Press Briefing by the Press Secretary Josh Earnest, 3/31/2015
The White House
Office of the Press Secretary
For Immediate Release
March 31, 2015
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
12:52 P.M. EDT
MR. EARNEST: Good afternoon, everybody. We have a full house today. It's nice to see you all.
Q How come? (Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: Well, it's always nice to see so many smiling faces.
Q How come it's a full house?
MR. EARNEST: Oh, I don't know. I was hoping you were going to tell me.
Let me do a quick announcement before we get to your questions. This is something you've already heard a little bit on, but I just wanted to underscore the significance of this announcement.
Last November, many of you were there when President Obama stood alongside President Xi Jinping at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing and made a commitment to reduce our country's carbon emissions to 26 to 28 percent of 2005 levels by 2025. At the same event, China made a substantial commitment to peak and then reduce their carbon pollution, making a huge and unprecedented commitment to clean energy.
Today, the United States submitted to the United Nations our plan for meeting this goal. It's evidence once again how President Obama and the United States is leading the world to confront the challenge of climate change. And in light of today's announcement, we're confident that other countries will now step up and follow our lead.
The steps that the United States will take to meet our commitments includes the Clean Power Plan, higher efficiency standards on cars and trucks, improved energy-efficiency standards for buildings, broader efforts to reduce HFCs in methane emissions -- these are gases that have a disproportionate impact on climate change. And the good news is that these steps aren't just good for the environment, they also are good for our economy.
We know that investments in clean energy, including clean energy manufacturing and research and development, have tremendous economic potential. But we can also look back over the last few years. Even as the United States has cut our carbon pollution by more than any other country over the last several years, we've also, over a similar time frame, bounced back from the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression and created more than 12 million jobs in just the last five years.
So this is a significant announcement, and I would anticipate that over the course of this year this is an issue that we'll have the opportunity to continue to discuss.
So, with that windup, Julie, do you want to get us started today?
Q Thanks, Josh. I have a couple questions on Iran. Officials in Switzerland are starting to talk about the idea of extending the talks beyond the midnight deadline if there is enough sign of progress. So I wonder two things -- one, do you see enough signs of progress today to extend beyond midnight? And how flexible is the President willing to be on this deadline? Are we talking about going into another day, another week?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Julie, I can tell you that the President has been updated already today on the latest status of the ongoing talks in Switzerland to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. I would not rule out the President possibly being in touch with members of the negotiating team later today. We'll do our best to keep you updated on that situation.
The update that I've received is that our negotiators have determined, over the context of a mostly sleepless night last night and long negotiations over the course of the day in Europe today, that they're going to continue these conversations tomorrow as long as -- well, if necessary -- and as long the conversations continue to be productive.
Now, the President has been very clear that we've been having these conversations for more than a year now. The international community, standing alongside the United States, is seeking very specific and very serious commitments from the Iranians to shut down every pathway they have to a nuclear weapon and to agree to intrusive inspections to verify their compliance with the agreement. And we've been very clear that if, after a year of negotiating, that Iran is not in a position to make those serious commitments that we're going to be prepared to consider other alternatives. But if necessary, if the conversations continue to be productive, it's possible that talks could continue into tomorrow.
Q So that decision hasn't been made yet?
MR. EARNEST: Right now, it's still March 31st. Our negotiators are engaged in serious negotiations that have been going on not just over the course of the last year, which is relevant here, but also over the last day they've been engaged in very serious negotiations. And if it's necessary -- and when I say if it's necessary I mean if it's midnight and a deal has not been reached but the conversations continue to be productive -- then they'd be prepared to continue the talks into tomorrow.
Q And does that apply to then another day and another day after that? At what point do you reach your limit on even these short extensions?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think it's fair to say that we've reached our limit right now in as far as --
Q You haven't if you're willing to extend another day.
MR. EARNEST: Well, in as far as the conversations have been going on for more than a year. We've established this deadline for trying to reach a political agreement whereby we would have a framework that would guide the technical negotiations that would have to continue into June. But at the same time, it also doesn't make sense if we are getting serious engagement from the other side to just abruptly end the talks based on this deadline, because the fact is, if we are making progress toward the finish line, then we should keep going.
But ultimately, this is, like I said, something that we have been talking about for more than a year now, and it's time for Iran to make the serious commitments that they know the international community is expecting them to make to reach an agreement. And if they're not willing to make those serious commitments, then the United States will, alongside the international community, be in a position of having to consider some other alternatives.
Q I want to move on to the Indiana religious freedom law. Governor Pence said earlier this morning that he wants to amend that legislation to clarify that it does not allow discrimination against gays and lesbians. Does the White House feel that that is the right approach, to amend it? Or do you support a full repeal of it?
MR. EARNEST: Well, ultimately, putting this state law in place will require some decisions that are made by the state legislature of Indiana and then ultimately by the governor of Indiana.
The kind of public outcry that we've seen in response to the signing of the law I think is indicative of how this piece of legislation flies in the face of the kinds of values that people all across the country strongly support. And we've seen the governor and other Indiana officials in damage-control mode here because this law has provoked an outcry from business leaders across the state of Indiana. We've seen criticism from even religious groups inside the state of Indiana. We've seen concerns raised by the Republican mayor of Indianapolis about the impact that this law would have on the economy of the state. And understandably, we see business leaders saying that they are reluctant to do business in a state where their customers or even their employees could be subjected to greater discrimination just because of who they love.
That's not fair. It's not consistent with our values as a country that we hold dear. And I think that's what has provoked the strong outcry, and I think it's what has provoked the previously defiant governor to consider a position of changing the law.
Q There are some legal scholars and supporters of the law that say it's actually rooted in a 1993 federal law that's been upheld by the courts. Does the President feel that there is a need to amend that law?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I know that Governor Pence has tried to falsely suggest that the law that was signed in Indiana is the same as the law that was passed at the federal level in 1993. That is not true. And the reason that that's not true is that the 1993 law was an effort to try to protect the religious liberty of religious minorities based on actions that could be taken by the federal government.
The Indiana law is much broader. It doesn't just apply to individuals or religious minorities. It applies to -- and I'm quoting here -- "a partnership, a limited liability company, a corporation, a company, a firm, a society, a joint stock company, or an unincorporated association." So this obviously is a significant expansion of the law in terms of the way that it would apply. It leaves open the question, what sort of religious views a joint stock company may hold, but that may be something for lawyers to ponder.
At the same time, it's also worth noting that the law in Indiana doesn't just apply to interactions with the government; it also applies to private transactions, as well, which means that this is a much more open-ended piece of legislation that could reasonably be used to try to justify discriminating against somebody because of who they love. And again, that is why we've seen such a bipartisan and even non-political outcry against this law. And again, I think that is also what has prompted Indiana officials to reconsider the wisdom of this approach.
Q I want to ask about the elections in Nigeria. What is the White House's reaction to the election of the new president, President Buhari? And what's the White House assessment of what his new leadership will mean for the fight against Boko Haram?
MR. EARNEST: Well, at this point it's too soon to speculate on the likely outcome of the elections, but we do congratulate the people of Nigeria who exercised their civic duty by going to the polls. We would like to especially commend the patience that voters demonstrated and their commitment to participate in the democratic process. We also have been heartened by the consensus on the part of independent international observers that the elections were largely free, fair, and transparent, with only isolated disruptions due to violence and technical challenges.
The world is obviously paying very close attention to what happens next. And we here in the United States continue to encourage all candidates to abide by the Abuja Accord signed in January and the additional peace pledge signed last week to respect the official results and to encourage their followers to do the same. This is, of course, entirely consistent with the message that the President delivered to the Nigerian people in the Internet video that we released last week.
Q So what has to happen for the White House to acknowledge the results of the election? Maybe that's a dumb question.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think what we would want to see next is an announcement from election officials inside Nigeria about the results before we would weigh in here.
Q Lastly, how does the White House view the Arab military force that was announced on the weekend? Is this a good thing for U.S. national security interests?
MR. EARNEST: Well, what we saw from these Arab nations that were meeting in Egypt over the weekend was essentially a commitment to put together a coalition of armed forces that essentially they could draw upon to react to security challenges in that region of the world. There are a lot of details that were left unstated, or at least unagreed to. And so we would obviously depend a lot on what sort of -- what the command structure looks like, how decisions would be made about deploying the force.
Obviously, the United States has strong relationships and in some cases even strong military-to-military relationships with many of the countries that have entered into this broad agreement. So we're obviously going to watch closely what additional steps the countries take to put this together. It's obviously something that we'll watch closely and have conversations about.
The other thing that I would point out is that many of these countries are countries that have contributed to the ongoing military effort inside of Yemen that Saudi Arabia initiated in response to security concerns along their border with Yemen. The United States is providing some important intelligence and logistical support to that ongoing military operation. This is indicative of the kind of strong military-to-military relationship that we have with Saudi Arabia.
And so we're going to continue to watch the decisions that are being made by the countries that have sort of agreed to this in principle, but it's hard for me to say at this point -- render a specific judgment on it at this point since there are still so many details that have not been locked down.
Q And just to clarify briefly, when you said conversations -- the conversations -- is the United States government having conversations with the parties about some of those details that you said were left unsaid?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I certainly wouldn't rule that out. These are countries that the United States often -- well, I guess I would say it this way. Given all of the events that are taking place in that region of the world, and given the close relationship that we have with so many of the countries that have been involved in those negotiations, it shouldn't be a surprise that there have been U.S. officials, up to and including the President, that have been in touch with them in recent days.
Q Thank you, Josh. The deadline tonight -- I mean, isn't it, to begin with, an arbitrary deadline? The agreement, the framework expires at the end of June. You're allowing for the fact they could be extended, which I'm sure means it's going to be extended at least into tomorrow. Isn't the de facto deadline two weeks from now when Congress gets back?
MR. EARNEST: I wouldn't characterize it that way. I think I would concede a little bit on the front end that the date is at least a little arbitrary. And the reason for that is that these negotiations have been going on for more than a year and it's appropriate at some point for everybody to say, look, we're either going to reach an agreement or we're going to have to try something else. Because we don't want to be in a position where we're just sort of mindlessly talking without actually advancing toward an agreement.
And that is why it's appropriate in this case to put in what some might observe would be -- could describe as an arbitrary deadline. But it's a serious one nonetheless. And based on the fact that we have been in these conversations for more than a year, it's very clear to the Iranians what sort of commitments the international community is seeking from them. And that's why we believe that by the end of March, we should be able to reach at least the broad outlines of a political agreement that would establish a framework for the technical talks that would continue.
Q So you don't envision a scenario where negotiators go away for a couple of days and then come back?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I don't want to -- at this point, our negotiators are still having constructive conversations and we haven't reached the deadline yet. What my colleagues in Europe have indicated is that if the conversations continue to be productive but yet aren't finalized by the end of the day today that they would leave open the possibility of continuing those negotiations. So I wouldn't want to speculate about events beyond that.
Q I see this as sort of a big-picture question over the talks. There were reports today that an Iranian military aircraft had an encounter with an American helicopter over the Persian Gulf. And this sort of brings up the question. When you look at the tangled alliances that the United States is involved in now in the region -- the U.S. and Iran are fighting against ISIL, and the U.S. and Saudi Arabia are against Iran, the U.S. and Saudi Arabia are against Assad, Iran is on Assad side, Saudis fighting the Houthis, the Houthis are against al Qaeda on the Arabian Peninsula, our enemy -- does all this get a little bit confusing to the American public and make any perspective or potential agreement with Iran a tougher sell?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Mike, I think it's first fair to point out that the security and political situation in the Middle East has been complicated and even confusing for centuries. And these kinds of shifting alliances that you are observing are not unique to the Middle East and certainly not unprecedented in the Middle East.
What the President's approach has prioritized is the safety and well-being of the American people, and trying to act both strategically and opportunistically to advance our interests in this very complicated region. And the way that the President has chosen to do this is to build on the kinds of relationships that already exist in the Middle East.
And the best evidence I can point to on this is the success that this President had in building a coalition of more 60 nations to confront ISIL, that the United States is one of the few countries in the world that could step up and build a coalition like this. All of the countries who are part of that coalition have an interest in degrading and ultimately destroying ISIL; that it's in the individual interests of all of those countries, but it requires leadership from someone to step up and say this is all in our collective interest, let's act together to confront it.
That's the kind of leadership that this President has showed. And we have seen evidence of the success of that approach; that we have seen inside Iraq that up to 25 percent of the ground that had previously been taken over by ISIL is now an area where ISIL can no longer move freely. So that's one piece of evidence to indicate that by building a broad international coalition the President can ensure that the interests of the United States and the interests of the other members of our coalition are advanced.
Q And finally, Saudi Arabia is obviously very much -- suspicious, would be a generous word to describe the talks with Iran -- over the talks with Iran and want you to get tougher with Iran. Does reaching a deal with Iran strengthen Iran economically in whatever ways that will ultimately pose more of a threat to Saudi Arabia?
MR. EARNEST: Well, let me say a couple things about that. The first is, it's fair to say, to use your word "suspicious," that Saudi Arabia has been suspicious of Iran long before any sort of conversations began between Iran and the broader international community to try to prevent them from obtaining a nuclear weapon. So this is, again, not a new phenomenon.
The second thing is the United States and our international partners are engaged in this effort because we believe that diplomacy is the best way to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. To get them to make specific voluntary commitments that will shut off every path to a nuclear weapon and get them to agree to a set of intrusive inspections that will verify their compliance with the agreement, that's in the best interests of the United States. It's in the best interests of our closest ally in the region in Israel.
We also happen to believe that it's in the best interest of our partners in the region, as well, including Saudi Arabia. The United States, as we're doing right now in Yemen, has taken steps to support Saudi Arabia's national security and to advance their interests in the region.
We do that in a way that is consistent with U.S. interests, of course. And we believe this is another way that we can do that. Preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon is in the best interests of Saudi Arabia. And we say that because a nuclear-armed Iran is only more destabilizing in the region. It only makes more dangerous the kind of support that they could be offering to terrorist organizations. It only makes it easier and more dangerous for Iran to menace those countries that the United States has strong relationships with, including our ally Israel and also potentially Saudi Arabia.
So we believe that preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon through diplomacy is the best way and most likely way for us to get a good outcome. And by good outcome, I mean an outcome that is consistent with the national security interests of the United States and consistent with the national security interests of other countries with whom we have a strong relationship in that region of the world.
Q Thank you.
MR. EARNEST: Alexis.
Q Josh, just to follow up, last week, as you know, President Rouhani spoke to Putin and he spoke to Prime Minister Cameron. And you were just talking about the President might talk to members of the negotiating team. Are there any circumstances under which President Obama would speak directly to President Rouhani or send him a written message?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Alexis, I can tell you that the President has not recently had a phone call with President Rouhani. But at this point, I don't have anything else to tell you about the President's day. There's no call like that that's scheduled at this point.
Q And to follow up on the religious freedom-Indiana situation. You were talking about the outcry being bipartisan and not even political. But as you know, there are members of Congress who are thinking about running for President, and former leaders -- a former governor, for instance -- who immediately embraced it. Do you think that they were acting in a political way, or didn't understand what the law's implications might be?
MR. EARNEST: You'd have to ask them. I'm not sure what's motivating their decision to speak out.
Q But when you were saying you don't think it was political, the outcry, you meant the public as opposed to official?
MR. EARNEST: I meant the criticism of the law that had been signed by the governor of Indiana.
Q Okay, so, so far we've heard that the deadline is firm -- we've heard that said this week -- but now the deadline, it might move. And we've heard that this has been going on for a year, and by now, everybody should be ready and where they're going to be, but it would be wrong to end it if there's progress. So I guess you're left with, sort of, which is it? I mean, since it's been going on for a year, if Iran is serious and, as you say, the commitments that they need to make are clear, if they are serious, wouldn't they be there right now?
MR. EARNEST: I don't mean to leave you with the impression that just because these negotiations have been going on for a long time and that we've been very clear about what sort of commitments we're seeking from Iran, that these kinds of conversations are easy. They're not. We're talking about a very complex issue and we're talking about an issue that has significant consequences for the world. So I think it makes sense that they are being very serious, and we certainly have been pleased to see that Iran has engaged in these conversations over the course of the last year with a seriousness of purpose.
And in recent days, the talks have been productive. And if they continue to be productive, then we would be in a position where, if an agreement has not been reached by the end of the day over in Europe, that those serious conversations could extend into tomorrow.
Q So are the sticking points the same -- the R&D, the sanctions, what to do about the stockpile? Would you say that there's been progress made on any of those three areas? Or do they remain sort of the stalemate?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Michelle, the other thing that's been true over the last year is that we have declined to get into the play-by-play, if you will, of the negotiations. And principally, that's because we've been guided by this notion that nothing is agreed to until every element of the agreement has been agreed to.
So at this point, I would decline to offer you a detailed assessment about where the sticking points are other than to tell you that some remain. And as long as we are making serious progress toward resolving those sticking points, then it's possible that those negotiations could continue until tomorrow.
But the President is very serious about the fact that we've been talking about this over the course of a year, and it is time for Iran to make some serious decisions about whether or not they're going to make the kinds of commitments that the international community expects them to make.
Q Are there any indications that they are not 100 percent serious? Just the fact that it's gotten to this point and there is no agreement at the deadline, would that alone be an indication that they're not 100 percent serious?
MR. EARNEST: No. I think the willingness that they have displayed to engage in serious discussions about some very serious issues I think is an indication that they take this seriously. But that's a long way from actually getting them to make the kinds of commitments that are required to prevent them from obtaining a nuclear weapon, and that ultimately is what we are most focused on.
Q Okay. And lastly, how would you characterize -- I mean, you said the President is very involved, he may even call the negotiators today. Would you say that he's encouraged by what you call serious progress? Or how is he viewing this today?
MR. EARNEST: I think today the President is interested in hearing from his team about where things stand in terms of the negotiations and I think I would characterize him as being obviously very interested in these serious talks. He recognizes the stakes here. But what's also true is that it's time for Iran to make some serious decisions. And if they are unwilling to make those serious decisions, I have no doubt that the President will be ready to move on to consider other alternatives. But we do continue to believe that the best way for the United States and for the international community to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon is through diplomacy, and that's why we are so aggressively pursuing this option.
Q As you say, the stakes are so high here and the President has, in fact, set up this deadline, self-imposed deadline today. With all that in mind, how hard would it be for President Obama to actually walk away from the negotiating table tonight or tomorrow?
MR. EARNEST: Well, it certainly would not be the outcome that he prefers, but what is also true is that no deal is far better than a bad deal. The President is not going to be in a position to sign a bad deal. We've been very clear that Iran is going to have to make serious commitments that shut down every pathway they have to a nuclear weapon. And they will have to commit to cooperating with intrusive inspections to verify their compliance with the agreement. The reason for that is simply that we have seen repeated attempts over the years by Iran to try to circumvent international inspections. And that's why this agreement will be contingent upon Iran's cooperation with probably the most intrusive inspections of a nuclear program that have ever been conducted.
And Iran has earned a reputation as an organization, as a government, that will go to great lengths to try to circumvent these kinds of inspections, which is precisely why we're going to insist on the most intrusive inspections that have ever been put in place. And if Iran can make those kinds of commitments in the context of this political agreement, then that would be the best way, the best possible way for us to resolve concerns about Iran's nuclear program and to verify that they are not acquiring a nuclear weapon.
But if they're unwilling to make those kinds of commitments that give us that assurance -- and by us, I mean not just the United States, I mean the international community -- then we'll have to walk away from the negotiating table and consider what other options may be available to us. And there is certainly the possibility that that could happen.
Q You said "consider the other options available" to the United States and the other nations. What message has been sent to Iran that -- or told to Iran directly, at least at the negotiating table that either we come to an agreement here or this is going to happen? What is the "this" that we've told them that they better sign an agreement or find an agreement, or else this is going to happen?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think we've been very clear publicly -- I'm not going to get into the details of what sort of words were exchanged around the negotiating table, but we've been very public about the fact that every option for dealing with this situation remains on the table and has been on the table for some time now. And that's not intended as a threat, but it is intended as --
Q Every option including military?
MR. EARNEST: The military option has been on the table for quite some time and it continues to be on the table today. That said, we've also been very clear that the diplomatic approach would be more effective in resolving the international community's concerns about Iran's nuclear weapon than the military approach; that we know that between setting back their program, extending the breakout time, having clarity into the actual composition of their nuclear program that we can get all of that through negotiations and, frankly, a lot of that goes away if we consider the military option.
That if deploying the military option were the only option, we would have less insight into Iran's nuclear program. It's possible that there would be greater incentive inside the country to actually pursue the kind of breakout window that currently exists for them. And we would do much less to setback their program over the longer term than we potentially could through diplomacy. And the reason I say that is we've been clear, based on some of the reports that have leaked, that this agreement that we're seeking is one that's in excess of a decade and it's not likely that military action would have a long-term impact like that on their nuclear program.
Q And, finally, just to make sure I'm clear, while it's not the preferred option, the President is prepared and has let the Iranians know that he is prepared to walk away from the table over the next two days if there's not an agreement?
MR. EARNEST: You've heard the President himself say that no deal is better than a bad deal. The United States will not sign on to a bad deal. The only kind of diplomatic agreement, political agreement that we envision is one that definitively shuts down every path to a nuclear weapon that Iran has and imposes and Iran cooperates with a set of extremely intrusive inspections.
Q Josh, but that's not a direct answer to that direct question. The direct question was, is the President prepared to end the negotiating process -- not whether or not he'll take a bad deal over a good deal. That's a separate question entirely. The key question is, if after a day or two there is no resolution, will the negotiations cease?
MR. EARNEST: And, Major, what I was describing to Jim is that -- I wasn't weighing the merits of a good deal or a bad deal. What I was suggesting to Jim is that no deal is preferable to a bad deal, meaning the President is prepared to walk away from the negotiating table before he signed a bad agreement. And by bad agreement I mean an agreement that did not definitively shut down every pathway they have to a nuclear weapon and did not codify or at least commit -- get a commitment from Iran to cooperate with intrusive inspections.
Q If there is no deal, does the Joint Plan of Action continue in force?
MR. EARNEST: It does. You'll recall that the Joint Plan of Action is actually in place through June. And that is true regardless of what Mr. Vaqueira described as the arbitrary deadline for the end of this month.
Q Right, but after that, and there is no deal and no process by which to negotiate one, then it all ends, is that correct?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again --
Q Will this bill be the verification whatever is going on under the Joint Plan of Action disappears at the end of June if there is no deal or process by which to negotiate a replacement for that, correct?
MR. EARNEST: That's my understanding about the way that the Joint Plan of Action is structured, is that it was extended through June, and what the United States and the international community said was that knowing that there are technical aspects of this agreement that will take some time to hammer out, that what we should do is that at the midway point of that extension, essentially by the end of March, the international community and Iran should be able to come together around a political agreement that would establish a framework for that more technical agreement.
Q Just cut to the chase along the lines that Mike was trying to -- really the deadline isn't now; the deadline is June 31st -- June 30th, rather.
MR. EARNEST: In the mind of the United States, and I think this is shared by the international community, and I think even the Iranians would acknowledge that there is some merit to this argument that trying to work out the political framework and all the technical agreements at the same time would be very difficult; that by establishing a framework in the context of a political agreement, which we believe we should do now would then give our experts time to go through and dig through all of the details.
And here is the thing about this: An agreement like this certainly fulfills that old cliché about the devil being in the details, and making sure that every technical detail of this agreement is locked down and is carefully reviewed by both sides to make sure that there is no ambiguity about the kinds of commitments that Iran is making. And these are very technical details that require a lot of precision and we want to make sure that we leave ample time for the scientists to work through those details. And that's why we believe it's important to establish a political framework now, here at the end of March, so that the technical negotiators have two or three months to work through the details.
Q Speaking of digging into the details, as you well know, in November of 2011, the IAEA put out a report about the military -- possible military applications of Iran's nuclear program, not just fissile material, but a lot of other triggering mechanisms and technological advances it made in pursuit of what it feared was a nuclear arsenal. To this date Iran has given no explanation to the IAEA about what those things were, why it did them, or even admitted that they existed. Does Iran have to admit those things were, in fact, pursued? And does there need to be a means by which those things -- triggering mechanisms, other technological advances -- have to be eradicated for this deal to be done?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I don't want to get too far ahead of what is actually being negotiated right now. But let me --
Q That would have to be a priority.
MR. EARNEST: Let me just say two things about that. The first is that at least some of the things that you are describing are the kinds of things that are the subject of ongoing negotiations right now and would be the kinds of things that would be resolved in the context of the ongoing negotiations.
What is also true -- and this is the second thing, and this is important for people to understand, too, when it comes to our approach to Iran -- even if we are able to reach what we and the international community would describe as a good agreement -- again, one that shuts down every pathway they have to a nuclear weapon, one in which they make specific commitments about complying with international inspections -- we're still going to have a long list of concerns about Iran and their behavior. And I don't want to leave anybody with the impression that those kinds of concerns are not going to be -- there are a lot of negatives in there -- I don't want to leave anybody with the impression that we're going to resolve all of those concerns in the context of these talks. We're not going to be able to.
Q But this isn't one of those other worldly concerns -- Lebanon, Yemen, Iraq, whatever --
MR. EARNEST: Support for terror, Americans who are unjustly detained, anti-Semitic threats against Israel. There's a long list.
Q Right. But what I asked you about isn't a part any of those things. It is central to whatever Iran's ambitions were in pursuit of a nuclear arsenal. And they've made no representations to the IAEA that it finds credible about what it was doing, no evidence to suggest what was going on there. And I'm asking you, does Iran have to come clean on that aspect of its history and then have a way for that technology to be destroyed for this deal to work and to be considered acceptable to this administration?
MR. EARNEST: Well, as I mentioned, this history that you're citing is obviously in the mind of our negotiators who are sitting around the table right now and some of the issues that you have raised are some of the issues that are under discussion in the negotiations. So I don't want to get into those details in a lot of detail.
Q Can you describe whether or not it is a high priority for this administration in the context of this negotiation?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, at some point, if we're able to reach an agreement, we will be in a position where we can talk about the -- talk to you and the American people and members of Congress and our allies about what sort of commitments Iran made in the negotiations. And so the concerns like the ones that you are raising is something that we'll have an opportunity to discuss at that point if we're able to reach an agreement.
Q Very quick one. Does this administration believe Tikrit has been freed of ISIS or ISIL domination? Or are those reports or suggestions premature?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I know that there have been some conflicting reports on this. What I understand to be accurate is the statement that Prime Minister Abadi apparently posted on his website this morning U.S. time. And in the context of that -- or what that statement indicated is that portions of western and southern Tikrit had been taken by the Iraq security forces under the command of the Iraqi central government. They've obviously been able to make that progress because they are backed by coalition airstrikes. These were airstrikes that were launched at the specific request of Prime Minister Abadi, and it's apparent that those airstrikes had the intended effect, which has made the Iraqi security forces more effective on the battlefield.
And we continue to see these Iraqi security forces operate under the command of the Iraqi central government, and we continue to see them be organized and carry out their missions in the kind of multi-sectarian fashion that reflects the diversity of the country of Iraq and reflects the Prime Minister's commitment that this military operation would not be used as cover to exact sectarian revenge.
Q One last thing. On a heavily watched Sunday news magazine program, Bashar Assad was interviewed. I wondered if you had a chance to look at that transcript, if the President had -- (laughter) -- and if you have any comment on his assessment, A, that he continues to rule with the consent of the governed, number one, and number two, that he's encouraged by Secretary of State Kerry's comments about willing to negotiate his future with him directly.
MR. EARNEST: Major, I did not have the opportunity to see that very well-regarded program that you described -- (laughter) -- but I did see some of the news reports about the program. What I would say is that we've been very clear about how we believe the future of Syria can be resolved, which is that it should be resolved around the negotiating table in which elements of the Assad regime, but not President Assad himself, would participate.
And the reason that we do not believe President Assad should participate is that he has lost his legitimacy to lead that country. His willingness to use his nation's own military to target his citizens is something that the international community cannot abide, and it is why he has lost legitimacy to lead that country.
But we do believe that the future of Syria should be decided around the negotiating table. And we're going to continue to support international and multilateral efforts to create it, but not with him at the table.
Q I just want to go back to Iran and sort of try to differentiate between the political and technical. We've always known that today was this date as a sort of interim place to see was there the will that Iran seemed to be making the kind of commitments that could lead to a permanent deal. But are what falls under the political category and the technical category somewhat moveable? For example, whether -- breakout time. Are the things that we've talked about as being the difficult things, does there need to be something worked out at this point for it to be considered -- for Iran to have the intent to make a serious deal?
MR. EARNEST: Chris, you're asking what is an important question and it's one that's difficult to talk about while the negotiations are still ongoing. But I can try to describe for you the idea behind the way that these negotiations are structured. And the idea is simply that at a top-line level, political leaders in both countries -- and when I say -- on both sides of the table, I guess I should say, because we're talking about political leaders not just from Iran and the United States, but political leaders in France and the U.K. and Germany and Russia and China participating. And ultimately, those political leaders want to come to a political agreement about what kind of commitments Iran is willing to make to demonstrate to the international community that they're not going to acquire a nuclear weapon.
And in the context of those political agreements, we would then want to have and facilitate detailed technical discussions where you could essentially, in very detailed fashion, demonstrate how Iran will fulfill those broader political commitments. And I think that is the goal of these talks. So essentially, we sort of establish the top lines on the context of this political agreement.
Q So in other words, like the breakout time and how long the agreement would run, those numbers would already be there. It's the details that are sort of in the subcategory that would be considered technical?
MR. EARNEST: Generally speaking, that's -- again, I don't want to get into the details of what they're talking about, but generally speaking, we're talking about essentially the broader context of an agreement. And then in the context of the technical details, we would essentially give Iran the opportunity to demonstrate, in consultation with our technical experts, exactly how they're going to fulfill the political agreements that they've reached, if they're able to reach them.
Q A couple of quick things on Yemen. The U.N. Human Rights Chief warned that it's on the brink of collapse. Does the administration agree with that assessment?
MR. EARNEST: Well, it's probably not the first time that somebody from the U.N. has made that assessment. Yemen is a very tumultuous place, and it has been for a long time. We obviously are concerned about the political situation inside Yemen, and it's clear that there is a lot of violence in that country -- even more than usual. And the United States is, of course, supportive of the efforts by Saudi Arabia to try to resolve the security situation along their border. But ultimately we believe that the U.N.-led diplomatic process is one that everybody should support. And that is a process that would result in the Houthis and President Hadi's government sitting at the negotiating table and trying to resolve their differences in that context, rather than on the battlefield.
There are reports that there were dozens of innocent civilians who were killed in a camp in Yemen. The details of how that violence occurred are still unknown at this point. But I do think it underscores, Chris, how important it is for the violence to come to an end, and for the diplomatic efforts to commence so that we can try to bring some civility to that situation and try to end the violence that has wrecked that country for so long.
Q And the State Department officials I guess acknowledge they received the letters -- a letter from the lawyers for Sharif Mobley who has been held in Yemen since 2010, expressing concern. They have suggested that this administration -- after it suspended its operations at the embassy -- have abandoned this American, and they are asking for some sort of intervention. They are concerned that the bombing by Saudi Arabia could kill him. Is the White House aware of this letter? Is there any action that is planned to be taken as a result of it?
MR. EARNEST: I don't have any actions to announce at this point, but I can get somebody to follow up with you on it.
Q Is the White House aware of the letter and the concerns that have been expressed by his lawyer?
MR. EARNEST: I don't know if we have received that letter here, but we can check on that for you.
Q I want to go back to the climate plan that you started with. We're obviously going to make the deadline today. Numerous other countries under the same deadline aren't going to make it. We're talking about major polluters like China, India. What is the administration's thinking on moving forward with a plan that some say is so ambitious there's no way we can actually physically achieve it when these other countries are -- they're not going to make the deadline, apparently. But bigger concern, long term, whether they're going to be able to make these same commitments and sacrifices that we're committing to.
MR. EARNEST: Well, Shannon, we have seen China make some very serious commitments, which they made in the context of President Obama's visit to China just three or four months ago. And this is an agreement that will stretch over 10 years or so, so I think it's too early to say -- or too early to judge about whether or not they'll be able to live up to their commitments. They certainly demonstrated how that was possible by making the kind of historic and unprecedented investment in clean energy that would succeed in weaning at least some of their power generation off of or at least away from coal-fired plants. That would have an extraordinarily positive impact on efforts to fight climate change because China is the world's largest emitter of carbon pollution.
So the kind of serious commitment that we saw them make would have a material difference. And I would acknowledge that you're right, that over time, China will have the opportunity to demonstrate the seriousness of their commitment to this issue. And there are a whole host of reasons for them to be serious about it. One is that they obviously are keenly aware of the impact of our changing climate. There is plenty of evidence to indicate that there is some political activity in China associated with this, that the population has expressed significant concerns about the poor air quality across that country. So there is an interest in China both in making these kinds of commitments, but also in backing them up. And time will tell if they're willing to do so.
Q And as a follow to that, not surprising, there is pushback from the Hill from a number of leaders there who say this represents yet another agreement that Congress should be involved with. They feel like they should have a voice in any agreement of this nature on the international scale. How do you respond to them?
MR. EARNEST: Well, these are individuals who -- many of whom, at least, deny the fact that climate change even exists. So I'm not sure they would be in the best position to decide whether or not a climate change agreement is one that is worth entering into.
The fact is, the kind of an agreement that the President succeeded in striking with China and is implementing here in the United States is one that will have a positive impact on carbon pollution, will have a positive impact on trying to make the air safer for Americans here in this country, and will have a positive impact on our economy. And that's why the President is pursuing this so aggressively. And we certainly would welcome any kind of support that we could get from Congress on that measure.
Q But content aside, is this the kind of agreement that Congress should have an ability to sign off on?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I think it's hard to take seriously from some members of Congress who deny the fact that climate change exists that they should have some opportunity to render judgment about a climate change agreement.
Q Yesterday, the administration was saying that March 31st is the deadline that has to mean something, and that decisions only get harder after March 31st. So given that you're showing a willingness already to extend the deadline, how does that send a message that March 31st has to mean something? And if decisions don't get easier after today, then how can you expect to accomplish in another day or two what you haven't been able to accomplish in more than a year?
MR. EARNEST: Well, because this has been a longer process. That is why -- because we have made some progress and we have seen a sustained commitment by the Iranians to engage in serious negotiations.
These talks will -- there are only two scenarios under which -- I guess there are two conditions by which these talks would continue tomorrow. The first is that they haven't reached an agreement today -- and there are still several hours to go before the deadline. The second is that they're actually making progress toward that goal. And if it means that we need to continue the conversations tomorrow to complete the agreement, I think common sense would dictate that it's worth pursuing in that way.
Q Would you agree that it only gets harder tomorrow?
MR. EARNEST: It certainly doesn't get any easier. And I think what is a part of these kinds of conversations is that as the negotiators are working through the different issues, that the most difficult issues are the ones that are put to the end. And now that we are essentially at the end of the negotiations, the only things that are left on the table are the toughest things to resolve. And again, I think that's why you've seen so many long negotiations over the last 24 and 36 hours. And as long as those conversations continue to be productive, we're going to continue to have them.
Q Thank you. You said the toughest things to resolve are the things that are left, but you did say that there has been significant progress. Would you still put the odds at less than 50 percent? And if so, why not just stick to the deadline?
MR. EARNEST: Well, the reason that we have described the odds as 50/50 is that we are mindful of the fact that any sort of agreement will have to be signed off on by Iran's political leadership. And I think it is fair to say that those kinds of decisions aren't made with a lot of transparency. So there is some doubt about, ultimately, the way that this gets resolved and ultimately, whether or not Iran will make the kinds of commitments that are currently being discussed and insisted upon by the international community.
And it's that measure of doubt that leads us to continue to conclude that there's a definite possibility that Iran can't make the kinds of commitments that the international community is insisting upon. And if that's the case, then the United States and the international community will be forced to consider some alternatives.
Q You have mentioned that over the course of the last year there have been these hundreds of briefings with Congress and also our allies and officials in Israel. Are those briefings continuing as we get down to the wire? Or is the U.S. sort of going into this -- into the final stage of this negotiation hoping to iron out a deal? Or is Congress being given a play-by-play on how things are going?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I don't have any specific conversations to talk about. I can tell you that the administration takes very seriously the need to keep leaders in Congress carefully apprised of the status of the ongoing negotiations. With Congress not in session, and in some cases, scattered around the globe, it's not always easy to track them down. But we have provided updates, and we stand ready to provide additional updates if necessary.
Q With what looks like sort of a sliding deadline, does that impact sort of keeping Congress on board, keeping them at bay as they want to pass legislation? A lot of Democrats have waited and said that they would wait and hold off until this deadline before they moved forward. Now it seems like the deadline is sliding. Is it going to make it more difficult to keep Congress from going ahead and acting on its own?
MR. EARNEST: Well, our case to Congress has been and always will be that Congress should -- will have an opportunity if a deal is reached to evaluate that agreement, and they should do so on the merits, and they should do so with the ultimate goal in mind, which is to verify that Iran is not able to obtain a nuclear weapon. And that's going to require, as I mentioned, Iran making serious commitments to shutting down every pathway to a nuclear weapon, and it will require Iran to indicate a willingness to cooperate with historically intrusive inspections.
And there will be ample opportunity for members of Congress, for our allies, for our partners, and even for the American people to evaluate the wisdom of this deal if a deal is reached.
Q The House committee that's looking into the Benghazi attacks has asked that Secretary Clinton appear before them today -- or not today; they asked today. I wonder what your thoughts are. They're also calling it -- it sort of sounds like a private -- that they would close the panel or something because they said it would be a transcribed thing. I know she in the past said she would be willing to appear in front of them. Do you think this is even necessary? This is about the emails, obviously.
MR. EARNEST: Well, this will obviously be a discussion for the leaders of that committee and Secretary Clinton and her team to have. So I don't have an opinion on it.
Q Well, but you've said in the past that you think that the White House, the administration has done enough.
MR. EARNEST: We certainly have. But ultimately if the committee makes a request and Secretary Clinton, in her capacity as a private citizen, decides that she wants to once again go above and beyond in terms of trying to provide them information and access, then that would be a decision for her to make.
Q Senator Warner today said that he would sign on to Corker-Menendez congressional review of any possible Iran deal. What's the White House's strategy to try and keep Democrats in line as they approach a veto-proof majority on this legislation?
MR. EARNEST: Well, our strategy is principally focused on staying in close touch with members of Congress who have an interest in this agreement that's currently being negotiated. The second is to assure members of Congress, as the President has, and as I have on a number of occasions, that they'll have an opportunity to evaluate the political agreement, if one is reached, and that we certainly would intend to help them understand exactly what Iran is committed to do.
And once they are able to do that, we would encourage them to consider an agreement -- again, if an agreement is reached -- on the merits. And it is the view of the President -- who is obviously leading this strategy -- that diplomacy is, by far, the best way for us to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. And so that's the context in which we believe that the agreement should be evaluated. But at this point, it's too early for anybody to say that they have concerns about it or that it seems like it's going to be a bad deal because a deal hasn't been reached.
Q What does it say about your negotiating strategy, though, that the President's own party seems to be checking him here, essentially getting so close to a veto-proof majority that shows a degree of being uncomfortable of what's happening?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I'm not sure that's how they would describe that. I think what we're going to continue to do is to keep an open line of communication with both Democrats and Republicans. And what's unfortunate is that over the course of this situation, we have, on occasion, seen Republicans act in a brazenly partisan fashion to try to undermine the deal. I'm specifically referring to the letter that was signed by 47 Republican senators to the leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran. And it's unfortunate that an agreement like this would be subject to -- or negotiations like this would be subject to such rank partisanship.
But we are hopeful that that kind of partisan fever has subsided at least enough to convince members of Congress to set aside their partisan interest and actually evaluate an agreement, if one is reached, with the country's best interest in mind. And there will be a temptation by some to play partisan politics, but that, frankly, is something that we've only seen on the Republican aisle -- on the Republican side of the aisle so far.
Q So you're confident if there's a deal, there's enough Democratic support at the end of the day?
MR. EARNEST: What I'm confident of is that both Democrats and Republicans in the Congress will have an opportunity to evaluate the agreement. And we are hopeful that both Democrats and Republicans will set aside their partisan interests and actually evaluate the agreement based solely on the national security interests of the United States. And if they do that, I'm confident that we'll have substantial support for this agreement. But, again, this all presumes that an agreement is able to be reached, and we haven't reached one yet.
Q Given that the deadline has changed for today, should we expect that June 30th is a firm deadline for the administration, or could we be, on June 30th, sitting here with you saying, well, if things continue to make progress, we'll continue to have conversations?
MR. EARNEST: Well, there is a difference -- as has been highlighted both between Mr. Viqueira and Mr. Garrett -- a difference in the deadline at the end of March and the difference in the June deadline. Essentially the June deadline is when the Joint Plan of Action agreement would end. Now, as many have pointed out, the Joint Plan of Action is an agreement that has been extended at least twice, as I recall. But again, the fact that it's been extended twice is evidence that we've been negotiating over this for a long time.
Q But on July 1st, is that when the President starts to consider other options and walks from the table?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I actually would say that if we're not able to reach a political agreement in the timeline that we've described, that we would walk away from the negotiating table. If we're not able to reach a political agreement then we're not going to wait all the way until June 30th to walk away.
Again, because of the way that these negotiations are structured, we believe it's important for us -- when I say "us" I mean Iran and the international community -- to reach a topline political framework prior to entering into the more technical negotiations. And it's important to leave some time for those technical negotiations to take place. So that's what we envision.
Q And is it the administration's view at this point that the only thing holding up a deal are things related to the nuclear talks and not any of the other issues in the region?
MR. EARNEST: That is our view, yes. And to be specific, the P5+1 is united, the United States and our international partners are united in our negotiating position. So what's really holding up the talks is the specific commitment from the Iranians that we need to see. And that's what we're making progress against, and that is what would lead us to continuing the conversations tomorrow is if we're not able to reach an agreement tonight but yet the conversations continue to be productive.
Q I want to ask about Iran first. You, just a minute ago to Luke, said that you want Democrats and Republicans to set aside their partisan differences. But there seems to be growing bipartisan opposition to the idea of letting a deal come to fruition without insight from Congress and a vote. So I just wonder if you could clarify what you mean by having Democrats and Republicans set aside bipartisan concerns -- excuse me, partisan.
MR. EARNEST: Yes, I hear you. I'm saying two things. One is that we have seen Republicans play in a pretty brazen fashion partisan politics with this, that we saw Senator Cotton and 46 of his partners in the Republican cloakroom get together and sign a letter to the leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran trying to undermine the talks. And that was a brazen partisan effort. And it's certainly not consistent with the way that the American people I think would expect their elected representatives to evaluate the best interests of the United States of America.
It may be, in the minds of some of them, the best way to try to seek a partisan advantage, but what we're looking for is an American advantage. And that's exactly the way that the President is trying to conduct these negotiations.
Now, the second thing I would say is that this has sometimes been -- I'll be polite -- misunderstood by some members of Congress. The administration has long envisioned a role for Congress in this agreement, and that is, specifically, part of this agreement will be eventually the removal of the sanctions that Congress put in place against Iran. In order for those sanctions to be removed, Congress will have to take a vote. And what the United States -- or what the Obama administration has said is that the sanctions put in place by Congress should remain in place for some time until we can see that Iran has agreed to live up to the commitments that they make.
And what Congress wrote into that sanctions legislation was the ability of the President of the United States to waive some elements of those sanctions, essentially, understanding that that's how an agreement would work, that essentially we would see over time the phased reduction in sanctions after Iran over a period of time demonstrates sustained commitment to the agreement. And that is the way that we believe the agreement should be structured.
There's some difference of agreement about this in Iran. Iran would like to see those sanctions removed right away because they're having a debilitating impact on their economy. But the United States -- again, given Iran's past history and their questionable compliance with previous international agreements, we're going to make sure that Iran demonstrates sustained compliance to the agreement before we even contemplate removing the kinds of congressional sanctions that have been so effective in compelling Iran to the negotiating table.
Q Can I ask one more question on Syria?
MR. EARNEST: Sure.
Q Your announcement today about the $508 million in humanitarian aid, that comes as the international Donors Conference has announced a total of $4 billion, which is still just about half of what the U.N. says it needs to do what it needs to do to shore up the humanitarian situation there. So given that, should the United States be doing more? Should other members of the international community be giving even more?
MR. EARNEST: Well, it's my understanding that the United States continues to be the largest contributor on a bilateral basis of assistance to this humanitarian disaster. And there are millions of people in Syria and across the region who have been displaced by the violence there. It's tragic. And some of the reporting that I have seen from the region puts a real human face on something that we discuss in somewhat academic terms here. But there has been a real human cost to this political instability and this violence, and it's tragic.
And the United States is demonstrating that we're going to continue to lead not just based on our economic and political influence, but by our moral influence; that we as a country understand that people are suffering and that we have an opportunity to try to alleviate that suffering. But that need is significant. And we're going to continue to work with the international community to mobilize the necessary resources to try to meet these needs.
Q And so, meanwhile, though, the UAE, Saudi Arabia donating on the lower end of the totals that are coming from these countries -- Saudi Arabia only donated $60 million, compared to Norway reportedly donating $93 million. So should those nations that are in the neighborhood be stepping up more and providing more, especially with a country like the Saudis who can probably afford to give a little more?
MR. EARNEST: Well, based on the substantial commitment you've seen from the United States, I think you can interpret that this is something that we feel strongly about. And we are going to continue to encourage countries all over the world to consider what they can do to try to meet this humanitarian disaster for very moral reasons.
Richard, I'm going to give you the last one.
Q Thank you very much, Josh. First, about the 60 nation coalition. Last night, the Canadian parliament voted in favor of extending the Canadian involvement by one year, and from Iraq to Syria. First, any reaction by the White House?
MR. EARNEST: Well, obviously we appreciate the substantial contribution that Canada has made to this international alliance; that Canada is regularly among the more reliable partners that the United States has in a variety of ways, particularly when it comes to military action. And so we are very pleased to see that Canada has prepared to extend their commitment in pursuit of our strategy for degrading and ultimately destroying ISIL.
Q It was a tough debate in parliament in part because of the legal basis to attack ISIL within Syria without the call for help from the Syrian government, and also the length of the mission. First, where are we in the fight within Syria? We talk about some success around Tikrit in Iraq, but in Syria we never hear about any success. Where's the mission going?
MR. EARNEST: Well, there are a couple of things that I can update you on. The first is that the effort to train members of the moderate Syrian opposition to enhance their capacity to operate on the battlefield against ISIL is something that's ongoing. And this is obviously an effort that's being supported by Saudi Arabia and other countries in the region. And we're very appreciative of that effort.
I actually don't know -- I think it's possible that -- I know that in the past, Canadian military officials have had a role in some of these training efforts. I don't know if they're involved in this specific thing, and we can check on that for you. But obviously that is a key component of our strategy. What we need is we need a force on the ground in Syria that can take the fight on the ground in Syria to ISIL.
There is one area of the country where we have had a force like that. There are Kurds who have been operating on the ground first in Kobani and then in the areas around Kobani, where they have had success in pushing back ISIL fighters. They have done so with the backing of coalition military airstrikes. Again, that is some evidence -- and important evidence -- that the strategy that we have laid out can succeed; that by building up the capacity of local fighters, by training them and equipping them, and providing them with military air support, that we can actually turn the tide on the battlefield, and that these forces that have been fighting ISIL for some time without, frankly, a lot to show for it; that they can be much more effective on the battlefield under this scenario with the additional training, with the additional equipment, and with the backing of military air support. And that's the strategy that we're going to pursue.
But I would -- what you're identifying is that the progress that we've made in Iraq is more substantial than the progress we've made on the ground in Syria. And the reason for that is we do have a substantial fighting force on the ground in Iraq that is taking the fight to ISIL. We don't have that corresponding ground force in Syria. But we're working, even as we speak, to train and equip that force so that they can take the fight on the ground to ISIL fighters in their own country.
Q Soon? This year?
MR. EARNEST: Well, for an update on that timing, I would turn you over to the Department of Defense, who may be able to give you an update on that ongoing effort.
Thanks, everybody. We'll see you tomorrow.
2:00 P.M. EDT
|Join the GlobalSecurity.org mailing list|