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Middle East Digest - April 14, 2009


April 14, 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 14, 2009

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12:48 p.m. EDT

MR. WOOD: Hello, everyone. Good afternoon. Welcome to the briefing. I’m going to start out with the travel of Senator Mitchell, give you guys an update on where we are.

Special Envoy Mitchell was in Rabat today and met with Moroccan Foreign Minister Fassi Fihri and other senior government officials earlier this morning. He traveled to Algiers where he met with President Bouteflika and Foreign Minister Medelci. He ends the day by traveling to Tunis, where he will meet tomorrow, April 15, with senior Tunisian officials.

Tomorrow, again, April 15, after his meetings in Tunis, Senator Mitchell will travel to Israel for a day of meetings with the new Israeli Government on Thursday, April 16, and to Ramallah for a day of meetings with Palestinian leaders on Friday, April 17. He will depart Ramallah on April 17, traveling to Egypt to consult with leaders there. Special Envoy Mitchell is traveling with Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs David Hale, the Executive Secretary of the National Security Council Mara Rudman, plus several other staff.

So that is the latest on Senator Mitchell’s travel.

QUESTION: Another nuclear-armed nation, almost – Iran. Can you talk about reports that you’re willing to drop the condition of suspension before talks begin?

MR. WOOD: Look, you know, the P-5+1 stated last week that we were – you know, that we were willing to resolve our shared concerns with Iran – Iran’s nuclear program through direct diplomacy. And nothing has changed. Suspension is still our goal. And there is, you know, as I think you referred to, an incentives package that’s on the table. It remains on the table. We encourage Iran to take up that incentives package. But I don’t have anything beyond what --

QUESTION: But it used to be that suspension of uranium was a precondition for the talks to start. And it seems like that precondition has been dropped. President Obama himself has said that he’s willing to talk to Iran without any preconditions.

MR. WOOD: Well, right. But again, this issue of suspension of uranium enrichment is an international condition, not an American condition.

QUESTION: Well, it sounds like it’s being dropped if there are no preconditions --

MR. WOOD: Well, look --

QUESTION: -- to talking to Iran.

MR. WOOD: I don’t have anything more beyond that. I mean, I saw the story, but I’m just laying out for you what our position is.

QUESTION: Well, is it your position that there’s a mandatory suspension before talks start?

MR. WOOD: No, what we – look, we have said very clearly that we are willing to engage in direct diplomacy with Iran without conditions. But as I said, this particular issue with regard to enriched uranium --

QUESTION: Well, that was a U.S. demand.

MR. WOOD: No, it was a demand of the P-5+1.

QUESTION: It was a U.S. demand that was embraced by the rest of the P-5+1.

MR. WOOD: P-5+1.

QUESTION: So is it a demand of the P-5+1 that Iran suspend before talks start?

MR. WOOD: Look --

QUESTION: If you’re asking them to start talking now and they haven’t started yet – haven’t stopped yet, so obviously you’re willing to start talking to them without them having stopped enriching.

MR. WOOD: Well, as I said, that’s a requirement of the P-5+1. But also, Elise, I just want to remind you as well that our Iran policy is still, you know, being reviewed. There are certain elements of it that we have already laid out for you. There will be others in the future.

But let me just leave it where I have it right now, and that’s, you know, suspending enrichment, that remains our goal. We want to see that happen. That’s an international requirement of Iran. But having said that, we – the P-5+1 supports our position in terms of direct diplomacy with Iran. As I mentioned last week, Bill Burns will be attending future P-5+1 meetings with Iran as a full participant. That is certainly new. And so that’s where we are on the moment – at the moment.

QUESTION: Right. But if you’re – if you invited Iran to talks and they haven’t stopped their suspension yet and you’re willing to start talking, then clearly they don’t have to suspend before you start talking.

MR. WOOD: Elise, I can’t put it any more plainly than I have.

QUESTION: Well, you’re not --

MR. WOOD: It’s our goal to get --

QUESTION: It’s your ultimate goal.

MR. WOOD: -- that’s – it’s our goal.

QUESTION: But not necessarily the goal for the talks.

MR. WOOD: I’m just saying it’s our goal.

QUESTION: Ultimate goal?

MR. WOOD: I’m saying it’s our goal.

QUESTION: I mean, has there been any response from the Iranians yet to the invitation?

MR. WOOD: As far as I know, there has been no response to the Javier Solana invitation.

QUESTION: So are there plans for the political directors or others to – of just the P-5+1 without Iran – as you are waiting for the Iranian response, are there plans for them to meet to figure out --

MR. WOOD: Well, I mean --

QUESTION: -- where to go?

MR. WOOD: -- the P-5+1 engage in telephone conversations. I don’t think there’s anything scheduled, but I certainly – it wouldn’t surprise me if, you know, there is some kind of P-5+1 conversation in the coming days or weeks. Nobody’s told me that there is one planned, but it wouldn’t surprise me.

QUESTION: And when would you like to see the meeting with Iran take place? Is this something as soon as possible, or is this something that you still need more (inaudible) from the P-5+1 side?

MR. WOOD: Well, first, we have to see indeed whether Iran responds to that invitation positively before we start talking about dates. And I think, you know, the last I checked, that’s where we are.

QUESTION: New subject?

QUESTION: On Iran?

MR. WOOD: Yeah.

QUESTION: Roxana Saberi is apparently being tried on espionage charges, and a verdict is expected within a few weeks, according to reports there. This is not looking very encouraging, is it?

MR. WOOD: Well, you know, we’ve seen reports that Roxana Saberi went on trial earlier this week. We’re working with our Swiss protecting power, as I mentioned the other day, to try to verify what’s being reported in the press. You know, the charges as have been reported, we maintain, are baseless, without foundation. We remain committed to trying to secure her release. And that’s all I have. I will keep you abreast as we are able to, you know, obtain more information about the case.

Yes, James.

QUESTION: Different subject?

QUESTION: Can we stay with --

MR. WOOD: Oh, you want to stay with that one? Sure.

QUESTION: Yeah, I just wanted – you know, Ahmadinejad is going to be going to the Durban 2 conference next week, and I’m just wondering how that plays into – if it does at all, plays into U.S. calculations about whether to boycott or not.

MR. WOOD: It has absolutely nothing to do with that at all. Our decision to go to Durban will depend on whether or not we are satisfied that the language addresses some of our concerns. It has nothing to do with whether Ahmadinejad shows up or not.

QUESTION: So you’re --

QUESTION: I just wanted to follow up on the Saberi, sorry. You’re saying you’re trying to get information from the Swiss about the trial that’s going on. Is there a sense that you’re not getting very much information about this?

MR. WOOD: Well, we’re trying to get as much as we can. The Swiss, I know, have been trying very hard. It’s really – you know, the Iranians can supply this information, and so far they haven’t been willing to give us the information that we need. And so even though we haven’t been able to get that information, we’re going to continue to try. And the Swiss, as I said, are working very hard to do that.

But we remain very concerned about her situation. And, you know, the Secretary, I know, asked the question almost every day, if not every day, about, you know, what’s the status of Roxana Saberi. So, again, we continue to work for her release. We’re trying to verify this information. And, you know, we’ll give you an update tomorrow, assuming we have one.

Anything else?

QUESTION: I had an Iran/North Korea. Have you seen a report that there’s been a shipment of enriched uranium from North Korea to Iran?

MR. WOOD: No, I haven’t seen that at all. I’ll see what I can find, if anything, on that.

Yes, Elise.

QUESTION: Are you aware of this issue about the eight-year-old child bride in Saudi Arabia? A judge has refused for the second time to grant a girl – grant the girl a divorce, and it’s kind of becoming a big issue among international human rights groups.

MR. WOOD: No, I haven’t seen the report. I think I may have heard about it. I’ll take a look at that and see if we’ve got anything on it.

QUESTION: Can you look into that?

MR. WOOD: Sure.

QUESTION: And to see if the government is aware of the case --

MR. WOOD: Yeah.

QUESTION: -- and, you know, whether you’re talking to the Saudis about it?

MR. WOOD: Absolutely. I’ll take a look at that.

QUESTION: Different subject. On Darfur, is there any update on the special envoy’s efforts there in terms of returning NGOs to Darfur?

MR. WOOD: I know that Scott Gration is working on that issue. Others are working on it as well. But I don’t have an update for you, Charlie, on whether or not we’ve been able to make any progress. I haven’t had a chance to speak with him. As soon as I can, I’ll try and get you an update on that.

Okay, thank you all.

(The briefing was concluded at 1:15 p.m.)



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