Recommended Reading: State Department Briefing Edition

A lot has already been written in the wake of Donald Trump’s announcement yesterday that he would be withdrawing the United States from the Iran Deal. Commentators from across the political spectrum have been breaking down the decision from every conceivable angle, speculating about its motivations, meaning, and consequences. Some cheered the move, many more did not.

There will be time to dwell on these issues in the coming weeks, but for now, if you’re going to read anything about this decision — other than my blog, of course — let it be this transcript of a State Department background briefing session held shortly after Trump’s announcement.

Ostensibly, the purpose of this briefing session was to “put a little more meat on the bones” about the administration’s reasoning behind taking this action and what the next steps are. It quickly became clear, however, that they really haven’t put much thought into either of those questions.

The two “Senior State Department Officials” conducting the briefing (their names are embargoed in the transcript since the event was on background) began by discussing the two “wind down” periods, essentially grace periods between the announcement and the reimposition of sanctions, meant to allow companies to divest themselves of their interests in Iran. The first will last 90 days, the second six months. The officials also announced that they would be redesignating “all of the individuals that were delisted pursuant to the JCPOA,” which according to them amounted to approximately 600 people.

Things got interesting after the moderator opened the floor for questions. I’ll say this for the State Department press corps: they are considerably better reporters than their counterparts over at the White House. From the start, it was clear that the State correspondents do not have a chummy relationship with the individuals briefing them, nor do they consider State officials their esteemed colleagues with whom they work closely on a daily basis.

Immediately, the reporters began pressuring the two officials for more information about the administration’s intentions. They asked whether the administration is prepared to levy secondary sanctions against European companies that do not comply with the United States’ demands to withdraw their investments from Iran. This is an important point because as one reporter pointed out, in the absence of any American economic ties to Iran, the only leverage the United States has is by preventing other nations from investing in the Iranian economy. One might assume, then, that the administration had thought to reach an understanding with its European partners about how it would address this point once sanctions are reimposed. Nope:

QUESTION: So wait, just – so the United States has basically no economic relationships right now with the Iranians, right? So there is no power of U.S. sanctions to prevent – in preventing U.S. economic activity. The only power that U.S. sanctions have is in preventing European and other economic activity, right?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Secondary sanctions.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: The secondary sanctions, correct.

QUESTION: Why get out of the deal until you know for sure that Europe is going to go along with that secondary sanction activity or whether you’re – they’ll fight you? Because if they fight you, you’re going to be in a worse situation vis-a-vis Iran than you are now and than you are previously, right? So you don’t actually know – you’re saying that the President’s going to start this global coalition, but you don’t actually know whether even your closest allies are going to be part of that coalition, right?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: The President made clear on January 12th that he was giving a certain number of months to try to – for – try to get a supplemental agreement with the E3. We didn’t get there. We got close. We made a – we had movement, a ton of good progress, which will not be wasted, but we didn’t get there. So he was clear January 12th that if we don’t get this supplemental, he’s withdrawing the United States from the JCPOA, and that’s what he did. That being said, you could even see that President Macron tweeted only a few minutes after the President finished his statement that France is eager to be part of an effort – I forget the exact words, but part of an effort on a broader deal that addresses the nuclear file but also —

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Syria, Yemen.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: — Syria, Yemen, and others. So you already see – you already see from President Macron a willingness to work on a broader deal; you see from the Saudis have also issued a statement supporting our withdrawal; the Israelis did as well. No one is saying this is going to be easy, right, but the President made clear his intention on January 12th. He made good on that – on that promise.

QUESTION: You don’t know right now whether you’re going to be in a better place or in a worse place; is that what you’re saying?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: No, we think we’re going to be in a better place.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: No, we know we’re —

QUESTION: But you don’t know.

Sensing the growing hostility in the room, the officials tried to fall back on some of the talking points from Trump’s speech, even citing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s “Iran Lied” presentation from last week. The reporters, to put it mildly, did not indulge this line of reasoning:

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: We know we’re going to be in a better place because we don’t think that the current JCP – the JCPOA, as it is now, adequately protects U.S. national security. So —

QUESTION: Because?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Because it allowed Iran to enrich after sunsets, after those restrictions melted away —

QUESTION: In seven years.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Yes.

QUESTION: And even then, not enriching to a level where they could build a nuclear weapon.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Listen, after – after the Israelis revealed what they were able to find —

QUESTION: All old stuff, all old – before.

A few questions later, a reporter again attempted to clarify where the United States stood with its European partners, explicitly trying to get at what the administration’s plan B is if the JCPOA is no longer on the table. Once again, it did not go well:

QUESTION: But, I mean, [the Europeans] tell us that they want to stay in the deal as is. And so again, it’s all – this is all sort of fairly surprising that you guys are doing something so dramatic that affects your closest allies in a dramatic way. They see this deal as essential to their national security and you have no Plan B, you have no idea whether they will stay in the deal, whether they will defend the deal, whether they will fight you on the deal, whether they are going to go off with Iran against you.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: I mean, I think we have some idea because the President and President Macron, when he was here for the state visit, talked in their press availability about – President Macron called it a four-pillar new deal. What he tweeted today seemed to me – I think there were four pillars in what he tweeted today – seemed to me, again, to echo his desire for a broad new four-pillar deal.

QUESTION: But one of the pillars was keeping the JCPOA, which he made certain to emphasize repeatedly.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Right, but he tweeted today something that seemed to indicate to me a French willingness to work with us.

QUESTION: So you guys have a positive tweet out of it. That’s amazing.

Seriously, go read the rest of it.

Author: Jonathan Leslie

PhD candidate at School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London.

One thought on “Recommended Reading: State Department Briefing Edition”

  1. Very helpful, Jonathan. Thanks for calling the briefing to our attention.

    I realize it may be beyond your area of expertise, but would it be possible for Europe, Russia, and China to go it alone with implementation of the JCPOA? Can the US implement secondary sanctions effectively to cut off investments in Iran from the non-US signatories? I’ve heard that Europe’s banking sector is not large enough to handle the Iranian investments, but could they pull it off with China’s participation? Isn’t it in China’s and Russia’s interests — both economic and geopolitical — to keep the deal without US participation? Couldn’t this backfire rather dramatically and leave the US isolated?

    Randy

    >

    Like

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