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Middle East Digest: Feb. 27, 2007

Bureau of Public Affairs
February 27, 2007

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The Middle East Digest provides text and audio from the Daily Press Briefing. For the full briefings, please visit http://www.state.gov/r/pa/prs/dpb/


From the Daily Press Briefing of Feb. 27, 2007:

MR. MCCORMACK: Good afternoon, everybody. We have the Secretary testifying up on the Hill before the Senate Appropriations Committee in a while but I am here to take whatever questions you may have.

QUESTION:

MR. MCCORMACK:

QUESTION:

MR. MCCORMACK:

The Iraqis are going to set the agenda for both of these meetings. We would expect that it would focus on all the issues that are important to them, as well as others who are there to support the Iraqis' national reconciliation, building the economy, and security issues. So we're going to have these meetings in March and the second one in -- as early as April.

In terms of the diplomatic interactions, I'm not going to try to predict what the course of those diplomatic interactions might be. Security is clearly an important issue for the Iraqis. It's going to be at the top of the agenda. There are clearly issues that we have with respect to security in Iraq. IEDs, EFPs are certainly at the top of our list. This isn't, however, our meeting. Should the topic come up, of course we are going to engage on that issue. And I'm not going to exclude any possible discussions at a regional level that would include -- on a topic that is that important to us and to our troops.

So I can't predict exactly what sort of discussions or diplomatic interactions that we're going to have. Let's let the meeting take place. Again, the focus is on Iraq and we think it is important for all the states that attend this meeting to take the opportunity to demonstrate that they want to play a responsible role in Iraq's future; they want to play a positive role. That would be our hope for this -- for these meetings.

QUESTION:

MR. MCCORMACK:

QUESTION:

MR. MCCORMACK:

We hope that Iran takes up the offer for negotiation, very simple conditions. We would -- we don't want to see Iran further isolated from the rest of the world. That's the direction that the regime is now taking the Iranian people. So we will -- on that score, we shall see what it is that the Iranian regime decides to do. There are indications that there's more of a discussion within Tehran right now and I would put it to you that that discussion is now taking place because the Iranian regime is feeling a bit of the pressure from the international system with the sanctions being imposed with 1737 which was passed in December.

There's a prospect of another Chapter 7, Article 41 resolution with further sanctions on Iran. That was the topic of Nick Burns' discussion with his political director counterparts in London just yesterday. They're going to have a follow-up conversation on Thursday. So the regime in Iran is feeling the pressure on the nuclear issue. And if they want to get into discussions and negotiations in that forum then they need to meet those conditions. And once they're in that forum, they can raise whatever topics they want to raise. We can raise whatever topics that are important to us, as well as others in that forum.

These meetings, the first one in Baghdad, will focus on Iraq. And I'm sure that there are going to be different kinds of discussions, meaning different groupings. Again, I'm not going to exclude any particular interaction at this point in that forum at the regional level on issues that are important to us, but the focus will be on Iraq.

QUESTION:

MR. MCCORMACK:

QUESTION:

MR. MCCORMACK:

QUESTION:

MR. MCCORMACK:

Yeah.

QUESTION:

MR. MCCORMACK:

QUESTION:

MR. MCCORMACK:

QUESTION:

MR. MCCORMACK:

QUESTION:

MR. MCCORMACK:

I can tell you and explain to you what our policies are with regard to the nuclear issue and getting involved in negotiations regarding a variety of different issues. You can have a discussion on issues related to Iraq and that not be a negotiation. So in the conduct of diplomacy, you need to have a certain amount of flexibility if you are going to achieve the goals that you want to achieve. Again, the focus of the meeting in Baghdad is going to be on Iraq and issues related to Iraq. Now, there are clearly issues of concern to us on the security front. We all know what those are. And I'm not going to, at this point, exclude any particular discussions at the regional level on a topic of interest and concern to our troops.

QUESTION:

MR. MCCORMACK:

QUESTION:

MR. MCCORMACK:

What you are talking about are negotiations. In order to realize a set of negotiations, Iran has to -- on the nuclear issue -- it has to pass a certain standard and that standard is unchanged and that policy is unchanged. But we think it is important in this context on Iraq to demonstrate support for this Iraqi Government and the Iraqi people by attending this conference and we're going to have all sorts of discussions at this conference. The agenda's going to be laid out by the Iraqis and the focus should remain on Iraq and issues related to Iraq not on the U.S. and Iran or the U.S. and Syria.

Yeah.

QUESTION:

MR. MCCORMACK:

QUESTION:

MR. MCCORMACK:

QUESTION:

MR. MCCORMACK:

So it's very clear that you have this Iraqi Government that is in the lead in conducting its own diplomacy. And we're very happy and pleased to be able to support that diplomacy and to attend this conference and to lend our support to this effort.

Yeah.

QUESTION:

MR. MCCORMACK:

QUESTION:

MR. MCCORMACK:

Yeah.

QUESTION:

MR. MCCORMACK:

Yeah.

QUESTION:

MR. MCCORMACK:

And the Iraqis can benefit from the greater interaction with the rest of the region. They have -- the Iraqi Government has talked about the fact that it has an Arab identity and that it wants to build those ties with other Arab states. There have been some hurdles to overcome in terms of the sectarian divides within the Middle East. And this is another aspect, we believe, that's positive in that you are overcoming some of those historical divides within the Middle East. So we think that ultimately this process of bringing together Iraq and its neighbors is a positive one in a variety of different aspects.

QUESTION:

MR. MCCORMACK:

Michel.

QUESTION:

MR. MCCORMACK:

QUESTION:

MR. MCCORMACK:

Joel.

QUESTION:

QUESTION:

QUESTION:

QUESTION:

MR. MCCORMACK:

QUESTION:

MR. MCCORMACK:

I'm sure that that will include: building their economy, how to increase trade ties, how to attract investment, how Iraq can invest in other countries in the region, generating diplomatic support, whether that means more on the ground representation in Baghdad from Iraq's neighbors or working towards that -- working towards political support, political exchanges. There are a lot of different ways to go about it and I'm sure the Iraqis and their neighbors will come up with a lot of different ways that we can ever even think about. But it's part of the process of starting the conversation. So you can generate those ideas and actually start to put some of those ideas into action.

Well, wait a minute. Hold on, Lambros. We got Joel. Joel, then Lambros.

QUESTION:

MR. MCCORMACK:

*****

QUESTION: Sean, reaction to the Afghanistan bombing?

MR. MCCORMACK: Well, a couple of things. I think the White House has handled the aspect of this that relates to the Vice President's presence at Bagram Airbase, so I'll let them speak to that.

QUESTION: But in general --

MR. MCCORMACK: It was an attack that was clearly generated and designed to take innocent life -- claim innocent life. It also claimed the life of some of the multinational force individuals who were there, including one from South Korea. Our condolences go out to the family and friends who lost a loved one today. It's a tragedy and there were a number of others who lost loved ones in the attack and our hearts go out to them.

QUESTION: Cyprus.

MR. MCCORMACK: Off Lambros --

QUESTION: May I tomorrow?

MR. MCCORMACK: Thank you.

Well, there's a lot in that question. He's a part of the Iraqi political process and he has a political party that's part of this government and Prime Minister Maliki has talked about the importance of Moqtada al-Sadr as well as others playing a positive role in Iraq's future. Exactly what kind of role he will want to play in the future going forward, it's going to be up to him and to -- for the Iraqi political system to work out for itself. It's not for us to determine or to dictate. And it is up to the Iraqi Government to determine its comfort level of interactions both at the official governmental level as well as the individual political party level that it has with Iran. It's not for us to dictate. We would just encourage that Iran play a positive, transparent, neighborly role in Iraq's future. That has been -- that's been our mantra from the very beginning.
Sean, Moqtada al-Sadr keeps popping up in the news and do you see him as a villain with his Madhi army? And many say he's still cozying up to the Iranians.
Well, it's a continuation of a dialogue. As it's been noted, there have been previous meetings of this kind between Iraq and some of its neighbors. And it's a continuation of the dialogue. It's been a while. It's 2004, I think, since the last major high level meeting of this kind, very similar to this meeting. So it's been a while. And it's important that as the Iraqis move to regularize their contacts with their neighbors in the region, that an event like this kind of meeting become less and less significant. It's -- this is significant in that it hasn't happened in a while and there are important issues to discuss. So you want to eventually get to the point where this is just the normal course of events and you don't even think twice about Iraq and its neighbors getting together. We're not at that point yet, but that is the desired endpoint for this process. And the Iraqis are also interested, I'm sure, in talking about very practical aspects of building relationships with each of their neighbors individually as well as a group.
What would we -- what would you expect to see come out of this meeting? Would it be financial pledges? What -- is this just a meeting of ideas? What is it that, you know, you look for to --
Okay. We'll come back to you, Joel.
On the meeting.
All right.
Can I ask about the meeting? Do you mind?
Sean, Muqtada al-Sadr keeps --
Not today, no.
Did you use it till now or --
That's still a channel that is available to both sides.
(Inaudible) Iraqi channel for discussion with Iran on Iraq through Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad is still open?
Well, let's -- you know, let's all assume the best intentions for all the states that are going to attend this meeting.
(Inaudible) that those states will use this in the propaganda war at home, that they'll use this as an example of showing, look, we are engaged with the rest of the world, everything's absolutely fine?
Well, we would hope that every state that has been invited to the meeting would come and that they would come with a thought in mind that they could demonstrate a responsibility to a positive future for Iraq, because it's important not only for the Iraqis and the Iraqi Government but it's important to them as well. Iraq is an important state in the region. It has a lot to offer the region in terms of its economy, in terms of its culture, and the region can only profit by an Iraq that is more secure and more stable and that has a democratic government that represents all Iraqis.
How confident are you that Iran's (inaudible) will come to this meeting with good intentions of stabilizing Iraq, or trying to?
Arshad, what I'm trying to do is preserve the ability of our diplomats to do their work and to be effective. And I'm trying to lay out carefully for you the fact that there is a separate track dealing with Iran centered around the nuclear issue and the ability of the Iranian regime to realize negotiations and in contradistinction to this multilateral meeting being called by the Iraqis to discuss issues of concern to Iraq. And our envoys need to be able to have the ability to do their jobs. Of course, that is within the confines of our policy and I've tried to explain to you what that is.
(Inaudible) find a way to open up the possibility for bilateral discussions, if not negotiations, with the Iranians?
Iran -- I don't have anything for you on that. I haven't seen those reports.
No, this is Iran.
I have not seen that -- any of those reports. What we're doing is working with the Iraqi Government and the Turkish Government --
Two separate reports in the New Yorker and the Sunday Telegraph claimed at the weekend that the United States was working with Kurdish and other secessionist groups in Iran to destabilize the regime in that country. Any comments?
Well, this, if you remember -- if you rewind the tape a little bit back to the fall time, this is something that Prime Minister Maliki actually raised first as a possibility and it's something that they have been thinking about and working on. A number of different outside groups, including the Baker-Hamilton group, had talked about this idea of a regional meeting and perhaps the U.S. hosting it or others hosting it, and it clearly was an idea of some merit. And it was actually, I believe, the Iraqis who first thought of this idea of a regional meeting. We thought it was a good idea. But they made it very clear that they wanted to take the initiative on this and we agree with that because it should be the Iraqis who are able to call for a meeting and invite others to their country and to Baghdad to talk about issues of concern to them. And it was important that there not be any perception whatsoever that any other country was trying to negotiate over their heads -- over the heads of this government.
What role did the U.S. Government play in helping to set this up or bringing up the idea of it or pushing the Iraqis to do it?
I'm trying to encourage you not to get ahead of yourselves. Let's just focus on this first meeting.
Okay.
No.
You said you're not ruling out anything on the regional level. I just want to make sure you're not drawing a distinction between the first meeting and the second meeting; you wouldn't rule out for either meeting.
There's no change in our policy. There's no change in our policy. There's a new event that has occurred where the Iraqis have called a multilateral meeting involving Iraq's neighbors. We thought it -- we think it is important to attend that meeting to demonstrate, first of all, our support for Iraq on all the variety of issues that they are going to bring up: economics, security, political, diplomatic. And use that also as a way to encourage Iraq's neighbors to play as positive a role as they possibly can. It's a discussion; it's not a negotiation.
No, but I'm asking about the possibility of that, and I'm just trying to figure out if we should believe that the Administration's prior position continues to be its position that you will not hold bilateral talks with the Iranians --
This isn't a -- it's not a bilateral talk. It's a --
I'm going to try one more time because I don't want to misunderstand you. You talked about the need for flexibility in diplomacy; hitherto, the Administration has not been flexible on the point of not dealing in bilateral talks with the Iranians.
Again, two separate issues. And let's sort of boil this down to the real point. We're engaged in diplomacy here. This is a multilateral forum in which a number of different states as well as international organizations are going to come together to talk about a topic of mutual interest, Iraq, and a variety of different issues related to Iraq. In the conduct of diplomacy, I'm not going to at this point, standing here three weeks away from -- three weeks or more away from a meeting, and tell you exactly how this is going to play out. That's impossible. It's impossible to tell you.
That leaves the impression that it is possible that you will not rule out the possibility that you would have a bilateral discussion with the Iranians on whatever topic without their first meeting the international conditions on suspending their uranium enrichment.
Right.
Sean, you said that you were not going to include any particular interactions that might take place at those meetings.
Again, we'll see. I think there are several locations that are under consideration at this point.
Is Baghdad one of those ideas?
It hasn't been set yet. There are some ideas, but it has not been fully agreed upon yet.
Where might that second meeting take place -- the ministerial?
Again, we're getting ahead of ourselves here. Let's -- the first meeting is a -- the envoy level meeting. And we hope that all the states take the opportunity at this meeting to play a positive role and be responsible neighbors and assist Iraq as they move forward on their economic pathway to development, political pathway to development and to improving the security situation.
So just to clarify, I mean, you wouldn't rule out a meeting if that topic were to come up in (inaudible) Iran's involvement in Iraq --
In as early as April, there is a commitment on our part to attend a ministerial level meeting, again with the Iraqis serving as hosts. And we shall see what other states take up that invitation. Our intention is that should the meeting be held in April or some time thereafter at the ministerial level that we'll be there and that it's another opportunity for all the states to attend, including Iraq's neighbors, Syria, Iran and others to play a positive role in Iraq's future.
Right.
What I'm saying is there are two stages to this. There is an envoy level meeting in Baghdad that we know will happen in the first half of March.
So that means it's conceivable Secretary Rice could meet with her Iranian counterpart about Iraq? Is that what you're saying, if you're not -- I mean, you're not saying it wouldn't happen?
Well, now you're getting into a different set of discussions with respect to the nuclear issue. And we have said right from the start, very clearly, repeatedly that there is an offer on the table, there are conditions that need to be met for Iran to be able to have those kinds of negotiations with the international community; in this case, the Permanent 5+1, the P-5+1. Those conditions remain.
My question goes, however, to the possibility and whether or not you can rule out the possibility that the United States might engage in bilateral discussions on the sidelines of this -- either of these planned meetings, absent -- with Iranian officials, absent Iran having met the condition laid down by the UN Security Council that they suspend uranium.
Right.
I personally want to thank you for that and I'm well aware of the fact that the United States has previously held regional meetings including with Iranian officials, notably last September in New York.
Well, first of all, let's back up just so -- you know the context of this question. Let's fill people in. The Iraqi Government has issued invitations to its neighbors, the UN Security Council Permanent 5 as well as some other international organizations, to attend a regional meeting in Baghdad at the envoys level. That would happen the first half of March. There is also an intention to hold another meeting with the same group, however, at the ministerial level and adding in the G-8 countries. So that will pick up Canada, Italy, Germany, and Japan.
Can you help clarify whether you would rule out the possibility of bilateral talks with the Iranians at either of these meetings?
Correct.
Sean, it is, indeed, the U.S. Government's intention to attend both of these conferences if they are held; correct?


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