Senior State Department Official on Ongoing U.S. Engagement Regarding the JCPOA

June 24, 2021

Weapon Program: 

  • Nuclear

MODERATOR:  Thank you.  Good afternoon everyone and thanks for joining our call.  We have with us today [Senior State Department Official].  [Senior State Department Official] is going to address the current status of the situation following conclusion of the sixth round of talks.  Just as a reminder, [Senior State Department Official] will be speaking today on background.  And you may refer to him as a Senior State Department Official for the purposes of your reporting.

Also as another reminder, this call is embargoed until the conclusion of the call.  And the audio from this session is not for broadcast or replay.  So just one more time, this on background to a Senior State Department Official.  And with that, I’m going to go ahead and turn it over to [Senior State Department Official] for [Senior State Department Official]’s remarks.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL:  Thank you.  And thanks for doing this again.  I know that in the last few weeks there’s been some confusion, some reporting that may have been – that have added to that confusion.  And part of it could be because we haven’t done one of these some time, so I’m glad to do it again and try to clear up any confusion that may exist.  So I’ll be brief in what I’ll say at the top, just to try to address two issues that I think have caused some of that imprecision.

First, where we are on the talks – and there has been some reporting that we basically have a deal already with Iran, that it’s just a matter of deciding when we’re going to put it out.  Let me make it absolutely clear:  We just concluded round six.  We will be resuming – or coming back for round seven sometime in the not-too-distant future, and we wouldn’t be doing that if the deal were already done.  We still have serious differences that have not been bridged, serious differences with Iran over the host of issues, whether it’s the nuclear steps that Iran needs to take to come back into compliance, the sanctions relief that the U.S. will be offering, or the sequence of steps that both sides would be taking.  Nothing is agreed until everything is agreed.  And since everything is not agreed, we still don’t have anything nailed down.  And there’s still some very important issues that need to be resolved.  By the same token, we wouldn’t be going back for a seventh round if we didn’t think that a deal was possible.  It remains possible.  It remains our objective, but we’re not there yet, and I’m not going to speculate as to if or when we will get there.

Second point, as to the issue of timing and in particular the impact of the elections (inaudible), first I think we’ve said already what we thought of the elections and of the new president, the fact that this was a pre-manufactured process that did not reflect the will of the Iranian people.  And we also have said what we thought about the background of the president-elect.  That said, from our point of view, it does not affect our determination to try to reach a deal or the pace at which we will go about pursuing it.  We’re not going to second guess any effect that it might have on Iranian decision making, but our goal is to pursue the objective that President Biden laid out both during the campaign and since, which is to try to address – diplomatically by – is our preference – our goal of preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon.

And we believe that diplomacy, by returning to the JCPOA, is the best way to achieve that goal, and we’ll do it with whoever is in power with Iran precisely because we have serious – very serious – differences with their leadership.  And we believe that preventing them from acquiring a nuclear weapon is an important step in then trying to address the other issues that we have with Iran.  Because again, as President Biden and the Secretary of State have made clear, we see the return to the JCPOA as a beginning of a diplomatic process, not at the end, because we have many other issues of concern that we need to raise from Iran’s (inaudible) groups in the region, to its ballistic missile program, to its many other destabilizing activities.

Finally, I want to say a word about an issue which is as important as anything I’ve said already, which is the issue of American citizens who are wrongfully detained in Iran.  That I still need to raise this, that they’re still not home, is a scandal and one that we are fighting every day to address.  And for Ahmad, for Siamak, for Baquer, for Morad, this is our priority.  We will not rest until they’re home and we’ll do everything in our power to make sure that that the day comes very, very soon.

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

MODERATOR:  Great.  Thank you.  Let’s please go to the line of Nick Wadhams.

OPERATOR:  One moment, please.  Wait until I announce your line is open before speaking.  And Nick, your line is open.

QUESTION:  Thanks very much.  [Senior State Department Official], understanding that you have differences on sequencing, do you – can you give us a sense for how the oil waivers would fit into this, whether you would grant waivers on day one or hold out to issue waivers until later on, maybe two to three months after the IAEA confirms compliance?  And would you be willing to give waivers without an IAEA confirmation of compliance?  And then second, can you just comment on the idea that the clock is ticking here because if too much time goes on, Iran will advance so far technologically that the original terms of the JCPOA essentially become moot, and you would have to negotiate an entirely new deal?  Thanks.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL:  So thanks, Nick.  So as to the first question, this may apply to a number of questions we’re going to get.  However much we’d prefer to be negotiating with the press corps than with Iran, it’s not what we’re going to do, so I’d rather – I won’t get into the details of what our position is on various issues, so I’ll skip the first question.

The second one about the clock, listen, there’s no – it’s not like there’s a scientific time at which point that threshold that you mentioned will be crossed, but certainly time is not a positive factor.  And this process won’t be open indefinitely, so we’re trying to get back into the deal.  We understand Iran is continuing to make progress, which is precisely why we believe withdrawing from the deal was a mistake and why we’re faced with this situation.  We’re going to try to get them back as soon as possible under the terms of the deal.  If it’s not done quickly and if Iran continues to make progress, of course it’s something that we’re going to have to consider in terms of the provisions of the deal that we’d be prepared to accept.

MODERATOR:  Let’s go to the line of Lara Jakes.

OPERATOR:  One moment.  And Lara, your line is open.  Please, go ahead.  And Lara, please check your mute button.

QUESTION:  Yes.  I’m sorry.  I was, in fact, on mute.  Apologies.  Thanks.  And [Senior State Department Official] a minute ago you said that we see the return to the JCPOA as the beginning of the process and not the end.  Iran’s new president has very clearly said that he will not consider a longer and stronger deal for reining in the missile’s programs and the proxies.  So I’m wondering why you think that delta can be resolved.  And I’m also wondering if you’d speak a little bit about the IAEA inspections agreement that is, I think, expiring today.  I believe there’s a tentative agreement for it to be extended again.  Is that a reason for optimism?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL:  Thanks, Lara.  So on the first point, yeah, we’ve heard what President-Elect Raisi said.  Frankly, that’s not very different from what other Iranian leaders have been saying for some time.  But we’ve been equally clear, crystal-clear, and President Biden was crystal-clear on this, from the campaign and from his first day in office, which is that we believe that we can – are going to need to discuss other issues after we – assuming we get back into the JCPOA.  There are many issues of concern that we have, but also there’s issues that Iran wants to address, and they’ve made that very clear to us, including during this talks, that they – there are some elements that they are asking for, which go beyond the terms of the JCPOA.  So our position remains the same, that we see the return to the JCPOA as a beginning of a diplomatic process, and we believe that we’re going to need to engage in discussions with Iran, various things to address those other issues.  So we’ll have to find a way to resolve that difference.

On the IAEA, it’s good that you mention it.  Obviously we are concerned that at – from the time that I’m speaking – maybe there’s been news since – in the last hour or so, but we have not heard that there’s been an understanding.  If one is reached, that would be positive.  Although, we shouldn’t be playing – Iran should not be playing brinkmanship each time these agreements get extended.  I’d simply say that in the absence of such an understanding, in the absence of the IAEA being able to monitor what Iran is doing, it will be that much more complicated to get back into the JCPOA, because we’re going to have to know what the baseline of their nuclear program is.  And if the IAEA is blind for a certain amount of time and we don’t know what that baseline is, it’s going to be much more difficult to find a way back into the deal.

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

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

QUESTION:  Hi, [Senior State Department Official].  Thanks so much for doing this.  What are you telling the Iranians about guarantees that the U.S. won’t quit the deal in four years?  How are you assuaging their concerns on that?  And on the issue of the hostages, has there been any progress towards their release?  Is it still the case that their release is not a precondition for the U.S. re-entering the JCPOA?  Thank you.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL:  Thanks.  So, I mean, there is no such thing as a guarantee, and I think Iran knows it and we know it.  We have no guarantee; they have no guarantee.  That’s the way the JCPOA is built, that if one side violated, the other side would – its remedy would be to take countermanding steps.  But what we do think is that the best guarantee is to get back into the deal and to implement it faithfully, and that’s – and we think that there’s a – that’s the best answer, because there is no such thing as a guarantee.

Secondly, on the question of the detainees, it’s the same thing as I said about the deal.  Because nothing is agreed until everything is agreed, because we don’t have a deal yet, I’m not going to speak about how close we are.  Yet, we’ve made progress.  We were engaged in indirect discussions with Iran about their release, but we’re not there yet, and until we’re there I don’t want to give false hopes to the families who’ve suffered too much already.  And as I’ve said in the past, it is a priority, and we are absolutely insistent that the four American citizens who are wrongfully detained be released.

MODERATOR:  And let’s go the line of Arshad Mohammed.

OPERATOR:  And Arshad, your line is open.  Please, go ahead.  And Arshad, please check your mute button.

QUESTION:  Thank you, and sorry about mute.  Two things.  One, would you continue the negotiations if Iran fails to extend its agreement with the IAEA?  And secondly, you said this process will not be open indefinitely.  What happens if you cannot reach an agreement by August 3rd, the date on which the Raisi administration takes office?  Is that when the door closes?  Or is the door open?  It may be indefinite, but it could be open for months or even years?  Thank you.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL:  Thanks.  And I know that both two good but difficult questions.  We still hope that Iran will extend its technical understanding with the IAEA or find – not prolong the understandings that currently exist.  As I said, it would be an issue of real concern if they didn’t.  I’m not going to speculate as to what impact it would have on the talks, but I think it is – we’ve already indicated clearly to Iran that it would be extremely complicated if they – a complicating factor if they did not find a way to continue the understandings with the IAEA.

On your second question, again, I’m not going to sit here and say there’s a deadline.  Obviously this will be a decision for the President and his national security team to take.  But when we’ve said – and others have said it – that this process is not going to be open forever, we mean it.  We – this is not something that we could go on indefinitely.  There’s – we’ve had serious discussions, and I don’t – as I’ve said, we’ve made progress, and the Iranians have been serious in the talks so far, but we do have differences.  And if we can’t bridge them in the foreseeable future, I think we’re going to have to regroup and figure out how we move ahead.

MODERATOR:  Let’s go to the line of Courtney McBride.

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

QUESTION:  Thank you.  So assuming – I understand that you are loathe to talk about timelines, but how does the administration hope to get follow-on talks with President-elect Raisi?  And how do you – do you acknowledge that he would need to be removed from the sanctions list as part of a broader discussion in hope of a broader agreement with Iran?  Thanks.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL:  So, I mean, I’ll repeat what I said about the follow-on talks.  I think we couldn’t have been clearer about what our position is on that, that we think – we believe that it has to be a part of what – of the process that we’re discussing right now, and we’re in the middle of discussing the nature of what those talks could be.  We know what Iran’s position is, but that’s why one of their – these are one of many reasons that we are still engaged in the talks and why we haven’t concluded them yet.

And I’ll also add again that there are issues that Iran feels that need to be addressed which go beyond the four corners of the JCPOA, and the only way to address those is going to be by continuing conversations in some format with us, and so we believe that this is something that’s not just a U.S. interest.  It happens to also be an Iranian interest, although they’ll be a better judge of that.

And on the question of sanctions, I think National Security Advisor Sullivan addressed it the other day.  We’re not going to get into details of what we might do.  We’re going to look at what we – what sanctions relief we believe we need to take in order to be back in compliance with the JCPOA, and that’s what we’re going to be judging in terms of the steps that we’ll be prepared to take if – and I emphasize if we’re back in a deal.

MODERATOR:  Okay.  Let’s go to the line of Michel Ghandour.

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

QUESTION:  Yeah, thank you for doing this.  There are calls from the Congress to the administration to take the election of President Raisi as an opportunity for not joining or rejoining the JCPOA.  What’s your answer to that?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL:  My answer to that:  We’re not involved in negotiations because we trust, like, or have anything or share any values in common with our Iranian counterparts.  We’re doing it precisely because we have very deep concerns, very serious issues.  And so the fact that there is now a new president – or there will soon be a new president of Iran does not detract our core national security interest, which is to reach a deal that puts their nuclear program in a box and makes sure that we prevent them from acquiring a nuclear weapon.  The identity of the Iranian president doesn’t have an impact on that, core national security interests.  And I would add, again, as the National Security Advisor said, that we know that the president in the Iranian system is not the sole and not even the chief decision-maker.  It’s a leadership in which the supreme leader has the ultimate word, and that position, that person has not changed as a result of the Iranian elections.

MODERATOR:  Let’s go to the line of Laura Rosen.

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

QUESTION:  Thank you.  [Senior State Department Official], as I understand, not all the other countries in the P4+1 agree there should be a follow-on deal.  Can you speak to that?  I mean, I think Russia especially has said they think the JCPOA is sufficient.  So does that affect something being in a document with Iran that would call for follow-on talks?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL:  Our position is our position.  We’ve had many conversations with Russia, and I wouldn’t characterize —


SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL:  I think somebody’s on this call.  I think I recognize their voice, but yeah, okay.  So I’m saying we know – we had many discussions with our Russian colleagues about this.  I’m not going to characterize their position.  I think many countries have agreed that they want more diplomacy with Iran to address a range of issues, including regional issues, and Russia has been at the – one of the parties that has put forward ideas for what that diplomacy could look like.  So I’m not sure that I would fully agree with how you put it, but there are differences of views, but our position is very clear – is that we’re going to need follow-on talks, discussions to strengthen the deal.

And again, we would make the point that this is not only something that we think would help us.  We do think that it would help – it would – it should be in Iran’s interest because they have issues that they’re going to want to bring to the table.  Of course, that – as I said, that’s going to be – they will have to make that assessment, but our position has been clear from the day we started these talks and very familiar to all the parties who are there, and they know that’s America’s position.

MODERATOR:  We have time for just a couple more questions.  Let’s go to the line of Nadia Bilbassy.

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

QUESTION:  Thank you so much.  Thank you, [Moderator] and [Senior State Department Official], for doing this.

[Senior State Department Official], you just said that nothing agreed until all agreed.  You have been – it’s been six sessions so far and you’re entering the seventh.  Can you just outline for us what exactly you agreed upon?  Is it just a framework, is it technical issues, is it more than that?

And second, I’m sure you have seen the statements coming from the (inaudible) office saying that you’re going to lift sanction on the supreme leader.  Do you see this as, like, a (inaudible)?  Is it a lie from the Iranian?  Is it propaganda trying to get you to where they want?  How do you see it?  Thank you.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL:  Thanks, Nadia.  So if I understood your question, I mean, when I say nothing’s agreed until everything is agreed, that’s precisely what I meant.  So there’s nothing.  It’s not like there’s a framework or – we are still negotiating every issue, whether it’s the scope of sanctions relief, the scope of the steps that Iran will take to come back into compliance with its nuclear obligations, the sequence – all of those are still being discussed, and so we don’t have like a provisional deal on anything.  We are still working through all the issues, and that includes the issues of sanctions that you mentioned.  We will have to see.

And again, I don’t want – I’m not going to negotiate in public, but at this point we need to continue negotiating to see whether we could reach a comprehensive package that will be satisfactory, and at this point we’re not there yet.

MODERATOR:  Let’s go to the line of Farhad Pouladi.

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

QUESTION:  Yes, hi.  Do you hear me?


OPERATOR:  Yes, we can hear you.

QUESTION:  Perfect.  So my question is in regard to the Israeli Government’s comments on the JCPOA, or the JCPOA resurrection talks in Vienna.  Prime Minister Netanyahu was staunchly against the deal, but the position has been actually transferred to the new government and they are still against the JCPOA.  I covered what comments came out of General Kochavi’s visit yesterday and today.  And also today, Prime Minister Bennett says that this regime – the one that no one should do business with.  How concerned are you that they may take any unilateral action, and what has the Biden administration been doing to persuade them not to do anything to jeopardize the talks?  Thank you.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL:  Thank you, Farhad.  That’s an important question.  I want to start by saying we – under the government of Prime Minister Netanyahu, we were having close consultations.  We know – we knew that they have and we know they had a different view about the JCPOA, but we are trying to talk to them to make sure that we were as aligned as possible given our common objective, which is to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon.  We had differences about the JCPOA.  We knew that, we recognized it, but we nonetheless were working closely with them.

And the same holds for the government of Prime Minister Bennett.  We already had some high-level contacts.  I think you all know that Secretary Blinken and Foreign Minister Lapid will be meeting in Rome on Sunday.  I don’t know the agenda, but I would be surprised if Iran did not figure in those conversations.  And again, we respect that they have a different point of view.  I think they respect ours and we are going to try to talk and be as transparent and as coordinated as possible so that the ultimate goal, which we share, is one that is pursued as effectively as possible.  And we expect to have extremely positive and productive discussions with the new Israeli Government and we look forward to as close coordination as possible.

MODERATOR:  Okay, thanks.  Just a couple more questions.  Let’s go to the line of Halley Toosi.

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

QUESTION:  Hi, thanks for doing this.  A couple questions.  When it comes to the follow-on agreements, does the United States want to include human rights as one of the issues that is negotiated along with ballistic missiles and support for terrorism and all that?

Secondly, you said that there are indirect talks on the hostages.  Can you tell us a little bit more about those discussions?  Like are you talking about a potential prisoner exchange, and is it totally on a separate track from the nuclear discussion?  Any information you can give on that.

And also lastly, what is the most surprising thing that’s happened in this process for you?  What’s something you just didn’t expect, but that’s come up?  Thank you.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL:  Thanks.  So on the follow-on talks, listen, we know that there are a number of issues that – concerns that we have above and beyond the nuclear issue which is central.  There are lots of concerns.  Some of them will be negotiated in some formal way, others will be dealt with through other means.  So I’m not going to get into the details of what they will cover, but we – all of the issues you mentioned and that I mentioned are issues of real concern to this administration, but the format, the shape that those discussions or other diplomatic tools will take to address them I won’t get into.  But again, it doesn’t mean that we’re going to ignore any issue.  All of them will be pursued in one fashion or another.

On the detainee issue, they are separate.  These are separate conversations that are being held.  Obviously, we – we’re doing them more intensely when we are in Vienna because we could get communication to a third party more quickly, but they’re separate from the nuclear talks and, as I said, they are absolute priority.  Regardless of what happens with the JCPOA, we want our detainees, our citizens, wrongfully-held citizens back home as soon as possible.

Out of what’s been most surprising, I’m at a loss to say.  I mean, it is unusual to have these discussions in an indirect fashion.  I’ve said that many times before.  It is ripe for misunderstanding.  It’s ripe for prolonging the talks.  It’s not the most effective way to do it.  It means that we spend a lot of time in hotel rooms with our European and other colleagues and not with the party that we’re supposed to be negotiating with.  But by this point, we’ve gotten used to it, so we’ll make do.

MODERATOR:  And I think we have time for one more question.  Let’s go to Arshad Mohammed.

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

QUESTION:  Yeah, thanks for coming back to me.  Just to ask one specific question, do you have any idea now when the seventh round of talks will begin in Vienna?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL:  No.  I mean, we assume that there is obviously consultations going on in Iran given – in Tehran given the election.  And when those consultations will have concluded, we will be notified, and then we’ll figure out when we meet again.  But at this point, I don’t have – I don’t have any plane reservations.

MODERATOR:  Okay, I think that’s our last question.  I just want to quickly thank our senior State Department official, [Senior State Department Official].  Just as a reminder to everyone, this call today is on background, and so you can refer to our briefer as a senior State Department official.  With that, this briefing is ended and the embargo is lifted.  Have a good day.