Background Briefing on Secretary Kerry's Trip to Vienna

Special Briefing
Senior Administration Official
Via Teleconference
June 26, 2015


MODERATOR: Thank you so much and thanks everyone for jumping on the call here. In a moment, I’m going to turn it over to [name and title withheld], who all of you know. [Senior Administration Official] will be on background as a Senior Administration Official. There’s no embargo on this so you all can report on this as soon as possible, as soon as you want to. We will post the transcript only when we’re wheels down tomorrow evening in Vienna.

So [Senior Administration Official] --

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Okay.

MODERATOR: -- will give some brief opening remarks and then we’ll go to Q&A.

Go ahead.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Okie doke. Thank you all for calling in today, and looking forward to seeing you all, at least from a distance, in Vienna very soon. Know that you will be just delighted to be back at the Palais Coburg.

As you now know, Secretary Kerry and Secretary Moniz are headed out here tomorrow. They will start meetings with Minister Zarif and all of us on Saturday. We expect other ministers will be showing up as well over the weekend. It’s also worth keeping in mind that the Secretary – and I can attest to this myself – has been busy working nonstop since his injury on the Iran talks, making calls to his foreign counterparts. He saw the Chinese in Washington just this week, of course, and he’s had conversations with every one of his foreign counterparts since his injury. He has been talking to the negotiating team and to me on at least a daily basis, if not more frequently each day. We obviously report back at the end of each day in considerable detail to Washington. We have had briefings with both Secretary Kerry and Secretary Moniz to go through all of the elements of the deal and where they stand. We’ve had SVTCs to do technical briefings and get assistance from Secretary Moniz in that regard as well. We have, as I’ve told you before, many, many people in the U.S. Government who backstop the negotiating team that is here in Vienna, and it’s really an extraordinary undertaking.

We’re getting close to the June 30th deadline – I’m sure you all have noticed – and our experts have been very hard at work with our P5+1 partners and with Iran and the European Union for weeks now on the set of understandings that will comprise a final deal, including the text of the political understanding that outlines all the commitments made and the handful of annexes that outlines in painstaking detail – and I say painstaking because every word is parsed in these negotiations – in painstaking detail every single technical every single technical step that will have to take place in order to implement these commitments. This detailed work is all based, of course, on the more general parameters that were outlined and agreed in Lausanne, and which quite frankly I think surprised many commentators by how detailed even the parameters ended up being.

These negotiations have been extremely tough. We knew they would be. We are well – understand the rollercoaster ride of these negotiations. We always know that as we got towards the end it would get tougher and tougher because the stakes get higher. You always leave the most difficult issues to the last, and as you all know nothing is agreed until everything is agreed. So you keep coming back around to other issues once you solve one issue. It is like whack-a-mole; another issue may pop back up because you’ve changed the balance of the deal because of any one decision. The negotiations involve very technical issues, but also some very difficult political decisions, particularly difficult political decisions for the Iranians to make.

Contrary to some public speculation, our positions inside the room have remained absolutely consistent about what we need in a deal, and it is quite remarkable how united the P5+1 and the European Union have been throughout this process. Some of the trickiest issues in the negotiations at this point are the ones you’d expect. The timing and pace of sanctions relief, for example, and details about access and transparency. Despite these tough issues, here’s really what it’s all about. We can truly see a path forward that gets us to a very good agreement here. We know what the pieces of it are. We believe there are technical solutions for every issue that’s on the table, although we also appreciate there are some tough political decisions to be made and they will ultimately be made by ministers. We do believe there are technical solutions for every issue at that level on the table, and the real question is whether all of us, but in particular – because this is in the end about Iran making some very critical choices – about the decisions they will have to make.

I know there’s been quite a bit of talk as well as press about recent comments made by the supreme leader and action taken by the Majles. What’s always mattered most to us is what happens inside the negotiating room and whether Iran actually upholds its commitments as they’ve done in the JPOA. We and Iran both know what is needed for a deal. It’s based on the Lausanne parameters. We have to get the Lausanne parameters or we will not have a deal. We all understand that; all parties understand that. But as I’ve always said, the devil is in the details in this agreement. And even with what were more detailed parameters than we expected out of Lausanne – that you all expected out of Lausanne – nonetheless there are many more details that have to be agreed to ensure that the commitments you think you’ve gotten you have really gotten. And that is the hard, hard negotiating in which we have been engaged.

So I am hopeful, but it still remains to be seen whether we can get there.

MODERATOR: Great. Thank you. And can the operator remind --

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: (Inaudible), I’ll be glad to take your questions.

MODERATOR: -- questions. Yep.

OPERATOR: Thank you. And ladies and gentlemen, if you’d like to ask a question, please press * then 1 on your touchtone phone. We’ll go the line of Michael Gordon with The New York Times. Please go ahead, your line is open.

QUESTION: Hi, [Senior Administration Official]. The Administration has not been a model of transparency about what’s happening inside the negotiation, but it’s been explained that this is necessary to protect the negotiating process. If you do get an agreement, will you make the entire agreement and all of its annexes, including the technical steps you described, public so the world can scrutinize the agreement and come to its own assessment about what it does and what it doesn’t do? Will there be secret annexes, and if so, what will be kept secret?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, thanks, Michael. As you say, we have not discussed the details of what’s going on inside of the negotiating room because those details change, and until we have everything agreed, nothing is agreed. And so it’s not just about protecting the negotiation, which is of course critical. It is also that any text that gets created and virtually changes on a daily basis until everything is agreed. And so anything anybody might see or be aware of is not sacrosanct, it’s not really fully nailed down until everything else is agreed. So it is both for the protection of the negotiation, as any negotiator would want to do, but it also is fundamental to the nature of this particular, very complex, very Rubik’s Cube-oriented deal.

As to what will happen, we expect that a text of the political understanding and the annexes will be public. Whether there will be any attachments or other documents that will be classified is not yet decided. Indeed, of course, anything that we do here we will share with the United States Congress.

QUESTION: Can I just ask a very quick follow-up, please? If there’s anything that’s “classified,” surely it will be an agreement or a technical annex that the Iranian Government has. What would be the rationale for withholding from the American public a document that the Iranian Government has?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, so will our government have it.

QUESTION: Right, but the American public --

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: So I don’t know that the Iranian Government will share it with its public. I’m not sure the Iranian Government will share it with its public, nor any other member of the P5 will share it with its public. I think this is premature, Michael, to be perfectly honest. We haven’t reached those decisions yet. I don’t know whether indeed there will be anything that’s classified. And I don’t – can’t tell you today, if there is and what the nature of it will be. So these are all hypotheticals, and I quite frankly don’t think there’s a story here because we aren’t yet at that decision point.

MODERATOR: Great, thanks. Let’s move to the next question.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Go to the line of Carol Morello with The Washington Post. Please go ahead. Your line is open.

QUESTION: Thank you for doing this call. You said that you’ve been hard at work preparing the text for the understandings. I was wondering if you’re doing anything alternatively on a Plan B. If for some reason things reach a stalemate or fall apart, are you doing anything to prepare for anything other than an agreement?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, I think that what I’m focused on here in Vienna and what the team is focused on here in Vienna is the negotiation, seeing if we can get where we all want to be, which is to make real the Lausanne parameters and get to a joint comprehensive plan of action. In the government as a whole, we have always looked at all kinds of contingencies in this arena, as you are well aware, and we will continue to do so.

QUESTION: Can you be more specific at all?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: (Inaudible) prudent thing to do.

QUESTION: Can you be more specific about --

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: No.

QUESTION: -- what that might be? No?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: No, no.

QUESTION: Okay.

MODERATOR: Great, thanks. Next question, please.

OPERATOR: We’ll go to the line of Jo Biddle with AFP. Please go ahead. Your line is open.

QUESTION: Hello, thank you very much. I wondered if the fact that French Foreign Minister Fabius is already going to be there on Saturday as well – and as you said, the other ministers are flying in this weekend, you expect – do you – should we understand by that that you’ve mostly nailed everything down? Last time in Lausanne, it took a few days before the ministers arrived, and then some left and then they came back.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yeah, no – right. I think this is a little different this time. It’s a very good question. I would see all of the ministers coming in over this weekend as a check-in. Experts and political directors have been working for some time. We’re getting close to the 30th. I’ll already anticipate a question you all have, and as you all well know, we didn’t make March 30th and we may not make June 30th, but we will be close, I think, if we can get there at all.

But indeed, I think it’s appropriate for ministers to now sort of check in with where things are. I don’t expect all of the ministers to stay here until the very end. We and the Chinese are the ones that have to travel the furthest. Other ministers can come here for half a day and go home and come back again when needed. So Secretary Kerry will stay for some time – I can’t tell you how much time – for two reasons. One, as you all know, he really tries to move forward these negotiations in conversations – he and Secretary Moniz in conversations with Minister Zarif. We stay in very close consultation with all of our partners because this is a long-term comprehensive agreement that we are trying to reach – a plan of action, sorry – plan of action that we’re trying to reach. This is consequential for every single country involved in this negotiation.

So unlike the JPOA, which was originally for just six months, this is for many years. And so it’s quite consequential. Ministers want to stay closer to it than a short-term interim step or even the parameters at Lausanne. They want to make sure, as Secretary Kerry has his very intensive discussions, that there’s constant consultation. So that will either be done in person or by phone or by SVTC. And so this will be a slightly different process, and understandably so. The stakes are quite high, and the outcome very consequential.

QUESTION: Okay. And if I may, just if you could indulge me one more question, I wanted to ask – oh, gosh, what’s going on in my head now --

MODERATOR: We can come back to you if you think of it.

QUESTION: Yes, sorry. Come back to me, sorry. Just clear my head. Sorry.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Okay.

MODERATOR: We’ll go on to the next question.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Go to the line of Pamela Dockins with Voice of America. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Thank you for doing this. Following up on your statement that you – the negotiators may not make the June 30th deadline but expect to be close, has there been any talk in the room of having what amounts to a two-part agreement? For example, on the 30th, you may have the basic framework for a deal, but the nuts and bolts – the mechanics of it – work continues on that after the June 30th deadline.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: No, no, no. The absolute – all of the P5+1, the European Union which facilitates these negotiations and leads the negotiations in many ways and Iran all believe we must stay committed to the June 30th deadline, and to do it all – to do it all. And we have long said that we’re not going to do this piecemeal. The annexes fill out the political understanding, the plan of action, the overall plan of action, and that one without the other does not make sense. So we are endeavoring to do the political understanding and all of the annexes all at the same time.

MODERATOR: Great, thanks. Let’s go to the next question.

OPERATOR: Okay. It’s from the line of James Rosen with Fox News. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Thank you very much for doing the call, [Senior Administration Official]. It’s very helpful for our coverage. Two questions, if I may.

First, I wanted to raise again at the risk of reopening old sores the David Sanger piece from a few weeks ago in The New York Times which raised the possibility that Iran might not be able by June 30 to reduce its LEU stockpile to the parameters set forth at Lausanne. We have been told that this was not a major issue of negotiation and we can accept that, but nonetheless, we just wonder if you’re able to assure all concerned parties at this time that, based on past performance and based on the technical data that you see before you, Iran will be able to make that deadline in its own right.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I really need to leave any announcements about this to the IAEA, which is the agency which verifies that in fact Iran has kept its commitments. We have been very clear that all of us keeping our commitments to the JPOA is essential, and that goes on this issue as well.

QUESTION: Okay. And one last question sort of more personal in tone, if you will: [Identifying information withheld]?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I’m not going to speak to that and I see no purpose in it.

MODERATOR: Great, thanks. Let’s go to the next question.

OPERATOR: That will come from the line of Margaret Brennan with CBS News. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Hi from Vienna. Two questions. Does an understanding, which is the term that you’re using, equal the exact same thing as a signed deal? Can you hear me?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Say that again. I’m sorry, I missed it. Yeah, I missed it though. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Sure. Does an understanding mean the exact same thing as a signed deal? That term you’re using “understanding” is a deliberate one and I just want to make sure I’m understanding it correctly.

And secondly, the July 9th date that the Congress has in its mind in terms of giving it a longer period of review of whatever deal you present it with, does that date set up a different dynamic in any way for you, giving them 60 rather than 30 days to review your finished work?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I want to go back one minute to the question that Mr. Rosen asked and why I said it serves no purpose. We are focused in what’s happening in the negotiating room. Lots of voices have been heard over these 18 months by many people, and the voices really aren’t what matters in the end. What matters in the end is what we produce and whether we can produce a joint comprehensive plan of action that is a good deal that shuts down all of the pathways to fissile material for a nuclear weapon and provides the assurance that the international community must have that Iran’s program is entirely peaceful. And that’s the metric that matters. There are lots of voices, and more and more these days, and there will be more and more these days. But I would urge you and all of the media – I know it’s sometimes more fun to write about the other stuff, but to be focused on the detail and the substance of what we are doing here and whether, in fact, we accomplish the objective. That’s a fair metric, and quite frankly, at the end of the day it’s the only one that counts.

As to your question about why I used the word “understanding,” it’s because my lawyers tell me not to use the word “agreement” so I don’t. I think in English vernacular, “agreement” would be quite fine. As a legal matter, this is not a treaty. This is not – this is a political understanding or a political agreement, and so that’s why I used the word.

As far as July 9th is concerned, has it created a different dynamic? Not really. Everybody is conscious of it. Every delegation knows of it. Everyone understands that it’s – if it’s after July 9th it’s a 60-day review period as opposed to a 30-day review period. But as I think all of our spokespeople have said in virtually every country, including our own, we are committed to the deadline of June 30th even if we miss it by a short bit, which we may miss it by a short bit, as we missed March 30th by a short bit. But we also have to ensure that the content is right. And so if it takes us a little bit past June 30th to have the right content, as I just said a moment ago what matters here is the substance of the deal, and we have to get it right.

QUESTION: Do you expect a signed document on whatever date this is finished on, June 30th --

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: No, no, I don’t – I don’t – we did not affix signatures to the Joint Plan of Action. I doubt that we will affix signatures to something this time. It’s not generally done in these instances where you have literally a signing event. So I don’t expect that.

MODERATOR: Great, thanks. We should have two more questions, I think. Let’s go to the next question.

OPERATOR: Thank you. It goes to the line of Indira Lakshmanan with Bloomberg News. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Thank you for doing this. First, I just wanted to clarify two of the earlier questions. One was this commitment to the June 30th deadline but recognition that it might slip a little. Did that include that negotiators could take a break and come back perhaps a week later or something?

And secondly, I want to clarify the question about whether the political understanding and the technical annexes will be made public. I’m not talking about classified details, but will the actual technical annexes and political understanding be made public, not just to Congress?

And then my question was about whether the PMD issues will – will Iran have to have met and satisfied the IAEA’s condition of the access to scientists and information and documents at sites, et cetera – will that all have to have taken place before sanctions relief is given? In other words, is that something that goes hand-in-glove with them taking the steps they need to take that the IAEA will verify?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: So a couple of things. I was going to be flip, and so I do mean this flip and say to you if all of the political directors and experts leave here and take a break, they probably will never come back. So I say that flippantly because some of my experts, some of the experts on the American team, have lived here now for weeks. And this has been – every one of the people on the American team, least of all me, are tremendous heroes. And I would say that of every delegation. I – people work from 7 in the morning until midnight, if not longer, virtually every single day. They haven’t seen their families. They haven’t seen their children. I’m so glad that FaceTime and Skype exist for everybody with their families. People have missed birthdays. People have missed anniversaries. They have missed everything. And it has really – it is really quite, quite an effort that has been made here. And quite frankly, put Secretary Kerry, Secretary Moniz, and me aside, who people are aware of; the real heroes in this process are these extraordinary expert teams who have worked night and day on the most painful, painstaking details that I know at times even make your eyes glaze over as reporters, because they are complex and they are quite difficult. So they are the real heroes.

But to be serious about your question, and not – I’m serious about the team, but not the flip part – serious about your question, I don’t see us taking a break at this point. I see us getting this done or finding out that we can’t. And that’s always subject to change, of course, because life happens. But the intent – and by everybody here, the P5+1, the European Union, Iran – is to stay here until we get this done or find out we can’t. And our intent is to get it done.

Yes, we expect that the political understanding, the main text and the annexes, will become public documents.

QUESTION: Okay.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: On PMD, what we have said is that we do require that Iran give the IAEA the access they need to resolve the possible military dimensions of their program. Our position has never changed. We have always said that the U.S. in particular is not looking for a confession, because we’ve long made our own national judgment, but sanctions lifting will only occur as Iran takes the steps agreed, nuclear steps agreed, including addressing PMD.

We said in – one other thing I’ll say is we said in the parameters document and in the JPOA very specific things. In the November 2013 JPOA document we said the P5+1, the EU, and Iran will work with the IAEA to facilitate resolution of past and present issues of concern, which is a moniker for PMD. In the April 2015 Lausanne parameters we said that Iran will implement an agreed set of measures – we didn’t say what they were, but we just said “will implement an agreed set of measures to address the IAEA’s concerns regarding the possible military dimensions of its program.” And that remains what is required.

QUESTION: Okay. So then I’m – then it is correct to understand that that goes hand and glove together with whatever changes they’ll need to make to Fordow, Arak --

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Correct.

QUESTION: -- Natanz, et cetera. It’s all one package that they have to do before getting sanctions relief.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: It’s a package of nuclear steps which will in a kind of simultaneity that I – you will understand will lead to the lifting of sanctions.

QUESTION: Thank you.

MODERATOR: Great. Let’s go to what I think is our last question.

OPERATOR: Thank you, and would that come from the line of Arshad Mohammed with Reuters. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: A practical matter: How long do you think it will take you to have completed not just the texts – once you’ve reached an agreement on the political understanding and on the annexes, under the legislation there are also other reported requirements. How long do you think that whole process of going from agreement on understanding and annexes to full and complete submission to Congress will take you?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, Arshad, as you can imagine, we’re well aware of all of those requirements of the legislation. And as you would expect us to do in a professional, thoughtful way is we are trying to do all of this simultaneously, so that it will take us the least amount of time. If we are fortunate enough to reach an agreement that all of the verification assessment documents that are required will be available and ready to go up to the Hill in short order – but I can’t tell you today what short order means, but we are working this all simultaneously, in concert.

QUESTION: And one other thing, if I may, just to make sure I understood your answer about Secretary Kerry’s involvement. Is it conceivable to you that he might leave the negotiations for a period and come back, or was your comment about expecting not to take a break – does that apply to him too?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I don’t – I can’t answer that question because I don’t know what the next few days will look like. Every day we have a couple of people in different delegations that say what’s the plan for the day or what’s going to happen next week. We get up every day and put a schedule together and it can be ever changing as the day goes on. So I’m not going to detail Secretary Kerry’s travel schedule or what choices he’ll make. We will see what happens when he comes here, as he and Minister Zarif get started with Secretary Moniz, and then he’ll make the decisions that make the most sense to achieve this – a positive outcome if we can reach one.

QUESTION: Thank you.

MODERATOR: Great. Thanks, everyone, so much. Again, this is all as a Senior Administration Official. We’ll send the transcript around to you all and release it when we land in Vienna. And we’ll see you all bright and early tomorrow for our flight. Thanks, guys.