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 June 9, 2011
MR. TONER: Many of you saw earlier today that the Departments of the Treasury and State imposed sanctions against three entities and one individual at the core of Iran’s security apparatus for being responsible or complicit in serious human rights abuses in Iran since June 2009 – since the June 2009 disputed presidential elections. Today’s action targeted Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, the Basij Resistance Force, and Iran’s national police and its chief, all of which share responsibility for the sustained and severe violation of human rights in Iran. I would also just refer you to the Secretary’s statement, which was also released this morning.
QUESTION: I have two questions about the sanctions announcements that were made this morning jointly with Treasury. One, can you tell us to what extent, if at all, any of the three designated entities or the one designated individual have assets that fall under U.S. jurisdiction?
MR. TONER: I do not know that. I believe, as you said, that this action will block or freeze property and interest in property for designated persons or designated entities, and U.S. persons are prohibited from engaging in transactions involving the persons and entities.
MR. TONER: God bless you. But I can’t give you a breakdown of what assets may be affected by that.
QUESTION: Can you check for us to see if the Departments of State or Treasury believe that these entities and the individual have any assets or any significant assets that would be captured or frozen by this? And if not, what is the significance of that –
MR. TONER: Well –
QUESTION: Wait. Let me finish.
MR. TONER: Okay.
QUESTION: What is the significance of it? In the past, you have sometimes argued that – or U.S. officials have sometimes argued that there is a multiplier effect because other financial institutions will steer clear of such entities or individuals for fear of falling afoul.
MR. TONER: That’s a good answer.
QUESTION: I know it is, and I understand this, but I’d really much rather have it out of a U.S. official than me, so if you can check.
MR. TONER: Well, certainly, Arshad. But I mean this – I – as I said, I can’t give you a clear breakdown and I would refer you to –
QUESTION: I didn’t ask for a breakdown. I asked for whether you have – they have any assets or any significant assets. I’m not asking for a breakdown. I’m asking, do they have any assets or significant assets?
MR. TONER: Okay. And I will endeavor to get that for you.
MR. TONER: But again, what’s important here is the bite, if you will, of these sanctions is only one element. It also sends a clear message that we won’t abide by Iran’s continued human rights abuses. As I said, we’ve seen since the June 2009 disputed presidential elections a consistent pattern of human rights abuses – going after activists, political parties. And today’s efforts, which are part of an exhaustive process, as you know, that the Treasury Department undertakes, are an effort to call international attention to those people, and that is one element of it. Now, in terms of the – of what assets may or may not fall into this, I’ll get you that answer.
QUESTION: Can I ask one second thing, please?
MR. TONER: Yeah.
QUESTION: There is a statement – there’s a line in the Treasury statement which says that – referring to Executive Order 13553 --
MR. TONER: Correct.
QUESTION: -- the human rights-related one, the designees and all members of the designated entities are also subject to visa sanctions by the Department of State. So I went back and I read 13553, and I then tried to but did not successfully read the underlying CISADA legislation.
MR. TONER: Correct.
QUESTION: What is not clear to me, nor to Iran sanctions experts who I spoke to this morning, is whether this sentence here, “The designees and all members of the designated entities are also subject to visa sanctions by the Department of State,” – does that mean that the Department of State has decided that the one man designated and all members of the three groups designated are ineligible for U.S. visas? Or is there still an intermediate step under which the State Department has to, within 90 days, make a determination on who among the designee and the members of the group might be ineligible for visas? I realize that’s a technical question, but it would be good --
MR. TONER: It is a technical question, and one I can’t answer with 100 percent certitude. It’s also important to note that these designations are on current members of these organizations, and that’s another element of it. My assumption --
QUESTION: Can you check that one for me?
MR. TONER: Sure. My assumption would be that it is on all current members of these organizations and for the individual designated, but I will seek clarity.
QUESTION: Okay. Thank you.
QUESTION: Mark --
MR. TONER: Sure.
QUESTION: -- two points on Iran: One, --
MR. TONER: I’m sorry, on Iran or --
QUESTION: On Iran, yeah, just a follow-up.
MR. TONER: Yeah. Go ahead.
QUESTION: One, how are you going to implement all and force these sanctions when Russia and China is really working with Iran? And second, if you have seen recent statement by president of Iran blaming the United States, not talking about his own nuclear programs, but he said that – U.S. is preparing to destroy Pakistan’s nuclear program.
MR. TONER: In terms of your – or in answer to your first question, these are, obviously, U.S. sanctions on – unilateral sanctions, if you will. So the stance of Russia and China, who, by the way, are very supportive within the P5+1 process in calling Iran to come clean about its nuclear program – again, this is targeted on human rights abuses in Iran, and so it’s a unilateral action.
And your second question, one more time, was about Ahmadinejad’s statements?
QUESTION: Iranian president, yeah.
MR. TONER: Look, he makes – these – this is – periodically he sends up chaff, if you will, to try to deflect attention on his nuclear program – his country’s nuclear program. The international community has very real concerns about Iran’s nuclear program. It’s a deflection, if you will. We’ve seen it before, and I’m not going to comment on it.
QUESTION: Has he ever admitted that his nuclear program was actually supported or came from A.Q. Khan network?
MR. TONER: I’m not aware. I’m not sure.
QUESTION: Thank you, sir.
MR. TONER: All right.
QUESTION: Over on Iran, do you have any assessment of the level of Iranian assistance or participation in the Syrian crackdown? I know we’ve talked about it in the past --
MR. TONER: We have talked about, and – sure. Yeah.
QUESTION: -- but there’s been some reports that it’s actually far more advanced than previously suggested. As in Iranian forces, like, involved with putting these demonstrations down. Sorry.
MR. TONER: That’s okay. You’re right. We’ve seen those reports and, obviously, we’ve spoken in the past about our concerns that Iran, which, by the way, hypocritically supports all these democratic aspirations that we’ve seen carried out throughout the North Africa and the Arab world, but at the same time we do have concerns that they are collaborating with Syria to carry out attacks on the Syrian people. I don’t have any hard details. I’ll look again to see if we have any greater evidence, but we’re aware that this is a pattern that we’ve seen before.
Yeah. Go ahead.
QUESTION: Thank you. Regarding these sanctions on the oil petroleum company because of its ties to Iran, I would like to know --
MR. TONER: You’re talking about the Venezuelan company?
QUESTION: Yes, the Venezuelan one, PDVSA. I would like to know if you have any update? And considering that you are speaking about more sanctions against Iran – and so what is the situation right now?
MR. TONER: Again, it is – as I organize myself to come down here to brief you all, I realize that it is very easy to confuse all of these sanctions programs. And it, in fact, speaks to the many problems that the international community has with Iran that we’ve got sanctions against Iran’s nuclear program, and the sanctions that you’re talking about are in that realm, if you will, trying to increase pressure on Iran but – as well as increase pressure on companies that do business with Iran, to send the message that now isn’t a time for business as usual until Iran can come clean about its nuclear program. I’m not aware that we have ongoing discussions with PDVSA. I can ask about that.
We have seen companies in the past try to be forthright about their dealings and end those dealings with Iranian companies. But just to finish my point, today’s sanctions are really geared towards human rights abuses that are ongoing in Iran. We’ve seen them – obviously, the – it got a lot of attention in the wake of the 2009 presidential election, but we continue to sanction Iran on human rights abuses.
QUESTION: But you would say that these sanctions against the oil petroleum company is not to put pressure on Venezuela to cut ties with Iran?
MR. TONER: I think I said that. I said what it is it’s an effort to put pressure on those who would do business with Iran.
Yeah. Go ahead, Jill.
QUESTION: On Afghanistan.
MR. TONER: Sure. We can go to Afghanistan.
QUESTION: A couple of questions.
QUESTION: Yeah. Sure.
MR. TONER: Oh, sure. I’m sorry. I should have said are we finished with Iran. Are we finished with Iran? (Laughter.)
QUESTION: No. Just one last question.
MR. TONER: Yeah. Sure.
QUESTION: In terms of the timing, does this – do these new sanctions have anything to do with the President’s statement with Angela Merkel about possible sanctions and increased pressure?
MR. TONER: Again, no. It speaks to – as I just tried to say, it speaks to the many issues that we have with Iran, both on the human rights side and on the nuclear side. But it’s also important to note that these kinds of sanctions come at the end of an exhaustive legal process that isn’t really tied to any breaking events, if you will, but is rather – these – this executive order exists, and the lawyers and then folks at the Treasury Department will continue to pursue those who they believe are sanctionable.
I do have Afghanistan –
QUESTION: I have one of Iran. Last one.
MR. TONER: Sorry.
QUESTION: There was some reports that there are submarines off Iran in the Red Sea. Are you aware of that?
MR. TONER: I’m not aware of those reports.
QUESTION: Just a couple on Afghanistan. One is at the hearing that’s taking place, Panetta’s hearing, Senator McCaskill was very critical of what she said was a big waste of money on a power plant in Kabul. And I was just wondering if that is funded by the State Department, if that’s part of like State Department money, and if you had any comment. She was calling it pouring money down a rat hole.
MR. TONER: Again, I, unfortunately, wasn’t able to watch the hearing. So I don’t have a – I haven’t seen her comments. As I said – I think you weren’t in here yet – but there is going to be a 2 o’clock phone call with – both with representative – Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan Marc Grossman as well as with USAID’s Administrator Raj Shah. And they’ll be able to address these – obviously these kinds of questions in greater detail.
I don’t know specifically whether that’s a project that’s been funded by our assistance. I know that infrastructure and power is essential – an essential part, if you will, of trying to increase stability in Afghanistan and jumpstart the economy, provide people with basic services. These are all part of extending good governance and would be essential components to our strategy. But I don’t know specifically about that project.
QUESTION: And just one other one –
MR. TONER: I can take the question in the event that it’s not raised in the call.
QUESTION: All right. I appreciate it. The other one is – and I have been out of D.C. for two weeks, so maybe you’ve gotten into this – but there’s a debate right now –
MR. TONER: That’s a nice thought, by the way, being out of D.C. Sorry.
QUESTION: Yes. Especially where I was. (Laughter.) There’s a debate right now on Afghanistan, how many troops should be pulled out how quickly and big numbers, small number – 15,000 Senator Levin wants and McCain is around two or three. Has the Secretary made her views clear on that debate of how quickly, even though it’s not her bailiwick, but she was part of that original debate on the surge?
MR. TONER: It’s a fair question, Jill. You talk about this review process underway, and I would just say that the Secretary is obviously an important part of the Cabinet and would convey her views to the President moving forward. Obviously, the – State’s role in this is part of the civilian surge that we’ve heard so much about, and again, that Marc Grossman and others can speak more eloquently than I about. But this is an ongoing review process. The Secretary’s obviously providing her views on the way forward.
Yeah. Go ahead.
QUESTION: Yeah. I have another one on Venezuela. There is any change since the last time you said something on Venezuela, I mean, your relation between – both countries –
MR. TONER: Writ large?
QUESTION: -- are still in freeze mode or what? What is going on between Venezuela and the U.S.? It is – are you trying – I mean, the U.S. is trying to reestablish conversations with Venezuela or vice versa Venezuela with the U.S. or nothing happens? Do you have any update on that?
MR. TONER: Well, I don’t have a breaking update to report on that. We –
QUESTION: Freeze mode?
MR. TONER: We always want to improve relations. That’s difficult to do, obviously, without an ambassador, but I’m not sure that there’s been any movement on that front.
MR. TONER: Go ahead, Christophe. Yeah.
MR. TONER: What did you say? Syria?
QUESTION: Syria, yes.
MR. TONER: Okay.
QUESTION: So yesterday, you told us that the U.S. would support the British and French draft resolution at the UN and that you would try to convince others. This morning, I think Russia repeated that it would oppose any resolution. So I wondered whether you could comment on that. And the other thing is the Secretary, when she was in Abu Dhabi, I think she planned to speak with, among others, Arab leaders on Syria. So is there any progress on that front?
MR. TONER: She did, and you all just saw her press conference. I don’t know how much –
QUESTION: She wasn’t very specific, actually. So –
MR. TONER: Well, she was there, so she would be more specific than I could ever be. But look, it’s an opportunity – the Contact Group always presents an opportunity. I know she’s had bilats on the margins of those meetings today, and of course, while the focus is obviously on Libya, I think we ought – she spoke about the situation in Syria and the mounting international concern. I talked yesterday about her efforts, the U.S. Government’s efforts to build international pressure on Asad, and certainly that would be an opportunity today to consult and to get a clear picture and to talk about the way forward on how we continue to call attention to what Asad’s doing and to increasingly isolate him and make it clear that he needs to either reform or allow that reform process to take place without him.
In terms of the resolution, I can’t really speak to what Russia may have said today. I know that discussions continue, and members of the Security Council yesterday received a very disturbing and comprehensive briefing from Assistant Secretary General Fernandez-Taranco on the situation on the ground in Syria. And they’re going to continue negotiations, discussions today on this draft resolution. All I can say is we’ve been very clear where we stand. We’re going to continue our efforts to – both within the UN and others – in other fora to increase pressure. And again, I think Ambassador Rice said our role is to express clearly and plainly where the United States stands, and we’ve done that.
QUESTION: May I follow up on that, please?
MR. TONER: Sure.
QUESTION: When you say discussions continue, does that mean discussions continue with the Russians as well?
MR. TONER: I think I’m just going to say discussions continue. I think that speaks to – we’re talking to the broad array of --
QUESTION: Okay. Does that mean that you still hope to bring the Russians along on this? You still have – it’s not as if you’ve decided to just go for a vote and see if they veto it? You still hope to persuade them?
MR. TONER: That’s a fair question. Again, I don’t want to speak publicly about ongoing negotiations, except to say where we stand on this is very clear. And we’re going to continue to try to work toward getting this resolution passed.
Yeah, go ahead.
QUESTION: On Libya, there is a memo today from the President to the Secretary about bringing Ivoirian and Libyan refugees to the United States, and I’m wondering if – are refugees coming right now? And also, the memo says that the U.S. will furnish assistance, and I’m just wondering if you know specifically what sort of assistance this is talking about.
MR. TONER: You’ve successfully stumped me. I can’t give you firm figures on whether Libyan refugees are already coming to the United States, I know we’ve worked in terms of border assistance along the borders and trying to get assistance within Libya to deal with the humanitarian crisis there, but I’ll have to get back to you on whether refugees are, in fact, being considered to be taken here.
And of course, there is a process in play here that would need to take place, but I’ll try to get better information for you.
QUESTION: Just one more on Libya. In Geneva, a Libyan representative spoke to the UN Human Rights Council.
MR. TONER: Yeah.
QUESTION: Said something about war crimes, crimes against humanity by NATO and rebels who engage in cannibalism and cutting breasts off of live women and all sort --
MR. TONER: Yeah.
QUESTION: -- a whole litany of accusations. Do you have a retort or confirmation of these --
MR. TONER: Well, I can confirm – my understanding is that this was within the UN system. They have, frankly, the opportunity to respond to allegations about them in the Human Rights Council whether or not they are, in fact, on the council. How they chose to use that time, I think is indicative of why they’re increasingly isolated and why the international community is increasingly exasperated with Qadhafi and his illegitimate government.
QUESTION: But have you any reports of --
MR. TONER: No. I mean it’s --
QUESTION: -- cannibalism or this extreme --
MR. TONER: The reports are ridiculous.
Yeah, go ahead. I’m sorry, why don’t I go to you. Goyal had already gotten a question.
QUESTION: Yeah. Still on – staying on Libya. So you were going to look at whether you – whether Libyan refugees are coming to the U.S. Has the U.S. urged its allies to take some of these refugees?
MR. TONER: Again, let me get – I mean, I’m aware of what we’re doing in terms of humanitarian assistance both on the Tunisian and Egyptian border, but I’ll have to get a firmer picture of what we’re doing in terms of dealing with the refugee flow after that.
Yeah, go ahead.
QUESTION: Mark, this week, National Press Club remembered this Pakistani brutally murdered – down-to-earth, renowned journalist Saleem Shehzad. And Pakistani Ambassador Haqqani also spoke and he gave his tributes and remembered him.
MR. TONER: Sorry, Goyal, help me. This is the gentleman who went missing a couple weeks ago?
QUESTION: Right. Then he was brutally murdered.
MR. TONER: Right, right, right. No, I just --
QUESTION: And ISI was blamed and now many Pakistanis are calling on – for investigation, including Amnesty International, Committee to Protect Journalists, and Freedom House, among others.
MR. TONER: Right.
QUESTION: And Pakistani ambassador also said that – Haqqani, who spoke at the National Press Club to remember him, that those who killed him must be brought to justice. My question is that, according to many Pakistanis, the police brutality is on the rise in Pakistan, including one man, innocent man, was brutally murdered in Karachi also. So are you touching with the – all these, because this journalist was investigating ISI connection with the terrorists?
MR. TONER: Well, Goyal, I mean, we issued a statement at the time of his death, his disappearance and death. We take the freedom of the press issues and violence against members of the press very seriously, as we would any human rights abuses, and we do raise human rights concerns with Pakistan on a regular basis.
QUESTION: As far as this – his murder or death is concerned --
MR. TONER: I think we, at the time, called for an investigation.
QUESTION: Okay. Thank you.
QUESTION: That same subject for journalists. Do you have any update on Miss Araf, the Syrian-American blogger who was picked up on the streets the other day?
MR. TONER: Jill, I don’t. In fact, we’ve not been able to confirm any of the details, whether she’s been, in fact – sorry, I’m just – any of the details contained in her blog. I know that U.S. officials both here in Washington as well as in Damascus are continuing to attempt to get more information about her, including, in fact, confirmation of her U.S. citizenship, which I know has been asserted on her blog as well. But --
QUESTION: So you’re not – but we don’t even know whether she’s a Syrian --
MR. TONER: We do not.
QUESTION: Oh, okay.
QUESTION: Is that hard to establish, just out of curiosity?
MR. TONER: Well, it is hard when we – I mean, look, without getting in too much detail, we have databases that we have looked at. And we’ve been unable to, using those databases or talking to other individuals who have known her, to ascertain the basic facts here.
QUESTION: Have you spoken to people who know her?
MR. TONER: I believe we have spoken to people who know her. But again, we’ve been unable to talk to her or talk to – find any information to corroborate about her.
QUESTION: Just to be clear, so you do not know her whereabouts either?
MR. TONER: We do not.