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Middle East Digest - February 16, 2010

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Washington, DC
February 16, 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 16, 2010

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MR. DUGUID: Welcome back, everyone. It’s good to see a full room again after a week of gaggles and no briefings. I’d like to start out with a rundown of the Secretary’s activities today, if I may.

As you know, she has been in the Middle East – first in Doha, where she gave a speech on the President’s vision for follow-up from his Cairo speech. She emphasized the Administration’s new approach which was built on, first, mutual interest and respect; secondly, respect for universal values; and thirdly, on partnerships which involve wider engagement beyond those of the traditional government-to-government type.

And she has followed up on those principles today in her meetings. She first met this morning with the Mekkah Regional Government Prince Khaled Al Faisal. They spoke particularly about infrastructure building in Saudi Arabia, but they also spoke about Yemen and Iraq and the upcoming elections. She next met with the secretary general of the Organization of The Islamic Conference, where they talked about, again, the upcoming Iraqi elections in which the Secretary thanked the secretary general for the OIC’s willingness to offer election monitors to that process. But they also talked about cooperation on wider issues such as polio, maternal health, and child health throughout the Middle East.

She then followed with two meetings in the nongovernmental sector, first with the Jeddah Chamber of Commerce Businesswomen, Civil Society and Women Entrepreneurs in Jeddah. And then she conducted a town hall meeting with students at the Dar Al Hekma College in Jeddah. Her main points there were both the importance of involving women in civil society, particularly through the education of girls. So that is where she was at today. We do expect her to be on her way shortly. I do believe just before I came down, she was still on the ground in Jeddah.

With those two brief statements, I’m ready to take your questions, please. Yes, Elise.

QUESTION: Can you talk at all about the capture of Mullah Baradar in Karachi and how significant you think this is for the kind of effort to crush the Taliban?

MR. DUGUID: Well, I don’t have anything for you on this particular press report of the capture. I do, however, want to reemphasize that the United States and Pakistan work closely together on security issues in combating terrorism that threatens both of our societies. We have had a close relationship with the Pakistani Government and I suspect that we will continue to work with them in pursuance of a policy that blunts the ability of extremist groups to attack both of our societies.

QUESTION: Well, without speaking of the general specifics of the capture, I mean, can you talk about the fact that this gentleman is now in custody and how significant you think

MR. DUGUID: That sounds fairly specific to me. I don’t have --

QUESTION: Well, no, I’m not asking for specifics of how he was captured or things like that. I mean, we all know that he was captured. I mean, he’s in custody, so --

MR. DUGUID: I don’t have that information to share with you at this time and I don’t have a comment on it.

QUESTION: But I mean, this would be an instant – this would be an instance of this cooperation that you speak so --

MR. DUGUID: Well, there have been other instances of such cooperation and I expect them to continue. On this particular press report, I don’t have anything further for you.

QUESTION: On a different topic, the Spanish Government indicated that it’s willing to take five inmates from Guantanamo Bay. What’s the U.S. reaction to this, and how would it affect the process of closing down the detention camp?

MR. DUGUID: Well, I think the answer is contained in your question. Taking another five detainees will, in fact, help to achieve President Obama’s goal of closing down the prison facility at Guantanamo Bay. We commend the allies and friends who have heretofore accepted detainees and taken them into their countries and put them into their facilities. If the Spanish continue to accept or continue their political process on accepting five detainees, that would indeed be a positive move.

QUESTION: (Inaudible.)

MR. DUGUID: Sorry. Same subject?

QUESTION: No, different subject.

QUESTION: Okay, a different subject?


QUESTION: On Iran, President Ahmadinejad said today that talks were – what – is still underway on the fuel swap idea. It seems that there’s some confusion about what “underway” means. Is it your – is it the State Department’s view that there are talks ongoing with Iran on that specific subject?

And Secretary Clinton in the Gulf has described Iran as now essentially on the road to a military dictatorship. Does that sort of definition of Iran’s government change in any way our approach to them?

MR. DUGUID: Well, the approach that we’ve been following all along is the two-track approach, and we will continue down the two-track approach. On what talks President Ahmadinejad is referring to specifically, I have no information that any talks are ongoing at the moment.

If, however, Iran is trying to engage in talks with the IAEA on the proposals that are on the table, we welcome that. We encourage that. That is what is on offer. There are no new offers out there as some press reports may have indicated. There is a willingness on our part to engage on international efforts to provide medical isotopes, which is what the Iranians say that they are looking for.

But our offer on Iran’s nuclear program remains the same as it has been for months now, and the ball is in Iran’s court to go to the IAEA and accept that and then act on it. And then the IAEA will let us know that that’s what they have done.

QUESTION: No new offers when the medical isotope element of it was raised last week. That – P.J., I think, was describing that as at least a separate offer from the nuclear reactor fuel.

MR. DUGUID: That is correct. It is evidence of our willingness to engage and look for a solution for those things that Iran says that it wants. Our growing concern is that what Iran says that it wants is not actually the case. And this is certainly some of the statements that Secretary Clinton has made over the weekend, as indicating that Iran is saying one thing but doing quite another. If they are interested in medical isotopes, there are ways to procure them in very short order without having to enrich their own uranium. And we have an offer on the table that will help address Iran’s peaceful nuclear program ambitions, and we are willing to discuss ways that Iran can obtain medical isotopes.

But the responses that have been coming out of Tehran have not been taking us up on those offers. That’s where the responsibility for moving the process forward lies in Tehran.

QUESTION: Can I follow up on the Secretary’s comments in the recent couple of days about the Revolutionary Guard --

MR. DUGUID: Mm-hmm.

QUESTION: -- and that Iran is becoming a military dictatorship? It seems kind of striking that given a year ago, President Obama is talking about deep respect for the Islamic Republic of Iran and sending these kind of Nowruz Persian new year greetings and talking about this country with great respect. And now, the Secretary is talking about a military dictatorship.

And I’m wondering if this is a completely different country than the Iran that President Obama was talking about last year and if your desire to engage Iran bilaterally separately from the nuclear issue has waned?

MR. DUGUID: Well, our desire to engage Iran in a productive and fruitful discussion on a broad range of issues has not diminished. However, what has diminished is the space for political action within Iran itself. Now, I think this is what the Secretary has been talking about. The Revolutionary Guard and its members and affiliates are currently in control of nine of 22 cabinet ministries, and this is an unprecedented level since the Islamic Republic was established.

Also, you’ve had disputed elections that have taken place since last year, and the unprecedented repression of opposition to those election results. You have a regime in Tehran that is more and more resembling a police state in which force is used to suppress discussion, to suppress demonstrations, and to control the activities of its people. This is not a country that has shown that it wishes to have the type of dialogue that we were talking about a year ago.

QUESTION: So I mean, it sounds like this – I mean, it sounds like maybe although you might have national security interests of dealing with Iran on this broad range of issues that you discussed, the kind of deep respect that you had for Iran last year at this time has waned.

MR. DUGUID: Well, I don’t think so. Our deep respect for the Iranian people has remained strong, and we have tried to engage with the Iranian people in a variety of ways. President Obama’s letter – open letter to Iran is one example of that. It is, in fact, the government – particularly, the Revolutionary Guard elements of the government that are changing the dynamics in Iran. And that is what Secretary Clinton has been talking about over the weekend.


QUESTION: Is the Secretary’s focus on the Revolutionary Guard a way to build international support for a possible fourth round of sanctions through the Security Council?

MR. DUGUID: I think that the focus on the Revolutionary Guard is one that is prudent, and that targeting the guard and its economic interests is one that helps to keep the broad base of the population from being affected by sanctions while (inaudible) those who are proving to be the people who are blocking agreements on other subjects like the nuclear issue and repressing their own society.

QUESTION: Is there a danger, given the National Security Advisor’s comments on Sunday, about isolating the Revolutionary Guard as perhaps an indirect way to foment regime change? Couldn’t that be perceived in Tehran as somehow playing into their domestic political considerations? “See, the U.S. doesn’t come at us with open arms and an extended hand; they really are more interested in nefarious” --

MR. DUGUID: I believe that our actions over the past year have shown that our efforts at engagement were genuine. And you have to have a partner in order to fulfill the expectations of engagement. We have not heretofore had a partner. Our desire and our intention for Iran is to have it to first declare its real intentions on its nuclear program; secondly, to have a nuclear-free Middle East; and thirdly, to get Iran to live up to those internationally respected norms of human rights and respect for the rule of law. It is, in fact, to get the Iranian regime to change its current behavior, a behavior which is pursuing a suspect nuclear program and supporting terrorism in many different regions.

QUESTION: Was it unhelpful to have Advisor Jones use that phrase “regime change” in relation to Iran?

MR. DUGUID: The National Security Advisor can speak for himself. I’m not going to parse the words. Our intention is to get Iran to change its behavior. That’s what we’re working through the P-5+1 to do – to declare its real intentions externally and then to change its behavior of supporting terrorist groups and also to respect the human rights that is – that are nationally recognized throughout the countries who have signed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

QUESTION: One more.


QUESTION: The Iranian president today was dismissive of the Secretary’s comments over the weekend about the shape of the current government there. Is there any official reaction to that or are we just going to let his comments stand?

MR. DUGUID: I don’t think that it needs a reaction from me. The Secretary has spoken plainly over the weekend, and I think her comments can stand.


QUESTION: Different topic.

MR. DUGUID: Different topic? Anybody want to stay on Iran?

Yes, please.

QUESTION: Is there any Department reaction to the weekend bombing in the Indian city of Pune, and what impact does the Department foresee on the prospects of talks between India and Pakistan?

MR. DUGUID: Well, we condemn the bombing in the strongest terms and we send our condolences to the families of the victims. We do note that the United States and India view enhanced cooperation in counterterrorism as an important element to our bilateral strategic partnership. We are working together as never before to combat terrorism. The United States and India, since the Mumbai attacks, are working together to enhance information collection, intelligence sharing, and analysis capabilities, and our governments are sharing significant information to help safeguard our countries. The information we have shared so far has been quite unprecedented, and we intend to continue to working with the Government of India to try and protect our two societies from these types of attacks.

QUESTION: Just as a follow-up on that, there are many in India who think that the U.S. doesn't do enough to press Pakistan. Just this month, you had the number two of a group affiliated with Lashkar e-Tayyiba in Islamabad at a rally describing Pune, among other places, as a legitimate target, effectively, of Kashmiri groups. Indians, many of them, think the U.S. should do more to press Pakistan to suppress that kind of activity. What do you say?

MR. DUGUID: Well, there are a number of opinions in India on what the U.S. should do and they have been – these opinions have been held for decades, not just in the past year or so. I would point to our cooperation over the past year in particular as evidence that we are working with India, we are working with Pakistan, against the threat that all three of us face from terrorists and extremist groups.

QUESTION: Two questions, unrelated. The first one: Do you have any update on the current state of the START negotiations with the Russians and is there anything to back up the idea that perhaps these are being further delayed by the announcement of the deployment of missiles in Romania, that this has gotten more complicated rather than less since the January break?

And a second question on Ivory Coast. President Gbagbo has dissolved the government and the electoral commission. That looks likely to delay their presidential elections, which had been set for March. Does the U.S. have any reaction to this move and do you feel that it should affect the timeline for potential debt relief for Ivory Coast? I know the World Bank and others are talking about debt relief, but this new situation might be a new factor. Do you have any words on that?

MR. DUGUID: Yes, and we are looking at the situation in Ivory Coast. Right now, I am aware of the issue and I know that we have our staff in the Bureau of African Affairs who are looking at the issue right now. I will get you an answer for that today. It was made – I was made aware of the issue just before coming in, and they are looking at the – all of the issues and trying to parse out from there the effects – any effects on our policy.

As to the START negotiations, I have nothing new to announce. The team is in Geneva. They are working on the agreement and we hope to be able to conclude such an agreement in as soon a timeframe as possible.

As to the issue with the phased adaptive approach to missile defense, we don’t see the issues as joined. START is about offensive missile systems and the PAA is about a defensive system that is intended to thwart a growing threat from missiles based in the Middle East, particularly in Iran. We have had discussions with the Russians about the phased adaptive approach and we do believe that they have received adequate information for their planning purposes. It has, of course, always been the case that missile defense plans in Europe are not aimed at Russia, but that they are aimed at a growing threat coming from Iran. We are happy to talk to Russia more about taking part in such a system through NATO, and I think we can move forward on that basis.

Okay, thank you.

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