Energy Secretary Moniz Briefs on Talks

April 8, 2015

The following are excerpt remarks from a press briefing at the White House with Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz and Press Secretary Josh Earnest on April 6.

SECRETARY MONIZ: So, first of all, we say that there are four pathways to a bomb in Iran.  One is a plutonium pathway through a research reactor, a heavy water reactor.  I’ll come back to these.  Second, there are two pathways to a uranium bomb; that involves the facilities at Natanz and at Fordow.  And the fourth pathway is covert activities.  So let me just walk through those four and what we have nailed down in the understanding for the final agreement.
Let me start with plutonium.  In the plutonium pathway, the Iranians will retain a research reactor using heavy water.  The following characteristics, however, are critical.  Number one, it will be redesigned to have substantially less plutonium production; it will not be weapons-grade plutonium.  However, we have an agreement that all of the spent fuel -- that is the fuel that contains the plutonium -- will be sent out of the country for the entire lifetime of the reactor.  In other words, it will produce less plutonium and it won’t stay in the country anyway.
Secondly, with regard to the plutonium produced by any other reactor, like Bushehr, there will be no re-processing to extract plutonium; no re-processing R&D; no other heavy water reactor for at least 15 years; and any excess heavy water will be sold on the international market.  This is lockdown of the plutonium pathway.
Let me turn to the uranium pathways, which involve enrichment.  There’s been a lot said about they will continue to enrich with 5,000 centrifuges; this is correct.  But let me put that in context.  We’re starting with 19,000 -- number one.  Number two, they will be, in this first 10-year period, allowed to use only their first-generation centrifuge for that.  Third, in terms of our key objective of having a so-called breakout period of at least one year, what you really need is three numbers together.  You need the number of centrifuges.  You need the stockpile of enriched uranium; that’s going to be reduced from 10,000 kilograms to 300 kilograms.  And it will be enriched only less than 3.7 percent.  Those three numbers come together and say breakout period of at least a year.
R&D -- there will be no R&D in the first 10 years at the scale you need to deploy a machine for any advanced centrifuge model.  And that is despite the fact that today they are operating for two models -- such a full-scale cascade, is what it’s called.  That’s going to be torn down and put into storage under IAEA monitoring and seal. 
Then there is the facility at Fordow; that’s the one that’s put into a mountain.  Nearly two-thirds of that will be immediately disassembled, stripped down -- centrifuges and infrastructure.  About just over 10 percent there will be some spinning.  However, no enrichment, no enrichment R&D; no fissile material, no uranium, is even allowed in the facility, with continuous monitoring from the IAEA; and a transition of that facility over time to basically a physics research laboratory and medical isotope laboratory.
Fourth pathway -- covert.  Actually, the other pathways, as well, depend upon an unprecedented access and transparency for the IAEA.  It starts with the additional protocol.  For those of you who don’t know what that is, it’s an add-on to the standard safeguards agreements, which will provide access to undeclared facilities as well as declared facilities.  There will be insight, eyes and ears -- eyes mainly, maybe some ears -- on the full supply chain -- this is unprecedented -- going back to the Iranian mines all the way through to the final facilities.  And, by the way, that insight on the early parts of the supply chain is a 25-year commitment, not a 10 or a 15-year commitment. 
So we think that, again, the access and transparencies is unprecedented, and the additional protocol is an example of a forever agreement in what we have negotiated. 
And so, finally, just to say that -- I've already said it in effect, but I want to say this is not an agreement for 10 years, or 15 years, or 20 years; it is a long-term agreement with a whole set of phases.  And if Iran earns over this time period trust and confidence in their peaceful objectives, well, then, over time, the constraints will, in phases, ease up, but never get lower than the additional protocol and all of the access that it provides. 
So that's the way we think about it.  It's not a fixed-year agreement; it’s a forever agreement, in a certain sense, with different stages.
QUESTION: Is the U.S. and Iran on a very different page even in terms of this interim agreement?
SECRETARY MONIZ:  No, we're not.  We all recognize that -- we emphasize very strongly, we have to talk about the same agreement.  We understand emphases may be different.  And so let me give you an example.  They emphasize, well, we have 5,000 centrifuges spinning; this is true and we acknowledge that.  But we also say they’re first generation; they must be taken together with this extraordinary limitation on their stockpile.  They fail to mention that, or the 3-plus percent enrichment.  And it's those numbers together that say we have a one-year breakout time.
So it's not so much inconsistent as it, as I would say, is emphasizing only certain parts of the agreement.
QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, you said that Fordow will be stripped down, but the President seemed to promise the American people something much different in December of 2013, when he said, “We know that they don't need to have an underground, fortified facility like Fordow in order to have a peaceful nuclear program.”  He wasn’t talking about stripping it down.  He was saying either wiping it out or shutting it down altogether.  What changed?
SECRETARY MONIZ:  Well, to me, the key is and our objective was to make sure it was not a breakout pathway.  It is not.  There is even no fissile material allowed into that facility.  It is not an enrichment facility.  So it is closed down as an enrichment facility.
As I said, it will be transitioning over time to a research facility involving international collaboration.  And, in fact, those international collaborators will, in fact, add additional transparency.  So I'll give you an example of two projects being discussed both with an international partner.
One is on the stable isotopes, as I mentioned -- molybdenum for medical treatments; another is to bring in an electronic accelerator for various experimental purposes -- materials, medical research, et cetera.  So over time, as those collaborations build up, that's what the facility will become.
QUESTION: Thank you, Secretary.  What if Iran cheats?  The President, in an interview over the weekend, mentioned that there would be some type of mechanism where if you suspect that there’s something going on that's fishy, that you can request an inspection.  And if Iran does not agree to that, that the international community has this mechanism to ensure that.  What is that mechanism?  And how much of the one-year breakout time could that eat up?
SECRETARY MONIZ:  First of all, the answer to the last part is a very short time compared to the year.  And at the end of that time, in contrast to some current arrangements around the world where, frankly, things can get -- shall we say, cans can get kicked down a very long road, this has a definite ending, way inside the year.  And if access is denied at that point, that is a breach of the agreement, and with all the consequences that come with that, including snap-back of sanctions, resort to diplomatic or other tools.  No options for the United States or others is taken off the table.
QUESTION: So is this like a one-strike deal?  One time we catch Iran doing something they said they wouldn't do in the agreement, the whole thing is off and we ramp up sanctions?
SECRETARY MONIZ:  I think clearly one will see how that plays out in terms of -- obviously, judgment has to be used in terms of severity.  Without getting into details, I'll just say that, for example, in the current agreement, everyone is saying that Iran has been studious in honoring the current agreement.  Actually, I don't know if I can say this, but -- I won't get into specifics -- there was one time in which something was done that was not in the agreement.  It was rapidly resolved as a mistake of somebody who didn’t know what they were doing wasn’t there, shut down immediately.
So, so far in the interim agreement, they’ve been very good.  We will see if that persists now for the next 10, 15, 20 years.
MR. EARNEST:  Major.
QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, talking about the covert path, what kind of things need to still be negotiated to increase Western and American confidence that covert actions, either at facilities you’ve identified or places not yet identified, can be locked down?  That is to say you can have a level of confidence that on the covert side things will not create a pathway to a nuclear weapon.  And secondly, when you were answering Josh’s question on sanctions, do we have an agreement with the United Nations countries, meaning our partners, P5+1, to snap back the sanctions, or just us snapping back the sanctions if there is a disagreement or a violation?
SECRETARY MONIZ:  No, first of all, I should say even more broadly, I think one of the remarkable outcomes of these last weeks -- I've been involved for, roughly, six weeks.  One of the remarkable outcomes is, in fact, the level of coherence among the P5+1.  That was actually quite rewarding, I would say.
In terms of the snap-back of the sanctions, there are certainly issues remaining to be negotiated in terms of specific timing and milestones.  However, the key elements are all decided.  And so, for example, in terms of snap-back of sanctions, let’s just say, for example, no one country could block the snap-back of sanctions. 
QUESTION: No one has veto power within the conversation?
SECRETARY MONIZ:  Correct. I'm not going to go to the majority, et cetera, but that will be evolving and coming out in time as to what the precise arrangements are.  But these are very, very good in terms of our ability; out ability, for example, to snap back, if called upon to do so, will be there.
QUESTION: And the access on the covert side that you have yet to negotiate the kind of things you need to achieve between now and July 1st to --
SECRETARY MONIZ:  Those are largely in place in terms of the access, as I mentioned, including unprecedented access in terms of the entire supply chain.  I mentioned uranium mines.  There’s also continuous surveillance of centrifuge manufacturing plants.  So it is really quite a strong arrangement.
QUESTIONS: Two quick questions.  You said that -- which I don't really understand -- they’re going to continue to produce plutonium, small amounts of it, and they’ll send it out of the country.  Why produce it at all if you're going to send it out of the country?
SECRETARY MONIZ:  Because, I should add, that any nuclear reactor by its nature produces plutonium.  Our power reactors in the United States produce plutonium as they operate.  That's unavoidable, okay?  The question is whether one optimizes for producing plutonium, especially a weapons-grade.  And I'm saying this redesigned reactor will not do that, and it will produce very small amounts.  You cannot avoid it at some level, but it will produce small amounts and it will go out of the country anyway.
QUESTION: After your difficult negotiations, are you convinced that the Iranians are, in fact, content to only produce peaceful nuclear power, that this is their goal as they say it is?  Do you, as one of the chief negotiators, trust their motives?
SECRETARY MONIZ:  This is not built upon trust.  This is built upon hardnosed requirements in terms of limitations on what they do at various timescales and on the access and transparency.
QUESTION: But are they trying to at any time put in measures that would allow them to continue to produce weapons-grade uranium?  Do you see an effort on their part to somehow save a pathway?
SECRETARY MONIZ: First of all, I should reemphasize, they have not produced weapons-grade uranium.  They did produce earlier up to 20 percent, which is still considered low -- it's the limit of low-enriched uranium.  But I would say the answer to that is, no.  Clearly, the negotiation was tough in terms of specific parameters, but we just held to it -- sorry -- like the one-year breakout period is an absolute, unshakeable requirement.  We can shift around a little bit, stockpile number of uranium and number of centrifuges.  But that was the nature of it.
QUESTION: So at the end of this, they’ll be held to this and there’s not going to be any wiggle room, there’s not going to be any subject to interpretation?  It seems right now a lot is seemingly up to interpretation whether you're in Washington or in Tehran.
SECRETARY MONIZ:  Well, no, I disagree with that in the sense -- in fact, going back to the very first question -- that there’s no doubt that right now there’s a different narrative, but not in conflict with what’s written down, just selective.  However, if you look at our parameter sheet -- I don't know if you have seen that, it's four pages of bullets.  And what is the reaction that we are receiving, and I think quite appropriately, is a certain level of amazement at the specificity.  We got numbers, and those have got to go into the agreement.  Very specific and comprehensive. 
QUESTION: The White House has made clear that you're open to having Congress have some way to express their views about this.  But the specific proposals put forward by a lot of members of Congress about voting on a deal, that kind of thing, the President has rejected.  So I'm wondering if you could give us an example of a way that Congress could have a role beyond just listening to briefings from you all…
MR. EARNEST:  The White House does take very seriously, and across the administration we take very seriously the responsibility that we have to engage with Congress throughout this process.  And that's what we have done.  That started years ago when Congress passed tough sanctions against Iran that were instrumental to building an international coalition that put enormous pressure on the Iranian economy.  That is what we believe led to Iran sitting down at the negotiating table and to actually engaging in conversations that were constructive.
Throughout that process, we’ve kept Congress in the loop on those negotiations.  And just in the last three or four days since an agreement was announced, there have been a substantial number of telephone conversations, starting from the President on down  -- other senior members of the President’s national security team, the Secretary of State, I believe Secretary Moniz even made some telephone calls, the Vice President, the White House Chief of Staff, others who have made calls to members of Congress to make sure that they actually understand the details of what’s been agreed to.  That's the first thing. 
The second thing is that we continue to believe that while Congress, certainly understandably, should understand what we're working on here, that it's the responsibility of the President of the United States -- any President of the United States -- to conduct the foreign policy of the United States of America.  This is something that our Founding Fathers envisioned.  This has been true of Democratic and Republican Presidents back through history.  And this kind of effort to reach a diplomatic agreement about preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon is consistent with that history.
Now, the third thing is that Congress will at some point have to vote to remove the sanctions that they put in place.  That is not something that the President of the United States can do unilaterally.  But what Congress envisioned in their legislation -- they wrote into the bill, into the sanctions bill, waiver authority for the President of the United States to relax some aspects of the sanctions in pursuit of a diplomatic agreement.
So, in effect, Josh, what we're planning to do is to implement this agreement consistent with exactly the way Congress described.  Now, there are some in Congress who, you point out, are now suggesting that they have changed their mind and they would rather weigh in on this agreement in a different way.  But because of the longstanding precedent of the President of the United States being the chief negotiator for the United States, and the fact that we know a lot of Republicans in Congress are only using a vote like that -- or proposing a vote like this, because they oppose the deal in the first place.
QUESTION: But, Josh, it’s not just Republicans.  I mean, it’s quite a few prominent Democrats on foreign policy.
MR. EARNEST:  But to be clear, what I was saying about Republicans -- it’s Republicans who have been most forceful in denouncing this agreement, and those are the people that I’m referring to when I say that they’re trying to use this vote as cover to just try to undermine the agreement.  You’re right that there are other Democrats who have spoken up, saying that Congress should have the opportunity to weigh in on the deal.  And what we have said is, look, it is clearly within the purview of the President of the United States to conduct foreign policy, and we do believe that Congress should play their rightful role in terms of ultimately deciding whether or not the sanctions that Congress passed into law should be removed.
QUESTION: And if they [lawmakers] decide they don’t want to remove the sanctions, it actually doesn’t matter because the President already has authority under the existing sanctions to waive them by himself.  I mean, is that an accurate synopsis of the role that you see for Congress?
MR. EARNEST:  Well, I would just tailor the last part of what you said, because this is important as well -- that we would envision a scenario where after Iran has already demonstrated sustained compliance over a long period of time, then we would contemplate a situation where we would dismantle the sanctions architecture that did apply so much pressure to the Iranian economy.  And that is something that only Congress could do. 
I don’t want to speak for the Iranian regime, but presumably that’s something that they would like to see.  They wouldn’t just want to see a waiver; they’d actually like to see that sanctions architecture dismantled -- and I think for understandable reasons -- frankly, because they know that as long as that sanctions architecture is in place, the President with a stroke of a pen, at a moment’s notice, could snap those sanctions back into place.  And that is part of what Congress originally envisioned when they passed sanctions legislation.  It’s also part of what this administration envisions for holding Iran to account.  Because we have said that if we detect, based on the intrusive inspections plan that we have for Iran’s nuclear program -- if we detect that they are deviating from the plan, then we can at a moment’s notice snap those sanctions back into place.
QUESTION: [I]n Tehran, they’re describing the way those sanctions will be lifted as an immediate timeline, whereas what we’re hearing here is that there’s going to have to be some results before sanctions are lifted.  Can you explain the discrepancy between those timelines?  And is the President concerned about that difference and whether or not there will be an agreement before the end of June?
MR. EARNEST:  Well, Julia, this issue that you have highlighted is one of those that still needs to be negotiated.  There are still details about the phase-out, if you will, of the sanctions that have not yet been agreed to.  And it is the strong view of the administration that it would not be wise, and it would not be in the interest of the international community, to simply take away sanctions -- take away all of the sanctions on day one.
It is our view that, based on Iran’s history, that it would be most conducive to the success of the agreement for Iran to continue to have an incentive for complying with the agreement.  And that is why we believe that this sort of phased approach is the best one, and it certainly is one that we will insist upon.  There are many of those who are sitting around the negotiating table -- on our side of the negotiating table -- who share that view.  And that’s what we will insist upon.
The reasons that you’re hearing a slightly different message out of Iran is that this is -- the details of this arrangement have not yet been agreed to.
The Iranians are insisting that every sanction should be removed on day one.  The President has forcefully advocated in a way that’s consistent with the thinking of the international community that what we should see is a phased reduction in sanctions to ensure that Iran continues to comply with the agreement and continues to have an incentive to comply with the agreement.
QUESTION: So there is no bill that could be offered, some sort of accommodation that suggests Congress is getting its proper oversight role and the administration gets to conduct its foreign policy, that you could see the administration signing off on this before June 30th?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I wouldn’t be in a position of sort of ruling out hypotheticals like that.  But certainly the legislation that’s being most actively discussed on Capitol Hill right now is the legislation that Senator Corker has put forward.
And, again, I’ll mention that Senator Corker is somebody who has considered this issue in a very principled way.  But in this fashion we have a pretty strong disagreement with him -- because in the mind of the President, it could potentially interfere with the ongoing negotiations that are slated to continue through June. 
It also could interfere with the ability of the United States to implement the agreement successfully.  And it does interfere with a scope of responsibilities that it’s clearly within the purview of the President of the United States.  So we’ve made clear about what our differences are with the piece of legislation that’s been most actively discussed on Capitol Hill.
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Photo credit: Moniz by via Flickr Commons (public domain as U.S. Government work)