Senior State Department Official On the JCPOA Talks in Vienna

December 17, 2021

Weapon Program: 

  • Nuclear

MODERATOR:  Thanks very much and good evening, everyone.  Thank you for joining us.  We wanted to take an opportunity to provide an update on the status of talks in Vienna regarding the JCPOA.  We have joining us today a senior State Department official.  For your awareness only, you’ll be hearing today from [Senior State Department Official].  This call is on background, so you can attribute everything you hear today to a senior State Department official, and this call is embargoed until the conclusion of the call.

So with that, I will turn it over to our senior State Department official.  Please, go ahead.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL:  Thanks, [Moderator], and thanks to all of you for joining.  If I had to summarize the second part of the seventh round that just concluded, I’d say it was better than it might have been, it was worse than it should have been, which leaves us in an uncertain position as to whether we can get to where we need to go in the short time that we have left to get there.  So I’ll come back to that in a second.

I first want to just state a reminder again that every day that goes by is just further proof and demonstration of how self-defeating the decision to withdraw from the JCPOA was.  It’s left an Iranian nuclear program that’s unconstrained, it’s left us with less visibility and monitoring of their program, and that’s why the first objective of the Biden administration on this file is to see whether we can get back to mutual – a mutual return to full JCPOA compliance.  And, as President Biden has said, the United States – he is committed to returning the U.S. to compliance and to remain in compliance so long as Iran does the same.  That said, President Biden’s core commitment is that Iran will never possess a nuclear weapon, and he’s – he will do what’s necessary to achieve that goal.

Now, back to the – sort of the conclusion of the seventh round.  As I said, it was better than it might have been because there was some modest progress.  First, thanks to the efforts of the director general of the IAEA, Rafael Grossi, and with help of others, including Russia, an agreement was reached that will allow for the IAEA to reinstall the cameras at Karaj.  That’s an important step, it’s a welcome step, but it’s not a step that we should exaggerate, because this is – will now be the third time that Iran agreed – agreed to this agreement with the director general.  And we came close this time to calling, as we said we would, for an extraordinary meeting of the Board of Governors if Iran had not agreed to these terms.  And if Iran fails to follow up this time, again, I think it will be inevitable that this issue’s going to come to the Board of Governors.

Second element of modest progress is the fact that thanks to the diplomacy of the European Union in particular, we now have a common understanding of what the text will be that will serve as the basis for negotiations on nuclear issues.  That’s, again, a welcome step, but I’d also caution that we should curb our enthusiasm because we’re now at best to where we were last June, and what we’ve done is define the items on the agenda that need to be discussed.  They have not been discussed, let alone resolved in this round, and therefore what we have an agenda of issues to be examined, not a set of solutions to be accepted.  And so given how much work still needs to be done, given that we still have not achieved that level of clarity on the other issues – sanctions lifting or the sequence of the steps that – the nuclear steps and the sanctions lifting steps that would need to take place – there still is a lot of work to do.

And, of course, all of this takes place under a circumstance where time is running out because of the pace of Iran’s nuclear program.  And as the Secretary has said so many times, we cannot accept a situation where Iran drags its feet at the negotiating table and accelerates its pace with its nuclear program.  So we made some progress, not enough, certainly at a pace that will not be sufficient to get to where we need to go before Iran’s nuclear advances render the JCPOA a corpse that cannot be revived.

It made it a little bit – all the more surprising that Iran chose to conclude the talks today.  We and I think our partners were ready – and the other members of the P5+1 – were ready to continue to do the work that’s necessary to advance.  The Iranian delegation has its reasons, I’m sure, for wanting to go back.  The point is we hope they return and soon, and that when they return, they return with an even greater sense – a greater sense of urgency – a sense of urgency, I should say, so that we can move quickly to try to see whether we can resolve the issues that remain before a mutual return to compliance.

So again, I’d say regardless of whatever progress was made, the pace at which we are moving is not – won’t suffice to save the JCPOA (inaudible) there’s going to have to be an acceleration.  Iran is going to have to come back with a clear set of issues that it prioritizes and realistic positions on how to resolve them.

If that’s done, as we’ve said and I think I – we’ve said it in the last call we had, they will find on the part of the United States a party that is prepared to negotiate seriously, constructively, and creatively to resolve the issues that we need to resolve in order to achieve a mutual return to compliance.  And if Iran chooses to stay on its current course, as I said, of accelerating nuclear development and dragging its feet at the diplomatic table, then that will be deeply regrettable I think for everyone.  And the main story that will emerge at that point is that Iran’s engagement with the world will be defined by a non-proliferation crisis and by the threat to international peace and security that Iran’s nuclear program would represent.  We hope we don’t come to that.  We’re still absolutely prepared to avoid that outcome.  We are prepared to come back at any time to negotiate a fair return to full mutual compliance.  But the choice really is in Iran’s hands whether it chooses to accelerate its program or to show self-restraint, on whether it chooses to negotiate seriously and realistically or chooses a different course.

With that, I’m happy to take your questions.

MODERATOR:  Operator, would you mind repeating the instructions to ask a question?

OPERATOR:  Absolutely.  Ladies and gentlemen, if you wish to ask a question, please press 1 then 0 on your telephone keypad.  You may remove yourself from that queue by repeating the 1 then 0 command.  If you’re using a speakerphone, please pick up your handset before pressing the numbers.

MODERATOR:  We’ll go to the line of Andrea Mitchell.

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

QUESTION:  Thank you so much, [Senior State Department Official], for doing this.  Could you give us a little bit more detail of where you think – on what issues you think there was some progress, and what you see as the main aspects of their acceleration that are so troubling, and what you see as the timeframe during which, if they have not dealt with those – that accelerated pace, you could reach the point of deciding that it is no longer sustainable?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL:  Thanks, Andrea.  On your first question, again, we try to make it a principle that we’re not going to get into the details of the negotiations, but in some ways your question is easy to answer because the focus of the last few days has been to see whether we could get back to a common text of the nuclear issues with a clear set of outstanding questions, what are the issues that still need to be resolved.  And that’s what we did.  That’s what was the focus of the week, to make sure that there was an agreement, which issues didn’t need to – were superfluous, shouldn’t be – stand in the way, and which were the ones that we’re going to have to focus on.  We did not do the hard work of focusing on those issues and trying to resolve them.  So that’s why I say it was a – it was a welcome step, but it is far, far from the most important one.  The most important one is going to be to delve into those difficult issues about Iran coming back into compliance with the JCPOA, which shouldn’t be difficult.  They are difficult if Iran refuses to take the steps that are required, but that’s what we have to negotiate as soon as possible.

What’s accelerated in their program – I think it’s visible for all to see.  The IAEA reports make it clear.  I mean, they’re enriching at higher levels.  They’re enriching with more advanced centrifuges, which they have been installing the most recently at Fordow.  And they had put obstacles on the work of the IAEA; that’s still not where it should be.  There was, again, some declaratory progress that was made in the deal between the IAEA and Iran.  But on almost every front, we’re seeing a degradation of the commitments that Iran had made as part of its return – as part of its entry into the JCPOA.

So more advanced centrifuges, enriching at higher levels with less visibility, that’s the equation that we have.  It’s the equation that was caused by the withdrawal from the JCPOA, but which today Iran is making worse rather than better.

And finally, on the timeline, again, I want to emphasize that this is not – it’s not an – it’s not a chronological clock.  It really depends very much on the decisions that Iran makes:  Does it decide to accelerate its program or does it decide to exercise the kind of self-restraint that I think all of the P5+1 would like to see?  All of them are concerned by Iran’s accelerated nuclear program, and all of them would like to see Iran curb those advances and show the self-restraint that’s necessary to give us the time to negotiate in good faith and seriously a mutual return to compliance.

MODERATOR:  We’ll go to Matt Lee.

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

QUESITON:  Can you hear me?  Hello?



MODERATOR:  Yeah, we’ve got —

QUESTION:  Okay.  Hi, [Senior State Department Official].  Thanks.  Two things.  One, we all know that we’re in the – that the U.S. and the rest of the world is in the position that it’s in because the Trump administration withdrew from the deal.  But I’m just curious as to why you would want to point that out and make a big – make an issue of it in the – in your opening comments.

And then second, do you think that these talks can resume before the end of the year, or are we too close and that’s not going to happen?  Thanks.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL:  Thanks.  Thanks, Matt.  So I’m not trying to make a big deal of it.  I did mention it up front just because I don’t want to forget to say I just think it’s a useful reminder when, as you know and as we spoke about last time, there is – now, you say everyone knows it.  I don’t know that everyone knows it.  There’s a renewed debate in Israel about looking back at the mistake, the grievous mistake that was made in 2018, and I think we have to learn from it in terms of how we should approach the current period.  Again, the responsibility now we say is very much on Iran’s shoulders, and that’s what – most of what we have been saying is about is that Iran today has a choice to come back into the deal if it – if that’s what it wants, and it will have sanctions relief that was promised by the JCPOA if it lives up to its own commitments.

Can we resume before the end of the year?  Sure, we could.  I think really now – again, we were prepared to keep going.  I think that was the view, as far as I know, of all of the P5+1.  Iran decided that it needed to take the break.  It would be up to the EU coordinator to decide when to call everyone back to Vienna, and we stand ready to return.  Again, it wasn’t our choice to leave.

MODERATOR:  We’ll go to Nick Wadhams.

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

QUESTION:  Thanks very much.  [Senior State Department Official], so just to follow up on that last question from Matt, there is no date, is that correct, when you might head into an eighth round?

And then second, understanding that you don’t see this as a chronological clock and you don’t want to give a sense for how short the runway is, have you communicated to Iran what the threshold is, what the red line is after which you would say okay, we’re done, the JCPOA is, as you put it, a corpse that cannot be revived.  So understanding you don’t want to have those conversations publicly, have you told Iran privately exactly what that line is?  Thank you.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL:  So as of yet, as far as I know, there’s been no date announced for the eighth round, so I’m sure that Enrique Mora, the coordinator, has been checking with everyone to see when they’re – when they’d be prepared to return.  I would expect we’d hear that not too long in the future.

I’d say this.  I think Iran is well aware of what our concerns are and what the concern of our partners are.  And I think – again, I think Russia and China may not see eye-to-eye on all of this, but I think they too have made clear that they are concerned by the advances of Iran.  (Inaudible) also said they want an – they believe that we should urgently return to a state of mutual compliance.  And I can say that for our part we’re pretty confident that Iran knows what our concerns are and what steps it would take that would – what steps it would take and how far – at what point it would cross a line that we and others would fear the JCPOA no longer carried the nonproliferation benefits that were bargained for, in which case we’re prepared to negotiate a deal but it would no longer be the JCPOA, and we’d have to start from a very different page.

So that – I don’t know that Iran knows exactly when that moment is, but I think Iran is pretty well aware of why we’re concerned and what it would do that would make those concerns such that we could no longer say that a return to the JCPOA would be worthwhile for us.

MODERATOR:  We’ll go to Guita Aryan.

OPERATOR:  One moment, please.  Your line is open now.

QUESTION:  Thank you.  Hi, [Senior State Department Official].  I’m going to bundle a couple of questions into one.  Is there – what’s in their – is everything in their proposal within the scope of the JCPOA?  And is there anything that gives you – may give you hope that you will eventually come to an agreement?  And was Iran’s decision to go to Tehran, do you think had anything to do with – well, with what you – the U.S. put on the table?  Thank you.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL:  So the third response is easy.  The answer is no, I don’t think it had anything to do with the positions that we took, because the positions we took are the positions that we’ve been expressing since June.  We were prepared to come back to the text of June.  I think that was a consensual view of the P5+1.  And what we’ve been doing for the last round has been to try to get back to the point where we have a common understanding of what the basis of negotiations may be.  So that is certainly not why – and not just in our view why – Iran chose to break at this point.

I wouldn’t say if everything in their proposal is consistent with the JCPOA – well, no we don’t think so.  Again, it’s hard to even define sometimes what their proposal is, but they certainly have taken positions, and I think we made this clear at the end when – at the end of the first part of round seven that they introduced proposals – and it still is the case in some areas – that go well beyond the JCPOA, that are ether beyond or inconsistent with the JCPOA.  And it is a – again, a common view of all of the members of the P5+1 that the only ideas that should be entertained are those that are consistent with the deal that was negotiated in 2015 and 2016.  So that has been part of our issue with the positions that Iran came with in this round when it came with positions that I think pretty clearly to everyone were not in line with the – with what the JCPOA entailed.

Finally, can – do we have hope in – that we can reach an agreement?  Of course, we could reach an agreement.  I mean, I think we say this every time:  This is not – it shouldn’t be a mystery.  The deal exists.  It’s the JCPOA.  It’s not making up a new one.  And so coming back to it shouldn’t be a matter that is that complicated.  Clearly, it’s been made complicated, a lot has happened since 2018 that’s made it more complicated, but it shouldn’t be something that is out of reach.

The problem, as I’ve said, is, number one, Iran’s positions have gone beyond what the JCPOA is about, and at the same time, they’ve advanced their program – their nuclear program in ways that make the time we have available to negotiate a return to the JCPOA shorter and shorter.

MODERATOR:  We’ll go to Karen DeYoung.

OPERATOR:  One moment, please.


OPERATOR:  And your line is open.  Please, go ahead.

QUESTION:  Okay, thank you.  [Senior State Department Official], you said that you spent your time this week talking about nuclear issues.  Obviously, the other issue is sanctions.  Should we assume that there was no discussion of sanctions, that there was no progress?  The Iranians – their public position has been that all sanctions imposed after the withdrawal in 2018 had to be lifted, and your folks spent a lot of time last spring going through existing sanctions to pull out the ones that were nuclear-related.

Is it correct that Iran is now demanding that all nuclear – all sanctions that were imposed after the withdrawal should be lifted?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL:  So first, I want to make clear, when we did speak about nuclear issues, what we really spoke about was the agenda for the discussions on nuclear issues.  So I do want to say – I want to emphasize that whatever progress was made —

QUESTION:  Right, I get that.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL:  — need to understand what was the nature of the progress.  Now, we didn’t only discuss nuclear issues, but I think it is interesting that Iran has stressed in public – and we know their stated priority, which we understand is to address U.S. return to compliance and lifting of sanctions.  We have not seen from them in the past week that same effort to try to define what were the common issues that we would need to address when it came to sanctions.  We’re not there yet, and that’s – again, that’s not because we were not willing to do it.

I think just the Iranian delegation didn’t put as much emphasis this time on that issue, and we’ve made – we’ve said that we are prepared to have that discussion, define the agenda for what is consistent with the JCPOA, what are the sanctions that need to be lifted consistent with the JCPOA.  And if there’s any disagreements on that, we’re prepared to discuss it.  We haven’t gotten to that point yet.  We hope that we can get there the next time we’re back in Vienna.  But that was not because we were not prepared to talk about it.

MODERATOR:  We’ll go to Robin Wright.

OPERATOR:  One moment, please.  One moment.

QUESTION:  (Inaudible) partners do – are there issues of sequence?  Are they encouraging the United States, as they’ve kind of implied in some of their public statements, to do something first to initiate the process?  What are the differences that – I mean, when you talk about they’re not eye to eye?  And do you get the sense that the Russians and the Chinese are prepared to engage in snapback if Iran at some point does not comply?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL:  Well, I don’t – I’ve never heard the Russians and Chinese speak about snapbacks.  You’ll have to ask them.  And as I’ve said many times, Robin, yes, we don’t see exactly eye to eye.  I think there’s a lot that we have in common and I think it’s been expressed in this round by clear expression by the Russians, the Chinese of the common understanding of the P5+1’s sense of urgency, the need to resume talks from the place where they were left off in June, and concern about the – some of Iran’s nuclear advances and lack of cooperation with the IAEA, and as I mentioned, Russia played again a role in trying to help Director General Grossi and Iran reach this agreement for the third time, as I said.

So would they prefer to see the U.S. take some step that we haven’t taken?  I’m sure that’s right.  I think we’ve made our position clear that we think – that we’ve made it – we’ve said many times that we’re prepared to lift all of the sanctions that are inconsistent with the JCPOA if Iran agrees to come back into compliance and then we could agree on a sequence of steps that achieve that goal.  But we’re not going to take a unilateral step when we’ve made clear that we would take all of the steps that we need to take if Iran reciprocates.  So that’s not – we don’t feel like we need that confidence-building step when we were taking the most important confidence-building step of all, which is to state clearly that we’re prepared to lift all of the sanctions that are inconsistent with the JCPOA.

MODERATOR:  Take a final question or two.  We will go to Nadia Bilbassy.

OPERATOR:  And please stand by.  I will give the all clear on your line being open at this time.  One moment, please.  Okay, your line is open.  Please, go ahead.

QUESTION:  Thank you, [Moderator].  Hi, [Senior State Department Official], thank you for doing this.  I’m wondering what you make of a letter by two former CIA directors, namely General Petraeus and Leon Panetta, and other senior officials urging the Biden administration to what they called “restore Iran’s fear that its current nuclear path will trigger the use of force.”

Is there something that you might do to assuage any Iranian fears to invite them to come back, that there is no real threat of force?  Thank you so much.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL:  So thank you.  We’re aware of and obviously we’ve studied the letter that was sent by them and by others.

But I think there’s no doubt that Iran sees very clearly at this point and that’s – that there’s two paths in front of them.  That’s not only because we’ve made that clear.  I think it’s been made clear by country after country around the world at the UN Security Council this week when there was a debate over Security Resolution 2231 at the GCC meeting that we attended not long ago and in Vienna all week long, that they have two paths.

There’s a path that involves a strict – a return to strict compliance with the JCPOA, in which case you would see the lifting of sanctions inconsistent with the deal, and you’d see a broadening of economic and diplomatic ties, regional ties with Iran and other countries around the world that would want to engage in the kind of activities that they can’t while our sanctions are in place.

And then there’s the other path, which is a path of a crisis, a nonproliferation crisis that Iran would have caused that would lead to more diplomatic pressure, more economic isolation, an inability for countries to engage with Iran the way Iran would want them to; and as I said, the definition of world relations with Iran through the lens of a nonproliferation crisis and of the threat to peace – international peace and security that that represents.

I think those charges are clear, and one would hope that Iran would see that the first pathway is one that meets the goal that it itself has put forward, which is to see the sanctions lifted so that it could – and a return to compliance with the JCPOA and to extend its ties – expand its ties in particular with its GCC neighbors.

So I think those – the choice is clear, and I think we’ve found ways to convey that to Iran ourselves and our partners around the world.

MODERATOR:  We’ll go to Anton La Guardia from The Economist.

OPERATOR:  One moment, please.  And your line is open.  Please, go ahead.

QUESTION:  Thank you very much, [Senior State Department Official].  I just wanted to follow up on that point about the document signed by Petraeus and Panetta.  Is your reason why you are reluctant specifically to talk about military options the possibility that Iranian sites would be bombed by the United States, and so on?  I mean, sometimes it’s mentioned sort of obliquely as other options, but you seem reluctant to make an explicit mention of that dimension.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL:  I think President Biden has made clear that he will prevent, make sure, that Iran does not acquire a nuclear weapon.  And he’s said that he consider diplomacy as the preferred and first option, but all other options will be considered if that doesn’t succeed.  I think you’ve heard Secretary Blinken say it.  I don’t think we need to say more than that.  I think the world understands what’s being said.

And – but a message is there is a diplomatic path.  It is the preferred path.  If it’s not chosen, then unfortunately we will have to look at other tools to ensure that the President’s goal, his commitment, which is that Iran will not acquire a nuclear weapon, is realized.

MODERATOR:  We’ll take a final question from Laura Rozen, please.

OPERATOR:  One moment.  Please, stand by.  Please, go ahead.  Your line is open.

QUESTION:  Thanks so much.  Thanks for doing this.  And [Senior State Department Official], this is not as consequential as the last two questions you got, but can you give a bit of a ticktock the last couple days when the seeming breakthrough came on at least agreeing on the basis of what you all will be negotiating on in the future?  Because it looked so grim earlier in the week, and I know a Russian negotiator credited you, you credited the EU, but can you say what meetings where you saw progress on this issue the last couple days?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL:  First of all, you can use the word “breakthrough” if you want.  As I said, I think we – this is a curb your enthusiasm —


SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL:  — time on this because it’s a breakthrough to agree on an agenda of talks that are going to be difficult and that we had already agreed to in June.  I think we have to be a little bit modest in what we’re talking about.  Again, better than the alternative.  Better than spending another few weeks debating the agenda, at which point I think we certainly would have given up on the return to the JCPOA.  So at least we’ve kept that option alive, and it’s one that we need to make sure stays alive if Iran chooses to – chooses that path.

So we don’t sit down with Iran so I’m not – we certainly aren’t going to take credit for anything.  I think what happened was there was a strong view from all of the participants, all of the P5+1, that time had come to define – sort of coming up with – Iran coming up with different ideas, but to come up with a clear agenda that was agreed to by the P5+1 about what were the issues still outstanding that need to be negotiated on the nuclear front.  That was a – I think a – as I said, a common position of the E3, of Russia, of China, of the UN and the U.S.  And Iran agreed.  And I think that’s – as I said, that’s a welcome step, but I don’t want to – certainly want to trump it up too much because it’s something that should have gone without saying.  But we’re there, and that creates a basis on the nuclear – in terms of nuclear issues.  We still need to do that on the question of sanctions and other issues that exist, and we don’t have much time.  Again, if it takes this much time to agree on a common agenda, imagine how much time it will take to resolve the issues on that agenda.  So it’s going to have to be a very significant acceleration.  It is doable.  We’ve thought it was doable for months.  It still is doable, but time is running short.  And as the time gets shorter, the pace needs to accelerate, or Iran’s nuclear program has to – they have to curb their nuclear program and exercise genuine self-restraint.

MODERATOR:  Well, thanks very much.  That’s all the time we have today.  Thanks to our speaker.  A reminder that this call was on background to a senior State Department official.  And with that, the embargo is lifted.  Thanks very much.