Background Briefing En Route Beijing

Special Briefing
Office of the Spokesperson
Senior State Department Officials
En Route Beijing, China
November 11, 2014


SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Okay, so obviously, senior State Department officials, all on background. You know both of us. Senior State Department Official Number One is going to give a brief laydown of a little bit of what happened over the past few days, how we saw the talks, put it in a little bit of context of where we are coming up on the deadline, and then we will take questions.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Some questions. All right, with the emphasis on “a little bit,” here’s what we can tell you. So the talks over the past couple of days were tough, direct, and serious. There were two sessions each day, each session lasting multiple hours – I would say more like several hours. They would break each day for lunch, usually in the mid to late afternoon, which ended up being a huddle with the individual teams, and then again for dinner. Most of the sessions – almost all of the sessions were what we call one-on-one-on-one, so just the ministerial level participants from the three sides: Secretary Kerry, Baroness Ashton, and Foreign Minister Zarif. One of the sessions, the group was actually expanded to include additional negotiators. That was a session – the second session yesterday.

Tomorrow, the P5+1 political directors are coming to Muscat, where our negotiating team and Baroness Ashton will debrief them on the talks of the last couple of days. The Secretary’s obviously heading to Beijing, where he will have the opportunity to confer with President Obama and Susan Rice about the state of the talks.

Just to recap – some of this you know, but over the past week, the Secretary has discussed the Iran nuclear talks with every minister in the P5+1. He saw Foreign Minister Wang Yi of China and Foreign Minister Lavrov in Beijing, as you know. He spoke with Foreign Secretary Hammond by phone. He saw Foreign Minister Fabius in Paris. And I would add that this evening on the plane he spoke with Prime Minister Netanyahu of Israel. Because I expect you’re going to ask, I will also say that the Secretary pre-emptively raised the supreme leader’s comments today about Israel, the comments made on Twitter. The Secretary conveyed our view that the comments were outrageous and condemned them.

The Secretary also raised during the course of the talks our concern about American citizens held in Iran, as he always does in these meetings. And I guess I’ll leave it at that, unless there’s anything you want to add.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Nope. That’s it.

QUESTION: Thanks. So a couple of things. Can you tell us bottom-line what prospects are, how you feel coming out of this meeting, how much closer the two sides are to a deal? Also, can you discuss – I assume when the Secretary and Prime Minister Netanyahu talked they discussed the prime minister’s letter to all of the P5 leaders today regarding the, quote/unquote “reports,” I don’t know why Bibi thinks that a deal is close, and I’m wondering if you know why.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: So we’re not going to characterize at all the state of the talks, and I know that’s not a satisfying answer. It’s not satisfying to say it, but that’s where we are. We have to put the state of the negotiations first, and so we’re just not going to get into that in any way.

The rest of your question was about Prime Minister Netanyahu?

QUESTION: Well, yeah – the letter that he sent around to all of the --

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Yeah. The call – the letter was mentioned on the call, but they also discussed sort of the general update on the talks of the last couple days, as well as the situation in Israel. And the Secretary expressed condolences on the killing of an Israeli citizen today in the West Bank and discussed with the prime minister the sort of overall security and political situation in Israel.

QUESTION: Okay, let me try again. Sorry. So is it still accurate for us to continue to quote the Secretary from what he said a few days ago that real gaps exist? President Obama said yesterday that there’s some – I forget exactly what his words were, but the point is is that there have been—there’s been a lot of pessimism, and I just want to know if that’s still accurate.

Also, I want to pin you down a little bit more on the Bibi letter. I mean, when the Secretary talked to the prime minister, did he ask him why he thought there was a deal that was close?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: So I’m not going to get into the details of their conversation. I told you the letter came up. It actually was not the focus of the conversation, so I think I’ll just leave it at that. I think we would characterize comments made over the last couple of days about the state of the talks as realistic, not pessimistic, and I would say I have nothing to amend from those statements that have been made.

QUESTION: You said you’re not going to characterize the talks, but can you give us an indication based on the negotiations that have taken place on the past couple of days, do you feel like you’re still on track to make the 24th deadline, or does it look like there may need to be some consideration of pushing that deadline back? And secondly, is there a possibility that there may be another trilat meeting before the 24th?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: So this is going to be a particularly unsatisfying response. So on the prospect of another trilat meeting, the honest answer is we don’t know, so guess I’ll just leave it at that. On the question of whether – I think the way you characterized it was “still on track.” I think what we’ve said about this is that we may get there and we may not. I don’t think that anybody has said at any point recently that we are, quote/unquote, “on track” to reach an agreement by the 24th. So I’ll just go back to what I said before, which is I have nothing to amend from the characterizations that’ve been made about the state of the talks over the last couple of days.

You had one other?

QUESTION: No, that’s it.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: On that, though, what we’ve also said is there is time between now and the 24th to get this done. The technical work, the expert work, the political decisions – there is time.

QUESTION: Thanks. Understanding that you don’t want to go into details; can you give us some sense of the Iranian negotiating posture? There’s been a lot of questions as to whether Zarif and maybe even Rouhani have leeway from the supreme leader to negotiate. Were they flexible? Were they – did they come up with new ideas? What was the general sort of posture, or was it sort of repeating staid lines that you’ve heard lots of times before?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: I mean, I – we’re just not going to characterize the Iranian negotiating position. They can feel free to do that if they want to. We said the talks were tough and direct and serious, and I think that’s as far as we’re going to go.

QUESTION: I wasn’t asking about position so much as attitude.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Not going to characterize it.

QUESTION: When you say “tough, direct, and serious,” is that Kerry?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Yeah.

QUESTION: Wait, what’s the question?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: No, she’s just saying “tough, direct, and serious.” She was just confirming. The discussions were tough, direct, and serious.

QUESTION: But she said something after that. Is that Kerry?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: No, not Kerry specifically. In general.

QUESTION: So that’s the talks?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: The discussions themselves.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Well, I consider him tough, direct, and serious.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: We do consider him tough, direct, and serious.

QUESTION: Can you tell us anything about the conversations you had about American hostages and whether you got any assurances about their well-being or – and – I’ll just leave it at that.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: We aren’t, obviously, going to go into specifics. We always on the margins of these talks raise the three American citizens being detained, and then, of course, Robert Levinson, who went missing in Iran, and ask for Iran’s help in locating him if they can. We consistently raise this at every round but are just not going to talk about the details of those discussions. Our focus for them just remains getting them home in any way we can.

QUESTION: (Inaudible.)

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: When the mike works it’s kind of good.

QUESTION: It’s very good.

So Foreign Minister Zarif, coming into the talks, told reporters in his delegation that gaps remained on the enrichment capability and also on the timing of lifting the sanctions. Do you agree with him that those where the gaps are?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Well, again, we’re not going to talk about any specific issues or where the gaps are or aren’t. I think I’ll go back to something other senior Administration officials have said on this, that all of the issues in some way are linked, and that how you get to a comprehensive package – you can’t look at any one issue in isolation, and that nothing is agreed until everything’s agreed. And I’d just go back to that.

QUESTION: Okay.

QUESTION: Why is there so much hesitance? Why is there so much hesitancy tonight in this briefing and even in terms of the information that we’ve been getting over the past two days? Even – I know that the talks are at a sensitive stage, but even if you have a session and there is no significant progress, why not just say that? Why has everything been so close-lipped and sort of shut down over the past couple of days?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Well, that’s not unique to the past couple of days. If you look at background briefings or any comments on the nuclear negotiation since we started, we’ve been very quiet purposefully. I think it was Madeleine Albright that said, it was her quote, “Negotiations are like mushrooms; they do best in the dark.” And I – this is not new for those of you who’ve covered this. We – they are so sensitive and so complicated that we just have to preserve the negotiating space, and the way to do that is not to negotiate it in the press or publicly. So we’re just not going to negotiate publicly.

QUESTION: (Inaudible.)

QUESTION: It’s a good Madeleine Albright quote, though.

QUESTION: So before we took off, Reuters had talked to a senior Iranian official who said not much progress was made, and I’m just wondering if you disagree with that. Do you want to just leave that out there? Do you have something corrective to that?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: I guess I’d just say we saw the quote. We don’t have any comment on it.

QUESTION: To follow up, you guys are basically saying that your public position has not changed at all from where it was when you went into these talks. So common sense would say that means that not a whole lot of progress was made. Now I’ll just finish this sentence and you all can respond. I mean, that was certainly the overwhelming sentiment coming out from – whether leaked or other officials saying it on – in various channels. So --

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: When, saying it when?

QUESTION: Over the last couple of days.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: And I guess I’ll try this one more time or five more times or whatever. We’re just not going to characterize what happened over the last couple of days in terms of events inside the room and the discussions that took place.

QUESTION: Can you at least say if progress was made? Was any progress made?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Lara, look – obviously, the Secretary thought it was important to continue the discussion and stayed for extra hours. I’m not indicating that progress was made in any way. I’m just saying he believed it was important to continue the discussion.

I would also remind people that you shouldn’t look at these negotiations in terms of any one day of meetings or two days of meetings. This is – they had trilats in Vienna, they had trilats in New York at UNGA. This negotiation has been going on, as you know, for months, and it’s not defined by any one meeting or any one set of meetings. And we’re just not going to characterize in any way whether progress was made or do a tick-tock of any one day of negotiations – again, to give them the best chance of success.

QUESTION: Where do we go from here?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Beijing.

QUESTION: Where do we go from there?

QUESTION: I mean on P5. I mean --

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Well, tomorrow, the political directors are in Muscat, as Senior State Department Official Number One said. The Secretary will talk to the President, talk to Susan Rice, and --

QUESTION: And Susan and Bill stayed behind, Wendy and (Inaudible)?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Correct. And Jake.

QUESTION: Okay

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: And the experts. And then we are all scheduled to go back to Vienna on the 18th. So --

QUESTION: (Inaudible.)

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Yes.

QUESTION: (Inaudible.)

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Just to clarify one thing on Muscat tomorrow, the Iranians are also staying and to be part of the briefing with the P5+1. I just wanted to make sure that was clear. And I think because the Secretary is going to be discussing this over the next couple days with the President and the national security advisor, we just don’t want to get ahead of that conversation because I think a lot of will be determined there in terms of next steps for us.

QUESTION: (Inaudible.)

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Yes. Bill Burns, Wendy Sherman, Jake Sullivan, and the experts – the nuclear and sanctions experts are staying at least through tomorrow for the P5+1 meeting with Iran.

QUESTION: What’s the prospect of the Secretary heading back?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Lara, you’ve traveled with us before, so I think you will understand when I say that as soon as we have a definitive answer on that we’ll give it to you.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: And thank you for your patience over the last few days. I know these talks are frustrating to cover.

QUESTION: (Inaudible) the last time (inaudible)?

QUESTION: Well, (inaudible).

QUESTION: Try at another tack here. Give us a little bit of color from one of the sessions? Aside from negotiating, was there any sort of colorful or interesting moment that you can share?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: No. Sorry.

QUESTION: Was there a square table or a round table?

QUESTION: (Inaudible.)

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: I think there was a pool spray tonight, right? So --

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Yeah, but it wasn’t at the table.

So yes, the room they met in was a circular table. There were three chairs around the outside.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Here’s the thing. The reason why we can’t really give you color is because I told you the format of the talks. We know the content and we’ve discussed that with our team, but they don’t tend to give us the atmospherics as much and we just don’t have anything to pass on on that.

QUESTION: Okay, honestly this is my last one. But the rumor mill is going crazy. I mean, what it was like in the last couple of hours tonight was just beyond the pale in terms of there’s a deal, there’s not, there’s a press conference, there’s not. And so when that happens, as you all both know well, the narrative in that room becomes the story. And so what we’re, I think, trying to do is give you a chance now to kick that down if that’s not accurate, because --

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: That what’s not accurate?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: What’s not accurate?

QUESTION: Is there a deal? Was there no progress? I mean, like that’s – we’re just trying to figure out what is the most accurate way to characterize as we’re walking out of this, because in lieu of that it’s just going to get spun every other way by every other side of this – maybe not by the Europeans but by other sides.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Well, first, on the press conference – and I think Jen addressed this in her briefing today – that’s just like a logistical thing that we always plan for every option. And I think the Omanis were just planning in case – there was really nothing to that. So I mean, you guys know that sometimes hosts get ahead of people, and we were very clear about the fact that we probably wouldn’t do one here.

But look, more broadly speaking, we characterized them as much as we’re going to characterize them. The discussions – tough, direct, serious, and there’s more work to do, clearly. I think that’s self-evident, right?

QUESTION: Well, tough, direct – and you’re not saying that progress was made. You’re just saying that the Secretary thought it was important. That’s the quote you want to stand?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: And that there’s more work to do. That’s sort of common sense, I think.

QUESTION: (Inaudible.)

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: I mean – the plan – the calendar we outlined to you all before we left is still the calendar, right? We’re going to Vienna on the 18th. These negotiations have a certain rhythm to them that hasn’t really changed, right, for months now, even as new meetings come on the schedule.

QUESTION: (Inaudible.)

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: That we’re going to Vienna on the 18th.

QUESTION: (Inaudible.)

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Not Secretary Kerry. No, no, no, the negotiating team. Sorry, sorry. I mean, that was --

QUESTION: (Inaudible.)

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry. The negotiating teams are going to Vienna on the 18th. They were going to Vienna on the 18th before we came to the trilat. So the calendar is the calendar. We’re focused on the 24th. More work to do.

Last question from Pam.

QUESTION: This is not asking you to characterize talks, but – (laughter).

QUESTION: Just because you say that does not (inaudible) – (laughter).

QUESTION: Was there any concern expressed on the Iranian side that the change in the makeup of the U.S. Senate with the elections could have an impact? Was there any concern expressed that perhaps --

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: (Inaudible.)

QUESTION: -- perhaps there is an urgency to negotiations to try to work something out before the Republicans gain control of the Senate?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: (Inaudible.)

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: (Inaudible.)

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: I can go ahead (inaudible). (Laughter.)

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: It’s our understanding that the elections came up. It would be – issues in the news often come up when they spend that many hours together. You chat when you’re in the lunch table or milling around. Obviously, issues in the news come up. But I wouldn’t over-emphasize that in terms of being part of the negotiations. Obviously, I’ll let the Iranians speak for themselves, but --

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: I’d just say it was not at all a focus of the talks. And they can speak to their – whatever concerns they may or may not have.

QUESTION: Last one on a new topic?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Sure.

QUESTION: [Senior State Department Official Two], this is an issue from a couple days ago, but we’re still really interested in the North Korea story. I know you’ve been in two days of meetings but – on Iran. I’m just wondering if you heard any more about whether the North Koreans have sort of expressed concern about the International Criminal Court case and that might have led to this release. I understand Clapper went there just for one reason --

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Yeah.

QUESTION: -- but I’m curious if you heard anything from their side.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: I’m sorry, I haven’t. I can check with our folks. I just haven’t been down in the weeds on that. I’m sorry. I will check on that.

QUESTION: Is there any tick-tock to give on that?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: There was a background briefing that they did in --

(Brief recess.)

QUESTION: (Inaudible.)

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Jen in the briefing today – and check the transcript when it comes out – said something like, “He’s not a member of the P5+1, he’s not in the room, but we have very close discussion with the Israelis both at his level, the expert level, period, throughout these negotiations. So he can speak for himself, but --

QUESTION: I know. But my question was trying to get to did the Secretary try to walk him off the ledge, walk him back?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: We’re just not going to characterize their discussion more. We are in constant communication with the Israelis at multiple levels about the Iranian nuclear negotiations.

Nicole. Okay, seriously, last question to Nicole.

QUESTION: I’m just curious, if that’s the case, why were there reports that the Israelis didn’t learn about President Obama’s letter from you guys but from other sources?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: There are so many assumptions buried in that question, I don’t even know where to begin. Look, I mean, you’ve seen – look at what the President said about the – when he was asked about this reported letter. We’re not certainly going to deviate from what the President himself said on the record about this yesterday.

QUESTION: (Inaudible) Sunday.

QUESTION: It’s Monday.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: What day is today? Tuesday?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: I have no idea what day today is.

QUESTION: It’s about to be Tuesday.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Yeah, yesterday.

QUESTION: Yeah.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: You can’t really reasonably expect otherwise. Sorry.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: All right. Thanks, guys.