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Middle East Digest - April 23, 2010

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Washington, DC
April 23, 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 April 23, 2010

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12:53 p.m. EDT

MR. CROWLEY : After repeated requests, the Swiss ambassador was granted a third consular visit to Josh Fattal, Shane Bauer, and Sarah Shourd yesterday, April 22. The last consular visit before that was back on October 29 of last year. And while we welcome this news, we continue to call for their release and request the families are granted visas to Iran to visit their children soon. We are aware of the families’ concerns about their children’s physical and emotional state of health. These three Americans have been in detention for almost nine months without formal charges or access to legal representation, as stipulated in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. They were simply innocent tourists in the Iraq Kurdistan region when they were first detained and there is no justification for their ongoing detention, and they should be released without further delay.

At the same time, we continue to call on the Government of Iran to assist in providing any information on the whereabouts of Robert Levinson, who went missing in Iran almost three years ago.

And finally, before taking your questions, Senator Mitchell is meeting with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas as we speak. Earlier today, he met with Prime Minister Netanyahu in Jerusalem. In his meetings, Senator Mitchell is focused on actions they can take to improve the atmosphere for peace and how to move forward with proximity talks. Tomorrow, he will have additional meetings with Prime Minister Fayyad and advisor to President Abbas Saeb Erekat and he will also meet with Prime Minister Netanyahu again on Sunday morning before returning to the United States.

QUESTION: On the – actually, on the Iran, what – before going to Mitchell, what kind of shape are these kids in?

MR. CROWLEY: Well, I can’t get into too much detail. Obviously, the families – we do not have Privacy Act waivers on these --

QUESTION: The families have a website.

MR. CROWLEY: I understand that. So --

QUESTION: They have not been shy about talking about this in the past.

MR. CROWLEY: And which is the prerogative of the families. We have to respect their privacy. Obviously, we are concerned about their health and think the families have spoken publicly about this. We obviously believe that the detention is unwarranted, but the fact that they’ve gone nine months with no charges filed is of great concern to us. And as we have said – repeated over several months that, in our view, their detention is unjustified.

QUESTION: Well, you’re asking the Iranians to grant the families visas so they can visit them, and at the same time you’re saying they should be released immediately.

MR. CROWLEY: Well --

QUESTION: It sounds as though you’re not very optimistic that they’re going – the Iranians are going to release them at all if you want the families to be able to visit them.

MR. CROWLEY: Well, we have made that request. The Iranians, I think, have indicated a willingness to grant visas but for whatever reason have not – have chosen not to do so. We would like nothing more than to have these individuals on the next plane out of Iran and back here to the United States and with their families as soon as possible. Barring that, we obviously think that they have fundamental rights, including the right of these kinds of visits and the right to an attorney, and those have not been granted either.

QUESTION: Well, but back to the consular visit, though, in the statement by the families, they say that the Swiss reported that – to them that they were in bad health. Is it your understanding that they’re in bad health? Because they’re saying that this is what they’ve been told by the people that conducted the visit.

MR. CROWLEY: I understand that. And clearly, what we know about their status comes from our Swiss protecting power.

QUESTION: So does that concur with what they’re saying that they were told by the Swiss?

MR. CROWLEY: Okay --

QUESTION: You said you’re noting that the family is concerned about their health. They’re saying that they’re concerned about the health because of the Swiss telling them that they’re in poor health. So did the Swiss also tell you that they’re in poor health?

MR. CROWLEY: I have not received a specific report. We have no reason to challenge the judgment of the families. They know their children best. We have concerns about their health and welfare. We’ve had concerns since last fall. But again, I can’t be the specific source of information because of privacy concerns. But I understand the families have been communicating their concern. We share that concern.

QUESTION: Are the visas requests new? Your appeal today to the Iranians to grant the visas – I don’t remember that ever coming up.

MR. CROWLEY: I’m not sure that we have mentioned that publicly, but I think we made that request a few weeks ago.

QUESTION: Can we move to Mitchell?

MR. CROWLEY: Mm-hmm.

QUESTION: So what grand accomplishments has he come up with in his meetings so far? Let me put it more (inaudible). What has he accomplished?

MR. CROWLEY: Look, we – if the question is: Are we where we want to be in terms of proximity --

QUESTION: What has he accomplished?

MR. CROWLEY: He has met with the – look, as we – we just – one meeting is still going on, the other meeting just took place this morning. He’ll have additional meetings while we’re here. As the Secretary said in Tallinn, she looks forward to getting George’s report.

If you’re signaling are we expecting a breakthrough through this visit, probably not. Are we trying to move the parties to a point where they agree to proximity talks and to begin to address the substance, the core issues of the process, we hope we’re getting closer to that point? But there’s still work to do.

QUESTION: What would constitute a breakthrough at this point for you?

MR. CROWLEY: I mean, there’s --

QUESTION: Getting the proximity talks started?

MR. CROWLEY: There should be one bar here. We want to get them into proximity talks, begin to address the substance in the process, and through that confidence-building then get them into direct negotiations. So I’ve said to you many times there’s only one path to a peace agreement, and that is through direct negotiation. We’re trying to move them in that direction, but we’re not there yet.

QUESTION: So – I just want to make sure, so the breakthrough, at this point in your estimation, would be getting them to agree to proximity talks?

MR. CROWLEY: Well, I mean, if George Mitchell comes back to the United States and reports to the Secretary that they’re ready to enter into proximity talks, that will be an important step. Can I say that that’s the likely outcome of this visit? I don’t know. But I think that we are still moving them in that direction. If that takes a little bit more time, we’ll take that time.

But our – the immediate goal here is to get them formally into proximity talks where they can address the substance, and we hope to be able to announce that step some time soon. I doubt it will be this weekend.

QUESTION: You said yesterday that you wouldn’t go just to hold meetings, that you would go when there was an indication that they’re willing to take up the substantive issues. Have the meetings, thus far, borne out that hope? Are they now taking up substantive issues that they weren’t before?

MR. CROWLEY: As I just said, we are in the middle of a meeting as we speak. We’ve had one – we’ve heard from one side. We’ll hear from the other side now, and we’ll have other meetings tomorrow with the Palestinians, other meetings with the prime minister on Sunday. We know what we want to do. We know what they need to do. Let’s wait to see what happens at the conclusion of his meeting with the prime minister on Sunday morning, and then we’ll know more. But we’re looking to get them into proximity talks; the sooner that happens, the better.

QUESTION: On Afghanistan.

MR. CROWLEY: Mm-hmm.

QUESTION: Do you have any readout on Secretary’s meeting with Afghanistan’s foreign minister today? Is this – for the time they’re meeting or --

MR. CROWLEY: I have not heard a specific readout. But I’m sure it was to review preparations for the upcoming visit by the president of Afghanistan to Washington.

QUESTION: And secondly, in October last year, a U.S. national working as a UN security guard was killed in Kabul during a Taliban attack on the UN building. And then soon thereafter, the U.S. Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice said that the U.S. national was killed by the Taliban. But now there’s a UN report coming out with the – saying same that it was basically Afghan armed forces which killed the U.S. national. So what’s the factual position?

MR. CROWLEY: Thank you. Have a good weekend.

(The briefing was concluded at 1:16 p.m.)

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