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Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)

Background Briefing on P5+1 Talks

Special Briefing
Senior Administration Official
Via Teleconference
Washington, DC
June 16, 2014

MODERATOR: Thank you so much, and thanks to everyone for hopping on the call. Apologies we are running a few minutes behind here. Per usual, this is going to be on background as a Senior Administration Official. There's no embargo. You can feel free to report right away. For folks on the phone, so you know, the Senior Administration Official that will be speaking is [Senior Administration Official], who I think all of you know. [Senior Administration Official] will give some opening remarks and then we will open it up to questions. So again, as the operator said, please queue up to ask one if you have one.

So with that, I will turn it over to our Senior Administration Official.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Good afternoon, everybody, or good morning or good evening depending upon wherever you are. Thank you for calling into this backgrounder today. We thought it would just be easier to do this by phone since you all are in many different places, and again, my apologies for the change in the schedule for our session last week. The schedule just overcame my week since it ended up being a lot shorter than I might have thought it would have been at one point.

As you all know, there are many pressing things going on in the world and our schedules are constantly changing as a result. I appreciate everybody's flexibility as we've shifted this around, but I wanted to do this today as we kick off this fifth session at the political director level in Vienna. I say that because although we've had these sessions at the political director level, our work has been constant throughout these five months. Our experts meet frequently in person, talk or email with each other every single day. And we all are working every single day to try to make progress in this very complex, very difficult negotiation.

The negotiations have already intensified, as we said that they would, and they will continue to do so in the days and weeks leading up to July 20th. I cannot imagine that between now and July 20th we will not in some form or fashion be meeting every single day in one way or another. Part of that intensification of our efforts was the bilateral meeting we had with Iran last week in Geneva. I would note that virtually all the members of the P5+1, E3+3, whatever you want to call them, have had fairly lengthy bilaterals. Some (inaudible) have traveled to Tehran for meetings. Others have had Iranians visit their capitals. Obviously, the U.S. is in a somewhat different situation. And so we thought that the best way for us to have an extended bilateral, as all of our colleagues have done, was to do so in Geneva.

We, as you know, were joined by Deputy Secretary Bill Burns and by the Vice President's National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan. They joined for two reasons, one – well, actually three. One, they're incredibly experienced and knowledgeable negotiators. Two, there may have been some questions by Iranian interlocutors about the previous bilateral discussions that needed some clarification. Actually, there wasn't a lot of discussion of that at the end, but that was one of the reasons that we had the meeting. And third, we wanted to have a very detailed discussion of all the issues on the table and for Iran to understand very clearly the U.S. position on them.

We did invite Helga Schmid, Cathy Ashton's deputy, to join us because we believe in transparency. The last round as we came up to the Joint Plan of Action we did one way. This time for the comprehensive agreement we're proceeding in a different manner, and that transparency is quite critical.

I also note that you should expect to see Deputy Secretary Burns and Jake Sullivan joining these negotiations, as is appropriate, because we want to do whatever we can do to ensure that we get to a successful conclusion. As I think you all know, Deputy Secretary Burns is in fact here today on this opening day. We will be holding a trilateral this afternoon just to debrief Foreign Minister Zarif, who was not in Geneva, about our bilateral talks, and again, to answer any questions that may remain from the previous bilateral negotiating round that we had.

This week is, as we've said, a critical one for the comprehensive negotiations. I think everyone here feels a strong sense of determination to reach a good agreement. There are still significant gaps between the P5+1 and Iranian positions, and we don't have illusions about how hard it will be to close those gaps, though we do see ways to do so. As you know, this is not a simple matter. Our negotiators and technical experts are working on a comprehensive package that best achieves our goals of preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon and ensuring that its program is entirely peaceful. That can't, as I've said to you all before, be done by going down a checklist of independent items. It must be done by looking how all the various elements fit together into an overall package that fully meets our concerns.

We have no intention of accepting an agreement that does not address our and the international community's longstanding concerns about Iran's nuclear program. We've been clear and I will be clear again today that we would rather have no deal than a bad deal. But if Iran is – wants to head in a direction it says it does – indeed Iran has said it is not striving for a nuclear weapon, that it does not have, it will not seek to have a nuclear weapons program. So in our view, all of our requests should be quite easy for Iran to meet.

So we look forward to this week, hard work as it will be. Our focus is to make as much progress as possible, and of course to reach an agreement by the 20th of July. We've got a busy week ahead of us, and again, we're ready to do whatever it takes to see if we can get to a comprehensive agreement. With that, I'll be glad to take your questions.

MODERATOR: Great, thank you, and if the operator could remind people how to ask questions, then we'll get started.

OPERATOR: Certainly. Once again, if you'd like to ask a question, please press * and then 1 on your touchtone phone. You'll hear a tone indicating you've been placed in queue. And you can remove yourself from queue at any time by pressing the # key. Please pick up the handset before pressing the numbers if you're using a speakerphone. Again, that's *1.

MODERATOR: Great, thank you. Our first question is from Lou Charbonneau of Reuters.

QUESTION: Thanks, [Moderator], and thanks for doing this backgrounder, [Senior Administration Official]. Just a quick thing. I don't know if it's just my phone, but the volume level on our end is very low. So I don't know if it's possible to raise it in somehow or speak louder or something, but I don't know, where – it seems a bit low on my end.

So my --

MODERATOR: Sorry. We'll come closer, too. We'll come closer, too. And we will, as always, do a transcript for folks, just so you know.

QUESTION: Okay, great. Thanks. So the questions I have are two. One is you mentioned that you're still working for the July 20th deadline. But if the – if it looks like you're making progress as you hope to make but the July 20th deadline simply isn't in reach because it's a very complicated agreement that you're working on, are you ready to do some kind of – do a delay for a few months or the full six months?

And then I also wanted to ask if there's – what the situation is with talks between the U.S. and Iran on Iraq on that separate issue, whether that's going to be discussed. The Iranians have offered to help work with the U.S. to stabilize the situation. We've heard that this will be the case and there's been a bit of reporting on that. So that's it. Thanks.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: We are all focused on July 20th. I think everyone in the P5+1 agrees and I think Iran agrees that it is not in anyone's interest to decide today that an extension is warranted. We can get this done. It is possible to get it done. We should be focused on getting it. I've said before that if we're – it's all within sight and we think we need a few more days, I don't think anyone will care.

But I think that everyone needs to understand there is no automatic extension here; it has to be mutually agreed to. And there are no terms for an extension. So it could be that there is absolutely nothing to gain for Iran by asking for an extension should they want to do so. And we know that in the United States there are many strong feelings about keeping focused on getting this agreement done so that the international community can have confidence and assurance that Iran's program is entirely peaceful. So right now we are entirely focused on July 20th.

On your second question regarding Iraq and whether there will be any discussion, this negotiation is focused solely on their – Iran's nuclear program. If – as you all note, Deputy Secretary Burns is here today. He is here principally for the trilateral discussion which was previously scheduled. It may be that on the margins of the P5+1 but completely unconnected to it there may be some conversation.

MODERATOR: Great. Thanks, Lou. The second question is from Paul Richter of the Los Angeles Times.

QUESTION: Yes. Can you tell me if in the bilateral last week the two sides succeeded in closing any of the gaps? Did you make any progress there?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Paul, I'm not going to speak to any specifics. What I can say is that we not only understood each other better after those two days, but I think we both can see places where we might be able to close those gaps. But this is, as you know, an agreement where nothing is agreed until everything is agreed, and no one is going to say what they could agree to until they actually have to. So there's going to be a lot of dancing around for some time where we will get greater and greater clarity, and I think we will all begin and already have begun to see where an agreement could come together. But it will be at the point where all of those pieces are evident and want to see how they all come together to an agreement.

That probably isn't entirely helpful to you, but it's the best I can do.

MODERATOR: Great, thanks. The next question is from Elise Labott of CNN. Elise, are you there?


MODERATOR: Oh, looks like she fell out. Get back in the queue if you want a question.

The next question is from Michael Wilner of The Jerusalem Post.

QUESTION: Yeah, thanks for doing the call. Just two quick questions. At what point in the process, how many weeks out would you say, do you begin to negotiate over whether or not the talks should be extended beyond July 20th? Would the negotiation happen parallel to the core efforts, or is that a discussion you really expect to have last minute, as you alluded to?

And then just second, on the role of Congress here, there was a letter sent by leaders in the House to the President this week on the parameters required for nuclear-related sanctions and the like, saying that there is no such thing as a nuclear-related sanction in U.S. law. So are you only talking about nuclear-related, or are you also looking at sanctions as relevant to international terrorism, unconventional weapons programs and the like?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: So on extension, a very hypothetical question. We are not having discussions now about an extension because, as I said, we are entirely focused on getting an agreement by July 20th.

On the role of Congress, we always care about what Congress has to say. Congress has been a partner and a leader on dealing with our concerns about Iran's nuclear program, and we welcome very much the continuation of that partnership. We have always been clear that the sanctions that we are focused on here are nuclear-related sanctions. We have been very clear with the Iranians that if we can reach an agreement here to suspend and ultimately terminate our sanctions that the sanctions that are in place because of human rights concerns, state-sponsored acts of terrorism, terrorism in general would remain on the books and remain being enforced.

MODERATOR: Great, thanks. And we've gotten a few emails that some people are having technical difficulties. It sounds like everyone's still on the line, but please let us know if you are. And obviously, we will also have a transcript for people as a reminder.

The next question is from Anne Gearan of The Washington Post.

QUESTION: Hi, and thanks for doing this. So you mentioned in the opening that one of the reasons to hold the bilateral discussions last week was to perhaps clarify some things that were left unclarified in the last round. Can you help us out a little bit and at least give the boundaries of what those areas that needed to be clarified were?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: It's not so much things that weren't clarified. We have only so much time for bilateral discussions when we are here in Vienna, so if we're just here for two or three days, the last time we were here we had a three-hour bilateral. Now that may seem like a long bilateral, but when you have as many issues that are part of this agreement as we do and they are also technically detailed as they are, three hours is not a lot of time.

And so what we wanted was to have a very extended period of time, which we did in Geneva, to go over each one of those issues in tremendous detail, have the kind of back and forth that hopefully helps to illuminate whether, in fact, one might be able to get to an agreement.

MODERATOR: Great. And it looks like Elise dialed back in. So if you, Operator, if you could open up Elise Labott from CNN's line, she can get her question in.

QUESTION: Thanks. Sorry about that. My question was kind of along the lines of Anne, but if – since I have you – can I just pin you down a little bit on these Iraq conversations? It sounds like you're saying that he is going to be talking to them. I mean, can you go so far – I mean, and we totally know that this is not related to the nuclear negotiations, that you want to keep that very separate, but it seems as if you were leaning into the idea that that was going to happen. Could you flesh that out a little bit more?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Elise, all I can repeat – and I'm sure you will not find this a surprise at all – is that there may be discussion of that issue on the margins of our discussions, completely and separately apart from the P5+1 nuclear negotiations.

QUESTION: Could you just explain to us a little bit why you see its – it could be a good idea for the U.S. and Iran to have those talks?



SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I think all – I've said all I'm going to say on that subject --


SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: -- on those discussions. But I wouldn't – I would be surprised if you had not asked more questions to try to (inaudible). (Laughter.)

QUESTION: Thank you.

MODERATOR: It was a good try, Elise.

QUESTION: I tried.

MODERATOR: I know. Okay, the next question's from Laura Rozen of Al-Monitor.

QUESTION: Thank you for doing this. In the fall, Rouhani and Obama and other U.S. and Iranian officials said, "Let's get the nuclear deal first and then we'll see about what else might be possible between the U.S. and Iran." Now if you and other U.S. officials and Iranian officials have publicly brainstormed about whether it would be worth talking, can you talk about if you think the Iraq issue could end up accelerating the Iran nuclear deal as the two countries seem partially aligned in wanting to stabilize Iraq? Or do you think it will have no effect on the negotiations?

And also just about – it seemed there was a mutual desire by both countries before to get the nuclear issue resolved before talking about regional and other matters, and now that seems to be in revision. Can you talk a little bit about the thinking on that? Thank you.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, I actually don't think – Laura, I don't think there's revisionism here at all. I think that the most fundamental issue for U.S. national security is removing international community concerns and U.S. concerns about Iran's nuclear program. And I don't think we have changed one bit from believing that until that is addressed and resolved, that there cannot be fundamental change in the relationship.

I would point out that in the past, the U.S. and Iran have discussed Afghanistan. You may remember there was I think it was a 6+2 group that met dealing with Afghanistan issues. So from time to time there have been times where it made sense to be part of a conversation. We obviously are at the UN General Assembly where there are discussions. So there is nothing that is 100 percent in one direction or another. But I think the fundamentals remain exactly as they are, which is that until we resolve the nuclear issue there cannot be any kind of fundamental change in this relationship.

And even with the nuclear agreement, I would hasten to add we continue to have grave concerns about acts of terrorism, destabilization in the region, human rights abuses, and how Iran conducts itself in the world. So no one should expect that all of the sudden overnight, even if we resolve the nuclear agreement, that everything will change. It will not. There is a long way to go. Will it have some impact? I certainly hope it does because it will mean that we have taken off of the table a very, very profound concern that the U.S. has and that the world has about Iran's nuclear program.

MODERATOR: Great. Thanks, Laura. The next question's from Michael Adler. Go ahead, Michael.

QUESTION: Thank you for this call. I know that you don't talk about specifics, but is it not disquieting that Iran is talking about more and more centrifuges and philosophy that centrifuges cannot be touched at a time when you want to cut down on the number of centrifuges?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, look Michael, I think you know very well that there's a lot of public spin going on to try to position Iran in these negotiations. We've seen Minister Zarif's op-ed in The Washington Post, a speech that – and press conference that has taken place in Iran, lots of articles, lots of quotations from Deputy Foreign Minister Araghchi and others, and we obviously listen as you do to what is said in the press. But at the end of the day what matters is what happens in the negotiation room.

QUESTION: Thank you.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: And that's where we are focused.

MODERATOR: Thanks, Michael. The next question's from Rosie Gray of BuzzFeed. Go ahead, Rosie.

QUESTION: Hi. Thanks for doing the call. I know you don't really want to talk about this, but in terms of the discussions about Iraq with Iran, is there any concern that – possibility of needing to cooperate with Iran on an Iraq-related issue could have any impact on the negotiations, could give them some leverage perhaps?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I don't see that at all. We're very focused, and the P5+1 is its own process. You all expressed concerns some days ago that Ukraine was going to – the events in Ukraine were going to change the nature of this discussion. That has not occurred. (Inaudible) Sergei Ryabkov, has been entirely focused on the nuclear negotiation. It's not to say that we aren't all aware of the events in Ukraine and remain quite concerned about them. But indeed, everyone here is very focused on the responsibilities that all of our leaders have given us to see if we cannot reach an agreement to ensure that Iran cannot obtain a nuclear weapon and that its program is exclusively peaceful.

MODERATOR: Great. Thanks, Rosie. I think we have time for a few more. The next one is from Laurence Norman of The Wall Street Journal.

QUESTION: Hi, there. Can you hear me?


QUESTION: Yeah, thanks for doing this. Most of the questions have already been asked, but I just want to go back to the outcome from the bilateral talks last week. I mean can you say that given – compared to where we were at the end of the Vienna talks last month that we have advanced at all in closing the gaps? I know you've formulated in a way of saying we have some ideas, but can we say the talks have advanced since a month ago?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I think, Laurence, what we can say is that we are engaged in a way that makes it possible to see how we could reach an agreement, but there are still significant gaps. As I said, Iran has said it does not have a nuclear weapon, it does not seek to have a nuclear weapon, and so therefore all of the things that the P5+1 has asked of Iran should be quite simple for Iran to say yes to.

MODERATOR: Great. The next question is from Barak Ravid of Haaretz.

QUESTION: Hi. Thanks for doing this. In the last round in Vienna, you ended up starting to already draft the comprehensive agreement, and at the end it didn't happen. Do you expect this round to – that you'll be able to get into the actual drafting?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Actually, there was some drafting and negotiations that took place in the last round. This is a slow and complex process. I know that Minister Zarif is saying that we should slowly start drafting the comprehensive agreement. A little bit of that was done the last time. I would expect that more will take place during this round.

MODERATOR: Great. Thanks, Barak. The next question is from David Taylor of The Times of London.

QUESTION: Hi, there. Thank you for taking the call. It really just – slight repetition on the Iraq point, but one of our colleagues in the Gulf has said today that preliminary talks have already taken place between the U.S. and Iran with a view to setting up talks in the margin today. I wondered if you could confirm that or not.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I don't know exactly what you're referring to. So when you say "preliminary talks," what are you referring to? I haven't seen any reports.

QUESTION: Well, what I'm referring to is one of my colleagues in the Gulf is reporting this morning that initial contact between Washington and Tehran was first made three days ago. I was wondering if you were able to substantiate that.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I'm not aware of that at all, and nothing has occurred yet here in Vienna.

QUESTION: Right. Thank you.

MODERATOR: The next question is from Jay Solomon of The Wall Street Journal.

QUESTION: Thanks for doing this. I was struck by a speech Rouhani gave this weekend at a press conference where he basically said whatever happens, whether there's a deal or not, we're not going back to the way it is. The sanctions regime is crumbling and sort of we've shown a nice face to the world, and that's basically enough. Is that a concern of you that there's basically this strategy, and it seems to be very calculated – whether it's Zarif's editorials in The Washington Post, some of his interviews – that they're sort of trying to push all of the momentum sort of behind these talks, and if it breaks down, it's the West's fault, and we did what we could? Is that a concern of yours given what their senior leaders are saying in recent weeks?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, I think you've offered an evaluation of why they are saying what they're saying and why they are doing what they're doing. I could do something similar by saying that, in fact, even though everyone said that the Joint Plan of Action would undermine the sanctions, that they would crumble, that they would fall apart, that, in fact, didn't happen whatsoever. Indeed it's been very difficult for Iran to get its economy back up and running. There have not been breakthroughs or crumbling of the sanctions regime at all, and there have been ongoing enforcement efforts of all of the sanctions that remain in place and the fundamental architecture of all of the sanctions remain in place.

So I'm not surprised for Iranian leadership to make the case that they are. I could also make the case that, indeed, if we cannot come to an agreement (inaudible) if Iran does not feel it can make the choices that are necessary, I have no doubt that the Congress will take action. And the Administration has said we would support the Congress at the appropriate time to do so. So I think that it's, quite frankly, most worthwhile for all of us to focus on the hard work necessary to get an agreement by July 20th that is in Iran's best interest – obviously for them to define, not for me to define. But looking from the outside, it would seem to me it would be in their best interest to do so, and it's certainly in the interest of the international community that we are sure that Iran cannot obtain a nuclear weapon and that its program is exclusively peaceful.

MODERATOR: Great. Thanks, Jay. It looks like we just have a couple more questions. The next one is from Jim Sciutto of CNN.

QUESTION: Hey guys, thank you for doing this. And just to – I know you don't want to talk about the possibility of an extension, you're focused on reaching an agreement in the next month or so; but just for clarity, if there is an extension, would the sanctions relief be continued at the current rate, the way that the monthly kind of payments are made, et cetera, or is that subject to a further negotiation, you would have to start from scratch on compensation and so on?

And then just a more general question. What little has leaked out of the talks has been fairly negative, and even you refer to it, about the significant gaps that remain. I wondered if you could describe the tenor of the talks. Have there been frustrated moments? Have there been moments where either side has accused the other of bad faith? Have they remained friendly despite the significant gaps? I know there's only so far you could go, but I wondered if you'd just describe the overall tenor.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Sure. So I would say the overall tenor has been professional, has been constructive, has been quite serious. I think I said to you all last time I had no doubt that Iran wanted to try to reach an agreement by July 20th, that they were – their intent was to do so, that they were serious about doing so, but that I thought that they needed to be more realistic about what was necessary to do so. But it's been very professional. And in the bilateral talks we had in Geneva, we all know each other quite well as negotiators and so it was very direct, and no one has threatened on any of my colleagues in the P5+1 or Iran to walk out of the room. We may have some very tense moments in the days ahead as we get closer to July 20th. The stakes are high here and difficult. So I'm sure there will be very, very difficult moments, but so far those difficult moments have been approached with professionalism.

In terms of – what was your other question, Jim? I'm sorry.

QUESTION: Just about – and this is more procedural, but if you have to go – if you have to extend, would the sanctions relief continue at the same pace, the way it's doled out every month in those increments, or is that – would that have to be subject to a new negotiation?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: As I said, there is nothing automatic about an extension and certainly nothing automatic about the terms of an extension, and any extension would have to be mutually agreed. And that's all in the Joint Plan of Action.

QUESTION: Okay. Thank you.

MODERATOR: Great. I think we have two more questions. The next one's from Mounzer Sleiman of Al Mayadeen.

QUESTION: Yes. This is Mounzer Sleiman. Can you please give us an idea about the process of consultation? Assuming there is a draft agreement, how you consult with the Congress, how you consult with the other countries, namely Israel – who had some objection, strong objection – Saudi Arabia, and others? Is that during the process or after the draft agreement is concluded? And can you assess the position of Russia toward this negotiation in light of this agreement on many files now, many issues like Ukraine, Syria, other issues that some people think that Russia probably is not as helpful in this negotiation?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: First of all, let me say there's a healthy competition here in Vienna this week, but it doesn't have anything to do with the nuclear negotiation. France won its World Cup game yesterday, I think it was. Germany has a game at 6 this evening Vienna time, Iran at 9 p.m. Vienna time. The U.S., unfortunately, our game is at midnight Vienna time. Russia I think plays tomorrow or the next day. China is not in the World Cup, but I think Great Britain's already had its first game. So I just wanted you all to know before we finish this call the World Cup fever has presented itself here in Vienna already, and I'm sure it will be on the margins of these talks as well.

To be more serious about your particular question, we consult on a regular basis with all the Gulf countries, with Israel, and with many other countries around the world on a regular basis. And in particular with the Gulf states and with Israel before and after every single round, we have consultations with them and let them know where things stand, where we're headed, answer whatever questions we can. Of course, we are all mindful of being respectful of the negotiation process, but we think it's quite important.

We are doing this on behalf of the United Nations Security Council and we take our responsibility on behalf of the UN quite seriously in that regard, so remain in very close consultation. Where Russia is concerned, as I said earlier, (inaudible) Sergei Ryabkof and his superiors have stayed very focused on this nuclear negotiation. And even though there are areas of profound disagreement on the way ahead on several matters, on this one we are focused on the same objective.

MODERATOR: Great. And our last question, bringing us home today is Lalit Jha of PTI.

QUESTION: Hello. Hi, thanks for doing this. Most of my questions have been addressed, but I had one. What kind of role do you see for Iran in Iraq to stabilize the situation over there? Thank you.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Good try. I'm not going to speak to Iran in Iraq. I'd urge you to talk to Iran about how they see themselves in Iraq. That's for them to say, not for me to say.

MODERATOR: Great. Thank you, everyone, for jumping on the call. Again, this is all on background as a Senior Administration Official. We'll be sending out regular updates from the talks here, as we always do. And you also know how to get in touch with us if you need anything. So everyone have a great rest of your day and I'm sure we'll be talking soon.

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