MODERATOR: Good afternoon, everyone. Thanks for your patience. Welcome to our backgrounder. I think most of you know the ground rules here, but just to remind people, you all know [Senior U.S. Administration Official] who will be doing this all on background as a Senior U.S. Administration Official. Please, let’s all keep it to that. [Senior U.S. Administration Official] will give a few brief opening remarks, and then as always, we’ll open it up for questions. And please, when I call on you, even though we know most of you, please give your name and your media outlet.
With that, I’ll turn it over.
SENIOR U.S. ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thank you. Hello, everyone, and thank you for coming today for this backgrounder. It’s amazing to think that only a few months ago, many of us were in Geneva in the freezing cold finalizing the Joint Plan of Action at 4 in the morning. And today, we find ourselves at the halfway point in these comprehensive negotiations in a somewhat warmer and beautiful Vienna. Geneva was beautiful, just cold. (Laughter.)
In the past two days, we have continued our substantive discussions about all of the issues that will have to be part of a comprehensive agreement – every single issue you can imagine. These sessions have been in-depth and the conversations have given us important additional insights into where the biggest and most challenging gaps will be as we move forward.
At this point, we don’t know if we’ll be successful in bridging those gaps, but we are certainly committed, as everyone in the room is, to trying. One thing to keep in mind as we reach this midway mark is that all sides have kept all of the commitments they made in the Joint Plan of Action. That’s given all of us more confidence as we negotiate this even tougher comprehensive agreement.
In that vein today, we’ve just concluded a meeting of the Joint Commission that was announced when we implemented the Joint Plan of Action. Given it’s the halfway point, we thought it would be an appropriate time to check in on implementation progress, and as I said, the report out of that meeting which I just received is everyone acknowledged that everything was going well. This meeting took place at the experts level, not at the political directors level.
The next step in this process is to begin actually drafting text, which we have all said would happen after this round. This round and the last round was used to review all of the issues and understand each other’s positions at the beginning of this negotiation. I would caution everyone from thinking that a final agreement is imminent or that it will be easy. As we draft, I have no doubt this will be quite difficult at times. And as we’ve always been clear and as we said explicitly when we were negotiating the Joint Plan of Action – and it is even more so for the comprehensive agreement – we will not rush into a bad deal. We just won’t do it. No deal – as Secretary Kerry has said many times, as the President of the United States has said, no deal is better than a bad deal.
So now, we’ll move forward to begin drafting actual language. We’ll meet back here in Vienna at the political director level in May. As always, our experts and political directors will be working in the meantime on all of the technical issues that are a part of these talks. And we are all very focused on that special date, July 20th, because we believe that it should give us sufficient time to reach a comprehensive agreement if an agreement is indeed possible.
With that, I’m happy to take your questions.
MODERATOR: Great. Go ahead, Lou from Reuters. Kick us off.
QUESTION: Thanks. So just a couple questions here. When you said that every single issue you can imagine was discussed, did this include Iran’s ballistic missile program? And also, when the – the Iranians have just now said that you’ve got – Foreign Minister Zarif said that the deal is 50 to 60 percent agreed. And I know what you said in the conference call and what you said just now. How would you respond to that? And do you think that that’s an irrelevant comment?
SENIOR U.S. ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: In terms of your first question about ballistic missiles, the Joint Plan of Action covers, in one way or another, everything that needs to be in the comprehensive agreement, including resolution of concerns. It also discusses the UN Security Council resolutions must be addressed as part of any comprehensive agreement, and I think that you are well aware that one of the UN Security Council resolutions speaks of concerns regarding ballistic missiles capable of carrying nuclear weapons. So when I say that all concerns have been discussed, all concerns have been discussed.
On your second point, I take seriously everything that Minister Zarif says. My own view is that the only percentage that matters is the one when we either get a comprehensive agreement or we don’t. In all of this negotiation, it is indeed like a Rubik’s cube. All of the pieces have to fit together just so to reach a final agreement that will ensure that Iran will not obtain a nuclear weapon and that the international community has the assurance it needs that Iran’s program will be exclusively peaceful.
Similarly, the Joint Plan of Action says that nothing is agreed until everything is agreed. So one could agree to even 95 percent, and that last 5 percent might mean you’d never get to the agreement. So the only thing that matters at the end of the day is to get to the agreement, and that’s what we’re trying to do. And I think there are two principles that are important: Nothing is agreed until everything is agreed, and nothing is agreed until everyone agrees to it.
MODERATOR: Great. Yes, to the left of Lou.
QUESTION: Jay (inaudible) from Reuters. Would you say, though, that since the talks began in February that you have managed to narrow your decisions or narrow the gaps in (inaudible)?
SENIOR U.S. ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: What I would say is we understand each other a great deal, better than we did when we began, in terms of each other’s positions on the various issues of concern. It’s not that we didn’t know what each other’s positions were at the top lines, but a lot of this is quite technical, and the details matter enormously. And so we all have a much, much deeper understanding of each other’s positions. When one has that kind of understanding, you begin to see where there might be areas where one could reach agreement, you begin to see where the gaps are the largest, and where, in fact, you may indeed be close to an agreement. But again, until everything is agreed, nothing is agreed.
MODERATOR: Yes, here in the front.
QUESTION: Jonathan Tyrone with Bloomberg News. And just briefly, if you could characterize the Chinese envoy Wang’s comment about Russian participation as being, quote “utterly constructive,” and maybe give your side of that.
And then the broader question I’d like to pose is: There’s a lot of signaling, so the Iranian deputy foreign minister confirmed that Iran and Russia are, in fact, in trade talks about broadening trade, something that Mr. Kerry referred to specifically in front of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee yesterday. It looks like – he also said that they’re not close to signing a deal. But it’s obvious that there are contingency plans being formulated in the event of a failure of this process.
My question to you is: Is there a danger that the signals from the contingency planning overcome the positive signals that you’re trying to project through the actual process of dialogue that’s going through July?
SENIOR U.S. ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: What I would say is that my [Russian colleagues] played the constructive, focused role that they usually do. And we have – [Sergei Ryabkov] has worked as part of the P5+1 all through the Joint Plan of Action and now through the comprehensive agreement. And he and his team are very useful and important participants in this process.
In terms of the trade talks that Iran and Russia may be having, we have been very direct to both parties that should they bring this day to closure and engage in activity that is sanctionable under our sanctions, we will take appropriate action. And we’ve urged both parties not to move forward, to preserve the negotiating process.
Now, events happen in the world. You may have noticed that. And we cannot control them all. You may have noticed that as well. And so we have to deal with what happens in the world in general. You all have asked time and again has Ukraine made a difference, which was the reason you asked – or someone asked Mr. Wang about Russia’s participation. So we take these issues on board and we all stay focused on what we’re trying to do here, but we will all have to take whatever appropriate action we need to take under the laws of our lands.
MODERATOR: Great. Laurence Norman with The Wall Street Journal.
QUESTION: Hi. Thank you for doing this. Can you – I have several short questions for you. First of all, the timing for the next round was announced on May the 13th, but there was no end date given. I mean, could they go on for five days, a week? Is there any sense of that?
And secondly, can you give any indication of what was discussed in the Joint Commission, issues that came up? And did you discuss the UN ambassador pick with (inaudible) yesterday?
SENIOR U.S. ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Anything else?
QUESTION: Sure. (Laughter.) Can you rule out foreign ministers heading up to the next round – (laughter).
MODERATOR: I was wondering when that question would start getting asked.
SENIOR U.S. ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Every time we come to any of these rounds, even when we have announced it’s going to be two days or three days, we call come with the presumption we will stay for as long as we need to stay. Obviously, as one begins to get into drafting, it is even more possible that you’ll stay longer than you planned to stay, so I assume that is why neither the – Lady Ashton – the High Representative of the European Union – nor Minister Zarif and their teams gave an end date. We were all planning for the week to be here and we’ll do whatever is necessary.
I think for all of us involved in this between now and July 20th, we understand that there is no higher priority. The stakes here are quite high for all the reasons you all well know, because we are trying to ensure that Iran does not get a nuclear weapon and that their program is exclusively peaceful. And so everyone in the room has explicitly said they are ready to do whatever they need to do and change their schedules and their life to do what is necessary.
On the Joint Commission, it just concluded, but the agenda for that Joint Commission was really just to check in with each other – that’s why it’s at the expert level – have we kept all of our commitments on sanctions relief and other things that we needed to do, and is Iran keeping its commitments? I would note that secretary – Director General Amano made comments I saw in the press today affirming yet again that Iran has kept all of its commitments on their set of obligations. So it was just a check-in. It wasn’t a very long meeting, to tell you the truth, but a useful one, a very useful one.
In terms of the UN ambassador pick, what I would say is that you all have heard the comments from Jay Carney from the White House podium that we believe that this candidate, this possible nominee, is not viable from a U.S. perspective, and we have conveyed that directly to the Iranians through the channels that we have available to us. And I’m going to leave it there on that.
And as far as the foreign ministers flying in, that’s not planned, but --
QUESTION: Can I just check – so you’ve conveyed it through your channels, and maybe I’m not aware of what the U.S. diplomatic speak – I mean, does that mean – (laughter) – does that mean that you’ve conveyed it through the channel of being here and (inaudible)?
SENIOR U.S. ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I’m not going to get into how that message got delivered to the Iranians.
MODERATOR: Great. In the back. Sorry, I can’t see you.
QUESTION: It’s George Jahn of the --
MODERATOR: Oh, hey, George. Sorry, continue.
QUESTION: George Jahn of the Associated Press. Assuming that any oil deal with Russia goes through, I think what you’re saying is that Russia could face potential sanctions. That would probably impact very, very hard on the talks, possibly resulting in less of the Russian cooperation that you’re talking about. But you are saying that the United States is going to take this step even if that happens, (inaudible).
SENIOR U.S. ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I think the Secretary has been very clear about it, I’ve been very clear about it, others in our government have been very clear about it, that anyone who takes sanctionable action faces the potential for sanctions.
SENIOR U.S. ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: But let me add one thing: As you all have said yourselves, they are in talks. Nothing is consummated, nothing is executed, nothing is done. I think that both Iran and Russia understand the stakes here. I expect and suspect that they understand that the priority in the first instance is to try to reach a comprehensive agreement if we can reach one.
QUESTION: Kasra Naji from BBC Persian Television. On the issue of the money that was released to the Iranians, the Iranians are having trouble getting their hands on it. Did this issue come up either in the talks or in your bilateral? How far are we into this? Is this close to a resolution? You said the two sides are sticking to their commitments under the Geneva agreement. Is this causing trouble within that context? Any information on that, I will be grateful. And secondly, on your bilateral, anything of interest?
SENIOR U.S. ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Anything of interest I’m going to discuss, or anything of interest at any rate? (Laughter.)
On whether Iran has access to the repatriated funds that were part of our obligation under the Joint Plan of Action, we and the European Union on all of the sanctions-related obligations have done everything that we committed to doing. And I think if you ask the Iranians, they would say that we have complied with our obligations under the Joint Plan of Action.
And I know there have been stories written, there have been all kinds of issues. All of these things are always complicated to make happen, but we have made them happen. And so I think you will find – and part of the Joint Commission today was to check in on all of those issues. All the appropriate colleagues were there on both sides, and the report I just got out right before I walked in here is that everybody was grateful for the work that had been done on both sides and that everyone had complied with their obligations.
QUESTION: So the money is being released?
SENIOR U.S. ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: The – everything that we were supposed to do and the tranches we were supposed to do it has been done.
QUESTION: So the Iranians are saying that we have got our hands on the money?
SENIOR U.S. ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: You’ll have to ask the Iranians.
As term – in terms of the bilateral, our bilateral was – as I’ve said to you now, it’s now normal. We met for about an hour and a half. We only talk about two things in the bilateral. One is nuclear negotiation. We make sure that Iran understands our perspective on all of the issues under discussion, and they’re able to tell us directly their views about our views. And the other thing we discuss and do so quite decidedly and in a focused way is our American citizens about which we are concerned – Mr. Hekmati, Pastor Abedini, and Robert Levinson – all of whom deserve to be home with their families.
MODERATOR: Yes, right here.
QUESTION: Thank you. (Inaudible) Television Network. Iranians have tweeted yesterday evening that Arak does not need to be converted to a light-water reactor. Can you please confirm about the decision because of the (inaudible)?
And my second question is: When you start drafting, you have to (inaudible) from all of the things that you have discussed till now. And is this going to work like a block by block, or can we expect everything being done is the next meeting, or are you going to say that, okay, let’s draft this part in what way and then come back? How will that (inaudible) work?
SENIOR U.S. ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: So I’m not going to get into the discussion of the mechanics of how we’re going to negotiate, because that’s also a subject of strategy in negotiations and that’s also a subject of the confidentiality of the negotiations in terms of how we’re going got proceed. Because then your next question will be, “Well, if you’re going to block by block, what will be the first issues you will discuss?” And I’m not going to get into that, because as I said to all of you, this is a negotiation with very high stakes, very crucial. We want to keep the details of the negotiation inside the room. And that answers your first question as well in the sense that all kinds of public comments are made. That usually happens in negotiations. They are meant to try to frame the negotiation. But the only thing that matters is what happens in the room, what gets agreed to among the parties in the room, and whether an agreement at the end of the day can be reached.
MODERATOR: Great. Yes, right here on the left.
QUESTION: (Inaudible) five weeks. Are you going to talk to them about the pace of this? Would you prefer that the next meeting to be sooner?
SENIOR U.S. ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: So you assume with that question that between now and when we come back here nothing is going on, and I can assure you that every single day work is being done on this negotiation. That happens in a variety of ways within capitals, among and between capitals, through our experts having meetings among themselves and with Iranian experts. There is not a day in my life now where I’m not spending at least some of my time, and I’m responsible for the whole world, but spending some of my time virtually every single day on this. And as we get further into this, it will be – it will take up most of my time and ultimately probably all of it.
MODERATOR: Yes, behind Laurence. Right there. Yes.
QUESTION: Thank you. (Inaudible) do you expect this to be finished here in Vienna, if it is finished at all, of course? Or are you going to go back to Geneva for a kind of signing ceremony? (Laughter.)
SENIOR U.S. ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: The reason that we’re in Vienna is because we wanted, when we started the comprehensive agreement, to sort of end a chapter and begin a new one, so we switched cities. But from the beginning, the Iranians wanted to have a meeting in a city where there were UN facilities. So in fact, this whole process is out of a mandate from the UN Security Council, so it is a UN-based mandate. And so that’s why we’re in Vienna, because the UN is here present in Vienna as well.
So we expect we will continue to do our negotiations here in Vienna. I suppose someone could suggest that would change, but right now that’s my expectation. And I want to thank you and your city for hosting us so well. We are very well taken care of here. People help us get through traffic. The food is delicious when I get to leave the hotel and have some. Most of our meals we all eat together in the hotel where we’re having the negotiation, but tonight I’m going to get to go out sometime very late tonight and try some of your cuisine, so I thank you very much.
MODERATOR: Who else? Yes, right here.
QUESTION: Yeah, we’ve been talking a lot about bridging gaps --
MODERATOR: Where are you from? Sorry.
QUESTION: I’m sorry. (Inaudible) from Radio France International.
QUESTION: Could you just specify one sort of example of gaps that you managed to bridge so far (inaudible)? Can you tell us what percentage of the gaps you (inaudible) so far at the beginning to bridge? (Inaudible.)
SENIOR U.S. ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: So you’re right; I’m not going to identify where we bridge things, where there are gaps, where we see possibilities of agreement, where we see challenges, because it won’t help the negotiation. And as much as I care about the press and feel a responsibility to let people know what’s going on, I feel a greater responsibility to make sure that the negotiation stays inside the room.
And as for percentages, as I said earlier, it – at the end of the day what matters is whether we get to an agreement or not get to an agreement. And we could agree on 95 percent of the things, and that last 5 percent, which will probably be the hardest set of issues or issue, means we do or don’t get an agreement.
QUESTION: Well, how far are you from the 95 percent?
SENIOR U.S. ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: (Laughter.) I don’t think we can say. We used the first round of the comprehensive agreement to lay out a framework for negotiating. Then the second and third rounds were to go into great detail on each of the issues of concern, to set up an understanding to get to drafting. So we’re now finished those two rounds. We have covered every issue of concern both here in Vienna and through experts’ groups meetings that have taken place in between, and political director’s consultations which have taken place in between, and now we are set to start drafting. And quite frankly, until you get down to it, and you get down to the details, we don’t know whether we’ll be able to get to the end of this or not. I hope we do, but I don’t know.
QUESTION: Yes. Stephanie Bell with BBC News. The – Minister Wang came out and said that this round of negotiations has gained considerable momentum. Would you agree with that assessment?
SENIOR U.S. ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: What I would say is that all of these rounds have been productive, have been constructive, have been thoughtful, have been professional. But what I would say is that now we have to get down to it. And then we will know whether we’re headed in a direction where we can get to a comprehensive agreement or not. We all want to. We all believe we can. But none of us know until we really get to the drafting and the text and the detail whether it’s possible or not.
MODERATOR: Yes, right there.
QUESTION: Stefan Graham, Danish Broadcasting. I have question to your bilateral meetings. Did the Iranians acknowledge the presence of all three American citizens in Iran? And are they any closer to being released?
SENIOR U.S. ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I’m not going to get into the details of our conversation, and I do that both for the protection of those three Americans and for the privacy consideration of their families. But what I can say is that we have important conversations about all three and try to do whatever I can to get them closer and ultimately bring them home.
MODERATOR: Yes, who else? In the back.
SENIOR U.S. ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Let me say just one thing. I meet with the families or people in the Department meet with the families, and it’s always terribly difficult. The Levinson family hasn’t seen Robert Levinson for seven years. Any of you – you all have family members, and just imagine what it’d be like if you hadn’t seen them for seven years and didn’t know where they were.
MODERATOR: Yes, in the back.
QUESTION: (Inaudible) for (inaudible), the Russian news agency. The last time there were four topics that were specified and we’re extracting this from. This time, this thing, you have said all issues have been discussed, which presumably means that you have to return to those four issues that were discussed the last time. Is that the case, and if so, why was there any need to return to them?
SENIOR U.S. ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: As I said, we were using these two rounds to make sure we covered all the issues. The issues that we did last time, we sent our experts away to do some work products. And so we wanted to get the results of those to try to move forward a little bit more if we could. Again, these are very technical discussions, and I’ve learned an awful lot about nuclear energy and nuclear weapons, but I’m not a technical expert. So we need to rely on them to do a lot of work and bring it back to the political level. And we also knew that since we were going to move to drafting after this that we wanted to have one last review of every issue before we left here.
MODERATOR: Great. I think we have time for maybe a few more if we’ve answered all your questions. Yes, George, go ahead again.
QUESTION: Thanks. How many issues are there? I mean, how many categories? As Andrei said, the last time four issues were mentioned, (inaudible). (Inaudible) issues separated by topics?
SENIOR U.S. ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: George, there’s a totality of issues, but each one of the issues has a myriad of subsets to it. So I couldn’t give you a count. And all of the issues interact with each other. And as I’ve said before, some – on some issues, if you can move forward, you may open up trade space on another issue. When we’ve talked about enrichment before, that has many, many pieces to it – from stockpiles to facilities to enrichment levels to centrifuge production. I mean, it’s just a myriad of subsets. And that’s true of every issue. So it’s quite impossible to sort of give you a count because it also requires you to categorize at what conceptual level you’re having the discussion.
What I can say is that we laid out in the first negotiating round all of the issues of concern to both parties, to both sides, and we have discussed them all. And they will all have to be addressed in some way.
MODERATOR: Let’s do a few more. Yes, right here in the front.
QUESTION: (Inaudible.) I just wonder: What do you think the positions? Is it more understanding or more accepting or more incentives or threatening, or what? Because it looks like still the Iranians are talking about redlines.
SENIOR U.S. ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: As I said, what I care about most, what we all care about most, is what’s happening in the room, that all kinds of things will be said in public, and we understand that. We listen to it. It’s very important information. But what matters is what happens in the room. And it’s about all of the things you say – not threatening so much. It’s a very professional discussion. But it is, of course, understanding each other better. It is seeing if there are some technical solutions to problems of concern, whether in fact there are incentives, disincentives perhaps as well, but not in the manner in which you were suggesting.
I think the largest disincentive for everyone is if we can’t reach an agreement, then diplomacy has not succeeded. And we all appreciate that the best way to solve this problem is through diplomacy.
MODERATOR: Great. Maybe just a couple more. Yes, Laurence, we’ll go to you and then --
QUESTION: Very quick (inaudible) it was that you conveyed the message, was it conveyed directly that the U.S. could deny them a visa (inaudible)?
SENIOR U.S. ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I’m not going to get into either what message was conveyed or to whom or how. I think we should leave it where it is right now, which you heard from Jay Carney, the spokesperson from the White House, say that we do not believe this is a viable candidate.
MODERATOR: Last one.
QUESTION: This is Indira’s question.
SENIOR U.S. ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Indira’s question. (Laughter.)
MODERATOR: Even when she’s not here, she’s here.
SENIOR U.S. ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Tell her hi.
QUESTION: She’s always here. Possible military dimensions – is it enough for the IAEA to weigh in and determine those questions have been answered within that body, or does evidence that it has been cleared also need to convince the P5+1, the UN Security Council? I mean, where does the criteria, I guess, fit in?
SENIOR U.S. ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, I’m not going to speak to specific criteria because that goes to where we are in the negotiation. What I can say to you is a couple of things that we’ve been very clear about. One, possible military dimensions is a central responsibility of what the IAEA is doing under its responsibilities. We want to support the IAEA and we want to encourage Iran to do everything they can to make substantive progress in the work they’re doing with the IAEA. And secondly, we have said that we will not be able to get to a comprehensive agreement without those issues being addressed.
MODERATOR: Great, thank you all for coming. Again, just as a reminder, this was on background. That means no names and no titles, just as a Senior U.S. Administration Official. And we will see all of you back here on May 13th. Thanks, guys.