Background Briefing on P5+1Talks

Special Briefing
Senior Administration Officials
Foreign Press Center
New York City
September 18, 2014


MODERATOR: Welcome. For those of you who I don't know, I’m [Moderator]. This will be all on background tonight with no embargo. So you know who’s up here – obviously not for reporting – this will be all be attributed to senior Administration officials, please no names and no titles. But to the left of me is [Senior Administration Official One and Senior Administration Official Two].

So in a moment, I’ll turn it over to [Senior Administration Official One] to make some opening remarks, and then we’ll go to your questions. Again, background, senior Administration officials. Please keep us all honest on this so we can keep doing this. And with that.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: Thank you. Good evening. Thank you all for coming tonight, and those of you who don’t live here – I don’t – welcome to New York.

I want to begin tonight on a personal note, not just for me but for many in this room. Michael Adler was one of our most beloved colleagues – one of yours, and in many ways, I considered him a colleague as well. He was someone who had watched and reported on these negotiations as they progressed through many, many years. He was one of the sharpest minds on these issues and one of the kindest people any of us has ever had the pleasure of knowing. He was with us in Geneva when we finished the Joint Plan of Action, and I know how much he wanted to see where these comprehensive talks would take us. He was eager to see the end of the story he had been writing for so long. He was taken from us too soon, and his absence is felt acutely here. These issues were the work of his life, and in many ways, they are ours as well.

Turning now to the talks, the last time we all met at the political director level as the P5+1 led by the European Union group was in July, when, after several weeks of intense negotiations, we decided to extend the Joint Plan of Action until November 24th. We made that decision because there had been enough progress to see a path forward; because it’s important that Iran’s nuclear program not advance further under the terms of the JPOA while we work to negotiate a comprehensive joint plan of action; and because we all know that diplomacy is the best, most enduring way to solve this most pressing security challenge.

Since that time, members of the P5+1 and the European Union have held bilateral meetings with Iran, including the United States. We’ve had expert meetings and coordination sessions, as well as ongoing contact with the Iranians, even when we’re not meeting in person. Coming into New York, I think many of us were not very optimistic. But clearly, over meetings over the last two days both with Iran and with my P5+1 and EU colleagues, it is clear that everyone has come here to go to work.

As you know, the United States and Iran held bilateral consultations over the past two days here in New York. These meetings were constructive and a lot of hard technical work that will need to be part of a comprehensive agreement is being undertaken by all parties.

In terms of this next week and a half, we will begin the P5+1 round tomorrow morning with a plenary session at the United Nations led by High Representative Cathy Ashton and Foreign Minister Zarif. During the weekend and UNGA high-level week, we will continue meeting on the Iran nuclear issue in whatever format makes the most sense. There will be plenaries, expert meetings, bilaterals. There may be a ministerial-level P5+1 meeting. And it’s very likely that Secretary Kerry and Foreign Minister Zarif will meet bilaterally, as they’ve done throughout these talks.

Over the next week and a half, you’re also going to hear a lot from President Rouhani and Foreign Minister Zarif about these nuclear negotiations, maybe about some other issues as well. It’s worth pointing out, particularly to those of you in this room, that at this moment, while senior Iranian officials have the benefit of the freedom of our press, a U.S. citizen sits in an Iranian prison, a journalist for one of our top newspapers, The Washington Post. Jason Rezaian should be freed immediately. The other American citizens being detained by Iran should also be freed as well. And additionally, we appeal again for Iran’s assistance in locating and bringing Robert Levinson home.

The Iranians have said over these many days and weeks how reasonable and flexible they are in these talks, and about how their current capacity should be acceptable. But the status quo is not doable for any of us. It is not doable for either side. The world will agree to suspend and then lift sanctions only if Iran takes convincing and verifiable steps to show that its nuclear program is and will remain exclusively peaceful.

Given Iran’s public statements that it does not seek a nuclear weapon, including the Supreme Leader’s fatwa, these practical steps should be doable. And we have consistently sought to pave a reasonable path forward in close coordination with our P5+1 partners and the European Union.

In our conversations with the Iranian negotiators, we’ve listened closely to their views about what Iran sees as their legitimate practical needs, and we’ve offered creative solutions to address them. There is a unique opportunity over this next week and a half when heads of state, foreign ministers, and many other world leaders are gathered in New York. There is an opportunity to make progress in these talks and to see whether the outlines, and more importantly, the details of a potential agreement begin to emerge in a fuller way than we’ve seen before.

And with that, I would be glad to take your questions.

MODERATOR: So as always, I’ll call the questions, and I know we know most of you, but please identify yourself and your media outlet. Lou Charbonneau, kick us off.

QUESTION: Thanks for this, and I first wanted to ask – you said that Secretary Kerry and Foreign Minister Zarif might meet as they have before. Is it possible that the presidents will also meet during this time? They did speak on the phone during last year’s UNGA, and this was one of the issues that was discussed.

And when you had your bilateral meetings with the Iranians yesterday and today, did you get any sense that there’s a willingness on their part to push forward, given their public comments about keeping the status quo and what they’ve said are unreasonable conditions put forth by the U.S. and other members of the P5+1? Thanks.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: Josh Earnest, the spokesperson for the White House, said that at this point there is no meeting scheduled between the President of the United States and President Rouhani. The President of the United States is well known for being open to such a meeting, but the choice is really Iran’s. We will continue to work and we think that there’s a lot of very important work that will go on this week, but that’s not dependent upon whether that meeting happens or not.

Secondly, in terms of the status quo and Iran saying that we are making unreasonable demands, I would make a couple points. First of all, let’s remember how we got here. We are in these talks because for years upon years, the international community – not just the United States, but through several UN Security Council resolutions – has said that Iran has not met its obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, that they have taken many steps, some in secret, to undermine those obligations. And that is why we are at the table, and I do not think – and I don’t think the world thinks – that it is an unreasonable demand that says that Iran should not have a nuclear weapon. Indeed, the Supreme Leader has said Iran does not want a nuclear weapon, so showing that, in fact, in verifiable ways that they do not and will not is quite reasonable.

Secondly, I do not think it is an excessive demand to say that any agreement must, in a verifiable and transparent manner, show that Iran’s program today and into the future is exclusively peaceful.

So I don’t think either of those objectives – that Iran not acquire a nuclear weapon and that Iran’s program be exclusively peaceful, and that it be clear to everyone that it is – are unreasonable or excessive demands. I think they’re quite reasonable, and in fact is exactly what Iran has said is its intention. So showing that to the world in verifiable ways seems to me quite doable.

MODERATOR: Great. Let’s go in the middle here and wait for the microphone.

QUESTION: Thank you for doing this. BBC Persian, Bahman Kalbasi. [Senior Administration Official One], yesterday Foreign Minister Zarif in the Council on Foreign Relations talked about sanctions, and he specifically said are these sanctions worth risking not getting a deal and not having a new horizon in cooperation in the region; almost seems to be suggesting that this will open the door for other issues to be discussed, including what’s happening in Iraq.

But is there a sense – and this has been discussed on the Iranian press a lot – that America is not or has not offered a meaningful or reliable way to lift these sanctions? Or at least is the Administration really able to do so, given the situation in Congress? Is that one of the sticking points, that on the other side there is not meaningful sanction relief being discussed?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: I don’t think that’s the case at all. We’re well aware that sanctions relief is a critical part of any agreement. Iran has said so themselves, as you note. And indeed, we have done extensive work on what will be necessary to suspend and then ultimately lift those sanctions. The reason it is suspend first and lift later is because we all need to build confidence that this is a durable agreement, and so there will be many steps that Iran will take almost immediately if we get to an agreement. Some will take more time, and then one has to see whether it’s durable over a period of time, and the duration of that time is something that’s, of course, one of the things that we are discussing.

And we know how to do this. We believe we can offer very meaningful relief. We understand and have listened carefully to what Iran is looking for. We hope that Iran is listening very closely to what is necessary to obtain that relief, but I don’t have any questions that technically we can do what is necessary, and they know that.

MODERATOR: Michael Wilner. Wait, do you have the mike?

QUESTION: Thanks for doing this. Whenever I ask folks in the Administration to weigh or to measure Israeli Government concerns on this matter, they say Israel is rightly concerned with an Iranian nuclear weapon, first and foremost, and they say that the U.S. is working on an unprecedented level to bring the Israelis in, to brief them and the like. And they have expressed publicly that they appreciate that.

But here’s the thing: The Israelis that you are briefing on this unprecedented scale are now saying two months before your deadline that they are deeply, deeply concerned with what they are seeing. And given the relevance of Israel’s concerns, as you describe, it would appear that that is a significant problem. Is it a problem?

And secondly, if you’re in these negotiations to end the crisis, as you say, is it possible to do so without adopting Israel’s baseline for a good deal?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: It is not just Israel. It is the world that has said that Iran should not acquire a nuclear weapon, and the Supreme Leader’s fatwa also says that Iran does not have, does not intend to, and does not want to have a nuclear weapon. So that is the objective for everyone. We do indeed consult very closely with Israel, as we do with other partners around the world who are very, very concerned about whether we will be able to reach an agreement and whether that agreement will be a good one, which it must be.

So we appreciate that there are countries around the world that see things a little differently than we do. We have other partners around the world that have other concerns about an agreement and what it will mean in the geopolitics of the world, and what it will mean for nuclear – civilian nuclear energy. Lots of concerns are raised. We listen to all of those concerns, and of course, we listen to Israel’s concern. Israel’s security is very critical from an American point of view.

What I appreciate is that all of these countries – including Israel, with whom we closely consult – have shared their technical know-how, their understanding, their ideas, and that will create potentially a good solution to this very, very tough security challenge that we have in front of us.

At the end of the day, Israel will have to make its own judgment about an agreement, as will every other country in the world. And I understand that, but I also believe that the President of the United States will only sign off on an agreement that he believes is good for the world’s security, including Israel.

MODERATOR: Pam from Voice of America. Right here. It’s behind you.

QUESTION: Good evening. A little bit earlier you said that it was clear that everyone had come here to work and you described some of the initial bilaterals as constructive. A two-part question. First, can you shed more light, provide a little bit more insight on what you mean? And then secondly, specifically, was there any indication of movement on what’s been one of the key sticking points, and that’s the uranium enrichment?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: So, we’ve only had a few hours of talks over two days, and not even all day of those two days. We started last evening for a bit of time and then again this morning, and then we had coordination meetings with our partners in the P5+1, or as the Europeans call it the E3+3.

So this is just a beginning, so I don’t have any substantive things to report. Probably wouldn’t anyway in the middle of a negotiation. What I think is that we have – everyone has come here intent on taking whatever time it takes. This can become a very busy time here at the UN General Assembly when the high-level week starts next week. People have committed to canceling meetings if they need to if they are needed for meetings, though I think these meetings will happen in lots of different formats and lots of different ways. Some of our partners in the E3+3 will have meetings with President Rouhani, with Foreign Minister Zarif, as I believe Secretary Kerry will meet with Foreign Minister Zarif. We will have lots of different combinations and expert conversations.

It’s really the tone and the quality of the discussion. And I don’t want to overstate this either. We’re at the beginning of a very intense period here, and one never knows where it will go or whether you’ll get to an issue and hit a wall or whether you’ll break through. But everyone has come here – everyone, all parties – clearly intent on seeing if we can’t work through some of these very difficult issues.

MODERATOR: Laura Rozen, and then I’m coming to this side of the room, I promise.

QUESTION: Laura Rozen from Al-Monitor. Thank you for doing this. Back in May when the going-in bids were made in Vienna, we’ve heard from you all to not be alarmed if the going-in bids on each side were wide apart because that’s the nature of the negotiation. We heard that from you, I think, in Baghdad a few years ago, if I remember as well.

Can you give us a sense of between May, when those positions were put on the table, and I guess now in mid-September, have things narrowed, especially on the enrichment capacity issue (inaudible) from the opening bid?

And secondly, let me just say as you will hear the Iranians say many times over the next week, they kind of raise the prospect that no deal will very quickly result in their breakout time going down very quickly because they already have 20,000 centrifuges in store; they’ll flip back on at 20 percent and very quickly, all the things we’re worried about. So that the best is the enemy of the good, I think is their argument. So how do you respond to that? Thanks.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: As I said, we’ve just begun the talks here so I am not going to go into substance, and I probably wouldn’t under any circumstances. What I think has occurred is we probably understand each other a great deal better than we did back in May about the elements that are required, the parameters for how one could get there. We’ve had some creative technological thinking that’s gone on. We understand that there are different paths to the same objective. You all know the infamous Rubik’s cube comparison. So I would say there has been a deepening of understanding, and when that happens sometimes it opens some doors to some possibilities. But I can’t say anyone has walked through them to an answer, or we wouldn’t be here so intensely at work.

On the “no deal, they can break out,” we can all go through lots of escalatory talk about what they would do and what we would do if we don’t have any agreement. I don’t find that particularly productive. We each know what each other would do if things don’t work out. I’d rather be focused right now on what might be possible.

MODERATOR: We’re going to do a few from this side, and then wrap up with a few others. Go ahead, Laurence Norman of The Wall Street Journal.

QUESTION: Hey.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: Hey.

QUESTION: How are you? Thanks for doing this. Good to see you again.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: (Laughter.) We’ve having a blast. How about you?

QUESTION: Good, thank you. Two questions, if I may. First of all, I think you said you weren’t very optimistic arriving in New York. Now, I’m assuming that’s because not very much progress was made over the summer in the bilaterals, but could you just say why? And it might link into the second question, which is: What is your current reading of this Russian deal with Iran, and do you think it’s making the Iranians feel like they need a deal less?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: What Russian deal are you referring to?

QUESTION: I’m not quite sure what to call it. The memorandum that they signed to cooperate (inaudible) economics. I’m not sure they even know exactly what it is.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: I don’t know all – I don’t know what it is either, so what I would say is that countries have relationships with other countries, and they are working on ways to relate to each other all of the time. What we care about is whether any country makes an agreement that would break the sanctions enforcement of all of the sanctions that are in place. I do not expect Russia to do that. Everyone here knows, and I’m sure someone would ask, “Have all of the tensions around Ukraine entered into this negotiation?” They have not to date. [Sergei Ryabkov] is a professional who understands the nonproliferation world extremely well, and we are all focused on solving this problem in this room.

In terms of over the summer, I wouldn’t say nothing happened over the summer. I think every conversation, even when they’re tough and they seem to not make progress, sometimes people have to hear messages many, many times before realizing that unless people start to open doors, you’re just going to keep having the same conversation. So I think that not only the United States, but all of my partners in the P5+1 in the bilaterals – and all of us have had bilaterals over the last few weeks with Iran – have delivered the same messages. And sometimes messages have to get delivered many times before people really come to believe them.

QUESTION: You said you weren’t very optimistic.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: No, because messages were delivered, they were heard, but there wasn’t something forthcoming in that immediate instance. But this is a process, so I don’t find it surprising either.

MODERATOR: Okay, we’re going to do a few more. George.

QUESTION: George Jahn, Associated Press. Hi. You said in your opening remarks that the status quo is not doable for either side. That could be interpreted to mean that you’re bringing, if not new proposals, modified proposals to the table. I don’t expect you to go into specifics, but --

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: What I was referring to is the status quo of – Iran has said, as one of the rest of you said, that when Foreign Minister Zarif did some of his comments – I think it was Foreign Minister Zarif – you all said that he said that we have to maintain what we currently have. Well, that’s – if that were the case, then we wouldn’t be in a negotiation if that were something that everybody could agree to. Iran would say we can’t maintain our sanctions in place in the way that we have. And I would say that the only – as I said, if Iran takes the steps necessary to ensure that they will not acquire a nuclear weapon and that their program is exclusively peaceful, then we have a way to, in fact, suspend and ultimately lift sanctions.

MODERATOR: Okay, we’re going to do two very quick ones. Indira quick and Paul quick, and then we’ll --

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: Not that I don’t want to spend the evening here, but I know you all want to get to dinner. (Laughter.)

QUESTION: Indira Lakshmanan from --

MODERATOR: There will be more opportunities as well.

QUESTION: -- from Bloomberg News. Thank you for doing this. I want to start out by asking you, I mean: What is going to be your goal at the end of this week-and-a-half period where you will be able to check a box and say, “Yes, we’ve made progress; we came in pessimistic, but this shows we’ve taken one step closer.” And then if we come to November 24th and we don’t have a comprehensive deal, are you guys prepared to extend once more?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: So I’m going to do the second part of your question first. Way too early to talk about hypotheticals. We are --

QUESTION: (Off-mike.)

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: Huh? Yeah, we – no. (Laughter.) We are not – good try. We are not going to talk about any Plan B because we’re focused on getting Plan A, and we hope Iran is as well. So that’s where I am on that.

On your first part, was – I’m sorry.

QUESTION: It was about what is it going to --

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: Oh, what’s success at the --

QUESTION: What’s your measure? What’s your metric that you will – that you don’t have to be negative, that the --

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: Progress, progress.

QUESTION: (Inaudible.)

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: There could be many ways. It could be in many ways. It’s hard to say because this is so complex. And would I like at the end of this week to have a broad understanding on all of the major issues, even if we have to use the next October, November writing all the details? Sure, I’d love to be there. Will we be there at the end of this week? I don’t know. It’s tough, very tough. We are discussing all of the issues. We are discussing all the parameters of all of the issues. And I think this is an opportunity because we have – everybody’s here. Any consultation you have to have with anybody about anything, everybody’s here. So we ought to make use of that to try to deal with some of these very tough issues. We’ll see.

QUESTION: But we’re further than we were in July?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: Are we further than we are in July? The reason I have such a hard time answering this question is what I’ve said to you all so many times before: You can get 98 percent of the way there in this agreement and that last 2 percent means you don’t. It’s not a situation where you can say, ah, we’re 50 percent of the way there, we’re 75 percent of the way there, because that last percentage may be the crucial one and you don’t have the deal at all. That’s why this is so hard. It all fits together.

MODERATOR: I think we’re going to end tonight with Paul Richter of the L.A. Times. Wait for the mike. And there will be more opportunities, I promise, for us all to chat. Right here, Paul. Right here. Yeah.

QUESTION: As you know, a lot of people on the outside, other foreign governments, people in Congress and elsewhere, are really focused on the very concrete questions of number of Iranian centrifuges, enrichment capacity. Are those the right terms to be judging progress here?

And I’ve got a second question, too. Did the Iraq/ISIS issue come up at all in the talks with the Iranians?

MODERATOR: I’m surprised it took till the end.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: Gosh, I’m surprised that it took till the end. (Laughter.) I was having the same thought.

MODERATOR: Yeah.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: Okay. The measure of this agreement – I know you’re sick of hearing me say this. The measure of this agreement is Iran can’t acquire a nuclear weapon and we’re assured its program is exclusively peaceful. There are many components of that. So counting one thing is not going to answer that question. It’s a package of things. If you’re talking about enrichment capacity, you’re talking about infrastructure, you’re talking about centrifuges, you’re talking about SWU, you’re talking about stockpile, you’re talking about the types of equipment in centrifuges, you’re talking about duration, you’re talking about a whole bunch of elements if you’re worried about how long it’s going to take to get a weapon’s worth of fissile material, which is often the terminology used for breakthrough – breakout, sorry.

So it’s a lot of elements. So all of the things that outsiders have said to you or members of Congress are certainly elements, but they’re only elements. They have to come together in a way that gives us and the international community confidence that the program is exclusively peaceful and Iran will not acquire a nuclear weapon. That’s what we’re trying to do.

Now, as to your last question, I think you all know that tomorrow – I have to read it because I’m going to say it wrong – the Secretary of State is chairing a ministerial debate of the United Nations Security Council on the situation in Iraq at 2:00. Somebody’s phone is buzzing. Do you care?

QUESTION: I’m just going to --

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: Shall we answer? We can all say hello. (Laughter.)

QUESTION: Put them on speaker phone.

MODERATOR: I don’t know what I just – I just think I --

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: Okay. Well, whosever phone that is --

MODERATOR: I hope it’s still recording, whoever’s phone that is.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: Yeah. If it’s your mom, tell her I’m sorry. (Laughter.)

Any member can attend, and so the meeting was mentioned in our discussions today on the margins because it’s very present, but we are very clear and continue to be clear, as the Secretary said in his testimony, that we, of course, expect there will be time to time that we discuss this, as we discuss ISIS with everyone – ISIL. The world is focused – and I think this is what this ministerial tomorrow will show – that the world is focused on the mission that the President of the United States has set out, and that is to degrade and ultimately defeat ISIL. And I think we will all see that in a very powerful way tomorrow at the ministerial, and I believe that Iran thinks that ISIL should not be doing what it is doing either.

MODERATOR: Thank you, everyone.

QUESTION: What (inaudible) Iran (inaudible) come back tomorrow?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: Ask Iran.

MODERATOR: Thank you, everyone, for coming tonight. Again, this is on background as a senior Administration official. We will have more opportunities to do these things over the next week and a half, so email [us] with any questions. We will have a transcript done later tonight of this as well.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: Thank you all.