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Middle East Digest - March 4, 2010

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Washington, DC
March 4, 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 March 4, 2010

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MR. CROWLEY: Special Envoy Senator George Mitchell will travel to the region for meetings on Sunday with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and Monday with Palestinian President Abbas. He departs the United States tomorrow night and is expected to return to Washington on Monday, where he will update Secretary Clinton.

And with that, Elise.

QUESTION: Turkey – the Armenia genocide resolution being marked up in the House right now, I understand that Secretary Clinton called Chairman Berman to urge him to not vote on this right now because it could hurt the talks between Turkey and Armenia, and it seems like he is going ahead with the vote anyway. If you could just speak to that.

MR. CROWLEY: Secretary Clinton did call Chairman Berman yesterday, and in that conversation, she indicated that further congressional action could impede progress on normalization of relations. I think the President also spoke yesterday with President Gul and expressed appreciation for his and Prime Minister Erdogan’s efforts to normalize relations between Turkey and Armenia. And in that call, I think he continued to press for rapid ratification of the protocols that have been worked out between the two countries.

QUESTION: Well just – well, if you don’t mind, just to follow up, I mean, this Administration has specifically asked Congress not to go ahead, and it seems that at least the committee is going ahead. You saw what happened last time when this resolution passed the committee. The Turks recalled their ambassador for a period of time. There was a lot of tension in the relationship. I mean, are you worried about damage to U.S.-Turkish relations if this happens?

MR. CROWLEY: Well, I mean, we’ve worked very hard to assist Turkey and Armenia. As the President has made clear, it – we promote a free – a fair, frank, and just acknowledgement of the facts related to the historical events of 1915. We are concerned that possible action that Congress would take would impede the positive momentum that we see in the Turkey-Armenia normalization process. We’ve made that position clear to Chairman Berman, and we’ll see what Congress does as a result.

QUESTION: Well, I mean – I’m sorry. What about U.S.-Turkish relations? And I mean, this – it’s going ahead. They’re voting at 2:15. I mean --

MR. CROWLEY: I understand. I do understand that.

QUESTION: -- they’ve ignored your pleas. I mean, do you think this is for political means?

MR. CROWLEY: I – well, Elise, let’s see what happens in Congress and then let’s see how Turkey reacts to it. We have had very specific conversations with Congress. There – I think they have a firm understanding of our views on this issue. We have also talked to Turkey. The Secretary had a meeting with Prime Minister Erdogan in Doha a couple of weeks ago. So this is obviously something that has come up before, and we are concerned about its potential impact on our relations with the affected countries. We do think that the normalization process is the proper mechanism within which to address these issues, and we will continue to work very, very hard on this.

We’ve had – this has been a very, very significant issue for the Obama Administration since coming to office. We’ve had a lot of high-level meetings with Turkey and Armenia on these issues. We’ve pressed hard to see the progress that we’ve seen to date, and we certainly do not want to see that jeopardized.

QUESTION:  On Iraq, following the three blasts, I was wondering if you had any comments on how this could affect the elections there and if it will affect the U.S. timetable to pull out troops there.

MR. CROWLEY: Let’s not leap ahead. We are focused on the upcoming election on March 7th. In fact, preliminary voting for special needs – individuals with special needs is already underway. And the process has been well-organized and I think the indications from our Embassy in Baghdad is that the voters are enthusiastic.

We obviously are concerned about any attempts by insurgents to try to disrupt this democratic process, and at the end of this, the best way to fight the insurgency is to have as many Iraqis as possible vote in the process on Sunday so that we can see the emergence of inclusive government that represents the interest of all Iraqi people.

So I think today, notwithstanding the violence that we have seen, we’re very encouraged by what we’ve seen so far.

QUESTION: It seems like there’s been little progress made in convincing either Brazil or China of the necessity of sanctions, so I’m wondering what’s the next step moving forward. Reconciliation?

MR. CROWLEY: Try me again? I’m --

QUESTION: You had – there’s been little progress, it seems, in convincing Brazil or China of the need for sanctions against Iran, so I’m wondering what the next step is going to be.

MR. CROWLEY: Well, I mean, this is a detailed process. I think the Secretary laid out our view on the situation with respect to Iran. I think we were encouraged by what we heard yesterday from the Brazilians in terms of their understanding of the risk of an arms race in the Middle East. I think we see the issue in similar ways, or the danger in similar ways. They, like us, would like to see Iran respond more constructively, engage with the international community to answer the questions that have been raised. I think we had a respectful and detailed and substantive discussion of our respective positions on this, and I think this dialogue will continue as we work through the process.

QUESTION: But their public statements certainly don’t seem to be as optimistic as you’re trying to paint the picture.

MR. CROWLEY: Well, at the end of this process, there – we are going to present our proposals to the Security Council that makes clear to Iran that there are consequences for its failure to meet its obligations under the IAEA and the Nonproliferation Treaty. At that point, countries within the Security Council will have to step up and vote as to how they see the situation and what action they think is appropriate.

So what Brazil decides to do is ultimately up to them, and what China does is ultimately up to that country as well. But they have to decide whether there should be consequences for Iran’s failure to engage constructively in its myriad evaluations. But we’ve recognized at the outset that this will take patience and persistence and tough, determined dialogue, and that’s exactly what the Secretary did yesterday.

QUESTION: Speaking of the UN and a resolution, are you circulating a draft or is – are any of the P-5+1 circulating a draft at the moment?

MR. CROWLEY: There’s no draft resolution. We are working within the P-5+1 and with others on – sharing our ideas on possible steps. I think there’s a growing understanding that Iran should face consequences for its defiance of international obligations. We’ve having very serious and high-level conversations, but there is not, as of yet, a draft resolution text.

QUESTION: When do you think there will be one?

MR. CROWLEY: We don’t have a timetable. We want to move as rapidly as possible, but at the end of this, we want to have action that is effective, sends the right signal, puts the right pressure on Iran, and we hope ultimately secures Iran’s compliance under the NPT and UN Security Council resolutions.

QUESTION: Can we go back to George Mitchell’s visit --


QUESTION: -- to the Middle East? This would come, of course, probably before the Quartet meeting. What does Senator Mitchell hope to accomplish? I mean, is there some sort of an impetus for new talks – for a resumption of talks in the Middle East?

MR. CROWLEY: Well, I think, given the public statements of the past couple of days, if the parties are prepared to move forward, we are prepared to facilitate that dialogue. As the Secretary said yesterday, we want to see discussions begin as soon as possible. And if the parties are ready to take this next step, obviously, Senator Mitchell will be deeply involved in any talks that take place. So he’s going to the region, in light of what happened in the Arab League meeting yesterday in Cairo, and he’s going to consult with the parties, see where they are, and then come back and report to the Secretary.

QUESTION: So those talks don’t count as indirect talks? They’re just the continuation of his previous process or --

MR. CROWLEY: Well, I mean, we ultimately want to see the parties in dialogue as quickly as possible. We’ve said all along that to get to a comprehensive peace agreement, you’re going to have to be communicating in different channels. If they’re ready to proceed with parallel talks, we’re ready to move forward with them.

QUESTION: You mean starting Sunday?

MR. CROWLEY: We’ll get – let’s get to Sunday.

QUESTION: Do you have anything yet on what format these talks might take? Will they be in the same place? Is it sort of Kissinger-on-an-airplane kind of (inaudible)?

MR. CROWLEY: (Laughter.) I mean, let’s go back to what I said to Bob. Let – George is going out tomorrow night. He’ll have meetings Sunday and Monday. We’ll see where we are at that point.

QUESTION: Is there – but have they expressed any kind of perspective in terms of time when these actual – not talks about talks about talks, but just the talks --

MR. CROWLEY: No, and we talked a little bit about this yesterday.


MR. CROWLEY: In this process, you’re going to have to have dialogue in a number of different ways. Ultimately, to resolve the fundamental issues at stake here, the final status issues, they’re going to have to talk directly. And if we can begin the process where we are starting to address the substance underneath the peace process, then we think that there’s room to create the kind of momentum that takes you from parallel talks to direct talks. Ultimately, as we’ve said for many, many months, it will take direct dialogue at a high level when necessary, but supplemented by a dialogue at the experts if we’re ultimately going to get to a comprehensive settlement that ends the conflict that is in everybody’s interest. The sooner we get this process started, the better.


QUESTION: What are you doing to prevent Iran from blocking the progress in the peace process? Like last week, Ahmadinejad invited all his Palestinian allies to send a message that he have a role in the Palestinian issue.

MR. CROWLEY: Well, of course, we’ve offered to have direct engagement with Iran directly, that would, first and foremost, address our nuclear concerns, but the opportunity to discuss Iran’s role in the region more broadly. We do have concerns about Iran’s support for groups that have impeded progress in the peace process before.

But I think that in our conversations with leaders of other countries in the region, they share our concern about Iran’s role. And I think that’s the kind of determination that – it’s why we’re pushing as hard as we are. So I think the best way to obstruct Iran from being a spoiler is actually to get into the process, make progress, and move towards the comprehensive peace.

QUESTION: Sorry if you went over this before I came in, but there are some reports that Prime Minister al-Maliki might ask the U.S. to stay in Iraq beyond the deadline as per your SOFA. Have you had any talks with the Iraqis about this or is this extremely preliminary or is there serious discussion at this point?

MR. CROWLEY: Well, first, I mean, there is a Status of Forces Agreement. There is a Strategic Framework Agreement that charts the future relationship between the United States and Iraq. We are moving in accordance with that agreement. And we have a significant event in Iraq’s future that we confront here in the next four days and the weeks following. Once there’s a new government in place, if that government wants to have discussions with us about the – going beyond the Status of Forces Agreement – I mean, we are fundamentally shifting to a different kind of relationship between the United States and Iraq, one that is based on the kind of relationship that we have with other countries in the region and around the world. As that new relationship takes shape, we’ll talk with Iraq about our plans for the future.

Now, under the current plans under the existing agreement, we are set to bring force levels down to, I think, roughly 50,000 troops by the end of the summer. That is still going to be a formidable capability on hand with the primary mission of supporting Iraq.

QUESTION: Yeah, but are you having any talks right now with the Iraqi Government about staying beyond the summer deadline?

MR. CROWLEY: I’m not aware of any.

QUESTION: Well, but, like you said, are you – if the next government does ask, are you willing to consider and change that timeline for troop withdrawal?

MR. CROWLEY: Well, what – we hope and expect to have a strong partnership with Iraq in the future. That partnership will transform as it goes along from having one that is primarily based on military might, if you will, to one that is more based on the kind of political, economic, and security relationship that we have with other countries in the region. There will be plenty of opportunity for us to work with Iraq and help define what that will be.

And we are there to support Iraq. We are there to continue and encourage them to take important steps within their country. But we’re there to help them grow and professionalize the security forces that are important to the future of Iraq. How that relationship will evolve in the future, I think, will be something that we will be talking to Iraq with once it has a new government in place. But these are ultimately choices for Iraq to make. They will, along with us, define the exact nature of the relationship over time.

QUESTION: Well, we’ve put it off long enough.

MR. CROWLEY: (Laughter.)

QUESTION: Do you want to go to round two on Libya and respond to what the Libyans’ response is to your comments yesterday?

MR. CROWLEY: Everything that we need to say on this subject we said yesterday.

QUESTION: You have no comment as to – on their comments?

MR. CROWLEY: Well, what precisely are you asking about their comments?

QUESTION: Well, I’m asking – I mean, they say that what you said fell short of the apology Libya expects. That is, their ambassador here in Washington is quoted in a Reuters story saying that. And I just wonder if you have any comments.

MR. CROWLEY: I mean, we – as I said yesterday, there was no offense intended in my offhand remark on Friday. We value the emerging and expanding relationship between the United States and Libya. We will continue to have important and expanding dialogue between our two countries. Through that dialogue, we will resolve any issues that have cropped up between us. I think the ambassador also talked about clarifying Libya’s use of the term “jihad.” We certainly welcome that clarification. We hope that Libya will work directly with Switzerland to peacefully resolve issues of concern in that relationship. But I think we’ve said all we’re going to say publicly on this issue.

Yes. Go ahead.

QUESTION: Are you concerned that Turkey and Lebanon are not going to support sanctions against Iran, especially considering what’s going on in Congress with Turkey right now?

MR. CROWLEY: Well, we are having an important dialogue within the UN Security Council on this issue. We’ve talked at high levels with all of the governments that you mentioned and – I think many governments that will be a part of the Security Council this year – and at the end of this process, we think that we will be successful in stating the case that there need to be consequences for Iran’s refusal to engage constructively and answer the questions that the international community have, that all of these countries have.

And for countries like Turkey and Lebanon, they sit in the immediate neighborhood. They’re going to feel the effects of whatever choices Iran makes very directly. That was the message that Secretary Clinton received when she had important meetings in Qatar and Saudi Arabia a couple of weeks ago. That’s why we’re working, we’re engaged very significantly with countries in the region. They, in turn, are having their own conversations with countries that will have influence over how this process unfolds. I think there’s a very strong consensus that there should be consequences for Iran’s failure to meet its obligations, and that’s a conversation that we will continue to have within the P-5+1, within the Security Council, and more broadly.

Yes, sir.

QUESTION: Recently, there have been arrests made by the Pakistani security against these top Taliban leaders. Even today, they arrested the son-in-law of Mullah Omar, who was the Afghan prime minister during Taliban regime. And he is also wanted by the U.S. authorities in connection with the 9/11.

I was wondering if there was any request, formal request by the U.S. Government to get the custody of these Taliban leaders? And if so, what is the Pakistani response so far?

MR. CROWLEY: Well, if you’re talking about a request for extradition of an arrest that might have occurred today, should such a discussion occur, that would be a discussion that would take some time, would involve some formal process between the United States and Pakistan. So I really can’t comment on that. I think more broadly, obviously, we’re very encouraged about steps that have been taken within Pakistan to attack and diminish activity that is of a direct threat to Pakistan as well as being a direct threat more broadly. And we are very encouraged by the signs that we see and will continue the deep dialogue and cooperation that has been a hallmark of our relationship over the past year.

QUESTION: Thank you.

MR. CROWLEY: One more.

QUESTION: Sorry. I’m sorry, can we go back to Turkey?


QUESTION: One more thing. I’m sorry. Just – we’re just wondering if additionally to the concerns that you expressed that Secretary Clinton has, you know, regarding the Turkey-Armenia issues, are there concerns as well – further concerns – that this could affect Turkey-U.S. relations, for example, within NATO and affect relations in the Middle East?

MR. CROWLEY: Well, let’s take this a step at a time. The United States and Turkey are NATO allies. That means that we have a very strong partnership and mutual security responsibilities. I would certainly not expect anything to change in that fundamental alliance. We understand Turkey’s concerns. We share those concerns. We’ve communicated those concerns to representatives of Congress and will continue to work and work through this issue in the coming days.

QUESTION: Thank you.

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