Middle East Digest: April 3, 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 3, 2007:
MR. MCCORMACK: Mr. Lee.
QUESTION: Thank you. I don't really have any specific questions, unless you have any updates for us on the situation with Iran and the British sailors and also the situation with the missing American. If you can tell us whether the Swiss have told you that they have delivered your letter of inquiry or if you've gotten a response from --
MR. MCCORMACK: You know, we don't have confirmation yet that the Iranians have received it. We have handed it over to the Swiss. And I expect in the near future that they will hand it over to the Iranians.
QUESTION: Does that happen in Bern, here? Where does that happen?
MR. MCCORMACK: It usually happens in Tehran.
MR. MCCORMACK: The Swiss are a protecting power in Tehran where we hand over -- we hand this over to the Swiss --
QUESTION: Who would hand it over to them in Tehran? Do you have a diplomat in Tehran right now that we should know about?
MR. MCCORMACK: Oh, no, no. I thought you were talking about where did the Swiss hand it over to the Iranians?
QUESTION: No, no, no. Where do you give it to the Swiss? That's --
MR. MCCORMACK: Oh, I don't know. I suppose here in Washington. I'm not sure.
QUESTION: So you are not sure that they received it and we don't have any news from them?
MR. MCCORMACK: That's correct. We don't have confirmation yet that the Swiss have yet handed over the inquiry to the Iranians, so we therefore have not heard anything back from the Iranians yet either.
QUESTION: Okay. And do you have any confirmation that the Iraq Government is pressing the U.S. Administration to release the five Iranian detainee in Iraq or* are helping them*?
MR. MCCORMACK: Well, there have been some public statements from Minister Zebari to that effect. Periodically since these individuals were captured and they were detained by our multinational forces in Iraq because they were involved in the networks that were providing resources as well as, you know, materiel to those individuals in Iraq who are using these EFDs, highly charged explosive devices to go after our troops. And as a result, they were detained and they are currently detained by the multinational forces. There they're being treated as other security detainees are treated in Iraq. They've been assigned a detainee number, a security detainee number. And as for any other details about the disposition of those individuals, I'd refer you to the multinational forces in Iraq.
QUESTION: Yeah, but what about this perfect statements by the Mr. Zebari? Do you have any answer to (inaudible) counsel to him?
MR. MCCORMACK: Well, in terms of their disposition and how exactly they are dealt with, they're going to be dealt with as are other security detainees in Iraq. I can't speak to the details of that or what the plans are. Like I said, you can talk to the multinational security forces in Iraq. I have to underline the fact these individuals were part of or supporting a network that is intending to kill U.S. troops in Iraq. The very people who are trying to bring greater security and stability to the Iraqi people. So this isn't -- these people weren't picked up because they were jaywalking. They were picked up because they were engaged in activities that could threaten our troops.
QUESTION: When do you think evidence will be presented against these individuals who were picked up? I mean, how long can they be detained for under -- or could they just be detained indefinitely without any charges being laid?
MR. MCCORMACK: You can talk to DOD about that. These multinational forces are handling them. They are being treated as any other security detainee in Iraq. You can cite -- you know, you can -- for example, if there was a foreign individual who came into Iraq who was engaged in combat with our forces and was somehow subsequently detained, they would be treated in exactly the same manner and handled exactly the same way as that individual might be.
QUESTION: So they're not being treated like -- in the same -- they're not in the same category as terror detainees, for example, held in Guantanamo Bay? Is this a new category of detainee or --
MR. MCCORMACK: It's -- talk to the Department of Defense about all the -- you know, exactly where they might be being held. I don't know if that's information that they would give out and the specific circumstances under which they're being held. But they're being treated as other security detainees in Iraq are treated.
QUESTION: Previously, you said that the Iranian Government is monolithic. During this current hostage crisis -- I know this is a British issue, but can you or your analysts see any kind of factionism within the government at the moment? Are things changing? Is there tensions within the Iranian Government itself?
MR. MCCORMACK: Right -- very difficult to detect. You can only detect echoes of potential debates that are happening behind the scenes in Iran because it's a very closed, opaque regime and it's very difficult to discern exactly what calculations are ongoing and who holds what positions on a given issue. We've seen a little bit of this pop out into the press -- the Iranian press in recent months vis-à-vis the nuclear issue, seen some debate whether or not the Iranians are pursuing the proper course. I haven't seen any similar kind of debate in public regarding the U.K. marines and sailors that were being held by the Iranians. So we really don't have much insight as to what is going on, the decision-making processes of the regime.
QUESTION: Have you seen any examples, particularly with Larijani and Ahmadi-Nejad? Any tensions between them at all, any public comments perhaps Larijani has made recently?
MR. MCCORMACK: Nothing that I've detected. They may be out there, but nothing that I've seen.
QUESTION: Okay. Just one more thing. I know you've been asked about this before, but can you confirm that there's absolutely no link between this current hostage crisis and the release of the Iranians today?
MR. MCCORMACK: That's correct. Well, as far as we know. We've seen the press reports that this individual is going to be released, turned over. Those I can't confirm for you. And stepping back a bit, the U.S. was not involved in his abduction, seizure or his detention, so we don't really have any -- much information about this individual whatsoever or his current circumstances and I couldn't tell you whether or not there is any linkage between those two events or not.
QUESTION: The Iraqi Foreign Minister said today that the case of this diplomat was followed by some Iraqi and American people in Iraq. I wanted to know if by any chance you know if U.S. could have worked for helping for this liberation or release.
MR. MCCORMACK: This individual?
MR. MCCORMACK: Certainly not to my knowledge. I don't think we have --
QUESTION: He mentioned --
MR. MCCORMACK: -- have had or have anything to do in any respect with this case.
QUESTION: Because I know for an example when some Italian hostages were released, U.S. tried to help Italians to get the release of these --
MR. MCCORMACK: Right, yeah. We --
QUESTION: You didn't --
MR. MCCORMACK: To my knowledge, we have absolutely nothing to do with this case in any way, shape or form.
MR. MCCORMACK: Goyal.
QUESTION: Just to follow as far as Iran and the British standoff, we still have the painful memories of 1979 as far as the U.S. Embassy and U.S. diplomats were concerned in Tehran, and according to past reports this president was also involved and now he's also *involved/embroiled* in this situation here. Demonstrations at the U.K. Embassy are similar to what there used to be at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. Do you know if it's true that he might be using the same scenario that what you did last 30-plus years -- 30 years ago?
MR. MCCORMACK: No, no. But the -- this government has engaged in seizing unjustly U.K. military officials before, back in 2004. That particular incident was resolved in a matter of three or four days, I think. So there is some precedent for this in recent history. I'm not going to try to make connections back across the decades, but there is some precedent for their having done this before.
We quite simply support the U.K. Government in their efforts to see that these individuals are returned immediately and safely. They're being unjustly held by the Iranian Government. These individuals were operating in Iraqi territorial waters under a Security Council resolution. So they should be returned immediately and safely, and we continue to support the U.K. Government in all their efforts to see that these individuals are returned.
QUESTION: Sean, this President of Iran is not acting as a statesman or world leader but other than -- more than like supporting terrorism and also still in his mind wipe out Israel from the world map, and he has not slowed* down. I mean, what are you reading what he is up to? He's challenging the international community or the U.S. or UN or EU or what?
MR. MCCORMACK: Goyal, you know, far be it from me to try to get inside the decision-making processes of the Iranian regime. We just -- you know, we don't know. I can't tell you what the calculations were or whether or not there were any calculations made in the decision to seize these individuals. All we want to see right now is that these individuals are returned.
QUESTION: On the case of the missing American, is there any evidence that you have gathered that supports that he may have been picked up by Iranian authorities?
MR. MCCORMACK: We don't have any credible information at this point as to his current situation, and that is the reason why we have decided to take the step of communicating directly with the Iraqi*** Government via the Swiss channel to see if they have any information that they can provide about his whereabouts or his particular situation.
QUESTION: Sean, in the past, I believe that people have said that this kind of thing happens about two or three times a year or -- on average, about two or three times a year. In the past, have the Iranian -- when you have sent these inquiries, have the Iranians responded at all or been helpful?
MR. MCCORMACK: To my -- I'll have to check, Matt, to see if in the past we have taken the step of communicating directly with the Iranians via the Swiss channel. Typically what we would do in these cases, American welfare and whereabouts cases, we would -- and we did this for this case as well, we've been able to track this down -- is that we contacted the Swiss Embassy, our protecting powers in Iran, and asked them to make inquiries but not directing them specifically what inquiries to make whether or not they have any information about the whereabouts or the welfare of a particular individual.
MR. MCCORMACK: So it's a different kind of step than we would take -- than we have taken just yesterday.
QUESTION: Has this been done, to your knowledge, to the past that the actual letter specifically asks that you are wanting the Swiss to hand over to someone in the foreign ministry?
MR. MCCORMACK: I'll check for you, Matt. I don't know. I don't know the answer.
QUESTION: Does it -- but would this then -- does this mean that your concern is greater than it has been in previous cases about this specific person?
MR. MCCORMACK: Well, I'd have to know whether or not we've taken this step before.
QUESTION: Well, right, but --
MR. MCCORMACK: Our concern is for any American citizen who may be missing or whose whereabouts are unknown or whose specific situation is not known by his family or his friends, we take them seriously and in equal measure regardless. You know, I can't at this point attribute a specific level of concern to the individual beyond that we would normally have with a welfare and whereabouts case. We're concerned about any American citizen.
QUESTION: Well, except that I think that you just said that the cases that you're aware of in the past hadn't risen to the level of an actual sending a letter through the Swiss to the Iranians in the past in cases that you --
MR. MCCORMACK: I just -- I don't know the -- no, I don't know the answer to that. What I'm outlining for you is the initial steps that are taken typically in these cases -- and I'm saying typically -- is that we make an inquiry with the Swiss Embassy and that's the --
QUESTION: Has that happened in this case as well?
MR. MCCORMACK: Yes, it did happen in this case.
QUESTION: So you have already -- you had already been in contact with the Swiss once. They got no response or --
MR. MCCORMACK: No, we did not -- there are two different things here. One is contacting the Swiss Government, the Swiss protecting power in Tehran, and saying can you make inquiries, not specifying what inquiries or what actions they may take, but can you make inquiries to determine the welfare or whereabouts of an individual.
MR. MCCORMACK: Which we've done in this case.
MR. MCCORMACK: We've taken another step now, and that is contacting specifically and directly via the Swiss the Iranian Government.
MR. MCCORMACK: So it would be a communication from the United States Government to the Iranian Government via the Swiss asking them if they have any information about this individual*.
QUESTION: Okay. Well, this is a little bit of an unpublicized development that you didn't -- that hadn't been mentioned before, so that's why I'm asking so many questions about it.
MR. MCCORMACK: Well, I understand. It's something --
QUESTION: To your knowledge, did --
MR. MCCORMACK: It's something that just came to my attention today. That's why I'm passing it along.
QUESTION: To your knowledge, do you know -- do you know when the first outreach was made to the Swiss, this kind of less formal --
MR. MCCORMACK: Yeah, let me see here --
QUESTION: -- non-written --
MR. MCCORMACK: The non-written. Well, yeah, but it's important to specify -- to differentiate between these two things.
QUESTION: I know.
MR. MCCORMACK: One is communication.
QUESTION: That's what I'm trying to do.
MR. MCCORMACK: Right. One is a communication between the United States Government and the Swiss. The other, which happened yesterday, is a communication between the United States Government and the Iranian Government via the Swiss.
MR. MCCORMACK: Let's see here. It was about -- on or about March 12th.
QUESTION: So for -- then can we assume or is it fair to assume that since you have now taken this second step that there was no satisfactory response to --
MR. MCCORMACK: We didn't -- yeah, we don't have --
QUESTION: Do you know if the Swiss relayed any --
MR. MCCORMACK: We were unable to glean any reliable information.
QUESTION: Do you know if the Swiss made any inquiries with the Iranians based on your initial --
MR. MCCORMACK: I can't -- I don't know. One can assume that, but I don't know that as a fact.
QUESTION: Okay. Well, then this would seem to suggest, however, the second -- the letter to the Iranians, that your level of concern is higher than it would be in a normal case or in a typical case?
MR. MCCORMACK: No, you -- it's -- no, that's not the way I would look at it. We are, with any American citizen, going to do everything that we possibly can to, on behalf of the family and that individual, help them out. In this case, that entails finding out information about this individual's welfare and whereabouts. And once you're able to determine that, depending on the specific circumstances, then you determine what else is -- what else the United States Government might do. So I don't look at it as an increasing level of concern; I look at it as the United States Government doing everything that it possibly can on behalf of this individual and his family.
QUESTION: Okay. Well, I just -- but there is quite a bit of time. I mean, three weeks has gone -- went by between March 12th and April 2nd. Can you find out for us whether the Swiss got back to you and said, "Look, we've made some inquiries, but we haven't gotten -- we haven't heard anything," or --
MR. MCCORMACK: Well, they -- yeah, they did during that period of time, yes.
QUESTION: They did?
MR. MCCORMACK: Yeah.
QUESTION: Oh, I thought you just said you didn't know.
MR. MCCORMACK: No, you asked me specifically with whom they interacted, the Iranian Government, and I said I don't know.
MR. MCCORMACK: And I still don't know standing here. I do know that they have gone back to us and said that they don't know his welfare and whereabouts.
QUESTION: But -- and that's after they asked someone in the Iranian Government and you don't know who?
MR. MCCORMACK: I can't tell you with whom they spoke about. That's -- I've answered that question three times for you. What I can tell you is that we still don't have any reliable information about his welfare and whereabouts.
QUESTION: All right.
QUESTION: And in the past, did the Swiss inquiry work? Was it enough for you to have permission --
MR. MCCORMACK: Sylvie, I don't -- I can't tell you. I don't know. I'm not going to go through a case history of every American citizen who may have gone missing in Iran. I try to get --
QUESTION: But you notice that this isn't* another step, so I wanted to know if in the past, the fact that you asked the Swiss to do an inquiry, was it enough so you didn't have to write a letter directly to the Iranians?
MR. MCCORMACK: There's no question about whether or not we believe the Swiss are acting in good faith as (inaudible) protecting powers --
QUESTION: No, no, no. I wanted to know if it was successful, if you got the answers you --
MR. MCCORMACK: It's irrelevant because each individual case is different. You have to take them on their own accords and based on the facts as they are before you. We do everything that we possibly can, as I've said, to help out an American citizen and help out their family. So you can't compare individual cases, because the specific circumstances of those cases are unique.
QUESTION: The FBI has publicly said that he was an FBI agent a decade ago. The fact that he was an FBI agent, which has publicly been disclosed --
MR. MCCORMACK: Right.
QUESTION: Does this raise the level of concern that the United States has about his safety and that there may be claims that he's spying on behalf of the U.S.?
MR. MCCORMACK: I haven't seen anybody make those claims. I haven't seen their --
QUESTION: In the eyes of the Iranians? I mean --
MR. MCCORMACK: I haven't seen anybody make those claims.
QUESTION: Sean, what are the difficulties in convening the ministerial meeting in Istanbul and do you think the Secretary said by the middle of April, is that still on track because, I mean, clearly the Europeans and the Turks have spoken at least in private about some difficulties in gathering everybody because there are a lot of people obviously. They have more than 30 delegations to be there, so.
MR. MCCORMACK: Well, everybody has to be comfortable with the venue, the dates. There's a lot to arrange here. We're talking to the Iraqis, we're talking to others who may have an interest in hosting such a conference. That I think is a very positive sign that you have a number of different places that are actually competing to host this neighbors conference so that's a positive development. It will work itself out. And I'm sure in the coming days and weeks, we'll have an announcement of the where and the when. And once we get there with all of Iraq's neighbors as well as the P-5, and other representatives and it'll be a good show of diplomatic and political support for this Iraqi Government. And in turn, I think that all the members, all the attendees at that conference will look to the Iraqi Government for an explanation of what are the steps they're taking for, for example, in security reform, economic reform, as well as their progress along the pathway to democracy. So it's going to happen. I don't have a date or a place for you yet, but it'll happen.
QUESTION: So there are no substantive issues that are sort of delaying? This is more logistical and technical. What I mean, is there -- you're not waiting for anything on the ground to happen in Iraq before the meeting happens?
MR. MCCORMACK: No.
QUESTION: Hi. New question. There's been criticism in the past over the validity of the Lancet study, the numbers of Iraqis killed when it was released in October. But last week there was a memo that some senior advisors to the British Government actually backed the methodology used. That said, what's the State Department's take on the numbers of 650,000 Iraqis killed since the beginning of the war?
MR. MCCORMACK: I don't think our views have changed since the Administration originally came out and commented on the Lancet study. I don't think there's -- we've seen anything that would change our opinion.
QUESTION: So despite this backing from senior advisors --
MR. MCCORMACK: I haven't seen the memo you're talking about. I haven't seen any press reports about it. But that's -- as far as I'm aware, we are not aware of any information that would change our opinion about the Lancet study --
QUESTION: So do you --
MR. MCCORMACK: -- and its methodology.
QUESTION: -- feel like the 650,000 then is high, is an overestimation, their methodology was incorrect?
MR. MCCORMACK: As I remember, though, the problem was with the methodology and there were a lot of questions about that. And as I've said, I don't think that we have changed our opinion about it.
QUESTION: And a final question then, so do we have an approximation? Does the State Department have an approximation of how many Iraqis are being killed since --