Press Gaggle by Press Secretary Josh Earnest en route Philadelphia, PA, 7/14/2015
Aboard Air Force One
En Route Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
3:18 P.M. EDT
MR. EARNEST: As you all saw, obviously, this morning, the President made an important announcement about a final agreement that shuts down every path that Iran has to a nuclear weapon. Obviously, the agreement is detailed and long, but in general, it would reduce Iran’s uranium stockpile by 98 percent. It obviously would close the reactor, or at least remodel, refurbish the reactor that would allow them -- that previously had allowed them to make weaponized plutonium. Iran would commit to removing 13,000 centrifuges, and they would have to cooperate with the most intrusive inspections program that’s ever been imposed on a country’s nuclear program.
As you all know, the President placed some telephone calls to some foreign leaders today, including the leaders of the United Kingdom, France, Germany, and the Foreign Minister for the EU, all of whom were intimately involved in the negotiation of this agreement. The President also had the opportunity to speak with Prime Minister Netanyahu today.
So in addition to that, senior administration officials have been in close touch with members of Congress in both parties, many of whom have demonstrated an interest, shall we say, in this particular issue and the efforts to reach this agreement. So those consultations -- extensive consultations have already begun.
And the other thing that I wanted to let you know is that tomorrow afternoon, prior to leaving for Oklahoma, the President will convene a news conference in the East Room of the White House to discuss this agreement further and to take some of your questions about this issue.
So it’s apparent that we’ve come a long way, but I’ve got a couple more things and then we can get to your questions. We have come a long way, but we have not gone as far as the New Horizons spacecraft that has traveled more than 3 billion miles, and has, as of today, reached Pluto. The spacecraft is taking pictures and collecting data that will be analyzed to learn more about the planet’s composition, its atmosphere and its moons. So that’s another piece of news today.
And then I also command to your attention the President’s discussion this afternoon of criminal justice and juvenile justice reforms that will make our country more fair, our communities safer by reducing recidivism, and saving taxpayer dollars.
So a lot on the agenda today. Let’s go to your questions.
Q Does the President intend or have any plans to speak with President Rouhani?
MR. EARNEST: At this point, no. I don’t have any calls like that to tell you about, but --
Q Would you like to?
MR. EARNEST: Well, obviously, at the beginning of this process, the President did have the opportunity to communicate with the Iranian President.
I think what’s clear, Josh, is that while this agreement is important and certainly addresses among the more significant concerns that the United States has with Iran, we have not resolved all of our concerns. To say the least, we have continuing concerns as it relates to their continued unjust detention of American citizens, their continued threats that are directed toward Israel, their continued support for destabilizing activities in the region. So we certainly continue to have a lot of concerns with Iran and its behavior.
Q Josh, what do you to critics who say that over the long term the President has moved off of conditions he himself had set for these negotiations and has accepted things that at one point he indicated he wouldn’t?
MR. EARNEST: Peter, I think what I would -- I’d just go back to where we were at the top, which was that the original goal of entering into these diplomatic negotiations was to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. There was never a suggestion that these negotiations would resolve either the United States’ or the broader international community’s concerns with Iran’s behavior.
But when it comes to the goal of, in a verifiable way, preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, that goal has been achieved.
Q But even in terms of the nuclear -- forgetting the issues of terrorism and other concerns that people have with Iran, he’s accepted a deal that does not match what he had set out specifically in terms of Iran’s nuclear program -- in terms of centrifuges, in terms of some of the facilities, that kind of thing; they’re allowed to keep Fordow, they’re allowed to -- even though they have to limit it, they have still have centrifuges there. I mean, these are things some of which did not seem to be what he envisioned at the beginning of the negotiations.
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I think that what the President has been focused on is this goal of preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. And through a rigorous, exhaustive set of negotiations, that’s what’s been achieved. And this is an agreement that is not rooted in trust, it’s rooted in our ability to verify Iran’s compliance with the agreement.
And by following through on those verification measures, we can ensure that Iran is living up to the commitment that they’ve now made to have a nuclear program that exists solely for peaceful purposes.
Q But given the consultations with Congress that he has made and his staff has made in the last 24 hours, are you prepared to say today you expect there to be a vote to disapprove this? And do you think that you would prevail without having to use a veto? Or are you expecting to be able to use -- are you expecting to use your veto to stop such a disapproval?
MR. EARNEST: I routinely hesitate to predict congressional outcomes. But I do think that we’ve seen a large number of public statements from members of Congress, and I know that many have observed that there are not very many surprising statements from members of Congress on either side, frankly. So we’re mindful of that. We are going to continue to encourage members of Congress to try to keep as open a mind as possible to evaluate this agreement on the merits. There will be constructive engagement with Congress in the hopes that they will do that.
We feel confident that when members of Congress are able -- if members of Congress are able to set aside their own political, partisan identity and actually focus on the details of the agreement, that there’s a lot in here to like as it relates to advancing the interests of the United States.
Q (Inaudible) partisan, but a lot of the critics are Democrats, right?
MR. EARNEST: Some of them. But again, we’re going to make a case to them as well. And there will be additional conversations. I’m confident there will be extensive briefings on Capitol Hill. Many of the documents that have been negotiated have already been made public, so there already is an opportunity for the public and members of Congress to evaluate this agreement. I think that is an indication of the confidence that we have in this agreement.
Q Josh, if all goes well, European businesses are going to be able to resume doing business with Iran, but obviously U.S. businesses won’t. Is that fair? And how does the President look at that and feel about that?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Roberta, you raised a good point, which is that there continue to be significant bilateral sanctions between the United States and Iran because of some of the other concerns the United States has with Iran’s behavior that I referenced earlier. And the President continues to believe that keeping those kinds of sanctions in place and continuing to pressure Iran to release Americans who are unjustly detained to stop their support for terrorism, to menacing Israel -- those continue to be national security priorities.
And we have worked effectively with the international community to address this one element of our concerns with Iran’s behavior. But there are others. And we're going to continue to use all of the instruments at our disposal to protect the interests of the United States.
Q So it doesn’t matter that U.S. businesses will be put at a competitive disadvantage to their European competitors in this market?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, this is a tradeoff that we have acknowledged and has existed for quite some time.
Q Can I ask some timing questions? I know that there’s plans to submit the resolution to the U.N. by next week -- or could it happen next week? When do you guys want that process to wrap up? And when do you plan to formally submit this to Congress to start the 60-day clock?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I know that both of those things are moving as quickly as possible. And so for an update on timing, I’d refer you to Ambassador Power’s office. They may be able to give you some more specific information than what you just cited to me.
As it relates to the documentation that needs to be submitted to Congress, it is going to take a couple of days for us to make sure that the comprehensive set of documents has been provided to Congress as they requested. But we’ll do that as quickly as possible, and we’ll get that up there as soon as we can.
Q Was Senator Schumer among the lawmakers that President Obama talked to last night?
MR. EARNEST: I don't have a detailed list of those calls, but we can -- I don't know if we can get that to you today. But at some point we’ll be able to provide a more detailed list of the kinds of conversations that have taken place here in the early stages of this agreement.
Q I know the President talked to Secretary Clinton last night. Did he talk to any of the other Democratic presidential candidates to brief them on this plan?
MR. EARNEST: Not that I’m aware of.
Q Can you elaborate on the call with Netanyahu at all? I mean, he had a similar call in March. How long did it last? Was it different in tenor? Was it more or less similar to that one?
MR. EARNEST: I don't have a lot of color. I know the intent at the beginning of that conversation was to have a direct exchange of views about what the President believes is -- what the President believes are the merits of this deal, both as it relates to the impact that this agreement would have on U.S. national security, but also the impact it would have on the national security of Israel who continues to be the closest ally of the United States in the Middle East. And I’m confident that there was an opportunity for the President to reiterate his firm commitment to continue the unprecedented level of security cooperation that exists between our two countries at the direction of President Obama.
This is something that Prime Minister Netanyahu has referred to in the past. And the President reiterated his commitment to continuing that cooperation.
Q Josh, if Congress does move to undermine this and is able to override the President’s veto, how far is he willing to go using his own executive authority to ease sanctions on Iran? Will he do that unilaterally?
MR. EARNEST: Josh, at this point, that's not a scenario that we think is going to happen. And there is some evidence to indicate that there is strong support, particularly among the Democratic caucus in the House of Representatives. You’ll recall that there was a letter signed earlier this spring by a large number of Democrats, enough Democrats to sustain the President’s veto, indicating that they were supportive of the ongoing efforts to reach a final agreement consistent with the principles that are laid out -- that were laid out in the Lausanne agreement.
And the final agreement that was announced today didn't just meet the parameters that were established in the Lausanne agreement; in many important areas, the parameters of that agreement were actually exceeded by the United States and our P5+1 partners. So we continue to have confidence that we will be able to earn the strong support of at least of those members of Congress who signed that letter.
Q What can you say about Vice President Biden standing over the President’s shoulder today? I can't remember a time a Vice President stood over the President’s shoulder for a kind of straight-to-camera kind of national television address like that.
MR. EARNEST: Well, frankly, this is actually an issue that Vice President Biden has been working on for a long time, even prior to entering the White House. And the President last night invited him to stand with him as he made this announcement. And I think it should send a pretty clear signal to everybody across the country and around the world about the sustained commitment that was required on the part of the United States to reach this agreement, and the firm commitment on the part of the administration to implement it effectively.
Q Soleimani, the sanctions against him, the unilateral U.S. ones, remain. Can you just outline exactly how those sanctions are lifted? There’s a lot of debate over those being lifted at all.
MR. EARNEST: That's highly technical, so I don't want to make a mistake. But let me send you to the Treasury Department who can give you detailed accounting of how exactly that works. There was some --
Q The unilateral, though, remain?
MR. EARNEST: There was some confusion early on today about a gentleman with the same name in Iran, or at least a similar name in Iran.
Q But both are on the sanction relief lift.
MR. EARNEST: Well, let me have the Treasury Department follow up with you. It’s exceedingly technical, and so I just don't want to steer you wrong on this.
Q Josh, on conventional weapons, the deal is also a little bit vague about what happens with those. There are supposed to be some U.N. resolutions -- five years for one type, eight years for another. Are you confident that the U.N. will pass those resolutions? And are five and eight years enough for the respective conventional weapons sanctions?
MR. EARNEST: The five years refers to the arms embargo that the U.N. put in place against Iran; the eight years refers to the sanctions related to Iran’s ballistic missiles program. We are confident that the U.N. resolution will pass because it was the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council that were a party to this negotiation. So they’ve already signed off on it.
And again, the reason that this is something that the United States was able to go along with is that these were specific sanctions or embargoes that did apply to Iran’s nuclear program. That's the reason they were put in place in the first place. That's the reason that they were subject for the negotiation. And there is a long list of both unilateral and bilateral measures that the United States has in place to limit the transfer of equipment and technology related to -- or that could be used to advance either Iran’s ballistic missile program or to facilitate the transfer of arms.
And I can get you a more comprehensive list of the kinds of measures that remain in place, even after the U.N. takes action, and even after the five and eight years’ timeframe has expired that will limit Iran’s ballistic missiles and conventional arms capabilities.
Q Is it fair to say that none of the red lines Khamenei drew in the sand were crossed? We didn't get unfettered access, the lifting the bans embargo. All of the sanctions are lifted at once.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I’ll let him talk about the red lines that he drew. What I can tell you is that our goal was to make sure that a final agreement reflected the parameters of the agreement that was reached in Lausanne earlier this spring, back the first week in April. And when it comes to things like access, addressing concerns related to the potential military dimensions of Iran’s nuclear program, when it comes to verification measures that can ensure that Iran is complying with the agreement -- all those things were codified in the final agreement, consistent with the way that they were laid out in the Lausanne agreement.
Q But we never crossed their red lines. They got what they wanted in the end, in that way.
MR. EARNEST: Well, we were less concerned about -- as I mentioned earlier, we were less concerned about the statements coming from the other side and more interested in the actions. And we were very focused on ensuring that a final agreement lived up to the parameters that were established in the interim agreement in Lausanne, and that’s exactly what happened.
Q Josh, can we get a quick preview of the President’s economic opportunity event tomorrow?
MR. EARNEST: The President will travel to the Choctaw Nation tomorrow afternoon after the news conference. The Choctaw Nation was designated as a Promise Zone by President Obama a couple of years ago, and the Choctaw Nation has effectively used much of the federal assistance that they’ve received as a result of that designation to make investments in their community and their people in a way that’s expanded economic opportunity for local members of the community there. And we’ll have more on that for you tomorrow.
Q Can we do a quick one on criminal justice? Are we expecting the President to lay out concrete legislative asks or goals today or later this week? Or is it just going to be a general call for --
MR. EARNEST: I think the President will talk about some of his priorities. I wouldn’t expect legislative language to come up in his remarks, but I do think that you can look for the President to send a pretty clear signal about at least what some of his priorities would be in criminal justice and juvenile justice reform legislation.
Q There are some executive orders that he can make in those areas. Does he plan to do that?
MR. EARNEST: The President demonstrated a willingness earlier this week to take pretty bold executive action to address some of the disparities in our criminal justice system, and I wouldn’t rule out the President using that kind of authority in the future.
Q I mean, what about things like clean-slate rules, block-the-box for federal contractors?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t anticipate any announcements along those lines today.
Q Josh, quick question. On Monday, Cuba and the United States restore normal diplomatic relations. Is there any update on Kerry’s travel to Cuba now that he’s on his way back from Vienna?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t know what his travel plans are for next week, but you can check with the State Department.
3:34 P.M. EDT