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Middle East Digest - January 20, 2011


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January 21, 2011

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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 20, 2011

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1:37 p.m. EST

MR. TONER:  Welcome to the State Department.  Good afternoon, everyone.  Just a few things from the top.  First of all, I want to give a nod to P.J., the fact that he’s going to be at the Foreign Press Center at 3:00 today.  Is that right?  So I urge all of you to catch his show across town. 

Just a very quick update, a very quick announcement.  You’ve probably all seen the statement that Under Secretary for Political Affairs William J. Burns will be leading the U.S. delegation as it joins our P-5+1 partners as well as Iranian representatives in talks beginning today in Istanbul, Turkey.  We seek to launch a meaningful and practical process that addresses the core issues with Iran’s nuclear program.  As the P-5+1 has consistently made clear, we are committed to holding Iran accountable to its international obligations and will continue to do so until Iran takes tangible steps to resolve international concerns with its nuclear program.

Also, a quick update on the Middle East talks.  As the Secretary mentioned earlier today, our Deputy Envoy David Hale met today in Jerusalem with Quartet envoys to prepare for the February 5th principals meeting, which I think will be held in Munich, Germany.  Deputy Envoy Hale also met separately with Yitzhak Molho, continuing discussions they had last week in Washington.  He’ll also meet on Saturday with Saeb Erekat in Amman, I believe.  Deputy Envoy Hale will also meet with senior Jordanian and Egyptian officials over the weekend.

QUESTION:  On the Hale meetings, is he talking about the Palestinians UN – proposed UN resolution, or is he concentrating mainly on the negotiation process away from – or restarting the negotiation process away from what’s going on in the UN?

MR. TONER:  I think he’s doing what we said we were going to do, as the Secretary outlined last year, which is continuing to consult with both parties in an effort to get them both back into direct negotiations. 

QUESTION:  So he’s not talking about the resolution and your feelings about --

MR. TONER:  I can’t say it won’t come up, but our main goal here is, again, to continue these consultations.  Our goal, as we’ve made abundantly clear, is to get both parties back into direct talks because that’s the only way we believe a settlement can be found.

QUESTION:  South Korea has agreed to – oh, sure.

MR. TONER:  Sure.  Yeah, one more. 

QUESTION:  Sorry.

MR. TONER:  Yeah, sure. 

QUESTION:  Yesterday a group of former politicians, including former Defense Secretary Carlucci, they signed an open letter to President Obama urging him not to veto any kind of Security Council resolutions calling for the illegitimacy of settlements, because if he did, quote "that will bring the issue of use credibility into question."  Are you aware of the letter? 

MR. TONER:  We’re aware of the letters – the letter, rather, and just refer you to the Secretary’s remarks following her bilateral this morning with the Estonian foreign minister.  We’re not going to – I’m not going to speculate on how we might vote, but we’ve made very clear our – both our policy on settlements as well as our belief that action in the United Nations or any other forum is not particularly helpful.

QUESTION:  Okay.  But in the letter, it also calls on the President, if he is unhappy with the language for calling the settlements illegal and so on, that they should come up with a new language.  Is that something that is being contemplated in the State Department? 

MR. TONER:  Again, we’ve been very clear that we believe fundamentally that the United Nations is not the right forum for this.  We want to see both sides get back into direct talks because it’s only through that we can get – reach a framework agreement and eventually a solution to this. 

QUESTION:  But you just said --

QUESTION:  I’m sorry, lastly --

QUESTION:  -- United Nations or any other forum.  Presumably, not any other forum, because you want your forum, i.e., direct talks to be --

MR. TONER:  Well, direct talks.  Absolutely.  I mean, that’s – I mean, I – okay.  The United Nations or – what we want to get is both parties --

QUESTION:  Any forum other than --

MR. TONER:  -- back in the negotiating room talking about these issues, because we believe that only together through that process can they finally hash these issues out, make the necessary compromises, and reach a solution.

QUESTION:  Mark, in the letter –

MR. TONER:  It’s pretty clear.

QUESTION:  Sorry.

MR. TONER:  Sure, go ahead.

QUESTION:  In the letter it also asserts that back in 1978, the legal advisor to the State Department has, at the time, espoused the same position as the United Nations calling the settlements illegal, and that it has consistently – the U.S. Department of State has consistently subscribed to this notion and so on.  So why is that – why is the United Nations not the proper forum?

MR. TONER:  Again, I don’t know how to put this any more plainly, and I apologize for those of you who have heard this now for the umpteenth time.  Because it’s only by sitting down together, by talking through these issues, that we believe they’re going to reach that framework agreement that will bring about that final settlement and that they’ll make the necessary compromises.  The Secretary just spoke to this upstairs a couple of hours ago more eloquently than I can.  But it’s getting them back talking to each other, going through these issues, and reaching the necessary compromises that lead to a final settlement or a comprehensive settlement.

QUESTION:  Are you –

MR. TONER:  Go ahead.

QUESTION:  -- getting them any closer to resuming direct talks?

MR. TONER:  It’s a fair question.  And I’m – I know we continue – obviously, Hale is in the region, but I don’t want to put any kind of estimate on how close they are right now.  I think we’re just continuing, kind of, the hard spade work of urging them back together.

QUESTION:  And what is the point of having a Quartet meeting?

MR. TONER:  Well, you mean the – I’m sorry, the next month?

QUESTION:  The one on February 5th for which the preparations are now going on.

MR. TONER:  Yeah, sure.  To a certain degree, it’s building the kind of momentum and keeping the kind of momentum going on this process that we believe is necessary that’s going to continue to urge the two sides to get back into direct talks.  I mean, we’ve got to keep that moving forward.

QUESTION:  Is there any momentum, because, I mean, I thought that there was no momentum because they had ceased direct talks.

MR. TONER:  Well, I agree.  Momentum is in question, and that’s why we’re in this consultation phase.  We continue to meet with both sides to try to work out a way forward on this, and I believe the Quartet meeting is just in that framework.

QUESTION:  So –

QUESTION:  On the important stuff –

MR. TONER:  Yeah, go ahead, Said. 

QUESTION:  (Inaudible) one last thing.

MR. TONER:  That’s okay.

QUESTION:  You’re aware that new permits have been issued by the Israeli Government for more housing.  Does that cast any kind of urgency on the situation?

MR. TONER:  Again, we’ve been clear on both sides, that we would ask both sides to refrain from any kind of actions that we deem – or we feel are not constructive to moving this process forward.

QUESTION:  (Off-mike.)

MR. TONER:  Go ahead, Christophe.

QUESTION:  Mark, on Iran –

MR. TONER:  I thought Christophe had a question.  Go ahead, Jill.  I’m sorry.

QUESTION:  Okay.  On Iran, with Burns going there, realistically what are you looking to accomplish at this point?  And could you give us an update on that proposal that was around last year for the fuel swap?  They made some comments apparently with the Russians about no need for a fuel swap if they can fuel the reactor with 20 percent that they have already enriched.

MR. TONER:  Right.  Well, I think we’re looking forward to the, obviously, these discussions tomorrow.  What we’ve tried – what we want to see occur here is the – or evolve here is a meaningful and practical negotiation process.  So this is – again, we had the meeting in Geneva in December.  We now have the meeting in Istanbul, and we’re thankful, in fact, to the Turks for hosting this meeting.  These are small, incremental steps.  We’re not expecting any big breakthroughs, but we want to see a constructive process emerge that leads to Iran engaging with the international community in a credible process and engaging and addressing the international community’s concerns about its nuclear program.

QUESTION:  So you’re really just at the stage of defining those talks rather than any substance?

MR. TONER:  Well, I mean, it’s – let me be clear.  I mean, we’re there to talk about Iran’s nuclear program and to engage with them on that.  But I don’t want to get out in front of the meetings tomorrow, and I also don’t want to create any illusions about what they might lead to.  What we want to see is a real process.  We had the meetings last year, and then we had a pause, a significant pause.  And so what we want to see is a process emerge that leads to progress, frankly.

Yeah, go ahead, Christophe.

QUESTION:  It’s on Iran.

QUESTION:  Please.

QUESTION:  Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, arrived in Istanbul today and said that the lifting of sanctions should be discussed during this meeting – the possibility of lifting the sanctions.

MR. TONER:  Well –

QUESTION:  Do you think the time is right?

MR. TONER:  Well, I think that UN Security Council Resolution 1929 stipulates what Iran needs to comply with in order to have those sanctions lifted, and those are quite clear. 

Yeah, go ahead Arshad.

QUESTION:  When you say – and you don’t need to read the language again – but the language about the meaningful and practical process – do you mean, when you use the term "process," you mean you want a series of meetings?  I mean, is it fair to interpret it that way?

MR. TONER:  Yeah, I mean, absolutely.  I think what we want to see is, again – last year’s initial meeting led to a significant pause.  We then pursued the sanctions track.  We were successful in getting Resolution 1929 passed.  That led to efforts by individual countries to toughen those sanctions.  We think they’ve had an effect.  We’re now back.  We’ve had one meeting.  We’re in the second meeting now.  I think we’re just taking a step by step incremental approach and not –

QUESTION:  When you said "last year’s meeting" you meant – I suspect you meant –

MR. TONER:  Not – yeah, right.

QUESTION:  -- the October, 2009 meeting in Geneva?

MR. TONER:  Precisely, thank you.

QUESTION:  And then what – is there any possibility of reviving the so-called TRR proposal –

MR. TONER:  You asked about that as well.  Sorry.

QUESTION:  -- albeit modifying it to capture (a) the low-enriched uranium that has been produced since you initially made that offer in ’09, and (b) to address the nearly 20 percent uranium enrichment that Iran says it has done since that.  Is there any possibility of reviving that or is that dead from your point of view?

MR. TONER:  No, I think our approach would include practical, tangible steps to build confidence on both sides.  That’s always what the TRR proposal has been, a confidence building measure.  And we believe that obviously, as you just said in your question, it would have to be some kind of updated arrangement.  But we’re willing to discuss that in greater detail.

QUESTION:  Do you plan to discuss it?  Is that something you plan to bring up?

MR. TONER:  I don’t know if we’re planning to bring it up.  We’re willing to discuss it.  Let me put it that way.

QUESTION:  Okay.

QUESTION:  But, Mark, when you say "confidence building measure," is that all it is?  I mean, isn’t there also a – or was a technical reason for doing that, to get enriched uranium out of the country, enrich it outside of the country?

MR. TONER:  Right, but it’s –

QUESTION:  I mean, it sounds like –

MR. TONER:  But it’s a relatively small step.  And again, it’s – what we’re trying to – again, just to reiterate, what we’re trying to do is begin with small steps, build a process, and build a constructive process that leads to real, tangible results.  And ultimately, the onus is on Iran to address the international community’s concerns about its nuclear program.  That’s the ultimate goal.  So if the TRR can be useful, some kind of updated approach can be useful, then we’re willing to talk about it.

QUESTION:  Just to make sure, is it – so – but the issue is basically dead in the water at this point – the TRR?

MR. TONER:  No, I thought I said that we’d be willing to talk about --

QUESTION:  Yeah, but I mean realistically you’d be willing to talk about it.  But they’re basically saying we don’t need it. 

MR. TONER:  I don’t know what the Iranians are saying about it, frankly.  I mean, there’s a lot of pre-meeting posturing, but I don’t know what’s --

QUESTION:  Just to be clear, you’re willing to talk about it, but it would indeed have to be updated to reflect --

MR. TONER:  Absolutely.  Yes.

QUESTION:  Okay.

QUESTION:  Can I ask a question about Tunisia?

MR. TONER:  Go ahead.

QUESTION:  A week after the flight of the Tunisian president, how – could you share with us how the Embassy conducts its daily business in Tunis?

MR. TONER:  Conducts it daily --

QUESTION:  What kind of a mode are they in?  How do they conduct their diplomatic affairs?

MR. TONER:  That’s a good question.  Well, we’ve been on – I apologize, I’m just --

QUESTION:  Authorized.

MR. TONER:  Authorized departure.  Thank you, Matt.  We’ve been on authorized departure, but obviously, essential personnel remain at the Embassy and we continue to monitor events very closely. 

QUESTION:  Has there been any kind of restriction placed on their movement by you or by others?

MR. TONER:  I’m not aware.  I mean, obviously, we take prudent security precautions.  But we’re engaged with the interim government and just as we were engaged with the Ben Ali government before Ben Ali left the country, and making our views clear to them throughout this.

QUESTION:  Go to Lebanon?

MR. TONER:  Sure.

QUESTION:  Do you have any comment on Prime Minister Hariri’s speech this afternoon in which he said that he would stand again for – to be prime minister --

MR. TONER:  I haven’t seen the speech.  Our position on Lebanon is that – again, the Secretary spoke to it upstairs – but what we want to see is a secure and prosperous Lebanon emerge that’s moving ahead economically, politically, and socially.  There’s a constitutional process underway.  What’s absolutely vital in all of this is that Lebanon move forward independently with its sovereignty protected.

QUESTION:  Thank you.



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