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 28, 2011
12:38 p.m. EDT
MS. NULAND: Good afternoon, everybody. I don’t have any announcements today, so we can go right to your questions.
QUESTION: I don’t have anything, actually, except for a bunch of follow-ups from earlier questions. I guess the main one would be: Do you have any update on the status – the situation of the former governor of the Afghan central bank?
MS. NULAND: I don’t have anything further to what we had yesterday. Our understanding is that he is in the United States.
QUESTION: One from the weekend: As you are, I presume, aware, Egypt has said that it is not going to borrow money from the IMF, and – but one might argue this is a Treasury matter. I wonder if the decision not to accept IMF money by Egypt will affect, in any way, U.S. assistance, bilateral assistance to the Egyptian Government.
MS. NULAND: As you know, it’s a sovereign decision of any government whether to work with the IMF, whether to accept its programs. I don’t – I’m not aware of any particular link between Egyptian IMF programs and U.S. bilateral programs, but we can follow up if you’d like.
QUESTION: Could you check for me?
MS. NULAND: We will. We will.
QUESTION: And particularly at – I think when Secretary Clinton was on her last trip to Egypt, the issue of debt rescheduling came up, and that, I think, would be – or might be affected by the absence of a fund program.
MS. NULAND: We’ll certainly follow up for you.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MS. NULAND: Please.
QUESTION: What’s Ambassador Burns, Under Secretary Burns who’s in Egypt – I mean, what’s the purpose of his visit?
MS. NULAND: He’s doing a full range of consultations with the Egyptian Government. As you know, we are working with them on free, fair, transparent elections. We’re working with them on regional issues. We’re working with them on progress towards a more democratic Egypt. I’m hopeful that we’ll have a fuller readout on his visit for you tomorrow.
QUESTION: Thank you.
QUESTION: On Syria?
MS. NULAND: Yes.
QUESTION: Tens of Syrian officers have defected and went to Turkey, have created a movement there and called the United States, the UN, and Turkey to create a buffer zone to protect the civilians. First, do you have any contacts with this movement? And second, what can you tell them about the buffer zone?
MS. NULAND: With regard to Syrian military officers who are now resident in Turkey --
MS. NULAND: -- as you know, we have had contact through – with the Turks to talk about the refugee situation on the border. With regard to the specific group, we’ll have to check whether we’ve had any contact or whether the Turks have had any contact with them. As you know, our position on the border remains unchanged. We want to see an open border, we want to see the provision of humanitarian assistance on both sides of the border, and we want to see restraint and – from any kind of violence or closing of quarters.
QUESTION: Any position towards the buffer zone?
MS. NULAND: We believe that these borders should stay open. We believe that Syria and Turkey should continue to cooperate to allow for the free movement of people, to allow for humanitarian assistance.
QUESTION: Did Ambassador Ford get any sort of readout on Monday’s meeting in Damascus of the Syrian opposition?
MS. NULAND: He did, and thank you for the question. He has been in close contact with some of the folks who were in the opposition meeting. We understand that they considered it quite a positive event, that some of those folks are talking about future meetings. And we continue to encourage the Syrian Government to allow those meetings to be held. You all have been asking about what Ambassador Ford is up to. One of the things he’s been very much engaged in is representing to the Syrian Government our strong interest in ensuring not only that the meeting yesterday could take place, but that future meetings can continue to take place. And he’s been in to see folks like the advisors to President Asad to make those points.
QUESTION: Can you say more about the meetings that he’s had with the president’s advisors?
MS. NULAND: I can’t, except to say that he, as you know, over the last 10 days, has been able to meet with some of the closest advisors to President Asad, who we consider reliable interlocutors to get our message directly to the president, and he’s used those meetings to urge an end to the violence, to urge a process to open political space for the opposition to meet, to make its demands known, et cetera. So again, further to why we think it’s valuable not only to have an embassy in Damascus, but to have an ambassador there.
QUESTION: Given the apparent stonewalling of the past several weeks of Ambassador Ford’s efforts to see people within Asad’s government, what’s changing that suddenly people can meet in the capital and not have the meeting broken up by security forces? What has made it possible for the ambassador to actually have these meetings after weeks of being turned down? Is there something going on that the U.S. is trying to encourage?
MS. NULAND: Again, I can’t speak to the Syrian Government’s decision-making process, but throughout this period, we’ve made clear that we have an ambassador in Damascus so that he’s available to speak to all sectors of Syrian society, including the Syrian Government. And over the last 10 days, doors have been more open among the people around Asad, and Ambassador Ford has used those opportunities to state, in strongest terms, that the United States view is that the opposition ought to be allowed to meet.
When there was some concern that the meeting would not be allowed to go forward or might be broken up, he represented very strongly our views to those people, the meeting went forward, and he and we here are saying to the Syrians, in strongest terms, that’s the right approach, keep going; if these guys want to meet again, allow it to go forward, allow peaceful protests to go forward.
We believe that we’re also seeing some positive moves in the direction of allowing peaceful protest in other parts of Syria. For example, we’ve seen in Hama and Deir ez-Zor recently that protestors have been allowed to meet without their movements being broken up. But this is by no means a universal phenomenon in Syria. We’ve still had security force violence against some peaceful protest, notably in al-Kiswah over the weekend. So it’s an uneven picture, but we are continuing to make our points in strongest terms.
QUESTION: Has the ambassador indicated what rationale the advisors gave him for deciding to have these meetings with him?
MS. NULAND: I can’t get into the back-and-forth he had with the Syrian Government, just simply to say that he is working those channels in the interest of a more democratic Syria.
QUESTION: Are you surprised by the Syrian Government allowing these peaceful protests? I mean, just a few days ago would you have expected that?
MS. NULAND: We think this is a move in the right direction, but there is far more to be done. The violence needs to end throughout Syria and a broader public process needs to begin.
QUESTION: Do you have any idea why they’re changing tact there?
MS. NULAND: I can’t comment on Syrian Government motives --
QUESTION: When you --
MS. NULAND: -- just that it’s a more positive development than we had seen.
QUESTION: When you speak of these people being reliable interlocutors, what exactly does that mean?
MS. NULAND: Our understanding is that these are senior advisors to President Asad, folks that he has trusted in the past, and who we believe have his ear so that messages that Ambassador Ford gives do get to him.
QUESTION: All right. And you believe, then, on the basis of Ambassador Ford’s conversations with these interlocutors, that they allowed to go – they allowed this meeting to go ahead?
MS. NULAND: Our point is that he has spoken very strongly to them about U.S. Government expectations, and the right thing happened in this case.
QUESTION: Okay. Any of the – I’m assuming that none of the people – none of these reliable interlocutors are subject to U.S. sanctions. Is that correct?
MS. NULAND: I can’t speak to that.
QUESTION: Who are they?
MS. NULAND: I’m not going to name the folks that he is meeting with.
MS. NULAND: Because we are interested in ensuring the confidentiality of these channels and that these channels stay open, and when we start naming names we could create internal tensions in relationships there. And again, these relationships are valuable. They seem to be getting the word through about the right thing to do.
QUESTION: In the opposition meeting, it – you believe it was a success because they agreed to maybe have another meeting in the future?
MS. NULAND: The fact that opposition members were allowed to meet in Syria for the first time in decades, as I understand it, is progress and is something that is new and is important for the democratic process in Syria that we all want to see.
QUESTION: Are you saying that President Asad is still able to lead the reform in Syria?
MS. NULAND: These are decisions that President Asad needs to make. What we want to see is absolutely clear: We want to see an end to the violence; we want to see a continued public dialogue; we want to see free space for the opposition to make its views known. So those are the points that we are making. I think our views on what President Asad has to do haven’t changed.
QUESTION: And any update on the sanctions on the oil and gas, et cetera?
MS. NULAND: No. We continue work on what might happen next.
Please, in the back.
MS. NULAND: Say it again?
MS. NULAND: Anything else on Syria?
QUESTION: Oh, just one more.
MS. NULAND: Lachlan, yeah.
QUESTION: Well, based on the contacts Ambassador Ford has had, do you have a maybe greater hope that Asad and his regime are more willing to engage in reform than you were, say, a few days ago?
MS. NULAND: Again, President Asad knows what has to happen in Syria if that country’s going to move in the right direction. So our message to him hasn’t changed and won’t change. We are simply pleased to see that the opposition has been allowed some breathing space, and a key element of Syria moving in the right direction will be that that continues to be the case and that the government begins to engage with these folks.
QUESTION: A congressman has visited the Syria and met with President Asad. Do you have any readout about his meeting? Was he cooperating with the State Department or with the Embassy in Damascus?
MS. NULAND: I think you are referring to the visit of Congressman Kucinich.
MS. NULAND: Congressman Kucinich is in Syria at the invitation, we understand it, of the Syrian Government. His trip was arranged by the Syrian Embassy here. He did ask Ambassador Ford for a briefing on Sunday and had a briefing at the embassy, but he did not ask to be accompanied on his meetings, nor has he given us a debrief, nor was he carrying any administration messages.
QUESTION: (Inaudible) would you have liked – considering that Ambassador Ford seems to have problems getting in to see the top dog, would it have been helpful for Congressman Kucinich to bring him along to his meeting with President Asad?
MS. NULAND: This is a choice that members of Congress can make when they visit foreign countries. He did seek the advice of Ambassador Ford and he did seek an embassy briefing before he went in, so he presumably had a clear understanding of the messages Ambassador Ford and we have been giving before he went in.
QUESTION: All right. The previous administration, as I’m sure you well remember, took great issue with Congresswoman Pelosi traveling to Syria and meeting with President Asad, who at that point was not under specific sanctions, as he is now. There was no – the administration had no problem with – this administration had no problem with Congressman Kucinich visiting?
MS. NULAND: My understanding of this particular visit is that we had only a couple of hours notice of his intention to travel.
QUESTION: And that was – it’s a – well, it’s – so it was a surprise when you found out? Was it a good surprise, a happy surprise, or were you – would you have wished that he had not made the trip?
MS. NULAND: Again, I think we had just a couple of hours notice, so if you can consider that a surprise, it was news to us within a couple of hours of his going. But again, he did stop by, he did have a briefing from Ambassador Ford before he went into his meetings. So having an embassy there, again, was valuable.
QUESTION: Regardless of the amount of notice that you were given – even if you’re given a minute’s worth of notice, you still can have a reaction to the decision. And so I guess Matt’s question, I think, is still out there, which is to say, did you view positively, regardless of how many hours you had to think about it, his decision to go? Did you view it negatively or is it simply him exercising his prerogative as a member of Congress to travel?
MS. NULAND: I like your third option – he’s exercising his prerogative as a member of Congress to travel.
QUESTION: Has he brought any message from the Syrian leadership?
MS. NULAND: Has he brought any message of his own? To that I can’t speak, because --
QUESTION: No. From the Syrian president or from the Syrian leadership to the American administration?
MS. NULAND: Again, we haven’t had a debrief from him on his meetings, so I can’t speak to that.
QUESTION: Do you expect anything?
MS. NULAND: I don’t know.
QUESTION: Would you be able to request such a meeting and would he be compelled to attend?
MS. NULAND: Would he be compelled to attend a meeting here?
MS. NULAND: Generally, separation of powers, that members of Congress have the – have their own prerogatives. We don’t generally compel them one way or the other.
MS. NULAND: Please.
QUESTION: Yeah. Ambassador Grossman is in Kabul for the trilateral dialogue. If you could tell us what kind of issues were discussed there and if you are expecting a breakthrough from this, particularly because of the mistrust that is there amongst the partners?
And the second part of my question is that Pakistan apparently has conveyed its reservations over the ongoing contacts with Taliban and it thinks the United States is bypassing Islamabad, if you could comment on that as well.
MS. NULAND: Well, as you know, Ambassador Grossman is in Kabul for a three-part event. The piece yesterday was the Contact Group meeting, some 42 countries that participate in support for Afghanistan and its democratic progression. Today was the meeting of the core group – U.S., Afghanistan, Pakistan – to talk about the full complex of issues, but in particular, to continue to work on rules of the road for peaceful reconciliation of Taliban. And then the third piece, obviously, Ambassador Grossman’s having bilateral meetings in Kabul with Afghan officials. He met today with President Karzai, with National Security Advisor Spanta and with UN Special Representative de Mistura.
With regard to the core group, our understanding is that it was a good meeting in terms of continuing to make progress among the three. As you know, the U.S. rules of the road for reconciliation of Taliban – we’ve gone over it here – haven’t changed. They need to renounce violence, they need to accept the Afghan constitution, they need – including respecting rights for women, and they need to break with al-Qaida.
QUESTION: Are those preconditions for bringing them on the table or those are the conditions that you are eventually looking at?
MS. NULAND: Those are the conditions for completing a reconciliation process. You can’t be reconciled unless all of those things are in place. So Pakistan, as I understand it, did participate in the meeting today and those contacts continue.
MS. NULAND: Please.
QUESTION: Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps conducted military exercises, and they said that they also tested several different types of missiles, and they’ve said that these missiles can reach Israel and U.S. bases in the region. Do you see this as a provocative action, and what do you think about the – what they’ve said?
MS. NULAND: We’ve seen the press reports, pictures. We’ve seen their assertions of missile tests. Our concerns about what Iran is up to in its missile development program have not changed. As you know, UN Security Council Resolution 1929 prohibits Iran from undertaking any activity related to ballistic missiles capable of delivering nuclear weapons, including launches of ballistic missile technology. So we will continue to make the points that we have always made, that it’s time for Iran to take steps to be transparent with the international community and to come back into compliance with UN Security Council resolutions.
QUESTION: Do you consider these missile launches, these tests, a real threat to put the U.S. bases on alert?
MS. NULAND: Again, I can’t speak to how we might evaluate Iranian capability. That would be an intelligence matter. But Iran knows what it needs to do. It needs to come back into compliance with the international community and with UN Security Council resolutions.
QUESTION: Can I follow up on that? Do you believe that – you noted the 1929 prohibition, but do you believe that these missiles are, in fact, capable of delivering nuclear weapons?
MS. NULAND: Again, I’m not going to speak to our evaluation of what may or may not have happened. That would take us into intelligence matters. Simply to say that Iran, rather than getting itself back in the good graces of the international community, rather than coming into compliance and being transparent with the IAEA, with the UN Security Council, seems to be bragging about its capabilities, conducting secret programs, parading new missiles in front of the press, so that’s not taking us in the direction we want to go with Iran.
QUESTION: Right. No, I understand that. The question, though, is if the missiles that they displayed and tested are not capable, then they are not violating the specific item that you referenced.
MS. NULAND: Again, I’m not going to get into our evaluation of what we’re seeing in Iran. That will take us into intelligence matters, but --
QUESTION: You’re going to have to at some point, because either you bring it to the Security Council and say that they’re violating them or you don’t.
MS. NULAND: Today we’re operating on these press reports, so I’m not going to go any further than --
QUESTION: So you don’t – so there isn’t any analysis yet?
MS. NULAND: There’s certainly not any analysis that I’m prepared to share here.
QUESTION: Well, you’re not accusing them of violating 1929, are you?
MS. NULAND: I’m simply saying that 1929 remains in force --
MS. NULAND: -- that the actions that Iran is undertaking do not give anybody any confidence that they are moving in the direction of coming back into compliance with the demands of the international community.
QUESTION: But not with regard to this specific provision of 1929 regarding missiles capable of –
MS. NULAND: I’m not going to evaluate one way or another what kind of missiles these might be. I’m simply saying that Iran knows what it needs to do to get back into the graces of the international community.
QUESTION: But why would you mention that at all if –
MS. NULAND: Because they --
QUESTION: -- when you’re talking about coming back into compliance, you’re talking about all the other things that we know about on the uranium enrichment and so on.
MS. NULAND: Because they are out there in the press talking about conducting missile tests, so there’s a question of what kind of missiles these may or may not be. Missiles can carry any kind of warhead – a conventional warhead, a chemical warhead, a biological warhead, or a nuclear warhead. So all of these things come into play when you are out there building missiles rather than putting your energy and your effort into coming back into compliance with the international community.
QUESTION: But just so --
MS. NULAND: So to put it out there again, that there is a UN Security Council resolution that precludes them from any activity related to ballistic missiles capable of delivering nukes is an important redline for us to get out there.
MS. NULAND: Yeah.
QUESTION: I get that. But by making that statement, you are in no way seeking to suggest that you have reason to believe – that you have reason to believe that these missiles are indeed nuclear-capable.
MS. NULAND: I’m not prepared to evaluate the missiles one way or the other from this podium. Thanks.
QUESTION: Yeah. Just a follow-up on a question I’ve been asking about this Palestinian activist who was imprisoned by the Israelis. The Europeans put out a specific statement about him, I believe last week, of concern. Do you share the EU concern about Mr. Timimi?
MS. NULAND: Mr. Timimi is the name?
MS. NULAND: Timimi. I’ll have to take that question, Matt.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MS. NULAND: Okay. Thanks very much.
(The briefing was concluded at 1:05 p.m.)