Middle East Digest: Feb. 21, 2007
Bureau of Public Affairs
QUESTION: On Iraq. Do you have a list of countries that have indicated an interest in drawing down troops, countries that have made announcements over the past 24 hours?
MR. CASEY: I don't, George. I'm personally only aware of the statements that have been made by the British and by the Danish Governments and we talked a little bit about those this morning and you heard from the Secretary on that. I do think, though, that the broader point is that we see what the British are doing in terms of their rearrangement of their forces, and the Danes have been part of their operating area, as indicative of some of the success that's actually been achieved in terms of handing over areas of control, in this case in the south, to the Government of Iraq. And it's important that that process go forward. It's certainly the process that we want to see happen throughout the country.
Obviously, as you know, the situation in Baghdad is very different from what's occurring in most of the south and part of the intense need to secure Baghdad right now is the reason behind the plan that General Petraeus is in the process of implementing along with Iraqi forces to strengthen the government's hand in that city and be able to provide security for the people.
QUESTION: Well, I think, Lithuania also has made an announcement.
MR. CASEY: Oh, okay. I hadn't seen anything formally from them. I understand they operate in the British sector as well so I think, again, it's part of this same process. But as you heard the Secretary say earlier today in her press avail with Foreign Minister Steinmeier, we believe the coalition in Iraq is strong. We certainly don't see any flagging of international support for efforts in Iraq. And again, I think you've also seen that we are continuing to work with the government of Prime Minister Maliki to, in fact, expand international support, including through the Compact and including through other efforts to help further the political and economic process in the country as well as through security arrangements.
QUESTION: Would you have liked to have seen the British -- although I'm well aware that their activities have been in the south, would you have liked to have seen them offer troops to help out in the surge in Baghdad?
MR. CASEY: Well, look, I'm certainly not in a position to talk about the individual military movements or the planning within MNFI, and I'll leave that to General Petreaus and his guys to talk about. Certainly though, we very much appreciate the strong support that we have received throughout this process and throughout the conflict in Iraq on the part of the British Government. The British are going to remain a very strong presence and a very strong member of the coalition and are going to be handling some very significant responsibilities even as they are able to draw down some forces because of this handover. So I don't think there's any question that the British are playing a full role and are fully committed to this effort.
Libby, did you have something?
QUESTION: That was my question.
MR. CASEY: Well, there you go.
QUESTION: You read my mind.
MR. CASEY: Goyal.
QUESTION: New subject?
MR. CASEY: Sure.
QUESTION: Tom, in recent days there have been problem in Afghanistan as far as Taliban and al-Qaidas and across the border and also rift between the two presidents of Afghanistan and Pakistan and all those things are going wrong there. And still we don't have Usama bin Laden and top al-Qaida leaders who are believed to be hiding in the area somewhere there. And also recently there were some bombings inside Pakistan, the court and minister was killed and also Indian train was bombed. So what do you make all this because British troops also made some arrangements and some agreement with the Taliban in Afghanistan also?
MR. CASEY: Well, we talked a little bit about this yesterday. First of all, on the train bombing I'd point you to the statement that we put out yesterday on this subject condemning that attack. Certainly, there's no place for that. We also have talked a little bit about the efforts that are underway and have been going on for a while to coordinate activities between the Government of Pakistan and Afghanistan specifically along the border because everyone is concerned and remains concerned about cross-border movements from Pakistan into Afghanistan by Taliban or other fighters. And that's something that all countries involved, both the Afghan Government, the Pakistani Government and ourselves are committed to trying to address.
Obviously though, more needs to be done given the fact that this is still an issue and is still a problem. Certainly, I know NATO forces as well who have been operating in Afghanistan are concerned about this. And so we are all going to keep on working this issue both as a military one but certainly also as a political one as well because we recognize that this is something that remains a threat and remains a problem for the Government in Afghanistan.
QUESTION: Just to follow quickly. All the Afghanis were freed -- for first time there was a free and fair election in Afghanistan and there was a lot of dancing and celebrations and all that. But now some young Afghans are saying or even very old ones that the system before was better than now because we are -- we were told Afghanis to be protected from the al-Qaida and terrorism but now they are coming back and nobody is there to protect us. And do you think they're losing some trust or faith in the NATO forces or have they failed to protect the Afghans as they were promised?
MR. CASEY: Well, I think it's very clear that violence from the Taliban and from other sources remains a problem in Afghanistan, particularly in the south. But I think you've got a good track record on the part of NATO forces in the region. And as you probably know, National Security Advisor Hadley is in fact out at NATO today. And one of the things he's doing there is talking about how NATO forces can strengthen their activities in Afghanistan, can all work together better with us, with the Afghan Government and with others to be able to deal with the situation. So certainly there is a concern about ongoing violence in Afghanistan. It's one of the things that we're working hard to address. But I believe that everyone understands that the government, the duly elected government of President Karzai and the Afghani parliament which is now fully operating and working in the country is a far better state of affairs than what existed under the Taliban.
QUESTION: Is Secretary planning a similar trip to Afghanistan like in Iraq?
MR. CASEY: I don't have any new travel plans for you to announce. Let's let her get through this trip and the one to Canada on Friday.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MR. CASEY: Yeah, let's go over here.
QUESTION: New subject?
MR. CASEY: Sure.
QUESTION: Did you receive a copy of the ElBaradei report regarding the Iran or not yet?
MR. CASEY: I'd have to check up with the UN. As far as I know, that report has not come in yet. I'm sure we'll be receiving it in very short order. As we've discussed over the last couple of days, though, while we certainly want to look at that report and study it very carefully and I expect the other members of the Security Council do as well. Unfortunately, it's also pretty clear to, I think, any observer at this point that Iran hasn't done what's required of it both by UN Security Council resolutions and multiple resolutions from the IAEA Board of Governors which is suspend its uranium enrichment activities. I think we always believe in last minute conversions, so there's still time and the offer is still on the table for Iran to make the decision to suspend its enrichment and then sit down with the members, the permanent members of the Security Council plus Germany to be able to move down a positive path towards negotiation and towards a diplomatic resolution of this situation. But unfortunately, the Iranians continue to defy the international community, refuse to cooperate with the UN and with the IAEA and unfortunately, that means, as the Secretary said, that we will probably, in the coming days, have to start looking at the possibility of another Security Council resolution.
QUESTION: Yeah, still on this. You just said -- you know, that the Iranians refuse to cooperate with the IAEA. Can you give a sense of what kind of work the inspectors were able to carry out in recent months, how many inspectors were allowed in, what you're expecting from this report?
MR. CASEY: No, again, I think we'll let the IAEA deliver its report and speak to it itself. What I was referring to specifically, though, in terms of the IAEA is you had several Board of Governors resolutions before this issue went to the Security Council, calling on Iran to do several things, one of which was to suspend its uranium enrichment activities as called for under the earlier Paris agreement.
Second was to provide answers to the IAEA, to the outstanding questions that are out there about their nuclear program. And certainly, I think it's obvious to casual observers and just from listening to Iranian Government officials that no decision's been made on the first part of that, which is suspending their uranium enrichment, but we'll see what Dr. ElBaradei's report contains. But I'm also not aware that there's been any change in terms of the Iranians providing any greater information or answers about those outstanding questions about their nuclear program.
QUESTION: This time last year they left the additional protocol, would you say that that severely restricted IAEA activities in Iran in the last year?
MR. CASEY: Well, I think the main point for us is that there is not full cooperation between the IAEA and Iran at this point, that they have not done what the IAEA has repeatedly called on them to do. Again, I will let Mr. ElBaradei speak on behalf of the IAEA and cover in his report what issues remain on the table.
But the fact of the matter is that the Iranian Government has, despite repeated opportunities to move down a positive path and to cooperate with the IAEA, to cooperate with the UN, and to cooperate with the broader international community, Iran's response has basically been to go in the opposite direction. And that's unfortunate. It's unfortunate for the Iranian people, it's unfortunate for the international community, but that's why we're going to keep on making the case and unfortunately, may wind up in a position where additional measures will have to be taken against the Iranian Government in the Security Council.
QUESTION: I know it's difficult for you to get into specifics without seeing the report, but do you have a sense at all that the report will show the origins of the weapons grade uranium?
MR. CASEY: Well, that's one of the outstanding issues that's been there for a long time. I don't have any indication without seeing the report that that situation's changed, but maybe we'll be pleasantly surprised.
QUESTION: Just one last question. Do you -- have any inspectors been in lately and from which countries?
MR. CASEY: I don't know who from the IAEA has been in the country. You'd have to kind of talk to them about the nationalities of any of the inspectors involved.
Samir, let's go back here.
QUESTION: Sir, what do you make of the Saudi mediation of Larijani regarding the nuclear program? Is there still any hope with the Saudi efforts?
MR. CASEY: Well, I think there is always hope. We certainly all hope that Iran will reverse course and decide to comply with the international community. But unfortunately, again, we haven't seen any signs or indications that they plan on doing so.
We welcome the efforts of all members of the international community to convince Iran to change its positions, to change its views and to encourage cooperation. So inasmuch as that's the message being passed by the Saudi Government to Iran, it's certainly something that we're happy to see happen. And we would very much like it to succeed. Again, I think if you listen to the statements that we've heard from senior Iranian officials over the last few days though, I think the possibilities of a midnight conversion are relatively remote at this point.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MR. CASEY: Sure.
QUESTION: Tom --
MR. CASEY: Sylvie, were you still on Iran, too?
MR. CASEY: Okay.
QUESTION: Like in today's Washington Times and other newspapers also, Iranian President is saying that he does not really believe or care about the UN resolutions or he's again threatening that he will continue to -- his nuclear program. Do you think directly there have been any indications from Iran that they are seeking the same kind of deal like North Korea or if North Korean deal with the international community or six-party talks have in any way changed Iranian nuclear program?
MR. CASEY: Well, unfortunately, I think what we've seen with respect to the Iranian Government's approach to this issue has been all too consistent and all too consistently negative. The Iranian Government has again had a very clear path open to it for its own version of discussions with the international community -- the very simple conditions laid out for them to do that. Those conditions were ones that the Iranian Government at one time was happy to accede to under the Paris agreement. But there's been no change in their behavior and I certainly am not in a position to gage what impact events in North Korea may or may not have on the thinking of Iranian leaders. All I can say is that certainly neither that agreement nor any other activities have changed their behavior or changed the actions on the ground.
QUESTION: Let me put it in different way. Is U.S. or international community or IAEA or UN ready to give the same kind of deal if there's one on the table like with the North Korean?
MR. CASEY: Well, let's go back to partly where we started this process with Iran. Germany and the permanent members of the Security Council gave Iran, via Mr. Solana, a very clear choice. And on the one hand was a positive path in which they could have chosen negotiations with the international community and negotiations which would have ultimately allowed them to achieve their stated objective, which is a peaceful civilian nuclear program designed to provide power for the benefit of the Iranian people while at the same time assuring the international community that that program wasn't going to be misused and abused for creating a nuclear weapon. And the options and the possibilities under that were something that Mr. Solana did lay out fairly clearly to the Iranian Government, so there is an opportunity there and there has been for some time.
Unfortunately, what the Iranian Government's chosen to do is go the opposite way. And so as a result, they find themselves in the unfortunate and very small club of nations that have Chapter 7 sanctions against them. And again, they may find that there are added measures taken in the Security Council as a result of their, what we unfortunately are assuming at this point, is their continued defiance of the international community.
MR. CASEY: Arshad.
QUESTION: Tom, the former Palestinian Finance Minister Salem Fayyad today said that he had been offered and he had accepted the post of finance minister in the national unity government. Does it trouble you at all that he would choose to take part in such a government which, although I realize it is not yet fully formed nor has it fully put forward its political program, has at least not yet suggested that it will fully meet the Quartet conditions?
MR. CASEY: Well, first of all, I'm sure that issues related to the national unity government are things that the Quartet will be discussing or are discussing now and we'll be able to hear from the ministers at the conclusion of that meeting in a little while. So I don't want to pretend to speak for or advance on their deliberations. I think for us again, what we need to see regardless of who is involved or not involved in this national unity government is one that does meet those Quartet principles and again you know what they are and they're fairly clear.
One of the things that I think has become clear over the last few days is that there is great concern, not only in the United States or in Israel but in the Quartet and in the broader international community, to understand the specifics of what this government is going to look like. I think we all need to get a better feel of what kind of animal we're dealing with before we can make any kinds of real responses in terms of how we're going to be able to deal with the government or understand it. So I don't think this is a matter of individual appointments or individual ministers. It's what this government as a whole becomes and represents and more importantly the specific policies it adopts.
QUESTION: Would you regard people who take part in the government as tainted in any way if it fails to embrace the Quartet principles?
MR. CASEY: Well, again, I don't -- it's hard for me to try and make specific judgments on this without seeing what that government is and what policies it adopts. Certainly, as you know, we have continued to work with President Abbas because President Abbas very explicitly and repeatedly has stated his adherence to those Quartet principles, his belief in a two-state solution and his willingness to, as he is legally entitled to, negotiate those issues with the Government of Israel.
But regardless of the status of individuals involved in it, again, I think it's very hard to assume that you can have a meaningful dialogue between Israel and a government that regardless of the views of any of its individual members, as a policy, denies Israel the right to exist or otherwise rejects the Quartet principles. So I think again we need to see more holistically what this government looks like before we can draw any individual conclusions. As you know, we've spoken about issues related to the contact policy and I don't have anything new to add beyond what we've said on that subject already.
QUESTION: Tom, UN Envoy Ahtisaari has convened what he hopes will be a final round of talks on Kosovo. But the auspices seem to be really bad and neither side seems to budge from its opposition to his plan. Do you have any advice for them out there?
MR. CASEY: Well, I -- first of all, I think Mr. Ahtisaari has done a great service to the international community by his work on this issue. He's put forward a good plan and we recognize as we've said that this is a difficult and emotional issue for many of the actors involved, but that's why it's all the more important that they do work with him and move forward with its implementation. We certainly are supportive of those efforts. Ambassador Wisner continues to be engaged and involved on this subject and we are encouraging all the parties in our discussions with them to be able to work cooperatively with Mr. Ahtisaari and to be able to move forward on this. This is an issue that has been there for a long time and been determined by the international community in accordance with 1244 that this is the best way to move forward. And we think that ultimately implementation of this plan is going to allow for the kind of future as part of a whole and free Europe and an integrated Europe that both the Serbian population as well as the people in Kosovo wish to have for themselves.
QUESTION: Not a follow-up. A separate issue.
MR. CASEY: Okay.
MR. CASEY: Well, let's go back to the Quartet and then we'll go back. And then I think my friend, Mr. Lambros, who snuck in the back, has one to add.
Okay, sure, Nina.
QUESTION: Can I just ask you how confident you are at the moment of Russia's adherence to the Quartet's principles?
MR. CASEY: Well, I think the international community and the Quartet as a whole has been remarkably strong in its statements about this issue, and I don't have any indication that Russia has changed its views. It's certainly signed on board to the other Quartet statements and I expect that they will be a full participant in any measures that the Quartet takes coming out of today's meeting. But we'll certainly have an opportunity to hear from all the ministers, including Foreign Minister Lavrov, after the conclusion of today's meeting. But I have no expectation that the Russian Government is changing its views on this subject.
QUESTION: And more generally, Rice has come in for a fair amount of criticism since her trilateral. And can you perhaps address some of that criticism? A lot of people are saying that -- the media in particular are saying that nothing was achieved, there wasn't even a joint appearance on the podium for this joint statement. Can you elaborate?
MR. CASEY: Well, I think you heard from the Secretary herself before she left for this trip that if you waited until the perfect moment when everything is settled in the Middle East, neither she nor anyone else would likely ever get on a plane.
Look, the purpose of this was to start a discussion and an informal discussion that included a look at the political horizon and the way ahead. I don't think anyone is under any illusions that these longstanding and difficult issues are going to be solved overnight. But they're certainly not going to be solved if we don't take opportunities presented to engage with the parties and to help them engage with one another.
So this was a start of a conversation. It was certainly not ever intended, neither in what we said to you publicly nor in what we planned privately, to be anything more than that. And we think it was a useful exercise and an important exercise to start that conversation and to begin to engage with the parties. Many of these issues have not been discussed for several years and many things have changed; other things haven't. But having an opportunity to discuss this, to, as the Secretary said, take a look at not only what we can do in terms of implementing the individual steps in the first phase of the roadmap but have and obtain some clear idea of the real shape and scope of what we may be looking towards at the end of it is something that we think would ultimately be helpful for this.
So I think in terms of the meeting, what happened in that meeting was basically what you heard from her she thought was going to happen before she left. And again, we think just having that meeting and beginning this dialogue is something that's important. And we'll see where it goes. Obviously, there's going to be a lot that happens on the ground that will affect how successful this process will ultimately be in the future. But again, if you're going to have any chance at achieving a success, you've got to get in the game. And that's very much what she's been doing.
QUESTION: One last question. What would you say the uncertainty about the makeup and nature of this unity government was a severe impediment to moving forward and bringing everyone together?
MR. CASEY: Well, I'm not out there and haven't been in the meetings and I think she's spoken to this issue a little bit as well. I really can't offer you an assessment as to in their internal conversations how much of a factor this was or wasn't. Obviously, as we've all said, the international community and the Government of Israel have many questions about how this government is going to be set up. Ultimately, certainly to achieve a final agreement down the road, to have a two-state solution, you have -- part of that is two states living side by side in peace. I think a prerequisite for that is that both sides have governments that acknowledge the right to exist of the other and accept the basis on which that peace is founded. So certainly in the long run, you need to have a Palestinian Authority government that fully accepts the Quartet principles. But again, that doesn't mean that, particularly with a legitimate partner for peace like President Abbas, you can't begin a conversation in an informal way about some of these issues.
Libby -- sorry, Arshad, let's -- yeah, follow up or the same thing?
QUESTION: Yeah, follow up, all right.
MR. CASEY: Well, flip a coin. Arshad, why don't you go first and then we'll do Libby next.
QUESTION: You just said if you're going to have any success, you've got to get in the game. And a number of -- you and Sean and others keep pointing out that this is a conversation that hasn't really been held for six years. I'm aware that the U.S. Government made some efforts in the past six years, for example, the Aqaba three-way meeting that the President had with former Prime Minister Sharon and with, I think, then Prime Minister Abbas. But why did the Administration not get in the game in a bigger way earlier?
MR. CASEY: Well, I think we have been engaged with the Israelis and the Palestinians throughout the Administration and that includes President Bush's very clear call early on in the Administration for a Palestinian state, which had not been U.S. policy. It also includes the efforts that he did make and that the Administration made to get the roadmap, which we still think is the valid pathway and the logical vehicle for us being able to move towards that solution.
What obviously happened in the interim was that circumstances on the ground made it very hard to make progress on the roadmap, but that doesn't mean that we were not working on it and not trying to do so and were not engaged with the parties. One of the things you heard, though, and part of what this trip and this last meeting represented was a continuation of the commitment and renewed commitment that the President made up at the UN in September to, in the last couple of years of the Administration, make an even greater effort on our part to try and see what we could do to move this forward.
Because again, certainly, progress on the roadmap has been extremely limited and it's something where part of the efforts involved here are trying to see what we can do to stimulate some progress. And as you've heard from the Secretary, one way of doing that is not only talking about the specifics in the first step but also trying to take a look again at an issue that ultimately needs to be resolved towards -- the issues that need to be resolved towards the end of that process, looking at the political horizon and looking at some of those concerns. Again, because it hadn't been a conversation we'd had in a while and having it may provide some other means and some other ways to achieve some fuller progress on some of these more specific issues that are earlier on in the process.
QUESTION: It still doesn't address my question of why didn't you try harder earlier.
MR. CASEY: Well, I guess my contention would be that we have tried and we've tried consistently and consistently hard throughout the Administration. What has happened, and one of the stimulants to this particular effort that's going on, were again some of the facts on the ground: the Gaza withdrawal, some of the other changes that occurred, some of the positive agreements including things like the arrangements for crossing points which the Secretary was instrumental in helping to bring about, that we thought made the climate better and more appropriate for having this kind of discussion.
Now, again, I'm not denying that there are a number of serious issues out there that remain impediments to progress. But again, we have to be able to be engaged and be in the game if we're going to get any forward motion on this.
QUESTION: I wanted to go back to the unity government. There were reports that Saudi Arabia's considering a very substantial pledge to the new unity government. Is the U.S. discouraging the Saudi Arabian Government from such a pledge for fear that it could embolden Hamas and undercut the U.S.-Israeli position?
MR. CASEY: Yeah. Well, I've seen a variety of reporting on that. I'm not aware that any commitment's been made. And again, I think everyone, as far as I know, is waiting to see what this government actually looks like before committing anything to it. Obviously, we believe that the current Quartet position, unless you hear something different from the ministers in a while, is the one -- (laughter) -- no seriously.
QUESTION: One caveat. (Laughter.)
MR. CASEY: Yeah, one caveat. Well, I always try and caveat. No, actually, we believe the current Quartet position is the one ought that to be followed. The policies that have been outlined and the conditions that have been outlined are really straightforward. And certainly if the national unity government doesn't meet those Quartet principles and standards, then we certainly wouldn't be expecting the international community to engage in it in a different way.
MR. CASEY: Okay. One more. Last one, David.
QUESTION: For those of you who may know --
MR. CASEY: Charlie is not here to say thank you, so --
QUESTION: Okay. Members of the Azeri community in Iran are reporting that authorities have arrested activists within their community who were planning demonstrations in support of their linguistic rights. This has occurred apparently within the last week. Maybe a dozen or so people were arrested, some reportedly abused in the custody of the Iranians. I'm just wondering, at some point, whether you might weigh in on that.
MR. CASEY: Now we can look into the specifics of that report. I have not, to be honest with you, seen those specific issues come up. As you know, though, in the past, we have spoken out, though, against Iranian Government's actions that are imprisoning or harassing dissidents, including those of Azeri ethnicity in Iran. Certainly, we think that it would be appropriate for the Iranian Government, rather than trying to repress people's efforts to express their views and to raise issues of concern with the government, to allow them to exercise the free speech rights that everyone should be entitled to.