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 14, 2010
QUESTION: Shahram Amiri has said before he left the U.S. that he was kidnapped in Saudi Arabia and brought to the United States and that he will tell the full story when he’s back to Iran tomorrow. Do you have anything on this?
MR. CROWLEY: I will simply repeat what I have said on more than one occasion. We did not kidnap him. He came to the United States of his free will. And as of last night, he left the United States of his free will.
QUESTION: When you – but yesterday, you said that you were assisting him in getting out of the country? Can you be a little bit more specific now that he’s gone about what your assistance entailed?
MR. CROWLEY: I was not suggesting it was significant. He was in need of assistance to be able to leave, and to the extent that we could, we helped him do that.
QUESTION: Can you explain what that was? I mean --
MR. CROWLEY: No.
QUESTION: -- did you fly him to D.C.? Did --
MR. CROWLEY: I’m not aware that we did, no.
QUESTION: -- you pay for his cab to the embassy?
MR. CROWLEY: I’m not aware that we did.
QUESTION: Did you talk to the Qataris to get him a visa or something?
MR. CROWLEY: I can’t say. I don’t know.
QUESTION: P.J., what exactly was he doing here for – what, 13 months or so, an extended period?
MR. CROWLEY: Well, Michele, I’ll just forecast that he perhaps will explain what he was up to in the past 13 months.
QUESTION: But what does the State Department think he was up to?
MR. CROWLEY: Hmm?
QUESTION: What does the State Department – how you define this time that he spent here?
MR. CROWLEY: He was here as a private citizen.
QUESTION: On a tourist visa?
MR. CROWLEY: Huh?
QUESTION: On a tourist visa?
MR. CROWLEY: I do not know what kind of travel document he had.
QUESTION: Well, P.J., if he was here as a --
QUESTION: Could you take that question?
MR. CROWLEY: All right, first of all, I mean, I understand the question. It’s a valid question. If we grant people visas, that is confidential. So I just don’t – I don’t know what kind of a travel document he had when he arrived here. He was here as a private citizen. I can’t speak to you as to where he was. Some suggested in one of the videos he was in Tucson. That may be true. Don’t know. Some coverage in the media today that he was pursuing some sort of academic program in Arizona. I don’t know.
He was here as a private citizen. And normally, when people are here, it’s not the responsibility of the Department of State to follow them as they go through their private pursuits.
QUESTION: Well --
QUESTION: Can you, however, take the question as to what kind of document he had when he came here, what kind of visa?
MR. CROWLEY: I don’t know that we’ll be able to answer that question.
QUESTION: P.J., if he was --
QUESTION: Well, why would that be?
QUESTION: Yesterday --
MR. CROWLEY: We don’t – we normally don’t go around saying that we’ve issued so-and-so a visa, we’ve issued so-and-so – I do recognize that today, we have said that we’ve issued a travel document to a lacrosse team. But he was here in a private capacity. I do not know who helped him get here, if anyone did. He was here. He was here of his own volition and he left of his own volition. If he wants to talk about this, he can.
QUESTION: P.J., yesterday, you said that the U.S. Government had been in contact with him during his stay in the United States. Why, as you’ve repeated here numerous times, that if he was a private citizen, why was the government – why did the government have any contact with this guy at all?
MR. CROWLEY: I’m not going to talk any more about Mr. Amiri. He has left the United States. If he wants to talk about his experiences here, that’s up to him.
QUESTION: But – so you can’t explain why the U.S. Government --
MR. CROWLEY: I’m --
QUESTION: -- would be involved in – would be in contact with this private citizen?
MR. CROWLEY: I have given you everything I can give you.
QUESTION: But you can tell us that he entered the country legally and stayed here legally without the knowledge of law enforcement agencies, without anyone --
MR. CROWLEY: He was here legally and he was here of his own volition. And he has departed the United States. And as far as I’m concerned, that’s the end of the story.
QUESTION: Is there (inaudible) --
MR. CROWLEY: I understand that others may have a different view.
QUESTION: P.J., is there likely to be any kind of embarrassing ramifications to the Saudis --
MR. CROWLEY: Pardon me?
QUESTION: Is there likely to be any embarrassing ramifications for the Saudis (inaudible) to the Americans today on the Israeli (inaudible)?
MR. CROWLEY: Embarrassing – all right, slow down. Embarrassing --
QUESTION: Is there likely to be any kind of embarrassing information that he may divulge that could embarrass Saudi Arabia or the United States? What are you --
MR. CROWLEY: I mean, he has decided to return to Iran. That was his decision to make. Now, what happens when he gets there? Who knows? I mean, while he was here in the United States, as you inquired, periodically, he made a number of videos. Some of those videos were contradictory. I have no idea who he was communicating with and – or to or for what reason.
So I think that probably whatever he said, because he had conflicting information and perspective on whether he was here of his own volition or not, from the United States standpoint, I could tell you he was here of his own volition, nobody coerced him to come here, and no one coerced him to leave. But once he gets back to Iran, I suspect that he’ll have a variety of things to say. And my advice would be take what he says with a grain of salt.
QUESTION: Do you expect the Iranians will release the Americans from the prison?
MR. CROWLEY: We know what Iran should do. The hikers have been held now for almost a year without charge. They were exactly as we described them. They were hikers in Iraq who wandered close to or across an unmarked border. We believe they should be released on humanitarian grounds and we would continue to encourage Iran to do that as soon as possible.
QUESTION: The Swiss ambassador to Tehran was in Washington two weeks ago, I think. Have you discussed Amiri’s issue with him?
MR. CROWLEY: As we indicated, I think, in a response to a question taken, we have had conversations, or at least one conversation with the Swiss to alert them that Mr. Amiri would be returning to Iran.
QUESTION: Can you explain that phone call that Jeff Feltman made to the Swiss ambassador? Why, if this guy’s a private citizen, would that kind of call be made? Irani – private Iranian citizens who are in this country leave this country all the time and you don’t get in touch with the Swiss about it.
MR. CROWLEY: Well, I think in this particular case, we had a strong suspicion that there would be media coverage of this development and that we wanted to make sure that the Swiss ambassador, who is our protecting power in Iran, was aware of something that was likely to gain international attention.
QUESTION: I see. So it’s our fault? (Laughter.)
QUESTION: There was some suggestion --
MR. CROWLEY: No, you were doing your great work that you do every day.
QUESTION: There was some suggestion a few months ago that the Iranians via the Swiss had passed on a list of 10 or 11 Iranian citizens that they believed were being held inappropriately by the Americans or at the Americans’ request in other countries. Number one, have you ever seen that list? And number two, has this come up again – the suggestion of some trade for the three hikers?
MR. CROWLEY: Well, I think, actually, probably the best list of Iranians in U.S. custody as a result of transparent legal processes was put together by one of your colleagues. To the extent that the Iranians have provided us questions about particular citizens, we have answered those questions. If – as we have indicated many times, if there is an Iranian citizen in U.S. custody and Iran wants to arrange a consular visit, we are more than happy to make those arrangements. I am not aware, with one exception, that they have taken advantage of our offer.
QUESTION: Can you – yesterday, you spoke a tiny bit about this letter that the senatorial quartet from New York and New Jersey has sent to the --
MR. CROWLEY: A new term.
QUESTION: Yes. Calling it the quartet, of course, dooms is to failure. (Laughter.)
MR. CROWLEY: I would prefer to say a lengthy process. (Laughter.)
QUESTION: Has – the Secretary spoke this morning and said --
MR. CROWLEY: Yes, she did.
QUESTION: -- she had received the letter and they were looking into it.
MR. CROWLEY: I believe we received more than one.
QUESTION: Received – sorry?
MR. CROWLEY: I think we’ve actually received more than one.
QUESTION: More than one letter?
MR. CROWLEY: Letter.
QUESTION: From the four – from the quartet of senators? That would be the one today, too, or the one before?
MR. CROWLEY: Is there a new one today?
QUESTION: There’s another one today. It’s not from --
MR. CROWLEY: Usually, I get my information from you.
QUESTION: Yeah. Well, the four of them have latched on to this issue with vigor, it looks like, and they’re now – anyway, is the State Department willing to consider an investigation into whether BP was – had any kind of improper role in the Megrahi release?
MR. CROWLEY: We have – as the Secretary said, we have received a letter. It has made some recommendations to us. We are evaluating those recommendations and we’ll respond to the senators.
QUESTION: But in general, is it – is this something that you would be willing to look into?
MR. CROWLEY: I’m not going to make any predictions as to what our response to the senators will be.
QUESTION: Well, you say you’re evaluating the recommendations. On what basis are you evaluating them – whether it’s --
MR. CROWLEY: They made some suggestions of what we should do, and we will --
QUESTION: Are you looking at whether it’s within your capacity to do what they suggest or whether it’s advisable to do what they suggest or whether it’s – what (inaudible)?
MR. CROWLEY: Well, I mean, there are some practical questions of exactly what they would be asking us to do and what would be our ability to inquire as to a conversation that might – alleged to have taken place between a private company, a government, and another devolved government. So we have the letter. We are looking at the letter. We understand what they’ve asked us to do. And we will respond to the letter.
QUESTION: Senator Carl Levin yesterday called for declaring Pakistani Taliban and Haqqani Network as Foreign Terrorist Organization. What is holding the State Department from declaring them as FTO?
MR. CROWLEY: Well, nothing is holding us from taking any action. We are evaluating a number of entities in Pakistan. There’s a legal – there’s a process and legal criteria that has to be met. This is something that we’re looking into. And we’ll make a determination one way or the other when we’re finished.
QUESTION: Don’t you think the delay in this would help these organizations to have transfer of funds and even raise funds here in the U.S.?
MR. CROWLEY: Well, I mean, obviously, there is an impact on any group that is designed as a Foreign Terrorist Organization. It has very definite financial and legal implications. It’s one of the reasons why there is a deliberate process involved, whether you’re talking about the Haqqani Network, whether you’re talking about the Pakistani Taliban or any group anywhere in the world. We take this responsibility seriously. We designate individuals and groups on an ongoing basis. We have evaluated these groups for quite some time. We evaluate not only in terms of what they’ve done, the threat they represent to the United States, and the prospective policy impact that this has. So if the question is, are we looking into the Haqqani Network, we are. Have we reached a determination yet? We have not.
QUESTION: But clearly, this Haqqani Network group sends a threat to U.S. troops in Afghanistan. I mean, I don’t think anyone would deny that. Is President Karzai and the Karzai administration’s associations with Haqqani Network one of the things that’s factoring into this not being declared a terrorist --
MR. CROWLEY: Again, we are evaluating the Haqqani Network, but we have not reached any determination.
QUESTION: Do you know how long the State Department has been evaluating the Haqqani Network as a potential --
MR. CROWLEY: I mean, the Haqqani Network has been known to us for some time. This is not something that snuck up on us. So I mean, as I’ve described before, this is an ongoing process. We look at what’s happening on the ground. We look at intelligence that tells us what threat do they represent either to our allies or to the United States directly. This is not a static situation. Developments change over time. And it is some – but it is something that we are actively looking at.
QUESTION: (Inaudible) a follow-up on the Afghanistan. I’m sorry if I missed it, if you commented on the friendly fire that – from Afghan side killing NATO (inaudible).
MR. CROWLEY: I have not. I don’t – I’ve seen the coverage, obviously, of this tragedy. It’s something that happens in conflict zones. I’m sure the military is working with the Afghan side. Anytime that we have these kinds of episodes, whether it’s – in either direction – and they have, tragically, happened over the course of our time in Afghanistan – we evaluate what we can do better to try to do everything that we can to avoid unintentional deaths and injuries on the battlefield.
QUESTION: (Inaudible) on Iraq?
QUESTION: Those were intentional, by the way.
MR. CROWLEY: Well, I --
QUESTION: The guy went after them.
QUESTION: On Iraq?
MR. CROWLEY: Go ahead.
QUESTION: Could you tell us actual steps that the U.S. Government may be taking or could potentially take to help Iraq get from underneath Chapter 7? I mean, beyond the rhetoric and the (inaudible) and all that, what are the actual steps that the U.S. Government is taking to get Iraq from underneath Chapter 7?
MR. CROWLEY: This is something that the Secretary and the Iraqi foreign minister talked about at length during the course of their meeting yesterday. The United States is only one of a number of countries that – for which this is an issue. The foreign minister talked yesterday about the steps that Iraq has taken in terms of working on – to clarify responsibilities under various contracts, questions that still exist within the UN. It has undertaken a number of steps to improve its relationship with Kuwait. We are a part of that process. The Secretary pledged that we will continue to work with Iraq and within the Security Council to help Iraq emerge from its Chapter 7 status.
QUESTION: Same topic or a similar topic, going back to India-Pakistan. In a newspaper interview today, the Indian home secretary said that the Pakistani ISI planned and executed the Mumbai attacks. And he made these comments after the Indian interrogators had talked to David Headley. Based on our information from David Headley, is he correct?
MR. CROWLEY: The Indian officials met with Mr. Headley in the last few weeks. I do not know what they talked about.
QUESTION: But didn’t – no, my question was: Based on our information, given the fact that he was interrogated by American officials, is he correct?
MR. CROWLEY: Again, I don’t think – I don’t see how I can comment from here. Anything I would say would either compromise intelligence information or an ongoing legal investigation.
QUESTION: On the Haqqani Network. So you said that you were working through objective criteria in deciding their designation as a terrorist organization. Are you involving Pakistan and Afghanistan or the leaders in specific aspects of that discussion?
And secondly, as I asked Mr. Holbrooke yesterday, do you have any concerns that such designations, if they do go through, will lead to a divide in terms of what – how the U.S. views future governments in Afghanistan?
MR. CROWLEY: Well, let’s separate out two issues. As to whether we, the United States, designate any individual or any group as a foreign terrorist organization or as a foreign terrorist, that is something that we do, it’s a judgment that we make based on our laws. And that does not involve any other country.
As to whether we are in discussions with Pakistan and Afghanistan about insurgents on both sides of the border and how to best defeat them, yes, every day we talk to both countries about the terrorist threat that confronts all of us – as a threat to all of us and to security in the region. So that conversation we have on an ongoing basis. In terms of any step that we take, we have to evaluate not only legally whether we can document, because it does have financial and legal consequences and frequently, we could be subject to a lawsuit, so we would have to defend a decision that we’ve made in these designations. So you want to make sure that you have done your due diligence and you can actually defend a decision that is made.
We also make sure that any action that we take actually supports our broader strategy, and we understand the impact that that designation would have on the ground in either Pakistan or Afghanistan. So these are all things that we take into account when we evaluate steps like this.
MR. CROWLEY: Go ahead.
QUESTION: The Turkish foreign minister made a statement today, and he denied some reports claiming there is an agreement between U.S. and Turkey, that Turkey will leave the negotiation on Iran nuclear program.
MR. CROWLEY: All right. I didn’t hear the verb there. That?
QUESTION: He denied the reports claiming that Turkey will leave the negotiation with Iran on Iran nuclear – Iran’s nuclear program. Today, he made a statement after the phone call --
MR. CROWLEY: But again, that he would leave?
MR. CROWLEY: Okay.
QUESTION: After the phone conversation between him and Secretary Clinton. Because some reports claiming that Turkey will leave the negotiation with – after – with Iran on the nuclear – Iran’s nuclear program. And he said that Turkey will be involved in this process.
MR. CROWLEY: Well, I don’t see those as necessarily being mutually exclusive. In other words, Turkey and Iran are neighbors. One would expect that Turkey and Iran will continue to have diplomatic contacts. It is within their rights, and obviously, what happens in Iran has a profound and direct influence on Turkey.
What the Secretary said to the foreign minister in their call earlier this week was that at this stage, the primary focus should be on Iran engaging constructively the IAEA and the P-5+1. And we believe that there was a mutual understanding about the importance of getting Iran to engage the IAEA and the P-5+1 at this stage of the game.
QUESTION: A final one. Are you --
MR. CROWLEY: I’ll get to you.
QUESTION: Are you worried about President Mubarak’s health situation?
MR. CROWLEY: I can’t comment on President Mubarak’s health. That would be a health – that would be something for the Egyptian Government to comment on. We continue to value the contribution that President Mubarak has made to peace and security in the region. We always wish him good health, but as to his current status, I’ll defer to the Egyptian Government.
QUESTION: Do you have a comment on the burqa ban that passed the French parliament yesterday?
MR. CROWLEY: I would only say that as I understand it, this is a first step in what may be a lengthy legislative and perhaps legal process. So all I – and beyond that, all I can say is from our standpoint here in the United States, we would take a different step to balance security and to respect religious freedom and the symbols that go along with religious freedom.
QUESTION: What would that step be?
MR. CROWLEY: We do not think that you should legislate what people can wear or not wear associated with their religious beliefs.
QUESTION: Prime Minister – the Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s policies seems to continue to speak from the two sides of his mouth. You expressed hopes yesterday that what Senator Mitchell would find on the ground in his trip will be hopeful for a resumption of direct negotiations. Yet we see that beside the demolitions of houses by Israelis in Jerusalem and having the kids and babies and families staying out in the open, now we see Palestinians from behind the green line – those are the territories that – of the Palestinians that were exist in the territories before the creation of Israel in 1948. These – one of these towns is going to be razed from the ground by the Israeli policy that is asking the Palestinians to show proof of their ownership of these houses. These Palestinians were on the TVs all across the Arab world and on al-Jazeera showing their documents that they have since the 1930s of their ownerships of these houses in this town before the creation of Israel.
Now, this could go into the category of ethnic cleansing by Israel. How conducive this kind of policy is going to be for peace in the Middle East? How helpful to your attempts to get to the point where you can actually make circumstances viable for peace in the Middle East?
MR. CROWLEY: I think you captured the essence of the challenge that we face, which is why George Mitchell will leave tonight and be in the region tomorrow and will have meetings with Israeli and Palestinian officials before the end of the week. As we said yesterday, the kinds of actions that we saw yesterday in the demolition of houses, we understand fully that this raises the emotions understandably so. It is exactly the kind of unilateral action that undermines trust. It is the very kind of action that poses a potential obstacle to direct negotiations, which we think is the only route to addressing the final status issues, whether it’s the status of Jerusalem, borders of a viable Palestinian state, security for the people of Israel, and resolution of refugees in these territories and throughout the region.
That’s what we’re trying to do. That’s why George is going back to the region this week. And as we continue to say, any steps that the Israelis, Palestinians, or other parties take that change the facts on the ground, we think, is unhelpful