State Dept. Daily Press Briefing November 20, 2006
Daily Press Briefing
Tom Casey, Deputy Spokesman
November 20, 2006
Reported Iranian Proposed Summit on Iraq with Iran and Syria
Iran's Statements on Iraq Not Backed up by Actions / Positive Role
U.S. Looks for Syria to Take Actions to Prevent Foreign Fighters
from Crossing Border
U.S. Desire to See Good Relations Between Iraq and Its Neighbors
Talks in New York on the Formation of a Tribunal for the Hariri
Syrian Government Interference in Lebanese Affairs
Lebanese Political Leadership Should Work Within its Political
Investigation Into Use of Cluster Munitions by Israelis
Article on Iranian Nuclear Weapons Program
Iranian Request for IAEA Assistance on its Heavy-Water Nuclear
Tokyo Donor's Conference on Sri Lanka / Strategies to Encourage
Preliminary Discussions / Ambassador Burns? Efforts
International Community Believes This Process Needs to Move
A/S Hill's Meetings in Beijing / Six Party Talks, No Date Set
Possible Further Travel Plans for A/S Hill
Vote on Resolution Condemning Israel in the UN Security Council /
U.S. Dedicated to Long Term Solution / Two State Solution Via
Reporting on a Poisoned Former KGB Agent
Reports that the U.S. Will Rescind Sanctions Against Sukhoi
12:35 p.m. EST
MR. CASEY: Good afternoon, everybody. It's a pleasure to be here with you. Welcome to the start of Thanksgiving week. I don't have any opening statements or announcements for you, so let's go right to your questions.
QUESTION: Well, everybody seems to have the story out of Baghdad that's interesting that Iran has invited the Iraqi and Syrian Presidents to Tehran for a weekend summit with Mr. Ahmadi-Nejad to hash out ways to cooperate on Iraq, presumably to tamp down the violence in Iraq. I wondered if you have a reaction to this? And do you think it's possibly designed to distract from U.S. efforts?
MR. CASEY: Well, Barry, I've seen the press reports involved there. Certainly, as we've always said, we want Iraq to have good relations with all its neighbors. That would include Iran. And certainly there have been meetings between Iranian government officials and officials of this government. Prime Minister Maliki was in Tehran, I believe, a couple of months ago. So certainly we welcome continued discussion of dialogue.
I think the thing that has concerned us, and still does concern us, is the fact that while there have been positive statements from the Iranian Government about wishing to a play a positive role in Iraq, those statements haven't been backed up by actions. And so very much what we'd like to see the Iranian Government do is desist, first and foremost, from negative actions it's taken in Iraq. But certainly we would welcome anything that would be done on their part to end those negative actions and to assist the Iraqi Government in moving forward.
QUESTION: Could you be a little more explicit about what they've done negatively and most importantly of recent -- in recent months to --
MR. CASEY: Well, Barry, I don't have anything new to offer you beyond --
QUESTION: All right.
MR. CASEY: -- what we've already said on those subjects. Certainly we've talked about Iranian support for militia and militia-based activities. Commanders in the field could give you a little more specific information about it, but it has been spoken to before.
QUESTION: The U.S. has a big stake in Iraq obviously with 140,000 or more troops there. Do you think it would be useful for the U.S. to attend such a meeting and to be included in with -- for it to be a sort of a four-way meeting versus a three-way?
MR. CASEY: Well, Sue, first of all let's -- the facts, as I understand it, are this is an invitation that's been given from the Iranian Government to the Government of Iraq. Again, if that is something that can help convince Iraq -- convince Iran -- excuse me -- to end some of its negative behaviors, that's all to the good.
In terms of U.S. relations with Iran and Syria, I think our policy is well known. You've heard various articulations of it by the Secretary and Steve Hadley on the recent trip, and I really don't have much to add beyond that.
QUESTION: I thought that -- excuse me --
MR. CASEY: Sure.
QUESTION: -- the U.S. has a policy that it is willing to talk to Iran without preconditions even on the sole subject of Iraq.
MR. CASEY: Well, I --
QUESTION: So --
MR. CASEY: Sorry, go ahead.
QUESTION: I'm sorry. So is this an opportunity? And secondly or firstly, they have made a gesture in that regard recently, and it's not clear to me if you are -- the U.S. is responding to it in a positive way?
MR. CASEY: Well, I think as you heard the Secretary say last week, Ambassador Khalilzad, you know, certainly is authorized to have those discussions at a time when it would be deemed appropriate. I don't have any updates for you in terms of anything that would move that ball forward. In terms again as to this particular set of meetings, if -- it's up to the Iraqi Government to make the decision as to whether this is something useful for them or whether they would attend. But again, these are the kinds -- these kinds of meetings have taken place in the past, so it's not anything that's particularly precedent-setting as far as I can tell.
QUESTION: At what point will the time be appropriate to speak to Iran over Iraq?
MR. CASEY: We'll let you know when we have anything more for you on this, Sue. I just don't have anything right now.
QUESTION: I mean, what has to align?
MR. CASEY: Well again, I think the Secretary has spoken to this and I just really don't have anything to add beyond what she's already said on this, I think, two days ago.
QUESTION: Now take it on the other side -- with the -- from the Syrian side. The Syrian Foreign Minister is there today, was there yesterday in Baghdad. He voiced his government's strong support for the Government in Iraq, for stability in Iraq. Now do you have a reaction? Do you think that's a positive step on their part? And is that something that could grease the rails a bit towards maybe engaging Syria?
MR. CASEY: Well again, David, I think the issue here again is not the words, it's the actions that are taken. And certainly what we would like to see the Syrians do is take actions to, among other things, prevent foreign fighters from coming across the border into Iraq and again to back up the positive words that they have with some real concrete steps. I think as we have always said with respect to the Syrians, you know, the problem is not what they say, the problem is what they do. So what would be in our view the next step would be to have them move beyond those words and actually take some concrete steps in that direction.
QUESTION: Have there not been signs in the past months of there being some -- and a lot of people have been talking about actions being taken along the Syrian border and at the airport in Damascus where there's actually probably more stuff happening than necessarily along the border?
MR. CASEY: Well, in terms of the specifics of what's, you know, happening in individual places along the border, again, I'll defer to the people in Iraq and the military commanders on the ground on that. But again, I think it's clear to us, though, that there's certainly a lot that the Syrians could be doing that they're not doing.
QUESTION: Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Mualem has called yesterday from Baghdad for the withdrawal of American from Iraq to help end the violence. Do you have any reaction?
MR. CASEY: Well, nothing really, Michel, beyond what I've already said which is that I think what we would like to see the Syrians do is to take steps to become a positive actor in Iraq and to not do things that would foment violence or that would help support violence there. And I think the most important thing for the Syrian Government is to look to themselves and take the actions that are necessary to help improve the situation in Iraq.
QUESTION: Tom, can we just summarize the U.S. position here so far as talking to the Iranians. I mean, I would like you to say it, but what I'm looking for is, number one, are you telling Sue here that the U.S. will not attend any such conference? And secondly, talking to the Iranians about Iraq is still under consideration but it isn't a go yet. Is that fair?
MR. CASEY: Well, Barry, look, I think there's a long history here. First of all, I'm not going to respond to hypothetical question since as I understand what's out there and what I only understand to be out there through press reports is an invitation for a meeting between the Iranian Government and the Iraqi Government. In terms of our position on contacts with the Iranian Government specifically on the subject of Iraq, we've had a longstanding policy in place on that and that hasn't changed.
QUESTION: Do we know who what the policy is?
MR. CASEY: Yeah. Again, it's related to the possibility for some discrete contacts via the channel that has been discussed with Ambassador Khalilzad.
QUESTION: But just to be clear on this, Iran has not approached the U.S. for a discussion in recent weeks?
MR. CASEY: Sue, I'm not aware of anything new on that. I'm really not.
Yeah, let's go to this gentleman back here.
QUESTION: Many leaders of the Congress have expressed yesterday very positive views of the involvement of the United States Administration with the efforts of Syria helping out in the -- you know, bringing the stability and everything. The Syria Foreign Minister seems to be having very successful meetings with the top officials and religious leaders today in there. But what you have said so far doesn't give me precisely the -- really the impression that I want to get to know. Are you viewing this visit and these talks in a negative role or are you supporting these efforts that the two countries are taking today, undertaking today?
MR. CASEY: Well, again, we do want to see good and positive relations between the Government of Iraq and the government of neighboring states. Certainly it is a matter for the legitimate elected Iraqi officials to decide who they want to talk to and who they don't, and that's up to them.
In terms of the visit itself though or the statements made by the Syrian minister and Syrian officials, again, we acknowledge the statements; but we've seen statements like this many times in the past, and what we need to see are concrete steps taken to back up those statements of goodwill.
QUESTION: Back to the same topic again? Has the Iraqi Government asked the U.S. whether you would like to deliver any special sort of message within these discussions with Iran? Have they discussed it with you?
MR. CASEY: Not that I know of, Sue. But I haven't spoken with either Ambassador Khalilzad or the people on the ground. Certainly I know he talks all the time with Iraqi Government officials, but whether there's been any specific conversations about this, again, the basic information I have on this is coming from press reporting right now.
QUESTION: Could you take that as a question then to look into?
MR. CASEY: Well, we'll see if there's anything additional we have for you on it.
QUESTION: Do you think that Iran has an interest in reducing violence in Iraq? I mean, the reaction is -- you're reacting very calm and very straightforward, but this ostensibly is a conference to talk about bringing down the violence in Iraq called by a country that the U.S. accuses of fomenting violence in Iraq. Could this be a genuine gesture by Iran?
MR. CASEY: Well, Barry, again --
QUESTION: You're leaving it up to Iraq to figure it out?
MR. CASEY: I'm basing my understanding of this based on press reports, not any more detailed review of it. Again, there have been contacts, including high-level contacts between senior Iraqi officials and senior Iranian officials. In those contacts we have seen public statements from the Iranian Government expressing their desire to reduce the violence and to respond positively to the situation in Iraq.
As I've said, unfortunately, those positive statements -- and this applies to the case of Syria as well -- have not been backed up by actual concrete steps. So the fact that another meeting is being called to have another discussion about this subject is not, of and by itself, to me an indication one way or the other of an actual change in policy.
QUESTION: You're skeptical, in other words, that it's going to amount to much?
MR. CASEY: Well, again, we'll see what happens. I'm not trying to prejudge it. I'm just simply saying that we have seen other high-level meetings take place and we haven't seen much by way of follow-up on it in terms of Iranian behavior.
Yeah, let's go back here.
QUESTION: Can I just get you to clarify? Do you welcome this initiative? Do you welcome the invitation from Iran to the Iraqi Government?
MR. CASEY: Again, I think the opinion I've offered on it is the one I've offered. It's up to the Iraqi Government to decide how they want to respond to this invitation. That's their call. It's not for us to welcome it or not welcome it. It's their decision.
QUESTION: Well, do you feel that the U.S. has been snubbed by not receiving an invitation? I mean, you obviously are a neighbor there? I mean, if you're a key player in Iraq and Iran has invited the, you know, no military commanders, no one's being invited, does the U.S. feel snubbed?
MR. CASEY: I feel like I'm in Groundhog Day here. I think I've answered that question about as best I can. It's an issue between the Iraqi Government and its neighbors. They're certainly -- again we want to see them have positive relations. If they believe this is a positive opportunity for them, then they are more than welcome to go ahead to do that. They don't need our invitation or approval to do so.
QUESTION: Can we change the subject?
MR. CASEY: Fine by me. (Laughter.)
QUESTION: Sure, Lebanon. Hezbollah leader is kind of again making threats to have demonstrations, et cetera, threatening to bring down the government. At the same time today, they're beginning talks in New York, I believe, on the tribunal for the Hariri assassination. Do you see those two things as linked and what is the Government doing, if anything -- the U.S. Government doing to support the Siniora Government in this situation?
MR. CASEY: Yeah. Well, as you know, there are talks going on up in New York now on the formation of a special tribunal to handle cases related to the investigation of the Hariri assassination. We do think that's an important step forward for the Lebanese people in terms of assuring accountability for the actions and for the crimes that were committed related to that incident.
In terms of the internal politics of Lebanon, obviously as we've said before, we want the Lebanese people to determine how and who will be involved in their government. But we also want to make clear, too, that it is important that the rules of the game be followed; that the constitution be followed; that electoral processes be followed. And we certainly would reject any efforts on the part of outside governments to try and interfere or influence that process and you certainly know we've spoken to and continue to speak to the fact that the Syrian Government continues its interference into Lebanese affairs. We definitely want to see that stop and certainly don't want to see again any other outside actors including Iran as well.
I just think we -- feel like we're back to where we started from. This really is Groundhog Day. We don't want to see anyone -- any other outside actors interfering in the legitimate decision making of the Lebanese political system. As you know, we support the elected government and Prime Minister Siniora and we're going to continue to work with them to help them move forward on the broad range of issues that we've got with them including ensuring accountability in the case of the Hariri assassination.
QUESTION: Change of topic?
MR. CASEY: Michel's still on that one.
QUESTION: Hezbollah leader has Hassan Nasrallah has called his followers to be ready maybe this week for a mass demonstration to topple Siniora's government? Can I follow up to this question: What are you doing now to help Siniora government and what if Hezbollah followers go to the streets this week to topple Siniora's government?
MR. CASEY: Well, look, again I think what we want to see happen is that the political leadership in Lebanon work within the political system to determine who should or shouldn't be members of that government. It's a parliamentary system. There are rules in place to have that happen. Certainly people have the right to freely express themselves, particularly now that Syrian domination of the country has by and large ended. But what is important, of course, is that any expressions of political opinion be done in a peaceful way, be done in accordance with the laws of the country and be done without the intent to intimidate others from acting or without -- done in a way that makes sure that it respects the rights of all individuals there.
In terms of what we are going, again, we continue to support the efforts of the Lebanese people and of Prime Minister Siniora to move forward on those issues that are key to the future of the Lebanese people. Part of that includes accountability for the past, for things like the Hariri assassination. Part of that includes helping and aiding in the reconstruction efforts in the country, and I know you guys heard from Randy Tobias on that subject a little bit last week. Part of it includes as well supporting continued democratic development and continued strengthening of democratic institutions there. And that's what we want to see happen and that's what we're going to continue to be working towards.
QUESTION: Change of subject now? Do you have any comment on this New Yorker Magazine article over the weekend citing a CIA assessment that says there's no conclusive evidence of a secret Iranian nuclear weapons program?
MR. CASEY: I think the White House has already responded to that and they've said they're not going to dignify the story with a comment, and that sounds good enough for me.
Let's go over here.
QUESTION: I had a change of subject as well.
MR. CASEY: Same subject? Yeah.
QUESTION: The IAEA is meeting this week in Vienna to discuss an Iranian request for some technical help with its -- on its nuclear -- heavy-water nuclear reactor. And they're saying that the request has to do with, you know, some health and science -- health and environmental issues, among others. Now, presumably the United -- what does the United States think of that demand and wouldn't you think that anything that gets the IAEA and inspectors more involved in the Iranian nuclear program rather than less involved would be a positive step?
MR. CASEY: Well, I think Ambassador Schulte out there has already spoken to this. This is certainly not an effort that we support and don't think the IAEA should support it either. Again, there are large numbers of IAEA Board of Governors resolutions that Iran has defied. Iran has continued to defy the UN Security Council in terms of not ceasing its uranium enrichment activities and not coming into compliance with all those previous resolutions. Iran has also not cooperated with the IAEA inspectors in terms of providing answers to the many questions that have been outstanding about their nuclear program for several years.
Certainly the development of a heavy-water reactor capable of producing plutonium, capable of therefore producing material directly useful in the production of nuclear weapons, is not something that I think we or anyone else wants to see happen.
Let's go over here.
QUESTION: A different subject. Do you have a preview of tomorrow's Sri Lanka conference? And also, do you have any readout of Secretary Hill's travels in China?
MR. CASEY: Which do you want first?
QUESTION: Sri Lanka.
MR. CASEY: Let's try Sri Lanka first and then we'll move over to Chris Hill unless there are other Sri Lanka questions.
I think you've all seen the Notice to the Press that we put out a little earlier today. There is going to be a meeting that actually is being hosted starting today and going on into tomorrow of the Tokyo Donors Conference on Sri Lanka. This is the pairing of us and a number of other co-chair representatives, so it's the U.S., Norway, Japan and the EU. And this is basically the main forum that we're using to discuss strategies that the international community can pursue to be able to encourage the peace process in Sri Lanka.
I understand that the last meeting of this took place in September and this is, in effect, a follow-on to that meeting. We will, again, be looking to see what we can do to help move that process forward and we think it's important for the people of Sri Lanka that that peace process does move forward and ultimately leads to a resolution to the longstanding situation in the country.
QUESTION: So (inaudible) meeting today? Because the announcement came out this morning and said the meeting was being hosted tomorrow. So how is it -- what's happening today exactly?
MR. CASEY: There are preliminary discussions taking place today, as I understand it, but the basic -- the lead for the United States on this is Under Secretary Burns.
QUESTION: So the main part of the meeting is tomorrow?
MR. CASEY: I believe that -- I believe they are starting today late afternoon and then continuing on into tomorrow.
QUESTION: Do you have any details on what those strategies might be? Are there any new ones, do you know?
MR. CASEY: I'll leave it to Ambassador Burns and his co-chairs to talk to you all after the meeting. I don't want to try and preview. This is sort of a regular activity that's engaged in. Again, I think we are continuing to share that the international community believes very strongly that we need this process to move forward. And again, we will, as we have at previous sessions, look for ways where we as an international community, and specifically in this format the Tokyo donors conference, can help push that process forward.
QUESTION: Will you release a statement afterwards? Will it be a joint official thing?
MR. CASEY: Well, as you saw from the notice, Under Secretary Burns and his co-chairs will be giving a press conference.
MR. CASEY: I'm not sure if there will be a formal written statement that will accompany that or not, but you'll have a chance to hear from them directly about what they've done and their activities there.
QUESTION: Can we go --
MR. CASEY: Chris Hill? Did we want to do Chris Hill first? Or we've still got Sri Lanka? All right, let's do Chris Hill. And basically I think most of you know that Chris is in Beijing right now to follow up on discussions that were held in Hanoi. And this is all about the process of preparing for a return to the six-party talks. His main meetings today, as I understand it, were with Vice Foreign Minister Wu Dawei, and that was the main part of his discussions there.
He does plan, as I understand it, to return to Washington sometime tomorrow after some additional meetings with Chinese officials. As he said, I think he wants to make it home for Thanksgiving. So we look forward to having him back afterwards.
QUESTION: Is he going to meet with any North Korean officials, or is that something that is planned?
MR. CASEY: There's nothing scheduled.
QUESTION: A quick follow-up for my other question.
MR. CASEY: Sure.
QUESTION: Do we have any date set for these talks yet? I don't expect you to have it, but just in case --
MR. CASEY: No, I don't have any dates for you at this point. I think that's still under discussion. Certainly we want to see them happen as soon as possible.
QUESTION: Just a question then on this former KGB officer who was apparently poisoned, his opposition to the Kremlin, do you have any response to that or any reaction?
MR. CASEY: Well, we've seen these same reports you have on that through the media. I know we're reaching out to the British Government -- understand he's now a British subject -- to try and see what information they have about it. But I honestly can't confirm any of the details of what's been reported.
QUESTION: Have you spoken to the Russians about this?
MR. CASEY: Again, I think our starting point with this is to talk with the British Government since that is where he resides and he's a national of their country right now.
Yeah, let's go back here.
QUESTION: Freezing North Korea account in BDA, it is reported that the Chinese newspapers, the Chinese Government has already a $12 million left in a North Korean account from BDA. Can you confirm on that?
MR. CASEY: No, I can't. I've seen those reports and I'm sure we'll have an opportunity to talk with the Chinese about it. But I think that's an issue that you'd best ask them about directly.
Let's go here and then over in the back. Is anyone else still on North Korea? Okay.
QUESTION: A quick one. China's Foreign Minister, Secretary Rice to send Assistant Secretary Hill to Pyongyang. Do you have anything about any chance of that?
MR. CASEY: I had -- certainly hadn't seen those comments. Again, Chris is in Beijing right now. He's planning on being there and then coming back home. There's certainly no plans for him to travel to North Korea.
Okay, let's go back to you.
QUESTION: The General Assembly of the United Nations last week has voted 156 votes for a condemnation of Israel for the massacre that had taken place in Gaza against the Palestinians. These 156 countries found it is a legitimate right -- a right to go and vote in the General Assembly on that resolution since the United States vetoed a similar resolution in the Security Council.
Now Ambassador -- U.S. Ambassador Bolton has been lashing out on these countries and the UN because of this vote. Some people find his comments as very ideological and personal views because he is looked at as one-sided, you know, he has one sided views of Israel and the conflict there is very pro-Israeli person. Other people find that they need to know exactly what the United States really -- real position if you find it is the legitimate right of the 156 countries to vote the way they did condemning the Israel massacre.
MR. CASEY: Well, our views on this subject, I think, were very accurately and adequately conveyed both by the Secretary in her statement in response to the incident in Gaza, as well as by our explanation of vote on the resolution as it appeared in the Security Council. Look, I think the thing that is most important to understand is that the United States is fully committed and dedicated to seeing a long-term solution to the Israeli-Palestinian problem. And what we believe to be the best solution that and what the rest of the international community has endorsed, what President Abbas has endorsed is a two-state solution arrived at through the roadmap. That's what we want to see happen.
The question in the case of this resolution was whether that resolution was going to contribute in any way to that goal and that objective. And as you heard from Ambassador Bolton and the Explanation of Vote at that time we believe that the resolution itself was unbalanced and did not represent the full range of the situation a we understood it. And more importantly, was not going to contribute in any meaningful way or any way at all to advancing the peace process and moving forward. You can go back and look at the specific text of that Explanation of Vote for the official version of it. But that's where we've stood on it.
As to people's rights in the General Assembly, the General Assembly took a vote and people voted how they did. Again, I think our policy on this is very clear and we've tried to explain that as best we could.
Yeah, let's go back here.
QUESTION: Can we switch back to Lebanon just for a second?
MR. CASEY: Sure.
QUESTION: The IDF is investigating the use of cluster bombs in southern Lebanon and the -- I know the State Department was conducting its own investigation of whether or not the use of cluster bombs violated any agreements between the Israelis and the Americans. I was wondering if you had any follow-up on that investigation or where does the U.S. stand on the use of cluster bombs now?
MR. CASEY: I don't have any updates for you on that specific inquiry. That is still ongoing and certainly we'll report to Congress at a time when we've concluded our review of that.
Okay, one last one over here.
QUESTION: Yes, back to Russia, a different issue. There were some reports over the weekend that the U.S. decided to rescind its sanctions on the Russian company Sukhoi which had been -- had sanctions imposed on it for doing business with Iran. I was wondering if there was any comment on that. Was it a move to improve the atmospherics for -- vis-?-vis WTO or was it something maybe linked to getting the Russians' support on other initiatives that we're pursuing with them?
MR. CASEY: I'll have to look into that for you. I hadn't seen any reports that that the policy had actually changed, but let me look for you and see what we can get. Okay?
QUESTION: And if you could get at the time, there was a second Russian company, Rosoboronexport, that had also been under there.
MR. CASEY: Right.
QUESTION: Any -- the Russian Foreign Minister said he was hoping to see the sanctions on that one lifted as well.
MR. CASEY: I'll check and see if there's any change in status on either of them.
MR. CASEY: Thanks, guys.
(The briefing was concluded at 1:04 p.m.)
DPB # 186
Released on November 20, 2006