the WHITE HOUSEPresident Barack Obama

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The White House
Office of the Press Secretary
For Immediate Release

Gaggle by Senior Administration Officials on Iran

Pool Hold
United Nations

2:48 P.M. EDT

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  What we had indicated was the same thing we’ve been saying to you guys for the last few days and the President said for the last few years, which is we’re open to having discussion with the Iranians at any level.  We did not have any plan for a formal bilateral meeting here.  We indicated that the two leaders could have had a discussion on the margins if the opportunity presented itself.  The Iranians got back to us; it was clear that it was too complicated for them to do that at this time given their own dynamic back home.

So we’re going to continue to pursue this through the channel that the President announced in his speech today, which is Secretary Kerry with Foreign Minister Zarif in the P5-plus-1.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  And if I could just say, it’s important to note that the process here is what’s important. It’s the fact that Secretary Kerry is proceeding with the P5-plus-1.  When we talk about actions being more important than words, we were open to a meeting, the President was open to a meeting, but the real work on resolving this issue has to be done through substantive negotiations.

Q    When you say it’s too complicated for them, you’re suggesting that domestically, politically, it was not in their interest?  Is that what you mean?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  I think you’ll have to ask them.  I mean, clearly, there are complicated dynamics in Iran surrounding the relationship with the United States.  Again, at the same time, I think part of what has strengthened the United States in the international community in terms of our unity is the President’s openness to engage Iran, and that’s what we’ve indicated from the beginning of the administration.  And I think that indicates that we’re ready to solve this problem, and that’s what we’ve indicated not just when we came into office, but most recently with President Rouhani.

Q    And just to be clear, this was you guys offering an Obama-Rouhani meeting, and the Iranians came back today -- and in what form -- and said no?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Again, this wasn’t a -- nobody contemplated a formal bilateral meeting or a negotiation of any sort.  We’re not prepared for heads of state to negotiate or Presidents to negotiate on the nuclear issue.  That’s got to be done through the P5-plus-1 with the foreign ministers.

What we indicated is, again, what we’ve been saying publicly, which is we’re open to the two leaders having an encounter here at UNGA, not a formal meeting.

Q    So like a handshake?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Yes, that type of thing.  Exactly.  On the margins here.  They, again -- we had discussions at a working level with them and ultimately it became clear that that was too complicated for them at this time.

Q    Was that today?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  That was today.

Q    Can you tell us what happened?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  I won’t get into details.  Again, as we’ve said, we had an ability to be in touch with the Iranians at a variety of levels.  We’ve been doing that here in New York.  And today, I think it became apparent that the two leaders having an encounter here on the margins of UNGA was not going to happen.

Q    I want to press the point one more time.  He’s meeting with the French and having other bilats.  And not that you were considering a formal bilat, but what was the specific -- what’s your takeaway for why they decided not to do this?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Well, I think the takeaway is that the Iranians, number one, have an internal dynamic that they have to manage.  And the relationship with the United States is clearly quite different than the relationship that Iran has with other Western countries, even. 

Again, I will underscore part of the reason we were able to get international sanctions is because the United States demonstrated that we were willing to engage.  Before the President came into office, the United States' unwillingness to engage was often the issue.  And I think because we've demonstrated time and again that we would be open to discussion with the Iranians, that allowed us to rally international support for sanctions and for pressure.

Now we see a real opening here for a diplomatic process.  And that's going to be carried forward by Secretary Kerry meeting with his counterpart, which is a significant elevation of the level that that exchange has taken place through that P5-plus-1 process.  But the Iranians, at this point, were not ready to have an encounter at the presidential level.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  If I could just clarify on the way that I think one of the questioners described this.  This was not a formal offer that then came back because it's too complicated.  This was a conversation -- some conversations that were taking place about the possibility of an informal, brief encounter. 

Q    With whom?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  I'd just say at the staff level. 

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  At the staff level.

Q    U.N. staff or U.S. staff?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  I'm not going to get into details, but to say staff level.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  And the point is that those conversations resulted in we were open and willing to have that encounter.  And in the end, the Iranians -- it was too complicated for them to do it. 

Q    You're saying Kerry meeting with his counterpart is basically how you foresee that diplomacy going forward?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Yes, look -- and that is where this would be resolved.  It's important to note that we would never have a negotiation at this point at the presidential level on the substance of any nuclear agreement.  The negotiation is going to take place at the foreign minister level and it's going to take place through the P5-plus-1 process.  And that's going to go forward later this week.  That's why the President indicated in his speech that Secretary Kerry was going to be tasked with this effort of engaging the Iranians in the P5-plus-1.  And we do see an opening here for progress to be made through that track, and we'll continue to pursue it.   

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  The pool has to go.  He'll be able to read out --

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Yes, we'll come back after the Palestinian thing.  We'll be back.

END
2:54 P.M. EDT