Background Briefing on P5+1 Talks

Special Briefing
Senior Administration Official
Vienna, Austria
June 20, 2014

MODERATOR: Good evening, everyone. Thank you for your patience. I know that this round, we’ve been a little more quiet in terms of the updates, so there’s been a lot going on. It’s been very intense, which [Senior Administration Official] will get into. But I just wanted to thank you for your patience and coming out here to attend this backgrounder. So with that, I’d like to turn it over to [Senior Administration Official]. And when I call on you, could you please state your name and your media outlet?


QUESTION: My name is Laura Rozen from Al Monitor. And can you give a kind of response to Iran’s argument that it should be entitled to have self-reliance for its fuel needs for the future to elevate the low-enriched uranium it needs for Bushehr?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Laura, as you know, I’m not going to talk about specific details of the negotiation. What I will say more generally is that most people in the world engage in international cooperation for civil nuclear purposes, and the particular issue that you mention, there is an existing relationship to achieve that international cooperation and we hope that that continues.

QUESTION: [Senior Administration Official], thank you. Abbas Aslani, Tasnim News Agency. It’s been said by diplomats from different sides that there still remains crucial differences in the talks. And do you think that’s why those brackets, as said by Iranian foreign minister, that are more than what’s in the text of the agreement, can you reach the deal by July 20th? And has there been any discussion on extending the deadline or not? And if it’s so, how will it go? Thank you.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I will honestly say to you that we have not had considerations of extension. We are all focused on reaching July 20th. As I’ve said before, if we get close and we need a few more days, I don’t think anyone will mind. But we are very focused on getting it done now. We have all agreed that time is not in anyone’s interest; it won’t help get there. And if indeed by the time we get to July 20th we are still very far apart, then I think we will all have to evaluate what that means and what is possible or not.

MODERATOR: Okay. All the way in the back.

QUESTION: Thank you. George Jahn, Associated Press. Minister Zarif hinted at – I mean, you keep on talking about sense of purpose, united sense of purpose, but he hinted that there were different concepts of what actually should be accomplished in terms of numbers, time frames, et cetera. Is that true, and is that a problem?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, sure, there are differences between the P5+1 and Iran on those issues.

QUESTION: No, among the P5+1.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Ah. What I would say is there is no question that every country has national positions, and national positions are never identical. But that has been the case when we negotiated the Joint Plan of Action; that’s the case now. In the Joint Plan of Action we were able to work through those national different positions, try to accommodate them and remain unified. What is most crucial and what is undeniable is that the P5+1 and the European Union are 100 percent unified on the objectives here, and that is to ensure that Iran does not obtain a nuclear weapon and that the world is assured that their program is exclusively peaceful. And there is absolute unanimity on that objective.

QUESTION: Thanks. I wanted to follow up on what – thanks. I wanted to follow up on what you just said about the unity. The Russians and Chinese indicated that the unity is such that they support also some of the strategies, that the proposals that are being made to Iran do actually represent unified positions of the six. Others have said that includes the numbers of centrifuges and other very particular items where there’s been a lot of specificity discussed. I mean, does the unity actually go that far?



MODERATOR: (Inaudible.)

QUESTION: Hi, thanks. First of all, realism has become a bit of a buzzword. Everyone’s calling for more realism from the other side. Have you seen any greater realism from Iran this week on the key issues? And secondly, you said earlier you’re not sure yet whether Iran is ready to take the steps you think it needs to take. Well, what is it that – I’m curious of why. What is it that you’re not sure that they’re ready to do? What are you seeing that makes you say that?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I’ll start with the last part of your question. There are very, very difficult decisions to be taken here by Iran. If they weren’t, we would have resolved this issue a very long time ago. It is also been expected, as in most negotiations, that the very hardest things are not decided until the very end of the negotiation. That probably is true when you sit down with your partner at dinner to decide what restaurant you’re going to go to. Everybody has their favorite, and then you finally get down to what your daughter wants, and that’s where you go.

So it’s probably a bad metaphor, so you should probably drop that. But nonetheless, everyone understands these – this is very difficult. And when I say I’m not sure whether they can get there, I go back to what you’ve heard from me before, which is this is a Rubik’s cube. All the pieces have to fit together. You could – I don’t know how many squares there are on a Rubik’s cube; maybe somebody here knows. But you could get to 98 percent of them and the last 2 percent won’t slide into place, and you don’t have an agreement. Because all of these pieces have to fit together to reach the two objectives that I’ve outlined, and that is to ensure they don’t have a nuclear weapon and that their program is exclusively peaceful.

Now what was the first part of your question? Sorry.

QUESTION: Realism.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Oh, realism. I think we all started to use that word when we were just laying out sort of our positions and we felt that we didn’t – people weren’t really understanding the distance that had to be traveled. I think everyone understands the distance that has to be traveled. I think everyone is trying to begin to see whether there are ways to travel that distance.

The distance that has to be traveled is the distance from where Iran is today to reaching the two objectives that I keep outlining. And I think that they have come this week in serious, constructive discussions. The fact that we have in fact, through intense work, have this working document that will help us continue these negotiations is a testament to that. But there is still an enormous amount of very hard work that remains.

QUESTION: Can I just press you? So there is a bit more realism?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I don’t – I’d say there is a bit more realism in the sense that there is great clarity.

MODERATOR: Right here.

QUESTION: Thank you. I’m John Tirone of Bloomberg News. The Iranian delegation invoked the 2005 – the March 2005 agreement in which they offered 3000 – to cap their program at 3000 centrifuges in 2005 and hold off on industrial capacity until trust was built. That option was obviously rejected in 2005. And though sanctions have imposed harsh penalties on Iran, it hasn’t stopped them from expanding to 19,000 installed centrifuges today, advancing beyond 20 percent (inaudible).

The implication of that example – obviously, Iran is – Iranians are very historically conscious. But to what extent does that example resonate with the P5+1 side and give incentive to prevent a repeat?

SENIOR ADMINSTRATION OFFICIAL: Everyone who is in the room is certainly aware of the long and difficult history of negotiations to resolve this problem. But we are at a different time, a different place in history. And we have to see what we can do to go forward, not go backwards. And history may be instructive up to a point, but as I said, the context is different, the circumstances are different, the program is different. The concerns are probably even more profound than they were in 2005.

So what we are focused on is where are we going to go? Is Iran going to be able to assure the world that its program is exclusively peaceful? Are we going to be certain that Iran cannot obtain a nuclear weapon? And that’s what this negotiation is about, and everyone is intensely focused on reaching those objectives.

QUESTION: Thanks. (Inaudible) of the Russian news agency ITAR-TASS. You said there are still many serious gaps remain. Are these gaps – could these gaps be solved at your level, or you should call in the ministers to bridge these gaps and to reach the final deal? And when could it be happened?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, I think that everyone would be right to expect that at the appropriate time that ministers may become engaged. And quite frankly, ministers are already engaged. Anyone who knows Secretary Kerry knows that he is engaged, not only in terms of being briefed, but also giving me instructions about how to proceed, talking with his counterparts – he talks with Minister Lavrov and the other ministers in the P5+1. He will be seeing the High Representative in Brussels this week when he is in Europe, most likely.

And so I think all of the ministers are already quite engaged. Virtually every minister over the course of this negotiation has had direct conversations with Minister Zarif, some more often than others, depending upon the relationship. Messages have gone back and forth urging action and focus and problem solving. So ministers are already quite engaged in this process. When and if they show up physically in Vienna, I’m sure they may well. And that will be at the point where we perhaps have reached the narrowing of the gaps to the place where very tough political decisions need to be made and need to be made at the level of a minister.

And indeed, I would fully suspect that President Obama, who is completely briefed on this subject and follows it very carefully, and also through our interagency process issues guidance for how I should proceed, will also be engaged, and has already in the G7 meeting that we just had, talked with his counterparts about this negotiation. I’m sure will talk with his counterparts as appropriate to try to bring this to closure, if we can get there.

MODERATOR: Right here in front.

QUESTION: Hello. I’m (inaudible) from the Nippon Television Network. I have two questions. Minister Zarif has mentioned about each country is a little bit being different in claiming what they would like to see in the – on the paper. And you also mentioned about each country having different national positions. When that is expressed in the meeting room, would that not cause – you said that the – on one hand you said that the P5+1 is united on the numbers and so on, but if each country started to express different views, then would that not be confusing? And how would that be resolved at the end? That’s the question number one.

And then number two is that Iran mentioned that the – that Iran is not – or its centrifuge do not really focus on the numbers but rather on the capacity. Is that the approach that everybody has agreed to take? Or is this what they want to convince the P5+1 to follow? Thank you.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Sure. We haven’t started to show that we have national positions. National positions are a fact in any multilateral negotiation. In the UN Security Council, everybody has a national position, and they aren’t identical. And what you try to do is where you can, if accommodating those national positions helps you reach the objective, you do. If they don’t, you try to find another route forward. So this is not an abnormal process, this is a very normal process.

So nothing is new here, and what we have tried to do in the proposal that we have put forth to Iran and that now we have a working document that we can use where we understand Iran’s positions, our positions, and now we’re working to see if we can, in fact, reach an agreement. We have tried to take into account in our coordination with each other each other’s national interests. But the national interest that overtakes all other national interests for every one of the countries sitting at the table is to make sure that Iran does not obtain a nuclear weapon and that its program is entirely and exclusively peaceful. And because that is the paramount interest for every country sitting at the table, we have been able to maintain that unity.

QUESTION: And the second question?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Oh, the second question. There are many ways to describe and define Iran’s enrichment program, and I don’t think that that definition is any barrier to how we will go forward in getting an agreement.

MODERATOR: And the gentlemen in the navy blazer.

QUESTION: Paul Richter with LA Times. Are you at a negotiating disadvantage since it’s more difficult for you to miss the July 20th deadline, because that would necessitate going back and asking Congress to sign on to more time, given that they’re so skeptical about a deal?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: There’s no question Congress has been an important partner in Iran’s coming to the negotiating table. We consult with the Congress very, very frequently. I, in fact, will spend a good part of next week up on Capitol Hill in very close consultations with both the Senate and the House. We have to proceed forward together, and we all share the same objective, and that is one of the issues on which there is agreement across parties as well.

It is true that in the Joint Plan of Action there is no automatic extension. The language says that there can be one six-month extension if mutually agreed. There will be many issues involved if, in fact, that moment came. That moment is a hypothetical, and it is not something that we are contemplating at the moment at all.

MODERATOR: Gentleman right there.

QUESTION: Hussein Kneiber, Al Arabiya. As the Iraqi chaos is worsening, you have discussed this issue with the Iranians here in Vienna. What kind of cooperation you could have with Iran in order to avoid a widening sectarian conflict in the Middle East? Thank you.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thank you. What I can do best in answering that question is repeat what the President said when he was asked about the relationship with Iran and whether we were willing to work with Iran on Iraq. He said yesterday – I think it was yesterday, I’ve lost all track of time – “Our view is that Iran can play a constructive role if it is helping to send the same message to the Iraqi Government that we’re sending, which is that Iraq only holds together if it’s inclusive, and that if the interests of Sunni, Shia, and Kurd are all respected. If Iran is coming in solely as an armed force on behalf of the Shia and if it is framed in that fashion, then that probably worsens the situation and the prospect for government formation that would actually be constructive over the long term.” And he went on to say, “I think, just as Iraq’s leaders have to make decisions, I think Iran has heard from us. We’ve indicated to them that it’s important for them to avoid steps that might encourage the kind of sectarian splits that might lead to civil war.”

He went on further, and I won’t read it all; you can get the transcript from yesterday. But I think the message that the President was conveying is that what is good for – it’s Iran’s decisions to make, but it’s probably not good for the Iranian economy or the Iranian people except for Iran to encourage a fully inclusive government; that we are, of course, first and foremost not only want to make sure that Iraq stays together as a country, but all of this discussion is really to fight ISIL and a terrorist threat that is a threat not only to Iraq and to Syria, but to Iran potentially and ultimately to the United States of America. And that is our predominant focus, and we believe that an inclusive Iraqi Government is part of a critical formula as well as building regional partnerships; the President has asked, as you know, Secretary Kerry to go to the region to try to work on that very objective.

MODERATOR: In the back, the gentlemen.

QUESTION: Ali Arouzi, NBC News. I hear you can’t discuss the details of everything that’s been going on here, but how far apart do you remain on the critical issues? And secondly, have you had a chance to discuss the situation in Iraq with the Iranian delegation here? Thank you.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, on your last point, I think actually one of the Iranian delegation made a comment that it’s sort of hard – it’s like, could you imagine that we were here all of this time, spending all this time with each other, and we never talked about soccer? You pass a television set in the hotel where we are meeting, and there’s either a soccer game on, or – I won’t say which of the networks that are here – but television, and it’s either talking about the situation in Iraq or it’s talking about whether Spain is out of the tournament or not.

So I think it’s inevitable that in brief chats that Iraq comes up as a topic among all of us, but not of any substance and not of any focus – just the kind of chat you would have because that is what is going on in the world.

And what was your first question, sorry? A little tired here today.

QUESTION: I know you won’t get into detail --


QUESTION: -- but --


QUESTION: -- how far until you’re on the critical issue?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: We have serious work, very serious work left to do.


QUESTION: David Sanger from The New York Times. Several of the countries went to go see Director General Amano of the IAEA. Can you tell us a little bit about how his program to go look at possible military dimensions fits in or doesn’t fit in to what a final agreement would look like, and how you deal with the fact that that process is probably going to be going on well beyond the time that you envision for an agreement if you can get one?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: The American delegation visited with the director general as well and sort of joked with him that he may rue the day that these talks take place in Vienna, because we all descend on him to have conversations.

Clearly, the IAEA is a crucial part of this agreement. They have been crucial to the monitoring verification of the Joint Plan of Action, and although I don’t think the report is coming out but is still restricted, I would expect that the report that’s just come out about the implementation of the Joint Plan of Action to continue to say that Iran and the E3+3 have all complied, continued to comply with the Joint Plan of Action. The IAEA had to increase its budget, and very glad that everybody came forth to put up the funds so that they could do the monitoring and verification for the Joint Plan of Action. And clearly, they will be the key agency for the monitoring and verification of a comprehensive joint plan of action.

We have said from the beginning that addressing possible military dimensions of Iran’s nuclear program is part of any comprehensive agreement. We understand that the timetables aren’t identical, but the timetables of much of what will be in the agreement won’t be done by July 20th. Whatever Iran agrees to do is going to take them longer than July 20th to do. So it is how that issue will be addressed in the agreement, and what will be necessary by July 20th that is under discussion.

I want to say one other thing, which is we are all – and I think a message delivered by everyone who has visited with the director general this week is that we want to be very cognizant that the IAEA is an independent agency with its own mandate and authorities, and although several of us are members of the board of governors of the IAEA, nonetheless we all need to be conscious of its independent role.

MODERATOR: (Inaudible.)

QUESTION: Yeah. Hannah Kaviani, Radio Free Europe. Yes, thank you. Actually, I want to go somewhere else. It’s – for me, what I’m curious about --

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I’m looking for an airplane myself. (Laughter.)

QUESTION: No, but it’s – I’m quite curious to know – since it’s kind of a unique process what you’re doing, in the contemporary history we don’t have this kind that you have, like, this much of sanctions on this side and this long of negotiations – like a decade of negotiations and everything. I’m curious to know: Are there any, like, examples or are there any past kind of negotiations that you would use in your process of negotiating as examples or as kind of lessons learned and now being used in these kind of negotiations that you have with Iran?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Actually, I don’t think there’s probably anything identical, but I would say that most negotiations these days are multilateral and probably have been throughout history. When the Korean War was settled, it was settled by more than two – the two parties that were fighting. When – we are now working on trying to bring peace in South Sudan and that’s led by the IGAD ministers in consultations with partners and allies. Obviously, North Korea is about the Six-Party Talks. The way of the world these days are that issues get resolved multilaterally more than they do bilaterally. And that is what I think is called for in this instance. The United Nations mandated this group led and coordinated by the high representative of the European Union to try to solve this.

And the reason it was the P5+1 was partly because of history, but because this is really five Security Council – it’s five – Security Council resolutions? Thank you. And the Security Council is seized with this matter and continues to be so.

MODERATOR: Right here in the front.

QUESTION: I’m Jorge from Spanish News Agency (inaudible).


QUESTION: It’s okay. (Laughter.)

I have a practical question: How many pages of this has this document you’re dealing with? Is that possible to precise?


MODERATOR: Go ahead. Sorry I’m making you run up and down the room.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: It’s good exercise, good exercise. She’s young. I’m not worried about her.


QUESTION: Can I ask you, Mr. Zarif this afternoon was telling Iranian journalists that there are two pieces of paper that you have exchanged, and both sides have put their own positions on that for the other side to have a good look and study before they come to the next round. Is that true, and can you tell us more about that? Is that – you put things on paper already?

And secondly, your counterpart is from Isfahan in Iraq. And Isfahanis are known for their bargaining powers, particularly in the Bazaar there, the merchants in Bazaar. I just wondered whether you think you have entered that kind of an atmosphere in these talks. (Laughter.)

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I think the best way that I can describe it is the way I’ve described it, which is that we have a working document that will help us to move forward with these negotiations. I’m not going to characterize it, tell you how many pages this is, what typeface is used, or any of that. I think it’s been a constructive process this week which will help us move forward. Whether it will get us to an agreement remains to be seen, but I do think it was constructive and it will be helpful.

As far as Isfahan, on my way here I watched the movie, The Physician. For those of you who have seen it, it is about a young man from London who wants to go to Isfahan in the 15th century, because he has learned that’s where you can go to become a doctor. And it’s quite a fascinating movie. So I think Isfahan is known for many things, and I would hope that we are focused on the search for a solution, for a cure for this particular concern that we all have about the health of the world’s security by ensuring that Iran cannot obtain a nuclear weapon and this program is exclusively peaceful.

MODERATOR: Lawrence, again.

QUESTION: One process question and then one substance question. Is there any – you keep saying that the extension has to mutually agree, which is what was in the JPOA. Is there any circumstance that you can see right now where you believe it would not be worth continuing to try if there isn’t a deal by July 20th?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I truly can’t answer that. And I’m not being evasive in the sense in that we are entirely focused on working as hard as we can, as intensely as we can, as robustly as we can. And as I said, my colleagues are still working. We will be working on the airplane home. We will be working over the weekend. We will be working all next week. We will be going to Europe for consultations. We will be then coming right back here to Vienna. Our days started very early; they go very late at night. In the U.S. Government we have I don’t know how many people who are working on this who will never see the inside of a meeting room in which some of us sit, but are working on technical documents, are working on solutions, are coming up with ways that we might approach this to assure ourselves that Iran will not obtain a nuclear weapon.

This is an incredibly intense, robust effort – interagency in the U.S. Government. It covers every part of this problem. I am incredibly grateful for the amazing talented technical experts, not only in our government but in every government, that are trying to deal with what are very, very highly technical issues. So right now, Lawrence, we are focused on July 20th.

QUESTION: Can I ask another this question? Are there any discussions going on beyond tonight with the Iranians? I think they’ve all ended, but I’m not sure. There was some talk that maybe there was closed sessions that are actually going on. And then for the next round, is that it? We start July the 2nd in one format or the other, it’s an 18-day round? Or do we expect another round of a few days (inaudible) then come back?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: All I can tell you is my expectation is that we will be here on July 2nd and in one way or another, one format or another, one group of us or another, we will be here until the end.

QUESTION: (Inaudible) talks today?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: The talks today, I think that they went on a little longer. I think Minister Zarif, if I saw his press comments, said that Deputy Foreign Minister Araghchi and Helga Schmid, Cathy Ashton’s deputy, were continuing conversations. I believe they may have now ended, and we have wrapped up. But I think they continue to be constructive and in the spirit in the rest of the week.


QUESTION: Thanks. I don’t mean to distress you, but it seemed like Zarif was in his press conference trying to give the impression that perhaps the White House really wants an agreement and the U.S. negotiating team is putting forward quite unreasonable demands. And he thought that the White House somehow didn’t seem as in the loop on whatever you all were demanding at the table. Can you speak to that at all, that sense of – yeah.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Those of you who know the U.S. Government well know that anything that we are discussing in the room is fully coordinated within our government and is under the instructions and guidance of the President of the United States and the Secretary of State. So there’s no question about that.

I think that we would like to get to an agreement because we want to remove the concerns that the international community has, and we want to make sure Iran does not obtain a nuclear weapon. We are completely focused on getting there by July 20th, but we are completely focused on getting, as I have said before, a good deal, not just any deal. And so perhaps our demands seem tough to Iran, but to assure the international community that Iran’s program is exclusively peaceful and that they won’t obtain a nuclear, there are many things Iran needs to do to provide those the assurance that’s necessary.

This concern has gone on for decades. There are five UN Security Council resolutions and so there is a lot of work that needs to be done to provide those assurances.

Next question.

MODERATOR: And this is the last question. (Inaudible.)

QUESTION: Thank you. I’m (inaudible) news agency. I’m wondering: Have you ever imagined the impact of the failure of Iran talks? I mean, if this is the last chance for the international community to solve the issues which lasted for 12 years more and remain. I ask this question because I – in the last half year, many progress has been made thanks to the Joint Plan of Action between P5+1 and Iran, agreement between IAEA and Iran. So – and there has been five, six round of talks. I’m wondering just what the --

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I wouldn’t characterize it as the first chance or the last chance. I would characterize it as the best chance in the sense that we have had in-depth, constructive talks, we understand each other quite well, I believe. We have this week put together a working document that can provide a way forward in these negotiations. An enormous amount of work has gone into this by everyone – enormous. And we should maintain this level of intense and robust and serious diplomacy and give it every single chance to succeed. There was one point earlier where we were all saying we aren’t going to have talks just for talks. I think we’re not having talks just for talks. I think we’re having serious talks. Whether that will result in the outcome that we seek, I do not yet know. But as President Obama has said, we must give every – give diplomacy every chance to succeed, and that is what we are trying to do. The world is depending on us to do exactly that, and we hope for the outcome that we seek.

Thank you.

MODERATOR: All right, everyone. Again, thank you for being here. Thank you for your patience this week.