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Diplomacy in Action

Middle East Digest - February 19, 2010

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Washington, DC
February 19, 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 19, 2010

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MR. CROWLEY: Quite a crowd for a February Friday. Good afternoon and welcome to the Department of State. Just a couple of very brief announcements before taking your questions.

Under Secretary Bill Burns wrapped up his regional trip today. He met in Baku with government officials and civil society leaders to discuss a number of issues of mutual concern, including regional stability and security. He had a meeting with President Aliyev as well. This caps a trip where he was traveling this week to Syria, Lebanon, and Turkey.

Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, our Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, is this evening in Dushanbe, Tajikistan. He’ll meet with President Rahmon tomorrow morning. But as part of a busy itinerary today, he traveled from Pakistan to Tashkent, Uzbekistan, where he met with President Karimov; and then to Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, where he met with President Bakiyev and also visited the Transit Center at the Manas International Airport, where he had the opportunity to talk with troops who have served in Afghanistan, or will shortly deploy there, and thanking them for their outstanding service.

QUESTION: Do you believe that the State Department might have better diplomatic means of coming to an agreement with the Afghan Government, how Taliban officials should be dealt with? I mean, they’re calling it catch and release; they have them for 96 hours, then you give them back.

MR. CROWLEY: Well, I’m not sure rules of engagement is the proper term here. I mean – so I’m – let’s – what’s the precise aspect of your question? I’m not sure I get it.

QUESTION: When it comes – during the Marja offensive, it’s been coming to light that marines and NATO soldiers are very distressed by the rules of engagement of – like, they can’t shoot any Taliban unless they see an actual gun in their hand and guys throw up their hands and come out and surrender, but then they only can hold them for 96 hours. Is there any thought or been given anything with the light of this coming out that --

MR. CROWLEY: I still think this is probably a Pentagon issue, but our forces and NATO forces are guided by the rules of law. I wouldn’t have any problem with what you just characterized, that there are explicit rules on how – on the conduct of military operations. We follow them closely. It’s an important element of our operations. We certainly think that the manner in which we operate in Afghanistan has a vitally important impact on the – on how U.S. forces and NATO forces are viewed in the country.

If you want to call it hearts and minds, we think that obviously, as we work closely with the Afghan people, how we conduct ourselves, the care with which we operate in Afghanistan is certainly in contrast to the random violence that the Taliban perpetrates, leaving roadside bombs that could be a threat to – or are a threat to our forces, but also a threat to civilians as well. So we will conduct ourselves according to the rules of law, and we think this is a cornerstone of the counterinsurgency strategy that General McChrystal has developed.

And having once been a soldier myself, there are always going to be frustrations at various times, but I think we are quite satisfied with the strategy, with how it’s – how this operation is unfolding, and we think it’s going to have a significant impact on the Afghan people. As this unfolded – as this unfolds, as we’ve outlined for you before, we will be having – as the security situation improves, we’ll have civilians coming in right on the heels of our military forces to begin the kind of projects that we’ve discussed here to try to help the Afghan people understand the – that we are there to help them and we’re going to help the Afghan Government improve its ability to function on behalf of its people.


QUESTION: Could I change the subject?

QUESTION: Can we stay on this, sir?


QUESTION: As – just to follow up with what you said, what the State Department, the U.S.A. plans to do as the U.S. and the Afghan forces win over those territories in south Afghanistan? Can you be more specific about it?

MR. CROWLEY: I’ll probably refer to my colleagues in Afghanistan, but as they – as we have done the planning for this operation, civilian elements have been an integral part of this process. We’re going to look for opportunities to do – to have a rapid impact in the areas that are cleared, to be able to demonstrate to the Afghan people in Marja and its surroundings that this is a new opportunity and that we will have, together with the Afghan Government, immediate impact on the ground, work with them on their needs, and by doing so, try to turn the tide against the Taliban.

QUESTION: So are you setting up any specific special civilian team for that particular area?

MR. CROWLEY: There are civilian teams that are standing by and will be going into Marja as soon as the area’s secure.

QUESTION: And one more I have on Ambassador Holbrooke. This – for the first time, he visiting Central Asian republics in one year. What --

MR. CROWLEY: This is the first time that he has been in these countries as the SRAP.

QUESTION: Special Envoy, yeah. So what role do you see these countries have in Afghanistan and (inaudible)?

MR. CROWLEY: Our security is a – our strategy is a regional one, and this is fully consistent with our efforts to try to more significantly integrate, and particularly are doing so economically, so that – find ways to develop greater trade, greater cooperation, and by doing so, try to build a legal economy in the region. And that, we think, will be a significant contributor to stability over the long run.

QUESTION: I’m sorry. On Pakistan, the reports – the U.S. media newspapers are reporting today sort of different versions on Mullah Baradar’s capture. One said that the Pakistani intelligence official didn’t know who he was first when they got to the safe house where he was. And another says that they were actually following a lead on intelligence to – you know, and they knew that he was there. Is there any official version of how he was captured and was being detained?

MR. CROWLEY: I’m sure there is, and I’m sure I don’t have it.

QUESTION: Nor on when he’s – where he is, where he’s being detained right now?


QUESTION: Do you seek to – do you plan to seek the extradition of Mullah Baradar or any other Taliban leader who have been arrested by Pakistan because of the involvement in 9/11?

MR. CROWLEY: I would defer to the Department of Justice.

QUESTION: Different topic?


QUESTION: Just a follow-up on Iran, on the IAEA report?

MR. CROWLEY: Mm-hmm.

QUESTION: In light of the IAEA report, what’s the assessment that the U.S. has on the push for greater sanctions on Iran? Does it appear that globally, there could be more momentum toward the U.S. position?

MR. CROWLEY: Doesn’t hurt. (Laughter.) I mean, we are struck by the ongoing failure of Iran to either engage constructively or answer the questions. So we think it was a very strong report from the IAEA. It underscores the ongoing questions and concerns that we have about Iran’s nuclear activity. It points out that the secret facility at Qom has no rational place in a civilian program.

And if Iran continues on its current course – fails to engage constructively, fails to answer the questions that the United States has and the international community has – then it is going to face increasing pressure, including increasing sanctions.

QUESTION: Do you think that this – the way that this report is written and the fact that it was more kind of declarative about the intentions about Iran suggests that the IAEA, under this new director general, is going to be tougher, more robust? Because even when confronted with evidence of Iranian behavior, sometimes Director ElBaradei took a more kind of measured tone.

MR. CROWLEY: I’m not sure that would necessarily be a fair characterization. I mean, this has been a very steady process. Iran as a --

QUESTION: You don’t think that – I’m sorry, you don’t think that --

MR. CROWLEY: Well, hang on. Let me finish --

QUESTION: -- Mohamed ElBaradei was cautious in his reports?

MR. CROWLEY: -- my statement before you disagree with it. Iran has very clear responsibilities as a signatory to the nonproliferation treaty. And as the IAEA has been able to document over a number of years, it has failed to meet its obligations. And that has continued both at the end of the ElBaradei term, with the discovery of the secret facility at Qom, and now into the new term of Director General Amano.

So we think we’ve – we are continuing to make a very strong case for sanctions. There’s been a lot of consensus-building based on our mutual concern about Iran’s nuclear activities. And we think that this report underscores not only our determination to pursue this, but it makes a very strong case that now is the time to not only continue to offer engagement, but apply additional pressure.

QUESTION: But you don’t attribute any of this to the fact that there’s a new director general that might be setting a new tone with Iran?

MR. CROWLEY: Well, we – put it this way --

QUESTION: I mean, this predates you.

MR. CROWLEY: I understand that.

QUESTION: Let me finish this.

MR. CROWLEY: I’m just --

QUESTION: Well, let me finish this time.

MR. CROWLEY: I’m just --

QUESTION: No, let me finish this time.

MR. CROWLEY: I am simply going to say that we are – we think that this is an appropriate report. It underscores the concerns that we have, the unanswered questions that Iran has failed to address. And there will be consequences for this failure to engage, failure to answer the questions, and failure to fully disclose what nuclear activities are going on inside Iran.

QUESTION: But this predates you. But numerous – for numerous years, the Bush Administration, even when confronted with behavior by Iran that specifically suggests that they were developing a nuclear weapon, the Bush Administration repeatedly criticized the IAEA for not kind of taking the information at face value, that perhaps there was a nuclear – that there was a military dimension to the program.

And so now you have a new director general, and for the first time, suggesting in very declarative sentences that perhaps Iran is developing a nuclear weapon. And you don’t attribute it all to the fact that there’s a new IAEA director?

MR. CROWLEY: Well, I just simply say we’re – we strongly associate ourselves with this report. We’ve taken a leadership role in expressing our concerns and bringing the international community to a stronger consensus that now is the time for decisive action, and we’re preparing the way for a resolution before the UN Security Council.


QUESTION: Specifically on this comment, though, real quick before we – all right. You just said you associate yourself very closely with the report. Just a series of questions: Do you dispute any part of it, specifically the --

MR. CROWLEY: I’m not going – I haven’t read the report, so it’s hard for me to go through it chapter and verse.

QUESTION: The reason I ask is because you did say you associate yourself with it --

MR. CROWLEY: Mm-hmm. I --

QUESTION: -- because it does --

MR. CROWLEY: I think it makes a strong --

QUESTION: -- it does directly cut --

MR. CROWLEY: -- case of the current course that we’re on.

QUESTION: But the only reason I’m asking is because it directly contradicts the 2007 NIE, which said that Iran had specifically left behind its militarization of its nuclear program in 2004.

MR. CROWLEY: Well, I’m not going to get into an NIE discussion.

QUESTION: Well, but you – I mean, you’ve endorsed something that contradicts it. I’m just curious where the U.S. Government stands on this.

MR. CROWLEY: On what?

QUESTION: Well, you’ve endorsed a report that contradicts the U.S. intelligence estimate from two years ago. I’m curious if the estimate has changed and where the U.S. Government stands on it right now.

MR. CROWLEY: I’m not going to talk about the NIE.

QUESTION: The IAEA also made a report on Syria, which you guys have noted. It says that Syria isn’t giving any cooperation to IAEA either. So – and yet, in the case of Syria, they’re – they’re getting an ambassador, they just had a visit by Mr. Burns. Why this holding out of hands to Syria which is equally in contravention of the IAEA, and getting more tough on Iran?

MR. CROWLEY: Well, we – I mean, we remain concerned about Syria’s nuclear activity. They have not explained what was happening at the Al-Kibar reactor. It’s refused to cooperate with the IAEA or account for chemically processed uranium found at two sites. We’re not putting an ambassador into Damascus as a favor to Syria; we’re putting an ambassador in Damascus so we can have the kind of direct conversation and engagement that we think is necessary in the region in the 21st century. We are going to have an ambassador there who will engage Syria on the full range of issues, those areas where we think there’s opportunity for cooperation and those areas where we have concerns about Syria’s ongoing activity, whether it’s unexplained nuclear activity, whether it’s support of terrorism, whether it’s the presence of extremist groups in Damascus, whether it’s unhelpful activity that Syria is engaged in with respect to Iraq.

On the – at the same time, we will have conversations with Syria about its own intentions as part of the peace process and whether it’s willing to engage Israel constructively and move – make progress on that track of the peace process towards the comprehensive peace that we seek in the Middle East.

So we’re not – we’re not engage – returning an ambassador there as a favor; we’re returning an ambassador because we think it’s in the United States interest to have an ambassador in place who can have an ongoing daily conversation with Syrian officials and help them understand what we think about what is happening in the region and the bilateral relationships and multilateral relationships that we think are vitally important and serve our interest in the region.

QUESTION: But if Syria continues to stonewall the IAEA, would the U.S. then support continuing down the pressure track on the Syrian case and talk about new sanctions on Syria?

MR. CROWLEY: A lot of “ifs” in that question.

QUESTION: Any reaction on the Ayatollah’s dismissal of the report that we were talking about?

MR. CROWLEY: Not surprised.

QUESTION: Thank you.

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