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Middle East Digest - May 20, 2010


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Washington, DC
May 20, 2010

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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 May 20, 2010

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1:44 p.m. EDT

QUESTION: Can you talk about the issue that Iranians are raising about people – Iranians that America is holding and they claim access has been denied to their families?

MR. CROWLEY: Access has not been denied to either consular officials or family members of Iranians in prison here in the United States. In fact, we have reiterated many times that if Iran wishes to arrange consular visits or family visits, we will be happy to work cooperatively and constructively with them.

But I would certainly say and remind that there is no equivalence between three hikers who wandered across an unmarked border and individuals in U.S. custody who have undergone a transparent legal process and have been tried and convicted, in most cases, of arms smuggling.

QUESTION: And also, can you go back and tell us a little about – any more detail you have about the visit of the mothers and the three hikers?

MR. CROWLEY: Really can’t. We – the – our protecting power, the Swiss Government, is represented – is supporting the mothers while they’re on the ground in Tehran. We are gleaning some information from them and obviously some information as we see the media coverage, as you do, of their reunion today.

QUESTION: (Inaudible) where do you understand they are right now?

MR. CROWLEY: Hmm?

QUESTION: Based on the information you’ve gotten from the Swiss, where do you understand that they --

MR. CROWLEY: I don’t know. The last time I checked, I know they had a private meeting for roughly 90 minutes and I think there was a lunch and then there were going to be follow-on meetings with Iranian officials. But the families themselves, I think, will be their chief spokesmen as they go through this.

QUESTION: Is the U.S. concerned about any propaganda value that may have come out of this footage from Iranian TV of the hikers and their mothers?

MR. CROWLEY: Well, the – I mean, as I said, we are gratified to see them, to hear their voices. Anyone has to understand the wrenching experience of parents and family members and friends who have been separated for this length of time from their loved ones. Iran has specific responsibilities. We’ve had some consular visits, not enough. We have concerns about the health and welfare of these young people. We are also mindful of other Americans who are in custody and unanswered questions regarding disappeared Americans, including Robert Levinson. We won’t forget about them at all.

But I mean, this is a matter where we think there’s the right thing to do. Iran wishes to be respected around the world, and we think the appropriate step would be to allow these young people to return home.

QUESTION: Do you expect them to meet with President Ahmadinejad --

MR. CROWLEY: I do not, no.

QUESTION: -- or the supreme leader?

MR. CROWLEY: I do not.

QUESTION: Do you encourage such a meeting?

MR. CROWLEY: I mean, our interest here is the welfare of our young citizens. We’d like to see them released and brought home on humanitarian grounds. What Iran decides to do, obviously, is up to them.

QUESTION: Back to the idea of – you were saying something about the disappeared Americans and I’d like to just pick up on Charlie’s question about Iranian citizens. There are two kinds of Iranians that are presumably in detention. There are the ones that you’ve spoken about and that you’ve said you’re happy to provide consular access and family visits, and then there are about seven Iranians that President Ahmadinejad claims have disappeared in third countries and that the U.S. has them in detention, and these are the ones that he says there should be a prisoner swap between these hikers and these Iranians that haven’t been heard of.

MR. CROWLEY: Well, we’re not contemplating any kind of a prisoner swap. But if Iran has questions about any of its citizens and whether we have any information as to their whereabouts, we would be more than happy to receive that diplomatic note and respond to it.

QUESTION: Have you received diplomatic notes from Iran in the past on this issue?

MR. CROWLEY: I’m not aware that we have received a list of particular individuals for whom they are inquiring.

QUESTION: How many Iranians do you have in detention?

MR. CROWLEY: I mean, we the federal government, we the State Department, don’t necessarily keep that kind of a list. There have been some cases I’m aware of, one in New York in particular, and we have made it clear that if – who’s been recently convicted – if anyone wants to visit him, we’ll be more than happy to facilitate that.

QUESTION: Does the fact that the Iranians allowed the three mothers to meet with the children, the hikers, and appear on TV there give you any hope that they may be released eventually? Is that new hope?

MR. CROWLEY: I mean, certainly it is a positive development. It’s something that we have pushed hard for. And we think at this point, on humanitarian grounds, there’s a – we would – where there’s something that Iran can do, we would hope to see these three individuals released.

QUESTION: On Afghanistan, there’s apparently some talks going on with the Taliban in the Maldives. What can you tell us about that? Do you support their efforts? And what do you expect to come out of it?

MR. CROWLEY: The Afghan Government has told us that it is aware of the unofficial talks being reported today, held in the Maldives. And according to the Afghan Government, these talks do not include official representatives of the Government of Afghanistan. We continue to support efforts by the Afghan Government to open the door to those Taliban who abandon violence and respect human rights of their fellow citizens.

QUESTION: But you don’t see support – sorry.

QUESTION: (Inaudible) whether you consider these talks fruitful, useful --

MR. CROWLEY: Well, we’re aware of them. And let’s see – I mean, it – I think that to the extent that we’re looking ahead to the peace jirga that the Afghan Government will sponsor later this month, that’s the main event. And we’ll – but we’ll be guided by what comes out of that particular meeting.

QUESTION: That’s a pretty tepid endorsement of these talks.

MR. CROWLEY: Well, we’re not saying they’re a good thing or a bad thing. The real question is what comes out of this? Clearly, reconciliation is a dimension of the Afghan Government strategy and we’ve made clear any number of times that to those individuals and groups that are willing to come forward and support the Afghan Government, support the constitution, abandon violence, cut any ties to al-Qaida, there’s a place for those groups in the political process in Afghanistan. So whether there’s a meeting for a meeting’s sake, the real issue is what do groups as they work through the opportunity that the Afghan Government is offering for a different relationship with – and a different future in Afghanistan, for those groups that choose to join this process, meet the criteria that we’ve laid out, there’s a place in the future of Afghanistan for those groups.

QUESTION: Yeah, but you support two-track talks in the United States between various parties all the time. You never know what’s going to come out of them. You always, wherever you go, you encourage a robust civil society where various people are talking about how to develop their country. So why isn’t this an example of that?

MR. CROWLEY: I’m just saying that there’s – that we’re not involved in this. Afghanistan is not involved in this. The real issue is from meetings like this, what are particular groups prepared to do? That’s what we will focus on.

QUESTION: New topic? On Turkey, can you tell us anything about the Deputy Secretary’s meeting with the deputy Turkish prime minister?

MR. CROWLEY: I think it’s still going on. (Laughter.)

QUESTION: Oh, okay. So that’s good news.

MR. CROWLEY: The Deputy Secretary Jim Steinberg is hosting the deputy prime minister of Turkey. This is a meeting that was scheduled some time ago. But clearly, as part of this meeting, I would expect that they will reflect on current events, including the efforts to sanction Iran.

QUESTION: Can I say also (inaudible) a follow-up? You said in the past day or two that there have been some telephonic conversations between Secretary Clinton and the Turkish foreign minister. But has there been any letter sent to Ankara since October detailing as to what the U.S. would accept if Turkey and Brazil were to broker a deal with Iran?

MR. CROWLEY: We’ve had a number of conversations with Turkey going over several months. And have we at times put those – some issues down on paper? The answer is yes.

QUESTION: Assistant to the President Mr. John Brennan was quoted on Tuesday by Reuters saying that the U.S. was to build up moderates within Hezbollah in Lebanon. Are you considering a new approach towards Hezbollah? And if so, how are you going to do that?

MR. CROWLEY: Well, our policy towards Hezbollah has not changed. As John Brennan said, Hezbollah is a designated foreign terrorist organization. We do not recognize separate military and political wings. Hezbollah’s leadership and funding are fungible across all parts of the organization, and all parties within Lebanon must adhere to their obligations under UN Security Council Resolutions 1701 and 1559.

QUESTION: Well, but how does that square with what he said?

MR. CROWLEY: I mean, as we have said, if some – if a party wants to participate in a political process in the region, there are stipulations that they have to forego violence, they have to recognize the existence of Israel, and they have to adhere to and respect all existing agreements. And that opportunity is available to any group in the region. I’m not aware that Hezbollah qualifies at this point.

QUESTION: Another topic?

QUESTION: No, can I just go off – one more? Can you comment at all on whether you think there are moderate Hezbollah?

MR. CROWLEY: Again, there are specific criteria and Hezbollah remains a foreign terrorist organization.

QUESTION: But is like, the deputy solicitor general of Hezbollah’s general party or something a moderate? Do you know?

MR. CROWLEY: I mean, there’s – we can get into any kind of esoteric conversation as to whether there are moderates in Hezbollah, there are moderates in Iran. I mean, there’s a – there are clear red lines that we have laid down for anyone who wants to constructively engage in seeking peace in the Middle East. Hezbollah, to this point, is not one of those organizations.

QUESTION: Do you have any comment on Pakistan’s blockage of – Pakistan’s – to YouTube and other web – internet sites?

MR. CROWLEY: I do. Obviously, this is a difficult and challenging issue. Many of the images that appear today on Facebook were deeply offensive to Muslims and non-Muslims alike. We are deeply concerned about any deliberate attempt to offend Muslims or members of any other religious groups. We do not condone offensive speech that can incite violence or hatred.

The page at issue was posted anonymously at the website of a private company. It is now a legal matter between Facebook and the Government of Pakistan. But that said, we also believe that the best answer to offensive speech is dialogue and debate, and in fact, we see signs that that is exactly what is occurring in Pakistan. Governments have a responsibility to protect freedom of expression and the free flow of information.

The best antidote to intolerance is not banning or punishing offensive speech, but rather a combination of robust legal protections against discrimination and hate crimes, and proactive government outreach to minority religious groups and the vigorous defense of both freedom of religion and expression. Those last words came from the Secretary’s internet freedom speech last year.

So I think that this is a difficult issue. Pakistan is wrestling to this issue. We respect any actions that need to be taken under Pakistani law to protect their citizens from offensive speech. At the same time, Pakistan has to make sure that in taking any particular action, that you’re not restricting speech to the millions and millions of people who are connected to the internet and have a universal right to the free flow of information.

QUESTION: But who’s to say that Pakistan isn’t simply playing to the more conservative religious factions in order to maintain political viability?

MR. CROWLEY: Well, no, as I said, we – there are actions that Pakistan can take under Pakistani law. We respect those. But there needs to be a balance to make sure that in rightly restricting offensive speech, or even hate speech, that Pakistan continues to protect and promote the free flow of information.

QUESTION: But blocking an – you know, this website or that website doesn’t seem to go toward promoting free flow of information. I mean, I have colleagues whom I cannot reach via Facebook right now because of this.

MR. CROWLEY: Right. And what we’re saying is that Pakistan, as it works through these issues, has to try to find that difficult balance. But we certainly fully understand how material that were posted on this particular page were offensive to Pakistanis and members of other Muslim majority communities around the world. But at the same time, we do in fact support the universal principle of freedom of expression, free flow of information, and we will continue to promote internet freedom as the Secretary outlined in her speech.

QUESTION: Just two questions – short questions on the sanctions discussions on Iran. Firstly, could you tell us if there’s been any update on the timeframe in which we could expect an announcement in terms of results? I know that maybe Gordon mentioned yesterday that there wasn’t such a date, but any updates on that?

MR. CROWLEY: Mm-hmm, and your second question?

QUESTION: Second question is: In its pursuit of sanctions against Iran, what does the U.S. have to say to countries like India and others in the G-15 group who may be friendly with Iran and feel that the fuel swap deal, you know, is a sign that they’re more – Iran is willing to cooperate?

MR. CROWLEY: Well, on the first – the resolution that’s been tabled is now being evaluated by the entire Security Council, and we will continue to consult broadly on its – on the particulars in the coming days and weeks. We are still looking for and expect support within the Council for a new sanctions resolution, and as we have said many, many times, that not only with existing measures, but adding new measures and new teeth to this, we would expect all countries in the world to live up to their international obligations.

QUESTION: Thank you.

MR. CROWLEY: Thank you.

(The briefing was concluded at 2:31 p.m.)



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