Background Briefing on Next Week's EU-Coordinated P5+1 Talks With Iran

March 14, 2014

Weapon Program: 

  • Nuclear
  • Missile

MODERATOR: Thank you so much. And welcome, everyone, to the call. I really appreciate everyone’s flexibility in doing this a little earlier than we normally do it. And in a moment, I’ll turn it over to [Senior Administration Official]. From this point on, we will all be referred to as Senior Administration Officials. This entire call is on background, as is our practice in these discussions. [Senior Administration Official] will make a few opening remarks, and then we will open it up for questions. So with that, I will turn it over to [Senior Administration Official].

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Good afternoon – I guess not quite, or good morning. Thank you all for changing up our routine a little bit for this round. We’re heading to Vienna Sunday night, but wanted to do this backgrounder now, given that the schedule is a little tight for this round and we know some of you may not be traveling with us this time.

I’d like to say a few words about what’s happened since the first round of comprehensive talks in Vienna, including the continuous work our experts have been doing, the commitments in the Joint Plan of Action that both we and the Iranians thus far have kept, and a little bit about how this process will proceed from here.

First, as we mentioned at the last round, these comprehensive negotiations will not just be done for the three days or so a month by the political directors meeting in Vienna. Our experts have been and will continue to be in constant contact between these rounds with their counterparts from the EU, the P5+1, and Iran, as will the political directors. For example, last week, the experts spent a full week in Vienna talking through the various issues at detailed levels and exploring options for a comprehensive solution. When not in Vienna, folks are back in capitals working both within their own governments and communicating with one another to exchange ideas and work through the series of very technical issues that are part of these negotiations.

All of the parties have continued to move forward on the implementation of the Joint Plan of Action with several significant steps occurring since the last round. The International Atomic Energy Agency has determined and said publicly that Iran is meeting its commitments under the Joint Plan of Action, including adhering to the schedule outlined for the dilution of its 20 percent enriched uranium stockpile. DG Amano said last week that Iran had reached the halfway point of the dilution process. At the same time, we and our international partners have provided the limited and targeted sanctions relief we’ve committed to the JPOA as well, and we expect that all parties will continue to fulfill their remaining obligations over the coming months.

In terms of the process, as you all know, we’ve added to our team to reflect the increased workload that comes from these comprehensive negotiations. There are now many people in the U.S. Government who are working on this in a multitude of agencies and departments. We will be adding some additional experts to our Vienna political directors delegation this coming week, particularly from the Department of Energy. And as you know, Ambassador Brooke Anderson has joined as a senior advisor to the Secretary of State and to the political director, the Under Secretary for Political Affairs, on the Iran nuclear negotiations. And Ambassador Anderson will be based in Brussels so that as we move forward and have meeting after meeting, largely Europe-based, that we will have a presence. Brooke brings a wealth of experience and can act as a lynchpin between our team back in Washington and our colleagues in Brussels.

Finally, we think, in terms of what might come out over the next few days – in general, our overall goal has been to try to move forward in each round, ensure that the discussions are substantive and moving the process forward in a serious and real way. We want to build on the work of our experts, narrow gaps, make tough policy decisions where there are sticking points.

I know that this will be a difficult process from a press point of view, because we are in the middle of negotiations, and so we will raise up issues in each of these, but nothing is agreed until everything is agreed, so we will have to come back to all of these issues each time as we put together, in essence, the Rubik’s cube that will be the comprehensive agreement. So we will not be saying, well, we made this much progress on this issue or this much progress on that issue after each round, because, in fact, until we get to the end, we haven’t reached a comprehensive agreement.

And with that, I’ll stop and be glad to take your questions.

MODERATOR: Great. And could the moderator let folks again maybe who joined late know how to ask a question please?

OPERATOR: And ladies and gentlemen, if you have a question, press * then 1 on your touchtone phone. You’ll hear a tone indicating you’ve been placed into the queue. And you can withdraw your question by pressing the # key. And if you are using a speakerphone, please pick up the handset before pressing the numbers. Once again, if you have a question, press * then 1 at this time.

And one moment for our first question.

MODERATOR: Great. Thank you. It looks like our first question is from Lou Charbonneau of Reuters. Kick us off, Lou.

QUESTION: Okay. Hi. So I’m just wondering if you’re any closer today than you were a month ago on some of the sticking points. And if you could maybe – I know you don’t want to go into the details on the individual sticking points, but if you could characterize what they’re like. I mean, one of the things that we keep hearing is that centrifuge R&D remains a problem, and so maybe you could give us a sense if you feel that you’re moving any closer together in these expert talks.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yeah. I think both in the expert talks and even in the first round of political director talks, we are moving forward in a positive way, in the sense that we understand each other’s positions a great deal more. The technical talks have provided some options that are under consideration that help to close some of the gaps. The other thing I think is worth reflecting on is, having gone through the negotiations around the Joint Plan of Action, we have some negotiating experience with each other that was a successful one. And so the basic approach that everyone’s taking is rather a positive one, with an expectation that we can bridge the gaps.

That said, there still remain many gaps, and this is a very complex and technical negotiation, and so I can’t give you an assessment whether we will succeed in the end or not. What I can say is that everyone is intent on succeeding and intent on succeeding within the six-month timeframe of the JPOA.

MODERATOR: Great. Thanks, Lou. And our next question is from Indira with Bloomberg News.

QUESTION: Hi. Thanks for doing this. Yesterday, in his testimony at the Senate, Secretary Kerry talked about the U.S. and its partners at the talks working on identifying the aspects of possible military dimensions that could be, quote, “legitimately” addressed in these talks. Can you tell us a little bit about that? What – because Congress was asking will possible military dimensions be on the table as part of the comprehensive talks, and this question about what aspects can be addressed. So what are you talking about that relates to military aspects?



SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Did you have something else, Indira?

QUESTION: No, I was just trying to clarify what he meant when he said which aspects of the military program can legitimately be addressed versus those which might not be on the table.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, what we have said consistently is that the JPOA talked about past and present concerns, which is IAEA-speak for possible military dimensions. And we have said that these will have to be addressed to be able to achieve a comprehensive agreement. We have also acknowledged the importance in the first instance of the possible military dimensions being addressed through the IAEA process, and have encouraged Iran to make use of that process, saying that the more that is achieved with the IAEA, the greater the likelihood of a comprehensive agreement.

So in the first instance, that is the locus of attention. The IAEA has an ongoing process. They have some upcoming issues that will give us some insight into whether Iran is going to move forward in addressing these concerns. So I think what the Secretary is probably referring to is what will not get addressed that will remain to be addressed in order to achieve a comprehensive agreement.

QUESTION: Meaning what will not be addressed in the P5 talks will have to be addressed in the IAEA? Is that what you mean?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: No. I would say on possible military dimensions, it actually works in the other direction. The IAEA has the – sits in the first seat to work with Iran to address the possible military dimensions. That has been an ongoing agenda between the IAEA and Iran. And what we’ve said to Iran is the more progress you make there with the IAEA, the greater the chance for a comprehensive agreement, because, of course, that’s part of giving the international community confidence that Iran will not obtain a nuclear weapon and that its program is exclusively peaceful.

QUESTION: And just one more if you don’t mind. Since these expert talks have been going on since you last met in Vienna, can you give us – I know nothing is agreed until everything is agreed, but can you tell us about any concrete progress that has been made? Is there any particular area where something has been accomplished?


QUESTION: Even if it’s procedural.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Procedurally, I think we have gone over at least a first round on every major issue of concern. On several issues, we have gone into substantial depth. As I said, experts have brought to the table – from a variety of countries, not just from the United States – options, technical options that might help to bridge some of the gaps, and those are under consideration by parties. Some of that will get discussed among political directors. And political directors meetings will be used to better understand where the gaps are, what might be necessary to bridge them. Obviously, there will be direct discussions between Lady Ashton and Foreign Minister Zarif, which, I think, will also be intense discussions to see where we might bridge those gaps to try to understand the pieces of this puzzle that are on the table, additional ones that have to be added to finally be fitted together into an entire comprehensive agreement.

MODERATOR: Thanks, Indira.

QUESTION: Thank you.

MODERATOR: Our next question is from George Jahn of the Associated Press.

QUESTION: Thank you. You were talking about the differences that need to be bridged and discussed. And I’m just wondering whether – obviously, you can’t go into great detail, but are there differences within the P5+1 – specifically between, let’s say, Moscow and Washington – about what Iran needs to do to get to the agreement that is being sought?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: One of the really remarkable and – reasons why we got to the Joint Plan of Action and why this process is working to see if we can get to a comprehensive agreement is that even countries that have national positions that are different than other countries’ national positions – which you would expect because we are not one and the same – we remain completely united when we have discussions with Iran in the P5+1 and the European Union format. And it is very cohesive. We spend an enormous amount of time talking with each other. This week I have had individual conversations of great length with every political director coming to these negotiations. Our experts have had ongoing discussions with their colleagues in all of the P5+1 countries and the European Union. Ambassador Anderson, because she is in Brussels, has had conversations with colleagues who were there, and there are colleagues in a variety of the embassies there, and obviously at the EU itself.

So this is a very cohesive, very well coordinated effort. And even when there are differences, which there are, we bridge those differences and everyone is very focused on what is necessary. I think the other thing that’s important to understand is that no comprehensive agreement can be reached unless everyone agrees. So if one country has what some might perceive to be a strident view on one issue, that’s going to have to be accommodated in some way. If another country has a strident view on another issue, that’s going to have to be accommodated in some way. So not only is there no agreement until everything is agreed, but until everyone has agreed to it.

QUESTION: Thank you.

MODERATOR: Great, thanks. Our next question is from Tim Starks of CQ. Go ahead, Tim.

QUESTION: Hi, there. Thank you for doing this. There’s been a lot of questions on the Hill about what would happen in the event of a deal, how much you would need help from Congress to implement any sanctions relief versus how much you could do on your own in the Executive Branch. Can you tell me what the thinking is on that?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, we are doing a considerable amount of work, including consultations with the Congress, in that regard. We need to understand in great detail how to unwind sanctions and what – under what authorities and what can be done by the Executive Branch, what can be done by waivers, what will need congressional action. So we are detailing all of that. We are in agreement with our partners in the P5+1 and the EU and with Iran that any sanctions relief, should we get to a comprehensive agreement, will be phased in and will be in response to actions that Iran takes.

So they will not happen all at once. They will happen all over time. And they will happen because we are step by step, in a reciprocal way, matching the actions that Iran commits to take.

QUESTION: Thank you.

MODERATOR: Great. Thanks, Tim. Could the operator remind folks how to ask a question, please?

OPERATOR: As a reminder, if you have a question, press * then 1 on your touchtone phone. And if you are using a speakerphone, pick up the handset before pressing the numbers. Again, it is * then 1 if you have a question.

MODERATOR: Great, thanks. It looks like the next question’s from Hannah Kaviani of Radio Free Europe.

QUESTION: Yeah, thank you. Hi. I wanted to ask about something that Iranian officials are bringing up in the past two weeks quite often, and that is the issue of the cooperation in the field of nuclear in case of a deal. I wanted to see how, [Senior Administration Official], how do you see this cooperation from the U.S. side? If there would be a deal, what kind of a cooperation can be there?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, we have, as you know, and as I said in the past, discussed civil nuclear cooperation with Iran. We think that working with the international community, whether it’s in safety or medicine or perhaps other areas, is worthwhile for the international community and worthwhile for Iran. And so we are looking at that as part of a comprehensive agreement. That is one of the subjects under discussion.

QUESTION: Thank you.

MODERATOR: Great, thank you. It looks like the next question’s from Laura Rozen of Al-Monitor.

QUESTION: Thank you for doing this. Going into the first comprehensive talks a couple weeks back, you said that to avoid surprises, you had not done bilateral talks going into them with the Iranians. We saw that the – Catherine Ashton was in Iran last week. Have you all been engaging in bilateral talks between these two political director rounds, as Ashton has also been meeting with the Iranians bilaterally?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, I think the high representative went to Tehran in her capacity as the high representative of the European Union on a bilateral trip, as you note. And we have not had a separate bilateral with Iran since the bilateral we had in Vienna.

QUESTION: And just one quick follow-up with Ambassador Anderson’s role in Brussels. I had heard that there’s some sort of secretariat being formed. Can you just give any – what’s the building or the office being set up? And are other P5+1 members also putting a number two in Brussels for this process?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I can’t speak to what others are doing or what the EU is doing. I’d urge you, Laura, to speak with the EU directly. What I can say is that, as I said, Ambassador Anderson is a senior advisor as part of our delegation, and she is fulltime in Brussels because she’s attending both the experts and the PD meetings as well as trying to be of support to the European Union, as I believe other countries already have people in their embassies who provide support to the overall process.


SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: But for any further details or office issues, I’d urge you to talk with the EU.


MODERATOR: Great. Thanks, Laura. Our next question is from Kasra Naji of BBC Persian.

QUESTION: Yes. Good morning to you. I just wondered whether there is a set agenda for the next round of talks in Vienna, i.e. are you speaking – are you going to be talking about certain predetermined issues or everything in the agenda, everything is going to be discussed, probably?

Secondly, I just wondered whether Iran’s ballistic missile issue is an issue, is going to be brought up? And thirdly, at the end of all this, will Iran be allowed to have an enrichment program? Thank you.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Sure. So, as I said, of course we go into each of these rounds with an approach that we think will be productive. The high representative generally has a dinner the night before. She will again, I understand, on Monday evening, where she and Minister Zarif are – sort of coordinate signals on how we’re going to proceed. In advance of that, usually, Helga Schmid, her deputy, speaks with Abbas Araghchi to agree on the logistics and sort of how we will proceed.

So yes, there will be a way that we’re going to approach this particular round. But as I said, even if you begin to discuss a discreet issue, you quickly connect it to every other issue. And so, although we will go into some depth on certain issues, I’m sure we’ll touch upon virtually every other issue. This is, as I said, a puzzle that has to get put together over the course of this negotiation until one has narrowed it down to the last few bits that will be the very toughest part of the negotiation.

In terms of ballistic missiles, what I’ve said in the past is the Joint Plan of Action says that the UN Security Council resolutions must be addressed before a comprehensive agreement. There are a variety of things that are contained in the UN Security Council resolutions, including the issue of ballistic missiles capable of carrying a nuclear weapon. So all of this will have to be addressed in some way.

In terms of enrichment, it’s the U.S. position that the best answer for Iran to have an exclusively peaceful program is not to have a domestic enrichment program. We think that both economically and technologically and for assurance of supply, it would be best for them to work internationally. We understand that Iran feels very strongly about their desire for a domestic enrichment program. The Joint Plan of Action envisions that a domestic enrichment program can be a subject of discussion that we would all have to agree to, and if we all did agree to it, it would be because such a program was quite limited under heavy monitoring and verification for very specific purposes.

MODERATOR: Thank you. Our next question is from Laurence Norman of The Wall Street Journal.

QUESTION: Hi there. Thanks for the time. Two questions, if I may. First, we’ve seen data today suggesting Iran’s oil exports are picking up relatively significantly. There’s also continued talk about a Russian deal on oil and even on the power plants. You – what is your level of comfort or concern with how the sanctions regime is holding up? First question.

And secondly, the Iranians were talking during Ashton’s visit over the last few days about concerns with implementation of the first part of the interim deal. Is there anything that you can add to any friction between the U.S. and Iran on how the interim bill is being put in place? Thanks a lot.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Sure. So on the sanctions regime, we feel very confident that the – both the limited, targeted relief is moving forward and that our overall sanctions regime remains in place and quite well-enforced. As I think we’ve said over the time of this negotiation and the Joint Plan of Action, there will be month-to-month fluctuation in the level of oil. What we look at is the aggregate over time. Our experts have traveled to the remaining oil importers and had very direct discussions about what that aggregate level should be, and we are comfortable with where we are in that process. We will continue to monitor this as closely if not more closely than you all do, and we will take appropriate action if we begin to have concerns. We see in the paper from time to time someone considering that – this deal or that. To our knowledge, none of those have come to fruition as yet, and we will of course continue to monitor this very closely and take all appropriate action.

On implementation, at – recently, the person responsible on their side has said that we have done all that we are supposed to do, and we will continue, of course, to do everything we can. If Iran comes to us with a concern that we can take up, we certainly do.

QUESTION: Thanks a lot.

MODERATOR: Great. Thank you. I think we have time for one more question from Andreas Ross. Go ahead.

QUESTION: Hi, thanks for doing this. This is kind of a follow-up question to what George Jahn asked earlier on the unity within the P5+1. Since you mentioned there have been a lot of even political and diplomatic contacts in the meantime, between meetings, have you had any of those discussions with the Russians more particularly? Or will this meeting in Vienna be the first opportunity to figure out whether the current tensions with Russia have any repercussions for the Iran file?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: As I said earlier, I’ve spoken to every one of my political director colleagues in separate phone conversations this week, and that includes every single one of them.

QUESTION: So there’s no change of position at all?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: The President of the United States has said that one of our highest priorities is to ensure that Iran does not obtain a nuclear weapon, and we take that very seriously, as does the rest of the world, and we are going to continue to pursue this.

I think that we all hope that the incredibly difficult situation in Ukraine will not create issues for this negotiation. We hope that whatever happens in the days ahead, whatever actions we and the international community take, depending upon the decisions and the choices that Russia makes, that any actions that Russia subsequently takes will not put these negotiations at risk.

QUESTION: Thank you.

MODERATOR: Great. Thank you, everyone, for joining. Again, for those who hopped on late, this was all on background, a Senior Administration Official. I appreciate the flexibility with doing this over the phone. We will of course be there on the ground as well, so always feel free to get in touch, and I’m sure we will talk quite a bit in the next few days. And have a great weekend, everyone. Safe travels if you’re coming to Vienna.