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Middle East Digest - February 12, 2010

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Washington, DC
February 12, 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 February 12, 2010

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MR. CROWLEY: Just to continue on with other subjects, obviously, Secretary Clinton will be going to Qatar and Saudi Arabia. Her schedule has been adapted a slight bit. Her departure time was pushed till tomorrow afternoon, but her primary schedule, once she arrives in Doha, will go on without change. And then after arriving in Doha on Sunday, she will then move on to Riyadh and Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, returning to the U.S. late Tuesday night.

Under Secretary Bill Burns will be traveling this coming week to Lebanon, Syria, Turkey, and Azerbaijan. He’ll have meetings in Lebanon with President Sulayman, Prime Minister Hariri, and other Lebanese leaders demonstrating our continued support to a sovereign and independent Lebanon. In Syria, he will meet with President Asad and Foreign Minister Mualem, reflecting our continued interest in further dialogue with the Syrian Government on all aspects of our bilateral relationship. And then on to Turkey for meetings with senior officials to discuss the 2006 shared vision framework for our strategic partnership, and then he will continue on to Azerbaijan for meetings on February 19 with President Aliyev to reinforce our bilateral relations, and he will also be meeting with civil society members there.

QUESTION: Can I ask you about Bill Burns going to Syria? Can you put that in some context? Is he the highest-level official to go in some time, and why now? Does it have to do with the ambassador choice or --

MR. CROWLEY: Well, it doesn’t have to do with the ambassador per se; it has to do with what a return of the ambassador to Syria represents, which is further steps in terms of our bilateral relations. While there, I think he’ll reflect on a number of issues in terms of regional issues – obviously, what – how Syria continues to view the situation with respect to the Middle East peace. But obviously, it reflects our growing interest in working constructively with Syria and the leaders of that country.


QUESTION: Can I ask you about the statement you put out yesterday on Tony Blair? You said that he would be intensifying his partnership, I think was the term you used, with George Mitchell, to deal with the negotiations question, the political negotiations. What does that mean in concrete terms? What will he be doing that he wasn’t – hadn’t been doing? And does it mean George Mitchell will be doing something different?

MR. CROWLEY: No, no, not at all. But we – for example, we continue to work jointly on how to increase the capacity of Palestinian institutions, how we can continue to help the – with the growth and expansion of the Palestinian economy, recognizing that these have the ability to support the efforts on getting the parties into a negotiation. So it is making sure that we are working as closely together as possible so that on the economic front, on the political front, and on the negotiation front, we’re doing everything we can to advance Palestinian interests as a way of encouraging them to continue to prepare for the point in the future which, following a negotiation, we would hope that there would be a viable Palestinian state.

QUESTION: Well, weren’t you doing all of that before?


QUESTION: And I don’t – so why the necessity to reinforce former Prime Minister Blair’s role? He’s a hardworking guy, he was working all of this stuff.

MR. CROWLEY: Mm-hmm.

QUESTION: But I just don’t get it.

MR. CROWLEY: Well, I mean, we have had periodic discussions with Prime Minister Blair and the Quartet. And I think we are looking for a variety of ways in which we can encourage the region to move forward. And we certainly think that on the political front and the economic front, there’s an opportunity here to be able to help provide the kind of support to Palestinian leadership that it needs.

QUESTION: So what – just on the political front, I mean, what’s he – because his focus, of course, has been the economic front.

MR. CROWLEY: Yes, it has. What --

QUESTION: What is he doing on the political front now then – that he wasn’t doing before? And how does that not potentially duplicate Senator Mitchell’s --

MR. CROWLEY: Well, no. But you have to deal with political leaders to make sure that you have the – you’re building the economy. You want to see ways in which the region not – can continue to invest in a Palestinian state, in the West Bank in particular, where there has been encouraging economic news. So I would just think it is a true complement to what George Mitchell is doing, and we are going to intensify our cooperation.

QUESTION: Does Senator Mitchell have any plans to cease in his role or to reduce his role?

MR. CROWLEY: What we were describing yesterday in terms of our cooperation, it is about – it’s not about a plus-or-minus equation. It’s about – George Mitchell is working hard on getting the parties to negotiation. Tony Blair is working on – for his part, in terms of trying to build the institutions that will be necessary for a viable Palestinian state. The United States has a role to play in that as well. So I wouldn’t say that the advance of what Tony Blair is doing comes at the expense of George Mitchell, not at all.

QUESTION: And Senator Mitchell is not going to give up his role? I mean, that’s not --

MR. CROWLEY: Not at all. No.

QUESTION: Okay, good.

QUESTION: One more. Did this come about because you said to yourself we’ve been unable so far to get the two sides to resume negotiations, maybe Tony Blair can do something or somebody else can do something?

MR. CROWLEY: No. But we are looking at how we can through – pull – put every thread into a tapestry that is able to support and advance Middle East peace. And success will involve advancing on the political front, advancing on the economic front, advancing on the social front. All of these elements will be important so that people ultimately have the confidence to take the important steps and make the difficult decisions that are necessary to achieve what we all want, which is comprehensive peace in the Middle East.

QUESTION: What’s your assessment about Iran’s nuclear program, Iran’s nuclear program or nuclear capability?

MR. CROWLEY: Mm-hmm.


MR. CROWLEY: And the question?

QUESTION: Yeah. What’s your assessment?

MR. CROWLEY: Well, I think in terms of a formal assessment, we’d defer to the IAEA. Iran has been in contact with IAEA inspectors and tried to advise them on what they are trying to do. We believe that any step to further enrich uranium to 20 percent is a violation of their obligations under the – under a number of UN Security Council resolutions, and we think that they should come back and constructively engage in a process where we can – would help them provide whatever their needs are within a civilian nuclear program while reassuring the international community about their intentions regarding their overall nuclear ambitions. But these ongoing statements and ongoing actions are counterproductive and they really call into question whether Iranian claims that their intentions are peaceful are, in fact, true.


QUESTION: There’s some reporting about yesterday’s events in Iran – analysts, I guess you might say, conclude that the protest movement may be kind of fizzling out, given what happened yesterday. I was just wondering whether you had a take on it.

MR. CROWLEY: Well, I’m not sure it’s fizzled out. I think what you saw yesterday was Draconian steps by the Iranian Government to suppress the people of Iran and their ability to assemble freely and to voice their concerns about their own government and its actions. We think these are universal rights and we think that it’s important for the Iranian people to continue to have the ability to communicate, to network, to use technology to hold their government to account. And ultimately, the government – any government – has to serve the needs of its people and the interests of its people. We think the ongoing demonstrations show that the Iranian people have serious questions about their government and whether it, in fact, is acting in their own self-interest as opposed to in terms of a narrow self-interest.


QUESTION: Can you discuss the nature of the Iran discussions the Secretary intends to have with her Gulf --

MR. CROWLEY: I think we intend to have a range of discussions with officials in her stops in Qatar and in Saudi Arabia, not only with high-level officials from those countries, but she’ll have the chance during the Islamic World Forum to talk to other leaders. I know she’ll have a bilateral with the prime minister of Turkey as part of this.

So Middle East peace will be an issue that will be discussed, Iran certainly will be an issue that is discussed, other important regional considerations. I think we’ll have the meeting first and then we’ll tell you about it.

QUESTION: On the Middle East peace, what does she expect from the Saudis to advance the peace process?

MR. CROWLEY: Well, she’ll meet with King Abdullah in Saudi Arabia. And of course, he is the author of the Arab Peace Initiative, and we think that is an important foundation upon which we can continue to advance towards comprehensive peace in the Middle East. So I’m sure that she will follow up on discussions that she’s had recently with the foreign minister on how to use the Arab Peace Initiative to be able to work with the parties and see what progress we can make.

QUESTION: Are the Saudis expected to encourage the Palestinians to take part in these indirect talks?

MR. CROWLEY: Well, we will, I’m sure – as we have said to the parties directly, we think that now is the time for them to enter into formal negotiations. The issues that continue to crop up can only be resolved through formal negotiations. That’s our view. That’s the view of many countries in the Middle East. So part of our discussion will be how we push, prod, cajole the parties into that negotiation through which we think we can ultimately arrive at a satisfactory peace agreement.

QUESTION: Just one more. Sorry. Ambassador Mitchell – wasn’t he supposed to go to Saudi Arabia on the 6th of February, or last week at any rate?

MR. CROWLEY: I don’t know. I’ll take the question as to where --

QUESTION: And why didn’t he go?

MR. CROWLEY: Where – well --

QUESTION: If he didn’t --

MR. CROWLEY: It could well be that some white stuff had some impact on that. But we’ll take the question on what George Mitchell’s schedule right now is.

QUESTION: Thank you.

MR. CROWLEY: Thank you.

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