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 15, 2010
12:29 p.m. EDT
MR. CROWLEY: Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan Richard Holbrooke is in Germany today where he is meeting with counterparts and government officials there, and then he will travel to the region to meet up with the Secretary as she departs Washington early next week.
QUESTION: India-Pak peace talks in Islamabad. What’s your impression about the meeting between Indian and Pakistani foreign ministers in Islamabad today?
MR. CROWLEY: I haven’t had a readout in terms of any specific things that have been accomplished. I think – I heard that the meeting went on longer than had been anticipated. We certainly welcome this high-level meeting between the foreign secretaries Qureshi and Krishna. It is expressly the kind of dialogue that we think will help to address and resolve issues of interest between the two countries and of consequence in the region as a whole. So we welcome this – the increase in and level of dialogue between the two countries.
QUESTION: Will this issue come up for discussion when the Secretary meets Indian foreign minister in Vietnam next week on bilateral?
MR. CROWLEY: Our discussions with Indian officials are broad. I’m sure when they see each other they’ll talk about bilateral and regional issues.
QUESTION: Shahram Amiri. Can the U.S. categorically say that he was a defector?
MR. CROWLEY: Well, he chose to leave Iran. He chose to come to the United States. He has chosen to return to Iran.
QUESTION: And I know that you had gone into this a couple of days ago, but can you elaborate on what efforts the U.S. undertook to try to convince him to stay? Was there any real concern about his family’s safety, for example?
MR. CROWLEY: Well, again, these were – this was his decision to make. He chose to come here, and we supported him in coming here. And he chose to go home, and we freely allowed him to do that. That is what we do in this country. He came here of his own free will, and he has departed and returned to Iran under his own free will.
And it is on that basis that we continue to believe that Iran should release our three hikers. They are exactly as we have described them – three hikers who walked up to an unmarked border. They are in custody. They have not been charged. And we believe strongly that they should be released on humanitarian grounds.
QUESTION: Now, he was given a hero’s welcome when he landed in Tehran overnight, our time. And it looks as if Tehran is trying to use him for a very blatant propaganda operation against U.S. intelligence. How worried is the U.S. Government about this development? And to follow on, is there any concern that perhaps Iran put him up to defecting and coming here?
MR. CROWLEY: I think we have every confidence that he was here by his own decision. He departed under his own decision. I don’t know that we can say why he left Iran, why he chose to return. I don’t think that there’s going to be any particular propaganda value in this. In fact, it points out the dichotomy. We allow people to come here, go home. We have our own citizens who have traveled to the region and are now in Iranian custody. We’re also obviously conscious of the case of Robert Levinson. We’ve sought Iranian cooperation to try to determine his whereabouts and welfare, and we’ve received no cooperation from Iran.
So Mr. Amiri – his return to Iran, I think, should underscore that we expect the same kind of treatment for our citizens when they travel to Iran.
QUESTION: P.J., two things on this: One, you said, “We supported him in coming here.” What exactly does that mean?
MR. CROWLEY: Well, I’m not going to get into particulars. But obviously, he made his way to the United States. We were happy to --
QUESTION: Was there money involved?
MR. CROWLEY: I’m not here to speak about money.
QUESTION: Well, but you are speaking – hold on. Hold on. You are speaking about --
MR. CROWLEY: I have no information --
QUESTION: All right.
MR. CROWLEY: -- that I can tell you about money.
QUESTION: And the second thing is that the other day, you said that there was no swap envisioned at all.
MR. CROWLEY: We are not negotiating a swap.
QUESTION: No. Right, I understand that. But you’re being now more explicit than you have been for the past couple days about the – you’ve got this dichotomy. Are you really hoping that this – that your allowing Amiri to go back to Iran is going to sway some – sway the Iranians into releasing the three hikers?
MR. CROWLEY: Well, the two cases are not connected. I know that --
QUESTION: Well, you’re connecting them. You just did, totally unprompted.
MR. CROWLEY: Well, I’m not – I’m – put it this way: I will state categorically we have three American citizens in Iranian custody. They’re not guilty of any crime other than crossing an unmarked border. They have not been charged. We’re coming up on the first anniversary of their incarceration. We want to see them released and returned to the United States.
This is an example where Iran demands respect from the international community. But we have shown with an Iranian citizen who chose to come here and has chosen to go home that we’re – he’s free to do so. We would expect the same consideration when it comes to our citizens when they travel to the region and up to the border between Iraq and Iran.
QUESTION: Well, what --
MR. CROWLEY: We would like to see our citizens home. The mothers of the three hikers were in Iran recently and made a direct appeal to Iranian authorities. But this – to the extent that the Iranian people are seeing Mr. Amiri return to Iran, we would like to have the same opportunity to welcome home to our country the three hikers and have information, at the same time, on the status of Mr. Levinson.
QUESTION: Mr. Amiri, though, was not accused of any crime in the United States.
MR. CROWLEY: And our three hikers are not guilty of any crime either.
QUESTION: Well, but you just said that they crossed the border.
MR. CROWLEY: They crossed a border.
QUESTION: Well, that’s --
MR. CROWLEY: An unmarked border.
QUESTION: Well, if someone did the same thing here, that’s a crime.
MR. CROWLEY: I have great confidence that if people wandered across this border, they would be swiftly returned to the country from which they came.
QUESTION: But you also suggested that Amiri was in regular contact with the State Department and its --
MR. CROWLEY: I didn’t say who he was in contact with. All I’m saying is did we know that he was here? Yes. But he chose to come here, he chose to leave.
QUESTION: P.J., I don’t want to beat a dead horse here, but if --
MR. CROWLEY: All right. Hold on.
QUESTION: -- three Iranians crossed the U.S. – crossed into the U.S. illegally, you think that they would be sent home immediately? I think that in a situation where Iran regards the United States as its enemy and the United States does not regard Iran as a friend --
MR. CROWLEY: And --
QUESTION: -- that the circumstances are not that – if a member of – a Canadian member of the Iroquois nation crossed the border without a passport, it’s not the same thing.
MR. CROWLEY: All I’m saying is every day, there are people that wander across our border, and every day, there are people that we return home to the countries of their origin.
QUESTION: There was a claim made that Mr. Amiri was offered $5 million, but these funds were frozen, part of the (inaudible).
MR. CROWLEY: I’m --
QUESTION: Could you shed some light?
MR. CROWLEY: No.
QUESTION: So what do you expect Mr. Mitchell to do once he’s done with meeting with Abbas and Fayyad and so on? Are these direct talks – are they likely to be launched within a week, two weeks?
MR. CROWLEY: I’m not aware of – I mean, obviously, this is a decision that is, first and foremost, up to the Israeli and Palestinian leaders. They have to make a decision that after working on the details of the process, they have enough confidence to move into direct negotiations. That is what we’re trying to do. As to whether that – I mean, I think we have a strong belief at some point in time, direct negotiations will be renewed. Whether that’s days from now or weeks from now, I don’t think we’re in a position to say at this point.
QUESTION: Would you say that the impetus behind this particular visit is really to restart the direct negotiations?
MR. CROWLEY: The – our overall purpose with any conversation that we have with Palestinian and Israeli authorities is to move to direct negotiations. This visit is no different than George’s previous trips to the region.
QUESTION: New topic?
MR. CROWLEY: Sure.
QUESTION: BP. BP is now confirming that they lobbied the British Government about Libyan prisoner transfers. I’m wondering, have you taken this up with the British Government? Are you seeking clarification about what the process was there? And does this have any bearing on your decision on whether or not to launch the investigation that the senators have asked for?
MR. CROWLEY: I think it’s important to clarify that the negotiation between Britain and Libya on a prisoner transfer agreement – I believe it was done in 2007, maybe 2008 – that that negotiation was well known. As to why BP chose to lobby the British Government on the prisoner transfer agreement, who knows? That’s up – BP has tried to explain that today and acknowledged that they did.
I think all the British authorities and Scottish authorities made clear last year that the issue of Megrahi was not connected to the prisoner transfer agreement. As we’ve said many times, including throughout last year as Scottish authorities were making this decision, we felt the decision to release Mr. Megrahi was a mistake. We thought it then; we think it now. But it was a decision by Scottish authorities to make. We’ll leave it to British and Scottish authorities to explain what they did then and what – the factors that they evaluated.
I have nothing – I don’t know that there’s anything – the --
QUESTION: But from what you’re saying, it doesn’t sound like you think there’s grounds for the investigation that’s been requested.
MR. CROWLEY: Again, we have the letter from the senators – the quartet, if you will – and we will respond to that. As I said yesterday, it’s unclear what actually there is to negotiate. BP said today it weighed in with the UK Government on the prisoner transfer.
QUESTION: That was over a year. It’s not --
MR. CROWLEY: Yeah. BP has said they had no conversation with British authorities or Scottish authorities with respect to Mr. Megrahi. We’ll take that into consideration as we evaluate anything we might do or could do. We’ll respond to the senators.
We understand their concern about this issue broadly. We share that concern. As we’ve said many times, we are unhappy that Mr. Megrahi sits in Libya today as a free man. We understand the outrage that the families of Pan Am 103 and their elected officials feel about this. We share this frustration. But as to whether there’s anything that really is there to investigate, as we – as the BP clarifies what they did today, we’re – we understand more about what might or might not have happened. But --
QUESTION: P.J., you said the British told – the British and the Scottish told you that Megrahi’s release was completely unrelated to the prisoner transfer agreement?
MR. CROWLEY: Yes.
QUESTION: How is that possible? How – are you aware of any other prisoner --
MR. CROWLEY: I’ll just – again --
QUESTION: -- that’s been transferred between these --
MR. CROWLEY: Again --
QUESTION: -- two countries other than him?
MR. CROWLEY: Go back to what Scottish authorities said last year. They said that this was a decision made on purely humanitarian and medical grounds. We disagreed with that decision. We disagreed with that judgment. We continue to believe today that Megrahi should be still in a Scottish prison.
QUESTION: So your understanding is that his --
MR. CROWLEY: But did they tell us that this was an isolated decision about Mr. Megrahi and had no bearing on any other negotiation that they had with Libyan authorities? That’s what they told us.
QUESTION: So it’s your understanding --
MR. CROWLEY: Yes.
QUESTION: -- that in the absence of – even if there hadn’t been a prisoner transfer agreement concluded that Megrahi still would have been sent back?
MR. CROWLEY: Again, these are questions --
QUESTION: Is that your understanding?
MR. CROWLEY: -- that should be directed to British and Scottish authorities.
QUESTION: Well, what is your understanding?
MR. CROWLEY: They made this decision. We objected to that decision before it happened.
QUESTION: I understand that.
MR. CROWLEY: We objected to that decision after it took place.
QUESTION: I understand that. I’m asking if it’s your understanding that without the prisoner transfer agreement in place, whether – if that wasn’t there, would Megrahi have been – would he have been able to be released?
MR. CROWLEY: Again, that’s a better question to be addressed to British authorities.
QUESTION: I understand that.
MR. CROWLEY: Yeah.
QUESTION: But I’m asking what your understanding of it is.
MR. CROWLEY: We accepted at face value what Scottish authorities told us, that this was a humanitarian decision that they made based on the medical information that was available to them. We said categorically that this was a mistake and that is still our view today.
QUESTION: Have you had any contact directly with the British since this whole subject came up about this issue? Have you raised this?
MR. CROWLEY: I can’t say in the last few days that we’ve had a specific conversation with the British about this.
QUESTION: Is all the U.S. can do is simply raise the issue? There’s no legal recourse that the U.S. can take in this; correct?
MR. CROWLEY: Well, we weren’t a party to it. The – Mr. Megrahi was convicted by a special Scottish court under extraordinary circumstances, but it was a duly convened Scottish court. We recognize that it was within Scottish authorities to make this decision. We regretted this decision. We objected this decision. We told them beforehand, “Don’t do it.” They did it anyway. We’ve made clear our dissatisfaction on a number of occasions since. I can’t say we brought it up today, but our view of this is well known to the British Government and well known to Scottish authorities.
We are looking into the – we have the letter from the senators. As the Secretary said yesterday, we’re evaluating what they have requested of us and we’ll be responding to the senators. That’s not to predict what we will or won’t do about any of the details of this, whether it’s what BP might or might not have done or the quality of the medical information that was made available to Scottish authorities. We’re going to look – we’re going to evaluate what we’ve been asked to do.
But our position has been clear all along: We regret very much that the Scottish authorities made this decision. It is ultimately up to them to explain why they did it and how they feel about this in light of other information that has come to light.
QUESTION: Have you talked to the Libyan authorities about the situation?
MR. CROWLEY: Well, since last year, yes. In the recent days and weeks, I can say that we have.
QUESTION: I’m not sure – quite sure I understand your position on this case. Did you or did you not oppose Megrahi’s release?
MR. CROWLEY: (Laughter.) Can I say this one more time?
QUESTION: Thank you.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MR. CROWLEY: Thank you.
(The briefing was concluded at 1:00 p.m.)