MR. EARNEST: Good afternoon, everybody. So I hope everybody had a good weekend -- the unofficial start of spring -- with all the holidays, opening day in baseball. To mark that occasion here at the White House, we’re not just going to have the Easter Egg Roll in the South Lawn, we’re actually going to have a briefing today that includes not just one Earnest, but two.
As you can see, I’m joined by the Secretary of Energy, Ernest Moniz.
Q: No “A.”
MR. EARNEST: No “A.” (Laughter.) No “A.” We’ll work out those differences after the briefing.
Obviously, Secretary Moniz was instrumental in negotiating the agreement with the Iranians in Switzerland over the last couple of months now, so he’s here to talk to you about some of the technological underpinnings of these discussions. So he’ll do a little thing at the top, and then he’ll stay for a little bit to take your questions. He’s running off to a speech this afternoon. But we’ll start with that.
SECRETARY MONIZ: Thank you, Josh. So as Josh said, I’ll try to work through what are sometimes called the technical dimensions of the agreement in a broad way, and then be happy to take questions.
So, first of all, we say that there are four pathways to a bomb in Iran. One is a plutonium pathway through a research reactor, a heavy water reactor. I’ll come back to these. Second, there are two pathways to a uranium bomb; that involves the facilities at Natanz and at Fordow. And the fourth pathway is covert activities. So let me just walk through those four and what we have nailed down in the understanding for the final agreement.
Let me start with plutonium. In the plutonium pathway, the Iranians will retain a research reactor using heavy water. The following characteristics, however, are critical. Number one, it will be redesigned to have substantially less plutonium production; it will not be weapons-grade plutonium. However, we have an agreement that all of the spent fuel -- that is the fuel that contains the plutonium -- will be sent out of the country for the entire lifetime of the reactor. In other words, it will produce less plutonium and it won’t stay in the country anyway.
Secondly, with regard to the plutonium produced by any other reactor, like Bushehr, there will be no re-processing to extract plutonium; no re-processing R&D; no other heavy water reactor for at least 15 years; and any excess heavy water will be sold on the international market. This is lockdown of the plutonium pathway.
Let me turn to the uranium pathways, which involve enrichment. There’s been a lot said about they will continue to enrich with 5,000 centrifuges; this is correct. But let me put that in context. We’re starting with 19,000 -- number one. Number two, they will be, in this first 10-year period, allowed to use only their first-generation centrifuge for that. Third, in terms of our key objective of having a so-called breakout period of at least one year, what you really need is three numbers together. You need the number of centrifuges. You need the stockpile of enriched uranium; that’s going to be reduced from 10,000 kilograms to 300 kilograms. And it will be enriched only less than 3.7 percent. Those three numbers come together and say breakout period of at least a year.
R&D -- there will be no R&D in the first 10 years at the scale you need to deploy a machine for any advanced centrifuge model. And that is despite the fact that today they are operating for two models -- such a full-scale cascade, is what it’s called. That’s going to be torn down and put into storage under IAEA monitoring and seal.
Then there is the facility at Fordow; that’s the one that’s put into a mountain. Nearly two-thirds of that will be immediately disassembled, stripped down -- centrifuges and infrastructure. About just over 10 percent there will be some spinning. However, no enrichment, no enrichment R&D; no fissile material, no uranium, is even allowed in the facility, with continuous monitoring from the IAEA; and a transition of that facility over time to basically a physics research laboratory and medical isotope laboratory.
Fourth pathway -- covert. Actually, the other pathways, as well, depend upon an unprecedented access and transparency for the IAEA. It starts with the additional protocol. For those of you who don’t know what that is, it’s an add-on to the standard safeguards agreements, which will provide access to undeclared facilities as well as declared facilities. There will be insight, eyes and ears -- eyes mainly, maybe some ears -- on the full supply chain -- this is unprecedented -- going back to the Iranian mines all the way through to the final facilities. And, by the way, that insight on the early parts of the supply chain is a 25-year commitment, not a 10 or a 15-year commitment.
So we think that, again, the access and transparencies is unprecedented, and the additional protocol is an example of a forever agreement in what we have negotiated.
And so, finally, just to say that -- I've already said it in effect, but I want to say this is not an agreement for 10 years, or 15 years, or 20 years; it is a long-term agreement with a whole set of phases. And if Iran earns over this time period trust and confidence in their peaceful objectives, well, then, over time, the constraints will, in phases, ease up, but never get lower than the additional protocol and all of the access that it provides.
So that's the way we think about it. It's not a fixed-year agreement; it’s a forever agreement, in a certain sense, with different stages.
And with that, I'd be happy to open it up.
MR. EARNEST: Mr. Secretary, thank you.
Chris, do you want to start?
Q: Thank you very much for doing this. People have been looking at what the White House has put out both in writing and in statements made by various members of the administration, including the President, and what’s being said in Iran as being very different. Is the U.S. and Iran on a very different page even in terms of this interim agreement?
SECRETARY MONIZ: No, we're not. We all recognize that -- we emphasize very strongly, we have to talk about the same agreement. We understand emphases may be different. And so let me give you an example. They emphasize, well, we have 5,000 centrifuges spinning; this is true and we acknowledge that. But we also say they’re first generation; they must be taken together with this extraordinary limitation on their stockpile. They fail to mention that, or the 3-plus percent enrichment. And it's those numbers together that say we have a one-year breakout time.
So it's not so much inconsistent as it, as I would say, is emphasizing only certain parts of the agreement.
MR. EARNEST: Ed, go ahead.
Q: Mr. Secretary, you said that Fordow will be stripped down, but the President seemed to promise the American people something much different in December of 2013, when he said, “We know that they don't need to have an underground, fortified facility like Fordow in order to have a peaceful nuclear program.” He wasn’t talking about stripping it down. He was saying either wiping it out or shutting it down altogether. What changed? It seemed like you moved the goalpost here.
SECRETARY MONIZ: Well, to me, the key is and our objective was to make sure it was not a breakout pathway. It is not. There is even no fissile material allowed into that facility. It is not an enrichment facility. So it is closed down as an enrichment facility.
Q: It's remaining open, though, isn't it? You said it's open, but it’s --
SECRETARY MONIZ: As I said, it will be transitioning over time to a research facility involving international collaboration. And, in fact, those international collaborators will, in fact, add additional transparency. So I'll give you an example of two projects being discussed both with an international partner.
One is on the stable isotopes, as I mentioned -- molybdenum for medical treatments; another is to bring in an electronic accelerator for various experimental purposes -- materials, medical research, et cetera. So over time, as those collaborations build up, that's what the facility will become.
MR. EARNEST: Josh.
Q: Thank you, Secretary. What if Iran cheats? The President, in an interview over the weekend, mentioned that there would be some type of mechanism where if you suspect that there’s something going on that's fishy, that you can request an inspection. And if Iran does not agree to that, that the international community has this mechanism to ensure that. What is that mechanism? And how much of the one-year breakout time could that eat up?
SECRETARY MONIZ: First of all, the answer to the last part is a very short time compared to the year. And at the end of that time, in contrast to some current arrangements around the world where, frankly, things can get -- shall we say, cans can get kicked down a very long road, this has a definite ending, way inside the year. And if access is denied at that point, that is a breach of the agreement, and with all the consequences that come with that, including snap-back of sanctions, resort to diplomatic or other tools. No options for the United States or others is taken off the table.
Q: So is this like a one-strike deal? One time we catch Iran doing something they said they wouldn't do in the agreement, the whole thing is off and we ramp up sanctions?
SECRETARY MONIZ: I think clearly one will see how that plays out in terms of -- obviously, judgment has to be used in terms of severity. Without getting into details, I'll just say that, for example, in the current agreement, everyone is saying that Iran has been studious in honoring the current agreement. Actually, I don't know if I can say this, but -- I won't get into specifics -- there was one time in which something was done that was not in the agreement. It was rapidly resolved as a mistake of somebody who didn’t know what they were doing wasn’t there, shut down immediately.
So, so far in the interim agreement, they’ve been very good. We will see if that persists now for the next 10, 15, 20 years.
MR. EARNEST: Major.
Q: Mr. Secretary, talking about the covert path, what kind of things need to still be negotiated to increase Western and American confidence that covert actions, either at facilities you’ve identified or places not yet identified, can be locked down? That is to say you can have a level of confidence that on the covert side things will not create a pathway to a nuclear weapon. And secondly, when you were answering Josh’s question on sanctions, do we have an agreement with the United Nations countries, meaning our partners, P5+1, to snap back the sanctions, or just us snapping back the sanctions if there is a disagreement or a violation?
SECRETARY MONIZ: No, first of all, I should say even more broadly, I think one of the remarkable outcomes of these last weeks -- I've been involved for, roughly, six weeks. One of the remarkable outcomes is, in fact, the level of coherence among the P5+1. That was actually quite rewarding, I would say.
In terms of the snap-back of the sanctions, there are certainly issues remaining to be negotiated in terms of specific timing and milestones. However, the key elements are all decided. And so, for example, in terms of snap-back of sanctions, let’s just say, for example, no one country could block the snap-back of sanctions.
Q: No one has veto power within the conversation?
SECRETARY MONIZ: Correct.
Q: So if a majority agree, then they --
SECRETARY MONIZ: I'm not going to go to the majority, et cetera, but that will be evolving and coming out in time as to what the precise arrangements are. But these are very, very good in terms of our ability; out ability, for example, to snap back, if called upon to do so, will be there.
Q: And the access on the covert side that you have yet to negotiate the kind of things you need to achieve between now and July 1st to --
SECRETARY MONIZ: Those are largely in place in terms of the access, as I mentioned, including unprecedented access in terms of the entire supply chain. I mentioned uranium mines. There’s also continuous surveillance of centrifuge manufacturing plants. So it is really quite a strong arrangement.
MR. EARNEST: Jim.
Q: Two quick questions. You said that -- which I don't really understand -- they’re going to continue to produce plutonium, small amounts of it, and they’ll send it out of the country. Why produce it at all if you're going to send it out of the country?
SECRETARY MONIZ: Because, I should add, that any nuclear reactor by its nature produces plutonium. Our power reactors in the United States produce plutonium as they operate. That's unavoidable, okay? The question is whether one optimizes for producing plutonium, especially a weapons-grade. And I'm saying this redesigned reactor will not do that, and it will produce very small amounts. You cannot avoid it at some level, but it will produce small amounts and it will go out of the country anyway.
Q: After your difficult negotiations, are you convinced that the Iranians are, in fact, content to only produce peaceful nuclear power, that this is their goal as they say it is? Do you, as one of the chief negotiators, trust their motives?
SECRETARY MONIZ: This is not built upon trust. This is built upon hardnosed requirements in terms of limitations on what they do at various timescales and on the access and transparency.
Q: But are they trying to at any time put in measures that would allow them to continue to produce weapons-grade uranium? Do you see an effort on their part to somehow save a pathway?
SECRETARY MONIZ: First of all, I should reemphasize, they have not produced weapons-grade uranium. They did produce earlier up to 20 percent, which is still considered low -- it's the limit of low-enriched uranium. But I would say the answer to that is, no. Clearly, the negotiation was tough in terms of specific parameters, but we just held to it -- sorry -- like the one-year breakout period is an absolute, unshakeable requirement. We can shift around a little bit, stockpile number of uranium and number of centrifuges. But that was the nature of it.
Q: Secretary Moniz, at some point, will you or this administration insist that the Iranians sign on to this deal, put their signatures on documents to make commitments beyond just their words?
SECRETARY MONIZ: So at the end of June, the idea is to have a formal agreement. That's what the next 90 days will do.
Q: So at the end of this, they’ll be held to this and there’s not going to be any wiggle room, there’s not going to be any subject to interpretation? It seems right now a lot is seemingly up to interpretation whether you're in Washington or in Tehran.
SECRETARY MONIZ: Well, no, I disagree with that in the sense -- in fact, going back to the very first question -- that there’s no doubt that right now there’s a different narrative, but not in conflict with what’s written down, just selective. However, if you look at our parameter sheet -- I don't know if you have seen that, it's four pages of bullets. And what is the reaction that we are receiving, and I think quite appropriately, is a certain level of amazement at the specificity. We got numbers, and those have got to go into the agreement. Very specific and comprehensive.
MR. EARNEST: Thank you, Mr. Secretary.
SECRETARY MONIZ: Thank you, all.
MR. EARNEST: All right. Thanks, everybody. I guess we now are back to our regularly scheduled program here. So, Josh, I'll let you get us started.
Q Thanks, Josh. Sticking with the theme of the day for a minute, I wanted to ask you about Congress’s involvement. The White House has made clear that you're open to having Congress have some way to express their views about this. But the specific proposals put forward by a lot of members of Congress about voting on a deal, that kind of thing, the President has rejected. So I'm wondering if you could give us an example of a way that Congress could have a role beyond just listening to briefings from you all, but to actually express whether or not this is something that they approve of or not that the White House would accept.
MR. EARNEST: Well, Josh, I don't want to get into a position of -- well, let me actually start by this. The White House does take very seriously, and across the administration we take very seriously the responsibility that we have to engage with Congress throughout this process. And that's what we have done. That started years ago when Congress passed tough sanctions against Iran that were instrumental to building an international coalition that put enormous pressure on the Iranian economy. That is what we believe led to Iran sitting down at the negotiating table and to actually engaging in conversations that were constructive.
Throughout that process, we’ve kept Congress in the loop on those negotiations. And just in the last three or four days since an agreement was announced, there have been a substantial number of telephone conversations, starting from the President on down -- other senior members of the President’s national security team, the Secretary of State, I believe Secretary Moniz even made some telephone calls, the Vice President, the White House Chief of Staff, others who have made calls to members of Congress to make sure that they actually understand the details of what’s been agreed to. That's the first thing.
The second thing is that we continue to believe that while Congress, certainly understandably, should understand what we're working on here, that it's the responsibility of the President of the United States -- any President of the United States -- to conduct the foreign policy of the United States of America. This is something that our Founding Fathers envisioned. This has been true of Democratic and Republican Presidents back through history. And this kind of effort to reach a diplomatic agreement about preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon is consistent with that history.
Now, the third thing is that Congress will at some point have to vote to remove the sanctions that they put in place. That is not something that the President of the United States can do unilaterally. But what Congress envisioned in their legislation -- they wrote into the bill, into the sanctions bill, waiver authority for the President of the United States to relax some aspects of the sanctions in pursuit of a diplomatic agreement.
So, in effect, Josh, what we're planning to do is to implement this agreement consistent with exactly the way Congress described. Now, there are some in Congress who, you point out, are now suggesting that they have changed their mind and they would rather weigh in on this agreement in a different way. But because of the longstanding precedent of the President of the United States being the chief negotiator for the United States, and the fact that we know a lot of Republicans in Congress are only using a vote like that -- or proposing a vote like this, because they oppose the deal in the first place.
Q: But, Josh, it’s not just Republicans. I mean, it’s quite a few prominent Democrats on foreign policy. It sounds like basically what you’re saying is --
MR. EARNEST: But to be clear, what I was saying about Republicans -- it’s Republicans who have been most forceful in denouncing this agreement, and those are the people that I’m referring to when I say that they’re trying to use this vote as cover to just try to undermine the agreement. You’re right that there are other Democrats who have spoken up, saying that Congress should have the opportunity to weigh in on the deal. And what we have said is, look, it is clearly within the purview of the President of the United States to conduct foreign policy, and we do believe that Congress should play their rightful role in terms of ultimately deciding whether or not the sanctions that Congress passed into law should be removed.
Q: So it sounds like what you’re saying is Congress’s role in the meantime is to be briefed and kept up to date about this. And eventually --
MR. EARNEST: A responsibility that we take seriously.
Q: Right. And eventually to vote to remove sanctions if things go according to plan. And if they decide they don’t want to remove the sanctions, it actually doesn’t matter because the President already has authority under the existing sanctions to waive them by himself. I mean, is that an accurate synopsis of the role that you see for Congress?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I would just tailor the last part of what you said, because this is important as well -- that we would envision a scenario where after Iran has already demonstrated sustained compliance over a long period of time, then we would contemplate a situation where we would dismantle the sanctions architecture that did apply so much pressure to the Iranian economy. And that is something that only Congress could do.
I don’t want to speak for the Iranian regime, but presumably that’s something that they would like to see. They wouldn’t just want to see a waiver; they’d actually like to see that sanctions architecture dismantled -- and I think for understandable reasons -- frankly, because they know that as long as that sanctions architecture is in place, the President with a stroke of a pen, at a moment’s notice, could snap those sanctions back into place. And that is part of what Congress originally envisioned when they passed sanctions legislation. It’s also part of what this administration envisions for holding Iran to account. Because we have said that if we detect, based on the intrusive inspections plan that we have for Iran’s nuclear program -- if we detect that they are deviating from the plan, then we can at a moment’s notice snap those sanctions back into place.
Q: Thanks. Again, following up on Iran -- in Tehran, they’re describing the way those sanctions will be lifted as an immediate timeline, whereas what we’re hearing here is that there’s going to have to be some results before sanctions are lifted. Can you explain the discrepancy between those timelines? And is the President concerned about that difference and whether or not there will be an agreement before the end of June?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Julia, this issue that you have highlighted is one of those that still needs to be negotiated. There are still details about the phase-out, if you will, of the sanctions that have not yet been agreed to. And it is the strong view of the administration that it would not be wise, and it would not be in the interest of the international community, to simply take away sanctions -- take away all of the sanctions on day one.
It is our view that, based on Iran’s history, that it would be most conducive to the success of the agreement for Iran to continue to have an incentive for complying with the agreement. And that is why we believe that this sort of phased approach is the best one, and it certainly is one that we will insist upon. There are many of those who are sitting around the negotiating table -- on our side of the negotiating table -- who share that view. And that’s what we will insist upon.
The reasons that you’re hearing a slightly different message out of Iran is that this is -- the details of this arrangement have not yet been agreed to.
Q Right. And that would be a pretty sharp shift. If the way they’re selling this in Iran is to say that sanctions would be lifted immediately, that would be a pretty sharp shift to have to go back by June 30th and say it could be a longer timeline. I just wondered if the President is watching the comments out of Iran and is concerned about the way they’re selling that timeline.
MR. EARNEST: Well, this has been the negotiating position of the Iranians for some time, so I don’t think there’s anybody that’s particularly surprised about the fact that they continue to hold the negotiating position that they’ve had for some time.
Q: Getting back to what Julia raised about these different expectations about the sanctions being lifted, does that mean that there was no framework agreement last week?
MR. EARNEST: No, Jim. There’s a four-page document --
Q That’s a pretty key pillar, it would seem, of this framework agreement.
MR. EARNEST: Well, Jim, I think we have been very clear about the fact that there are still important details that need to be locked down. But anybody who has taken a look at the four-page document that we released on Thursday of last week would indicate that we have succeeded in getting some very serious commitments from the Iranians as it relates to curtailing and, in many cases, actually rolling back their nuclear program. And that is why the steps that have been taken so far have been incredibly important. But this deal is not done yet, and it won’t be done until all of the details are locked down, hopefully by the end of June.
Q: But it sounds like what was decided by all sides was just, okay, let’s go out and have an announcement, even though this very key pillar, almost the backbone of the framework. I mean, that -- it’s a little pro quo, right?
MR. EARNEST: Well, here’s the other way of looking at this, Jim.
Q: They have to be in compliance to get the sanctions removed. And it seems as if that was not worked out.
MR. EARNEST: Here’s the other way to look at this. The Iranians were seeking to have sanctions relief. The international community was seeking to shut down every pathway that Iran has to a nuclear weapon. Many of the details about how the United States and the international community could get what we wanted out of this agreement have been reached because we have been able to document the important commitments that Iran has made to shut down every pathway they have to a nuclear weapon.
So you’re right, there are some elements of this agreement that Iran wants that they haven’t secured yet, and that will be an important --
Q: But doesn’t that meant there was no agreement then? Essentially there was --
MR. EARNEST: No, Jim, because they agreed to the other aspects of the agreement that relate to what the international community was seeking, which is to shut down every pathway they have to a nuclear weapon. So, again, the deal is not done, but this is why I think the reaction -- the public reaction to this agreement has been so positive; that people have been surprised at how comprehensive it is, about how detailed it is. I mean, the slides aren’t behind me anymore, but there are a lot of details about exactly -- about the commitments that Iran made that they initially resisted that can give the international community confidence that Iran does not have a pathway to a nuclear weapon.
Q: And I’m not taking that away from you, I’m just -- it sounds as though, with that component still up in the air, that this deal, a final deal, is in peril to some extent.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think that’s overstating it. I think, again, everybody has been clear about what our negotiating position is. There are still important details that have to be worked out. And I’m confident that Secretary Moniz and Secretary Kerry should probably start catching up on sleep now because we’re probably going to have a couple more sleepless weeks in June, too.
But there’s no denying that we’ve made substantial progress in accomplishing the goal that we set out to achieve, which is to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.
Q: If I could try to nail you down also on the Corker legislation. So are you saying that indefinitely, until the President leaves office, he will not sign a bill that gives the Congress a vote on a final deal with Iran and the P5+1? Is that an indefinite veto threat essentially until he is done in office here?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think it’s easier for me to just restate what our principles are, which are essentially twofold. One is that there is a concerted effort in Congress to undermine the negotiations or undermine the successful implementation of the agreement. I think that is probably a minority of the members of Congress, but there is a substantial number who hold that view. And their sense is the best way for them to undermine these talks or the implementation -- the eventual implementation of the agreement is to hold a vote.
The second thing is that entering into these kinds of agreements is clearly within the purview of the President of the United States, and that is an important precedent, and it’s one that the President will defend.
Q: And it sounded as though in the New York Times interview that he may be open to some sort of non-binding vote if the Congress wanted to have a say in a non-binding fashion, that seemed to be something that he could live with.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think what the President indicated is that he takes Chairman Corker at his word. Chairman Corker is somebody who is, I think, engaged in this process in a pretty principled way. And I think he deserves some credit for that. There are not a lot of other members in his conference who have done that, but he has. And I think that that is something that the President obviously pointed out in his interview.
What is also true though is that the President continued to be definitive about these principles. And I think the President was, in an aspirational way, suggesting that we’re going to engage with Congress, particularly those members of Congress that have done so on a principled basis, and we’re open to conversations with them. But on our two principles here about protecting the presidential prerogative and preventing the implementation of the agreement, we are going to stand firm.
Q: Thanks, Josh. A follow-up on Corker. What is the end goal, I guess, for engaging with these members? It seems like Corker isn’t backing away from the verification bill. But would the White House be trying to establish a relationship with him to stop a sanctions bill or something worse that could come down the pipe?
Mr. EARNEST: Well, we’re certainly going to be engaged in serious conversations with a wide range of members of Congress. And I know that Chairman Corker has already heard from senior White House officials about the agreement, and I would anticipate that in the days and weeks and months ahead we’re going to continue to stay in touch with him on this.
Q: Has the President himself phoned Senator Corker?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t have any additional presidential-level phone conversations to tell you about. As you know, the President called a number of world leaders as well as the four leaders in Congress, the highest-ranking Democrat and Republican in both the House and the Senate. I don’t have any calls beyond those to tell you about.
Q: First, I just wanted to loop back to this question that it still needs to be negotiated, whether or not -- I like your Royals cup for opening day.
MR. EARNEST: Thank you. Well, look, it’s opening day. (Laughter.)
Q: -- that it still needs to be negotiated. And I guess this -- I mean, to go back to Jim’s question, it seems like a huge issue that should have been settled at this point, so whether it’s phased or not. Has the U.S. made it clear to Iran that it will not accept an agreement where sanctions relief is not phased?
MR. EARNEST: I assure you that the -- in the same way that you all seem to have a very clear understanding of the Iranian negotiating position, I can confirm for you that the Iranians have a very clear understanding of what we will insist upon in in the final agreement.
Q: So can you explain to me then -- and I know that you’re the U.S. President’s spokesman and not the Iranian one -- but he --
MR. EARNEST: That’s a tough job. (Laughter.)
Q: You guys have described under the kind of tough political situation that he is operating in, and especially the motivation here is to provide sanctions relief to the Iranian people. I don’t understand why he would be lying about the possible outcome of a deal if you guys would make clear that you will absolutely walk away from a deal that doesn’t have --
MR. EARNEST: No, no, I don’t want to leave anybody with the impression that I’m suggesting, again, that the Iranian regime is somehow lying about this aspect of the negotiations. I’m not saying that. What I’m saying is that it is clear what their negotiating position is.
Q: So they think you’re lying. They think that you’re willing to capitulate.
MR. EARNEST: No, no, no. Again, you’d have to ask President Rouhani’s spokesperson that. But what I can tell you is that we’ve been very clear about what our negotiating position is.
And let me try to explain it to you in one other way, which is that the crux of this agreement was determining what sort of commitments Iran would make to shut down every pathway to a nuclear weapon; that that was where the negotiations started. And then from there, you get to a place -- once we have secured these commitments, you get Iran into a position which says, now that we’ve committed to doing all of these things, when are we going to start talking about what we want? And the point is, you can’t start talking about relieving sanctions until we have reached definitive agreements about how we’re going to shut down every pathway they have to a nuclear weapon -- which is to say one has to come before the other.
Q: But that is different than what you guys have said before. Before, you said we’re not going to relieve sanctions until they take concrete steps. Now what you’re saying is, we would start relieving sanctions as long as we’ve got an agreement on --
MR. EARNEST: No, no, no. What I’m saying is, I’m talking about in the context of the talks. As you sit down at the negotiating table, item one on the agenda at the negotiating table was not and could not be sanctions relief, because sanctions relief would only be offered in exchange for significant commitments from Iran about curtailing their nuclear program.
So the focus of the negotiations for more than a year now has been on what steps Iran is going to take, what commitments is Iran going to make to shut down every pathway they have to a nuclear weapon. But that’s where -- we have to work all that out first, and then we can get to the question of, well, then once you have established what steps they’re going to take, then you can start laying out what steps will be matched with which sanctions relief. And so this is just a sequencing argument.
But our view on this -- just to go back to your question -- our view on this has not changed. We are going to see specific commitments and follow-through from the Iranians as a part of our sort of phase-down of sanctions relief.
Q And it will not change.
MR. EARNEST: It will not change.
Q So you guys will walk away from a deal --
MR. EARNEST: It will not change.
Q: And then one last thing on sort of the congressional side of this. I want to talk about your message to Democrats right now. You, kind of independently, in the briefing keep bringing up that this is a partisan effort on the part of Republicans. Is that the argument that you’re making to Democrats, especially since it’s sort of the Democrats that are getting close to the veto-proof limit on this Corker legislation?
MR. EARNEST: Well, my view is that there are a number of members of Congress that have considered this is in a principled way, and those are members of Congress with whom we can have legitimate conversations about our efforts to try to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. There are a substantial number of members of Congress -- all of them Republicans, as far as I can tell -- who have engaged in an effort to just undermine the talks from the very beginning. The best example of this is Senator Cotton sending a letter to the leaders of Iran, suggesting that they not negotiate with the President of the United States. That is a clear, transparent effort to undermine the talks in the first place.
Now, fortunately, that effort, at least on this go-around here, has not succeeded. But when I’m talking about people who aren’t taking a particularly principled approach here, the suggestion is that some of those members of Congress who have no interest in an agreement are suggesting, well, Congress should have the opportunity to weigh in on this. They’re not saying this out of some sort of effort to protect their institutional authority in Washington, D.C. They’re saying it because they want to kill the deal. That’s their goal.
There’s a whole set of other people who do I think have in their own mind, at least what they consider to be, legitimate questions, at least -- if not more -- about the institutional prerogative of Congress. And this is akin to the kinds of debates that we have on a wide range of issues. We’re having it on immigration right now, in fact -- what authority is delegated to Congress and what authority is delegated to the executive branch. And those are the kinds of agreements, while occasionally is a source of some friction in Washington -- more often than not lately -- they’re also the kinds of agreements that we feel like we can work through. But when it comes to those who, frankly, are just trying to undermine an agreement, it’s going to be hard to have much of a conversation with them.
Now, that has not prevented the administration from fulfilling what believe is our responsibility to engage with those members of Congress. In fact, Senator McConnell was one of the signatories of the letter, and he received a briefing from the President of the United States about the terms of the agreement. So we’re going to hold up our end of the bargain here. But the lines that we have drawn are firm, and we’re going to stick to them.
Q: Just to put a finer point on a question, and then I’m done, I promise. When you’re talking to somebody like Chuck Schumer or Bob Menendez, is your argument merely -- or is your case for why they should not back this legislation merely this is a strong deal on its merit; you should kind of look at it in that context, in a national security context? Or are you also making the point [that] Republicans over here are just trying to undermine the President; this is not only a security question, but a political question for Democrats, and there should be a preservation of sort of the President’s abilities and political stature here?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think it’s less about the President’s political stature and more about exposing this for the political tactic that it is. I don’t know that that is the focus of our argument, but it is an undeniable fact.
But, yes, I think our case to every member of Congress is to take a look at the commitments that we have obtained from the Iranians. As Secretary Moniz persuasively explained, that we have gotten commitments that would shut down every pathway that Iran has to a nuclear weapon. There will continue to be details that need to be worked out. There are details related to the inspections, and certainly details as you asked about, that are related to providing sanctions relief.
But our principal conversations right now are focused on the merits of this agreement as it exists right now.
Q: So if you’re talking to a member of Congress on the merits, and he or she says, oh, on the merits it looks pretty good, but I don’t know when the sanctions are going to be lifted, you can say unequivocally it will be impossible for any sanctions to be lifted immediately?
MR. EARNEST: What I’m saying is that the -- I’m saying two things. One is that the details of that arrangement still have to be negotiated.
Q: So it’s possible it could be lifted.
MR. EARNEST: And it continues to be our view that a phased approach is the best one.
Q: Right. But that’s the prevailing view, currently.
MR. EARNEST: Well, what I’m saying is that --
MR. EARNEST: I don’t know what the prevailing view is. What I’m telling you is that --
Q: Hasn’t been settled.
MR. EARNEST: When you say prevailing view, you mean prevailing among members of Congress?
Q: No, among those who will negotiate this deal.
MR. EARNEST: Those who negotiate this deal agree with the United States that what we want to see if a phased approach to sanctions relief. And that phased approach is one that we’re going to insist upon.
Q: That is not yet agreed to.
MR. EARNEST: And that is not yet agreed to by the Iranians. I do think that that represents the consensus view of the international community. But --
Q: Is the international community in agreement with this administration that all will walk away from this deal if that is not settled on the terms you just described -- phased-in sanctions relief?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I don’t know of anybody who is sitting on our end of the table that thinks that the Iranian proposal of eliminating all sanctions on day one is wise.
Q: But they think that lifting some might be wise to get a deal.
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I don’t know what -- I’m not going to get ahead of sort of where this ends up. But again, we are going to be in a situation where we are going to have a phase-in of sanctions relief, and that is something that is an important principle.
Q: So how can a member of Congress fairly evaluate the merits of this with this question still unresolved?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I guess that would be one reason why I would suggest that members of Congress shouldn’t be voting on a piece of legislation until we have a final agreement at the end of June. So I think that’s a persuasive argument. Once June arrives, then we’ll have an opportunity to look at the details of the agreement and we can have further conversation about it.
Q: So the idea that you would have, as a member of Congress, misgivings -- because the question of lifting is unresolved -- is not, to your mind, justification for asking Congress to approve it; it’s justification for Congress sitting on its hands and doing nothing?
MR. EARNEST: No. What I'm suggesting is that Congress should play their rightful role in this process, and the President of the United States should play his rightful role in this process.
The President will be the one that is on the international scene conducting foreign policy. This is the way that it was envisioned by our Founding Fathers. And based on the terms of the interim agreement that was reached and released at the end of last week, we’re establishing a pretty strong track record here.
I can certainly understand members of Congress being interested in understanding what the final agreement looks like. That’s precisely the reason why, A, we believe they should not be voting on legislation between now and June; and B, it's also why this administration is committed to making sure that we’re sharing the details of the final agreement once we have one.
Q: You said the administration will not execute its waiver authority within the congressionally authorized sanctions for a long period of time. Can you define that?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think what I have said is that we --
Q: That’s what you said just a few minutes ago.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think what I said was -- and if I did, then let me correct it -- which is, I think what I’ve said is we believe that Congress should not vote to remove the architecture of the sanctions regime until Iran, over a long period of time, has demonstrated their compliance with the agreement.
Q: When will the administration use its waiver authority?
MR. EARNEST: In the interim, the President would use the waiver authority that Congress has given him.
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, this is what has to be negotiated with the international community and with the Iranians.
Q: Could it be immediate?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I'm not going to get ahead of that.
Q: Well, it could be then.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I'm not going to get ahead of the ongoing negotiations. And frankly, at this point, there not ongoing; everybody is taking a well-deserved break. But by the end of June we will have to sort of work out this question of what sanctions relief is going to look like.
The Iranians are insisting that every sanction should be removed on day one. The President has forcefully advocated in a way that’s consistent with the thinking of the international community that what we should see is a phased reduction in sanctions to ensure that Iran continues to comply with the agreement and continues to have an incentive to comply with the agreement.
Q: Josh, going back to Iran. I felt like you were getting somewhere with Major because you were saying something reasonable that, why would Congress vote before there’s a final agreement; why would there be a vote by the end of June. But then, by your logic, why not agree to a binding up-or-down vote by Congress after you have this deal?
MR. EARNEST: Because, Ed, reaching an agreement like this with the international community and Iran has, for generations, been clearly within the purview of the President of the United States. This is presidential authority that’s been wielded by both Democrats and Republicans throughout history. And we believe there is a rightful role for Congress to play, which is to stay in the loop on the negotiations and to receive regular briefings, which they are doing.
We also believe, and this is also consistent with the law, that members of Congress will have to decide when they are ready to remove congressional sanctions that they put in place against Iran. And it's the view of the administration that Congress should not consider doing that until Iran has demonstrated, over a substantial period of time, that they’re committed to complying with the agreement.
Q: Bringing the Energy Secretary out on Sunday’s show, I believe yesterday, and here at the podium today, you obviously seem to be focusing on the science, the technical aspect, which are important parts of the deal. But wasn’t this supposed to be a deal that was a political agreement between the P5+1 in Iran? And are you highlighting the scientific aspects now, because as Jim was suggesting, you don’t have a political deal?
MR. EARNEST: No, Ed. We’ve got very specific commitments that Iran has made in the context of those political agreements. And to help you all understand the significance of those political commitments that have been made, we brought essentially the highest-ranking scientist in the United States government to help you understand why those political agreements are so important to the science that’s guiding these negotiations.
Q: Last thing, on Israel. In the interview with Tom Friedman, it seemed like the President was really emphasizing -- I respect the Prime Minister’s views, I understand Israel’s position here. He seemed to be highlighting areas of agreement, something you hadn’t been doing. You had been spending a lot of time here at the podium and other forums --
MR. EARNEST: I don’t think they have either.
Q: Well, okay, fair enough. But your approach -- my question is about, again, just as we were talking earlier about other countries, we can ask them about that. But I'm asking about your approach. And it seems to me that it’s changing. It seems to me that the President is now -- he’s not highlighting the differences, I guess, the way he was just a week or so ago at that news conference. He’s highlighting where there are areas of agreement. Is this a deliberate attempt, as you sell this -- try to sell this deal -- to maybe reach out to Israel a little bit?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Ed, I think this is a deliberate attempt to make the case to individuals who are concerned about the security of Israel, that going along with an agreement like this that would prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon isn’t just in the best national security interest of the United States -- which it is -- it’s also clearly in the best interest of the nation of Israel. And that’s certainly what the President believes, and that will be an important part of our case moving forward.
Q: So there is no bill that could be offered, some sort of accommodation that suggests Congress is getting its proper oversight role and the administration gets to conduct its foreign policy, that you could see the administration signing off on this before June 30th?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I wouldn’t be in a position of sort of ruling out hypotheticals like that. But certainly the legislation that’s being most actively discussed on Capitol Hill right now is the legislation that Senator Corker has put forward.
And, again, I’ll mention that Senator Corker is somebody who has considered this issue in a very principled way. But in this fashion we have a pretty strong disagreement with him -- because in the mind of the President, it could potentially interfere with the ongoing negotiations that are slated to continue through June.
It also could interfere with the ability of the United States to implement the agreement successfully. And it does interfere with a scope of responsibilities that it’s clearly within the purview of the President of the United States. So we’ve made clear about what our differences are with the piece of legislation that’s been most actively discussed on Capitol Hill.
Q: Understanding that that Corker legislation is exactly what you say, the most talked about piece of legislation, are there ongoing negotiations with members of Congress about some sort of other legislation that could be put forward before June 30?
MR. EARNEST: Well, right now Congress is on the second week of their spring recess, and what we have done over the course of the last four or five days is reached out very aggressively to make sure that members of Congress understand exactly what Iran has committed to do in terms of curtailing and, in some cases, rolling back the scope of their nuclear program. We believe that those changes do succeed in shutting down every pathway that Iran has to a nuclear weapon.
And the focus of our conversations right now has been on the merits of this agreement, principally because, as sort of Major alluded to, we want people to consider -- or we want members of Congress to consider possible action based on the merits of the agreement. And we’re confident that if they do, that they will respect the purview of the President’s authority.
Q: I ask because there are members of Congress, including Senator Cardin, who have suggested that they would like the White House -- to be in conversations with the White House, or are in conversations with the White House about some sort of interim piece of legislation. Is that not happening?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I can tell you that the White House has been in touch with a substantial number of members of Congress, including Senator Cardin. But the focus right now has been principally on the merits of the agreement -- why what Iran has committed to is so important to us achieving our ultimate goal of preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.
In fact, the case that we’re making is so much of the case that the President made over the week and in the New York Times, which is not just that we have -- we’re making important progress to achieving our goal of preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, but that, in fact, through this principled agreement -- through this principled effort at diplomacy -- we actually now have the best way to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.
Q: Can I ask you to sort of put into context this set of what you call substantial number of conversations with Congress, or very aggressively talking with members of Congress? How intense is the lobbying? Where would you put it in terms of this administration? And how difficult is this push?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, right now the focus of these conversations is on the merits of the agreement. And frankly, those conversations have gone well. I think that the kind of public reaction that we’ve seen to the agreement is consistent with the kind of private reaction that we’ve gotten as well. Members of Congress, even those who are following this very closely, I think were pleasantly surprised at how detailed the commitments were, about how comprehensive the agreements were.
So again, we weren’t just talking about the commitments that Iran made to curtail their nuclear program, but also the detailed commitments that they made to agree to inspections. Now, there’s still a little bit more work to be done on that, but we have laid the groundwork to ensure that we’re going to put in place the toughest, most intrusive set of inspections that have ever been put in place against a country’s nuclear program.
So these conversations -- we’re pleased with the way that these conversations have gone, because when we’re focused on the merits of the agreement, it's pretty clear that an agreement like this is clearly within the best interest of the United States because it is the best way for us to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.
Q To ask my question more clearly, is this some of the most intense and most difficult lobbying that this administration has done on any given issue?
MR. EARNEST: Again, I wouldn’t describe it as difficult at this point, because I do think that anybody who’s willing to take a look at this agreement understands that Iran has made substantial commitments that both curtail and roll back their nuclear program, and do so in a way that we can verify.
Now, there are a lot of details to be worked out here, and we’re going to spend a lot of time combing through those details with the hopes of reaching an agreement by June. But I would characterize the conversations that we’re having both with members of the public, but also privately with members of Congress, that those conversations have gone well.
Q: A couple of points on Iran, Josh. So to be clear, are you saying that in the talks there was never an agreement on when sanctions would be relieved?
MR. EARNEST: There continues to be a divergent -- some different views about how exactly to accomplish that. The Iranians do continue to believe -- or do continue to seek an agreement whereby all of the sanctions would be lifted on day one -- at least that’s how they characterize their position publicly. We've characterized our position much differently than that. It is our view that sanctions relief should be phased in and that we want to see some sustained compliance with the agreement on the part of Iran essentially as a way for us to offer additional sanctions relief.
Q: But in the room during the talks, before an agreement was announced, there was -- no one ever came to the conclusion, I guess, that the sanctions were going to be released gradually? Because that's what the United States seems to be saying, but Iran is saying the opposite. So that's what I'm asking about. In the room, before the agreement was announced --
MR. EARNEST: Yes, and what I'm saying is it has never been our position that all of the sanctions against Iran should be removed from day one. That is their position, but it's not one that we agree with.
Q: Okay, so moving on from that then, what would you say, given that you seem to have two very different positions on the sanctions relief, what now is the possibility, I guess, of there actually being a formal agreement at the end of June?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I don't want to put odds on it from here. I can tell you that based on the fact that we have reached this interim agreement that we announced at the end of last week, that certainly improves the odds that we're likely to reach an agreement because the kinds of commitments that we sought and received from the Iranians were substantial, and if those commitments are kept we would effectively shut down every pathway that Iran has to a nuclear weapon. That was our goal from the beginning, and that is why I'm feeling more optimistic than we were before about the likelihood that we could reach a comprehensive final agreement.
But as you point out, there still continue to be some important sticking points that remain. And as I mentioned to Jim, I wouldn't be surprised if we see some more sleepless nights in June as this tries to get worked out.
Q: And just to say a final thing -- could you just explain the forever agreement a little bit more? Because he said it's not fixed deadlines, but there seem to be fixed deadlines in there. How is it a forever agreement? And that's all I had.
MR. EARNEST: The forever agreement essentially refers to ensuring that Iran lives up to the commitments that are put in place by the IAEA in the form of these additional protocols. So these are additional inspections that countries that have previously raised the concern of the IAEA, that they’ll have to submit to a set of inspections that are tough and intrusive and allow for extensive access to sites across the country. This additional protocol is in place in a variety of countries. It would be put in place under the terms of this agreement in Iran with no end date; that essentially those additional protocols would be in place in perpetuity.
Q I hate to shift gears from that, but back on Iran for a second. I wanted to clarify one thing first that Secretary Moniz said at the end. He said we've got numbers, and those have got to go into the agreement. So is it the position of the administration and the President now, that the numbers that we have seen, that he’s presenting to members of Congress, that you're all pointing to as evidence of the Iranians’ commitments will not change in any final agreement, that those are amounts and dates and measures in terms of the facilities in Iran and whatnot that will not change in the final agreement?
MR. EARNEST: The things that we have laid out in that factsheet that we distributed on Thursday were commitments that Iran has made. What Secretary Moniz was referring to were essentially the details that back up those numbers. And ensuring that we understand and that we agree on exactly what those numbers are that sort of underpin the broader agreement is incredibly important and will be the subject of extensive negotiation between now and June.
So when he was talking about the numbers still needing to be worked out, that's what he was referring to.
Q: Well, he actually -- he was saying that the numbers that he’s presenting will not change; that's what he was saying. Not that they still need to be worked out, but the numbers that he was giving --
MR. EARNEST: Maybe I misunderstood your question.
Q: -- with regard to the amount of fuel that's being enriched and the amount of centrifuges being run and those sorts of things will not change.
MR. EARNEST: Those are specific commitments that the Iranians have made at the negotiating table in front of the international community.
Now, what’s also true is that to ensure that Iran lives up to those agreements and to make sure that we all understand what’s been agreed to, there are details behind those topline numbers, and those details will be the subject of extensive technical conversations that will take place between now and the end of June.
Q: So but the top lines are the top lines?
MR. EARNEST: The top lines reflect commitments that the Iranians have made.
Q: And then on Congress’s role, you mentioned several times that the President feels that Congress should not take action, take a vote of any kind before June 30th. How much of the message that you're delivering and he’s delivering to members of Congress has to do with buying time for the talks to end? Might his position on a vote by Congress change if we're talking about after the deal is finalized rather than before the details that you're talking about have been worked out?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I don't envision a -- it is true that the administration does not believe that it would be conducive to the negotiations, I think for rather obvious reasons at this point, for Congress to take a vote before June. But even after June, this principle that we have about the appropriate purview of presidential authority and the need to be able to follow through on the implementation of the agreement will continue to be bright lines for us. And those are the reasons that we have raised concerns about the legislation that's getting so much attention on Capitol Hill right now.
Q: So then what was the President talking about in the interview over the weekend when he alluded to the idea of Congress being able to register somehow its position on this agreement without encroaching on his prerogatives? What did he mean by that?
MR. EARNEST: I think what the President is indicating is a commitment -- not just a willingness, but a commitment -- to engaging with members of Congress, and if there are members of Congress that are pursuing this discussion of these topics in a principled fashion, like Senator Corker, and the President is interested in engaging with them to talk through these issues.
And that's why we've been keeping them in the loop on the conversations all along. It's why we have worked so hard to make sure that as many members of Congress as possible have gotten a detailed accounting of what Iran has committed to so far. And we're going to keep those lines of communication and that engagement open.
Sarah, I'll give you the last one.
Q Thanks, Josh. So over the weekend, Senator Feinstein, on one of the shows, said that she didn’t want to come down with a final position on the Corker bill because some changes might be made to it. Stipulating that the White House feels that this is politically motivated by some and that this is in the purview of the President, is the White House asking Congress to make any changes to the Corker bill?
MR. EARNEST: Well, our position right now, Sarah, is that we do not believe that Congress should be in a position where they are going to vote on legislation prior to June that could interfere with the talks, and we would not envision a scenario where we would go along with any sort of congressional action that would undermine the President’s authority, particularly when it comes to successfully implementing an agreement, assuming we can reach one by the end of June.
And that is a principle that is important both for the precedent that it would set, but also important when it comes to implementing an agreement that has significant consequences for U.S. national security; that if we are able to reach an agreement around the negotiating table where Iran does agree to move forward on all the details related to shutting down every pathway to a nuclear weapon, and cooperating with the most intrusive inspections that have ever been put in place against a country’s nuclear program, we want to make sure that's an agreement that we can implement.
And the reason for that is simply that that would be the best way for us to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. That's an important goal and we want to make sure that if an opportunity is presented to achieve that goal in the most effective way, we want to be able to seize it.
Q: So the White House is not asking for any changes?
MR. EARNEST: Well, the White House is very clear about what our position is on this. And I acknowledge again that there are some members of Congress, even on a principled basis, who disagree about that. But, look, one of the things that I noticed is obviously Senator Graham is somebody that disagrees with the administration on a number of issues, and I've made this observation about Senator Corker before. Previously we’d seen a number of members of Congress, including Senator Corker, criticize the previous agreement, the Joint Plan of Action that was put in place in November of 2013; what we're now seeing from a number of members of Congress is that the Joint Plan of Action should just remain in place.
So the fact is you have Republicans who were previously adopting the position that they were criticizing this Joint Plan of Action before it was reached. That Joint Plan of Action was agreed to and implemented. And a little over a year later, members of Congress who previously criticized that agreement before it even came into effect are now suggesting that that should be the enduring policy of the United States of America.
So I guess my point is that maybe they should just wait until June, because this way they can sort of save themselves from having to criticize an agreement that they later support, that they could just wait until the agreement is reached and evaluate that agreement on the merits and evaluate whether or not, based on the commitments that we've received from the Iranians, and based on the scientific insight provided by people like Secretary Moniz, whether we have accomplished our goal of shutting down every pathway that Iran has to a nuclear weapon and done it in a way that we can verify.
Q: And last question. Before this last round of negotiations ended, you said nothing is agreed to until everything is agreed to. But I hear you saying now, well, we got an agreement in our pocket about what Iran is going to do with its nuclear material, but we haven't agreed on the sanctions. So is anything really agreed to?
MR. EARNEST: Yes, Iran has made specific commitments that were detailed in the document that was circulated at the end of last week. And the truth is the other thing that we have committed to is, in exchange for Iran’s compliance with the agreement, we've committed to offering sanctions relief. The question really is about the pace of that sanctions relief. And Iran believes that that sanctions relief should be granted immediately.
The position of the international community is that sanctions relief is something that should be provided on a phased basis. And that description of our position is one that admittedly we've still got a lot of questions about what the details look like. And that's something that we're going to spend a lot of time working on between now and the end of June.
Thanks, everybody. Happy Monday.