State Department Briefing by Victoria Nuland, March 15, 2012

Washington, DC–(ENEWSPF)–March 15, 2012.  

Index for Today’s Briefing
    • Fact Sheet on U.S. Humanitarian Assistance in Syria
    • Iran’s Intentions in Yemen
    • Political Process
    • President Saleh
    • Taliban Statements / Reconciliation Process
    • Continuing Support / President Karzai’s Statement
    • Justice for Victims of March 11th Attack
  • IRAN
    • Nuclear Talks
    • Secretary’s Discussion with Foreign Minister Lavrov
    • Kofi Annan’s Mission
    • Reflections on Year-Long Violence
    • Assad E-Mails
    • Friends of Syrian People
    • Amnesty International
    • Military Action in Eritrea


12:35 p.m. EDT

MS. NULAND: Good afternoon, everybody. Sorry that we are a little later than we intended today. And we are a little short on time because we have the Secretary with the Moroccan leader today.

The only thing I had was just to call your attention to the fact that we just released a fact sheet on U.S. humanitarian assistance to Syria. I know I owe you some answers on our MEPI and internet freedom programs. We are still working on those. We’ll have them for you later today.


QUESTION: Can I start with Yemen, please?


QUESTION: A couple of things. First of all, there are some reports about Iranian support for Yemen – for uprisings in Yemen, giving them weapons and other type of support. I’m just wondering what you can say about that, just increasing its outreach and arms shipments to Yemeni rebels.

Also, there’s – it’s about the political discussions between the opposition and President Saleh. President Saleh is saying that he won’t leave the country unless certain opposition figures would leave, and these opposition figures are saying that, in the presence of U.S. Ambassador Firestein, they promised to leave if Saleh left the country. So if you can shed some light on that?

MS. NULAND: Well, first with regard to Iran in Yemen, we have long had concerns about Iran’s destabilizing intentions and actions in Yemen. It’s been clear for a long time that Yemen has been one of Iran’s targets. This is among the reasons that we work so hard with the Yemenis in bilateral counterterrorism cooperation.

With regard to the political process, as you know, the process that we are supporting is the process being led by President Hadi now. It is mapped out in the agreement that the Yemeni people supported by referendum and in – a couple of weeks ago – that over the next two years, there will have to be a constitutional assembly, there’ll have to be a new constitution, then there will have to be elections. And this is what was agreed between Hadi, when he was vice president, and the opposition forces.

So our view is that President Saleh needs to continue to play a constructive role in that and in helping to ensure that the letter and the spirit of that agreement are fulfilled, and that Yemeni – Yemen’s future politicians need to be chosen by the people of Yemen.

QUESTION: But that does include leaving the country? Because the opposition said they won’t be involved in any dialogue there if he’s still head of the party.

MS. NULAND: Well, I can’t speak to his political future in Yemen, but as you know, we wanted to – we did not express our views one way or the other on whether he stayed in Yemen or whether he left permanently. Our concern was simply that he agreed to step down as president once the elections had happened.

QUESTION: And then just – the last thing you said, you have long had concerns, which were stated at the podium, about Iranian influence, but are you concerned about an uptick of that type of support to the Houthis?

MS. NULAND: I don’t have anything new to point to at the moment. This is something that we have watched for some time. And we do feel that folks have tried to take advantage of the instability in Yemen. And now that we are on a track, we hope, to more stability, we are hopeful that we can continue to make more progress in general.


QUESTION: Victoria, so you are quite comfortable with Saleh staying in Yemen? You don’t see this as a destabilizing factor?

MS. NULAND: Again, as long as he continues to respect the process that the Yemeni people have endorsed and that is ongoing, we don’t have a view one way or the other about whether he stays in the country. But our consistent message to him has been to be respectful of that process and to let the Yemeni people choose their own future.

QUESTION: And from your point of view, respecting the process means non-interference and – or not playing any political role in the future of the country?

MS. NULAND: Again, we want to see him play a constructive role in supporting the democratization process in Yemen.

Matt, you missed your first question chance. Are you —

QUESTION: Did you – so you have already been through Afghanistan?

MS. NULAND: We have not yet been through Afghanistan. I was giving you the opportunity to go to the subject of your choice —

QUESTION: Thank you.

MS. NULAND: — unless anyone’s got anything more on Yemen.


QUESTION: I don’t have anything on Yemen.

MS. NULAND: Okay. Afghanistan?

QUESTION: Afghanistan?


QUESTION: What do you make of the impact, if any, of the Taliban statement today that they’re not going to engage in any talks with you guys, they’re not going to open an office in Qatar, they’re not going to do anything, basically?

MS. NULAND: Well, you know that the process that we have been willing to support is one where we facilitate, we support a dialogue, Afghans to Afghans. That’s going to take two to tango. They’re going to have to decide what they want to do in this regard. We think that if we have Taliban who are willing to renounce violence, that that is a process that we should support.

But as we said – as the Secretary said, as Marc Grossman said earlier in the year – the next step that we expect to see from the Taliban, if they want this process to move forward and if they are serious about it – and they’re going to have to make that decision for themselves, and if they want a political office to open – is that they’ve got to make clear statements distancing themselves from international terrorism and supporting that political process. So it’s their choice there.

QUESTION: Right. But instead of that, they’ve come out with a statement saying – well, not saying the opposite of that, but saying that they’re not interested in talks. Isn’t that a concern to you? And also, you said it takes two to tango, but isn’t this really a three-way dance that you’re talking about here?

MS. NULAND: Well, again, you know that our goal here was to facilitate their ability to talk and —


MS. NULAND: — and maybe someday dance together. So our goal is to work ourselves out of a job if we possibly can.

Now, we still feel that if there is a process that can be supported, that we ought to do that. We remain prepared to continue these discussions. Our only goal is to get Afghans to sit down together.


MS. NULAND: So this is a process that’s had a lot of ups and downs. It’s had – as the Secretary said, some of the steps that have been taken to date are really only preliminary. But again, it’s only going to work if you have Taliban participants who are willing to do what’s necessary.

QUESTION: In your view, though, right now, is there a process that can be supported, or is it still – did it ever get to the point where there was a process that could be supported?

MS. NULAND: Well, again, there have —

QUESTION: And if it did, is there still one that can be supported?

MS. NULAND: I think we have to see. We have to see where this goes now. As you said, there were statements today. Whether those are representative, whether they’re representative of the entire group, whether there are – whether, after feelings calm, there is a way to get back to it, we’ll just have to see.

QUESTION: Well, it seems to be —

QUESTION: But let me just – I just want to – in your view, was there – did it get to a point before today that you thought that there was a process that could support it?

MS. NULAND: Well, I think that we had been clear at the time of Marc Grossman’s last trip, when the Secretary last spoke to this issue, that we considered that the kind of interchanges that we had had were preliminary, but that there was something there that should continue to be nurtured and supported, and that we were prepared to continue to do that, had it really become a thing, not to the extent that we had worked ourselves out of a job, if that makes any sense. So we just need to see what happens now.


QUESTION: Wait a minute. Excuse me. But at the same time, in addition to kind of saying that you’re sending mixed messages and not making good on your kind of confidence-building measures or good faith gestures, they’re also saying pretty plainly that they don’t trust the Karzai government as an interlocutor. So, I mean, if you’re talking about that this is a bit between Afghans and Afghans and it’s two to tango, it sounds like they don’t want to tango with – the Taliban doesn’t want to tango with the Afghan Government.

MS. NULAND: Well, again, the Afghan Government is the elected government of the country. So – and it was elected by the people of Afghanistan, so a key aspect of this from our perspective has been their willingness to work with and sit down with this government. So it’s their choice whether they can do that or not.

QUESTION: Yeah, but if the Taliban – in particular, they say that the United States reneged on a prisoner exchange arrangement. Could you comment on that?

MS. NULAND: Well, I think you know that we haven’t made any decisions one way or the other. I’m not going to get into the details of what we are discussing. But if they push back from any table, it’s hard to imagine that one could make the kind of progress that they’re looking for.

QUESTION: So – but was there a point where there was a deal, a (inaudible) on the exchange of prisoners?

MS. NULAND: Said, I think we’ve spoken to this many times, that we had not made any decisions up to this point about whether to transfer any Taliban detainees from Guantanamo. We’re not in a position to discuss the details of what might be possible if we ever – but any discussions about transfers, were they to come at any future time, obviously have to be consulted with the Congress as well, and we’re not at that stage.


QUESTION: Has there been any sense that the Taliban is becoming less enthusiastic for these negotiations because of the military issues that we’ve seen – the Qu’ran burnings, the Marines urinating on the Taliban bodies, and now the killings in this village? Is there concern within this Administration that all of these things adding up is offering the Taliban less incentive to come to the negotiating table?

MS. NULAND: Well, the incentive for a reconciliation process always has been based on a desire to support and play a role in a peaceful, stable Afghanistan based on the Afghan constitution. So it was always a question whether we had representatives there who were prepared to work towards and accept the kinds of steps that have to proceed in this process. We talked about renouncing violence, we talked about accepting the Afghan constitution, we talked about breaking with al-Qaida. With regard to whether the views of the Taliban have changed over the last two or three weeks, I really can’t speak to their motivations one way or the other.

QUESTION: But with each of these incidents, we see a growing chorus of calls in the United States for a quicker withdrawal. And doesn’t that just send the message that they can wait out the U.S.?

MS. NULAND: Well, the United States has made clear, as have the rest of our ISAF partners, that we – our support for a democratic, stable Afghanistan doesn’t end in 2013, doesn’t end in 2014. The process that we’re engaged in, as the President and Prime Minister Cameron talked about yesterday, is a process where instead of ISAF soldiers being in the front, it is Afghan soldiers who are increasingly in the lead for their own security where our military role is increasingly one of support, of advising, et cetera. But that doesn’t change the fact that we’re also looking to reach a long-term agreement where we can continue to provide the kinds of support that Afghanistan needs so that it can support a democratic and stable country.

So anybody who thinks that they can wait out Afghanistan and it’s going to become unstable again, that’s nobody’s goal here. And that’s a misunderstanding of the situation.


MS. NULAND: Please, Andy.

QUESTION: — follow up on this? And it has to do with the statement put out by President Karzai today on – suggesting that NATO and ISAF troops should get out of the villages in Afghanistan. Is that – does that – at variance at all with your current plan, or is that exactly what you’re planning to do? Or do you think – and do you think that he’s sort of pushing the ball a little bit too fast here?

MS. NULAND: Well, Secretary Panetta was in Afghanistan today. He had a chance to talk to President Karzai. But in general terms, I think we are all talking about the same thing, which is the Afghans increasingly taking the lead for their own security. We are in the process with President Karzai in the ISAF family, as the President and Prime Minister Cameron made clear yesterday, working through exactly how that might be implemented in 2013 to reach our goal of – by 2014 – of the Afghans being fully in the lead. So this is a conversation that is ongoing in terms of the precise kinds of details that President Karzai was talking about.

QUESTION: And would that conversation also involve perhaps different timelines? I mean, it sounds as though his timeline might be a bit shorter than the current ISAF timeline.

MS. NULAND: Again, I think the President’s made clear that our goal is to – working together with our ISAF partners and with the Afghans and respecting their sovereignty – to come out of the NATO Summit in Chicago in May with a clear roadmap and set of timelines that folks have all agreed to.


QUESTION: Do you think that the removal of the soldier who is alleged to have shot 16 people in Afghanistan, or 18 people, took away – it complicates U.S. diplomatic efforts, and in fact complicates the goodwill that the U.S has nurtured over the past so many years in Afghanistan?

MS. NULAND: Well, as the – our DOD colleagues have already made clear publicly today, the way this case is being handled is in keeping with the agreements that we have and that ISAF has with the Government of Afghanistan. So it shouldn’t come as any surprise. That said, the President has personally committed that justice will be served in this case as if these were American children, American families that were the victims. So there will be justice in this case.

QUESTION: But the one precedent that comes to mind in this case is really the Haditha incident in Baghdad where 24 – two dozen – people were killed, civilians, and then the trial ended up with acquitting everybody that was involved. So that must be the backdrop, that the Afghanis view this thing through that prism.

MS. NULAND: Well, the President himself has made very strong commitments about seeing justice served appropriately in this case.

QUESTION: I’m curious as to that last line. You said the President has said that this would – case would be tried as if these children, these victims, were American children. Why? Would they be treated any other way?

MS. NULAND: No, of course not. But I’m just saying that in the context of what the Afghans can expect and any concerns that they might have, it’s a very strong statement from a President of the United States.

Please. Please.

QUESTION: Can I change?




QUESTION: The President said yesterday that the window for diplomacy is shrinking. Is that to say that the sanctions are not working?

MS. NULAND: Well, first of all, I will send you to the White House for the – a parsing of the President’s words, but in general terms, the intention there was to make the case again that it is time for the Iranians to seize the opportunity that the P-5+1 has given them to come clean about their nuclear program, that we are talking about trying to schedule talks early – later this spring. That is their opportunity to prove to the world that their nuclear intent is purely peaceful.

QUESTION: Is it correct, there’s – there are some Russia reports out there that the Secretary has told Foreign Minister Lavrov that this is their last opportunity. You said this is their opportunity. You didn’t use the word last. Would you say that this is their last opportunity? And did she in fact, tell Foreign Minister Lavrov to warn Iran or alert the Iranians that this is it – this is the last opportunity they’ll have before whatever comes next?

MS. NULAND: The Secretary did not send a warning to the Iranians through Foreign Minister Lavrov. The conversation that they had on Iran centered around ensuring that these talks, as they start, are structured in a way that they cannot – that they bring substantive results, that they can’t be used for stalling, and that they can’t be used for covering continuing activity.

QUESTION: Okay. But would you say that this is their last opportunity? Would you put the word last before the word opportunity when —

MS. NULAND: I think the President – I am not going to put extra adjectives in front of what the President said yesterday. I think he’s the most authoritative source on where we are here.


QUESTION: But when – but – surely when he says —

MS. NULAND: She didn’t use that adjective in her meeting.

QUESTION: With Lavrov?

MS. NULAND: Correct.

QUESTION: But surely when you – when – it certainly would suggest though, when you say that the window is closing or narrowing, and that here is this opportunity that may or may not happen in the next month or so, and it would certainly suggest that time is running short and that this is a last opportunity if not the last. No?

MS. NULAND: I think the President was pretty clear yesterday what he’s expecting out of the Iranians.




QUESTION: I think there is a conflicting evaluation about Kofi Annan mission. How do you characterize it? Was it a failure, wait and see, or – how do you evaluate it so far?

MS. NULAND: Well, we talked about this yesterday.


MS. NULAND: Kofi Annan is going to make his own report tomorrow to the Security Council. We’re not going to judge his mission until we hear how he judges his mission. So, I’m going to defer on that one today.

QUESTION: So on the first anniversary of the protests – it’s exactly a year ago – do you believe that U.S. policy toward Syria and what’s going on in Syria has been on target, lacking, or ambitious? How do you characterize it?

MS. NULAND: You’re asking me to give a grade —

QUESTION: I mean, I’m asking you as the – this is the top diplomatic entity in this town and they’re the ones that conduct foreign policy toward all parts of the world. So how do you assess your policy towards Syria thus far?

MS. NULAND: I think the more appropriate point to be making on this one year anniversary — and as you know, there was some upheaval before a year ago today, but we think about this as the anniversary because it was a particularly horrific and violent day. It was the one – today’s the one year anniversary of the beginning of the peaceful political protest that followed the killing of school children in Daraa for the crime of writing some anti-Assad graffiti on the walls.

So what have we seen in this year? As the peaceful protests have grown, the Assad regime has become more and more bloody and violent vis-a-vis its own people, has gone into town after town trying to suppress the violence with guns rather than sitting and talking with its own people.

So the international community has responded. And you’ve seen over these months, more and more countries increase their sanctions on Iran – on Syria. Just today – well, more and more countries closing the noose on Syria, refusing to trade, refusing to conduct normal diplomacy, refusing to allow normal flights and commerce, et cetera. We’re seeing the impact on the Syrian economy. We’re seeing the impact on the increasing isolation of Syria. We are going to keep up the pressure until the Syrian people achieve their objectives.


QUESTION: Does the Administration have any comment on the alleged Assad emails that were printed in the Guardian newspaper? And did the Administration have access to them before they were published?

MS. NULAND: On your last question, I think the answer is no. I don’t have any information to indicate that we saw them before they were published. But we don’t have any reason to believe that they’re anything but authentic. And they really tell an amazing tale. Far from being detached from what his military is doing, Assad seems to take pride in the viciousness of his own security forces. And he seems to make fun of the idea of actually sitting down and talking with his people. So it really illustrates the character of this guy who – and why he has lost legitimacy not only in the eyes of his people, but in the eyes of the international community.

I’m getting the high sign.


MS. NULAND: Let’s do one more.

QUESTION: I got a few more. First of all, on that one: Since you’re willing to comment now on the substance of stolen documents, I’d like for you to talk about some WikiLeaks cables. Will you be willing to do that?

MS. NULAND: I will not.

QUESTION: Why is it that you’re willing to draw conclusions from emails that were clearly stolen from the people who were writing the back and forth to each other in this case and not on something – I mean, do you agree that these were stolen?

MS. NULAND: I can’t speak to how the Guardian acquired them. I would send you to the Guardian on that.

QUESTION: Right. Well, you know, WikiLeaks didn’t speak to how they acquired their documents.

MS. NULAND: They were classified government cables, and we’re obviously not going to comment on them.

QUESTION: I’ve got – have you seen this letter or the Amnesty International statement about this ship carrying, allegedly carrying, lots of ammunition and weapons to Egypt?

MS. NULAND: We’ve – I’ve seen an Amnesty letter with regard to its concerns about future policy in Egypt, if that’s what you’re talking about.

QUESTION: Well, there’s that letter, but – to the Secretary. But there’s also the statement that talks about this ship that’s on its way from this big ammo supply port in the States, on its way to Port Said, apparently. Is the Administration okay with that going there – with these armaments going to Egypt?

MS. NULAND: I’m going to take that one, Matt, because I haven’t seen that particular —

QUESTION: All right. And then as regards to the letter to the Secretary, is she inclined to certify Egypt as complying with the congressional requirements?

MS. NULAND: Well, as you make clear, she is going to have to make some recommendations and she’s going to have to make some decisions, but she hasn’t come to any conclusions yet.

QUESTION: All right. And then a last one. Do you have any comment or concern about Ethiopia’s invasion of Eritrea this morning?

MS. NULAND: Let me say on that one that we have heard the government’s reports that its forces struck military posts inside Eritrea today. We are obviously calling on both sides to exercise restraint and to avoid any further military action.

QUESTION: Do you take any – do you –you’ve seen the Ethiopian explanation for what they did – why they did what they did. Do you accept that explanation? Do you have any problem with it?

MS. NULAND: We are seeking further clarification from them as to their intentions.

Okay. One last one, and then I’ve got to go.

QUESTION: Can we just go quickly back to Syria? Kofi briefs the Security Council tomorrow. What do you hope to unfold after that regarding this new resolution, regarding another Friends of Syria meeting? How do you hope things will pan out?

MS. NULAND: Well, we are having a meeting of the Friends of the Syrian people, as you know, in Istanbul at the beginning of April. With regard to what the joint representative will recommend, I think we need to wait and see what he reports and then we’ll go from there.

All right. Thanks, everybody. Sorry we were quick today.

(The briefing was concluded at 12:59 p.m.)