Background Briefing: Senior Administration Official in Geneva, Switzerland

Special Briefing
Senior Administration Official
Geneva, Switzerland
February 23, 2015

MODERATOR: (In progress) Secretary Moniz is going to stay upstairs with Secretary Kerry. [Senior Administration Official] and [name withheld], who everyone knows, are going to brief you all. We’ll do this for about 20 minutes so we can make our flight. So [Senior Administration Official] will do a few opening remarks. As always, this is on background to a senior Administration official. There’s obviously no embargo on it.

So with that, go ahead.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: So just to sort of summarize where we have come at the end of these discussions – and then I’ll go back through some of the tick-tock for you – is these were very serious, useful, and constructive discussions. We have made some progress, though we still have a long way to go. You all know how difficult and complex this agreement is. We did very much sharpen up some of the tough issues so we can work to resolution. And finally – and some, as you know, and have heard me say many, many, many times – nothing is agreed until everything is agreed. So even when one makes some progress, which we have, it is not a done deal by any stretch of the imagination because we have many issues still to address and everything has to be agreed for us to have an agreement.

In terms of tick-tock, folks arrived here on Friday. And Secretary Moniz and President Salehi – he’s president of the Atomic Energy Organization – arrived on Saturday. And I think you all know that Secretary Kerry came here on Sunday evening. And I believe that Minister Zarif was here before then, but you all probably know that better than I do, because I’ve been in a room in meetings for most of this time. We had various formats in these meetings. There were times when we all met as a plenary, all of us with all of our experts, to Dr. Moniz and Dr. Salehi having one-on-one, Secretary Kerry and Minister Zarif having one-on-ones. We had a format several times of Dr. Salehi, Dr. Moniz, Minister Zarif, Secretary Kerry, Under Secretary Sherman, Rob Malley, Abbas Araghchi, Majid Ravanchi, and Hossein Fereydoun meeting. We also had various expert groups meeting on a variety of issues.

Importantly, in the middle of all of this we had an E3+3 political directors-level meeting for coordination and an E3+3 political directors meeting with Abbas Araghchi and Majid Ravanchi and their entire team. Because even though the United States may spend some hours in discussions, our colleagues do as well. We need to share information. The Chinese foreign minister just spent last weekend in Tehran, for instance, so they shared the debrief of those conversations. My European colleagues all had meetings with Iran in Munich, as did Minister Lavrov. So we need to keep this in the context in which we do it, which is a multilateral one. This is an agreement among the P5+1 and Iran should we be fortunate enough to reach it.

So let me stop there and I’ll be glad to take questions.

MODERATOR: Yeah. Michael Gordon, we’ll start with you.

QUESTION: Just one – like to clarify two things, [Senior Administration Official]. One, it’s been the American position that any agreement should result in at least a year’s breakout time – Secretary Kerry said that in October on the record – meaning it would take the Iranian nuclear program at least a year to make enough material for a bomb if they ever elected to break out of an agreement. Is it --

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Before you finish, can I add one more thing, Michael?


SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I just got an okay to say one more thing from my counterpart. We will meet again starting Monday of next week.

QUESTION: Who is we? The –

QUESTION: Political directors?

QUESTION: Here, [Senior Administration Official], in Geneva?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: It’s not entirely clear yet because we understand there’s an auto show and the Human Rights Council is meeting here as well, the high-level March session. So we’re working on where in the vicinity it may be.

QUESTION: (Inaudible.)

QUESTION: Where like Geneva, or like Europe?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: No. Our people are looking – just for your planning purposes --

QUESTION: (Inaudible.)


SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: -- looking at if we can’t do Geneva, can we do Lausanne, can we do some place in the vicinity so people can fly into Geneva; but flights may also be an issue. People are – all the logistics people have to worry about this. I don’t.

QUESTION: The “we” that’s meeting next Monday is political directors, or also Secretary Kerry and Zarif?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: What I can say to you today is that the – at the political directors level, and I would anticipate the E3+3 coming together again at some point as well.

QUESTION: Okay. Back to my question.


QUESTION: So it’s been the U.S. position that an agreement should provide at least a year’s breakout time. So I have two quick questions for clarification. Does that mean that there should be at least a year’s breakout time for the entire duration of the agreement – meaning if an agreement lasts 10 years, 15 years, 20 years, whatever it lasts, for that entire scope of that agreement there should be at least a year’s breakout time and it would never be less than that? Is that the U.S. position?

And last question: The goal is to achieve in the near term some sort of political framework, outline of an agreement, whatever one wants to call it, by March 31st. Is this to be a written public document like the JPOA or some sort of private understanding that’s not made public?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: So the only thing I’ll say about the one-year breakout time, because it’s a very complex agreement, is that we have always said that we would have a one-year breakout time for a double-digit number of years. And that remains the case. And secondly – come on, guys. Some of our crack team. They like to listen about what they’ve been doing. (Laughter.)

And the second issue is we have not resolved yet what we will do should we be so fortunate as to reach those understandings. We know that we in the United States will have an obligation to at least, in a classified setting, brief our Congress. That’s a responsibility we have in their oversight capacity of what we’re doing and our partnership with them in what we are doing. But what kind of a document, if any, and how this will be explained will be decided with all of the parties in – of the E3+3 or the P5+1 or the E3+EU+3 and Iran.

QUESTION: Just to clarify and then I’ll step back, but – so just to say that you would have one-year breakout time until double digits, the way I interpret that is at least for 10 years, because that’s double digits, you would have a one-year --

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I’m not going to comment any further.

QUESTION: Well, that’s one-year break time. But starting year 11, you could have a lesser standard.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I’m not going to make any further comment.

QUESTION: Isn’t that what you just said?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: No, because double-digit could be more than that, could be whatever.

QUESTION: Can’t be less, though.


MODERATOR: Can’t be less.


QUESTION: Can I ask about the – do you want to say my name?

MODERATOR: No, go ahead.


MODERATOR: Unidentified reporter number two. (Laughter.)

QUESTION: On the political framework or however it’s being termed, what elements have to be part of that political framework in order to make it viable, both for an agreement and to kind of satisfy the things that the President talked about as you need a basis in order to continue negotiating.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: All of the major parameters have to be addressed. All of them. And it’s a long list.

QUESTION: That includes everything from like R&D, PMDs?



QUESTION: (Inaudible.)


MODERATOR: Laurence, go to you.

QUESTION: One – you said that some of the tougher issues have been sharpened, very much sharpened. I’m guessing you won’t want to tell us which, but I’m going to give it a go. And secondly, it seems that research and development is an issue that remains really tough to crack. Can you speak to anything of that and to what extent that’s – that also – that’s also affecting the difficulty of finalizing the other parts of the agreement?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I will say that it has been very helpful to add to the tremendous expertise we have and the tremendous focus of everyone, including Secretary Kerry and Minister Zarif, who know these issues extraordinarily well, and all of us, particularly as lay people who have learned more about this than we ever thought we would ever understand, that it has been very helpful to have added our secretary of energy and the president of the AEOI. They have spent, as I said, time in one-on-one conversations, with other groupings. This is a highly technical conversation, and it has helped on very difficult issues to sharpen the potential for resolution.

MODERATOR: Laura, and then Anne.

QUESTION: Thanks. There were some meetings today with the Russians and you --


QUESTION: -- and I think the Iranians were looking for you and the Russians at one point --


QUESTION: -- and asking them throughout the (inaudible). Can you speak to that, since that’s not including everybody? It seems like it would be the enrichment issue --

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Right. No, no, it’s really because generally when the E3+3 is here we all have bilaterals with each other, and the Russians were here – more of the team. The Russians were here today. Some of my other colleagues – the Chinese – left this morning. The French and British left this morning. So it really was just the Russians were here today so we could – I think the Germans left – so we had a chance to catch up and discuss some of the issues that were on the table and share ideas and suggestions about how to move forward.

QUESTION: I mean, the one Russian official I got to see very quickly at breakfast said today would be crucial and that – so that it sounded like there was some decision point that would be decisive, he thought. And I just don’t know if I can draw you out on that.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: All I can tell you is we’ve made some progress.


QUESTION: Has the – have the – has the question of sanctions been addressed at all in his meetings in the last few days?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Oh, of course, of course. At length.

QUESTION: Lesley Wroughton from Reuters. Are you close to – I mean, the big March 31st deadline looms – obviously, very quickly --



SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Had you all noticed that deadline? (Laughter.)

QUESTION: The question --

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I should also note you’ve seen our delegation list in the past, so excuse me, I want to note Mr. Roger Miller, who was with us in Munich but also has joined us here, who works at Lawrence Livermore Laboratories, who has also been, as a technical matter, a terrific addition to our already crack team. Sorry, go ahead.

QUESTION: So with the team, do you think you’re going to make that deadline? Is it going to be a close one? I mean, do you feel that – I mean, you said you made progress today. Do you really feel that the progress is going somewhere, or do you – I mean, everybody, including delegates from other countries, are talking about significant gaps still.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: There are very tough issues still. As I said, we still have a long way to go. And I think most of us approach this by putting one foot in front of the other and keep working at it to reach that.

I’ve also said that we very much appreciate the time horizon that the President of the United States has given us, and that all of the E3+3 members agreed to, that we would have a political ambition of reaching a basic understanding by the end of March, and then filling it out by June 30th, because this is – has to be filled with annexes of excruciating detail, so you know what it is you have agreed to.

So we all feel the pressure, no doubt about it, but it doesn’t mean it will make us rush to an agreement that does not fulfill the objectives that the President has given to us and Secretary Kerry has given to us, and that is to shut down the four pathways to fissile material for a nuclear weapon and ensure that Iran does not acquire a nuclear weapon. And that objective has to be met. And that’s not about the deadline; that’s about the purpose.

QUESTION: Given --


QUESTION: Hi, Rosalind Jordan with Al Jazeera English. Given that the decision was made by the Iranians to have Dr. Salehi join the talks, do you see a fundamental willingness on the Iranian part to try to reach a deal, or are they actually having to represent the political rhetoric that’s coming out of some of their officials in Tehran on not having to compromise their national security or injure their national pride?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I think you’ll have to talk to the Iranians to give you an assessment of their own political dynamics. All I can say is that everyone who was here was very purposeful, very focused, and worked incredibly hard.

QUESTION: And you trusted that they would act in good faith?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: And I got little – very little – and everybody got very little sleep.

QUESTION: But negotiating in good faith, would you say that your team has (inaudible)?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I think everybody is trying very hard to negotiate in good faith and to reach a positive result. Whether we can get there or not remains to be seen. I don’t think any of us know for sure. It’s – everybody wants to be hopeful, of course.

QUESTION: Yeah. So a bit away from what’s happening here. You mentioned that everything is going to be included in the framework political --




QUESTION: So we have at the end of the --


QUESTION: -- JPOA, we have the seven parameters that were mentioned there, and I can imagine that this is an expanded version of that, going into a bit more detailed version of these seven points. There is one point there which was a question for myself. It’s saying that the comprehensive deal should reflect the rights and obligations of parties to the NPT and IAEA safeguard. I want to know if that is kind of a challenging issue too, as much as the R&D or Arak or other issues, or if this kind of thing needs to be also negotiated at the table, because it seems to me it’s a very straightforward fact.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I think it’s a very straightforward fact, and the whole purpose of this is to ensure that Iran does not acquire a nuclear weapon, and over a period of time, can ensure the international community that its program is exclusively peaceful and get to the point where it is treated as any other non-nuclear weapon state of the NPT. That will take some time.

MODERATOR: So Jonathan, do our last question so you have some file time before we leave, so --

QUESTION: Jonathan Tirone, Bloomberg. Critics of the process have begun to use the IAEA – continue to use the IAEA as a lever of pressure. Most recently over the last weekend, there was criticism that the PMD issue has not advanced. The IAEA also said it hasn’t gotten any worse. Can you respond to how the channels of communication over that particular issue have developed and are developing?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, certainly, all of us communicate with the IAEA. We’re on the Board of Governors of the IAEA, and so I myself met with Dr. Amano in Munich. So we want to keep the IAEA up to date on where we are. We also really rely on the IAEA. They have been the verification and monitoring mechanism for the Joint Plan of Action, and we would expect that they will be so for the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. And all of the members of the Board of Governor have come forward with additional funds to ensure that that verification monitoring can be done for the JPOA, and I would assume that will be the case for the JCPA should we be fortunate enough to achieve it.

MODERATOR: Okay. Thanks, guys.