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Middle East Digest - May 23, 2011


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Washington, DC
May 23, 2011

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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 May 23, 2011

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12:19 p.m. EDT

QUESTION: On Yemen, how are you planning to deal with President Abdallah Saleh?

MR. TONER: It’s a good question, Michel. Certainly, the Secretary issued a very strong statement yesterday expressing our deep disappointment by President Saleh’s – or at President Saleh’s continued refusal to sign the GCC, the Gulf – rather, the Gulf Cooperation Council’s initiative. This isn’t the first time this has happened. The GCC’s efforts to bring a resolution to the situation in Yemen have been tireless, and we’ve seen all sides agree on multiple occasions to sign their initiative. And now it appears that President Saleh is the only party that refuses to match his actions to these words.

It’s unclear, frankly, the state or status of the agreement. The GCC issued a statement on May 22nd that they’ve suspended their mediation efforts. But we believe that President Saleh still has the ability and the opportunity to sign this initiative and break this deadlock.

QUESTION: Are you going to sanction him if he refuses?

MR. TONER: Well, again, I think we’re looking at a number of different options, but we believe that the GCC has really led the effort to bring a resolution to this crisis, certainly with the active participation and support of our Embassy there and our ambassador. But it’s clearly now in President Saleh’s hands. He has – again, he has done this several times now, and we urge him to take action and to resolve the situation.

QUESTION: And what – excuse me.

MR. TONER: Sure, Michel. Finish up.

QUESTION: What about the – are you still mediating between President Saleh and the opposition or --

MR. TONER: We do. We remain in regular communication with the Yemeni Government, which includes President Saleh, as well as the opposition and civil society.

QUESTION: Any contacts with Saleh since Brennan called him, I mean, other than perhaps through your ambassador (inaudible) possibly?

MR. TONER: I’m not sure. I imagine today there was additional contact, but I don't have --

QUESTION: All right. Can you --

MR. TONER: I mean, that was just yesterday, obviously.

Yeah.

QUESTION: Saudi Arabia.

MR. TONER: Michel is briefing. (Laughter.)

QUESTION: Saudi authorities have re-arrested an activist who defied a ban on female drivers in the conservative kingdom. Do you have any reaction on that?

MR. TONER: Well, we understand that Manal al-Sharif, I believe is the woman’s name, was detained after she posted a video on YouTube in which she’s shown driving in the Saudi Arabian city of Khobar. We’re seeking more information at this point about her status. We understand there’s an active debate on a lot of these social issues in Saudi Arabia, and we trust the Government of Saudi Arabia to be – to give careful consideration to these voices of its citizens as they speak about issues of concern.

Yeah. Sure, go ahead, Samir.

QUESTION: How come the President didn’t mention Saudi Arabia in his major speech about the Middle East?

MR. TONER: Well, certainly it’s an important relationship and it was a fairly wide-sweeping speech, but we can’t address all issues on such a broad region. But certainly, it’s an important relationship to the United States and one that’s key to the region and one that we value. But again, you can’t, obviously, address every single issue and relationship in the Middle East. And he was speaking about the Arab Spring in particular and some of the change that has been sweeping across North Africa and places like Syria and Bahrain and elsewhere.

So – yeah. In the back. I’ll get to you.

QUESTION: Is Mullah Omar dead?

MR. TONER: No way to confirm it. We’ve seen press reports, but –

Yeah. Sure.

QUESTION: With the retirement of George Mitchell, and I know Netanyahu hasn’t spoken yet, is there a plan at the State Department for a new special envoy or rethinking or somebody to go or not to go or just put things on the backburner for now?

MR. TONER: Well, there’s been quite a bit of activity, obviously, since the President’s speech and with the President’s speech since Senator Mitchell’s resignation. And I believe at the time – and we announced that David Hale would be taking over interim responsibilities. He’s a capable member of Senator Mitchell’s team and highly respected and capable of the job. And I’m not aware that he’s traveling to the region anytime soon. I’ll try to get an update on his activities.

But there’s – I mean, we clearly have a plan. It was laid out by the President that we want to see negotiations move forward. We don’t want to see the Palestinians seek action at the UN. We don’t believe that that’s a constructive path. We want to see both parties return to the negotiating table, where they can address these issues and reach a framework agreement.

Yeah. Go ahead, Andy, and then --

QUESTION: A follow-up (inaudible)?

MR. TONER: Yeah. Go ahead.

QUESTION: Yeah. Just – so who of Mitchell’s team is staying? Mara Rudman’s leaving, Mitchell’s gone. The team seems to be disbanding. Is David Hale getting other new people coming in, giving (inaudible)?

MR. TONER: Right. I wouldn’t say the team is disbanding at all, but I don’t have a full roster in front of me, but the team that --

QUESTION: Most people are staying?

MR. TONER: The team that Senator Mitchell did assemble is more or less staying in place is my understanding. And again, there – he’s built a strong team, and we believe that they’re well-placed and ready to move this process forward.

QUESTION: A new subject? I was wondering if you had anything more on Secretary Feltman’s visit to Benghazi, and specifically --

MR. TONER: Yeah. I do.

QUESTION: I know you put out that statement, which we’ve seen.

MR. TONER: Right.

QUESTION: But I’m wondering if there’s any more discussion about the possibility of extending formal recognition to the TNC or any other agreements that he might be looking at like that.

MR. TONER: Right, right, right. Well, he did – I can just update you all. Obviously, he arrived earlier today in Benghazi. He’s there till the 24th. He did meet today with the Transitional National Council Chairman Abdul Jalil as well as the minister for reconstruction and the minister for security and other TNC members from both the south and west. He’s going to hold a roundtable later today with civil society members and then I believe he’ll hold a press conference where he’ll probably address – I think that’s tomorrow, actually – where he’ll address a lot of these questions.

We’ve been very clear that – and very proactive in trying to establish stronger contacts with the TNC, but also talking with a wide range of opposition figures in Libya. We believe the TNC is a very credible voice for the Libyan people, and we’re strengthening our contacts and deepening them, but while recognition remains on the table an option, we’re not there yet.

QUESTION: How about anything else concrete about unfreezing the assets or getting access to money or weapons or anything else?

MR. TONER: No. I was trying to get a status report, actually, on the legislation before coming in here. And if I get more information on that, an update, I’ll let you guys know.

QUESTION: Or just --

MR. TONER: My understanding is it’s still in Congress, obviously, and – but we’re still trying to seek speedy passage of that legislation, working closely with Congress. Obviously, it’s – there’s an urgency here.

QUESTION: You said that we’re not here yet, we’re not there yet. Is that to imply that recognition is pending, that that is going to happen; it’s just a matter of time?

MR. TONER: Well, no. I think we just said – we’ve always said that we’re looking to assess the capabilities of the TNC, but we believe that they’re a serious group and they’re worthy of our support. They continue to say the right things, and we’re continuing to strengthen our contacts with them. But obviously, recognition is one of those measures that we could – that we’re still looking at, but we’re not – but no decisions have been made, I guess, is what I’m trying to say.

QUESTION: How concerned are you, when you’re doing this review of the TNC, about reports of reprisal attacks from rebel forces?

MR. TONER: Now, we’re --

QUESTION: How connected are those to the political apparatus that you’re working with?

MR. TONER: Kirit, we don’t – well, actually, we’re aware of those reports, obviously, and we’ve been consulting closely with members of the TNC. We’ve been, frankly, encouraged by some of the things they’ve said and some of the actions they’ve taken that we believe indicates their inclusiveness and their desire to speak for a broad swath of the Libyan people. But certainly, those kinds of reports do raise concern.

QUESTION: Have you raised them?

MR. TONER: I don’t know, frankly, in answer to your second question, the links between senior leadership. I don’t know.

QUESTION: Is that something that Feltman or others have or will raise?

MR. TONER: I’m certain that that’s something that we’re assessing and addressing, yeah.

QUESTION: On --

QUESTION: What’s the difference --

MR. TONER: Yeah. Go ahead.

QUESTION: -- in your – that State Department officials are meeting with these guys, they’ve – what will be the difference when they’re officially recognized by the U.S. versus how you’re treating them now? Is there some tangible --

MR. TONER: Well, sure. I mean, when you’re – when they’re – recognizes – again, I’m not an international legal expert, nor do I play one on TV, but it’s a matter of they would assume all of the requirements of statehood, which was representation in international organizations, et cetera, et cetera. Those are some of the obligations that they would have to assume. But again, we’re just not at that point yet, and there’s a lot of talk, obviously, about the importance of recognition, but it’s also important to note that we’re able to do an awful lot to support them short of recognition.

That’s certainly one element, but what – we’ve been able to provide $25 million in nonlethal aid. We’ve – we have humanitarian assistance, we have the no-fly zone, so we’re doing a lot for them and we’re working to unfreeze those assets.

Go ahead.

QUESTION: Yeah. Mark, when the President said on Thursday and you said today that the TNC is a credible and legitimate interlocutor for the Libyan people, that doesn’t mean that you recognize the TNC?

MR. TONER: No. It’s – I mean, it’s not formal recognition, but we certainly – again, we see them as --

QUESTION: But if it’s a credible and legitimate interlocutor?

MR. TONER: That means that we believe that they clearly are representative of the aspirations of the Libyan people, that they are a credible voice for the Libyan people, and we recognize them as such, but it’s not formal recognition.

Go ahead, Samir.

QUESTION: You mean you won’t recognize them until they become a government – you will recognize them? Is that the issue?

MR. TONER: It’s not just that issue. There’s a lot of elements here. But again, we’re just not at that point yet, so –

Yeah. Go ahead, Courtney.

QUESTION: I have a random Iran question. The two hikers were able to call home to their families over the weekend.

MR. TONER: Oh, yeah. That’s not a random Iran question, actually.

QUESTION: Is there any update on their status or has there been any new efforts?

MR. TONER: Well, we can confirm, obviously, what we’ve all seen in the news, which is that they were able to call home to their families on Sunday. We do understand from their families that both Josh and Shane staged a hunger strike in prison while they were – after they were prevented receiving letters from home, and that the families vowed to continue their own hunger strike until the two men are released. And we urge Iran to permit immediate consular access by the Swiss protecting power, and that’s obviously an issue. The Swiss protecting power in Tehran – the last regular consular access they were – or consular visit was October 26, 2010, which is quite a long time ago.

QUESTION: So has there been a new request for a consular visit just since that phone (inaudible)?

MR. TONER: We’ve – I mean, that’s an ongoing request for regular consular access. But again, we’ve not had that since October 26.

QUESTION: What is your assessment of the situation in Pakistan following today’s attack on the naval base by the Pakistani Taliban?

MR. TONER: Sorry, I just want to follow up on Kirit’s thing just to make sure I don’t have any information about how he’s going to travel there. No, I don’t have any updates, just that he’s going to – he’s there from – till the 28th.

You’re talking about the attack this – earlier today on the naval base?

QUESTION: Yes.

MR. TONER: Well, obviously, we condemn the attack. We can confirm that no U.S. citizens were injured or killed in the attack on the Pakistan naval station in Karachi. But we strongly condemn this terrorist attack, and we’re committed to working with Pakistan to – in a joint effort to combat this kind of violent extremism. And our thoughts and prayers are with those affected by the incident.

QUESTION: After May 2 – May 2nd incident – operation there has been a series of attacks inside Pakistan. Are you providing any kind of additional help to Pakistan to fight against terrorists?

MR. TONER: Yeah. I mean, we’re continuing our cooperation. We’ve obviously got a small military contingent of trainers that have been in Pakistan for some time working with the Pakistani military. That cooperation continues. We continue our close counterterrorism cooperation. And certainly it just illustrates that Pakistan is under enormous pressure and threat from these kinds of groups and they suffer considerably from this kind of violent extremism. So it just, frankly, speaks to the ongoing need for close counterterrorism cooperation even – or in spite of some of the questions raised by the bin Ladin raid.

QUESTION: Has Pakistan asked for any additional help, specifically after --

MR. TONER: Not sure, Lalit, that they’ve asked for any specific – asked for additional help. I can certainly look into it, but --

QUESTION: Do you have any information on Mullah Omar? Is it --

MR. TONER: No. I just answered that question. No confirmation, nothing to confirm those reports.

QUESTION: Thank you.

MR. TONER: It that it? Thanks, guys.

(The briefing was concluded at 12:34 p.m.)



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