State Department Briefing by Mark C. Toner, December 27, 2011

Washington, DC–(ENEWSPF)–December 27, 2011. 

Index for Today’s Briefing
    • Former Prime Minister Tymoshenko
    • Saleh Request to Enter U.S.
    • GCC
  • IRAN
    • Naval Maneuvers
    • Sanctions
    • Amir Hekmati
    • Arab League / Monitors
    • Ambassador Ford
  • IRAQ
    • Need for Political Dialogue
    • Ambassador Jeffrey
    • Lim Sung Nam / Will Meet with Glyn Davies


1:15 p.m. EST

MR. TONER: Welcome. I hope everyone had a good holiday.

Very briefly at the top, I did want to mention one thing, which is that the United States was disappointed the Kyiv Court of Appeals – or rather, let me start over again. The United States was disappointed that the Kyiv Court of Appeals upheld the conviction of former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko on December 23rd and did not address concerns about democracy and rule of law raised in the initial trial and sentencing. We urge the Government of Ukraine to free Mrs. Tymoshenko and the other former government officials currently in detention. We believe that they should have an unrestricted ability to participate fully in political life, including next year’s parliamentary elections.

With that, I’ll take your questions.

QUESTION: President Saleh, I know that’s been kind of —

MR. TONER: Yeah. I don’t have a lot. No, and I don’t have much more to offer beyond what I think you saw the White House spoke about yesterday and the day before, which is that we – we’re continuing to consider President Saleh’s request to enter the country for the sole purpose of seeking medical treatment. But contrary to some reports that we’ve seen, that permission has not been granted yet. So we’re still considering his request.

QUESTION: Have they told you what specifically he needs to be treated for?

MR. TONER: Well, again, I can’t get into the details of visa requests. Just suffice it to say that the purpose would be for medical treatment.

QUESTION: And would it be for a defined period? I mean, is that – and would it be sort of an entry visa, no exit visa, or would it be for a specific timeframe?

MR. TONER: Again, I honestly don’t know, Andy. Once we’ve made a decision, we can get out those – we can see about what we can talk about in terms of details.

QUESTION: Hey, Mark, there’s some reporting —

MR. TONER: Did we turn on Jill’s? She’s going to yell at me now.

QUESTION: Ridiculous. No.

MR. TONER: Sorry. I couldn’t find it. I didn’t know where it was.

QUESTION: Yeah. Sorry. Thank you, Susan.

MR. TONER: Go ahead, Kirit.

QUESTION: Hey, Mark, there was some reporting about some assurances that the U.S. wanted before granting a visa to Saleh. Can you tell us anything about that?

MR. TONER: I can’t. I mean, I’m not going to get into the details of the specific —

QUESTION: Could you say whether there are assurances that you’re seeking?

MR. TONER: I’m sorry, Kirit?

QUESTION: Would you say broadly whether you are seeking assurances before granting a visa?

MR. TONER: Seeking assurances about —

QUESTION: That was the second part of my question.

MR. TONER: — that there are certain conditionalities? Well, again, I just think that what – what I already just said, which is that what we’re looking at now is a request to come to the United States for the sole purpose of medical treatment.

QUESTION: Can you explain what that means by the “sole purpose”? Would he not be allowed to speak to officials here? Would he not be allowed to meet with Yemeni groups? Would he not be allowed to leave the hospital? It’s rather vague. Or are you saying simply he cannot stay here permanently as an asylum seeker?

MR. TONER: Well, again, until we’ve made a decision on the visa, I don’t want to get into too many specific details. But my understanding is that we’re just trying to clarify that that’s the purpose for which he would travel to the United States, not necessarily what he would do while he was here.

QUESTION: Mark, other people, including us, are being told that the decision has been made. Maybe it’s in – let’s say in principle, but the decision has been made to have him come. Are you – you’re actually saying that there’s still a debate going on, it’s still being discussed?

MR. TONER: Well, again, I – in terms of debate, I mean, we’re in the process of adjudicating his request, as we do with any visa request. Again, I can’t discuss the details. That speaks to privacy issues. But my understanding before coming down here to talk to you all is that that’s still underway.

QUESTION: And when you adjudicate a case like this, without discussing the specifics of this particular case, but given that you’re looking at a request to come here for medical treatment, is the adjudication looking at whether or not you believe this – a case like this needs medical treatment in the United States, that that’s a necessary or a sort of a reasonable request? Is that what you’re looking at?

MR. TONER: I mean, I think they’ll weigh all of those options or all of those aspects of the case. But again, I don’t want to get into any more details.

QUESTION: Can I just ask you on the principle —

MR. TONER: Yeah.

QUESTION: He’s a head of state still. Is there anything under U.S. law that would prevent him – that – is there any justification you would have to prevent him from coming to seek medical treatment? Is that legal under any mechanism under U.S. law? He’s not under U.S. sanctions, he’s a head of state of a sovereign government, and you have pretty good relations with him. So what would be the basis then for – is there any basis to deny him a visa for medical reasons?

MR. TONER: Well, again, I think what we’re looking at now is we’re weighing the visa request. He’s put in – they’ve submitted the travel request. And right now, there’s a very deliberate process for any individual to obtain a visa. And again, I don’t want to get into any more specifics at this time.

QUESTION: I’m just – can you say you have the authority under U.S. law to deny his visa request for medical treatment?

MR. TONER: Well, again, Brad, you’re adding the qualifier “for medical treatment,” and that’s one of the things that we’re looking for.


QUESTION: Okay. So if it’s determined it is for medical treatment, there is no justification under U.S. law to deny his request?

MR. TONER: I don’t want to speak in absolutes. Let’s just review the case and we’ll —

QUESTION: Well, I’m talking the law, not —

MR. TONER: I know that. I realize that. But again, we’re looking at his case. We haven’t made a decision yet.

QUESTION: Then, Mark, can you actually say —

QUESTION: Has this been part of the discussions with the opposition, the Yemeni opposition? Have they discussed or expressed their concerns about his coming here with you?

MR. TONER: Well, again, I think that we are – we would – as we would with any visa case, we would just adjudicate it based on the request and the individual. But you’re speaking about the broader political context, and that’s a separate piece.

QUESTION: But are you actually saying, Mark, that it’s being – that he is being processed as any individual would be? I mean, this is – he’s not any individual.

MR. TONER: I understand that. And but again, I’m really going to stop there because we’re talking about – there’s an assumption of privacy on any visa case, and so I don’t want to get into more detail.

QUESTION: How long do these things normally take to process through?

MR. TONER: There’s no specific timetable for processing such a request.

QUESTION: And could I just ask – you said – maybe I missed this at the top —

MR. TONER: Yeah.

QUESTION: — submitted a travel request. Is that different from the visa request?

MR. TONER: No, it’s a visa request. Yeah. He’s – they’ve expressed, as I said, the travel requests, however, that they be allowed to travel to the United States.

QUESTION: Hey, Mark —

MR. TONER: But it’s a – you still need a visa.

QUESTION: Was there a time for visa?

MR. TONER: Not that I’m aware of, no.

QUESTION: Just speaking broadly, not speaking about —

MR. TONER: Yeah. Sure.

QUESTION: — this particular request to come here. Does the State Department have a position on whether they believe it’s a good idea – it was getting cold – (laughter) – whether it would be a good idea for or whether it’s a bad idea for him to be in the country, whether it would be good idea for him to get out of the country?

MR. TONER: Well, we’ve been very clear on what we want to see happen in Yemen. They’ve signed the GCC agreement. I think most of you saw that – in fact, that the White House, John Brennan, spoke with Yemeni Vice President Hadi on Christmas Day. And again, it was an opportunity once more to emphasize the need for both for Yemeni security forces to show restraint in dealing with the demonstrations, but also to urge again the importance of continuing along this agreed-upon path of political transition that will lead to a presidential election in – on February 21st. We need to see that process continue, regardless of where President Saleh is.

QUESTION: And you don’t have any particular feelings on where he is? Does it matter at all from your perspective?

MR. TONER: Again, I think we’re just judging this on the merits of his request to come here to seek medical treatment.

QUESTION: But I’m not asking about that. I’m saying, in general, is it helpful to that process, do you think, for him to be in the country, or would it be more helpful for him to be out of the country?

MR. TONER: I don’t know if it’s for us to opine whether it’s helpful or not. I think it’s for us to reiterate a very strong message that we need to see Yemen move along in the political transition that was outlined in the GCC.

QUESTION: Well, Mark, you know —

QUESTION: If it’s not for you to opine? I mean, I don’t understand why you wouldn’t opine on that. You opine on leaders like Saleh – or no, like Assad and their countries —

MR. TONER: Because that’s a – because —

QUESTION: So why couldn’t you say if you think it would be helpful for him to be there?

MR. TONER: Because these are aspects for the Yemeni people to decide. But what’s absolutely important is that they did agree to the GCC agreement that does outline this path towards presidential elections, and we need to see that process move forward.

Yeah, Jill.

QUESTION: Mark, the president himself has basically contradicted this request, because if you look at what he said, the request was he needs medical care, and then the president himself comes out and says, “Well, you know, I need a little checkup here and there, but it’s nothing serious.” He himself seems to be saying this is not a big deal. He – and then he goes on to say, “I just want to get out of the way so there’s no problem politically, and they can’t blame me if something goes wrong.” Do you trust him, what he’s saying? Already, you’ve got contradictions.

MR. TONER: Well, again, it’s not for me to state whether we trust his public comments. Our understanding is that this is a request for him to come to the United States to seek medical treatment, and it’s on that basis that we’re evaluating it.

QUESTION: Given that this is already a matter of public discussion, are you expecting a decision, when it’s made, to be formally announced, sort of pushed by you guys? Or is he just going to show up because it’s an individual case?

MR. TONER: That’s a good question, Andy. I don’t know whether we would announce it here. We normally —

QUESTION: I’d recommend the former if it’s normally what –

MR. TONER: We normally would not announce something like that. But if we’re able to, as – because you’re all following this so closely, if we’re able to confirm one way or the other, we’ll let you know.

QUESTION: That would be awesome.

MR. TONER: Yeah.

QUESTION: New topic?

MR. TONER: Sure.

QUESTION: Iran, they have military maneuvers and speaking tough today. They’re threatening to close the Strait of Hormuz if any sanctions on the oil exports.

MR. TONER: Well, you know I spoke about the naval maneuvers last week, and they’ve done this before. We don’t really have an opinion one way or another for whether a country wants to exercise its navy. That’s for it to do. We certainly exercise our own. But in terms of their comments about the Strait of Hormuz, I just think it’s another attempt by them to distract attention away from the real issue, which is their continued noncompliance with their international nuclear obligations. We’ve been very clear the path we’re pursuing, which is a – the two roads, if you will, of sanctions and increased sanctions and pressure on Iran if it continues not to comply. But the other path is one towards greater openness and engagement with the West if it does comply. That hasn’t changed.


QUESTION: Crude oil prices are up quite sharply on these Iranian comments. Do you have a view on whether or not it’s technically possible for the Iranians to follow through on this threat to shut off oil through the Strait of Hormuz?

MR. TONER: I don’t. I’d probably refer you to the Department of Defense for an analysis on that. Obviously, we support the free flow of oil, but I – these are hypothetical, or these are remarks about a hypothetical situation, and obviously there’s an element of bluster to them.

QUESTION: You don’t – so you don’t seem concerned by these remarks?

MR. TONER: Again, I mean, we think it’s a distraction.

QUESTION: You would opine that it’s unhelpful.

MR. TONER: (Laughter.) I knew I’d regret that – (laughter) – using that.


QUESTION: Did you say before, like, the U.S. wants to impose sanctions on the Iranian exports of oil?

MR. TONER: I’m sorry. One more time.

QUESTION: Did the U.S. Government announce before that they are willing to – the U.S. willing to impose sanctions on exports of Iranian oil?

MR. TONER: Well, we do have very strong sanctions in place. I’m not sure specifically what aspect you’re talking about. I mean, we don’t, obviously, import any amounts of Iranian oil. That’s been – they’ve been cut off from our financial markets for some time.

QUESTION: Hey, Mark, on Friday night, the President signed a presidential statement regarding the – a policy statement regarding the Iran sanctions amendment —

MR. TONER: Right.

QUESTION: — to the defense bill. And it seemed to suggest that – or maybe I’m getting them confused – or was that Gitmo? Never mind.

MR. TONER: Okay. (Laughter.)

QUESTION: So let’s move on to Guantanamo.

MR. TONER: Sure.

QUESTION: He sent out a statement – the White House did —

QUESTION: Can I stay on Iran for a second?

MR. TONER: Yeah. Sure.

QUESTION: Okay. Go on.

MR. TONER: Iraq or Iran?


MR. TONER: Okay. Go ahead.

QUESTION: The trial of the American began today who is accused of being a CIA spy. Do you have anything to say about that?

MR. TONER: Sure. You’re talking about Amir Merzaei Hekmati? Okay. Well –

QUESTION: Unless there’s more than one that you want to tell us about. (Laughter.) Your other CIA spy.

MR. TONER: Just continue with your lunch, why don’t you. We are aware of press reports that a closed-door trial has begun against Mr. Hekmati. We’ve requested access to him via our Swiss protecting power, and we call on the government of Iran to grant the Swiss protecting power immediate access to him and release him without delay. We’ve seen this story before with the Iranian regime falsely accusing people of being spies and then holding innocent foreigners for political reasons. I do know – I just asked for an update before coming down here, and I do know that the Swiss demarched the Iranians on December 24th, but they refused consular access again. That’s all I have.

QUESTION: Okay. So going back to Guantanamo –

MR. TONER: Yeah. Sure.

QUESTION: — there was a policy statement from the White House that seemed to suggest that what was included in that amendment was – maybe you don’t have anything on this – was an encroachment on the executive branch’s authority and that the executive branch would then exercise or would implement this bill in accordance with the constitution. Is the Administration already backing away from this – from these restrictions on the prohibition of trying detainees – moving them to U.S. soil and trying them in civilian courts?

MR. TONER: You know what, Brad? Let me take that question.


MR. TONER: I may end up having to refer you to the White House, but – I recall the statement, but I’d like to find out more information before I get back to you.

QUESTION: New topic?

MR. TONER: Yeah.

QUESTION: What’s your assessment on the arrival of the Arab League monitors in Syria? Are you satisfied with their behavior?

MR. TONER: Well, you saw, unfortunately, that the government in Damascus – the regime, rather, used the last several days as an opportunity to escalate their attacks on several cities and neighborhoods and homes in Daraa and other cities prior to the deployment of these monitors. It was a horrible situation where the violence spiked over the course of several days. We obviously condemn this escalation of violence. Again, we think it’s linked to the fact that they were – they saw an opportunity prior to these Arab League monitors arriving. They’re not consistent. These actions, rather, are not consistent with the terms of the Arab League initiative that the Syrian regime agreed to on November 2nd or the protocol on observers that the regime agreed to on December 19th.

We have seen reports now that these monitors are on the ground, that they’re deploying to some of the cities. I believe that the head of the Arab League monitoring mission arrived on Saturday, and then 50 monitors arrived from various countries yesterday, December 27th. And then they’re now off heading to various locations. We obviously look to these individuals to be intrepid in their search for the truth of what’s happening on the ground, and we would ask, or demand rather, that the Syrian authorities allow them full access to the Syrian people in order to carry out their mission.


QUESTION: Is Ambassador Ford going to attempt to speak to any of these monitors ahead of the group or brief them?

MR. TONER: I know he’s been in – sure. I know he’s been in touch with some of his colleagues in the diplomatic corps as well as interlocutors for the Arab League in Damascus. I don’t know that he’s spoken yet with the head of the monitoring mission.

QUESTION: Do you think that will be useful given that he has a certain viewpoint on what’s been going on on the ground?

MR. TONER: I do. And I don’t think there’s any reason why he wouldn’t. I just think it’s probably just a logistical question. But certainly, we support this mission very much, and any way we can be helpful to it and in supporting it, I think we’re willing to do that.

QUESTION: Mark, the mission is quite a bit smaller than first envisioned at least in press reports. They were talking about 500. Now it seems to be there’s less than a hundred. Is that a disappointment for the U.S.?

MR. TONER: Well, again, I don’t think we’re at a final figure, and we’d like to see it grow over the next several months. The Arab League has, I think, accomplished a great deal in a very short time both in engaging on the situation in Syria and in a very proactive way addressing the international community’s concerns about what’s happening there. And the fact that they’ve got now people on the ground providing that monitoring ability, I think is an important first step. But obviously, we want to see more.

QUESTION: So no one from the Arab League has been in contact with anybody at the State Department about what the monitors’ initial impressions or anything?

MR. TONER: Not yet.

QUESTION: An Iraq question?

MR. TONER: Yeah. Sure.

QUESTION: Muqtada al-Sadr’s political bloc called for dissolution of the parliament and hold new elections. Are you guys concerned about what that means? Is it a sign of growing sectarian tension? Is it another sign of the country going – starting to come apart?

MR. TONER: Well, this comes on top of what was a very tumultuous week in Iraq. I think our message frankly has not changed, which is that there’s an urgent need for the prime minister and the leaders of the other major blocs to meet and work through their differences together. There’s – there are issues that need to be addressed now, and we believe that the best way to do that is through political dialogue. Elections are set on some future date, but what really needs to happen now is the political parties need to sit down and hash through some of these issues.

QUESTION: As the responsible agency now for – in Iraq for the U.S. presence, what are you guys doing to help this process along?

MR. TONER: Well, obviously, Ambassador Jeffrey is on the ground. And he and his senior-most staff are in constant contact with the government and with the various political blocs in order to encourage them to sit down and discuss their differences and work out a compromise.

QUESTION: And this —

QUESTION: I assume you oppose the dissolution of parliament?

MR. TONER: Yes. We do. Again, I think what the broader point I’m trying to make here is that there’s an urgency to the situation. These folks need to sit down and in a shared fashion address these issues rather than make single calls for one action or another.

QUESTION: And your – this 16,000-strong force or whatever it is that’s in Iraq now, what are they doing amid this kind of increased strife?

MR. TONER: Well, I mean there’s – it’s – first off, there’s the 2,000 personnel diplomats, but as we described, more broadly speaking, these folks represent a broad cross-section of the government, and they work on all aspects of democratic institution building, agricultural and economic development. So these core 2,000 folks continue to carry out their missions and work with various elements of the Iraq – of Iraqi society and the Iraqi Government in order to move forward in their various areas of expertise.

QUESTION: What about the guys with the guns?

MR. TONER: Well, I mean —

QUESTION: They’re under your observation now.

MR. TONER: Again – well, again, and indeed, these are the bigger – the larger – or the 2,000 folks, and then you’ve got a contingent of logistical personnel as well as security personnel protecting that core group of people. And they continue to carry out their duties, and they also continue to be monitored and supervised by the Embassy.

QUESTION: Does – are there any contingency plans for how they either act or their presence based on how the situation unfolds with regards to the violence?

MR. TONER: Well —

QUESTION: So if the violence increases or – let’s say increases, do you have contingency plans on how that might affect their role or have —

MR. TONER: Of course, of course. And again, it’s important to stress that these security personnel are supervised by members of the mission and their activities are closely monitored. But these are – these are individuals and groups that are there to conduct security, not engage in any kind of other defense or other actions.

QUESTION: So how – so 2,000 diplomats working in civil society, democracy building. Are the rest of them in logistics and security? So 14 —

MR. TONER: Yeah. And again, there’s been various numbers thrown about. And I think it’s important, one, because of security considerations, that we not give out hard numbers, and then two, that those numbers are in flux. But I think it’s – there’s a contingent that’s both security and logistic, about half and half.

QUESTION: New topic?

MR. TONER: Yeah. Sure.

QUESTION: Anything new on North Korea? Any more contact with —

MR. TONER: I don’t. I checked before coming down here. The only thing I can confirm is that – I understand that South Korea’s North Korean negotiator, if you will, Lim Sung Nam is going to be here tomorrow, and he will meet with Glyn Davies.

QUESTION: What about the funeral of Kim Jong-il tonight? Do you have anything on that?

MR. TONER: I don’t have any comment.

QUESTION: Does Mr. Davies have any plans to go back to the region, do you know?

MR. TONER: Not at this time.

QUESTION: And nothing new on the food issue?

MR. TONER: Nothing on nutritional assistance.

QUESTION: What will they discuss – the two? I mean, it’s pretty obvious, but —

MR. TONER: We’ll try to get – right. I mean, they’re going to —

QUESTION: — if you could spell it out.

MR. TONER: I mean, they’re obviously going to talk about his trip – him being Glyn Davies, who was in the region just last week before Kim Jong-il’s death. But he did have meetings with the various capitals in Beijing and elsewhere, and they’re going to discuss next steps. But we’ll try to get a readout for you.

QUESTION: Do you know of Ambassador Campbell’s potential travel?

MR. TONER: I don’t. I’ll check.

Is that it? We good?

QUESTION: Is there going to be a briefing tomorrow?

MR. TONER: I don’t know. We’ll have to assess. We’ll try to get you what you need, regardless, and then Toria will be back on Thursday.

QUESTION: Thank you.

MR. TONER: Yeah. All right, guys.

(The briefing was concluded at 1:40 p.m.)