali officials or any groups of Somalis? MR. WOOD:
Well, that was quite a mouthful. We’re in contact with the captain’s family in order to try to provide appropriate support and guidance. As you know, the USS Bainbridge
is in the region. It’s in the vicinity of the Maersk Alabama
. It’s about – both ships are about 200 nautical miles southeast of Somalia.
The Pentagon is obviously very engaged with this right now. And I don’t have any further updates to provide you, but we’re obviously paying careful attention to this issue. And I’m really not able to go beyond that at this point. QUESTION:
You mean there is – so there’s no diplomatic contact other than with the captain’s family?MR. WOOD:
Oh, sure, there are diplomatic contacts going on, but I’m not at liberty to talk about them here.QUESTION:
With who?MR. WOOD:
Amongst various countries and other institutions. So let me just leave it at that, Matt. I don’t want to get beyond that.QUESTION:
On the same subject?MR. WOOD:
I defer to the wires, as always. QUESTION:
Oh, okay.MR. WOOD:
Can you clarify that the cargo on the vessel that was attacked was specifically U.S. food aid intended for African nationals?MR. WOOD:
There was – I can’t confirm for you that all of that assistance was U.S. assistance, but there was a good deal of U.S. food aid that was onboard. I just don’t have further information on that.QUESTION:
And the food aid was being provided under the aegis of which U.S. Governmental agency?MR. WOOD:
And were there any USAID workers onboard that ship?MR. WOOD:
Not that I’m aware of, James. But I really don’t know that at this point. We can – once things become clearer with regard to the situation, we can probably answer that question. At this point, I’m not able to do that.QUESTION:
Because the question was put to you in yesterday’s briefing about the potential presence of a quote, unquote, “diplomat” onboard the ship -- MR. WOOD:
-- and you said you were aware of the reports. But you have nothing further to add on that subject?MR. WOOD:
Yeah, I have nothing further to add, James. But if we can provide some clarity to that, we certainly will.QUESTION:
Do you have a dollar figure on the U.S. aid?MR. WOOD:
I think we may have had that yesterday. Check with the Press Office. If not, we’ll get you that dollar figure. I think we did have that.
Same – same subject? Please.QUESTION:
Thank you. Robert, this problem has been going for some time, and now many nations are scared and afraid of many people even going to that area. So what the U.S. is now going to do after now this is the first time the U.S. was hit or U.S. interests in the area? And this may be the sixth one in recent days or weeks, and if you are in touch with the United Nations on a kind of international gathering?MR. WOOD:
Well, yes, we are in touch with a number of nations with regard to this issue. It’s a growing concern to not just the United States but others who deal with shipping in that area. I don’t want to talk about what we may or may not do in this particular case, but as you know, there’s a Contact Group on Somali piracy. About 20-plus nations are involved in that. As you know, there’s a UN Security Council resolution, I believe it’s 1851, that talks of – it authorizes countries to do what they can to suppress piracy, acts of piracy, in consultation with the Government of Somalia. Our militaries, the U.S. military and the militaries of other countries, are working and cooperating, trying to see what we can do to prevent these types of piracy acts from happening.
But this is going to take time. But the good thing I can say to you is that we are all working very closely to try to do what we can. It’s a very – it’s a difficult situation at the moment. And with this current hijacking going on, you know, it’s important that we work with all of our partners, whether they be in New York at the UN, whether they be in – amongst discussions in other capitals, to try to do what we can. But there are some mechanisms in place, and we’ll be looking to try to develop, you know, other mechanisms to deal with the question. QUESTION:
Do you think – sorry. Do you think India can play any significant role in the future or -- MR. WOOD:
Well, I think India certainly could play a role. That’s a decision for India. But I’ll leave it to (inaudible) to talk to the Indians about what they may or may not do. QUESTION:
Robert, just on the same subject. I’m sorry.MR. WOOD:
Do you know whether any U.S. officials have had direct telephonic contact with anybody onboard the vessel?MR. WOOD:
I’m not aware of that. I would have to refer you to the Defense Department for, you know, that type of question. I know DOD is very engaged in dealing with the matter. But yeah, I’d refer you to DOD.
Robert -- QUESTION:
Still on -- MR. WOOD:
Same subject? QUESTION:
Robert, in light of the long-stated U.S. policy of not negotiating with terrorists, are pirates a different matter?MR. WOOD:
Well, we do not negotiate with terrorists. And – but again, this piracy phenomenon is something that we’re working closely with a number of countries on. I don’t want to talk about, again, what we may or may not do with regard to, you know, this particular case. But piracy, as I said, is a growing problem for the international community. And so we’ll just have to see how this particular incident plays out and then how we go forward in terms of dealing with future acts of piracy. But as I said, there are some mechanisms that we do have in place right now for dealing with the piracy question. So we’ll just have to see how things go forward.QUESTION:
But is there an issue of mixed signals? Because apparently FBI hostage negotiators are playing some role now, and in the past there’s been widespread publicity about some shipping companies actually paying ransoms.MR. WOOD:
Well, I can’t speak for shipping companies. I don’t think – we’re certainly not sending any mixed signals here. Our focus right now is trying to make sure that we can – to make sure that the crew is safe and we get this ship returned. But that’s about all I can give you on this at the moment, Charley. We’re trying to deal with this current situation and then, as I said, we’ll be looking to see what more we can do to prevent these types of acts from taking place.
Same subject? Same – please. QUESTION:
Can you confirm that the ship is on its way to Mombasa in Kenya and that the crew will be offloaded and be able to return home?MR. WOOD:
I’d have – for those types of operational details, I’d have to refer you to the Pentagon.QUESTION:
What about the crew being able to return home? I thought you might know about that in terms of contacts with families.MR. WOOD:
I don’t have any more details. Again, I’d have to – we’ve been in contact, as I said, with the captain’s family, so --QUESTION:
The captain’s family?MR. WOOD:
Same subject? Anybody on the same subject? QUESTION:
Please, and we’ll go here.QUESTION:
Robert, can you talk about what the U.S. is doing to address the root causes of this problem, the instability and the chaos in Somalia?MR. WOOD:
Well, you know, again, the Somalia question is a very difficult one. We’ve been trying to provide support for the transitional government there. We’ve encouraged others to do so. This is something that’s going to take time. You know, there are lots of problems in Somalia. But this is a question for the entire international community to deal with, and we’ve been trying to do that in discussions in New York, amongst – with other capitals. Because it does – you know, the instability in Somalia is one of the root causes of this piracy issue. So as I said, right now, we’re focused on trying to do what we can to resolve the current situation. But again, we will be looking to see what we can do to prevent these types of acts from taking place in the future.
Do you have anything further on – one of those mechanisms, would it be the MOU that was signed between the United States and Kenya and the trials related to that?MR. WOOD:
Well, yes, there was an MOU signed, I believe, in December or January between the United States and Kenya, which, in essence, allowed us to turn over pirates to Kenya for prosecution. And there are a number of other countries. I believe the UK has a similar MOU on the issue. So as I said earlier, there are mechanisms that we are – that we have, and we’re going to be looking to see if there are additional mechanisms that we need to create in order to deal with this question effectively.QUESTION:
And have any of those proceedings sort of taken place yet?MR. WOOD:
I don’t have the details on that for you at this point.
No, different subject.MR. WOOD:
Different subject.MR. WOOD:
Okay. You’ve been asking for a long time and we’ll get to you. Sue.QUESTION:
President Ahmadinejad today inaugurated a nuclear fuel plant in Iran, and he also said that Iran was ready for talks with the West if they were based on justice and respect. This is the Six-Party Talks, P-5+1 or EU-3+3. First, do you have any response, first of all, to his willingness to talk to the West?MR. WOOD:
Well, obviously, we want to engage Iran and we think – and we’ve said so very clearly and very publicly. And so we wait for Iran to reciprocate. And so I don’t have anything more to add than what I said yesterday.QUESTION:
He has also said, and several Iranian officials have said that they’ve made advances in terms of the nuclear cycle, that they’re now running 7,000 centrifuges and that they’ve made big advances. I wondered if you’d like to comment on that, too.MR. WOOD:
Well, as we’ve said for quite some time, Iran’s nuclear program is of concern to us. Iran maintains that it’s interested in peaceful nuclear – a peaceful nuclear program, but the international community has some very serious concerns about it. We again call on Iran to comply with its obligations. The P-5 has put a package of incentives on the table that still remains. And we want to see Iran comply with what the international community is asking for. So, you know, we have called on Iran to, you know, suspend its enrichment and related activities. We want to see that happen. That’s not just a call from the United States; that’s a call from other countries. And so we remain concerned about what Iran is doing.QUESTION:
Do these advances in their nuclear technology make it even more essential that you have talks very soon with them on their program? Or how do you see this?MR. WOOD:
Well, I think we’ve had a series of P-5+1 meetings with – about Iran. Javier Solana has been in touch with the Iranians, as you know, in the past, trying to resolve some of the differences and to try to convince Iran to comply with what the international community wants to see happen.
You know, it’s a problem. It’s a very serious problem. We – engaging with Iran is something we said we will now do without preconditions. But there are certain obligations that Iran has. We’ve said all along that Iran is entitled to have a civilian nuclear program, but with that program comes responsibilities. And Iran has not been forthcoming with regard to some of the concerns that the international community has about its program. So those concerns remain, but we do want to directly engage Iran as the President and Secretary have said.
Do you know -- MR. WOOD:
On the same subject?QUESTION:
Yes. Do you know if a formal invitation has been presented to the Iranians for this nuclear -- MR. WOOD:
Yeah, I don’t know, Sylvie, but I would check with Javier Solana’s office. He was going to, you know, extend the invitation to Iran.QUESTION:
But you don’t have any news about this?MR. WOOD:
I don’t, but I would check with Solana’s office.
According to Iranian sources, this – today, Ahmadinejad inaugurated the nuclear – actually, a nuclear fuel manufacturing, they called FMP in Isfahan. Since it is beyond Bushehr reactor, do you regard it as an incident of violation of UN Security Council?MR. WOOD:
Well, again, I haven’t seen these reports. But Iran has international obligations that it needs to meet. And we have been very clear, as well as a number of the other partners – of our partners – about what Iran needs to do.
As I said in response to some earlier questions, there are some very serious concerns that the international community has about what Iran is doing with regard to nuclear activities. And Iran knows what it needs to do. Those concerns are not going to go away, although we are willing to engage in direct dialogue with the government. So I’m not in a position here to be able to respond to that specific report that you point to.
But again, a lot of questions surrounding Iran’s nuclear activities that need to be addressed. And the sooner Iran is able to do that, the better off we’ll all be.QUESTION:
Have you heard back from the Swiss on the Roxana Saberi case?MR. WOOD:
The only thing I can tell you about that is that we are deeply – we’re deeply concerned about the Iranian Government announcement that Roxana Saberi has been charged with espionage. This charge is baseless and it’s without foundation. And what we want to see Iran do is to release Roxana Saberi so that she can go back to her family.
We’re obviously going to be following this issue very, very closely, and go from there. But I don’t have anything further to add on the case.QUESTION:
On Iran --QUESTION:
You say it’s baseless, but apparently, according to the Iranians, she admitted it.MR. WOOD:
Well, you know, I’m not necessarily going to give that much credence at all. We want to see her released. We’ve – as I said, those charges are baseless. And we’d like to see her released as a humanitarian gesture.QUESTION:
So you – are you saying that she admitted it under pressure?MR. WOOD:
Look, I don’t know. I can only go by the reports that we have seen. And again, the Iranians announced that she has been charged with espionage. Well, you know, we’re very concerned about the transparency of this process that’s been ongoing. So that’s all I have for you at this moment on it.QUESTION:
Have you heard back from the Swiss?MR. WOOD:
I don’t know that we’ve actually heard back from the Swiss. I don’t think so. I would have gotten that information.QUESTION:
Do you have official confirmation that these are indeed the charges?MR. WOOD:
I don’t --QUESTION:
Or are you basing it on news reports?MR. WOOD:
Well, I don’t have official confirmation of that at this point.QUESTION:
A question on Iran’s nuclear program?MR. WOOD:
It’s the same --QUESTION:
Yeah, the same.MR. WOOD:
The same subject here?QUESTION:
Yeah, same.MR. WOOD:
Okay. Go ahead.QUESTION:
Do you think U.S. can forget the scars of 1979, 44 diplomats for 444 days? And what is the guarantee now in the future that same thing will not be repeated? Because they have – I don’t think they have changed their minds – or their mind is set for the relations with the United States. MR. WOOD:
Well, I can’t speak for the Iranian Government. The United States has made a very clear policy decision that it’s willing to engage in direct dialogue with the government in Tehran. And so there are a lot of issues that we have between us. We would like to move forward substantively and positively on them. It will be up to Iran whether it wants to engage with us.
But again, there are a whole host of issues that not only the United States, but other countries have of concern with regard to Iran and its behavior overall. And so the United States is ready to move on and is, you know, willing to engage the Iranians. It’s up to Iran.QUESTION:
You said the U.S. is willing to engage but within the Six-Party framework. What about Secretary Clinton meeting the -- MR. WOOD:
I think it’s a little early to start talking about meetings at that level.
Just on Iran’s nuclear program, what would the United States like to see from Iran? There have been numerous reports from the IAEA to the NIE. They continue to say they’re complying with those regulations. Do you want to see – do you want them to freeze their enrichment program? And you mentioned international obligations. What are the international obligations that Iran must comply with before they can join the nuclear world, if you will?MR. WOOD:
Well, I think you just, you know, referred to one of them, and that’s the suspension of its enrichment program and related activities. That is a fundamental international community requirement for us to be satisfied that Iran is pursuing a, you know, peaceful nuclear program. We do not have those assurances. Iran has not taken the steps that we have asked. And there are also other concerns about Iran’s support for terrorist groups that are a concern to us. So there are a host of issues out here that need to be resolved.
But we’ve not put any preconditions on having a direct dialogue with Iran. But our concern about its nuclear activities remain. They need to be addressed, and we want to see them addressed.QUESTION:
Just trying to follow up with that, they are a signatory to the NPT, and that treaty allows them to enrich uranium, I believe. So if that treaty allows them to enrich uranium, why aren’t they allowed to?MR. WOOD:
Well, we think Iran could send a very positive message to the international community in terms of agreeing to fulfill additional protocol. There are a number of concerns. There are suspicions about Iran’s program, and there have been for quite some time. And if it’s serious, if Iran means very seriously that its program is for civilian purposes only, then why doesn’t it comply with the basic things that the international community has asked Iran to do? And so I think those questions should be, you know, provided to Iran: Why isn’t it doing the steps that everyone has called on Iran to do?
A few issues related to this. First, yesterday’s P-5+1 meeting, has Under Secretary Burns reported back to Secretary of State Clinton on the contents of the meeting?MR. WOOD:
I don’t know that he’s had – I assume that he has. I haven’t spoken to him and haven’t really raised the issue with her. But I think it’s safe to assume that he has spoken to the Secretary about the outcome of those discussions.QUESTION:
Was there any outcome of the discussions beyond the announcement that the United States will now sit in on P-5+1 contacts with Iran and the decision that Javier Solana should extend such an invitation? Was there anything beyond that that was achieved in this meeting?MR. WOOD:
Well, those – I think there was a statement that was issued by the P-5+1 out of London, and I think that basically encapsulated the discussions and where we are with regard to, you know, moving forward on Iran.QUESTION:
On the announcement out of Iran today that it is operating 7,000 centrifuges, the most recent IAEA report dated February of this year stated that in February of this year, UN nuclear inspectors only observed something close to 5,500 centrifuges in operation, fewer than 4,000 of which were actively receiving UF6.
Even if all 5,500 centrifuges that the IAEA observed were fully operational, that still leaves something on the order of 1,500 centrifuges that are unaccounted for in that IAEA report, if we are to believe today’s pronouncement. Therefore, should we regard today’s pronouncement with skepticism? MR. WOOD:
Well, I think we certainly could view it with skepticism. Iran has in the past, you know, announced that it is – was running a certain number of centrifuges that didn’t really pan out with regard to the IAEA’s own estimate. So it’s not clear.
But what is clear is that Iran has obligations that it needs to fulfill. And we continue to approach Iran with a dual-track strategy, and we have an incentives package on the table and we think it’s a good one. Iran needs to take that package, take advantage of it.QUESTION:
Last issue.MR. WOOD:
The United States has changed its policy or its approach toward Iran under President Obama, but has made active engagement of Iran a key element in its broader approach. Have you discerned any change in the approach of Russia on the whole broader question of Iran’s nuclear program?MR. WOOD:
Well, we have quite often discussions with Russia with regard to Iran. I’m not in a good place to be able to give you an assessment of how the Russians view Iran. I would have to refer you to the Russian Government. But we and the Russians, along with others in the international community, are concerned about Iran’s nuclear activities, as I’ve said. And it’s one of the cases that we have made with regard to missile defense and why we think it’s important to pursue missile defense in general because of the new threats that are emerging. And – but I’d have to leave you to talk to the Russian Government to get its views.QUESTION:
So you don’t see any change in Russian behavior on this question over the past three, four months?MR. WOOD:
Well, I don’t know what you mean by behavior. I mean, we’ve had a dialogue with Russia on this question, and Russia shares the concerns that we have about Iran’s intentions. But for, you know, further comment on, you know, Russia’s views, I’d refer you to the Russian Government.QUESTION:
Regarding Senator Mitchell’s trip to the Middle East, have you been able to decide what country he’ll be visiting in North Africa? It was announced that he’ll go to --MR. WOOD:
Yeah, I don’t have those details. As soon as we have them available – I think the itinerary is still being worked – we’ll get them to you.QUESTION:
Is there an expected visit by Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to Washington? MR. WOOD:
I don’t think anything has been announced. We’ll – if there is such a visit coming up, we’ll let you know.
Here, and then Charley.QUESTION:
The Administration is obviously trying to take on a diplomacy agenda. I’m wondering if any policies toward Hamas have changed. And if not, are you looking to engage Syria to just – to have talks with them also?MR. WOOD:
Well, our policy toward Hamas has not changed. We’ve had discussions with Syria. We will continue to have discussions with Syria. We’re very concerned about its – the country’s support for Hamas, and – but I have nothing further beyond what we’ve said.
But I was wondering if you knew when the Egyptian president was coming in.MR. WOOD:
I don’t. You might want to check with the Egyptians. I’m not – I wasn’t aware that he was coming.
(The briefing was concluded at 11:41 a.m.)