Briefing with Spokesperson Sean McCormack on Possibility of Direct U.S.-Iranian Talks (Excerpts)

May 12, 2006

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QUESTION: On Iran, the UN Secretary General Kofi Annan has urged the United States again today to enter direct talks with Iran to ease a crisis over Iranian nuclear work. What's your comment on this?

MR. MCCORMACK: Well, these are comments similar to what Secretary General Annan has made in the past. We believe that we are following the right diplomatic process now. We are in the support -- we have been in support of the EU-3. We have been in support of the Russian Government in their direct negotiations with the Iranian Government.

To date, those negotiations have ended in frustration on the part of the EU-3 and the Russian Government. The reason for that frustration is because the Iranian Government has refused to engage in a constructive and serious manner. They have engaged in a negotiating process that, by all outward appearances, would seem only to be an exercise in delaying and stalling while they continued on down the road of acquiring a nuclear weapon under cover of a civilian nuclear program.

So we believe we're following the right course now. We are on a diplomatic track. We're working very closely with the EU-3, with members of the -- permanent members of the Security Council as well as Germany. That is -- that was the subject of discussions in New York earlier this week between -- among Secretary Rice and her minister counterparts, and Under Secretary Burns will follow up with the political directors of the P-5+1 in London next Thursday.

So the object of those discussions is to come up with a package, on one hand, incentives that would provide a different pathway for the Iranian regime, allow them civilian nuclear energy with objective guarantees that would satisfy the international community. The other pathway is the pathway of penalties, and that would involve UN resolutions as well as a variety of diplomatic sanctions that are available to the international community.

So I would expect in the coming weeks the Iranian regime will face a crossroads, that it will be confronted with two stark choices. The Iranian people will be confronted with two stark choices. And we, the international community, we certainly hope that the Iranian regime makes the choice for the pathway of cooperation and bringing back that regime into the mainstream of behavior on the nuclear issue.

And that is the spirit in which we are involving ourselves in these discussions. We have no desire or intent to punish the Iranian people. That is not what we or anybody else in the international community wants. But the Iranian people should be aware that it is their regime that has put them in this place right now where they are increasingly isolated from the rest of the world.


QUESTION: A follow-up on Kofi Annan. You now have a growing chorus of people looking for the United States to join, if not talk with Iran directly, but have some kind of direct talks, including former Secretary of State Kissinger. Are you not giving any thought to what you can do to help this process any better by becoming -- having more a buy-in into this negotiation process?

MR. MCCORMACK: I think the United States is deeply -- has been deeply involved. I just went through how we have been involved for the past year plus with the EU-3 in their negotiations and we have been in close contact with the Russian Government working with them on their negotiations. We believe we're on the proper course now.

And the -- our approach to this is to take those actions which we believe will get us and the rest of the world to our objective, and that is to prevent Iran from obtaining the know-how and the means to develop a nuclear weapon. So we are taking the steps that we think are effective. We are constantly reviewing what it is that we are doing, what it is the international community is doing. And we're not going to take steps that at the moment might seem expedient or comfortable, you know, just because they might be expedient. We are going to do things that we think are effective in reaching our goals, in reaching our common goals with the international community.

QUESTION: But if you say that you're supporting this process and you are buying into it, the people that you're engaged in this process with are looking for you to take a greater role.

MR. MCCORMACK: I wouldn't necessarily characterize it that way. I think that our partners in this process are very comfortable with the role that the United States is playing. We're very active in working with our partners in the international community on this. You can just look back at the calendar over the past year. You can look back at what we have done with the EU-3 in terms of not objecting to Iran's beginning accession discussions with the WTO. You can look back on the action that we took with respect to potentially providing Iran with spare aircraft parts. So the United States is deeply involved in this process. The EU-3 and the Russians have been sitting down at the table across from the Iranian Government. But we have been deeply involved. And frankly, there has been -- there's been a lot of discussion about what the United States may or may not do, with respect to direct negotiations.

And frankly, it's really missing the point. The point here is that the Iranian regime has eroded the trust that it may have once enjoyed with the international community, basically down to zero. So what the international community is interested in is seeing the Iranian Government take steps, concrete steps that would start to rebuild that trust. So I would suggest that it is, in fact, really incumbent upon the Iranian regime to take steps to demonstrate that they are interested and committed to resolving this issue through diplomatic means.


QUESTION: (Inaudible) feel the drawbacks are in talking to Iran?

MR. MCCORMACK: I think that the -- first of all, look, there's a long history between the United States and Iran. There's a lot of recent history. We all know what that is. And at this point, we do not believe that it is something that would ultimately get us to the objective that we seek and that is -- and you know what that is -- seeing that Iran doesn't have the means and the know-how to obtain a nuclear weapon. President Bush has talked a little bit about this dynamic in the international community.

Very often what happens when you get into the United States negotiating, or directly across the table from another entity in the international community in which that may be a contentious negotiation or an adversarial negotiation, the dynamic very quickly becomes one of which "well, what is the United States going to do in terms of making concessions to satisfy the needs and desires of the other party across the table." We saw that dynamic take place with respect to North Korea. Our answer was the six-party talks. Now, North Korea and Iran are different situations. They have different histories and they represent a unique set of circumstances. But it is instructive, I think, to look at that case in terms of what sort of international dynamic potentially builds up around that kind of negotiation.


QUESTION: Yeah. But Sean, on the contrary, North Korea reprocessed its fuel, then you go into talks after refusing to talk to them. Why do you wait until Iran -- they've already said they've got a 164-centrifuge cascade. Are you going to wait until they have a 3,000 or 5,000, whatever? Is that -- that's the model of North Korea.

MR. MCCORMACK: Well, the North Korean model, again, this is a -- there are different sets of circumstances. And the North Koreans, I think their nuclear program goes back to -- their seeking development of nuclear weapons goes back decades and decades, back to, I think, the '60s and '70s. And so they were -- this is a completely -- virtually completely closed society in which they were able to do this with no kind of under -- not under the watchful eye of the international community. There were -- there was an IAEA presence, but because of the closed nature of North Korea they were able to develop this nuclear weapon and basically nuclear capability and spring it on the rest of the world.

What we're trying to do is prevent Iran from getting to that point and we're trying to use international pressure and consensus to try to prevent them from getting to that stage. So we believe that working together through the international community and bringing together a consensus is the way to accomplish that, Charlie.

QUESTION: Have you looked into these new reports that near bomb-grade uranium has been found in Lavizan-Shian?

MR. MCCORMACK: Yeah, I've seen the news reports about that. It is the IAEA -- I think that there were leaks about an IAEA report. We are going to, I believe, get that report from the inspectors and from the organization in the middle of June. I think it's June 16th through the 18th. There's a scheduled Board of Governors meeting. So we'll see that, see whatever it is the IAEA has found with respect to their investigations in Iran.

I can't confirm for you. At this point, I would leave it to the IAEA to discuss what it is that they have found and what they haven't found. I don't want to jump to any conclusions based on the news reports, but certainly if, in fact, it were true that that highly enriched uranium was from an Iranian source, it really raises serious questions about what was, in fact, going on at Lavizan.

Regardless of the source of the highly enriched uranium, if, in fact, the IAEA inspectors did find it, it is not something that the Iranians had previously -- would have previously disclosed to the IAEA. So, at a minimum, what this would tell you is that they have not been straight with the IAEA, once again, about what they were doing at this one site.

QUESTION: But you didn't just say you won't find -- you won't get a report on this until the middle of June?

MR. MCCORMACK: There won't be a public report.

QUESTION: But you guys will check -- I mean, once you hear something like this, you obviously make a call or Ambassador Schulte will look into it, right?

MR. MCCORMACK: Sure. He will certainly look into it.

QUESTION: You're going to wait till the middle of June?

MR. MCCORMACK: But again, there are certain procedures that guide the release of this kind of information from the IAEA. I'm not going to be the one that is the person that releases that information. They are going to do that and they will do it on their own timetable. Of course they share these things within councils, with the other members of the Board of Governors, but we typically leave it to the organization itself to release that information.

QUESTION: Has the Secretary consulted with her European counterparts at all since she's left New York about the incentive package? Or, you know, if she hasn't, how much does she plan to get involved with that, with those discussions?

MR. MCCORMACK: To my knowledge, she hasn't -- I don't have a list -- I don't have any phone calls listed here of her talking to any of her counterparts about that.

She keeps very much involved in this issue. This is something that she is personally involved in, personally manages here at the State Department, working with her team here as well as in the interagency. She will get involved at the moment that she thinks her involvement serves a purpose in terms of moving the process forward. We saw that up in New York.

But at the moment, this is really at the level of political directors, of permanent representatives up at the UN, to work on specific proposals, to work on specific language. So she's kept updated on this and I'm sure that she will reach out or visit her colleagues when she thinks the time is right.

QUESTION: On the package, would you expect anything to be in the repackaged proposal that has not before been offered to Iran at some point in the years of negotiations with the EU-3? Is there anything that we haven't heard before?

MR. MCCORMACK: We'll see. We'll see. I know that the EU is looking at what has previously been offered and then what other fresh ideas that they might offer, but I know that they are going to have a discussion about that formally on Monday and then we'll hear more about that in the days following that and certainly at the P-5+ meeting -- P-5+1 meeting on Thursday.

QUESTION: And if all of this process is expected to take place in two or so weeks, at what point does it go to Iran? I presume that China, Russia and the United States will then look at it on Thursday and kind of sign off on it again -- is that how it happens? And then it's transmitted to Iran?

MR. MCCORMACK: No, I would expect that in the wake of the P-5+1 meeting people would go back to capitals and see if there are any changes or modifications to it. So I would expect even in the wake of Thursday's meeting that you're going to have more consultations.

QUESTION: But by the next week, if everything -- if you're expecting to hear back from Iran pretty quickly and you're going to make your next decision after a couple of weeks, doesn't it have to go to Iran pretty quickly for them to get back to you?

MR. MCCORMACK: Yeah, well, once you have the whole thing together -- my point here is you don't have the whole package negotiated. You don't have all the agreements in place that you want to have in place among the members of the Security Council. So once that happens, I am sure that it will in some fashion be shared in a formal way with the Iranian Government. I can't tell you right now what that mechanism will be.

QUESTION: Thank you.

MR. MCCORMACK: Thank you.