State Department Briefing by Victoria Nuland, March 21, 2012

Washington, DC–(ENEWSPF)–March 21, 2012.

Index for Today’s Briefing
    • Quartet Envoys Meeting in Brussels
  • MALI
    • Possible Military Coup / Evaluating Situation
    • Special Envoy Tauscher Consultations / U.S.-Russia Cooperative Agreement on Missile Defense
    • Shouting in Toulouse / Commend Work of French Authorities / Possible Afghan Suspect
    • Presidential Statement / Political Dialogue Lead to Political Transition / Support for Arab League Concept / Six Point Plan / Working on Multiple Tracks / Positions of Russia and China
    • Election Observers / ASEAN / Journalists
  • IRAN
    • P-5+1 Meeting
    • Exemptions / 180-Day Period / Continuing Conversations with Countries
    • Iranian Christian Pastor Youcef Nadarkhani in Detention
    • Secretary Clinton’s Call with President Abbas


12:40 p.m. EDT

MS. NULAND: Good afternoon, everybody. Sorry that we kept changing the time today. The timing upstairs changed a little bit so we had to adjust. And then, as you know, the boss did all the work this morning, so I’m not sure we have much to add. Why don’t we go to what’s on your minds.

QUESTION: Yeah. I’m just curious if you have – if the Quartet envoys meeting in Brussels is finished, and if it is, if there’s anything to report out of it.

MS. NULAND: I don’t have anything yet on the meeting. My understanding is that they are still at it, but I need to confirm that as well. But we will certainly get you something as soon as we can.

QUESTION: Great. That was it.

MS. NULAND: Okay. Anything else?


QUESTION: In Mali, it looks like that military coup is underway in Mali and that some military are occupying the headquarters of TV and radio – Bamako. Are you in touch with your Embassy? Do you have any information?

MS. NULAND: We are, but we are still trying to evaluate the situation on the ground, so we’ll have something for you when the situation’s a little bit clearer to us.


MS. NULAND: Sergei.

QUESTION: Different subject?

MS. NULAND: Please.

QUESTION: Can you share the results of the Special Envoy Tauscher’s trip to Moscow? Has anything been achieved as a result of these talks?

MS. NULAND: Well, as you know, the – Special Envoy Tauscher was in Moscow – I think it was 13-15 March – for the latest round of consultations with her counterpart, Deputy Foreign Minister Riabkov. This is – was further to our effort to try to work on a U.S.-Russia cooperative agreement on missile defense. Our sense is that it was a productive round of talks, but obviously, they’re in the middle of live diplomacy, so I’m not going to get into any further details.

QUESTION: Something —

MS. NULAND: Please.

QUESTION: Something else?

MS. NULAND: Shaun, yeah.

QUESTION: The – a prosecutor today in France – a follow-up on the shooting in Toulouse – a prosecutor said that the suspect in the killings had been arrested in Afghanistan and was returned to France by U.S. authorities. Is there something that – is there any information that the U.S. has on that, or any comment on it?

MS. NULAND: Well, first of all, again, to express our deepest sympathies with the families of the victims for this horrific attack and to commend the work of French police and security officials who are trying to bring this – to apprehend the suspect and restore public order there. The circumstances around this particular individual’s background appear to be a little bit murky. I don’t know if you saw, Shaun, but just before we came out, the Afghan Government just issued a statement indicating that they had nobody by that name registered in an Afghan prison. So frankly, I think we need to let the French police do their work, bring this to an end, and then we’ll all know a little bit more about this individual.

QUESTION: Can I just ask you about Syria? I know the Secretary spoke (inaudible), but she mentioned political transition, I think, at some point. And I just wanted to ask you, is that your interpretation of what this six-point plan actually spells out?

MS. NULAND: Well, have you had a chance to read the presidential statement that —

QUESTION: I have, yeah.

MS. NULAND: Yeah, so she was essentially reiterating the point in the presidential statement that speaks to the expectation that when the violence has ended, that there will be a political dialogue leading to a political transition. I think she used the identical words as are in the council’s statement expressing the expectations of all of the council members.

QUESTION: And does that – in your view, does that transition entail the Assad regime or President Bashar Assad stepping down and something different taking his place?

MS. NULAND: Well, I think our view has been, and the Secretary spoke to this when she was in New York, we have supported the Arab League detailed concept. The Secretary – the Joint Special Envoy Kofi Annan is, obviously, in live diplomacy now with the various parties in Syria as to how precisely this might happen. Clearly, our expectation is that we would not see President Assad continuing to run Syria at the end of a democratic transition process.

QUESTION: Is that detailed concept? Is that actually what it’s called?

MS. NULAND: No, he – so the —

QUESTION: That sounds some kind of new formal jargon that people are throwing around, is it? The detailed concept —

MS. NULAND: No, we have the six-point —

QUESTION: — to replace the failed roadmap idea, political horizon?

MS. NULAND: What we have is the – a six-point plan from Kofi Annan. His representatives are in Syria now trying to flesh out how this might work in practice.

QUESTION: Yeah, I know. Is that what he’s going to call it, the detailed concept?

MS. NULAND: I can’t speak to what he’s going to call it.

QUESTION: Is (inaudible) have any position on how long this fleshing-out process could or should take?

MS. NULAND: Well, again, obviously, the most urgent thing is to stop the violence as soon as possible. So that’s the first priority. I think we need to hear how this technical team does and what Kofi Annan thinks the horizon is.

QUESTION: Do you – I mean, the Secretary has urged President Assad to take this path. How long do you think it will take before you are able to judge whether he’s taken this path or not?

MS. NULAND: Again, I can’t, from – at this moment, we’ve just had this strong statement from the council. I think we need to give Kofi Annan a little space to make it work now.

QUESTION: Can I just make this one point clear? Would you please tell him not to call it the detailed concept if that’s really what – because that would just —

MS. NULAND: I’ll tell him that you, Mr. Lee, would find that —

QUESTION: Well, I think that the entire world would appreciate not having that kind of a slogan. Thank you.

QUESTION: Could I just ask you about – do you have any understanding why there’s a call for a ceasefire and a two-hour pause in the fighting, which would seem to kind of overdo it? If they’re not fighting at all, you don’t need a pause in the fighting, right?

MS. NULAND: Well, I think he’s obviously trying to work on multiple tracks. The aspiration here is that the violence would end completely. But in the context of trying to work that through, we also, obviously, as soon as we can, need at least these humanitarian pauses to begin to be able to provide relief. But again, I’m going to refer you to him and his team for exactly where he might be on all those things.

So, still on Syria? Michel.

QUESTION: Yeah. Do you expect President Assad to accept the presidential statement?

MS. NULAND: I think the Secretary spoke to this today, that that is our expectation, that he will take this opportunity that’s been put to him, because if not, he’s going to face increasing pressure and isolation.


QUESTION: Yes. In criticizing President Assad, Foreign Minister Lavrov said, and I quote, “No one invited him to Moscow.” How do you assess this, what they – do you consider it as a softening of Moscow position towards Syria?

MS. NULAND: Well, we’ve been talking for about a week and a half here, since the Secretary had a chance to talk to Foreign Minister Lavrov in New York, that we felt that our positions were converging with regard to what needs to be done in Syria, and that we were hopeful that Kofi Annan could play a productive role in bringing the council together. So what you see today with the presidency statement is a united statement from the council, all 15 members, including Russia and China, endorsing the Annan plan and talking about what needs to be done. So that’s obviously a strong statement and something that we had hoped for and been working for for some time, and something that Assad now needs to pay attention to and do the right thing.

QUESTION: You had previously described the positions of Russia and China as being on the wrong side of history. Are they now on the right side of history?

MS. NULAND: Well, the Secretary obviously spoke to this today, that we had wanted for a long time for the council to speak with one voice. So it is a good step, a positive step that we now have that together, that we are all pulling in the same direction around a concrete plan and supporting the joint special envoy.

QUESTION: But do you see this as an admission by them that they were on the wrong side and now they’ve corrected – rectified that or —

MS. NULAND: I’m not going to —

QUESTION: — was the correct path somewhere in between?

MS. NULAND: I’m not going to give them a grade one way or the other. What’s most important here for the people of Syria, for the future of Syria, for our hope that we will someday, sooner rather than later, see a peaceful, democratic Syria, is that the council is together, that the international community is together.

QUESTION: You were more than willing to give them a failing grade before, though.


QUESTION: Now you’re not willing to give them a passing grade?

MS. NULAND: This is an excellent step in terms of the unity of the council.


QUESTION: Change of subject?


QUESTION: The Burmese Government today announced that it will allow independent election observers from the U.S. and EU. What’s your view on that? And is U.S. sending any election observers to Burma, and how many?

MS. NULAND: Well, Burma has invited the United States to send two election representatives and three journalists to observe on Election Day, April 1st, the parliamentary bi-elections. Our understanding is that they’ve also invited other countries, as you said, and other members of ASEAN. This is a welcome first step. As you know, when the Secretary was there, she encouraged the Burmese Government, and we have with every visit since, to open the system to international observation, as other ASEAN countries do and is done around the world.

A full-scale international observation effort would typically include quite a bit of pre-Election Day observation, systematic coverage on Election Day, post-election follow-up, and professional monitors from nongovernmental organizations. So we will obviously take up this opportunity to monitor, we will coordinate with ASEAN and other observers to try to maximize the impact that our observers can have, but we would obviously encourage the Burmese Government to try to bring this monitoring effort as closely as they can to international standards.

QUESTION: And these election observers would be officials from the U.S. Government or from the private —

MS. NULAND: I think we’re still looking at what makes most sense in that context.

QUESTION: When you talk about a full-scale international observation mission, you’re talking about something for a general election. This is a bi-election. How many seats are up for grabs?

MS. NULAND: I think it’s about a quarter of the parliament. Different countries have offered observation for different kinds of elections, for parliamentary elections as well as for general elections. I think the point here is that this is a good first step. Burma hasn’t allowed international observation before, but it does fall short of international complete transparency on an election, and we hope they’ll continue to keep the system open, and open it further.

QUESTION: And who is – they invited three journalists. Are you going to decide which journalists go?

MS. NULAND: I think that would normally not be something that we would do.

QUESTION: No, it wouldn’t be.


QUESTION: Doesn’t that kind of display a kind of fundamental lack of understanding, perhaps, on the part of the Burmese Government of the way things work?

MS. NULAND: Yeah. I mean, our – we – suffice it to say that our Embassy in Rangoon is talking to the Burmese about who might want to come and about how visas might be apportioned because this is the question. It has to do with – I mean, generally, you all make your own decisions, and it’s a matter of the visas that are granted, so —

QUESTION: Right, but do you know if that’s been clarified at all by them to you in Rangoon or in —

MS. NULAND: It has not.

QUESTION: — Nay Pyi Taw or —

MS. NULAND: It’s one of the issues we’re working on now.

QUESTION: Is the figure of two U.S. observers – is that, do you feel, sufficient to get a good picture of what’s going on?

MS. NULAND: Again, I think I spoke to the fact that this is a good first step, but it’s – that there are a number of other things that one would want to see for complete observation. I think what we’re going to try to do now is work with ASEAN so that we can maximize the impact that we can all have together while continuing to encourage the Burmese to be as open as possible about these elections, but —

QUESTION: So we wouldn’t necessarily expect to see the U.S. Government asking directly for more headcount?

MS. NULAND: Again, I think this has just come to us as an invitation. We’re in the process of consulting with them and consulting with ASEAN on what makes sense.




QUESTION: How close is the P-5+1 in Iran to scheduling the next round of talks? Foreign Minister Lavrov mentioned yesterday something about April. Is that your understanding as well, that this might happen in April?

MS. NULAND: Well, our P-5+1 representatives met together, and I think Russia was represented there as well in Brussels yesterday. Under Secretary Sherman represented the United States. As you know, the EU has been negotiating with the Iranians on both the date and the venue. Our understanding is that those negotiations continue and they will announce something from Lady Ashton’s office when those negotiations are completed.


QUESTION: Also on Iran, just a logistics question about the exemptions announced yesterday. When does the 180-day period actually start for the countries announced?

MS. NULAND: My understanding is that it started – that’s a good question, when does it start? It starts the day that they are – that the paperwork goes to the Hill. My understanding is it ends on September 16th, if that’s helpful to you.


MS. NULAND: So I don’t know how you count from 180 days backwards from September the 16th to get the – but as you know, when you make these determinations, they’re for a hundred and eighty days, and then they have to be looked at again.


MS. NULAND: But the end date would be September 16th when they’d have to be looked at again.


QUESTION: And when do you expect to take a decision of the rest of the 12 other countries, including India, China, Turkey, (inaudible) —

MS. NULAND: I think that depends on the progress of those countries. You know where we are, that we’d like to see all of the countries that trade heavily in Iranian crude reduce their numbers. So as we see the kind of progress that we saw with the EU and with Japan, then we’ll look at doing more of these. But conversations continue with those governments.

QUESTION: And is the 15 to 22 percent the benchmark you expect from these 12 countries?

MS. NULAND: Well, let me refer you to what Ambassador Pascual said in his hearing yesterday. He made – and we also had, as you know, a background briefing yesterday. The circumstances in Japan were particularly acute after the earthquake, tsunami, and the loss of their nuclear power plants, and even in those extreme conditions where one could argue their dependence might have gone up, they were able to cut by 15 to 20 percent.

So one would hope that countries can do as much as they possibly can. We all have the same goal here, which is for these sanctions to really pinch Iran and make it think twice about its nuclear weapons program, and convince it to come clean and take best advantage of these negotiations that we are going to be having to demonstrate that it’s program is peaceful. So the more countries can do, the more we have the impact that we desire.

QUESTION: How much you have asked India to do?

MS. NULAND: You know that I’m not going to talk about our specific negotiations with individual countries, but we are continuing to have productive discussions with India, and they have some choices that they’ll need to think about making.

QUESTION: More broadly on this issue, can you explain what the utility would be to impose sanctions on countries like Japan, South Korea, India, these importers, to penalize their banks? What good would that do?

MS. NULAND: Well, I think from the beginning, the issue has been to ensure that the impact of this legislation has the intent that the Congress wanted, which is to pressure Iran to come back into compliance —

QUESTION: Well, frankly it seems —

MS. NULAND: — with its international obligations, and we have been intent in our negotiation with all of our allies and partners to work with them to minimize the impact on them and on their economies and to maximize the impact on Iran.

QUESTION: But say a country like South Korea, which is one of your closest allies in the Asia Pacific, if they are unable or unwilling to reduce – they did not get an exemption, they are one of the countries that is still threatened with these sanctions – what would be the utility to the United States of punishing one of its closest allies in the world?

MS. NULAND: Well, the conversations with South Korea continue. We – the goal here in our dialogue with South Korea, and they understand this completely, is for them to also make the kind of progress, and they want to make the kind of progress that punishment, as you put it, will not be necessary. So that’s the root of the dialogue. We want the impact to be on Iran, not to be on our allies, and we’re going to keep working on it.

QUESTION: Right. Exactly. So what good would the punishment do?

MS. NULAND: Again, we are not at that stage, so I’m not going to comment on what could or couldn’t happen. We are intent now on putting our effort into having as many countries as possible, and particularly allied countries, be able to meet these high standards and have an impact on Iran. And there are things that countries can continue to do to reduce their impact – sorry – their imports from Iran.

We’re also, as you know, working to provide – working with countries who might be able to offer alternative sources of supply. So some of these countries have been into arrangements with Iran because that, in the past, might have appeared to them to be the most reliable route. Our view is it’s neither reliable nor a good idea. So the degree to which other countries can compensate, we are working with those countries and we’re trying to make matches as well.

QUESTION: I just – it’s strange though that you’re in these discussions to help these countries avoid possible sanctions, but you can’t say why you would even consider sanctions against South Korea or another country like that.

MS. NULAND: Again, the concern is that all countries should do as much as possible to wean themselves of Iranian crude. That at a time when we’re trying to convince Iran to definitively demonstrate that their program is not a weapons program, we have to maximize the pressure. And the lifeline to the Iranian regime is its crude oil supplies. So this legislation has had the effect of crystallizing minds and causing countries to look hard at their Iranian relationship around the world. Countries have made very, very significant progress already, as the Secretary was able to certify, and it’s having a very important impact on Iran, and we’re seeing that.

So this is actually leading us to the – leading us in the right direction in terms of trying to solve this diplomatically so that we don’t – in the time and space that we have. And that’s something that everybody wants.


QUESTION: Also on Iran?

MS. NULAND: Yeah. Please, Scott.

QUESTION: What more can you give us on the Iranian pastor, Youcef Nadarkhani, who is in detention? You had a statement on that when that happened. There are some American Christian groups that have organized a Twitter campaign, both and English and Portuguese, actually, in hopes of getting the Brazilian Government to weigh in in Tehran on his case.

MS. NULAND: Well, we obviously continue to have concerns about the fate of Christian pastor Yousef Nadarkhani, who faces the threat of execution solely because of his religious beliefs. We call again on the Iranian Government to release him. We also welcome the efforts to secure his release from other countries, as you said. Brazil has spoken out against this, and spoken out against his mistreatment in the Human Rights Council in Geneva. So the more voices that we have and the more pressure we have on Iran, the better.

QUESTION: Do you know anything about this planned march, international march on Jerusalem?

MS. NULAND: I do not. We can —

QUESTION: I’ll send it along.

MS. NULAND: Yeah. Okay? Thanks.


QUESTION: One more. Secretary Clinton has talked to President Abbas today. Do you have anything about this conversation?

MS. NULAND: I have to apologize to you. I didn’t get a chance to get a readout on the call. I assume it was following up on the President’s call, which, as you know, we read out a couple of days ago to encourage him to continue to work towards a negotiated solution, to think about coming back to the table, to work along the lines that the Quartet envoys are working on now, to share with him our commitment to security and support for Palestinian institutions. But let me get a formal readout for you.

QUESTION: Actually, could you – just to go back on that same subject, is this next Quartet meeting – the principals meeting in April that’s coming up – is that something that the Israelis and Palestinians might be invited to as well?

MS. NULAND: I don’t know the answer to that. I think it – we may not have decided at this point, but let me see what we have on that for you, Matt, as well.

Okay. Thanks everybody.

QUESTION: Thank you.

(The briefing was concluded at 1:02 p.m.)