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Middle East Digest - March 10, 2010

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Washington, DC
March 10, 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 10, 2010

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MR. CROWLEY: Good afternoon and welcome to the Department of State. A few opening comments before taking your questions.

You’ll see a statement this afternoon regarding the passing of Grand Imam Mohammed Sayyed Tantawi, the head of Al-Azhar University in Cairo. Imam Tantawi was an important voice for dialogue among religions and communities. Under his leadership, the university co-hosted President Obama’s speech laying out a vision for a new beginning between the United States and Muslim communities around the world. And we offer our condolences to the imam’s family and friends today, as well as his many students in Egypt and in Muslim communities throughout the world.

We join in condemning the terrorist attack today targeting the World Vision Office in the North-West Frontier Province District of Mansehra and we extend our deepest sympathy to the injured and our condolences to the families and friends of those who lost their lives.

There have been some reports that we can confirm that the three American hikers detained in Iran have had the opportunity to call to their families. And while this is a positive development, we continue to seek consular access through the Swiss Embassy. As we have repeatedly said, we believe that these three American hikers should be released, along with Reza Taghavi, Kian Tagbach, and we certainly continue to call on the Government of Iran to provide assistance in the whereabouts of Robert Levinson. It happens yesterday that we had the Levinson family here at the State Department. They met with Under Secretary for Policy Bill Burns. We also had the family of Josh Fattal here yesterday. They met with Deputy Assistant Secretary John Limbert as well as Under Secretary Burns, and certainly we continue to call on Iran to release Shane Bauer, Sarah Shourd, and Josh Fattal.

And finally, we had a successful completion of the annual bilateral consultations over the past couple of days between the United States and Kazakhstan. Leading the Kazakhstan delegation was Deputy Foreign Minister Kayrat Umarov, and he met with Assistant Secretary of State Bob Blake. The talks centered on political security, economic energy, and human rights issues. I think Deputy Foreign Minister Umarov had the opportunity to participate here in Washington in a business forum with American companies as well as a forum on democracy and human rights here in town.

With that, I’ll take your questions.

QUESTION: Oh, can I just ask one on Iran?


QUESTION: The Royal Dutch Shell says that it’s going to stop selling gasoline to Iran. Do you have any comment on that? And also the problem that, even as they stop, other companies are continuing and re-starting and you have some of the Asian companies, specifically Malaysian, continuing to sell gasoline.

MR. CROWLEY: Well, this is an important issue. We’ve had a wide range of conversations with our counterparts within the P-5+1 process as we’ve discussed ideas for putting additional pressure on Iran. We’ve centered on various industries and tried to call to the attention of companies in the energy sector, in the financial sector, others that if they choose to do business with Iran, it can have commercial implications. And we’re continuing to move forward with prospective sanctions, and I would expect you’ll see this advance over the next several weeks. But certainly, we are looking for countries and companies to be supportive as we try to find the right formula to put economic and political pressure on Iran to change its course.

QUESTION: Is there a sense of frustration, though, because that shows that there is weakness in the system when some people respect it and then they’re aced out by other countries? I mean --

MR. CROWLEY: Well, again, as we – I mean, we are continuing our efforts on a couple of fronts. One is, obviously, there are existing international and national sanctions that apply to Iran, and we continue to find ways to enforce what exists. We are looking at a new round of sanctions and talking to countries about how to best do this.

I would – as we have said before, if you look at – once you have a kind of understanding, a consensus, and a strong statement that we’d like to see in the Security Council, as we’ve seen with North Korea, that there has been concerted international action. And we would expect coming out of the UN Security Council, once we get to that point, that we would look for companies to step up, countries to step up, and discourage the kind of economic activity you mentioned.

QUESTION: Has the Secretary had any discussions with Vice President Biden on his trip in Israel regarding the diplomatic announcement?

MR. CROWLEY: I’m not aware that they have talked since he arrived in Israel.

QUESTION: And has she made any phone calls to anyone in Israel regarding that announcement?

MR. CROWLEY: Not today, as far as I know.

QUESTION: Did she make one yesterday?

MR. CROWLEY: Not as – I mean, she had a meeting with George Mitchell yesterday.

QUESTION: But she hasn’t spoken with anybody directly?

MR. CROWLEY: Not to my knowledge.

QUESTION: A follow-up on that. Can you bring us up to date on Senator Mitchell – former Senator Mitchell’s schedule and tactics or any details about what he’s planning to do next week?

MR. CROWLEY: He will be back in the region next week with stops – meetings with Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Abbas. I don’t think we – we’re not prepared to announce his particular travel schedule, but I think he’ll be there early in the week.

QUESTION: How much damage did this do?

MR. CROWLEY: Well, as the Vice President made clear in his statement yesterday, this is precisely the kind of step that we continue to encourage the parties to avoid. It’s – it undermines trust and it certainly is not conducive with creating the appropriate atmosphere for the indirect talks to advance. But we are in discussions with the Israelis about this announcement and I’m sure that it will come up when the senator is in the region next week.

QUESTION: What does that mean, you’re in discussions with the Israelis about this announcement? I mean, the timing of it or what they actually announced? Both?

MR. CROWLEY: Well, I mean, the timing I think was highly unusual. But I think we’re focused primarily on what this action and the impact it’s had on the broad environment.

QUESTION: Can you just say – well, why do you think the timing is highly unusual?

MR. CROWLEY: I think –

QUESTION: I mean, I know why, but I’m trying to get you to say it. (Laughter.)

MR. CROWLEY: Look, it would be unusual for an Israeli Government to take this kind of action while a vice president is standing next to the prime minister. But we are talking to the government and trying to understand what happened and why. And clearly, as we’ve said, we want to see the parties press forward with negotiations, and they both have a responsibility to avoid actions that we think undermine the process.

QUESTION: But you don’t –

QUESTION: Do you think the Secretary feels betrayed, then, by this? I mean, this was highly –

MR. CROWLEY: Well, I think – well, it is highly unusual. I’ll – but as to how it happened, why it happened, I will defer to the government of Israel to explain. But we – clearly, the Government of Israel has a responsibility, the Palestinian Authority has a responsibility, now that they have agreed to indirect talks, to take the appropriate actions and avoid the kind of actions that undermine trust.

QUESTION: Do you believe that Netanyahu and the government actually knew that this was going to happen on that very day?

MR. CROWLEY: Well, I’ll defer to the prime minister to describe whether this was expected or unexpected, but we’ve condemned the action. And that also is probably an exceptional thing to do with a U.S. leader in Israel, but we – obviously, it represents the seriousness with which we took this announcement. And both the Vice President in his discussion with President Abbas today and Senator Mitchell following up on that will continue to encourage the parties to move forward. We think this kind of situation is, in fact, the reason why we believe that they have to get into negotiations so they can put these issues on the table and resolve them and get to a formal agreement.

QUESTION: Okay. Has Senator Mitchell made any calls since the events of yesterday? And as a follow – not a follow-up, but a follow-up to an earlier –

MR. CROWLEY: I’m sure that between Senator Mitchell and his team, we have been in very close contact with the Government of Israel today.

QUESTION: Did Senator Mitchell sit in in the meeting with – that Deputy Foreign Minister Ayalon today earlier? The deputy foreign minister was here and saw, I believe, Deputies Steinberg and Lew.

MR. CROWLEY: If there was such a meeting, I’m sure he was there.*

QUESTION: Change of subject?


QUESTION: The Iranian president was in Kabul today and you must have taken note of his statements on U.S.A. and NATO. How do you view Iran’s role in Afghanistan now?

MR. CROWLEY: Well, Iran is a neighbor of Afghanistan. Obviously, it has a legitimate interest in the future of Afghanistan. There have been times in the past where the interests of Iran and the United States have coincided. The two countries cooperated constructively during the Bonn process that led to the establishment of civilian government in Afghanistan.

We have issues with respect to Iran, not only within Afghanistan, but more broad in the region. We have been prepared to have that kind of conversation with Iran. They have declined to engage seriously in response to the President’s offer of engagement out of mutual interest and mutual respect. But we understand fully that the leaders of neighboring countries need to have dialogue. As we say, the future of Afghanistan has a regional dimension and we hope that Iran will play a more constructive role in Afghanistan in the future.

QUESTION: Do you have any comment on his statements on U.S. and NATO, saying that these – they are having a destabilizing effect on Afghanistan?

MR. CROWLEY: I haven’t seen his particular statement on NATO.

QUESTION: And secondly, there are reports appearing in Indian news --

MR. CROWLEY: Well, I mean, just to that point, we are in Afghanistan to play a constructive role in Afghanistan’s future and we would hope that Iran does the same.

QUESTION: And secondly, there are reports appearing in Indian newspapers that following series of attacks on Indians in Afghanistan, India is considering reducing its developmental role in Afghanistan. Do you have any comments on that?

MR. CROWLEY: I don’t.

QUESTION: Thank you.

QUESTION: Can I change the subject, on Mexico? I understand the State Department already have reported to the Congress and informed the Congress that withdrawed the certification to Mexico in the case of the capture of raw shrimp. I would like to know what is the current status of the process and if the next step will be perhaps an embargo against the raw shrimp from Mexico.

MR. CROWLEY: I’ll take that question.

QUESTION: To Iran again just for a second. Could you divulge any information about the elements of the draft resolution that, as far as I understand, you gave to the Russians --

MR. CROWLEY: There is no draft revolution --

QUESTION: Elements, I said. Elements.

MR. CROWLEY: There is no draft revolution – there is no draft resolution – (laughter) – yet.

QUESTION: Thank you.

MR. CROWLEY: Thank you.

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