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Arms Control and International Security: Background Briefing on the Upcoming P5+1 Talks on Iran's Nuclear Program

MODERATOR: Thank you so much, and welcome, everyone, to today’s conference call backgrounder. We have a Senior Administration Official with us. For your knowledge, it’s [Senior Administration Official]. From now on, just will be referred to as a Senior Administration Official. Again, all of this is on background. So [Senior Administration Official] will make some opening remarks, and then we will open it up to folks for question per the instructions the operator just gave.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Good afternoon, everybody, and happy Friday. Thank you for calling into this backgrounder today. We thought it made sense, as we did last time, to do this prior to landing in Vienna to ensure that we can get more of you on the line and sort of tee up what’s upcoming. I’ll start with a few words about this third round of talks in the comprehensive negotiations, and then, of course, take your questions as usual.

We head back to Vienna for this round of talks clear-eyed about the challenges ahead and determined to keep making progress on these very difficult issues. We will have more topical discussions like we had in March, with both sides laying out their positions and trying to better understand where each of us are on the various issues. This process has been helpful in setting the table as we prepare to dive much more deeply into what a comprehensive agreement might actually look like on paper and what everyone might be able to agree to.

As always, these political director conversations follow on the tremendous work of our experts, who have been and are still now in Vienna meeting with their counterparts and will be doing so through probably mid-day on Saturday. And they have had quite intense, and from the initial readouts I’ve gotten, continue to be productive and constructive conversations. As we’ve said, putting this agreement together will really be like solving a Rubik’s cube. We can’t look at any one issue in isolation, but rather will have to consider what package we can all agree to that will meet the objectives that we have.

We are looking to ensure we have the right combination of measures in place to ensure Iran cannot acquire a nuclear weapon and that it’s program is exclusively peaceful. As we work to bridge the gaps that exist to see if we can find that right combination, the pace of our work will intensify even more than it is today.

And with that, I will be glad to take your questions.

MODERATOR: Great. Thank you. Looks like our first question is from Indira with Bloomberg News.

QUESTION: Thank you. I wanted to ask you two things. First off, about the reports that have resurfaced of a possible Iran-Russia $20 billion oil-for-goods deal. And in the past, the White House and other senior Administration officials have expressed concern that this would be a serious concern, but they have also said that there is no sign of Russia or anyone else violating the oil sanctions. So could we find out from you what is your latest on that? What information do you have about that deal possibly going ahead?

And related to that, has the problems – have the problems with Russia over Crimea bled over into the Iran negotiations at any level? We’ve seen some remarks from Sergei Ryabkov, that suggested that in the aftermath of the last talks that Russia might play the Iran card against the U.S. in this Crimea-Ukraine issue.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thanks, Indira. On the Russia-Iran oil-for-goods, we’ve seen reports that you all have written on the purported deal or potential for a deal between Russia and Iran. We do not have any information to suggest this deal has been culminated or implemented or begun to be executed or finalized. We’ve been very clear about our concerns with both parties regarding this or any similar deal. If such a deal were to happen, it appears it would be inconsistent with the terms of the P5+1 plus European Union Joint Plan of Action and could potentially trigger U.S. sanctions against the entity and individuals involved in any related transaction. But we have conveyed this directly to all parties, as we do in any situation that we see developing where there might be concerns of sanctionable activity.

Regarding Russia and its illegitimate action in Crimea, which we still do not and the international community does not recognize as legal and legitimate – we believe in the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Ukraine, including Crimea. It has not had any appreciable or substantive impact on the negotiations. As I said at the end of the last round, Sergei Ryabkov was constructive, professional, and very much focused, as were all the members of the P5+1 and the European Union on our work. My understanding is in the experts talks that have been ongoing the same is true. And I’m aware of the remarks, obviously, that Sergei made after the last round. We have all understood privately that we have to be very mindful of the tremendous responsibility that the United Nations has given to the P5+1 and the European Union to try to reach an agreement with Iran, and that has to be the focus of our attention.

QUESTION: Thank you.

MODERATOR: Thanks. It looks like our next question is from Elise Labott of CNN.

QUESTION: Thank you for doing this one, Senior Administration Official. (Laughter.) I’m just wondering – I mean, I know that there’s been this goal to do it within a year, but I mean, how far along do you really think you are in terms of – I know you say it’s a Rubik’s cube, you’ll need to fit all the pieces together. But do you find that you’re making progress towards that goal? And I mean, are you confident that you’re going to be able to finish it within the year? I guess that’s my main question.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, thank you, CNN. (Laughter.) Elise, we are committed to – all of the parties are committed to not finishing this in a year but finishing this in the six-month frame of the Joint Plan of Action by July 20th. And I’m absolutely convinced that we can, though the real issue is not about whether you can write the words on paper, do the drafting; it’s about the choices that Iran has to make, and some of them are very difficult. And in order to ensure that they will not obtain a nuclear weapon and that the international community has the assurances it needs that their program is entirely and exclusively peaceful, they will have to make some significant changes and some significant choices. So this will be about the decisions that Iran makes, but the drafting is certainly doable.

QUESTION: But how close are you? Not – I don’t expect at this point in the process that you would be close to a deal. But in terms of how the negotiations are progressing, do you see --

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: We have – we set out a work plan of how we were going to proceed to get to a comprehensive agreement, and we are on pace with the work plan that was set out. We were very conscious that we were going to use the March and April rounds to go over every single issue that we believed had to be addressed in a comprehensive agreement and make sure we understood each other on those issues, both at a macro level as well as at a technical level, because this is a highly, highly, highly technical agreement. And that’s why – pardon me while I take a sip of water, the allergy season has gotten to me. That is why it’s so critical that our experts spend quite a bit of time in conversation going through the technical details of what each other means by what they are saying.

So we are on pace with that work plan, looking toward beginning drafting in May and as we get through this month and begin to start to work that process. So we’re on pace with the work plan that we all set out with each other.

MODERATOR: Great, thanks. Our next question is from Lou Charbonneau of Reuters.

QUESTION: Hi, thanks for doing this. I wanted to follow up on the question that the – that CNN asked. And the fact that you just said that you’re not going to start drafting until May, I mean, my understanding is that there are still some pretty serious fundamental disagreements on some of the main things expected from the beginning would be difficult, namely enrichment, RD, the scope of that, how much uranium they’re going to be able to keep and what level at that to keep at any given time. How much progress have you made in the last few weeks in overcoming the differences on those very difficult issues which are going to be the ones that ultimately decide success or failure of this whole process?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, I think I’ve told you all before so you won’t be surprised to hear me say again that I’m not going to negotiate in public. What I will say is that we understand each other very well. We know where we can see points of agreement. We know where the gaps are that have to be bridged. But I’ve also said this is a Rubik’s cube, and where one makes progress on one element may mean there’s more trade space on another element. So it’s very – it’s literally impossible to say okay, I can see a way forward here without understanding its impact on the way forward there. So it has to be looked at in its entirety, not just element by element.

QUESTION: But if I can just follow up quickly, even though – I mean, stepping away from the Rubik’s cube analogy for a moment, what percentage of the issues would you say that you’ve managed to reach some kind of understanding and what percentage remains difficult? And I realize that some – there could be 2 percent of the issues that are unresolved, and those could ultimately break the deal.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, I think you’ve answered your own question, which is the percentages don’t matter, even if I could give you a percentage, which I can’t. But the percentages don’t matter because the Joint Plan of Action says nothing is agreed until everything is agreed, and I would add to that nothing is agreed till everyone agrees to it.

So it doesn’t matter, exactly as you said. Even if you got agreement on everything but there were two last sticking points, you have to resolve those two last sticking points. As we finished the Joint Plan of Action, there were a handful of brackets, and until you resolved all of those brackets, there was no agreement, even though you’d resolved a great deal of the text. So it only matters when you get to an agreement.

MODERATOR: Great. Thanks, Lou. Our next question is from Barak Ravid of Haaretz.

QUESTION: Hi. Thanks. I was wondering – the last round of talks the U.S. negotiations team didn’t go to Israel after the talks to brief, while that usually used to be the case. I was wondering if there’s any plan to do it now.

And the second question: There was – there were reports that the U.S. gave Iran some kind of a proposal about transforming the Arak reactor from a heavy-water reactor to a light-water reactor. Can you say anything about that?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: So we maintain very close consultations with a number of partners and countries of interest all around the world, including Israel. And sometimes that means that I’ve traveled with my team to brief. Sometimes that means we do it by a video conference or phone or meetings here in Washington. So there are a variety ways, but that close consultation with Israel and with a number of other countries continues on a regular basis, and will for this round as well.

In terms of proposals about the Arak reactor, I’m not going to discuss any specifics in these briefings, as you can imagine. This is a negotiation, and that means it has to stay in the room.

MODERATOR: Great. Thanks. Our next question is from Karen DeYoung of The Washington Post.

QUESTION: Hi. I think this is sort of a variation on the theme that others have spoken on before. The Iranians said at the close of the last negotiations that we’ve done the framework planning, we’ve done the technical stuff, and the next time we’re going to get down to real issues. But it doesn’t sound, from what you’re saying, that that’s necessarily the case, that you’re still – at least until the first of May, you’re still kind of laying the table. Is that – would that be a fair assessment?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: No. Well, Karen, when you lay the table, you get down to real and serious issues. I think Minister Zarif laid out the issues that we held discussions on in the last round, and believe me, they were quite substantive discussions, quite detailed, quite technical. And in those discussions, one begins to – in fact begin to see the areas of agreement and the areas where there are still gaps that have to be overcome.

So I would say we’ve been getting down to the serious business even in the last round. We will do that on all of the remaining issues as well as revisit some of the issues from the last round, because we sent our experts away with a set of work products that we wanted from them to try to be able to advance our discussions further. So all of this work is quite substantive, quite detailed, quite technical, and meant to make the actual drafting an easier process.

QUESTION: Can I just follow up on that for a second? The Iranians have made several comments over the past couple of weeks basically saying under no circumstances will we give up the Arak reactor and things along those lines. Are those things that you just consider part of the chaff as the negotiations go on, or to what extent do you feel that you have to clarify those issues with the negotiators when you sit down?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: We’re quite direct and quite straightforward with each other, so I don’t think there’s any mystery about positions. And what we are focused on is what is discussed in the room, not what anyone says on the outside.

MODERATOR: Great. Thanks. Our next question is from Michael Adler.

QUESTION: Hi. Thank you for doing this. Just – I don’t want to beat this to death, but – (laughter) – but when you say you’re getting down to drafting, does that mean that that’s when the give-and-take of finding out how much

concessions people are willing to make is going on, or will that be more in June than in May?

And a second question: What is your assessment at this point about how the sanctions regime overall is holding up? And do you see any signs that the Iranians might be using the time you’re taking to lay the table to determine just how much they’re going to have to give in terms of where the sanctions regime is in May or June?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: So what I would say, Michael, is from day one, we were already testing each other, looking at assumptions, seeing where there might be areas of agreement, areas that had to be bridged. So that give-and-take starts the moment you begin a discussion. The negotiations have been going on since before the Joint Plan of Action over the comprehensive agreement, and the Joint Plan of Action, in fact, laid a framework for the comprehensive agreement. So give-and-take has been going on for months now. So we’re not talking about, all of a sudden, this is going to start one day. It began many months ago. And all of it set a frame and all of it set the conditions for a comprehensive agreement.

So I don’t think you can say we’re going to wait until May or going to wait until June or going to wait until July. It is constant. It is constant. And it’ll get refined and refined and refined until we hope we can reach a comprehensive agreement that ensures that Iran will not obtain a nuclear weapon and that the international community is assured that its program is entirely and exclusively peaceful.

As far as the sanctions regime is holding up, I think that it is. We gave limited, targeted relief for the six-month period of the Joint Plan of Action. We have fulfilled our commitments in that regard. And that is all moving forward in the way that had been agreed to. And so Iran is getting that limited targeted relief, and I’m sure that Iran is assessing what it needs for the future, how it needs it, and what impact that has on getting to a comprehensive agreement, just as we are assessing it from the other side of the table.

QUESTION: Can I just – a quick follow-up? If the give-and-take has started, do you already have an idea about how likely it is that you’re going to get an acceptable package and get compromise on those key terms that make up the Rubik’s Cube?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I go back to what I said a moment ago: Until everything is agreed, nothing is agreed.

QUESTION: Thank you. Thank you.

MODERATOR: Thank you. Our next question is from Elliot Waldman of Tokyo Broadcasting.

QUESTION: Hello, hi. Thanks for doing this. I have just a couple questions, one on levels of Iranian oil exports. There are reports that those export levels are rising, have been rising rapidly the past few months. Is it still your understanding that this level is within what’s allowed by the JPOA? And what are you – are you coordinating not only with China but also countries like Japan and the ROK and India, who have shown quite an appetite for Iranian oil?

And then also, how do you expect this issue of the Iranian ambassadorial nomination to the UN, Mr. Aboutalebi, to impact the nomination – the negotiations? I know Marie has said that they’re separate, but realistically, given the importance of congressional involvement and the fact that so many members of Congress have expressed outrage about this, what’s your level of concern that this could be an issue going forward? Thank you.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: In terms of the oil exports, as we have always said, we expect there to be fluctuations. They go up and down month to month. What we care about is the aggregate over the period of time that’s agreed to. We have had teams talk to each of the remaining importers of Iranian oil, and we feel comfortable that in fact, they will meet the target that we have, and there’s nothing to lead us to believe otherwise at this time. We, of course, keep continuous eye on this and in continuous discussion with all of the importers.

In terms of the report that there is a possible nomination for the Iranian permanent representative at the United Nations, we of course have seen these reports. If in fact this possible nomination were in fact the person nominated, it would be extremely troubling, as both our deputy spokesperson has said and as the White House spokesperson has said. We are taking a close look at this case now and we have raised our serious concerns about this possible nomination with the Government of Iran through a variety of channels that we use to convey our concerns.

QUESTION: All right. Do you expect it to have any specific impact on the P5+1 negotiations?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: All I can say at this time regarding this is that if this possible nomination were the nomination, it would be extremely troubling, and we have raised those concerns with the Iranians.

QUESTION: All right. Thank you.

MODERATOR: Great, thanks. Our next question is from Kasra Naji of BBC.

QUESTION: Yes. I just wondered – I’ve got two or three questions, actually. The first one: In recent days in Washington, there have been suggestions that there should be some kind of a threat of use of force by President – by the President of the United States to strengthen any kind of agreement that is going to be reached, hopefully. Is that a new development? Is that going to change attitudes in Iran, do you think? A.

B, on the issue of Russia and how they’re going to play this Iranian card or not playing the Iranian card, I just wondered, you said, if they do come with – on that agreement about this huge deal on oil exports and so on, you said it would be inconsistent with Iran +5 talks and its aims. If that happens, what will be the position of the United States within the P5+1?

And a third question: The third question is about these reports from Iran that Iran is actually having trouble getting its hands on the money that was supposed to be released under the Geneva agreement. Have you heard that? Can you confirm that? And do you know why that – there’s a problem there? Thank you.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Sure. I think you’re referring to a report about a Brookings Institution publication, and we very much value all of the think tanks in Washington, D.C. Obviously, members of Congress, leaders and thinkers all over the world who have suggested things to us in the negotiation have put down on paper their ideas about how things go forward, and all of this is a very valuable input to our thinking through this negotiation. I would point out, just for a factual matter, I think the way that particular report is written, as you said, is that Congress would take such action if Iran pulled out of a negotiated agreement. So it’s really something that I think they were discussing down the road. But regardless, we listen to all variety of voices with very, very different positions because this is tough, this is difficult, and we’re happy to hear everybody’s ideas.

In terms of the Russia for oil deal, if it – a Russia-Iran oil deal, if it happened, we would take a look at the deal, and if it in fact was sanctionable, we would take the appropriate action. All of the members – rest of the members of the P5+1 and the European Union are well aware of the implications if such an agreement were to occur.

And third, your question about Iran having trouble getting their hands – you’ll have to ask the Iranians for their comments on that. The United States, the European Union, we have done everything that we made a commitment to do in the Joint Plan of Action and our teams have been working very hard to facilitate everything that was required in the JPOA.

MODERATOR: Great, thank you. And I think we have time for one more question from Hannah Kaviani of Radio Free Europe.

QUESTION: Yeah, thank you. Hi. I have a question about a few reports which we’re seeing there about Congress going to move towards a new set of sanctions, non-nuclear terrorism related, on Iran. Al-Monitor also reported on this first. And I wanted to see if the – you’re aware of this move, and if yes, how do you think or how the Administration think it’s going to affect the talks with Iran?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: We’ve seen reports that folks are considering some additional legislation that are non-nuclear related. I can’t comment on legislative proposals that I haven’t seen.

MODERATOR: Great. Thank you. I think --


MODERATOR: Oops, sorry. Did you have a quick follow-up, or did you say thank you?

QUESTION: No, it’s okay. Thank you.

MODERATOR: Okay, thank you. Well, thanks to everyone for jumping on the phone on a Friday afternoon. As always, this was on background, Senior Administration Official. We’ll send the transcript out, and we will see hopefully many of you very soon in Vienna.

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