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 19, 2010
QUESTION: A question on the NATO-Afghanistan meetings. Iran is – has been invited. How do you separate the unhelpful role that they play in that region from joining this conference and participating in NATO talks?
MR. TONER: You’re talking about the Rome conference?
QUESTION: Yes, the Rome conference.
MR. TONER: Okay. Well, there’s been some comments today about the Rome conference. But in general, I believe Holbrooke – and I’m paraphrasing here – Ambassador Holbrooke said that their presence there gives the lie to the belief that there’s some kind of clash of civilizations. This was a conference that brought in people from throughout the region, or countries from – governments from throughout the region who are all – who – all of whom want to see a stable, prosperous Afghanistan emerge. And frankly, it speaks to the benefit that a stable, prosperous Afghanistan could have on the region, the impact.
QUESTION: Do you think they’re joining these talks because we’ve announced the withdrawal in July 2011?
MR. TONER: I believe they’re – they joined these talks because they feel that it’s in their interest. I mean, I don’t want to speak on behalf of the Iranian Government. You’ll have to ask them. But clearly, as neighbors of Afghanistan, they’ve got – they have an interest in seeing a stable, prosperous, peaceful Afghanistan emerge.
QUESTION: If I could follow up on that. The Iranian delegation called for a holistic approach to Afghanistan and they cited military, political, and development issues. Can you read anything into that? What do you make of --
MR. TONER: That, to me, speaks of exactly what’s going on on the ground. We’ve said many, many times, both from this podium, from NATO, from on the ground in Kabul, that military force alone will not win the day, will not win this conflict, and will not end this conflict. That it’s going to require a strong, holistic approach, a civilian effort as well as development on the ground to extend the governance of the Afghan authoritits and to lead to economic prosperity. I mean, that is the long-term goal here.
QUESTION: Will there be a call to decrease Iran’s role in aiding the Taliban and meddling in Afghanistan’s elections as well at these talks?
MR. TONER: I can’t speak to what the conversations are on the ground, and I’m just – I haven’t been updated.
QUESTION: Do you –
MR. TONER: I mean, I know we’ve expressed our concerns in the past.
Go ahead, Matt.
QUESTION: Do you agree with Ambassador Holbrooke’s characterization that this meet gives the lie to the –
MR. TONER: I’m paraphrasing that. I don’t believe –
QUESTION: Well, but that’s essentially what he said. Do you agree with that? And if so, can you explain it? Because I don’t understand how this gives the lie to – the myth – or gives a lie to the idea of a clash between civilizations.
MR. TONER: Well, there were –
QUESTION: The Iranians can take part in a conference and have diametrically opposed goals. Just because they’re sitting at the table doesn’t mean they agree, I mean – right?
MR. TONER: Right. I’m not going to stand up here and say that it shows that they agree 100 percent with what we’re doing in Afghanistan, what the international community is doing with Afghanistan. But what I think it does point to is that there is a shared desire to see a stable Afghanistan in the future. And as much as we can encourage that kind of dialogue – and not just with Iran, but other countries who border Afghanistan and the OIC in general – then that’s a good thing.
QUESTION: What are the main things that Deputy Secretary Steinberg is going to talk about at the White House regarding yesterday’s meeting with Daniel Ayalon?
MR. TONER: The first part of the question again?
QUESTION: What are the main things that Steinberg is going to talk about in regards with yesterday’s meeting with Ayalon?
MR. TONER: I think we talked about this yesterday. It’s a bilateral discussion with Israel. The focus is obviously on – does touch on regional concerns, and we issued a statement, I believe, yesterday that went into more detail about the topic of discussions.
Go ahead. Yeah.
QUESTION: Do you have reaction to Iran’s taking over the OPEC organization yesterday? You said you will have a readout.
MR. TONER: Yes, I’m aware that we did say that. Look, we’re not a member of OPEC. So it’s difficult for us to comment on their leadership. And to the larger issue, our concerns about Iran are well known. I mean –
QUESTION: You’re not a member of OPEC, so you don’t think that you should – I mean, you’re not a member of a lot of things that you have opinions about. For instance, you’re not a member of the EU and yet you’re constantly harping on them to let the Turks in.
MR. TONER: I don’t believe we harp on them to let the Turks in. We do –
MR. TONER: -- have a position about –
QUESTION: Oh yeah, you do.
MR. TONER: -- the Turks. But we often say in discussing that that we are not a member of the EU. Therefore –
QUESTION: Exactly. So – but you have a position on its membership.
MR. TONER: Look, it’s – this is an internal matter for OPEC. As I said, our position – and I don’t think you want me to detail it on Iran and our concerns about Iran and its position –
QUESTION: So your concerns about Iran do not extend at all to what they might do as the head of OPEC?
MR. TONER: Well, it’s an organization –
QUESTION: I think we all know what it is. Can you check with EB again –
MR. TONER: Obviously, with other participants –
QUESTION: -- to see if they’re serious that they don’t want to have any opinion about this, Mark? Because, seriously, I mean, if you guys have no concern about Iran, who you accuse of trying to develop nuclear weapons, being the head of a cartel that basically controls the world’s oil flow, then I – that raises serious questions about the Administration and its positions on how –
MR. TONER: Your point is taken, Matt, but –
QUESTION: -- on energy security, for the – at the very least.
MR. TONER: Obviously, energy security is a priority for this Administration. Obviously, we’re concerned about Iran’s nuclear ambitions and its failure to come clean with the international community in a clear and transparent manner so that we can address those concerns in a productive, constructive way. Really, we could say that we’re looking – we would look for the other members of OPEC to remind Iran that it could play a more constructive role in the region. And certainly, that’s probably going to be a topic of our discussions bilaterally with individual members of OPEC. We say that frequently as well.
QUESTION: Don’t the questions and answers here today about Iran give the lie to U.S. claims that it’s isolated? I mean, they’re present at the Rome conference, they’re going to head OPEC, they are dealing with Venezuela and Brazil, they just had Ahmadinejad well received in south Lebanon. So how can you say Iran is isolated?
MR. TONER: Well, first of all, 1929 and the sanctions that have been brought to bear on Iran are targeted towards the entities within Iran that we feel are of most concern. We also – we have often said that Iran has a clear choice. It can engage and work productively with the international community or it can seek greater isolation. Its actions regarding its nuclear program, its support for terrorist groups have isolated it internationally. And we’re going to keep the pressure to bear on it – on those fronts. That said, we also recognize that Iran could possibly play a constructive role vis-à-vis Afghanistan.
Yeah, go ahead, Andy.
QUESTION: Can we go back to the Israel dialogue yesterday? Sorry. I’m just wondering – I mean, we saw your statement last night, but could you tell us was the peace process touched on at all in those discussions and – I mean, presumably that’s a fairly major issue in the bilateral relationship? And was there any discussion of when Senator Mitchell might make another trip?
MR. TONER: I actually checked on Senator Mitchell. I don’t believe he has any travel plans –at least nothing to announce. He remains, I believe, in New York. I don’t know at – to what extent the peace process was discussed yesterday.
QUESTION: Can we go back to –
MR. TONER: It probably did come up, Andy, but I just know to what level it rose.
QUESTION: Iraq/Iran. Iran gave yesterday its support to Iraq Prime Minster Nuri al-Maliki to form the new government. And Iran’s deputy foreign minister has said that al-Maliki was one of the suitable choices to lead the next Iraqi Government. Do you share this assessment?
MR. TONER: We’ve said, as recently as yesterday, that our policy towards Iraqi Government formation is that we want them to move forward as quickly as possible to form an inclusive government. It’s frankly, an Iraqi process and it needs to be an Iraqi-led process, and so we don’t believe it’s our place nor is it the Government of Iran’s place to comment or to – or in any way on that process. Our ultimate concern is that it be an inclusive government.
QUESTION: But do you think this statement will affect your position towards al-Maliki?
MR. TONER: Again, I mean, I don’t know how to state it in any other way. We’ve said all along we want to see an Iraqi-led process. We want to see it move ahead urgently. It’s been seven months now. And our fundamental concern here is that it be an inclusive process and an inclusive government.
Go ahead in the back.
QUESTION: There are reports of the ISI or some members of the ISI are working with terrorist groups, whether it’s the al-Qaida or the LET, so are you going to have – how do you have talks with the partnership – with a partner where you feel some members of that government are working against your goals?
MR. TONER: Well, these are allegations we’ve heard before. We believe the Government of Pakistan has pledged its cooperation in bringing the perpetrators of the Mumbai attacks to justice. And we fully expect that these pledges of cooperation are going to be carried out. Pakistan has said it’s committed to fighting terrorism and it understands the urgency and its promised strong action against those responsible.
Pakistan itself has been, obviously, greatly touched by extremist violence. And it is also in an existential struggle with these groups. So we believe Pakistan understands the threat and is committed to working cooperatively.
QUESTION: Just another question. President Obama’s trip to India is coming up in two weeks. Is Secretary Clinton planning on going? Is – are her dates otherwise filled up?
MR. TONER: Nothing to announce at this time. Refer you to the White House on details of the President’s trip.
Go ahead, Courtney.
QUESTION: Is the State Department involved in any investigation into early warnings about the Mumbai attack from several of the wives? Is there – have you heard of any investigations being launched that –
MR. TONER: That’s a fair question. You mean some sort of a review or look at the --
QUESTION: Yeah, the intelligence before --
MR. TONER: I mean, what I can find – or try to find out for you is whether there’s some kind of a review going on looking into – I’m not aware of it. And I’m not aware if there’s a State Department-specific review underway. I’ll check on that.
QUESTION: Iran’s foreign ministry today said they are going to take action over sanctions on passenger planes fuel. What’s –
MR. TONER: The who?
QUESTION: The Iranian foreign minister.
MR. TONER: Iranian foreign minister?
QUESTION: Yes, yeah. Today said they’re going to take action on sanctions over passenger planes fuel. What’s your comment on that?
MR. TONER: On sanctions – I’m sorry, these are UN? I’m unaware of the – which sanctions are you talking about?
QUESTION: Yes, European sanctions which have –
MR. TONER: Oh, the EU sanctions?
QUESTION: Some of the firms are not – you know, have stopped selling them fuel for the passenger planes.
MR. TONER: And he said he’s going to take action?
QUESTION: Yes. He said they are not going to keep quiet.
MR. TONER: I’m not aware of the – I’m not aware of his comments. I don’t know what that means frankly. I would refer you to the Iranian Government. But we’ve been quite clear that now is not the time for business as usual economically with Iran. We’ve got sanctions in place and there’s a clear path that Iran can take beginning with High Representative Ashton’s office to move forward on this in a positive way.
Yeah, go ahead.
MR. TONER: No, Michel, sorry.
QUESTION: Okay. In UAE, the Federal Supreme Court has ruled that a man has the right to discipline his wife and children, provided he does not leave physical marks. Do you have any reaction to this?
MR. TONER: It’s the – this is the UAE?
QUESTION: Yeah. For the Federal Supreme Court in the United Arab Emirates.
MR. TONER: And one more time, Michel.
QUESTION: Yeah. The Supreme Court has ruled that a man has the right to discipline his wife and children provided he does not leave physical marks.
QUESTION: He can beat them. He can use phone books.
MR. TONER: Look, we would – we have an ongoing dialogue with the UAE that includes our concerns about human rights, and I imagine this would be a part of that dialogue.
QUESTION: For a couple months now, both you and P.J. have been telling us that you expect Viktor Bout to be in the United States in a prison soon. How’s that going?
MR. TONER: Well, Matt, our position has not changed. We do look forward to having him --
QUESTION: But that means that his position has not changed either. He is still in Thailand, right?
MR. TONER: -- in a U.S. court in the very near future. I don’t have any updates on that.
QUESTION: In the very near future?
MR. TONER: We all have definitions of near future, but we still are confident that Viktor Bout will stand trial in the United States.