The White House
For Immediate Release
September 27, 2013
Background Briefing on Iran
BY A SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL
Via Conference Call
4:34 P.M. EDT
MS. HAYDEN: Hi, everyone. Happy Friday afternoon. Thanks for joining us on this call. We just wanted to talk to you a bit about the announcement the President made earlier, his phone call with President Rouhani of Iran. We have a senior administration official, so this call is on background. There’s no embargo. This call is attributable to a senior administration official.
And with that, I'll turn it over to our senior administration official.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thanks, everybody. We just wanted to give you some background on today’s phone call between President Obama and President Rouhani. First of all, I'd note that today we had two significant developments underway in terms of our foreign policy -- frankly, neither of which could have been foreseen a month ago, and both of which hold out the prospect of significant progress on issues that are hugely important to the United States and the international community.
The first, of course, is our efforts to reach an agreement on a U.N. Security Council resolution, the significant breakthrough that was made last night with Russia, and the opportunity that we now have to have a strong binding U.N. Security Council resolution that puts Syrian chemical weapons under international control and ultimately destroys them.
This would, frankly, go beyond achieving the objective that we were contemplating with military action, which was to deter the use of chemical weapons, by achieving the destruction of those chemical weapons stockpiles within Syria through a process of transfer to international control and ultimately destruction.
But to focus on the call with the Iranian President, I'll say a few words to open and then take your questions. You, no doubt, saw the President’s comments.
The call between the two leaders took place this afternoon at roughly 2:30 p.m. The length of the call was roughly 15 minutes. President Obama opened by congratulating President Rouhani on his election as President of the Islamic Republic of Iran. He noted the history of mistrust between our two nations, but also noted the constructive statements that President Rouhani had made since his election, including over the last several days in New York.
The President indicated that we have an opportunity to make progress on resolving the nuclear issue and that we should work together, the United States and Iran, together with the P5-plus-1, to seize that opportunity.
The bulk of the call focused on the nuclear issue. The two leaders agreed that their teams should work expeditiously to reach an agreement on the nuclear issue, again, in consultation with the P5-plus-1. They both directed their foreign ministers -- Secretary Kerry and Foreign Minister Zarif -- to continue leading that effort for our respective governments; noted the importance of the upcoming P5-plus-1 plus Iran meeting in October, which will be the next milestone in our efforts to continue the discussions that began yesterday in New York and that went quite constructively at both the political and technical level.
The two leaders noted the importance of building trust through this process, and President Obama underscored that we need to build trust in a way that pursues an agreement that is meaningful, transparent, as well as verifiable.
President Obama also noted that a breakthrough on the nuclear issue could open the door to a deeper relationship between the United States and Iran, which would be in our mutual interests and also in the interest of the region and the world.
I’d also just note that, in addition to the nuclear issue and the discussion of the broader relationship between the United States and Iran, President Obama also noted our concern about three American citizens who have been held within Iran -- Robert Levinson, Saeed Abedini, and Amir Hekmati -- and noted our interest in seeing those Americans reunited with their families.
With that, I’d be happy to take questions.
Q Thanks very much. Can you tell us a little bit more about how this call came to pass, what interactions led to it, and whether or not you think these two men will stay in touch going forward as well?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: First, Jeff, before I answer your question, I just want to clarify one thing that I just said. Obviously, Mr. Abedini and Hekmati we know to be held in Iran. Mr. Levinson has been missing, but we’ve been urging Iran for some time to help us locate him and reunite him with his family. So I just want to clarify that.
On your question, as you know, earlier this week when we were at the U.N. General Assembly, we indicated to the Iranians that President Obama was willing to have a discussion with President Rouhani. That discussion could not come about in New York when the two leaders were there; as we said at the time, that proved too complicated to set up with the Iranians. However, ours was a standing offer of engagement for the two Presidents.
And then what happened is we learned earlier today from the Iranians that President Rouhani would speak -- would want to speak with President Obama on the phone before he left New York. So that led us to set up the phone call. So we had indicated earlier in the week our openness to a discussion, and earlier today we heard from the Iranians that President Rouhani could speak by phone and wanted to speak by phone before he left for Iran.
Q Can you tell us more about sort of the dynamic between the two? How would you describe the conversation? And any sort of color that you can give us to reflect the atmosphere of the call?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Sure. It was quite cordial in tone. Again, the President was able to open by congratulating President Rouhani on his election. I think that both leaders expressed the determination to try to resolve this issue peacefully and expeditiously. So it was very much a call focused on giving further momentum to the efforts that are underway, on the nuclear issue in particular, and I think both leaders expressed that sense of urgency and the importance of trying to resolve our differences on the nuclear issue.
So it was cordial, and the leaders were able to have several exchanges over the course of the call. I’d note that also at the conclusion of the call, President Obama was able to say goodbye in Farsi, even after President Rouhani expressed that he wanted President Obama to have a nice day in English. My Farsi is not that good, so I won’t make an effort to repeat what the President said, but I think that that was appreciated on the Iranian side.
So altogether, roughly 15 minutes; a cordial tone between the two leaders; a determination to try to seize this opportunity, both noting the constructive comments that the other side had expressed, but also noting the differences that remain between our governments.
And I realize I didn’t answer Jeff’s earlier question about whether this channel would remain open. I think the fact of the matter is that the substance of this negotiation is going to take place through the P5-plus-1, both because there’s a political effort there with foreign ministers and political directors, but also there’s a lot of technical discussion that has to take place on the nuclear issues, and so there are technical teams that can work through these specific issues.
So this is not a negotiation that we expect to take place at the presidential level. We expect it to take place at the foreign minister and political director level through the P5-plus-1, with the support of a technical team.
Again, however, the President’s view since 2007 has been that he’s willing to engage if he believes that it can help advance our interests and our objectives, and we felt like this conversation was able to add further momentum and direction to the respective U.S. and Iranian teams that will be working this through the P5-plus-1 process.
Q I’m just wondering -- I don’t know if you noticed, but it looked like Rouhani kind of tweeted about this call right before the announcement. And I’m just wondering what you sort of make of those kinds of style points, and if you see those things as sort of another of these signs in terms of how he’s operating differently and -- using social media, reaching out to different groups.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: To answer your question, yes, we did notice President Rouhani’s Twitter feed, and frankly, we’ve watched him use social media to communicate over the course of the last several weeks. And again, I think it’s a welcome development. I think that President Rouhani’s efforts to reach out to people in the United States and around the world, including through social media, is a positive and constructive step. President Obama also has a Twitter account, so we’ll be making use of that as well.
The only thing I’d note is one of the issues that we [have] also raised with respect to Iran is we’d like to see that Iranians have access to Facebook and Twitter, because, in the past, what we’ve noticed is Iran, like many other countries, has a youthful population that very much enjoys getting on and expressing their views through social media, so we believe that that’s a positive means for not just free expression, but communication.
So, again, noticed President Rouhani’s tweets; they certainly reflected the tone of the conversation between the two leaders; and we’ll continue to watch his Twitter feed.
We’ll take the next question.
Q Could you talk a little bit more to why -- what you understand changed with Rouhani -- why he changed his mind since the no-handshake stance of the other day? Also, did he speak through an interpreter, or did he speak English the whole time? Did you guys call Israel or Congress before making the call to him? And I’ve got one more -- did Carter ever call the Shah in 1979 before he fell? Is this the first call between the U.S. and Iranian heads of state since when -- just since ’79, or since before? Thanks.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thanks, Margaret. I’m just trying to make sure I get all of these. In terms of what changed, I don’t know, I couldn’t speak for the Iranians. I guess what I would say is that even when we reached out and had discussions with them in New York there was an openness to a discussion; they just could not make it work in New York. It seemed to be too complicated for them at that time.
In terms of what changed, again, I can’t speak for them. I can speculate that there were meetings yesterday of the P5-plus-1; Secretary Kerry was able to speak with Foreign Minister Zarif in the context of that meeting. And all accounts were that meeting went quite well and there was a constructive discussion, a shared sense of urgency. So I think, frankly, that the positive developments at the meeting yesterday further created an environment where it made sense for the two Presidents to talk.
Similarly, I think President Obama made very clear in his speech at the U.N. General Assembly that he wanted to pursue this opening and opportunity to achieve a diplomatic resolution with Iran. I’m sure that was similarly noted in Iran as well, and that led to the call today.
They did speak through an interpreter. So the President communicated through an interpreter, as is common practice on foreign leader calls for the President.
We have been in touch with other governments. I don’t have a list for you, but I do know that we have been in touch with the Israeli government, since you specifically asked about them. And there have been calls made to leaders in Congress to update them on this call.
So throughout this process, as the President noted, we’re going to continue to be in consultation with P5-plus-1 partners, but also regional partners like Israel, like our Gulf partners. And of course, given the interest of members of Congress, their support for the sanctions regime has helped bring us to where we are today by applying that pressure on Iran, we’ll certainly continue to consult with Congress going forward as well.
We’ll take the next question.
Q Do you think that one of the reasons this happened today is that there was, because of Iranian political sensitivities, a desire to have this communication before Rouhani got back to Iran, and that is another reason why there probably won’t be a lot of presidential calls in the future and this will be carried out at the foreign ministerial level and the P5-plus-1?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thanks, Major. I realize I didn’t answer Margaret’s last question about Carter. I don’t know off the top of my head, Margaret. We’ll have to check the exact history for you. But clearly, as the President indicated, there have not been discussions between the U.S. and Iranian Presidents since the revolution, as there were today, again, consistent with what President Obama has said since he was a candidate in 2007 that he’d be willing to engage the leader of Iran if he felt like it could advance our interests.
In terms of Major's question, again, I can't speak for the Iranians, Major. I guess I would say that President Rouhani I think made a pretty concerted effort to communicate to the American people while he was here. He was on a number of your networks. He obviously spoke at the U.N. General Assembly. There was the P5-plus-1 meeting yesterday that included the Iranian Foreign Minister -- again, a very high-level meeting for the U.S. and the Islamic Republic of Iran already.
So I think that that environment suggested that this was a part of his attendance at the U.N. General Assembly. So without speaking for him, it takes place in the context of his trip to New York, his communications to the Iranian -- to the American people and the P5-plus-1 meeting yesterday.
In terms of going forward, I don’t know that -- I certainly don’t expect that there will be regular interaction, for the reason that I said, which is that the center of gravity here is going to be through the P5-plus-1, through the foreign ministers, political directors and technical working groups.
But I think the President's view is that if it can be helpful in advancing our interests and advancing a resolution to the nuclear issues, he certainly stands ready to engage President Rouhani, as he has through an exchange of letters and through this phone call today. So it's something we're open to should it make sense and advance this effort going forward.
We'll take another question.
Q Can you talk about what changed between now and earlier in the week at the United Nations where they couldn’t have this meeting and it couldn’t happen, and why then the phone call could happen three days later?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Nedra, I'd just say -- I mentioned this -- I think that while I cannot speak for the Iranians, what we know changed is there was a constructive meeting yesterday at the foreign minister level, including Secretary Kerry and Foreign Minister Zarif through the P5-plus-1. And similarly, I think President Obama's speech made clear his openness to pursuing diplomacy with the Iranian government to resolve this issue. President Rouhani spoke to a number of audiences in New York. So I think all of that contributed to an environment where this phone call went forward today.
Q On Monday, Prime Minister Netanyahu is coming to the White House, and his government has been very critical of the way this opening from Iran has been received around the world. How will the President sort of try and reassure Netanyahu about his intentions?
And it also seems that there’s -- the red lines, if you like, for the Israelis are much more stringent than those of the President for Iran’s nuclear program and what they would have to do seemed to be more stringent than what the President has laid out. How will they reconcile that?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Sure thing, Steve. First of all, as the President said today in his remarks, we’ll continue to keep the Israeli government updated on the progress of this diplomatic effort, along with other allies and partners around the world and in the region, to include for instance, our Gulf partners.
In terms of the Israeli government’s skepticism, look, the Israeli government has every right to be skeptical of the Iranian government, given the statements that have come out of Iran in the past -- extraordinarily inflammatory statements about Israel, threats towards Israel’s existence -- given that history, I think it is entirely understandable and appropriate for the Israeli government to be deeply skeptical.
I think what we would say is we’re trying to achieve an objective that we believe could serve the interests of the United States, Israel and the world, which is a resolution that involves Iran coming in line with its obligations, not developing a nuclear weapon. And again, I think that that would advance our security; it would also advance Israel’s security if we can achieve a meaningful, transparent, verifiable agreement.
And again, Israel will be skeptical, and what we’d say is we’ve expressed skepticism. We’ve made clear that words need to be followed by actions, and ultimately it’s going to be the actions of the Iranian government through this diplomatic process that is going to make the difference. And so when we consider things like potential sanctions relief, we’re going to need to see a meaningful agreement and meaningful actions by the Iranian government before the pressure that's in place can be relieved.
And again, we’re only where we are today because of that pressure and because of that comprehensive international sanctions regime, which has significantly impacted the Iranian economy.
In terms of their discussions, I’m sure that the President and Prime Minister Netanyahu will focus on the subject of Iran and this ongoing process on red lines. They’ve had a significant amount of conversation about this issue over the course of the last several years. I think you saw them express earlier this year, when the President was in Israel, a common view of the question of red lines. The bottom line for us is that Iran cannot be allowed to develop a nuclear weapon. And as the President said, they can access peaceful nuclear energy -- we’ll have to determine that they’re in line with their international obligations, though, as a part of any agreement.
Q I was just looking ahead a little bit. It feels like there’s kind of a buildup on the diplomatic side. The next sort of concrete meeting will be in Geneva. I guess I’m trying to get a sense, is there any thought now of upgrading that from the political level to having Secretary Kerry attend? And when you look ahead, besides the P5-plus-1 track, are there other tracks you’re sort of considering now that this rapprochement with Iran seems to be gaining some steam? I know there is a lot of talk about engaging Iran more directly in the Geneva II process to end the Syrian conflict.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: With respect to the meetings in Geneva at the P5-plus-1 level, I’ll let my State Department colleagues speak to that. The expectation is that there will be representation at certainly the political director level from here. I do understand that Cathy Ashton will be there, representing the European Union, and I believe that the Iranians have confirmed that Foreign Minister Zarif will be attending as their lead negotiator. I don’t have any further updates in terms of the level that will be there other than certainly the political director level.
In terms of other tracks, I would just also note that there will be significant technical discussions around these meetings. So many of these issues have to be resolved that involve transparency, verification, and understanding of Iranian nuclear capabilities -- involve significant technological expertise. So that will be a track that accompanies the political discussions through the P5-plus-1.
That’s really the main event and the center of gravity in terms of the negotiations. As we’ve said, we’re open to -- in the past, we’ve been open to have the P5-plus-1, bilateral discussions as necessary, but this time we don’t have anything concrete in that regard.
In terms of other contacts with the Iranians, I think that the Geneva II process -- the President has made clear that the chemical weapons progress can be a catalyst for progress on the political track. I think the fact of the matter is the Iranians themselves have not expressed support for the Geneva agreement to date, so that would continue to be obviously necessary for further exploration of their participation through that process.
As a general matter -- and not as a concrete change in our posture -- but as a general matter, President Obama said at the U.N. that we welcome the influence of all nations to resolve the situation in Syria through a political process. And I think he expressly indicated that Russia and Iran have a particular influence on the Assad regime. So that’s a dynamic that I think could be important to the resolution of the Syrian conflict.
Q Did Iran come up at the discussion when the President met the Prime Minister this morning? And what was discussed if this came up?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thanks for the question. The President had extensive discussions with Prime Minister Singh on both security, political, and economic issues. The subject of Iran comes up in that context. I will say that we actually did not have this call scheduled until after the bilateral meeting between the President and Prime Minister Singh. It was scheduled rather quickly after we received word from the Iranian government that they were interested in having a discussion before President Obama -- before President Rouhani left New York.
As a general matter, India has been a partner in our sanctions effort, and we realize that that has been a difficult step for the Indian government to take, given their energy relationship with Iran. And that’s involved a lot of work by both us and India.
I also have noted in the past that India has been supportive of resolving these types of issues diplomatically, so, certainly, I think it's a type of issue on which we can have continued contact and constructive discussions with India.
Q I just wanted to circle back to see if you could add any more clarity to who initiated the call; I know we tried to ask and I know we've asked a couple of different ways. And also, did you speak to the Israelis or anyone representing the government before or after the call? And was any sort of timeline discussed?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Again, just to be clear on this, we indicated to the Iranians in New York, when we were there, that we were open to discussions between the two leaders on the margins of the U.N. General Assembly. A meeting, an encounter did not come to fruition in New York. But that was an open offer from the President given that he wants to pursue any type of discussion that can advance this objective of achieving a resolution to the nuclear issue.
The Iranians reached out to us today to express an interest in having this call before President Rouhani left for Iran. So, in some respects, it was both sides -- our initial indication of an interest in discussions earlier this week, and then today the Iranians indicating that President Rouhani wanted to have a call before he left to go back to Iran.
On the issue of the Israelis, we were able to notify the Israeli government of the call. I don’t want to get into the exact specific channel. We’ve already been having discussions with Israel anyway, given Prime Minister Netanyahu’s upcoming visit. So we’ve had steady with communications and were therefore able to update them on this development.
The last question was on the timeframe. And look, I think that what I’d say on the timeframe is that we want to move expeditiously and with a sense of urgency. We don’t want to set a hard a timeline, frankly, on these negotiations given that they’re very difficult issues. We have significant differences in our negotiating positions, and that’s normal. You don’t agree on the front end of a negotiation -- you have to work through these issues.
But I think both leaders did express the need to move with a sense of urgency, and they both agreed to direct their teams to move forward with a sense of urgency to resolve this issue given the importance to us and the importance to Iran in terms of achieving a peaceful resolution.
And, frankly, part of the point of the call I think was to provide that push and that momentum from the presidential level to the negotiations, so that now when there are discussions in Geneva next month, I think the clear direction from President Obama and President Rouhani will be to our respective teams in the P5-plus-1 to work aggressively in pursuit of a deal. We don’t expect to achieve that in any one meeting, but we do believe it can be achieved, that there’s a basis for a resolution given the statements out of the Iranian government about not pursuing nuclear weapons, given the statements by President Obama about respecting the right of the Iranian people to access peaceful nuclear energy.
And this is something that we have an obligation to test. If we can resolve this issue diplomatically, I think that would far and away be our preference and the preference of the international community. It’s the President’s expressed preference from 2007 when he was a candidate, and 2009 when he came into office and said we would be willing to extend a hand if there was an unclenched fist. And what we’ve seen is an unclenching, hopefully, of that fist and an opportunity to pursue diplomacy. But those words and gestures towards diplomacy that have been undertaken here over the last several days are going to have to be followed by actions in order for us to achieve an agreement.
Thanks, everybody, for getting on the call.
MS. HAYDEN: Just a reminder that this call was on background. Our speaker was a senior administration officials. Thanks, guys.
5:04 P.M. EDT