State Department Briefing by Victoria Nuland, March 20, 2012

Washington, DC–(ENEWSPF)–March 20, 2012.

Index for Today’s Briefing
    • Secretary Clinton’s Statement and Background Conference Call on National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA)
    • UN Security Council Work Ongoing / Increasing Convergence of Views / Joint Special Envoy Kofi Annan
    • Press Reports of Russian Tanker at the Port of Tartus
    • Human Rights Violations
    • April Meeting in Turkey
  • IRAQ
    • Condemnation of Today’s Attacks / Arab League Summit
    • Invite to IAEA Monitors
    • DPRK on Agenda for Spring Trilateral Meeting between U.S./ Japan/South Korea
    • U.S. Support to Palestinians / Consultations on the Hill
    • Quartet Envoys Meet Tomorrow in Brussels / Quartet Principals Meeting in April
    • Parliamentary Review / Discussions of Recommendations
    • Syrian Embassy in DC / Graffiti
    • Reported President Sirleaf LGBT Alleged Comments
    • March 15 Incursion / No Evidence of Further Military Action
  • CUBA
    • DOJ Parole of Rene Gonzalez of Cuban Five
    • Alan Gross / Continued Appeals to Cuban Authorities for Release


12:57 p.m. EDT

MS. NULAND: All right. A couple of things from us at the top. Happy spring. Happy Nowruz. May every day be Nowruz, as the Secretary said yesterday.

The second thing is to advise that you will very shortly see a statement from the Secretary of State on a number of countries that have made significant reductions in their purchases of Iranian crude oil and their implementation therefore of Section 1245 of the 2012 National Defense Authorization Act. So you’ll see a statement from the Secretary of State. And then at about 1:45, right after we finish here, we’ll have a background call with a Senior State Department Official to give you a little bit more depth on how she came to the decisions that she came to.

QUESTION: What are the decisions?

MS. NULAND: I think I will let you wait and see the Secretary’s statement, which will be out in the next 15 minutes or so. Okay?

QUESTION: Right in the middle of this.

MS. NULAND: Indeed.

QUESTION: And so it couldn’t have been before, or you couldn’t wait until a little bit afterwards?

MS. NULAND: There were a number of reasons why it needed to be right about now. I apologize for doing this on top. You know we don’t usually like to do that, but —

QUESTION: Can you not just read it?

MS. NULAND: I can read it when it’s released. Why don’t we wait for that? We’re just waiting for a couple of small things here. All right?

QUESTION: Well, the Hill has already been notified about this, so I’m not sure I understand why it has to be – happen while we’re all sitting in here and unable to file anything.

MS. NULAND: Well, you’ll be able to —

QUESTION: We’ll stampede out if need be.

MS. NULAND: Excellent. Stampeding out is a worthwhile endeavor. Make it easier.

All right. I don’t have anything else at the top. Why don’t we go to what’s on your minds?

QUESTION: What do you make of the – Russia’s apparent change of heart on the Syria – on Syria and their sort of self-stated willingness to go along to support the Kofi Annan plan?

MS. NULAND: Well, I think we’ve been talking for a number of days here, certainly since we saw the Russians in New York, that we were seeing an increasing convergence of views on the Security Council, that we had more work to do but we thought that generally the understanding was increasing among us about what needed to be done. I think it speaks to the work of the joint special envoy, Kofi Annan, that we are coming closer. I think you know that there are some consultations going on in New York today on whether we can have a presidential statement from the Security Council on Syria. So I think it remains to be seen how that goes, but we do think that the public statements from Russia are encouraging.

QUESTION: A different topic, or do you want to finish up on this?

MS. NULAND: Yeah. Still on Syria?

QUESTION: Stay on Syria?


QUESTION: Same topic. Toria, yesterday two Russian news outlets reported that Moscow has sent an anti-terror unit to Syria. And today, Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov called the reports fairy tales. Do you have any confirmation regarding this anti-terror unit?

MS. NULAND: I don’t have any information with regard to that. We’ve seen this press reporting regarding a Russian tanker at the Port of Tartus, and we’ve also seen some Russian clarifying statements on that. We will be asking the Russians some questions of our own about the purpose of that ship.


QUESTION: Toria, as you suggested, there has been a warming up, or at least the idea of working together, in the Security Council or the international arena with the Russians on Syria. So do you see this culminating in a UN Security Council resolution or a call to implement a ceasefire, with the Russians perhaps taking the lead on talking to the opposition?

MS. NULAND: Well, the consultations at the moment that are ongoing in New York today and that have already been reported are with regard to a UN Security Council presidency statement, which we would hope would be supportive of the Kofi Annan mission and of the main principles that he has set down and that he has called for. But again, I don’t want to get ahead of the work in New York. That is what we’re working on as the 15 UNSC members.

QUESTION: So you believe that the principle that Mr. Annan already set forth, as you suggested, are enough; they cover what needs to be done in Syria?

MS. NULAND: Well, again, we think that if we can get a strong statement of support for his principles from the Security Council, it will be – it will have an impact on the situation and it will strengthen his hand in trying to get implementation of those principles from the Syrian regime and from all parties in Syria. So let’s see how the consultations in New York go.

QUESTION: And one quick follow-up.


QUESTION: Human Rights Watch today issued a scathing report calling the opposition – or accusing the opposition of committing grave violations of human rights against Alawites in particular or sectarian in nature. I wonder if you would comment on that.

MS. NULAND: Well, we’ve seen the reports of excesses committed against regime forces. We condemn human rights violations in any form by any group or any side. It’s of note that in the Human Rights Watch statement itself, they make absolutely clear that they do not equate these issues of concern with the level of violence and the extreme measures used by the regime – the bulldozing of towns and the months and months and months of torture and killings, et cetera. But under any circumstances, wherever this comes from, it is not something that we condone and it’s something that would – that causes us grave concern.

QUESTION: So under the kind of volatility of the situation, how do you guard against, let’s say, the ethnic cleansing of Christian neighborhoods in some of the towns and the cities, or Alawite neighborhoods? I mean, people that have nothing to do with – they’re not in the armed forces or in the security forces.

MS. NULAND: Well, this is among the set of reasons why it’s so important that we all support the Annan plan, that we all support – and then the underpinnings for it, which were the Arab League plan, because obviously if we were able to have a ceasefire, if we were able to have monitors in, if you as journalists were able to bear witness to what is going on, then the innocents would have more protection. So that is what we are seeking, and we are again calling on the opposition to do what it can to reassure that it’s – all groups in Syria – that it has their best interests at heart and that it wants a Syria that protects the rights, the dignity, the democratic future and participation of all groups in Syria, particularly minority groups and women.

Please, Cami.

QUESTION: Can I ask you – back to Iran. General Allen this morning was testifying before the House Armed Services Committee, and he said while the U.S. has noticed that the Iranians are supporting some Taliban elements in the west of Afghanistan, they’ve also noticed some Iranian support for the Afghan Government in Kabul, which he said in many respects is productive. Do you know what kind of support that is that the Iranians are giving to the Kabul government?

MS. NULAND: Well, I think since these were statements made by General Allen, I’m going to send you back to him for any clarification on statements that he might be making.

Yeah, Scott. Go ahead. Do you want to go back to Syria?

QUESTION: Is the United States considering temporary protection status for Syrians in the United States?

MS. NULAND: I’m not aware that we have had such a request. Are you talking – you’re talking about —

QUESTION: Syrian nationals —

MS. NULAND: — refugee status or some other kind of —

QUESTION: Temporary protection status is what I understood —

MS. NULAND: Yeah. I’m not sure that that issue has come up from Syrians here in the United States, but I’ll get back to you if there’s anything.

QUESTION: (Off-mike.)



MS. NULAND: Anything else on Syria before we move off Syria?

QUESTION: At the Friends of Syria conference —


QUESTION: — they – I think the Turks announced that it will be held now a day before it was slated for, I think the 2nd of April. Now they said it will be held a day before. Is there any reason why it was brought up one day? That’s number one.

MS. NULAND: I don’t – I think they said that it was for scheduling reasons. I don’t have any further information other than that.

QUESTION: And second, the committee that decides who will participate in these kinds of conferences, how do they determine which opposition groups, Syrian opposition groups, are invited to these events?

MS. NULAND: Well, generally the host country works with a broad cross-section of Syrians and makes those determinations.

QUESTION: Are you saying you don’t have any inkling as to why the Turks might have moved it up a day? None?

MS. NULAND: I’m saying that the Turks themselves said it was for scheduling reasons.

QUESTION: What kind of scheduling reasons might you —

MS. NULAND: It could have been the availability of foreign ministers.




QUESTION: Do you see these – the timing of these attacks is aimed to prevent Iraq to – from hosting the Arab League summit?

MS. NULAND: Well, as you know, we strongly condemn terrorism of any kind. We condemn today’s attacks in Iraq. These are deliberate targetings of innocent civilians and security forces, and it’s cowardly and reprehensible.

With regard to the Arab League summit, we don’t have any reason to think that it shouldn’t absolutely go forward. Iraqi security forces have demonstrated time and again in recent years an ability to rise to the challenge of protecting their population and providing security for important events, and we fully expect they’ll be able to do so in this case.

QUESTION: Do you see any role for Iran behind these activities today and the Muqtada al-Sadr had huge demonstrations in Basra today. I mean, do you see any role?

MS. NULAND: Well, we noticed the Sadr demonstrations. Frankly, we didn’t see anything new or anything particularly interesting in those.

With regard to whose hands are behind the attacks today, I’m sure that the Iraqis are investigating and I don’t want to get ahead of that.

QUESTION: Also, there was indication by the Saudi monarch that he may not – he may not attend. Would you encourage your ally, the Saudis, to go ahead, and that would be quite a plug for Iraq for the Saudi monarch to attend the summit?

MS. NULAND: Well, I’m not going to get into the middle of an Arab League meeting that we don’t attend. But obviously, we’re fully supportive of Iraq’s hosting and a full participation by the Arab League members in this meeting.

QUESTION: Also, the Iraqi Government said that they will not invite either Ahmedinejad or Erdogan to the Arab summit conference. Is that a good step?

MS. NULAND: I don’t have any comment on that one way or the other. Please, in the back.

QUESTION: Back to North Korea?


QUESTION: Some media said the U.S. is going to impose financial sanctions on the DPRK if they insist on launching the satellite. Is that true, and can you provide more details about the sanctions? Thank you.

MS. NULAND: Well, I think you know that we already have plenty of measures in place. With regard to what we may or may not choose to do as a policy response were the North Koreans to go forward with something that we consider extremely ill-advised, I’m not going to predict where we would go with that. We spoke to some of the concerns that we have last week.

QUESTION: Yesterday you were asked a question about the North Koreans inviting the IAEA monitors in. You weren’t aware of it, but you answered hypothetically. I’m wondering now that since you do know that they have been invited in, if your answer is the same. And if it is, or even if it isn’t, could you tell us what you think about this – the invitation coming as it does as the same time as they say that they’re going to be launching the satellite?

MS. NULAND: Yeah. Well, we have seen the IAEA confirm now that it was formally invited to go to the DPRK. Our understanding from our contacts with the IAEA is that they are considering that. They haven’t decided what they will do, and so we are not going to get ahead of what they may decide.

QUESTION: Well, if they’re considering it, wouldn’t they accept?

MS. NULAND: They haven’t made any decisions what they’re going to do.


MS. NULAND: I’m going to refer you to them on their decisions and thinking.

QUESTION: I will. But I mean, what would you like to see them do? Would you like to see them accept the invitation?

MS. NULAND: Again, I think I’m not going to get ahead of their decision making and I’m not also going to be briefing on our private discussions with the IAEA. You know the concerns that we have. Our concerns have to do with whether this regime is trustworthy and will keep its word now.

QUESTION: Right, I understand that. But you are part of the decision-making process, are you not? Or is this done entirely by the IAEA bureaucracy?

MS. NULAND: We are obviously consulting with the IAEA on the right course of action. They haven’t made any decisions. I think I won’t get ahead of that.

QUESTION: Okay. But the question is not what they ultimately decide. It’s the question of whether you think it’s a good idea for them to go or not. And I’m not sure I understand why yesterday you said that it was a good idea.

MS. NULAND: Again, I think they are involved in an internal deliberation. We are obviously, as IAEA members, talking to them about it. I think I’m not going to go any further than —

QUESTION: You think, you think, you think. Yet are you —

MS. NULAND: I’m not going to go any further than I did yesterday, Matt, until they make their decisions.

QUESTION: So yesterday – so then the short answer to my question is yesterday’s answer stands?

MS. NULAND: Well, I am not in a position to change yesterday’s answer, obviously.

QUESTION: All right.


QUESTION: Hi. On March 9th, Secretary Clinton mentioned plans for a trilateral meeting between South Korea, the U.S., and Japan. And so will the primary purpose of these talks be to discuss North Korea, and when will these talks happen?

MS. NULAND: I don’t think we’ve set a date. I think her hope was that it would be that this round would be sometime later in the spring at the level of Assistant Secretary Campbell and his counterparts. Generally, the goal is to discuss all of the regional issues of interest to everybody. I think it probably will be the case that, given events, North Korea will be a major agenda item. But there’ll be other items as well.

QUESTION: And what level will these talks happen?

MS. NULAND: I think I just mentioned that the expectation is that it’ll be at the Assistant Secretary Campbell level.

Okay, Shane. I mean Scott.

QUESTION: Can you tell us, has there been an overall drop in U.S. assistance to the Palestinian Authority, especially in Gaza?

MS. NULAND: Well, I think you know that we notified the full amount. There are some congressional concerns about actually transferring some of that money. We are engaged in intensive consultations with the Hill to talk through those issues. We continue to believe that it is important to be able to support Palestinian institutions, particularly security institutions, at this delicate time. So we’re continuing to try to work with the Hill to get the full amount to be able to move forward.

QUESTION: Speaking of Gaza, do you – there’s been some outrage in Israel over some comments that were made by your good friend, Baroness Ashton, in which she appeared to equate the situation in Gaza with the killing of children and teachers outside of this Jewish school in Toulouse. Do you have any comment on that? Do you see her comments as making – as drawing – I don’t know what the right word is – as being – as making – trying to show an equivalency between the situations in – between what happened in Toulouse and the situation in Gaza?

MS. NULAND: Well, I think you know that we made our statements from the White House and from here on how we see the situation in Toulouse and our condolences, obviously, and our concerns. I’m, obviously, not going to get between two sets of allies on this issue.


QUESTION: (Inaudible) the activities of Mr. Hale?

MS. NULAND: Yes, in fact —

QUESTION: Well, (inaudible) — Why not?

MS. NULAND: Quartet envoys will meet tomorrow in Brussels to continue consultations and to prepare for a Quartet principals meeting on April 11th. So that’s —

QUESTION: In Brussels.

MS. NULAND: Yeah. That’s basically what I have.

QUESTION: And anything new in this meeting? Are there any proposals – let’s say, Palestinian proposals, Israeli proposals on borders?

MS. NULAND: Well, one of the things that we are going to try to do in this Quartet envoys meeting tomorrow is to look at how we can take some of the ideas that were in paragraph four of the Quartet statement of September 23rd, 2011 and turn those into concrete action. Paragraph four, just to remind you, talked about expanding Palestinian state-building and institution-building efforts. So that will be the focus of the Quartet’s efforts as it begins preparing for the ministerial meeting in April.


QUESTION: The government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu are saying that Palestinian institutions are failing and falling behind. Do you concur?

MS. NULAND: Well, we are concerned about it. We are concerned about the fact that we haven’t been able to provide full funding. We want to continue to work together as a Quartet community on how we can improve the long-term sustainability of Palestinian institution-building projects and how the Palestinian Authority can get stronger in meeting the full range of civil and security needs of their people now and in the future. So this is something that we need to work on together. We think it’s in the interest of Palestinians; it’s in the interest of Israelis.

Anything else? Scott.


QUESTION: Yeah, on Pakistan. The parliamentary committee looking into this Pakistan-U.S. relations, again asked for an apology and called for an end to drone strikes in Pakistan. Any reaction to that?

MS. NULAND: Well, we’ve seen this first set of recommendations. Our understanding is that the procedure now will be that having tabled these recommendations, there will be a parliamentary discussion of them, that that will resume on March 26th. So I don’t think we’re going to comment until we see the outcome of the full parliamentary debate and let their process go forward.


QUESTION: Continuing the same subject?


QUESTION: I think the message coming out of this panel’s recommendation is that Pakistan wants ties with U.S. under this mutual respect and interests. So what kind of common interests do you see in going forward with relations with Pakistan?

MS. NULAND: Well, we also have always considered that our relationship should be grounded on the basis of mutual respect and common interest. As you know, we believe that we have a lot to do together, not only in combating terrorism and creating more security but in strengthening and promoting economic prosperity, democratic development inside Pakistan, and in strengthening Pakistan as a good neighbor throughout the region, strengthening its ties in the neighborhood. So all of those things are the work that we have to do together and it’s in our interest to contribute to.

QUESTION: Just back on the Quartet meeting for a second?


QUESTION: It’s here, right?

MS. NULAND: It’s in – well, the envoys meeting —

QUESTION: No, no, no. The actual principals.

MS. NULAND: I think we haven’t announced it. But —

QUESTION: You just did.

MS. NULAND: — many of them – it’s going to be on April 11th. I didn’t announce the where. I think —

QUESTION: Right. When was that decided?

MS. NULAND: That was decided when we were in New York.

QUESTION: So it actually did accomplish something – that consultation?

MS. NULAND: Well, we had a preliminary checking of diaries in New York that had to washed through. Yeah.

QUESTION: Is there a reason why it wouldn’t be here?

MS. NULAND: Well, as you know, the Secretary will be here – that day. But I haven’t formally gotten a green light to announce it.

QUESTION: Okay, I see. And then – sorry. Someone else can go. I have one more though, two more.

MS. NULAND: Go ahead.

QUESTION: The taken question about the Syrian Embassy and the graffiti —


QUESTION: — can you be a little bit more explicit than that? What was the – has DS done anything about it? Have they painted over the graffiti? Is it —

MS. NULAND: I don’t know what the – I mean, it’s obviously not our responsibility to paint it over. They’re obviously looking into how it was possible for somebody to jump the wall and write on the inside of the wall, “Free Syria,” which is what happened. But as we noted in our statement, there was – this was not – doesn’t appear to have been an incident that threatened the security of any of the personnel, and it was on the inside wall. But they’re obviously looking into how it happened.

QUESTION: But you don’t see that graffiti saying “Free Syria” would be threatening to a member of the Assad regime?

MS. NULAND: Well, obviously we take our Vienna Convention obligations seriously and we will in this case.

QUESTION: All right. And then, last one on – have you seen these comments that Ellen Johnson Sirleaf made at some kind of an event with Tony Blair in which she talked about supporting these proposed legislation that would – that have something to do – anti-homosexual legislation?

MS. NULAND: We have seen her comments. Frankly, we’ve only seen them in reported sources, so – but I think there should be no doubt where the Administration is, where the Secretary of State is personally on LGBT issues, particularly after her extremely strong speech in Geneva.

QUESTION: Right. Well, so is this something that you will raise with the Liberians, with President Sirleaf Johnson herself, considering that she is such a good pal of the U.S. and the Secretary personally? Are these comments disappointing to you?

MS. NULAND: Well, I would expect that we probably will be following up to find out whether the reporting is accurate and express some surprise and concern.

QUESTION: Okay. And then is this something – should – since you’re in the habit now of answering hypothetical questions, should they go ahead and approve these laws? Is that something – given the Secretary’s speech in Geneva, which was quite strong, is this something that could affect U.S. assistance?

MS. NULAND: Again, I’m not going to get into all kinds of —

QUESTION: Well, in general, how about that? I mean, in general, if countries go ahead – if countries take measures that discriminate against homosexuals, is that something that under this Administration could lead to a review or a suspension or anything of U.S. assistance?

MS. NULAND: I think if there were major pieces of legislation that discriminated against any group, we would have to take that into account in our relationship and it would be a cause for concern.

QUESTION: May I go back (inaudible)?


QUESTION: You said that you want to see Pakistan a good neighbor in the region. Are you talking in terms of reciprocity, because Pakistan has concerns on both sides of its borders on the western side and eastern side as well which has economic and security concerns —

MS. NULAND: Well —

QUESTION: So what —

MS. NULAND: I think you know that in the context of our New Silk Road Initiative, we’re trying to strengthen ties among all the countries in that region. And we’ve been supportive, for example, of warming ties between India and Pakistan, between Pakistan and Afghanistan, so it’s an ongoing work in progress.

Please, Scott.

QUESTION: Do you have anything for us on Ethiopia and their attacks inside Eritrea?

MS. NULAND: I have a little bit more. Our understanding, Scott, is that this incident was a one-time incident, one-time incursion on March 15th. I think you know that we expressed concern about it at the time. We called for calm on both sides. But we have not seen any evidence of further military action by either side since March 15th.

QUESTION: Have the Ethiopians given you any assurances that there will not be a second time incident?

MS. NULAND: Well, we’ve made absolutely clear to them that we think that would be a very bad idea.


QUESTION: I was wondering if you had any views on the court decision in Florida today which allows a convicted Cuban spy to go visit some family members, and this is being sort of paralleled with the Alan Gross case. Is there any expectation that Cubans might follow through with a similar quid pro quo?

MS. NULAND: This is with regard to the decision by the federal court to allow one of – the paroled member of the Cuban Five, Rene Gonzalez, to visit his family in Cuba for two weeks. It’s obviously a Justice Department decision, so refer you to them.

From our perspective, there is no equivalence between these cases. He is a convicted spy, as are the rest of the Cuban Five, whereas Alan Gross was not a spy. His situation is not comparable. But it does highlight the fact that we have been making repeated representations about the humanitarian situation of Alan Gross, the need to get him home, and appealing to the Cuban authorities to release him.

We would also note that one of the reasons that the court reportedly is allowing Gonzalez this two-week parole has to do with illness with some of his family members. Alan Gross also has seriously ill family members. So this is an opportunity for us to, again, renew our calls for his unconditional release immediately.

QUESTION: But you haven’t had any communication, either officially or through other channels, that this might happen?

MS. NULAND: We have not.

Okay. In the back here.

QUESTION: Victoria, North Korea again?


QUESTION: Yeah. Why the North Korea had its satellite launch so quickly? It’s still puzzling since the Leap Day agreement with the U.S. Is there any progress or developments in analyzing the real motive, particularly related with the inside politics, since the – Kim Jong-un took power?

MS. NULAND: I don’t have anything – any particularly insight into what’s happening inside the regime there. We just think this is a very bad idea, and we hope that they will reconsider it.

Okay, everybody. So if you’re interested in this backgrounder, it’ll be at 1:45. Thanks.

(The briefing was concluded at 1:25 p.m.)