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Middle East Digest: April 23, 2007

Bureau of Public Affairs
April 23, 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 of April 23, 2007:

QUESTION: (Inaudible) which purports to describe British intelligence suggesting that al-Qaida plans to make a large scale terrorist attack on Britain and on other western targets with the help of supporters in Iran. Do you have any reason to believe that this -- there's any veracity to this report?

MR. MCCORMACK: You'll have to check with British intelligence sources on that. I'm not going to --

(Laughter.)

QUESTION: You don't care about your ally there? You're not worried about that? You don't --

MR. MCCORMACK: No, no, no. Of course, we're concerned.

QUESTION: You issue worldwide cautions all the time on --

MR. MCCORMACK: Of course we're concerned about them. You cited the sources in the quote. I suggest you go check with them. I'm not in a position to comment about British intelligence reports. Of course, we're concerned about the ongoing threat from al-Qaida. I think everybody understands that they are continuing to plot and plan and would like nothing better than to execute further spectacular attacks whether here in the United States or in London or elsewhere. But on this particular report, I don't have anything off the top of my head. If -- I'm happy to look into it for you, but I suggest that the answer will probably be not much more than I've given you already.

QUESTION: Okay. I was looking for mostly was if you had no reason to believe there was anything to this, maybe you could tamp it down slightly, but --

MR. MCCORMACK: I can't speak to it, can't speak to it.

QUESTION: (Inaudible.)

MR. MCCORMACK: Sure, Kirit.

QUESTION: The fact that they haven't put out a travel warning or Warden message, it's implied that you wouldn't find this to be a threat to -- in the country.

MR. MCCORMACK: No. I mean, the embassy takes its -- the steps that it deems are appropriate. I can't tell you what it is that they've seen or haven't seen. We haven't issued any new warning messages or public warnings out of the U.K. so again, I can't speak to the specifics of the report that Arshad is citing. But of course, travelers need to always be aware, be vigilant wherever they may travel around the world.

QUESTION: Are you aware of it or have you heard of --

MR. MCCORMACK: I had read about it, but I don't have anything for you on it.

Mr. Kessler.

QUESTION: If I could just change the subject.

MR. MCCORMACK: Sure.

QUESTION: On the Levinson case, do you have any clearer sense as to whether or not he's in Iran and whether or not he's been held -- being held or been captured by any particular part of the Iranian Government?

MR. MCCORMACK: Well, we have sent a new note to the Iranians over the weekend. If you recall, for those of you who have been following this story closely, we had received a reply from the Iranian Government last week saying that they didn't have any information about his whereabouts. And we have spoken in public about the fact that we know that he entered Iran. We have the flight, we have the time when he entered Iran. We have no evidence to suggest that he has actually left. So we've gone back to the Iranian Government and restated that, said we have no evidence that he's left Iran, told them again, "Here are the flights, here are the time -- here's the flight, here's the time that he came in there."

At this point, we don't know where he is and that's the whole point in going into the Iranian Government and asking them about his whereabouts. Now there have been a lot of press reports about suggesting that he may have been arrested by various factions of the Iranian Government and the Iranian security apparatus. At this point, I can't validate those press reports, but certainly, they do raise questions in our mind about where exactly is Mr. Levinson. And so we have gone back to the Iranian Government once again -- this is our fifth communication with them on the matter -- and asked them to look once again to do every possible check they can with their security forces, other -- with all of their departments and provide us the information where he is.

We've also asked a couple of the European governments last week to go in and essentially knock on doors and see if they can determine any information about his whereabouts. At this point, we don't know. I can't conclusively say where he is or under what circumstances he is staying in Iran at the moment.

QUESTION: The questions did raise in the minds of U.S. officials -- is that based on more than just the fact that you know that he entered Iran? I mean, are you looking at patterns of Iranian behavior or what Iran might -- or certain factions that Iran might possibly gain by having an American hostage at this point?

MR. MCCORMACK: Well, you can theorize. Obviously, there was a lot of speculation about the British hostages, why were they taken at that time, at this particular -- and at this particular moment and to what end. So I can't tell you exactly what the internal politics in Iran might be. One thing you might take a look at is at the beginning of the British hostage crisis, that there are a lot of different reports coming out of the Iranian Government and that suggests that this might be -- might have been the left hand not knowing what the right hand was doing situation; it took them a few days to regroup. So I certainly can't discount, at this point, the idea that there may be some part of the Iranian Government that is acting without the knowledge of the other part of the Iranian Government. I just can't tell you that that's not true. But I also can't tell you that we know, as a fact, the specific circumstances under which Mr. Levinson has gone missing.

QUESTION: On the same subject?

QUESTION: Yeah.

QUESTION: Okay.

QUESTION: What's different about this latest note to Iran than the previous one? Is anything -- or it's just the date?

MR. MCCORMACK: No, we did --

QUESTION: Is it pretty please this time?

MR. MCCORMACK: As a matter of fact, in the note we did go through and suggest to them that there have been these various news accounts out there, some of which have been printed in Iranian press about Mr. Levinson and suggested to them that they might pursue these avenues of inquiry, suggesting that he met with an individual on Kish Island that is well known to the Iranians. And there was another press account which it was said that he was taken by the Iranian security forces. Now, again I underline I can't vouch for the validity of these accounts, but certainly it does raise questions. And we have gone back to the Iranians not only with the information we had provided them before, but also asking them to look into and pursue any leads that might arise from these press accounts that have been out there.

QUESTION: So then that's something new? You did --

MR. MCCORMACK: That is something new, yes.

QUESTION: And is there any -- you think that -- why weren't they in the initial -- your initial contacts? Why is this something that's just coming in now? I mean, these stories -- at least the Iranian accounts were several weeks ago.

MR. MCCORMACK: Well, we thought it was reasonable given the fact that the Iranians had come back from our initial formal inquiry and said that they didn't have any information. And we thought it was reasonable to bring it to their attention that there have been these press accounts concerning the circumstances of Mr. Levinson's disappearance and that it might be useful for them to track those down.

Yeah, Charlie.

QUESTION: On the part of this puzzle about asking your European allies to help --

MR. MCCORMACK: Mm-hmm.

QUESTION: Have they not gotten back to you or have they gotten back to you and said we --

MR. MCCORMACK: The Europeans?

QUESTION: The Europeans.

MR. MCCORMACK: Yeah, I -- to my knowledge, they haven't gotten back to us with any new information. They, of course, gotten back to us and said they'd be happy to help, but not with any information about Mr. Levinson.

QUESTION: Again, a quick one on (inaudible). You said it's the fifth communication. Have those five communications all been in writing or was the first one just a verbal thing?

MR. MCCORMACK: No, the first ones were through the Swiss asking them to get with the Iranians.

QUESTION: They've all been through the Swiss, obviously.

MR. MCCORMACK: Right, right, they've all been through the Swiss. The first couple were --

QUESTION: Through verbal?

MR. MCCORMACK: Yeah, the first couple were verbal.

QUESTION: Thanks.

MR. MCCORMACK: Yeah, Kirit.

QUESTION: Just on the European allies again. They have -- you understand that they have already started their inquiries and at this point if there's any inclination to add any more countries to the list that you're asking?

MR. MCCORMACK: At this point, yeah, I believe they have.

QUESTION: Okay.

MR. MCCORMACK: They have started and we'll add on others as we think is appropriate and effective. I think we might wait to hear back from these (inaudible) to see if they turn up any information.

Yes.

QUESTION: Sean, another follow-up on Iran. A big Austrian oil company just --

MR. MCCORMACK: Right.

QUESTION: -- made a huge gas deal with the Iranians which they claim is the biggest gas deal ever with a European Union country. Now you guys can't be happy about that. What's your response?

MR. MCCORMACK: Well, we've seen the press reports about it and, as we have with previous such announcements, we're going to talk to the Austrian government and talk to the firm involved and raise with them the idea that, while perhaps this is not the most appropriate time to be making, or committing to making, large investments in the Iranian oil and gas sector, given where Iran is vis--vis the rest of the international community. Now, specifically 1737 and 1747 don't cover the oil and gas sector, I understand that. But we think that the behavior of this regime and their pursuit of nuclear weapons as well as their continuing support for terrorist activities, including trying to -- participating in destabilizing actions in Iraq, isn't really the right time to be talking about making large investments in the oil and gas sector, in effect, supporting this regime. So we're going to talk to them about that.

Obviously, at the end of the day, it's going to have to be their decision about whether they move forward with it. But I do understand that this is not an actual commitment to transfer funds or to start moving resources into Iran. This is really one of these preliminary announcements. And in the past, the Iranian Government has made the best possible public relations use that they can of them, trumpeting these as important achievements. And again, we question whether or not this is the right time to be giving -- handing the Iranians those kind of, at the very least, public relations victories.

QUESTION: Are you going to take certain like concrete steps, especially as the Foreign Minister of Austria said, you know, it's not covered by any general economic ban? I mean, you are basically allowed to do that. I mean, which -- what can you do?

MR. MCCORMACK: Well, first, of course, the question always arises when you get over a certain amount of investment in the Iranian oil and gas sector. Everyone has taken a look at the Iran Sanctions Act. I'm not saying in this case that we have looked at the facts or that it would necessarily apply. But if you do have companies moving forward with those kinds of investments, we're obliged under the law to take a look at whether or not those transactions would merit any action under the Iran Sanctions Act.



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