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Middle East Digest: March 20, 2007

Bureau of Public Affairs
March 20, 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 Briefing on March 20, 2007:

MR. MCCORMACK: Good afternoon, everybody. No opening statements, so we can get right into your questions. Whoever wants to start.

QUESTION: To your knowledge, have the Iranians -- have the Russians told the Iranians that they won't deliver fuel for Bushehr until the Iranians suspend uranium enrichment?

MR. MCCORMACK: I think that's a question to ask either one of the two parties involved, which would be Russia or Iran, not including the United States.

QUESTION: You have no information on this?

MR. MCCORMACK: I would say that it is a issue between the Russians and the Iranians and that they are in the best position to speak to the issue at hand.

QUESTION: How about this, Sean, is the United States pleased with Russia's handling of the situation?

MR. MCCORMACK: It's up to them how they handle the situation. We have a --

QUESTION: No, I understand that, but --

MR. MCCORMACK: -- you know, of course, talk to them about Bushehr and they have been responsive during the course of the years. To our concerns, however, they have made it very clear that they are going to make their own decisions with respect to Bushehr and how the contract is shaped with the Iranians and exactly, you know, when and in what manner they're going to deliver technology, expertise, materials and that continues to hold today, so I would --

QUESTION: Okay, but have you noticed in the past and recently in the past couple weeks a Russian -- the Russians being more responsive to your concerns?

MR. MCCORMACK: Well, this is -- any decisions with respect to Bushehr and the fulfillment of the contact terms are purely for the Russian Government to make. And this is -- if in fact such news reports are accurate, these are decisions that the Russian Government made of their own volition and their own accord.

QUESTION: Sean, surely, Bushehr was such a sticking point the last time around, surely it must have at least come up in discussions with the Russians. And did you at any time, you know, realize or suspect that they -- there was a link in their minds between this issue and the fuel supplied to Bushehr and the prospect of suspending uranium enrichment? Did this come up in your general discussions in recent weeks?

MR. MCCORMACK: Well, on the issue of Bushehr, vis--vis the UN Security Council resolution during the last one back last year, we made it very clear from early on that Bushehr wasn't going to be a problem for us and we didn't think any other member of the Security Council in getting a Security Council resolution done. We made special -- specific accommodations for Bushehr in that resolution. So for us this was not an issue, not a problem. We were happy to work with the Russians on it. You know, with respect to current -- the news reports today, again, that's purely something for the Russians to answer if the Iranians have not fulfilled their half of the contract in the view of the Russian Government or the Russian Ministry of Atomic Energy. That is some -- a judgment for the Russians to make, not for us. We're not going to try to interpose ourselves in making this judgment.

QUESTION: I understand that, but an EU official, a European official that was quoted in the article and I understand that the Russians have refuted this article, but the senior European official that's quoted says that that -- this is all tactical on the part of the Russians -- this to and fro about Bushehr. Have you got any reaction to that thesis?

MR. MCCORMACK: You know, my reaction is that -- go find the senior European official, see if you can get his or her thoughts on it. As for us, the -- you know, when you look at the issue of Bushehr, Russia, Iran, I don't see the United States anywhere in that sentence and I would refer you to them for any comment.


QUESTION: I mean, the whole idea here is to put pressure on Russia. As a means of putting pressure on Russia, does the United States think it would be a good idea to withhold fuel to Bushehr?

MR. MCCORMACK: We think in terms of fulfillment or non-fulfillment of contractual matters, with respect to Bushehr, that it is up to the two parties involved in that contract. And you're not going to find an American name on that contract, so I'd refer you to the Russians or the Iranians to talk about it.


QUESTION: Is there any comment on South Africa's sudden activism in the Security Council concerning this resolution and their suggested amendments which include a significant rewriting of specifics about pretty much every sanctioned element that was proposed?

MR. MCCORMACK: Yeah, we're talking to the South Africans about the various ideas. Everybody fully expects that South Africa, as the president this month of the Security Council, that they would of course be involved and take an interest in this. This is a resolution that is going to pass under their presidency. I think it's absolutely predictable that they would take an interest and I -- as would other members of the Security Council.

We've reached out to the South Africans. We're in a conversation with them about our thinking behind the draft resolution as it stands now and we will take a look at what might be included from their proposed amendments into the final draft resolution, but that's a conversation that's going to take place among the members of the Security Council. I'm not going to go down point by point in what they have suggested.

QUESTION: But you're willing to look at changes to the resolution to satisfy South African and other concerns?

MR. MCCORMACK: Of course. As a matter of principle, we're always open to looking at the suggestions of members of the Security Council to a draft. You know, we don't claim to have cornered the market on knowledge or insight to these resolutions and of course, we welcome the input of others. We do, however, think it's important to maintain the integrity of the resolution as it's currently drafted.

We think it is a good, strong resolution appropriate to the moment in which we find ourselves. We've said before that it is an incremental increase in the pressure on Iran, but we think it is important to pass this resolution in a timely manner. We're going to do everything we can to try to bring all the members of the Security Council on board with this resolution and make them comfortable with it. And part of that is talking through with them the logic underpinning the language that we have in there and the ideas that are in there and why we think it is appropriate that all of the entities currently cited in the resolution and its annexes should remain there, based on Iranian past behavior and our desire to get them to change their behavior.

Everybody has to remember the point of this exercise is to use diplomatic leverage to get the Iranians to change their behavior. The negotiating pathway is still open. You've heard that from us repeatedly, heard it yesterday from Secretary Rice. So we hope when President Ahmadi-Nejad comes to the Security Council that he chooses that moment to tell the Iranian people, to tell the world that Iran is ready to come back into the fold, to come back into those nations who are ready to negotiate with them.

QUESTION: Sean, can you be more specific about the outreach to the South Africans that you have just mentioned?

MR. MCCORMACK: We have talked to them at --

QUESTION: The Secretary.

MR. MCCORMACK: Let me check with the Secretary. We do not have a call recently -- oh, we have a call on Friday, last Friday -- excuse me -- to the South African Foreign Minister. I missed that yesterday when I was going through the list. So she spoke on Friday with the South African Foreign Minister. And I know at the -- up at the UN at the perm rep and staff level there have been interactions. And I know Jendayi Frazer, Assistant Secretary for African Affairs, has been in touch with some of her counterparts in the South African Government.

QUESTION: Okay. And can you -- is there any update to the visa -- the thing? Have the other 33 been approved now? And thank, by the way, for the answer yesterday to the fingerprinting.

MR. MCCORMACK: No problem. Do we have any update on that, Gonzo?

MR. GALLEGOS: No, not on --

MR. MCCORMACK: On the 33?

MR. GALLEGOS: Not on the 33.

MR. MCCORMACK: Okay. We'll check this afternoon for you, see if we --

QUESTION: Okay. But as far as you know everything is still a go and whenever he wants to come to do his --

MR. MCCORMACK: Yes. No, we've made it clear that we're going to process these visa applications consistent with our host country obligations, also consistent with all the things that we need to do. But we at this point certainly don't foresee any problem with President Ahmadi-Nejad and his immediate contingent being able to travel here on time. We're going to do everything we can to make sure we fulfill our host country obligations that will allow him to make his presentation at the Security Council. And we would just hope that that presentation includes a statement about Iran's willingness to negotiate with the rest of the world as opposed to continue to defy it.


QUESTION: Iran's Foreign Minister is due in South Africa today. Do you have any message or are you speaking to the South Africans about that particular meeting and --

MR. MCCORMACK: I don't think we are talking to them specifically about that and we knew about that -- but we knew about the Iranian Foreign Minister's visit there. But it was mostly talk through them -- again, the reasons for the inclusion of various entities and various actions in this resolution, why we thought they were important, why the entire P-5+1 thought they were important and talk through what their ideas were.

QUESTION: Maybe it's time to visit South Africa, what do you think?

MR. MCCORMACK: I'm always for it.

QUESTION: Sean, could you shed a little light on the meeting between Mr. Fayyad and the Consul-General?

MR. MCCORMACK: I don't have a lot of details. I know they met. I haven't had a chance to speak with Jake or anybody who was in the meeting. This is consistent with our previously stated policy that based solely on membership in the national unity government we weren't going to cutoff contacts with those individuals with whom we had previously had contact.

QUESTION: Okay. But yet you don't see this as any change or any -- as part of any wider disagreement with the Israelis or anyone else about how to deal with the government?

MR. MCCORMACK: Yeah, look, we and the Israelis are absolutely on the same page on the need to fight terror and the principles that any Palestinian government with which the rest of the world and the Israelis could work need to meet the Quartet principles. Everybody agrees on that.


MR. MCCORMACK: As we said before, if you do a survey across the globe and look at the various contact policies of individual states with respect to Palestinian officials, whether they're Hamas or Fatah or independent, you're going to get a different answer all along the way. This is -- we have settled on what we thought was an appropriate and right contact policy. I know the Israeli Government has a different view in this regard. I don't think that this is really any serious matter at all.

QUESTION: Okay. And I -- understanding that you don't have a readout, or a specific readout of it, but would it be fair to assume that they were talking about money?

MR. MCCORMACK: Now, it's a fair assumption but I don't to make any assumptions since I don't -- you know, I haven't had a chance to talk to them.

QUESTION: Could you get --

MR. MCCORMACK: Sure -- yeah, we'll try to get you a little info on what exactly they were talking about.

QUESTION: And also, can you tell us whether you regard this contact as sort of unofficial or if you are happy to say, "Well, yeah, we're dealing with him as a member of this government?"

MR. MCCORMACK: I'm happy to get the details for you.

QUESTION: Why has the Quartet statement not been released yet? We were expecting it early this morning.

MR. MCCORMACK: Still wordsmithing it.

QUESTION: Is there a problem with the Russians and the aid embargo?

MR. MCCORMACK: Look, there is some wordsmithing issues here. I can't tell you every little jot and tittle of what everybody is working on, but I expect and I would hope that we get one in the not-too-distant future here.

QUESTION: Is there -- is it correct that the last time that the -- all members of the Quartet spoke was the conference call more than 24 hours ago? Or has there been a subsequent --

MR. MCCORMACK: They've been looking at the envoy level, the principles. They had that one phone call.

QUESTION: Who is smithing the words, then? The envoys?

MR. MCCORMACK: The envoys, yes.

QUESTION: And can you -- we asked yesterday and you said it was Welch, so presumably, it's Welch for the Americans, right?

MR. MCCORMACK: David, I know, is traveling to the Middle East in advance of the Secretary's trip, so he's going to sort of lay the groundwork and do some pre-meetings. I can't -- I'm sure David is involved. He's probably on the ground now, but yeah, it is David --


MR. MCCORMACK: David and the folks that work for him.

QUESTION: Yesterday, you told us that it would reaffirm the principles -- of the three principles -- you know, re-up the temporary international mechanism for another --


QUESTION: -- three months.


QUESTION: None of that changes? You stand by what you said yesterday?

MR. MCCORMACK: I expect you'll see all of that in the forthcoming statement.

QUESTION: Sean, on Fayyad meeting, Fayyad has said that his aim in meeting the U.S. diplomat was to seek ways to lift the unjust siege imposed on the Palestinians. That's what he said. Do you have any comment?

MR. MCCORMACK: Before I talked to Jake or somebody who was in the meeting, I'm not going to try to describe what it is that Jake was trying to convey to him.

Yeah. Hey, Janine.

QUESTION: Hi, Sean. Can you follow up what you said yesterday about Rice's trip, specifically what she's -- why she's going to the Arab summit and what she is going to focus on there and try to achieve there?

MR. MCCORMACK: Well, there is this --

QUESTION: The Arab quartet -- not the Arab summit, the Arab quartet.

MR. MCCORMACK: Right, about the -- well, it's relevant, though, because the Arab quartet meeting takes place in advance of the Arab summit.


MR. MCCORMACK: And there's been some recent discussion on both the Arab side as well as the Israeli side about the Arab initiative and Prime Minister Olmert noted some positive elements of it. So I would expect that she's going to talk to them about their current state of play in the region, the -- where the Arab states stand vis--vis the Arab initiative and their thoughts on the peace process between the Israelis and the Palestinians, what role they could possibly play in that, what steps they might take to encourage both sides being able to move forward both in terms of diplomatic steps and other kinds of actions that they might take.

QUESTION: Can you be any more specific on that?



QUESTION: Sean, specifically, are there some amendments or revisions that the U.S. would like to see in what's been called the Saudi initiative for lack of --

MR. MCCORMACK: Again, it's not -- this is the Arab initiative, it's not for us to propose amendments to it. It's something that they, of their own volition, have decided to bring back up, put it on the agenda of the international system and it's really not for us to propose amendments to it.

QUESTION: Just one more. Can you just run over what details there are of the trip? There was a bit of confusion. Yesterday, you talked about kind of a back and forth between --

MR. MCCORMACK: Sure. I would expect that -- and again, we have to get the trip announcement out. Sorry about that. I meant to do that this morning. (Coughs.) Excuse me. Sometimes when you have a two-and-a-half-year old and a seven-month-old at home, your place becomes a biohazard zone. (Laughter.)

You have a stop in Egypt and Aswan, where the Secretary will meet with the Arab quartet. She'll also have meetings with Foreign Minister Gheit and President Mubarak there. Then I would expect she travels to Israel. She'll be in Jerusalem, visit with Israeli officials, she'll see Palestinian officials, probably a short stop. Then in Amman, she'll see King Abdullah --

QUESTION: Ramallah, a short stop.

MR. MCCORMACK: Yeah. Well, you'll see the Palestinian officials in Ramalla. You will also then have a stop in Amman. You'll see King Abdullah of Jordan there. And then I would expect a short stop back -- touching base with Israelis as well as Palestinian officials, then back home.

QUESTION: And do you have -- can you give their date range for this?

MR. MCCORMACK: Yeah. Leaving Friday -- Friday night, which is the 23rd, back on the evening of the 27th.

QUESTION: And can you match up the days with the countries there? Saturday in Egypt?

MR. MCCORMACK: Not off the top of my head, I can't. We'll get this trip announcement out to you this afternoon. That's my bad. We should have already had that out for you.

QUESTION: Hey, can I ask you one question about Egypt --


QUESTION: Or on the Middle East? Is -- do you have any comment on the constitutional amendments that have now been approved by parliament in Egypt and are scheduled for a referendum on March 26th and do you have any particular opinion on the speed with which they're going to a referendum which has apparently infuriated some Egyptian opposition groups who haven't even had time to figure out how they would vote on these?

MR. MCCORMACK: Well, you have to put this in the wider context of political and economic reform in Egypt. There have been some positive developments. You had a multiparty presidential election. You have had parliamentary elections and the outcome of those elections has been a changed face of the Egyptian parliament. There have -- so that's on the positive side of the ledger along with other actions like the appointment of 31 female Egyptian judges. It's positive.

On the negative side of the ledger, there are other actions that have been taken there and we have talked about those. Our concerns regarding continued imprisonment of Ayman Nour, the conviction and refusal of appeal of a blogger that was merely exercising his right to freedom of expression. We've also talked about some of our deep concerns around those parliamentary elections, about tactics and -- by the police in terms of trying to intimidate opposition in political parties as well as opposition in candidates and those wishing to express their support for those opposition candidates. So you have a wider -- the wider view of Egyptian political reform, one whether there are certainly mixed results.

Overall, it is our view, however that a process of political reform has begun in Egypt and that over the arc of time, when you are able to at some point look back at events in Egypt and the political changes underway there, you will see the -- a general trend towards greater political reform, greater political openness, a more direct correlation between the role and desire of the Egyptian -- the roles and the needs and hopes of the Egyptian people and those whom they elect.

As for this national referendum and the constitutional amendments, I don't want to offer too -- at this point, too detailed an explanation or an explanation of our views because it is something that is going to be put to a referendum and I frankly don't want to insert the United States Government in the middle of what should be a domestic political event in Egypt. I will say that we have had some concerns about some of the amendments that have been proposed and would only cite some of them in contrast to what the Egyptian Government had said it intended to do in terms of lifting the state of emergency, the powers of the police and the ability of individuals within the political system to freely organize themselves in political parties as well as to freely express themselves in the political space. Those were the benchmarks and standards that the Egyptian Government had laid out for itself.

And I think if you look at some of the amendments that have been finally passed by the lower house, it does certainly raise questions about whether or not the Egyptian Government has, in fact, met its own standards and benchmarks in that. That said, this is going to be something that's put to a vote in a referendum. We would say that in conducting the referendum that those who have views on it should be able to freely express themselves in their views through the media and in public consistent with Egypt's stated commitment to political reform and opening up the political space to greater freedom of expression and we'll see what the outcome -- (inaudible) the outcome.

QUESTION: Two things -- two more things on this if I may? On -- I mean, according to our reporting, the amendments included an antiterrorism clause that appears to enshrine sweeping police powers of arrest and surveillance in the constitution. Is that one that causes you concern?

MR. MCCORMACK: I don't want to go into a point-by-point analysis here. But again, I want to leave it with trying to rack up the -- in general terms, the amendments as they stand against what it is the Egyptian Government said that they wanted to accomplish. Very specifically they talked about a desire to lift the national state of emergency and open more the ability of people to freely express themselves in the political system and it certainly does raise questions. I think you can -- I would put it that way.

QUESTION: I understand you want to go through it point by point, but I don't want to misuse your comment if I don't know what you're referring to. And so if I may, I'm going to point out another thing where they would allow the president to dissolve the parliament unilaterally and would weaken judicial oversight of elections which have been marred by, as you know, complaints of irregularities. Are those among the things that concern you when you talk about the importance of people being able to freely express themselves politically?

MR. MCCORMACK: Look, it is important in any society, developing democratic society, that people be able to express themselves. We all know that the police have a role and the security services have a role to play in terms of maintaining civil order and maintaining an environment in which people can freely express themselves and that those rights are protected. There's always a balance there. That balance is going to be struck differently here, for instance, in the UK or Egypt or anyplace else around the globe. But you do fundamentally need to maintain the ability of people to freely express themselves in a system without fear of arrest or retribution; that is fundamental to any democracy.

It is also important in democratic systems as we understand them that you maintain an independent judiciary which can hold to account an executive or a parliament and that can uphold the rule of law in the society. The independence of that judiciary has been very important, for example, recently in Egyptian reviews -- Egyptian judicial reviews of the electoral process in Egypt and that has been in the past a strength of the Egyptian system. And we think it's important that that strength not only be maintained, but where appropriate, the attitude. But again, I'm not going to get into a point-by-point analysis of the amendments.

QUESTION: And just -- last one on this from me. Is there -- do you think a week is enough time between the parliamentary vote and the referendum for debate of this? And perhaps you feel there's been a long debate leading up and so a week is fine. I don't know.

MR. MCCORMACK: I'm not going to make a specific comment about the length of time, but it is important that the Egyptian people be able to make a fully informed decision when they express their opinion on these constitutional amendments. And there are a variety of different factors that will -- that go into that. One could argue the length of time they have to consider it, but also in the modern world today, it is certainly theoretically possible to obtain and analyze a large amount of information in a short period of time. The standard needs to be that people are able to inform themselves fully and then freely be able to express their opinions on what it is that they understand the amendments are.


QUESTION: Any comment on the exchange of Taliban prisoners in order to release the Italian journalists this week?

MR. MCCORMACK: No, I don't have any comment.

QUESTION: Do you think that's a good practice? I mean, it's -- normally, that's something you --

MR. MCCORMACK: I'm not going to comment on any particular cases or the practices of other countries.

QUESTION: Well, how about -- before we go to Zimbabwe, just -- do you have -- can you tell us what was on the discussion menu at last night's dinner?

MR. MCCORMACK: They talked -- I wish I had brought my notes. They talked a lot about Afghanistan -- not this issue. They talked about Iraq, they talked about Iran, they talked some about U.S.-Italian bilateral relations.

QUESTION: A pleasant dinner, then?

MR. MCCORMACK: It was a very good dinner.

QUESTION: And you were there?

MR. MCCORMACK: I was not, but I've had it described to me as a very good dinner, a very pleasant dinner.


Yes, ma'am.

QUESTION: Afghanistan (inaudible), there was a suggestion of an international conference on Afghanistan (inaudible) for the Italian foreign minister. Anything on that? He commented Ms. Rice didn't have a negative attitude towards that.

MR. MCCORMACK: I think our attitude is that it could be a constructive suggestion. We want to understand some of the details as you think through such a conference and certainly, what you will -- fundamentally, you want to get the opinion of the Afghan Government and President Karzai about this. So I think it's really an idea that merits some discussion and to see whether or not, on the basis of that discussion, you move forward or not.


QUESTION: (Inaudible) over the departure of the Chief Justice. I don't know if we've ever actually asked you just straight up, this is the question that seems to be underneath this, which is President Musharraf's departure from the position of army chief, is it the U.S. Government's view that he should leave that post of army chief by the end of the year as he is scheduled to do?

MR. MCCORMACK: He has made certain commitments in this regard and we think it's important that he follow through on those commitments.

QUESTION: And do you have anything to say about the resignation of a deputy -- one of three deputy attorney generals in Pakistan? He resigned citing the judicial crisis. Are you dismayed to see a senior official in the government leave over this?

MR. MCCORMACK: Well, I'd put it to you that that's an individual decision of conscious that somebody has to take. Clearly, he has differences with the course of action. I know that President Musharraf has himself said that this might have been handled differently and that the issue is now before the -- a high council -- a senior panel of judges to be resolved and that President Musharraf would abide by the decisions of the senior judicial council. And as it should be, we have stated before that it is important that whatever the resolution of this issue may be, that it takes place within the confines of Pakistani law, that it is done in a transparent manner so that all understand what exactly has transpired. And it is encouraging that President Musharraf has come out and said that, for example, the raid on the television station in Pakistan was unacceptable and that they are looking into exactly what happened. He made it clear that journalists should be able to do their jobs and that's important.

We ourselves, of course, encourage the continued democratic development of Pakistan. It is -- they are a close friend and a close ally in the war on terror. We believe that President Musharraf has made a commitment to change Pakistan and we think that is a positive thing. We're not going to dictate to him or anybody else and the Pakistani people exactly what those changes are going to be or specific steps that they might need to take. Of course we can offer guidance and counsel and encouragement to continue along the pathway to democracy. But President Musharraf is good -- has been a solid friend in fighting the war on terror.



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