Background Briefing on Travel to Switzerland

Special Briefing
Senior State Department Official
En Route to Switzerland
March 25, 2015


QUESTION: Who are you today? Senior State --

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I’m a senior State Department official, and you guys can report this as – any of this as soon as we land.

QUESTION: We can’t?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: You can. Can.

QUESTION: (Off-mike.)

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Everything I say is newsworthy. I’ll let you be the judge.

Indira, you ready?

QUESTION: Yes, thanks.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Okay. So Senior State Department official.

So obviously, it’s going to be a busy who-knows-how-many days we’re here. Under Secretary Sherman and the expert team arrived this morning. She will be meeting with Deputy Foreign Minister Arachi. The experts will be meeting. We can get more details on that after the meetings happen for you, but they will have some meetings at that level today to set up the meetings the Secretary and Foreign Minister Zarif will begin tomorrow morning.

Obviously, the schedule is incredibly fluid. I’m sure many of you will ask if and when ministers may come, other ministers. We do not know at this point. If we are someplace where we are very close to an agreement – obviously, this is the P5+1 – other delegations at the ministerial level will have to come at some point. But just for people’s planning, we don’t know when that might be. There’s no schedule for the rest of the week after meetings tomorrow with the Iranians.

In terms of setting expectations, as you all know and have heard us say many times, we are focused on getting a political framework that addresses all of the major elements of a comprehensive deal done by the end of March. That is the date we are focused on. We made – I think we would say we made more progress in the last round than we had made in the previous rounds, which often happens once you’re getting closer to a deadline, I would say. And we can see a path forward here to get to an agreement. We can see what that path might look like. That doesn’t mean we’ll get there. And I think if you asked many people in the delegation, we truly do not know if we will be able to do this. But I do think it’s important that we see a path forward. We’ve discussed all of the substantive issues at the political and expert level that will need to be part of this.

I probably don’t have much more at the top to say than that. I’ll probably just open it up to questions and I’m sure you all have many things you want to ask. Who wants to start?

QUESTION: Thanks. Can you tell us a little bit more about this issue of written vs. non-written, and how much of a difference it makes? I know that we had been told that they wanted to have an agreement that would have – be quantifiable and would have specific elements. So how does that gel with the supreme leader not wanting something until the end of June written?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, a couple things. That comment a senior Administration official said to some of you last week about having a quantifiable – I think was the term [Senior Administration Official] used – specifics absolutely is still the case. We do not know what form this will take if we can get there at the end of March. I know that’s a big question people have. But regardless, we have always said it needs to have specifics. We will need to communicate as many specifics as possible to the public in some form or fashion. What that will look like we truly just do not know at this point yet. Obviously, we’ll be communicating that to Congress as well. But I think what folks are focused on right now is the substance of what we are trying to work towards in a political framework, and as we get closer here, I think to conversations about form for some sort of public announcement will be a part of the discussion, but we truly do not know at this point.

But I do want to underscore that we believe and know that we will have to share as many specific details publicly as we can, with the caveat that the work of doing annexes if we can get to a political framework is very tough work. It involves a lot of details that are very important to the implementation of this deal, so noting that as well.

QUESTION: I notice that you’re saying “political framework,” not “political framework agreement.” Just following up on Indira’s question, is that just – is there --

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: (Off-mike.)

QUESTION: No reason for that. So --

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: We’ve also said “understanding.” We use a bunch of different words. It all means the same thing.

QUESTION: Do you think it will mean the same thing to Congress, though?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, I don’t want to speak for Congress, certainly. But I think what we’ve heard from them in our discussions is that they want to see specifics on the issues that are important to cutting off the four pathways, to getting to a year breakout. So I think regardless of what word we use, what word we eventually end up calling it, I think what they’re most focused on is what we’re most focused on – is actually the specifics.

Yes, Carol.

QUESTION: So when President Obama says that your goal is to be able to have people lift up the hood and kick the tires and see what’s under the hood --

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: (Off-mike.)

QUESTION: So when Obama says he wants people to be able to lift up the hood and see what’s in there and kick the tires and all that, does that mean that is what your goal is? This is for the end of March, or this is for June? You’re going to try to have that many specifics to kick around?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: He’s talking about the end of March. Now obviously, there will be a lot more specifics and annexes by the end of June. But the premise that the President’s referring to applies to both June and March, that we have been very clear that March 31st is a real date and it is an important one, and that we have to be able – as much as we can, given these will still be ongoing negotiations – to say as many specifics as we can. I can’t preview or guess what that might look like at this point.

QUESTION: Anyone else (inaudible)?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Indira has more questions.

QUESTION: Okay, so if you’re not able to get the framework that you want before the end of March, what is the possibility of having some sort of a step two agreement, a sort of JPOA-plus that would take you further down the road? Or, if you can’t get that agreement, would the JPOA continue?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, a couple points on that. First, the JPOA was technically extended till the end of June already. So when we extended the provisions of it in the second extension last November, it already technically has been. Now – right, right. But that’s, I think, an important point some people forget.

At the same time, the President and the Secretary have made absolutely clear that March 31st is a real date and that it matters and it has significance. So we definitely don’t want to get into hypotheticals about what might happen. The Secretary has said these decisions don’t get easier with time, and what would – what would be different in their calculation in April or May or June. I mean, he said this all on the record. So I definitely don’t want to get into hypotheticals, but – yeah.

QUESTION: What about the French saying March 31st is not a big deal? Please be as explicit as you want to be.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, first I would say that when the P5+1 and Iran extended the JPOA in November, we all – all of the members of the P5+1 and Iran – signed onto a joint statement that listed the end of March as the target goal for reaching a political understanding. So that was a date that was decided on by the entire P5+1.

That does not mean – I think what’s underpinning your question, though, that does not mean we will rush to get a bad deal because there is a deadline. We won’t. But I think that’s underpinning maybe what you’re asking.

QUESTION: Well, so is it – your interpretation is that even if the March 31 date is not met for a political framework, the JPOA will continue and everyone will – I mean, won’t the Iranians just drop out of it?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I really don’t want to sort of entertain hypotheticals about what might happen if we can’t get to an understanding. I was just pointing out that technically, when we announced the extension, we extended all the way through June. Now, the President and the Secretary have also said we will have to evaluate where we are at the end of March and we’ll have to look at what the path forward looks like. So they’ve been very explicit about that, too.

QUESTION: Just on that, in a briefing back in Montreux, a senior State Department official said that the President will have to sign off on anything that’s agreed for March 31st. Given that that’s Tuesday, would you expect – how – could you just walk us through how you would expect that to happen and whether – is it your anticipation that if there is something to announce, it will be done here? Or do you anticipate that it could actually be done out of the White House?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: The answer to your second question is I have no idea how anything will be announced if something is indeed announced. We’ve said that’s a high-class problem to have. We’re obviously thinking through logistics of how that might happen. You all remember how the JPOA was announced, which we did from Geneva, and then the President spoke. We honestly have no idea how this might go.

But in terms of your first question, the Secretary when he’s at these rounds, certainly when he was at the last round, spoke to the President several times over the phone, spoke to Ambassador Rice several times. Under Secretary Sherman and Rob Malley and others are in constant communication with folks at the White House as well. So there is very high-level conversation between the Secretary and his team and the President and his team back in Washington, almost real-time discussions last time at the last round. They also had the opportunity to talk about it when the Secretary was back these last few days in D.C. So the President is very focused on all the details, as is the Secretary, and I expect that pace will continue if not accelerate of conversations during this next round the closer we get to an agreement.

QUESTION: And just picking up on one of the kerfuffles from last week about a draft document, okay, I accept that you are saying that there’s no draft document circulating. But if we’re going to get to a position on March 31st where you’re making public some details, at what point do you expect a draft document to be circulated?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: That’s a good question, and I think we’ll probably have a better sense for some of that when we get on the ground for this round. Our comments still hold that we said last week. That doesn’t mean that internally both in our own delegation and in other delegations people haven’t put ideas down on paper of – I mean, if we hadn’t, I don’t know what everyone would have been doing for the last 16 months or however many months. I’m assuming the Iranians have done the same thing internally. But the notion that there wasn’t a draft circulating between the P5+1 and the Iranians was true.

But it’s a good question, and I think we’ll have a better sense for the tactics of how this process will play out once Under Secretary Sherman meets with the Iranians today and gets a sense for how this will play out and then when Secretary Kerry has his first meeting tomorrow with Foreign Minister Zarif.

QUESTION: Sorry. And was it your understanding that when Foreign Minister Zarif went back to Tehran he was actually taking ideas back to be signed off on, and he’s going to be coming back to the negotiating table today – tomorrow with a yea or nay answer?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: That’s a question they’re probably best equipped to answer. I, quite frankly, don’t know what his conversations or what he was planning to discuss when he went back to Tehran. But in general, I do think it was a good opportunity for all of the delegations to return to capitals, to have discussions, to talk about what is essential for all of us that needs to be in a political understanding, and that we’ll all come back to the table this week working constructively to see if we can get there. That’s certainly the hope.

QUESTION: The – have the Russians and Chinese been using their considerable leverage on the Iranians to kind of push them over the last week since you left Lausanne? And then second question: We know that you keep saying that the P5+1 are united, but we do know there are nuances among the group. One of those nuances has to do with the fact that, for example, the French have said they’re pushing for a 15-year duration plus 10 years of monitoring. Without sort of divulging what specific positions are, do you feel that on these nuances there is a convergence within the group so that you’re more or less unified, as you’ve said publicly you are?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I do. And I think you heard the Secretary address when he said we are all unified in our approach. Another senior State Department official in the past has said to you all that obviously we all have national positions but that we are unified in our approach. And we on duration are pushing for as long as we can get. So I don’t think it’s constructive to sort of talk about where we all are publicly, but I do think people feel confident that as we go into this last round we need to be and are unified in our approach.

I will note the Secretary had very good phone calls with Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi when we were last in Lausanne. And they’ve both played a very helpful role inside the P5+1 but also with the Iranians, of course, particularly on a lot of the technical issues, and I certainly expect that will continue.

QUESTION: Are you taking any extra precautions this round to make sure that nobody’s eavesdropping? And on just a sort of a semi-related thing, given that this is presumably the final round before the 31st, would you consider giving us daily some sort of briefings at the end of the day on where you stand?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I mean, we know there are lots of people around the world who are interested in what is happening in the negotiating room, and I think we’re all very cognizant of that.

QUESTION: Any extra precautions?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I would not say that.

QUESTION: (Off-mike.)

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Oh, yeah, second question. We will throughout this round – last round we tried to do sort of daily backgrounders on different things. We will try to do as much as we can. It’s going – I know it will be at times very frustrating. We will try, if there are particular substantive issues that we think one of the experts it would help, we’ll try and do some more of that. We will very much try. I understand the – we have a desire to, but it will be tough.

QUESTION: Just two quick clarifications on previous questions. In Heathrow when there was the meeting of the European ministers and Secretary Kerry, who said they were going to discuss ways to overcome the remaining differences, go back to capitals, try to come up with a common strategy. I know you’ve said there is now a common approach, but is there a common P5+1 position on how long an agreement should be, on what verification is required, on what specific measures should be taken on, let’s say, for research and development? Is there a common position on those key issues? I’m not asking you what the position is; I’m just asking if the P5+1 have – has a position agreed among all of them on those issues?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: A couple points on that. I mean, there are a lot of – it is true that we have a common approach, even on those issues. There are a lot of details that fall under that that all impact each other in an interrelated way. And so those conversations about which part is most important to the P5+1, what the topic – or what the position will be inside the room are ongoing. Secretary Moniz had a secure video teleconference yesterday with his EU, French, British, and German counterparts, to talk through some of those technical pieces that you mentioned. So there is a common approach.

We are discussing internally inside the P5+1 what is the best tactical way to address some of this in the room with Iran. Obviously, all of us want as long of a duration as possible. We all agree on that. The question is what is realistic, what should be in place for what amount of time. Those conversations are all ongoing.

QUESTION: (Off-mike.)

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I mean, I think it’s fair to say throughout these negotiations there’s always been ongoing conversations about the best tactical approach. I think we are all on the same page though in terms of the goals in general, what we’re working towards. And these are very constructive conversations the Secretary has had with his P5+1 counterparts, that Secretary Moniz has. We’re all working towards the same goal here, and I think that are all committed to seeing if we can sort of get to a place where we can get to an agreement together here. But we are, as the Secretary said, united in our approach here. The tactical question is always an ongoing conversation, right?

QUESTION: Can I just ask for one just quick clarification? Just on the form of the agreement, since the Iranians have talked about an understanding and your side has talked about specifics, might it be possible that there are two statements in – an understanding with the Iranians, which is somewhat general and could be verbal or written, and a document that the P5+1 issues, or the United States provides the Congress which is more specific?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Again, going back – I mean, the true answer, Michael, is we don’t know at this point. But the goal is to get as many specifics nailed down both with the Iranians and whatever we can say publicly. So the goal is, certainly, to have agreement in whatever form or fashion we can get it to at the end of the month with Iran on as many specifics as possible. That’s absolutely the goal. I would not say there is a different goal publicly.

QUESTION: [Senior State Department Official], just a follow-up. I want to make sure I’m understanding something here. I think you said that the JPOA, when it was already extended, there’s essentially already another three months’ cushion because it goes to June. So if – I know we’re not talking hypotheticals, but are you saying that regardless of what happens in the next week or so that JPOA will continue, it won’t go away April the 1st if there is a failure to reach an agreement?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Right. What I was saying is there’s – in no way is there an – there’s no automatic way it would go away on April 1st, whereas the previous extensions, the deadline was the end of the extension of the provisions of the Joint Plan of Action. So we won’t wake up on April 1st and it will have gone away automatically.

Now, again, we don’t – if we get to March 31st and don’t have a political understanding, we will have to evaluate where we are, we will have to look at what we think the path forward is, and we will make decisions based on that going forward. But unlike the previous two extensions, the day after the deadline it does not automatically expire. That is correct.

QUESTION: Is there a clear idea of to what levels of specifics you have to reach in order to say March 31st you have what you’re looking for? Is there like a bottom line of how much you need to have sorted out? And if you get to the end of March 31st and you don’t have the political understanding and you evaluate what the path forward is, is there room for a continued process?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, again, I don’t want to speculate. We have to see what the situation looks like on the 31st to see what the path forward is. On the 1st, obviously, we have said that any political understanding needs to address in some way all of the major elements of a final agreement. So we’ve always said that’s the four pathways, that’s year breakout, that’s things like R&D, transparency; for the Iranians, certainly sanctions relief. So it will have to address all of the major elements.

Yeah, let’s go to Laura.

QUESTION: I think at the last backgrounder I was in in Lausanne, the senior Administration official was still saying that the Iranians have to make certain decisions and we’re waiting to see if they can. Are you more confident that they’re prepared to make the decisions you need to get some sort of understanding?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I think we will have a much better sense after the Secretary’s meetings tomorrow with Foreign Minister Zarif, certainly. I think – we hope they are. But it will be hard to have a sense for that until we’re on the ground and having meetings.

QUESTION: Going back to the kerfuffle that was mentioned earlier on the draft, last, I believe, June a senior Administration official told us in Vienna that drafting had begun on a Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, that there was a lot of bracketing. What happened to that document or whatever? This was – was it sort of pushed aside after they had to extend the talks in July? I went back and looked at the briefing that --

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I quite honestly don’t remember that. There may have been an internal, very early thing that was called a draft in July, but (a) I know nothing was circulating, certainly, with Iran or the other members of the P5+1 at that point. So I just don’t remember the details of that, Lou, but knowing where we are now in terms of what’s been written down, I mean, we’re just in a different – we’re light years beyond where we were at that point in our – in these talks. So I’m not sure what happened to what had been written down at that point, but I know what we’re working on internally now in terms of what we’ve written down and our ideas and how we’re starting to think about them, and we will see.

QUESTION: I know you don’t want to speak in hypotheticals, but can you tell us if you at least have people back in Washington who are already starting to draw up possible plans of actions if there is no agreement by the 31st? Are you prepared?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I think it’s fair to say that we will have people in Lausanne and in Washington who are looking at the different possibilities and scenarios for what might happen. Yeah, I mean, I think that’s certainly fair to say. But we very much believe we can get this done by the 31st. We see a path to do that. I don’t think we would have said that even before the last round probably. So to set expectation – not to set them too high, because I think there is a good chance that we cannot get this done. But yeah, we plan for all outcomes.

QUESTION: Just logistically, so there are meetings all day tomorrow planned? And beyond that, you have a blank slate. Do you anticipate you could have it wrapped up by tomorrow evening or – and what’s going to happen on Friday?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: It’s a totally blank slate. If you saw our schedule, it literally just says “negotiations” every day. No, look – in order to – there will be things that need to happen before this gets wrapped up, one of which will be the entire P5+1 coming together at a high level, which is not going to happen tomorrow, I don’t think. So just for your planning.

QUESTION: You and other senior Administration officials have talked about the four pathways and trying to stop those. Can you give us a little bit more on what specifically would stop the covert pathway in the current ideas that you have on the table?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: It won’t surprise you I’m not going to get into what ideas we have on the table in the negotiations. But in general, the way – the ways you can address the covert pathway are through things like transparency, not just of enrichment facilities but, as one of the experts spoke to you all about last week, starting with uranium mines and mills; starting at the beginning of the process.

QUESTION: (Off-mike.)

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, right, we’re talking about increased transparency here, right, beyond the JPOA. But through the life cycle of uranium, certainly, transparency and monitoring are one of the main ways that you can ensure that things aren’t being siphoned off from the declared facilities to undeclared facilities like we’ve talked about. That’s certainly one of the biggest ways. But in general, you get at the covert pathway through a lot of transparency and monitoring. And the point of – that underpins why a year breakout is so important, up from what now is about two to three months, is that experts believe that that’s enough time, if you do discover something, to take action. So that’s why the year breakout matters.