Briefing with Senior State Department Official on Ongoing U.S. Engagement in Vienna Regarding the JCPOA

May 6, 2021

Weapon Program: 

  • Nuclear

MODERATOR:  Thank you.  And good morning, everyone, and thanks for joining our call today.  We’re very happy to bring to you this opportunity to receive some updates leading into the next phase of talks in Vienna regarding the JCPOA.  We have on with us today [Senior State Department Official], who is heading back to Vienna this week.  As a reminder, [Senior State Department Official] will be speaking on background today, and you may refer to him as Senior State Department Official for the purposes of your reporting.

As another reminder, this call is embargoed until the conclusion of the call, and audio from this session is not for broadcast or replay.  Okay, so we are on background today.

With that, I will turn it over to [Senior State Department Official] for some remarks, and then we’ll take your questions.  Thank you.  [Senior State Department Official]?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL:  Thank you.  And thanks, everyone, for doing this again.  We decided to mix it up a bit and this time talk to you before a round rather than right after one.  So maybe it’ll be a little bit different.

But let me just start by saying that there’s been a lot of reporting about whether this is the final round, whether this is the decisive one, whether a deal needs to be reached in the coming weeks.  And I would simply say that we feel that the last three rounds have helped to crystallize the choices that need to be made to – by Iran and by the United States in order to come back into a compliance-for-compliance return – well, returning to mutual compliance with the JCPOA.

We think that those – that it’s a pretty clear set of choices that needs to be made, because we’re not inventing something new.  It is written in the JCPOA.  And if Iran makes the political decision that it genuinely wants to return to the JCPOA as the JCPOA was negotiated, then it could be done relatively quickly and implementation could be relatively swift.  But we don’t know if that – if Iran has made that decision.  We don’t know if they’ve decided that they’re prepared for a strict mutual return to compliance and whether they’re prepared to do so now.

And so is it possible that we’ll see a mutual return to compliance in the next few weeks, or an understanding of a mutual return to compliance?  It’s possible, yes.  Is it likely?  Only time will tell.  Because as I said, this is ultimately a matter of a political decision that needs to be made in Iran.

But again, if we’re realistic about it, and the United States is, the United States understands what it needs to do to come back into compliance with the sanctions relief commitment that it made under the JCPOA, we understand what it will take.  We also understand what Iran needs to do in order to come back into compliance with its nuclear obligations. And again, it’s not something one needs to invent.  One just needs to read the plain text of the JCPOA.  So again, we’re committed to doing it, and it will be – we’ll have to see in the coming days and weeks whether Iran is.

But I also want to take a step back.  I mean, this is not simply a matter of – it’s not a matter of sanctions relief for the sake of sanctions relief, or of mutual compliance for the sake of mutual compliance.  This is because we’ve tested the alternative.  The prior administration had a theory of the case.  Its theory of the case was that by imposing maximum pressure, withdrawing from the deal, Iran would have to come back and agree to more stringent nuclear commitments, and agree to curb its destabilizing regional behavior.  I think the test of the last three years have shown that it is precisely the opposite, that without the JCPOA, that by re-imposing all the sanctions and imposing new ones, Iran’s nuclear program is now galloping forward, and its regional behavior has become more aggressive.

So that’s why the Biden administration, President Biden decided that we will seek to come back into a state of mutual compliance with a deal that was working, and then use that as a platform to build on the JCPOA to get a longer, stronger deal, and to also address some other aspects of regional security.

If Iran is not prepared to do that, the Biden administration will deal with the situation and will do everything it can to make sure that Iran does not acquire nuclear weapons.  So we’re prepared for that scenario as well.  But the scenario that we prefer, that we know is in our interest and we believe is in Iran’s interest, is to come back into mutual compliance.  And that’s what we’re setting out in this round of Vienna to try to achieve.

One more word.  Again, every time I speak to you, we raise the question of the wrongfully detained American citizens in Iran.  It was the – it is the height of cruelty that would be hard to surpass to wrongfully detain citizens simply – American citizens simply for the purpose of using them as pawns in a – to try to extract concessions from the United States or from other countries.  But they’ve exceeded that cruelty, Iran did, by leaking information that a deal had been reached, and one could only imagine the suffering that the families of the detained had to endure when they thought for a moment that their loved ones are going to be brought back home.  And that’s unspeakable cruelty.

We are determined to bring them home.  We’re determined to do everything we can to bring them home.  But we would really hope that Iran would not subject the detainees and their families to what they’ve had to endure the last Sunday when, for a brief moment, they read the news that their loved ones were coming home because a deal had been struck.  There is not – there is no deal.  We’re doing everything we can to get our citizens home, and we won’t rest until they are.

So with that, open to your questions.

MODERATOR:  Very good.  Let’s go to the line of Matt Lee at the AP.  Matt?

OPERATOR:  One moment.  And Matt, your line is open.

QUESTION:  Yeah.  Can you – I’m here.  Can you all hear me?

MODERATOR:  We can hear you, Matt.  Go ahead.

QUESTION:  Okay, cool.  Thanks.  Sorry.  So hey, [Senior State Department Official], when you say that you understand what it takes, you also understand what Iran will have to do, and you just want to return to the JCPOA as it was written, does that mean that you guys have decided that if there is a deal – and I know you’re – you may say this is a hypothetical.  But if you get back into it, does that mean we go back to the – where we were when the Trump administration withdrew in 2018, or does it mean that there will be things like the arms embargo that expired, that we go back to that point?  In other words, do things that happened under the deal between the Trump withdrawal and you guys coming into office, do those still apply or is there something else that goes on there?  Thank you.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL:  Well, I think, Matt, what it means is that we will go back to what we believe and what we consider to be compliance with the deal.  And so what is inconsistent with the deal we’ll have to remove, and what is consistent with the deal we will not.  And I want to sort of take this opportunity to sort of clarify a point.  When we’re looking – we’re not questioning the – sort of the evidentiary basis of some of the sanctions that may have been imposed by the Trump administration.  What we’re questioning is whether those are consistent with a return to the JCPOA.  And our assessment, our national security determination is that it is in our country’s national security interest to return and to comply to the JCPOA if Iran returns into compliance with the JCPOA.

And therefore, we will look at everything that’s happened since 2017 and assess whether it is consistent with our assessment of what a return and what we think a plain understanding of a return to the JCPOA would mean.  And if there’s complicated cases, as I’ve signaled in the past, we’ll have to look at those more closely.  But what we’re saying is we are prepared to come back into compliance because – and we will look at what it takes to come back into compliance, because that’s what we deem to be in our national security interest.

I won’t go into a specific discussion of individual items, but again, if we think that it is inconsistent with a return to the JCPOA to maintain a particular designation, then we will – we are prepared to lift it.  But conversely, if we think that it is consistent with the JCPOA to maintain it, we’ll maintain it.

MODERATOR:  Okay.  Let’s go to the line of Jennifer Hansler at CNN.

OPERATOR:  And Jennifer, you line is open.

QUESTION:  Hi.  Thank you for doing this.  On the matter of the U.S. detainees, is it a precondition that they are released before the U.S. re-enters the JCPOA?  And if not, how do you ensure that they are released and we don’t have a repeat of what happened last time, where there were promises made and promises broken?

And then separately, do you expect to have a deal before the Iranian elections later this month?  Thank you.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL:  So let me take your second question first, Jennifer.  It’s not a matter of expectations.  Again, we think that it’s doable because it’s not – this is not rocket science; it’s not inventing a new deal.  It’s reviving one that has been undermined over the last several years.  So is it possible to get a deal before the Iranian elections?  Absolutely.  If Iran makes that political determination that it is not going to ask more from the U.S. in terms of sanctions relief than what the – what a return to compliance with the JCPOA requires and it’s not going to – it’s going to do less in terms of its nuclear commitments than a return to compliance requires, then that could be done relatively quickly.

But that’s an answer – that’s a question to which we don’t have an answer.  Iran has that answer.  And again, we – I think we’ve made clear to Iran and to all of the other – the participants in the JCPOA that we’re prepared to take the steps necessary to come back into compliance so that Iran enjoys the economic benefits that were provided for in the JCPOA.  I think we’re going to have to see what decision Iran makes and how quickly it makes it.

On your question on detainees, I’m not going to get into what our – how we look at it in relationship to the JCPOA, but I will say that it is an absolute priority.  It’s a priority for the President.  It’s a priority for the Secretary of State.  It’s a priority for myself and our entire team to make sure that the American citizens who are wrongfully detained come home, and we will do everything to make that happen as quickly as possible, independent of what happens with the JCPOA.

MODERATOR:  Okay.  Let’s go to the line of Francesco Fontemaggi at AFP.  Francesco.

OPERATOR:  And one moment.   And Francesco, if you still have a question, press 1 and then 0.

MODERATOR:  Okay.  In the meantime, let’s go to the line of Will Mauldin at The Wall Street Journal.

OPERATOR:  One moment.  And Will, your line is open.

QUESTION:  Thanks so much for having this.  I noticed you mentioned that – if Iran is prepared to do this – a couple of times, what’s your assessment currently about whether Iran is serious about these negotiations and getting back into the deal?  I know previously that you and Secretary Blinken have expressed some doubts or some concerns about Iran’s seriousness.  And then also if you had any thoughts on the – Iran’s use of newer centrifuges and how that would fit into any deal.  Thanks.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL:  So your first question, I’ll try to repeat and maybe expand a bit on what I said earlier.  It’s not – Iran has come – has participated in the talks.  I think the talks have shown seriousness to some degree by all parties, not just the U.S. and Iran, by the Europeans, Russians, and Chinese, in trying to get back into the deal.  But there is a question as to whether Iran is – understands fully that this is not – we can’t get in a situation where the U.S. does more than is required by the deal in terms of sanctions relief and Iran is going to do less – Iran does less than what is required in terms of it coming back into nuclear compliance.

So we’ll have to see.  So far, we – it’s not clear to us that Iran is prepared to recognize those realities.  But what they – the talks have been serious; the mood has been constructive.  We just have to see whether the next round actually moves things forward or whether we still are faced with unrealistic demands by Iran in terms of demanding more than the JCPOA requires in terms of our sanctions relief and unrealistic commitments by them in terms of their nuclear advances.

That brings me to your question about the new centrifuges.  Again, the – on that issue, the JCPOA is pretty clear in terms of what Iran needs to do to come back into compliance.  So without negotiating it on this line, I think a plain reading of the JCPOA would suggest what Iran’s capabilities can be and cannot be if it is going to be back in compliance with the deal.

MODERATOR:  Let’s go to the line of Nadia Bilbassy at Al Arabiya.

OPERATOR:  One moment.

QUESTION:  (Inaudible) for doing this.  Just to follow up on a couple of points.  [Senior State Department Official], you just said that you will do whatever it takes to stop Iran from having or acquiring nuclear weapons.  What does that mean if diplomacy doesn’t work?  Does that mean also the military option is on the table?  Is this kind of like a new tone towards Iran?

And second, we hear that there is progress in the talks.  We hear that there is also a gap that can be bridged.  Can you just give us a precise picture in the last three rounds as you’re entering the new one what exactly has been agreed upon and what are the main sticking points?  Thank you so much.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL:  Thank you, Nadia.  All I’ll state is – I’ll restate – is what the President has said, is that the United States will make sure that Iran never acquires a nuclear weapon.  And I’ll leave it at that.  Nothing has been agreed.  Nothing has been agreed at this point.  There’s been some greater convergence on some issues, lesser convergence on others.

As I said, I believe that the U.S. has made clear what steps it’s prepared to take to enter back into full compliance with the JCPOA when it comes to sanctions relief so that Iran could enjoy the benefits that were provided by the deal itself. I think where – and Iran has to obviously accept that.  And they have made demands that, in our view, exceed what needs to happen for us to be back in compliance.  And conversely, we believe that they are – they have yet to agree to the steps they would need to take to come back into compliance with their nuclear obligations.

So this is not a – there’s no agreement on some issues and we’re negotiating others.  Nothing is agreed until everything is agreed.  I think that’s a principle that applies here as well.  So there’s still a lot of work to do in terms of agreeing on the sanctions, nuclear steps, but also the sequencing and the timetable for implementation of the steps that both sides are going to need to take.

So that may sound like a lot.  Again, if there’s a clear and realistic practical view about what this means, it can be done relatively swiftly, both in terms of reaching an understanding and then implementing it.  But the pace will have to accelerate for us to get there in the coming weeks and no guarantee that that will be the case.

But our approach is to just forge ahead understanding that we’ve been pretty clear from the outset about what mutual compliance should look like.  And we’re hoping that we could reach that understanding with our partners, but, of course, with Iran first and foremost.  So the gaps are there and I don’t want to underestimate them, but nor will I overestimate the difficulty of closing them if there’s real realism about what this negotiation is about, which is not reinventing the JCPOA, but complying with it.

MODERATOR:  Thanks.  Let’s go to the line of Michel Ghandour at al-Hurra.

OPERATOR:  One moment.  Michel, your line is open.

QUESTION:  Hi, thank you for doing this.  When will you start talking with Iran about its missile program and its malign activities in the region?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL:  So first, this – it’s not as if the world is static as we negotiate.  The U.S. is continuing to do what it needs to do to counter Iran’s destabilizing activities and to work with our partners and allies in the region to that end.  I would note that there’s been great discussions among – between Iran and some of their neighbors, and that’s something that the United States, of course, welcomes.

But in terms of trying to reach understandings, those broader understandings, in our view, the President’s view has always been that the JCPOA is just the first step.  It’s a necessary step, we hope.  I mean, it’s necessary in the sense that we believe that it would be far better to build from that platform and then talk about improvements to the deal.  There are things that the U.S. didn’t get in the deal that it would hope can be discussed, and I think that Iran clearly didn’t get in the deal, as we know, even in terms of what they’re asking us to do right now.

So we know that there’s greater things that Iran would want to see from the deal, and we’re prepared to sit down immediately after we have reached an understanding on rejoining the JCPOA and Iran coming back into compliance to talk about how we could strengthen the deal to our mutual benefit.  But we also think that there needs to be those discussions on some of the issues you mentioned in terms of de-escalating the situation in the region and enhancing regional security, which does mean that – seeing changes in Iranian policy.  And we think part of those discussions may be taking place to some extent already, but we do think that it’s going to be something that we’re going to have to address head on if there’s a JCPOA, as soon as that happens, so that we could have those broader discussions, and if not.

In any event, as I said, our efforts won’t – are not waiting for return to the JCPOA to try to help our allies and partners in the region, but those talks will have to take place, as I said, in any circumstance, but if we reach the JCPOA, if we reach a mutual compliance with the JCPOA, at that point, we expect to have discussions in some format with Iran and its neighbors to address means of strengthening and establishing greater security in the region.

MODERATOR:  Okay, and let’s go to the line at Jonathan Tirone at Bloomberg.

OPERATOR:  One moment.  And Jonathan, your line is open.

QUESTION:  Yeah, thanks, [Senior State Department Official].  This is Jonathan Tirone, Bloomberg.  I just want to ask for a little bit of a step back in terms of a broader framing.  Your former boss, two weeks after the original deal was signed, said in a very famous speech that absent a diplomatic resolution the result could be war, with major disruptions to the global economy, and even greater instability in the Middle East.

Now, you said what your current boss had to say about getting back into the deal, but is that framing still accurate that absent a diplomatic resolution that we are looking at some sort of a hot conflict and escalation?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL:  I don’t want to hypothesize as to what will happen if there is no deal.  I think what President Obama was saying at the time was very clear, and that was a time when, as you recall, tensions were extremely high between the United States, Israel on the one hand, Iran on the other.  And there was the real prospect of a military confrontation in the event we couldn’t put – find some way to address Iran’s expanding nuclear program.

I think right now, what we know is that there is a deal that worked.  It was working in 2016.  It had put Iran’s nuclear program in a box, and we felt at the time and we still feel now that with that deal we could then build upon it to get greater assurances over time, even greater assurances over time about the solidity of the understanding that we reach with Iran.

In the absence of that deal, I think we’ve seen what happens.  We’ve seen what’s happened over the last few years where Iran has expanded in significant ways its nuclear program and where Iran has intensified its aggressive behavior in the region.  That’s the future that could await us if we’re not successful in coming back into the deal.  I’m not saying it’s a future that the U.S. couldn’t handle; we would find ways to handle it.  But it would be far less preferable than getting back into the deal and then building on it once – as we are back in mutual compliance.

So again, I don’t think – this is not a matter of political fiction.  We’ve seen a glimpse of that future already since 2018, and I don’t think it’s a future that is particularly appealing.  So we are going to try to do our best to get back into position where we could calm the situation in the region; put real, real limitations and unprecedented verification and monitoring into Iran’s nuclear program; and then again, as the President has repeatedly said, build on it, because, frankly, we know there are things that we would like to see beyond the JCPOA, but everything we hear from Iran is that they too would like to see things beyond the JCPOA.

MODERATOR:  We’ve got time for a couple more questions.  Let’s go to Humeyra Pamuk at Reuters.

OPERATOR:  One moment.  And what was the first name again?

MODERATOR:  It’s Humeyra Pamuk at Reuters.

OPERATOR:  Okay.  And Humeyra, go ahead.  Your line is open.

QUESTION:  Hello, thank you for doing this.  [Senior State Department Official], I wanted to ask two quick things.  One is Iran will have acquired expertise from its advanced centrifuge work, so does it have to do more than what is contemplated in the JCPOA to compensate for that?

And I just want to quickly ask about the hostages.  You described the leaking of hostage-related developments as unspeakable cruelty.  Can you talk a little bit about what you think, what is your assessment that drives this kind of leak?  Thank you.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL:  Thank you.  Well, the first question is really – is part of what these negotiations are about, which is what Iran will have to do so that it is genuinely back in compliance with what was agreed to in 2015.  And the complication arises from the fact that it has acquired more knowledge, it has done more things than it was supposed to do under the deal, and we’re going to have to find ways to address it.  And there’s – there are a variety of ways that it can be addressed, but it will have to be addressed one way or the other.

On your second question, I don’t want to try to read into the minds of people who would decide that it’s a good idea to create that kind of false hope.  I just – it is not something that I think is even possible.  So I just want – I think the main point to say is that it is – it really was unspeakable cruelty that – but it only sort of redoubles our determination to get our citizens out.  And so I don’t want to speculate on the motivation, but I will make a clear assessment about sort of what it was, and it was – it was really outrageous to inflict that additional suffering on families who have already suffered far too much.

MODERATOR:  Okay, and I think we have time for one more question.  I understand that Francesco Fontemaggi from AFP is back on the line.


OPERATOR:  And Francesco, your line is open.

QUESTION:  Hi, yes, thank you.  I’m sorry, I was cut out of the call for a couple of minutes, so I apologize if my questions were addressed in the gap.

[Senior State Department Official], I wanted to ask you about the prisoners.  I know you say that you’re doing everything possible to get them home.  Would you say that there are ongoing active talks, even if indirect and separate from the nuclear talks, about prisoners and the prisoner swap?  And how – even if separate, how linked would you say they are with the nuclear questions?

And on the sanctions themselves, would you say that the Iranians now know precisely and clearly which sanctions you’re ready to lift and need to take it or leave it, or there is still room to negotiate on that?  Thank you.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL:  Thank you.  I’ll answer your last question first.  I think Iran has a pretty good idea.  Of course, we’re not – as I said, this is – we’re not yet at the absolute final stage of the talks.  So – and as I’ve discussed in the past, there is the – sort of the bucket of the most difficult sanctions that we still need to discuss.

But I think Iran has a pretty good picture, and I think the picture it has is that it will be able to get back to enjoying the economic benefits that were provided for in the JCPOA.  So it has a pretty clear picture about that, and that’s what it stands to gain; that’s what it stands to lose if it doesn’t come back into compliance.

On the question of the detainees, there are active discussions, indirect discussions.  They are independent from the discussions on the JCPOA, but they are active and they are – and we are – again, we are actively seeking their release.  And for Siamak, for Baquer, for Emad, for Morad, this is something that we think about the four of them as we think about Bob Levinson every day.  And yes, we are engaged very intensely in a process to see whether they can be home and reunited with their loved ones as soon as possible.

MODERATOR:  And I think we have time for one last question.  Let’s go to Lara Jakes at New York Times, please.

OPERATOR:  One moment.  And Lara, your line is open.

QUESTION:  Great, thank you for squeezing me in, and I appreciate it.  Safe travels, [Senior State Department Official].  To follow up on what you just last said, it occurs to me that there could be a parallel agreement on getting the detainees released.  Do you think that that is in the works as an agreement to come back into compliance with the JCPOA is reached, or do you think that this is something that’s going to have to be resolved later?

And then just briefly, could you describe the contour of this round of talks?  How many days are you expecting to be in Vienna this time?  What kind of meetings are being held?  I understand there won’t be – or assume there won’t be any direct talks between the Iranians and the Americans, but if you could just kind of give us an idea of what you’re walking into, that would be helpful.  Thank you.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL:  Well, if you know what we’re walking into, let me know.  But – so Lara, on your first – your first question, could it be parallel, again, we’re treating it independently.  We’re treating it as really a matter of utmost urgency to get the detainees home, and we want it to be resolved sooner, sooner rather than later, immediately.  Again, we don’t know whether that’s – whether that’s going to be done or not, but we’re not tying it – we’re not saying first let’s get a nuclear deal and then let’s deal with the detainees.  We want to deal with the detainees immediately.

On the contours of these talks and how long they will last, I mean, in some ways it’s Groundhog Day.  We go back and it’s the same process because we don’t talk to the Iranians.  We talk to the Europeans and to the Russians, the Chinese.  They, then, talk to the Iranians, who then come back to us.  All of that, as I’ve said repeatedly, takes much longer than if we were to do it directly.  There’s some conversations – things get lost in translation, there’s miscommunication, there is misunderstandings.  So all of that takes longer, but that’s the constraints under which the Iranian negotiators are operating.

And I can’t say how long this will last.  It will – if it’s productive, if the talks are progressing and we see that there is reason to keep staying, we will.  If we hit a standstill or there is a reason to go back for consultations, we will return.  So, as in most of these rounds, some of the rounds have had clear end points because the G7 was – the G7 meeting was going to occur, for example, but most of them start and then there is a rhythm that gets established and it becomes clear when we’ve exhausted what can be done in that round.  So it could be short.  It could be long.  I think we’ll have to see when we get there what we hear from the Iranian side.

MODERATOR:  Very good.  I’d like to thank everybody for your participation today.  I’d especially like to thank our speaker, [Senior State Department Official One], for coming to us today.  Once again, this briefing is on background, and you can refer to our speaker as Senior State Department Official.  And with that, our briefing has concluded and the embargo is lifted.  Thank you.