Daily Press Briefing - March 11

Index for Today's Briefing:

    • Secretary Clinton and First Lady Obama at International Women of Courage Awards Presentation
    • Statement on 50th Anniversary of the Uprising in Tibet / Statement Represents Secretary's Views / U.S. Very Concerned about Situation in Tibet
    • Secretary Clinton and Chinese Foreign Minister Yang to Have Wide-Ranging Discussion
    • Secretary Clinton Had Productive Visit to Beijing
    • U.S. and Chinese Cooperation Needed on Wide Range of Issues / Want to Work Closely with China / China an Important Country for U.S.
    • Support for Freedom of Speech, Expression, Assembly in Pakistan / Important that Parties Resolve Differences In Accordance with Pakistan's Constitution and Respect for Rule of Law / U.S. Engaged in Regular Dialogue with the Pakistanis
  • IRAN
    • Review on Iran Policy Underway
    • U.S. Support for UN Iran Sanctions Committee Decision / Iran and Syria Violated UNSCR 1747 / 10-Day Review Period
    • No Update on Roxana Saberi
    • Turks Helpful in Trying to Bring Israel and Syria Together in Indirect Talks / Want to See Process between Israel and Syria Established
    • Bellicose Rhetoric Not Helpful / U.S.-ROK Exercises Not a Threat to North Korea / Want to See North Korea Comply with International Obligations within to Six-Party Framework
    • Waiting for North Korea to Agree To Verification Protocol / U.S. Committed to Process / Call on North Korea to Come Back to the Table and Meet Its Requirements / Need Tool to Verify Documents North Korea Submitted
    • Seeing how Unity Government Performs Before Deciding on Assistance / Continuing to Provide Humanitarian Aid
    • Afghanistan Conference / Possibility of Dutch Co-Hosting / Nothing Official Yet
Robert Wood
Acting Department Spokesman
Daily Press Briefing
Washington, DC
March 11, 2009


11:10 a.m. EDT

MR. WOOD: Okay, good morning, everyone. I just want to make one little brief note, just to remind you all of the tribute to International Women of Courage, the award presentation this afternoon at 4 o'clock in the Ben Franklin Room. Secretary Clinton and the First Lady Michelle Obama will be giving remarks, so hopefully you can all make it.

With that, I’ll take your questions.

QUESTION: Yeah. Robert, yesterday at almost about exactly this time – I think it was 11:05, at least according to the transcript – you came down and said that the Secretary would be issuing a statement about the 50th anniversary of the uprising in Tibet. About eight and a half hours later, a statement was, in fact, released, but it was in your name, not in the Secretary’s name. And I’m wondering if you can explain what happened between 11:05 and 7:38.

MR. WOOD: The statement has the full weight of the Secretary and the State Department behind it. Very simple.

QUESTION: You don’t think that a statement in the Secretary’s name is stronger or sends a stronger signal than –

MR. WOOD: What I’m saying to you is that the statement that we issued last night has the full weight of the Secretary. It was cleared by the Secretary and it represents the Secretary’s views.

QUESTION: Okay. At around the time – in the afternoon, or when this was being cleared, it looks like there was a lot of language removed from the –what I’m told was an original draft. The statement that came out doesn't make reference to a couple things that I’m told were in the original draft, including stressing access to Tibet, to the region, creating conditions for negotiations between the Dalai Lama’s representatives and the Chinese, releasing prisoners, due process – respect for due process of law, and not criminalizing peaceful dissent. None of these things are specifically mentioned in the statement that came out, and I’m wondering why that is.

MR. WOOD: Well, Matt, I’m not going to talk about internal deliberations that we have with regard to statements, but let me just say that this is a statement that we put out yesterday. It reflects our policy. As I’ve said, once again, the Secretary’s full weight was behind the statement, and that’s where we stand.

QUESTION: How would you address criticism from people who – in the human rights community that this is really kind of allowing the Chinese – giving the Chinese a free ride on this?

MR. WOOD: I don’t believe it’s giving the Chinese a free ride on anything. I think we have said time and time again from this podium – you’ve heard it from previous secretaries of state, you’ve heard it from previous presidents – that we are very concerned about the situation in Tibet. We encourage the Chinese to improve the situation on the ground in Tibet. We will continue to do that. That statement that was issued yesterday evening reflects the State Department’s views about the situation. And once again, I just want to be very clear about this: This is a statement that was cleared by the Secretary, has the full weight of the State Department behind it.

QUESTION: Does she – okay, enough about the statement. How about today’s meeting with the foreign minister? Can you preview that at all? Will this – Tibet be an issue? Will the incident in the South China Sea come up?

MR. WOOD: Well, I think I gave you a preview yesterday – the fact that Secretary Clinton and the Chinese foreign minister are going to have a wide-ranging discussion. Some of the issues that’ll obviously come up will be the financial crisis, the upcoming G-20 summit meeting, North Korea, the incident with regard to the vessels – I’d be surprised if that didn’t come up. You know, I – other subjects that may come up, I just don’t know at this point. We’ll have to see how the meeting goes, and we’ll try to get you a readout afterward.

QUESTION: Just to follow up –

MR. WOOD: Yeah.

QUESTION: Yeah, there seems a surprising level of tension in the relationship between China and the U.S. right now, given that the Secretary went to Beijing just a month – last month to try to put it on a good footing to deal with the main problems, which are the global financial crisis and climate change. Any comment on that? How are you going to not let that interfere with the larger issues that you see?

MR. WOOD: Well, the Secretary had a very, very productive visit in Beijing with the Chinese. We have a wide range of issues where U.S. and Chinese cooperation is needed, and certainly, from time to time, there are going to be elements that come up that cause some tension. But the most important thing is that the U.S. and China need to work together to solve a whole host of issues that the international community confronts. North Korea’s nuclear program is one such issue.

You know, the Secretary has said we want to work closely with China. It’s an important country for us. We’ve got a lot of work to do on that agenda. And the fact that the foreign minister is going to meet with the Secretary this afternoon is just one step along that course.

Yes, Nina.

QUESTION: Pakistan, please?

MR. WOOD: Sure.

QUESTION: Growing tensions, mass arrests, can you give me any kind of level of concern from here?

MR. WOOD: Well, look, I’ve certainly seen all the reports about what’s going on there on the ground, and our position remains basically that we support freedom of speech, of expression, of assembly in Pakistan. What we think is important is that the various parties try to resolve their differences within the political system of Pakistan in accordance with its constitution, with respect for, you know, the rule of law. And we’re obviously going to be following the situation. But at this point, we want to see all parties refrain from violence and act in accordance, as I said, with Pakistan’s constitution.

QUESTION: But you said that you support freedom of speech, but Section 144 is being implemented in certain areas. Do you think these people should have a right to protest, then? Do you think that’s wrong that the government’s done this?

MR. WOOD: Well, look, the government took a decision on its own. It’s a sovereign government. All I can say is what our policy is with regard to, you know, freedom of assembly, and that’s a longstanding policy.

QUESTION: It’s a reasonable question. I mean, when you say you support freedom of speech and freedom of assembly, does that mean that you would like the Pakistani Government to permit the people who are scheduled to hold a rally tomorrow to be able to rally?

MR. WOOD: Well, I’ve given you our general views with regard to freedom of expression and assembly. What we want to see happen on the ground in Pakistan is that the opposition parties, the government act in accordance with Pakistan’s constitution. If that’s indeed the case, there’s nothing more that, you know, we can say or do about it. I mean, as long as the Pakistani – the various parties are refraining from violence, acting in accordance with the rule of law, that’s what we’d want to see happen.

QUESTION: Well, wait – so the constitution – I mean, the constitution can allow for the imposition of martial law; that doesn’t necessarily mean you think that that’s a good thing.

MR. WOOD: Look, I’ve said to you about what our views are with regard to freedom of expression and assembly. That’s pretty clear. But it’s important that all the parties, as I’ve said, act in accordance with Pakistan’s laws, its constitution, and resolve these differences that they may have within the political sphere and not use violence.

QUESTION: So you have no position on what the Pakistani Government has done on this crackdown on the –

MR. WOOD: I’ve seen reports about what’s been going on, but again, we’re – as I said, we’re following the situation, but what I wanted to give you was our position, where we stand with regard to freedom of expression and assembly.

QUESTION: Well, okay, that’s fair enough. Yes, you support freedom of expression, you support freedom of the press, and you support freedom of assembly.

MR. WOOD: You’ve truly been listening to me. That’s good.

QUESTION: Yeah, exactly. Well, that’s all fine and good, but in this specific instance, is that – are those – are what – are these concepts that you support being upheld or not?

MR. WOOD: I’m not in a position – I’m standing here at the podium. I’m not on the ground. All I can do is give you what our views are.

QUESTION: You have very able diplomats in Islamabad and elsewhere and –

MR. WOOD: And they’re following the situation.

QUESTION: Yeah, and they’re unable to come to any conclusion about what’s going on there?

MR. WOOD: Well, things are taking place on the ground right now. I can’t give you, you know, the 11:17 a.m assessment of where things are. All I can tell you is what our views are with regard to the situation as I’ve spelled them out.

QUESTION: But Robert, you’re talking about the importance of the rule of law, but that’s what the protestors are trying to – protesting about. They want the judiciary restored, they want the chief justice back. What’s the U.S. position on that at the moment?

MR. WOOD: Like I have said, Nina, what we want to see happen in Pakistan is that all of the parties, in accordance with the laws of the country, try to resolve their differences. It’s a difficult situation on the ground in Pakistan. I understand that. And I just want to be clear in terms of where the U.S. stands with regard to what’s going on in Pakistan, and that’s what I’ve been trying to give you.

QUESTION: But you’re [inaudible] –

QUESTION: [Inaudible] you haven’t been clear at all about where the U.S. stands on what’s going on in Pakistan.

MR. WOOD: I’ve given you what our position is. I’m not – I can’t give you an assessment of what’s taking place right at this moment on the ground.

QUESTION: That’s not what I’m asking for. I’m asking you what the position is on reinstating, for example, the chief justice. Is – are you exerting any pressure on the leadership to do this, to quell this possible violence?

MR. WOOD: Look, we have a dialogue with Pakistan on a whole host of subjects, and our position is well-known with regard to what we think about political activity in Pakistan.


MR. WOOD: I don’t want to get – let me just finish.


MR. WOOD: I don’t want to get into trying to give an assessment of what’s going on on the ground.

QUESTION: That’s not what I’m asking. I’m asking the U.S. position on the reinstatement of the judges, something that the head of state is focused –

MR. WOOD: That is something that’s going to have to be determined by the Pakistanis in accordance with their laws and their constitution. I can’t go beyond that.

QUESTION: Really? I mean, when President Musharraf installed a state of emergency to avoid the reinstatement of the judges, you had called for the reinstatement of the judges.

MR. WOOD: Look, I’m giving you what the policy is right now, and as I’ve said, this is something that needs to be worked out within Pakistan’s political sphere in accordance with its laws. That’s about the best I can give you.

QUESTION: Can you tell me about any phone call – sorry, one more thing – any phone calls that have been made, any high-level calls?

MR. WOOD: I’m not aware of any.


QUESTION: Could your position be interpreted as support for the Zardari government and alienate more Pakistanis?

MR. WOOD: I’m not trying to – I wouldn’t give you that interpretation. What I’m saying is, is that there’s a difficult political situation on the ground in Pakistan. What we don’t want to see is further violence. We don’t want to see – we want to see the rule of law respected. We want to see freedom of expression and assembly carried out. And that’s where we are.


QUESTION: Can you tell us anything more about what you are doing to convey that message to the Pakistanis, and do you – are you working on any sort of contingency plans, you know, for – if this deteriorates even further and more –

MR. WOOD: Well, that – first of all, that’s speculation with regard to contingencies, and I wouldn’t discuss those from the podium anyway. But we have regular dialogue with the Pakistanis. We have an embassy in Islamabad. We have consulates in the country. There is a – the Pakistanis have an embassy here. There is – there are plenty of options for having dialogue with Pakistan, and we engage them on a daily basis on a whole host of issues. Our views are known to the Pakistani Government.

QUESTION: Can you tell us, Robert, if you have – and if you can’t tell us, that’s fine, but can you tell us whether you have conveyed to the Pakistanis, in connection with this specific incident – that is, the rounding up of people ahead of tomorrow’s planned protests – that you would prefer to see people’s rights to freedom of assembly and freedom of speech be respected? Have you conveyed that message in connection with this incident?

MR. WOOD: Specifically with this incident, I don’t know. But I think it’s certainly fair to say that we would want to see, in the midst of all of this, respect for the right for people to freely assemble and to be able to express their views. But with regard to this particular case, I don’t know.


QUESTION: New topic?

MR. WOOD: It’s up to you guys.


MR. WOOD: Mm-hmm.

QUESTION: Can you talk about the discussions about a letter that possible President – that President Obama could be sending – considering sending to Ayatollah Khamenei in Iran as a possible overture to engage Iran?

MR. WOOD: I don’t have anything about any possible letter, but that would be something that I’d refer you to the White –

QUESTION: Well, there were some diplomats that briefed reporters over the last week that said that the Administration has kind of told the Europeans that one of the things that you’re considering in terms of your efforts to engage Iran is possibly – the way you would do that is to send a letter to President Khamenei – sorry, Ayatollah Khamenei.

MR. WOOD: Look, you know we have a policy review underway on Iran, and –

QUESTION: Is that one of the options being –

MR. WOOD: Well, I’m not going to talk about options that are being discussed within that review. But with regard to some type of presidential letter, that’s something that would have to come out of the White House. I’m not aware of it.

QUESTION: Well, this Administration never responded to President Ahmadinejad’s letter to President Obama congratulating him.

MR. WOOD: As I said, there is a review on Iran policy underway. I don’t have anything more for you on that, Elise.

QUESTION: Well, I mean, clearly you are looking for ways to engage Iran.

MR. WOOD: Absolutely. We have said that.

QUESTION: Could this be a possible –

MR. WOOD: I just don’t want to get into a discussion of those ways that we may or may not be planning to engage Iran.

QUESTION: Well, the first time this came up several weeks ago, both you from this building, and the White House from the White House building denied that there was any letter that was under consideration, and said that no one had been instructed to draft such a letter, and today it seems a little different. What’s the scoop?

MR. WOOD: I’m not saying anything differently. I’m just saying to you that there is an Iran policy review underway, and I’d leave it at that.

QUESTION: Well, but why can’t you say the same thing that you said before when this was first – this first bubbled up?

MR. WOOD: I don’t want to. I don’t want to. (Laughter.)

QUESTION: Well, that’s telling.

QUESTION: I mean, if you’re denying that it wasn’t true then, you’re not denying that it isn’t true now.

MR. WOOD: I’m just saying to you that there is a policy review underway with regard to Iran, and that’s how I’ve been answering those questions. I don’t want to discuss, you know, letters, policy ideas that have been floated; I don’t think that’s useful. I think once we have completed our review, we’ll be able to enunciate our policies, and then you’ll have – we’ll be able to answer a lot of your questions.


QUESTION: A UN Security Council sanctions committee has found that Iran has violated – is in violation of the sanctions and was trying to transfer weapons-related material to Syria. Any comments on that?

MR. WOOD: Well, we support the UN Iran sanctions committee decision. Clearly, Iran and Syria violated UN Security Council Resolution 1747, which, you know, prohibits Iran from exporting arms and materiel and for countries from procuring such items. And so I understand there is a 10-day review period, whereby Iran and Syria have to get back to the sanctions committee, and then they’ll take furthers steps from there. But we certainly support that decision by the committee.

QUESTION: Thank you.

QUESTION: I have some questions on the spending bill that was –

MR. WOOD: Hang on. Was there a question on Iran?

QUESTION: Yeah. I was wondering if you had an update on Roxanna Saberi and her status in Iran.

MR. WOOD: I don’t have any update. I will take a look and see if there is anything new on it, but I didn’t receive one today, so I assume there is no update.

QUESTION: It was Friday when the Iranians said that it would – they would – that they were planning to release her in a few days. You don’t have any updates on what the Swiss are doing?

MR. WOOD: I don’t, but I’m happy to take a look and see if there is anything.

I’m sorry, Elise.

QUESTION: Yeah. On this bill – you had requested 450 million for Mexico for the Merida
Initiative, and last year Congress had agreed to it and now cut that funding to 300 million. Could you talk a little bit about that? What – how the program that you want to institute is going to be affected by that 150 million in cuts? And also, the bill also kind of denies funding to the Executive Branch to enforce restrictions on travel and remittances and cash advance sales to Cuba. If you could –

MR. WOOD: Well, there’s not really much I can say at this point with regard to the bill. When we’re able to talk a little bit more and I have some more details, we’ll be happy to do that. I don’t have anything at this point that I can give you on that, Elise.

QUESTION: You don’t know – I mean, you don’t know what this cut in funding will do to the Merida Initiative?

MR. WOOD: We will obviously have to look at all of these particular items. I just don’t have an assessment at this point. But as soon as we are able to give you that, we’ll be happy to do so.

QUESTION: And you don’t know specifically what this – what the cut in funding for Cuba to enforce Cuba restrictions does to the restrictions that are in place?

MR. WOOD: No, but I think with regard to the Cuba portion of that, I’d probably refer you to Treasury, because Treasury can give you more specifics with regard to, you know, what can and can’t happen under sanctions.

Yes, Michel.

QUESTION: Yes. President Asad has said today that Syria is ready for direct talks with Israel if United States will be the mediator. Are you planning to be a mediator in these talks or negotiations?

MR. WOOD: This is the first I’ve heard of it. As you know, the Turks were helpful in trying to help bring together Israel and Syria in direct talks. And certainly, we want to see a process between Israel and Syria, you know, be established. But you know, these are – I haven’t seen these reports, so I’m just going to refrain from comment at this point.

Sir, yeah.

QUESTION: There’s a fresh rhetorical salvo from the North Koreans. A North Korean foreign ministry spokesman is quoted as saying that the U.S.-South Korean military exercises are, quote, “nuclear war exercises designed to mount a preemptive attack on the DPRK.” They also accuse the United States of, quote, “working hard to infringe upon the sovereignty of the DPRK by force of arms in collusion with the South Korean puppet bellicose forces.” Close quote.

Any reaction to this? I know North Korean rhetoric is not – you know, it’s often florid, but this is fairly harsh, even for them. And –

MR. WOOD: Well, I mean, those charges are baseless. They’re nonsense, frankly. What isn’t helpful is this type of bellicose rhetoric coming out of the North. They’ve been saying a number of things with regard to the United States and the Republic of Korea planning or undertaking these exercises and how this is a threat to North Korea. Indeed, these exercises which take place, as you know, annually, are not a threat to the North. This type of, as I said, bellicose rhetoric is not helpful. It only – it can only further – it can only increase tensions in the region. And what we want to see happen is we want to see the North comply with its international obligations with regard to the Six-Party framework.

QUESTION: And Ambassador Bosworth said on his return to the United States at the airport that he was hopeful that the Six-Party Talks could resume, and I think he said very soon. Any reason to believe that that’s in the offing?

MR. WOOD: I mean, it’s certainly possible. A lot of it will depend on the North and whether it’s willing to engage. As you know, we were waiting for the North to agree in writing to a verification protocol. The North was not willing to do that.

We are still very interested in seeing the North come back to the table so that we can have further discussions that will eventually get us to the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. So we do want to see that happen.

QUESTION: So you’re still calling on the verification protocol in order to – before any Six-Party Talks?

MR. WOOD: Well, verification is a critical element of this process. The North, as you know, has submitted, you know, I think well over 18,000 pieces of paper with regard to its nuclear program. That needs to be verified. And what we tried to do with the other parties is to come up with a verification protocol that will allow us to be able to indeed measure what the North has submitted and to see whether it meets the requirements of the international community. That hasn’t happened yet.

But we’re committed to this process. We think it has utility, and we call on the North to come back to the table and meet its requirements.

QUESTION: Do they have to do the verification protocol first before there’s another Six-Party Talks meeting?

MR. WOOD: They have to – look, at some point, there is going to have to be – we’re going to have to be able to verify all of the documents that the North submitted. That’s going to have to take place. So the sooner we can get to that point, the better. But the North needs to be – we have to be able to come up with some type of tool that can verify all of the documents that were submitted.


QUESTION: Robert, Australia said today that it’s going to provide some direct aid to the Zimbabwe unity government, and I’m just wondering whether that reflects a general trend by Western countries to do that. Is the United States considering it?

MR. WOOD: I can’t tell you, Dave, whether that represents any kind of trend. You know, we’ve said basically that we want to see how this unity government performs and to see – before we can make any type of decision on providing assistance. Humanitarian aid we will obviously continue to provide. But that was clearly a decision taken by the Australian Government. You know what our position is.


QUESTION: Different subject. The Dutch foreign minister has announced that the Afghan conference, Afghanistan conference, will be held in The Hague. Can you confirm that?

MR. WOOD: I can’t confirm that. Was this from a press report or –


MR. WOOD: Yeah, I can’t – yeah, I’m not able to confirm it at this point. But you know, I’ll leave it to the Dutch.

QUESTION: So you haven’t been notified? The U.S. has not been –

MR. WOOD: I – not that I’m aware of, that we have been officially notified. I certainly haven’t been told about it. I know that there was certainly a lot of work underway and that that was certainly a possibility that the Dutch would co-host this conference. But I haven’t seen anything official yet.

Anything else? Thank you.

(The briefing was concluded at 11:33 a.m.)