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Middle East Digest - September 14, 2010


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Washington, DC
September 14, 2010

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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 September 14, 2010

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12:50 p.m. EDT

MR. CROWLEY: Good afternoon and welcome to the Department of State. We are very gratified that we received confirmation a few minutes ago that Sarah Shourd has departed Tehran en route to Muscat, Oman. You’ve seen the statements by the President and Secretary celebrating her release but also recognizing that the cases of Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal remain unresolved. We are grateful for the efforts of Swiss, Omani, and other diplomats who have worked diligently over many months to help us reach this point.

The release of Sarah Shourd demonstrates that Iranian authorities have the ability to resolve these cases if they choose. Iranian authorities made the decision to release Sarah Shourd. We hope that they will make the same decision regarding Josh Fattal and Shane Bauer as soon as possible.

Secretary Clinton is preparing to depart Sharm el-Sheikh. This morning, she joined President Mubarak in early meetings with Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Abbas. She then met with the parties separately before convening a trilateral meeting along with Special Envoy George Mitchell. And following a lunch hosted by President Mubarak, Secretary Clinton resumed a – her trilateral meeting with the parties, and then before preparing for departing – for departure to Jerusalem, met with UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed.

We released a few minutes ago also just a fact sheet that underscores the – some of the details of Scott Gration’s travel last week to Juba and Khartoum, and laying out a path not only in terms of what we expect both parties, North and South, to do in preparation for the referendum in early 2011, but also laid out the potential benefits and consequences – benefits if the referendum is successfully administered and consequences if the actions by one or both sides fall short. We actually hope to get Scott Gration here tomorrow at the start of the daily press briefing to kind of outline in greater detail his conversations of last week.

QUESTION: Yeah. On Iran, what’s your understanding of the conditions of her release? In other words, was there any amount of bail paid?

MR. CROWLEY: The United States did not pay anything for her release. As you know, the Government of Iran, through their judicial process, had specific requirements for her release and arrangements were made that satisfied those requirements.

QUESTION: In other words, someone paid something?

MR. CROWLEY: I’m – someone provided sufficient assurances to the Government of Iran that satisfied their stipulations for release.

QUESTION: Well, “sufficient assurances” in terms of cash?

MR. CROWLEY: I’m – I can’t tell you. I don’t know what the specific actions were. As you know, we have our Swiss protecting power working on the ground in Tehran. We had Omani diplomats working on our behalf. Other countries have weighed in with Iran, both over months and in recent days. And the combination of that diplomatic effort was that the arrangements were made that satisfied Iranian requirements under their judicial system.

QUESTION: But presumably, you’ve been in touch with the Swiss and the Omanis and the others, correct? I just find it a little hard to believe that you don’t know --

MR. CROWLEY: No, no, no. To be honest with you --

QUESTION: -- what arrangements were made.

MR. CROWLEY: To be honest with you, we haven’t – since the party is now airborne, we haven’t received a full debrief of what has transpired in the last 24 hours.

QUESTION: Just in terms of the terms of her release again, can you say anything about whether she is expected to return to Iran for a trial, if she would need to do so for a trial if there were one for the other two that are still in detention?

MR. CROWLEY: Well, again, that’s a matter for Iranian authorities.

QUESTION: What’s your understanding of the terms of her release in that regard?

MR. CROWLEY: Well, again, that’s a matter for Iranian authorities. As we understand their public statements, this is an ongoing legal proceeding.

QUESTION: Which means what? I mean, what does that mean?

MR. CROWLEY: Again, that – I mean, our view then, a year ago, and now is that these three individuals are not guilty of any crime. We understand that Iran needed some time to satisfy itself that they pose no threat to Iran. We do not believe they pose any threat to Iran. We do not believe that they’ve broken any laws other than crossing an unmarked border. We’re happy that this has been – that the case of Sarah Shourd has been resolved. We would hope that the cases of Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal can be resolved. But to the extent that there may be an ongoing judicial proceeding or an ongoing investigation, I would defer to Iranian authorities.

QUESTION: The Iranian Government is saying that they released her purely because of medical condition, not because of anything else. Do you believe that, and do you think that might affect the release of the other two, that they don’t have any reason to release them?

MR. CROWLEY: Well, as the President said in his statement, Iran has shown compassion in the case of Sarah Shourd. We would hope that Iran would demonstrate the same compassion with respect to the other hikers. I mean, their – the facts behind their case are identical. These were three hikers, three innocent young American citizens; they crossed the border. Iran has had more than enough time to investigate and understand that there are no hidden facts in this case. So we would hope that Iran, having taken the decision to release Sarah Shourd now demonstrates that within the Iranian legal process you have the ability to reach the same result for the other two hikers.

QUESTION: Peace talks?

QUESTION: No, no --

MR. CROWLEY: Well, all right.

QUESTION: There were reports about five hours ago that she was already getting ready to leave and she was doing the paperwork to leave the prison. It just – it’s kind of hard to understand how it is that the United States doesn’t know the terms of her release when it’s been out there for five hours now. I mean, I understand the U.S. wasn’t the one who was in the negotiations, wasn’t the one in there with her, but how is that possible that Oman or the Swiss haven’t relayed the terms of that release to you yet at this point? How – I guess I’m just asking, how is that possible that you don’t know anything about whether any bail was paid?

MR. CROWLEY: You’re asking if money has changed hands, and the short answer is we don’t know.

QUESTION: Has the United States – the State Department hasn’t been asking the Swiss protective powers whether any money was paid?

MR. CROWLEY: Well, I mean, all I can say is, for example, as I said a moment ago, if the question is: did the United States Government pay anything for this release? The answer is no. As to what arrangements were made that satisfied requirements under the Iranian judicial process, we were not a part of that. We don’t know.

QUESTION: And then what – was it a private plane that flew her out of Tehran?

MR. CROWLEY: It was an Omani plane.

QUESTION: An Omani private plane or --

MR. CROWLEY: I just don’t happen to know the answer to that question. She is accompanied by Omani diplomats and I believe Swiss diplomats, so I suspect it was an Omani Government plane.

QUESTION: And will U.S. officials in Oman greet her at the airport presumably and --

MR. CROWLEY: I would – the answer is undoubtedly yes.

QUESTION: P.J., can you talk a little bit about what the Omani role was here? They seem to have taken the lead from the Swiss at some point recently.

MR. CROWLEY: I don’t think it’s a matter of leadership, Matt, per se. I mean, first of all, the Swiss have a particular role as our protecting power. They represent formally our diplomatic interests in Iran since we do not have diplomatic relations with the Iranian Government. Oman is one of a number of countries that we have solicited over many months. They do have a relationship with Iran, and particularly in recent days and weeks, became a key interlocutor to help us work this case with the Iranian Government. And we’re very grateful to the role that Oman has played.

They’re not the only one. There were a number of countries. The Secretary raised this on a regular basis with countries that we knew had diplomatic relations and the ability to converse with Iran. And we’re very grateful that this one case has been resolved and we hope the other two can be resolved under similar circumstances.

QUESTION: Okay. When you say “became a key interlocutor” in the recent days and weeks, can you just explain what that – I mean, were they shuttling back and forth between the Swiss and the Iranians, or what exactly were they doing?

MR. CROWLEY: Again, hard for me to characterize since we are not there, but --

QUESTION: Well, they weren’t doing it in a vacuum. I mean --

MR. CROWLEY: No.

QUESTION: -- you knew whether they – you asked them to do it.

MR. CROWLEY: Yes.

QUESTION: And presumably, then they would report back to you and tell you, “Well, things are looking good,” or “not so good.”

MR. CROWLEY: Well, Swiss diplomats have been steadily engaged on these cases and Omani diplomats have as well. So Oman, its diplomatic corps in Tehran, was actively and repeatedly engaged with the Iranian Government to help us resolve this case.

QUESTION: And the Omanis are engaged in the cases of the two remaining hikers as well?

MR. CROWLEY: They have been conversing with the Government of Iran on multiple occasions seeking, as we do, the release of all three hikers.

QUESTION: You also then – you asked for assistance from other countries. Is Turkey one of them?

MR. CROWLEY: We have had conversations with Turkish officials and they, in turn, have carried our message to Tehran, yes.

QUESTION: Then what was the – this is kind of a vocabulary issue – you used the word several times “resolve,” that “We’re happy that Sarah Shourd’s case is resolved.” But in fact, if she was released on bail, there’s still a – is it your understanding there’s still an ongoing legal --

MR. CROWLEY: I think I also said that, that there is an ongoing investigation and – but we would hope that a similar result can emerge for Josh Fattal and Shane Bauer.

QUESTION: Peace talks?

MR. CROWLEY: Sure.

QUESTION: P.J. --

QUESTION: On Sarah?

MR. CROWLEY: Yeah.

QUESTION: Sorry. When is she coming back to U.S. soil?

MR. CROWLEY: I do not know what – I know that she’s currently airborne, en route to Muscat, Oman. We obviously look forward to having her reunited with her family and – when she comes back to the United States, we’ll – those are arrangements to be made and details that will be discussed through her family.

QUESTION: P.J., Envoy Mitchell told reporters today that we are making progress. How substantive is this progress? How is it different, let’s say, from two weeks ago? And what was discussed as first item on the agenda? Was it the settlement or the Jewishness of the state?

MR. CROWLEY: I had the opportunity to converse with the team this morning. I think we would characterize the discussions today as serious and direct discussions on the core issues. Those discussions will continue tomorrow. As the Secretary said en route to Sharm el-Sheikh, it would be very important for the leaders of – on both sides. They have a special responsibility. These direct negotiations are the only mechanism through which Palestine achieves a viable state and Israel achieves the security that it deserves.

They have a – now, they have a vested interest in seeing this process continue. They will have to find ways to overcome the immediate obstacles so that the direct negotiations can continue, and ultimately solutions found that resolves all of the outstanding issues as part of the process.

QUESTION: P.J., just to follow up. Mr. Netanyahu, a day or so ago, actually tied the Palestinians recognizing Israel as a Jewish homeland or as a Jewish state with the stopping of the settlement activity and so on. Considering that this is an issue that came in the aftermath of the 2001 election of Ariel Sharon, do you agree with the premise that this ought to be a tradeoff? And does the United States have a position on this that the Palestinians must recognize Israel as a Jewish state in order for the settlements to stop?

MR. CROWLEY: Well, the – ultimately, this is an agreement that the leaders of Israel and the leaders of the Palestinian Authority must achieve. It will be their agreement. We will play a role as the – as a key facilitator. As George Mitchell reiterated again today, we are prepared to offer our ideas as needed as the process goes forward.

On the one hand, this is an issue of substance. We know the core issues, and solutions have to be found that resolve the core issues at the heart of the effort. By the same token, this is a political challenge. As George Mitchell said after the first round of talks here in Washington, both sides will have to move off of public-stated positions and reach compromises on firmly held and emotional issues.

So to the extent that this poses a political challenge for both leaders, they have to continue to seek creative ways of resolving and satisfying the requirements of each one. Part of this process, as Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Abbas build trust through the process, is it’ll be vitally important that each understands what the other leader needs. This is not a – this cannot be a situation where one side wins and the other side loses. You have to find solutions where both sides get what they need to reach an agreement, recognizing that neither side will get everything that it wants.

QUESTION: P.J., thank you. Al Jazeera TV. If I may just go back to Sarah Shourd for a second. I know you’ve touched on this, but might the bail have been paid by the Swiss in such a way that the United States adds it to the bill at the end of the year? Is that something that might have happened? And can you speak to whether or not this payment of bail infringes the sanctions in place against Iran or not in any way?

MR. CROWLEY: Again, not knowing the specifics of the particular arrangement, I can’t say what the final conditions were. All I can tell you is that the United States did not pay anything for the release. We’re not aware of any information that would trigger sanctions in any way.

QUESTION: Peace process. Is it correct to assume that your main focus now or your definition of the success of this round of talks is to keep the Palestinians in, as opposed to walk out after the 26th should Netanyahu decide not to extend the moratorium?

MR. CROWLEY: Well, I think as we characterized the discussions today, they were serious discussions on all core issues. But as the Secretary also suggested in her interactions with the traveling press en route to Sharm el-Sheikh, the solution both in the short term and the long term involves potential actions by both sides. This is – this is not just an issue of one issue; everything in the process is interrelated. And it will be the perception by the leaders that they are getting what they think they need both to overcome the immediate issues over the next couple of weeks, but then that creates momentum and trust and confidence that the process can, in fact, yield results and yield progress towards an ultimate agreement.

But we are working with the parties to understand how we overcome both the short-term challenge, and in the process, we create momentum and trust and confidence that we think can get them into the serious discussions and negotiations that helps us resolve all of the core issues within the next year.

QUESTION: On North Korea --

QUESTION: Could I ask a quick follow-up on this? P.J., is moving the direct talks from Sharm el-Sheikh to Jerusalem to Ramallah, would that make them sporadic and spotty rather than concentrated?

MR. CROWLEY: No. It is characteristic of the way this process is going to unfold. I think as George Mitchell mentioned today, beyond the meetings tomorrow, there will be follow-up meetings with teams from – on the Palestinian and Israeli side that will, in fact, then tee-up additional leader meetings in the next couple of weeks. As we’ve said, we expect to see the leaders get together roughly every two weeks.

So we’re satisfied with the seriousness with which the leaders are taking this. As I say, this is their process, and ultimately, it has to yield results that satisfy the policy and political requirements of both the Israelis and Palestinians. So I think we’re satisfied that they are doing what we would hope that they would do, and we would hope that we find ways in which the process can continue and accelerate.

Samir.

QUESTION: There is a report in the Middle East that Senator Mitchell will be visiting Syria and Lebanon. Do you have anything on this?

MR. CROWLEY: Senator Mitchell will stay in the region after Secretary Clinton returns home. He will visit both Syria and Lebanon.

QUESTION: Thank you.

(The briefing was concluded at 1:17 p.m.)



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