Background Briefing on the P5+1/Iran Discussions

Special Briefing
Senior Administration Official
Via Teleconference
July 3, 2014

MODERATOR: Thank you so much, and thank you to everyone for hopping on the phone today and being flexible with schedules. I have a feeling there will need to be a lot of that over these next three weeks, so I appreciate it.

We have today, who many of you know, [Senior Administration Official], who is – we are in Vienna working on the P5+1 negotiations. We started yesterday, had a number of meetings today, so I will turn it over to her in a moment to make some opening remarks, and then we’ll take questions. This call is – there’s no embargo on it, and it’s all on background as a Senior Administration Official. No names, no titles, nothing like that – again, all on background. So with that, I will turn it over to our Senior Administration Official, and then we’ll take questions.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thank you, everybody, for being on the phone. We’re at the beginning of a very intense three weeks as we approach the July 20th deadline. I’m sure this is just the first of a number of conversations we’ll have during that time, and it will probably be a little frustrating for both of us since you will want to know lots of details and we won’t be able to give them. But I’ll do the best I can to give you some sense of what’s going on.

So I want to talk – take a few minutes today to talk about where we are in the negotiations, what the process for the next three weeks will likely look like - at least as far as we can predict at this point -- and then I’m happy to take your questions.

I’m sure you all saw Secretary Kerry’s op-ed in The Washington Post that outlined how we’re looking at where we are in the negotiations right now. As he wrote, we have over the past several months proposed a series of reasonable, verifiable, and we believe easily achievable measures that would ensure Iran cannot obtain a nuclear weapon and that its program is limited to exclusively peaceful purposes, which are the objectives of this negotiation.

Iran’s negotiators have been quite serious throughout this process. There does remain a significant discrepancy, however, between Iran’s seeming intent with respect to its nuclear program and the actual content of that program to date. Iranian officials have stated repeatedly and unambiguously that they have no intention of building a nuclear weapon, which is not a hard proposition to prove. All we’re asking is for Iran to commit to concrete and verifiable steps to show to the world what they’ve repeatedly said is indeed true.

As these discussions unfold, we have and will continue to put reasonable proposals on the table. Remember, there are a number of different combinations that can give the international community the assurances we need that Iran’s program is for entirely peaceful purposes, and we are working very hard to find a combination that makes the most sense and helps us reach the objectives. Ultimately, it is Iran’s decision about whether they’re willing to give the international community the kind of assurances and verification to match what they say about the peaceful nature of their nuclear program.

Also keep in mind that this is not a negotiation about two parties meeting each other halfway. This is not a mediation. This is about the international community’s need for Iran to meet its international nonproliferation obligations after years of violations documented by the IAEA and the United Nations Security Council. All we are asking is that Iran take steps to come in line with its responsibilities after years of not doing so. We are offering Iran a path forward, in fact a different path forward. But its leaders must engage if they’re going to avoid even more economic and diplomatic pressure, and most importantly, their leaders must continue to engage and find a solution to meet the objectives that Iran says it can easily achieve.

So let’s turn to process for a few moments. Yesterday, we had coordination meetings and a trilateral meeting with Iran and the European Union. Today, we had our opening plenary session, more coordination meetings, and we had a long bilateral discussion with Iran as well as with China, with the E3 (that’s the Europeans), and with Russia. In terms of the schedule going forward, each day is likely to look a little different, but it is likely to include some combination of plenaries where all the political directors are present, bilateral meetings with both Iran and each of our P5+1 partners, and in-depth expert sessions.

You will see people coming and going throughout these three weeks. For instance, this weekend, we will be focused largely on meetings among our experts who will be doing work focused in large part on building on the political director discussions that happened just in the – this week, so that will be yesterday afternoon, today, and tomorrow, and obviously also the discussions that High Representative Cathy Ashton, who leads this effort, has had with Minister Zarif.

We remain committed to the 20th as the deadline for these talks, and as the Secretary made clear in his op-ed, an extension is by no means automatic, as some have made it seem in the press. All parties have to agree to one. We believe there is still time to reach an agreement, and that is what we are focused on each and every day.

With that, I’m happy to take your questions.

MODERATOR: Great, thank you. Could the operator remind people again how to ask a question?

OPERATOR: Certainly, thank you very much. And ladies and gentlemen, as a reminder to queue up, you may press *1 at this time. You will hear a tone indicating you’ve been placed in queue and you may remove yourself from the queue at any time by pressing the pound key. So again, for your questions, you may press * and then 1 at this time.

MODERATOR: Great, thank you. The first question is from Andrea Mitchell of NBC.

QUESTION: Hi, thanks so much. Along the margins so far, have there been any further conversations with Iran, especially because the region is changing so rapidly and we find ourselves in a completely different context in Iraq and Syria? Thanks so much.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Sure. Andrea, we’ve been entirely focused on the nuclear negotiation. It is very intense. It demands everybody’s full attention.

QUESTION: And I know that another senior official is traveling out. Is there a contemplation that there will be further talks?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I’m not sure whom you’re referring to.

MODERATOR: Further talks on Iraq?

QUESTION: Well, further talks that relate to other issues with Iran besides the nuclear program.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: If you’re talking about Deputy Secretary Burns --


SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: -- and Jake Sullivan, they are here with me. They have participated in nuclear discussions, and that’s what they’re here for.

QUESTION: Thank you.

MODERATOR: Thanks, Andrea. The next question is from Lou Charbonneau of Reuters.

QUESTION: Hi, thanks. I wanted to ask about your comment that there’s a – following on what Secretary Kerry said in his op-ed that there’s significant discrepancy between what Iran says it wants to do and the content of its program. How significant is that discrepancy and – I mean, is it realistic that you can bridge that gap in terms of agreeing on numbers over the next three weeks? And I just wanted to then re-ask the question about Iraq. I mean, is it inconceivable that over the next three weeks here that there will be side discussions about the situation in Iraq, should the situation there deteriorate further?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: So – oh, yes, the significant discrepancies – the international community has been trying to resolve the international community’s concerns about Iran’s nuclear program for over a decade. As I’ve said to you all before, if it was easy to do so, we would have done so a long time ago. These are difficult decisions. Iran has to take difficult decisions. But there are pathways forward for them to give the international community confidence that their program’s exclusively peaceful and that they will not acquire a nuclear weapon.

But there are, as we have been very forthright to say, still gaps. We have put very reasonable proposals on the table. I know you have all seen Minister Zarif’s op-eds and even maybe his YouTube video where he says, “We are putting down maximalist positions.” I’m not surprised he’s saying that. But indeed the facts are that we are putting down very reasonable positions. In fact, we have tried to find a variety of paths forward because, as I said, this is about a package, not any one element. One can put together different packages of those elements to achieve the objectives that we’ve outlined that Iran not acquire a nuclear weapon and that its program is assuredly, exclusively peaceful.

I think that all of my colleagues in the P5+1, led by the High Representative, have been very thoughtful, very creative, very reasonable. And needless to say, that occurred in the past. It’s been hard for Iran to take the necessary decisions. I hope, as Secretary Kerry said in his op-ed, that none of us miss this historic choice.

So I’m sorry – on Iraq?


SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: The reason it’s not in my mind is we are entirely focused on the nuclear negotiation. As I’ve said in the past, we all see each other in the hallways, we pass television sets, we see the news of the day whether it’s the soccer match or something happening in the world. Someone may say something as they’re passing through the hallways or on the margins of this meeting, but all of the work is focused on the nuclear negotiation.

MODERATOR: Great. Thanks, Lou. The next question is from Paul Richter of the LA Times.

QUESTION: Yes, I’d like to know, do you feel that you’ve made enough progress so far that if you don’t make any further headway over the next couple of weeks, you could justify asking for an extension of the negotiations?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: That’s a very tough hypothetical question to answer. The best way we can answer it is we are all focused on trying to get to an agreement by July 20th and that is where all of our focus is. It’s not impossible; it is difficult, very difficult. But part of the issue here, as I’ve said in the past, is nothing is agreed until everything is agreed. So even if one begins to see some of the elements where agreement can be reached 98 percent of the way there and the last 2 percent could be the telling 2 percent. So that’s why it’s very difficult to prognosticate where we’re going and where we’re going to be, to predict what is ahead.

What I can say for this day and a half so far is people have been working very intensely and there is still much difficult work ahead.

MODERATOR: Great. Thanks, Paul. The question is from David Ignatius of The Washington Post. Go ahead, David.

QUESTION: Thanks, [Senior Administration Official]. I’d like to ask about the issue of Arak. There were public statements and statements on background from both the U.S. and Iran over the last several months indicating that a compromise had been reached on that issue that would be acceptable to both sides that would result in reduced output of plutonium because of various technical changes in how the Arak reactor was fed.

More recently, there have been suggestions that that seeming compromise, that seeming achievement, was at risk because of some change in Iranian views. Could you clarify, to the extent you can, where the Arak issue stands?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: David, I don’t think it will shock you for me to tell you I’m not going to talk about any specific element. I think you saw Minister Salehi, who heads up their atomic energy agency, say that, in fact, they were open to modifications of Arak so that the concerns we have about the production of weapons-grade plutonium, of misuse, of safety, could be addressed. That is a welcome sign. But nothing is agreed until everything is agreed, and we continue to have work to do in every area.

QUESTION: So just to clarify that, I did see the Salehi comment – there’s been nothing that has had the effect of withdrawing that public statement or modifying it that would alter the picture apart from –

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I think you’ll have to ask the Iranians that, David. I don’t want to speak for them.

MODERATOR: Thanks, David. The next question is from Laura Rozen of Al-Monitor.

QUESTION: Thank you for doing this, Senior Administration Official. On the size of Iran’s enrichment program, I had seen reports that there – this is one of the major gaps still to try to close. On Iran’s argument that it should – it would like to be able to fuel its own power reactors in the future, are you saying that fundamentally that position would be Iran denying the international concerns about the peaceful nature of its nuclear program because a very large enrichment capacity would give them potential quick breakout? That – yeah.

And then the other thing is on the 4th, the other question is, on the 4th of July, have you invited your Iranian counterparts to be part of any event or whatever celebrating the U.S. Independence?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: On the last question, the painful part is that the embassies here – and there are three American embassies here in Vienna – while I am on the telephone with you all, they have all joined together and are having this evening – it’s now 8 p.m. here – they are having their Independence Day celebration today so that some of their employees, though not as many as they’d like because we’re all here, get to actually celebrate Independence Day. And we’re all here on the phone with you, so you are our celebration. (Laughter.) And I don’t think – I’m sure you would like to have the Iranians invited to this particular celebration, but right now it’s just between you and me.


SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: So that’s what we’re doing for Independence Day, going to work tomorrow, because if I can wax eloquent for a moment, we fought for independence for a set of values and for security in the world and for the prosperity of our citizens and for the freedoms we want. And this negotiation is about enhancing the security of the world by taking the concerns the international community has off the table, if that’s possible; hopefully, opening a door for Iran to enter back into the international community; and quite frankly, although it’s not part of this negotiation, to then address the concerns that we constantly talk about in terms of counterterrorism, instability in the region, human rights, our American citizens who we want to see home for Independence Day and wish they were home tomorrow.

So we all, I’m sure, would rather be with our families on the 4th of July, but I think every member of this team, all of whom work very hard, and all of the people who support us and back us up at home are very dedicated to what they’re doing and understand the significance, particularly on – during the 4th of July. And I only wish that the American citizens who are being currently held in Iran, about whom we have concerns, would all be home for this Independence Day.

In terms of the power reactors – as you recall, the Joint Plan of Action said that we would consider a limited enrichment program based on mutually defined parameters. And so we have said publicly that this would be a fraction of their current program, because it’s their current program about which we have concerns.

So power reactors require industrial scale enrichment, and that certainly isn’t anything that’s under consideration. They don’t have that now. They should have less than what they have now in terms of enrichment. What choices they make after they get to normal – that is, after a long duration of an agreement when they will be treated as any other non-nuclear weapons state under the NPT – will, of course, be their choice.

MODERATOR: Great, thanks. The next question is from Michael Adler of Breaking Defense.

QUESTION: Thank you for this session. I have a – my question is, when you speak of a discrepancy between what they’re saying and what they’re actually doing, could one take that to mean – perhaps crudely – that the Iranians are not yet showing that they are serious about this negotiation?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: We believe we have put down very reasonable, very thoughtful pathways to resolve this program – more than one, quite frankly. The Iranians, I believe, are here in tremendous seriousness. I think they want to get to a resolution. I think they intend to get to a resolution, but there remain gaps between what they would hope for and what is needed by the international community to assure them that they are entirely a peaceful program.

So I think that they are serious, but they’re also very tough negotiators. We are tough negotiators. And we hope that, as Secretary Kerry said, that they will seize this moment of history after more than a decade of grappling with this issue and give the international community the assurances that the community is looking for.

MODERATOR: Great. Thanks, Michael. I think we have time for a few more. The next question is from David Sanger of The New York Times.

QUESTION: Thanks very much for doing this. Can we just go back to Laura’s question on the power reactors? It’s never been entirely clear to me whether the Iranian position here is that they simply have a right to enrich or whether what they’re telling you is they need a right to enrich that embraces producing all of the fuel they may need in the future for any future energy needs, and whether or not that, in fact, is their predicate, and what answer you folks have to them for that.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: David, I know you’re going to be shocked when I tell you you should ask the Iranians. I’m not going to speak for them.

QUESTION: Then [Senior Administration Official], maybe you can answer the second part of the question, which is: How do you answer the argument about whether or not they have a need to produce all the fuel necessary for their own reactors? What’s the U.S. position on that?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, I – the reality is, as I said, that we have said that their enrichment program, if they had one – our preference has always been zero, that we don’t think they need a domestic program. They already have sufficient supplies for their Tehran research reactor. The Russians supply the fuel and have done so constantly for Bushehr. So from our perspective, what is the specific need?

And so therefore, if in fact there is a potential need, let’s discuss what that is. It has to be very limited – a fraction of what they currently have – and that is a discussion that we are willing to have.

QUESTION: When you say a fraction of what they currently have, you mean a fraction of what they are currently producing with the 10,000 centrifuges – 9- or 10,000 centrifuges that are active in Natanz?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I’m not going to go into further details on what I’ve said.

MODERATOR: Thanks, David. Our next question’s from Muna Shikaki of Al Arabiya.

QUESTION: Hi, thank you. My question is about extension. Have you guys had any conversations with the Iranians over what that would entail? Are there going to be additional sanction relief and additional Iranian moves, or would this just be an extension that wouldn’t require that?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: The Iranians have said that they are focused on the 20th, that they want to get an agreement by the 20th. Everyone – as have we, as has every one of the P5+1 partners. So everyone has said we are focused on the 20th. We are not focused on an extension.

Everyone has also said if we make a huge amount of progress but we need a few more days because it’s in front of us, I think everybody understands that may be a reality. But it really is a drive to the 20th of July.

QUESTION: Thank you.

MODERATOR: Great, thanks. The next question’s from Laurence Norman of The Wall Street Journal.

QUESTION: Hi there. Thanks for doing this. Just a couple of questions. First of all, I’ve asked before about your take on how realistic they’re being. Can I ask that again? Is there any shift, any increase in the realism on the Iranian side this week compared to where we were before?

And secondly, is it correct to say that whilst you’re saying there should be less enrichment, they are still saying that as part of this deal there should be more enrichment?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I’m not going to get into what they’re saying and what we’re saying, though I just did on the extension, I realize. But that’s because we’re all saying the same thing.

In terms of realism, I think we understand each other. I don’t think it’s an issue of us not understanding each other. We have had enough hours of conversation now where I think it is crystal clear. I think they know that what we have put on the table, the pathways to get to the point of assuring the international community their program’s exclusively peaceful and that they cannot, will not acquire a nuclear weapon – I think that is all on the table and understood. We are now in the place of solutions, and whether they can make – seize this moment in history to take the decisions necessary to reach the objectives.


MODERATOR: Great. And I think we have time for two more. Let’s go to your colleague Jay Solomon from The Wall Street Journal. Go ahead, Jay.

QUESTION: Hey, thanks. [Senior Administration Official], I’m just curious. Are the economics of Iran at all playing into your discussions? I.e., I know in the past they’ve said they weren’t getting the money fast enough. On a recent trip into Tehran I was surprised at how the economic managers basically are saying without the lifting of sanctions, they won’t be able to fund a recovery after Ahmadinejad’s time. But I’m just curious, how do the economics fit into the discussion? Because Zarif makes differing comments; once he says they’re really hurting, and others he said, “Oh, they’ve not had much impact and our nuclear program has actually expanded.”

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, what we had said previously – and I can say it again – is that we have worked very closely with our Congress, who has played a very critical role in this effort to take actions that respond to the lack of progress in Iran assuring the international community of the exclusively peaceful nature of its program. That sanctions regime – which is not just U.S. but European Union, many other countries around the world, and most importantly several UN Security Council resolutions and the sanctions that come with it – and it was the UN Security Council resolutions that really led the way to sanctions that individual countries and the European Union have imposed on Iran – certainly have played a critical role in – I believe, at any rate – Iran coming to the negotiating table.

That said – and there’s no doubt, and you’ve heard from my Treasury colleagues the impact this has had and continues to have on the Iranian economy. And indeed people thought – there were some people in the world who thought the Joint Plan of Action was going to undermine the sanctions regime. That has not occurred at all. In fact, the amount of relief that Iran has gotten is certainly no more than we had predicted and may even be less. So I think that the economics certainly play a role here. You’ll have to talk to the Iranians about where they put that in the Rubik’s Cube of this negotiation. But it certainly is a factor in everything that is going on. And quite frankly, our hope is that Iran will take this historic opportunity to say – to sign on to the reasonable proposals we have put on the table so that the people of Iran can have the economic prosperity that should be theirs.

MODERATOR: Great. Thanks, Jay. And I think our last question today is coming from George Jahn of the Associated Press.

QUESTION: Thank you for this. I’m calling in from the Third of July party. I can tell you you’re missing a great event, first of all.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Are you serious? Are you kidding me?

QUESTION: Absolutely. Absolutely.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Can you bring me a beer and a hamburger? (Laughter.)

QUESTION: I’m on my fourth brownie, but we’ll leave it at that.

Just a very brief question --

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I’m not sure I’m going to answer your question. (Laughter.)

QUESTION: (Laughter.) Maybe I’m over-interpreting things. I heard [Senior Administration Official] speak of gaps a couple of times today, and I believe the operative phrase last time around were “significant gaps.” Am I over-interpreting, or is there a nuance that’s worth looking at?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: No, I think you’re over-interpreting. If – this is a negotiation. We know that some of the choices that Iran needs to make will be made probably as late as possible in this negotiation. We hope – we think we’re about as late now, and it’s time for them to in fact sign on to and choose some of the pathways – and some of the discussions we’ve had, some of this has been developed in a collaborative way. It’s not about imposing things; it’s about finding a resolution that meets the concerns of the international community.

So there are still significant gaps, this is still very tough. As I said, if it wasn’t tough, it would’ve been solved a decade ago.

QUESTION: Thank you.

MODERATOR: Great, thanks everyone. As a reminder, this was all on background as a Senior Administration Official. Please keep us all honest here. And we’ll stay in touch through our updates and let folks know what’s happening and when we’ll do more of these. So again, thanks for your flexibility and have a very happy Fourth of July, everyone, and a great weekend.