Background Briefing on P5+1 Talks

Special Briefing
Office of the Spokesperson
Senior U.S. Official
Vienna, Austria
May 13, 2014

MODERATOR: Hi, everyone. Welcome back. Thanks for bearing with us and being patient tonight. I think we’re ready to get started.

Welcome to tonight’s backgrounder. For attribution rules, this is all on background, attributable to a senior U.S. official – no names, no titles. Please keep us all honest on this so we can keep doing these for all of you.

I’m going to turn over now, so you know, to [Senior U.S. Official], who will make some brief opening remarks. And then we will open it up for your questions.

SENIOR U.S. OFFICIAL: Good evening everyone, and thank you for waiting for us. Sorry we’re a few minutes late, I think. We’re very pleased to be back here in Vienna for this round of talks with the European Union, China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom, and Iran.

On the technical side, our nuclear and sanctions experts have been working with their counterparts since we last met, as have the political directors in consultation with each other and in Brussels just a few days ago. And as many of you know, our experts met most recently last week in New York.

As we’ve said previously, at this round we will begin drafting specific language for the comprehensive plan of action. Everyone has approached these talks with seriousness and with professionalism. It also appears that everyone has come to the table wanting a diplomatic solution, but having the intent doesn’t mean it will necessarily happen. Quite frankly, this is very, very, difficult. I would caution people that just because we will be drafting it certainly doesn’t mean an agreement is imminent or that we are certain to eventually get to a resolution of these issues.

There are a range of complicated issues to address. And we do not know if Iran will be able to make the tough decisions they must to ensure the world that they will not obtain a nuclear weapon and that their program is for entirely peaceful purposes, as they have said.

As this process moves forward, there will be a lot of noise out there – some of you might even make – about issues that may be under consideration, people speculating about where we’ve made progress and what the final language on any one issue might look like. There will also be speculation about where the sticking points remain. People will try to read the tea leaves and guess who’s offering what, who’s accepting what, and what is actually on the table for any given topic. I cannot advise you strongly enough not to buy into that kind of speculation. I know that’s your job, but at the same time I can assure you that you will only pick up fragments, and what’s most important is that you need to be very dubious of these fragments because one thing that has marked both the Joint Plan of Action and the comprehensive negotiations thus far is that people involved in them have been pretty discreet about the details of what we’re discussing. That’s how seriously we all take this process.

And I’d also remind people of a very, very critical point: No one can define this agreement by any one element – any element that is under discussion. And no one can predict what the overall comprehensive plan of action will look like from dissecting any one piece of it in isolation. As we’ve said for quite some time now, and I’ve noticed others have begun to pick it up, this process is like solving a Rubik’s Cube. There isn’t only one possible solution to providing the international community with the assurances we need that Iran’s nuclear program is exclusively peaceful, that Iran will not obtain a nuclear weapon, and that there will be appropriate verification and transparency. Put simply, what we are working on is a package, not a checklist. And how we deal with each individual piece affects the overall eventual outcome.

We are quite focused on the July 20th date and we expect to be working every single moment until then. If you remember when we were negotiating the Joint Plan of Action, we were hashing out differences over individual words up until the very last minute, and many of you wrote a few days before it was done, when ministers came to Geneva and then departed, that it wasn’t going to happen, only to come back again and get the deal done.

As we’ve said, this process is far, far more difficult even than the Joint Plan of Action. But we’re committed to undertaking this effort because we know the diplomatic path is the one with the best chance of resolving our concerns in a peaceful way with Iran, and that is all that we all want to do. Finally, before I take your questions, again, speaking to the importance of the package of the combination of elements, nothing is agreed until everything is agreed. The only percentage that matters is 100 percent, and nothing is agreed until everyone agrees to it.

So we’re working hard, but it remains to be seen if we’ll get where we all hope to get to. Thank you.

MODERATOR: Great. We’re going to take questions now. And I know we know most of you, but if you could identify yourself and your outlet, that would be great. Go ahead.

QUESTION: Paul Richter with LA Times. In your last briefing, you expressed optimism that you would get everything done by July 20th, and I didn’t hear you say that today. Do you still feel that way?

SENIOR U.S. OFFICIAL: What I believe I’ve said in the past is that one can see how one can get to an agreement by July 20th, but getting to it is another matter. And by that I mean – they’re words to be written on a piece of paper. All of these issues that we are discussing have answers. It’s whether in fact the parties at the table, Iran in particular, is able to put answers on the table that ensure that they will not obtain a nuclear weapon, that the international community has the assurances that we all need. So this is possible, but again, until it is done, until everything is agreed and everyone has agreed to it, there is not an agreement. What I’m trying to express to all of you is this is very, very tough. We’ve spent the last couple of rounds putting all of the issues on the table, seeing where there may be points of agreement, where there may be gaps. There are some very significant gaps. It’s not that there aren’t solutions to those gaps; there are. But getting to them is another matter, and I cannot tell you today that we will with great certainty get there. I don’t know.


QUESTION: Thanks. Lou Charbonneau, Reuters. I wanted to follow up on the question about the optimism. There have been voices coming from maybe other delegations expressing increasing optimism about the likelihood of a deal. More and more the expectation is that there will be some kind of deal, and – so this is fairly widespread. What do you think is behind that? And then secondly, the UN panel of experts has just issued a new report talking about a possible slowdown in illicit procurement by the Iranians, which it’s very cautiously presented, but is it possibly this is a reflection of the new political atmosphere in Iran? Has the U.S. perceived such a phenomenon on the part of Iran? Thanks.

SENIOR U.S. OFFICIAL: I was talking with our team about this optimism. Who doesn’t want to have optimism about this? Who doesn’t want to solve this problem peacefully? We all do, and we wouldn’t be sitting at the table if we didn’t have hope and optimism. But optimism alone will not get us a comprehensive plan of action. Very hard work, very detailed work, very technical work will get us to the assurance the international community needs that their program is exclusively peaceful and that they will not obtain a nuclear weapon.

And it is a very, very difficult achievement. It is – as one of my colleagues said to me today, you can have an assembly line to put the car together. That assembly line can be well-tooled; everybody can know what their job is, the paint can go on, all the parts can be put in it, but until the engine’s in the car the car isn’t going to run. And this is similar, in that we can do all kinds of things. We can resolve a whole bunch of issues, but if we can’t get the final engine into the car, we have no comprehensive plan of action.

And so that’s why – I think we are all optimists by nature or we wouldn’t be at this table, because this is so hard to do. We would’ve just thrown up our hands and said, “Are you kidding?” But it is critical to try to do this. It is critical to come to the table and work very hard on this very detailed and highly technical negotiation. We can get to a resolution, I believe, but whether we can, whether we have the intent to, and whether we will are all quite different matters.

QUESTION: And the panel.

SENIOR U.S. OFFICIAL: Oh, and the panel. I’ve seen the report on the panel of experts. I know that the U.S., which sits on the panel[i], has received a copy. I have not seen it myself. I think that what I would say is that if there has indeed been a slow-down, that is, of course, a good thing. What matters, however, is that the international community – not just regarding Iran, but regarding every country in the world – wants to move away from any activities of proliferation, and any progress in that regard is a good thing. But the best report is zero.

MODERATOR: Yes. Yeah, go ahead. Uh-huh.

QUESTION: I’m Jonathan Tirone with Bloomberg News. I’m going to enter the Rubik’s Cube metaphor, because most kids haphazardly give up on the Rubik’s Cube. (Laughter.) Because it’s – they approach haphazardly. The young engineers, of course, take the damn thing apart and piece it back together. (Laughter.) And the real geniuses apply the algorithm of a sequenced move of events that ensures a result. So I’m curious --

SENIOR U.S. OFFICIAL: Would you like to come to the negotiating table? (Laughter.)

QUESTION: I’m curious to hear your Rubik’s Cube strategy. And then as a side note, I’m just interested in learning whether you’re going to introduce the concept of separative work units as the baseline technical definition for enrichment capacity versus a raw number of centrifuges that doesn’t (inaudible) people necessarily.

SENIOR U.S. OFFICIAL: I think your definition of different approaches to Rubik’s Cube is worthwhile and instructive. I think to solve this particular Rubik’s Cube you have to probably have a combination of all of it. You have to know what all the elements are and be able to have the vision to see how they might all fit together, and how they might all fit together in different ways. In this case, there is not just one true algorithm. There is probably more than one true algorithm, as long as they all get you to the same answer, which is Iran can’t obtain a nuclear weapon, and we are assured that the program is exclusively peaceful.

It probably takes the sort of the leap of faith that young people have to give it a whirl, the stick-to-it-iveness that comes with a little bit more maturity, and a little bit of that engineer’s mindset to drill down into the detail so that you understand what the combination might be. And that goes to your question, which I’m not going to answer precisely, and I’m sure you’re not surprised. We will use the parameters that get us to the best, clearest place, and one which allows the kind of transparency, monitoring, and verification that assures that we’ve reached our two objectives.

MODERATOR: Great. Yes, Laura.

QUESTION: Thanks. Laura Rozen from Al-Monitor. Thanks for doing this. The JPOA, as I remember, has some language at the end that talks about Iran at some point not being a problem child (inaudible). It seems that that has influenced Iran’s thinking about eventually pulling out of the (inaudible) not having all (inaudible). Can you speak to that expectation, please?

SENIOR U.S. OFFICIAL: First I’ll read you what the JPOA says. It says – the last line that’s not an asterisk on the last page says, “Following successful implementation of the final step of the comprehensive solution for its full duration, the Iranian nuclear program will be treated in the same manner as that of any non-nuclear weapons state party to the NPT.” And that stands.

So your question is?

QUESTION: So Iranians are interpreting that that there is some outer date where all the – the Rubik’s Cubes are – doesn’t matter, because they’ll be out of this – that rogue status (inaudible).

SENIOR U.S. OFFICIAL: Well, indeed. At the beginning of this page, which is the elements of the final step of the comprehensive solution, it says that this will have a specified long-term duration to be agreed upon. And at the point at which that long-term duration ends and all of the comprehensive plan of action has been implemented and verified, then, indeed, Iran will be treated in the same manner as that of any non-nuclear weapons state party to the NPT.

QUESTION: That’s helpful. But let me just say – so does that make it any easier than – if it’s basically there’s a medium-term – the numbers you’re arguing about, the Rubik’s Cube stuff, it’s not forever. It’s for some medium-term duration. Does that make it any more hopeful you will all be able to compromise?

SENIOR U.S. OFFICIAL: Well, we expect that the comprehensive plan of action will mean that Iran will not obtain a nuclear weapon ever --


SENIOR U.S. OFFICIAL: -- no matter what the duration of the agreement is, and that its program will be exclusively peaceful forever, no matter the duration of this particular agreement.

MODERATOR: No one else has a question, so yes, we’ll go around the room. We’ll start at the back and then come back in front.

QUESTION: (Inaudible) for Radio France International. Since last meeting, the tension with Russia has reached yet another level. Do you have the feeling that it might impact the unity of the 5+1 (inaudible)?

SENIOR U.S. OFFICIAL: I’m sorry, but what has reached another level?

QUESTION: Tension with Russia --


SENIOR U.S. OFFICIAL: Oh, with Russia.

QUESTION: -- over Ukraine.

SENIOR U.S. OFFICIAL: All I can tell you is that our Russian colleagues have focused in on this negotiation with the same seriousness of purpose that everyone else at the table has.

QUESTION: There’s no impact so far?

SENIOR U.S. OFFICIAL: Not discernable.

MODERATOR: Who else? Yes, back here, and then I’ll come to last. Go ahead.

QUESTION: I’m DPA German Press Agency. Yesterday the IAEA and Iran had another meeting on the – solving the WMD issue. However, so far Iran has agreed only to discussing one issues, and they weren’t able to agree on further issues. How concerned are you about the pace of those discussions, and how is the lack of progress – how is that influencing the – this E3+3 process?

SENIOR U.S. OFFICIAL: The Joint Plan of Action says that, indeed, all past and present issues have to be resolved, which refers to PMD, possible military dimensions. It also says that UN Security Council resolutions have to be addressed, which also address possible military dimensions, and this is the work that the IAEA has had underway for some time with Iran.

And so, both because of the commitments made in the Joint Plan of Action and our ongoing discussions with Iran, we have been very clear that one cannot achieve a comprehensive plan of action without Iran making progress and resolving with the IAEA the concerns about the possible military dimensions of the program. And we certainly want to see progress in the near term – substantive progress in the near term, so that in fact there is a growing belief that, in fact, it will get resolved. And needless to say, the pace of that resolution will have an impact on what happens in any agreement and the relief that Iran is seeking.

MODERATOR: Abas, go ahead.

QUESTION: This is Abas Aslani from the Tasnim News Agency. A Russian negotiator this morning said that the – on the two issues of Arak and the transparency, meaning monitoring the Iranian facilities, are riper than the other issues for agreement in this round. I would like to ask you whether any specific progress has been made regarding these two issues. And the other question is that the Iranian ballistic missile capability, will it be discussed in this round of talks or it will be kept for future addressing and consideration?

SENIOR U.S. OFFICIAL: I’m not going to specify on any one element where we are or are not in this negotiation at this briefing or at any other briefing. The issues that you have named are all issues that are under discussion and all part of this Rubik’s cube resolution which we are seeking.

On your last point, asking whether ballistic missiles is under discussion, I would note that the UN Security Council resolutions must be addressed. That’s in the Joint Plan of Action. Those resolutions, among many other things, do say that any missile capable of delivering a nuclear weapon must be dealt with.

MODERATOR: Who else? Any more? We answered all your questions? Yes. I thought some others had some. Go ahead, and then we’ll come to you.

QUESTION: My name is Takemoto from Kyodo News, Japan. After you mentioned all the useless speculation, it’s really hard for me to ask this. (Laughter.)

SENIOR U.S. OFFICIAL: But do it anyway. (Laughter.)

QUESTION: Iran’s vice president, Mr. Salehi, clearly said P5+1 and Iran already agreed on a new proposal about Arak. And once it’s said by vice president, it’s not speculation, at least for me. So what do you say about that?

SENIOR U.S. OFFICIAL: I would say two things. I’m not going to comment on any one item, and nothing is agreed till everything is agreed, because they all come together to get what we are looking for in the two objectives I’ve repeated for you – and would be glad to do so one more time – and that is that Iran not obtain a nuclear weapon and that the international community is assured of the peaceful nature of its program. So no one item resolves that; all of them have to fit together. It is a package, and that’s what matters. And many people will say many things over the days. What matters at the end of the day is what happens in the room, what gets agreed to, and then what gets agreed to by all of the governments when we think – if we ever get to, and hope that we do – a comprehensive plan of action that we want all of the leadership of our countries to agree to.

QUESTION: Thank you.

QUESTION: (Inaudible) with Al-Arabiya. I’d like to ask you a kind of technical question. Tomorrow, you are going to draft the – start drafting the comprehensive agreement. Does that mean you have already a draft, and then you ask the Iranian side to react on each point? Or are you just starting from a point A until – then you will start writing tomorrow? I mean, do you have a kind of pre-draft prepared, was done by the expert, and then you are going to discuss point by point with the Iranians? Zarif said that he think about three rounds of discussions to finish the drafting of the agreements with you. How many rounds do you expect (inaudible)?

SENIOR U.S. OFFICIAL: We will take whatever time is necessary to try to come to a comprehensive plan of action by July 20th. We’ll take whatever time is necessary to do that. How exactly we’ll do it? We are beginning tomorrow. We know what the list of issues are that need to be addressed, and we will begin addressing them. I would imagine that everyone has done preparatory work to be able to begin, and this will begin, as I think you all have been told, with a plenary session at the UN, and then I would expect that Lady Ashton and Minister Zarif will literally begin drafting.

It is important that all of us are engaged in this process. There will be engagement at various levels. There are some parts of this joint – comprehensive plan of action which, quite frankly, only some of my colleagues here are qualified to write, and that is the detailed technical pieces of the implementation of any comprehensive plan of action that is written. And so everyone will be working at many levels to try to, in fact, draft what we are now calling the CPOA, the comprehensive plan of action.

MODERATOR: I think we just trademarked that. I think we have time for a few more. Yes. We’ll go here. Then I’ll go back to you.

QUESTION: Kasra Naji from BBC Persian Television. You said you’re not sure whether Iran is ready to make the decisions that it must. Can you tell me why you’re not so optimistic? And what made you think that they may not be ready to make those decisions? Though I take it that this – like, Iranian leaders’ visit to the missile sites have anything to do with it? Or developments in Iran that have given you the idea that Iranians are not ready to make these hard decisions?

SENIOR U.S. OFFICIAL: No. It’s not really about optimism or pessimism. It’s just realism. This is hard. This is difficult. If it weren’t difficult, it would have been resolved a long time ago. This has been going on for years and years and years. We are all doing this together. We are all drafting together – not just the U.S. team, all of the teams are working together, coordinated by the High Representative on our side, and by Minister Zarif on the Iranian side. And some of my colleagues have been trying to negotiate a resolution to these concerns literally for a decade – literally for a decade. Some of the political directors have been doing this for a very, very long time.

So if this were easy, it would have been done. But it is not easy. I think we have an extraordinary chance to get to a comprehensive plan of action. The fact that we were able to agree on a Joint Plan of Action and that all sides have complied to date with the Joint Plan of Action increases the chance, but it is still very, very difficult. And I think, to be very frank about it, I’ve read a lot of what you all have written about how optimistic everyone is, and I think it’s gotten way out of control – not because I don’t want to be optimistic, not because we don’t hope to get there, but because it is a very difficult undertaking. If it weren’t, it would have already been done.

And so we all have to be realistic. And because you can get to 98 percent of this agreement, but you can’t get the last 2 percent, that last 2 percent may make all the rest of it not work.

QUESTION: You don’t sound as optimistic as before. (Laughter.) I remember a month ago, you were saying that it is a possibility --

SENIOR U.S. OFFICIAL: I would – I still say to you it is possible.

QUESTION: Now you don’t seem to be that – (laughter.)

SENIOR U.S. OFFICIAL: No, no, no. It is still possible. I’m really not saying anything different than I have said before. You all have been shaped by lots of people telling you we’re almost there, we’re getting it done, we’ve gotten this percentage done, that percentage done, we’ve resolved this issue, we’ve resolved that issue. You’re listening to all of that. You’re writing all of that. And all I’m saying to you is what I’ve said every time: We are intent on getting it done. We want to get it done. We want to get it done by July 20th. It is possible to get it done. But one can get – I think I’ve said this exact thing last time – you can get 98 percent of the way there, and if the last 2 percent cannot get agreed to, there will be no comprehensive plan of action. This is hard. And quite frankly I think, with all due respect, you all have written about this as if it’s easy, and it’s not.

MODERATOR: Yes, I think it’s our AP --

QUESTION: Yes, it’s George Jahn, the Associated Press. Talking about the draft, are you going to be approaching it – and I’m not sure you want to answer this – but basically component by component, taking the relatively easy issues first? Or are you going to be looking at it in a totality end (inaudible)?

SENIOR U.S. OFFICIAL: One, we’ll have to look at the totality, because, as I’ve said, this is a package. So even if one has a discussion about an element, one will have to return to it again and again and again as you discuss the other elements, which interact with the first element that you might have discussed or the fifth element you might have discussed, to see whether, in fact, the package comes together. That’s why this is so complex. And each one of those has a great deal of technical detail behind it, and so you have to know all the technical details to know whether what you aspire to achieve can actually happen.

MODERATOR: Let’s just do two quick more ones. Let’s go to people that haven’t had one. I know, Laura, you’re going to be angry at me. But go ahead, (inaudible).

QUESTION: (Inaudible) Reuters News Agency. I wanted to ask you again about the missile question. How important is that for you that that’s addressed in this agreement? I’m asking, of course, of the Iranian Supreme Leader’s – Khamenei’s statement this week. I think that he described as stupid and idiotic the expectation that this would be part of the talks, the negotiation.

SENIOR U.S. OFFICIAL: I just want to repeat what I’ve said before and what the Joint Plan of Action says, which is that the issues in the UN Security Council resolutions have to be addressed, and so all of the issues in the UN Security Council resolution will be addressed.

MODERATOR: Great. Let’s see. Hannah, did you have one?

QUESTION: Yeah. Actually, I don’t have question. I have a comment.

MODERATOR: Okay. Can you keep it short then so other people can ask their questions?

QUESTION: No, it is – it’s actually something very important. I’m surprised why nobody brought it up. But I was wondering if there can be like kind of a mechanism that us journalists don’t come here and wait for 48 hours until something starts here. Because we were told that it starts on 13th and it didn’t start, because tonight is not the beginning, tomorrow is the beginning.

MODERATOR: Well – go ahead. Continue.

QUESTION: And the other thing is that I think we, as Iranian journalists brought it up – if there would be a possibility that word can be put out there with the Iranian negotiators that we will be able to attend their briefings because we speak Farsi and because we see other colleagues here, and it would be nice that we would have the same chance to. Thank you.

MODERATOR: On the first issue, obviously the EU and Iran work on the schedule. We’ve tried to give you as much information as possible as we’ve known it, obviously try to work around your schedules. I know sometimes there’s some waiting, for us as well, but we endeavor to make this as simple as possible schedule-wise. And going forward, as you guys saw in Geneva, the schedule will be very much in flux, so we appreciate your flexibility, I think, going forward as well.

And on the second issue, we’re happy to have you all here. Obviously every delegation can set its own press ground rules, but we also are happy to pass along the message.

QUESTION: Thank you.

MODERATOR: You’re welcome.

QUESTION: Can we have more briefings in the next --

MODERATOR: (Laughter.) Okay. We’re going to do questions and then we’re going to go. All of us are going to go have dinner. Okay. We’re going to do one from Laura and then you’re going to be the last question.

QUESTION: Thank you. I do have a question about the Rubik’s cube analogy. If there’s a proliferation-proof way to deal with one element such as Arak or – I don’t know the details – why does it – why do you always have to keep returning, given how many centrifuges or whatever? Why can’t you just settle that if it’s – do they get a smaller number of centrifuges just because you want them to promise more? If you can guarantee that they’re not going to get a path to a bomb from Arak in some technical way, why can’t something like that be crossed off the list?

SENIOR U.S. OFFICIAL: Because we are trying to put in place a comprehensive plan of action; because this is difficult to do; because Iran is – wants relief for the actions that it takes, and they want relief that gives them a certainty, and we, therefore, have to have certainty as well. So it’s about ensuring that we address all of the elements of concern and they all fit together to create that comprehensive plan of action.

MODERATOR: Okay. Our last question – and I will take all comments, you guys can point them all to me. But our last question.

QUESTION: Thank you.


QUESTION: (Inaudible) Network. Going back to the IAEA issues that – the IAEA this time (inaudible) expected to have that next-step agreement, which they didn’t. Now, you mentioned already in your answer that the pace of that negotiation or the resolution would affect these negotiations as well. Is there any – at any point, that if there’s no reason why that this forum deals – there’s no reason why this forum shouldn’t deal directly with the – this issue of the weapons – the – a military dimension – do you have that in the pipeline? And also, will you be meeting Mr. Amano to discuss specifically on this issue while you’re here this time? Those are my questions. Thank you.

SENIOR U.S. OFFICIAL: So, as I said, in the Joint Plan of Action, we have said that past and present issues need to be resolved as part of the comprehensive plan of action. The IAEA has the first responsibility to, indeed, resolve those issues and has a plan to do so. And we don’t want to start doing the IAEA’s job. We all rely on the expertise of the IAEA. This takes a very specific expertise to resolve. But we want to work in appropriate ways with the IAEA so that the comprehensive plan of action ensures that we have addressed all of the elements, as I have said, so there is a comprehensive resolution, a comprehensive plan of action.

I have met with the director general before. I don’t yet know everything in my schedule this week. I always look forward to those conversations. I always learn an enormous amount. And we are all very grateful for what the IAEA does in this instance and all around the world on issues of proliferation.

MODERATOR: Great. Thank you, everyone, for coming. Just a reminder on attribution, this is on background as a Senior U.S. Administration Official. Please stick to the rules so we can keep doing these. And as you all know how to get in touch with me with any other questions or comments, I will take all of them. Thanks, guys.


# # #


[i] Sanctions Committee vice panel.