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

April 9, 2021

Weapon Program: 

  • Nuclear

MODERATOR:  Welcome to today’s call.  We wanted to take the opportunity to bring this group together to discuss the past few days in Vienna and what might be ahead.  This call is on background.  You can attribute everything you hear to a senior State Department official.  For your knowledge only, our speaker today is [Senior State Department Official].  The [Senior State Department Official] just returned from Vienna earlier today, where, of course, meetings have been taking place for the past few days.  [Senior State Department Official] [title] the U.S. delegation that participated in expert-level working groups focusing on nuclear issues, sanctions, and an overall mutual return to compliance with the JCPOA, and he’ll be prepared to speak to that and then take your questions.  So with that, I will turn it over to our speaker.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL:  Thanks, and thanks to all of you for joining.  So as you know – I’ll say a few words about sort of the process, the atmospherics, and the outcome of the week.  These were indirect talks.  Iran does not – did not want to talk to the U.S. directly, so the communication was done through – mainly through the European Union but also in – through other participants in the JCPOA.

And the purpose was to clarify what Iran has to do to come back into compliance with the deal and what the U.S. has to do to come back into compliance with the deal.  And this was just the first step of this first phase of a potential return to the JCPOA, so it’s really just preliminary steps.

I think by – and this is a U.S. assessment but I think it’s the assessment of the other participants, certainly of the Europeans but even the Russians and the Chinese, that the United States team put forward a very serious – very serious ideas, demonstrated a seriousness of purpose coming back into compliance if Iran comes back into compliance, and was – and on a whole, the discussions were productive.  They were businesslike.  The atmosphere was very constructive.

At the same time, a question still remains about whether the seriousness of purpose and the intent of coming back into compliance that the U.S. showed would be reciprocated by Iran.  I’d say we saw some signs of it but not – certainly not enough, and there still are question marks about whether Iran has the willingness to do what it will take to take the pragmatic approach that the United States has taken to come back into compliance with its obligations under the deal and a pragmatic approach towards the steps that the U.S. will have to take to come back into compliance with the deal.  And I think that coming out of this week, this met expectations but with that question mark that I think still hangs over the proceedings.

So the parties will reconvene next week in Vienna sometime mid-week.  We expect that the U.S. team will be back and it will be continuing this process of, again, clarifying what steps both sides need to take to come back into compliance.  And our hope is that we’ll see from Iran a greater indication of what they’re prepared to do and greater indication that they will take a constructive attitude in getting there.

So with that, why don’t I take your questions.

MODERATOR:  Great.  Operator, would —

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL:  Let me just add one thing, because obviously the focus was on these steps, but we did raise, as we do every time we have an opportunity with Iran, the case of the detainees and missing persons, American missing people, in Iran.  And we raised it as forcefully as we always do, just to make sure that Iran understands that is our priority.  It’s separate from the nuclear talks, but it is something that we won’t forget and that we will keep raising with Iran.


MODERATOR:  Thank you for that.  Operator, would you like to give the instructions for asking questions?

OPERATOR:  Certainly.  Ladies and gentlemen, if you would like to ask a question, please press 1 then 0.

MODERATOR:  Okay, we will start with the line of Arshad Mohammed, please.

OPERATOR:  One moment, Mr. Mohammed.  Please, go ahead.  Your line is open.

QUESTION:  Thank you.  Two things.  You said there are question marks about the seriousness of intent of the Iranian delegation.  What, if anything, makes you think that they are serious?

And secondly, Foreign Minister Zarif today said that all Trump-era sanctions that are contrary to the JCPOA must be removed.  Are you – is the United States prepared to do that, including specifically terrorism-related sanctions on such institutions as Iran’s Central Bank and NIOC?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL:  So thanks, Arshad.  Let me try to answer both questions.  First, Iran has said on many occasions that its intent is to come back into compliance with the deal, that it agreed to these indirect talks in Vienna.  As I said, the atmosphere, as far as we can tell because everything was relayed back to us from the discussions that other delegations had with Iran, that it was businesslike and that they took the matter seriously.  And that – again, we read that as a sign that perhaps they mean what they say when they claim that they want to find a way back to the JCPOA if the U.S. is back in compliance with, that they want to come back into compliance with the JCPOA if the United States is.

Now, the question mark has to do with what – with what you just said, which is the repeated statements by Iranians that all sanctions imposed since 2017 have to be lifted.  And that is not consistent with the deal itself, because under the deal the U.S. retains the right to impose sanctions for non-nuclear reasons, whether it’s terrorism or human rights violations or interference with our elections, et cetera.

Now, on your specific question, we’ve made clear – and we’ve made it clear publicly, we’ve made it clear to the Iranians indirectly – that our view is that all sanctions that are inconsistent with the JCPOA and inconsistent with the benefits that Iran expects from the JCPOA, we are prepared to lift those if Iran comes back into compliance with its obligations.  I’m not going to get into specifics; I’m not going to negotiate with you, however much I would prefer to.

But so without getting into the specifics, I would say that that’s our position: all sanctions that are inconsistent with the JCPOA and are inconsistent with the benefits that Iran expects from the JCPOA, we are prepared to lift.  That doesn’t mean all of them because there are some that are legitimate – legitimate sanctions.  Even under a very fair reading, a scrupulous reading of the JCPOA, those would be legitimate sanctions.  So I don’t think that we agree with the – I know we don’t agree with the statement that the foreign minister made.

But again, I don’t want to negotiate with you.  I think our position is a very serious one.  It’s one that’s consistent with the plain language and any interpretation – any fair interpretation of the deal, and I think other participants in the JCPOA would understand that.

MODERATOR:  Let’s go to the line of Andrea Mitchell, please.

OPERATOR:  One moment, Ms. Mitchell.  Okay.  Please, go ahead.  Your line is open.

QUESTION:  Thank you very much, [Senior State Department Official], and welcome back.  I’m wondering regarding sanctions, how do you deal with the issue of simultaneity and sequencing?  Were there any creative proposals in Vienna from the EU that were – that could resonate with both sides for dealing with the timing?  And in connection with what Arshad was asking, what do you do about the terror designation?  What is the process for dealing with that if we both go into compliance?  Do you have to deal with that first?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL:  So the question of sequencing was not as much a focus this time.  I think the participants, those who were in Vienna, felt that the first priority was to see whether they could define a common set of steps that Iran needs to take and that the U.S. needs to take.  And so I think that they will probably turn to the question of sequencing once we get – if and when we get closer to a common understanding about what both parties need to do.

But on your second point – and it’s good that – thank you, Andrea, for asking it because I wanted to come back to say something more about Arshad’s question.  This is a complicated process, as we’ve said.  And so there’s a position that we’ve said, which is sanctions that are inconsistent with the JCPOA and with the benefits that are supposed to come out of the JCPOA, those will be lifted.  I also said that under the JCPOA the United States could impose sanctions on terrorism, on human rights violations, on ballistic missiles, and we were clear in Vienna back in 2015 that we would retain that right.

It’s not as easy a process as it may sound precisely because the Trump administration went out of its way to make it difficult for a successor administration to rejoin the JCPOA.  And so they labeled – relabeled things using terrorism designations which were in fact – which had originally been designated on nuclear grounds.  And so we have to go through the effort, the painstaking effort, of looking through the sanctions to see which are – which need to be lifted for purposes of rejoining the JCPOA and which need to be kept.  And it’s not – it’s not – the label itself doesn’t always give the answer because we have to bear in mind the fact that there was a purposeful and self-avowed intent by the prior administration to take steps to make it harder to build that sanctions wall they spoke about precisely with the political intent to make it harder for any successor that wanted to come back into the deal to do so.  So that’s why it’s all the more challenging to look at every sanction and make sure that we are – we’re coming up with the right outcome.

MODERATOR:  We’ll go to the line of Jason Rezaian.

OPERATOR:  One moment, please.  Go ahead, your line is open.

QUESTION:  Good afternoon, [Senior State Department Official].  Thanks for doing this.  I want to piggyback on something you said earlier about detainees.  And my question is when you guys dealt with this issue five years ago, obviously it had to be done very privately.  This time around, not only are there Americans being held in Iran, there are British, German, French, Austrian, Swedish, and citizens of a whole host of other countries.  Have there been discussions with our allies, especially those that are in the JCPOA, on this issue and how you might address it together?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL:  Thanks, Jason.  So listen, we did raise it.  We raised it sort of in a bilateral context, but we’ve also spoken – we’ve spoken at length to our European partners and to any other who was a victim – whose citizens have been a victim of these political detentions.

And as you know, Secretary Blinken and the administration as a whole is joining the Canadian initiative to try to find a more collective, multinational response to a practice which unfortunately Iran is pretty expert in but is not alone in undertaking.

So the answer is that yes, we’re looking at how we can work with others and come up with a collective response to an outrageous pattern of behavior that Tehran and others engage in.  And on Iran in particular we do talk – we have spoken to our European partners in particular about how to approach this.

MODERATOR:  We’ll go to the line of Robin Wright.

OPERATOR:  And one moment, please.  Not showing Robin Wright in queue at this time.

MODERATOR:  Okay.  We’ll go to the line of Nick Schifrin.

OPERATOR:  One moment.  Go ahead, Mr. Schifrin.  Your line is open.

QUESTION:  Thanks very much.  Wanted to go back, [Senior State Department Official], to the point about the sanctions and just make sure of something:  You have gone through this list, correct, and you did submit the list to the Iranians.  And you don’t want to negotiate with us, but I just want to make sure that there was a concrete decision on the U.S. side of which sanctions to identify as the ones you would be willing to lift, and that was submitted.

And the second question is we’ve been asking, of course, about U.S. compliance.  Let’s ask about Iranian compliance.  So did the list of steps that Iran submitted – did you get that list?  Is it a full list?  Is it acceptable to the U.S.?  Thanks.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL:  Thanks, Nick.  And the answer is no, we did not submit a list.  We submitted – we exchanged ideas about the principles that would guide any sanctions lifting on the U.S. side.  And Iran did not submit a list either, so I think that’s – I mean, this was two or three days of talks.  We’ll come back next week, but no, we’ve not – we have not done that.  We’ve told them in broader terms the kind of sanctions we’d be prepared to lift and those that would stay on.

I want to say one more thing about Iranian compliance, because it gives me an opportunity to say tomorrow is Nuclear Day.  Traditionally, that’s a day when Iran has made nuclear announcements, so we expect something, and we’ll have to see what they say and what they announce.  And depending on the announcement, it also could be a sign of whether they are approaching these talks in a constructive spirit and taking on board the fact that the U.S. has shown a real seriousness of purpose, or whether they’re going to take a different track which would raise more questions about their intentions.

So I think we’ll have to see what happens tomorrow to get a further clue.  It won’t be a definitive answer, probably, but a further clue into Iran’s thinking.

MODERATOR:  We’ll go to the line of Halley Toosi.

OPERATOR:  One moment, please.

MODERATOR:  It looks like it’s rendered Nahal Toosi in the system.

OPERATOR:  All right, one moment.  Oh, here we go.  Your line is open.  Please, go ahead.

QUESTION:  Hi, everyone.  I have two questions.  The first one is this concept of sanctions verification that the Iranians keep mentioning, this idea that they want to find a way to verify that the sanctions have been lifted and are taking effect and – the same way that we verify that they are – they have taken their nuclear steps.  So my question on that is:  Do you have any idea what they mean exactly, and how long that could take and how practical it is?

And then the second thing is – [Senior State Department Official], I know you don’t want to negotiate with us on what sanctions you want to lift and what sanctions you want to keep, but there are Republicans and others who are already prepared for this.  I mean, I’ve written about this.  They are going to attack the administration for any sanctions lifting, especially – even if it’s something that has been, in your view, mislabeled and intentionally mislabeled.  So are you guys prepared for that kind of political blowback and how you will deal with that?  Thanks.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL:  Thanks.  So yeah, on the question of sanctions verification – which, as you mentioned, is something Iran has raised publicly very often, no, we don’t know exactly what they mean and we’ve indicated to them that we would welcome more details on what they – precisely they have in mind.  And I – and so we have yet to have that indirect conversation.

Which brings me to another point, which is all of this would be – I’ve said this before, but it would be infinitely easier if we had direct conversations with Iran.  You could imagine for all these questions how hard it is when the United States tells the EU, the EU tells the Iranians, the Iranians tell the EU, and then come back to us.  There’s – it’s much more cumbersome.  You can’t get into – it’s impossible for the EU to have a discussion about our sanctions any more than the EU can have a discussion about Iran’s sanctions verification request in detail.  So that just really makes it slower and more and more complicated.

As for the other question, no, we know that there’s – this is a difficult issue on which there are very strong views in Congress and in particular.  And we know what – how strongly some – the opposition will be to some people who were opposed to the to the JCPOA back in 2015 and ’16 and who were in favor of the withdrawal, and now are against any effort to come back in.

Then we take the view – we take – I’d make three points.  First, we are consulting, we’re talking to members of Congress, and we’ll continue doing that.  Even when we disagree, we think it’s important to hear their point of view and to take it into account, even if at the end of the day we may not fully agree.  Second, on the substance, we just take – we start from the principle that the maximum pressure campaign, the withdrawal from the JCPOA, and the sanctions that have been imposed have simply not succeeded in making Americans, the American people or America safer.  Iran has advanced its nuclear program in significant ways and continues to do so, and Iran has increased its belligerence in the region.

So we may have a disagreement on that, but that seems to be a non-contentious statement that the behaviors that the Trump administration said it was worried about have only worsened under the approach of leaving the deal and trying to impose greater pressure.  So that may be a fundamental difference of assessment that will continue, but that’s where President Biden and the Biden administration starts from.  It is that the maximum pressure campaign has failed, and so we need to find a way back so that the problem, the deep problem with Iran’s nuclear program but also of its other behaviors in the region, can get – can be curbed.  And we think the better way is through diplomacy.

So yes, and so we know that there will be debate, there’ll be differences.  We’ll try to work with many members of Congress in good faith, understandings that there may be that difference.  But the third point I’d make is ultimately one point on which we also agree, is that we would like to build on the JCPOA.  Of course, some members of Congress would like to circumvent the JCPOA.  As I said, I think we have three years of real-life experiment that shows that circumventing and ignoring and throwing the – discarding the JCPOA has led to a worse outcome on every front.

But we do believe that once we’re back in the JCPOA, we should talk to Iran about strengthening the deal, lengthening the deal, and talking about other issues of concern to all Americans.  And so on that I think we can reach a degree of consensus, and we hopefully will with those members of Congress who want to work with us in trying to define what a subsequent deal could look like and if we – understanding that they have a different view about the step that we’re taking now or we’re trying to take now.

MODERATOR:  Hoping I can impose on our speaker for a few final questions here.  We’ll go to the line of Matt Lee.

OPERATOR:  Please, go ahead.  Your line is open.

QUESTION:  Hey, there.  Happy Friday.  Welcome back.  Hope your flight back from Vienna was safe.

Just a couple of things.  One, when you mentioned at the very top and then in your response to Jason’s question about raising the detainees, you didn’t do – I just want to make sure.  You – there were no direct meetings with the Iranians?  So this was done through the other – through the others?  You raised it with the Europeans, the Russians, the Chinese to pass on to the Iranians?  That’s number one.

Number two, when you say that we’re prepared to lift all sanctions that are inconsistent with the JCPOA, and then all sanctions that are inconsistent with the benefits that Iran expects to get from the JCPOA, that second part opens up, like, a whole range of sanctions that may be nuclear, that may be missile-related, that could be –  I mean, so are you – are all the sanctions on the table?  I realize you’ve tried to answer that in response to earlier questions, but I just want to try and drill down harder on that.  And that’s it.  Thank you.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL:  So the first question, no, we had no direct meeting, no direct communication with Iran on anything, and not the detainees.  And so that was also done through third parties.

On your second question, let me just be clear.  I mean, the JCPOA sets out some commitments that the U.S. will take and also some economic benefits that Iran is anticipated to accrue from the sanctions relief.  This is not – it’s not an additional consideration, it’s one that is germane to the JCPOA itself.  The JCPOA lays out what Iran is expecting to – should get, what Iran – what the JCPOA would provide in terms of economic relief to Iran.

So we’re not – you say it opens up that every sanction is on the table.  What it – the sanctions that are on the table are the ones that meet those requirements, understanding that some sanctions won’t.  And again, if Iran sticks to the position that every sanction that has been imposed since 2017 has to be lifted or there will be no deal, then we’re heading towards an impasse.  But we’re hopeful that the way we explained it, which is sanctions inconsistent with the JCPOA and the benefits that are supposed to accrue from it, that if we lift those, that is coming back into compliance with the JCPOA, and therefore, Iran should reciprocate by coming into compliance with its nuclear commitments.

MODERATOR:  We’ll go to the line of Bahman Kalbasi.

OPERATOR:  And please, go ahead.  Your line is open.

QUESTION:  Thank you both.  [Senior State Department Official], did you get via Europeans any list from Iranians in terms of people they claim that are in jail in United States?  Is there any possibility of a repeat of exchange that we have seen previously?

And also, the prime minister of South Korea is going to Iran.  Their ship was released in the Persian Gulf.  Is there something more to this in terms of their funds in South Korea that might be released for humanitarian purposes?  Is there any possibility that there might be a delinking of humanitarian needs, especially given the situation of COVID in Iran, from these talks or as a goodwill gesture in the middle of these talks?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL:  So first, I mean, we – the Iranians are – through the Swiss have told us what – they’ve given us a sense of what they’d like to see on our end, but again, I don’t want to get into any details here.

On the South Korea question, first – and I know there’s been some media inquiries about whether what happened with the release of the ship and the captain, which we welcome and it was about time, that – whether it was linked in any way to the U.S. position on the assets in South Korea, and the answer is no.  This was a deal that was struck between South Korea and Iran in which the U.S. had no role.

As for your broader question, I mean, we’re always looking at humanitarian impact of sanctions.  That was something that President Biden has said that he wants to look – as a candidate he committed to it and as an administration we are looking into it, into the question of the impact of sanctions on humanitarian issues.  But our position has been that given the complexity of the sanctions structure on Iran in particular that the way to resolve the question of the – of the assets that are held in South Korea and Japan and elsewhere is to get to the point where we lift our sanctions and Iran comes back into compliance.  That would be the way to most easily answer all those questions, but – because otherwise, given the web of sanctions, it’s then a more complicated endeavor.  But we’re always looking at what we can do to address the humanitarian impact that sanctions are having in Iran or elsewhere.

MODERATOR:  Two final questions here.  James Rosen, please.

OPERATOR:  And please, go ahead.  Your line is open.

QUESTION:  Hi there.  Can you hear me all right?  Can you hear me all right?

MODERATOR:  We hear you.  We can.

QUESTION:  Okay.  Thank you for doing the call, [Senior State Department Official].  Very simple question:  Do you assess Iran presently to be in compliance with the NPT?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL:  Was that your only question?


SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL:  That’s a question I’d rather – that’s sort of beyond my competence, so I’d rather – we could have our nonpro experts get back to you.  I’d rather not say something that I’m going to regret, so why don’t we have somebody else get back to you.

MODERATOR:  We’ll go the line of Laura Rozen, please.

OPERATOR:  And Ms. Rozen, your line is open.

QUESTION:  Can you hear me?

OPERATOR:  Please, go ahead.

QUESTION:  Thank you for doing this.  [Senior State Department Official], did the Iranians or your interlocutors give any indication of what it would require for the U.S. to be able to sit at the multilateral table to have more efficient conversations?

And secondly, do you or your interlocutors have an assessment of why the Iranians would be raising demands they know that are not politically feasible in the U.S. for sanctions beyond those implicated with the JCPOA to be lifted?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL:  So to the first question, did Iran give an indication (inaudible) once the U.S. is back in the deal, but the one thing I’d say:  We’re not going to – we think it would be better if we could sit down with the Iranians.  We’re not going to pay a price for that.  And so if they don’t want to meet with us, too bad.  As I said, it’s just going to be much harder to – for them to get what they say they want, which is a return – mutual return to compliance, because it’s so much harder to get the kind of discussions – even this discussion we’re having with the EU about sanctions, it would be much easier to have it with Iran if they were across the table from us.  But if that’s their position, we can’t force them to sit with us, and we’ll have to make do.

Good question – your second one, I mean.  We hope that they will understand that if they take a position which is not just a sort of rigid position, one that is inconsistent with the text of the JCPOA and with the many months of conversations that the U.S. and Iran had leading up to the JCPOA in terms of our understanding of the ability of the U.S. to impose sanctions on issues that have nothing to do with the nuclear program or the nuclear deal.  So I’m not going to speculate as to why they’re taking that position.  One could only hope that they will take a more constructive and pragmatic position as the days – in the days and weeks ahead so that we can get to the goal that they claim they want to achieve, which is a return back to compliance, a mutual return to compliance with the JCPOA.

But you’re right to point to the fact that that is – that’s not particularly consistent with the – an attitude of trying to get there quickly.  So it does raise questions in our mind about what their – what the intentions are, but we will continue to proceed in good faith and with the seriousness that we’ve shown to see whether it is possible, because we think it’s in the U.S. national security interest.  We think it would also be in Iran’s interest, but they will have to make that determination.

MODERATOR:  Okay, that is probably a good place to end.  Thank you all very much for joining us today.  Again, this call was on background to a senior State Department official, and with that, we’ll conclude the call.