Press Briefing by Senior Administration Officials
Waldorf Astoria Hotel
New York, New York
5:21 P.M. EDT
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Quickly, with the two bilats that the President did this afternoon -- with Lebanon, he and President Sleiman discussed our continued support for Lebanon as they go through their government formation process and deal with a very complex situation in the region. We reiterated our commitment to the unity and stability of Lebanon and the need for all countries in the region to respect Lebanese sovereignty, and praised Lebanon’s commitment to democracy and respect for minority rights.
On Syria, the President noted our continued support for Lebanon as they deal with the refugee situation. I’d note that of the $340 million in additional humanitarian assistance that the President announced in the UNGA speech, $74 million of that will go to Lebanon to deal with their refugee population. And they also discussed our shared commitment to reaching a political solution inside of Syria. The President also noted the need for groups like Hezbollah to respect Syria’s sovereignty and to not interfere further in the civil war there.
The President also expressed our support for the Lebanese Armed Forces. You heard him announce some additional assistance we’re providing. We’ll continue to work with the Lebanese Armed Forces as they promote the stability and unity of the country.
And they also discussed other regional issues, in particular the Israeli-Palestinian issue and our pursuit of a peace agreement, which obviously Lebanon has an acute interest in given their Palestinian refugee population.
Then, in the bilat with President Abbas, I’d just first of all note that the majority of the meeting was a one-on-one discussion between the two Presidents. President Obama praised, as he did publicly in his speech, President Abbas’s commitment to pursue Middle East peace through direct negotiations with Prime Minister Netanyahu -- acknowledged the hard choices that President Abbas has made in putting aside shortcuts to peace through the United Nations that we do not believe can succeed.
He encouraged President Abbas, as he has Prime Minister Netanyahu, to move quickly in those discussions so that the two sides are addressing the final status issues of security and borders, and refugees, and Jerusalem. Again, the point being that we have a window of opportunity here with direct negotiations, and the quicker that they get to the hard issues, the greater likelihood there is of success. The President committed to staying in close contact in support of those discussions, and also noted that Secretary Kerry of course will continue to play a lead role in that peace process.
And then, just -- well, with that, I’ll just take your questions on anything else. The speech you saw -- I’m happy to talk about that. And I’m sure you’re interested in Iran, too.
Q Can you go over the situation with Iran? You cited some complications earlier that prevented a meeting from taking place. Can we get a little deeper into that? What are the internal dynamics that you encountered? How did you hear about this? Was this from a third party -- the Swiss, for instance? Any other details you can provide?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, first, let me step back and -- we believe that the new Iranian government under President Rouhani does present an opportunity to make progress on a diplomatic negotiation; that they’ve indicated a seriousness that we had not seen under the previous government. And it’s precisely because of that that Secretary Kerry is going to be meeting with the P5-plus-1 and Foreign Minister Zarif, which is a uniquely high-level meeting for the United States and Iran to be participating in together.
We indicated to the Iranians the same thing privately that we said publicly, which is that President Obama is open to a discussion with his Iranian counterpart. We did not intend to have a formal bilateral meeting and negotiation of any kind. This would have rather been them having a few minutes to have a discussion on the margins of the U.N. General Assembly. That was done at the staff level directly with the Iranians, so not through any intermediary. Particularly here in New York, it’s not difficult to communicate directly to the Iranians, as they’re coming to UNGA.
In terms of complications, I think our assessment is while President Rouhani has been elected with a mandate to pursue a more moderate foreign policy towards the West and to pursue negotiations -- in part to achieve sanctions relief -- the issue of the relationship between the United States and Iran is incredibly controversial within Iran. You heard the President speak to it today -- the decades of mistrust between our countries. And I think that from the Iranian side, for them it was just too difficult for them to move forward with that type of encounter at the presidential level, at this juncture. So we’re going to continue the negotiating track through our foreign ministers.
Q When did these conversations begin? And when did you guys get final word that it wouldn’t happen? Was it before the President addressed the Assembly this morning, or after?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, I think -- we’ve been having these contacts, I’d just say, while we’ve been here in New York. Again, I think it’s important to note we never would have contemplated any kind of formal bilateral meeting, but were open to an encounter discussion on the margins. It became apparent that that was not going to happen today after the President’s remarks, because that’s the window of time when he was going to be over at the U.N.
I’d also underscore -- since we came into office, one of the reasons that we’ve been able to maintain international unity among the P5-plus-1 and other countries, and build the sanctions regime that we have in place, is because the United States has indicated our openness to diplomacy with Iran, so that the issue in play is not whether the United States is being recalcitrant in refusing to negotiate, but whether the Iranians will do so.
So I think it’s important for us to continue to demonstrate to the world that even as we see positive indicators from President Rouhani, that those words needs to be followed by actions. And there is still clearly need to do more work in order to create the basis for not just a negotiation, but the type of encounter that we were contemplating today.
Q I don’t know if you just were able to hear any of Rouhani’s speech -- he just finished up -- and a lot of the things that he said are pretty similar to the things that we’ve heard from Iranian leaders in the past. He blasted U.S. sanctions. He defended Iran’s right to enrich uranium. He said he was open to a process to negotiate over the nuclear program, but he didn’t give any indication of giving ground on any of the issues where the U.S. has sought changes. Have you guys been given any indications privately they they’re willing to take some of these steps you’ve been seeking?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I’d like to say a couple things. First of all, that’s not surprising. Iran has a baseline set of positions that they have taken for a long time. I think what's different about President Rouhani is not simply some matter of personality. Clearly, he is not as bombastic as President Ahmadinejad. He does not say things that are quite as inflammatory as his predecessor. What's different is he was elected expressly on a mandate to pursue a more moderate foreign policy and to achieve a nuclear deal in order to achieve sanctions relief.
And this is the important point: This is not something that we believe happens out of goodwill; we believe that Iran has an imperative to improve its economy, because every single economic indicator is negative for them. The only way that they can improve the economy is through achieving sanctions relief. So that's the context that's changed. And so if President Rouhani is going to fulfill his commitments to improve the Iranian economy, he is going to need to achieve sanctions relief. That can only be achieved through a meaningful negotiation and agreement with the international community. So that's what I think gives us a sense that there's a basis for progress here.
So we'll have to continue to test whether those indications can be followed through with different negotiating positions from the Iranian side. That will take place in the P5-plus-1, starting on Thursday, when Secretary Kerry sits down with his P5 counterparts and Foreign Minister Zarif. But we would not expect them to shift their negotiating positions publicly on the front end of that process, just as we would not shift our commitment to maintain strong sanctions at the front end of any negotiation.
Q I’m curious, did you go into today thinking that there was a realistic chance that this encounter was going to happen? Or was this just sort of a diplomatic olive branch that you were extending? Was that ever really realistic? And then, how do you explain how the Iranians decided to say no? Do you know whether or not Iran's Supreme Leader said, this is not going to happen?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I don’t think we had -- the interesting thing here is that it's difficult for the Iranians to take this step, given their history. And so I think we always recognize that. It was certainly not likely that they'd be able to get over that type of hurdle. What we're in a position of saying is we want to test this diplomatic process in every way we can. The substance will take place through the P5-plus-1 and through Secretary Kerry's efforts.
At the same time, it's important for us to demonstrate that we're open to any type of negotiation. And, frankly, in our view, it's a demonstration of strength to say here's a new leader, he’s had some new things to say about this issue -- we're willing to hear him out. And we'll do that at any time. And the fact of the matter is we're going to continue to test this, because the achievement of an agreement on Iran's nuclear program, as the President said today, would address a significant national security concern in the United States and the world, and also potentially reduce tensions more broadly in the region.
So we felt it was important to test today. It was not something that we had any high degree of certainty would take place. But we're going to continue to put the test to the Iranians -- because, frankly, ultimately, the onus is on them to demonstrate that this is a real change in course and a real opening.
The only thing I’d note in that regard, though, is that just the foreign minister-level meeting on Thursday is a change. Iranian foreign ministers have not sat down with American secretaries of state in any context in a very long time. And, frankly, that’s where the substance of these negotiations will take place anyway.
Q Was there any concern that there was -- or some risks inherent in going ahead and doing the handshake? Because obviously it would have further rattled the Israelis, it might have bothered some Persian Gulf allies. It might have been viewed as prematurely rewarding Rouhani. And particularly given the tone of his speech just now, which as Julie correctly said, is not sort of that strikingly more moderate than what we’ve heard in the past. Could it have been an awkward day for the President if he had done that handshake?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, we’ve always rejected the premise that somehow just having an encounter with a foreign leader, even of an adversarial nation, is in any way a concession. And, frankly, the very fact that they were unwilling to go forward with it demonstrates that they were the ones who had discomfort with it in terms of dealing with their own complexities back home.
I think that it’s important for us to demonstrate to the international community that even as we hear some new things from this leader, we need to stay united in the enforcement of sanctions and the insistence that Iran undertake meaningful commitments as a part of a negotiation and an agreement. They can't just say different things and expect to achieve a different result, unless they actually follow through with those actions.
On his speech, look, the President reiterated today our determination to prevent them from developing a nuclear weapon, identified a core interest in the prevention of nuclear proliferation, indicated that all options are available in terms of how we carry out that core interest and protect it. So I'm sure that's something that the Iranians would indicate has been something that they do not like in our rhetoric.
The fact of the matter is these issues are going to have to be dealt with through negotiation. And I think that we are moving with some urgency in that regard. The Iranians have a sense of urgency, given the fact that the only way their economy can improve is through sanctions relief. And I think the foreign minister's participation in these meetings indicates the seriousness with which they're approaching diplomacy.
At the same time, we have a sense of urgency in no small measure because of our concerns about Iran's nuclear program. And that's something that the Israelis frequently comment on and talk to us about. We're in close coordination with both Israel and our Gulf allies. I think they have recognition that it would be preferable to achieve a diplomatic resolution to the Iranian nuclear issue. They're skeptical of Iranian intentions -- which is understandable, given their history with Iran -- but we do see the potential for progress, certainly more so than we have in the last several years, since we had a negotiation with them in 2009. And we're going to test that in the weeks ahead.
Q You said that today was a test. Can you say anything more about what you feel you learned today? And also, can you talk about whether it's true that there were two or three Americans among the attackers in Nairobi?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: On today, I think what we learned is, as the President said in his speech, we are overcoming a significant history of mistrust, and that there are hurdles to achieving a diplomatic resolution; and that Iran has to do more to demonstrate that some of the conciliatory words that we’ve seen out of President Rouhani will lead to a different position at the negotiating table and different actions in terms of their foreign policy.
Again, not surprising, but I think important to demonstrate to the world, that the U.S. is open. The U.S. is ready to negotiate, and that the Iranians need to come seriously to the table. And we hope that that will be the case beginning later this week, and we’ll continue to test this proposition going forward.
On the Americans that have been alleged to have been involved, I know that’s something that we're talking to the Kenyans about. I don’t have any further information for you on that, but we're in communication with Kenyan authorities and working to establish what we can determine about any American participation.
Q Can you help us understand better the complexities that you were sensing from them as to why they couldn’t come to the table? Did the Iranians ask for anything specifically of the U.S. to have a meeting? And also, just curious to get an understanding of why you're briefing all of us while Rouhani was speaking.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I wouldn’t read anything into the latter. We're just -- that’s purely a logistical issue, so in no way timed to his speaking.
On the former, I think we're just mainly speaking to the fact that even with a different Iranian president than President Rouhani -- who has made a central part of his campaign in his initial presidency outreach to the West -- I think given the history in Iran, has difficulty in going forward with this type of encounter. Every leader has his or her own politics, and that’s certainly the case with President Rouhani.
Again, I think our view is it's a demonstration of strength to say that you'll meet anytime, anywhere to discuss how to resolve an issue. And the President is certainly -- will continue to be willing to do that. I think President Rouhani and the Iranian side will need to determine how they can both move forward through a negotiation that will include the foreign minister level, and then ultimately, what types of changes that they're willing to make in their positions in order to achieve a new relationship with the United States, which depends upon resolving this nuclear issue.
So it's something we'll continue to test. This is already a different environment, given the seriousness of the Iranian side in pursuing negotiations in the level that will be started on Thursday. But we don’t expect there to be an agreement reached on Thursday, either. This is going to be a process that takes place over time, and that time is not unlimited by any stretch. I think both sides feel some urgency. But we'll just continue to test this diplomatic opportunity.
Q But to be clear, did they propose anything in exchange for a handshake today? Was there any sort of a --
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I wouldn’t want to characterize their views too much. I mean, obviously, they have a set of negotiating positions, but the fact of the matter is we were never contemplating any negotiation between the Presidents. We were very clear in our discussions that this was not any venue, formal bilateral meeting, or nuclear negotiation; this would have been an informal encounter on the margins of the General Assembly. And that’s precisely because we want to empower the P5-plus-1 process, the foreign ministers, Secretary Kerry, to be the ones negotiating substance. That’s why the President announced in his speech that Secretary Kerry will be taking the lead in terms of pursuing this negotiation with the Iranians and the P5-plus-1.
Couple in the back there, yes.
Q Given the vehemence -- I know you didn’t see the whole speech yet -- but the vehemence with which Rouhani condemned what he called "war mongering" -- he referred directly to the President's statement to the General Assembly -- is that enough to perhaps obtain some kind of moderation in the kind of language on the military option, for example, in future contacts with Iran?
Q Well, look, we have a clear statement of policy, which is that we are determined to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon. Now, we've also made clear we have a preference to do that through diplomacy, but we're not going to change that policy simply because there's a new leader in Iran.
Again, it's not surprising that the Iranian leader would condemn sanctions. Sanctions are precisely what has significantly damaged their economy and I think invested them in trying to achieve a resolution through diplomacy. But we are open to negotiation, open to find ways to build confidence with the Iranians. As the President said, there's space for an agreement, given that both the Supreme Leader and President Rouhani have said that it is not their policy to pursue nuclear weapons, and the President has said that the Iranian people can have access to peaceful nuclear energy. It's defining the space within those statements that is going to be the work of diplomats going forward.
Just take a couple more there. Yes, in the back.
Q I'd like to ask about President Obama's meeting with President Abbas. President Obama said that the border with Israel and Palestine should be based on 1967 lines with mutually agreed-to swaps. So can you say anything about President Abbas's response to these swaps, either like positive or negative?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yes. Well, I think on this issue, since May of 2011, we've established that the U.S. position on territories, it should be based on ‘67 borders with mutually agreed swaps. We don’t expect Israelis and Palestinians to publicly, in the middle of the negotiation, enunciate a position on that final status issue. That’s a subject for them to negotiate.
We believe that the United States, having laid that out in May of 2011, can provide some baseline for that negotiation. But again, that’s for the Israelis and Palestinians to determine through their direct talks. So I wouldn’t want to characterize President Abbas's view of the matter, nor Israel's for that matter, given that it's ultimately for them to work out.
What I would say is that we do see an opportunity here. They're in final status negotiations. They've already made some sacrifices and hard decisions -- the release of prisoners on the Israeli side, for instance; not pursuing the U.N. track, on the Palestinian side. Now it's imperative for them to accelerate their process of getting to those final status issues and resolving them through negotiation. And that’s the process we're going to support in the coming months.
Q Sorry if this has already been addressed, but one thing -- is there any reason why Ambassador Power didn’t stay in her seat for all of Rouhani's speech, number one? Number two, taking another shot at Devin's question, was there something the Iranians wanted in return to make that handshake happen? Was there something that they wanted to agree to behind the scenes -- not about nuclear war, not about anything like that? Is there something they wanted that we were unwilling to give them?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: On Sam Power, I don’t think she was there for the speech. My understanding is that she was in the bilat with Foreign Minister Lavrov, which, obviously, we have a negotiation going on over the chemical weapons resolution. But State can speak to that -- but that’s my understanding.
On the second thing, I think our point to them -- I wouldn’t want to characterize their side of the discussions other than to say that, in our view, this wasn't a negotiation over substance. There was never going to be some type of agreement reached in the meeting in the first place. So that wasn't a discussion we were having or entertaining with them in terms of what we agree -- any substantive agreement that would be reached out of the meeting. This was more about whether or not the two leaders would get together on the margins of the Assembly.
Q Is there any sense of disappointment from the President that this did not happen?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: No, I think -- look, the President has said for six years now that he's willing to meet the Iranian leadership. And I think there's, frankly, not just a necessity of testing this proposition, but also demonstrating to the world that we're the ones who are open to negotiation. That’s how we have maintained international unity. Without a U.S. willingness to engage Iran, I don’t think we would have achieved the sanctions that we have. I don’t think we would have maintained P5-plus-1 unity.
So it's important for us to continue to send that signal. President Rouhani had sent a number of signals through interviews that he had given leading into the trip that he's taken to New York. At the end of the day, though, I think we want to demonstrate that the United States is certainly open to this. But Iran has to change its policies, not just in atmospherics but in their actions.
I'll just close then, real quickly -- I just want to say one thing about the speech. I would just note that, really, what the President was intending to do is provide an overview of our policy in the region for the rest of his time in office. I think we have, in three areas, significant diplomatic work underway: the Syrian chemical weapons issue that we're aiming to resolve; the Iranian nuclear program; and Middle East peace.
So this is as active a diplomatic agenda as we've had in the region in some time. Of course, the Syrian chemical weapons issue, the President said, can lead into and energize a political process to resolve the situation in Syria. But I think you'll see this is going to be an area of very active diplomatic follow-up going forward.
Of course, he was also able to speak much more broadly to both the situation in the Arab world, and indicate a realism about our ability to influence events in those countries, but also a continued commitment to do what we can to support a set of principles, as well as, I think, challenging the international community to recognize that if they don’t step up and do more to resolve these issues, that you're only going to see more conflict and more -- frankly, a lack of appetite from the United States to bear the burdens that other nations need to share with us going forward.
5:49 P.M. EDT