Victoria Nuland
Spokesperson
Daily Press Briefing
Washington, DC
February 16, 2012


Index for Today's Briefing
  • DEPARTMENT
    • Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns Paris Pact Meetings
  • IRAN
    • Correspondence from Iran to Lady Cathy Ashton / Under Secretary Sherman Consultations / Lady Cathy Ashton Visit
  • EGYPT
    • U.S./Egypt Relationship
    • Democracy NGOs
  • AFGHANISTAN
    • Ongoing Talks about Peace, Reconciliation, and Stability / President Karzai Press Statement / Iran and Pakistan
  • SYRIA
    • Photo on Robert Ford's Facebook Page
    • Friends of Syria Meeting


TRANSCRIPT:

12:42 p.m. EST

MS. NULAND: Afternoon, everybody. I have just one thing at the top, which is with regard to Deputy Secretary Burns’s travel. During his participation today in the Paris Pact meetings in Vienna, Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns addressed the complex threat created by the illicit narcotics flows in Afghanistan and the region, and called for an integrated coordinated global approach to counter this threat. On the margins of the conference, he also spoke with IAEA director Amano with the Austrian Foreign Minister Spindelegger, with French Foreign Minister Juppe, and with Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov on topics running the gamut from Afghanistan counternarcotics to Iran, Syria, and other bilateral issues. That’s what I’ve got.

QUESTION: So, did they talk about the Iranian response to Catherine Ashton’s letter?

MS. NULAND: Our discussions with our P-5+1 partners with regard to the Iranian letter are primarily being handled by Under Secretary of State Sherman, who leads for the Department on these issues. She had another round of consultations with colleagues today, but I’m not – I don’t have anything further than I had yesterday with regard to our reaction to the letter.

QUESTION: You haven’t had time to have study it?

MS. NULAND: They are – we are continuing to work with partners with regard to our reaction to the letter, but I don’t have anything to report to you on where we think this will take us going forward.

QUESTION: Well but – I’m curious to know what they – I’m not interested so much in what the Russians or the French or even the – I want to know what the U.S. thinks of the letter. You have had time to read it. It’s not a very long letter. It’s less than 200 words, the body of it. I find it hard to believe that you haven’t formulated some kind of thought to it.

MS. NULAND: Well, we are in the process of looking at the letter, but I think with regard to any formal USG reaction to it, we would like to coordinate that with our partners, and that’s what we're engaged in now.

QUESTION: Okay, well who then is foot-dragging on this? Are they – I mean – who?

MS. NULAND: It’s not a matter of foot-dragging. It’s a matter of these issues being quite complex in terms of whether the request that Lady Ashton made in October, which we’ve asked the Iranians to join with us on, are sufficiently met in the response. And this is something that we need to coordinate, and particularly with regard to where this might take us next in any process with Iran. And that’s something that we are going to be working on with our partners, probably today, probably tomorrow, and we – I don’t expect we're going to have a formal reaction to the letter before early next week.

QUESTION: Is it – I mean, I just don’t understand. It’s so short.

MS. NULAND: I understand.

QUESTION: It’s pretty – and it seems to be pretty straightforward. I just – I guess I don’t understand – I mean, the French have come out and said that they see there was a possibility for some kind of opening there. Why does – you’ve read the letter, yes? People have digested what it says. It’s a pretty small amount to digest. And I guess I just don’t understand why it’s going to take until next week for you guys to – for the government – to the U.S. Government to decipher something so short.

MS. NULAND: Again, I don’t think that we consider that a separate American reaction to this letter is particularly helpful at the moment. This was a letter written to Lady Ashton as in her capacity of – as chairperson of the P-5+1 process, and we would like to have a reaction to it which takes into account the views of all of our partners. So we’re working on that now.

QUESTION: All right. So you said that Under Secretary Sherman had another round of consultations on this letter.

MS. NULAND: She talked –

QUESTION: She had consultations yesterday as well about the letter?

MS. NULAND: She did, she did.

QUESTION: And two rounds of – I’ll get to – you can get to that in a second. And two rounds of consultations are not enough to decipher 196 words.

MS. NULAND: Again, what we want to do is not only react to the words on the page, but be in agreement about what the implications are for the potential for diplomacy with Iran.

QUESTION: So, it’s fair to say that you don’t yet have clarity on whether this represents an opportunity?

MS. NULAND: Well, we’re certainly not ready to give our view on that, and we want to do it in consultation with partners.

QUESTION: Who are the consultations with?

MS. NULAND: With the P-5+1 parties.

QUESTION: And it was – there was one – there was a conference call yesterday and then another one today?

MS. NULAND: Under Secretary Sherman has had phone calls with her counterparts. She’s had some bilateral calls, she’s had some group calls over the course of the last couple of days.

QUESTION: Has there been a one among the six?

MS. NULAND: I believe there’s been at least one among the six. I’m not confident of that.

QUESTION: And do you expect additional conference calls tomorrow and the next day? You suggested there would be more consultations, so --

MS. NULAND: I think there will be more consultations. As you may know, we have Lady Ashton visiting tomorrow. Secretary will have a chance to consult with her, so that’ll be the next step in our own work and then we’ll go from there.

QUESTION: But the final – I say – you just suggested that even by tomorrow, even when the addressee of the letter is here, you’re not going have anything to say about it?

MS. NULAND: Well, I just want to set your expectations, that in the context of reacting together, it may take some more time.

QUESTION: Okay. And then just one thing on Burns’ meeting with Foreign Minister Lavrov. Did – do you have any details of –

MS. NULAND: I have to say I don’t. We’re still seeking some more details from him. He’s in the air now.

QUESTION: All right.

MS. NULAND: Okay?

QUESTION: Can I ask you about Egypt?

MS. NULAND: Yeah.

QUESTION: There’s increasing clamor from lawmakers for some action on the aid, on the 1.3 billion. Have you guys moved any closer to some sort of decision or an ultimatum with the Egyptians on that?

MS. NULAND: Unfortunately, I don’t think the situation on this – on this docket has changed much at all from what we said yesterday, either with regard to the situation on the ground in Egypt or with regard to our posture towards it. The Secretary’s been very clear and all – American interlocutors from the President on down, have been very clear with Egyptian counterparts that we are concerned that if we cannot resolve this situation it may have an impact on all kinds of other aspects of our relationship with Egypt, including our ability to support them economically et cetera. But as you know, the Secretary will eventually have to make some certification decisions with regard to money. She has not made those decisions yet.

QUESTION: But what other aspects might be affected?

MS. NULAND: Well, again, I don’t want to speculate now. What we want to do is get this fixed. The Secretary’s been very clear. She doesn’t want to have that result, and that’s why we are pressing so hard to get this fixed.

QUESTION: But you raised it, though. I mean, we are all aware of the moves on the Hill to cut back, not economic aid, although you said the U.S. Government’s ability to support Egypt economically, but the military assistance.

MS. NULAND: It could have implications across the range of support that we provide to Egypt, and we’re just hoping we don’t get to that point.

QUESTION: So you’re just talking about financial support, then? Because I thought you originally were suggesting that it could have an effect across the entire range of your relations.

MS. NULAND: Well, that is the way the Secretary put it when she spoke to this issue a week ago, that we don’t want it to have negative implications across the relationship. But it could if we can’t get it fixed.

QUESTION: You mentioned the certification that is required. Based on the conditions right now – the Americans who cannot leave the country, the continuing pressure against these American groups – would that certification be given?

MS. NULAND: Well, I’m certainly not going to speculate on a decision that the Secretary will have to make before she needs to make it, or has made it, so I’m not going to --

QUESTION: When could that be? When could she have to take up the certification issue?

QUESTION: Is there a deadline?

MS. NULAND: Later in the spring.

QUESTION: Is there a date certain set for that, when it has to be done?

MS. NULAND: The legislation speaks to our ability to move money that was allocated for Fiscal Year 2012. So we are not yet at the point of needing to do that, although we anticipate that one, in the normal flow of things, would do that later in the spring.

QUESTION: And do you have any update on the efforts to convince whoever the powers may be to drop this campaign against the democracy groups?

MS. NULAND: We are continuing to work on it. Interestingly, some of the Egyptian NGOs that have been affected are beginning to speak out quite forcefully about the fact that there needs to be a transparent, clear, legal system in Egypt for NGOs to operate, and that that is part of the issue here that has also caught them in this dragnet. So --

QUESTION: Are you disappointed that Egypt’s political parties don’t seem to be helping you, and this seems to be almost across the board?

MS. NULAND: I think what we’re concerned about is the misunderstanding and, frankly, some misinformation being spread in the Egyptian media and elsewhere about what these NGOs do, whether they’re our supported NGOs, other international NGOs, or Egyptian NGOs themselves, that they are being portrayed as tipping elections one way or the other, they are being portrayed as foreign interference. And these organizations are doing the same thing, as you know, as we do in 70 other countries around the world. We don’t pick candidates. We don’t put our thumb on the scale of elections. We support Egyptian political parties, election observers, et cetera who want to learn how to do campaigning, et cetera. And we are open for business for anybody who wants to participate in these programs.

QUESTION: But these media reports, they’re not emerging out of some sort of bubble. They’re coming from some sort of concerted effort from whomever to whip up anti-American sentiment.

MS. NULAND: And that is concerning. That is very concerning.

QUESTION: On the same topic --

MS. NULAND: Yeah.

QUESTION: -- what is your reaction to the strong accusations but – by the Egyptian minister of international cooperation accusing the U.S. and the NGOs that created the chaos and guided the revolution to sort of – to benefit the interests of the U.S. and Israel?

MS. NULAND: Well, we think these allegations are patently false, and we think they are being used for narrow self promotion and nationalist purposes in Egypt. And it’s dangerous for Egyptian democracy, and it’s not helpful to the relationship. We want to see Egyptians focused on building their state themselves. That’s what they should be focused on. And frankly, that’s what the Egyptian NGOs are starting to say, that this is not helpful, that we need to move forward with the electoral process and we need to have a vibrant Egypt where civil society can play a strong role and where all kinds of views can be debated without false accusations and all kinds of fear-mongering.

QUESTION: Who is promoting themselves?

MS. NULAND: Well, there are a number of folks in Egypt who have used this for propaganda purposes, and it’s frankly not helpful to Egypt and it’s not helpful to the relationship.

QUESTION: Is it the military, you feel, or is it --

MS. NULAND: I’m not going to get into calling out individuals. There have been a number of high-profile folks using this for their own purposes.

QUESTION: Is it your view, though, that that – that those sentiments, the sentiments of those high-profile people, are shared – those sentiments are shared by a wide variety of Egyptians, by even – by a majority, by any measure – large measurable amount of actual Egyptian citizens?

MS. NULAND: Well, I think our concern is that there has been so much disinformation into the Egyptian body politic about what these organizations do that the public opinion has been shaped in a way that’s based on false information. So that’s the concern.

QUESTION: Okay. But even if it is based on false information --

MS. NULAND: Right.

QUESTION: -- if the Egyptians don’t want these people there, or they don’t want these groups doing this, and the government is refusing to fix the situation, that would imply that they don’t care about whether they’re going to get this aid or not. And so why should we give money to people who don’t want it?

MS. NULAND: Again, we are not to that point yet. There are going to have to be --

QUESTION: No. I know, but why – but you can – everyone says we don’t want it to get to the point --

MS. NULAND: Right.

QUESTION: -- where we have to not certify and we can’t give them – but why should American people care – why should the American people be trying to foist money, billions of dollars of their money, on Egyptians who don’t want it?

MS. NULAND: Well, frankly, I think your premise is flawed. The Egyptian people, the Egyptian government, the Egyptian political parties have wanted outside assistance for decades, and the situation is not changed in the sense that the security support that we have historically provided, and that we have in the budget to provide in 2012, is designed to support stability in the region, to support agreements that Egypt has with its neighbors, including Israel. The economic support that we have, that we’ve asked to put in the 2013 budget, is designed to support the ability of Egypt, as an increasingly democratic state, to also provide for its people, for the people of Egypt to see benefits from a newly democratizing country. So again, we don’t give money to countries that don’t want it. That’s not where we are in this conversation. Where we are is in trying to get this very difficult issue fixed.

With regard to the NGOs, frankly the concern remains. It’s obviously Egypt’s sovereign right to decide how it wants to deal with both its own NGOs and with international NGOs including ours. We continue to believe that these NGOs perform a useful function, but the problem has been that they have tried for many years to register, they’re still trying to register, would be happy to register, and the conditions for their activity are not clear and have never been clarified in the Egyptian system.

QUESTION: Right. But you began the answer to the question by saying the premise of my – of the question was flawed, but I took the premise of the question from the – your response to my previous question, which was that there is this whipped up sense – anti-American sentiment --

MS. NULAND: With regard --

QUESTION: -- that’s being whipped up. Right.

MS. NULAND: With regard to the NGOs. With regard to their activity.

QUESTION: Right. Well, within – but in general – not – it’s not just with regard to the NGOs – because the NGO – what the NGOs are being accused of takes on this wider Zionist conspiracy type America wants to interfere and cause chaos, which is much broader than just the NGOs. So rightly or wrongly, the Egyptian public sentiment has been whipped up like this, meaning that they don’t want us there. Now they might be – they may be totally wrong in their assumptions about why they – in coming to that opinion, but if they don’t want us there for whatever reason, why do we want to force ourselves there? Why do we want to give them $3 billion a year if they, by all their actions and sentiment, they don’t want it?

MS. NULAND: Well, again, I think you are drawing conclusions from some of these – from the concerning trend in public opinion with regard to whether or not the people or the Government of Egypt want to continue to receive outside support, whether it’s in the security sector or the economic sector. We are not to the point where we have been told that this kind of support is unwelcome. Now, that said --

QUESTION: Okay. It just seems --

MS. NULAND: -- the point is that we have the same concerns that you have about the deteriorating environment and the deteriorating impact on the relationship.

QUESTION: But it just seems that this – that Egypt has turned into Pakistan here overnight in – as it relates to U.S. aid and assistance and involvement. And this is a country, Egypt, which has gotten nothing but benefit from us. There’s – there can’t – there are no complaints about drone strikes, there’s no complaints about contractors or embassy workers killing people on the streets of Karachi. There’s nothing like that. There’s no bombings that are killing 24 Egyptian soldiers going on, and yet you have a situation that’s almost parallel to that in the anti-American sentiment that’s being whipped up after having spent billions and billions of dollars, probably even more than has been spent in Pakistan. Is that a concern?

MS. NULAND: Again, as I said, it is a concern that this kind of false information that’s being put out about what our NGOs do, the role that they have wanted to play and have been active in playing, in supporting the superb elections that the Egyptians have already had, and still need to have going forward, is being mischaracterized in a way that is casting a pall over the value of the relationship as a whole between Egypt and the United States, which we think is of strategic value to us and we would very much like to continue to play a role in supporting not only the security and stability of Egypt but very much it’s democratic transition.

Please.

QUESTION: You said in the past that public diplomacy and new media does a great job of getting the U.S. message out. It seems like there’s no role that that’s playing here. It’s either ineffective or you’re not using it because you think it would be ineffective. Can you tell me more about that?

MS. NULAND: We’re doing plenty of pushing of our own messaging on new platforms, and frankly, it’s not the demographic that uses new media that’s being most affected by this. The – some of the protagonists on the side of whipping up this story for their own purposes are using old media that the states don’t control. And this is part of the problem. We’re not yet at a fully democratic media in Egypt.

QUESTION: Victoria, you said that it is Egypt’s sovereign right to decide how it wants to deal with not only U.S. but other countries and Egyptian NGOs, and you then said that the problem has been that these NGOs have tried to register for many years but have been unable to do so. Does that not essentially make them guilty of the charge of not being registered? I mean, it may be that the rules are rigged against them, but it may also well be the case that they are not acting in consonance with Egyptian law.

MS. NULAND: This is not a case of a country like many of the countries that we work in where there are very clear rules and registration requirements for NGOs. You can’t operate if you don’t obey them. This has been a very murky, unclear environment where some of these NGOs have operated with government consent outside of any registration process for years. So we have goal posts moved here, we have legislation and judicial processes completely unclear. Our NGOs are saying we would like to keep operating, you clarify the rules of the road, but don’t take us to court for a situation that’s been unclear for all these years and certainly in the last few months.

QUESTION: But acting – but they’re – even if they’ve done it for years and even if they’ve operated there with the acquiescence, or perhaps even the active support, in some cases, of the government – we don’t know – it still is conceivable that they have – that the Egyptians have a point in arguing that they have not had whatever government sanction may or may not be necessary.

MS. NULAND: And this is something that we have been trying to – our NGOs have been trying to work with the judicial system on for weeks and weeks and weeks, going in and talking to them about how they operate, being transparent about their records, being transparent about their tax dealings, being transparent about the programs and the people that they fund, so that they could clarify for these officials that with regard to the system as they understand it, the system as it exists in the environment that they’ve been operating on, they don’t think they’ve done anything wrong.

If Egypt wants to change the system, if Egypt wants to pass new registration standards, I think they would be delighted to comply. The problem has been a very unclear judicial environment in which our guys thought they were doing the right thing. If they are not doing the right thing and they want to set new rules, we can comply with those. But to be drawn up on charges for supposedly breaking laws that they didn’t think existed, it’s – this is the problem we’ve got.

QUESTION: Can I just ask --

MS. NULAND: Yeah.

QUESTION: -- a year ago when Mubarak fell, did this Administration foresee U.S. democracy groups, and more broadly the United States, becoming the boogeyman of Egypt’s political dysfunction?

MS. NULAND: Look, I mean, I can’t speak to what people foresaw or didn’t foresee. I think all of us who have worked with countries in transition, and particularly countries transitioning from a relatively authoritarian system to a democracy, know that the path is never smooth, and know that as more actors who haven’t participated before begin to play, there are a lot of views and voices as instruments of democratic support come into play that have never been used or understood before or haven’t played as prominent a role before. There are always questions. There’s always an education process. So this wouldn’t be the first time that we had to explain and work with countries and groups with regard to the democracy support that we offer, and we’re open to doing that.

It’s simply that I don’t think anybody ever expects a straight, fabulous line from where you start to perfect Switzerland-style future. It’s always going to be bumpy; it’s always going to be complicated. And we are committed to working through these issues with Egypt and we are committed to trying to get back to a place where we can do what we think is most important for the United States and important for Egypt, which is to support this democratic transition and the stability of the country.

QUESTION: But surely, taking into context the unique history of Egypt, the longstanding American support for Mubarak – this wasn’t Ceausescu in Romania. This was the strongest or among the strongest American partners in the Arab world – that there must have been some sort of caution that people were going to try to take advantage of this and paint Egypt’s problems as a result of some sort of nefarious American scheme. Did this –

MS. NULAND: It took us --

QUESTION: Was there ever an effort to kind of preempt this process?

MS. NULAND: Well, absolutely. I mean, the irony here, particularly with regard to the democracy NGOs, is that there has been a groundswell of interest within the Egyptian system from parties across the spectrum, many of whom had never had an opportunity to compete before, to take advantage of their services. I mean, their programs have been wildly popular in Egypt across the spectrum. So we considered that this support for a democratic transition, this ability to interact with lots of new political actors, lots of future leaders of Egypt, would be a positive in our relationship-creating ability with lots of new folks.

So it’s very disappointing that a lot of the information being spread about these groups is not coming from people who have dealt with them or benefitted from them. It’s coming from others, and some of those others are clinging to the old ways.

QUESTION: Just lastly, the Muslim Brotherhood particularly --

MS. NULAND: Yes.

QUESTION: -- which has probably benefitted the most from the process toward democracy, has also taken an unfavorable opinion of the work of these democracy groups and spoken out on behalf of a certain minister that may or may not be spearheading this campaign. Does that distress you that you say these groups have done so much good for these political parties in Egypt, and here you have the biggest winner of parliamentary elections also denouncing these groups?

MS. NULAND: I would simply reiterate the concern that there are reasons, other than support for a democratic transition, behind all these things. I mean, in the case of all of the successful parties in the recent round of elections --

QUESTION: So they’re all success --

MS. NULAND: -- all of them – all of them – participated very actively in not only U.S. programs – NDI and IRI, Freedom House programs – but also in programs sponsored by their own Egyptian NGOs. So you can’t have it both ways, although some will try to in this highly political season in Egypt.

QUESTION: But isn’t it disappointing that those groups that have taken advantage of this haven’t spoken out in favor of it?

MS. NULAND: I think --

QUESTION: And isn’t it also disappointing that members of the military leadership, hundreds of whom participated in IMET programs over the years and who back in the days of Mubarak’s collapse were touted as being here’s a channel of communication that we can get through to, that none – that they have also been silent?

MS. NULAND: Look, all of it’s concerning (inaudible).

QUESTION: And can I just ask a non – on Egypt, but a non-analytical question?

MS. NULAND: Yes.

QUESTION: Well, let’s – let me continue with this, and then we’ll get to that.

MS. NULAND: I feel like we’re having a graduate seminar here.

QUESTION: Why – (laughter.)

MS. NULAND: I’m not sure we’re having a press briefing anymore, but go ahead.

QUESTION: Why does the United States give Egypt $1.3 billion in military aid a year?

MS. NULAND: Well, we’ve spoken about this before. Our view is that this has been an investment in the security and stability not only of Egypt but of the region, including the stability and security of Egypt’s neighbors, notably Israel. It supports and upholds the agreements that Egypt has with its neighbors, which have been very important and have kept the peace for many, many years.

We also have, through the military-to-military programs, as everybody is aware, had generation after generation of Egyptian military leaders train and work in the United States, get to know American counterparts. And frankly, at the time of the Egyptian uprising, at the time of Tahrir Square, this was very, very helpful and important because the result – as a result of those people-to-people contacts that we had with the Egyptian military, we were able to make direct contact and support the instinct of the Egyptian military leadership not to fire on their own peaceful demonstrators, et cetera.

So frankly, there are all kinds of reasons, whether it’s in Egypt or whether it’s in countries around the world, that our military-to-military relationship pays dividends, not only for our security and that country’s security, but also for our ability to influence things in a democratic direction.

QUESTION: And just so I’m clear then, so it – fundamentally, it boils down not so much when you talk about Egypt’s security and regional security and its neighbors’ security. It boils down not so much to helping Egypt protect itself against threats from its neighbors – Libya on one side, Israel on the other, across the Mediterranean from Southern Europe – but rather, basically and simply, to maintain Egyptian military support for the peace treaty with Israel?

MS. NULAND: That is not what I said.

QUESTION: No. I’m asking is that --

MS. NULAND: It starts with the security and stability of Egypt itself and its ability to protect and defend its own security and stability and then goes out in concentric circles to the role Egypt plays as a force for stability in the region and a force for stability beyond.

QUESTION: Can I ask my non-analytically --

MS. NULAND: Yes.

QUESTION: Is there anything new in the case?

MS. NULAND: No.

QUESTION: Have you – are you – the seven have not been notified that they are to present themselves to authorities?

MS. NULAND: The court has not set a trial date. We haven’t had any calls for presentation, no.

QUESTION: And is there planning underway now for the eventuality that these people who are sheltering at the Embassy do get called, summoned?

MS. NULAND: Well, we’re obviously considering all of the options. As you know, we have a very strong legal team on the ground there and reinforced from Washington. But I’m not going to predict where this is going to go.

QUESTION: Well, have they – has the legal team that’s been researching this formed an opinion about whether or not these people would be allowed to stay, continue to stay at the Embassy, to continue to get shelter in the Embassy in the event that warrants for their arrest were issued?

MS. NULAND: I’m sure they have, but not one that we’re going to share in the abstract.

Michele?

QUESTION: Start a new topic?

MS. NULAND: Please. Imagine that. How long have we been talking about Egypt?

QUESTION: On Afghanistan peace talks?

MS. NULAND: Yeah.

QUESTION: Karzai says that there have been meeting – three-way meetings between Taliban, U.S., and Afghanistan officials. And the Taliban says that their representatives have not met anyone from the impotent regime. So who’s telling the truth here?

MS. NULAND: Well, as we said the last time we were on this topic, frankly, we don’t think it’s for us to get into the blow-by-blow of how we are trying to facilitate a process that gets to Afghans talking to Afghans about peace, reconciliation, and stability there. So I’m frankly not going to get into who met whom where and in what configuration.

What we did think was interesting about the press statements we saw from President Karzai is that he is again making very positive statements about the process, making clear that he and his government are prepared to be actively engaged and working with others on that.

So he also – President Karzai – makes the point that he’s not going to give all the details either, because the folks trying to work this through need some space to see if the process can work.

QUESTION: But I mean, do you have any sense that there are going to be real talks when the Taliban says that you haven’t even had these talks about talks? I gather they --

MS. NULAND: Well, there are lots of Taliban saying lots of different things. So again, we’ve said and the Secretary has made clear this whole process is at a very preliminary stage. We’re still at the stage of trying to build the trust among the Afghans so that they can sit in the room and have conversations. So that’s the stage that we’re at, and it’s very, very preliminary.

QUESTION: How do you define the U.S. role in this? Is it the kind of honest broker role in the middle?

MS. NULAND: Well, as we’ve said --

QUESTION: Is that the idea?

MS. NULAND: -- there are some Taliban who are willing to talk to us. We obviously talk to the Afghans. We’re trying to get to a place where, through our good offices, other good offices, they start talking to each other.

QUESTION: Good offices means honest broker, basically, right?

MS. NULAND: No, it doesn’t necessarily. Honest broker implies that we sit in the middle and negotiate between them. That’s not what --

QUESTION: Okay, all right. Well, as part of the good offices then would be if one side comes out and says something publicly and the other side comes out and says diametrically opposed publicly, wouldn’t part of your good offices be to kind of straighten it out for the rest of the world and for those two sides?

MS. NULAND: Look, from our perspective, this preliminary effort to get the sides to meet directly and meet with each other continues. You’re going to have lots of stray press comments from different factions, different groups, throughout this process. We all just need to be steady and take it one step at a time.

QUESTION: So would you compare – would you say that the U.S. role in this is similar to the U.S. role between Israel and the Palestinians?

MS. NULAND: No, I think it’s a different – it’s a different --

QUESTION: Well, thank God for that because as successful as that’s been, this is --

MS. NULAND: It’s a different process.

QUESTION: Was it helpful for President Karzai to not only indicate that there are talks going on between the three parties but to go into a lot of detail, given that he didn’t give detail, about the pace and structure of these talks?

MS. NULAND: Well, I’m not going to give President Karzai’s public comments a grade. I don’t think that’s helpful. But what I – what we do want to emphasize is that he’s now quite publicly speaking positively about the prospect for talks and about his government’s willingness to try to get to a place where Afghans and Afghans are talking to each other.

Please.

QUESTION: Have you any indication that Mullah Omar is in favor of these talks?

MS. NULAND: I’m not going to speak to that one way or the other, even if I personally knew, which I don’t.

QUESTION: Is this being done on an interagency basis?

MS. NULAND: It is. It is.

QUESTION: Okay.

MS. NULAND: Please.

QUESTION: There is a trilateral summit going on in Pakistan in which Afghanistan and Iran are also participating and just building on the questions about reconciliation. And all the discussion that has taken place, it seems that Iran is also interested in becoming a player in these reconciliation talks. Does that concern you? Do you think this will further aggravate the situation in Afghanistan?

MS. NULAND: Well, we’ve said all along that we think all of the neighbors need to support this process and the regional states need to support this process if it’s going to be successful. That’s what President Karzai has also called for.

With regard to whether there’s a role to be played by Iran, frankly, I think the main thing would be to encourage Afghans to talk to Afghans as another step in the reconciliation process. You know that Iran has participated constructively in some of the recent international meetings that we’ve had to support the Afghans in general. They were part of the Istanbul group in November and they were present at the New Silk Road Initiative in September at the UN. They are neighbors. That said, we don’t necessarily support all the things that they have been known to be up to inside Afghanistan.

QUESTION: Okay. And just to follow up, in these trilateral talks there is talk of regional implication and they have all – the three parties are inking all sorts of trade and other agreements. Whereas on one side you have been saying from the podium that you are increasing efforts to isolate Iran internationally, it seems that on the other hand they are seeking to increase their influence in the region. And the countries in the region also seem to be receptive to their effort. Does that concern you?

MS. NULAND: Look, we’ve said from the beginning we are not trying to stop legitimate trade in food, medicine, these kinds of things, between Iran and its neighbors. We are not trying to get in the way of good neighborly relations if, in fact, they support a democratic, peaceful, stable Afghanistan.

What we obviously object to is the attitude of Iran to its nuclear obligations, its support for terror, particularly support for terror in its neighborhood. So the degree to which Iran, Pakistan, and Afghanistan are talking about positive support for an increasingly democratic Afghanistan, that would be in keeping with the goals of the New Silk Road Project that we support. But if there are difficult issues between them, this is an opportunity to deal with those too. And as you know, there have been concerns about some of Iran’s behavior inside Afghanistan.

QUESTION: So you just mentioned Iran’s support for terrorism in its neighborhood. I’m just going to use that opportunity to ask you if you – has there been any developments on linking the disparate cases – Bangkok, Georgia – I don’t remember where the other one was --

MS. NULAND: India.

QUESTION: Delhi.

MS. NULAND: Yeah.

QUESTION: -- with the Iranians?

MS. NULAND: We are still awaiting the results of the various investigations that are underway, and we are in contact with all of those governments. But no definitive conclusions although, as we said yesterday, it wouldn’t surprise us.

QUESTION: Can we move to Syria?

MS. NULAND: Yeah.

QUESTION: I saw the pretty strong photo on the website, the Embassy’s Facebook page, of the smoke, which looks really bad. I’m just wondering if there has been any movement on the planning for the Friends of Syria meeting from your perspective, and also if, in terms of the Secretary’s meetings this weekend in Mexico, if those are set and if there will be discussions on the Tunis meeting there.

MS. NULAND: Well, first, what Matt is referring to, in case you didn’t see it on Robert Ford’s Facebook page, we put up another image showing a very devastating bombing of a piece of pipeline in Syria. Not only do you see the pipeline on fire, you see this massive toxic cloud of smoke over civilian neighborhoods – very concerning.

I’m getting the high sign because the Secretary has a public event shortly.

With regard to the Friends of Syria, the planning continues. Robert Ford is working on this. Fred Hoff is working on this. Assistant Secretary Feltman is working on it. We do expect that the Secretary will have a number of bilateral meetings when she’s in Mexico with countries that we anticipate will participate in the Tunis meeting. I don’t have anything to announce, I’m sorry, at this point, but I think when we get on the plane we’ll have a few to announce on Saturday. And she’ll also meet with some other countries bilaterally when we’re in London in the run-up.

QUESTION: Can you say just briefly to what end? Has it become any clearer what you would like to see the – what the Friends of Syria meeting will produce?

MS. NULAND: Well, we have talked about these three pillars of work --

QUESTION: I know. But what specific things --

MS. NULAND: -- but with regard to the specifics, I think you’re going to have to wait till we get there.

QUESTION: Is it going to be held on the same day or postponed?

MS. NULAND: The planning is for Tunis on the 24th. I don’t think that has changed. Yeah.

QUESTION: You didn’t change it?

MS. NULAND: I don’t think so. You’re hearing it’s changed?

QUESTION: I heard yesterday somebody told me that it may be delayed one day.

MS. NULAND: I had not heard that, but we still have Tunis on the 24th.

Please.

QUESTION: I think you were still supposed to get back to us on the NGO aid that you were providing inside Syria.

MS. NULAND: Yeah. I have to tell you that’s proving a little bit more complicated than I expected, and the reason is that we provide a lump sum of money to international NGOs and UN agencies who do civilian and humanitarian work inside Syria and a number of other countries. So we provide in our annual budget sort of a top line amount and then those organizations decide where the need is greatest. So we are still trying to break down with UN agencies exactly what percentage of the money that we’ve been giving is moving into Syria, and frankly I don’t have that for you yet. But we’re working on it.

QUESTION: But would it be something in the single digits then percentage-wise, do you think?

MS. NULAND: I frankly just don’t know because I know some of them have been trying to surge in recent months. So let us work on that.

QUESTION: And if you – you’ve been talking about increasing the humanitarian assistance. Would it be as part of this top line, or would it be a separate now wholly dedicated to --

MS. NULAND: These are the things that we’re working on in the context of the Friends of Syria. Do we do a special international appeal? How might it work? Is it done through the UN? Is it done through nations? How might that – how many countries might support that, et cetera? Do we need some kind of legal umbrella for it? All these things – it sounds easy, but it’s not, so we need some time.

Okay. Thanks, everybody.

(The briefing was concluded at 1:24 p.m.)

DPB # 32

[This is a mobile copy of Daily Press Briefing - February 16, 2012]