Secretary of State John Kerry met with his Iranian counterpart, Mohammad Javad Zarif in Lausanne, Switzerland to discuss Tehran’s controversial nuclear program. On March 16, the first day of talks, Zarif said solutions are “within reach” on certain issues while gaps remain on others. U.S. Secretary of State Energy Ernest Moniz and Iranian Atomic Energy Agency chief Ali Akbar Salehi joined the talks to negotiate technical details. Zarif then flew to Brussels to meet with E.U. officials. The Iranian team returned to Switzerland for more talks with U.S. officials on March 17-18. After the first session, Salehi said that 90 percent of the technical issues had been resolved. Iran and the so-called P5+1 countries —Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia and the United States —aim to agree on a framework by late March and finalize the technical details of a nuclear deal by June 30.
The following are recent excerpted remarks by officials from Iran and the world’s six major powers on the status of nuclear negotiations.
President Barack Obama
“Obviously there's significant skepticism in Israel generally about Iran. And understandably. Iran has made vile comments, anti-Semitic comments, comments about the destruction of Israel. It is precisely for that reason that even before I became president, I said Iran could not have a nuclear weapon.
What is going to have an effect on whether we get a deal done is, number one, is Iran prepared to show, to prove to the world that it is not developing a nuclear weapon, and can we verify that in an intrusive, consistent way.
And frankly, they have not yet made the kind of concessions that are I think going to be needed for a final deal to get done. But they have moved, and so there's the possibility.
The other thing is going to be me being able to show not just the American people or the Israeli people but the world that, in fact, we have mechanisms in place that will prevent Iran from having a nuclear weapon. And that the deal that is made not only is verifiable, but it also makes it much less likely that Iran is able to break out than if we have no deal at all. And that's an argument that we are going to have to make, if we have a deal. But we've still got some more to do.”
“Negotiations have broken for a week because of the Nowruz holidays inside of Iran, which gives time for us to make sure that everybody within the P5+1 is comfortable with the current positions that are being taken. It allows them to consult. We'll be back in a week. Our goal though is to get this done in a matter of weeks, not months.”
—March 21, 2015 in an interview with the Huffington Post
Secretary of State John Kerry
“From the beginning, these talks have been tough and they’ve been intense, and they remain so. And we’ve made some progress, but there are still gaps, important gaps, and important choices that need to be made by Iran in order to be able to move forward.
“Now I want to be very clear. Nothing in our deliberations is decided until everything is decided. And the purpose of these negotiations is not just to get any deal; it is to get the right deal. President Obama means it when he says, again and again, that Iran will not be permitted to get a nuclear weapon. As you all know, Iran says it doesn’t want a nuclear weapon, and that is a very welcome statement that the Supreme Leader has, in fact, incorporated into a fatwa. And we have great respect – great respect – for the religious importance of a fatwa. And what we are effectively trying to do is translate that into legal language, into everyday language within the framework of a negotiated agreement that everybody can understand, which requires everybody to have certain obligations and ultimately be able to guarantee that Iran’s program, its nuclear program, will be peaceful now and peaceful forever.
“Now sanctions alone can’t achieve that. We need a verifiable set of commitments. And we need an agreed-upon plan that obviously provides the access and the opportunity to be able to know what is happening so that you can have confidence that the program is, indeed, peaceful. That’s what we’re negotiating about. And we need to cover every potential pathway – uranium, plutonium, covert – that there might exist towards a weapon, and only an agreement can do that.
“So what’s the alternative? In previous years, when U.S. policy was not to talk to Iran and insist at the same time that they could have no nuclear program whatsoever, the number of centrifuges skyrocketed. Every time negotiations have broken down in the past, Iran’s nuclear program has advanced. Only the joint plan, which Iran agreed to and fully implemented, has actually succeeded in freezing Iran’s program for the first time in nearly 10 years, and even rolled it back in some cases. And they agreed to that, because they have an interest in proving that their plan is peaceful.
“The comprehensive plan will lock in, with greater specificity and breadth, if we can arrive at it, the ways in which Iran will live up to its international obligations under the NPT for the long term. So we continue to be focused on reaching the right deal, a deal that would protect the world, including the United States and our closest allies and partners, from the threat that a nuclear-armed Iran could pose. We still don’t know whether or not we will get there, and that’s why I will travel to Lausanne in Switzerland tomorrow in order to meet with Foreign Minister Zarif and once again engage in talks to see if we can find a way to get that right deal.
“As I have said previously, it may be that Iran simply can’t say yes to the type of deal that the international community is looking for. But we owe it to the future of everybody in the world to try to find out. If we cannot get to a diplomatic agreement, make no mistake, we obviously do have other options. But those options will mean no transparency, they will mean no verifiable set of commitments, and they don’t close off Iran’s potential pathways to a nuclear weapon for nearly as long as a negotiated agreement can, if it’s the right agreement. And so we will return to these talks, recognizing that time is of the essence, the clock is ticking, and important decisions need to be made.
“[T]he deadline is approaching. As you all know, we have set the end of the month as the deadline. And so we will be going into this understanding that time is critical. I can’t tell you whether or not we can get a deal or whether we’re close. And one reason I can’t tell you is because we have heard some comments from the Supreme Leader regarding the letter that was sent by the 47 senators. And until I engage in those conversations, I cannot gauge on a personal level that reaction – though I can tell you from common sense that when the United States Senate sends a letter such as the 47 senators chose to send the other day it is a direct interference in the negotiations of the executive department. It is completely without precedent, and it is almost inevitable that it will raise questions in the minds of the folks with whom we are negotiating as to whether or not they are negotiating with the executive department and the President, which is what the Constitution says, or whether there are 535 members of Congress.
“Let me make clear to Iran, to our P5+1 counterparts who are deeply involved in this negotiation, that, from our point of view, this letter – the letter was, in fact, incorrect in its statements about what power they do have. It was incorrect in its assessments of what type of agreement this is. And as far as we are concerned, the Congress has no ability to change an executive agreement per se. So we will approach these negotiations in the same way that we have approached them to date, not affected externally but looking at as this Administration, according to President Obama’s instructions, to get the right deal that will accomplish what we need to for the security interest of the United States, our friends and allies in the region, and for the long-term security of everybody who cares about nonproliferation.”
—March 14, 2015 at a press briefing in Egypt
Margaret Brennan (CBS News): The president wants a deal by the end of March. If you can't meet that timetable, what happens? … Would there be an extension?
Kerry: Well, the president's view -- and I share this view completely -- is that we have been at this for over two years now.
And Iran has said its program is peaceful. In the time that we have had, the fundamental framework of decisions necessary to prove your program is peaceful should be possible. So, we believe very much that there's not anything that's going to change in April or May or June that suggests that, at that time, a decision you can't make now will be made then.
If it's peaceful, let's get it done. And my hope is that, in the next days, that will be possible.
Brennan: But if these talks fail, do you think there is a risk that Iran will make the choice to build a bomb?
Kerry: Of course there's that risk, obviously.
Brennan:: But is that really what is at stake?
Kerry: Well, look, if they moved along the road to decide suddenly to break out and rush to try to have enough fissile material to build a bomb, we have a number of options available to us.
President Obama has said they are all on the table. And he has also pledged very publicly and very clearly on a number of occasions Iran will not be allowed to get a nuclear weapon.
—March 15, 2015 in an interview with CBS News
"Over the past few days, I’ve had lengthy negotiations with the Iranian team about the steps that Iran must take to demonstrate that its nuclear program now and ongoing in the future is exclusively for peaceful purposes. Over the past months, the P5+1 have made substantial progress towards that fundamental goal, though important gaps remain. In London, we will share ideas this evening about how to resolve the remaining sticking points, as I did yesterday on the telephone with Foreign Minister Lavrov and Foreign Minister Wang Yi. We will coordinate our strategy, as we have, as we approach the end of the March deadline, to reach an understanding on the major issues. And those of us meeting tonight will then return to our respective capitals for consultations before coming back to Lausanne next week to determine whether or not an agreement is possible.
I want to emphasize: In my conversations with Foreign Minister Zarif, and indeed over the last 16 months since the Joint Plan of Action took effect, we have made genuine progress. We have all kept the commitments that we made in the Joint Plan, and we have all lived up to our obligations. We have worked long and hard to achieve a comprehensive agreement that resolves international concerns about Iran’s nuclear program. The stakes are high and the issues are complicated, highly technical, and all interrelated.
Once again, let me also be clear we don’t want just any deal. If we had, we could have announced something a long time ago. And clearly, since the Joint Plan of Action was agreed, we are not rushing. This has been a two and a half year or more process. But we recognize that fundamental decisions have to be made now, and they don’t get any easier as time goes by. It is time to make hard decisions. We want the right deal that would make the world, including the United States and our closest allies and partners, safer and more secure, and that is our test. President Obama has been clear that the best way to achieve that security, that safety, is through a comprehensive and durable agreement that all parties are committed to upholding, and whose implementation is not based on trust, but it is based on intensive verification, on the ability to know and understand what is happening.
So in the days ahead, we will stay at this. We will continue to exercise the judgment and the patience to defend our interests, to uphold our core principles, and maintain our sense of urgency. We have not yet reached the finish line. But make no mistake, we have the opportunity to try to get this right. It’s a matter of political will and tough decision making. It’s a matter of choices, and we must all choose wisely in the days ahead."
White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest
"We are in a situation where we are, at best, it’s a 50/50 proposition that a deal will be completed before the end of March. There are a couple of reasons for that. The first is, the President is driving a very hard bargain and Iran is going to have to make some very tough and specific commitments as it relates to resolving the international community’s concerns with their nuclear program as well as agreeing to a set of extraordinarily intrusive inspections. And that’s the only way that we’re going to get to an agreement, and that’s why the President is realistic about how difficult it will be to arrive at an agreement…
"The second reason that we continue to believe that our odds of reaching this agreement are at best 50/50 is that it is going to require the Iranian leadership, including those who aren’t at the table, to sign on to this agreement. And the fact is, from our vantage point it's difficult to predict what exactly they’ll conclude. And so that is an X factor in these negotiations...
"There’s no doubt that they’ve made substantial progress over the course of the last year. And that is an indication that Iran took very seriously their participation in these negotiations. But what is also true in the context of these negotiations is that as they encounter stumbling blocks, they just delay them to the end, which means that in the context of these negotiations some of the most difficult issues, some of the issues that they’ve been struggling with for the longest period of time, are the issues that have yet to be resolved. So that is how it's possible that we’ve made substantial progress while acknowledging that significant gaps remain."
—March 17, 2015 in a press briefing
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Iran still needs to make some very tough and necessary choices to address the significant concerns that remain about its nuclear program, concerns that we and the P5+1 share. Indeed, the whole point of this is so that Iran can show – in essence, prove – to the international community that its program is exclusively peaceful. As the President has said, this is the time when we’ll be able to determine whether or not Iran is able to accept a deal to prove that, in fact, that program is exclusively peaceful. We’re trying to get there. But quite frankly, we still do not know if we will be able to.
QUESTION: I wanted to ask if you were familiar with reports that had come out this weekend out of Iran where Salehi was quoted as saying that now they want to keep Fordow open and that they also don’t want to convert Arak anymore. ... And also, at the end of this process by the end of March, if you do get an agreement, do you expect to have a written piece of paper, a public document that you will share with people?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: So I haven’t seen the reports, Indira, so I’m not going to comment on them. Probably wouldn’t comment on them even if I had seen them. But what I can say is that we’ve been very clear about what we have to accomplish in this agreement: We have to shut down all the pathways to fissile material for a nuclear weapon – that’s the highly-enriched uranium pathway at Natanz and Fordow; the weapons-grade plutonium pathway potential at Arak; and the covert pathway. And so those are the metrics for seeing, in fact – and we have to do that for an extended period of time because the international community has to gain confidence over time that in fact this is an exclusively peaceful program. So those are the metrics that we will use for whatever gets decided here.
As far as a written commitment, as I’ve said to our team, this would be a high-class – what we call a high-class problem. If we are fortunate to get to an agreement that meets the metrics the President has set out and assures the world that Iran has an exclusively peaceful program and cannot get a nuclear weapon, then we will figure out how to communicate best. Obviously, there will have to be detailed, classified consultations with the Congress; that’s an obligation we have. We will have to have a way to communicate with our partners around the world. And we will, of course, have to say something publicly about where we are. How detailed that will be and how – what form it will take is not yet decided because we aren’t there.
QUESTION: Can I just ask you without explaining to us where you are, because I know you won’t do that, on the sanctions component, is there a general understanding on the structure of how you’d go about scaling back sanctions in an agreement?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I think we have said before that from our perspective we believe that sanctions relief has to come in a phased way as Iran undertakes its commitments so that it would be more of a step-by-step process similar to the Joint Plan of Action, which I think is a good guidepost for how we’re approaching the joint comprehensive plan of action, which is, of course, much more complicated and long-term. So that is our frame for how we’re doing this.
—March 16, 2015 in a special briefing in Lausanne, Switzerland
Senior Administration Official
“I’ll just say in our interactions with Salehi… have been very, very professional; I think fruitful, in terms of, again, identifying the technical issues, clarifying them, sharpening them, and looking at what are the options on the table for a potential agreement. And it’s – again, he’s very knowledgeable. He’s very accomplished. He has a Ph.D. in nuclear engineering from a terrific school. And so I think very – again, the word that I would mostly use is extremely professional, in terms of our discussion.”
—March 17, 2015 in a second special briefing in Lausanne, Switzerland
State Department Spokesperson Jen Psaki
“We're obviously in crunch time right now, and the next couple of days leading up to this weekend will be key.
“We fully expect we will take to the end of the month to determine if we can get to an agreement that both sides can live by.”
—March 16, 2015 in remarks to CNN
President Hassan Rouhani
Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif
“We are discussing the details, which needs a lot of work ... We are trying to overcome the differences. We can make progress if the other party shows political will.”
—March 18, 2015 to the press
“On some issues we are closer to a solution and based on this we can say solutions are within reach. At the same time, we are apart on some issues.”
—March 16, 2015 to the press
“I believe we can hold talks with the US and produce the [intended] results from such talks.
“If we fail to arrive at an agreement, the US miscalculation would be to blame; the Americans [wrongly] thought that they could pursue their agenda though piling pressure [on Iran]. There is still one good opportunity to reach a deal, one which allows Iran to hold on to its rights and maintain its interests.”
—March 2015 in an interview with Khorosan daily (translation via Iran Front Page)
“In the [general] meeting, it was decided that the political directors of the three European countries along with their Chinese and Russian counterparts join the [Iranian, E.U. and U.S.) negotiators so as to help the negotiations [move forward] in the final days of this round.”
“The European sides stated that they would have an active presence in Lausanne to reach a final agreement.”
—March 17, 2015 to the press
Deputy Foreign Minister Seyed Abbas Araghchi
“That is the point to say that we were able to reach a solution and to open the locks; now, three months later, we must continue to end the differences and bridge the gaps.
“[I]f we conclude the locks still remain in place, we may then decide not to continue; when we cannot open the locks, we will not reach any solutions on the details, either.”
—March 16, 2015 to the press
“There is a faction in U.S. politics who believe a deal with Iran will help American interests and security.”
“We used to say we have a 50-percent chance of success in the talks, now it's definitely more than 50 percent.”
—March 17, 2015 to Iranian weekly Mosalas
Iranian Atomic Energy Agency chief Ali Akbar Salehi
“We have agreed on 90 percent of technical issues. There has only remained one very important point of difference that we will try to resolve in the evening talks.”
—March 17, 2015 to the press
“I'm very optimistic [about negotiations].”
—March 16, 2015 to the press after bilateral talks with U.S. officials
“The function and nature of the Arak Heavy-Water Reactor…will remain unchanged as a heavy water facility.”
“We are determined to make use of this site [Fordo uranium enrichment plant near the city of Qom] according to the guidelines of Iran's Supreme Leader (Ayatollah Seyed Ali Khamenei) and AEOI's technical needs.”
“Our long-term strategy is to materializing the macro-scale policies specified by the Supreme Leader.”
Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond
“We are closer than we were but there is still a long way to go. There are areas where we have made progress and areas where we have yet to make any progress.”
—March 16, 2015 to the press
"It remains the case that Iran has to make significant further movement if we are going to be able to secure an agreement."
"There are a lot of complex and difficult issues that remain to be resolved before a deal can be agreed. Reaching a comprehensive, lasting and verifiable deal will be extremely challenging but remains in all our interests."
"The right deal is one that allows Iran to have a civilian nuclear program but prevents it from developing a nuclear weapon capability. It remains our position that no deal is better than a bad deal."
—March 23, 2015 according to the press
Foreign Minister Wang Yi
"The Iran nuclear talks have reached the final sprint in the marathon."
"Reaching an agreement is the trend of the times and the will of the people, which accords with the joint and long-term interests of all sides, including Iran."
—March 24, 2015 according to the press
The independent group of global leaders, founded by Nelson Mandela and chaired by Kofi Annan, includes Martti Ahtisaari, Ela Bhatt, Lakhdar Brahimi, Gro Harlem Brundtland, Fernando H Cardoso, Jimmy Carter, Hina Jilani, Graça Machel, Mary Robinson, Desmond Tutu and Ernesto Zedillo.
The Elders believe that an agreement between Iran and the “P5+1” powers on the Islamic Republic’s nuclear programme is a realistic aspiration and could herald genuine and far-reaching improvements for peace and stability.
The Elders strongly encourage all parties to reach a mutually satisfactory agreement that ensures safety and security.
“This requires commitment, patience and persistence. There is too much at stake to allow the process to fail.”
At this sensitive time The Elders urge political actors on all sides to avoid any public statements that undermine the peace negotiations. Negotiations cannot advance if they face a constant barrage of criticism and second guessing; the negotiators should be given the time and space to complete their work before judgements are made.
The Elders hope all stakeholders will seize this historic opportunity to help stabilise the Middle East and usher in an era of security cooperation that transcends national rivalries and sectarian divisions.
Photo credit: Robin Wright