Reporters accompanying Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on her travel to Saudi Arabia and Turkey were apparently playing catchup on the flight to Saudi Arabia. A senior State Department Official, in a briefing to the media on March 30 the day Clinton arrived in the Kingdom, described the Secretary’s first day of meetings while, “We are en route from Shannon, Ireland to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia in the Secretary’s plane without the Secretary, who went ahead when we had mechanical problems.”
The briefing is an attempt to update the reporters, provide background to the Secretary’s visit and respond to questions. It does provide some context to the planned discussions — Syria, Iran, energy, missile defense and so forth — but may also generate some sympathy for the life of reporters on the road and the struggle to piece together a coherent story from sometimes less than illuminating Q & A sessions.
Senior State Department Official
En Route to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia
March 30, 2012
STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: All right. We are en route from Shannon, Ireland to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia – want to stand here? – in the Secretary’s plane without the Secretary, who went ahead when we had mechanical problems. We will give you a little bit of the flavor of the Secretary’s bilateral meetings in Saudi Arabia today, and then we’ll go on and set up the GCC-U.S. Strategic Security Forum meetings for tomorrow. For your records, I am Senior State Department Official Number One, better known as [Senior State Department Official One], and Senior State Department Official Number Two is [Senior State Department Official Two].
So first, the Secretary met today for 40 minutes with delegations with King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia and then for an hour one-on-one, so an hour and 40 minutes all together. And they really did the entire gamut of issues. They, of course, talked about Iran and the sanctions that we are all putting in place. The Secretary briefed the king on the upcoming plans for P-5+1 meetings with the Iranians and how we intend to go forward with those.
They obviously talked about Syria, in preparation for the Friends of the Syrian People meeting in Istanbul tomorrow. They talked about Yemen, in light of the election and the transition process underway there and the strong role that Saudi Arabia has played in the GCC and otherwise in getting to this place. They talked about reform in the kingdom, including the role of women. They talked about keeping the global oil supply strong in this period and the essential role that Saudi Arabia plays in that. And they talked about supporting the transitions underway in Tunisia and Egypt.
The Secretary also had more than two hours separately with Foreign Minister Saud. That was primarily, again, on all of the regional issues – Syria, Yemen, Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Bahrain. And she is meeting now with a group of women NGO activists in the kingdom.
Why don’t we go to the GCC brief, and then we will take questions.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: This is going to be the first meeting of the Secretary with the foreign ministers of the GCC as part of this new GCC Security Cooperation – I’m sorry – Strategic Cooperation Forum. And as you know, this was originally outlined at the UN General Assembly when Secretary Clinton and Secretary Panetta met with representatives of the GCC to propose this forum.
Traditionally – sorry – traditionally, our interactions and diplomacy with the GCC states have been bilateral. This is an effort to take those bilateral discussions and bring them together under a GCC umbrella with the United States in order to discuss cross-cutting security issues the GCC members and the United States share. The idea is this first meeting we’ll discuss regional security issues of common concern, as well as proposals for a path ahead for continuing these discussions. It’s foreign ministers designed to provide a strategic context to the type of defense cooperation that we already have with the GCC nations.
So we are looking forward to kicking off this new strategic forum tomorrow, and we think it’s going to be a valuable opportunity to talk about all sorts of regional security concerns. Of course, Iran will be among them, but not only Iran. There will – I said, not only Iran. We’ll be talking things about WMD proliferation, terrorism, the passage – maritime security – its passage through the Gulf, and as well as the types of regional issues in Yemen, in Syria, and elsewhere. So this is a real opportunity for the foreign ministers to provide that strategic context, which will be used to help guide the type of operational and tactical cooperation that is ongoing and will continue going forward.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Let’s go once around the room. Questions (inaudible), Jill.
QUESTION: On the bilateral with the Saudis, on the issue of oil, they have said that with the sanctions they would fill in the gaps, they –
QUESTION: — the Saudis have said that they would fill in the gaps, make sure that there is no lack of sufficient oil as those sanctions kick in. Was there anything – can you give us more specifics on what they are promising to do?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Well, as you said, Jill, they have made some public statements about the role that they intend to play. Again, with apologies for not having been in the meeting, having been here with you all, I don’t have any further details except to say that I know that our shared interest in maintaining stability in oil markets was discussed.
QUESTION: (Inaudible) the question I was going to ask about, whether there was any sort of specific outcome regarding oil and commitments – about the Saudi oil supply (inaudible)?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Yeah, and just to say that beyond what I gave you, I don’t have too many details.
QUESTION: Yeah, on missile defense. Toria mentioned it at the briefing the other day. What kind of missile defense plan are you trying to get all of them to agree to? And all of this is against Iran, can you just spell that out?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Well, I mean, I think that ultimately we’re working – and this will be a topic that will be discussed during this forum – but we’re looking to develop a regional security architecture, regional missile defense architecture –
QUESTION: I can’t hear you. A regional what?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: A regional missile defense architecture. And we’re working with each of our partners –
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Oh, sorry. We’re working with each of our partners to develop that architecture because in order to protect the Gulf, no one nation can protect itself. It needs to rely on its partners in order to have an effective missile defense system.
So we are working on that to address missile defense threats in the region. It’ll be a subject that will likely come up during the forum. And that will – we will continue to work with our partners on developing this architecture.
QUESTION: Is there an architecture for that? Is there a system envisioned in places – there’s something like the land-based Aegis that they’re talking about for Europe? Is there some –
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: I would say there’s going to be a – this architecture will have a variety of different systems when it comes to fruition.
QUESTION: But you’re not there yet.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: We’re not. We’re working with our partners to develop this architecture.
QUESTION: Is Iran the main threat or are there others?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Well, it’s clearly one of the most significant threats that these nations face in the region.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Brad.
QUESTION: Sorry. I just forgot it.
QUESTION: There’s been reports that the Saudis have already discussed shipping arms to the Syrian rebels through Jordan. Did you get any feedback on what I think the Secretary might have gotten from the Saudis about their plans to arm the Syrian opposition?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Again, having not been in the meeting and just getting a secondhand brief here, my understanding is that the conversation on Syria focused on the full range of agenda items that we have for the Friends of Syrian People, which ranged from continuing to get humanitarian aid in there; all nations trying to increase what they’re doing; supporting the opposition first and foremost in its effort to come together behind a united political vision of the way forward, which could support the kind of dialogue that Kofi Annan has called for; tightening the sanctions and particularly making sure that groups and regional organizations in individual nations that have committed to sanctions are fully implementing them; and moves we can take to ensure that we are tightening that noose as much as we can. And then, obviously, we’re starting a conversation now about how we can begin to catalog accountability issues, accountability in particular for atrocities committed during this period. But with regard to the specific issue, I don’t have anything further to what I gave you.
QUESTION: Is it still our foreign policy that we’re against arming the rebels?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Say again?
QUESTION: Is it still formally our policy that we’re against arming the rebels? I mean, is that U.S. policy still?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Well, I think you know where we are on this issue. Our main focus and the focus that we have with our partners is on trying to get the guns silenced, first and foremost, Assad’s guns silenced and then, as Kofi Annan has said, as he takes steps to implement the promises that he made, then Kofi Annan in the first instance, but everybody with influence working with the opposition to make clear that their guns should be silenced as well.
QUESTION: Let’s go over architecture again. Do you have a timeline for when you might see a plan or the rough outline of a plan emerge?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Well, my colleagues in the Department of Defense are working with this issue, so I don’t have a timeline to give you right now. But it is something that is a priority for our partnerships with the GCC countries. It is something that we are working with them on, and it’s something that likely will come up tomorrow.
QUESTION: Can I follow-up on Wendell’s question, [Senior State Department Official Two]? You said that you’re developing an infrastructure. Is there anything in place right now that you would build upon?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Well, I mean, we have already sold or have plans to sell a number of different missile defense systems – a number of different missile defense systems to the region, which would form the building blocks for a missile defense architecture.
QUESTION: Could you tell us a little more?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: I mean, there’s Patriots –
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: I’m sorry?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Yeah. UAVs. There’s – THAAD is – for UAE is being worked. So we are working those systems. We’re working that issue. And it’s something that we think is an area which we can – is appropriate for the GCC as a regional organization. Since missile defense requires a regional approach, it’s an appropriate topic to be discussed and addressed.
QUESTION: Is the effort to integrate it technical or more political in getting the six nations or seven nations to work together?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: It’s both. I think obviously you’ll need it technically to work together, but it also will require the nations to work together on developing this architecture.
QUESTION: Can I just follow up? Tomorrow in the GCC meeting, do you expect a discussion of concrete measures regarding Syria and maybe any consensus on that? Because I know the Saudis have discussed like a buffer or border zone. Is it – how specific are they going to get ahead of the Syria meeting?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: I think that, as you point out, there is going to be a Friends of Syria meeting the next day. So obviously at the forum, any nation or any foreign minister is free to raise whatever issue they would like. And we won’t know until we get there what they will identify as the issues that they would like to emphasize. But it will be in the context of the Friends of Syria meeting happening, Friends of Syria –
QUESTION: But you don’t expect any, like, U.S.-GCC consensus to come out of this meeting (inaudible)?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: We’ll see what comes out of the meeting.
QUESTION: On the – on what you said about the Syrians before about – that the Annan plan calls for the Syrian Government to stop its violence first, the Syrian Government has said it wants a simultaneous cessation of fire. Is that a nonstarter as far as you’re concerned, as far as the Administration is concerned? If you wanted the opposition to stop shooting, how would you get them to do that?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Well, as you know, this has been the focus of a lot of the effort that Kofi Annan is putting in personally, that his technical team has been putting in. He made a statement today that we very much endorse – or yesterday – that it’s incumbent upon the stronger power here to lead. And clearly, it is the Assad regime that is responsible for the preponderance of the violence.
With regard to what one would do with the opposition, there are many participants in this Friends of the Syrian People meeting with influence with different sectors of the Syrian opposition. But again, what they’ve been involved with is primarily the result of the need to defend themselves in face of the onslaught that the regime has been launching month on month, week on week, day on day, against them.
QUESTION: Are you seeking any commitment from these GCC states that should Iran go nuclear, should they get a nuclear weapon, that it would not set off an arms race of sorts in the region?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Well, that’s not the purpose of this forum tomorrow. The purpose of the forum tomorrow is to discuss – to put – to write a strategic approach to the – to addressing regional security challenges, including Iran. So it’s not about seeking commitments. It’s about reaching consensus. It’s about hearing the – each country’s perspective and trying to develop a common approach on the varied security challenges that the GCC countries and the U.S. face.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: We’re going to take two more.
QUESTION: But it’s been said that if Iran gets nuclear, then they’ll all want to do the same. You’re not going to address that issue?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Our goal is to make sure that Iran does not develop nuclear weapons. And so – and that’s a goal that we and our GCC partners share.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Reena, did you have anything?
QUESTION: Yes, I did. Was there any discussion about these leaked reports about this Azerbaijan air force base that might be used – was that brought up with the Saudis at all – if there were a strike on Iran?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: To my knowledge, that was not a subject of these discussions. If I learn otherwise, we’ll let you know.
QUESTION: [Senior State Department Official One], the Secretary laid out some things that the Syrian opposition needs to do to come together to better define their goals and to work together, and there are reports that members of the opposition are shooting at each other. How close are they to doing what the Secretary said they should do in order to warrant the support of the rest of the international community?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Well, the Secretary has been clear, as has the President, for many months now, and certainly since the Secretary’s first meeting with the SNC and members of the Syrian opposition back in December, that we think they will be strongest if they come together with a unified plan of how a democratic transition could go forward. This is a process that’s been followed in other countries that are undergoing the same kind of transition. We are continuing to work with them to try to strengthen them in that regard. They have been reporting that they expect to be able to make progress and to demonstrate progress at this meeting on Sunday, so we’ll look forward to what they bring.
QUESTION: I have a last one that –
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Okay. Let’s do one last one, and then Karen, and then we’re going to cut it off.
QUESTION: Can you read out in any more detail the conversation about women’s rights in Saudi Arabia?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: I frankly can’t, but we’ll see what we get when we link up with the boss.
QUESTION: Can I – I’m sorry to belabor this point, but could you just go through, in terms of the missile defense, what’s been sold to whom and what’s been promised?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: I don’t have that level of detail right in front of me, but we can work to get that later. Okay?
QUESTION: If you could share it with all of us, that would be great.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Why don’t we work to get you a little bit more detail? But remember that when we worked with the Europeans as well, when we worked in Asia, we usually start with these bilateral relationships and then we look to see how we can build a network, so we’ll see what we can do for you on the bilateral stuff.
Okay? Thanks, everybody.
QUESTION: [Senior State Department Official One], just one other thing that – no, it’s not connected with this at all. It’s the North Koreans. It’s the short-range missiles. There have been reports about launching some short-range missiles. Do you know anything about that?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: I don’t have anything fresh today. I’m going to send you to Washington, to Mark, who’s got the latest. Okay? Thanks.
Source: U.S. State Department