Briefing on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action Joint Commission and E3 Meetings in Vienna and Berlin

Special Briefing
Brian Hook
Director of Policy Planning
Press Briefing Room
Washington, DC
March 21, 2018


MS NAUERT: Hi. Good afternoon, everyone. Thank you so much for joining us, and apologies for the slight delay in getting started. Brian Hook is joining us. As you all know, Brian was just in Europe with a delegation from the State Department and also the NSC, where Brian was meeting— and our colleagues— meeting with members of the E3 in Berlin, and then he went to Vienna – they all went to Vienna – for the quarterly meeting with the JCPOA. Brian met with press last week and overseas, and would like to provide you all not only with an update but a – just sort of an analysis and readout of where we are in the overall discussions.

So Brian will make some comments and then we’ll have time to take several of your questions. We ask that you wait until the end of the call to start writing about this and tweeting, as we normally do, and embargoed. That’s a simple way of putting it: embargoed until the conclusion of the call.

With that, I’ll turn it over to our Director of Policy Planning Brian Hook for his comments and your questions. Brian, go right ahead.

MR HOOK: Thank you, Heather, and thank you for organizing this call, and thanks to everybody who’s joined the call. As Heather mentioned, there was an American delegation that first went to Berlin and then we went to Vienna for the Joint Commission meeting, and let me say just a little bit about both meetings.

In Berlin, this is the third meeting with our European allies since the President delivered his statement on January 12th. As you know, on January 12th, the President set forth the conditions that would need to be met in order for the – for him to continue waving sanctions as part of America’s commitments in the JCPOA. And what the President asked for on January 12th was a new supplemental agreement with European allies that (inaudible) impose new multilateral sanctions if Iran develops or tests long-range missiles, thwarts inspections, or makes progress toward a nuclear weapon. And he has given his negotiating team until May 12th to reach a supplemental agreement to fix the deficiencies of the Iran nuclear deal. And so we have been operating under that guidance since then. We have had three meetings with our European allies – one in London, one in Paris, and then the last one was in Berlin – and at these meetings we are negotiating a new supplemental agreement and we are also – and the focus there is around the sunsets, the sunsetting of restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program, the omission of ICBMs from the original Iran nuclear agreement, and a stronger inspections regime so that we can support the work of the IAEA so they can verify that Iran’s nuclear program is being used for peaceful purposes.

The – in all of these meetings, half of our day is spent negotiating a supplemental agreement. The other half of the day we spend on making progress on the six areas that the President identified on January 12th. He called on our allies to take stronger steps with the United States to confront Iran’s other malign activities, and that includes cutting off funding to the IRGC and constraining Iran’s missile development program, countering Iran’s cyber aggression, its maritime aggression, asking other countries to pressure Iran for all of its human rights violations. So we spend half of these meetings working on steps that we need to take collectively against Iran’s other activities, and this is consistent with the policy shift that this administration effected, which is addressing the totality of Iranian threats and not having (inaudible) on the nuclear deal at the exclusion of all of the other threats that Iran presents. And I would refer you to the President’s statement on January 12th for more detail on that.

We then went to Vienna for a meeting of the Joint Commission. I think as many of you know, the Joint Commission is part of the JCPOA and it oversees the implementation of the Plan of Action that was reached in 2015 with the previous administration, and it meets on a regular basis to review Iran’s compliance with the JCPOA and to address concerns raised by member states. They were productive meetings and we fulfilled what we set out to do. We are meeting our commitments under the JCPOA, and we will – we continue to hold Iran strictly accountable for its commitments.

One of the things that we did in that meeting was to take stock of one of the key provisions of the JCPOA, which is that the Iran deal will, quote, “positively contribute to regional and international peace and security.” That is mentioned in the deal, and since it took over two years to negotiate and every word was weighed carefully, we take all of these provisions seriously. And when you look at Iran’s foreign and domestic policies, it’s impossible to argue that they have – that they are behaving constructively or with greater moderation in the last two years. In fact, quite the reverse. They are aggressively destabilizing the Middle East and present a range of threats to peace and security.

So this was an opportunity for us in Vienna to listen to any concerns that the Iranians had about us meeting our end of the deal. The Iranians complained that this administration is warning other nations about the dangers of doing business in Iran and that this is hurting their economy. And what I said in response was that Iran’s opaque economy makes it hard for investors to know whether they are supporting commerce or supporting terrorism, and I said that Iran needs to stop sponsoring terrorism, stop destabilizing the Middle East, and overhaul its banking and business sectors. It’s not America’s job to make up for the shortcomings of Iranian policies.

I also requested a meeting with the Iranian delegation to demand the release of the American citizens that they have arbitrarily and unjustly detained.

So that’s the summary of the meetings in Berlin and Vienna. I’m happy to take questions.

MS NAUERT: Okay. Brian, thank you. We’ll go ahead and take your questions. And Nicole has a list of who’s on the call, so I’ll just defer to my colleague, Nicole, who will handle that. Nicole, go right ahead.

OPERATOR: Ladies and gentlemen, if you wish to ask a question, please press * then 1.

Our first question comes from the line of Josh Lederman, AP. Please, go ahead.

QUESTION: Hey, thanks for doing this, Brian. I was wondering if you have spoken to Director Pompeo in the last week about this deal. I don’t think it’s a secret that Secretary Tillerson was more enthusiastic about trying to salvage this deal than perhaps Pompeo will be. So can you tell us how that transition may affect the work that you’re doing on this. And then if you can give us any details about your separate meeting with the Iranians; did you make any progress on those detained Americans? Thanks.

MR HOOK: Thanks, Josh. On the first question, I don’t want to comment on internal discussions. What I can say is that a number of us are providing assistance to Secretary-designate Pompeo’s confirmation process, and I don’t want to get ahead of the Senate confirmation process, but if he is confirmed, and we certainly hope he will be, he will then be, I think, well equipped to do all of the work that we’re currently working on, the range of activities that he’s been working on as CIA Director. And so I think he’s got such a deep familiarity with so many of these issues from his current position that it will be a very easy transition.

On your other question, can you remind me, Josh? I couldn’t – what was the second part of the question?

QUESTION: Yeah, the other question was about your bilat with the Iranians. Did you make any progress?

MR HOOK: Oh yeah, the bilat with the – yeah, the bilat with the Iranians, as I said, the only purpose in requesting it was to demand the release of the Americans that they’ve detained. Given the sensitivity of that subject, I don’t want to go beyond what I said, that I requested the meeting and I did have a discussion with them, and that’s as much as I can say on it.

QUESTION: Okay. And can you tell us whether you expect to stay at S/P?

MR HOOK: Everyone in the Executive Branch serves at the pleasure of the President, and I am continuing to advance the administration’s foreign policy.

MS NAUERT: Okay. Next question, please.

OPERATOR: And that question comes from the line of Karen DeYoung, Washington Post. Please, go ahead.

QUESTION: Hello?

MS NAUERT: Karen, go right ahead.

QUESTION: Hello? Oh, hi. Thank you. You said that the United States is complying with all of its commitments under the JCPOA, although you mentioned the part that says that they need to pay attention to certain other things. Would you say that they are or are not complying with their commitments under the JCPOA?

MR HOOK: I would say that they are in – that they are in technical – we have not heard – we go over sanctions and we go over nuclear – we talked about the nuclear issues, civil nuclear on the agenda for the Joint Commission, and they are in technical – my understanding is that they are in technical compliance with their commitments under the JCPOA. The Iranians had a number of complaints about licenses, especially around civil aviation licenses to Iran Air and other airlines. And what I said to them was: You use your commercial airlines to move terrorists and weapons around the Middle East, including to Syria, and we will not issue licenses at the expense of our national security. And so I encouraged them to make the kind of reforms to their civil aviation and to their economy that would then put us in a better position. But we are not going to be issuing licenses at the expense of our national security or at the expense of our allies.

MS NAUERT: Okay, thank you. Next question, please.

OPERATOR: That comes from the line of Elise Labott, CNN. Please, go ahead.

QUESTION: Hi, thanks for doing this, Brian.

MR HOOK: Yes.

QUESTION: On the idea that you just said, that you see that the Iranians are in technical compliance – and obviously, the Europeans have said the same thing and they don’t want to do a kind of additional supplement to the agreement, but have clearly said to you that they’re willing to work with you on some of these other issues such as the sunset, the ICBM, inspections outside of the contours of a deal.

And I’m just wondering, like, what – I think this is the basic question that everyone is asking, like what is the point of even withdrawing from the deal if you can deal with these concerns with the Europeans outside of the confines of it? Whereas if you push and you pull out of the deal that they’re not going to work with you on it?

And then a second part of that is if Iran is in technical compliance of the deal and you’re working towards possible discussions with North Korea on a nuclear deal, what kind of confidence does it give the North Koreans if you’re willing to kind of change the goalposts and say technical compliance is one thing but the spirit of the agreement is another? Thank you.

MR HOOK: Thanks, Elise. I think on the second part, in the context of nonproliferation agreements or treaties, it is very common to add supplemental agreements. START – New START does not violate START. It’s just – it’s a very common practice in arms control to be making adjustments to a nonproliferation agreement as you go along.

What’s unique about the JCPOA is that it’s not an arms control treaty. It’s not even an agreement. It’s a plan of action that was agreed to by the prior administration and it doesn’t have the same standing as a treaty would. And so this is a – I think a little bit – it’s sui generis nonproliferation plan of action that’s a political document. And this is an agreement that has many deficiencies. We think that these deficiencies are of such threats to national security that we can’t allow the deal to remain in place without a supplemental agreement to address its deficiencies. And so that’s our focus there.

In terms of North Korea, when you look at the history of negotiations with North Korea, no one has moved the goalposts or negotiated in more bad faith than North Korea. They have a history of noncompliance, but with the United States, we then stick to the terms of the deal, and we have not had a partner – we have not had somebody on the other the side of the table in (inaudible) with the Kim family over three generations now who negotiate in good faith. And so we are determined not to make some of the past mistakes again in the context of North Korea, and the maximum pressure campaign continues.

OPERATOR: Our next question comes from the line of Michele Kelemen, NPR. Please, go ahead.

QUESTION: Yeah, hi. One quick question about the negotiations with the Europeans: Do you think that whatever supplemental deal is really going to be enough to keep the President inside the JCPOA? And then on this question of the Americans, are you proposing kind of a separate humanitarian channel, is this going to be something more regular, or was this a one-off meeting?

MR HOOK: What we have is the President’s guidance on January 12th where he has explained the conditions that would have to be met to continue waiving sanctions, and those are the instructions we’re operating under. He will have to reach an – he will have to reach a decision as to – are we able to – first we have to reach an agreement with the Europeans, and if we can’t reach an agreement with the Europeans, then we will report that to the President. If we can reach an agreement, then that will be presented to the President by the Secretary of State and the National Security Advisor, and then he will make a decision on whether he wants to remain in the deal or stop waiving sanctions.

MS NAUERT: Okay. Next question, please.

OPERATOR: That comes from the line of Arshad Mohammed of Reuters. Please, go ahead.

QUESTION: Thank you for doing this. Has – have you made any progress in the talks so far with the three European partners on the specific question of the sunsets under the JCPOA?

MR HOOK: I appreciate you asking the question, but I don’t want to get into the substance of our negotiations. We – where we have agreement, we are capturing the agreement, and where we have differences, we are working to narrow them to see if we can reach an agreement. And so that’s been the nature of the process. As I’ve said before, we have had very constructive meetings and we are (inaudible) toward reaching an agreement, and we’ll see.

MS NAUERT: Okay. Our next question, please.

OPERATOR: The next question is from Felicia Schwartz, Wall Street Journal. Please, go ahead.

QUESTION: Hey, Brian, thanks for doing this. First, should we take your comments earlier on the airline licenses to mean that the Boeing deal is on hold, or perhaps in danger? And then are you discussing contingencies with the Europeans in these meetings at this point if the President does pull out of the deal, since May is not too far away? And what is the status of the legislative fix?

MR HOOK: On the first part about the civil aviation, most of that was related to – I think that’s related mostly to parts. What I said earlier is not meant to make any commentary or opinion on the other part that you raised. I was just saying that with respect to civil aviation, we are meeting our obligations under the deal in terms of aviation licenses. They have acknowledged that we have not issued any new civil aviation licenses in this administration. The previously issued licenses remain in place, but we never intended to let licensed aircraft contribute to Iran’s regional destabilization effort.

And Felicia, what was the second?

QUESTION: Just – are you discussing contingencies at this point if the President does decide to pull out, since May is only a few months away? And also, the legislative fix, where does that stand?

MR HOOK: I will defer to Congress on the legislative fix. The President set forth a plan. What the President wants to do is to give Congress a role to address the range of threats that Iran presents. The prior administration did not submit this nonproliferation plan of action to the Senate and bypass the Congress. In this administration, the President is working with the Congress to – we think one aspect of fixing the Iran deal is giving the role to Congress. The other aspect of it is securing an agreement with our European allies to address its deficiencies. And so those are the – sort of the two key lines of effort. So that’s really where our focus is.

MS NAUERT: Okay. We have time for just a couple extra questions. Next question, please.

OPERATOR: The next question is from the line of Dave Clark, AFP. Please, go ahead.

QUESTION: Hello, can you hear me?

MR HOOK: Yep.

MS NAUERT: Yep, sure can.

QUESTION: Yeah. Hi, Dave Clark here from AFP. I know that our Israeli colleague Barak Ravid is reporting that Israeli officials are saying that President Trump told them that a supplemental agreement would be insufficient, and that he wants the deal itself to be torn up otherwise. He’s thinking of – he’s thinking of pulling out. I wouldn’t ask you to comment on leaks from another government, but are you clear yourself and are you able to articulate to our European allies what exactly the President’s redlines are? And do you – are you clear yourself as to what it would take to convince him to stay in the deal? Thank you.

MR HOOK: Well, I also – before I answer that, let me just go back to what Felicia asked about contingency planning. The President has, as I said earlier, given us negotiating guidance in his January 12th statement. And so he has asked if we can reach agreement with the Europeans. We always have to prepare for any eventuality, and so we are engaged in contingency planning because it would not be responsible not to engage in it. We are – we’re kind of dual-tracking this.

And so on the other question about the meeting with the President, I wouldn’t comment on any sort of discussion that the President had privately with another country. So I don’t really have anything to add there.

MS NAUERT: And I would --

QUESTION: No, but --

MS NAUERT: I would just confirm – excuse me, I would just highlight, Dave, that we haven’t seen that report ourselves from Israel, and so just can’t confirm that that is what anybody from the administration said.

QUESTION: No, but I didn’t ask you to comment on that report, but I just wanted to know if Mr. Hook is himself clear on exactly what the agreement with the Europeans would have to involve for the President to sign off on it.

MR HOOK: The President has identified sunsets, inspections and ICBMs. And so those are the three areas of focus for us, and we have a delegation, a team that is working on this with representatives from the State Department and the White House. We have a very good interagency team that’s working on this to be faithful to the President’s instructions on negotiations.

QUESTION: Thank you.

MS NAUERT: Okay. And we’re going to have to do the last question. Nick Wadhams from Bloomberg. I know you had a question, if we can pull you in there.

OPERATOR: And Nick Wadhams, Bloomberg News, please, go ahead.

QUESTION: Hi, thanks. Can you hear me?

MS NAUERT: Yes.

MR HOOK: Yeah, we can hear you.

QUESTION: Hi. Okay. Can I just ask Brian two quick things? One, how confident are you that you’ll be able to reach a deal with the Europeans? Are you hopeful that there is – that you can cross the finish line on this, or are you skeptical that you’ll be able to reach something?

And also you mentioned that you would need to come to some agreement with the Europeans to present to the President in May. What about Russia, China, and Iran? What if you don’t secure agreement from them before May? Or is the strategy that you would get the European agreement and then take that to the President, and then work on those other parties to the plan of action? Thanks.

MR HOOK: We have had constructive talks with the Europeans toward a supplemental agreement, but I can’t predict whether we will reach an agreement with them or not. We have a goal in mind, and we either will reach agreement or we won’t.

On the second part of the question, the only guidance that we – that the President gave is to reach an agreement with the E3. And that is the first phase of this, which is through May 12th. And I won’t speculate beyond May 12th, because that is – that’s as much as our negotiating instructions allow.

MS NAUERT: Okay. Thanks. Thanks, everyone, for joining us today, and Brian, thank you for your time. We’ll let you get back to shoveling snow or whatever one does in the suburbs. (Laughter.) The embargo on the call has now been lifted. If anyone has any follow-up questions, PA is staffed, we’re all working, so let us know if you need anything. Brian, thank you, and thank you everybody for your time today.

MR HOOK: Okay, thank you.

MS NAUERT: Okay, bye.

MR HOOK: Thanks so much, everybody. Bye.