Background Briefing on P5+1 Talks With Iran
Senior Administration Official
March 16, 2015
MODERATOR: This is on background as senior Administration official. Everyone listening? It’s embargoed till the end of the briefing, so we won’t have, like, tweeting during it. But it’s only going to be a half hour, so you can tweet then. I think everyone knows [Senior Administration Official], who will be our senior Administration official, make a few very brief opening remarks, and then we will get to all of your questions. And I know she knows most of you, but please identify yourself when you ask.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Hello.
MODERATOR: And we will do a transcript.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Good afternoon. Thanks for your patience. As you all know, negotiations are unpredictable in terms of timeframes, and so that’s why we had to change the time, so thank you very much.
As the President and the Secretary have made clear, we’re working towards the end of March to see if we can get to a political framework that addresses the major elements of a comprehensive deal. We had some bilateral meetings yesterday at the political director level and between Dr. Salehi and Dr. Moniz. Today, we began bilateral discussions this morning with Secretary Kerry and the Iranian team at the political level. And again, starting at 4 o’clock this afternoon, Secretary Moniz and Dr. Salehi will meet one on one as well.
We met for the – from about 8:00 this morning until close to 1:00 p.m. nonstop, and then the Iranians had to leave to go to Brussels to meet with European foreign ministers and the European Union high representative as part of the multilateral discussions that go on as part of the P5+1 process. They expect to return here tonight, and we will resume again early tomorrow morning.
We’re going to get as much done this week as we can. We are cognizant of the fact – I’m sure you will find this shocking – that we are getting close to the end of the month. And there are commitments on the calendar for many on all sides in the coming days, so it puts a premium on the time that we have. Iran still needs to make some very tough and necessary choices to address the significant concerns that remain about its nuclear program, concerns that we and the P5+1 share. Indeed, the whole point of this is so that Iran can show – in essence, prove – to the international community that its program is exclusively peaceful. As the President has said, this is the time when we’ll be able to determine whether or not Iran is able to accept a deal to prove that, in fact, that program is exclusively peaceful. We’re trying to get there. But quite frankly, we still do not know if we will be able to. I’ve said to you all many times you can get very far, and then the last pieces are just too hard. And we don’t know yet whether those pieces are just too hard. I’ve also said that this is a Rubik’s Cube or a puzzle, use whichever metaphor you want, and until all the pieces click into place, you don’t have the whole picture, since this is all interlocking elements that affect each other. So it’s a very complex negotiating process, and as you know, we have to do our own interagency consultations and consultations with the President. We coordinate with our P5+1 partners, we consult with major partners and allies around the world on a regular basis, and of course, we have discussions and negotiations with Iran.
As you all know, the Secretary has commitments with the Afghans in D.C. next week, but we are pushing as much as we can now to see what is doable here. We are clear the deadline is the end of the month to see if we can reach this political understanding, and that’s what we’re working towards. So with that, and also to mention to you all that Helga Schmid, who usually is part of all of our discussions, was not here today or yesterday, in part because in – not in part, because there is a Foreign Affairs Council meeting in Brussels all day today, which is a responsibility that she has for the High Representative as her deputy. So she stayed in Brussels. She’ll be part of the meetings with the European foreign ministers this evening, and then she will be here tomorrow to join us as usual. And we expect the other P5+1 political directors to be here this week, some of them tomorrow, some of them coming on Wednesday, some of them coming on Thursday. But as part of the regular briefing coordination and multilateral nature of this process, we are all engaged in this week to see where we can get.
MODERATOR: Great. Indira, kick us off.
QUESTION: Thank you. I wanted to ask if you were familiar with reports that had come out this weekend out of Iran where Salehi was quoted as saying that now they want to keep Fordow open and that they also don’t want to convert Arak anymore. And has he repeated those same comments quoted in Iranian media to you in the meetings, and does that represent backsliding? And also, at the end of this process by the end of March, if you do get an agreement, do you expect to have a written piece of paper, a public document that you will share with people?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: So I haven’t seen the reports, Indira, so I’m not going to comment on them. Probably wouldn’t comment on them even if I had seen them. But what I can say is that we’ve been very clear about what we have to accomplish in this agreement: We have to shut down all the pathways to fissile material for a nuclear weapon – that’s the highly-enriched uranium pathway at Natanz and Fordow; the weapons-grade plutonium pathway potential at Arak; and the covert pathway. And so those are the metrics for seeing, in fact – and we have to do that for an extended period of time because the international community has to gain confidence over time that in fact this is an exclusively peaceful program. So those are the metrics that we will use for whatever gets decided here.
As far as a written commitment, as I’ve said to our team, this would be a high-class – what we call a high-class problem. If we are fortunate to get to an agreement that meets the metrics the President has set out and assures the world that Iran has an exclusively peaceful program and cannot get a nuclear weapon, then we will figure out how to communicate best. Obviously, there will have to be detailed, classified consultations with the Congress; that’s an obligation we have. We will have to have a way to communicate with our partners around the world. And we will, of course, have to say something publicly about where we are. How detailed that will be and how – what form it will take is not yet decided because we aren’t there.
MODERATOR: Okay, great. Carol, and then Michael.
QUESTION: Can you talk a little bit about whether you had any discussions today about the letter, and do you have any sense what the impact was on the Iranians? And also, I mean, overall I get the sense – you sound very pessimistic that you have very much of a chance of reaching an agreement this week. Can you describe those talks?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I’m sure you’ll be shocked to know the Cotton letter came up in the talks.
QUESTION: Who raised it?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: The Iranians raised it. I’m not going to characterize the Iranian response to the letter. They can do that themselves, and I understand they have already done so. (Phone rings.) Is that mine?
QUESTION: Senator Cotton?
QUESTION: It’s Senator Cotton. (Laughter.)
QUESTION: He wants to know who raised it. (Laughter.)
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Is that mine?
QUESTION: Senator Cotton.
QUESTION: It’s Senator Cotton. (Laughter.)
QUESTION: He wants to know who raised it. (Laughter.)
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yeah. Well, I can imagine that could be a lot of people, actually. (Laughter.)
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thinking about some other people. Anyway – (Laughter.)
(Cell phone rings.)
MODERATOR: It’s ops.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yeah. It’s the ops center.
QUESTION: Is there any other one?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: No. I have an iPad, but it doesn’t have a phone connection. (Laughter.)
MODERATOR: With ops.
QUESTION: Skype or something.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: It’s ops. It’s probably the Secretary thinking of something. At any rate, on the Cotton letter, the Iranians can characterize how they feel about the letter. As we’ve said, these kind of distractions are not helpful when we’re talking about something so serious and we’re really getting to the end of this month and the expectation that we will or will not be able to reach a political understanding.
I want to be really clear, though: These negotiations aren’t about a letter that, quite frankly, as the Secretary has said, was ill-informed and ill-advised, as I’ve – as the negotiating team has been very focused on what happens in the room and about our efforts to get to that political understanding. And the negotiation is about whether Iran can make the necessary decisions to give the world confidence that their program is peaceful. Again, that’s what this is about, and that’s where our focus is, on getting that agreement. There are lots of outside distractions, but that is what they are. And it’d be easier to have a negotiation without them, but we know what our job is and we’re serious about it, because this is about the national security interests of the United States.
QUESTION: Well, can you give us an idea? Did it take up five minutes of talks? Did it take up half an hour? Roughly how would you —
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Sorry. Excuse me.
QUESTION: [Moderator], is this – are we – not that I’m going to flash this, but are we embargoing this till the end?
MODERATOR: Embargoing till the end of the —
QUESTION: Okay. Good.
MODERATOR: Of the – yes, I will repeat, we are embargoing till the end of the briefing.
QUESTION: Cotton, Cotton (inaudible). (Laughter.)
MODERATOR: The Iranians already said they raised it. The Iranians already said they raised it publicly.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Sorry. That was the Secretary.
QUESTION: Was it a lengthy discussion or a very short one? Think you can characterize —
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I don’t know if I can characterize it as lengthy or short. It certainly came up. It was of concern.
QUESTION: At the start of the meeting?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Huh?
QUESTION: At the start of the meeting?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, the start of the meeting was really to talk about all that we had on our plate and what we had to work on here, which is where we ought to begin this. So no, the beginning of the meeting was sort of – and beginning of which meeting? The beginning of the meeting yesterday was at – was here’s where we are and here’s what we have to do this week, because that’s what we’re about.
So it has come up; it is an issue. But at the end of the day, this is about the decisions that Iran will make to show the world that its program is exclusively peaceful. So this letter was not, in our view, helpful. It was ill-timed; it was ill-advised. But the understanding that we’re trying to reach is between Iran and the P5+1 on behalf of the world community, and it’s about Iran being able to show that its program is exclusively peaceful and meet the metrics that the President of the United States, from a U.S. perspective, has set out. And that’s what we’re doing.
QUESTION: Very just – I don’t want to belabor the letter thing, but just to clarify, it came up in the meeting —
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: But I will.
QUESTION: No, no, I just want to clarify. It came up in the meeting with Secretary Kerry, right?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yes.
QUESTION: Okay. And Secretary Kerry’s been very —
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: And it came up yesterday as well.
QUESTION: Okay. He’s been – in his public comments over the past week, he’s – to Congress and on television, he’s argued that these lawmakers do not, in fact, have the authority to change the terms of an executive agreement. Did he make – repeat that same point in this meeting that – what he said publicly?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I’m not going to discuss particular things that we discussed in this meeting.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: What we are doing here is reaching a political understanding, and the ability for it to be durable is about the quality of the agreement. And the quality of the agreement will determine the extent to which those political commitments will be kept. The best thing I can point to is the Joint Plan of Action, where – which was also a political – and in the same way that the Syria CW agreement was a political commitment, the MTCR, the Missile Technology Control Regime, is a political commitment – and you’ve seen the long list of all of the things, most in the U.S. Government, which are political commitments. And the way they get kept is because it is in our interest and the other party’s interests to, in fact, keep those understandings. And that’s what we’re about.
QUESTION: Okay. I just have – I have one substance question. You mentioned the benchmarks and metrics that you’re using. The famous one that you’ve said is that the breakout time has to be extended to at least a year or double digits. I just have a broader question on that, which to my – I don’t have the answer to, just haven’t heard it in all these many briefings. How did you arrive at the one-year breakout time? What analysis went into it? Why did you pick one year instead of nine months or 15 months? How did you do that, and what was the analytical process that led to that?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: It’s a good question.
QUESTION: What’s the reasoning behind that?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yeah. It’s a good question. I actually would have to go back, because it’s so – such a long time back now, Michael. I will say this, that most of the analysts in the community – in the opinion-leader community – said six months was enough. If you read the broad number of analysts, they believe that in six months one can determine what you have in front of you and decide on your course of action. We decided that we wanted more time than that. And we also have very complicated calculations, which have been validated by our labs and by outside opinion leaders with security clearances because these calculations are based on classified information. They’re based on a model that is proprietary. So we don’t even discuss our model with our closest allies, and they don’t discuss their assumptions and models with us. We discuss our outcomes, but not all the basis on which we got there. So in those discussions and in those consultations, it made sense to us to approach this with a one-year breakout timeline which we thought was appropriate for the situation, and we have modeled our calculations on that basis. But I would be glad to talk to our experts to see if there’s more detail to get for you on that.
QUESTION: Can I just ask you without explaining to us where you are, because I know you won’t do that, on the sanctions component, is there a general understanding on the structure of how you’d go about scaling back sanctions in an agreement? It just – the public comments are so disparate between you guys and the Iranians, it just seems that that might reflect in negotiating, that might not, but have you guys at least come to some sort of understanding structurally, without saying what it is?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I think we have said before that from our perspective we believe that sanctions relief has to come in a phased way as Iran undertakes its commitments so that it would be more of a step-by-step process similar to the Joint Plan of Action, which I think is a good guidepost for how we’re approaching the joint comprehensive plan of action, which is, of course, much more complicated and long-term. So that is our frame for how we’re doing this. Obviously, there’s been a lot of banter back and forth in the press by the Iranians about what they require. We try to do most of our negotiating in the negotiating room and not through you guys, as terrific as you all are. So I think right now that’s probably as far as I can go.
QUESTION: Can I just ask one short follow-up? Is the issue of sanctions – much has been made about it. Is that a deal-breaker in itself if you can’t come to some sort of understanding on —
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, I think every major element of this agreement is a potential deal-breaker, every single major element. Absolutely. Every one.
QUESTION: I wanted to clarify this question of how explicit the public document will be that you issue when you reach (inaudible). It sounds like you don’t feel under any obligation in that document to explain how any of the major issues are going to be resolved. Is that a fair —
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, I didn’t say that, Paul. I said we will, of course, consult with our Congress very closely as we’ve done, as I know you’ve all seen Denis McDonough’s letter to Senator Corker. We’ve done over 200 consultations with Congress, half of them since January. It’s been incredibly intense. I know that myself in terms of my own schedule. I have responsibilities throughout the entire world. It’s quite challenging to keep up with that and do everything I have to do in terms of the Iran negotiations. And we, of course, will have to give details about what we’ve agreed and where we’re going. What we’re talking about is what we will be able to say publicly. We will of course have to say something. But how detailed, at what level, in what way, who will say it, how we’ll say it, we haven’t figured that all out yet because we haven’t gotten there.
MODERATOR: Okay. Lou and then Margaret.
QUESTION: Thanks. So two questions, one follow-up on the whole sanctions issue where sanctions is part of the larger set of problems. I mean do you feel that there at least has been a narrowing in recent weeks on the issue? And could you maybe say how many – I mean at one point there were a certain number of sticking points, say 10. Have you been able to reduce that number? And then Zarif has just said that they realize that this letter was a political thing, but they just want from the U.S. Administration a clarification on its position on the letter. And do you feel that you were at least maybe able to accomplish that without going into the details?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I think we had whatever appropriate conversation we needed to have on the letter and we have spent the vast majority of our time focused on solving the many issues that we need to in order to see if we can reach a political understanding.
Second, because this is a puzzle or a Rubik’s Cube, one can make progress one day on an issue only to find the next day because you’ve moved something out, the progress on that issue isn’t quite what you thought it was because each time you move forward on something, it may mean you have to readjust on something else. And we’ve explained before on the issue of enrichment there are many, many pieces to that – everything from the stockpile to the type of centrifuge, the type of centrifuge cascade, the infrastructure, research and development, the facility. There are lots of elements. So in order to achieve that one-year breakout time, in order to achieve other parameters that we’re looking for in that arena, if you move one of those items, it may change what you have to do on one of the other items.
So this is a bit of a roller-coaster of a negotiation in the sense that one day you may feel, gosh, we might actually get there, and the next day you might feel or maybe the next hour you might feel, well, maybe not so much. So that’s why it is very difficult and very challenging and why one moment you may think that we’re rather pessimistic and another moment we are a little bit more hopeful.
QUESTION: Margaret Brennan. Thank you for doing this.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yes, sure.
QUESTION: Some of the allies or people in the negotiating room at the table have said that there has been sort of a change in tone and tactics as a result of pushing towards this March deadline. They didn’t feel necessarily the same urgency that the U.S. now feels with this March 31st deadline impending. Would you say that’s fair that tone and tactics have changed? And in the context of this letter – not to go into it, but I imagine that’s lent a certain tension to the conversation. Can you characterize what the room is like on this rollercoaster?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: We had five hours this morning of solid, substantive, difficult, but constructive conversation. We, of course, are discussing this with our P5+1 partners, because this is not just an agreement between the United States and Iran; this is an agreement between the P5+1, with the European Union’s assistance with Iran. So it has to meet that test as well with all of our partners. We have stayed unbelievably united. As I’ve said to you before, it’s not that there aren’t different national positions, but in terms of a negotiating stance, we stay incredibly united. We sort of give to each other to make sure that we all are moving forward together.
In terms of the question of pace, when we extended the Joint Plan of Action, we said that it would be ‘til June 30th, that we would keep the last three months for working the detailed annexes. And so that sort of put us at the end of March to try to reach a political – an ambition of reaching a political understanding. And that’s where we are. What I will say is you get to a point in a negotiation where you’ve discussed all the issues, you’ve discussed them many times, you know all of the elements, you know all of the pieces, and it’s not like getting to the decisions is going to be easier if you wait another month, or you wait another month, or you wait another month. There comes a point in every negotiation where everyone understands it’s either now or you’re unlikely to get there. And I think that everyone feels we have discussed lots of issues; it’s very complex. So we still certainly have plenty of details to discuss, which is why we needed such a long negotiating time. But in terms of the broad parameters, we do believe it is time, and the President has asked us to see if we can reach a political understanding by the end of March.
MODERATOR: We have time for probably one or two quick ones. So Laura, go ahead.
QUESTION: On that line, do you think it’s possible that – to reach the political understanding on the major elements even by the end of the week? I know you’ve given yourself to the end of the month.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: We’re going to get as much done as we can as fast as we can.
QUESTION: Is it —
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: But you know the ambition here, as the Secretary has also said, as the President has said, is to get a good agreement and get the right agreement. So even though we believe it’s time to make the difficult decisions, we’re not rushing to just any old agreement. We are not rushing to any agreement. We are trying to get the right agreement, a good agreement, one that meets the metrics that I laid out to you all earlier, and the time element is just the sense that one gets in a negotiation, it’s time to see what decisions can get taken.
Now, we have an enormous amount of detail to work out yet. And that’s why we have also said that even though we will have to communicate in some way to everybody should we get to this political understanding, there is no agreement – and “agreement” is the wrong word, my lawyers tell me. There is no comprehensive – joint comprehensive plan of action until we have written all those annexes and we have written all that detail. And we’re all in agreement on that – Iran and the P5+1.
MODERATOR: Last one. Make it quick and good.
QUESTION: I have a clarification about that.
MODERATOR: Okay, she has a call at 4:30, so —
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Go ahead.
QUESTION: Do you expect to be back to Lausanne next week, or not?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Don’t know. As I said, we are going to get as much done as we can for the time we have here this week. The Secretary has some commitments next week, as I said, with the Afghans, and so we’ll see where we are at the end of the week and we’ll go from there.
QUESTION: Can you just say, when the Cotton letter came up, was that in the meeting today with the Secretary —
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: The Cotton letter came up yesterday and it came up today as well.
QUESTION: It came up both yesterday and today.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yes. Yes.
MODERATOR: Those were good quick last ones. Thank you, guys.
QUESTION: Thank you.
QUESTION: What time’s embargo?
MODERATOR: Embargo’s lifted now.
QUESTION: Go, go.
MODERATOR: Everyone start tweeting at once. (Laughter.) And we’ll get the transcript to you as soon as we have it.