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Middle East Digest - April 16, 2009


April 16, 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 16, 2009

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11:49 a.m. EDT

QUESTION: Do you have any statement today to make on allegations of mistreatment by Mohammad al-Qurani, who’s Chad --

MR. WOOD: Same to – well, just to answer it, no, I don’t.

QUESTION: Well, can I – we’ve – you referred us yesterday to the Department of Justice. They categorically said it was not their jurisdiction and referred us back to you. And we’ve also spoken to the Chadian ambassador, who says that he’s had conversations with the State Department about al-Qurani and his allegations. Can you confirm that that’s taken place?

MR. WOOD: Well, I’m not going to get into any, you know, discussions that we may have had on this particular case at all.

QUESTION: Do you know the allegations I’m talking about?

MR. WOOD: Yes, I’m aware of the allegations that you’re talking about, and I’ve given you my answer.

QUESTION: Sorry. Can you tell us why you’re not willing to talk about what – (inaudible) the conversations --

MR. WOOD: I’ve given you the answer to the question.

QUESTION: But what does it say about the Obama Administration and the President’s promise to shut down Guantanamo Bay --

MR. WOOD: That decision has not changed.

QUESTION: -- and no one from his department will even acknowledge --

MR. WOOD: That has not changed. The President has made a decision --

QUESTION: -- those allegations – that it’s --

MR. WOOD: Are you going to let me talk, or do you want to continue?

QUESTION: Well, I was trying to finish my question.

MR. WOOD: Well, I’ve given you the answer to the question.

QUESTION: Sorry, just to follow up on the Guantanamo detainee issue. I mean, is the State Department looking into these allegations that he made on Al Jazeera?

MR. WOOD: Well, look, I haven’t seen these allegations. I’ve heard about them. But you know, I’ve spoken to this issue many times here about, you know, these cases in – with regard to Guantanamo. And the President’s made that decision to close Guantanamo. A number of cases are being reviewed. You know that we’re having discussions with a number of countries in terms of taking some of these detainees. But I don’t have anything further to say about it, and I’m not going to go beyond that.

QUESTION: But isn’t this a concern for you that – I mean, the U.S. image was very seriously affected by, you know, claims of torture.

MR. WOOD: Sure.

QUESTION: Guantanamo Bay is a blemish on the U.S. image, and these kinds of stories are emerging again. So why is the Obama Administration not actively coming out and saying, you know, we’re looking into this, we’re doing something about it?

MR. WOOD: Well, I think it’s very clear that we’re looking into this. We’re dealing with the whole Guantanamo question, and there are a number of parts to this. I just don’t want to get into specific cases. Believe me, the Administration is very focused on this. As I said, we’re having discussions with foreign governments about taking detainees.

QUESTION: But I mean --

QUESTION: But this is a case that has been broadcast in the Arab world. It incenses people when the Administration does not publicly come out and say, “We’re looking into this, we’re doing something about it.”

MR. WOOD: Look, as I said, this Administration has taken a fundamentally different approach to dealing with this particular issue. The President made a decision that we’re going to close Guantanamo, and obviously, in order to do that, you have to deal with a number of questions with regard to the people who were in Guantanamo, what happened there.

All of this is being looked at, and I don’t – I think it’s an unfair conclusion to draw that we are not concerned or looking into various cases. All I’m saying is, I don’t want to go into details of it, but I can assure you that we are focused on dealing with a number of these cases. We’re going to continue to do so. And the President’s ultimate objective of closing Guantanamo is what we’re focused on.

QUESTION: Does the ultimate – Robert, does the ultimate objective of closing Guantanamo preclude you looking into allegations of mistreatment of detainees?

MR. WOOD: Look, we certainly have been looking into a number of these issues. I just don’t want to get into specifics --

QUESTION: We’re not – I mean, we’re not even, at this point, asking you to get into specifics.

MR. WOOD: Well, yes, I’ve been asked to --

QUESTION: We’re asking you to say whether you look into cases – into allegations, in general, of mistreatment.

MR. WOOD: Of course we do, of course we do. What more do you want me to say than that?

QUESTION: That’s what we wanted you to say.

MR. WOOD: Well, you got it.

QUESTION: Okay.

MR. WOOD: Okay.

(Inaudible), mm-hmm.

QUESTION: Change of subject.

MR. WOOD: Yeah.

QUESTION: An Iranian news source has reported that four American banks have applied for permits to open branches on Iranian soil. Have you heard anything about this?

MR. WOOD: I don’t know anything about it.

QUESTION: Can you confirm?

MR. WOOD: You might want to check with Treasury, see if Treasury knows anything. I don’t know anything about it.

QUESTION: It specifically cites Citibank and Goldman Sachs as two of those four, and that a Saudi prince has been following this up and has made this --

MR. WOOD: Well, then I – (inaudible) about it, but I would check with Treasury to see if Treasury is aware.

QUESTION: Thank you.

QUESTION: On Iran, have they, to your knowledge, responded to the invitation yet?

MR. WOOD: I think the Secretary spoke to that yesterday. Certainly in --

QUESTION: I know, but that was yesterday, and today is today --

MR. WOOD: I don’t think there’s --

QUESTION: -- and there’s been 24 hours that have passed and --

MR. WOOD: Not that I’m aware of.

QUESTION: -- things can happen and --

MR. WOOD: Very true, but I’m not aware that anything has happened.

QUESTION: All right. Have you heard back from the Swiss yet about Roxana Saberi?

MR. WOOD: Yeah. We’ve been informed by our Swiss protecting power that – and obviously, able to confirm that Roxana Saberi --

QUESTION: I’m sorry, you are able to confirm?

MR. WOOD: Yeah, we’re able to confirm that Roxana Saberi went on trial in Iran earlier this week, and we understand that a verdict is expected soon. We’re in regular contact with our Swiss protecting power, and – but we’re unable to go beyond what we’ve said about this case unless we get, you know, written permission from Roxana Saberi to talk further about it.

But our concerns remain. We want to see her released. We’re working hard to secure that release. These charges, as I said yesterday, are baseless, without foundation. And we’ve been very concerned about the transparency of this judicial process. And you know, just to emphasize again, we’re going to work to try to get her released, and we call on the Iranians to provide as much information as they can to us about Roxana Saberi, and go from there.

QUESTION: Did – were the Swiss – presumably, since they didn’t know until today or late yesterday, was there a Swiss representative in the courtroom for the trial? Was there any --

MR. WOOD: I don’t know, Matt, if there was someone from the Swiss Embassy there in the courtroom. I don’t know that. I don’t know the answer to that question.

QUESTION: Well, apparently, she had met with her lawyer.

MR. WOOD: Yeah, I’m hearing that and no, they were not, so --

QUESTION: Do you think that this trial will have any impact on your efforts to engage with Iran? I mean, the President has said that he wants a better (inaudible) – the Secretary has said that they want – you want a better relationship with Iran. Yet Iran is trying an American citizen for charges that you say are baseless and continue to do it with a host of American citizens. So at what point does this affect your kind of goodwill towards trying to forge a new relationship with Iran?

MR. WOOD: Well, I can’t give you a good answer to that right now, Elise. But this is certainly not helpful, you know, and we think responding in a positive way to the Saberi case would be helpful in terms of winning goodwill on the part of the United States and the American people. But we’ve made a strategic decision to engage Iran directly in dialogue. We’re committed to that. We have yet to see that Iran is interested in reciprocating. So we’ll have to see.

We don’t want to see more of these cases. We – as I said, we want to see Roxana Saberi released, and the Swiss are working very hard to try to help achieve that. But you know, again, as we’ve said many times, our hand is stretched out to Iran. We’d like to see Iran reciprocate.

QUESTION: Well, at what point do you take away your hand? I mean, if your hand is out there for a long time and Iran doesn’t take you up on it, I mean, is your patience unlimited here? And have you heard any reaction back to the letter that – or the aide-memoire or whatever you call it that Secretary Clinton sent?

MR. WOOD: To answer the second part of your question, no, we have not heard back yet. But you know, the first part – you know, that’s a judgment we’ll have to make at some point. Obviously, our outreach to Iran is relatively new, and we’ll have to see how it goes. But these types of cases where, you know, someone has – an American is brought to trial on, you know, basically baseless charges is not helpful. And we’ll just have to see. I just can’t give you an answer to that right now in terms of, you know, your question.

Okay? Thank you all.

QUESTION: Mideast, Mitchell and – met with Lieberman today, after which Lieberman’s office said that going back to Oslo, none of the peace efforts had worked and that a new approach was needed. You know, what does that say for your efforts there?

MR. WOOD: Well, look, what I can tell you is Senator Mitchell had a very good and candid discussion with Foreign Minister Lieberman. Senator Mitchell reiterated what U.S. policy is with regard to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And by that, I mean our pursuit of a two-state solution with the two countries living side-by-side in peace. With regard to Foreign Minister Lieberman’s comments, I’d have to refer you to him or his office. But Senator Mitchell, you know, made it clear what the U.S. position is with regard to --

QUESTION: That – with regard to two-state solution?

MR. WOOD: Two-state solution, yes.

QUESTION: And following on Annapolis?

MR. WOOD: It’s been very clear that out of Annapolis, there were a number of different elements that the U.S. Government and the other parties were committed to. And certainly, Roadmap obligations are important, making sure that we don’t take steps that further inflame tensions in the region, taking steps that don’t contribute to a positive atmosphere. So the foreign minister is well aware, as is the rest of the Israeli Government, about what the United States wants to see happen in the region.

It’s a new government. There are going to be comments coming from various officials in terms of their views. Senator Mitchell looks forward to working with the new government, and of course with the Palestinians and others, to try to reach that two-state solution, Matt. It’s not going to be easy and there are going to be ups and downs in this process, as we have them in the North Korea – the Six-Party process. So you know, we just have to dig in, roll up our sleeves, and continue to go to work, because that’s what the people of the region – they would expect no less from us.

QUESTION: Okay. I got one more unrelated. On Somalia and the Secretary’s announcement yesterday, do you know who will be representing the U.S. at this conference in Brussels?

MR. WOOD: Yeah, that’ll be Acting Assistant Secretary for African Affairs Phillip Carter. And I think there’ll also be a representative from USAID going, but we don’t have that name yet.

QUESTION: Do you know if there’s anyone from PM going, Political --

MR. WOOD: I don’t think so.

QUESTION: Because I mean, they have taken the lead on the piracy issue.

MR. WOOD: I know they’ve been very involved in it.

QUESTION: Well, I guess that’s it.

MR. WOOD: Okay. Thank you all.

(The briefing was concluded at 12:25 p.m.)



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