Briefing With Israeli Journalists

Special Briefing
Wendy R. Sherman
Under Secretary for Political Affairs 
Via Teleconference
July 16, 2015


MODERATOR: Thank you so much, and thank you to all for getting on the phone. In a very short moment I am going to turn it over to Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, who I know many of you have spoken to before. She will give very brief opening remarks and then we’ll turn it over to questions. This call will be on the record and embargoed until 6 p.m. Israel time, so I think about an hour from now.

So with that, I think I will turn it over to the Under Secretary and the operator will let you know how to ask questions when we get to that portion.

UNDER SECRETARY SHERMAN: Good morning/good afternoon to all of you. I’m very glad to be on the phone with you to discuss this really critical issue. As the President of the United States said yesterday, this is such a significant set of understandings made between Iran and the P5+1 that it deserves and ought to have a very serious and robust debate. It is very consequential for the security of Israel, it is very consequential for the security of the United States, and it is very consequential for the security of the world.

It’s important, as the President said yesterday, that these debates be grounded in the facts, so I’m really glad to have this opportunity to speak with you today to answer your questions about exactly what is in this deal.

The President, the Secretary of State, and I have said many times that we were working to get a good deal and the right deal, and that no deal would be better than a bad deal. We believe at the end of the day we’ve not just gotten a good deal but a very good deal. It fulfills the framework for a comprehensive deal that was reached in Lausanne and actually goes beyond that framework in several areas. It cuts off all Iran’s pathways to fissile material for a nuclear weapon, it ensures the vigorous inspections and transparency necessary to verify that Iran cannot pursue a nuclear weapon, and it ensures that sanctions will snap back into place if Iran violates the deal. And importantly, it’s a long-term deal, including elements that are permanent.

What I say to my colleagues in Israel – and yesterday I spoke (inaudible) secure with National Security Advisor Yossi Cohen and Minister (inaudible), and as you know, the President spoke to Prime Minister Netanyahu immediately after the deal and Secretary Kerry is having a further conversation with the prime minister today – we believe and we are confident that this agreement makes us all safer.

Today, Iran’s breakout time to build enough fissile material for a nuclear weapon is about two or three months. This agreement pushes that out into the future so it’s at least one year of breakout time for at least 10 years. And notably, I would say Secretary of Defense Ash Carter is traveling to Israel and the region next week to discuss our close and continuing security relationship, one that will continue to grow as we face regional security challenges together that are quite substantial and quite serious. This agreement is based on proof, not just promises. It is long-term. It is verifiable, and it is the best alternative to ensure that Iran will not obtain a nuclear weapon, a circumstance that would provide and create grave security risks for Israel, for the United States, and for the world.

So let me stop there, and I would look forward to answering any and all questions that you have. Thank you very much for doing this call this morning.

MODERATOR: Thank you, Under Secretary Sherman. We will now begin the question and answer portion of today’s call. For those of you dialing in individually, please press *1 on your phone to join the question queue.

And our first question comes from Barak Ravid with Haaretz. Can you please open the line?

QUESTION: Yes, hi, Under Secretary Sherman. Thank you for doing this. It’s not a secret that the Iran deal was, let’s say, a difficult issue in the Israeli-U.S. relations over the past six years, and especially since the Geneva interim agreement and even more since April, and there were problems in the dialogue, in the coordination, and a lot of bad atmosphere. Do you think in retrospect that the problems in the dialogue between the U.S. and Israel over this harmed the – or caused any damaged to the deal or to where the deal could have been?

UNDER SECRETARY SHERMAN: Well, actually, I disagree a little bit with the premise. We have had extraordinarily close consultation with Israel. Experts from Israel have been essential in the development of this deal. In fact, one of your lead experts wrote an email to us after the deal looking for further consultations to see where our joint efforts produced a result. So everything from the redesign of the Arak reactor which your Israeli colleagues helped to critique and to help us refine, to looking at issues of weaponization that ended up being in this deal that went way beyond Lausanne, we have been very, very grateful for the expertise that Israelis at every level and in every sphere of your interagency have given to us and shared with us.

At the end of the day, the prime minister, understandably, has to make the choices he thinks are right for Israel. But quite wisely, I think, he urged Israeli experts to continue consultations with us and give us the benefit of the expertise that Israel has, and that’s been very valuable and was very consequential to the steps that we took.

So yes, have there been some bumps along the way? Yes, because there is a very different view about whether this deal, in fact, ultimately is the best way to ensure Israel’s security. We believe that it is, along with the qualitative military edge that is fundamental to our relationship, to the security cooperation we have at all levels in the region, to the fight that we are taking on together against ISIL, against Hizballah, against terrorism, to the discussions that Secretary Carter will have to ensure that QME is preserved and grown.

So we have a very robust security relationship with Israel. That has not changed. That will not change. We have a robust exchange of expert-level consultations, intelligence cooperation, and we are very grateful for all of the contributions that Israel made to this very good deal that we have achieved.

MODERATOR: Thank you. Our next question comes from Tal Shalev with I24News.

QUESTION: Under Secretary Sherman, were you disappointed that there weren’t any vocal voices coming out of these experts or in Israel or in these other political systems saying that this is a good deal?

UNDER SECRETARY SHERMAN: Well, look, we are just at the beginning of the debate, heading to thinking about where we’re going to go here. And so I would expect to hear all kinds of voices over the next weeks and months. As you all are aware, we have a congressional review process here in the United States, so we know there’s going to be a vigorous debate and that there will be all kinds of voices. The President of the United States encouraged that kind of robust debate because we believe the facts are on our side, and I think that’s what I would urge you all to focus on. What are the facts? Does this deal, in fact, increase the breakout timeline for 10 years? It does. Does this deal ensure the kind of transparency and verification that creates proof, not just promises? It does. Does this give the IAEA unparalleled verification and transparency of what’s going on in Iran? It does. Is this a deal that has the international community’s eyes on what is happening inside of Iran? It does. Does this make us all safer because Iran will not be able to acquire a nuclear weapon? It does.

So we would just urge everyone to look at the facts of the agreement, to debate the facts. It is very easy to use rhetoric in this circumstance, but this agreement is not about rhetoric on anybody’s side. It is about facts. It is about science. Perhaps one of the most essential elements of this discussion was the negotiations between Ali Salehi, head of the Atomic Energy Organization in Iran, and Dr. Ernie Moniz, the Secretary of Energy of the United States, a nuclear physicist who I think would stand up to anybody’s experts in his insistence that the detail, the technical details of this agreement bear up the summary that we were offering. Dr. Moniz spent hours and hours and hours poring over the technical details. We sent the technical details back to our laboratories, to Oak Ridge and to others, to validate the details. We took – we had them validated by some of Israel’s experts to ensure that we were doing exactly what we thought we were doing.

This is a highly technical agreement. It has been validated by experts throughout the world. Obviously, we have P5+1 partners – France, Great Britain, Germany, Russia, China – all of whom have considerable – Germany – nuclear experience who also validated the technical aspects of this deal. So this is probably a deal that has been exposed to more experts than any other that I can think of in recent history, and it’s why we are so confident in the summary that we’ve offered about the security assurances that it provides for Israel, for the United States, and for the world.

MODERATOR: Thank you. Our next question comes from Dana Somberg from Maariv.

QUESTION: Thank you for doing this call with us. So I don’t understand – do you understand why Prime Minister Netanyahu is against this agreement? He doesn’t understand all of those facts?

UNDER SECRETARY SHERMAN: Well, every leader has to make his or her own judgment, and I don’t want to question the prime minister’s judgment. He is the head of the government in Israel and he has to do what he thinks makes the most sense. I would urge everyone in Israel, however, to read the entire agreement – to read the well over 100 pages of this agreement, all of the technical detail of the agreement. And I would also ask everyone in Israel to consider the alternatives. Indeed, when the prime minister was here in the United States, he said that a better alternative would be an agreement that stopped everything Iran was doing. I can appreciate that. I would like to stop everything that Iran is doing.

But the ambition for this agreement was not a regime change. The ambition for this agreement was not to solve every issue that Iran presents to us, and there are many: Iran’s support for Hizballah, Iran’s support for state sponsorship of terrorism, Iran’s efforts of instability in the region. All – its human rights record. All of these things are terrible. And none of us support what Iran is doing in that regard. But the objective of this negotiation was to ensure that Iran would not obtain a nuclear weapon, because as President Obama explained yesterday, if Iran had a nuclear weapon, its ability to project power in the region, to make these other issues even worse, was greater. And we believed fundamentally that if we took this issue off the table, it would create the time and the space to deal with all of these other issues – support for state sponsorship of terrorism, human rights records, fomenting instability in the region – because we would have channels of communication. We also would not have to face a nuclear power who would create a deterrent in the region.

So we thought it was critical to get this issue off the table, but not for one minute do we think that there aren’t other issues on which we need to work together and do work together and must tackle together. It’s why the qualitative military edge is so critical for Israel’s security. It is why our security cooperation in the region is so critical. It’s why our intelligence sharing is so critical. And all of this is and must continue so that holistically we are able to tackle all of the issues in front of us.

But we believe that this was the best alternative. None of these alternatives are perfect; none of them are everything. But we thought that this was a critical step in all that we have to do to ensure that Israel is secure, the United States is secure, and the world is secure.

MODERATOR: Thank you. Our next question comes from Amir Tibon with Walla News.

QUESTION: Hi, thank you. There have been conflicting reports in the United States about whether General Soleimani, the head of the Quds Force, is indeed among the list of the individuals that the sanctions on them will be lifted in eight years, the EU sanctions. Can you say if he is or is not on this list?

UNDER SECRETARY SHERMAN: Well, it’s a really odd kind of circumstance. Ghasem Soleymani is a very common name in Iran, and the Ghasem Soleymani who will be delisted in phase one of this agreement was listed at the United Nations for being director of uranium mining operations at the Saghand uranium mine. He is not the IRGC commander Qasem Soleimani. So these two should not be confused. The Soleymani who was head of the uranium mining operations was listed in the UN Security Resolution 1803 in 2008, and so that’s the person who is named here.

The other Qassem Soleimani is part of the UN list, and when we get to the place when all of the sanctions are terminated at the UN, all of those who are listed will be named. However, Qassem Soleimani is domestically designated here in the United States because of his affiliation with the IRGC. And his designation under U.S. sanctions will not be impacted whatsoever by the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. He will remain sanctioned by the United States and designated by the United States. And so we do not see anything in particular happening in this regard for a very, very, very long time.

MODERATOR: Thank you. Our next question comes from Ilil Shachar with IDF Radio.

QUESTION: Hi, thank you. You were saying that you consulted with Israel (inaudible). So how come during the most important day, during the last few weeks, you haven’t spoke to (inaudible) and other Israeli officials for more than 12 days that there were talks? And besides that, I wanted to ask about the 24 days. And Prime Minister Netanyahu (inaudible) – he is saying that 24 days is (inaudible) time and the Iranians may hide (inaudible) during those two weeks or more.

UNDER SECRETARY SHERMAN: So let me interrupt you a second --

QUESTION: In fact, he’s right. It is a lot of time.

UNDER SECRETARY SHERMAN: Yeah. I will talk about the access issue; I understood that. But I didn’t – your voice is not coming through the telephone very well. So I don’t know whether there’s someone in Israel who can tell me what the first part of her question was. I got the 24-day access –

QUESTION: Maybe I try again; is it better now?

UNDER SECRETARY SHERMAN: Just tell me what – I know the second part was about --

QUESTION: I wanted to ask: How come during the last few weeks you haven’t talked to Yossi Cohen or any other Israeli official for more than 12 days?

UNDER SECRETARY SHERMAN: But that’s actually not true. I talked to Yossi Cohen three times while I was in Vienna. So that’s not accurate. And I talked to him again on a secure conference call with Minister Steinitz yesterday. So we have stayed in touch with Israel. We take this relationship very seriously. The President of the United States spoke with Prime Minister Netanyahu as soon as this deal happened, and Secretary Kerry is speaking with the prime minister again today. So those reports are just not accurate. There was – after I got to Vienna, I talked to the national security advisor of Israel right away. Then his schedule and my schedule didn’t coordinate for a few days, but then we talked again twice more. So I don’t know where that comes from, but we stay in very close touch.

In terms of the access issue that you raised, we believe that we have negotiated the most extensive inspections and monitoring regime and transparency measures that have ever – put in place. At Natanz and Fordow, that transparency includes daily access; Iran’s agreed to surveillance of its entire nuclear supply chain; there will be IAEA access to uranium mines, continuing monitoring of uranium mills and centrifuge production, assembly and storage facilities. It would be very hard for Iran to establish a covert enrichment facility, given that we have such eyes on the supply chain.

Iran will also implement the Additional Protocol, which allows the IAEA to request access to undeclared facilities when they have questions about them. In addition, we have also negotiated an access agreement – yet another layer on top of the Additional Protocol. And I should note that the surveillance of the nuclear supply chain has critical elements which will be under IAEA continuous eye for 25 years – for a very long time.

So the access agreement that was negotiated over and above the Additional Protocol, over and above the constant surveillance, over and above the daily access to declared sites, provides a process wherein if there is a disagreement between the IAEA and Iran – because under the Additional Protocol Iran can suggest an alternative. They can say, “Well, you can’t go to this site, but how about this site?” Or they can say, “How about this document, as opposed to a visit?” But if the IAEA believes they need access, then they come to the joint commission. And if there is a vote of five out of the eight members, which we believe will always be the case, then Iran must provide access.

Now, people have been critical saying 24 days is not anytime, anywhere access; there is no country – no country – that permits anytime, anywhere access. The only time the IAEA has come close to that has been inspections in Saddam’s Iraq. Those inspections were imposed after Iraq’s unconditional surrender following the 1991 Gulf War. In contrast, Iran is making a voluntary commitment here. It is not a defeated or occupied foe. It is cooperating with the IAEA, and so the 24-day process – which is a series of steps – in those 24 days provides unparalled access which does not exist anywhere else in the world, over and above the Additional Protocol.

And what I would say is, as Secretary Moniz has said, it’s not so easy to clean up a nuclear site. The reason that there has been such a debate over the IAEA visiting Parchin is because even this many years later, there is concern, I think, by Iran that the IAEA will still find something at Parchin. So it is 24 days, and they seem like a long time, but in nuclear matters, according to the scientists and the technical experts, it’s actually a very, very short time. So we feel we have unparalleled access. We have verification and transparency monitoring system that is many layered, that has an absolute guarantee that, if access is required and justified, Iran will be obligated to provide it in a timely fashion.

MODERATOR: Thank you. The next question will come from Rafael Ahren with the Times of Israel.

QUESTION: Thank you. I again want to thank you for doing this call. I want to follow up on the question of Ilil regarding the inspection regime. Secretary of Energy Moniz said on April 20th, just three months ago in an interview to Bloomberg News, “We expect to have anywhere, anytime access.” He was expecting that. In other words, that seems to be one of the goals. Now, in the end, this did not happen. I wonder what went on within these three months that the P5+1 seems to have give up on that condition.

UNDER SECRETARY SHERMAN: I think this is one of those circumstances where – we’ve all been rhetorical from time to time. And I think that we believe that this access agreement, on top of the Additional Protocol, does create the guarantee that if the IAEA needs access, it will get access. And that’s really what’s fundamental here – that phrase, “anytime, anywhere,” is something that became sort of popular rhetoric. But I think people understood that what that really meant is that if the IAEA felt it had to have access, that it had a justification for that access, that it will be guaranteed. And that is what has happened.

So there’s been no change here. The objective always remained a monitoring and verification system that ensured that there could not be a covert task, that we would know it if Iran started down that road, and I think that you will hear when Secretary Moniz testifies next week and briefs our Congress and – in all the subsequent conversations and interviews he’s had that he is very, very satisfied, as is the IAEA, with the unparalleled transparency and verification agreements that have been reached.

MODERATOR: And our next question comes from Attila Somfalvi from Ynet.

UNDER SECRETARY SHERMAN: Go ahead. Hello?

MODERATOR: Perhaps they’re not on the line. Okay, we’ll go to Herb Keinon from The Jerusalem Post.

QUESTION: Yes, thank you. Look, Israelis that I speak with seem to be less concerned that Iran is going to drop a nuclear bomb on Tel Aviv anytime in the future than that the conventional threats from Hizballah, Hamas, and Islamic jihad will increase over time, as Iran is able to provide them with a lot more assistance than they were able to do when they were cash-strapped and a pariah state. How do you respond to those who are saying, in this regard, the U.S. definitely turned a blind eye to Israel’s security interests?

UNDER SECRETARY SHERMAN: Well, look, I understand – I’ve been to Israel many, many, many times, and the neighborhood is a tough one. And Israelis every day live with a threat that surrounds them. And so I well understand why Israelis are very, very concerned about what’s happening in the neighborhood; very concerned about Hizballah, Hamas – about ISIL, in fact – about all of the threats that surround it. So is the United States concerned about those issues.

It is why we have been committed to Israel’s qualitative military edge. It is why we have been committed to the greatest security cooperation between two countries that, quite frankly, has probably ever been known. It is why President Obama tried in his conversation with the prime minister the other day to talk about ways we might further enhance security cooperation with Israel. The prime minister was not ready to have that discussion yet. I’m sure Defense Secretary Ash Carter will be wanting to engage in that discussion as well.

So as I said earlier, this agreement is not the be-end – be-all and end-all to all of the security threats that Israel faces. It is to remove the threat of a nuclear weapon. But we must do much more together to deal with the threats in the neighborhood and the threats that are of concern by everyday Israelis, which we completely understand. It is why the President of the United States has provided greater both funding and assistance, including Iron Dome, to Israel; why we will do whatever we can to further enhance Israel’s security. These are very real and present concerns for Israel, and we take them very, very seriously.

MODERATOR: Okay. We have time for two more questions, the next one from Udi Segal from Channel 2 News.

QUESTION: Hi, Ms. Sherman. I would like to ask you about the arms embargo. You said this deal is only focused on the nuclear issue. So what does the arms embargo have to do with it? And can you explain us why you didn’t put any benchmark on Iran’s behavior with these weapons that it gets in order to get the arms embargo lifted? Because it seems that the message – that’s what I hear from the Israeli officials here – the message to the region is that you preserve the ayatollah’s regime; you said, “Okay, they (inaudible) regime, but they are here to stay.”

UNDER SECRETARY SHERMAN: So this came up in the President’s press conference yesterday, and there are many pieces of the response. We of course are concerned about weapons that are sent into the region and sent to Hizballah, for example, or sending weapons to the Houthis in Yemen. These are all things that none of us want to see happen. We have, as the President said, a number of mechanisms under international law that give us authority to interdict arms shipments by Iran.

One of the many mechanisms is the UN Security Council resolution related to Iran’s nuclear program. Essentially, Iran was sanctioned because what had happened at Fordow and its unwillingness to comply with previous resolutions. As part of the package of sanctions that was slapped on Iran in 19 – UN Resolution 1929, the issue of arms and ballistic missiles were included. Now, under the terms of that original resolution, the wording of that resolution says that once agreement was arrived at with the international community that Iran didn’t have a nuclear weapon, that one could argue that arms and ballistic missile prohibitions should immediately go away. That’s how 1929 is written.

However, we thought because of what is happening in the region that there was no way, even if 1929 conceived of them going away, that they should go away. So we as negotiators insisted that the arms and the missile restrictions stay in place for a period of time – in spite of the fact that 1929 envisioned them disappearing – that they stayed in place under Article 41 of the UN Security Council resolution, and that we continue to have prohibitions.

At the same time, I would note, as the President did yesterday, there are many other tools to deal with these arms shipments. There are other resolutions like the resolutions against Hizballah that provide a basis for dealing with this. The U.S. has unilateral sanctions in this regard to deal with arms. And so, again, this is a many-layered approach. There is not just one tool here. There are many tools. And we believe that what we are doing is critical. In fact, the UN restrictions are probably the least effective in terms of enforcement. The greater enforcement is our interdiction capabilities, Israel’s interdiction capabilities, and the work we do together in intelligence sharing to understand what’s happening with shipments, what’s happening in terms of missile technology. So we think we actually got much further than either was ever envisioned by 1929, and certainly in terms of what Iran wanted, which was to have them all removed immediately.

And the last thing I would note is Iran wanted them to be removed immediately, China wanted them to be removed immediately, and Russia wanted them to be removed immediately. So out of everyone at the negotiating table, there was not unanimity. So the fact that we got enforceable restrictions for a period of time for several years is a positive accomplishment.

MODERATOR: Great. And our last question will be coming from Chico Menashe from Israel National Radio.

Chico, do we have you on the line? No? All right. I guess we will close out from there. Thank you, Under Secretary Sherman, for your time, and I’d just like to reiterate this call is on the record and is embargoed for the next 30 minutes until 6:00 p.m. Israel time.

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