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Middle East Digest - January 7, 2011

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Washington, DC
January 7, 2011


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 January 7, 2011

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MR. CROWLEY: To continue on with the rest of the world, so to speak, earlier this afternoon, the Secretary of State swore in as the new United States Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford. He is one of our most qualified U.S. diplomats. He is tough, principled, and skilled with a proven track record. He is exactly the right person for this job.

We have significant interests in Damascus and across the Middle East. Being without an ambassador serves no purpose other than to disadvantage the United States. A high-level representative in Damascus will make it possible to deliver strong, consistent messages to the Syrian Government and further U.S. interests and security. Putting an ambassador in Damascus should not be viewed as a reward to the Syrian Government. It improves our ability to deliver firm messages to the Syrian Government and to articulate clearly our concerns and priorities to Syria.

The Secretary later this afternoon will travel to New York this evening. She will visit with King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia to wish him well as he continues to recover from back surgery. We are delighted that the king, a valued friend and ally, is ready to receive visitors. And the Secretary will wish him a rapid recovery. Also in New York, she will meet with Prime Minister Saad Hariri and will reiterate our support for a sovereign, stable, and politically independent Lebanon.

Several of you asked yesterday about this report of, allegedly, a U.S. citizen detained in Iran. We have no information to corroborate this alleged incident. In addition to checking our own records, we have contacted Armenian authorities, and through our Swiss protecting power, the Iranian Government concerning these reports. Neither Iran nor Armenia reports having any record of a U.S. citizen crossing or attempting to cross the Iran-Armenia border as indicated in media accounts.

We also take note of the fact that earlier today, Lady Catherine Ashton confirmed that the next round of the P-5+1 or E-3+3 will be in Istanbul later this month. We look forward to the next round of discussions. We would like to see a meaningful negotiations process emerge. We and our partners are committed to pragmatic efforts to resolve the international community’s concerns about Iran’s nuclear program. But we are equally committed to holding Iran accountable to its international obligations and will continue to focus on this until Iran demonstrates that – through tangible steps that it is prepared to resolve international concerns.

QUESTION: Yeah, I’m sorry I missed the top. But what was – what prompted your comments about Ford, about the ambassadorship?

MR. CROWLEY: He was sworn in today.

QUESTION: Oh. There wasn’t a complaint from someone?

MR. CROWLEY: No, not --

QUESTION: Are you – you’re not referring directly to Ileana Ros-Lehtinen?

MR. CROWLEY: No, just simply saying – just noting the fact that he has been sworn in and will, in the coming days, travel to Damascus.


QUESTION: When do you expect him to travel?

MR. CROWLEY: I think there are some consultations that he will have here in the building, but I would expect Ambassador Ford to be in place before the end of January.

QUESTION: On the Secretary’s meeting in New York today, do you expect a trilateral meeting between – with the king and Hariri?

MR. CROWLEY: That’s not my understanding. My – I believe that they will have separate meetings, but she – we find that both are in New York and there’s a good opportunity for her to check in with both King Abdullah and also the prime minister.

QUESTION: Is the meeting only to wish the king good wishes? Because the timing of her – of this meeting comes when Hariri announced today that the king achieved an understanding with Asad to diffuse tension in Lebanon.

MR. CROWLEY: Well, I think her primary purpose in visiting with the king is very definitely a social one, to wish him well. I wouldn’t be surprised if they do get into a – knowing the king, that – get into a discussion of regional issues. Certainly, she will emphasize to the king as well as to the prime minister that – our support of the democratic government in Lebanon as well as our ongoing support for the special tribunal.


QUESTION: P.J., another question. There is a case, apparently, of Gulet Mohamed, an American teenager detained in Kuwait, and the allegation has said he was detained at the behest of the United States and tortured. Do you have anything on that?

MR. CROWLEY: Well, as to the first, he was not detained at the behest of the United States Government. We have been providing him consular services. I’m not at liberty to say a great deal. We don’t have a Privacy Act waiver. But we have – we are aware of his detention, we have provided him consular services, and we are ensuring his well-being, as we would for any citizen in detention.

QUESTION: Staying in the region, what is the position of the U.S. on a visit to the U.S. by Mr. al-Sadr?

MR. CROWLEY: Well, we touched on that a couple of days ago. He is obviously the leader of a political party that won a –

QUESTION: The question was about a visit to the U.S by –

MR. CROWLEY: Oh, I’m sorry.

QUESTION: Visit to the U.S.

MR. CROWLEY: Oh, I thought it was visit to Iraq.


MR. CROWLEY: I’m sorry. I’m not aware of any plans for al-Sadr to visit.

QUESTION: No, I have – the organizers of the National Prayer Breakfast have been approached to ascertain their – and to invite him for – in February, and their reply is not yet time. And now they are looking at 2012. So what is the position of the U.S. if he wants to come?

MR. CROWLEY: Well, as with –

QUESTION: Under how many sections of the law is he ineligible for a visa? (Laughter.)

MR. CROWLEY: As with anyone around the world, they are free to apply to come to the United States and we will evaluate that request.

QUESTION: Can I go back to the appointment – to the assumption of duties by Ambassador Ford for a second? You mentioned, Mr. Crowley, that this should not be perceived by Syria as a reward. How should it be perceived? Is it – I mean, are relations back on track? Is there improvement in relations? And how do – how should we interpret this?

MR. CROWLEY: We have ambassadors in place in countries with which we have significant disagreements. Our ambassador is there to serve the U.S. interests and to, on a daily basis, be able to communicate our views to the Syrian Government. I would say if other groups, including Hezbollah, have the opportunity to communicate with Syria every day, the United States should have that same opportunity.

QUESTION: Okay, but just a quick follow-up. Considering that the former ambassador was pulled out at a very low point in U.S.-Syrian relations, should we consider that we are now beyond that low point, that we are at a better point?

MR. CROWLEY: That’s a tough one to answer. We obviously want to see Syria play a constructive role. It has at times. We have great concerns about activities that Syria has engaged in, in the context of its ongoing support for Hezbollah. So – but this is why we have chosen to place our ambassador in Damascus at this time.

QUESTION: Thank you.


QUESTION: On the Secretary’s trip to the Gulf, is she going out there with a specific shopping list to get these Gulf countries to do specific things vis-à-vis setting up embassies in Iraq, attending the Arab League summit? I mean, does she have a tailored list for everybody out there?

MR. CROWLEY: Well, first of all, the Secretary enjoys traveling to the region on a regular basis. It is a good time for her to touch base in key countries in the Gulf. There’ll be a range of issues that they will discuss. I am certain that the issue of Iraq and helping to reintegrate Iraq in the region will be among the topics discussed. We want to see countries in the region reestablish relations with the new Iraqi Government. Clearly, the countries that she’ll visit – the UAE, Oman, and Qatar – have concerns, as we do, about Iran. I’m sure that we’ll have the opportunity to update leaders in these countries on a range of issues, including the Middle East peace.

QUESTION: Do you think that they’re – thus far have been sympathetic enough to the Iraqi – the new Iraqi Government, given that it’s Shiite-dominated and they’re mainly Sunni out there?

MR. CROWLEY: Well, there’s a new government that is just now in place, getting its feet on the ground. And I think her message will be, as the government stabilizes and begins its work, that it will be appropriate for these countries to do an outreach and work collaboratively and draw Iraq into – reintegrate Iraq, if you will, into the rest of the region.

QUESTION: So (inaudible). I heard Tunisian ambassador has been called here yesterday to hear about U.S. concerns about the situation in his country. So I wonder whether you can tell us more about that. And also in Algeria there are a lot of protests. Apparently, it’s the same situation. It’s a social crisis.


QUESTION: Let’s throw Ivory Coast in there, too. (Laughter.)

QUESTION: Do you think the situations in Algeria and Tunisia can be related in some way and –

MR. CROWLEY: I’m – it’s difficult for me to say they’re related. We are concerned about demonstrations that have occurred over the past few days in Tunisia. They appear to us to be the result of ongoing social and economic unrest. We, obviously, want to see restraint on all sides. The people of Tunisia have the right to exercise free – public assembly. And we have conveyed our views directly to the Tunisian Government.

We’re also concerned, as part of this, over hacking activity that has occurred associated with various social media sites and websites. Now, this can be – come from many different directions. There have been a number of cyber intrusions, including attacks on the Government of Tunisia’s websites. This, along with incursions into social media accounts, disrupt the free flow of information, and we urge everyone from the government to activists to respect freedom of expression and information. That is a right of everyone.

Regarding Algeria, we are – we continue to monitor the situation. Likewise, there’s unrest. I can’t say that they are necessarily – I mean, we’re not going to say that there’s kind of an overlapping dynamic across the two countries. But we continue to review this and both engage the government in Algeria and as well as look after the safety of our own citizens.

QUESTION: Did you call the Algerian ambassador?

MR. CROWLEY: Well, we did have a conversation here at the State Department yesterday with the Tunisian ambassador. I’m --

QUESTION: What about the Algerian? I’m not aware that we had a similar conversation.

QUESTION: Any update on Hungary?

QUESTION: Whoa, whoa, whoa.


QUESTION: What did you tell the Tunisian ambassador?

MR. CROWLEY: We basically told the Tunisian ambassador what I just told you.


MR. CROWLEY: We have --

QUESTION: That you’re concerned about --

MR. CROWLEY: We have concerns about both the ability of the people of Tunisia to exercise their rights and freedom of expression and freedom of assembly, and we are concerned about activities on multiple ends, both attacks against the government’s websites but also our concerns about potential government activities associated with the social media.

QUESTION: P.J, on Tunisia, (inaudible) you said that you are concerned for the citizens’ ability to assemble and so on. But hasn’t this been the case for all along, that there are really draconian measures preventing Tunisian citizens from demonstrating or expressing all kinds of – their right to assemble.

MR. CROWLEY: Well, again, we are –

QUESTION: How – my question is how regular –

MR. CROWLEY: You’re right. We have had – this is not the first time we’ve had this discussion, but we are focused right now on activities over the last few days, specifically related to the unrest in Tunisia.

QUESTION: Let me just follow up just for a second. I mean, how regularly do you raise this issue with them? Because this is ongoing situation.

MR. CROWLEY: We – the ambassador was called into the State Department yesterday.


QUESTION: Afghanistan. Due to blockage of supplies by Iran, there has been increasing gas prices in Afghanistan. Are you aware of it, and has it any implications there? I know it will not have on the operations, but --

MR. CROWLEY: I don't have a particular comment. I’m clearly – we have a substantial post and presence in Afghanistan, so I’m sure we’re aware of it, but I’m not particular – I don't have a particular comment at this point.

QUESTION: And in neighboring Pakistan, the security guard who assassinated the Punjab governor is being treated like a hero’s welcome over there in the country. Is it – are you concerned about such signs of (inaudible) there?

MR. CROWLEY: Well, we have been concerned about increased extremism in Pakistan for some time. It is at the heart of our Strategic Dialogue and our strategy with respect to Pakistan. As we’ve made clear, violent – political violence is a threat to the civilian government in Pakistan, and obviously this is just the latest example.

QUESTION: And now are you comfortable with the Gillani government getting majority in the parliament (inaudible)?

MR. CROWLEY: Well, it’s not for us to comment. Notwithstanding the views of the Associated Press, it’s not for us to comment on – (laughter) – on political developments in that country. Obviously, progress is –I

QUESTION: (Off-mike.) (Laughter.)

MR. CROWLEY: A civilian-led, democratic government is integral to Pakistan’s economic and social development.

QUESTION: Thank you.

QUESTION: (Inaudible) this week about starting of a trilateral dialogue between the U.S., India, and Japan, for – towards establishing regional peace and stability in Asia. Is that in the pipeline, or when it’s going to start?

MR. CROWLEY: Well, it’s a very good question. Obviously, we value Japan’s cooperation and investment in the future of Afghanistan, but I’m just not aware that – we’ll take the question as to whether --

QUESTION: A trilateral dialogue between U.S., India, and Japan.

MR. CROWLEY: No, I understand the question. I’ll take the question as to whether --

QUESTION: He’s interested in the Japan part.

MR. CROWLEY: I understand that.


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