Press Call by Senior Administration Officials on Iran

The White House
Office of the Press Secretary
For Immediate Release

Press Call by Senior Administration Officials on Iran

Via Conference Call

11:24 A.M. EST

MR. PRICE:  Morning, everyone.  And thanks for joining this call.  I wanted to convene this group to discuss some of the recent developments with and in Iran.

First, a word about the ground rules.  We will do this call on background.  You can attribute this call to senior administration officials.  This call will be embargoed until the end of the call, so we would ask you not tweet or otherwise use this material until then.  So again, this call is on background to senior administration officials.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Great, thanks, everybody.  So you just heard from the President; I know we spoke to some of you throughout the day yesterday on these issues.  We did just want to provide another opportunity to some after what has been a very busy 24 hours with respect to Iran, and to discuss the two additional pieces of information that were rolled out today, which is an important settlement as a part of our claims tribunal at The Hague, and some additional designations that have been pursued with respect to Iran’s ballistic missile program.

Stepping back, though, I think, as the President said, what we’ve been able to do over the course of the last two days is make very important progress on a number of different tracks that we have had with Iran.  First, of course, on the nuclear side, we saw the implementation of the nuclear deal based upon the fact that Iran has now completed its major nuclear actions -- rolled back significant portions of its nuclear program, accepted the international monitoring verification regime that can assure us that Iran is not able to pursue a nuclear weapon.  That initiates the sanctions release associated with the nuclear deal.  So Implementation Day was yesterday.

Also yesterday, we had the release of five Americans that were held in Iranian custody.  This morning -- or in the early morning hours in Tehran, we were pleased that three of those Americans were able to fly out of Tehran -- and we can speak to that -- that of course includes Saeed Abedini, Jason Rezaian, and Amir Hekmati.  And yesterday, Matthew Trevithick was able to leave Iran as he was released.

Then, third, we’ve had a longstanding tribunal at The Hague to resolve a number of different claims in either direction between the United States and Iran.  The one that we resolved and announced today has to do with military equipment that was sold to the Iranians that they made payment for before the revolution.  Clearly, it’s in the U.S. interest to resolve these in ways that reduce our risk, and we believe that this is a very positive settlement for us and it is also a part of this broader resolution of a number of issues; really, the three issues where we’ve had sustained, regular diplomatic contact with Iran over the course of the last month and years.

And then fourth, we’ve also been clear that just as -- even as we were making this important progress, we’re going to continue to have differences with Iran and we’re going to continue to have to have enforcement associated with those differences, particularly when it relates to things like ballistic missile violations of U.N. Security Council resolutions, as well as terrorist activity.  And so we’ll have some designations that we’ll speak to related to those ballistic missile launches.

I’ll stop there.  I’ll turn it over to my colleague who can speak to the prisoner releases, as well as the Hague tribunal.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  I’ll just give a little bit of color about -- on this very long -- 14 months -- intense negotiations for the American citizens.

And as I think has already been discussed, this really came out of the nuclear channel.  And as we’ve always said on the margins of the nuclear talks, we would always raise the matters of our American citizens.  And it became clear about a year and a half ago that really to make some progress on those issues, we would have to open a separate channel, a separate track, and that to have that track be successful, it would have to include elements of the Iranian government that were partially from the -- which is leading the nuclear talks, but also other elements of the systems that we had -- decision-makers in the room.

And we were able to set up that channel, started about 14 months ago; very intense discussions, most of them held in Switzerland.  And the Swiss government was just instrumental in hosting these talks and allowing them to remain secret -- which was absolutely critical to the ability of both sides to make any progress -- and then the facilitation of returning our American citizens today, which we’re extremely grateful for.  And they should be wheels down we hope within a couple hours.

So one thing that drove us throughout this was just the situation that was faced by the American citizens.  Of course Jason Rezaian was detained in July 2014.  He had not been sentenced yet, but speculation was that he was facing a very significant sentence, given the nature of the charges the Iranian government was really falsely alleging against him -- a multiple-year sentence potentially, a multiple-decade sentence potentially.

Saeed Abedini, a Christian pastor from Idaho, had been detained since September 2012.  He was sentenced in 2013 to eight years in prison, so therefore his sentence was running until 2021, and really no hope of ever finding a release valve.

Amir Hekmati, a former U.S. Marine sergeant.  He was detained in Iran in August of 2011, and was actually convicted to death in 2012.  That sentence was later reduced, but he was serving a sentence until about 2022.

Of course, there were other Americans who were detained over the course of these talks.  Nosratallah Roodsari was one of them.  Matthew Trevithick has been mentioned.  And of course, Robert Levinson, the former FBI agent, has been missing since he went missing on a business trip to Kish Island in 2007 -- was also central to these discussions.

So what we were able to do over these 14 months was really narrow the scope of issues, focus on the fact that Iran did have some concerns about people detained in our system.  And the fact that the people they were talking about -- we really narrowed it down to non-violent sanctions-related offenses, and in the context of the progress that was being made on the nuclear track, I think it kind of became possible to see a way that we could get the American citizens home and focus on non-violent offenders who were -- focused really on sanctions-related offenses.

So we found a way forward, which got our American citizens home.  Three of them are coming home today.  Two more were released from Iranian custody yesterday.  One left Iran on a civilian plane yesterday, so -- I think is a very significant breakthrough most importantly for our fellow citizens and their families.

We’ve also agreed to continue a dialogue with Iran through multiple channels for missing persons, in particularly for Bob Levinson.  And we made some progress in that case, but that’s a case that we are never going to quit and never going to give up on, and he’s central to our minds every single day.  And we’re going to continue to do everything we possibly can to find Bob and bring him home.

So I think what happened today in the breakthrough in getting our American citizens home was quite significant for being able to do this secretly, and with elements of the Iranian system that we don’t normally, typically engage with, and also, but most importantly, bringing our citizens home.

And I have to mention, again, I think the Swiss government was such a critical facilitator.  We could not have done this without them, so we’re extremely grateful.  And as my colleague mentioned at the top, we’ve really had three tracks of sustained engagement with Iran going on for decades.  It’s really just unique.

So one was the Iran -- the nuclear track, of course.  The second was in the Hague settlement tribunal, a process that came out of the Algiers Declaration in 1981.  And that process has gone on for -- fits and starts for three decades.  And sometimes it’s made progress; sometimes it hasn’t.  Since Rouhani came into office, we have been able to make some progress in that track -- I defer to the lawyers who work this thing every day -- but we settled a number of smaller claims over the last four or five months.  And then there was an opening through that track to settle a fairly substantial claim that was directly within U.S. interest because it reduced a significant risk of liability.  And that particular claim also was being actively litigated in The Hague, and there was a timeframe for the litigation.  So it was kind of on the courthouse steps.

So all of these patterns of interaction between -- with the U.S. and Iran created I think some opportunities across areas.  And sometimes you have situations like the sailors in which, because of those patterns of interaction, that we were able to resolve some issues.  And also I think we were able to advance the ball on other multiple issues simply because we had developed these patterns of engagement.

So that’s where we are today.  And I believe the most important thing for us is we’re seeing our fellow citizens come home.  And we consider that a significant breakthrough, a very good day, and we feel very good about it.  And we’re happy to address any questions.

Q    Can you just give us a little bit of a tick-tock of the logistics of the prisoners leaving Iran, including, if you can, what happened to the fourth fellow, Nosratallah -- I’m not going to try his last name -- and how that fit in with the President’s timing?  We had thought, maybe from what Secretary Kerry said, we’d hear from the President last night.  But was he -- kind of how those things meshed up.  And also, how the timing of the sanctions fits into the prisoner swap, the new ballistic sanctions.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  So I’ll start.  And let me just note that we have my colleague for a limited time so I think we’ll do these questions and then we can wrap by having my colleague from Treasury kind of go into a little more detail about those -- well, actually, why don’t we do that now just so that my colleague from Treasury can do that.  And you asked a sanction question anyway, so I think that works.

But I’ll start with the issues related to the President.  Then I think we can -- Treasury can speak briefly to the designations the release has -- the specifics.  And then my colleague can take the tick-tock on the prisoners.

The first thing I’d just say is, with respect to the President speaking, he wanted to wait until our Americans had left Tehran and we had a certainty that they and their families were on that plane and coming home.  And so that drove our determinations about the timing of him speaking, and that was certainly Secretary Kerry’s recommendation, as well.

Secondly, with respect to the designations, yes -- and I got this question yesterday -- but I think it’s obviously fair to say that the key issue for us was we had these three different tracks going on.  The most sensitive one was the one that pertained to our Americans whose release we were seeking.  And we did not want to complicate what was a very sensitive and delicate effort to bring Americans home with that action.  So it was not the nuclear step.

We’ve had sanctions imposed in the context of JPOA and the negotiations toward the nuclear deal for the last few years.  And so I think that is fairly routinized, even though the Iranians don’t like it when we obviously impose sanctions and enforce an existing sanctions regime -- but rather this sensitivity around making sure we’re not compromising our efforts to get the Americans out.  But we are making clear that this is a one-time, unprecedented situation with the release of prisoners, and we are going to enforce our sanctions as necessary going forward with respect to issues like ballistic missiles and terrorism.

So why don’t I turn it over to Treasury to speak briefly to the topline of those sanctions, and then my colleague can get into the timeline on the Americans.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Sure, I’ll go ahead and give a brief overview of what we’ve done.

I think with the implementation of the JCPOA yesterday and reaching Implementation Day, we’ve made very clear that the U.S. retains a number of designations authorities outside the scope of the JCPOA to counter Iran’s multiple activities of concern, including its support for terrorism; its human rights abuses at home or abroad; support for persons involved in human rights abuses in Syria, for the government of Syria; support for persons threatening the peace, security or stability of Yemen; and, of course, its ballistic missile activities.

So today, we rolled out the designations of three entities and eight individuals involved in procurement on behalf of Iran’s ballistic missile program with the UAE and China-based network that had been of concern involved in procuring materials and other equipment for carbon-fiber production for Iran’s ballistic missile program.  We’ve issued a press release on the Treasury website today with the details -- on the OFAC website of those designated that can answer more of the detail questions.  I’m happy to answer anything further that you need.

 

Q    Yes, I have a two-part question.  What about the notion that the prisoner swap sets a bad precedent?  On the talk shows this morning, there was comments from one presidential candidate who said, “Every bad actor on Earth has been told [to] go capture an American; if you want to get terrorists out of jail, capture an American, “and President Obama is in the let’s-make-a-deal business.”

And then secondly, on the financial aspects that the President mentioned toward the end of his statement, how much was the U.S. looking at having to pay?  How much did it save?  And why did the U.S. feel so compelled to make this payment?  What were the -- what was the feedback you were getting?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Sure.  So I can start with that.

First of all, with respect to releases of prisoners, swaps and otherwise, that has -- there’s nothing new about that concept.  That’s gone on under presidents of different political parties for a long time.  This was not a swap in the sense that this did not relate to intelligence assets -- a traditional spy swap is when you have people in prisons who are intelligence assets and you make exchanges for them -- but rather, these were releases that were undertaken by each side on a humanitarian basis.  We of course reject the detention of the Americans.  We believe that that detention was unjust.

I would say a simple thing -- I said a version of this last night -- we had a judgment to make, which is, do you want to leave these Americans in prison at great risk to themselves and at great hardship to their families?  If people want to say that they were for leaving these Americans in prison, they should say so.  But the fact of the matter is, this was our opportunity to bring them home.  And the fact of the matter is, we also were not -- did not have to release any Iranians involved in terrorism or convicted of violent crimes.  Iran had a significantly higher number of individuals, of course, at the beginning of this negotiation that they would have liked to have seen released.  But we were able to winnow that down to these seven individuals, six of whom are Iranian Americans.

And they were convicted or awaiting trial for sanctions-related offenses, violations of the trade embargo in the context of a nuclear deal that is rooted in Iran taking enormous steps to roll back its nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief.  While this was not a part of that deal, there was some natural convergence in the notion that you would provide the releases of the Iranians involved in sanctions-related offenses in the context of them releasing these Americans.

But I do have to say that it’s very easy to insist that we stay in this cycle of endless conflict with Iran.  I will tell you, across the board that is a recipe for potential confrontation and disaster for the United States in the sense that if we had not engaged in diplomacy around the nuclear issue, Iran right now would not have rolled back its program.  They would be on the verge of having the capability to build a nuclear weapon.

If we did not have these diplomatic channels with the Iranians that have been established over the last two or three years, it is very likely that our sailors who had gone into Iranian waters would still be detained there today.  If we did not have this diplomatic channel with Iran, we certainly would not have our Americans coming home.

So we believe that diplomacy delivers results.  And again, people can, as the President said in the State of the Union, reduce their foreign policy to a sound bite, but ultimately, that’s not going to be effective in advancing America’s interests.

With respect to The Hague, I’d just say one thing -- and I don’t know if my colleagues want to jump in --

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Hey, guys, can I jump in really quick?  I got to go -- in like two minutes.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Oh, sure, go ahead.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  But I’ll just say -- there was a question of when the American citizens left, and they left this morning.  There were some issues last night just with the crew rest and the length of flight, and also making sure that -- we wanted Jason Rezaian’s mother and his wife on the plane.

So they left this morning, and from all indications -- and I’ve been in touch with folks who have been on the plane -- that they’re in good spirits and they’re going to get very well taken care of.  And we very much look forward to seeing them here in a few minutes, and also welcoming them back to the United States.

So with that, I’ve got to head out.  But it’s great to join you.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  I might want to -- I’d just like to say a couple more words on the Hague settlements, there was a question on that.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Yes, sure, go ahead.  I was going to do that but why don’t you go ahead.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Okay.  So if you -- just to give a little context around that settlement, obviously that’s a tribunal that’s been around since 1981.  It was established with the Algiers Accords.  Over the course of the decades that the tribunal has been in existence, there have been thousands of claims that have been resolved.  As my colleague mentioned earlier, there has been quite a few claims that we’re been able to resolve just over the course of the last few months.

But almost all of the 4,700 or so private U.S. claims filed against Iran in the tribunal after it was established have been resolved, and that’s resulted in something like $2.5 billion in awards to U.S. nationals and U.S. companies.  So Iran has paid out substantially from awards at this tribunal over the years.  And what we were doing in the context of this settlement is settling a longstanding Iranian government claim against the United States government regarding this contract in the Foreign Military Sales program.

And the settlement -- we reached a judgment that this settlement would result in a substantial reduction in our exposure at the tribunal because Iran was seeking billions of dollars on this claim, and these kinds of complex litigation are very unpredictable, and our lawyers assessed that we could have faced a significantly higher judgment.  And so we see this kind of settlement as profoundly in our national interest and in our national security interest.

 

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  And just to put one fine point on that, clearly, we -- foreign military sales to Iran that they made payment for, and we didn’t make delivery of the military equipment.  That's the basis of the claim.  The longer the claim goes on, the greater the risk to the United States in terms of the type of interest associated with the account.  And again, the type of interest that is utilized to settle the issue can carry with it a difference of billions of dollars.

So as the President mentioned today, and Secretary Kerry mentioned in his statement, if we did not settle this claim on these terms, the potential exposure for the United States could have been billions of dollars more.  If this had gone to litigation in The Hague, that carries with it a legal risk for us.

We, of course, recognize the legitimacy of these types of international tribunals, so, for us, this settles an open account in a manner that we believe is profoundly in our interests, and ultimately reduces both the legal risk and the potential cost to the American -- to the United States that would have resulted from letting this drag out.

Q    I'm wondering if you could talk a little bit more about the tick-tock of why the plane took a while to take off, where it's headed, and talk about that there was need for some of the money to be released under the sanctions before the Americans could take off, the fact that the Iranians here weren’t going to be released until the Americans were wheels up.  I'm just trying to understand kind of what mechanisms -- if you guys could cover that that would be great.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  First of all, money was not related -- the sanctions relief under the nuclear deal was not related to the prisoner release at all.  I think that's been conflated publicly.  The issue very specifically was we wanted to make sure that when the plane took off, that Jason Rezaian was able to travel with his wife and mother.  So that took extra time to ensure that they were located and on that plane.  And we felt, obviously, very strongly that the Rezaian family had the right to leave together.

And so, on the additional timing, there was an initial set of timing questions related to bringing together the different Americans who were being released.  Then there was the question of ensuring that we had the Rezaian family on that plane.  And once all those pieces were in place, that's when the Americans left.  And then, similarly, here, in the United States, once we had certainty that these issues were being resolved, that's when the Iranian Americans and the Iranian here were presumably released.  Although, I think DOJ should speak to that -- the Department of Justice should speak to the exact timing and procedures related with their releases.

So that was really the main question.  And then, again, there were five Americans total released.  Four have left.  The other individual, it's his free determination as to whether or not he -- where he wants to go; stay in Iran or come to the United States.  So we don't make that judgment for him.  So that accounts for the people who were on the plane in the early morning hours from Tehran.

Q    Looking ahead, you’ve accomplished three or four major things here -- is there a possibility for more cooperation with the Iranians on other issues of common concern -- like ISIS, like the humanitarian problem and situation in Syria?  And do you worry that this imposition of these ballistic missile sanctions so quickly after these other agreements is going to close the door to any other future cooperation?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  That's a great question.  So, first of all, we do believe that we should test whether or not there can be additional cooperation or at least constructive dialogue between the United States and Iran with respect to other issues.  I think we've shown that over time, very persistent diplomacy can yield results -- most dramatically, on the nuclear issue, and then also on the other issues.  And the main -- frankly, the main forum for that will be the Vienna process related to Syria.

So Iran is at the table in the discussions around resolving the Syrian civil war.  They are part of the Vienna process.  The fact of the matter is, Secretary Kerry has seen Foreign Minister Zarif in the context of the Vienna process and, frankly, has been raising issues related to the American citizens and the Iran nuclear issues in that context.  So they have an open line of communication that is now focused on Syria.

We've had profound differences and continue to have profound differences with Iran over the situation in Syria.  And we believe that test of whether Iran wants to engage constructively on regional issues is whether or not they can understand over time that the Syrian civil war is not going to be resolved so long as Bashar al-Assad is in power.  And that's been the main difference between the United States and Iran in those discussions.

So we will continue to test that proposition.  If Iran does act in a more constructive fashion, it would be a positive development in resolving difficult issues.  If they don't, we will continue to enforce our sanctions and continue to have very strong differences.  And I think the ballistic missile designations demonstrate that even as we make progress in all these different areas, we still have the ability to see that there are consequences for a ballistic missile program that violates international law, or, for instance, support for terrorism.

So as the President said in his remarks, though, it would be good for Iran if it takes -- and this will be a long-term proposition.  Iran is not going to change dramatically in the next year or two years, but if over time, Iran takes this opportunity of reengaging with the international community to moderate its own behavior, internationally and with respect to its own human rights practices, ultimately, that would lead to a far better future for the Iranian people.  And we want to make sure that the door is open for Iran to make that choice.  If they don't make that choice, we retain all of our capabilities to impose consequences for areas where we have serious differences.

We've got time for one more question.

Q    Related a little bit to the last question, what kind of longevity do you see for these multiple diplomatic channels your administration has established with Iran?  Can they be institutionalized a bit more over the next year so that they can outlast this administration, or are they dependent on the philosophy of the people occupying the administration?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Well, great question.  We're obviously not opening diplomatic relations with Iran formally.  So this is not analogous to Cuba, where we set up an embassy and they set up an embassy here.  However, it is the case that we were able in the course of the last two or three years to have more diplomatic engagement with Iran than I think we've had in total since 1979.

 

And so we have engaged on these three tracks.  The Hague one is a fairly technical one; generally, lawyer to lawyer.  But again, this had been somewhat moribund in ways that we believe created risk for us, and so we're pleased that it's moving again.

But on the bigger issues, I guess I'd say a couple things.  One is, on the issue with respect to the Americans, as my colleague said, we were dealing with different parts of the Iranian system, and so having conversations with the type of people we don't normally have conversations with.  I’d just make that observation to demonstrate that some of this involved a broader engagement with the Iranian system than we’ve had even as -- even under the previous administration, there was engagement that was discrete and focused on Afghanistan or Iraq.

But I say that to say that that is unique and not part of I think a more sustained dialogue that we’ve had with Foreign Minister Zarif and other elements within the Rouhani administration and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.  In that regard, a lot of this has accelerated since President Rouhani was elected.  Foreign Minister Zarif and Secretary Kerry have very regular dialogue through the nuclear discussions and now through the Vienna process.  That dialogue gives us openings to resolve other issues.

So when our sailors drifted into Iranian territorial waters, we now have -- Secretary Kerry can pick up the phone, call the Foreign Minister of Iran, and resolve that issue in a matter of hours.  That just wasn’t available to us two years ago.  If that happened two of three years ago, again, I think we would have had to spend ages getting a message back and forth with the Iranians.  We’d have to have our U.N. ambassador find the Iranian representative up in New York and have that person send a message back to Tehran, and then have the Swiss government receive the answer from the Iranians.  And now, we’re just picking up the phone.

So that is clearly in our interest, because it allows us to not just make positive progress, but also to avoid unnecessary escalation or confrontations.  But to your point, that is very much rooted in both administrations.  So on our side, this President has been committed to engagement as a means of resolving differences or avoiding escalation.  Secretary Kerry has also been deeply involved in this.  And there will to some extent -- because they’re not formal ties between our countries, it will be up to the next administration to determine how they want to carry that forward.

Obviously -- and I’m not speaking about the presidential campaign here -- this was -- well, I should leave it at that.  I was just going to note that that has been the case throughout our administration under both terms.

But importantly, the question is -- the Iranian side.  And under the Ahmadinejad administration, we did not have particularly constructive engagements at all on the nuclear issue or anything else.  And the fact of the matter is the tone very much changed when President Rouhani was elected.  He was elected on a mandate to engage the West and the United States on the nuclear issue.  We had essentially just dialogue with the Iranians related to the nuclear issue that went nowhere except to -- sanctions that were imposed upon them because they weren’t serious.

That all changed very quickly after President Rouhani was elected.  President Obama sent him a letter indicating that we wanted to open up diplomatic discussions around the nuclear deal.  We received a constructive response that initiated the nuclear dialogue.

 

So the choice is even more on the Iranian side than on our side as to whether or not they are going to continue to pursue more constructive relations with not just the United States but the rest of the world.

And with that, I’m sorry, we’ll have to wrap.  But thanks, everybody, for getting on the call.  You have from Treasury the details on the designations.  You have from State Secretary Kerry’s statement on the resolution of the Hague issue, as well as all the paper from yesterday.

So, Ned, I don’t know if you have anything else you need to say in wrap.

MR. PRICE:  As you know, just a reminder that this was on background.  And thanks, everyone, for joining.

END

12:00 P.M. EST