Background Briefing on P5+1 Negotiations
MODERATOR: Okay. Thank you so much everyone for coming here today. For those of you who don’t know me, I’m [Moderator]. I’m [title redacted] and will be helping shepherd all of us through this process over the next few days.
Tonight’s backgrounder is with [Senior Administration Official]. From here on out, you will refer to [the official] in your reporting only as a Senior Administration Official, please. Again, only as a Senior Administration Official. This is all entirely on background. [Senior Administration Official] will begin by making some opening remarks, and then we are happy to open it up for questions after that.
So with that, I will pass it over to [Senior Administration Official].
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Okay. Good evening. Welcome to the next round of the P5+1 negotiations. I saw many of you recently in New York during the UN General Assembly, where there was a great deal of focus on this very crucial and important issue.
This series of meetings comes at a pivotal time, not only for the United States but for the entire international community in its policy toward Iran. I want to begin briefly by putting into context the recent diplomatic opening with Iran that we have been engaged in, including, of course, in New York, and to preview what we hope to achieve here in Geneva during this round of talks. Then I’ll be happy, of course, to answer your questions.
As you know, the United States has always believed that a diplomatic solution to resolving our concerns about Iran’s nuclear program is our preferred path. We have invested heavily in such a solution through both our participation in this P5+1 process and our effort to increase the pressure on Iran through comprehensive sanctions and other forms of international isolation.
We are encouraged that President Rouhani has received a mandate from the Iranian people to pursue a more moderate course. We are also encouraged that President Rouhani recently reiterated that Iran will never develop a nuclear weapon. The world has also heard from President Rouhani’s administration – including Foreign Minister Zarif, who’s here with us in Geneva – about its desire to improve Iran’s relations with the international community.
President Obama, as you heard him say himself in the UN General Assembly, believes we should test those assertions, which is part of what we’ll be doing over the coming days.
Foreign Minister Zarif has said he is coming with a detailed proposal that elaborates on the thoughtful presentation he made to the P5+1 foreign ministers in New York, and we are ready to hear it, to listen to it, and to go to work, if it is substantive and concrete.
At the same time, we go into these meetings clear-eyed about the fact that we have very, very difficult work to do. We know the road will have bumps in it, if not big hurdles. No one is naive about the challenges we face in pursuing this diplomatic path.
So as we pursue this course, we will continue to make several things clear: First, that we seek an agreement that ultimately resolves all of the international community’s concerns about Iran’s nuclear program – one that both ensures Iran meets its responsibilities under the NPT and various UN Security Council resolutions and also that respects the rights of the Iranian people to access peaceful nuclear energy.
Second, that while we negotiate we will keep up the economic pressure on Iran. Indeed, we believe that that pressure, which is a result of Iran’s own choices, has gotten us in large measure where we are today. And the P5+1 and the international community writ large remains united in acting in that regard.
Third, we are going to make judgments based on the actions of the Iranian Government, not simply its words, though we all appreciate the change in tone. A conciliatory tone, an open tone, will have to be matched by actions that are transparent and verifiable. We will be looking for specific steps that address core issues, such as the pace and scope of its enrichment program, the transparency of its overall nuclear program, and its stockpiles of enriched uranium. In essence, we’re looking for confidence-building measures that begin to address some of our priority concerns on the way to a comprehensive agreement.
Here in Geneva, we believe we have an opportunity to explore where this diplomatic opening could take us. No one should expect a breakthrough overnight. These issues are too complicated, and, as the President said, the history of mistrust is very deep. But we have to start somewhere. We hope we can start here.
We hope that over the next few days we will have a serious discussion about our concerns with the Iranians. We hope that they have come to the table with a credible proposal, as Foreign Minister Zarif said he would outline in New York. And we hope that we can begin translating the positive tone from New York into more specific and concrete ideas about how we all intend to move forward from here.
The stakes are high. The costs of diplomacy not succeeding are quite significant. We come to Geneva understanding the time for diplomacy to succeed may be in front of us, but we also know that time is not unlimited. We are prepared to do what it takes to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, and over the next several days we will begin to judge whether we have a chance today to begin a new diplomatic process that ultimately resolves all of the international community’s concerns with Iran’s nuclear program.
I should also add that my colleagues are here to help if you have a technical or specific question, that I will turn to them for their elaboration, if appropriate. Thank you.
MODERATOR: I think now we can open it up for questions. Go ahead, Michael Gordon.
QUESTION: For the Senior Official, heretofore the approach has been one of sort of a step-by-step approach, where it was confidence-building measures were sought on the Iranian side to constrain their nuclear program, the world powers are willing to offer economic gestures in return. Given that there’s such a short amount of time to conclude an agreement by the Iranians for it getting in – I think by your own – would it make more sense at this time to try to define the end goal of the negotiations, what you’re willing to allow the Iranians to have at the end of the day and not just the interim steps to get there?
And second, in recent days the Iranians have essentially floated a proposal publicly that seems to center on stopping the production of near 20 percent enriched uranium. Is that sufficient in your view, or does it have to be broader than that and also include constraints on centrifuges, et cetera? Thank you.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: So, first of all, comprehensive agreement versus confidence-building, step-by-step approach – we think we need both. We need the parameters of what we all will need to discuss for a comprehensive agreement. But to get to a comprehensive agreement is very, very difficult with highly technical issues that have to be resolved, which take a significant amount of time to resolve them. It really takes not just those of us sitting here, but it takes a whole army, virtually, of technicians to figure out a whole variety of things.
So we have always believed that we need to put some time on the clock, that there needs to be a confidence-building step that not only starts to get over the deep mistrust that President Obama spoke of so eloquently, but also constrains Iran’s program today and perhaps even takes it back a notch so that there is time on the clock to achieve that comprehensive agreement.
So the two are connected, they are not one or the other. We really need to be able to do it all, but to do it all takes time. And as you know – and as you, yourself, have written – in the past, Iran has taken the negotiated time and just kept moving forward with its nuclear program. And we cannot continue for that to be the case.
Your second question, Michael, I forgot. Sorry.
QUESTION: The notion that’s been floated in recent days about keying on the five percent, stopping the reduction of near 20 percent --
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Right.
QUESTION: -- enrichment, and would that be sufficient or does it – doesn’t it not need to be broadened to include constraints on centrifuges and other --
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: So as I said, we are looking to address core issues: pace and scope of the enrichment program; transparency of the program; and stockpiles of enriched uranium, among other things. But those are three core elements.
I’m not going to – and I’ll say this to the myriad of questions that will come, so you’ll probably get tired of hearing this refrain – I’m not going to negotiate through you all. I realize the press plays a very useful role in really sending forward notions from all sides regarding this negotiation.
But what I look forward to is not what is said in the press but what is put on the table, what is discussed in the room, which is what is negotiated among the parties, and what gets achieved to address the concerns the international community has about Iran’s nuclear program.
MODERATOR: Yes, next question. Go ahead, Paul.
QUESTION: Several U.S. officials have said in the last couple of weeks that they’d like to hear, as soon as possible, what the Iranians were thinking about. I take it from your comments just now you haven’t gotten any communication since the UN from the Iranians.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I think some people had hoped maybe they’d give us a proposal in advance. That would have been not really --
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: It would have been original, yes. So that has not occurred. But I expect that they will give us a detailed understanding of what they have in mind. How detailed, I don’t know.
QUESTION: Also, one other – it slipped my mind.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: That’s all right. We’re all jetlagged. I understand.
MODERATOR: We can come back to you. Go ahead, Michael Adler.
QUESTION: Hi. I’m just wondering – let’s see. I’m just wondering, since timing is so important, and not getting into the details of negotiations, you’ve mentioned it’s necessary for Iran to do a confidence-building gesture. But Iran feels that the 20 percent, which we want as a confidence-building gesture, is the reason that they should get sanctions lifted in the large part. So one, is that timing standoff still exist? And two, if it exists and things drag on, is there a time limit that you have for this process? Does significant progress have to be made in three months, say, or will that be a sign that they’re creating facts on the ground while they’re talking?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: There are a lot of “ifs” in that question, Michael. As you would imagine, I would answer you, if they put this on the table, if they do that, if the program moves forward – those are “ifs” that we will test in the coming days, not just in this round, because we won’t get to some final agreement in two or three days of negotiations. It will take some time.
But I think that one of the things that’s quite crucial about any sanctions relief is that it be targeted proportional to what Iran puts on the table. I’m sure they will disagree about what is proportionate, but we are quite clear about what the menu of options are and what will match what. And so we will see what they put on the table, what they’re looking for, what we feel is proportionate to that. And I would say that in the – any confidence-building measure is likely to have a time period associated with it. And so we are looking at steps that obviously won’t undermine our core sanctions regime.
MODERATOR: Yes, over here on the left.
QUESTION: Lou Charbonneau. I’m with Reuters. In a sense, I wanted to follow up on Michael’s question about the timing. The Iranians – Foreign Minister Zarif has a mandate really to get sanctions relief, not so much to scale back the nuclear program. And the clock, as you said, is running and it’s really now these days running against them because of the severity of the sanctions, and they’re looking for something quick. I mean, what is the absolute – I mean, how quickly could Iran expect something if they put something on the table? Like, how quickly is the U.S. Administration ready to move?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Depends on what they put on the table. (Laughter.) We are quite ready to move. As you saw in our delegation, we have two of our finest sanctions experts with us. If they’re ready to go, we are ready to go. But it depends on what they put on the table.
I think that the core sanctions architecture that not only the United States but the entire international community has put in place, including UN Security Council resolutions – this is not just EU or U.S. sanctions or other multilateral sanctions, but it’s the UN Security Council resolutions – all can be addressed if Iran addresses all of our concerns and all of their obligations and responsibilities under the NPT and UN Security Council resolutions.
QUESTION: Just to follow up, so if they move quickly you can move quickly?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yes.
MODERATOR: Laura Rozen.
QUESTION: Thanks. We’ve seen Iran Foreign Minister Zarif express some disappointed – disappointment that he’s not meeting at the foreign minister level with all the members of the P5+1. And it seemed like Kerry was hovering nearby before he went back today. There was a lot of excitement from the bilateral meeting in New York that occurred. Can you speak at all to your expectations for possible bilaterals here and also why you all decided not to give it the more senior level visit?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I think it’s appropriate for foreign ministers to come together when it makes sense. And it made sense for foreign ministers who were having a P5+1 meeting in New York anyway to touch base with each other and see where we were in the P5+1 process. So that meeting was scheduled regardless.
It turned out that High Representative Ashton had a meeting earlier in the week with Foreign Minister Zarif. The P5+1 had spoken with each other and agreed if the Foreign Minister was ready to do a number of things then we would invite him to the foreign ministerial meeting to let us know his thoughts.
That meeting – he came in halfway through the meeting and did share his thoughts. And Secretary Kerry had his bilateral. And indeed, we’ve passed the bilateral Rubicon. The meeting has happened. Whether we have a bilateral here or not, I certainly hope we can continue those discussions.
But as I’ve said to you any number of times, it’s less the modality than the results that count. And so we’re looking for results and encourage Iran to have bilaterals with all the members of the P5+1, including the United States. But we’re past that Rubicon, not only by the Secretary of State having a bilateral with Foreign Minister Zarif, but the President of the United States having a phone conversation with President Rouhani.
I think that in terms of them coming here, we are in the – beginning the actual negotiations, which is highly technical. And quite frankly, as much as I’ve learned about it and others have learned about it, it takes highly skilled technical experts to help work through this. And at the point at which we think we need foreign ministers and that political-level decision making, I’m sure they will come.
MODERATOR: Yes. Jay, go ahead.
QUESTION: Ten top senators just put out a letter today to the President. I guess they released it on Friday to the President. Do you at all feel handcuffed by Congress, in the sense that what they’re demanding in this letter seems pretty far off from what you’re doing? It’s no – they don’t even talk about sanctions relief. They say well, if they freeze everything there won’t be any new sanctions. Are you worried about being handcuffed, and how are you going to negotiate what you’re doing with what Congress is doing, which is, over the past four or five years, has often been kind of out of step?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, I actually think Congress has been an important partner in the negotiations with Iran. Both the President of the United States through executive orders and the Congress through its action have helped to create one of the most effective sanctions regimes in history, adding on to the UN Security Council sanctions, the actions by the EU, and a number of other countries’ own actions. And so I think they’ve been quite important partners in this regard.
They have given the Executive Branch enough flexibility, I believe, if in fact Iran begins to meet the concerns of the international community. I spoke with many members – we spoke with many members, I did and others, before we left. And they were very constructive conversations, and I think the Administration will continue to have many conversations with Congress so that we can be partners in this effort together.
We both want the same thing, and that is for Iran to never have a nuclear weapon and to address all the concerns of the international community to assure us that what Iran does have, as the President says, is the Iranian people having access to a peaceful nuclear program.
QUESTION: Can I just follow up quickly? You didn’t mention the heavy-water reactor in the three core, and that there is a lot of focus that this thing could come online next year.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, I said that – yeah. I said core issues including, and I said transparency in their overall nuclear program, and that includes, of course, the Arak facility. And we have very serious concerns about them having a plutonium capability, another pathway for fissile material for nuclear weapons. So yes, it is a subject of enormous concern.
MODERATOR: Next question? Yes, back there, in the green jacket.
QUESTION: Hi. Scott Peterson from The Christian Science Monitor. You mentioned that probably there was going to be disagreement, or at least a contrast, between what the Iranians think is a commensurate lifting of sanctions with what they’re willing to give and vice versa. So we’ve seen the Almaty proposal that was put forward, and in this one, the way the Iranians see it, at least they need to give up several of their key cards and receive in return quite modest sanctions relief, which is petrochemicals and gold and other precious metals.
And the – how far beyond that process from Almaty has the P5+1 moved in terms of recognizing the need to provide a greater incentive to the Iranians, if they’re going to be giving up their cards? Because of course, as Michael mentioned, we’re dealing with the host of sanctions. I remember you telling us after the Almaty talks there are no banking or financial sanctions that are on this list; there is no easing of the oil sanctions. Those obviously are the ones that are hurting the Iranians most. So how evolved has the process become since that time in your own thinking, in terms of --
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, the Almaty proposal sits on the table. That was a proposal that was supported by the P5+1, by every member of the P5+1, as a balanced, reasonable proposal. And I think you would hear that from every member of the P5+1 today. Foreign Minister Zarif has told us that he’s going to come in with another way to approach this. We look forward to hearing it, to working with it, if it makes sense. And we have always said to the Iranians that if they want more, they will have to do more, but we are quite open to that.
This is a negotiation. So if we started out on day one and we said, “Oh, this is it. We’ve all agreed,” I’d be shocked. So one always starts out a negotiation usually with both sides feeling like there is a mismatch in expectations. And a negotiation is about getting to the right place.
I do think the Almaty proposal was completely balanced and reasonable. If the Iranians don’t think so, we look forward to them providing a response, which they are prepared to do tomorrow, and see if we can work from there.
MODERATOR: Next question. Yes, back here in the middle.
QUESTION: Hi. Yes, if they bring forward anything willing to discuss so-called surplus enriched uranium that Larijani mentioned, how significant would that be?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I don’t want to go detail by detail and element by element. I think all of these things are important, and we look forward to hearing what they have to say.
MODERATOR: Yes, right here.
QUESTION: Hi. Barak Ravid, Haaretz. Two questions. First one: Have you had any contact with the Israeli Government in the last few days to coordinate or to update them on U.S. positions before the talks?
And second question: Prime Minister Netanyahu is saying for the last three weeks already that any partial or interim agreement will bring down the whole sanction regime. What do you think about that?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, as I’ve said previously, we consult with all of our partners and allies around the world, including Israel, and do so on a regular basis. Secondly --
QUESTION: In the last few days?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: On a regular basis. Secondly, in terms of what the Prime Minister has said, we are not talking about a partial agreement. We want a comprehensive agreement that addresses all of the international community’s concerns about Iran.
We have talked about a confidence-building step that would put some time on the clock to reach that comprehensive agreement. But we all want a comprehensive agreement, everyone in the P5+1 does. So we support the Prime Minister’s view in that regard. And I think Israel, as well as the entire international community, wants Iran to assure the international community in verifiable ways that it does not have, does not want to have, will not have a nuclear weapon.
MODERATOR: Yes. Let’s go back here to a couple people who haven’t asked questions. If we have time, we’ll go back for a second round. Go ahead.
QUESTION: Yes. I’m Takashi with NHK Japan Broadcasting Corporation. It’s about the Almaty proposals. You mentioned that it’s a balanced proposal. But is it still sitting there, or are you ready to change it, depending upon what the Iranians offer?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: It’s on the table. If the Iranians come with a proposal that builds on that and expands on what Iran wants, of course we will work with that. We are open to Iran’s ideas about how to proceed forward. And we will take both our proposal, their ideas, and see if we can move this process ahead.
QUESTION: Does that mean we’re going to see Almaty 2 or --
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, I think we’ve in Geneva. (Laughter.)
MODERATOR: Yes, right there in the blue.
QUESTION: And do you have a response to the suggestion that Iran sees the shipment of highly enriched uranium out of the country as a redline? Is that just pre-talks positioning or is it a more – a greater concern?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: We’ll see. We want to make sure, as I said, that we deal with stockpiles. There are a variety of ways that do that. But we have to do it in a way that gives the international community confidence. Obviously it will be a subject for discussion and negotiation. But it is a very, very important issue.
MODERATOR: Yes. Yes, up here.
QUESTION: Yes. (Inaudible). I was wondering if you could elaborate how critical (inaudible) the Iranians to come on to the IAEA’s – International Atomic Energy Agency’s optional protocol and if technicians from the Vienna agency will assist technically in these talks the way experts from the chemical weapons played a (inaudible) a few weeks back on the Syria deal?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: We have been very careful, because there is an ongoing negotiation with the IAEA and Iran, to have that as a parallel track. There – it is clear that at some point the two converge in some important ways, but they are parallel tracks, and the IAEA is proceeding forward in its own discussions with Iran to deal with the accounting of Iran’s nuclear program and the verification modalities going forward. We are trying to ensure that Iran addresses all of the international community’s concerns about its nuclear program, and we will, if it is appropriate at any time, to call upon the IAEA. And certainly as we develop verification mechanisms, other protocols that the IAEA has a part of its toolbox are important to this negotiation as well.
MODERATOR: Ann, yes.
QUESTION: Hi. NBC News, Ann Curry. [Senior Administration Official] I’m wondering – [Senior Administration Official], I’m wondering if you can describe the thoughts and emotions and sort of expectations, wishes of your team, given that you are now entering these talks after historic events of just a few weeks ago in the first conversation between a United States and an Iranian president and also a conversation between Secretary of State Kerry and Foreign Minister Zarif. I’m really trying to get a sense of what you’re – sort of the thinking of your team, your emotion, the emotions of your team.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I think that the team would say they appreciate the change in tone. It certainly makes for better conversation. They – as I said in my opening remarks, that – appreciate that President Rouhani has said that Iran does not want a nuclear weapon, and Foreign Minister Zarif has laid out all of the reasons why a nuclear weapon is not in Iran’s interest. We appreciate that the Foreign Minister has said he is coming tomorrow to make a proposal to the P5+1. All of this is a positive.
But every foreign minister at the P5+1 in New York said that, although they appreciated the tone, they now needed to see concrete, verifiable actions. So I would say we are hopeful, but that hope has to be tested with those concrete, verifiable actions.
And so we will see, not just over the next two days, because as I said, the chances of an agreement being reached in two days are quite low; this is very complicated work. But if we can begin to move forward in a way that we have not been able to up until now, then we will begin to see actions that match the tone and the words.
I also want to say that this is – as I think I said earlier – this is not just about the U.S. and Iran, this is about the international community and Iran. And one of the things that’s been a hallmark of the P5+1, and part of the reason why Iran is at the table, is the P5+1 has stayed united, utterly united. And we may have some differences in view – we do have differences in view – but we come to an agreement and we stick with it and that has been critical to trying to move this forward and get to the point where we hope we are but will begin to test tomorrow.
QUESTION: Can I just – I don’t want to ask a new question. I just want to clarify an answer.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Go ahead, Michael.
QUESTION: Can I do that before we go? On the very first question, when I said are you prepared to focus on the endgame and not just the interim steps, you said you were going to pursue a comprehensive approach. But what people mean – the reason I want to clarify this, is what people mean by the endgame is does Iran have a right to enrich or not. And the U.S. Government position that has been articulated to Congress – the Senate Foreign Relations Committee just 10 days – is the U.S. hasn’t taken a public position on this. Are you prepared, now at these meetings, to confront the question as to whether Iran has a right to enrich or not, as in parallel with these other constraints you’re seeking?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: We are prepared to talk about what President Obama said in his address at the UN – at U.S. – UN General Assembly, and that is that he respects the rights of the Iranian people to access a peaceful nuclear program. What that is is a matter of discussion.
MODERATOR: Last question. We’re going to go right here to the gentleman with the glasses.
QUESTION: Hi. Peter – NPR, Peter Kenyon. Just back on the question of P5+1 unity, with this new opening, is there any concern that Iran may try to find some more differences and exploit them if they come forward with some particular package that may appeal to some members more than others?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: No. I’ve talked to all of my colleagues from the P5+1 countries today. We landed early this morning and spent the day talking with all of our colleagues. I think Iran will find a very united P5+1.
MODERATOR: Thank you all so much for coming. There’ll be plenty of chances to talk over the coming days. You know how to reach me certainly. Again, for those who came in late, this was on background attributable to a Senior Administration Official. Looking forward to working with you all over the coming days, and thanks for coming this evening.