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Middle East Digest - January 11, 2010

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Washington, DC
January 11, 2010


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 January 11, 2010

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1:17 p.m. EST

MR. CROWLEY: Before taking your questions, George Mitchell arrived in Paris today, had a meeting with Foreign Minister Kouchner, and very shortly will leave Paris for Brussels where he’ll have meetings with the Quartet at the envoy level tomorrow.

QUESTION: Just quickly on that, is that a Quartet meeting or individual meetings with the members of the Quartet?

MR. CROWLEY: It is a Quartet meeting.

QUESTION: At the --

MR. CROWLEY: At the envoy level, all of the --

QUESTION: Thank you. Got it.

QUESTION: Just going back to Bill Burns’s travel --

MR. CROWLEY: Mm-hmm.

QUESTION: -- Moscow on the 13th and 14th and then where on the 15th?

MR. CROWLEY: Madrid.

QUESTION: And that’s for an EU what?

MR. CROWLEY: He’ll be meeting with EU political directors.


MR. CROWLEY: Stuff. (Laughter.)

QUESTION: Can you be a little bit more specific than “stuff?”

MR. CROWLEY: I mean, it will be --

QUESTION: I mean, is this an Iran-focused meeting?

MR. CROWLEY: I would not – I would certain – be certain that Iran is among the issues that will be discussed, but there’ll be several.

QUESTION: Is that the primary issue, Iran?

MR. CROWLEY: I wouldn’t call it an Iran meeting. I think --

QUESTION: I didn’t ask that. I asked if it was the primary issue.

MR. CROWLEY: Yeah. I mean, it will be – there are a number of important issues that we have. That will be one of them.

QUESTION: And why – you know, typically, discussions of Iran at the political director occur in the P-5+1.


QUESTION: So clearly, the Russians and the Chinese are not going to be here because he’s only meeting with European political directors. Why not – why not include your partners from Russia and China?

MR. CROWLEY: Well, I – we – without announcing something from here, because the P-5+1 meetings are normally announced by the UN’s – the EU special representative, I wouldn’t say that these are exclusive, that there may well be a P-5+1 meeting coming up in the very near future as well.

QUESTION: On this trip?

MR. CROWLEY: It could be part of this trip.

QUESTION: And that would be – the subject of that meeting would indeed be Iran?



MR. CROWLEY: So we will continue our dialogue – I mean, I’m just at --

QUESTION: Why is this so hard?

MR. CROWLEY: I’m just at a disadvantage. I mean, we – there will be P-5 – I mean, I’m not calling the Madrid meeting an Iran meeting. You called it a Madrid meeting. But while we’re on the subject --

QUESTION: I didn’t call it a Madrid meeting.

MR. CROWLEY: No, no, an Iran meeting, but --

QUESTION: I didn’t call it that. I said was it going to be the primary subject of the meeting and --

MR. CROWLEY: Yeah. Anyway, there will be – there will be --

QUESTION: -- you read the transcript and you’ll see that.

MR. CROWLEY: I would just say there will be a P-5+1 meeting in the coming days and await further information on that from the EU.

QUESTION: So did the --

MR. CROWLEY: I would not say – don’t link it to Madrid.

QUESTION: But here’s my question about that, and that P-5+ meeting – regardless of what are the number of topics that’ll be discussed, it will include some discussion of Iran, correct?

MR. CROWLEY: I would expect if we get together with our EU – I mean, we are casting a net broadly in terms of our consultations with a number of countries on Iran. It’s a very important subject. It’s a very urgent time. So it will come up in our dialogue with a number of countries. I would expect it to be a part of this discussion.

QUESTION: So the Chinese have dropped their resistance to a P-5+1 meeting; is that what you’re saying?

MR. CROWLEY: I’m saying that you should await formal announcements of a P-5+1 meeting with our counterparts from the EU.

QUESTION: And P.J., on Iran, there are all these reports that they have offered and made yet another offer that for the next couple of months, they would stop enrichment. And there’s some other, apparently, overtures from them. What’s the state of play on that? What’s the --

MR. CROWLEY: I think it’s really unclear to us exactly what they’ve announced. We’ve put forward our proposal in good faith on the Tehran research reactor, and thus far, they have been either unwilling or unable to respond to that. So – but on their latest pronouncement today, we just are being very cautious in terms of understanding exactly what they were saying before we respond to it.

QUESTION: So you’re asking for a clarification or --

MR. CROWLEY: I mean, I think we’re seeking to try to determine exactly what any announcement that came out of Tehran – what it really means. As far as I know, there’s no change on the ground today as far as I know.

QUESTION: In response to Senator Mitchell’s statement that the U.S. can withhold support and loan guarantees to Israel, the Israeli finance minister has said that we don’t need to use these guarantees, we are doing just fine. Do you have any reaction to that?

MR. CROWLEY: Well, I think that – I know that Senator Mitchell’s interview with Charlie Rose last week caused some angst in various quarters, perhaps in Israel. Just to clarify this, he wasn’t signaling any particular course of action. He was simply asked a question with a historical context – are there sticks that are available? And I think he mentioned that this is a step that the United States has taken in the past. He wasn’t signaling that this is something that we’re forecasting in the future. But it is a – it obviously is something that we have in our toolbox. It’s not that we’re out here wielding that particular tool at this particular time.

So our focus – the reason why Senator Mitchell is in the region, or in Europe this week, and he will meet with Israeli officials while he’s in Europe, he’ll have other meetings as we go forward, is expressly to continue to push the parties and all who are supporting this process to get the negotiation restarted as quickly as possible where we can – as he outlined in the Charlie Rose interview and in other cases, put all the issues on the table and see if we can move towards a comprehensive peace in the Middle East. So this was simply George Mitchell commenting on a matter of history.


QUESTION: Any reaction to the plans to build a wall in the Gaza-Egypt border? Israel’s announcement that they will build a wall in the Gaza --

MR. CROWLEY: I’ll take the question. Not familiar with it.

QUESTION: Hi. Blackwater in the news again. Do you know what your responsibility would be of Blackwater in Afghanistan as they bid on a contract there? And a secondary question, would – do you know when the temporary –

MR. CROWLEY: I don’t understand your first question.

QUESTION: Say that again.

MR. CROWLEY: I don’t understand your first question.

QUESTION: Blackwater is to have – they’re bidding on a role in Afghanistan right now after the controversy of what happened in Iraq. Do you have any response to that or what their responsibilities would be if they were to assume a role in Afghanistan?

MR. CROWLEY: I don’t know what contract is up for bid that Blackwater/Xe Services would be bidding on.

QUESTION: Okay, they were also offered –

MR. CROWLEY: But that’s – I mean, there was a – there’s a contracting process that’s evolved here, and then companies that are qualified to bid or to provide those particular services are free to do so. I just don’t know whether they are bidding on a particular contract; if you’ve got something more specific, why don’t you see us afterwards.

QUESTION: Okay. And a temporary contract was expanded in their contract in Iraq. Do you know when that ends – their temporary contract?

MR. CROWLEY: On aviation services?


MR. CROWLEY: We’ll take that question, whether that – whether DynCorp has now assumed that responsibility or it’s still pending. A fair question.


QUESTION: This is on visas. Senator Grassley – I don’t know if you’ve seen it – has sent a letter to Secretary Clinton asking for some information about visa security units. And we talked about this a little bit last week, about that DHS only has a certain amount of visa security posts.

MR. CROWLEY: The 14 units in 12 countries.

QUESTION: Fourteen. Well, he’s charging that the reason that there aren’t more visa security units is he says that these have been due to objections and roadblocks from the State Department, specifically that the Ambassador is inhibiting the ability of DHS to carry out its mission in cities like Kuala Lumpur, London, Nairobi, Istanbul, and Kuwait City even though DHS has identified it as needing them.

So my question is: Has the State Department blocked the expansion of the program in these cities and others? Or is it due to a lack of capability on DHS’s part to actually man the posts?

MR. CROWLEY: Let’s step back. First of all, I don’t know that we’ve received the letter yet. We’ll be happy to look at it and respond to Senator Grassley. We have cooperated fully with DHS in terms of the development of the Visa Security Program and the establishment of visa security units. I know of no obstacles that the State Department has put forward to prevent DHS from adding security units to various locations.

QUESTION: So if they wanted to expand in any location, you have no problem with that?

MR. CROWLEY: We continue to work with DHS on the evolution of the Visa Security Program.

QUESTION: No, but you don’t have a problem with them expanding into any particular posts?

MR. CROWLEY: Conceptually, no.

QUESTION: And then also, he also raises the issue about how many other foreign nationals are classified as possible terrorists as opposed to actual, I guess, card-carrying terrorists, so that they’re – you know, that perhaps if you’re an actual terrorist, that your visa would be – that your visa would be revoked. And this is what we were talking about with Mr. Abdulmutallab, that he wasn’t classified as an actual terrorist, but rather, a possible terrorist.

And what kind of steps are you taking to ensure that possible terrorists’ visas are watched more closely than people, you know, who aren’t possible terrorists?

MR. CROWLEY: I would only say that in light of what happened on December 25, as the President has said, as the Secretary has said and others, we are looking throughout this process to see how we can improve it. And obviously, we are cooperating fully and will implement any systemic changes that come about. I’m not – I can’t do – can’t exactly go through that from here.


QUESTION: I just had a question for you on Afghanistan – if you have any reaction to the latest poll numbers on the ground there, which show that public criticism of the United States presence there remains high?

MR. CROWLEY: I think public support of the international presence in Afghanistan I think is still significant. I haven’t seen the latest poll numbers per se, but I suppose a couple of things to note there. We are in the ninth year of our presence there in a country that is – that has a particular point of view historically about the presence of foreign elements within its borders.

The Afghan people have been remarkably patient. I think they still welcome the support that they’re receiving from the United States and the international community on this mission, and the importance of international assistance to actually make governance at all levels – national, regional, local – more effective so that that government is serving the needs of the Afghan people.

I think it’s also important that whatever the up-and-down of public polling regarding the international presence there, including the United States, what’s also significant is that if any kind of adjustment in poll numbers does not translate into support for the Taliban, I think – and what we’ve seen in terms of looking at public opinion polling in Afghanistan is that the Taliban remains in the single digits. No one wants to see the Taliban restored to power in Afghanistan. So our challenge, obviously, is to continue to communicate to the Afghan people what we’re doing on their behalf, and certainly, international support for the electoral process. It was a significant step.

Obviously, now, we’re watching closely as the Karzai administration and the parliament put together the key ministers of the national government. We’re going to continue our efforts in Afghanistan, but we also recognize, as the President has outlined, that we need to continue to move as rapidly as possible because clearly, we want, as I’m sure the Afghan people want, to be able to see this transition where functions that may well be done today by the international community – that we’re building up the capacity of the Afghan Government to be able to assume these responsibilities over the next couple of years.

QUESTION: Can I ask a similar question about --


QUESTION: -- a related country? And that would be Yemen. How attuned are you to anti-American, anti-Western, or anti-foreign sentiment in Yemen? And do you have any concerns that those feelings will hinder or hurt your attempts to help the Yemeni Government?

MR. CROWLEY: Well, I think we continue to look for ways in which we can support the Yemeni Government on a military basis, on a civilian basis, on an economic basis. And we are encouraged by recent comments by President Salih that he’s determined that Yemen will stand up to the challenge posed by al-Qaida, and we’re prepared to help Yemen in that process.

But obviously, we’re – we continue to be focused on – we’re not running a popularity contest, per se, but clearly, attitudes towards the United States in specific countries is important in almost all countries of the world. During 2009, we were encouraged by the fact that polling numbers of the United States improved significantly since the inauguration of President Obama.


MR. CROWLEY: I’ll take that question.

QUESTION: Well, I’m --


QUESTION: But I’m wondering what the – I mean, I don’t know the answer to that question, but if you have it, that would be --

MR. CROWLEY: I mean, I think, broadly speaking, the trajectory was quite constructive. Now, it is an important dimension of the partnerships that we are trying to build with any number of countries, Yemen included. But what I was --

QUESTION: Right. But when you specifically talk about Yemen, though, I mean --


QUESTION: -- it would be interesting to know that question if polling data did show that. But do you have any concerns that the strong feelings about foreign intervention or foreign presence in Yemen is going to hurt the fight against extremism there?

MR. CROWLEY: Well, we will continue to act in our national interest. Yemen will continue to act in its national interest. We think the partnership is important to both countries in terms of combating extremist elements inside Yemen that pose a danger to that country, pose a danger to the region, and as we saw, has – poses a danger to the United States. Clearly, your ability to sustain a relationship and support over time has to be founded in popular opinion. So it is important, and we will continue to work with the government in Yemen and to explain what we’re doing and what we’re not doing.

But ultimately, as we – whether it’s Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, this is a shared fight. It’s a shared responsibility. But ultimately, it is the country itself that has to step up and address those extremist elements within its own borders.

QUESTION: But just to follow up on your positive trajectory around the world, I mean, are you citing that because of the President’s speech in Cairo?

MR. CROWLEY: I think if you look at some polling that we’ve done, some polling that other entities such as Pew have done, the fact is that from where we were a couple years ago, the trajectory is positive.

QUESTION: Well, do you think you’re going to be able to sustain that unless you implement the promises that President Obama made during that Cairo speech, for instance?

MR. CROWLEY: Well, I think the President pledged – he outlined a vision for the region and the world. He committed the United States to work constructively with the region and the world. We think we are living up to both the letter, spirit, and intent of his speech, and – but you’re right. This is something that we have to do and have to sustain over time, and where the people of the world see a country that is a willing partner working constructively with governments around the world, making sure that as we act, we’re doing so taking into account what that government wants to do.

That’s one of the reasons why we’ve adapted our program in a country like Pakistan, for example, so that we are making sure that we are – what we are trying to do on behalf of Pakistan actually addresses something that is important to the Pakistani people. And we will continue to try to work as constructively as we can with countries of the world, including Pakistan, including Afghanistan, including Yemen.


QUESTION: I have a question on Sudan. The special envoy said this morning that if the international community doesn’t act, that there’s an urgent need of action in that country, or otherwise they fear massive violence could return.


QUESTION: I was just wondering if the United States had a – was committed to helping Sudan, if they had a plan of action for the next months there?

MR. CROWLEY: Well, I would go back to Friday when the Secretary of State made a detailed announcement on the anniversary of the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement. In that statement, she made clear we are committed, along with the international community to support the CPA process. But there are fundamental things that the parties inside Sudan need to do. We do have a plan of action working constructively and collectively with countries in the region and with Sudan, all of the parties directly with Sudan. There is a plan of action that gets them to the election in April and to the referendum next January.

Time is of the essence. We are – remain concerned about violence that has – unrest that has happened in Sudan, and we want to make sure that there are no obstacles to making sure that what happens in April, what happens next January reflects the will of the Sudanese people, all of the Sudanese people.


QUESTION: I had a question for you on Abu Dhabi and on a member of the royal family there who had been under charges for torture of an Afghan man. He was acquitted over the weekend, I think. Do you have any reaction to that? I remember that when these charges first came about, the State Department did have some strong remarks.

MR. CROWLEY: The case of Sheik Issa bin Zayed al Nahyan was a case handled by the courts of the United Arab Emirates. We recognize that all members of Emirati society must stand equal before the law, and we remain concerned for the victim of this horrible crime. We would welcome a careful review of the judge’s decision and an assessment of all available legal options to ensure that the demands of justice are fully met in this case, and we will continue to closely monitor it.

QUESTION: It sounds like you don’t think that the actual legal procedures were followed in this case. It sounds like that’s what you’re saying.

MR. CROWLEY: No, I didn’t say that.

QUESTION: Well, it sounds like you’re saying that everybody needs to be treated equally, and then you’re implying that this was not the case this time.

MR. CROWLEY: I’m not implying that at all.

QUESTION: Well, we’re – no, no, no. If you’re not implying that, then let’s just ask you: Do you think that this gentleman was treated as equally as any other citizen in an Abu Dhabi court would have been?

MR. CROWLEY: I think ultimately, this has to be something that is resolved inside of the United Arab Emirates for the benefit of all Emirati citizens. We will continue to watch the case carefully, and as I said, we would welcome a careful review of the judge’s decision.

QUESTION: Do you think that the demands of justice were met?

MR. CROWLEY: I think that there are still questions that have been raised by this case. I think it’s important those questions be resolved not so much to satisfy the United States, as to satisfy the citizens of the United Arab Emirates.

QUESTION: What questions? Sorry.

MR. CROWLEY: I’m not going to adjudicate the case from here.

QUESTION: I didn’t ask you to. You said there have been questions that have been raised, and I’m asking what questions.

MR. CROWLEY: I’ve gone as far as I’m going to go. I’m not going to go any further.

QUESTION: P.J., I want to ask you if anybody plans to or has brought this up with the government over there yet?

MR. CROWLEY: I can’t say that – whether we’ve talked to them about this – the judgment of the case. We have talked to them about the case.

QUESTION: Have you been able to get visas for your officials and contractors for Pakistan?

QUESTION: Sorry, there’s a follow-up.

QUESTION: Hundreds of them were in delay.

MR. CROWLEY: Hang on a second, let --

QUESTION: (Inaudible.)

QUESTION: Have you been able to get visas for your officials and contractors for Pakistan? Hundreds of them were being delayed.

MR. CROWLEY: I think it remains an issue of concern that we are continuing to talk to the Government of Pakistan about.


QUESTION: On the UAE case, is this going to affect at all the implementation of the U.S.-UAE 123 deal? Because that was raised up before this --


QUESTION: Several American and international media outlets reported that the al-Qaida in the Maghreb they announced they wanted to execute one of the French detainees. So what’s the American position concerning this case? And also, what’s the overall assessment of the United States of the threat of al-Qaida in the region, also on all the efforts made to curb their proliferation in the area?

MR. CROWLEY: I think we remain concerned about and focused on any group that chooses to ally itself with the al-Qaida network. It is seemingly part of the al-Qaida strategy and probably part of a diffusion of the threat that we see from violent extremism around the world. We are focused on al-Qaida in the Maghreb. We’re focused on al-Qaida in the Arab Peninsula. We’re working closely with governments in both locations to try to minimize this threat both to individual countries, but also to the region as a whole. And this is a shared threat. It’s a shared responsibility. It’s an outrage that these groups hold people hostage. And it’s an outrage that at times, they execute them for their political purposes.

And we think, over time, this is expressly why support for al-Qaida globally and locally has diminished since – over the past few years. And we are determined to work constructively with all countries that – in the interest of justice and peace and stability around the world.

QUESTION: Thank you.

(The briefing was concluded at 1:59 p.m.)

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