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 1, 2011
MR. TONER: Also, just one other thing at the top, but on a more serious – much more serious note, we are deeply concerned – talking about Iran now. We are deeply concerned by the recent string of arrests of human rights activists, journalists, and artists by Iranian authorities and condemn this continuing crackdown on peaceful dissent. Those arrested include filmmaker Mahnaz Mohammadi, photographer and activist Maryam Majd, as well as activists Zahra Yazdani and Maryam Bahrman and Mansoureh Behkish. These arrests, which often occur without formal charges or due process, or as in the cases of Mohammadi and Majd, again illustrate the Iranian Government’s denial of the basic human rights of its citizens. We call on the Iranian Government to live up to its obligations, including its international ones and respect the universal rights of the Iranian people, including the right to due process and freedom of expression. That’s all I have at the top. I’ll take your questions.
QUESTION: Can I follow on that, Mark?
MR. TONER: Yeah. Sure.
QUESTION: Other than those arrests that you’ve mentioned, there also have been a number of other arrests reported in Iran, notably of advisors to the president. I’m wondering if – do you see any connection between the two? And is your call for these – this protection of rights also extend to the people who are very close to Ahmadinejad who seem to be falling foul of a political campaign?
MR. TONER: Well, it’s – because the situation there is so opaque, that it’s difficult for us to comment on what may or may not be happening politically there. You mentioned these arrests. We’re, of course, monitoring them, but we don’t have very credible information or a lot of information about them. But I think it’s fair to say – reiterate what I just said, which is we call on Iran to respect the universal rights of the Iranian people – all the Iranian people, including the right to due process.
MR. TONER: Yeah. Go ahead.
QUESTION: On Syria?
MR. TONER: In Syria.
QUESTION: Can you talk about reports that the U.S. is pushing the Syrian opposition to accept a roadmap, which would leave President Asad in power, but would enable them to have a dialogue with the regime about reform?
MR. TONER: Well, I’m actually glad you raised this. I think you’re talking about the piece that was in the Guardian that we regard as inaccurate, frankly. We are, indeed, encouraging dialogue between the opposition and the government. This is something we’ve talked about. And we call on the Syrian Government to create that space, to create the right climate to make possible a dialogue in negotiation. That’s got to be the first step in any kind of reconciliation and transition process. But in terms of promoting one plan over any other plan, that’s just not true. We want to see, again, dialogue and a transition process, but we certainly don’t back any plan. This is something that’s in the hands of the Syrian people.
QUESTION: But do you actually see this as a plausible outcome that he would remain in power –
MR. TONER: Again –
QUESTION: -- and oversee some sort of a process – transitional process?
MR. TONER: -- it’s not something that we need to decide. This is really something that’s being driven by the Syrian people.
MR. TONER: And frankly, it’s beyond the Syrian Government’s ability to decide this process. These – this is something that the protestors, that the people in the street are driving.
QUESTION: But is that an acceptable outcome to you?
MR. TONER: That –
QUESTION: An outcome where Asad remains in power, and he can negotiate some sort of reform process that is implementable. Is that something that –
MR. TONER: Again, it doesn’t matter what’s an acceptable outcome to us. It matters whether it’s an acceptable outcome to the Syrian people.
QUESTION: The defense minister of Pakistan has (inaudible).
QUESTION: Give us the answer.
MR. TONER: Sorry.
QUESTION: Do you support the demands of protestors in Syria?
MR. TONER: Do we support the demands of protestors? We support, as we’ve said all along, their right to protest peacefully and to express their demands, and that’s something that we’ve seen time and time again the Syrian Government refuse to honor that and to continue to carry out a vicious crackdown on peaceful protestors. But I mean, everybody has the right to freedom of expression. That’s a universal human right.
QUESTION: And do you support in any – any kind the demonstrations or the protestors in Syria?
MR. TONER: Do we –
QUESTION: Does the United States – the Administration or the United States is supporting the protestors in Syria?
MR. TONER: Again, we support their peaceful – their right to peacefully demonstrate, to make their demands against the Syrian Government and to, frankly, have the Syrian Government listen to their demands. It’s not about what necessarily they’re demanding. We don’t have a laundry list. This is the Syrian people’s list that they’re demanding. These are their demands that they’re making of their government. So it’s not for us to say what those demands should or should not be. They certainly have the right to make those demands and not be killed or have violence carried out against them.
QUESTION: And do you provide any assistance to them?
MR. TONER: Any assistance to the opposition there? We continue to talk to the opposition there, but I’m not going to discuss any assistance.
QUESTION: Mark, a quick follow-up to that. I think overwhelming chant in these demonstration is calling on Asad to be gone. Do you support that? I mean, that – I think I understood that question to be –
MR. TONER: Again, in the – the Secretary talked about this a little bit earlier today. The Syrian Government is has continued to squander at every opportunity it’s had to institute a process of reconciliation. They did allow the opposition – some opposition members to meet in the beginning of this week. But following on that, we’ve seen continued crackdowns on protests throughout the country. And so it’s a very mixed picture there. But what’s absolutely not acceptable is their continuing to carry out violence against their own people who are simply peacefully protesting. And this is, as you’ve seen all along, this is just making the opposition stronger to the government, but again, this is something – so I just would say that the Syrian Government, Asad, have continued to make themselves less and less part of any future equation in Syria. They’re doing a good job of making themselves a pariah state and of losing their capacity to lead any real change or reform in Syria.
QUESTION: I’m sorry, but I just wanted to follow up a little bit.
MR. TONER: Yeah.
QUESTION: Not to belabor the issue.
MR. TONER: Sure.
QUESTION: If you were to do a list, like one, two, three, four of what Mr. Asad ought to do so he can be taken back into the world community, what would these things be?
MR. TONER: Well, again, initially, we want to see them create the right climate. First of all, the Syrian Government said they want a national dialogue and a political solution. They said a lot of things. But they need to create the kind of climate that allows that kind of process, that kind of dialogue to take place. They need to allow peaceful marches. They need to respect the right of freedom of expression. They need to stop arbitrary arrests of innocent civilians. And they need to release the many, many political prisoners held in Syrian jails and stop inciting – incitement on state-controlled media. These are all steps that they could take that would, overnight, improve the situation there and create a climate for dialogue.
QUESTION: Thank you.
QUESTION: Just a quick follow-up?
MR. TONER: Yeah. Go ahead.
QUESTION: I mean, if you – the comments that were made earlier this week, when we were talking about a step forward with the opposition meeting and there were some sort of modified hopes, it seemed to be in this building that that represented a real change. Would you say that the events since then have tipped the balance back toward a negative outlook for Syria?
MR. TONER: I think I was just saying it’s a real mixed picture because we had that little flicker of progress, if you will, but then what we’ve seen throughout the week is this kind of continued clampdown by security forces on peaceful protests. So while it appeared that the Syrian Government might be finally getting the message, now it appears the opposite.
QUESTION: If you don’t have any roadmap for Syria keeping Asad in power, why didn’t you ask President Asad to leave, as you did with Leader Qadhafi?
MR. TONER: Again, Michel, this is something that we have consistently said, the President’s said, that if he cannot lead the reform process, he should get out of the way. This is something that’s in the hands of the Syrian people. They’re the ones driving this process. It’s not for us to say that this transition should look like A, B, or C. It’s something for the Syrian people to decide how this looks going forward.
Go ahead, Lalit.
QUESTION: On Pakistan?
MR. TONER: Can we go to Pakistan? Have we exhausted Syria? Go ahead.
QUESTION: The defense minister of Pakistan has said that he has asked the U.S. to vacate the Shamsi air base.
MR. TONER: I missed the last part of your question. He asked the U.S. to?
QUESTION: To leave, to vacate the Shamsi air base, which is in southern Pakistan.
MR. TONER: Right.
QUESTION: So when are you vacating that?
MR. TONER: Again, I’m not aware that we have any military personnel on that base. I’d refer you to the Government of Pakistan. We remain committed to our continued cooperation with Pakistan, and that includes counterterrorism cooperation. But as to the specific question about Shamsi air base, I’d refer you to the Pakistanis.
QUESTION: So you don’t have any military personnel or military equipment at Shamsi?
MR. TONER: Not that I’m aware of.
QUESTION: Can I just have follow-up?
MR. TONER: Yeah, sure. In the back and then Goyal. He had his hand up before.
QUESTION: It’s a supplementary question to that. There are reports in this regard during the last couple of days that Pakistan has asked the U.S. to vacate Shamsi air base and it is not --
MR. TONER: I’m seen those reports.
QUESTION: -- about the military, about the CIA officials that were probably operating from there. And some U.S. officials have also been quoted as saying that we are not going to vacate, so if you could elaborate on that.
MR. TONER: Again, I would refer you to the Pakistani Government for their comments and clarification of their comments. I’m not aware that we have any military personnel on that base. I’m going to leave it there.
QUESTION: (Inaudible.) that --
MR. TONER: God bless you.
QUESTION: Since the defense minister has gone public saying that, have you received any requests from them?
MR. TONER: That’s a question I can take. I don’t know if we’ve received any formal requests.
Yeah. Go ahead, Goyal.
QUESTION: A different question on Pakistan.
MR. TONER: Sure.
QUESTION: Recently, India and Pakistan, they met at the foreign ministry levels, and Nirupama Rao, who could be the next Indian ambassador to Washington, most favored, she said that there could not be positive talks maybe there between the two countries, but as far as resolution is concerned – or we can say that Pakistan has done something to stop terrorism into India. Pakistan must do more as far as terrorism is concerned in order to have a – long-lasting, better relations between the two countries. And also, at the same time in Washington, at the Heritage Foundation, Lisa Curtis also said the same thing, Pakistan must do more.
What I’m asking you: What really are they or you are asking Pakistan to do more?
MR. TONER: Well, we’ve talked a lot about – a great deal about our relationship with Pakistan over the last couple of months, and certainly since the raid in Abbottabad and the questions that that raised, significant questions about what kind of support network was there. And we have engaged with the Pakistani Government at high levels, from the Secretary to the – Leon Panetta, the CIA – then-CIA chief to address some of these issues, difficult issues, but also to say that we are committed to working with Pakistan in a constructive way on counterterrorism. Pakistan, as we’ve said many, many times, is touched by – in a significant, profound way – the threat of terrorism. They’ve lost a lot of people to terrorism in Pakistan.
We said last week and continue to say that dialogue between India and Pakistan is a very constructive one. We think it’s important that that continue, and we want to see cooperation on many fronts, including counterterrorism, between the two countries.
QUESTION: And one more question quickly. And also, yesterday at that Atlantic Council, there were panels of discussions on India and Pakistan. What – one Pakistani expert said that as far as problems in Pakistan is that U.S. has been or had been and still giving money only to the military or the civilian government but not for the development of the people. And what he significantly said that he just came back from Pakistan –
MR. TONER: Yeah. Sure.
QUESTION: -- that madrassas are still problem, and that means education, so you had to focus more on the development of the people of Pakistan.
MR. TONER: Well, that’s an important point to make. Without going into a litany of what we’re doing in Pakistan in terms of assistance, we are trying to build better, stronger institutions, democratic institutions within the country. We did a lot on flood relief to help the Pakistani people through that difficult time, and we continue to look at other issues such as education. So we understand that it’s not just a military thing or a counterterrorism thing. It’s got to be a broad-based thing. So I’ll leave it there.
Go ahead, in the back.
QUESTION: Thank you.
QUESTION: (Inaudible) contacts. There have been, obviously, all these contacts, but still there is no date of the next round of Strategic Dialogue.
MR. TONER: Well, correct. There’s no – I don’t believe there’s any date for the next plenary session of the Strategic Dialogue. It has yet to be scheduled. That said, as I said, we have high-level engagement with Pakistan, as well as the substantive working groups continue to meet as well. And in fact, on July 5th, our Assistant Secretary of State for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement, William Brownfield, will be in Islamabad to lead the Strategic Dialogue Working Group meeting on counterterrorism and law enforcement with his Pakistani counterparts. So while there has been no date set yet for the plenary, the working groups do continue to meet on a regular basis.
QUESTION: What goes into – I mean, why has there not been a date set for the plenary? Is it purely just a scheduling issue or are there political considerations?
MR. TONER: I think it’s scheduling issues. I think the working groups, as I said, continue to meet, but trying to do something at the plenary level is a bit more difficult. You talked about political, and again, I’m not going to sugarcoat the fact that we’ve had some pretty serious challenges in the – in our bilateral relationship, but the Strategic Dialogue continues.
Yeah. Go ahead.
QUESTION: New topic?
MR. TONER: Sure.
QUESTION: Has Secretary Clinton spoken to Secretary Panetta yet?
MR. TONER: That’s a good question. I don’t believe so, but I will double check because I haven’t gotten a readout of her calls. So that’s a good question; we’ll take that.
QUESTION: On Lebanon –
MR. TONER: I’m sure if she hasn’t, she’s seeking to, but she’s clearly on the road right now, so it’s a little bit difficult. Her schedule is pretty jam-packed.
QUESTION: On Lebanon, a former U.S. ally in Lebanon, Walid Jumblatt, a present Hezbollah ally, has said today that civil peace is more important than anything else. He was commenting on the indictment that the international tribunal delivered yesterday. What’s the priority for the U.S., justice or stability in Lebanon?
MR. TONER: Well, I think that’s a false choice. I think we – I think in order to have stability – real, long-term stability – in Lebanon, you need some measure of justice. And we believe that the special tribunal is exactly about that, and so it needs to be able to carry out its mandate.
QUESTION: Have you received any copy of the indictments?
MR. TONER: We have not yet, no.
QUESTION: But surely, you understand the delicacy of the situation in Lebanon.
MR. TONER: Which is why we urge calm on all parties and all sides.
QUESTION: If the government is – if it’s demanded that the government goes ahead and arrests these three people at the expense of instability or introducing instability, is – do you have a position on that?
MR. TONER: Again, I think I would just reiterate what I just said, which is that it’s a false choice between – that you have to forsake justice in order to have stability. This tribunal has operated objectively, it’s carried out its mandate, it has now provided these sealed indictments to the government – the present government – and we want to see that process move forward because only by carrying out its mandate is there going to be true justice and stability for Lebanon.
QUESTION: So you expect the Lebanese Government to conduct these arrests?
MR. TONER: We are looking for the Lebanese Government to carry out its commitments.
QUESTION: Do you have any reaction to the government’s statement --
MR. TONER: No.
QUESTION: -- on this issue?
MR. TONER: Go ahead.
QUESTION: It looks like the U.S. boat to Gaza, The Audacity of Hope, has left the Greek port -
QUESTION: Before we go to Gaza --
QUESTION: -- can you give us any reaction to the government’s statement on the indictments?
MR. TONER: Just what I just said. We want to see this process go forward, and it’s important that the tribunal carry out its work.
Go ahead. So the --
QUESTION: It looks like this boat has left a Greek port on its way to Gaza. Now it’s on a standoff with the Greek coast guard because the Greek government is saying that it shouldn’t --
MR. TONER: You have more up-to-date information than I do.
QUESTION: This is the most – but I mean, are you concerned that there is going to be a new round of violence like there was with the Turkish flotilla?
MR. TONER: I mean, absolutely. It’s one of the reasons why we’ve been – before any of these ships set sail, been very adamant about saying that this is not a great idea.
QUESTION: On the --
QUESTION: Well, but what about – did you offer to make – I’m sorry, I’ve been out, so I don’t know if you said this, but did you offer to make --
MR. TONER: We have. We’ve issued a statement. The Secretary has talked – spoken to it. We’ve – I’m sorry. Go ahead and finish your question.
QUESTION: Did you offer to make provisions to take the aid from this flotilla and get it to Gaza?
MR. TONER: There are vehicles for that aid to be delivered to the people of Gaza.
QUESTION: This specific aid?
MR. TONER: I’m not aware that there’ve been any offers directly to the ships themselves, but I’m sure that could be facilitated.
QUESTION: So you’re saying that --
MR. TONER: I’m just not sure about – whether we’ve made that exact offer to these specific ships.
QUESTION: Okay, well if you didn’t, are you – you’re willing –
MR. TONER: But there are established channels for that aid to reach the people of Gaza.
QUESTION: Well, I know, but part of the reason that these flotillas continue to happen is because the argument is that the aid – enough aid isn’t reaching the people of Gaza. So, I mean, in this particular –
MR. TONER: Which is a questionable argument, but --
MR. TONER: -- there is, in reaching – there is increased aid --
QUESTION: Do you think enough aid is getting to Gaza?
MR. TONER: There is increased assistance. There are established channels for that assistance to reach the people of Gaza.
QUESTION: But this specific aid on this specific flotilla, the U.S. is willing to help facilitate it if they would stand down?
MR. TONER: I didn’t say necessarily the U.S., but there are established vehicles, channels for that.
QUESTION: But you just said that you’re sure that that could be facilitated.
MR. TONER: What I’m saying is if they said we want to get this assistance to the people of Gaza, I’m sure that the international community that – through these established channels could get that assistance to the people of Gaza.
QUESTION: Do you have any update on the --
QUESTION: (Inaudible) just a follow-on --
MR. TONER: Yeah, yeah. Sure.
QUESTION: -- on the flotilla, just on the – do you have any concern that the Greek coast guard and potentially other coast guards are interfering with freedom of navigation when it comes to boats setting out headed for Gaza? I mean, doesn’t that sort of fly in the face of your repeated declarations that freedom of navigation is a key right?
MR. TONER: I’m frankly not aware. The first thing I’ve heard is that the Greek coast guard has done this. I haven’t seen any confirmation or received any confirmation. I don’t think it’s a freedom of navigation/freedom of the sea issue. These boats are trying to make a political statement. If they want to get assistance to Gaza, there’s ways to do it.
Yeah. Go ahead.
QUESTION: Have you any update on the accusation of sabotage?
MR. TONER: I don’t on sabotage, no. I’ve asked, but I haven’t got any clarification.
QUESTION: Well, today it looks like voting in Morocco on this referendum on the constitution is almost over.
MR. TONER: Right.
QUESTION: Do you have any thoughts on the constitution itself and whether Moroccans were given enough time to make an informed decision on whether they want it to pass?
MR. TONER: Well --
QUESTION: It was only 10 days, about.
MR. TONER: Sure, we do welcome the referendum as an important step in Morocco’s ongoing democratic development. And we feel that this referendum did allow the people to – the opportunity to express their views on some of the things that King Mohammed VI raised – outlined in his speech of March 9th. We understand that it’s going to take a few days before the results are announced. But in this period of profound change we think it’s important, and we congratulate the people of Morocco and their leadership for their peaceful referendum.
QUESTION: On Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood have welcomed the dialogue with the United States to remove any misunderstandings and to bridge gaps. What do you think about this reaction?
MR. TONER: Well, I just would go back to what we said yesterday. It’s a – given the changing political landscape there, it’s in our national interests to engage with all the parties in Egypt that are peaceful and committed to nonviolence and the democratic process. And within that milieu, we’re going to engage with the Muslim Brotherhood.
QUESTION: And do you welcome this welcome from the Muslim Brotherhood?
MR. TONER: We welcome this welcome.
Yeah. Sure, Kirit. I’m sorry. I’m staring right at you.
QUESTION: That’s all right. You got my name right at least. Colonel Qadhafi has threatened to attack Europe if NATO airstrikes continue above his country. Do you have anything to say about that?
MR. TONER: I don’t. Certainly, this is an individual who is obviously capable of carrying out these kinds of threats. It’s what makes him so dangerous. But he is also someone who is given to overblown rhetoric. But, obviously, we’re concerned about any threats he might make. But we continue to carry out the NATO mission, while at the same time increasing pressure on him to step aside.
QUESTION: Two things. First of all, do you consider it a credible threat? And the second is, do you think he maintains the capability --
MR. TONER: I truly don’t know if it’s a credible threat. I just don’t have that kind of intelligence.
QUESTION: And do you know whether he maintains the capability to do something like that?
MR. TONER: Well, I just said – I mean, he has done this before. His regime has done this before, has carried out these kinds of actions. So I think in that regard we would take it seriously. But I have no reason to – I have no information that might lead me to make an assessment one way or the other.