Solo Press Availability in Vienna, Austria

Press Availability
John Kerry
Secretary of State
Vienna, Austria
November 24, 2014


SECRETARY KERRY: Good afternoon, everybody, and thank you so much for your patience. We appreciate it very much. We know that this is a long process and there’s a great deal of waiting, and you have waited with great patience.

I want to begin by thanking the Austrian Government, particularly, who have hosted us here in Vienna for these negotiations. We’ve had many visits now and they have been equally gracious in every single one of them and enormously helpful. And we thank all the people of Austria for their very generous embrace and welcome.

I want to thank the United Nations and my colleagues from the United Kingdom, Germany, France, Russia, China, and the EU, and especially my good friend Baroness Cathy Ashton, whose partnership has been absolutely invaluable throughout this process and who has done a terrific job of helping to bring people together and define the process.

Let me also take a moment to thank the team of people that you don’t see right now, but they’re closeted up in a suite in the hotel – a strong, large group of people who spend unbelievable amounts of hours working hard. And if Foreign Minister Zarif and I and Baroness Ashton or some combination of foreign ministers come up with an idea, we take the idea to them and then they work literally through the night into the morning to put it to the test and see if it can be viable. And I want to thank them for their incredible amount of hard work and their commitment; the expertise, the diligence, the hard work they’ve put in to try to make sure we get this right.

I also want to take this opportunity to thank Foreign Minister Javad Zarif. The Iranian foreign minister has worked hard and he has worked diligently. He has approached to these negotiations in good faith and with seriousness of purpose, and that’s what it takes to try to resolve the kind of difficult issues here.

And finally, I want to thank all of you for being patient throughout the process and bearing with our need, the imperative, to keep what is discussed in these negotiations exclusively among the negotiators to the greatest degree that we can. I know you understand and I can tell you through my years in public life of negotiating, that if facts are out there being bandied back and forth in the public domain with specificity, they often can wind up defeating good ideas before they get off the ground. So we need to continue to work the way we have been exclusively among the negotiators with respect to the details.

Now we have worked long and hard not just over these past days but for months in order to achieve a comprehensive agreement that addresses international concerns about Iran’s nuclear program. This takes time. The stakes are high and the issues are complicated and technical, and each decision affects other decisions. There’s always an interrelationship, and each decision also deeply affects international security and national interests.

It also takes time to do this because we don’t want just any agreement. We want the right agreement. Time and again, from the day that he took office, President Obama has been crystal clear that we must ensure that Iran does not acquire a nuclear weapon, period. And this is not specific to one country; it’s the policy of many countries in the world to reduce the numbers of nuclear weapons that exist today and not to allow new ones. And we are engaged in that struggle in many places. And the fact is that even Russia and the United States, who have the largest number, are working hard to reduce that number and to reduce the potential of fissionable nuclear material being available to any additional entity in the world.

President Obama has been just as clear that the best way to do this is through diplomacy, through a comprehensive and durable agreement that all parties can agree to, that all parties are committed to upholding, and whose implementation is not based on trust but on intensive verification. And that is not just because diplomacy is the preferred course; it is also the most effective course.

Diplomacy is also difficult. These talks aren't going to suddenly get easier just because we extend them. They’re tough and they’ve been tough and they’re going to stay tough. If it were easier, if views on both sides weren’t as deeply held as they are, then we’d have reached a final agreement months or even years ago. But in these last days in Vienna, we have made real and substantial progress, and we have seen new ideas surface. And that is why we are jointly – the P5+1, six nations and Iran – extending these talks for seven months with the very specific goal of finishing the political agreement within four months and with the understanding that we will go to work immediately, meet again very shortly. And if we can do it sooner, we want to do it sooner.

At the end of four months, we have not agreed on the major – if we have not agreed on the major elements by that point in time and there is no clear path, we can revisit how we then want to choose to proceed.

Now we believe a comprehensive deal that addresses the world’s concerns is possible. It is desirable. And at this point, we have developed a clearer understanding of what that kind of deal could look like, but there are still some significant points of disagreement, and they have to be worked through.

Now I want to underscore that even as the negotiations continue towards a comprehensive deal, the world is safer than it was just one year ago. It is safer than we were before we agreed on the Joint Plan of Action, which was the interim agreement.

One year ago, Iran’s nuclear program was rushing full speed toward larger stockpiles, greater uranium enrichment capacity, the production of weapons-grade plutonium, and ever shorter breakout time. Today, Iran has halted progress on its nuclear program and it has rolled it back for the first time in a decade.

A year ago, Iran had about 200 kilograms of 20 percent enriched uranium in a form that could be quickly enriched into a weapons-grade level. Today, Iran has no such 20 percent enriched uranium – zero, none – and they have diluted or converted every ounce that they had and suspended all uranium enrichment above 5 percent.

A year ago, Iran was making steady progress on the Arak reactor, which, if it had become operational, would have provided Iran with a plutonium path to a nuclear weapon. Today, progress on Arak, as it is known, is frozen in place.

A year ago, inspectors had limited access to Iran’s nuclear program. Today, IAEA inspectors have daily access to Iran’s enrichment facilities and a far deeper understanding of Iran’s program. They have been able to learn things about Iran’s centrifuge production, uranium mines, and other facilities that are important to building trust. That’s how you build trust, and that’s why Iran made the decision to do it. And they’ve been able to verify that Iran is indeed living up to its JPOA commitments.

All of these steps by Iran and the limited sanctions relief that the international community provided in return are important building blocks to lay the foundation for a comprehensive agreement and they begin to build confidence among nations.

A year ago, we had no idea whether or not real progress could be made through these talks. We only knew that we had a responsibility to try. Today, we are closer to a deal that would make the entire world, especially our allies and partners in Israel and in the Gulf, safer and more secure.

Is it possible that in the end we just won’t arrive at a workable agreement? Absolutely. We are certainly not going to sit at the negotiating table forever, absent measurable progress. But given how far we have come over the past year and particularly in the last few days, this is not certainly the time to get up and walk away. These issues are enormously complex. They require a lot of tough political decisions and they require very rigorous technical analysis of concepts. It takes time to work through the possible solutions that can effectively accomplish our goals and that give the leaders of all countries confidence in the decisions that they are being asked to make.

So our experts will meet again very soon. In fact, we will have a meeting in December as soon as possible in order to continue this work and to drive this process as hard as we can. And as the parties continue to negotiate, all of the current restraints on the nuclear program in Iran will remain in place.

Now, let me make it clear: Our goal in these negotiations is not a mystery. It is not a political goal. It is not an ideological goal. It is a practical goal, a goal of common sense, and it is achievable. The United States and our EU and P5+1 partners – the UK, France, Germany, Russia, and China, a group of nations that doesn’t always see eye to eye – agree unanimously about what a viable agreement would need to look like.

First and foremost, the viable agreement would have to close off all of the pathways for Iran to get fissile material for a nuclear weapon. A viable agreement would have to include a new level of transparency and verification beyond the expanded access that we’ve had under the JPOA. And as these conditions are met, a viable agreement would also include for Iran relief from the international nuclear-related sanctions that help to bring them to the table to negotiate in the first place.

And because of the nature of these talks, we should not – and I emphasize we will not – in the days ahead discuss the details of the negotiations. And we’re doing that simply to preserve the space to be able to make the choices that lie ahead. But I can tell you that progress was indeed made on some of the most vexing challenges that we face, and we now see the path toward potentially resolving some issues that have been intractable.

I want to also emphasize: This agreement, like any agreement, regarding security particularly, cannot be based on trust because trust can’t be built overnight. Instead, the agreement has to be based on verification, on measures that serve to build confidence over time. And I want to make it even further clear to everybody here we really want this to work – but not at the cost of just anything. We want to reach a comprehensive deal and we want it to work for everybody. And we want the people of Iran to get the economic relief that they seek and to be able to rejoin the international community.

We want to terminate the sanctions. Yes, we want to terminate the sanctions which were put in place to get us to these negotiations and ultimately to be able to bring about a deal. But the world – and I underscore this – not just the United States, not just the P5+1 – the world still has serious questions about Iran’s nuclear program. And for the sanctions to be terminated, we need Iran to take concrete, verifiable steps to answer those questions. That’s the bottom line.

And for my friends in the United States Congress, with whom I spent almost 30 years in the United States Senate, I would say that together, we have been through some tough policy deliberations. I had the responsibility of chairing the Foreign Relations Committee when we put the sanctions regime in place that has helped us get this far. I believe in the institution and the critical role that the Senate has to play, and the House. We have stayed in close consultation throughout this process, and we will continue to do so. And we look for your support for this extension and for continued talks.

And I would say to those who are skeptical, those who wonder whether we should rush ahead down a different course, I believe the United States and our partners have earned the benefit of the doubt at this point. Many were quick to say that the Joint Plan of Action would be violated; it wouldn’t hold up, it would be shredded. Many said that Iran would not hold up its end of the bargain. Many said that the sanctions regime would collapse. But guess what? The interim agreement wasn’t violated. Iran has held up its end of the bargain, and the sanctions regime has remained intact.

My friends, we have the time in the next weeks and months to try and get this right. And because of that, we should continue to exercise the judgment and the patience to defend our interests, uphold our core principles, maintain our sense of urgency that this issue deserves, and keep open the road to a peaceful resolution. That’s what we decided to do here today. I am convinced it is the right decision, made on the basis of what we have done over the course of these last days, and on the prospects of what we could achieve if we can reach a comprehensive agreement.

I’d be happy to take a few questions.

MS. PSAKI: The first question will be from Michael Gordon of The New York Times.

QUESTION: Sir, despite all the negotiating over the past year, there’s still fundamental gaps over how much enrichment capacity Iran would be allowed to retain, the duration of an accord, and the timing of sanctions relief. Why do you think the calculation of the two sides would be fundamentally different several months from now than from today?

And since you’ve shared your suggestions with the Iranian and Russian Governments and are now proposing to extend the talks for another seven months, could you please tell the American public and the rest of the international community what general progress warrants a second extension of the talks and how much Iran will receive during these seven months in terms of access to frozen assets or sanctions relief? A figure of 700 million a month has been mentioned. Is that all of the financial benefit Iran will receive, and is it being done as an extension of the Geneva agreement? Thank you.

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, thank you, Michael. Let me just emphasize, as I said in the beginning, I’m not going to talk about the details. I’m not going to confirm whether or not there’s a gap or not a gap or where the gaps are. There obviously are gaps. We’ve said that. And there is obviously some distance to travel. But if we start getting into where they are or where they aren’t, then one side or the other is going to begin to get asked, “Well, what did you give for that,” or “What did you get for that,” or “Where are we?” And if that becomes the public debate, this is going to end very quickly. So we’re not going to discuss the details, as I said to you. We’re just not going to go there.

Now with respect to why should we continue this, I’ll tell you why we should continue this: Because the world is safer with the interim agreement in place. I just listed all of the things that are happening as a result of that agreement. The nuclear program in Iran as we negotiate is frozen. The 20 percent enrichment has been reduced to zero. Inspectors are in the facilities. The centrifuges cannot be replaced except unless they break down. There’s no change in the level of centrifuges. We would be fools to walk away from a situation where the breakout time has already been expanded rather than narrowed, and where the world is safer because this program is in place.

So just on the common sense of what we have in the interim agreement, it makes absolute sense to continue to talk. But there’s more important evidence of why we should do this, and that is that we are saying – and I think, as I said, we have earned the benefit of the doubt – we produced an agreement that has worked; we produced an agreement that, for a year, Iran has lived up to. We produced an agreement that has made the world safer, and we have produced an agreement that we now are telling you has been able to advance these talks where unanimously, every country has stood before you or will stand before you and say, “We’ve made progress and we need the time to finish.”

Now, I think that when we have a classified briefing with those people appropriately cleared to have that briefing, we can go into greater detail. But this should not be worked out in public, and I don’t know – I know all of you have great sources; you have a great ability to learn one thing or another. Don’t trust it. I’m telling you right now, a lot of people don’t know what they’re talking about, because this is pretty narrowly held. So as recently as half an hour ago, I left Foreign Minister Zarif. We’ve had talks, and I can tell you that even my colleagues on the other side haven’t had a chance to be debriefed. So I would caution anybody, and just bear with us as we try to negotiate over the course of the next days.

MS. PSAKI: The next question will be from --

QUESTION: (Inaudible) frozen assets, the 700 million a month?

SECRETARY KERRY: I beg your pardon?

QUESTION: The second part of the question, the 700 million a month.

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, we’re not going to – as I said, we’re going to live under the joint agreement that we’ve already put in place a year ago. That has a pro-rated, already agreed upon fund that is dispersed, and since we’re living under it, we’ll live up to that agreement. But we’re not doing anything additional beyond that that I know of.

MS. PSAKI: The next question will be from Margaret Brennan of CBS News.

QUESTION: Thank you, Mr. Secretary. Putting more time on the clock heightens the level of political risk. What assurances do you have from Congress that they won’t move ahead with sanctions in the next seven months, and is this real and substantive progress you’ve just talked about enough to warrant a presidential veto if they were to move ahead with those sanctions?

And secondly, sir, Chuck Hagel resigned today. He said he feels micromanaged by the White House. Do you feel that way?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, I haven’t heard that from Chuck personally ever. I’m not sure exactly – I’ve been over here negotiating, obviously. I’m very sad to hear that Chuck has made the decision to resign. He is a longtime friend, a great friend. We traveled together with now-Vice President Biden to Afghanistan, Pakistan, various parts of the world. We worked together in the Senate. I don’t think the Pentagon could’ve had a finer soldier and public servant leading it, and he has done a superb job of helping the Afghanistan transition, of helping to manage sequestration, countless other things. We sit beside each other in so many national security meetings. I know him and love him as a friend, and I’m totally – I’m very, very sorry to learn that he’s made the decision to leave, but I respect his decision, and we will continue to work together until the time that his replacement is appointed.

With respect to Congress, as a former member of Congress, as I said, for some 30 years, I have huge respect for the prerogatives of the United States Congress. I believe in them. But I believe this is a moment where Congress hopefully, when properly briefed and when we’ve had a chance to report to them – and we’re in constant touch; I’ve talked to members even while I’ve been here for the past days – I hope they will come to see the wisdom of leaving us the equilibrium for a few months to be able to proceed without sending messages that might be misinterpreted and cause miscalculation. So my hope is we will have that breadth, and we certainly stand prepared to work with the Congress in every way possible to make sure that everybody’s interests are properly listened to, processed, implemented, taken into account. And so I look forward to those discussions when I get back.

QUESTION: Does it warrant a veto? Does it warrant a presidential veto, the substantive progress you say has been made?

SECRETARY KERRY: Oh, I think it’s – look, it’s way too premature to be starting to talk about veto. We don’t even know – let’s let Congress hear what we’re saying. Let’s have a conversation. Let’s see if there is legislation. I’m not going to get into that hypothetical routine right now.

QUESTION: Secretary --

MS. PSAKI: We unfortunately have a plane waiting, so we’re going to have to conclude the press conference. Thank you, everyone, very much. Thank you.

SECRETARY KERRY: Can we do one more? We’ll do one more.

QUESTION: (Crosstalk)

SECRETARY KERRY: Guys, I want the foreign press – I want the foreign press to have a chance, so --

QUESTION: Yes, on (inaudible) --

SECRETARY KERRY: Yes, sir.

QUESTION: Yes. You said – based on you had said that 20 percent is going to zero by Iran, also plutonium is going zero also, also Arak have (inaudible) with IAEA with Iran. Based on July agreement how do you respond should remainder remove all sanction? Also, should there being for Iran based on practical enrichment? Why they don’t implement their commitment?

SECRETARY KERRY: I didn’t understand the last part. Just the last part about enrichment.

QUESTION: The last part is why they don’t – they didn’t (inaudible) their commitment about the (inaudible).

QUESTION: Did they have commitments about removing the sanctions?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, let me just say this to you. We have made a commitment about removing sanctions. We will remove sanctions as the agreement is reached. And that’s always been the understanding. We’ve been very clear about it. We haven’t reached an agreement yet.

Now, what we did in return for the things that Iran chose to do – and we’re very – as I said here – I think I was very candid and fair. I said Iran has honored the agreement. Iran has lived up to the agreement. But in exchange for that agreement, to do those things we have lifted some of the sanctions. We have provided a certain amount of money that reporter from The New York Times asked about, and that’s been released as part of the agreement.

So that was the exchange. The relief, a little bit, from some of the sanctions in exchange for the things that were done through this year. Now, if Iran will come and make the comprehensive agreement, we have told them we’re prepared to go – I’m not going to say how far and where, because that’s part of the negotiation, but we will address the issues of the sanctions in the context of the negotiation.

Thank you all very, very much.

MS. PSAKI: Thank you, everyone.