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Middle East Digest: March 30, 2007

Bureau of Public Affairs
March 30, 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 Daily Briefing on March 30, 2007:


MR. MCCORMACK: Good afternoon, everybody. Welcome to Friday. I don't have anything to open up with, so who wants to start off?

QUESTION: George.

MR. MCCORMACK: George.

QUESTION: Yeah, I know that you probably already discussed this ad infinitum, but on Iran and the sailor seizure, have you guys made a conscious decision to try and -- you know, stay out of the middle of this?

MR. MCCORMACK: Well --

QUESTION: And if so, why?

MR. MCCORMACK: Well, first of all, we -- as with other members of the international community, we have actually been quite outspoken on the issue and we have been supportive, as have the rest of the international community, of the U.K.'s demand that their personnel, their equipment be returned immediately, be returned safely. The British have put out compelling evidence that their personnel were operating in Iraqi waters under a Security Council mandate. And the Security Council just yesterday issued a press statement from the Security Council president telling the Iranians, in effect, that these individuals need to be returned immediately to the U.K.

So we have actually talked quite a bit about this in public and we've been very supportive of the British. That said, this is an issue between the U.K. and Iran. I know that there have been some anonymous Iranian sources that have sought to draw the United States into this by suggesting a swap of personnel, the Iranian personnel held by multinational forces in Iraq, those individuals who were tied in some form or fashion to the EFD networks that are present in Iraq and that are associated with Iran.

We reject any sort of linkage between those two, unconditionally. And we would just -- we would echo the call of Prime Minister Blair as well as other senior British officials that these individuals be returned immediately.

Sue.

QUESTION: Has there been any -- I mean, you talk about these anonymous Iranian sources, but are you discussing this at all with the Brits? I understand that they had raised it to some level? Is that correct?

MR. MCCORMACK: I'm not aware that anybody has raised it. We would reject, out of hand, any suggestion by the Iranian sources that there's any linkage between these two issues or linkage of this issue with any other issue. Certainly, the international community is not going to stand for the Iranian Government trying to use this issue to distract the rest of the world from the situation in which Iran finds itself vis--vis their nuclear program or other behaviors around the Middle East.

QUESTION: And it's probably a silly question, but when you talk about anonymous Iranian sources, are you referring to news reports or are these --

MR. MCCORMACK: Just news reports. I think somebody just yesterday brought those up, inside its own anonymous Iranian sources. So that's what I'm referring to.

QUESTION: But you're not picking up anything else on the ground that this is what the (inaudible)?

MR. MCCORMACK: Not that I'm aware of. Nobody's made me aware of any such formal or informal approaches.

QUESTION: But on the idea of -- have the British discussed with you the possible idea of a prisoner swap between these particular detainees?

MR. MCCORMACK: I am not aware of any such discussion or suggestion.

QUESTION: So you don't think, in any way, that the British --

MR. MCCORMACK: Like I said, I've not been made aware of any such suggestion or idea.

QUESTION: Okay.

QUESTION: Sean, what do you make of this analysis that the Iranian military is working sort of separately from the foreign ministry and that they're not working on the same page here?

MR. MCCORMACK: You know, I don't know. I can't tell you. We don't have -- obviously, I've said it before, we don't have a whole lot of insight into the decision-making processes of the Iranian regime, never mind the highest levels of the Iranian regime. I think it stands to note if you look at the Iranians' public statements, that they have been all over the map with respect to what happened and whether or not a -- one of the -- British personnel were going to be released or not. So there has been at least in public a bit of confusion on their side, but I can't tell you what that means or if that's in any way related to any sort of discord or disunity within the Iranian decision-making apparatus.

QUESTION: Well, we have the Security Council statement last night, of course, but since that we've seen more footage, you know, of these possibly coerced confession --

MR. MCCORMACK: Right.

QUESTION: Why was this such a weak course of action? I mean, that's the weakest kind of statement that the Council can make. And what's going to happen next?

MR. MCCORMACK: It's -- these sorts of statements happen by consensus within the Security Council. Whether or not you have a press statement, as was read out yesterday, or a presidential statement which actually gets entered into the Security Council's record. We supported the UK's efforts to have the most robust form of statement that they could possibly get, and whether that spoke to the form -- a presidential statement or press statement -- or the language of it. We supported whatever the British wanted to put in that statement and the way in which they wanted to release it.

But as I said, this is a body that operates by consensus on these particular matters, so clearly there were others who had some concerns about the form of the statement as well as the content of the statement. And I can't speak to those where -- I will let the other members of the Security Council talk about what they thought of the UK's proposals.

QUESTION: I know you're leaving this as a bilateral issue, but as an ally of the UK, I mean, will you be exerting any pressure at the Security Council? Can you talk about that at all? Will you be pushing this further?

MR. MCCORMACK: We, of course, stand ready to assist the British Government in any fashion that they think is effective.

Yeah.

QUESTION: On Iran, just one more on the hostages.

QUESTION: Did the Secretary talk to Foreign Secretary Beckett?

MR. MCCORMACK: She did speak with her just after this incident occurred late last week, and they are also going to speak in the near future. They haven't spoken in recent days, but the Secretary does want to reach out to Foreign Secretary Beckett.

QUESTION: On this again. Is there a concern that the Iranians are trying to use this to draw the U.S. in?

MR. MCCORMACK: Draw us into?

QUESTION: Into whatever malevolent, nefarious schemes they --

MR. MCCORMACK: You know -- scheme they may have, right. You know, again, Matt, an answer to that really requires some insight into their thought processes. I think that it stands to reason that they would like to use it as a means of distracting the rest of the world from Iran's current set of problems: you know, the fact that they just were subject to a second Chapter 7 resolution as well as the international spotlight on a number of their behaviors over recent months. But I couldn't say definitively whether or not they want to draw us in or not, but we're stating quite clearly that we don't -- we reject any sort of linkage between this particular issue and any other.

QUESTION: Is it fair to say that any attempt to draw you in would be unsuccessful?

MR. MCCORMACK: We -- as I said, we're out of hand stating that there is no linkage between this as well as any other issue, and I think you're hearing the same thing from the Brits.

QUESTION: And not willing to -- not willing at all under any circumstances to allow this --

MR. MCCORMACK: Matt, we reject any linkage between the -- between this incident and anything else.

QUESTION: Just one more on this, than I have another question on Iran. When -- you said that this is a means of distracting, but what about the Iranian argument that this type of kind of what they call incursion into Iranian waters has happened six or seven times in the last two years?

MR. MCCORMACK: Well, first of all, the UK has put out what we think is definitive evidence that these personnel were operating in Iraqi waters and therefore under a Security Council mandate. As for any other claims of incursions, "incursions" into Iranian-claimed waters, I can't speak to those. You know, and I can't also speak to whether or not Iran has made incursions into Iraqi waters. It requires a little bit of history that I just don't have in front of me.

QUESTION: Also on Iran, can you talk about the designation of the DIO today? Why is it happening now if the -- if this is related to the resolution that was passed in December? Is it just because it --

MR. MCCORMACK: It takes some time. You go through -- you go through the executive order requirements. This is a relatively new executive order dealing with authority to freeze the assets of proliferators of weapons of mass destruction and their supporters. And there are a number of different entities that are in Resolution 1737 that had already been designated under this executive order. I'll give you the number here. It's E.O. 13382.

So this was just a -- this was another step where the bureaucracy was able to gather up all the evidence that it needs to gather fulfilling the legal and regulatory requirements that they need to under this executive order. And the result was the designation of this particular entity and it's supportive of Resolution 1737 and 1747.

QUESTION: Will you be taking steps through your other area of sanctions, through the banking industry, to make sure that there are no transactions in --

MR. MCCORMACK: Well, there are -- I can't -- Treasury can speak to sort of the real on-the-ground mechanics of this. But the way I understand it, these sort of notifications go out to businesses as well as financial institutions and they do a check of their records to see if there are any assets that may be linked to this particular organization, the Defense Industry's organization. And if they do find any of those assets, then they're required to freeze them and then report back to Treasury.

The DIO had previously been under various sanctions under the Arms Export Control Act as well as other U.S. laws, so at this point we'd be surprised if there were any assets in the United States or under the control of U.S. entities, but there may well be and so we are going to go through and do due diligence and make sure that there aren't any of those assets. If we do find them, we're going to freeze them.

QUESTION: Just one more on that, and actually kind of a two-part question. Are you worried about any kind of reconstituting or renaming of entities, kind of like a shell game to see if they can continue to enlist in financial transactions? And do you know if this -- if the DIO is responsible for the manufacturing of these explosive devices that you've been --

MR. MCCORMACK: I'm not aware of any connection between DIO and the EFPs. In terms of the Iranian shell game, it's ongoing and we have a lot of people that are dedicated to making sure that they aren't able to succeed in those efforts, putting up new front companies, using various cutouts, other types of methods designed to deceive legitimate financial institutions, legitimate businesses who may be dealing with those front companies.

QUESTION: Can I just ask one more question about the naval incident? I'm sorry, it's just because I simply don't know and of course you don't know either, but the to and fro about the coordinates, how are these waterway borders defined? I mean, are they very clearly defined or is this an example of a problem that you might -- a continuing problem you might have?

MR. MCCORMACK: We'll try to get you some information on that. I have seen a variety of different reports about this, but nothing that I would feel comfortable giving you a definitive answer. So let's circle back and we'll try to get you a clear answer on that, to the extent we can.

*****


QUESTION: Nancy Pelosi is visiting Syria. The White House criticized her decision to go. I was wondering what you think of this. And it's my understanding that the Bush Administration tried to dissuade her from visiting Syria at this time, didn't think it would be appropriate.

MR. MCCORMACK: Right.

QUESTION: Can you speak to that?

MR. MCCORMACK: Well, we've -- you know, our message both to Republicans and Democrats alike who either have visited Syria in this recent period or intend to, as Speaker Pelosi does, has been consistent, it's been the same. In our view, it's not the right time to have those sort of high-profile visitors to Syria mostly for the simple fact that the Syrians, despite a number of different pleas and approaches from the United States as well as other countries, have refused to change their behavior vis--vis support for Palestinian rejectionist groups, for their support for -- their unhelpful stance with respect to Lebanon. And we don't think it would be appropriate for high-level visitors, even those from the Congress, to pay a visit to Syria right now.

A typical Syrian MO on this is to use these visits to tell the rest of the world and say, "Look, there's nothing wrong. We're having all these visitors come to Syria, coming to Damascus, there's no problem with our behavior," and they point to the visits as proof that there is no problem with their behavior and that they are not, in fact, isolated. So that's the simple reason why we have encouraged others as well as Speaker Pelosi not to travel.

That said, congressmen and representatives are going to make their own decisions about where they travel. And in this case, they made the decision to go forward. We are going to provide all the support that might normally be expected to be provided to a member of Congress traveling to a foreign country. We provided a briefing for Speaker Pelosi's staff and those traveling with her. So that's about -- that's really where we stand right now.

QUESTION: Will anyone from State be accompanying Speaker Pelosi?

MR. MCCORMACK: No.

QUESTION: Sometimes, you send along a little help (inaudible).

MR. MCCORMACK: A little help --

(Laughter.)

MR. MCCORMACK: Not to my knowledge, not to my knowledge. Of course, other people on the ground are ready to assist the congressional delegation in setting up meetings and even attending those meetings if that's what the congressional delegation wants.

QUESTION: But Ellen Sauerbrey was there and --

MR. MCCORMACK: A very specific mission dealing with the humanitarian issue of Iraqi refugees and she went in -- talked to somebody at her level, her counterpart on a very limited scope mission.

*****


QUESTION: I guess onto Israel. Olmert's giving a series of newspaper interviews quoting this Arab peace plan revolutionary saying it could be wrapped up within five years. Can I have a reaction to that, what you make of these comments?

MR. MCCORMACK: Well --

QUESTION: Is obviously a policy change.

MR. MCCORMACK: Yeah, Prime Minister Olmert has provided a response to the Arab League initiative intended to re-launch something that they had talked about several years ago and that is looking at a vision of a comprehensive peace in the Middle East involving Arab states and the state of Israel. The fact that the Arab League came through and reissued that offer as well as talked about -- I think they referred to them as implementing committees, committees that would go around and explain what it is, the thinking behind the initiative. It's very positive. The fact that you have Prime Minister Olmert offering what I would characterize as a positive response is a little bit of what Secretary Rice talked about during her trip and prior to her trip. And that is, the idea that perhaps this Arab League initiative might be used as a basis for more active diplomacy on this particular issue. How this plays out will be a decision for the Arab League members as well as Israel. But certainly the decision to re-launch the initiative and Prime Minister Olmert's reply are positive.

QUESTION: Well, don't think there are -- sorry, go ahead.

QUESTION: Has she spoken with him?

MR. MCCORMACK: She has not. No.

QUESTION: Don't you think there are some discrepancies, though, in Israeli Prime Minister Olmert's response? I mean, on one hand, he says it's, you know, a positive development that they re-launch the initiative --

MR. MCCORMACK: Right.

QUESTION: But at the same time, he said pretty publicly that he's not willing to talk about the contours of a Palestinian state right now. So, I mean, how can you even get to the initiative if he's not even willing to talk about the final contours of a peace deal?

MR. MCCORMACK: Well, look, nobody's talking about going for the long down field pass here. You know, Secretary Rice has talked about the fact that moving forward the process of peace in the Middle East between the Israelis and the Palestinians and some sort of wider peace throughout the Middle East is going to be a step by step process. This is hard stuff. A lot of people have tried before. The situation is such now, though, that we believe that there is an opportunity to advance the process, to put in place a process where the different parties involved might be able to start a discussion on issues that they really haven't had a serious discussion about in six years.

So this is going to go step by step. We're going to take these positive developments, try to build on them. A lot of it, though, will not be dependent upon the United States or Secretary Rice's efforts in the region. It's going to be dependent upon Arab states, it's going to be dependent on the Palestinians looking to reconcile the political contradictions within their own system. It's going to be up to the Israelis as well. We are going to be there to support them, help energize the process, push, prod, cajole, encourage along the way, but fundamentally is going to be the parties in the region that come up with the solutions.

QUESTION: Well, just on (inaudible), I mean it seems that the Israelis find the most attractive thing about the Saudi initiative is that it normalized relations with Israel, but Foreign Minister Livni, when she was here with the Secretary about a week-and-a-half ago or two weeks ago, said that she was hoping that Arab states would normalize relations -- moderate Arab states would normalize relations with the Israelis before a Palestinian peace deal was ever hatched, because she thought it would inspire moderate Palestinians to sign up to the deal.

Does the Secretary sign up to that point of view or does she agree that -- with the Arabs, that they can -- that they should only normalize relations with Israel if there's the creation of a Palestinian --

MR. MCCORMACK: Well, she's talked about the fact that both for the Palestinians and the Israelis, it is important to provide what she's referred to as a political horizon, that you see where you're going to -- you see your destination and in doing so, that sometimes helps you work through some of the more difficult, practical, and necessary issues on the pathway to achieving either a state or a different state of relations between Israel and Arab states.

So that is essentially how she views this process and -- but the fact that you are working on a political horizon doesn't obviate the need for working on the sort of day-to-day issues between the Israelis and the Palestinians. It's on phase one of the roadmap. In terms of the Arab League initiative and the Israelis, what -- the way she has phrased it, and I'm going to stick with it, is she's talked about using the re-launch of this initiative as the basis for active diplomacy. We're not going to prescribe exactly what the Arab League or their implementing committees might do or what the Israeli response might be.

We encourage -- we have obviously encouraged both sides to take a look at what is out there, but how this develops is going to be something that we're going to see over a period of time. You know, we're just one or two days away from -- is it two -- two days away from the re-launch of this initiative, so we'll see how this plays out.

QUESTION: But you don't necessarily see Arab normalization with Israel as a -- being condition upon Israel --

MR. MCCORMACK: Look, you have the Arabs re-launching this initiative. We're not going to prescribe exactly how this plays out. It's a positive development that they have re-launched


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