Background Briefing on Secretary Kerry's Meetings on the Iran Nuclear Negotiations

Special Briefing
Senior State Department Official
Montreux, Switzerland
March 4, 2015


MODERATOR: So we have about 20 minutes, just so you guys are aware. And I think for the purposes of the transcript, this is a background briefing for attribution to senior State Department official, or officials, doing a review of the Secretary’s meetings in Montreux on the Iran nuclear negotiations. So with that, I’ll turn it over.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: So is it afternoon? I guess it is. Good afternoon. As always, these discussions were very intense. We’ve made some progress but have a lot of challenges yet ahead. We are still working through what are difficult issues. If they weren’t, this would have been resolved years ago, but has not. As the President of the United States said yesterday, one of our primary foreign policy goals remains preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon, and that is what we are trying to get done here.

We do not do this alone. We do it in the context of the P5+1; in fact, Helga Schmid, in essence the political director of the European Union, sits in all of the meetings that the Secretary has and that I have and her expert team joins our experts for all of the expert discussions. So we are very well connected. We do this with full transparency with our partners, and indeed, tomorrow, as I think you all know, there is an E3-plus – EU+3 or P5+1 meeting, or E3+3 meeting, whichever you choose to use, here. In addition, Secretary Kerry will be meeting in Paris on Saturday with Foreign Minister Fabius, Foreign Minister Steinmeier, and Foreign Secretary Hammond. I will join him for that meeting as part of our ongoing consultations with our partners. He saw Secretary Lavrov just – two days ago?

MODERATOR: Yes, Monday.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Monday. And I’m sure he will be in communication with Foreign Minister Wang Yi as well. Those ongoing consultations are critical because any agreement that is reached is an agreement that will be reached by all of the members of the P5+1.

We will continue with a robust schedule of meetings through the coming weeks, as will our partners, I’m sure. Generally, when the E3+3 political directors come, they also have bilaterals with the Iranians, and we would expect that to happen both later today and tomorrow as they come into Montreux.

And finally, we expect that we will regroup bilaterally with the European Union president as well on the 15th of March – location to be confirmed, but most likely Geneva, but not yet finally confirmed. And we will continue to work very hard.

Happy to answer all your questions. I think the bottom line here is that no deal to announce to anybody today, but very intense, hard work; some progress, but tough challenges yet to be resolved.

QUESTION: Did the – what Mr. Netanyahu say come into the negotiating room at all?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, of course it does to some extent. You’ve asked me this question during the Ukraine crisis, during Syria, during virtually every crisis or every event – major event that’s taken place in the world. And everybody watches the news and we always talk on the margins about whatever is going on, and that is the case here. It didn’t take much of anybody’s time. Quite frankly, we were all in discussions during the speech. None of us watched it live. I have only seen clips of it. I have yet to sit down and have the time to read the transcript; I certainly will. And obviously, we take it seriously.

We know that any agreement that is reached is something that the entire world will pore over every line, every word, to ensure that what the President has asked the Secretary and the team to do is to ensure that Iran can’t acquire a nuclear weapon by closing down all of the pathways to fissile material for a nuclear weapon. Most importantly, probably, amongst those, not only the uranium and plutonium – weapons-grade plutonium pathway, but the pathway covertly, which is quite critical and very much a focus of what we’re doing.

MODERATOR: Michael.

QUESTION: One of the features of American arms control agreements is they have an – are of indefinite duration; they don’t have an expiration date. This agreement will. One of the --

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, actually, Michael, not really.

QUESTION: Well, let me ask my question and then you can respond.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Okay.

QUESTION: One of the questions – critiques that’s been posed of this agreement is that when it expires or lapses, Iran will be in position to build and operate a huge number of centrifuges. This is one of the criticisms that the Israeli prime minister made yesterday. So whether it’s 15 years or 20 years or 12 years, after that time they could have a vast number of centrifuges and thus greatly reduce the breakout time for reduction of fissile material. What is the United States strategy to preclude that sort of scenario? What – in essence, what is your response to that argument that the Israeli prime minister made yesterday?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: So let’s talk about where we are. Let’s talk about where we were before the Joint Plan of Action, when there were some IAEA inspectors inside Iran, but not the daily access to Fordow and to Natanz, not the monthly access to Arak, not the managed access to uranium mines and mills or the managed access to centrifuge production. So before the Joint Plan of Action we have no visibility into Iran’s program. We had some, because they were members of the NPT, but they had not adopted 3.1, they had not adopted the additional protocol. And whatever the length of this agreement it will never be over because they will have to return to a member in good standing with the NPT, which means modified code 3.1, all the safeguards agreement. It means the additional protocol. It means transparency mechanisms that ensure that we know what’s going on with their program. We’ve also talked about all kinds of mechanisms, including joint ventures with outside parties inside Iran that will give us additional visibility into their program as well.

So this agreement, in essence, really doesn’t have an end point. It is about changing the nature of Iran’s program, the visibility into Iran’s program, and having constraints on Iran’s program for a significant period of time to ensure that the confidence can be built in the international community, and the transparency achieved that assures us that they will not acquire a nuclear weapon.

QUESTION: Just to clarify, what I heard you just say is that after the agreement expires, there are going to be no limits whatsoever on the number of centrifuges Iran can operate. However, you’ll have increased verification and monitoring, which will give you greater insight into what you’re doing and therefore some awareness should they decide to make (inaudible).

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I would say – I wouldn’t make any --

QUESTION: Is that what you’re saying?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I would say I would not make any final conclusions about all of the phases of what we will agree to. Wait and see.

QUESTION: Did you say the 14th or the 15th?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Fifteenth.

QUESTION: And what was the 15th? I’m sorry, I’m --

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Fifteenth we will reengage in bilateral discussions --

QUESTION: With Iran.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: -- with Iran, with Helga Schmid and her team present at those discussions.

QUESTION: Thank you.

QUESTION: Are you more convinced after this round that you will reach an agreement?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I don’t know, and you all have heard me say many times that you can get very close in the last 1 percent or 2 percent or 5 percent – means you can’t get there. So until you have all of the pieces put in place, it’s the old Rubik’s cube – which you all know well – unless – until that last piece locks in place, nothing is agreed until everything is agreed. And so you could get very close and still not get there. So I don’t know the answer to that question. All I can say is we are working very hard to achieve it.

QUESTION: Just a quick follow-up: Is the atmosphere suggesting that you’re probably more likely to get there?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I don’t think I can characterize the atmosphere in that way. It is very intense. It is very focused. We have moments where we feel like we’re making progress and moments when we face challenges. So it goes up and down, because that is the nature of this very, very complex, very detailed discussion.

MODERATOR: Arshad or Barbara or (inaudible)?

QUESTION: Can I ask about sanctions? Minister Zarif came here saying we have made the same argument we’ve made a long time: early, rapid sanctions. You said there had been some progress in the last couple of days. Is any of that progress now (inaudible) on sanctions (inaudible)?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I’m not going to speak to progress or not progress on any element of this agreement. What I can say to you about sanctions is that we are where we have always been, which is a phased approach to sanctions. As Iran takes nuclear steps that are necessary to build the confidence that they do not have and do not wish to acquire a nuclear weapon, we will first suspend and then terminate sanctions over a phased period of time. And that is, I think, well understood by everyone, but nothing is yet agreed.

MODERATOR: Arshad.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: One practical thing and one substantive thing. From a practical point of view, do you regard the deadline for achieving the political agreement as March 24th or March 31? More substantively, do you foresee a difficulty in reaching an ultimate agreement or a danger that things may unravel if you get a political agreement, because you haven’t gotten the detail nailed down in the annexes to get a final deal done?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: So the President of the United States said that he expects us to have a political understanding by the end of March. That is indeed what was said at the last extension of the Joint Plan of Action, that we had the ambition of reaching a political understanding by the end of March. We are also quite well are of the congressional timetable that has been set up. So we are certainly cognizant of that fact, but I want to say about timetables: We are working as hard as we can; the President has set out for us what he wants us to achieve, and when we get to the end of the month we’ll see whether we’ve met that standard, and he’ll decide how he wants us to proceed from there.

We operate by the instructions of the President of the United States – from a bilateral point of view, and obviously our partner’s, put in the press announcement after the last extension of the Joint Plan of Action the ambition of having this understanding. And the reason for that was to put pressure on ourselves not to wait until June 29th to try to get to those understandings, only to then have to write all of the annexes and all of the detail that you, quite rightly, said needed to be there.

So what we want to try to do by the end of March is have those understandings but have enough sense of the detail to know what we are getting. But no one expects that we are going to announce an agreement on March 30th – none of you should expect we’re going to announce an agreement, because we will not know if we have that final agreement until we have all of that detail written. You’re quite right about that.

QUESTION: So the President has to make an assessment at the end of March whether it’s worth continuing. Is that what you’re saying?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, I think that’s what he has said.

MODERATOR: He has said that.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: He has said that.

QUESTION: So it’s conceivable to you that (inaudible) that the negotiations over a political agreement could extend beyond the end of the month if the President decides that is in the U.S. interest?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I’m not going to make those judgments or deal with those hypotheticals. Our assignment from the President of the United States is to do everything we can to get there and that’s what we’re trying to do.

MODERATOR: Terry.

QUESTION: Just one sort of logistical question. Have the Iranian’s mentioned the Iranian New Year at all as a constraint – either a goal for agreement or a constraint on (inaudible) amount of time you have between now and the end of the month?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, certainly Nowruz is important in the Iranian calendar, as our holidays are important to us in our calendar. As it turns out, it happens to be the same time that Secretary Kerry – I think you’re all well aware – is going to meet with the leadership of Afghanistan in Washington. And so his schedule is tied up around that time as well. And so we’ll manage around Nowruz, but understand the importance to the Iranian calendar.

QUESTION: [Senior State Department Official], if the President makes an assessment at the end of March on whether it’s worth proceeding, what is the game plan if there are mixed views on – perhaps on the U.S. side on there is not a feeling that enough progress has been made but some of the other P5+1 members do feel there’s enough in the framework to go forward? What happens if you have sort of a split?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: We are incredibly united. We spend so much time in coordination with each other. We know way too much about each other at this point. And so I don’t imagine that will happen. I really don’t. We really stay in lockstep with each other.

MODERATOR: We just have a few more minutes. Felicia or Josh, you have --

QUESTION: I’ve got one. Are Iran’s public statements about early and rapid sanctions lifting as rigid as the private position? Is this (inaudible)?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, I’m not going to talk about what goes on inside of the negotiating room. I think these are statements that have been made for some time, and of course we understand that sanctions relief is an important element for the Iranians.

QUESTION: Can I just go back to Arshad’s original – on this idea that somehow, the end of March is not a deadline for a framework?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, this President has --

QUESTION: Is that what you’re saying?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: No. The President has said he wants us to have a framework on March 30th, and that is what we are working to achieve, and we mean to get there. I don’t want to leave any misinterpretation here. We mean to get there.

QUESTION: Okay.

QUESTION: But it’s a framework agreement?

QUESTION: But you said no --

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: It’s an understanding.

QUESTION: -- don’t expect an announcement by the --

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, look, we’re not going to – no, what I said is we’re not going to – I was going to say pop open the champagne, but I try to be culturally sensitive.

QUESTION: Apple – sparkling apple. (Laughter.)

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: We’re not going to pop open the sparkling cider on March 30th and say that we have an agreement, because we will only have an understanding that has to be filled out with lots of detail.

QUESTION: And are you talking – you’re saying that the understanding would be the framework?

MODERATOR: She’s talking about the annexes, which is – what was Arshad’s question, I believe, and that --

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Right.

QUESTION: Well, I understand that if you get a framework, you’re not going to pop the champagne, because you still have until the end --

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Correct.

QUESTION: You still have to get the whole deal going.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Exactly.

QUESTION: But what – were you or were you not saying that you will not – for us not to expect an announcement – an announcement of a framework – by the end of March?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: If you say a framework is the political understandings that we hope to --

QUESTION: Yes, that’s --

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Yes, we expect to get there by March 30th.

QUESTION: Oh, okay. All right. Good. I thought – okay.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Sorry, I didn’t mean to be obtuse.

QUESTION: You do still expect to get there by March 30th? I thought earlier you were saying that you couldn’t say whether or not you would get there.

QUESTION: That’s why I --

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, because you’re asking me whether we’re going to achieve it or not. I don't know whether we will achieve it or not.

QUESTION: Right.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: But has the President said that’s what he wants us to do? Yes. And is that what we are trying to do? Yes.

QUESTION: But knowing that these things, these kind – these processes tend to expand to the – they never get done early, right?

MODERATOR: You’ll just have to be with us on the 30th and see what happens.

QUESTION: Well, no. I’m just curious. I mean, would it be possible – is it conceivable --

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I’m not going to deal with hypotheticals, Matt.

QUESTION: But is it conceivable that the next round might be the decisive one where – so that you --

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I hope every round is the decisive one.

QUESTION: Yeah, but you – realistically, you knew this one wasn’t.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I’ve been doing this a long time. (Laughter.)

QUESTION: Right, well --

QUESTION: I think you deserve champagne.

QUESTION: But then you shouldn’t – if you – you’re right. So you shouldn’t expect every round to be a decisive one or hope that it will – because you know – I just --

MODERATOR: Can we just get to Jo and --

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Matt, Matt, what’s your point?

QUESTION: Do you think that the end of – well, I’m trying to get the end of the road on this, end of – for end of March. Could it be in Geneva or wherever the next round is?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I would hope that every round we are able to reach this understanding.

QUESTION: All right.

MODERATOR: Jo, did you have a question?

QUESTION: No, I’m fine. Thank you.

MODERATOR: Okay.

QUESTION: Can I do one follow up?

MODERATOR: Yeah, let’s just do these two more. Go ahead.

QUESTION: How much harder do you – if at all, do you think Netanyahu’s speech has made selling whatever you might achieve to Congress, and how much anxiety are you now registering from Gulf Arab states?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: The challenges of an agreement being accepted by the world is a challenge we have had from the start. And the President, I think, said it quite well yesterday when he said, “If we get to an agreement, it will be because I believe an agreement will meet the test that Iran will not acquire a nuclear weapon and its program will be judged as entirely peaceful through this process.”

And we will have to have an agreement that meets that test. And we know that there will be many critics and we know there will be a great deal of discussion, and that has always been the case, and so the responsibility on the President’s shoulders, the Secretary’s, mine, the team that joined us in the negotiations and the literally hundreds of people in our government and all of the other governments who work on this issue – we understand the responsibility to try to achieve that and to be able to defend it. And the President needs to defend it because he would not agree to something he did not believe he could defend.

As to the Gulf states, Israel, other partners, allies, and everyone in the world who’s concerned about this, we – as you know, before and after every negotiation, I talk with all of those partners. The Secretary of State, in fact, will be in Riyadh tomorrow. I’ll be here for the E3+3 meeting, otherwise I would join him. But he’ll be in Riyadh tomorrow meeting with the GCC, which is part of this process. We care very deeply about the security of the Gulf; obviously, as the President said yesterday, the security of Israel; and the security of the world. And that is why we are working so hard to reach this agreement because the President believes profoundly that if we can reach an agreement, that that will make the world a safer place, it will be good for American national security, and for Israel’s national security.

QUESTION: Are you going to Israel to --

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I am not going to Israel this time.

QUESTION: When will the Israelis be briefed on this round?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I do it by secure phone, I can do it by SVTS, as soon as I can get it scheduled.

QUESTION: Okay. But you’re not – the speech hasn’t caused you to (inaudible)?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: No. I talked to Yossi Cohen and Yuval Steinitz before I came here --

QUESTION: So can we say that you expect --

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: -- by secure phone.

QUESTION: -- to brief them soon --

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Yes, you can say --

QUESTION: -- in the coming days?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: You can say I expect to brief them soon.

QUESTION: Before you came to talk to us?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Huh?

QUESTION: Before you came to talk to us, or before you came to Montreux?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Before I came to Montreux.

MODERATOR: Well, okay, Laurence. Let’s do the last one here.

QUESTION: Can I come back to Michael’s question about the end of this process? I’m sure the Iranians will love the hear the word “endless,” by the way. But --

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: What did I say about endless, Laurence?

QUESTION: I think you said in some senses, in essence, this is an endless – but anyway, leaving that aside, is it right, then, to say that it is possible at the end of whatever it is – 10 years, 15 years, whatever – that Iran will have to do things beyond what every other member of the NPT has to do because of an agreement that might be signed?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I’m not going to characterize anything here that would indicate that we have reached some agreement in this discussion. We have not. All I am saying is that there will be a number of phases for Iran going into the future if we reach an agreement, and that it will include measures of transparency, including the additional protocol, which does not exist today and would be an extraordinarily important piece to put in place, and that is – goes on for as long as Iran is a party to it.

MODERATOR: All right. Thank you, everyone. That concludes our background briefing.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Thank you.