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News Briefing with Secretary Gates and Secretary Rice from Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt

Presenters: Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice
July 31, 2007

SECRETARY RICE: Well, I'm pleased to be here in Egypt and shortly in Saudi Arabia with Secretary of Defense Bob Gates. The President asked us to come out to the region to affirm to our allies and friends in the region the enduring commitment of the United States to security and stability and progress in the Middle East. We've had very good conversations about what initiatives we might take with our friends and allies for future security cooperation in these challenging times.

We've also had very intensive discussions about the various political issues facing the region. This morning, earlier at the GCC plus Egypt and Jordan, we had extensive discussions of the Israeli-Palestinian issue, of Iraq, of the situation in Lebanon, and other political issues.

And finally, we've had extensive discussions and just finished discussions with President Mubarak and then with Egyptian officials about the important work that we are doing in Iraq and assuring our friends and allies that the policies and decisions that the President is pursuing in Iraq will be policies and decisions that have, at their core, an understanding of the fundamental importance of a stable Iraq to the stability of this region. And that will be very much on his mind, a priority for him as he looks over the next several months to the report that he will be receiving from General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker.

I think it's fair to say that we have had discussions that are befitting for longtime strategic allies in the region and we will continue to do that. Bob, do you want to add anything?

SECRETARY GATES: No, why don't we just go straight to questions.

SECRETARY RICE: Good. Anne Gearan.

QUESTION: Can you describe, perhaps both of you, what the tenor of the discussions was and how can you describe (inaudible) what the tenor of the discussions was as far as continued U.S. military involvement in Iraq? Have you heard concerns from (inaudible) allies about either (inaudible) worried that the U.S. might withdraw too quickly and cause (inaudible) or conversely, that there is a stabilizing effect (inaudible)?

SECRETARY GATES: This is our first stop, so we have a sample of one, but I think that there clearly is concern on the part of the Egyptians and I think that it probably represents concerns also in the region that the United States will somehow withdraw precipitously from Iraq or, in some way, that is destabilizing to the entire region. And so there were no prescriptions; only the expression of concern that, as we look at the path ahead, that we take into account those concerns. And in turn, we assure them, as Secretary Rice just said, that the President is going to (inaudible) what he thinks is in the best interests of long-term stability in the region in terms of decisions he makes with respect to (inaudible) attacks in Iraq, in terms of U.S. troops.

SECRETARY RICE: And let me just say that was echoed in the meetings this morning, the GCC and Egypt and Jordan.

QUESTION: Would you say, on the same subject, a lot of you heard a lot of concern amongst the Sunni Arab allies about the Maliki government and it perhaps serves as a bridge to Iran and the (inaudible) sectarian government backing Shia. I wonder, did you raise that issue? I know you came here hoping to try to placate some of those concerns, placate (inaudible), raise some of those concerns? (Inaudible)

SECRETARY RICE: There's no doubt that there is concern in general that the Iraqi Government needs to make more progress on the course of national reconciliation which is at the core of an Iraq that is not sectarian and that, in fact, is an Iraq in which all Iraqis can live and prosper. And I think it's no secret that there's been concern that on the political front, progress has not been as rapid as people would have hoped.

But I did sense from -- again, I'll speak first about the GCC plus Jordan and Egypt -- that there was an understanding that there are also responsibilities that Iraq's neighbors have to help that reconciliation take place, a good deal of discussion about what could be done, particularly to encourage Sunni Arabs to be full partners in the efforts at national reconciliation. And I, for my part, did talk about some of the things that we were seeing with the Maliki government, particularly in how the security forces are functioning in a far less sectarian way than before the President's policies were instituted in January.

There was also a recognition that some of the obligations undertaken at the Sharm el-Sheikh neighbors conference needed to be carried out so that, for instance, border patrols that would prevent terrorists from coming in who are hurting Iraqis of all stripes needed to be fully instituted. So I found it an attitude of wanting to engage. One of the partners in the GCC plus Jordan and Egypt actually said, "I think we have the right framework for Iraq and now, what we need to do is to make sure that it's executed." So I found that encouraging and we'll continue to work.

But sure, if there is concern by all, including concerns of our own, that this government demonstrate that it is not going to be sectarian, we think they've made some progress.

QUESTION: We've heard voices from Iranian officials (inaudible) trip, as sort of a diplomatic shot across their back, (inaudible).

SECRETARY GATES: I think this trip is very much just as Condi described it. We are out here to talk about the long term, that the United States has been in this region and in the Gulf specifically for some 60 years. We have every intention of being here for a lot longer. We have some very long-term friendships and security relationships out here. We are here to reassure all of our friends that we intend to carry out those responsibilities and that we will continue to be here.

I think that if those who are opposed to these kinds of relationships see concern, then that -- then that's in the eye of the beholder. But the fact is the relationships, for the most part, long predate the current government in Iran. They, in fact, predate the current regime in Iran. And so I think as much as anything, this is a trip about reassurance and looking for opportunities to strengthen already important bilateral relationships and look potentially for new multilateral opportunities to work together.

SECRETARY RICE: Nick.

QUESTION: You talked about national reconciliation before and we've been hearing that before (inaudible) as well as what (inaudible) Iraq. And Iran Ambassador to the UN -- UN Ambassador to Iraq, (inaudible) piece in The New York Times. So he seemed to contradict yesterday (inaudible).

What exactly did you tell him today that you would like to do in terms of crossing the Saudi-Iraqi border and how would they respond to what perhaps Ambassador Khalilzad had to say?

SECRETARY RICE: Well, I think what Ambassador Khalilzad said was that there are neighbors of Iraq who can do more effectively than they are doing and that by not doing that, they're not being helpful. Look, all of Iraq's neighbors could do more to stabilize Iraq. My point yesterday was that if you compare what you're seeing in terms of Syrian people coming through Damascus Airport, many of whom can't cross borders at other points, including in Saudi Arabia, then you have a marked contrast in what governments are trying to do to stem the flow of foreign fighters. But we all today looked at the obligations in the Sharm el-Sheikh neighbors conference.

Everybody recognizes that if Iraq is going to be stable against what are very difficult circumstances, that everybody is going to have to do more. That more includes better border patrols. I'm very hopeful that the follow-on working groups and maybe even something more permanent than that among the neighbors that might deal with border issues would start to put in place some regimes that could really make it very hard for foreign fighters to cross those borders.

When it comes to financial matters, the neighbors have all said that they want to try to move forward on those issues. One of the points that I made yesterday that was, for instance, on debt relief, the Iraqis and Saudis we hope will soon begin the technical discussions so that that can take place. So there is a contradiction here. Everybody could do more. But I wanted to highlight that it is just simply not the case that the neighbors with whom I spoke today were doing nothing to support a unified Iraq. I think they understand that they have very strong interests there and they're trying to move forward. The Iraqis have a very tough battle against some very determined enemies. What I heard today and what we heard from the Egyptians is that they know, these states know, that if the determined enemies are successful, then this whole region is going to be chaotic. So this is also a matter of national self-interest.

STAFF: (Inaudible.)

QUESTION: For both Secretary Rice and Secretary Gates, you mentioned that there were concerns expressed about a premature or precipitous withdrawal of U.S. forces. Given the political climate right now in Washington, what kind of assurances were you able to give that that wouldn't happen?

SECRETARY GATES: Well, one of the things that I imagined is that it seems to me over the past two or three weeks or so in Washington and while there are still strong advocates clearly of withdrawal and some of them withdrawing very quickly, what I have begun to hear is more and more undertone even from those who oppose the President's policies of the need to take into account the consequences, if we make a change in our policy and the dangers inherent in doing it unwisely. And so I think that we are in a position to say that there is, I think, a growing opinion in Washington wherever you are on the issue of withdrawal that whatever we do next in Iraq needs to be done very carefully, very thoughtfully and with a view to the long-term stability of the region.

QUESTION: Is that a reference to Barack Obama's comments recently?

SECRETARY GATES: No, that's not in reference to anybody's comments in particular.

QUESTION: And where do you see these trends? I mean, they don't appear evident.

SECRETARY GATES: I see them on your networks, in your newspapers and in interviews.

QUESTION: Madame Secretary.

SECRETARY RICE: Yes, Robin.

QUESTION: You have shown in the last few days there is (inaudible) tangible support for some of your (inaudible) in the last few days, you have tangible, concrete, specific (inaudible) for your Gulf allies and Arab allies. Have you, in your meetings today, heard from any of the government's longstanding friends that you point out, concrete, tangible specifics towards the (inaudible) in either the Arab-Israeli dispute in an agreement to join the international meeting this fall or are you planning to do something more specific beyond the general urging of prominent leaders of Iraq who are participating in the reconciliation (inaudible?)

SECRETARY RICE: Well, Robin, I mentioned on Iraq that there is the matter of increasing work on the borders. These borders, by the way, have been permeable for many, many decades, if not longer. And so it's not easy to talk about better border patrols, but people wish to undertake that.

Secondly, I mentioned debt relief and the importance of moving that forward and I would not underestimate the importance of using influence to get tribal and other leaders to be active in the national reconciliation in Iraq. I might just note that we have had considerable success recently in Anbar where tribal leaders have turned against al-Qaida. But this is no small matter. This is a place that a few months ago, all of your news outlets were writing was the heartland of al-Qaida and was lost. And now you're talking about a place where from the bottom up, Sunni leaders in Anbar are turning against al-Qaida and turning toward the creation of a stable Iraq.

So I would not underestimate the importance of using these contacts and influence in addition to the great -- what I think is the emerging patriotism of these people for Iraq to helping the process of national reconciliation.

As to the Israeli-Palestinian issue, I think if you look at the statement, you will see that this is a very forthright statement from the GCC+2, welcoming the President's July 16th statement and the steps that he wishes to take. And we're going to be consulting on how to move forward with the international meeting.

But I will tell you that I found very good support for what the United States is trying to do in the Israeli-Palestinian issue. I found concern but support for what we are trying to do in stabilizing Iraq. I found a complete meeting of the minds on the kind of things that need to be done in Lebanon, and so on and so on.

The concrete support that we're offering to the region to reaffirm our commitment to this region and to its security, I think, is both in our interest and theirs, and so I don't think of this as some sort of quid pro quo. America has interests in this region that are well served by the ability of our longstanding allies to protect themselves against potential threats.

QUESTION: But that doesn't quite answer my question. Did you not get any specific, today, commitment from Gulf countries, Saudi Arabia particularly, that, depending on the President's meeting –

SECRETARY RICE: Robin, I didn't ask for one. Today, as I said to you when we were on the plane, I didn't bring invitations to this meeting. We talked about how to structure this meeting to have the right participation and so that it indeed moves the two-state solution forward. But this was not a time to sign people up to the meeting. That time will come.

QUESTION: Secretary Rice –

MR. MCCORMACK: We can take one more question.

QUESTION: On arms deals –

QUESTION: Mister Secretary, just to follow up on your comment, you said that you're hearing some sentiment in Washington -- of some sentiment in Washington about people who don't want it to come to a quick withdrawal because of the consequences. Does this make you believe that there is greater patience in Washington for this buildup to last longer? And what do you think about that in terms of what the commanders have said lately about meeting the (inaudible) next spring, at least?

SECRETARY GATES: No, I was -- Anne, what I was saying was that wherever there are across the entire spectrum of people, including those who continue to want a quick withdrawal and as well as those who see a more grand process is the understanding that however it's done, it needs to be done carefully and with a view towards consequences; and the need not to leave Iraq in chaos in a way that will be destabilizing for the region.

Does everybody believe that? No. But I think that there is, particularly in the middle and people have had reservations about the President's policy, a growing feeling that whatever we do -- and I'm not talking about the pacing of a withdrawal, but there needs to be attention paid if we -- regardless of if there's a change in the President's policy, on the consequences here in the region.

I mean, I really wasn't trying to make any bigger statement than that, other than the fact that even those who are seeking a quicker withdrawal are mindful that there are strategic consequences. And I think -- so I have felt that we can tell people in this region that there is an appreciation in Washington; that where we move next in Iraq has real consequences, and an appreciation for that reality.

MODERATOR: Last question.

QUESTION: Thank you, Secretary Rice –

QUESTION: On Iran and arms deals, if Iran is currently sandwiched between two substantial American military (inaudible) in Afghanistan and Iraq and that does not contain their regional ambitions, certainly not their nuclear ambitions, why will substantial arms deals to warn Iran's neighbors accomplish that? How much more will accomplish it and what can you say about the arms race that (inaudible)?

SECRETARY RICE: Well, let me reiterate what Secretary Gates said. First of all, long before this Iranian regime, we have had historic interests in this region and we have pursued them through security cooperation for decades now. And let me remind that the Egyptian and Israeli deals are coming to the end of a ten-year cycle, and so we wanted to begin a new ten-year cycle with them. We're working with Gulf states, not just Saudi Arabia but other Gulf states as well about what security needs they have.

Now our commitment to this region has been a commitment to be able to be a reliable partner for this -- the states of this region in meeting their security needs, precisely with in mind -- keeping in mind concerns about various regional military balances and the relationship between various militaries. And we can continue to do that. It is a good thing that the United States, then, can be a reliable partner in making certain that these balances are maintained.

As to the Iranians, the Iranians are pursuing policies that are indeed destabilizing to the region, harmful to our interests and harmful to the kind of Middle East that we want to see, which is a Middle East that would be moving toward greater freedom, toward, therefore, true stability of the kind that I think the Middle East has not seen.

We're confronting that in a number of ways. One is to make sure that when we see Iranian activities in Iraq, we confront them when those activities are harmful to our interests and to our people. We are reasserting, of course, our firm commitment to this region. But it's not against anyone; it's for stability in the region.

And finally, we are, with the coalition of states both inside the Security Council and in a growing force of private entities that are no longer willing to deal with Iran financially, we are putting pressure on their financial system and on their ability to get the kind of investment and credits that they need. People are simply reading the reputational and investment risk of being involved with a country that is in the Chapter 7 category. Being in Chapter 7 is not exactly the Good Housekeeping seal of approval. And I think it was just today that a couple of -- two big banks again announced that they're simply not going to deal with Iran. That brings pressure on the Iranian Government. So we have a multitude of ways of doing this.

Now at the same time, we want to be very clear to the Iranian people that we don't have any disagreement with the Iranian people. They deserve to live in a better society than they do, one that's freer, and they certainly deserve to live in a society that can answer their aspirations. But as long as Iran's activities are as destabilizing as they are, we have to bring pressure on that regime to change its policies.

Thank you. Thanks very much.

Attributable to State Department Web site. - http://www.state.gov/

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