Briefing with Spokesperson Sean McCormack on Possibility of Direct Talks with Iran (Excerpts)

May 24, 2006

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QUESTION: Can I change the subject, unless anybody wants to pursue this? Iran.


QUESTION: We had actually a briefing out of the White House, Tony Snow's briefing, and he was saying that the United States would not engage in direct talks with Iran as long as Iran did not suspend uranium enrichment. Now does this mean that if Iran does suspend uranium enrichment that you would engage in direct talks with Iran?

MR. MCCORMACK: Right now you have Nick Burns who's in London meeting with the P-5+1 political directors. They're working on a comprehensive package. And this comprehensive package, it outlines incentives and disincentives for the Iranian regime. We hope -- we would hope that they make a choice once this package is presented to them. We would hope that they make the choice to choose the pathway of dialogue, to choose the pathway of coming back into the mainstream of international behavior with regard to their nuclear program. We would also like to see them actually make the hard decisions about coming back into the mainstream with respect to their treatment of their own population on human rights, as well as in terms of terrorism. They are central bankers of terrorism. But right now, we're dealing very specifically in the P-5+1 mechanism with the nuclear issue.

I would expect that coming out of these P-5+1 meetings that they'll make some progress, probably won't finish up all the work on the package, that they're going to be coming back to capitals to take a look at where they are, maybe have some follow-up meetings in the next week or two. But we'll wait to see what Under Secretary Burns and his colleagues accomplish.

Now, thus far, what the international community has demanded of Iran is that they come back into compliance with their NPT obligations and that they suspend their enrichment activities. That's what the IAEA has asked them to do. That's what the Security Council has asked them to do in the form of a presidential statement. And so this is what the world is asking Iran to do. So that's where we stand right now in terms of the question of whether or not they're going to suspend their enrichment activities. They haven't made that choice. They haven't made -- as a matter of fact, they've gone off in the other direction. They have continued their enrichment activities. They have continued working on the centrifuge cascades and that's something that the IAEA is watching very closely.

QUESTION: Just, again, to ask my question, was specifically what came out of the White House seemed to me at least unless I'm wrong, some sort of little new nuance, the idea being that if they do suspend uranium enrichment, then you would be willing to entertain the idea of direct talks with them which is not something that I've heard previously from this Administration. I mean, am I wrong or is it --

MR. MCCORMACK: I'm not sure I see the nuance in that. What the world has asked them to do is to suspend their uranium enrichment activities and that right now where we are is we are in support of the EU-3 and their process. We're in support of the P-5+1 process. We're participating in those things directly. But thus far, that's not the situation where we find ourselves, Peter. I think that where we find ourselves now is putting together this package. And once that package is presented to the Iranians, see if they make a choice. See if they make a choice to come back into the mainstream of international behavior.

QUESTION: Okay. Can I make one more try at it?


QUESTION: With your indulgence. If they do suspend uranium enrichment -- they have been asking for talks on a wide range of issues there. If they do suspend uranium enrichment, is the United States then willing to sit down and have direct talks with Iran?

MR. MCCORMACK: Peter, this -- over the course of the years, this issue of bilateral talks with the Iranians has come up. I think and you know, Barry and George can correct me if I'm wrong, but if you go back over the years here, you could probably pick out several episodes where there have been these little spikes of interest in bilateral discussions between the U.S. and Iran on a variety of different topics.

Look, this is an issue that is between Iran and the rest of the world. I know that there are some that would like to make this an issue between Iran and the United States -- that might play into the hands of some of those unelected few who run Iran. But, frankly, it's an issue that is between Iran and the rest of the world.

What we are focused on is building that international consensus that, frankly, is probably a little uncomfortable for the Iranians right now. That might be one of the reasons why you see a little bit of these -- spike in some of the various channels around the world where the Iranians might be putting out, oh, well, they might be interested in bilateral discussions with the United States. But I think it is probably because what you see is that the Iranians are feeling some of the pressure. They're feeling some of the pressure of the international community coming together and saying, come back into the mainstream of international behavior, accepted international behavior. And if you don't, there are going to be consequences to that. And that's where we are right now, working with the international community.

QUESTION: So they're showing, even though it's happened before, you're verifying that they're showing -- you call it a "spike of interest" -- they're showing interest in discussions with the United States.

MR. MCCORMACK: What we've seen --

QUESTION: You have reasons --

MR. MCCORMACK: -- what we've seen, Barry, is we have -- I've seen the news reports about various, you know, various feelers out there with regard to bilateral talks with the United States. And I think, frankly, it's probably just an effort to change the subject because they're feeling the pressure in the international community.

QUESTION: Well, both can co-exist. I mean there can be an interest in discussion and there could be a motive in showing an interest in discussion.

MR. MCCORMACK: Look, Barry, you know, again our focus is on the international approach. Our focus is on building the international consensus.

QUESTION: We're trying to verify the notion that there's a new -- not brand new, it's happened before -- a new interest on the part of Iran to talk to the United States. And I think you're saying we know their motives, it's happened before, but I think you're saying there is a spike of interest.

MR. MCCORMACK: I think the way I would characterize it, Barry, is as I have, that over the course of the years, you have seen at various points in time the Iranians interested in bilateral discussions with the United States and I think that for each of those various times, there probably are a unique set of circumstances which cause those to arrive.

I think what you're seeing right now is that the Iranians are feeling the pressure of the international community. And sure, I think that there are plenty of news reports out there about the fact that the Iranians may be interested in bilateral discussions. But as I said, our approach here, Barry, is to work to build the international consensus, to work within the framework of the P-5+1, the EU-3 and also separately to work with individual states and likeminded states on various other measures, various other financial measures, various other measures that relate to counter-proliferation, that would address some of Iran's behavior on the nuclear front and that would make it more difficult for them to develop the know-how, to obtain the technologies that they can put into a nuclear program, a nuclear weapons program.

QUESTION: In light of (inaudible), is it still the U.S. position that there's no need or cause or reason to negotiate with them -- for the U.S. to negotiate with then?

MR. MCCORMACK: Again, Barry, you know, there are plenty of people who want to make this a U.S.-Iran bilateral issue. Our approach and we think it is the right approach as the approach supported by our partners in the international community is to make this an international multilateral approach.

QUESTION: You seem to suggest you're aware of Iran's interest only through news reports and The Post said that they are trying every which way to get Washington's attention on this, presumably through diplomatic channels. Are you aware of Iran's interest through diplomatic channels?

MR. MCCORMACK: There are a lot of ways for the United States and Iran to exchange information. We all know about those channels. I think from time to time, George, you also hear through ad hoc channels, interest in this kind of bilateral discussion. And sure, yeah, we have seen those over the recent period of time going back over the past year, absolutely.

QUESTION: Sean, on the letter that Ahmadi-Nejad --

QUESTION: Could you just follow-up on what you just said, please? You have seen signs from the Iranians in this most recent period through diplomatic channels. That's what you just said. Could you give --

MR. MCCORMACK: Through bilateral contact.

QUESTION: Right. Could you give us a little bit more detail on that?


QUESTION: Why not?

MR. MCCORMACK: Through diplomatic channels. We don't talk about our contacts with diplomatic channels.

QUESTION: Sure, sometimes you talk about diplomatic -- sure, you do.

MR. MCCORMACK: I'll decide --

QUESTION: So could you -- you can confirm that you have seen recently Iran has specifically asked the U.S. for bilateral talk on Iran --

MR. MCCORMACK: No. There's -- no, I wouldn't put it that way. I think that what you can say is that there have been various individuals representing some interest on the part of bilateral discussions and again, our approach is a multilateral approach.

QUESTION: On the letter that was written on May 8th by the President of Iran, is there any thought being given -- I know the Secretary and the President dismissed it pretty quickly. But is there any thought being given to responding to that letter at all? I know some intelligence analysts in the paper this morning were quoted as saying maybe it makes sense to reply.

MR. MCCORMACK: The President has spoken to that. Look, we don't think that -- if you look through the letter, I didn't bring a copy of it with me today, but if you look through the letter, I don't think that there is much there to respond to. I remember, you know, I was reading through it and other people were reading through it, and you kept going through this -- I think it was 17 pages, as it was translated into English, and there were various harangues about 9/11, the behavior of the United States and how we're headed off in the wrong direction. And various other things, attacks on President Bush and you kept waiting for, well, where's the "and" or where's the "but," in terms of an offer or some sort of substantive offer. And you got to the end of the letter and you never got to it. So I don't think that there's -- the President's talked about this. The Secretary has talked about this. I don't think there's a lot there to which one might respond.

QUESTION: But the letter itself is an overture of some sort, obviously.

MR. MCCORMACK: Well, you know, it took them 26 years to write a letter and you would expect that if it took them that long there might be something else in it. It wasn't there.

QUESTION: When these individuals -- I just wanted to follow-up on my question. When you said there have been various individuals that have been sent to -- have conveyed the message, has the U.S. conveyed a message back?

MR. MCCORMACK: We have not to my knowledge.

QUESTION: You have not answered Iran's request through these various means?

MR. MCCORMACK: Well, look, our response to Iran is to say come to back into the mainstream of international behavior, heed the call of the international community. It is, again, I keep repeating, this bears repeating, there are many who want to make this a U.S.-Iran issue. It's not a U.S.-Iran issue. It's the concerns of the international community, increasingly united international community, and Iran. So what Iran needs to do is Iran needs to come back, change their behavior, consider the pressure that they're under, and I think that you see a lot of these news reports being generated as a result of the fact that Iran now finds itself under considerable international pressure. And if it doesn't change its behavior, then it's going to find itself under more and more international pressure.

QUESTION: So your response is simply to repeat the public -- the public suggestions you've given Iran in the past, not to respond directly to these overtures.

MR. MCCORMACK: Again, we are following -- our response is to follow the approach that we have been following, working with the EU-3 and working with the P-5+1.


QUESTION: About ten minutes ago, I think you said from the Nick Burns talks that you didn't expect them to finish their work and they'd have to go back to capitals. Can you give us a -- I assume you've had some kind of briefing or debriefing. Can you give us --

MR. MCCORMACK: No, nothing in depth. I just had a brief conversation with the Secretary who had talked to Nick, so it's indirect -- an indirect briefing. And I think that right now the discussions are still ongoing, but I would expect that there are still issues that they want to come back to capitals with; that there has been progress on pulling together the package -- not done, not done yet. And I would expect that there will probably be follow-up meetings to the London meeting.


QUESTION: Are you prepared to talk about your response to the package yet?

MR. MCCORMACK: Our -- the various elements of it?

QUESTION: Yeah, your initial impressions of the package as it was presented to you so far.

MR. MCCORMACK: No, I think I'm going to leave that to the private conversations we're having among the P-5+1.

QUESTION: I understand that the Italians are also in London along with the Japanese and the Canadians as well. Can you give us a sense of were they involved with just bilateral talks with the U.S., was it with all of the EU-3, were they involved with the group talks on Wednesday, and who invited them?

MR. MCCORMACK: They were there in London. I don't know if they're still there or not. Under Secretary Burns met with his counterparts, his Japanese counterpart separately, met with his Canadian counterpart separately, and also very briefly his Italian counterpart. That was last night. He also yesterday had meetings with the EU-3. I suspect that the Japanese, Canadians and the Italians also had other bilateral meetings. You'll have to check with them to find out exactly what meetings they had.

I think Nick found it very useful to meet with them in London. I don't know who invited them. I suspect it was the UK, but I don't know that as a fact. Both Japan and Italy have very significant trading relationships with Iran. So again, talking about the other track approach in terms of financial measures, proliferation, counter-proliferation measures, those are very important and useful conversations to have, to have the Japanese think about what measures they might take, talk to the Italians about what measures they might take as well, and the Canadians have also expressed a strong interest in what is going on with Iran and their behavior on the nuclear issue. So Under Secretary Burns thought it was very useful to meet with his counterpart from Canada as well.

QUESTION: Have there been --

QUESTION: Nick didn't have any meetings with the Russians or the Chinese, the two delegations that are --

MR. MCCORMACK: No, that's part of the P-5+1.

QUESTION: I know, but that's separately, a separate meeting.

MR. MCCORMACK: Yeah, that's right. He did not have bilateral meetings with them.

QUESTION: Have the Russians responded to these meetings with the Italians or anything like that? Have they said anything about it?

MR. MCCORMACK: I haven't checked with Nick, but I haven't heard -- I haven't seen anything in public and I haven't picked up anything.


QUESTION: Could I just follow up with something you said earlier? You said something about they're going to have to go back to capitals. Can you give us a sense of exactly what that means? Is there sort of a broad agreement on a package there that they have to check back with capitals, or should we say that there's really been no agreement at this meeting at all?

MR. MCCORMACK: I think there's been progress. And again, let's wait to see exactly where Nick and his counterparts come out. But what I have heard is that there has been great progress. I, at this point, don't think that there's been complete closure on the package, therefore necessitating going back to capitals to look at a couple of issues, and I expect that there would probably be follow-on meetings to London after people in capitals have a chance to look at the package and look at the various issues that are outstanding.

QUESTION: But there is a package that's sort of a complete package?

MR. MCCORMACK: It's coming into form. Yes, it is coming into form. I don't think you can say at this point that you have closure on every single issue, but it is coming into form both on the incentive side and the disincentive side.

QUESTION: Sean, can you preview a little bit her afternoon meeting with Director General ElBaradei?

MR. MCCORMACK: Yes, they're going to talk about Iran, certainly, and the IAEA currently has monitoring efforts inside Iran and the IAEA Board of Governors has been quite involved on the Iran issue. I would expect that they will talk about -- talk also about the India civil nuclear deal. This is something Director General ElBaradei has come out in support of. And also I suspect that they will talk about the President's Global Nuclear Energy initiative as well. It's, again, something that Director General ElBaradei has a great interest in. He has made some proposals on this topic on his own. So it's an issue that we regularly touch base with him on.

QUESTION: Does she expect, going back to the U.S.-Iran talks, does she expect to hear from Director General ElBaradei a request to talk to Iran directly?

MR. MCCORMACK: I don't know. We'll see. Let's let the meeting take place.

Okay. Anything else on Iran?

QUESTION: You don't hear about the Security Council anymore as the locale for action against Iran. Is that just getting pushed further and further down the road?

MR. MCCORMACK: No. I think in terms of the nuclear issue, Barry, the way I would look at it is you've got three tracks, okay. You have the Security Council track which is still active. There are still discussions about what the Security Council -- Chapter 7 Resolution would take --look like. Now those discussions are taking place right now within the context of the second track. And that second track is the P-5+1 putting together this package. So the Security Council track remains open, viable and active. I think you're seeing most of the activity right now, however, among the P-5+1, putting together that package. And the third track is the other one we've talked about, about what steps individual countries as well as like-minded countries might take in other areas in terms of counter-proliferation, in terms of financial measures.

Now this has been a topic of discussion by Bob Joseph, Under Secretary Bob Joseph when he traveled to the Gulf. Assistant Secretary Hillen recently just got back from a trip to the Gulf. The Treasury Department has been quite active in talking to other countries around the world, including the Europeans and the Japanese on the financial issue, so those are the three tracks. They're all open. They're all active.

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