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Middle East Digest - July 13, 2010

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Washington, DC
July 13, 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 13, 2010

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MR. CROWLEY: Okay. Continuing on several things to mention before taking your questions, you obviously had the chance to hear from Secretary Clinton earlier this morning following her meeting with Foreign Minister Zebari of Iraq. He is in Washington today leading Iraq’s delegation to the second diplomatic Joint Coordination Committee meeting here at the State Department. The JCC is an integral part of implementation of our Strategic Framework Agreement with Iraq, and they discussed a wide range of issues.

But as the Secretary indicated, most of their discussion centered around Iraq’s ongoing efforts to form a representative and inclusive government, and the Secretary encouraged Foreign Minister Zebari to continue that effort and to form that government as soon as possible.

George Mitchell will depart tomorrow for the Middle East. He’ll have meetings with the parties and with other leaders in the region and Europe during that travel. The specifics of his travel are still being worked, but during the course of his meetings with Israeli and Palestinian officials, he’ll have the opportunity to review the current situation in Gaza, the implementation of Israel’s new policy with respect to goods entering Gaza.

In that context, obviously, we are conscious of the fact that there is a Libyan aid ship en route to Gaza as we speak, and that we, along with our partners in the Quartet, urge all those wishing to deliver goods to do so through established channels so that their cargo can be inspected by the Government of Israel and transferred via land crossings into Gaza. We have urged the Libyan Government to avoid unnecessary confrontations. We call on all parties to act responsibly in meeting the needs of the people of Gaza.

Senator Mitchell will also have the opportunity to review circumstances on the ground and the current environment that we hope will lead to direct negotiations as soon as possible. In that vein, obviously, we are concerned about reports today of a number of buildings in East Jerusalem being demolished. The United States has made it clear that it disagrees with some Government of Israel actions in Jerusalem that affect Palestinians in areas such as housing, including home demolitions, and has urged all parties to avoid actions that could undermine trust.

We continue to oppose and will make clear to the Government of Israel that we oppose unilateral actions that prejudge negotiations. The status of Jerusalem and all other permanent status issues must be resolved by the parties through negotiations.

QUESTION: Everything that I’m interested in today begins with I-R, so I’m going to start with Iran and the scientist. Do you have anything more that you can add to what you said this morning about Mr. Amiri?

MR. CROWLEY: I think the only thing I’d add is my understanding is he remains at the Pakistani Embassy here in Washington as he concludes travel arrangements back to Iran. And as we mentioned this morning, it was his decision to come to the United States and it’s his decision to depart the United States.

QUESTION: You said this morning that you believe that he had been in touch with you all to let you know that he wanted to go back to Iran. Can you say when he got in touch with you about – to tell you that?

MR. CROWLEY: Well, he has been in the United States for some time. The United States Government has maintained contact with him. I can’t tell you specifically when he made this decision to return to Iran, but as we indicated today and as the Secretary mentioned a bit ago, he is here of his free will and he’s – this is his decision to depart, and we are helping to facilitate that departure.

QUESTION: Why would the U.S. Government have contact with him? Presumably, if he was just a student, why would the U.S. Government have any contact with him during the time that he was in the U.S.?

MR. CROWLEY: I mean, you asked me a question: Did he --

QUESTION: No. Well, I asked when he --

MR. CROWLEY: -- indicate to us prior to today an intention to leave? The answer is yes.

QUESTION: Well, why would he need to express an intention to you to leave? If he was just a regular Iranian here on a visa, he’s free to come and go as he chooses. He doesn’t have to tell the U.S. Government he’s --

MR. CROWLEY: And Elise, you’re exactly right. He is free to --

QUESTION: Well, but he doesn’t have to tell – I mean, if a foreign national comes here on a visa – I’m sorry, if a foreign national comes here on a visa, they don’t call up the U.S. State Department and say “Hey, by the way, I’m headed back home.”

MR. CROWLEY: And let me clarify.

QUESTION: Why would he do that?

MR. CROWLEY: I’m not specifying who he was in touch with. The question was asked, did we know prior to today that he desired to leave the United States; the answer is yes. And we have been assisting him in his departure. I can’t tell you who has – who he called, why he called. These are – as the Secretary said, these were his decisions to make and he’s – he expressed a desire to depart and we expect that he will.

QUESTION: Why is this not a propaganda victory for Iran, considering they’ve maintained that he was here and that he – his real intention was to come back home, but he was forced to stay in the United States?

MR. CROWLEY: Well --

QUESTION: Now he says he wants to go back home.


QUESTION: Why is not – Iran not the victor here?

MR. CROWLEY: The facts speak for themselves. He is here of his own volition and he has chosen to return to Iran of his own volition. That is how we do things here in the United States. We didn’t seize him and bring him here and we’re not preventing him from returning to Iran.

QUESTION: Just a moment ago, you said that the U.S. has been helping him or assisting him in his departure. Can you explain how exactly you’re doing that?

MR. CROWLEY: I can’t offer you any – a specific. We – I’m not aware that we helped to transport him here. In fact, I think he made his own way here. But to the extent that we can be helpful in helping him arrange for appropriate travel documents so that he can transit certain countries on his way back to Iran, we are – if he wishes to leave, we’re not preventing him from doing that.

QUESTION: And then just to – are you in any way paying for his way back or anything? Because --

MR. CROWLEY: I can’t say that we are, no.

QUESTION: Okay. And then since you seem to be helping him, do you know when he plans to leave now? You seemed to know that – he was going to leave yesterday. When does he plan to leave now?

MR. CROWLEY: As I understand it, he requires visas from other countries to be able to transit those countries on his way back, and those arrangements are still being made.

QUESTION: Is this a missed opportunity?


QUESTION: Is this a missed opportunity for the U.S.?

MR. CROWLEY: A missed opportunity in what respect?

QUESTION: Why are you letting him leave?

MR. CROWLEY: Because this is a free country. If people want to come here, they have the opportunity to do so. If people wish to go back to their home countries, likewise they are free to do so.

QUESTION: Why did he come here in the first place?

MR. CROWLEY: That’s a question you’ll have to ask him. I don’t know.


MR. CROWLEY: I don’t know. I don’t know the answer. I can’t answer that.

QUESTION: You said --

QUESTION: You said --


QUESTION: Go ahead.

QUESTION: Go ahead.

QUESTION: You said the government had maintained contact with him. Can you elaborate on that?


QUESTION: You have said that – you said on – in the June 6th briefing, I believe, that the United States did not kidnap Mr. Amiri --

MR. CROWLEY: And we did not.

QUESTION: -- from – yeah, you said both that you didn’t kidnap him from Saudi Arabia, then you said categorically you didn’t kidnap him at all from anywhere.

MR. CROWLEY: That’s correct.

QUESTION: Are you aware of any other country having kidnapped him?

MR. CROWLEY: I am not aware of any country – again, I can only repeat what I’ve said this morning and repeat it here. He came to the United States under his own free will and he will depart the United States of his own free will.

QUESTION: Was he – was his transfer to the United States in any way facilitated by another country’s government or intelligence agency?

MR. CROWLEY: I do not know.

QUESTION: P.J., you said you don’t know why he was here. His visa status would at least give us a hint. Did he apply for a visa before he came or when he was here?

MR. CROWLEY: Visas – as you know, visas are confidential documents.

QUESTION: P.J., does anyone – do you or does the government have any opinion about the wisdom of his decision to return to Iran?

MR. CROWLEY: This was his decision to make.

QUESTION: But are you --

QUESTION: (Inaudible.)

QUESTION: (Inaudible.)

MR. CROWLEY: Again, I have not talked to him. I do not – I can’t tell you where he has been. All I can tell you is that he came here of his own free will and it’s his decision to go back to Iran. And these are decisions which free people are allowed to make.

QUESTION: Yes. Did – the question, though, is: Did you – do you have any opinion about the wisdom of this or did you offer – did the government offer him any advice as to whether it would be wise to --

MR. CROWLEY: I can’t say that we did.

QUESTION: -- wise to go back?

MR. CROWLEY: I mean, we did not coerce him to come here and we are not coercing him to stay here.

QUESTION: No, I know. But listen, you issue travel warnings to countries all over the world all the time. They’re not personal in nature, but you say that this guy, for some reason, whatever it is, has been in contact with the U.S. Government during the time that he’s been in the U.S. You say that you’re assisting him. You’re helping him to leave. Did you give him any advice about whether it was prudent to go back?

MR. CROWLEY: I can’t say that we have.

QUESTION: And then one last thing.

MR. CROWLEY: I don’t know.

QUESTION: You said that – when Kirit asked you about what kind of assistance you might give him, you said something about travel documents. What kind of travel documents could the U.S. Government provide an Iranian citizen traveling on an Iranian passport to get to a third country?

MR. CROWLEY: He would not need a U.S. document to do that.

QUESTION: Then why would you be assisting him with that?

MR. CROWLEY: I tell you what --

QUESTION: I mean, doesn't Iran have its own – they have their interests --

MR. CROWLEY: And it could well be that the primary assistance here is being done by the Government of Pakistan and the Iranian Interests Section within that Embassy.

QUESTION: Can I change the subject?

QUESTION: Can we stay with this just for a point of clarity? You stated that he was at the Pakistan Embassy, but it’s my understanding that the Iranian Interests Section is physically at a separate building from the Pakistani Embassy. Is it your understanding that he’s inside the Pakistani Embassy off Van Ness Street or that he’s at the Interests Section which is at a different location?

MR. CROWLEY: It’s a fair question. I actually – I was told he was still at the Embassy. That’s what I’ve been told.

QUESTION: (Inaudible.) We went over this a little bit yesterday about Mr. Megrahi, the Libyan bomber of Pan Am 103, about the fact that he kind of seemed to have lived a lot longer than doctors predicted. But now the senators that we talked about yesterday, they’re also raising the issue that – asking for a Senate investigation about a possible deal with BP being part of the reason why the British let him go. Can you – do you support the senators’ calls for an investigation and are you at all concerned that oil and trade deals were part of the deal? I know we talked about it a little yesterday.

MR. CROWLEY: Well, again, as to the reason why Scottish authorities made the decision that they made, we will leave it to them to explain why they made that decision. But the basis was for making that decision, how they evaluated the medical evidence that was presented to them. As we indicated then, as I indicated yesterday, I can repeat today, we felt that his release was a mistake.

QUESTION: But do you support a British – a Senate investigation into charges that the Brits kind of traded him for a deal – for oil deals?

MR. CROWLEY: I can tell you that we have received – there was mention made yesterday of a letter by a number of senators encouraging us to raise this issue with the new British Government. We have received that letter. I’m not aware that we’ve had a conversation yet with the British Government about this issue. It’s unclear that there’s anything that we can do at this point. A year ago, he was – 11 months ago he was released. We thought it was a mistake. We haven’t changed our view. He sits in Libya today and it is for Scottish authorities to explain the basis upon which they made the decision that they made. As I recall, a year ago, they indicated this was made on humanitarian grounds. We disagreed with that judgment. But I can’t offer an opinion as to whether we, the United States, ought to investigate a decision made by a previous British Government in consultation with Scottish authorities.

QUESTION: So do you want the Scottish authorities or the British Government to reinvestigate the medical evidence that was used to inform the decision to release Mr. Megrahi?

MR. CROWLEY: Well, I mean, we share the concerns raised in the letter to us that seems to draw – to question the medical basis upon which the Scottish authorities made the decision that they made. Again, this may well be an issue for the British Government to investigate. I’m not sure-- we regret what’s been done. I’m not sure at this point that there’s anything that we can do on this side of the Atlantic Ocean.

QUESTION: Just so we’re clear about the letters, there’s been a number of letters that have been written by these four senators. The letter that I have today – and I don’t know if it’s the same one that Elise is referring to – is dated July 13th. It asks not for a Senate investigation but for a State Department investigation into reports that BP might have sought to secure his release. The letter is addressed to Secretary Clinton. Do you have that letter, one, and do you have any intention of --

MR. CROWLEY: Okay, I will --

QUESTION: -- investigating that --

MR. CROWLEY: If there’s a letter that was dated today, it is possible that that is in transit to us as we speak. As to the letter that was mentioned yesterday, we, in fact, have that letter and we will respond to it. Again, there are some – serious question have been raised. We have had – we had extensive conversations with British and Scottish authorities last year leading up to the decisions that was made. We had subsequent conversations with the former British Government making clear that we disagreed with the judgment that had been made. I’m not aware that we have brought this issue up with the new British Government. But we will obviously review the letters that we’ve received, respond to them, and at that point we’ll make a judgment as to whether we think the actions that they have recommended are appropriate.

QUESTION: Can you take the question then – the letter is indeed on its way to you right now, you personally. Can you take the question once you’ve gotten it as to whether you think a State Department investigation is merited in this case?

MR. CROWLEY: Well, let me say that we – when we receive correspondence from members of Congress, we respond to them. We will respond to this letter and I will make note that when we respond to it we will find a way to communicate whether we think the steps that they’ve taken in these various letters are appropriate.

QUESTION: Can we go back to Iran for one sec, to the scientist?


QUESTION: Can I ask just a very simple question about this? Was Mr. – did Mr. Amiri, with whom you have admitted the U.S. Government has had contact, did he provide any information to the U.S. Government about Iran’s nuclear program?

MR. CROWLEY: I can’t answer that question.


QUESTION: Why can’t you answer that question?

MR. CROWLEY: I happen not to know the answer.

QUESTION: So you don’t know?

QUESTION: Can I follow up? He was not abducted, but he came to the U.S. of his own free will and he has been in touch with the U.S. Government. He must have been important enough to have contact with the U.S. Government. So was this a defection and is it a defection that has gone wrong because the U.S. Government let him down and he now faces the only option of going back to Iran?

MR. CROWLEY: Again, I can’t answer that question. I just don’t know the answer. He – all I can do is tell you he came here of his own free will and he’s leaving of his own free will.

QUESTION: Can you say why you wanted to get in contact with him while he was here? I mean, why him of all people? Why do you keep contact with him while he’s here?

MR. CROWLEY: Again, I can’t answer that question.


QUESTION: There’s a press report in Israel saying that the U.S. is threatening Jordan to cut aids because of this agreement in the negotiations of – on their nuclear program. Do you have anything on this?

MR. CROWLEY: Well, that particular report is absolutely false. The United States maintains excellent and steadfast relations with Jordan. It’s a strong partner on a range of issues, including the peace efforts and including energy issues. We support civilian nuclear energy in the Middle East region, including in Jordan, provided international standards for safety, security, and nonproliferation of such programs are met. This is an area that we continue to have extensive conversations with Jordan. It came up during the course of the meeting last week between the Secretary and the foreign minister of Jordan. Those conversations are ongoing. But we are not making any adjustments in our extensive aid to Jordan.

QUESTION: (Inaudible) this Amiri incident – have there been any further discussions or advancement on the three American hostages being held?

MR. CROWLEY: I can’t point to any particular discussions. Obviously, as we have indicated, Mr. Amiri is free to leave the United States of his own volition. We’re very mindful of the fact that today we have three American citizens – the hikers – in an Iranian jail. They are there without charge. They’re obviously there against their own free will.

So this is something that we will continue to encourage Iran on humanitarian grounds to grant their release. We’d like to see more information, as the Secretary indicated a while ago, on Robert Levinson. We’ve called on Iran to provide us information. They have failed to do so. So there is obviously, clearly, a contrast in terms of how we treat Iranian citizens in this country and how our citizens are treated in Iran.

QUESTION: Do you accept the premise of the question that the three are hostages?

MR. CROWLEY: They are in custody without charge.

QUESTION: Are they hostages? Do you regard them as hostages in the same way as --

MR. CROWLEY: I don’t know that I would use that terminology, per se. But we would like to see them released on humanitarian grounds as soon as possible.

QUESTION: At a press conference today, Senator Levin again called for the State Department to place the Haqqani Network and the Quetta Shura on the Foreign Terrorist Organization list. Do you have any update on that process or whether that’s being considered?

MR. CROWLEY: These are issues that we have under continual review, but I have no particular decisions to announce.

QUESTION: Can I ask – sorry, one more question about Iran? In your understanding, who was Shahram Amiri? What is he, just apart from just being an Iranian citizen? Is he a researcher, a scientist, just a student, nuclear specialist? What is he?

MR. CROWLEY: I mean, I can probably try to find if we have a bio somewhere of him. I mean, it’s not for me to characterize him. He obviously is an individual with some technical skill. But as to the basis upon which he made a decision to leave Iran and eventually come to this country, at some point perhaps, he’ll tell his own story. But that’s not something I need to do from here.

QUESTION: Have you been in touch with the Swiss about him or with the Iranians via the Swiss about him?

MR. CROWLEY: I’ll take that question.

QUESTION: Then – and I want to go to my other IR question.

MR. CROWLEY: Okay, hold that one.

QUESTION: Can you deny that he has ever discussed Iran’s nuclear facilities or anything
to do with Iran’s nuclear development?

MR. CROWLEY: Other than knowledge that he has put videos up on the – on YouTube from time to time, I actually have no knowledge about what he’s been doing since he’s been here in the United States.

QUESTION: Thank you.

MR. CROWLEY: Thank you.

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