Middle East Digest: April 2, 2007
Bureau of Public Affairs
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 April 2, 2007:
QUESTION: Do you have anything on this -- there's apparently a private -- there's an American citizen who was -- has been reported missing in Iran.
MR. MCCORMACK: Right.
QUESTION: Do you have any details on this citizen, and what was he doing there? Anything else you may have would be welcome.
MR. MCCORMACK: Right. There's a limited amount that we can offer you at this point because we don't have a Privacy Act waiver, but there is an American citizen, private citizen, who is in business -- who was in Iran on private business about which we're -- about whom we're pursuing a welfare and whereabouts case. We have been monitoring the situation for a couple of weeks now. Today we are sending to the Iranian Government through the Swiss channel an inquiry as to whether or not they have any information on his welfare and whereabouts. That's really about all that I have at the moment.
QUESTION: Could you say what his profession was? Was he looking -- was he on some media expedition?
MR. MCCORMACK: I can't. At this point we're really constrained. I do have a little bit more information, but it's not at this point anything that I can share in public just because of privacy concerns. We have been in touch with the family and we are in continuing touch with his family, but I can't really offer more than that.
QUESTION: And you said it was a couple of weeks. Could you be more precise than that? Is it, you know, more than four weeks, five weeks, six weeks?
MR. MCCORMACK: Several weeks. I don't have an exact date for you.
QUESTION: You all know when you have been advised first? When is the first time --
MR. MCCORMACK: It's been a few weeks, a few weeks.
QUESTION: Why, if he's been missing for several weeks, that you're finally sending a welfare and whereabouts to the Iranians? Have you been making your own inquiries through other channels about him and now going to the Iranians?
MR. MCCORMACK: Right. Well, of course, we've been following the case and we have been gathering information from a variety of different sources. There are a number of different people who are looking into the case -- private citizens. And so we are -- we've been monitoring the situation via that information. And at this point we don't have any reliable information as to his whereabouts, so that's the first step is we're trying to determine where exactly he is.
QUESTION: Did you hear from the family or from the employer first?
MR. MCCORMACK: Let me check for you. I'm not sure exactly from whom we heard first.
QUESTION: And as far as you know, the message is just being sent today through the Swiss? You haven't had any contact with the Iranian Government about this before today?
MR. MCCORMACK: Correct.
QUESTION: So how are you tracking -- trying to find out where --
MR. MCCORMACK: Obviously, his family and his employer were seeking to determine exactly where he was, where he is and what exactly his whereabouts are.
Anything else on this?
QUESTION: Can you confirm at all that he was elderly or older, as some reports have said? (Laughter.)
MR. MCCORMACK: At the risk of offending everybody, I'm not going to characterize that. Just let me add one other thing here, and that is the fact that he is -- emphasize one thing for you. He is a private citizen. He was there on private business and we don't see any linkage whatsoever between this case and any other ongoing cases that may have been in the news recently.
QUESTION: And is it Kish Island; is that right?
MR. MCCORMACK: I believe so, yeah.
QUESTION: So far the British-Iranian situation, specifically the use of the word hostage, which President Bush used over the weekend. I know the British press are using that word, but as far as I know, the government's not using that word officially.
MR. MCCORMACK: Right.
QUESTION: Can you talk a bit about that?
MR. MCCORMACK: Well, I think it just denotes the fact that people are being held against their will. You can use a lot of different words for that; hostage is obviously one of them. We're not trying to make any particular political statement with that by using the word. But it just outlines the fact that these people are being held against their will and that they should be returned safely and unharmed immediately.
QUESTION: Also, I understand you're trying to stay out of this matter. It's a matter for the British and the Iranians.
MR. MCCORMACK: Right.
QUESTION: But in general terms surely this is another example of Iran, you know, isolating themselves -- continuing to behave like a rogue state. Can you talk a bit about that -- this continued behavior?
MR. MCCORMACK: Well, we have -- we are not directly involved in this. We have been trying to play a supporting role to the British Government and have done so in a number of different ways: in public statements, in supporting them in the Security Council, we supported them with a strong statement in NATO just a little over ten days ago or about a week ago.
In terms of what we are doing for the British Government, Secretary Rice has been in contact with Foreign Secretary Beckett. President Bush has talked about it. Secretary Rice talked with Margaret Beckett just yesterday to get an understanding of where we stand on the issue. In terms of Iran's behavior, there are a number of different places where you can point to that their behavior is well outside the internationally accepted norm, whether that's on the nuclear issue, on terrorism, on their treatment of their own citizens in the case of human rights and political rights. The British Government, I would only say with respect to this particular case, the British Government has presented compelling evidence that these marines were operating within Iraqi waters under a UN Security Council mandate. So any claims to the contrary I think are just really a divergent.
MR. MCCORMACK: Well, the next steps in terms of dialogue and interaction between the Arabs and the Israelis are really going to be up to them. We can be in a position of encouraging them, encouraging dialogue if on the Arab side they are not satisfied with the response to -- response by Prime Minister Olmert and his suggestions. Of course, they're open to make counter suggestions. What we have asked is that both sides use the re-launch of the Arab League initiative as a point of departure for active diplomacy. I know that the Arab League has talked about the fact that they are going to form these committees to go out throughout the region to explain not only to the Quartet and G-8, but other interested parties that might include Israel.
What the basis for this proposal is, what are the specifics of it and we believe that that's positive. We believe that it could be positive to have an interaction between the Israelis as well as potential Arab partners because ultimately if you're going to bring peace to the region you need to have that reconciliation between Arab states and Israel. Now, you already have that in the case of Egypt and Jordan. Then there are other Arab states that have varying degrees of contact or relations with Israel, all the way out to the point where there is no contact or no relations between Arab states and Israel, so we think that it's a point of departure. How exactly they use this potential opening is going to be up to them. We encourage them to explore the possibilities.
As for Secretary Rice, I don't have any reports in terms of phone calls. I expect that she will be going back out to the region probably some time in May. We don't have a date set yet, but I would expect some time in May to encourage that process to move forward as well as to encourage contacts between the Israelis and the Palestinians, as was announced during her last stop. President Abbas and Prime Minister Olmert have pledged to get together every two weeks, start talking about some of the issues that need to be resolved, if you're going to see a Palestinian state.
QUESTION: Last time the Quartet meeting, the international* Quartet meeting in Washington, they announced that they'll have next meeting in the Middle East. Is there a meeting coming?
MR. MCCORMACK: We don't have a date set yet, but I would expect the -- there would be a Quartet meeting in the Middle East in the coming period of time. We don't have a date yet set for you.
QUESTION: Okay. Thank you.
MR. MCCORMACK: Yeah. Michel.
QUESTION: Have you got any clarification from Saudi Arabia regarding their statement on the American presence in Iraq?
MR. MCCORMACK: Secretary Rice spoke with Foreign Minister Saud over the weekend. They had a good conversation. Our takeaway from it is that U.S.-Saudi relations are on a good, solid footing, as they have been before, and that we have a common interest; we have a shared interest in seeing an Iraq that is whole, that is an Iraq that is an Iraq for all Iraqis -- Sunni, Shia, Kurd, other ethic and religious denominations, and that King Abdullah shares the vision of a more peaceful, secure and prosperous region. And so that was really the takeaway from the phone call, I think.
QUESTION: Was she satisfied from Prince Saud, the personal* clarification on his and King Abdullah's --
MR. MCCORMACK: Well, I'll let the Saudi Government speak for themselves, but they had a good phone call. I think they -- and I think the Saudi Government understood some of our surprise about that particular phrase that was in King Abdullah's speech about Iraq and occupation. And I think they took onboard some of the comments that we had made in public about that. So -- but I'm going to let them speak for themselves.
QUESTION: Was it the Saudis that wanted to bump it up to the foreign minister level? I mean, last week it was just Secretary Rice talking to the Ambassador here. Who made the decision to talk to the Foreign Minister? Did they call you or did she --
MR. MCCORMACK: You know, I'm not sure. Off the top of my head, I can't tell you. Secretary Rice was happy, obviously, to talk to the Foreign Minister and they talked a little bit about the results of the Arab League summit as well as this issue.
QUESTION: Can I ask a question about Speaker Pelosi's visit?
MR. MCCORMACK: Sure.
QUESTION: Has she -- is she -- and the political delegation -- are they carrying any messages from the State Department to -- on her trip to the Middle East and especially to the Syrian leadership?
MR. MCCORMACK: Right. No, no messages in the sense that this was a trip that was encouraged by the Executive Branch of the government. But we did -- once Speaker Pelosi had made the decision that she was going to be going to Syria, we did sit down and had a briefing with her. We explained where we were in our policy vis-à-vis Syria and we encouraged Speaker Pelosi, as we have with other congressional delegations that have gone to Syria, to send a tough message to the Syrian Government that they need to change their behavior, that their behavior on a variety of different fronts in the Middle East is completely unacceptable and 180 degrees off from where we hope the rest of the region is going to be headed.
So that is what we would encourage her to say when she meets with Syrian officials. What message at the end of the day she decides to convey to the Syrian officials, of course, is going to be up to her.
QUESTION: Can you tell us who briefed Speaker Pelosi?
MR. MCCORMACK: I think it was Jim Jeffrey. He's our -- the Principal Deputy in our Near Eastern Bureau.
QUESTION: Did Mr. Jeffrey brief the Republican congressman that went as well?
MR. MCCORMACK: I don't know. We do have -- we at least offer briefings to the congressional delegations who go out to the region and in particular to Syria.
QUESTION: Is there a reason why the White House and the State Department highlighted that Speaker Pelosi's trip was a bad idea, but there are also Republican congressman doing the same thing and we didn't hear anything about that last week? Is it simply not being asked about it or --
MR. MCCORMACK: A few things. One, first of all, we were asked about it here at the State Department. The second thing is, you know, you have the third -- the person second in line to the presidency, third highest-ranking elected official in the national -- elected official in the United States. So of course that raises the profile of the visit there and, frankly, we think, sends the wrong signal because in the past the Syrian Government has just used high-level visitors as a way of pointing -- trying to point out to the world that, look, there's no problem with our behavior; see, we're receiving high-level visitors in Damascus.
The other thing is I would point out a few months ago when Senator Specter decided to travel to Syria, we talked quite openly and in public about the fact that we didn't think it was a good idea for him to go there. Nonetheless, he decided to go there and we offered the same kind of support to him as we are offering to Speaker Pelosi as well as other congressional delegations that decide to go to Syria.
QUESTION: It seems a bit confusing though if you're saying that she's sending the wrong signal, yet you're sitting down with her and briefing her and, you know, giving her some guidance as to what --
MR. MCCORMACK: Well, I think it works -- I think it's important for everybody. I think it's to the benefit of not only the Executive Branch but the Congressional Branch to have an understanding, a solid understanding, of what our policies are and what our most recent interactions have been with the Syrian Government. I think that that is useful information for us to convey and for congressional delegations to receive. It's also a matter of courtesy, just as it is a matter of courtesy that we would extend support to visiting congressional delegations when they visit foreign countries as well as Syria.