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 15, 2010
MR. CROWLEY: Continuing on, the Secretary has just about completed her day in Jerusalem. She had meetings today with Israeli President Shimon Peres, Palestinian Prime Minister Fayyad, Israeli Foreign Minister Lieberman, and Defense Minister Barak. She met with Prime Minister Netanyahu and then once again another trilateral meeting with the prime minister and President Abbas. I actually believe George Mitchell may either still be at a podium providing his perspective on the day or has just finished, but I would defer to his comments in terms of the progress today.
Ambassador Richard Holbrooke is in Karachi this evening. Earlier today, he toured the most significant flood-affected regions of Pakistan and to hear directly from those affected by the floods and what their immediate and longer-term needs are. And this is vitally important as we assess how to move from the relief stage to recovery and reconstruction, helping Pakistan rebuild homes, schools, roads, and businesses. But also continuing on our Strategic Dialogue, during his visit he will meet with government officials, civil society, and the media to reiterate our commitment to the people of Pakistan.
QUESTION: Well, it’s good the Administration is getting some support from somewhere, eh? (Laughter.)
Can you – do you have any updates on Sarah Shourd’s case, where – what she’s doing? And also, last night you basically challenged President Ahmadinejad to bring her two companions home back to the States with him when he comes to the UN next week. I’m wondering if – has he been granted a visa yet to come to the UN? And in that process, can you make it – can you possibly make it a requirement of him getting a visa that he would return these people?
MR. CROWLEY: Okay, well, taking those in succession, my understanding is that Sarah Shourd remains in Muscat, Oman reunited with her mother and is taking a little bit of time, understandably, just to decompress, if that’s the appropriate term. I’ll leave it to the family to announce when she will return to the United States, but we stand ready to assist her when they do come back here to the United States.
Your second point?
QUESTION: I’m just wondering if Ahmadinejad has been --
MR. CROWLEY: Oh, Ahmadinejad.
QUESTION: Has he gotten a visa to come to the UN meeting?
MR. CROWLEY: I don’t know where we are in the process. We do expect him to arrive in the United States this weekend in advance of the UN General Assembly. We do have obligations to support diplomats and global leaders who come to do business at the United Nations. We certainly believe that Iran, having demonstrated through their legal process that they have the ability, should they choose, to release the hikers. They’ve done so in the case of Sarah Shourd. And if the president wants to make a significant statement to the American people, then he certainly has within his office to bring Josh Fattal and Shane Bauer with him this weekend. We hope he will.
QUESTION: Well, but in fact, it was his office that said she was going to be released on Saturday, and then it was – and then that was held up by the judiciary. So are you sure that his office does have the ability to do this?
MR. CROWLEY: I mean, it’s hard for us to say exactly what happened in Tehran, but it appears the president put a priority on the release of Sarah Shourd. And we are pleased with her release and we certainly think that through both political intervention and judicial process, Iran has demonstrated that it can release one hiker. If it can release one, it can release the other two. The circumstances of their cases are identical. So if the Iranian judicial system, having reviewed the circumstances of their cases, saw fit to release Sarah Shourd, then we believe that it is within Iran’s capacity to release Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal as well.
QUESTION: Okay. And just on the bail issue, have you gotten any clarity or have you even tried to get any clarity from the Omanis about what exactly happened that – what the arrangement was that got her released?
MR. CROWLEY: We have been debriefed by Omani officials. It was through arrangements that they made that the – that Sarah Shourd was released. And we will leave it to Omani officials if they choose to disclose the particular actions that met the Iranian legal requirements.
QUESTION: Did they give actual money or was it a promissory note? Somebody was saying that it was a promissory --
MR. CROWLEY: Again, all I will say is we have had discussions with Omani officials. We do have knowledge about their efforts. We appreciate their efforts directly through Oman’s intercession as well as other countries. We’ve seen the release of Sarah Shourd. We are very grateful for their assistance. But we’ll leave it to the Government of Oman if it wishes to disclose any details.
QUESTION: Have you asked them to do the same, to take the same steps with regard to the other two?
MR. CROWLEY: Well, in our dialogue with Oman, with Switzerland, with other countries, we’re looking for the release of all three hikers. That is our goal. And we should say that we also are seeking details on the status of Robert Levinson. We haven’t forgotten his case either. And we believe that Oman, having helped with the release of Sarah Shourd, their efforts continue with respect to Josh Fattal and Shane Bauer. So our work continues. We are grateful for Sarah’s release and we are hopeful and will work diligently to seek Shane and Josh’s release as well.
QUESTION: Since you’ve gotten brought up to speed from the Omanis on the arrangements that were made but want to leave it to them to describe, can you at least assure us that U.S. sanctions weren’t violated in whatever the arrangements were?
MR. CROWLEY: I have nothing to suggest that there were any violations.
QUESTION: P.J., with Sarah’s release just about a week or 10 days before Ahmadinejad’s arrival here in the U.S., some are describing it as a PR stunt. Now, if so or not, would – could this sort of change the view of the U.S. Administration towards the Iranian Government, become a little softer maybe?
MR. CROWLEY: Well, we have three cases – or we have four cases and we have one resolution. So we still seek the release of Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal, and we still seek information in the case of Robert Levinson.
QUESTION: What about Mr. Taghavi?
MR. CROWLEY: I’ll check on the status as to him as well. Certainly, we have spoken about his case in the past as well. Okay, we’ll make it five. But the – at the same time, we stand ready to engage constructively with Iran. It is in our interest to do so. But we are mindful of the fact that there are diplomatic relations that have been strained for more than three decades. If President Ahmadinejad is seeking to make a gesture to the American people, the next step would be to resolve not just Sarah Shourd’s case, but Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal’s as well. And I say, we believe that it is within his power to push his government and his bureaucracy to resolve those cases just as he seemingly pushed for the release of Sarah Shourd.
QUESTION: Do you have any indication that he is interested in making this a gesture, significant or otherwise, to the American people?
MR. CROWLEY: We have access to the same information that you do.
QUESTION: So --
QUESTION: Change of subject?
QUESTION: (Laughter.) You have access to the same information we do? In other words, you don’t have any information that he plans to – (laughter) – make a significant gesture.
QUESTION: Can I change subject?
MR. CROWLEY: Go ahead.
QUESTION: The issue of the expulsion of Roma by France – the expulsion of Roma people by France has degenerated into a row between France and other European governments, and between President Sarkozy and one European commissioner today. Since I know that the Secretary has a deep interest in the rights of the Roma, I wondered whether there is (inaudible) from the State Department on these developments in Europe.
MR. CROWLEY: I’ll take the question as to whether we’ve had any specific conversations with France over this issue.
QUESTION: Can I go back to Iran, but not the same?
MR. CROWLEY: Okay.
QUESTION: Just – do you know anything about or do you have any concerns about the Iranian Government allegedly donating $25 million to the Turkish AKP party, the ruling party in Turkey? Are you even aware of reports about that?
MR. CROWLEY: Let me see what we can find out on that.
QUESTION: On Jordan, the message to Americans traveling in Jordan and – specifically, I think it’s Aqaba or the Gulf area – can you talk any more about this eminent threat? Because the Jordanians said that there is no threat and that the area is completely secure and there’s no threat.
MR. CROWLEY: Well, we are working, as we always do, with Jordanian officials. We issued the Warden Message following credible information regarding a possible threat in the Gulf of Aqaba region.
QUESTION: Threat to the area or threat to Americans and Westerners?
MR. CROWLEY: Threat to United States interests and citizens. So we’ve taken appropriate security measures. We’ve alerted the American community in Jordan and I also believe in Israel as well. We don’t think that this will pose – will influence the Secretary’s visit to Jordan tomorrow in any way. But obviously, we’ll work with Jordan to sort through the threat information that we have and compare notes with what Jordan’s perspective on --
QUESTION: Sorry, when you said Israeli – so it was a threat to U.S. and Israeli interests and citizens?
MR. CROWLEY: I actually believe that because the Embassy in Jordan has a more – has a broader regional perspective, that the Israeli Embassy echoed for its community what the Jordan – the Embassy in Jordan had put out.
QUESTION: Wait, you mean the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv?
MR. CROWLEY: Yes.
QUESTION: Can I – it was my understanding that this threat has actually passed; no?
MR. CROWLEY: I’m not going to go into specific threat information.
QUESTION: Does it have any – well, I mean, there were – there was a lot of rocket fire --
MR. CROWLEY: But all I can say is --
QUESTION: -- today into southern Israel from Gaza.
MR. CROWLEY: -- we issued the Warden Message based on information that we have. It’s as we always would do. First and foremost, our concerns are about the welfare of our citizens.
QUESTION: Well, hold on. There was a lot of rocket fire for – into southern Israel.
MR. CROWLEY: I do understand that.
QUESTION: Well, I know, but was – is this related to that? Were you --
MR. CROWLEY: I’m not going to go into specifics on the threat.
QUESTION: Do you have anything to say about the video message that was released today by Zawahiri? I think it was on the anniversary of the – ninth anniversary of 9/11.
MR. CROWLEY: Well, I think it’s – well, I saw that there was some reporting that Zawahiri was commenting from whatever cave he happens to be residing in, that he was critical of the Pakistani Government’s response to the flood. I think it’s choice that the leader of a terror – or the co-leader of a terrorist organization, having supported attacks against the Pakistani Government at the very time that it was providing support and assistance to its own people, demonstrates what Zawahiri’s true intentions are and what al-Qaida’s true intentions are.
QUESTION: He also said that after nine years of war, the West is in retreat and al-Qaida is in ascendance.
MR. CROWLEY: Well --
QUESTION: What do you think?
MR. CROWLEY: I think we can disagree about who is in retreat. We have a significant presence in Afghanistan, specifically to work with the Afghan Government and prevent the reemergence of a safe haven in Afghanistan, from which al-Qaida attacked the United States nine years ago. Next door, we have constructed a positive relationship with Pakistan, and Pakistan itself has taken important steps against extremists who are affiliated with Afghan – with al-Qaida on its side of the border.
So our relations with countries in the region around the world are in ascendance and it is al-Qaida that – and particularly the core al-Qaida – that is in retreat.
QUESTION: Peace talks --
QUESTION: There has been a string of arrests of opposition figures in Bahrain in recent days. Human rights groups are also alleging police torture, and this is all seen as sort of a clampdown ahead of elections in a couple months’ time. Given the close relations between Bahrain and the United States, do you have anything to say about this?
MR. CROWLEY: This is something that we are in touch with Bahraini authorities and have expressed our concern. At the same time, we have confidence as Bahrain evolves that you don’t have to make a choice between security and democracy, and that this is the message that we’re sending to the government.
QUESTION: Do you have any reason to believe the government’s claim that these opposition figures were trying to sort of arrange a coup against the royal family?
MR. CROWLEY: I don’t know that we’re aware of any information along those lines for --
QUESTION: Peace talks? P.J., at the end of this round, which issue showed more – the most progress and what issue is showing that it is really (inaudible)?
MR. CROWLEY: It’s a very good question. I would point you back to both – whatever George Mitchell said today. I have not heard his readout. As I – he indicated yesterday, he – the discussions yesterday and today addressed all the core issues and he declined to go through and talk about the specifics. As he said yesterday, these are serious negotiations. We think that the parties have engaged constructively. There is still work to be done. There’s an immediate challenge that has to be resolved. There will be follow-up meetings at the working level. And we expect this process to continue.
QUESTION: So you don’t expect these talks to be always chaperoned by the Secretary of State or the President, who is going to host it next week? They can have a meeting of their own and have working-level groups and so on?
MR. CROWLEY: We will be active and sustained partners in this process, but we expect that there will be meetings with which the parties will attack these issues directly without having an American in the room.
QUESTION: And the meetings will continue next week, because there are news that they are going to continue next week in New York? What information do you have?
MR. CROWLEY: I’m not here to project – there will be leaders in New York. I’m sure that the Middle East would be among topics discussed with those countries that have an interest in and are supporting the process. But I do believe that there will be working-level meetings in the next few days, because, as we have indicated, our view of the process is that the leaders themselves will meet roughly every two weeks and there’ll be, obviously, the need for work to be done at the working level to prepare for those leadership meetings.
QUESTION: P.J., are you concerned at all that efforts by Arab nations at the IAEA to take Israel to task or to hold Israel to account for its alleged nuclear weapons program will hurt the peace talks? There’s some reports – reporting out of Vienna today that suggests that Gary Samore raised this concern.
MR. CROWLEY: Well, first of all, let’s state a fact, that Israel has fully cooperated with the IAEA, and that is in contrast to one or more governments – Iran and Syria being two that come to mind – who have not cooperated with the IAEA. So we believe that there is really no basis for a debate at the IAEA. There is – there was a discussion of these issues with – during the NPT Review Conference, and we felt that there was a proper course of action outlined in the document at the end of the NPT Review Conference. So we do not think that this is a necessary step within the IAEA. And we certainly agree that it has the potential, just as the Goldstone report did a year ago, to interrupt the progress that we think is possible now that we’re back in the direct negotiations.
QUESTION: But, I mean, these countries are complaining about an issue that they think is important, just like when you talk to the IAEA about Syria’s suspected nuclear program or another suspected nuclear program. I mean, are these countries not entitled to air a grievance that they think is legitimate about a member nation?
MR. CROWLEY: This was an issue that was discussed within the NPT Review Conference, and the --
QUESTION: And not to their satisfaction. I mean, they --
MR. CROWLEY: But --
QUESTION: They pretty much agreed to cave at the time, and they said that this issue is going to come up again.
MR. CROWLEY: At the IAEA, if the question is; “Is Israel meeting its international obligations and cooperating fully with the IAEA,” the answer is yes. That’s a matter of fact. So to the extent that there are very legitimate concerns and questions that countries have about the NPT and the future of nuclear weapons in the region --
QUESTION: And about Israel’s suspected nuclear program.
MR. CROWLEY: And we – we, the United States, support universal adherence to the NPT, and we support the concept of a nuclear-free Middle East. We’re on the record with that. So there are ways in which to constructively and properly address the concerns that countries do have. We debated this over the summer, and we think the appropriate – we outlined the potential for an international conference to address these issues.
QUESTION: Isn’t it correct, P.J., that the only reason that Israel is in full compliance with the IAEA is because it hasn’t signed the NPT?
MR. CROWLEY: That’s a good question. I can’t answer that.
QUESTION: Well --
MR. CROWLEY: I mean, I don’t know.
QUESTION: P.J., there’s a call within Israel – Israeli scientists, (inaudible) and so on – really calling on the country to come clean, literally come out of the closet on the nuclear issue and dispense with this ambiguity. Would you be supportive of that?
MR. CROWLEY: I gave you my best shot a minute ago.
QUESTION: Let’s talk about the subtleties of Taiwan policy now. (Laughter.) Do you – can I change the subject, way off the subject?
QUESTION: (Inaudible), P.J. Apparently, there are two meetings scheduled for next week at the UN of the P-5+1 and a communiqué expected. Can you give us a preview of that?
MR. CROWLEY: We will have Esther Brimmer here on Friday to give you an outline of the Secretary’s schedule next week. We do expect that there will be a P-5+1 meeting to review where we are in terms of trying to encourage Iran to come forward and engage constructively with the international community.
QUESTION: Do you see any contact with Hamas in Gaza related to the peace process, or this is absolutely like a taboo concept that is not touchable?
MR. CROWLEY: Well, all --
QUESTION: A taboo (inaudible).
MR. CROWLEY: All I can – we’re bringing all kinds of interesting issues out of the closet. (Laughter.) All I can tell you is that we have made clear that we adhere to the Quartet principles, and I’m not aware of any contacts between U.S. officials and Hamas, and there will be none until Hamas meets the Quartet criteria for participation in the peace process.
QUESTION: If I may ask you about some details, if you have about the meeting between Secretary Clinton and the foreign minister of Turkey, Mr. Davutoglu, that was supposed to take place today.
No? Okay. About --
MR. CROWLEY: I’m not aware of --
QUESTION: Maybe Turkey is sponsoring the peace talks?
MR. CROWLEY: They have talked in the last couple of days.
QUESTION: Al Jazeera was announcing that they have had some talks.
MR. CROWLEY: Yes, they – I mean, last week the Secretary called Foreign Minister Davutoglu. The principal focus of the call was on Afghanistan. And the foreign minister, I believe yesterday, did return the call to the Secretary to follow up on their discussion. But they had talked about a range of issues, but primarily Afghanistan.
QUESTION: And the decision to send Senator Mitchell to Damascus to meet with President Assad tomorrow, any details about his mission, if he’s carrying any positive new steps that could be taken?
MR. CROWLEY: Well, his trips to both Syria and Lebanon are to demonstrate our support for comprehensive peace in the region. Our primary focus right now is obviously on the Israeli-Palestinian track, but we have an interest in seeing progress and a return to negotiation on the Syrian and the Lebanese tracks as well. I’m sure that is the – he will update senior Syrian officials on the most recent talks and encourage progress on the Syrian-Israeli front as well.