Vienna Nuke Talks: A Little Headway

October 16, 2014

            The world’s six major powers and Iran have made some progress in nuclear talks, but disagreements remain over the scope of Iran’s uranium enrichment capabilities and a timeline for implementing a deal. A U.S. official, however, suggested that an agreement is still possible by the November 24 deadline, and discussions of an extension are premature. In a State Department briefing, a U.S. official emphasized that these talks focus on "a full agreement - not only the understandings, but all of the annexes that go with those understandings." Negotiations were “very difficult,” but there “was progress in all fields,” said Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, according to Reuters. E.U. foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton met with Secretary of State John Kerry and Zarif on October 15.The following are remarks by U.S. and Iranian officials and a State Department briefing on the state of diplomacy.

United States
Secretary of State John Kerry
            “I am glad that all of the pundits and speculators are doubting whether [agreement] can be reached.”
            “But we have some tough issues to resolve. I am not going to prognosticate. We need to continue to have some serious discussions and see where we are.”
            “I don't believe it's out of reach, but we have some tough issues to resolve.
            Oct. 14, 2014 according to Al-Monitor and AFP, following a meeting with Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov
Senior State Department Official

I just told Deputy Foreign Minister Araghchi that that I was coming down to do a backgrounder, and I said, you know, “You’ll know what I’m going to say.”  And his suggestion was that I simply hand you the transcript from the last one, and that would probably do the trick.  (Laughter.)  So we thought that was pretty funny.  Obviously, you don’t think that’s so funny, but we all thought it was pretty funny.

As [Moderator] said, the Secretary, the high representative, and Foreign Minister Zarif are still meeting.  They began again at 8:30 this evening after having met for some hours this afternoon.  Let me say in general that you all know that Iran has said that they don’t want a nuclear weapon, have never wanted a nuclear weapon, never will have a nuclear weapon, including in a fatwa by the Supreme Leader.

What these negotiations are about is whether Iran is willing to take verifiable actions to show the world that their program is indeed exclusively for peaceful purposes.

Yesterday we met bilaterally for the day with the Iranian negotiating team at the deputy foreign minister level, having included Helga Schmid and the EU team who also had their own bilateral meeting as well, but we included them in ours because everything that we do is in the context of the P5+1 or E3+3 or E3+3+EU meetings – (laughter) – whichever moniker you choose to use.  And so we think as we are coming down the road here, we think it’s quite important to stay very, very tightly coordinated, and so we were very glad that Helga Schmid could join us and her team could join us.

We met yesterday probably for both at the political level...So we met both at the political level and our experts met in parallel for several hours yesterday.

We went over every issue, but Iran thinks it’s important to meet with the United States from time to time because not only do we hold a number of the sanctions that are of greatest interest to them, but we – they are also very interested in our views on what needs to be accomplished.  But they have bilaterals with every member of the E3+3 and so we have them as well now on a regular basis.

Today, Secretary Kerry, Baroness Ashton, and Foreign Minister Zarif met trilaterally for about four hours this afternoon, and then they started again this evening.  Tomorrow, the High Representative and the Foreign Minister will convene a meeting with all of the P5+1 political directors.  One of the things that we try to do is whenever anyone has a bilateral, either by phone, by SVTC, by meeting – and this time it’s meeting – we want to debrief each other, we want to stay well coordinated, we want to discuss next steps.  So we will have a debriefing session with the High Representative and the Foreign Minister, and then we will have some internal meetings to discuss how we’re going to proceed next as a group.

Everyone’s been working incredibly hard.  You all know – those of you who have lived this life with all of us know that these are incredibly complex negotiations.  The detail is extraordinary.  Every line of any political agreement has pages of annexes that are attached to it because the detail absolutely is critical to all of this.

The discussions remain very intense, very focused, very concrete; continue to cover every issue that needs to be part of the comprehensive agreement, because again, you all are tired of me saying but it is true:  Until everything is agreed, nothing is agreed, and you can get 98 percent of the way there and the last two percent may kill the entire deal.  So you’ve got to get it all or you don’t have an agreement, so you constantly are getting closer and then you move away because you have to manage another element, and then you find your way back again until all the pieces come together.  So I know it gets frustrating for the press to want to say, “Well, have you made progress?  Where are you?”  But it’s really an amoeba that sort of moves in and out until all of the pieces lock into place.

We’ve been very deliberately working through all the technical issues.  Our expert team and all of the experts at the E3+3 are simply extraordinary, do amazing work.  We’ve been chipping away at some of the issues.  Everyone has put ideas on the table to see if we can move the ball forward.  We have and continue to make some progress, but there is still a substantial amount of work to be done.

Many people, including the President of the United States in his UN General Assembly speech, have said what a historic opportunity this is.  We agree, obviously, with the President.  And as the President also said, we hope Iran decides to take advantage of this historic opportunity.  We can foresee a way forward through a verifiable agreement that both resolves the international community’s concerns about the exclusively peaceful nature of Iran’s nuclear program and also provides the Iranian people with more economic opportunity and an end to isolation, and a time certain after duration of the agreement when Iran will be treated as any other non-nuclear-weapon state under the NPT.  But the question remains, and we will know when we get to the end of this process, whether Iran’s leaders can and will seize this opportunity.

Could you talk about what the biggest hangups are right now, what are the big sticking points that still need to be resolved?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL:  You’re not going to like my answer.  It’s sort of everything, in the sense that we have a lot of detail on every single subject.  We know where we are headed.  We know what we each want the objective to be and we’re trying to narrow those gaps.  But we have to do so in a way that ensures that all of the pathways to fissile material for a nuclear weapon are shut down.

So the pathway to using weapons-grade plutonium, which is best evidenced by the Arak reactor – and we have some possible solutions to that.  I think most people know that we’ve been discussing some technical ways to deal with this.  But they are substantial and they are detailed, and so you have to know every one of the details to know whether you can get there or not.  We have to shut down the enriched uranium path, and that’s Natanz and Fordow.

We obviously hope that we can deal with both of those, but there are many elements to each of those facilities that have to be dealt with.  And then we want to make sure we shut down the covert path, and that is largely done through very specific and very meaningful and concrete verification and monitoring mechanisms.

And each one of these pathways has layers and layers of detail, and you have to understand every one of those layers to know whether what you think you’ve gotten really works.
QUESTION:  Michele Kelemen with NPR.  Can you give us a sense of just what the mood is here?  Do they feel like they’re really at the end point, or is there talk of moving it on?  I mean, even Lavrov today – yesterday was saying that this November 24th date isn’t sacrosanct.  It’s –

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL:  Well, we’re all still focused – those of us who are working on this day by day – on November 24th and getting to an agreement by November 24th.  We’re not taking the pressure off ourselves or this process.
QUESTION:  Is that partly because of U.S. politics?

  No, that’s because if you take the pressure off yourself, then you never have to make hard decisions.  And deadlines help people to make hard decisions, and there are hard decisions to be made here.  And we must.  So we are all keeping the pressure on ourselves, and that includes Iran.

In terms of mood, in a professional way, we all know each other pretty well now.  You can tell when the Deputy Foreign Minister jokes.  He reads the transcripts of these backgrounders, and when he can joke, “Why don’t you just hand over the last one?  You’re going to say the same thing,” it’s reached a level of we know each other well enough to make jokes.
But that, of course, will not get an agreement done.  The discussions are very serious.  They’re very direct.  They’re very detailed.  All of us, even those of us at the political level, have learned more about this process than we ever imagined we would know.  I’m very lucky, because I have this fantastic team and more who stand behind them, both here, back in Washington, and in our labs in Los Alamos, for instance, who help me every single day to figure out what to do here.

QUESTION:  Was there any talk or consideration at all given to an extension, and would you rule that out?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL:  We have not discussed an extension.  We believe on keeping the pressure on ourselves.  I have said in previous backgrounders that I’m – know enough about negotiations that you never say never, but today we are focused on November 24th and November 24th only.

QUESTION: It seems increasingly unlikely that you’re going – and I think few people expect you to come up with a full-fledged comprehensive settlement of this issue by November 24th.  And so what most people think is going to happen is you’ll either negotiate another version of the Joint Plan of Action, perhaps with some enhanced measures.  If you – keeping the November 24th deadline, is it – would it be sufficient in your view to negotiate an accord that continued the terms now in place for the Joint Plan of Action, or do you have to get something more than that just to address the concerns of the American Congress?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL:  So what we are working on now is a full agreement – not only the understandings, but all of the annexes that go with those understandings.  This is a situation where unless you have the detail, you do not know that you have the agreement you think you have.  It’s just as simple as that.  They are not – they are inseparable.

QUESTION:  Since you said the goal is a full agreement with all of the annexes, does that rule out a sort of – I don’t want to say another interim agreement, but an agreement that moves the ball forward by the end of November but doesn’t go to – doesn’t include all of the legal reservations, all of the understandings, and that work could continue past that deadline with some sort of interim agreement?

  Let me repeat what I say:  We are only focused on one thing right now, and that is having a full agreement done by the 24th of November.
QUESTION:  Could I ask what the schedule is looking like for the next few weeks coming up towards November 24th?  Are you going to repeat what happened in July when you met (inaudible) in Vienna for a period of weeks?

  One of the reasons that all of the political directors are getting together tomorrow first to hear the debrief from the High Representative and the Foreign Minister, and then to have an internal discussion among ourselves, is to decide what makes sense in terms of the next step forward.  I would imagine that out of the meeting that the High Representative having – hosting right now with Minister Zarif and Secretary Kerry, they may have some ideas they want to present to us about how they think we should go forward.  But this is a decision for the E3+3, not just for the United States, so – or even the high representative or the Iranians.  It is a decision for all of the E3+3 and we will discuss that tomorrow.

QUESTION:  On November 12th of last year, in a similar setting in a neighboring country – (laughter) – we were made to understand that agreement on the P5+1 was four or five words away.  Has it been the same four or five words for 11 months, or are there different words now?

Who said it was four or five words?

MODERATOR:  That was before the JPOA was finished, though. 

QUESTION:  How close are you to a final?  Three – roughly three quarters of the way there, or --

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL:  I can’t – I know people want to put percentages on this, but I have said and I will say it again – this is where you get tired of listening to me – you can’t put a percentage on it, because even if you thought you were 75 percent of the way or even 98 percent of the way there, that last two percent may be the most important 2 percent there is, may be the glue that puts it all together.  So can’t put a percentage on it. 
            Oct. 15, 2014, according to the U.S. Department of State
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani
            “Our will is that in 40 days the matter will be resolved. But if other things happen and we are not able to solve all the problems, the two camps will find a solution.”
            Oct. 10, 2014 on state television
            “We are tired and we have to finish this issue.”
“Either way, a solution to the nuclear issues will be found and certainly the two sides will reach an agreement.”
            “This shows that the situation has changed.”
            Oct. 14, 2014 to Al-Monitor
Ayatollah Khamenei


Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif
            “Reaching an agreement in this round is very unlikely because there are issues that still remain that need to be resolved.”
            “On the agenda is the volume of uranium enrichment and the timetable for lifting the sanctions.”
            Oct. 14, 2014 according to Al-Monitor
            “All the negotiations that we have had so far have been sensitive and this round of negotiations can level the path to a final agreement.”
            “Of course, it will be much unlikely to achieve a deal in these negotiations because the issues which need to be settled are still too many.”
            "As our president has said there is a general understanding over the bases of issues, but these are details like the volume of enrichment, and the manner and the time-table for the removal of the sanctions which are of vital importance and which have been under discussion in the last several rounds of the talks."
            Oct. 14, 2014 according to Fars News
            “We hope that the opposite side would accept both the realities that exist at regional and international levels, and the realities of Iran’s nuclear program, which is an advanced peaceful program, to be able to find a solution which would benefit all.”
            Oct. 14, 2014 according to Press TV
            “We will make our utmost effort to make the best use of the negotiations in these days in Vienna to settle problems”
            Oct. 15, 2014 according to Press TV
            “It was very difficult, serious and intensive…but instead of focusing on problems, we discussed solutions as well…There was progress in all fields.”
            “We still need serious discussions over various issues.”
            Oct. 16, 2014 according to Reuters
Deputy Foreign Minister Seyed Abbas Araghchi
            “Iran and Western powers are very determined and serious to reach a result. Issues like enrichment and lifting of sanctions will be discussed in Vienna.”
            Oct. 10, 2014 according to Reuters
            “The negotiations will be held on issues like sanctions, the ways to remove them and enrichment and we hope that it will be a path to the settlement of the problems between Iran and the Group 5+1 (the US, Russia, China, Britain and France plus Germany).”
            “We are not pessimistic about reaching results by the November 24 and if we don’t reach sufficient results in this round of talks (in Vienna), we will definitely be unable to attain the final result by November 24 either.”
            Oct. 11, 2014 according to Fars News
            “The Islamic Republic of Iran is ready to speed up resolution of issues through cooperation with the Agency, and is prepared to resolve all these issues with the Agency one after the other.”
            Oct. 14, 2014 according to the Eurasian Review

             “Neither of the negotiating parties is interested in the extension of the talks. All sides are determined to achieve an agreement prior to the deadline. Therefore, extension is not on the agenda of any of the parties.”
            Oct. 19, 2014 according to the press