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 October 13, 2011
QUESTION: I just – I wanted to follow up on a couple things that Under Secretary Sherman said this morning in testimony. Well, actually, the first one isn’t a follow-up. The first one – it’s a semi-follow-up. In terms of your outreach to foreign governments, particularly the cable asking ambassadors and chiefs of mission to demarche their host governments, are you aware of any countries that have declined to have – to meet with these people to discuss this matter? I’m particularly interested in countries like Syria, Venezuela.
MS. NULAND: I am not aware of any countries that have declined to meet with our Embassy officials who have reached out. I can --
MS. NULAND: No, not to my knowledge.
QUESTION: No. Is there – it would be interesting if there are any. I would be interested in knowing it if there are.
MS. NULAND: Okay.
QUESTION: And then secondly, she – Under Secretary Sherman said that one of the things that had been suggested or that they are suggesting is to postpone, or cancel outright, any visits by Iranian officials to those countries. Do you know what countries do have upcoming visits by Iranian officials scheduled and if any of them have taken – if any countries have taken your suggestion onboard and canceled or postponed such visits?
MS. NULAND: Let me take that one, Matt, because I really don’t have information here with me.
Okay. Anything else on that subject?
QUESTION: On Iran?
MS. NULAND: On the Iran subject? Go ahead, Said.
QUESTION: Could you clarify once again – I know we asked you this question yesterday – on the invitation of the diplomatic corps to meet with Deputy Burns, was Syria consciously excluded from that meeting?
MS. NULAND: When we invite the diplomatic corps, we have a list of countries that are regularly included. Syria is not on that list.
QUESTION: What are the considerations?
MS. NULAND: I don’t think I’m going to speak any further about this, except to say that Syria was not on that list yesterday.
QUESTION: If you already covered it, I apologize. I just wanted to know if you’re in any shape or form reached out – if the U.S. Government is reaching out to Iran, whether through the Swiss Embassy or directly, over this alleged plot case.
MS. NULAND: We have had direct contact with Iran. I’m not going to give you any further details than that, but just to say that we have had direct contact with Iran on this issue.
QUESTION: Can you say when this was?
MS. NULAND: Yesterday, I believe.
QUESTION: Well, when you say that you’ve had direct contact with Iran, that would suggest that it’s something in New York.
MS. NULAND: As I said, I’m not going to speak any further about --
QUESTION: Here? There?
MS. NULAND: It certainly was not in Iran. Let’s put it that way.
QUESTION: Well (inaudible) – why even mention it if you’re not going to say anything more about it?
MS. NULAND: We’ve had direct contact with Iran.
QUESTION: Yeah. Well, so why even open up the line of questioning by saying it?
MS. NULAND: The question was asked, and I provided you the answer that we’re prepared to provide.
QUESTION: Somehow it’s sensitive about how and where – how and where this contact happened --
MS. NULAND: I think we are not prepared at the moment to go any further on the question of who spoke to whom and where, but just to confirm that we have had direct contact with Iran.
QUESTION: They’re denying this plot? I mean, what – providing any details on what was said?
MS. NULAND: I’m not going to get into the discussion at all. You’ve seen their public statements, which are not surprising and what we expected from them.
QUESTION: The next steps – obviously, there’s a lot of action here and then at the United Nations. At this point, how far is the Administration willing to go at the United Nations? I mean, what are you – I know Rice, you mentioned, has been meeting individually, I guess, with members of the Security Council. Any specificity in terms of what you are asking them to do?
MS. NULAND: Well, I think yesterday and the day before, she was involved in individual consultations with each member of the Security Council. Those meetings have now been completed. Dan Benjamin, our assistant secretary for counterterrorism, was also up there with her for these briefings.
I think the question ahead of us is what further steps we can take in the UN. And those consultations continue with our UN Security Council partners. As you know, our message has been very clear that we think that Iran should be held to account. So I think it’s premature to say what the Security Council might be prepared to do, but we’re continuing to work on that.
QUESTION: Victoria, it has been alleged that the Iranians targeted Mr. Jubair because he played a very strong role in convincing the United States to allow Saudi troops to go to Bahrain. Do you have any comment on that?
MS. NULAND: Well, I think you’re into the realm of WikiLeaks here and other things, and you know where I’m going to go on that, Said, which is to say that we’re not going to comment. It was a good effort, though.
QUESTION: So premature to say what the UN might do. Is there – has there been any discussions on further sanctions here? What further measures are being discussed in this building?
MS. NULAND: Well, as I said yesterday, we’ve sanctioned these five individuals; we’ve sanctioned the – Mahan Air. We are continuing to look at what more we can do, and we’ll have announcements when we have announcements on that. But we are looking at other measures we might be able to take. I think our message, as I said yesterday, to our partners around the world is for each of them to look individually at how they are implementing UN sanctions, how they are implementing national sanctions, and to do what they can to ensure that implementation is complete, that there are no loopholes, and that we are really using the Security Council mandates that we have to full effect. And also, as Ambassador Sherman has said, to ensure that these named Iranians who might be trying to travel, who might be trying to move, find that difficult, et cetera.
QUESTION: I’m not quite sure you would want to answer this, but --
MS. NULAND: Good – you can try.
QUESTION: As you talk with – as the Secretary and others talk with leaders of other countries, there has been a lot of questioning about this plot. Some aspects of it don’t seem to make sense. Has it been heavy lifting to make the case for this? Have you had any blowback from countries saying we don’t believe you?
MS. NULAND: Well, as we’ve said here, when you look at these details, it seems like something out of a movie. And that’s always the first reaction. That was the first reaction when this effort was briefed to some senior folks in this government. But as you begin to give more detail on what we knew and when we knew it and how we knew it, it has credibility. And that credibility is coming through in the briefings. And frankly, Iran is a country with quite a long track record of not only terrorist activity but bizarre efforts. And so I think when you compare this to other things we’ve seen in the past, countries may be – may find it quite a story, but they’re not surprised that Iran would be capable of something like this.
QUESTION: (Inaudible) that this actually may be a reflection of sort of – major differences within the Iranian political body politics itself, like Khamenei on the one side and Ahmadinejad and the other?
MS. NULAND: Well, we’ve seen a lot of folks speculating, government folks and Iran experts around the world. We certainly believe that the Iranian regime is under pressure. We certainly believe that there are internal disputes ongoing. Whether the way this was put together reflects some of those tensions, I can’t speak to. But certainly, there seems to be a degree of desperation involved here.
QUESTION: I am little late. I hope you didn’t already address it, but my question is: It has been about four days past since the plot unveiled, and you have been engaging with the countries across the world. How is your first impression,that they can see something is happening within next week or so, near future?
MS. NULAND: Well, Under Secretary Sherman spoke to this on the Hill earlier today. I think the President spoke to this. We’ve had a number of countries come forward with their own statements of condemnation, and we welcome that. And we’ve had many countries saying that they will look hard at whether their own national nooses are tight enough around Iran, based on the sanctions that the UN has put forward and their own individual sanctions.
So that effort continues, and we have – we are also in the process of giving more information to those countries who have asked for it.
QUESTION: (Inaudible) specific on Turkey, Turkey and USA, their own differences when it comes to Iran and the latest round of sanctions. Can you tell us, elaborate us how the negotiations or meetings with Turkish counterparts are going forward in terms of new Iranian sanctions?
MS. NULAND: I don’t have any details of Ambassador Ricciardone’s intercession with Turkish counterparts in front of me. I do know that the Secretary and Foreign Minister Davutoglu are to speak either today or tomorrow, so why don’t I give you more after that phone call.
QUESTION: Can I just ask for a clarification, Victoria? When you said many countries are saying that they will tighten up their own efforts, and you’re providing more information, is that information about the alleged plot or --
MS. NULAND: No, no. We are – for those countries who want more information about the plot, how we uncovered it, what we know, we are offering specialized briefings, as I said yesterday. With regard to decisions about how countries might better implement sanctions on the books, et cetera, those are obviously national decisions to be made.
QUESTION: The meeting yesterday between – was it bilateral or was there a representative from any – a third country present with the Iranians?
MS. NULAND: I’m not prepared to speak any further about our diplomacy with Iran.
QUESTION: We learn from various reports in the region that the Saudi are in the business of preparing some – I mean , somehow to respond to this alleged plot. Are you aware about what they are going to do, and are you in coordination with the Saudi in this respect?
MS. NULAND: We have coordinated very well with the Saudis throughout this. Obviously, we were in close touch with the Saudis when we uncovered the plot, as I said yesterday, and Secretary Clinton spoke to Foreign Minister Saud. I think the President’s also made a phone call. With regard to what steps they might take on their own behalf, I would refer you to them.
QUESTION: Yeah. In an interview, Secretary Clinton has said that she would encourage the Gulf countries to cooperate more together among them following these plots. Can you elaborate on that?
MS. NULAND: Well, I think we’ve been in the business of encouraging maximum cooperation among the GCC states in response to Iran’s aggression for many, many years. You saw at the United Nations this meeting of the GCC plus the U.S. talking specifically about security in the Gulf and tightening and enhancing our collaboration, our cooperation, our interoperability, these kinds of things. So this has been – this is not a new subject, obviously.
QUESTION: I wanted to know, did she put forward any new ideas or --
MS. NULAND: In the GCC plus U.S. context, not directly in response to the plot, but as you know, we just had a very intense conversation about all this in New York ten days ago. But it is the kind of vehicle that we hope can be increasingly effective at hardening all of ourselves against whatever nefarious activity Iran might be up to.
QUESTION: Toria, when there is a need for direct Iranian-American contacts, is that done under the auspices of the Swiss?
MS. NULAND: It can be done under the auspices of the Swiss. It can also be done directly.
QUESTION: Okay. And lastly, any information about the Saudis changing their current ambassador to Washington?
MS. NULAND: I don’t have any information on that at all.
QUESTION: Can I ask you if the Russians were among those who received those specialized briefings that you mentioned?
MS. NULAND: As you know, Secretary Clinton spoke to Foreign Minister Lavrov yesterday. He did ask for additional information, and we will be sending a team to Moscow.
QUESTION: Change of subject?
MS. NULAND: Are we still on Iran?
QUESTION: Has everything been on Iran as to why –
MS. NULAND: This is Iran; you missed nothing. Yeah.
QUESTION: I missed nothing?
MS. NULAND: Yeah. Did you go up to eat the first course at lunch upstairs?
QUESTION: I was going to – (laughter).
I just wanted to get to – go ahead. Are you going to ask about the Middle East?
QUESTION: Can you give us any update on the efforts to bring Israelis and Palestinians back to negotiations?
QUESTION: Particularly the Hale-Abbas meeting in Paris, if it’s happened.
MS. NULAND: The Hale-Abbas meeting started 25 minutes ago, so I will look to provide you whatever readout we can at tomorrow’s briefing. But that is the main activity today. We’re very pleased that Envoy Hale is able to meet with President Abbas, and we look forward to a good outcome there.
QUESTION: Is it possible to get something before tomorrow on that, considering that despite, I am sure, what will your Herculean efforts, the readout is likely to be, “We had a productive meeting and everything is hunky-dory”?
MS. NULAND: But you’d like to be reassured of that sometime before this time tomorrow? (Laughter.)
QUESTION: Well, 24 – before 24 hours from now, at least.
MS. NULAND: Let us see what we can do.
QUESTION: President Abbas will meet French President Sarkozy tomorrow. Did the Secretary talk with her counterpart, Juppe, about this meeting in advance?
MS. NULAND: They have not had a phone call recently, but as you know, David Hale has had a full round of consultations in Paris. So I think our view is that the French Government knows very well where we are, and that we are in very close lockstep on these issues.
QUESTION: Do you think that the Palestinians are losing steam in their application in the United Nations?
MS. NULAND: Well, you know the United Nations process goes forward. You know where we are on it. We think it is going to take some time. We believe that it provides a great opportunity to get back to the negotiating table and actually get something done on a Palestinian state, while the UN clicks along with whatever it’s up to.
QUESTION: So you feel that countries like Colombia might actually be voting against Palestinian statehood now?
MS. NULAND: I’m not going to speak on voting one way or the other. There’s a lot of work that has to be done on this application. It’s going to take some time. That work is ongoing now. As you know, we are hopeful that this will not come to a vote, because you know where we’ll be if it does.
QUESTION: I have a quick follow-up on the settlement. I saw your statement that the – I mean, your response to the question.
MS. NULAND: Right.
QUESTION: Why is it so difficult to say “We call on Prime Minister Netanyahu not to expand these illegal outposts.”?
MS. NULAND: I don’t think Prime Minister Netanyahu has any question where the United States stands on these issues. We have been very clear.
I should actually take this opportunity to say – I don’t think I said it – no, I guess it hadn’t happened when I saw you yesterday – the Secretary did speak to Prime Minister Netanyahu yesterday. They obviously spoke about the Iran issue, they spoke about the news reports about the potential imminent release of Shalit and a whole prisoner swap, and they spoke about our shared hope that we can get back to the negotiating table soon.
QUESTION: They spoke about the news reports?
MS. NULAND: Was there a question there, Matt?
QUESTION: Yeah. That’s the question.
MS. NULAND: What was the question?
QUESTION: They spoke about news reports, question mark?
MS. NULAND: They spoke about this issue. You know where we’ve been, that we long have believed that Colonel Shalit --
QUESTION: Did the Secretary say, “Bibi, what’s going on here? I’m reading in the newspaper or seeing on television that you’re going to do this prisoner swap. What’s going on?” Or did she say, “What’s going on?”
MS. NULAND: Well, she has been kept up to – we have been kept up to date by the Israeli Government. She was able to exchange views with him on this. Again, it has not happened yet, so I think we don’t want to get ahead of actions that are due to happen.
QUESTION: Yesterday you said you hadn’t been kept up to date by the Israeli Government and the only thing you knew about was press reports, which you seemed to dismiss as being unreliable, even though they were quoting the prime minister of Israel and the leader of Hamas itself.
MS. NULAND: That was a good effort. I did not say we had not been kept up to date. I said that I wasn’t prepared to comment on the situation from the podium.
QUESTION: You said that it – I’ll go back and look at the transcript --
MS. NULAND: Please do.
QUESTION: -- but you made it – you implied that this was all based on – any question about this was only based on news reports, which you suggested were not reliable, which you implied might not be reliable, even though they were quoting the two main --
MS. NULAND: I did not mean to imply that. The Secretary and the prime minister did speak about this yesterday. They reviewed the situation. You know where we have been, that we have long believed that Galid Shalit should be released, that he shouldn’t have been picked up in the first place. But again, with regard to our commenting any more than what I’ve said here, which is that they discussed it, I’m going to refer you to the Israelis because this is not something – this is something that they have projected, but it hasn’t happened yet.
QUESTION: Well, did he tell her that this was indeed going to happen, and that the news reports were correct?
MS. NULAND: Again, I’ve gone about as far as I’m going to go on their conversation, which was that he briefed her on the situation.
QUESTION: Well, then – okay. Then, on a general matter, does the United States think it’s a good idea for Israel to be negotiating with a terrorist group?
MS. NULAND: This is a decision for the Israeli Government to make.
QUESTION: But does the Secretary of State think that it is actually a positive development that Shalit was released and in exchange Palestinian prisoners were released?
MS. NULAND: Again, this hasn’t happened yet. I’m going to refer you to the Israeli Government. I’m sure we will comment on it if and when it does.
QUESTION: Could you comment on the Egyptian role? Because the Egyptians are getting a lot of credit for brokering this report.
MS. NULAND: I’m sure if and when it happens, we’ll have comments on the Egyptian role
QUESTION: The entire idea, though, of negotiating with a terrorist group – I mean, Hamas is a group that you have lobbied European governments, others, not to do any – not to have any dealings with at all. You’ve wanted them to put – be put – you wanted them to be sanctioned, you wanted them to be isolated. Now that your best friend in the Middle East, the Israelis – or Israel is negotiating with them, is that – does that mean that there’s a different approach now?
MS. NULAND: Our concern, and the points that we’ve been making about Hamas for more than a year now, involve our concern about members of Hamas joining the Palestinian government if they have not renounced violence, if they have not been willing to recognize the state of Israel, if they have not been willing to abide by past agreements. So those are the points that we’ve been making about Hamas.
This is an issue between – with regard to the prisoner issue, you have prisoners because you have a terrorist organization that has taken prisoners. So the Israeli Government is involved in a conversation about how it gets its folks back, who never should have been taken in the first places.
QUESTION: Well, you have a terrorist organization that has taken prisoners. There’s one prisoner on the Israeli side. You’re not referring to Israel as the terrorist organization, are you?
MS. NULAND: Of course not.
QUESTION: There’s a thousand prisoners on their side that are being released, not all of whom are members of Hamas.
MS. NULAND: The – I’m not going to parse this any further than to say when we talk about our concerns about Hamas in the context of negotiations going on in the Palestinian Authority about a new government, it has to do with ensuring that any members who join that government meet three criteria: that they are prepared to renounce violence; that they’ve recognized Israel’s right to exist; and that they are prepared to abide by past agreements between the Palestinians and Israel.
QUESTION: A follow-up, please?
MS. NULAND: Yes.
QUESTION: (inaudible) floating the idea that this may be a prelude to moving the leadership of Hamas from Damascus to Cairo. Would that be a good thing?
MS. NULAND: I don’t have any view one way or the other on that one.
QUESTION: Because I guess being Damascus, they have much closer ties to, let’s say, Iran and Syria. And in this case, they would be – would have closer ties with one of United States closest allies.
MS. NULAND: I think you know where we are on Hamas, what we’re looking for in order for Hamas to play an appropriate political role. So where their capital is, I’m not sure makes that much difference.
QUESTION: And lastly, on a related but --
MS. NULAND: Yeah.
QUESTION: -- separate topic, this is the olive harvesting season, and every year, the settlers go on and uproot trees and so on. There is a lot going on. Are you aware of these activities by the settlers?
MS. NULAND: Was there – I’m not aware of --
QUESTION: Well, I mean, could you look into this? Because there are – the settlers have had that happen over the past so many years. And every time there is the olive harvest season, they go and they uproot Palestinian trees and Palestinian lands. Would you --
MS. NULAND: Said, I’m happy to see if we have anything to say on this issue.
QUESTION: (Inaudible) a related question but on Nepal, please?
MS. NULAND: On Nepal?
QUESTION: Yeah, related one. Since the Nepali Maoist, they are saying that they have given up the idea of supporting terrorism, but now they are part of the government. And prime minister is from the Maoist, but they are still on the terrorist supporting list from the – on the State Department. Are you now thinking or have you thought about taking them off? Because that’s what they’re asking now, the United States, that since we had the government, we are ruling Nepal, so now we should not be on the list – terrorist list.
MS. NULAND: Well, Goyal, you know we’ve spoken to this before. We are in conversation with the government about what – the kinds of steps that we want to see. If you need more information than that, I can take the question, but I don’t think our position on Nepal has changed.
QUESTION: Could you update us on the activities of Ambassador Ford, because lately there seems to be a low profile. Is it because he’s restricted to a 25-mile radius?
MS. NULAND: No. As you know, and if he wants to travel, he is supposed to ask for the ministry’s permission. They have routinely denied those trips, but he remains extremely active, talking to a broad cross-section of Syrians, including a broad cross-section of opposition members and making the United States view clear that we want to see the opposition pursue its goals peacefully and that we are encouraged by some of these efforts to build umbrella organizations and to work together. And we want to see this continue in a non-sectarian way.
QUESTION: Yesterday’s demonstration – pro-Bashar al-Asad demonstration took place in the Saba Bahrat area, which is very close proximity to the Embassy. Was the Embassy at any time sort of in danger or feared being, let’s say, mobbed by the mob or anything else?
MS. NULAND: Not to my knowledge. I don’t believe we had any incidents yesterday.
Anything else? One from Catherine here.
QUESTION: Pakistan. Do you have any information on two Americans who have been detained there?
MS. NULAND: Yeah. Let me just find where we have this. Our understanding is that – what we believe is that we have one American citizen and one legal permanent resident who may have been detained. We are seeking additional information now from the Government of Pakistan. And obviously, because we’re not sure of the situation, we don’t have Privacy Act waivers. So I can’t go any further as to identities, et cetera. But we are seeking more information now from the Government of Pakistan.
QUESTION: Just to be clear, legal permanent resident means someone who has a green card.
MS. NULAND: Correct.
QUESTION: And there are – on the similar – although, I don’t believe it involved Americans – do you have anything to say about the abduction of these MSF workers from the Dadaab camp, a refugee camp in Kenya allegedly by the Somalis?
MS. NULAND: Yeah. These – we’ve seen the press reports. We don’t have much independent information. What I would suggest at the moment is to refer you to Doctors Without Borders. We’re trying to get more information ourselves.