Background Briefing on EU Coordinated P5+1-Iran Negotiations

Special Briefing
Senior Administration Official
Vienna, Austria
March 19, 2014

MODERATOR: Good afternoon, everyone. Welcome to today’s press backgrounder. We have up here our team; I know many of you are familiar with. You’ll hear today from [Senior Administration Official]. The press conference is entirely on background, so thank you for adhering to the ground rules. [Senior Administration Official] will give a few opening remarks, and then we will open it up for your questions.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Good afternoon, everyone. We at the [title redacted] level dove more deeply and at more detailed level into the substance of key issues more than we have ever previously. If the last round set the agenda and framework for the comprehensive negotiations, in this round we were able to build on the great work our experts have been doing and really get down to business and into the details. The discussions were respectful, professional, and intense, and they were focused on several key substantive issues.

As the Iranians have already noted in their press remarks, the topics we discussed included sanctions, enrichment, civil nuclear cooperation, and Arak, as well as a variety of other topics.

The individual sessions lasted for hours with last night’s discussions extending late into the evening. We feel we made progress in identifying where the gaps exist, and working to bridge those gaps on these and other issues.

In addition to the plenary sessions, our experts held a number of sidebar meetings with the technical, nuclear, and sanctions experts from all of the other delegations. As you all know, these experts met recently for a week where they delved into these issues in a very granular way, in a way that many in this room, including those – some of us up here might not have even understood what they were talking about – which enabled the level of specificity in the discussions that we held here. That was a bit of humor for those of you who missed it. (Laughter.)

We also had a bilateral for about an hour and twenty minutes with the Iranian delegation, as we always do. It was a good and productive discussion. It’s significant to note that these bilateral meetings have in some ways become routine at these negotiations, and they are, in fact, an important element that helps the process to move forward.

As you’ve now seen, our experts will be back here the 3rd to the 5th for expert discussions, and then political directors and Baroness Ashton and Minister Zarif and all of us will meet here the 7th to the 9th for the third round of comprehensive talks. Our experts will also meet before to continue these technical discussions. And I would dare to say between now and even when our experts meet, our experts, the political directors will be talking in capitals and discussing with each other all of the details of this negotiation. There is not a day that goes by when there is not a discussion in some format in some way, because there is a lot of work to get done.

We are all committed to seeing if we can get this done in the six-month timeframe, and there is a commitment by all sides to do so. That’s the goal we are all working very hard towards right now.

And on a final note, as we broke to head back to our capitals, we made sure to wish the Iranian delegation a happy Nowruz, and I also note a happy birthday to Lady Ashton, whose birthday is tomorrow. That is a very important new year’s holiday for Iran and for others around the world, and obviously we are delighted that Lady Ashton has another year behind her to help us carry forward in these difficult and critical negotiations.

Happy to take your questions.

MODERATOR: Yes. Lou, kick us off. And please say your name and your outlet, even though we know most of you.

QUESTION: Lou Charbonneau of Reuters. Thanks for this. It’s clear to all of us that the issues of Arak and enrichment are going to be among the most difficult in the weeks and months ahead. Could you give us any sense of whether you’ve managed to narrow the substantial differences on those?

And also if you could comment on the letter that 83 senators sent to the Obama Administration outlining very specific core principle of what they would like to see in a comprehensive deal?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: On the topics that you mention – no, I would say that each issue matters enormously, and they are all interrelated. As I’ve said to you all before, this is like a Rubik’s cube; you move one part, you affect the next. So each one of these is difficult on its own terms and is complex in its relationship to every other piece that’s in that Rubik’s cube.

So on enrichment, we understand what Iran hopes for. Iran knows what we hope for. And needless to say, which will come as no surprise, it’s a gap that’s going to take some hard work to get to a place where we can find agreement. But I think what we have come to understand from the discussions we had, which were quite extensive, and enrichment, of course, has many branches to it, many things from facilities to stockpiles to research and development to monitoring and transparency. There are a lot of elements of it inside of that bucket.

We understand each other’s concepts. We understand each other’s concerns. And you have to set that table to be able to really begin to negotiate. You can’t just dive into the negotiations without setting the table. I think we’ve done that. Everybody has some work to do to follow up that discussion. The experts have some tasks that we hope will help us to unpack that and repack it in a way that would allow us to reach agreement.

On Arak similarly, we all understand Arak and what it is and how it operates, what its technical requirements are in ways that we did not before. We got some very detailed information. Likewise, we shared with Iran ideas that we had – you know what our concerns are – about Arak.

And so again, I think we have set the table to understand that issue. And I would say the true is – the same was true for civil nuclear cooperation and for sanctions and for all of the other related issues that come up in these discussions, because as I said, it’s very hard to have simply a discrete discussion about one topic without the other interconnections beginning to reveal themselves.

In terms of the Senate letter and the House letter, what I will say on background is that we understand that the Congress has a responsibility to provide oversight to what the Executive Branch does, to let their voices be heard. You know that we have had an ongoing discussion with Congress, believing that it was very important not to pass new sanctions legislation during this six-month period, as agreed to in the Joint Plan of Action, while we negotiated or attempted to negotiate a comprehensive agreement. And we are very grateful to the Congress that they, in fact, have held off any additional sanctions legislation, understanding that it would have passed quite quickly and easily if they did proceed. So I understand the senators and the House members have decided to express themselves in a letter format, and we certainly have read them. I have it with me here right on this table. (Laughter.)

And the other thing I would say is that I think it’s been very valuable. We have regular ongoing briefings with the Congress. Indeed, a team will be holding an all-House briefing and an all-Senate briefing next Wednesday. And I think it is quite critical and a responsibility of the Administration to have regular and ongoing consultations with the Congress about this negotiation. Those will be closed briefings because the only way that we can share what’s happening in the negotiation is to do so in a classified setting.

MODERATOR: Go ahead.

QUESTION: Kasra Naji from BBC Persian Television. I just wondered whether you did talk about the number of centrifuges that Iran – you would like to see in Iran at the end of this process, (a). And (b) on the issue of lifting of the sanctions, once you reach a comprehensive solution, how would that work? What did you discuss on that front? I heard the Iranian side saying that there will be a period of one year that will see various parts of these sanctions lifted step by step, I suppose in relation to what Iran needs to do.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: As I know will come as no surprise to you, I’m not going to give any details of our discussions, any particular parameters that have been agreed to or not been agreed to, because we are in the early stages of discussions, as opposed to down to the hard negotiating that is yet to come.

What I have said previously is that on sanctions that we are in agreement that any suspension, lifting, ending of sanctions will happen in a phased way in a response to actions taken by Iran.

MODERATOR: Yes, Indira.

QUESTION: Thanks. Indira Lakshmanan from Bloomberg News. I want to ask whether the Crimea issue figured in this at all, and how is the cooperation with your Russian counterpart Mr. Ryabkov, and did you feel any overlay from that?

And then secondly, I know you’ve addressed this question before, but it keeps coming up in some other media about fluctuations in the oil. And I know that you’ve said many times that it depends on the six-month period, but we keep seeing that reported. Can you once and for all address that again? (Laughter.)

And I know my colleague has a technical question.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Right. Why don’t you give me your technical question and then I’ll take it all together.

QUESTION: Okay. It falls into the filtration of signals and noise department. March 12th Rosatom visited Tehran and said there was progress in talks. March 17th Iran’s envoy to Moscow said that a deal would be signed in the next three months to supply two reactors. The JPOA in Geneva says that enrichment requirements will be mutually defined based on practical need. How does this define perhaps wishful thinking of future enrichment, uranium needs feed into the process of definition creation?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Let me say something broadly, starting with the last point, which I meant to say in response to the question prior to Indira’s, which is that – but it also goes to the fluctuations issue you mentioned, Indira.

There will be a lot of things said in the newspaper that you get from reliable sources in the sense that they are people who ought to know, but there’s an awful lot of spinning going on, and a lot of trying to set the terms of the negotiation by many parties, and some who aren’t even in the negotiation. And so I think that – and it’s understandable. Congress sending a letter is making a statement about what they think the negotiations should be about.

And my only point is at the end of the day, what will matter is what can get agreed to in the E3+3/P5+1 format and supported by governments around the world, and that’s what we have to stay focused on. So there will be a lot of noise and the – what you report on, the Rosatom visit, the ostensible deal – there’s nothing that leads me to believe that anything like that has in fact happened and been consummated. I might not know. But quite frankly, what we are focused on is what we need to do to get a comprehensive agreement that ensures that Iran will not get a nuclear weapon and assures the world that any program Iran has is exclusively – any nuclear program it has is exclusively peaceful.

Similarly, on the fluctuations, we know that there will be, as I’ve said before, month-to-month fluctuations in demand. And what we care about is the aggregate over time, and we are staying quite close to this, quite on top of it, check in with the governments who still purchase oil on a very regular basis by our expert and crack team. And if we have concerns, we will raise them directly with those countries, and we expect them to comply.

QUESTION: And on Russian cooperation and --

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: And on Russia cooperation – how could I forget – this was a very professional meeting and people stayed very focused on the task at hand. And was there some acknowledgement in the margins that this was out there? Well, of course. We all know each other quite well. And there was a -- affirmation and a commitment to stay focused on the work in the room, and everyone did so.

MODERATOR: Thanks. Yes, we’ll go here.

QUESTION: [Senior Administration Official], thanks for giving me the opportunity. It has been reported that the Ayatollah Khamenei has given carte blanche to the Iranian negotiators to give guarantees to you and P5+1 that Iranian program is peaceful. Have you seen any such a guarantee when you’re talking with these – with the Iranian people? And have you felt it that (inaudible) have all kinds of authority to give you that kind of guarantee?

And secondly, are the ballistic missiles going to be on the table? Because Iranians say it’s a defensive issue and we are not going to talk about it. Thank you.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Excuse me just a moment. I didn’t hear where you were from.

QUESTION: Oh, I’m sorry. Bishan Fab with the (inaudible) TV, Los Angeles.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Okay. What we are focused on in this negotiation is what gets done in the negotiation in concrete terms. And we appreciate, as our Iranian negotiators have said before, that the Supreme Leader issued a fatwa saying that, in fact, it was not to be that Iran would have a nuclear weapon. And we appreciate that within the Iranian system, that has tremendous meaning, and we respect that the Supreme Leader has said that.

Nonetheless, to assure the international community that Iran will not obtain a nuclear weapon and that its program is exclusively peaceful, we need concrete actions that are verifiable, that can be monitored, that can be seen, and that are actions and concrete terms as well as words. So that is what we are working on, are concrete actions that can assure the world that Iran will not get a nuclear weapon and that its program is exclusively peaceful.

MODERATOR: Ballistic missiles.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Oh, on ballistic missiles, I’ve said before that we are covering a range of issues, including in the Joint Plan of Action. It says that before we reach any comprehensive agreement, the UN Security Council resolutions must be addressed. And I think you are all well aware that in 1929, of – 1929, the UN Security Council resolution of that number, it says that one of the concerns is ballistic missiles capable of delivering nuclear weapons. So in some way, this will have to be addressed.

MODERATOR: Thanks. Right here in the front, go ahead. That’s you.

QUESTION: Yeah. Claudia Rosett with NRO. How will this – if you do get a deal, how will this be enforced? Could you tell us what country, agency, group precisely? And in that similar vein, the joint commission – who is actually on it? Where does it reside? If I want to go find them, where are they and what are they doing right now?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Just as in the Joint Plan of Action in terms of verification and monitoring, the IAEA will play the role that it has. And the IAEA’s role, the International Atomic Energy Agency role is to, in fact, to monitor and verify terms under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, along with other protocols and modifications that are made.


QUESTION: If I may, it’s not a question of who will be monitoring. If the – Iran cheats after this deal is done – I’m thinking of North Korea as the model here --


QUESTION: -- Iran cheats, who stops that? Who actually makes them stop?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, this is a complicated question, and I don’t have all of those answers now. As things stand now, there are UN Security Council resolutions, there are multilateral and unilateral sanctions, and all of those are enforcement mechanisms for current behavior – effective or not effective, we can debate – but there are currently enforcement mechanisms. And obviously, similar mechanisms may be in place going into the future, I think, in terms of the UN – there will have to be some resolution of UN Security Council resolutions, so the UN will play a role.

But ultimately, as in any agreement of this sort, it will be the international community and all of its mechanisms that will see this through. The P5+1 and this negotiation and the High Representative’s role is an animal of a Security Council resolution.

QUESTION: And the joint commission?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: The joint commission is an informal mechanism that was put in place in the Joint Plan of Action, and so it operates informally when there is any issue of concern by any party in the Joint Plan of Action, so you can’t go visit it.

QUESTION: Who’s on it if it meets?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: It’s made up of the experts of the P5+1 and Iran, overseen by the political directors. But it’s quite informal.

MODERATOR: Yes, over here.

QUESTION: Hi, George Jahn with the Associated Press. Are you where you want to be right now as far as your interests are concerned?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I actually wouldn’t phrase the question that way because we are as far as we can be for what we are trying to do. Would all of us like to have an agreement today written in all of its glory, completely agreed to? Well, sure. But we would have liked to have been there some time ago. The Joint Plan of Action was, in fact, in our view a critically important agreement that put time on the clock to stop the advance of Iran’s nuclear program any further, so that we could in fact negotiate this comprehensive agreement. We all believe that we do need the time we are taking to really understand each other, have very, very in-depth discussions, which will set the table and go beyond that to beginning to, in fact – if I continue this very bad metaphor – taste all the dishes before we figure out what the best meal is here.

MODERATOR: Yes, I think that’s Hannah in the back. I think. Yes.

QUESTION: Hi. Well, we’re hearing from the other (inaudible) that there are some signs of reaching agreement. I wanted to see how you envision the coming (inaudible) if, let’s say, at the end of the six months there would be an agreement, how would you see it regarding the obstacles to finding a way? What are these obstacles, technical or (inaudible)? How can (inaudible)?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, there are many obstacles because this is very hard. If there weren’t obstacles, we would have been there already. There are obstacles of content, there are obstacles of understanding, there are obstacles of aspirations, there are obstacles of just the different traditions that we come out of. But in terms of progress, what I would say is that we certainly understand each other better, we certainly understand what each other is looking for here better than we did. I think we all, probably in our own way, see places where we could probably find agreement and places where we still have considerable distance to go to find agreement. And I think you probably could talk to each one of us in a room, and we might even agree on the places in which we could see where we could get to agreement in a not easy path but a plausible path, and some other areas where it’s going to be pretty tough. But we’re going to work at it.

MODERATOR: Yes, Laurence, go ahead.

QUESTION: Hi, Laurence Norman, the Wall Street Journal. Couple of questions. One – I know you won’t go into details, but do you feel, having had this discussion on Arak, that the possibility of it changing to being not a heavy water reactor is on the table?

And secondly, on the Crimea issue, I think you said last week that you were hopeful that it wouldn’t be a problem. Given what you said today, are you now fairly confident it might be a problem?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Laurence, we have long said that we believe that Arak should not be a heavy water reactor as it is, that we did not think that that met the objectives of this negotiation. And so of course we are having discussions about how we would address that in some considerable detail, and there are many options. So we have to discuss all those options and see if we can find one that meets our interests of ensuring that Iran does not get a nuclear weapon and its program is exclusively peaceful and try to do so in a way that Iran can agree to. So that’s what I’d say about Arak and the heavy water reactor.

On Ukraine – again, I am confident that we will all approach this negotiation to get our work done and our job done. And I continue to hope that ongoing events in Ukraine and actions that may be taken will not change that. But I can’t tell you today for a certainty that that will be the case because all of the events happening in the world are not under our control.

MODERATOR: Yes, back here.

QUESTION: (Inaudible.) The Israelis are still spending billions a year on preparations for a strike on Iran. How much does that impinge or how much of that is in the back of your mind as you go through these discussions?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I have long said that the prime minister of Israel and the Government of Israel must do whatever it believes it needs to do to ensure its own security. That is the responsibility of every leader of any country and government. And I’ve also said that the United States and Israel stand shoulder to shoulder when it comes to Israel’s security. So I respect the choices and the decisions that Israel has made and I know that the prime minister, the Government of Israel share the same objective that we do and quite frankly everyone in the P5+1 shares, and that is that we ensure that if we do come to an agreement, it ensures that Iran cannot obtain a nuclear weapon and that its program is exclusively peaceful.

MODERATOR: Yes, up here.

QUESTION: If we --

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Tell me where you’re from.

QUESTION: I am (inaudible) from (inaudible). I’d like to ask you if you would like to mention the advancement (inaudible) negotiation. Are you still in the beginning of this negotiation, or already you are, let’s say, 30 percent – (laughter) – middle of the road, or – and last time you – from here, you went to Israel and also to 12 countries. Do you think that now they realize that what you did in Geneva was a very good agreement and then hopefully that you’ll do – (inaudible)?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: So as to where we are in the process of the agreement, it’s really hard to put a number on it. Agreements have a – these kind of negotiations have a rhythm to them. One has to, as I said, set the table, then you have to dig into what you’re eating – again, that’s a terrible metaphor – and try to go to work. We have gone to work in a very serious and substantive way. As you can see, every time I’m here the group that’s sitting beside me has gotten a little bit bigger because – and we have literally hundreds – literally hundreds – of people in the U.S. Government who are working on particularly the technical aspects of this, because this is a very technical negotiation. So we now have, as you know, Ambassador Anderson in Brussels full-time because this – the EU and High Representative are in Brussels. This is a very intense negotiation, there’s a lot of communication that goes on. We felt it was our responsibility to have someone there who could support that effort, help to coordinate with all of our colleagues in the P5+1, support Helga Schmid, Cathy Ashton in their efforts to lead all of us in this negotiation.

So we are deep into this and we will have to be deep into it in an intense, every-single-day way. Most of my colleagues who are sitting here with me – Dr. Timbie – again, you can’t use – they aren’t speaking, so you can’t quote them – but spends probably every minute of every day leading our experts’ effort here. We have folks here who have day jobs. But I think they’re finding themselves – you know that Adam Szubin, the head of OFAC, does have a huge day job, and I’m sure he would tell you he is spending an enormous amount of time on this effort. Other colleagues who are part of this team likewise, who have plenty of other things they could be doing, but this is very intense and it is of the highest priority for the President of the United States and for the United States of America. And so we are deeply committed to this negotiation.

In terms of consultations, we consult with our friends and allies before and after every one of these negotiations. We do that in a variety of ways. Last time, as you noted, Ambassador Sherman, Under Secretary Sherman and her – some of her colleagues went to Israel, went to Saudi Arabia, went to the United Arab Emirates, met with the GCC. This time it’s my understanding that they won’t be traveling, but will be doing this consultation in other ways. The team also consults with capitals all over the world because there is enormous interest in whether this succeeds or not. And as I mentioned, of course, communicating with the American public, both directly through you all and through our Congress, who represents the American people, is ongoing as well.

MODERATOR: We have time for a few more. Let’s go over here, and then we’ll do a couple more. Yes, go ahead. Uh-huh.

QUESTION: (Inaudible) New York Times. I haven’t heard any mention of Fordow, and I – or Fordow, I may be mispronouncing it – and I just wondered if that was one of those topics that were discussed or whether it was not part of the discussions.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I think I mentioned when I said we discussed enrichment that we discussed facilities, scope, stockpiles, all of that, and facilities, of course, includes Fordow. Some people say Fordow; some people say Fordow. It’s the same thing. And so, yes, that is under discussion.

MODERATOR: Yes, up here in the front. Go ahead, yes.

QUESTION: (Inaudible), Xinhua News Agency. And you said just now you are bridging gap between U.S. and Iran. Would you tell us, what do you think – which gap is the largest in your mind between you and Iran you need to bridge – and in so many respect, including this enrichment, the heavy water reactor and missile program. So would you give us your opinion?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: So I’m sure it won’t surprise you to hear me say no. I don’t think it’s very useful to the negotiation to say we’re good to go here, or not here. I just – I don’t want to have this negotiation with all of you. I want to have it and we want to have it in the room.

The other point I would say is the gaps are not just between the United States and Iran. The P5+1, the E3+3 is very united. We may have some different ideas, we may even have national positions which aren’t identical, but when we are in the room together, we are completely united. We have well-coordinated – different ones of us take the lead on different issues. We know what each other is going to say. We’ve worked it all through. And so where there are gaps, this is the P5+1, the E3+3 with the European Union, representing the international community, and we take that responsibility very seriously.

MODERATOR: Thanks. I think we’ll do one more. Go ahead, right here. Yes, you, yes.

QUESTION: Don’t worry, I won’t ask the hundred-meter question again, since I know the answer. But can you say something about the – (inaudible), Austrian television, public broadcasting. Sorry. Can you say something about the general mood in the talks? Is it rather calm or do – there are some negotiators getting loud or something like that? (Laughter.)

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: First of all, please thank your viewers, and let me thank Austria once again formally and officially for hosting us yet again in a really productive way. This is always a burden on whichever city we come to. First, people are very excited we’re going to come, and then they realize what that means. (Laughter.) And it is both a financial and a burden on traffic patterns to hotel accommodations to many other things. So we have been hosted as graciously as we were last time, and we are very grateful to Austria for doing so.

This is very – everybody is very professional, very serious, very focused. If there is any humor, it’s of the good-natured variety. There are no histrionics. There’s no walking out. There’s no yelling and screaming. It is very professional, very workmanlike, I’d say even maybe a little beyond workmanlike in that people understand the stakes are pretty profound. So there is a sense of the tremendous responsibility that’s on people’s shoulders and the seriousness of what we are about.

MODERATOR: Great. Thank you, everyone, for coming. Again, this was all on background as senior Administration officials. We will see you just in a few short weeks when we come back for the third round, and always here to help if you need anything else. Thanks, guys.