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Middle East Digest - July 8, 2010

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Washington, DC
July 8, 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 July 8, 2010

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1:23 p.m. EDT

QUESTION: The Secretary spoke about this a bit earlier but a couple of follow ups. Would this be an incident that would start leading the United States to reconsider the embargo, to start considering a lifting of the embargo?

MR. TONER: Well, I think the Secretary welcomed it as a positive or a constructive sign. Really, at the point we’re at now, is we’ve got the announcement by the Catholic Archbishop of Havana, and that’s pertaining to five political prisoners that will be released shortly and that others will be released in the coming months. But we’re working to confirm right now whether any prisoners have actually been released. So I don’t want to get out ahead of where we’re at.

QUESTION: (Inaudible.)

MR. TONER: I think it’s – again, I don’t want to speculate on what it might lead to, but I think we view it – as the Secretary said as much, as a welcome and positive sign.

QUESTION: And in terms of their --

MR. TONER: Their development.

QUESTION: In terms of the the actual prisoners, once they’re released, Spain is offering to take them. Could the U.S. consider taking some of them?

MR. TONER: Well, we think that those released should be free to decide whether to remain in Cuba and those who do leave should be able to return to their country. But we support efforts to secure the release of prisoners of conscience from Cuban jails and provide asylum for those who seek it and are eligible. So, I think we would welcome --

QUESTION: So they would be welcome in the U.S.?

MR. TONER: Absolutely.

QUESTION: Now, this has been negotiated by the Cardinal Ortega and by the – some Spanish diplomats. Was the United States aware of these negotiations at the time or just was surprised as everyone else yesterday?

MR. TONER: We were aware.

QUESTION: You were aware. Did you participate in those negotiations at all?

MR. TONER: I’m not sure what level of participation we had. We were aware of the progress. And again, we welcome --

QUESTION: Did you seek –

MR. TONER: Once we actually have the prisoners transferred.

QUESTION: Did you seek to get clarity on Mr. Gross’s situation through these talks? If you were aware that these were going on, was there any attempt to draw his case into the discussion?

MR. TONER: It’s a good question. That specific question, I can check on for you. I mean, obviously, we remain very focused on the welfare of Alan Gross. We last visited him on June 29th. And we’re going to continue using every diplomatic channel available to remind them this is a matter of grave importance to us, and we continue to call on his immediate release. I don’t know that --

QUESTION: So you don’t know if –

MR. TONER: I don’t know if the --

QUESTION: -- Spanish foreign minister would be a diplomatic channel that you could be using in this case?

MR. TONER: Yeah, I’ll take the question. It’s a legitimate question.

QUESTION: How is Mr. Gross’s health?

MR. TONER: Don’t know – if we have a Privacy Act waiver, I can answer that. If we can, I’ll get an answer for you.

QUESTION: On the same issue of Alan Gross, can – the way you answered the previous questions, I’m led to believe, at least, it’s not been raised. Was that incorrect? Did I draw the wrong –

MR. TONER: It’s not been raised in the context of --

QUESTION: Within the context of this deal?

MR. TONER: Again, I totally need to check.

QUESTION: Well, okay.

MR. TONER: I imagine we would, because we seek every diplomatic channel and every opportunity, but I’ll check on it.


QUESTION: On a different –

MR. TONER: Yeah, go ahead.

QUESTION: Sure. Go ahead.

MR. TONER: (Inaudible) Cuba, yeah.

QUESTION: On Cuba, yeah. I just want to make sure I understand where you’re getting the information. In other words, are you getting it from the church, from Spain, from Cuba directly? Because you’re indicating five will be released shortly, but you’re working on confirming whether they’re actually released. Is that the case?

MR. TONER: Right. Well, we have our Interests Section there. I think we would – I mean, obviously, this is being spearheaded by the Catholic archbishop of Havana. They’re the ones who issued the statement. We’re looking to them as well as the Cuban Government. And I know that the Secretary spoke with Moratinos last night, and so I would say all three. But we’re just looking to confirm it. I mean, right now, we’ve got no confirmation.


QUESTION: On Afghanistan, today ministers of Afghanistan and Pakistan held their sixth round of talks on the transit trade agreement, but they haven’t reached any agreement so far. You know the (inaudible) Secretary of State Clinton, the MOU was signed last year that they would conclude this agreement by December 2009, but it hasn’t been concluded. What’s the U.S. role in it? And aren’t you having an influence on these two countries to finalize the --

MR. TONER: This is – I’m sorry, what agreement is it?

QUESTION: Transit trade agreement –

MR. TONER: Yeah.

QUESTION: -- between Afghanistan and Pakistan, which was (inaudible) to be signed before December 2009, but it hasn’t been signed yet.

MR. TONER: I mean, I’m not aware of what any roadblocks exist. Obviously, it’s a positive thing whenever Afghanistan and Pakistan work together constructively on any kind of agreement. We obviously support that process, and also any agreement that would bring increased trade and economic benefit to both countries, so – is really a win-win. I don’t know what impediments remain, though. I can’t give you a timeline on when it might be reached.

QUESTION: And also, there was a report in Afghanistan today which said that corruption in Afghanistan has doubled since 2007.

MR. TONER: I’m sorry, report in Pakistan that said corruption in Afghanistan --

QUESTION: No, report in Afghanistan --

MR. TONER: Sorry, okay.

QUESTION: -- which says that corruption in Afghanistan has doubled since 2007. Is it an issue of concern to you? Do you think the Government of Afghanistan is working on this?

MR. TONER: Yes, corruption is an issue of concern for us in Afghanistan. President Karzai’s spoken to it. We remain focused on it as well and are going to continue to work with the Afghan Government to ensure that processes are transparent and accountable.

Yeah, go ahead.

QUESTION: I know this issue’s been addressed previously, but Amnesty International is saying that the stoning execution in Iran is imminent, that it will imminently take place. Have there been any developments on this from the U.S. front? Has the U.S. made any appeals? Obviously, there are no diplomatic relations, but has the U.S. – does the U.S. have anything more to say on this case?

MR. TONER: Well, we’re deeply troubled by press reports of the planned execution by Iranian authorities of Ms. Ashitiani by stoning. Stoning, as a means of execution, is tantamount to torture. It’s barbaric and an abhorrent act. The recent United States General – United Nations General Assembly resolution on the situation of human rights in Iran called specifically on Iranian authorities to end the practice of stoning. We call on the Iranian authorities to live up to their due process commitments under the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights. And we condemn in the strongest terms of the use of the practice of stoning anywhere it occurs as a form of legalized death by torture.

Go ahead, Courtney.

QUESTION: Actually mine is the same question. But the British foreign minister has been – was a little bit stronger than that in his condemnation of this and beyond just the idea that it would be an execution by stoning, but the fact that this woman is being held at all for adultery. I mean, is there – has the U.S. made any kind of – I know there’s not strong diplomatic ties between Iran, but has the U.S. made any kind of more assertive effort to stop this or work through intermediaries to --

MR. TONER: Well, again, I mean, I think the language I just used was pretty strong in condemning the practice of stoning. I probably would need to get back to you on what, if any, diplomatic channels we’ve been pursuing. But obviously, we’re taking a strong public stance against it as a barbaric practice.

Yeah, go ahead.

QUESTION: New topic.

MR. TONER: Yeah.

QUESTION: Israeli officials were saying yesterday that they’ve come to an agreement with the U.S. on nuclear energy. I was wondering if you could give us a few details about that. What exactly have they agreed to do?

MR. TONER: There’s no agreement between the United States and Israel to pursue a nuclear cooperation agreement. There was no discussion of this issue between the President and prime minister.

QUESTION: Just – that – so, what –

MR. TONER: I mean, it’s such a –

QUESTION: It’s fiction?

MR. TONER: Well, you’ll have to ask the Israelis. All technical exchanges between the U.S. and Israel in the nuclear field are limited to non-proliferation, basic energy sciences. And that’s – that’s got cooperation permitted under U.S. law and policy. So –

Sorry, Sean in the back.

QUESTION: Do you have anything new on the U.S. geologist in China?

MR. TONER: Beyond what we said the other day, I don’t have any updates on it.


QUESTION: Back to Iran. Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator apparently has sent a letter to Catherine Ashton suggesting that talks could resume in September if the Western powers agree to take up certain issues, including committed to the rationale of dialogue and also to discussing what they’re calling Israel’s nuclear program. First thing, are you aware that they’ve received this letter in response to hers – to Iran? And secondly, does the U.S. have any position on whether these conditions or any conditions can be attached to restarting talks?

MR. TONER: I think we’re still evaluating the letter. We remain committed to engaging Iran. It’s part of the two-track policy, but we’re going to study the letter in detail before responding.

QUESTION: It might be a dumb question, but is it a special case for Cuba or U.S as a policy is taking the statements from the church leaders as official statements --

MR. TONER: No, I think we said – I think I said we tentatively view it as a positive development, and I don’t want to get out – too out in front. We actually want to see the prisoners released.

QUESTION: I’m talking about the statement from a church leader on which the U.S. reacts. So, there is --

MR. TONER: I’m sorry. You’re referring to the archbishop of Havana --


MR. TONER: -- about the political prisoners?


MR. TONER: And you’re – the question --

QUESTION: The question is –

MR. TONER: Is whether we would –

QUESTION: In the absence of a diplomatic statement, you are taking a church statement.

MR. TONER: Well, the – I mean, the Catholic Church is a diplomatic entity. So –

QUESTION: The Israeli military, they released some footage – what they said is Hezbollah stock piling weapons in the south of Lebanon in villages and the like. Is the U.S. aware of these – is it aware of this footage? Are there concerns about Hezbollah in light of this?

MR. TONER: First I’ve heard of it.


MR. TONER: Can look into it.


(The briefing was concluded at 1:44 p.m.)

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