US Background Briefing on Iran, 30 September 2009
Background Briefing by Senior US officials on P5+1 talks, Geneva, 30 September 2009.
SENIOR U.S. OFFICIAL #1: It’s nice to see all of you. I’ll offer just a few brief comments at the outset, and then I’m going to have to run off in about ten minutes to go to another meeting, but [my colleagues] will be glad to stay on and address any other questions that you may have.
First just a couple of comments on the schedule. We’re involved in a series of preparatory meetings today with our other 5+1 partners. Tomorrow will be a full day between the 5+1 group led by Javier Solana and the Iranian delegation. It’s likely to start around 10 in the morning with a series of plenary meetings, interspersed with informal breaks which will allow each of us an opportunity both for consultations amongst the 5+1 group, but also sidebar conversations with the Iranians. At least it allows for the possibility of that. It’s an opportunity to reinforce the main concerns that we’ll be emphasizing in the meeting.
The plan is for this to run through the day into late afternoon or early evening.
Then just a few points to frame our approach to the meeting.
First and most important, I think the recent revelation of the clandestine facility at Qom has strengthened the sense of purpose and unity amongst the 5+1 group. Our foreign ministers reaffirmed the dual track strategy in New York last week, and also underscored our collective sense of urgency and impatience about this issue.
Second, this will be the first time that the United States is a full participant in a 5+1 meeting with the Iranians. This is consistent with an offer that we made last April. Like our partners, we’re committed to meaningful negotiations to resolve what are growing international concerns about Iran’s nuclear program.
Third, it’s important to remember that the 5+1 group was formed to focus on the nuclear issue, and that remains our focus and our paramount concern. We’ve all acknowledged Iran’s right to pursue a peaceful nuclear program but we’ve each also emphasized that with that right comes a responsibility to demonstrate “convincingly,” as President Medvedev put it last week, the exclusively peaceful purposes of Iran’s program.
So our first task tomorrow is to establish whether the Iranians are ready to engage on the nuclear issue. Another urgent task for all of us is to support the IAEA in ensuring that Iran lives up to its obligation to full and unfettered access to the Qom site, the clandestine facility, as well as to people and documents connected to that facility.
Iranian officials have said in recent days that they’re going to offer transparency, but what we need to see now are not just words, but actions. That needs to be the beginning of what the Iranians are required to do -- to come clean about their entire nuclear program.
In addition to concrete steps toward transparency, we need to see practical, tangible steps to build confidence in Iranian intentions. The 5+1 have a longstanding proposal on the table that begins with an interim period, the so-called freeze-for-freeze, and leads to suspension, and that remains the starting point for us for discussions. There may be other ways in which you can build confidence along the way, but this is the starting point for the 5+1 group.
I think it’s pretty safe to predict that this is going to be an extraordinarily difficult process. I doubt that it’s going to be measured in terms of one meeting, although we’ll see how the Iranians approach the meeting tomorrow.
The last thing I’d emphasize is that this, from the point of view of the United States, cannot be an open-ended process or talks just for the sake of talks. Especially in light of the revelations about Qom, we need to see, all of us need to see, practical steps and measurable results and we need to see them starting quickly.
With that I’d be glad to take a couple of questions from you and then turn over to my colleagues.
QUESTION: Under the format that you outlined, it sounds like you’re kind of expecting to be able to have a one-on-one meeting with the Iranians?
SENIOR U.S. OFFICIAL #1: We’ll see. I think there will be the opportunity, as I said, for sidebar conversations that could involve any of the 5+1 partners and the Iranians. That’s the way this is laid out. So we’ll see.
QUESTION: When you say that the talks, that the 5+1 was created to deal with the nuclear issue, if in these sidebars or in the plenaries Iran tries to focus on other issues, particularly in the sidebars, whether they be [inaudible] or other bilateral issues, will you shut it down, will you take it, pocket what you can? How will you handle this chess game?
SENIOR U.S. OFFICIAL #1: All I would say is that first, the focus of this group or the 5+1 group is the nuclear issue. The 5+1 made clear in the incentives package that we put on the table more than a year ago that there’s a range of other issues that we’re prepared to consider, but the key point is to make tangible progress on the nuclear issue and address what really are growing international concerns.
QUESTION: It doesn’t sound like the U.S. government believes this is a forum in which to raise the human rights issue. A lot of people argue what happened in June in Tehran and throughout Iran has been sort of forgotten, neglected. Do you plan to raise that at all?
SENIOR U.S. OFFICIAL #1: We’ve made very clear, the administration has, the serious concerns that we have about human rights, freedom of expression issues in general, particularly since the elections in Iran. We’ve consistently and clearly raised concerns about detained Americans, who should be released. And so we’ll continue to do that and we’ll continue to look for opportunities to do that.
As I said, the focus of this group has been and I think will remain the nuclear issue, but we’ll continue to look for opportunities to press all of those points because I think they’re very real concerns for us and for our partners.
QUESTION: The Iranian President has said that he would bring up his idea of requesting 20 percent enriched uranium from the United States or other countries, anyone willing to sell it, as a confidence building measure coming from that side. What kinds of steps can be put on the table at this point for the Iranians to help them sort of sweeten the package for them, get them involved?
SENIOR U.S. OFFICIAL #2: As President Ahmadinejad said, the Iranians reached out to the IAEA to assist Iran in the refueling of this research reactor, the Tehran research reactor. The IAEA in turn reached out to a number of governments to get their views on this idea. It’s being handled in appropriate diplomatic channels.
Some of the reporting that we’ve seen isn’t very accurate. For example, there have been reports that the U.S. might actually sell or provide low enriched uranium or fuel to Iran, but that’s not in the cards.
QUESTION: I think that’s what he was seeking. He wanted the United States [inaudible] a confidence building measure. So you’re saying that’s not something the U.S. is considering?
SENIOR U.S. OFFICIAL #2: The IAEA is really handling this. We can’t imagine the U.S. providing the fuel or the enriched uranium to Iran. But that’s not to say the issue is not being considered actively.
QUESTION: What do the Iranians have to do in order to demonstrate they’re being totally transparent? You mentioned cooperating with the IAEA. What else do you want them to do to show these purposes?
SENIOR U.S. OFFICIAL #1: I think there’s a range of issues out there, some of which I mentioned, all of which revolve around taking practical steps.
One, as I mentioned, is to fulfill their obligations to the IAEA on Qom, on the clandestine facility.
They also have an obligation to be transparent about their entire nuclear program. In the past there was a period of time where they applied the Additional Protocol, which allowed for wider inspections by the IAEA in Iran. That’s certainly an example of the kind of thing that would help restore confidence.
But the bottom line is we need to see -- not just we, but the international community needs to see -- actions, not just words. Particularly in light of the most recent revelation.
At the same time, in addition to increased transparency, as I said, concrete steps to build confidence in the program too, whether it’s based on the proposal that we’ve had on the table for some time that begins with freeze-for-freeze or other kinds of ideas, but there have to be measureable results.
QUESTION: I just wanted you to clarify, you’re saying suspension is the obvious confidence building measure, but you seem to leave the door open to say it’s not the only one. So essentially there might be a settlement in which Iran never stops enriching.
SENIOR U.S. OFFICIAL #1: No. I didn’t say that. Suspension is something that’s inscribed in five UN Security Council resolutions. It’s at the center of the so-called Way Forward proposal that the 5+1 have on the table. That remains very much our goal collectively in this group.
As I said, that’s not to suggest that there aren’t other steps that could be taken along the way that would help build confidence in Iranian intent, but suspension, as I said, and as it’s made clear in Security Council resolutions, remains our position.
QUESTION: It’s non-negotiable.
SENIOR U.S. OFFICIAL #1: As I said, it’s laid out in five Security Council resolutions pretty clearly.
QUESTION: Before you go, can we ask you to respond to Ahmadinejad today saying that these meetings will be a test of whether the P5+1 respects Iranian rights?
SENIOR U.S. OFFICIAL #1: I didn’t see the exact comments but all I would --
QUESTION: It’s not an exact quote.
SENIOR U.S. OFFICIAL #1: That’s okay. All I would say is the burden of proof, it seems to me, is on the Iranians at this point, particularly after the recent revelation, to demonstrate the exclusively peaceful nature of their program.
We and others have acknowledged their right to a peaceful nuclear program. It should not be hard for them to demonstrate their commitment to an exclusively peaceful program. There are lots of practical ways in which we can do that. In which they can do that. Sorry.
QUESTION: What seemed to be clear as time goes on, that the Chinese are the ones who need to be convinced the most. Do you sense, just based on, it’s hard to gauge the Chinese perception at this point, but are they reacting with the same sense of urgency to this revelation that the rest of the P5+1 is reacting? The Russians seem concerned, but the Chinese don’t seem to be giving out the signals that they’re as bothered.
SENIOR U.S. OFFICIAL #1: I think the experience of last week in New York, and particularly I’d cite the statement that was issued by the foreign ministers, is pretty clear about that. A reaffirmation of the dual track strategy, a clear sense of urgency on the part of all six of us, and the Chinese participated actively in drafting and putting together that statement.
QUESTION: May I ask you --
SENIOR U.S. OFFICIAL #1: I’ll have to leave you in the capable hands of --
QUESTION: One thing to clarify, you said the Iranians had made this request on the sort of medical research facility to the IAEA. When did they do that?
SENIOR U.S. OFFICIAL #2: A couple of months ago. I don’t have the exact date in front of me. Fairly recently.
QUESTION: There was a story in the Financial Times, I think this morning, that says that British intelligence believes that weaponization work actually resumed in I guess the 2004, 2005 timeframe. Is there a difference? That seems to be a difference between what the U.S. government has said even publicly in the publicly available NIE about work having stopped in 2003. So is there a difference here between us and our very close ally?
SENIOR U.S. OFFICIAL #2: I don’t think there’s a significant difference here, but I don’t want to get into the comparison of intelligence estimates.
QUESTION: Is this the position that work stopped on the weaponization program in 2003?
SENIOR U.S. OFFICIAL #2: Why don’t you speak to the intelligence community folks? They’re the ones who make these estimates.
QUESTION: I may have read this wrong or skimmed by it, but I think that Iran has said that it would not negotiate about the secret enrichment facility. If that’s the case, is that a deal-breaker?
SENIOR U.S. OFFICIAL #2: It’s not so much a question of Iran negotiating over Qom. What’s at issue is Iran providing full and unfettered access to Qom for the IAEA. It’s the IAEA’s responsibility to carry out a full investigation of that situation. What we urge and what other P5+1 countries urge is that Iran cooperate fully.
We know that the IAEA has already made a request to Iran to visit the facility, and not just to walk through the facility but to have access to personnel involved in the facility, to documents related to the facility. It’s very very important that the agency have full access to carry out their investigation.
I can say, just to comment on this revelation, the exposure of this facility, we think it was a serious setback to Iran’s nuclear ambitions. It was a setback in a number of ways. This is a facility that we assume was to play a role in an Iranian nuclear weapons program. Now it’s exposed. It will be under safeguards regime of the IAEA. Essentially it’s been burned as a contributor to an Iranian nuclear weapons program. So that’s one.
Second, the exposure of this facility not just by U.S. intelligence but by several intelligence services I think will give the Iranians a sense that it’s not so easy to get away with cheating, and perhaps it will make them more cautious in the future, and that’s a good thing to deter clandestine activities.
Third, it was a setback because I think even those who have been somewhat sympathetic to Iran and have tended to shield Iran from pressures, I think were very surprised by this and felt sandbagged by the Iranians. I think hopefully it will enable us to build stronger support for mounting the pressures that need to be mounted if Iran is unresponsive to the concerns of the international community.
So I think for a number of reasons this was a real setback for Iran’s program.
QUESTION: You won’t tiptoe around the issue, even though you’re going to create perhaps some anger from the Iranians?
SENIOR U.S. OFFICIAL #2: Qom will be addressed tomorrow. There’s no question. This is going to be an important part of the discussion tomorrow. But you need to understand that what we will be doing and what our P5 partners will be doing is urging Iran to cooperate with the IAEA. They’re the ones, they’re the professionals who need to get to the bottom of this, and we will urge that Iran cooperate with them.
QUESTION: Can I follow up on what you said about they’ve been burned and set back. You don’t know what else they have out there. So you’ve gotten this one site, but you don’t know that they aren’t progressing elsewhere. What are you going to propose in terms of concrete steps tomorrow for more intrusive inspections throughout the country?
SENIOR U.S. OFFICIAL #2: I don’t want to comment on what we know or don’t know about what’s out there. But clearly, this was a significant site, probably capable of housing 3,000 centrifuges, able to produce enough highly enriched uranium for about one bomb a year. So this was significant. And taking it out of their program is a significant development.
But what we need to do is augment our capability to detect future Iranian violations. There are a range of steps that the Iranians could take to address the concerns, and to make cheating more difficult. You’re aware of a number of them. An important one of which is to adhere to the IAEA additional protocol which is something that the Iranians said they were abiding by for a number of years, but then unilaterally they pulled back from it. As a result, the IAEA doesn’t have access to lots of locations that are very important to us including factories where Iran produces the components of centrifuges. The IAEA had access to these facilities earlier, but no longer. So Iran recommitting to that would be a significant confidence building step.
QUESTION: Just to clarify one thing. The Iranians, of course, what the P5+1 did was accept an invitation from Iran to discuss a proposal that they put on the table which covered all sorts of things, none of which had to do with the nuclear proposal. The incentives package put forth by the P5+1 does have areas that kind of overlap with elements of the Iranian proposal in terms of security and that sort of thing.
Is it the position going in here that the incentives proposal is not really going to be discussed or handled until some of these questions on the nuclear issue are addressed? Or will you be actually open tomorrow to entertaining discussion on some of the things Iranians want to bring up and that are contained in the incentives proposal?
SENIOR U.S. OFFICIAL #2: The Iranians have never responded seriously to our package proposal. And as you point out, Glenn, the package proposal includes non-nuclear elements. Broad political, security, economic elements. We would like them to respond to that package proposal which inevitably gets you into areas that are not strictly nuclear.
QUESTION: Would it be considered, if they start to talk about the thing that they sent up earlier this month, would that be construed as a serious response to your incentives package?
SENIOR U.S. OFFICIAL #2: The primary reason, as [my colleague] pointed out. The primary reason we’re here, the primary reason the P5+1 exists is because of the nuclear issue. So our primary concern is really to focus on this issue, and all the more reason because of the recent disclosure of the Qom facility.
QUESTION: Are you prepared to say whether you think Qom was, as the Iranians have said, just a backup bunch of centrifuges that they could use in case Natanz was attacked? Or whether you think it was part of a whole parallel fuel cycle that they were setting up in order to secretly try and run HEU?
SENIOR U.S. OFFICIAL #2: It’s unlikely that this site would have been declared to the IAEA if Iran hadn’t come to the conclusion that we were onto the secret. In other words, we believe it was built as a covert facility. We very much doubt there was the intention to declare it. But we, at a certain point we had strong reason to believe that the Iranians knew that the secrecy of the facility had been compromised. At that point it became very likely that sooner or later they were going to declare it, because if it had been compromised it wasn’t going to be very useful to them as a covert nuclear weapons facility.
QUESTION: I don’t know that you answered the question, though. Do you think it was as a backup, or do you think it was parallel on the design to make bomb-grade material?
SENIOR U.S. OFFICIAL #2: I don’t want to get out ahead of the intelligence, but one can make certain suppositions. If it was designed to be a covert site, and I believe it was intended to be a covert site, it’s unlikely to be a covert site for civilian purposes.
QUESTION: If this was a covert site for a weapons program, one would assume then there would have to be a processing plant that would produce the gas to go into it so there might be other facilities, unless they’re siphoning stuff off from Isfahan. Is there any sense that, just building on the question that there’s more out there, that this is sort of a key part of the iceberg but --
SENIOR U.S. OFFICIAL #2: There are a number of ways that such a covert facility could contribute to a nuclear weapons program. One way might be to try to divert safeguarded low enriched uranium and further enrich it. Another way would be to have another covert facility that would be converting yellow cake to uranium hexafluoride.
So it’s important for us to try to detect and deter any of those routes. That’s what we’re trying to do, is try to impede and detect any route to a nuclear weapons capability.
QUESTION: You’re going to be judging the Iranian willingness to cooperate tomorrow. If it’s clear that they’re now willing to cooperate to the extent that you want, will the P5+1 make a decision tomorrow, or do you expect they would adjourn, consider this elsewhere and make a decision? Or what’s the process here, if it’s clear that they’re not going to do what you expect?
SENIOR U.S. OFFICIAL #2: The government’s concerned and at very high levels we’ll have to evaluate the results of tomorrow’s meetings, whether they’re positive, whether they’re negative, and figure out where to go next. But we hope that the Iranians will come to the meeting prepared to address our concerns very seriously. And they’re not just American concerns. These are concerns of the entire international community. We want them to come prepared to focus on the nuclear issue, to demonstrate that they’re prepared to take steps that would restore the confidence that’s been lost in their peaceful intentions, and they’re going to have to be a lot more transparent than they’ve been, and a lot more cooperative with the IAEA than they’ve been for several years.
QUESTION: Thanks, we appreciate it.
Source: US Department of State, www.state.gov.