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U.S. Department of State

Diplomacy in Action

Background Briefing on U.S. Withdrawal From the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)

Senior Administration Officials
Foreign Press Center
Washington, DC
May 9, 2018

MODERATOR: Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. Thank you for waiting and welcome to the Foreign Press Center this morning. This is an on-background briefing with senior administration officials. You’ll see we put the names up, but they are for your reference only. Please report as senior administration officials. Again, as I’ve mentioned to some of you, we will not be having photography this morning. You are permitted to make recordings, but for your reference only, not for broadcast. And finally, there will be an embargo until the end of the briefing.

The briefers have said they do not have an opening statement, so we can go straight to questions. Please wait for a microphone and please do identify yourself by name and outlet when you ask a question. Thank you very much.

QUESTION: Thank you for the – for doing this. Nadia Bilbassy with Al-Arabiya Television. Yesterday Secretary Pompeo issued a statement, and he said that we exited from the Iran deal but we wanted to work with our European allies to make this agreement more comprehensive and address all the points that administration has raised. What – do you have – first of all, do you have confidence that actually the Europeans will come around on the points that you raise? What is the time frame for that? And is the sanction – the time that was given for the sanction to work is kind of ideal for you to work and kind of trying to negotiate with them. And what date they deliver Iran? Because in the end, it is the Iranians who has come to around.

And then I have another question, maybe it’s more of on the sanction.

STAFF: Okay. If you could the second one, I think.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL THREE: Well, what I would say is I wouldn’t put a time frame on the iterative process of engaging Europeans on this issue. This is something that myself and other members of the administration have been doing for the past four or five months. We see eye-to-eye on the need to address the totality of the Iranian threat, the threat that Iran’s behavior causes. We just continue to work out exactly how that will be done. And this is nothing new between allies. It’s nothing new between us and the Europeans with addressing these activities. I think the President’s belief – quite rightly – is that by imposing broader economic pressure we will recouple the financial consequences to Iran’s behavior that were perhaps artificially decoupled by the JCPOA.

QUESTION: Can I just follow up very quickly?

MODERATOR: One quick follow-up, and then we’ll go to Joyce.

QUESTION: Yes, sorry. President Rouhani’s statement yesterday seems to be measured, and he said basically that he will discuss with the Europeans and see if he can’t – if it’s that serve the interests of Iran, he will stay in the deal. How does this leave you if you cannot get the Europeans to address what you wanted?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL THREE: Well, the United States has a long history of secondary sanctions with Iran. This goes back to ILSA in the late ‘90s. As I said before, this is an iterative process. The way we get to a place where our partners are de-investing from a problematic – from designated Iranian designated entities and sectors of the Iranian economy is through constant engagements where we cajole, we request, occasionally we prod, and we do that over and over and over, and then over time the investment comes down.

QUESTION: Yes, good morning. Thank you, FPC, for doing this. Joyce Karam with The National, and I have probably like 50 questions for you. (Laughter.)

MODERATOR: Pick one for now, please.

QUESTION: Sure. So we saw Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain welcome the withdrawal from the deal, but we’re also seeing reports that, for example, Israel is on alert in the Golan Heights, worried about an Iranian attack. We saw also missiles intercepted today in Riyadh. What is the plan in case Iran does any destructive activity that could lead to a regional war? And just more generally, what is the plan going forward? Will we see more U.S. Gulf action? Will we see more coordinated sanctions maybe? If you can just shed a light on that, thanks.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: Sure, and please say hi to Mina. So I think that the incidents that you’re talking about have been building over time, and I think we’ve seen it illustrates the point that the President made yesterday that since the inception of the JCPOA that Iran’s destabilizing activities in the region around it have only grown. And so now we face the prospect of where the IRGC is actually committing acts of war from Yemen, launching missiles against Saudi Arabia, and where there’s a very severe risk of a conflict that the Iranian regime is close to provoking between Iran and Israel based on the IRGC presence in Syria.

And this is something that, as we’ve gone through the almost half a year of intense diplomacy with our European allies and with others, the increasingly destabilizing and provocative activity of the Iranian regime has been a factor in the way we’ve talked about the Iran problem with our closest allies. And so we have our disagreements about the JCPOA, of course, but there’s no disagreement among the allies that the Iranian regime poses a threat of instability and conflict that’s growing over time and that there needs to be a collective response to try to prevent that from spilling over into a regional conflict and having a destabilizing effect even beyond the Middle East.

MODERATOR: We’ll go to the front and then here.

QUESTION: Hello. My name is Alexey Bogdanovskiy with RIA Novosti, Russian news agency. I will ask – my question is probably for [Senior Administration Official Four] or [Senior Administration Official Three].

SENIOR OFFICIAL THREE: Officials number two and three.

QUESTION: Yes, I understand. So President Trump said that he’s willing to talk with the allies regarding a new deal which would address the totality of the Iranian behavior. But all the talk is about talking actually with three members of the group of six, which is Great Britain, France, and Germany. Does it mean that you wouldn't necessarily want Russia and China to be on board for that new agreement if it comes up, and that you don’t necessarily want to talk to Russia and China?

And the second question is about this differentiation in the secondary sanctions. So for example, you’re not willing to talk to Russia and China as much as you are with Germany and France, but are you willing to differentiate between them when imposing secondary sanctions after a period of time?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION THREE: Let me just say we are going to be engaging all countries in terms of investment (inaudible) that’s going into Iran to urge them, cajole them, and prod them to reduce that. That is not something that is just European based or just Asian based or just members of the JCPOA based.

Sorry, the question – what was the second part of the question?

QUESTION: The second part of the question was when you impose the secondary sanctions --

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION THREE: I would defer that – I would defer to Treasury on the application of specific sanctions.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION FOUR: Can I just re-emphasize something that [Senior Administration Official Three] said initially about the whole process, that it’s iterative. So in other words, it’s a process; it’s not just an event. Obviously, we’re moving on beyond the President’s statement yesterday. We know that the Russian Government, Foreign Minister Lavrov, and others have made key statements that they would have preferred the JCPOA to stay in place and they will consider it to be in place at present. And President Trump has regular discussions also with President Xi of China.

So we fully anticipate that as we move forward there will be more engagement once we have continued the discussions that both my colleagues have been talking about that have been going on for the past year on engaging with the E3. So again, look at this as an iterative process, not as something that’s just fixed in time.

MODERATOR: Thanks. I think you were next.

QUESTION: Hi. Thanks for doing this. I’m Lucia Leal with EFE. It’s a Spanish newswire. First, I wanted to clarify on my colleague’s question. He – I believe he also asked about the possibility of a new deal. I was wondering if the idea is that the original partners of the JCPOA would also be the ones negotiating the new deal, or if the U.S. is open to other options or wants just to negotiate with the Europeans.

And then secondly, some European leaders have already said that they want exemptions from the sanctions. Is that something that the U.S. is open to discussing, or is it out of the table?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL THREE: So I would say, as Secretary Mnuchin said yesterday, that there may be exemptions, but that’s going to be decided at some point on their end in the future, on Treasury’s end.

And now I have a bad habit of forgetting – I’m doing one part of the question and forgetting the other. I think the answer would be – on the first part – we would be open to engaging all countries who have a concurrent interest in constraining the totality of Iran’s behavior. It doesn’t have to be simply the JCPOA. It could be more. If we share similar assessments of the problem, the more the merrier.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: Yeah. Because – and I would just add it’s become clear since the inception of the JCPOA that the Iranian regime poses a threat to international security, not just to local security and the surrounding region. So, for example, when the Iranian regime tries to create a new threat to international shipping in the Red Sea, in Bab-el-Mandeb, or when they try to harass shipping near the Strait of Hormuz, or when they develop missiles that have a range far beyond Iran itself and into other regions, this becomes – as well as their global terrorist activity, their global illegal activity of all kinds – this becomes a threat to international security, not just to the nations that surround Iran.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: I’d just add to what [Senior Administration Official Three] was saying, that what Secretary Mnuchin said actually echoed what the President said. The President said these companies could face sanctions, not they will. And so I think he’s leaving his options open.

MODERATOR: Questions? Sir.

QUESTION: Hi. I’m Roland Nelles, with Der Spiegel from Germany. I’m trying to understand the sanctions. So what happens, for example, if Total or Siemens refuse to wind down their business? What would happen then? What would the U.S. do in this case, with these companies? So, first question.

Second question: What would happen if, as Mr. Rouhani has announced, Iran might restart its program to re-enrich uranium? What would the U.S. do in this case? Thank you.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: I think the better question – on the latter – on your latter question, the better question to ask is: If the Iranian regime restarts its enrichment of uranium, then what will the rest of the JCPOA participants and what will other nations do, not what the United States --

QUESTION: But I’m sitting here with officials from the United States, right?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: We’ve already – no, but I think the – it’s very --

QUESTION: That’s why I’m asking the question to you.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: It’s very clear we’re reimposing the sanctions that were lifted in 2015. That’s our initial response here. And we’ll look to see what our response will be if the Iranians – if the Iranian regime takes that further step. But I think it is a question that you should ask to European leaders and to other international leaders. If the Iranian regime were to follow through on what many Iranian officials have threatened to do, what will they do? What will their response be? Because at that point the mask will be pulled away, I think.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL THREE: That’s right. I mean, potentially the greatest potential amplitude change in behavior is from exactly those parties. That’s why [Senior Administration Official Two] is reiterating that.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL FOUR: I think the way that you’re going backwards and forwards on the question actually underscores the dilemma that we have. I mean, the United States, the President, has taken a strong unilateral action, but the intent is to spur a multilateral response to a problem that is a problem for everyone, as we’ve laid out. And I think the difficulty that we’ve had up until this point is that – as many members of the administration, the President, have made clear that the JCPOA had been substituting for a broader policy and a broader effort. And if we’re going to be tackling the problem that we face in Iran and similar problems on a global scale, we need a much broader international response. And that’s really what we’re seeking to do.

And as my colleagues have said, we’ve actually had a full year of consultations with our allies and partners in Europe. And we’d obviously like to extend this to broader consultations in the region. We’re acknowledging at this point that there’s a whole series of regional issues that have to be responded to with Iran, and the most proximate and most critical at this stage is the risk of an Iranian and Israeli confrontation, not to mention the ongoing crises that we’re having to deal with in Syria. So we’re trying to galvanize here a much more concerted international effort to deal with these problems, not just to focus on one aspect of this.

QUESTION: And the first question about the sanctions? So what would happen to Siemens or Total if they stay in Iran?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL THREE: Well, again, this goes back to my answer earlier, which is that we have a long history of secondary sanctions, beginning with ILSA in the late ‘90s. The way these are best implemented is through an iterative process of engagements, some prods, some encouragements, some requests to reduce that – to reduce that funding. And that’s how you get to the goal. It’s not – the intent is to achieve less financial involvement in Iran’s energy sector and problematic entities, not to punish Total.

MODERATOR: Let’s go to RIA, and then we’ll come back to Joyce.

QUESTION: Just to clarify, do you believe that Iran is now bound by the terms of the agreement now that the United States has pulled out?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL FOUR: I’m – sorry, I didn’t know who wanted to respond.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: That’s – we have withdrawn from the JCPOA. What the other parties do is between them at this point. The United States has already announced what it’s going to do. We’re going to reimpose the sanctions from 2015.

QUESTION: Would you still prefer – would you still prefer Iran to keep its end of the bargain, as they said yesterday?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: So for us, the issue is not the deal. The issue is – the issue is the activity. So very clearly U.S. policy is that the Iranian regime should not be enriching uranium, that the Iranian regime should take the steps that they should have been required to take already to make a full accounting of their not possible military dimension but their certain prior military dimension of their nuclear program, and so on, and should adhere to international standards, and that’s what everyone should require of them right now.


MODERATOR: Joyce, did you --

QUESTION: Yeah. So just to follow up as well, so we were just imagining this, but if Iran retaliates against U.S. interests, say in either Yemen or in Manbij or in Iraq, what would be the U.S. response like and how much are you concerned of such retaliation happening? And [Senior Administration Official Three], you’ve – we’ve – sorry, Official Number Four, we’ve – (laughter) --


QUESTION: Oops. (Laughter.) The chair keeps moving. I’m – but I mean, you’ve seen the protests in Iran since December. Do you think – do you anticipate that with more economic pressure, more protests will happen, or maybe then the blame will be pointed at the U.S. this time?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL THREE: Well, I think what we’d like to see internally is a change of the regime’s behavior in terms of permitting free communication of ideas, electronically or in whatever form, and permission of the right to assemble and to protest. Those are fundamental human freedoms. I would say I think if we – I think we believe that it is fundamentally not a good deal for the Iranian people if the regime – if the regime’s actions are not fully coupled with economic counterpressure, i.e., that the regime is essentially – is essentially unaccountable not just to the Iranian people but to the region and other states. I think fundamentally re-coupling those sanctions and the economic pressure to the behavior internally and externally is how you start to see regime behavior, including the two basic freedoms that I enunciated.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: One of the reasons, Joyce, that the Iranian population – that the Iranian regime is having such difficulty with its own population is because, since the inception of the JCPOA, the Iranian regime – as the President pointed out yesterday – has grown its military budget by almost 40 percent at the same time that its economy has gone into a tailspin and its currency has crashed, and it’s become very difficult for the working class in Iran to make ends meet. So the Iranian people aren’t stupid. They can see their own regime spending more and more on Hizballah and other militant groups – the Houthis, et cetera – in order to provoke conflict around the region outside Iran at the same time that inside Iran, there’s precious little being done to invest in infrastructure, in essential services, and commodities and so on that the Iranian people actually need.

So the United States didn’t force the Iranian regime to choose guns instead of butter when it got a cash windfall from the JCPOA and a windfall of sanctions relief starting in late 2015. That’s the calculation that the supreme leader and the IRGC made themselves, disregarding the needs of their own population. And so the unrest that they’re experiencing inside Iran is the result of their own choices.

QUESTION: (Off-mike.)

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: I just want to – just to follow up on that, I think the notion that Iran would only attack U.S. interests because the United States pulled out of the JCPOA is demonstrably false. I mean, they’ve been attacking our people and our interests in the region for decades pretty aggressively. And so I would just say that’s something we’re always concerned about, we’re always keeping an eye on, and basically is nothing new.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: But if they were to take some sort of military action or work through proxies to attack our people or our interests in the region now, as the President has made clear before, they would be very ill-advised to do that.

MODERATOR: We'll take one more.

QUESTION: One of the major concerns of the Europeans and a point of agreement with the United States is Iran’s nefarious activities in the region. Some would accuse the administration of at least shortsighted if not contradictory statement. So how do you confront Iran when the President really said that you’re going to withdraw troops from Syria and the Iranians have a long project in the region? And working even with the Europeans, what more can you do apart from sanctioning the ICG (sic) or really working through the sanction? What more can you confront Iran in the region, whether it’s in Syria, Iraq, or Yemen, or in Lebanon?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: So I don’t think we’re going – we’re not going to disclose operational plans and so on other than to – so what I would say, though, is that of course the problem that the – one of the things that you’re describing is that the IRGC poses a very big problem – the IRGC in particular poses a very big problem across the entirety of the Middle East and in some ways beyond, but certainly across the entirety of the Middle East. And so the only way that that’s going to be effectively countered is if we and our allies pull together. So we need our allies to – which is why the President and others in the administration have been talking about helping our allies and partners in the region be able to step up and make a greater contribution to regional security, to their own security, and to show a united front. If we – if all our allies and partners can line up in a united front in the region, there’s no way that the Iranians can resist that, the Iranian regime can resist that. There’s a lot of strength, there’s a lot of latent strength among our allies and partners if we can team up in a concerted way.

QUESTION: But they are part of the coalition already.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: So part of the coalition against ISIS, for sure. Right. So I think essentially what we’re talking about is, you broaden that into a regional security effort, where you have the nations of the region banding together to solve together the security problem that the Iranian regime poses.

QUESTION: After the Iraqis --

MODERATOR: If we’re going to take questions, we should be on the mic. We have time for one more. Ma’am, you have not had one.

QUESTION: Thank you. Okay, so the President has been vocal about --

MODERATOR: Could you give your name and outlet?

QUESTION: Oh, I’m sorry. It’s Elian El-Khamissi with Alaraby TV. The President has been vocal for over a year about his dissatisfaction with the Iran nuclear deal and has signaled the possibility of withdrawing on several occasions. Can you comment on the timing of the President’s decision to withdraw, whether it has to do with appointment of a new Secretary of State or the North Korea negotiations coming up?


SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: I think this is something he signaled very clearly in January and put the timeline on it, so saying that this coincides with Secretary Pompeo’s confirmation, it – that is coincidental. But the President did very deliberately link the two things together in his announcement yesterday. That sequencing was not an accident, and he does very much want to point out the difference of approach of how he’s approaching the DPRK and how the previous administration approached Iran. And I think with the arrival of the hostages tonight, you can see some of that starting to pay some success.

MODERATOR: I’d like to thank our briefers very much for joining us this morning and thank you for coming. We’ve concluded the briefing, so the embargo is lifted; but again, we are attributing to senior administration officials. Thank you very much.