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Middle East Digest - October 18, 2011


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Washington, DC
October 19, 2011

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The Middle East Digest provides text and audio from the Daily Press Briefing. For the full briefings, please visit daily press briefings.

From the Daily Press Briefing of October 18, 2011

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1:06 p.m. EDT

MR. TONER: Good afternoon. Welcome to the Department of State. Just briefly at the top, I did want to welcome the first interim report by the UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in Iran Dr. Ahmed Shaheed and take note of his assessment regarding the Iranian Government’s pattern of systemic violation of its citizens’ rights. The UN Secretary General’s report on Iran’s human rights situation also described an intensified campaign of abuses.

Under international law and its own constitution, Iran has committed itself – committed to, rather, to protect and defend the rights of its people. But officials continue to stifle all forms of dissent, persecute religious and ethnic minorities, harass and intimidate human rights defenders, and engage in the torture of detainees. The United States stands by the Iranian people who wish nothing more than to make their voices heard and hold their government accountable for its actions. And we call upon the international community to use this occasion of these reports to redouble its condemnation of Iran’s disgraceful abuse of human rights of all its citizens and demand a change.

There’s more to that, but we’ll release it in its entirety.

QUESTION: Can we stay with Iran for a second?

MR. TONER: Sure.

QUESTION: Do you have any comment on this new report by IISS that comes to the conclusion that Iran is facing significant difficulties in its uranium enrichment program, but is still believed to be capable of producing material that could eventually be used for nuclear weapons?

MR. TONER: And you’re talking about some of the pressure points that we saw this morning --

QUESTION: Exactly, yeah, which are based on a report --

MR. TONER: -- related to this? Okay. Thank you. Right.

QUESTION: -- which I think is now public.

MR. TONER: Right, that’s correct. Well, Arshad, while sanctions – and I think it’s reflected in some of the reporting you saw – while sanctions are clearly impacting Iran’s efforts to procure items in support of its nuclear missile activities, the international community – we don’t believe the international community can become complacent as Iran continues to stockpile enriched uranium in defiance of UN resolutions. Just a reminder that Iran’s enrichment activities are prohibited under multiple UN Security Council resolutions, and UN sanctions also prohibit states from supplying Iran with items that could contribute to its proliferation-sensitive activities.

QUESTION: Has the Department made any or the Administration made any progress in its efforts to, as the President said last week, place the toughest sanctions on Iran? Are you – I mean, beyond the stuff that’s already been announced, are you making any moves at the UN for a new resolution or a PRST, or is all that still sort of under consideration?

MR. TONER: I think I’d characterize it as that dialogue, both at the UN and bilaterally and multilaterally, obviously, continues. We continue to brief some of our partners and allies on some of the allegations that were made last week about this – the assassination plot against the Saudi ambassador. But again, as you mentioned, part of our response to that is that we need to strengthen existing sanctions against Iran, and certainly we would reiterate our call for states to implement fully UN sanctions on Iran as well as remain – maintaining vigilance on – against the threat of Iranian proliferation-related procurement, so that’s an important element there. In terms of additional steps we might take, I think we’re continuing to have those discussions.

Yeah, go ahead.

QUESTION: Staying with Iran --

MR. TONER: Yeah.

QUESTION: -- the Iranians have demanded access to the alleged conspirator, the one who’s in custody. And I’m wondering if this Administration is going to allow the Iranians to have access to him. This is part of their demands in the wake --

MR. TONER: Right.

QUESTION: -- of this alleged plot.

MR. TONER: I addressed this in some fashion yesterday. That’s okay. But there is – as you know, there’s consular notification and access obligations that do exist under the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations. They don’t necessarily apply to dual citizens. This individual is a dual citizen, as I understand it. That said, we do have a history of urging the responsible authorities to permit at their discretion visits by consular officers of the other country or nationality. So we would be predisposed to allow such a visit.

QUESTION: They also demanded --

MR. TONER: But the other – yeah, sorry, just – that’s okay. The other element of this is I believe initial reports talked about that the Iranians had reached out. Press reports said the Iranians had reached out through the Swiss protecting power. It’s important to note that the Iranian protecting power in the U.S. is indeed the Pakistani Government, so --

QUESTION: Has the Pakistani Government actually reached out and asked to see the guy?

MR. TONER: And that is something I have not confirmed, that I’ve not been able to confirm, so --

QUESTION: They also wanted to see the, quote, “evidence.”

QUESTION: Can you check on that?

MR. TONER: Yeah, I’ll check. I checked earlier, but – go ahead, sir.

QUESTION: They wanted to see the, quote, “evidence,” right? Is – that was another one of their demands – the same evidence that was presented to the allies at the UN and such. Are you going to allow them to see the evidence?

MR. TONER: Again – we talked a little bit about this last week – we did initially meet with Iran about this matter, and their response was highly negative. You’ve seen a pattern of public statements that are somewhat confusing. You saw President Ahmadinejad, who seemed to deny the whole affair and dismiss it as folly, but then the Foreign Minister Salehi yesterday made an offer to investigate the plot charges. So we’ve seen a number of different reactions. We continue to make the case, again, as I said to governments around the world that this was a serious breach of international law and that Iran needs to be held accountable.

Yeah.

QUESTION: My question was: Are you going to show them the evidence as they demand?

MR. TONER: Again, without getting into too much detail, we did talk to the Iranians and were met with a very negative response. I don’t know if we’d consider such an additional meeting. None’s been requested.

Yes.

QUESTION: Judging by your answer earlier, I guess maybe you don’t know that there are Iranian press reports that he has been granted – or they have been granted access to him already. You don’t know that to be the case?

MR. TONER: No. I’ve confirmed it.

QUESTION: Okay.

MR. TONER: Yeah. In the back.

QUESTION: Mark, I have a question about something you said yesterday regarding the second suspect who’s on the run. Presumably he’s in Iran. You said that the Iranian Government has two choices: one is to either extradite him to the U.S. or – I don’t remember your exact words, but do you mean to say that they themselves prosecute him?

MR. TONER: Well, again, this is – the international convention of protected persons to which Iran is a signatory does offer a choice either to extradite an individual who is alleged to have committed crimes or to submit the case for prosecution on its own. I was just merely stating what the convention details.

QUESTION: And what does that mean, the second part? Submit the --

MR. TONER: The second part means that they would have to – that any country who is a signatory to this convention could either extradite any individual who is alleged to have committed crimes under this convention or hold a trial on their own.

QUESTION: On their own in their own country?

MR. TONER: Right.

QUESTION: For a case that they’re denying totally --

MR. TONER: Right. But obviously – right, but obviously would have to be deemed free and fair and due process.

Yeah. Go ahead.

QUESTION: Change subject?

MR. TONER: Absolutely.

QUESTION: Both Ban Ki-moon and Tony Blair said today that the exchange of the prisoners will be a good opportunity to restart the peace process. Do you think this is the case, and why would it be a good opportunity considering that circumstances haven’t changed?

MR. TONER: Well, I think you saw Secretary Clinton spoke to this during her stop in Libya earlier today. And I understand they are wheels up now. But she spoke about Gilad Shalit’s release and saying that we’re obviously pleased that he’s been released and finally reunited with his family and that he’d been held far too long in captivity.

Really, if you’re parsing what this means for the peace process, it’s difficult for us to say. Obviously, we want to see a constructive atmosphere exist between the two parties, one that leads to direct negotiations ultimately. That’s our goal. I can’t say whether this is going to lead in that direction or not. We would just want to see gestures on the part of both sides to build that kind of constructive atmosphere.

QUESTION: Some of the reports were saying that part of the deal was to lift the blockade on Gaza. Are you aware of that? Were you told by the Israelis?

MR. TONER: I am not aware.

QUESTION: Can you follow up on this when you said between the two parties? Hamas, to my knowledge, is not a party to the negotiation that you are hoping to –

MR. TONER: Correct.

QUESTION: Right? So, presumably, you mean then the Israeli Government on the one hand and the Palestinian Authority –

MR. TONER: And the Palestinian Authority, correct.

QUESTION: Great. So there is, I think, a fairly widely held view in the analytical community that this directly undercuts President Abbas. In other words, Hamas has just negotiated the release of 477 Palestinian prisoners in exchange for Corporal Shalit’s freedom. Why would it create a more constructive environment if this deal, whatever its merits on its own, is seen as undercutting President Abbas?

MR. TONER: Sure, sure. Just to clarify, I don’t think I said that this deal necessarily would lead to that more constructive – that’s what we want to see. You’re absolutely right, and again, why I was very cautious to say it’s hard to say what this deal will mean for improving that
atmosphere of relations. We want to see concrete steps that improve and create a more constructive atmosphere.

I can’t tell you – you spoke of analysts who have analyzed it one way or another. I don’t know, but we obviously want to see a more constructive atmosphere between the two parties.

QUESTION: Did the U.S. have any role whatsoever in this agreement?

MR. TONER: No.

QUESTION: And do you think it’s a good agreement and that the two sides have arranged something between them that they both can live with?

MR. TONER: I don’t think it’s for us to necessarily say whether it’s a good or bad agreement. We’re obviously happy, as we’ve said, that Gilad Shalit is back with his home – back with his family, rather. And moving forward, we want to see progress on the peace talks. We want to see the two parties, the Palestinians and the Israelis, get back into direct negotiations. And that’s where are our focus remains.

QUESTION: What does it say though about the U.S. policy in this part of the world that you do not speak to Hamas, it’s declared by this Administration a terrorist organization, you ask countries around the world not to deal with Hamas, yet Israel can deal with Hamas and reach agreements?

MR. TONER: Again, it’s – and we said this last week, that’s a sovereign decision by the Israeli Government. We have the three red lines, if you will, about Hamas that we’ve often spoken about, but that they renounce violence, that they accept existing agreements, and that they recognize Israel’s right to exist. And if they could meet those requirements, then we certainly would welcome them as part of the political process.

QUESTION: Does the success of an agreement like this, something that both sides have agreed to and defended to their own people, does that make you rethink your policy of not speaking to this group until it agrees to your conditions?

MR. TONER: It does not.

QUESTION: Do you have any comment on the – you remarked I think that Corporal Shalit had been held far too long. I’m not suggesting that the circumstances are identical between his abduction and the imprisonment of the Palestinians who have been released today – but has the Administration taken a look at the 477 people who were released and does it have any view on their release as part of this deal? Who they are, whether they should have been incarcerated for as long as they were, and so on?

MR. TONER: Right. I would just say that we have looked at some of these individuals and we’ve communicated our position after we became aware that specific individuals have been identified as part of this release. As I said, previously we weren’t part of any negotiations but we’ve communicated our position to the Israeli Government.

QUESTION: And – sorry, was that on whether these people potentially posed a threat, or whether you had any objection to their release? Was that the kind of thing --

MR. TONER: Both.

QUESTION: And did you come to the – were any of the people released those whom the U.S. Government deemed posing a threat either to Israel or U.S. interests?

MR. TONER: Again, I don’t want to get into the substance of our concerns too greatly. I think I just said that we had concerns in both spheres, if you will.

QUESTION: But you don’t want to say whether Israel chose to release people about whom you had concerns?

MR. TONER: I think – again, I think it touched on both aspects of what you raised.

QUESTION: Were any individuals not released because of any U.S. concerns that were expressed?

MR. TONER: Not that I’m aware of.

QUESTION: Both the – two of your allies, Turkey and Qatar, are – said they were prepared to take few of the prisoners that were not allowed to go either to their homes in Gaza or the West Bank. Is this something – a move that you coordinated with both countries, or --

MR. TONER: We did not.

QUESTION: -- you were not informed? You don’t know anything?

MR. TONER: We had no role.

Anything else?

QUESTION: (Inaudible.)

MR. TONER: (Laughter.)

QUESTION: You’re not getting off that easy. (Laughter.)

MR. TONER: Kirit, then.

QUESTION: Going back to condolence calls, you said, I think, two weeks ago that the family of Samir Khan had received a call from consular officials. Do you know – there were some reports over the weekend of – that the son of Anwar al-Awlaki may have been killed in a separate strike in Yemen. Do you know if his family has received a call?

MR. TONER: You’ve asked – the second part of your question – rather, the first part –

QUESTION: One question.

MR. TONER: It was one question. We have no confirmation of the death of any other U.S. citizens related to the event that you mentioned, but I did want to rewind a bit to the – how you phrased your question, which was as a condolence call. And just a reminder: It was not a condolence call. It was an acknowledgement of the family’s grief, it was a very short call, and it was also an offer of consular assistance, such as a death certificate. And just a reminder to folks that we are legally bound to offer this to any relatives of an American citizen. But it was not a condolence call. I’ve seen it characterized as such in the press.

QUESTION: For the record, when we brought it up in those terms with Toria, she had no problem with that term.

MR. TONER: Again, it was not a condolence all.

Yeah, go ahead.

QUESTION: There are reports about a British draft circulating through the Security Council calling on President Saleh of Yemen to accept the GCC proposal and step down. Is there anything you can share with us about a possible movement at the Security Council?

MR. TONER: I can’t. I’m aware that it continues to be discussed within the Security Council, obviously, but – as well as within the region. I don’t have any updates on that for you except to say that we’ve long stated our strong desire to see President Saleh sign the GCC proposal so that Yemen can move forward on a track towards a democratic transition.

QUESTION: Any update on the violence, the fighting in Yemen since Sunday? It was the severest battles.

MR. TONER: The violence has gone on far too long. It’s taken too many lives. And again, just to reiterate what I just said, it just speaks to the fact that President Saleh needs to sign the GCC agreement so that the hostilities can end and that the Yemeni people can move forward on a path towards a transition.

QUESTION: Can you talk about the apparent deal between the U.S. and Bahrain for weapons sales?

MR. TONER: Okay. What exactly are you talking about, Rosalind?

QUESTION: TOW missiles, humvees for Bahrain’s external security.

MR. TONER: Right. Yeah, I think the --

QUESTION: And there’ve been the concerns on human rights violations.

MR. TONER: Right. We talked to this a number of times last week. That’s why I was wondering if there was a new element. There’s – where we’re at in this procedurally is that the – there was a congressional notification process and period. That has been completed. But it’s also important to note that there are several procedural steps that remain before this equipment – which, I would add, is for Bahrain’s external defense purposes – can take delivery of any equipment listed in the congressional notification. So as we move forward, we’re going to keep in touch with Congress, we’re going to continue to look at all the elements on the ground, including human rights situation, and, as I said, consult with Congress as we move closer.

QUESTION: Have there been any objections from members of Congress to this proposed deal?

MR. TONER: Well, again, we have been consulting closely with Congress. I think several congresspeople are on record as voting – as stating their concerns about this deal, so I’ll let their words stand and speak for themselves, not for me to characterize their position. But what I would just say from our part is that we continue to consult closely with them as we move forward. We have taken one step. There are several to many steps that remain in this process. We’re going to continue to consider human rights activities, or human rights – the human rights situation in Bahrain as we move forward in this process.

QUESTION: And is it conceivable that if the situation there did deteriorate, if the government did not come through with proposed reforms that the population wants, would that be enough to scuttle this deal?

MR. TONER: Again, I think I’ll just stay where I was at, which is that we’re going to continue to assess the situation as we move forward very deliberatively. I know that the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry is looking into allegations of human rights violations, and that report’s going to be made public. That’s something we would look at closely. And as we move forward, we’re going to continue to take human rights considerations into account as we move towards a finalization of this deal.

Yeah, go ahead.

QUESTION: And in the best case scenario, how long would it take?

MR. TONER: I tried to get a timeline. It’s hard to do. I would say there are months ahead.

QUESTION: Okay. Thank you.

MR. TONER: Yep. Go ahead.

QUESTION: I guess – maybe on the last one, on a completely different topic --

MR. TONER: Are we done with Bahrain? Okay.

QUESTION: Okay. Thank you. The Chinese currency bill passed by the Senate – now Speaker Boehner keeps saying, “Well, I’m not sure we’re going to bring this up.” The Republicans are doubtful about this. The Administration’s already made its position clear on this matter. There’s talk of a trade war if this were to go through.

My question is about State. What is the position of State on this matter in that the legislation may not be brought up in the House, and the White House is saying they’re not really sure yet what they would do with it if it were to pass the House, if it were brought up and voted upon? What do you diplomats say about this legislation?

MR. TONER: We diplomats smartly defer to the Treasury Department on all kind of – all currency issues.

QUESTION: Ah, okay.

MR. TONER: Go ahead.

QUESTION: Will Prime Minister Fayyad meets any officials today or tomorrow? Prime Minister Fayyad is in town, Salam Fayyad.

MR. TONER: That’s a good question. I’ll take it. I don’t have an answer.

QUESTION: Okay. Would you --

MR. TONER: Yeah, sure.

QUESTION: -- get back to us with it? Thanks.

MR. TONER: For her to visit Libya? I’m sorry, I missed the --

QUESTION: What – could you please talk to it on camera of why it’s good timing for Secretary to visit Libya?

MR. TONER: Absolutely. It’s a great opportunity. Look, obviously, the Secretary herself has spoken to this much more eloquently than I could ever attempt to do from here. The timing is designed both to express our appreciation and our gratitude for what the Libyan people have done for their country. They have a remarkable story standing up to 40 years of oppression and have begun to really turn the tide in a positive direction. So I think it was to express how impressed we are by the turnaround in Libya and by the courageous actions of the Transitional National Council and the Libyan people.

She wanted to meet with TNC leaders to in order to talk about next steps. Clearly, they’re still continuing to pacify Libya, and that’s ongoing. But the Secretary also spoke about the need to bring all of these various militias and armed groups under civilian control and really to talk about, sort of, the fundamental next steps in building a democratic transition in Libya. So we felt the timing was very fortuitous, very appropriate for her to visit, again, both to express our support and solidarity with what’s going on there and with the Libyan people, but also to talk to them about next steps.

QUESTION: What is --

MR. TONER: Yes.

QUESTION: -- the challenges now to make the transition? What do you say is challenges now to make the transition?

MR. TONER: Well, I mean, there’s quite a few challenges, obviously, and we’re not trying to be Pollyannaish about any of those challenges. And it was – again, it was a good opportunity for her to sit down with the Transitional National Council’s leadership and really talk through some of these issues. She also, I believe, at a town hall, where she got to talk to young – talk with young Libyans, young Libyan women about some of the challenges that are facing the country right now.

But you see a country that’s in an enormous – a state of enormous flux. They’ve got to, as we said, both pacify the country, finish that pacification. We know that fighting continues around Sirte, for example. They’ve got to bring all these various armed groups, militias under one single civilian control. They’ve got to get their arms around controlling some of the proliferation of conventional weapons, and the Secretary announced more money for that today, as well as talked about a program, if you will, to help wounded Libyan fighters to get better treatment.

So security, building the framework for a democratic process, constitution, et cetera, and trying to move forward on a path towards greater stability, I guess, was what I would have sum all those challenges up under.

QUESTION: Where’s the money coming from for those two programs that you referenced? Is that new money that you’re requesting from the Congress or is it reprogrammed money for (inaudible)?

MR. TONER: I’ll check on that. I mean, there’s more or less about $15 million new for the MANPADS destruction program, and I’m not sure where that – we’ll find out where that money’s coming from. I don’t have it.

QUESTION: And then one other thing --

MR. TONER: So I think it was like 40 million total is what – where we’re at.

QUESTION: Yeah. What I’m trying to figure out is whether the Administration has sought new money from Congress for Libya since the fall of the Qadhafi regime or not. I’m well aware of the efforts that the Administration has made to transfer funds from Libyan assets.

MR. TONER: Right, and unfreeze some of these assets. And as we’ve said, it’s – there’s a tremendous amount of money out there and we’ve tried to ease their access, or indeed, grant them the – or get them the access to these funds. Libya’s an interesting case, as we all noted. It does have a lot of resources and money available. We’ve tried to, again, through the – working through the UN, allow them to have access to those funds, which they do now in tranches. But in terms of our support for them, our financial support, I’ll get an answer for that. I’ll take that question.

QUESTION: And then the last question from me about this: Does the U.S. Government have any regrets or misgivings in retrospect about the 2003 agreement reached by the Bush Administration to get Libya – under which Libya agreed to give up its WMD programs and was gradually welcomed back into the fold of the community of nations? The UN sanctions were then peeled off and so on.

I’m trying to get at this because I wonder – second question – does – has the Secretary encountered any residual bitterness among Libyan officials whom she’s met about the fact that the U.S. Government chose, in a certain sense, to do business with Qadhafi, albeit for an objective that, clearly, the Bush Administration felt was in U.S. national interest, get them to give up their WMD programs. But for the last eight years, there have been a gradual improvement in ties between the United States and Libya – the restoration of an embassy, the return of an ambassador, et cetera. So I wonder if they’re – so essentially two questions: Any misgivings about the – that deal or what flowed from it? And any misgivings on the part of Libyan officials who have met the – who the Secretary has met about U.S. ties with the Qadhafi regime?

MR. TONER: The first part of your question: It’s difficult for me standing here today to go back with – and Monday morning quarterback, if you will, on decisions made many years ago, several years ago, except to say that anytime you get a regime such as the Qadhafi regime to give up its weapons of mass destructions – destruction, rather – that that’s a positive for the – certainly for the international community as a whole. I think we have been early supporters of what’s been going on in Libya.

Our record speaks for itself, both within the UN, our record unilaterally in support of the TNC very early on as well as in support of NATO’s operation. Our Ambassador, who is now back in Tripoli, his work – I think it speaks for our support very early on for what was happening in Libya, and – but this isn’t about us. This is about what’s going on in Libya and the transition and the fact that we stand ready to support them moving forward.

Yeah, go ahead.

QUESTION: I have a question about Turkish-Iranian relations. Did Turkish minister --

MR. TONER: Turkey to --

QUESTION: Turkish-Iranian relations.

MR. TONER: Iranian relations.

QUESTION: Turkish foreign minister made a speech last week in an AKP meeting in Turkey. And he said that due – there was a meeting between President Obama and Prime Minister Erdogan last year in Toronto. And during that meeting, he said that President Obama criticized Turkish prime minister to defend Iran, and he said the Turkish prime minister criticized President Obama to defend Israel.

So after one year --

MR. TONER: It sounds like you’re talking to me about the substance of discussions between the prime minister and the President and I’ll --

QUESTION: Yes, and so my question is --

MR. TONER: -- refrain from commenting on them.

QUESTION: Yes. My question is: After one year from that meeting, what is your assessment about Turkish foreign policy toward Iran? I mean, do you still believe that Turkish Government is defending Iran?

MR. TONER: We believe there’s still – I mean, again, that’s really for the Turkish Government to provide its position on Iran. We believe that Turkey has and can play a constructive role in persuading Iran to live up to its international obligations.

QUESTION: So do you see Turkey as a mediator in the role – the international community and Iran relations?

MR. TONER: We see Turkey as a potential mediator on a range of issues, but certainly in expressing the international community’s concerns and in persuading Iran to come clean about its nuclear program as well as other aspects and – we would certainly see that as possible.

Yeah, go ahead.

QUESTION: Pakistan is bidding for a nonpermanent seat in the Security Council and voting is taking place later this week. Do you have a comment on that --

MR. TONER: No, we don’t talk about --

QUESTION: -- because you are (inaudible)?

MR. TONER: We generally don’t talk about these kinds of matters, and we’ll put out an explanation of the vote next week when it happens.

QUESTION: There was a meeting that was chaired by Under Secretary Otero this afternoon on Friends of Pakistan border task force, if you can get a readout of it.

MR. TONER: I’ll try to do that. I mean, I know that water issues are part of her portfolio and an important element of our bilateral dialogue with Pakistan.

I know Brad’s getting up, so I’ll stop talking.

(The briefing was concluded at 1:44 p.m.)



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