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Middle East Digest - June 11, 2010

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Washington, DC
June 11, 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 June 11, 2010

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MR. CROWLEY: Good afternoon and welcome to the Department of State. Several things to talk about before taking your questions. The Secretary was delighted to welcome President Mahmoud Abbas to the State Department earlier this morning. She was very grateful that he delayed his departure for Madrid to allow and to meet with her. And unfortunately, because of time pressures both on her schedule with a follow-on meeting at the White House with the President, and his time pressure in terms of being able – needing to depart to get to Madrid, we were not allow – able to present media availability on that.

They talked about a number of things – proximity talks and the progress thus far. George Mitchell will be back in the region next week to follow up on the meetings that President Abbas had this week with the President and the Secretary. The specific times and days are still being worked out. They talked about the situation in Gaza. The president shared some ideas on how to expand access for people and goods through the land border with Israel while preserving Israel’s security interests, and we pledged to continue ongoing discussions with Israelis and others on how to best achieve that.

Regarding security, the Secretary commended President Abbas for ongoing efforts to strengthen governance, reflected in the fact that there was growing confidence not just within the international community, but also among the Palestinian people for the institutions of government that President Abbas and Prime Minister Fayyad are building. And they talked about the economy and they reflected on the successful investment conference last week and many positive economic indicators. The discussions centered on issues that all leaders in all countries are focused on: jobs, exports, tourism, affordable housing, and how to expand private sector business opportunities.

Subsequent to the Secretary’s meeting with the President, her weekly meeting, she had a one-on-one lunch with King Abdullah. He is here in town on a private visit, but they discussed a range of issues within the region.

Staying in the Near East, Assistant Secretary Jeff Feltman will be returning to Baghdad on Monday, June 14 to review developments in the country, including the status of government formation. He’ll meet with Iraqi leaders, embassy staff, and U.S. forces in Iraq to discuss progress on the transformation of our relationship with Iraq from one focused on security to civilian-led partnership based on shared interests. He’ll return a week from today, and I think will be able to provide you a readout of his visit.

Prior to meeting with President Abbas, the Secretary met with Senator Chris Dodd and Representative Howard Berman as part of our ongoing Hill consultations on the pending Iraq – I’m sorry, Iran, sanctions legislation. This is an example of wide-ranging and – discussions that the Secretary has maintained with members of both chambers and both parties on Iran, budget, and other issues of importance to the Department of State.

We see this as important legislation, an opportunity at the national level to build on UN Security Council Resolution 1929. We discussed a variety of concerns with the chairman. I’m not going to go into specifics, but we want to ensure that the legislation supports ongoing international efforts to enforce Resolution 1929. We want to make sure that the legislation has flexibility so we can work cooperatively with the international community, that what is in the legislation can actually be effectively implemented and is focused on the areas of greatest concern that we have with Iran.

QUESTION: The flotilla investigation, did that come up at all in the conversation with President Abbas? And could you give us an update – has the U.S. been talking with Israel about a potential American component?

MR. CROWLEY: It was not a substantial part of the conversation. The focus with President Abbas was more on trying to find ways to relieve the suffering of the people of Gaza. And he presented the Secretary with some ideas that from a Palestinian Authority standpoint that he felt needed to be done. And we will – and we are discussing our own ideas and we’ll also discuss President Abbas’s ideas with Israel and others.

QUESTION: Mm-hmm. But any update on U.S. – potential U.S. participation in that –

MR. CROWLEY: This is something we continue to talk to the Israelis about.

QUESTION: (Inaudible.)

QUESTION: (Inaudible.)

MR. CROWLEY: All right. All right. One, two. Okay, go ahead. Eli.

QUESTION: On the flotilla investigation, will you be supporting a UN resolution calling for one or a UN investigation at this point?

MR. CROWLEY: Well, to a specific question, I think, that was asked of the White House earlier today, we’re not aware of any resolution that will be introduced at the UN next week. We are in discussion with the UN. I think Secretary General Ban is evaluating the situation and it was quite within his purview to do so.

QUESTION: Well, can I follow up on that?


QUESTION: In those discussions are you encouraging Security Council members to support the resolution –

MR. CROWLEY: Well, as we –

QUESTION: -- or are you saying that maybe this isn’t the right fora?

MR. CROWLEY: Well, as we have made clear, we support an Israeli-led investigation. As the Secretary has emphasized more than once, we are open to and discussing with Israel potential ways in which the international community can participate. We believe that this has to be seen as impartial. It has to be seen as credible. And international participation in some fashion can enhance the results and the outcome and the support for the investigation.


QUESTION: Today in an interview, Ambassador Oren said that Israelis will be the ones heading up that commission. Have you heard that?

MR. CROWLEY: I’m – try me again.

QUESTION: In an interview today, Ambassador Oren said that the Israelis will be the ones to lead up that commission that’s being proposed by the UN.

MR. CROWLEY: Well, again, as to what might be considered at the UN, I would defer to the Secretary General. It is within his purview to evaluate actions there. We are focused on the Israeli-led investigation and looking at ways in which the international community can support that.

QUESTION: A follow-up. Do you think this commission could be – set a bad precedent for investigations that might follow with incidents involving U.S. troops or intelligence operatives in wartime efforts?

MR. CROWLEY: Well, I think as the – again, I’m not making a comment on whether the UN is considering that form of review or whether or not that will be something that the Secretary General supports. That will be something that it will be up to him to consider and then discuss with UN member states. As we have just said, we continue to support the Israeli-led investigation, but we are working with the Israelis and others to see how we might be able to introduce an international component to that.

QUESTION: Is there an Israeli precedent that leads you to believe that Israel is best positioned to conduct such an investigation?

MR. CROWLEY: That’s –

QUESTION: Are you drawing on past –

MR. CROWLEY: Again, as we have said many, many times, if the question is, does Israel, as a strong, vibrant, competent government and democracy, have the capability to lead such an investigation, the answer is yes. But just as we saw –

QUESTION: Could you cite –

MR. CROWLEY: Let me finish. Just as we saw with the recent South Korean investigation of the Cheonan, that when you do introduce an international component to it, you bring additional competence and you bring additional force and credibility to that investigation. We’re very conscious of the fact that, say, on Monday, I believe, at the UN in a formal meeting, South Korea and those who conducted the investigation were bringing that matter to the Council. And we think it adds just the kind of credibility that we want to see come out of this investigation.

QUESTION: Can I ask –

MR. CROWLEY: Sure. Well, I’ll come back to you.

QUESTION: Okay. Give me a follow-up on this.

QUESTION: Just a follow-up on the Bhopal tragedy case --

QUESTION: The flotilla (inaudible)?

MR. CROWLEY: All right --

QUESTION: (Inaudible.)

MR. CROWLEY: All right. Let’s stay on the flotilla. Then we’ll come back.

QUESTION: Could I just follow up very quickly? Was that an issue that was discussed with the king of Jordan? I mean he’s on a private visit, but obviously the Secretary of State saw fit to --

MR. CROWLEY: With King Abdullah, we normally highlight various issues in the region. It would not surprise me if that was a topic discussed.


MR. CROWLEY: Go ahead.

QUESTION: -- ask you a related flotilla question?


QUESTION: Does the U.S. reserve the right to board ships that it believes, through – I’m thinking of the counter-proliferation initiative in international waters and that’s one element, I understand, of it. But doesn’t the U.S. believe it has the right to board a ship if it’s carrying, I guess, illicit materials in international waters?

MR. CROWLEY: I think some of that authority was incorporated into 1874 and I believe some of that authority has been incorporated into 1929.

QUESTION: So just to clarify, the U.S. believes it derives authority to board ships in international water from UN Security Council resolutions and not just as a matter of self defense or –

MR. CROWLEY: Well, I’m not going to get into a deep dive into international law, Eli, but I do believe that encumbered in the UN charter is a right to self-defense. And as to things like the proliferation security initiative or implementation of UN Security Council resolutions such as 1874 or 1929, we draw authority from those resolutions.

QUESTION: This Administration, including the Vice President, keep bringing up the South Korean investigation as an example. But for that parallel to hold up, since it was a South Korean ship that was attacked, shouldn’t Turkey be actually conducting the investigation?

MR. CROWLEY: Well, I believe Turkey has indicated it is going to conduct its own investigation. That is obviously a right that Turkey has.

QUESTION: So the U.S. would be in favor of helping the North Koreans?

MR. CROWLEY: It was – yes, you’re right. It was a Turkish vessel that was boarded and certainly Turkey has the right to investigate what happened on that ship.

QUESTION: So the U.S. would be willing to help North Korea conduct its own investigation into that? If that parallel is going to hold up –

MR. CROWLEY: Well, first of all, we’re not talking about a North Korean investigation. Well --

QUESTION: But you’re comparing the two.

MR. CROWLEY: We’re not talking about a North Korean vessel. If North Korea wants to investigate the sinking of the Cheonan, as it indicated it might, it might start by taking an inventory of its torpedoes. (Laughter.) But look, we – as an ally of South Korea, we were happy, along with other countries, to support the Cheonan investigation. We think we added value and technical expertise to that investigation. We certainly have volunteered, if Israel wishes to have the support and help of the United States in this investigation.

As the Secretary has said, we’re open to that. If Turkey wants our help in the investigation, we’re open to that possibility as well.

QUESTION: Thanks. And then just one other from the – unrelated, if I may, I want to take you back to some of the questions we discussed the day that the UN Security Council voted on the fourth Iran sanctions resolution.

There is a sentiment among some diplomats that the decision to announce the agreement among the P-5+1, about the resolution on May – I think it was 18th – two days after the Tehran declaration, and in particular, the Secretary’s statement to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that this was the clearest response that the U.S. could give to the Tehran declaration may have harmed your efforts to get the Brazilians or the Turks to at least abstain.

I know I raised this before but I wanted to make sure that I gave you an opportunity again to address why – (a) why it was that the U.S. Government decided to announce it had agreement on that Tuesday and why not give a little bit more time for the diplomatic string to play out, and (b) why the Secretary – whether you see any merit to the notion that the Secretary, talking about the announcement being a response to the Tehran declaration, didn’t perhaps hurt diplomatic efforts to keep the Turks and Brazilians with you on the resolution.

MR. CROWLEY: Well, let me work backwards to frontwards. First of all, in terms of the decision why Brazil and Turkey decided to vote no in the Council this week, that is something for Brazil and Turkey to explain. Why did we announce that Tuesday, that we had reached agreement with the P-5+1? Because we had reached agreement with the P-5+1 and advanced the resolution process. It is perfectly reflective of our dual-track approach in terms of both advancing and engaging and being open to diplomacy.

And even as we stand here, we continue to be open to any diplomacy that countries like Brazil and Turkey are willing to engage in, and we appreciate their efforts, or any diplomacy that Iran is prepared to engage in – and we are still open to that – and Iran, even following the Tehran declaration, has yet to pick up the phone and call the P-5+1 and say we’re ready to talk about our nuclear program. That is something we’ve been waiting months and years for Iran to do.

We have a – the same strategic goal that Turkey and Brazil have in preventing the emergence of a nuclear Iran. We do disagree on tactics. We do have a disagreement about whether the Tehran declaration provided a sufficient opening that would put a pause on the other track. Our view, and the view of the P-5+1, was that the only way to really significantly push Iran towards diplomacy was, in fact, to pass this resolution. We respect the fact that Turkey and Brazil have a different point of view.

We – and we – as we indicated earlier this week, also in our response to Iran’s letter to the IAEA, we continue – what we did in the Council was based on our ongoing concern about Tehran’s enrichment and its clear statements that regardless of the Tehran declaration, the Tehran research reactor proposal, that it was going to continue to enrich. That is in violation of UN Security Council resolutions. And on that basis, we felt it was appropriate to continue to pursue the resolution that passed the Council this week.

We respect the fact that Turkey and Brazil have a different point of view. We are disappointed that they did not join the rest of the consensus within the Council. But we will work – continue to work with them as we continue to press Iran to come forward and answer the questions that we all have about its nuclear program.

QUESTION: And you don’t think you might not have had a better chance of avoiding your disappointment and securing, if not their yes votes, then at least their abstentions, had you waited a little bit longer?

MR. CROWLEY: Well, we felt that this was the time to send a clear message to Iran. I think we are also mindful of the fact that tomorrow will mark the first anniversary of the illegitimate election in Iran and the consequent repression and restrictions on freedom of assembly and freedom of expression that have followed the election last year in Iran. So we thought that this was the right time to send a very clear message to Iran that it’s on the wrong course and has to change.

QUESTION: And just one simple one.


QUESTION: Why was it the right time?

MR. CROWLEY: I think the – it was the right time because it is – it was Iran that said very flatly, beginning in New York when the foreign ministers met on the margins of the NPT conference, and then even in Tehran with the leaders of Brazil and Turkey present, that regardless of any declaration, regardless of any TRR proposal, Iran was going to continue to enrich uranium to 20 percent. That is a fundamental violation of previous Security Council resolutions. It is a violation of Iran’s obligations under the NPT. Iran remains the only country in the world that has failed to convince the IAEA of the peaceful intentions of its nuclear program.

Mindful of the fact that over the – during the time in which we had put the TRR proposal on the table, Iran had effectively doubled the amount of enriched uranium. The TRR proposal back in October was meant as a confidence-building measure. But given Iran’s reluctance, and then its ongoing enrichment and then its 11 and a half hour proposal, we did not think that the actions of Iran were the kind of confidence building that we were looking for back in October.

And so given that broad sweep, it wasn’t ever about the TRR proposal per se, but the broader question of Iran’s obligations. And we felt this was the right step to do. We stand by our vote. We’ll have other countries explain the actions that they took.

But I think we are encouraged by the fact that Brazil, and I believe Turkey, as with other countries, have indicated they’re going to fully implement 1929. And we’re going to put the kind of pressure on Iran that is called for in the resolution.

QUESTION: Afghanistan. In view of the recent developments in Afghanistan – the peace jirga, resignation of ministers, and Taliban are killing more people – increasingly more people than last week – what is your assessment of the current situation in the country, and what do you expect from the Kabul conference on the 20th?

MR. CROWLEY: Well, we – with the meeting of special representatives this week in Madrid, one of their primary purposes in getting together was to begin to draw up an agenda, or support the Afghan agenda for the Kabul conference. This is – we continue to support the government. We’re mindful of the fact that President Karzai sought the resignations of two ministers. We trust that they will be replaced with equally competent ministers. This is an Afghan-led process in terms of the reconciliation efforts, signified by the peace jirga last week. Regarding the situation on the ground, as I think General McChrystal has said, this is tough business and it’s going to take some time before we see the kind of results that we want.

QUESTION: So are you still on that – next year’s deadline of June 2011 to withdraw troop – starting withdrawing troops from there?

MR. CROWLEY: There is no change in the President’s timetable.

QUESTION: P.J., answering Arshad’s question on Iran, did you call the – last year’s election illegitimate? Or does that mean you don’t consider President Ahmadinejad legitimate leader of Iran?

MR. CROWLEY: Yeah, I --

QUESTION: Because I thought the White House took rather long pause. And then they finally recognized him as the legitimate --

MR. CROWLEY: Well, we --

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