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Middle East Digest - April 15, 2009

April 15, 2009


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 15, 2009

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11:33 a.m. EDT

QUESTION: Sir, our network, Al Jazeera English, aired a phone conversation yesterday. One of the prisoners from Guantanamo within the prison called one of our reporters. And he is alleging abuses committed against him since the Obama Administration took control of Guantanamo. The Chad ambassador – the citizen is from Chad, the detainee is a citizen of Chad – already expressed his concern. I wanted to know what the State Department is planning to do to guarantee that this outrage --

MR. WOOD: I’d just refer you to the Justice Department on that issue.

QUESTION: On Saudi Arabia. Do you have an official comment yet on the eight-year-old bride seeking a divorce?

MR. WOOD: Yeah. You know, this – you know, child marriage is a clear and unacceptable violation of human rights in our view. And as you know, Nina, U.S. officials at all levels frequently raise with the Saudi Government our human rights concerns, especially those dealing with, you know, children and child marriages.

So I’d also note that the case has sparked a lot of outrage within Saudi society and the NGO community. So they will probably bring a lot of pressure to bear on the Saudi Government to change the law. But as I said, it’s a clear and unacceptable violation of human rights in our view.

QUESTION: But have there been any conversations about this particular case between the Secretary or anyone here or --

MR. WOOD: Not that I’m aware of, not a recent conversation. But again, our Embassy, you know, has raised this issue quite frequently, as I mentioned. And, you know, it’s a concern. The Saudis know of our concern. And it’s not just our concern. It’s the concern of others in the international community. And as I also said, it appears within Saudi civil society.


QUESTION: Well, the Saudis may know of your concern, but are you going to raise this particular case?

MR. WOOD: As I said, we raise it frequently at all levels. I can’t tell you when is the next time we’re going to raise it, but it’s – this issue with regard to child marriage is constantly – it’s an issue that we constantly focus on in our conversations with the Saudis.

QUESTION: But can you find out whether this particular case is going to be raised?

MR. WOOD: I mean, it may have been raised. It would be very hard for me, since we do raise this subject at a wide – at a number of levels; it’s hard for me to say when the most recent time it was raised. I will try, Sue. I can’t promise you I’ll be able to give you something exact.

QUESTION: Just to spell it out then, you are condemning the Saudi authorities and their position on this case?

MR. WOOD: Look, I’m condemning this issue of child marriage and, you know, that it’s a clear violation of human rights (inaudible) our concern. So – and we’ve made that point clear to the Saudi Government.

Yes, Matt.

QUESTION: Yeah. The Secretary is going to be meeting shortly with Javier Solana. I presume that there is a wide range of things that they’re going to be discussing.

MR. WOOD: You assume correctly.

QUESTION: But primarily, there would be one of most interest, and that would be Iran. And I’m just wondering if you have – given the meeting today, if you have any comment about President Ahmadinejad’s most recent making nice statements in his speech today.

MR. WOOD: Well, look, I’ve only seen the reports, so I don’t know exactly what he said. But, you know, we’ve said we’re willing to have a direct dialogue with Iran. And, you know, if they come up with some new package with regard to their nuclear program, we’ll have to take a look and see what it is. Our hope will be that it addresses all of the concerns that the United States and other countries have about Iran’s nuclear activities. So we’ll just have to see.

QUESTION: And I just want to make one thing --

MR. WOOD: Yeah.

QUESTION: The standing offer of incentives from – June?

QUESTION: June of last year.

MR. WOOD: Mm-hmm.

QUESTION: That – there’s no changes to that?

MR. WOOD: It remains on the table.

QUESTION: And with no additions or --

MR. WOOD: None that I’m aware of.

QUESTION: -- or subtractions?

MR. WOOD: At this point, none that I’m aware of.

QUESTION: Okay. And do you regard what the president – what President Ahmadinejad is reported to have said to be an acceptance of the invitation that Solana extended? Do you know --

MR. WOOD: Again, I’ve only seen the reports of it, so I can’t really give you that kind of an answer. But, you know, that’s a question I think you’ll need to refer to Javier Solana.

On the same subject?

QUESTION: Yes. Specifically on suspension, President Ahmadinejad said today that suspension was not an option and that they were going to continue with the uranium enrichment program. What’s your response to that? Are you still asking for a suspension?

MR. WOOD: My – our views haven’t changed since I outlined them yesterday. Suspension is our goal.

QUESTION: But talks to – once again, you keep repeating over and over again ad nauseum that there are no conditions attached to any of these talks. So as far as --

MR. WOOD: Do you want me to repeat them again?

QUESTION: Well – so as far as that’s concerned, you’re prepared to continue these talks while they’re enriching, while their centrifuges are whizzing around? You have no problems with that?

MR. WOOD: I made very clear yesterday that we are open to a direct dialogue with Iran. Others have made that point as well from our side. You know, as I said, also, our Iran review is not yet completed. But as I also said yesterday, that suspension is something that the international community wants to see. It is clearly our goal. Iran has obligations that it needs to meet with regard to the international community’s concerns about what it’s doing concerning its nuclear program. Those concerns are not going to go away. They need to be addressed. And if indeed, you know, Iran offers a package or presents a package to the international community, we’ll have to take a look at it. But our hope, and sincere hope, is that Iran will address those concerns that we have about its nuclear program.

QUESTION: So these international obligations that you’re talking about, that would be the suspension of enrichment; that’s what you’re talking about?

MR. WOOD: That’s right, Sue. I’ve gone over these – you know them as well I do, so I shouldn’t have to repeat them.

QUESTION: Well, sometimes there are slight, you know, delicate nuances here --

MR. WOOD: Very true, but no nuance here.

QUESTION: There’s no nuance in this?


QUESTION: What impact do the Swat Valley peace agreement will have on the Administration’s efforts to dismantle terrorists in (inaudible) Afghanistan and Pakistan?

MR. WOOD: Well, look, you know, our views on the whole issue of Swat are well known. And, you know, we believe that extremists, violent extremists, need to be confronted, and we’ve made that very clear. We’re very concerned about parliament’s decision, the decision of parliament yesterday with regard to the question of, you know, women’s rights. We’re going to continue to have discussions with the Government of Pakistan on these issues. But I just want to reiterate the point that our view is violent extremists need to be confronted, and the Government of Pakistan is aware of our concerns about this issue.

Yeah, please.

QUESTION: Just to go back to Iran, its nuclear program is obviously a regional issue. Can you speak to what the U.S. Administration is having in terms of talks with Iran’s Gulf neighbors? Is the U.S. Administration reaching out to them in the sense of what role does the U.S. see they can do to help alleviate the situation?

MR. WOOD: Well, I know the Secretary has had a number of discussions with Gulf leaders on a range of topics, and certainly Iran has been one of them. And, look, we all share concerns about Iran’s behavior. And what we’ve tried to do in our discussions with leaders of that region is to figure out the best way we can all make sure that Iran lives up to its obligations, make sure that its behavior conforms to international standards and norms.

You know, we took a fundamental decision, a strategic decision, to reach out and directly engage Iran. And we’re willing to engage them on issues where we disagree, and we look forward to having those discussions. And Iran’s neighbors, as I said, share these concerns and want to see a change in Iranian behavior. And so that’s what the international community is trying to do is to moderate Iran’s behavior, bring it back into the good graces of the international community, ensuring that it complies with its obligations on a wide variety of fronts.

QUESTION: Is there a role those countries can play that are in the region that are Iran’s neighbors? What role do you see?

MR. WOOD: Sure, they’re neighbors. They’re neighbors, so certainly they have a role to play. But I’d leave it to each of them to describe what role they would like to play with regard to influencing Iran’s behavior.

QUESTION: Still on Iran --

MR. WOOD: And then we’ll go back –

QUESTION: -- but a different Iran subject. Just the – Roxana Saberi’s trial appears to be over already. I’m wondering if you think that the judicial process was transparent and fair.

MR. WOOD: Well, we’ve been very concerned about the judicial process. You know, it appears to have been quite less than transparent. You know, as I said yesterday, we’re working with our Swiss protecting power and to try to verify, you know, these reports that we’ve seen about a trial.


QUESTION: There was no one from the Swiss –

MR. WOOD: I don’t know the answer to --

QUESTION: -- (inaudible) at the trial?

MR. WOOD: I don’t know.

QUESTION: Is that something that you would customarily ask for in a situation like this?

MR. WOOD: Well, we’ve asked for a lot of things.

QUESTION: No, I mean, just in general, you would like to be able to be – have a representative --

MR. WOOD: Oh, of course. Of course. I just don’t know if that was granted at all.

QUESTION: So you said it appears that it wasn’t transparent. You’re not ready to say --

MR. WOOD: Yeah, just based on reports is why I’m saying it appears. I – you know, I have – I’m not on the ground there. I don’t know. I haven’t seen a readout from the Swiss on this yet. I don’t think anybody has. But --

QUESTION: Well, it is problematic that the Iranians have said that the trial is over and that a verdict will be handed down?

MR. WOOD: Yeah, of course, it’s problematic, Matt, if that’s indeed the case. I mean, again, I haven’t seen these reports, so I don’t know. And that’s why we’re having – we’re asking our Swiss protecting power to go in and try to verify some of this. But I just want to repeat, you know, these charges, as reported, are baseless and without foundation. And we want to see her released and we’re working to try to do that.

Yes, (inaudible).

QUESTION: Just to follow up and just to nail it down, you have not had it confirmed by the Swiss that there was a trial?

MR. WOOD: Not yet. I have not seen anything that confirms that at all.

QUESTION: Are you disappointed by the lack of contact between the Iranians and the Swiss or the apparent lack of contact between them? It seems that they’re not giving them any answers.

MR. WOOD: Well, again, our Swiss protecting power has been trying to get these answers, but the Iranians haven’t been forthcoming. And so, you know, we continue to try and we’re going to continue to work hard to get Ms. Saberi released, and (inaudible).


QUESTION: Going back to the proposal of the Iranians – they’re preparing for the talks – the first one, do you recall what it was? Could it be – because you’re saying the second one, the one they’re working on, is another version of the old one. Do you recall the old one?

MR. WOOD: I don’t, (inaudible), but --

QUESTION: Could there be a basis?

MR. WOOD: -- probably the best source for that type of information is the Iranian Government.

Right here, please.

QUESTION: Mr. Wood, with all due respect, the Guantanamo incident is not only pertaining to the Justice Department. It has diplomatic implications. And as I said, the ambassadors – some ambassadors have already raised their concern. It’s hard to believe that the State Department doesn’t have any comment on this.

MR. WOOD: I don’t have anything further than what I’ve said.

QUESTION: Senator Mitchell, any more details on his trip for the Gulf? And what’s his position and what’s the Administration’s position on the Saudi peace initiative?

MR. WOOD: You mean the Arab peace initiative?

QUESTION: Yeah, that was sponsored by Saudi Arabia in 2002.

MR. WOOD: Yeah, yeah, I don’t have any update on it. I mean, we still think that it has utility and – but I don’t have any update beyond what we’ve said before. I think I do have --

QUESTION: Will it be mentioned to the Netanyahu government?

MR. WOOD: There will be a number of issues that Senator Mitchell will be raising with the Israeli Government with regard to the peace process, so I certainly think that’s something that – I would be surprised if it didn’t come up. I don’t have anything beyond what I said yesterday in terms of his travel here. And yes, this is what I gave you yesterday. No update. Sorry.


QUESTION: In terms of Durban 2, apparently Susan Rice and other senior Obama Administration officials spoke to Jewish leaders yesterday in a telephone conversation about Durban 2 and said that the Obama Administration had decided to boycott the event and that you would not be attending. Is that the situation or are you still open to --

MR. WOOD: Well, I’m not going to get into, you know, the substance of these private discussions that people from our side had with, you know, various leaders. But we have said that there needs to be a viable text that must not – this text must not reaffirm in toto the 2001 Durban Declaration and Program of Action. And there are also – we have some concerns in the text about references to – that support restrictions on freedom of expression. So as you know, we’ve issued a statement on this, so that’s all I have for you on that.

QUESTION: But you’re not planning on attending?

MR. WOOD: At this moment, we have not seen enough progress, so that’s where it stands right now.

QUESTION: But you haven’t fully shut the door on attending if the statement miraculously changes and transforms itself?

MR. WOOD: Let’s not speculate too much, but where we stand right now is that that document – we still have some concerns about it. Although the document has come a long way, but we’re not there yet.

QUESTION: But it appears that you’ve told these Jewish leaders that you’re not going, so there is not a --

MR. WOOD: I’m not going to talk about – get into the substance of private conversations that we have had.

QUESTION: Yes, but if you’re telling the Jewish leaders that you’re not going and you’re telling us that you don’t know --

MR. WOOD: Well, first of all, I wasn’t on this phone call, and I don’t know if that’s necessarily an accurate portrayal of what was discussed on the phone.

QUESTION: Maybe we can do it this way. Has anything changed since the statement that you put out the other night?

MR. WOOD: Nothing’s changed.

QUESTION: So in other words, if the document does meet your criteria, you’re prepared to reengage, as the statement said, in the process?

MR. WOOD: The statement spoke for itself, Matt.

QUESTION: That’s what the statement said, correct?

MR. WOOD: That’s what – well, you’ve read the statement.

QUESTION: Well, right, but do you have it with you there? I believe it says, and correct me if I’m wrong, someone, that if the document does address your concerns, you are prepared to reengage in the process, the last paragraph, I think, in the --


QUESTION: Yes, and that still stands?

MR. WOOD: Nothing’s changed, Matt.

QUESTION: The Libyan dissident Fathi El-Jahmi apparently is in a very desperate way. Some of his family say he’s pretty close to death, he can’t move, he can’t – he’s in a very poor way. I wondered whether anyone had been from the U.S. Embassy to see Mr. El-Jahmi, whether you were speaking to the Libyans about this?

MR. WOOD: Well, we continue to call for, you know, Fathi El-Jahmi’s release as well as for his ability to travel and to seek medical care where he wishes. We’re very concerned about reports that his medical condition has deteriorated and, you know, it’s an issue that we have raised with the Libyan Government. We will continue to raise the subject. But I don’t have any further update.

QUESTION: But when did you last raise it with the Libyan Government, and when was the last time that a U.S. official or diplomat went to see Mr. El-Jahmi?

MR. WOOD: Let me see if I have anything in my papers about this. I don’t have the most recent – we can get you that.

QUESTION: Because the impression among some of the family members is that you’re not doing enough and that the U.S. Government has not been to see him and that the pressure that you’re putting on the Libyan Government has just been insufficient.

MR. WOOD: No, I wouldn’t say that it’s insufficient. We have raised this issue, Sue, as you know, and we’re very concerned about, you know, Mr. El-Jahmi. And I will get back to you with an answer on when we had the last visit.

(The briefing was concluded at 12:01 p.m.)

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