12:46 p.m. EST
MS. NULAND: Afternoon, everybody. I have a brief statement at the top with regard to Deputy Secretary Burns’s trip to Turkey and Egypt, and then we’ll go to your questions. Deputy Secretary Burns wrapped up a visit to Ankara today, where he met with Turkish Foreign Minister Davutoglu. He also met with Under Secretary of Foreign Affairs Sinirlioglu. They discussed a number of issues of shared interest, including developments in Iraq, the importance of international solidarity on Iran, our shared concerns about the situation in Syria, and ways that we can coordinate to support Egypt’s democratic transition. Deputy Secretary Burns obviously affirmed our continuing support for Turkey’s own struggle to combat internal terrorism, and inclusive and transparent constitutional reform, and reiterated our desire to strengthen U.S.-Turkish economic ties.
Ambassador – Deputy Secretary Burns has now landed in Cairo. He has meetings there tomorrow. He’ll meet with senior Egyptian Government officials. He’ll also meet with political leaders and members of civil society and the business community. His discussions in Cairo will focus on U.S.-Egyptian bilateral relations; our strong support for Egypt’s democratic political transition, including an active and independent civil society; and the current economic challenges facing Egypt; and, obviously, regional issues of shared concern.
Let’s go to what’s on your minds.
QUESTION: Can we ask on Burns first?
QUESTION: Go ahead.
QUESTION: Yeah. Is he going to be meeting with members of political parties, or is he going to follow Feltman’s rule that he won’t meet with them?
MS. NULAND: He is going to meet with some political party leaders. I think we’ll wait until he has those meetings and then we’ll give you a sense of them tomorrow.
QUESTION: You can’t say that he’s going to meet the Muslim Brotherhood, then?
MS. NULAND: I, frankly, don’t have the list of who’s going to be included in those meetings. I think it’s a roundtable, but let me read it out for you tomorrow, Lach, after he does it.
QUESTION: It would be expected, though, that the biggest parties now in the country would be included in that roundtable, I’m guessing.
MS. NULAND: Well, let’s let him do it. But we will have more for you tomorrow after he does it.
Please, Michel. Still on this one?
QUESTION: On Syria?
MS. NULAND: On Syria?
QUESTION: Have you read the Syrian president speech today, and what’s your reaction to it?
MS. NULAND: Well, obviously, we’ve seen the reporting on the president’s speech. It’s interesting, throughout the course of this speech, Assad manages to blame a foreign conspiracy that’s so vast with regard to the situation in Syria that it now includes the Arab League, most of the Syrian opposition, the entire international community. He throws responsibility on everybody but back on himself. And with regard to his own responsibility for the violence in Syria, he seems to aggressively deny any responsibility or any hand in the role of his own security forces.
So again, he’s doing everything but what he needs to do, which is to meet the commitments that Syria made to the Arab League to end the violence, to pull tanks and heavy weapons out of cities, to allow journalists in, to release political prisoners, and to allow a real space for political dialogue to take place. So that’s what we’re looking to see in Syria, and obviously, this was an effort to deflect the attention of his own people from the real problems.
QUESTION: Does that worry you that he hasn’t changed his tone at all?
MS. NULAND: I think it just confirms us in our view that it’s time for him to step aside, that he’s not the guy who can lead Syria in the direction that it needs to go.
QUESTION: Does it worry you that he’s kind of setting – he seems to be setting up sort of this scenario of it’s an us against the rest of the world? You could almost see what he was trying to achieve there, sort of rallying support because the whole world is out to get us. Does that concern you?
MS. NULAND: Well, sadly, Cami, this is not new from him. He’s been doing this all along. In March, when all of this started, he had an opportunity to do what some other leaders have done and start a dialogue and really address his people’s concerns. And even from that moment and escalating ever since, it’s all been about the enemies of Syria rather than truly understanding that this is an internal movement. It’s coming from the Syrian people who want change, who are sick of corruption, sick of a government that doesn’t represent all the needs of all the people, and a government that is for him and his cronies, not for the Syrian people.
So – and the fact that not only is he blaming everybody else, but he’s taken up arms against his own people. He’s responsible for this violence. So from our perspective it’s not new, and it’s also, obviously, not new that he is refusing to take any responsibility for the actions of his own security forces who are the instigators of the violence.
QUESTION: So to follow up on Cami there, I mean, you – she asked if you were concerned about what he said. I mean, the opposition has seized on the fact that he’s vowed to crush their terrorism with an iron fist. Does that worry you that the crackdown is going to be as strong as ever, or what kind of intentions do you see there?
MS. NULAND: It’s worried us all along, the kinds of violence he is perpetrating against his own people. This is a guy who’s overseeing a security apparatus that has tanks in every town and village, that is using those tanks on innocent civilians, that has security forces that are rampaging in towns, that is arresting and torturing members of the political opposition, that has thousands of political prisoners. So it’s already an iron fist. The question is: Is he going to meet any of these commitments that he’s made? The Arab League is doing its best to try to provide space for this opposition, but clearly he’s defiant.
QUESTION: Can we just – building on what Cami said, you mentioned that this tone dates back to March. So that’s just almost 10 months of political inaction and violent repression. Are we at an end point now for diplomatic efforts with this guy?
MS. NULAND: Well, the United States has been saying for some months, I think dating back – I can’t remember exactly, I think it was August or September – that we had given him an opportunity to be the guy to lead change; that rather than doing that, he has used violence against his own people. And so we believe that it’s time – well overdue – for him to step aside.
That’s a different matter than whether this Arab League initiative is worth giving a try to see whether they could bring the Assad regime to implement the promises that it made. And we see a very, very, very incomplete picture there, as we’ve talked about all week.
QUESTION: So are you --
QUESTION: Okay, but just one second.
QUESTION: Just – would you be supportive of further diplomatic efforts? It just seems that time and time again, he’s used each outreach effort as a stalling tactic, as a strategy to kind of keep the international community at bay while he continues with the crackdown and continues to fail to deliver on any meaningful political reform. So how would you approach continued efforts to – would you lend support to continued efforts in this vein?
MS. NULAND: We’ve made clear we think the man needs to step aside. We’ve made clear that we want – we will continue to work with allies and partners around the world, particularly those in the region, trying to open space for political change, getting the violence to end, that we need to increase the pressure on the regime, the economic and political pressure. That’s what we have been leading with our own sanctions, with our efforts to encourage others to step up their sanctions, as we’ve seen.
QUESTION: But what has been --
MS. NULAND: We did support this Arab League initiative because they made promises – he made promises to them. We wanted to see if they could be implemented. We’re seeing this incomplete picture. They are going to make their own evaluation on the weekend, and we have made clear that we will continue to work with the Arab League and other partners on the way ahead, including what more the international community can do to try to increase the pressure to end the violence and to allow space for change in Syria.
QUESTION: But just finally --
QUESTION: Victoria --
QUESTION: -- what has been the sum total then of these 10 months of diplomatic efforts? What have they actually accomplished?
MS. NULAND: Well, I think his regime is feeling the squeeze. I mean, many countries have stopped trading with him --
QUESTION: I’m not talking about the sanctions. I’m talking about outreach, whether it was Turkey, whether it was the Arab League, whether it was some of his Gulf neighbors. What have they done? If you take all of them together since March, have they accomplished anything for the people in Syria?
MS. NULAND: Well, clearly we have not had success. I think that’s obvious from the situation on the ground.
QUESTION: Yes. Victoria, I mean, he had very harsh words toward the Arab League. So obviously he is – they are – the regime is not going to cooperate with the mission, the monitoring mission by the Arab League. So why do you continue to have confidence in their ability and whatever report they’re coming up on the 19th of this month?
MS. NULAND: Said, we have said that we thought that they took on quite a lot of responsibility to do what they could to try to open space, to try to bear witness to what was going on, to do an honest reporting of what’s going on. We want to give them the opportunity to make that report, to make their own evaluation, to share their conclusions with all of the rest of us. And frankly, that will strengthen all of us going forward in our resolve to continue to increase the pressure and do what we can.
So it is a matter of letting the Arab League complete this mission, as it plans to do on Friday and Saturday, to make its own evaluation. And then all of us can take stock based on what we’ve seen.
QUESTION: But the integrity of the – if I’m --
QUESTION: Toria, why is it --
QUESTION: Go ahead.
QUESTION: Why is it an incomplete picture? You could say, “Whose fault is it that it’s an incomplete picture?”
MS. NULAND: No, the point I meant there, Jill, was, as we’ve been saying all week, we’ve seen some sporadic incidents in Syria where the presence of the monitors over the last couple of weeks have allowed the Syrian opposition to feel comfortable enough to come into the streets and make its views known. We saw big demonstrations about 10 days ago, a week ago, but those have been few and far between. And at the same time, we’ve seen Syrians continue to die at the hands of the security regime. We’ve seen the security situation not improve. We’ve seen the heavy weaponry, et cetera, that is emplaced all over Syria, not pulled back, as they promised. Journalists have not been allowed in. And we still have a thousand-plus political prisoners in Syrian jails, including some very prominent ones, with reports of torture.
So the point is that the Assad regime promised that it would meet four commitments to the Arab League. It has not met any of them, which is to say – but which is not to say that the monitors, where they have been able to be present, where they have been able to operate, haven’t already begun to prove the point that when they feel safe, the Syrian people will go out into the streets and make their views known. And it is Assad who is denying them that right through his violence.
QUESTION: But particularly as the observers are under attack yesterday, a group of Arab League observers were attacked – or was attacked by unknown protestors in Syria. Who is responsible, do you think, for these attacks?
MS. NULAND: I think we’re not in a position, obviously, to say who attacked the monitors. But this is the issue: The violence has not ended; the violence continues; and the Arab League presumably will draw its – draw conclusions from that when it makes its report at the end of the week.
QUESTION: On the UN Security Council, what do you expect from their discussions on Syria, especially since the last time you didn’t get the hoped-for targeted measures with the support of China and Russia?
MS. NULAND: Well, the Security Council is having another session on Syria this morning. I would guess that Ambassador Rice will have something to say in New York after that session concludes. I think you know where we are, Lach, that we continue to believe that it is overdue for the Security Council to make a strong statement in support of peace and security and in support of the moves that we can all take together to help the people of Syria.
We have a weak Russian draft on the table. We have consultations going on about how to strengthen it. So let us see if those lead anywhere today in New York and let them report from New York.
QUESTION: Any reason for optimism?
MS. NULAND: I think our sense is that we’re going to need to see the conclusion of this Arab League mission. We’re going to need to see their report. We’re going to need to have that report influence the views of the international community going forward.
QUESTION: Yeah. Ambassador Ford has expressed concern regarding security and safety of the Embassy and the staff in Damascus, and we were told that he conveyed this concern to the Syrian officials. How far the Syrians were responsive to his concern?
MS. NULAND: Well, my understanding is that Ambassador Ford made renewed demarches in the last couple of days about the physical security of the Embassy. I don’t know that the Syrian Government has responded to those demarches yet. My understanding is that they had not yet. But we, like a number of other embassies in Damascus, are concerned about whether or not the environment around our missions is well-enough protected.
QUESTION: Do you have any reason to doubt the Syrians’ resolve to protect the American Embassy or any other diplomatic missions in Damascus?
MS. NULAND: Based on history, Said, we --
QUESTION: Based on history, yes.
MS. NULAND: As you know, we had a bad incident in the fall. We’ve worked with the Syrians since. We’re now asking for more support, and we’ll see if the Syrian Government is forthcoming.
QUESTION: But – I’m not saying that they shouldn’t provide it, but given the fact that you’ve called this regime illegitimate and said it should step down, how can you then ask to it to be legitimate in the sense that it should provide security? I mean, you’ve already said this is an illegitimate regime, so where does it get its legitimacy to provide support to anybody? I’m not saying that they shouldn’t be doing it, but --
MS. NULAND: Clearly, they have the security forces available. Use less of them on their own people and more of them to protect diplomatic missions, including in conformity with the Vienna Convention. We protect their mission and their people here, and we expect the same for our mission and our people there.
QUESTION: I just actually – for some clarification on this legitimate/illegitimate discussion, a minute ago you said we’ve made clear that we think the man needs to step aside. I don’t – Bashar Assad is not going to step aside. So I guess what I’m wondering is: Is the United States calling for his ouster?
MS. NULAND: We have been clear about this. The President said it in August. We think that this is not the guy to lead this country in a democratic transition. We have made clear that we think it is time for a dialogue that does not include him. We are not dictating how this needs to go forward, but we’re simply saying that in terms of our confidence that he can lead his country in a better direction, that’s over.
QUESTION: Change topic?
MS. NULAND: Yeah.
QUESTION: Yes. Palestinian issue. The Palestinian television had to cancel Sesame Street because of the funds and the $200 million worth were cut and the – part of that money, 2 million, were going to the – was going to the Sesame Street fund. My question to you is that the State Department subsidized the Israeli version of Sesame Street to the tune of $750,000. Would the State Department do the same thing to restore Sesame Street and Elmo and the other characters?
MS. NULAND: This is a complicated picture here, and I had asked our friend Kermit the Frog to join us to explain this, but I’m going to have to do it without him because he’s busy promoting The Muppet Movie.
The U.S., as you know, as you said, Said, did provide some support for the airing of Sesame Street to Palestinian kids. Unfortunately, with the cut in Economic Support Funds, we had to make some hard tradeoffs, and that was one of the things that we’ve not been able to do.
We have also always supported television for young kids, kindergarten age kids, that is broadcast by Israeli TV to kids in both Israel and in the Palestinian territories, which supports the goal of kids understanding that they share citizenship, that Israeli Arabs and Israeli Jews need to live together, that they are neighbors with the Palestinians. This is programming in Israel designed to promote common sense of citizenship between Israeli Arabs and Israeli Palestinians, but also between all Israelis and folks in the Palestinian territories. We think it’s an important program for kids. And the science indicates that if you get to children at the young level, before they’re even in school, that’s the best way to influence them. So yes, that does continue, and it comes out of a different pot of money.
QUESTION: What I’m saying is could you provide the Palestinians with the same thing for the program that airs from Ramallah in Arabic?
MS. NULAND: Well, again, we had to make some difficult decisions because our funding that comes – that supports the purely Palestinian programs, as opposed to these pan-regional programs, comes out of the economic support funds, and the economic support funds have been cut. And so our priority has been funding those programs that support – and the institutions of the – Palestinian institutions, their ability to provide basic services to their people. And unfortunately, Kermit is not able to be supported at the moment.
QUESTION: So what was the message of this now-cancelled Palestinian version of Sesame Street? Was it a peaceful message that’s been lost, or was it one that didn’t support the institutions?
MS. NULAND: My understanding is it’s regular Sesame Street programming that is – but perhaps Said knows better. I haven’t seen it.
QUESTION: It’s like all the others, it’s just coordinated with --
MS. NULAND: Right.
QUESTION: -- New York. And part of it comes --
MS. NULAND: Right.
QUESTION: -- from here, and part of it comes from there --
MS. NULAND: Right.
QUESTION: -- the programming, and it’s a very unfortunate thing.
MS. NULAND: Right.
QUESTION: Even the Israeli program, saying they are cutting funds actually is a disservice to peace because it teaches children how to live together and overcome all social and national barriers and so on.
MS. NULAND: Well, this speaks to the larger issue that we had pushed hard in the Congress and will continue to push hard for the – for full funding of the ESF account. At this point, we only have partial funding.
Please, in the back.
QUESTION: Pakistan today, there was a huge bombing (inaudible). What is your reaction? Do you know who might be behind this bombing? And what is – how – what is the status of – where do the U.S. and Pakistan and Afghanistan stand in terms of combating this challenge of militancy? Because there have been bombings in Afghanistan and Pakistan both in recent days.
MS. NULAND: Well, let me say first that the United States strongly condemns today’s bombing at a marketplace in Jamrud, in the Khyber Agency. By callously targeting innocent people, the extremists who planned and perpetrated this attack are just showing their contempt for the value of human life. We offer our condolences to the families and friends of the victims, and we remain deeply committed to working with Pakistan to address these kinds of terrorist threats and the results of violent extremism. We’ve seen the reports, some claiming that there are al-Qaida hands behind this. Frankly, we’re not in a position to confirm one way or the other.
QUESTION: The meeting this afternoon between Secretary Clinton and the Saudi foreign minister, what are the topics that they will discuss? And is there any emergency for this meeting, especially that Assistant Secretary Feltman was in Saudi Arabia on Saturday and Sunday and Wendy Sherman was there last month, too?
MS. NULAND: Well, as you know, we – as you know, whenever we meet with representatives from the kingdom, it’s a very, very broad array of issues. From the Secretary’s side, I’m – I think she’s expecting that they’ll talk about virtually all of the regional issues – situation in Iran, situation in Iraq, promoting the democratic transition in Egypt, Bahrain, Syria, you name it. But let us let the meeting go forward. Obviously, we – they have a close relationship. We always see the foreign minister when he’s in town.
QUESTION: But is there any emergency, especially that Assistant Secretary Feltman was there and he just came back?
MS. NULAND: I can’t speak to the timing of the foreign minister’s visit except to say that we always have a heavy agenda. And as I just made clear, we have a very heavy agenda today again.
QUESTION: This meeting today with Saud Al-Faisal – I think tomorrow is – Hamad bin Jassim is coming?
MS. NULAND: That’s right.
QUESTION: Okay. And now on the 17th, we have the Jordanian monarch coming in. Does the Palestinian-Israeli negotiations factor in at all in these discussions?
MS. NULAND: In virtually all of these meetings, there is an exchange on where we are in our efforts to bring the parties to the table. I would guess that the – that issue will probably come up in all of these meetings.
QUESTION: Were you expecting the Saudi foreign minister to be here today before the visit that Assistant Secretary Feltman made?
MS. NULAND: I can’t speak to the exact sequencing of these issues. I don’t think that this was a surprise to us, if that’s what you’re asking.
MS. NULAND: I don’t have anything for you, Samir, on his travel plans. I would refer you to him. We don’t have anything new for you on that.
QUESTION: Because he withdrew his application for the visa to the U.S., Saleh.
MS. NULAND: Well, he took his passport back. What his travel plans are, I can’t speak to.
QUESTION: Any information on the other meeting the Secretary has at the White House with Defense Secretary Panetta and Mr. Donilon?
MS. NULAND: She – they meet regularly whenever they’re all home, and this is part of their regular consultation.
QUESTION: But there’s no specific topic that this is --
MS. NULAND: I’m sure there is, and I’m sure we’re not going to share it with you, Brad.
QUESTION: Toria, I forget, is it today that she’s speaking with the staff in Iraq?
MS. NULAND: Yes, she spoke to them this morning. She did.
QUESTION: Yeah. What did she say?
MS. NULAND: She had a phone call yesterday with our staff in Afghanistan and she had a phone call today with our staff in Iraq. These were New Year’s Day calls. Both of those staffs work extremely hard, seven days a week in most cases. They work under extreme conditions. And I think it was an opportunity to thank them for the work that they both did last year and to give them a pep talk going forward, because they’re both also shepherding important transitions in our relationships with both countries.
QUESTION: Right. And on the Iraq part, is there any early indication of how things are going now that the transition is happening?
MS. NULAND: In terms of the State Department picking up --
QUESTION: Troops out. Yeah. Right.
MS. NULAND: -- the lead, we’re working it through. As we’ve said from the beginning, this is – it’s a daunting effort, but we believe that we’re up to the task. I think you’ve seen that that Embassy’s been extremely busy, led by Ambassador Jeffrey, in its work with all of the Iraqi political parties to encourage them to talk to each other and encourage an Iraqi-owned process of national dialogue among the key leaders. So that continues, as do all of our civilian support opportunities and our training opportunities. So --
MS. NULAND: Mm-hmm.
QUESTION: North Korea announced that North Korea never ever give up their nuclear program. How is your response on that?
MS. NULAND: Well, I think you can imagine that that is disappointing. I think we’ve been absolutely clear that we are looking for North Korea to take significant steps on the path towards denuclearization to work with us to meet its obligations. So we’ve been clear in what we hope to see. Our Six-Party Talks partners have been clear as well.
QUESTION: What would be the response of the United States if North Korea insist to be formally recognized as a nuclear power to come to Six-Party table?
MS. NULAND: You mean as a precondition for coming to the Six-Party Talks?
MS. NULAND: I think you know the answer to that question. It’s not acceptable.
QUESTION: Right. Thanks.
MS. NULAND: Please.
QUESTION: Toria, do you have any comments on the second naval rescue operation in the Sea of Oman that happened today --
MS. NULAND: Yeah. This is --
QUESTION: -- within a week?
MS. NULAND: I have to tell you that I don’t have all the details. I think Brother Little and Brother Kirby at the Defense Department were going to speak to this earlier today. I don’t know if they got a chance to go out and do so, but they’ve got the details. Again, the – I think in this case, the U.S. Coast Guard appears to have rescued some Iranians at sea and in distress. I heard this morning that it had something to do with engine trouble. There was a fire. But I’m going to leave it to the brothers at the Pentagon to give you more detail.
QUESTION: Do you have --
QUESTION: The P-5+1 talks aren’t really getting anywhere. How about a ship-to-ship diplomacy? (Laughter.)
MS. NULAND: Yeah, it sounds like we’re kind of de facto doing it, aren’t we? Yeah. It’s interesting because, as you know, the State Department runs a Twitter feed in Farsi. We have our virtual embassy with Tehran where we try to push out lots of information about U.S. diplomacy, et cetera. Massive interest in this – in the previous incident, on both of those platforms in this from regular Iranians wanting to understand more and some fascinating comments as well.
QUESTION: Do you have an update on Mr. Hekmati?
MS. NULAND: I have not a lot new, unfortunately. Let’s see. As I think I mentioned yesterday that we hadn’t yet been able to confirm the verdict, the Swiss protecting power has now been able to confirm to us the verdict. So we strongly condemn the death sentence verdict given to Mr. Hekmati. We’ve conveyed our condemnation to the Iranian Government through the Swiss protecting power. We maintain, as we have from the beginning, that these charges against him are a fabrication. We call on the Iranian authorities to release him immediately. We’ve also called on them to allow him to have legal counsel. Defendants in Iran are allowed to appeal within 20 days. And we call on the Government of Iran to respect the right – the fact that he is a U.S. citizen and grant the Swiss protecting power access to him.
QUESTION: Now, when the Swiss were informed of the sentence against him, was a justification for the charges or the sentence provided, or just simply the facts, as it were?
MS. NULAND: I don’t have details on that, I’m afraid.
QUESTION: Toria --
MS. NULAND: Please.
QUESTION: -- legally speaking, because Iran does not recognize the dual citizenship aspect, does the --
QUESTION: He doesn’t have dual citizenship.
QUESTION: I’m sorry?
QUESTION: He doesn’t have dual citizenship.
QUESTION: He doesn’t – so he’s just an American citizen, okay. So --
QUESTION: That is accepted – sorry – but informally.
QUESTION: What is informally?
MS. NULAND: Well, we’ve talked about this before here, Said, and we have a specific warning in our travel notice with regard to Iran to Iranian Americans that we have this problem with Iran, that if you’re born in Iran, even if you’re an American citizen, the Iranians don’t always recognize it, and it’s caused difficulties in the past.
So, anything else?
QUESTION: Just one on Iran. You said that he should have legal counsel. Did he have some sort of counsel for his case, some sort of court-appointed lawyer or something like that?
MS. NULAND: I have to say to you that I’m not sure we know enough about the way he was handled to answer that question. But you’ve seen his family speak about trying to get counsel to him – independent counsel. So --
QUESTION: So the Swiss have not had any contacts with any legal representative, whether he was state-appointed or --
MS. NULAND: To my knowledge, no. And they’ve not been allowed to see him.
MS. NULAND: Yes.
QUESTION: Yesterday you talked a little bit about it, but the Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka said he feared the risk of a civil war in Nigeria. And I just wanted to ask you what you think the stakes are, if indeed you share that view. It’s an oil country. There’s large Muslim and Christian populations.
MS. NULAND: Well, as we said yesterday, Lach, we have concerns about what Boko Haram is doing about efforts to create and exacerbate existing tensions between Christians and Muslims in the country, north/south. We are supporting the efforts of the Nigerian Government to try to get a handle on that. On top of that, as you’ve probably seen, we also have nationwide strikes now in Nigeria in response to lifting of fuel subsidies. So that’s adding another layer to the difficulties in Nigeria. In the context of the nationwide strikes on the fuel situation, our view on that is that the Nigerian people have the right to peaceful protest, we want to see them protest peacefully, and we’re also urging the Nigerian security services to respect the right of popular protest and conduct themselves professionally in dealing with the strikes.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MS. NULAND: Okay. Thank you all.
(The briefing was concluded at 1:19 p.m.)
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