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

Special Briefing
April 21, 2021

Weapon Program: 

  • Nuclear

MODERATOR: Good afternoon, everyone, and thanks very much for joining this call. We wanted to take an opportunity to provide an update on the diplomacy that has been ongoing in Vienna. As a reminder, this call is on background. It is also embargoed until the conclusion of the call. Just for your awareness and not for reporting, our speaker today is [Senior State Department Official]. So again, you can refer to him as a senior State Department official, and what you hear will be embargoed until the conclusion of the call.

With that, I will turn it over to our speaker. Go ahead.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Thanks, [Moderator]. So for those of you who were on the briefing about a week ago, I want to say something that shouldn’t be surprising, which is that what you’re going to hear today is not radically different from what you heard then. That’s because talks between the P5+1 and Iran have always been a slow process, made all the slower this time by the fact that we’re not talking directly to Iran and because the only thing that’s happened since then has been six days of the second round of what is likely to be a multi-round negotiation.

So we made some progress, but we’re not in a situation that’s radically different from where we were at the conclusion of round one. I’ll make a few points on that.

First, what we did achieve is greater clarification. In other words, I think the United States has a better idea of what it will need to do to come back into full compliance with the JCPOA, and Iran has a better idea of what it will need to do to come back into compliance with the JCPOA.

The next point is that clarification doesn’t necessarily mean consensus. There still are disagreements and, in some cases, pretty important ones on our respective views about what is required to – what is meant by a return to full compliance. And the distance that remains to be traveled is greater than the distance that we’ve traveled so far. So we’re not near the conclusion of these negotiations. The outcome is still uncertain. We’ve made some progress. The talks have been business-like, productive, but with still many differences that would need to be overcome.

Two last points. First, our view remains that if we can come back into a mutual compliance with the JCPOA, we do that, as the President has said many times, as a platform from which we would like to discuss a longer, stronger, broader set of understandings with Iran. And second, as in all of these conversations indirect we have with – indirect conversations we have with Iran, we always insist on the necessity of releasing our four wrongfully detained citizens. That was the case again during this round and it will be true anytime we have contact with the Iranians, whether it’s about the nuclear deal or not.

So with that, I’m happy to take your questions.

OPERATOR: Ladies and gentlemen, if you’d like to ask a question, please press 1 then 0 on your telephone keypad. You may withdraw your question at any time by repeating the 1-0 command. If you’re using a speakerphone, please pick up the handset before pressing the numbers. Once again, if you have a question, you may press 1 and then 0 at this time. And one moment for the first question.

MODERATOR: Great. We’ll start with the line of Nick Wadhams, please.

OPERATOR: Your line is now open.

QUESTION: Hey, thanks very much. [Senior State Department Official], could you offer a little more detail on the sanctions you’re prepared to lift? There are reports out there obviously from The Wall Street Journal that you’re willing to lift the terror sanctions on Iran’s Central Bank, its national oil and tanker companies. Could you shed some light into that in light of, obviously, your previous remarks that some sanctions were not applied on the nuclear program and, thus, were under review? And also, are you any closer on a sense of sequencing? Could there be a scenario where both sides just re-enter the deal at the exact same time and you forgo the previous demand that Iran come back into compliance before you do? Thanks.

And you may be muted.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Sorry. Thanks, Nick. I think there have been many reports and there will be many reports as to who has said what during these talks, and we’re not going to comment on each and every one of them. As I said, it’s already a complicated negotiation enough without adding to the complexity by negotiating it in public.

What I will say, and as I said last time, but this time we have gone into more detail is that we have provided Iran with a number of examples of the kind of sanctions that we believe we would need to lift in order to come back into compliance, and the sanctions that we believe we would not need to lift and we would not lift as part of a return into compliance with the JCPOA.

And then a third category, which are the difficult cases for – difficult cases because this is a complex process, but also because the Trump administration deliberately and avowedly imposed sanctions by invoking labels – terrorism labels and other labels even though it was done purely for the purpose of preventing or hindering a return to the – compliance with the JCPOA. So that has made it more difficult. We have to go through every sanction to make sure whether – to look at whether they were legitimately or not legitimately imposed.

So I’m not going to get into precisely the examples that we gave, but we gave Iran examples of the three categories that I mentioned.

On sequencing, there has not been much of a discussion because we’re still at the – in the process of describing and detailing the steps that each side is going to have to take. We have not gotten into the discussion of sequencing. What we can say is that a sequence in which the U.S. does everything before Iran does nothing is not an acceptable sequence. We made that clear to Iran. And beyond that, we’re prepared and we’re open to different kinds of sequencing which meet our interests, which is to see both sides in full compliance and not us coming into full compliance before Iran has acted.

MODERATOR: Can we go to the line of Farnaz Fassihi?

OPERATOR: What was that name again? I apologize.

MODERATOR: Farnaz Fassihi.

OPERATOR: Okay, your line is now open. Thank you, sir.


MODERATOR: Yes, go ahead.

QUESTION: Okay. The Iranians were saying that they’re insisting on getting a written guarantee from the U.S. that a future administration will not abandon the deal. How does that look to you and is this negotiable? They’re also insisting on having some time to verify sanctions relief before they decrease enriching uranium or turn the switch off. How does that look? That would – at least the optics of it would seem like the U.S. is returning first.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: So thanks, Farnaz. So on the question of a written guarantee, I think it’s clear there is no such thing as a guarantee. This is a political understanding in which – and it was clear at the time of the JCPOA that it is the sovereign right of all participants to decide whether they want to maintain their participation or not. We – I think the Biden administration, if it decides – if it reaches an understanding with Iran and the other P5+1 to come back into compliance with the deal, it would be with the intent of acting in good faith and not of departing the deal for no good – for no good reason. But there is no such thing as a guarantee and I think, again, we have made that clear to Iran that it’s not something that the U.S. can or will give. This is a political understanding that relies on the good faith of all actors. Iran has the experience, and understandably a – not a very pleasant one, of the U.S. withdrawing unilaterally from the deal, but certainly the Biden administration’s intent if it were to come back into compliance would be to act in good faith if Iran did the same. As for verifying the sanctions, I mean, if – as we’ve said, if Iran’s position is that the United States needs to lift all sanctions to come back into compliance, then Iran would verify that only then would Iran take action. That’s not a sequence that we could accept and, frankly, I don’t think it’s a sequence that the other participants in the JCPOA believes is a reasonable one. There are many other forms of sequencing that one could discuss, and we’re open to that, but we’re not going to accept a process in which the U.S. acts first and removes all of the sanctions that it is committed to removing before Iran does anything.

MODERATOR: We’ll go to the line of Michele Kelemen.

OPERATOR: Your line is now open, Ms. Kelemen.

QUESTION: Thank you. In your consultations back here, will you be talking to members of Congress about what sanctions are on the table? Are there any plans for small kind of reciprocal gestures, building confidence? Or is the plan – is the conversation just about both sides going back in all at once? And then on – and then you mentioned the detainees. I wonder if you’ve heard – has there been any progress on that topic?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: So, Michele, on the on the question of whether there’d be confidence-building steps or full compliance, I think, as you know, several weeks ago, Iran had expressed an interest in first steps that each side could take. That’s no longer on the agenda. At this point, the discussions taking place in Vienna are about full compliance for full compliance, and that’s the discussions that we’re engaged in. So not necessarily going to rule anything out, but I think at this point the discussions that all the participants are engaged in are what the U.S. would need to do to come into full compliance and what Iran would need to do to come into full compliance.

On the detainees, all I will say about that is that we have pressed very hard, we have an indirect channel of communication with the Iranians on it, and we very much hope that we’ll be able to resolve it because it’s an imperative and it is – as we said many times, it is unconscionable that Iran would hold American citizens for no reason other than the fact that they’re American, because they have not done anything wrong and Iran knows that.

MODERATOR: We’ll go to the line of Arshad Mohammed.

OPERATOR: Your line is now open.

QUESTION: Two things. One, European diplomats have been talking about their hope to have something concrete in hand by mid-May. And as you know, Iranian officials have also been pushing this, pointing to the expiration of their agreement with the IAEA. One, do you think it is even remotely conceivable that you could have some kind of an agreement in place within a month? And two, do you see any reason to push hard for that given that that deadline or marker is entirely self-imposed by the Iranians, given their legislation and then their deal with the IAEA? And I guess the last thing would be: What can you say about the nature of the pretty significant or pretty important differences that remain?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: So Arshad, I’d say, on the question of timing, it’s a position that we’ve taken from the outset that we’re not going to drag our feet. As – the moment there’s an understanding between us, Iran, the other P5+1 is the moment that there’ll be an understanding that we – that will be official. But before that time, we’re not going to rush in order to meet a deadline. We will be dictated by whether we think the understandings that have been reached, if they are reached, are satisfactory. And I think that’s the – that’s what we need to do.

There is the IAEA technical understanding with Iran. There are also the Iranian elections. This is something that commentators bring up as reasons to move by mid-May. Again, if we can get it by mid-May – and I’m not – we’re certainly not going to rule that out. If we can make enough progress, we’ll make enough progress by the time it’s made. And it may be within weeks; it may not be within weeks. But our hope is to get it as soon as possible, not at the expense of getting a deal that’s wrong the kind of deal for us. So we’ll keep saying that. We’re not going to (inaudible) anything down. We’ll go as fast as we can. But we’re not going to go fast at the expense of the solidity of the understanding that we’re seeking to reach.

As for the nature of the differences, well, the differences are very simply which sanctions we – both sides believe, Iran and the U.S. believe are going to need to be lifted in order for us to be back in full compliance with (inaudible). And what steps Iran is going to have to take to come back into compliance with its nuclear obligations, there certainly is no (inaudible) there either. So we’re hoping that Iran will understand that the goal here is to come back into compliance with the JCPOA, all of the JCPOA, and nothing but the JCPOA, which means that demands that the United States lift sanctions that are consistent with the JCPOA should not be part of this conversation. And Iran – if Iran thinks or if Iran hopes that it could do less than come back into compliance with its nuclear obligations under the JCPOA, that won’t work either. So we’re prepared to do everything that we need to do to be back in full compliance with the – with the deal, and we hope that Iran will do the same.

MODERATOR: Go to the line of Kylie Atwood.

OPERATOR: Your line is now open.

QUESTION: Hello, thank you for doing the call. I am wondering – the Iranians have also said that they must be the ones who are the arbiters to judge and verify if the lifted U.S. sanctions are actually working and benefiting them in the way that they want them to. Does the U.S. accept that that judgment should be made by the Iranians, or is there an outside party that should be judging?

And then my second question is: How long does the U.S. believe it would take to actually lift the sanctions that you guys decide are going to be lifted? I know this is a tricky process, so it can’t happen overnight. Once the decision is made, how long does it take? Thanks.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: So on the first question, I’m not – it’s not entirely clear what that means. We will lift the sanctions and we’ll do our part. We’ll meet our obligation. It’s not a matter of judging whether we’ve lifted the sanctions. We will have lifted the sanctions and Iran will have to then decide if it does not want to – if it doesn’t believe that its needs are being met and it wants to leave the deal, then it will leave the deal and we could do the same. That’s the nature of this understanding. But we will meet our obligation lifting the sanctions as we did in 2016, and we believe that that’s what the JCPOA requires.

How long it will take – it wouldn’t take that long, but I don’t want to get – I can’t get into the details. As you said, it’s complex, but we don’t think this is something that would be very time-consuming. Once we make the decision to lift the sanctions, it’s something we believe we could execute relatively quickly.

MODERATOR: We’ll to Mohammed Elehad.

OPERATOR: Your line is now open, sir.

MODERATOR: Mohammed —

OPERATOR: Mr. Elehad?

QUESTION: Yes, hi. Can you hear me, please?

MODERATOR: Yes, we can.

QUESTION: Yeah. There are some media reports that South Korea released around $30 million to Iran as part of the unfrozen assets there. Do you have any confirmation about that, sir? Thank you so much.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: So we have not taken any action regarding the South Korean assets. We see reports floating every now and then, but we have not taken any action regarding those assets.

MODERATOR: We’ll go to Barak Ravid.

QUESTION: (Inaudible), for doing this.

OPERATOR: Your line is now open.

QUESTION: Hi. Thanks for doing this. Two questions. First, about this third category of sanctions, the sanctions that were imposed by the Trump administration on the nuclear deal but under terror designations or human rights, what’s the – in comparison to the two other groups of sanctions, how many of the sanctions are under this group, under the third category?

And second question: Israeli officials are saying that they feel that the U.S. is not transparent enough with them about which sanctions that are non-nuclear-related it’s planning on removing as part of the talks with Iran. What do you say about that?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: So I’m not going to give numbers of the kind of sanctions. As I said, the third category is the one that is more ambiguous in terms of our – our – I mean, we have to look into whether we conclude in the end that they are – whether the sanctions will consist – whether lifting the sanctions is necessary in order to come back into the JCPOA or not, and for that we have to consider a number of factors, including the reality that the Trump administration, as I said earlier, professed to be imposing these – this wall of sanctions in order to prevent a return to the JCPOA. So that’s one of the considerations. It’s not the only one, of course, but we are going to looking into – we’re looking into those.

I believe we have had numerous conversations with Israeli officials before and after every round of talks. We certainly will have one again. We believe we’ve been transparent. We’ve been in the process of – as I said, of looking into which sanctions we would – we believe would need to be lifted as part of the return to the JCPOA. But we’ve been very transparent that we believe it’s the – it’s sanctions that we need to lift to be consistent with the – sanctions that are required for a return to the JCPOA and for Iran benefiting from what a return to the JCPOA would mean. And I think we’ve said that explicitly to the Israelis. We’ve discussed it. We’ll discuss it at further length this week and coming out of these talks. So we intend to be as transparent as we can. We know there’s a disagreement with Israel’s perspective and we respect that. We’ll try to be as transparent as we can about how we see things and how we want to go and listen to their perspective as well.

MODERATOR: We’ll take a couple final questions. We’ll go to Nadia Bilbassy.

OPERATOR: Your line is still open.

QUESTION: You know there are worries among your allies in the region that the money that Iran gets from any sanction relief might go actually to support terrorist organizations and cause more havoc in the Middle East. Is there kind of any verification that you can impose to make sure that this money won’t go to people like Hizballah and the like?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: So first, thanks for the question, because I wanted to say, obviously, we do consult and discuss with our Israeli allies, but we also are very transparent with our partners as we talk to them regularly, again, both before and sometimes during and after every round of talks, and we intend to continue doing that.

As for your specific question, first of all, our view is that the situation only became worse from their perspective – from our perspective and their perspective during the years of maximum pressure. Those are the years when the activities – Iran’s activities, Iran’s direct activities against some of our Gulf partners, the direct attacks against Saudi Arabia, those grew during the period of maximum pressure. So there’s no direct correlation between lifting of sanctions and Iran’s conduct in the region. I think that’s been proven by simply the experience of the last four and more years.

We do – we certainly intend to continue to pressure Iran and to counter their activities in the region that are destabilizing and that are going after our interests or the interests of our partners. And we also, of course, retain sanctions on Hizballah and other such organizations and the ability to go after any support that is given to them. Those sanctions, of course, will remain in place.

So we understand that what – that lifting sanctions is something that will have to come from a return – lifting of some sanctions will have to come from a return to the JCPOA, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t continue to counter Iranian activities in the region that are destabilizing and that go against our interests or those of our partners or allies in the region.

MODERATOR: We’ll go to the line of Matt Lee.

QUESTION: I wanted to try to dig down a little bit into the three baskets of sanctions, recognizing that you didn’t want to say how many are actually in the third category. But if we look at all three categories – the ones that you would need to lift, the ones that you wouldn’t need to lift, and then this third category – can you give a rough percentage as to – out of 100 percent of the sanctions that would be – like, what percent fall into each category? And even if you can’t do that, is there a rough agreement between you guys, or do you understand that there’s a rough agreement between you and the Iranians on the first two baskets? Or is that still something that needs to be decided?

Secondly, would – forgetting about who was the arbiter of whether the sanctions relief is actually effective or not, is this administration prepared, like the Obama administration was, to go out and do these, for lack of a better word, road shows where you try to encourage other countries and other – and businesses and other countries to do business with Iran? Thank you.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: So Matt, yeah, no, I’m not going to give a percentage, partly because this is still a work in progress, so we are not – we’re not about to give numbers. And we have to be in agreement for what these baskets are. There’s no agreement with Iran on anything at this point, and that’s – I’m not saying that as a measure of pessimism, but it’s the nature of these talks that the parties are not going to agree to anything until they see the full – the full picture. So it’s not a surprise at this point that there’s no agreement on any of the categories at this point. These are discussions in which ideas are being exchanged, but there’s been nothing at this point that I would point to and say, “Here’s something that’s been agreed that we could put to the side.” Nothing will be agreed until everything is agreed. I think that’s clearly the principle behind these talks.

And I’m sorry, I forgot your – oh, your other question about – I’m not going to begin to talk about what we will do if and when we reach an understanding. I think the first step is to get there and we’re not there yet. I mean, we hope we’ll get there, but we – there’s certainly no certainty, and we can then figure out what we will – what steps each side will take to make sure that their commitments are fully implemented.

MODERATOR: We’ll take a final question from Francesco Fontemaggi.

OPERATOR: Your line is now open.

QUESTION: Hi. Thank you. Thank you, [Senior State Department Official] and [Moderator]. I want to just to go a little bit more into the process. When you said that you shared examples of the sanctions that you can lift, the ones that you’d want to lift and the ones that are in between, have you shared the full list of the sanctions that you’re ready to lift and the ones you are not ready to lift or just examples? And also on the second thing, when Jake Sullivan said last Sunday that you won’t lift any sanctions until the U.S. has the assurance that Iran is ready to go back to compliance, is that a fair description of the stance you’re defending in Vienna? I mean not having the compliance but the assurance of this compliance. Thank you.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: So I’m going to start with your last question because we’ve had – as you know, I mean, there’s been many questions about sequence and we’re not ready to discuss that yet, whether directly – certainly not – but even indirectly. The sequence has not been the focus of the discussions. The focus of the discussion is on defining the steps that both sides need to take.

So there are many ways of choreographing this. There are many ways that one could do it. We know what we think would be unacceptable for us, which is that we do everything first, and then Iran acts, and we assume that it would be unacceptable for Iran to do everything first and then the U.S. acts. In between, there are many ways and many, many possibilities that we could consider.

As to your first question, which is what we have provided with – what we have provided Iran with, we have given them many examples. I’m not going to get into the details, but I think they have a pretty clear sense at this point of our understanding, of our view about the sanctions that we’re going to have to lift and those that we don’t think we need to – we would not lift. And then as we said, there’s some issues that we’re still working through in our own system because this is, as I said, a very complicated assessment. There’s no – it’s not as if – when the former administration reimposed sanctions, they labeled them: ‘These are sanctions that are consistent with the JCPOA, and these are the kind of sanctions that are not consistent with the JCPOA.’ So it is a much more difficult work that we are doing to try to understand the nature of the sanctions and on what basis they were imposed.

MODERATOR: Well, thanks very much, everyone. Just a reminder, this call is on background to a senior State Department official. And the embargo is now lifted. Thanks for joining.