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Middle East Digest - January 21, 2011

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Washington, DC
January 21, 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 21, 2011

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MR. CROWLEY: Under Secretary Bill Burns represented the United States today at the sessions in Istanbul. I believe there’ve been two plenary sessions today with a break for lunch and prayer in between, and these talks will continue tomorrow. We would like to see a meaningful and practical negotiation process emerge with Iran’s nuclear program as a core focus. And as we have consistently made clear, these meetings are an opportunity for Iran to come forward and address matters that are of great concern to the international community, primarily its nuclear program. In answer to a question I would anticipate, as far as I know there have not been any bilateral discussions at this point.

QUESTION: Do you want to go on or do you want --

MR. CROWLEY: I’ve just got two more things. We, obviously, continue to watch the situation in Iraq very closely. The string of violent attacks that we’ve observed in recent days, the attacks in Anbar, Diyala, and Karbala were targeted against police recruits, pilgrims, innocent civilians. We offer condolences to the families of the victims of these attacks. The one in Karbala yesterday was especially reprehensible as it targeted Shiite pilgrims practicing their faith. No cause or grievance justifies the murder of innocent people. And we stand in solidity with the people of Iraq in rejecting extremist efforts to foment sectarian intentions and undermine the institutions of Iraqi democracy.

QUESTION: P.J., on the P-5+1 talks, what should we read into the fact that the most illuminating information about the meeting today was the menu of the lunch buffet?

MR. CROWLEY: Lunches have a great diplomatic history, Matt.

QUESTION: I’m sure they do, but I mean, did anything get accomplished here?

MR. CROWLEY: Well, they’re not over.

QUESTION: On day one –

MR. CROWLEY: So I mean, I –

QUESTION: -- was anything accomplished, other than having a fine, sumptuous meal of chicken and –

MR. CROWLEY: Well, put it this way, Matt. I’m sure, as you look – as we look forward to the weekend of football, you’re giving a halftime analysis. We’re going to wait until the full game has been played and then we’ll report to you as to what has been accomplished and what happens next.

QUESTION: Well, but – seriously, though, has anything been –

MR. CROWLEY: I understand.

QUESTION: Did they get anything done today other than just repeat standard talking points?

MR. CROWLEY: We’ll see.

QUESTION: In other words, no. I asked about today, just today.

MR. CROWLEY: Well, I mean, put it this way. As we have suggested, we are looking for a process. I have no doubt that everyone’s talking points were read during the course of the meetings today, and it remains to be seen whether Iran will commit itself to a lengthy process and answer the questions that the international community has about the nature of its nuclear programs. We did not envision that the – this whole issue would be resolved in one meeting as there was last month. I don’t know that we expect that the entire issue will be resolved in this meeting in Istanbul despite our best efforts and the encouragement of others, including Turkey. So we’ll wait to see what comes out of this meeting. We finished day one and we’ll have a fuller report tomorrow through Lady Ashton at the conclusion of tomorrow’s session.

QUESTION: Okay, but from what you just said, is it fair enough – or you said it remains to be seen whether Iran will agree to this process. So after day one, they have not.

MR. CROWLEY: Again, I’m not at – I’m here --

QUESTION: Well, you said it remains to be seen –

MR. CROWLEY: I’m here with you. I’m not in the room down there.

QUESTION: Well, the meeting is over, correct? Day one?

MR. CROWLEY: The plenary sessions for today have –

QUESTION: So after the plenary sessions for today –

MR. CROWLEY: Again –

QUESTION: -- been finished, it remains to be seen –

MR. CROWLEY: I’m going to resist giving you a halftime report.

QUESTION: But you already said it. But you already said it. You said it remains to be seen whether Iran will agree to this process.

MR. CROWLEY: Well, if –

QUESTION: So that means they haven’t agreed yet.

MR. CROWLEY: So, for example, if you want to follow my football analogy, for the NFL, for example, there are 16 games in a season. After the second game, you don’t decide whether a team is in the Super Bowl or not. We would envision that in order to resolve all of the questions regarding Iran’s nuclear program, it is going to take a lengthy process, not one or two meetings, to answer all those questions.

QUESTION: No, I understand that.

MR. CROWLEY: But you asked what will be accomplished in this particular session of what we hope will be a lengthy process, and we’ll let you know when this particular session concludes tomorrow.

QUESTION: Right, but what I thought I understood you to say is it remains to be seen whether Iran will agree to the lengthy – to the process, to another meeting, to another series of meetings. So I’m just – why is it wrong to say that after the first plenary sessions today – and understanding that there are more meetings tomorrow – but that after today, it still remains to be seen whether Iran will agree to this.

MR. CROWLEY: Well, and I just said –

QUESTION: Is there something wrong with that?

MR. CROWLEY: I’m not going to read out what happened inside the room from here halfway through this session. Tomorrow, we’ll wait to hear what comes next, what was discussed, what was tabled, what the Iranian reaction was. And then we’ll have a fuller perspective.

QUESTION: But P.J., this approach to say, “We expect a long process” – I mean it almost sounds like you’re setting yourself up for an interminable conversation with Iran, which is what has been happening for now quite a long time. I mean, wouldn’t it be better if in one day they decided to do what the rest of the world wants them to do?

MR. CROWLEY: We’re being sober and realistic here. If we could solve this in a day, we’d be delighted. And understand that it is Iran that has been unwilling or unable for a number of years to answer the basic questions about the nature of its nuclear programs, its enrichment activity, its long-term intent. It is Iran that has failed to meet its international obligations. It is Iran that has failed to cooperate fully with the IAEA. So the onus is on Iran to come forward and say okay, “We will work with you, we’ll answer these questions.” We would like to have that response from Iran, and we’ll see how far this meeting goes in meeting those objectives.

QUESTION: Has Under Secretary Burns requested a one-on-one meeting with Jalili?

MR. CROWLEY: We are prepared to engage on other subjects, but all I can report is that such a meeting has not happened at this point.

QUESTION: So it’s been – the Iranians rejected that idea?

MR. CROWLEY: Again, I’m at a disadvantage here. I have not had the opportunity to talk to Bill today, so I – but we are fully prepared to have a conversation with Iran. But whether it will happen remains to be seen.

QUESTION: So what would be the goal of that conversation, the one-on-one?

MR. CROWLEY: Well, if we have that kind of conversation, obviously, among other things, we’ll continue to express concern about the two hikers who remain in custody. We’ll continue to demand information regarding Robert Levinson. So we have a list of issues that we’ll be happy to go through with Iran if such a meeting takes place.

QUESTION: But doesn’t any – it’s a follow-up. Can you share with us this list of preconditions that you have sent from this building to Istanbul for Iran to sit down --

MR. CROWLEY: I’m not sure I understand the term “preconditions.” I mean, we want to see Iran come forward and answer the questions. We have made clear --

QUESTION: Yeah, what are the questions? Can you give us --

MR. CROWLEY: -- that Iran has a right to civilian nuclear energy, but with that right comes responsibilities, and it is Iran that has failed to live up to its international obligations. We would like to turn a corner here but obviously, that is incumbent upon Iran to indicate that it’s prepared to move in a different direction. And in the meantime, as we’ve all said all along, we are willing to engage, and our presence in Istanbul is an indication of that, but that we will also continue to pursue pressure and why we continue to fully enact both international and domestic sanctions.

QUESTION: So to understand properly, did you request a one-on-one conversation with Iran?

MR. CROWLEY: We are always willing to engage Iran on various issues.

QUESTION: But this time around, did you ask for a one-on-one conversation?

MR. CROWLEY: Again, I – you’re asking a fair question. Whether Bill has signaled an interest, we’re open to that kind of a meeting and we’ll see if one happens. Say, go back a year in Geneva, we did have a brief discussion on other subjects. Back in December, that kind of discussion did not take place.

QUESTION: But should the Iranians take your statement as an invitation and contact Bill there?

MR. CROWLEY: The Iranians have a delegation in Istanbul; we have a delegation in Istanbul. But again, all I can report to you is that a bilateral meeting has not yet taken place.

QUESTION: P.J., the British – former British Prime Minister Tony Blair has criticized the U.S. policy towards Iran, saying that since President Obama’s speech in Cairo, Iran continue to support terrorism and work – continue to work against the peace process in the Middle East and continue working on its nuclear program.

MR. CROWLEY: True, true, and true. Okay. (Laughter.)

QUESTION: But he criticized the policy, the U.S. policy to engage Iran, and saying that this policy didn’t bear any fruits yet.

MR. CROWLEY: Well, I mean, we have – our strategy is a two-track strategy. We are putting pressure on Iran, as the Secretary has clearly indicated. We think that pressure is having an impact. You’re correct; Iran is not in full compliance with international obligations. Iran remains arguably the leading international state sponsor of terrorism. Iran is undermining the international community’s efforts to achieve peace in the Middle East. These are all true. And we are willing to engage Iran to begin to address all of these issues.

So we’re in Istanbul, engaged with Iran to try to see if we can’t resolve the nuclear file. We are perfectly willing to move into other areas. And if we have the opportunity to engage Iran, we’ll continue to express our concerns about other things. But we’re not putting all of our eggs in one basket. We are willing to engage Iran, but we’re realistic, and we are putting international pressure on the Iranian Government at the same time.

QUESTION: P.J., don’t you think, as far as Iran’s nuclear program is concerned, you are giving Iranians more time, and one day, just like in the past – Pakistan – they will come out and they will just say that we have a nuclear program, a nuclear bomb?

MR. CROWLEY: Well, that’s exactly what we’re – why we’re doing what we’re doing, Goyal. We do have a sense of urgency here. The current course that Iran is on is very concerning to us. It continues to have centrifuges which are spinning. It continues to advance its knowledge of nuclear technology. Left unchecked, we do have concerns that Iran may cross a threshold to where it has the potential for a weapons program. This is exactly why we have a delegation in Istanbul today trying to find a way to address our concerns about Iran’s nuclear weapons.

But this is a shared international challenge, and it’s also why the international community came together last year, passed Resolution 1929. Sanctions are being applied against Iran. We do believe they’re having an impact. And who knows? Maybe this meeting will create the kind of opening that we want to see, let’s hope, but we’ll find out.

QUESTION: Israelis are very --


QUESTION: I’m sorry, one more just quick.

QUESTION: Or a (inaudible) after that?

QUESTION: Israelis are very concerned and angry at Iran’s nuclear program. What – I mean, what are you talking with Israelis as far as --

MR. CROWLEY: What I am talking to?

QUESTION: To keep them calm as far as – they were threatening to attack Iran’s nuclear program and all that. So where the Israelis --

MR. CROWLEY: Well --

QUESTION: What role Israelis are playing? So --

MR. CROWLEY: You’re – I mean, you’re casting this, I think, Goyal, in too narrow a frame. This is a significant international concern. It was the subject – it is a subject of ongoing discussions that we have with the Israeli Government. It is concern – and part of ongoing discussions that we have with leaders in the Gulf, as the Secretary did in her trip recently to the region. It is a subject that we have discussions with China in the meetings this week between President Obama and President Hu Jintao.

This is an international challenge and it’s – but it’s not about two countries; it’s about two different visions of the world and one in which there’s – there are fewer nuclear weapons and less reliance on nuclear technology, and one where we see one or more arms races that will add tension and unpredictability into the security environment in the future.

QUESTION: Can I just – Iran-related.


QUESTION: Former – well, prominent Democrats like Governor Bill – former Governor Bill Richardson and General Jim Jones and others are recommending that the Administration’s – remove the listing as a terrorist group, the MEK, the Mujaheddin – the People’s Mujaheddin.


QUESTION: Is there anything happening on that front?

MR. CROWLEY: We have been instructed to review that. We are doing that. But the current designation remains in place even as we review the issue.



QUESTION: What’s the level of concern about this call to delay the inauguration of the national assembly?



QUESTION: I thought it was Afghanistan.

QUESTION: Oh, I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I did mean Afghanistan, sorry.

MR. CROWLEY: (Laughter.)

QUESTION: Yes, in Afghanistan.

MR. CROWLEY: In Afghanistan, clearly, we support the strong statement released today by the United Nations Mission in Afghanistan. It calls for the parliament to convene as soon as possible. And this remains an issue of discussion between the president and members of parliament.

QUESTION: Yes, but if Karzai is doing this, it has the potential to be a very serious step. I mean, what is the level of concern that this could lead to violence or --

MR. CROWLEY: Well, Ambassador Eikenberry and others are in discussion with the Afghan Government. We obviously want to see the political process and the government move forward. There’s no shortage of action for the government to take. We don’t want to see a side turn in this effort. And we’ll – we’re working to try to resolve this, but we’ve made clear, as has the UN, that we believe that parliament should convene as soon as possible. I mean, we hope that this thing will be resolved in the next day or two.

QUESTION: Just back on Lachlan’s MEK question.


QUESTION: When you said you’ve been instructed to review this, this is a result of the court ruling, right?

MR. CROWLEY: Yes, right.

QUESTION: And since then --

MR. CROWLEY: There was a court-ordered review, but the court --

QUESTION: Yeah, but that’s – that was months ago, wasn’t it?

MR. CROWLEY: -- did keep the designation in place.

QUESTION: Exactly. Wasn’t that months ago?

MR. CROWLEY: A few months ago, yeah.

QUESTION: It was certainly last year, wasn’t it?

MR. CROWLEY: Yeah, it is still under active review.


QUESTION: On Iraq? Iraq?


QUESTION: Is it your assessment that the country is headed towards a relapse into civil war, as we have seen in 2006 and 2007?

MR. CROWLEY: Actually, not at all. I mean, these have been tragic attacks. We’ve condemned them strongly. Clearly, the strategy of those responsible is to attack institutions of the government, particularly the police. But I think we are encouraged by the fact that these attacks have failed – if their objective has been to sow tension within Iraqi society, we believe they’re having the opposite effect. The Iraqi people support their government. We’ve seen no evidence that it has increased sectarian tension. I think people across all political and religious segments have condemned these attacks.

QUESTION: So you don’t have any doubt about the Iraqi security force’s ability to assume responsibility for security in Iraq?

MR. CROWLEY: Well, the fact is they have resumed – assumed full responsibility for security. We continue to have military personnel there to continue the training program. We are in a transition in Iraq, as Vice President Biden made clear in his recent visit there. That transition is going to involve, over time, a shift of responsibility from the military, which is conducting the current training programs, to the State Department. And we will continue to be responsible for the police training once our military contingent leaves at the end of this year.

Iraq is going to need to continue to be mentored, but there’s no question that today, Iraq is responsible for its own security. And notwithstanding these attacks, we believe Iraq is – has taken charge.

QUESTION: Yeah, just to clarify. So the spike in violence has not affected the State Department’s plans in training the police and efforts and programs that they have in place? Have they shifted them, put emphasis elsewhere?

MR. CROWLEY: Well, again, you look at – at least one of these attacks was at a police recruiting station. So, I mean, I think we have an understanding of what the insurgents are trying to do. They’re trying to weaken the institutions of Iraqi Government, and we do not think they’re going to be successful. But we’ve seen these kinds of attacks before, so I don't think we’re necessarily, unfortunately, surprised by this strategy. But that’s why it’s important to continue these programs, to continue to strengthen Iraqi institutions, continue the training programs to expand the Iraqi capabilities. And – but we – you can look at any kind of trend line in Iraq going back to 2003, and the trend lines on the security front are very, very positive.

QUESTION: P.J., a question on this Gulet Mohamed, the 19-year-old Virginia fellow who was held in Kuwait. I know you’ve said you can’t say much of anything because there’s no privacy waiver. But I wanted to ask, did you actually ask him to sign one or did you give him the opportunity to sign one when he was in Kuwait?

MR. CROWLEY: We performed our consular function. Part of our consular function is to seek an understanding from a U.S. citizen, what information might he or she wish to have released. We – and we did what we would normally do in any case. Obviously, he’s back in the United States now and free to say whatever he wishes.

QUESTION: Right. What is that policy exactly? In other words, if a citizen is in a country and you perform your consular duties, what do you do? Do you say, here, we have a waiver that you can sign or not?

MR. CROWLEY: A Privacy Act Waiver might include whether information can be released to family members or whether information can be released to the public.

QUESTION: P.J., this is a pet peeve of mine. When was the last time that you’re aware of that someone actually did sign a Privacy Act Waiver? (Laughter.) It just seems – it seems to me that in cases like this, you don’t have a Privacy Act Waiver, and yet this person has legal representation, lawyers running around, blabbing all over the place, or their parents are talking. But you – somehow, you guys don’t have a Privacy Act Waiver.

It happened with the two journalists in North Korea. It happened with the seven people who were arrested in Pakistan. It’s happened in this case. It’s happened with the hikers, even though they had a website that their families ran. Can we make sure that your people – they’re actually giving people an opportunity to sign these waivers? Because there’s an awful lot of stuff that’s coming out about that, even though you can’t say anything about it because you don’t have a Privacy Act Waiver.

MR. CROWLEY: I hear you. Believe me.

QUESTION: Well, what’s the answer though?


MR. CROWLEY: Well, the answer is that we abide by the law and we respect the privacy of American citizens, who, in some of these cases, may well be in detention without having done anything wrong. But we abide by their wishes.

QUESTION: But, for example, his lawyers are saying the U.S. did not protect him from abuse and torture in Kuwait. And it seems, as Matt is saying, that you’re incapable of answering that allegation.

MR. CROWLEY: It is – we – in some cases, we are unable to answer every suggestion that’s been made in some of these cases. But again, we’re going to respect the privacy of these individuals, who – but – without saying whether we agree with what they say or not.

QUESTION: I thought this was a better seat to ask questions. (Laughter.) Anyway, does the State Department keep record of the amount of land that has been expropriated from the West Bank for settlement or for – to support settlements since 1967?

MR. CROWLEY: I’m not aware that we have official records. Obviously, there are groups within the region that keep track of these things, and we have an ongoing dialogue with those groups.

QUESTION: But does the State Department have record? Does it keep record of that? It does not keep a record?

MR. CROWLEY: I mean, I’m caught on the term “records.”

QUESTION: I mean, do you keep a count --

MR. CROWLEY: Are we aware of developments --

QUESTION: No, no. That’s not my question. The amount of the land that has been expropriated, do you keep account of that? Do you keep record of that? Do you say that 5 percent has been taken, 1 percent, 2 percent, to support settlement or for settlement activities or to build settlements or for roads and so on? Do you keep account of that?

MR. CROWLEY: I mean, again, Said, I don't want to be difficult here. Are – do we keep track of developments on the ground and their potential impact on the viability of a Palestinian state? Yes, we do.

QUESTION: No, do you --

MR. CROWLEY: Do we have specific records of transfers of ownership and appropriation? I don't know that we do.

QUESTION: Maybe I have a bad choice of words. But does the United States Government keep record of how much land has been taken for settlement and settlement activities and to support the settlements since 1967? Somebody must have that record.

MR. CROWLEY: Okay. I – we pay a great deal of attention to changing circumstances on the ground. It informs our policymaking here at the Department of State. I can’t tell you whether we have detailed records of specific activity. I don't know. I do know that there are groups that do keep records and do monitor developments, and we – and they have conversations with us on a regular basis and inform us of what – how they interpret what is happening on the ground. I can’t say that we keep records, but we are – we have paid very close attention since 1967 to developments on the ground in and around Jerusalem and on the West Bank.

QUESTION: So you depend on different groups rather than your own --

MR. CROWLEY: No. We have – that’s why we have diplomats on the ground. We have our own set of eyes. But we also are engaged with a variety of stakeholders who are monitoring these developments.

QUESTION: Okay. Just a quick follow up. Do you have any comment on the increasingly vocal and emphatic assertion by the Palestinians, Fayyad lately, that they will go and seek independent statehood and recognition by the end of August internationally if not through negotiations.

MR. CROWLEY: We continue our discussions with Palestinian leaders. As we’ve indicated, Deputy Special Envoy David Hale will meet tomorrow with Saeb Erekat in Amman to continue these discussions.

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