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Arms Control and International Security: Background Briefing on Upcoming P5+1 Talks in Almaty, Kazakhstan

MODERATOR: Thank you. And thank you, everybody, for joining us, those of you in Washington this afternoon, but even more so to those calling in from Almaty, where it’s already Thursday morning. We’re doing this call on background as a Senior U.S. Administration Official. For your records, it is [Senior U.S. Administration Official].

[Senior U.S. Administration Official] will start off with a few brief opening remarks, and then we’ll have time for your questions.

SENIOR U.S. ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Good afternoon, good morning, good evening, wherever you all are. We are headed back to Almaty for follow-on P5+1 political directors meetings. We’re calling this Almaty 2, April 5th and 6th. Obviously, we greatly appreciate the Government of Kazakhstan serving as host once again and providing a very good venue. I think those of you who were in Almaty for the last round, it was a little cold, a little smoggy, but Foreign Minister Idrisov has assured us that this time the sun is out, spring is coming to Almaty, and I think it’ll be maybe as much as 60 degrees, which by European standards, for those of you in Europe, is positively summer.

At any rate, as you all are aware, since the last Almaty meeting there was an experts meeting in Istanbul March 18th where P5+1 experts met with Iranian experts to go over the confidence-building measure proposal that we presented in Almaty so that they could go over the technical details. Istanbul was what we expected it to be, a useful opportunity for Iran to ask questions and get clarification on the proposal line by line. This was not a negotiation. This was strictly an experts-level technical discussion, and that’s what it indeed was.

As you all may recall, the Almaty 1 P5+1 meeting February 26-27th was the first time that we had met with Iran in six months, and then only after much back-and-forth on venue and timing. We had prior rounds last year in Istanbul, Baghdad, and Moscow. I remind you of these prior sessions so you understand – and I know you do – how difficult and complicated these talks have been. But what has been really quite extraordinary throughout is the unity of the P5+1 and the determination by all to resolve the Iranian nuclear issue diplomatically if there is any way possible to do so.

As we look ahead to Almaty 2, we are working off the basis of what we presented in Almaty 1 and clarified at a technical level in Istanbul. There has been some, if you will, meeting momentum generated over the past month or so, and we are prepared to engage with the Iranians when we meet on Friday. But how far we get in Almaty 2 depends on what the Iranians come back with in terms of a response on the substance to our proposal. As you all have seen and most of you have reported on, there has been a very positive line out of Tehran on the talks so far. We hope that that positive talk will now be matched with some concrete responses and actions on the Iranian side.

In the meantime, international pressure continues. As long as Iran does not take concrete steps to address the concerns of the international community about its nuclear program, the dual-track process continues. And that pressure only will increase if Iran does not begin to take concrete steps and concrete actions. Sanctions as well as the isolation Iran has created for itself continue to have their effect, and oil importers have continued to make reductions. The Iranians themselves, as you might have seen on Monday, have acknowledged some of the pain that they are facing. Inflation over the past 12 months has increased to 31.5 percent and is trending upward by their own account.

We obviously harbor no ill toward the Iranian people, and indeed medicine, medical devices, and food are exempt from all sanctions. The issue here is really for the regime to take the necessary steps to address the international community’s concerns, not to make the lives of the Iranian people impossible.

There are a number of ways that Almaty 2 could play out, but we certainly hope that what the Iranians have characterized as positive will produce concrete results. EU High Representative Lady Ashton said earlier today that, as she always is, she is cautiously optimistic, but she also said that, to quote her, “I am also very clear that it is very important that we do get a response from Iran.” So as she always is cautiously optimistic, but the onus is really on Iran to respond to the proposal and tell us where they stand.

The P5+1 remains very united. We have, of course, talked with each other individually, bilaterally, and as a group since we last met, so we are determined in our readiness to work hard in Almaty 2 if Iran is. We are determined to give diplomacy every chance to resolve the international community’s concerns about Iran’s nuclear program.

It’s impossible to predict the outcome of Almaty 2, but we will stay very engaged and we’ll be ready to take steps to move forward if Iran is prepared to engage seriously. If Iran is not prepared to engage seriously, if they act other than what their public rhetoric has been, we will need to evaluate what the next steps should be in this process. For those of you who have followed this throughout these many months, there have been times we’ve met right away, there have been times we’ve taken a pause and consulted back in capitals, there have been times when we’ve met but it’s taken a while to get there.

So there are all kinds of possible pathways forward here. We hope Iran comes prepared, makes a substantive and concrete response that really enters into serious and substantive negotiations to meet the international community’s concerns.

I’ll stop there.

MODERATOR: Thank you. James, if we could turn it over to you for questions.

OPERATOR: Thank you. And once again, ladies and gentlemen, if anyone would like to ask a question, please press * then 1 at this time. The first question is going to be from Indira Lakshmanan with Bloomberg News. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Thank you for doing this. Hi there.


QUESTION: I wanted to ask you first of all what would count as a concrete response from Iran at Almaty 2. How do you define that? And if they don’t bring back your minimum definition of a concrete and helpful response, then what is the consequence? Are these the last talks that will be held and – or if not, where do we go from here if they don’t do what you want in Almaty?

SENIOR U.S. ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I think it’s very hard in advance to say it has to be A, B, C, and D, because there are so many permutations here to their response to the proposal, which is a proposal that asks them to address a variety of issues and offers steps that the international community would take in response. So we will have to hear what they say, and then as we do in all of these situations, caucus and make an evaluation of whether this is a concrete and substantive response.

I think the bottom line is that we need to have them enter into a real negotiation on the substance of the proposal that we have put in front of them. It is very balanced, it is very fair; it addresses the immediate concerns of the international community, the highest-level concerns of the international community. It is a confidence-building measure on the road to full compliance with Security Council resolutions and their NPT obligations.

But the contours of the confidence-building measure are well known to Iran. They’ve now had 12 hours of technical discussions among experts in Istanbul, and so we’re ready to hear their substantive response to whether they are ready to go forward and begin to take some of the concrete steps that we have asked of them. So we’ll have to evaluate their response and then decide what is the best way forward. And again, there are a variety of things that we can do. And we’ll have to, again, evaluate what’s the most appropriate pathway forward.

As I’ve said, and as Lady Ashton has said, as the President of the United States has said, and Secretary Kerry, we all hope to resolve this diplomatically. We want to make every effort to do so. That said, the President has said that time is not indefinite, as has Secretary Kerry, and that all options remain on the table. But the objective of the P5+1 is to engage in a successful diplomatic process, but that takes Iran coming to Almaty 2 with a substantive and concrete response to the CBM we put on the table.

QUESTION: So in terms of consequence if they do not have a substantive and concrete response to what you put on the table, is this their last chance for talks?

SENIOR U.S. ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, again, I think it’s very hard to evaluate. I would hope that we’re not at any last chance. I think if we’re not sure about how much we’ve gotten and whether we’ve gotten enough, we’ll go back and consult with capitals before we reach any ultimate conclusion here. So I think we have time and space to consider what we hear. We hope that they make concrete, substantive, and specific responses so that we can go to work.

MODERATOR: Thank you very much. James, next question please.

OPERATOR: Paul Richter with the LA Times is next. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Yes. The Supreme Leader Khamenei has apparently said in at least one of his speeches recently that the United States had been sending him private messages proposing a bilateral meeting. I wonder if he’s right about that. And in any case, what’s the U.S. attitude about a bilateral meeting at this session? Would you like it? Do you see any possibility that such a thing might happen?

SENIOR U.S. ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, we’ve actually been very public about a bilateral conversation. We have always been open to a bilateral conversation, as is every member of the P5+1. Iran knows that we are open to such a dialogue. And should they avail themselves of that, we are ready to have that conversation.

QUESTION: And has the U.S. been sending him direct messages recently?

SENIOR U.S. ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I think when public officials speak publicly and Administration officials – and I think we’ve heard the Vice President, the President, the Secretary of State all say that we are open to a bilateral discussion – that sort of overtakes any private message anyone would – could send. We’ve said it quite publicly.

MODERATOR: Thanks. If we could go to the next question, please.

OPERATOR: Okay. And the next question is going to be from Scott Peterson with Christian Science Monitor. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Sure. Thanks again for doing this for us. Two things. One really is about the Iranian reaction since the Istanbul talks. We have heard the Iranians describe the offer that’s on the table as unbalanced, in the sense that they feel that they’re being asked to do more and that what they get back in terms of sanctions relief and that sort of thing is not commensurate with it, and also in terms of timeline, the one – the way that they have phrased this. And I’m just wondering if you could address this, since you described the offer on the table at the moment as balanced. What they say is that in terms of their 20 percent, they’re being asked to go back to February 2010 in terms of their nuclear timeline, and the actual sanctions are only asked to be rolled back by several months in terms of what has been imposed. So just your comments on that.

SENIOR U.S. ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, I am always reminded, whenever in these kinds of situations, we are in a negotiation. And we – all of the P5+1 – are in complete agreement that this is a balanced and fair and proportionate step-by-step proposal that asks appropriate things of Iran and offers a proportionate response. I’m not entirely surprised that Iran’s first response would be to say we want more for doing less, because this is a negotiation. But indeed, the P5+1 are completely united in our judgment about what we put on the table, and we will continue to have that conversation with Iran.

And what would be most helpful is for Iran to give us concrete responses, what they think they’re willing to do on this proposal, what gives them concerns, whether they have any suggestions in a reply to in essence get into a real and substantive negotiation. I’m hopeful that they will do that. I hope they will do that. It’s important for international peace and security that they do so, and for the future of the Iranian desires for a strong country and a strong future. So we’ll have to see whether they in fact come to the table with that concrete and substantive response and take it from there.

MODERATOR: Thank you.

QUESTION: And have you – and just to follow up on that, and have you received any signals or did you detect any signals in Istanbul that the Iranians really were ready to engage in that way, in ways that we haven’t seen over the previous year?

SENIOR U.S. ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I would only say that in Istanbul, their team asked many, many, many questions. It went on for 12 hours. There was a lot of give-and-take. They certainly did engage in asking questions about the proposal. But it was not a negotiation, and these were not people empowered on either side to negotiate. So we will have to wait to hear from Dr. Jalili, the head of their delegation, what the formal official Iranian response is now that they’ve had their technical questions answered.

MODERATOR: Thank you. James, next question, please.

OPERATOR: Okay. The next question is going to be from Arshad Mohammed with Reuters. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Thanks very much for doing the call. Two things: One, do you see – and I realize this may depend partly on how the Iranians respond – but do you see much point in continuing the discussions after this round in advance of the June presidential elections? Or do you think there’s likely to be a natural lull on the Iranian side as they look to those elections?

And secondly, is an absolute closure and dismantlement of Fordow what you are still seeking, or is something short of that, short of a complete shutdown, acceptable to you?

SENIOR U.S. ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Let me do the second part of your question first. I’m not going to get into the specifics of the proposal that was put on the table. I’m sure you’re shocked by my saying that. So I won’t be able to give you specifics on Fordow except to say that our objective to deal with Fordow remains the same objective. There are many ways to get there, and our proposal is one vehicle for doing that. But our desire to make sure that Fordow does not remain the concern that it is is very much a part of the proposal we’ve put on the table.

In terms of – tell me again, Arshad, your --

MODERATOR: The June elections.

SENIOR U.S. ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Oh, the June elections. You all have written about sort of all sides of this. They won’t be able to negotiate seriously until after the election. Some have written this is the window where they could get something done. They can get started, but they can’t finish. I think all we can do, because we cannot read the mind of the Supreme Leader and the choices he is making, are a couple of things.

One, it is the Supreme Leader’s decision what happens to the nuclear program, and many have argued that who becomes president is less of a factor in that decision. If indeed the election does create some frame for this, there’s really no way for us to engage in the middle of their election campaign. It’s their election. We believe that countries should be able to move forward on their elections. We’ll hope this one is a free and fair election, better than the last one. But all of that said, what we can do is go into these negotiations with great seriousness of purpose, ask for a concrete and substantive response from Iran, and then the P5+1 and the international community will judge the seriousness with which they are going about this.

And the last thing I’ll say on this is if Iran engages substantively and in a concrete way and really engages in a negotiation, even if we all agreed today on the terms of an agreement, it would take time to put the agreement together because this is a highly technical agreement. So it’s going to take us some time under the best of circumstances, but because, as the President has said, we don’t have an indefinite period of time, we cannot concern ourselves with anybody’s election schedule, either ours or theirs. We must proceed to deal with this concern as quickly as possible.

MODERATOR: Okay. If we could go to the next question, please.

OPERATOR: Okay. Laurence Norman with The Wall Street Journal is next. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Hi. Can you hear me?


MODERATOR: Yes, we can.

QUESTION: Great, excellent. It is warmer in Almaty, by the way. I can tell you that, so that’s – that was true.

A couple of questions, if I may: First of all, do we have any indication of whether the Iranians are going to come along with a counterproposal? Do we know whether – do we know from our partners in the P5+1 whether that’s going to happen? And secondly, the way you described the process, it sounded as if you want to hear their concerns about the offer that was made, you want to hear what (inaudible).


OPERATOR: Okay. And he is dropped from the call.



OPERATOR: We’re going to go to the line of Guy Taylor with The Washington Times.

QUESTION: Hi, can you hear me?

SENIOR U.S. ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Do you want me to answer – before I answer – why don’t I answer the first part of that and then we can catch up the reporter when he comes back on the line.

The question was: Do we want to just hear the concerns? Of course, we would love it if the Iranians would come and say, “We accept your proposal.” That’s usually not how a negotiation works. People have a different point of view. That’s why you’re in a negotiation to begin with. But of course, we would like it if they came in and said, “Okay, we agree. Now let’s work out the details.”

Secondly, do we have any idea about whether they are coming with a particular response? The only thing we’ve heard is what you all have heard from the public rhetoric, which has been repeated in private conversations people have had with the Iranians – those who do have communications with them – and that is that they’re going to come in a positive frame of mind ready to continue to make progress. But whether that is going to be meaningful, we have no idea. So we will all find out when we sit down in Almaty.

MODERATOR: So if we could take a couple more questions, unless Laurence is able to get back on, we can go to the next person.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Guy Taylor with The Washington Times is next. Please go ahead, sir.

QUESTION: Hi. Thanks for doing this. Regarding the – your comment earlier about the specifics of the proposal that’s on the table, I’m sorry to play dumb on this, but why are you unable to get into the specifics of the proposal that’s been put on the table?

SENIOR U.S. ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Because the negotiation’s going to take place in Almaty between the P5+1 and Iran, and we’re not going to have the negotiation in public.

QUESTION: Thank you.

OPERATOR: Okay. And we will take the line from Laurence Norman again with The Wall Street Journal. Please, go ahead.

QUESTION: Sorry about that. Apologies. I just got cut off.

So there’s just two questions: Do we know whether they’re going to bring a counterproposal? And you seemed to indicate that there were things that – concerns that they may have about the proposal we made. To what extent is the P5+1 prepared to be flexible in the offer that was forwarded in February?

SENIOR U.S. ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: So what I said, Laurence, is that no, we don’t know what they’re going to come with. The only thing we’ve heard is what you’ve heard publicly. And they’ve also repeated privately to those who – with whom they speak, which is they’re going to be – come in a positive frame of mind to make progress. But whether that’s meaningful or not, we do not know. We would of course like them to come and say, “We accept the proposal. Now let’s work out the details.” But that’s not usually the way these things work.

And in terms of flexibility, what we want to address, and what I have said to you all in the past, we want to address in this first confidence-building phase on the way to full compliance is their concern, our concern about their up to 20 percent production, their 20 percent stockpiles, and Fordow. And so we will have to hear their response, evaluate the response, and see whether there’s any flexibility for us or not.

QUESTION: Can I follow up with a very quick one on that? If they say, “Fine, we can do the things that you’re asking us to do, but we want more on the sanctions easing side,” is that something that could be looked at?

SENIOR U.S. ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I think we have to hear what they have to say. Then we will caucus with each other and decide what the appropriate response is.

MODERATOR: Thanks. If we could take just one last question, then.

OPERATOR: Okay. The final question is going to be from Lalit Jha with PTI. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Hi. Thank you for doing this. Can you give us a sense in the negotiations to what extent you are going to compromise or do you think you are going to have any changes in the redline which the President has set?

SENIOR U.S. ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, the President has said that he will not allow Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon, and that is a fact. So that will not change. Our first confidence-building measure addresses three areas around up to 20 percent production that I’ve discussed in the past and mentioned on this call, and we aim to address all of those concerns.

As to how we will negotiate, whether there is flexibility, we first need to hear Iran’s response and then we will caucus among ourselves, have discussions. We have experts who are part of our delegations, of course, and we will respond appropriately.

MODERATOR: Well, thank you very much, everyone. Just as a reminder, we did this on background as a Senior U.S. Administration Official. We look forward to seeing some of you out there in Almaty, and again, thanks again for joining us this afternoon.

SENIOR U.S. ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thank you all very much. See some of you soon. Bye-bye.