Press Briefing by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster on Iran

العربية العربية, हिन्दी हिन्दी, اردو اردو

The White House
Office of Press Secretary
October 13, 2017
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
5:48 P.M. EDT



MS. SANDERS:  It’s firepower day.  Bringing out all the big guns today.  I’ll kick us off and lay out the ground rules.  We’re going to make some adjustments and allow this to be on the record but embargoed until 5:00 a.m. tomorrow morning.

We ask that, as typical when we have a specific policy rollout, ideally you would stay focused on the topic at hand.

And with that, I will turn it over to the Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, and National Security Director, General McMaster.

So, thanks, guys.

Q    So it’s off camera but on the record?

MS. SANDERS:  Off camera.  Audio is not to be used for broadcast, but you can use the statements on the record.

GENERAL MCMASTER:  Hi.  Good evening, everybody.  Secretary Tillerson and I are happy to be with you to discuss President Trump’s Iran strategy.  And I just wanted to quickly, by way of introduction — and I know you really want to hear from the Secretary about the strategy itself — tell you that this was the result of months of an interagency process during which Secretary of State Tillerson took a foundational role to view the problem set associated with Iran through the lens of our vital national security interests.

The first step was then to craft an overarching goal and then more specific objectives associated with that assessment, and then to direct all efforts across our departments and agencies to combine diplomacy with informational efforts, military and economic efforts, and to coordinate with our allies to ensure that we can make progress toward accomplishing our objectives on the Iran problem set.

So, Mr. Secretary.

SECRETARY TILLERSON:  Thanks, H.R.  I think as many of you may have heard us talk about over the last, actually, several months about the way we view the Iranian situation and where the nuclear agreement, the JCPOA, kind of positions itself in the way we view the Iranian relationship — the JCPOA, Joint Commission [Comprehensive] Plan of Action, deals with nuclear activities only.  And we’ve talked about how that’s only one piece of what concerns us about the relationship with Iran, and that we don’t think that nuclear agreement should define the entire policy.  And, quite frankly, in the past, it more or less has defined the Iranian policy, the nuclear agreement.

As we assess the situation with Iran, that is a big concern obviously — is advancement of their nuclear weapons program.  But there are also many more immediate concerns we have with Iran’s destabilizing activities in the area and in the region:  Their support of terrorist organizations.  We know of their direct support to Lebanese Hezbollah, which has one objective, and that is to threaten Israel.  Their support of the Houthis in Yemen to — overthrow of the Yemeni government and the destabilizing activity that they are fomenting in Yemen.  Their export of foreign fighters throughout the region to destabilize areas.  And support of other terrorist activities.

So we are concerned about addressing those elements which, by and large, have gone unaddressed in the past.  So, on the one hand, we want to examine the nuclear agreement, understand how we can use that in a very productive and forceful way, but also how do we address all of these other issues.

So this is a much broader strategic approach that has been taken by Iran in the past, and it is built around — the intent is that we will stay in the JCPOA, but the President is going to decertify under INARA.  And I think most of you understand that we really have, kind of, two issues here.  We have the JCPOA agreement itself, under which there’s technical certifications made by way of the inspections by the IAEA, and then there’s the Iranian Nuclear Review Act, INARA, which Congress passed in response to the JCPOA.  That’s the act that requires the every-90-day certification to the President.

There are a number of criteria under INARA which we have to judge.  And one of the important criteria is that the sanctions relief that was provided under the JCPOA is proportionate to Iran’s efforts and activities to limit its nuclear program.  In the past, that certification has been made thus far, while we undertook this more comprehensive review.  And so we’ve gone with that certification.

And now that we’ve completed that review, we’ve had an interagency process that H.R. mentioned, the President has come to the conclusion that he cannot certify, under INARA, that the sanctions relief that was provided is proportionate to, in effect, the benefit that we’re seeing from that agreement.

Now, what that sets in motion with the Congress is, kind of, three rough alternatives:  The Congress can then decide to do nothing.  The President makes the certification; we’re still parties to the JCPOA, the nuclear agreement.  We do not re-impose sanctions because we’re going to live up to our commitments under the JCPOA.  So Congress can choose to do nothing.

Congress can choose to re-impose the sanctions.  And, obviously, if they do that, that does then put the JCPOA agreement in question.

But there’s a third pathway, which the President is going to be suggesting that the Congress consider, and that’s using the INARA act, this review act, which was originally passed as somewhat of an oversight mechanism on the prior administration because of dissatisfaction with the way the entire agreement was concluded.

Let’s take the INARA and amend the INARA to put in place some very firm trigger points in INARA that, if Iran crosses any of these trigger points, the sanctions automatically go back into place.  There’s no determination other than they’ve hit a trigger point.  There’s no other action required.  The sanctions just automatically go back on.  And these are trigger points that are specific to the nuclear program itself, but they also deal with things like their ballistic missile program.

So that’s one of the areas that we are going to ask that the Congress consider.

The second is the various sunset dates that exist under the JCPOA.  As you know, there are two or three dates under which certain activities that Iran is prohibited from carrying out, they now can resume those activities.  And so, in effect, as you’ve heard the President talk about it, and we’ve talked about, that what we really have is a countdown clock to when Iran can resume its nuclear weapons development program.  That sounds an awful lot like some North Korean deals that we’ve seen in the past.

So the President would also like to have the Congress deal with that expiry within INARA that says, okay, if Iran hits these trigger points, our sanctions immediately go back on and there is no expiry.

So these amendments under INARA would outlive the JCPOA.  Now, the usefulness of that, from our standpoint is:

One, it is a strong sense of the Congress, which represents the American people, strong sense of the President that this is how we view Iran’s activities and that we are never going to accept them resuming their nuclear weapons program.

The second is, is to indicate to our partners under the Joint Commission [Comprehensive] Plan of Action that there are some areas that were not addressed under the nuclear agreement that we think require further addressing, most specifically the ballistic missile program and the expiry date.  Whether that means a reopening of the agreement, which is unlikely because Iran is not going to reopen the agreement.  It more likely means that we would undertake an initiative to have a new agreement that doesn’t replace the JCPOA, but addresses these two issues and lays along beside the JCPOA.

Again, that’s going to require everybody’s willingness to engage on these issues.  We’ve been having discussions with the European signatories for many, many months on this issue, and we’ve even had discussions with the Iranians.  I indicted this to Foreign Minister Zarif when we saw each other on the margins of the U.N.

I don’t want to suggest to you that we give that a high chance of success, but there is an openness to talk about it.  So that’s — where do we start?  So that’s one of the usefulness of having this INARA amendment.

I think the second is that it does send that strong message to Iran that these requirements that the U.S. feels are necessary to ensure you never have nuclear weapons, these are with us and they’re part of our relationship now and forever more.  A future President can’t change them; they’re now law.  A future Congress and a President could, but if the Congress takes this action, the President signs the amended act, this now is a law that stays in place now and forever more until some future Congress and President decide to change it.

So it puts much more stature behind this expectation we have of Iran than currently exist under the JCPOA.  So that’s what the President has asked us to do, is either put more teeth into this obligation that Iran has undertaken for all of the sanctions relief and the benefits it received, or let’s just forget the whole thing and we’ll walk away and we’ll start all over.

So those are, kind of, the choices that are out there, and that’s how we deal with the nuclear agreement.

Dealing with their other activities, the President will also be announcing in his address tomorrow that he is directing the Treasury Department to undertake, under his executive orders, additional actions for the Iranian Revolutionary Guard’s support of terrorist activities in the region.

So these will be targeted sanctions against individuals, possible entities that are owned or partially owned by the IRGC that are directly supporting these terrorist activities, whether it’s weapons exports or it’s weapons components, or cyber activity, or it’s movement of weapons and fighters around.  The Treasury Secretary is going to have broad latitude to begin to identify those and impose additional sanctions.

We’re in discussions with the European partners and others, and we are seeking their concurrence that they too should sanction these activates if they view — if they have the same concerns we share.  They indicate they do have those same concerns.  We are convinced that none of these new sanctions will in any way bring anyone in violation of their obligations for sanctions relief under the JCPOA, because these sanctions are being imposed for non-nuclear activities.

So it’s comprised of, really, these two elements:  How do you want to deal with the nuclear agreement; how do you want to deal with all the other areas that we have concerns about Iran’s destabilizing activities.  So it involves a broad-based effort that’s been going on now for many, many weeks, if not months, with the other signatories to the agreements, but also beyond.  We’ve been in discussion with other countries, certainly in the region, who share these concerns, as well.

So let me stop there.  And that’s fundamentally what’s in the action.

Q    What do you tell the European allies when they say, you know, you should just go ahead and certify the deal for another 90 days, because they are technically in compliance?

SECRETARY TILLERSON:  It’s a good point, because under the JCPOA, we don’t disagree.  We don’t dispute that they’re under technical compliance.  One of the — you know, we’ve said the agreement has a number of weaknesses in it, and, in fact, one of the weaknesses is the bar — the standard to remain in technical compliance is not that difficult, or has not been that difficult for them to meet.

You heard of violations in the past where they had — they were carrying more heavy-water inventory than was allowed.  They’ve had certain materials — carbon-fiber materials that are used for high-rate centrifuges.  They’re not supposed to have it.

Under the agreement, they have an opportunity to remedy that, which they’ve done.  So they’re in technical compliance on these areas.  One of the areas, though, that we are concerned about is, it is difficult to gain full access to sites throughout Iran and gain access to sites on a short-term basis.  So we may have concerns about an activity that may be going on in a particular location, which the IAEA then petitions Iran for access to the site.  It generally takes about 30 days or more for them to grant us that access.  A lot of stuff obviously can be moved around.

But we are, and the IAEA is now, with the support of the Europeans — the E3 plus the EU — are demanding access to research sites that were never — no one was asking about that before.  So we’re leaning hard into the agreement as well.  And we think it’s useful to do that.

So the certification — we’re not decertifying under the JCPOA.  We’re saying, fine, they’re meeting the technical compliance.  This is a separate certification process required by our own domestic law, INARA.

Q    Secretary Tillerson, I have a question for you and then a question for General McMaster, if you don’t mind.  President Rouhani told Lester Holt that if, in fact, the President does decertify the Iranian deal, no one will ever trust America again.  Do you have any concerns about either those comments or about — for example, you talk about diplomacy potentially with North Korea — that could complicate the situation there?  And then one for General McMaster.

SECRETARY TILLERSON:  I think they can trust we’ll never do a deal that is this weak again.  And so we’ll do a deal but it’s going to be a deal that meets the needs of what we see in terms of preventing nuclear proliferation.  And we’ll stand by those deals.

Q    And, General McMaster, you’re obviously making an ask of Congress here.  And this administration, as you’re aware, hasn’t always had the best luck in Congress to do what it wants Congress to do.  What makes you think this is going to be different?

GENERAL MCMASTER:  I think that in the foreign policy area — and I know the Secretary agrees with this as well — there should be a lot of ground for bipartisan support for these initiatives and strategies.  Nobody is for Iran getting a nuclear weapon.  Nobody is for Iran continuing its destabilizing behavior across the region, this development of missile capabilities.

And so we think we have a real opportunity to apply, in part, a legislative remedy to some of the fundamental flaws in the deals involving enforcement, as well as pertaining to the sunset clause in particular.

Q    You’ve been on the Hill.  Has that been your response so far from lawmakers?  You have reason to believe they will move in that direction?

GENERAL MCMASTER:  It has been a very positive response.  I will ask the Secretary to comment on that as well, because he’s had the lead role in reaching out to Congress.

SECRETARY TILLERSON:  We’ve been socializing this on the Hill now for several weeks, quietly, so as not to put anyone in a box or force them to take a position early on.  Because it is — this is a bit of a complicated issue, and it does require one to think about, okay, what is the benefit of doing this?

But so far, in all of our discussions we’ve had on the Hill, certainly with leadership in the Senate and leadership in the House, they’ve been supportive.  And in discussions we’ve had with the minority in both sides of the Hill as well, there’s been interest in wanting to understand it and not an outright rejection of it.

I don’t want to suggest to you this is a slam-dunk up there on the Hill.  We know it’s not.  People have very strong feelings about this nuclear arrangement with Iran, but we also feel strongly.

One of the weaknesses is, the Congress never really got to express a view, other than through this INARA, which was an oversight after the thing was already done.  This is their opportunity to express that view.

Q    This puts a lot of pressure on you on the diplomatic front for this add-on you’re describing here.  How much time are you asking for Congress to give you?  How much time do you need to get that done?  Who needs to be at the room?  And will you negotiate with Iran, or is this just an agreement with all the allies plus our Gulf partners?

SECRETARY TILLERSON:  Well, the amendment to INARA is something that doesn’t require us to negotiate anything with anyone else.  This is purely an internal domestic decision for the Congress, with the President, to make.

And we’re asking — we think it’s something they should be able to deal with in fairly short order.  While it’s complex in terms of thinking about various outcomes of making the decision, the decision itself is not that complicated.  So we’re hoping that they’ll deal with that in a fairly short order.

Once that decision is made, that will guide then our diplomatic engagement.

Q    How much time are you asking them to give you, though?
SECRETARY TILLERSON:  Well, you know, the next certification would come up in another 90 days.  And so I would hope that they would deal with it before we come around the horn on this another time.  If it takes longer than that, then there’s something I don’t understand about the deliberations.

Q    But you need more than 90 days to get the diplomatic wins that you’re laying out there.

SECRETARY TILLERSON:  Well, that comes after the decision.  In other words, our diplomacy on gaining support for additional sanctions against the IRGC, additional actions to contain their ballistic missile program, that’s going to be a process over the next several months well into next year.

And it’s not tied directly to what we’re asking the Congress to do on INARA itself.  We think the action we’re asking Congress to take on INARA will strengthen our arguments and will strengthen our diplomatic effort if we have that kind of support from the Congress.  But it’s not controlling the diplomatic effort itself or the pace with which we’ll make progress.

Q    What is the argument you provide to the other signatories of the agreement when they say you don’t need to take this unilateral action when you actually can impose sanctions on other areas of concern that you have with Iran while leaving the agreement intact?

SECRETARY TILLERSON:  Well, again, I think the President has been very clear, and I’ve tried to be very clear with you as well, that we think the agreement is weak.  It leaves areas unaddressed, and we would like to engage — whether it’s a reopening of the agreement, which, quite frankly, I think is unlikely, or whether it’s an engagement to address the areas that were left unaddressed and, as I said, put an agreement in place that lays alongside the JCPOA and addresses the areas of concern we have, and continuing to get support from the other signatories to really hold Iran accountable to compliance.

And again, our posture on compliance — and the IAEA would confirm this — is quite different than the previous administration’s posture on compliance was.  And so we are also going to fully use the agreement to the full benefit we can get from it, but let’s see if we can address these deficiencies we think exist within the agreement.

Q    Mr. Secretary, two questions.  One, did you give serious thought to actually putting the IRGC on a list of terrorist organizations?  And if you didn’t do that — decide not to — why not?

And then secondly, on the sunset clause, it sounds like in effect what you’re doing is giving the United States leverage to negotiate the successor deal to this Iran Deal.  Is that kind of what the thinking is here?  You’re sort of laying the groundwork for the next Iran Deal?
SECRETARY TILLERSON:  And I’ll take them in reverse order.  Yes, that is what we’re trying to do.  And that’s why I said, if we can get a sense from Congress, I think it helps us lay that groundwork for the successor deal.

And we’ve said all along — you know, the clock is ticking down.  We know when the trigger dates are that certain restrictions come off.  We don’t want to walk up to one year out and start working on it.  So part of this is we want to motivate the other signatories and Iran: let’s start the engagement now.  So that is one of the motivations.

With respect to designating the IRGC as a foreign terrorist organization, we have considered that there are particular risks and complexities to designating an entire army, so to speak, of a country where that then puts in place certain requirements where we run into one another in the battlefield that then triggers certain actions that we think are not appropriate and not necessarily in the best interest of our military actions or necessarily are going to benefit what we’re attempting to do.

I mean, again, what we’re really attempting to do is curtail the IRGC’s ability to finance its terrorist activities, finance its support for terrorist activities.  So the sanctions are around getting at the financing structures themselves and getting at certain individuals, and penalizing people who are supporting these kinds of activities.

Q    You mentioned kind of laying the groundwork for a second agreement.  Is that something you laid out specifically to Zarif when you saw him?  And is he open to it?

SECRETARY TILLERSON:  We did not talk about that directly when I had this exchange with Foreign Minister Zarif.  We have had this conversation with the E3 plus the EU.  I mean, everyone agrees there has to be something that comes next, and I think the issue is, well, how do we get started, and what motivates us to get started, and how do we begin that process.  And, yes, Iran can just say we’re not interested in talking.  Well, that will tell us something as well.

All the way in the back.

Q    Specifically, sir, what would you want to tell Congress and tell them right now?

SECRETARY TILLERSON:  Well, I want to make sure they understand what the President’s decision is around this policy and this strategy with Iran.  And we’ve spent a lot of time in discussions, certainly with leadership and key members of the Congress.  I think they have a full and complete understanding.

But I think the other thing we want to say to Congress is, here’s your opportunity to express this view.  What we ask you to do is give us your support by amending INARA with these very specific trigger point, and amending INARA to memorialize once and forever that the sense of the United States Congress, which when the President signs that amendment, and the sense of the United States government is, it is the policy of the United States that Iran will have never have nuclear weapons.  Now, we can say that, but when you make that a statutory statement, it carries a lot of weight with it, obviously.

Q    Thank you very much.  It seems to me that the President could set his trigger and even re-impose the sanctions through executive authority that already exists.  You’ve said that the congressional path is not a slam-dunk and it’s going to be difficult.  Why take it in the first place?  Why not just do what you want to do?  Why throw it to Congress and throw this into —

SECRETARY TILLERSON:  Well, it looks a lot like the stature of the deal we have.  It was done by the executive branch.  It was done under executive order.  It was never taken to the Congress for an up or down vote.  And so the Congress’s reaction was, well, you didn’t give us a chance so we’re going to put oversight on you.

That’s normal congressional reaction to something where they didn’t get their say.  So again, I go back to what I think — I think it enables me, and it enables others, to present to our both our friends and allies and partners in this arrangement but also to the Iranians this is the United States government.  This is the Congress.  This is the full sense of this government’s view that we have to deal with this issue now, not later.

Q    Mr. Secretary, can you just explain a little bit more about that second option, asking Congress to just impose sanctions and why that isn’t the recommendation of the administration?  Why did you all move away from that?

SECRETARY TILLERSON:  Well, a re-imposition of the sanctions then would, in effect, say we’re walking away from the deal, because under the JCPOA  — we’ll go back now to the JCPOA language — when we agree that they are in technical compliance, then part of our side — okay, they’re technically complying.  What the other signatories agreed then is that we would waive the sanctions; we would keep the sanctions lifted from them unless there are violations, which allow us to put sanctions back on.

So what the parties to that agreement would be questioning is:  Okay, you’re re-imposing sanctions; under this agreement, you have no basis to impose those sanctions.  So in effect, you’re saying to us you’re walking away.

Q    And so I guess the crux of the question is, President Trump campaigned on walking away from this deal, so is this essentially the administration saying, that’s just not feasible in reality in governance and it’s just not a possibility?

SECRETARY TILLERSON:  No, I think — if you go back and review — and I wasn’t part of his campaign, so I don’t want to say more than I know, but certainly I watched it as an American interested in the election.  The President on many occasions talked about either the tearing the deal up or fixing the deal.  And he said many times, we’ve got to fix this deal.

I think what we’re laying out here is this is the pathway we think provides us the best platform from which to attempt to fix this deal.  I’m not suggesting — we may be unsuccessful and we may not be able to fix it.  If we’re not, then we may end up out the deal.

But I think what the President is saying, before I do that and just walk, okay, with the interagency advice of everyone — and he’s had a lot of engagement with foreign leaders on this subject as well, particularly the leaders of the other members of the JCPOA — I think what he’s saying is, look, we’ll try.  We’ll try.  We’ll go try to fix it.  I think you’re going to hear that he’s not particularly optimistic, but I think rather than just walk, he’s saying, all right, I’m willing to give it a try to see if we can address these issues that I think are deficiencies in the agreement.  So that’s the reason we don’t — we’re not recommending the Congress impose the sanctions because, in effect, that’s tantamount to walking out.

Q    Mr. Secretary, is there a grievance between the administration and Congress on what those trigger points — what the deficiencies should be?  And do you feel like members like Senator Corker are willing to work with the administration on this?

SECRETARY TILLERSON:  Yeah, we have a notional draft of what the amendment would like, and we’ve shared it, as I said, in socializing this.  So we actually have specific trigger points.  I mean, clearly we want the Congress to express their own view on the trigger points that we would suggest.  They may have others, but they may decide they don’t want some of the trigger points we’ve suggested in there.  So that’s been shared with the Congress.

Chairman Corker has been supportive of the process from the beginning.  He understands the strategy, in terms of what we’re attempting to achieve.  His name is on the INARA bill.  I think he feels a certain ownership for that bill, but he also has been very forthcoming with me to say, you’re right — we put that in place for the prior administration.  It was never intended to be put in place to tie your hands.

So, you know, we’re hopeful — again, this is part of the whole engagement process with the Hill that we’re hopeful they see the wisdom behind this approach and that they’ll give us the support we need.

GENERAL MCMASTER:  We’re going to have this be the last question.

Q    What changes do you think will come to companies who have licenses that they’ve applied for to do business in Iran?

SECRETARY TILLERSON:  It should not have any effect on that.

Q    If you could speak in a little bit more detail about how you envision the sunset dates either changing or completely expiring, and help us understand — if Congress were to amend INARA, what would happen next?  Would the U.S. observe those changes unilaterally, or would it depend on all the other signatories to this deal also agreeing to that?

SECRETARY TILLERSON:  No, we will observe those changes unilaterally, just as the domestic law applies today.  That’s a unilateral law, a unilateral act imposed by the Congress, as you know.  I mean, there are other certification provisions under INARA that, if we make those or don’t make those, whatever action that triggers is unilateral.  So it has not imposed anything on the other parties.

What we’re attempting to do is be a little more prescriptive under the agreement with what the actions are that we are most concerned about, be very specific as to what the response would be if those actions are triggered, and then to say, as I’ve indicated a couple of times, this has no expiration to it.  The JCPOA sunsets can expire.  These don’t.

Q    So it’s the triggers that would have no expiration date?  The JCPOA would remain intact, but —

SECRETARY TILLERSON:  Yeah, the JCPOA is unaffected by our INARA amendment.

Q    But if the trigger points were violated, the U.S. — the President would pull out, and thus pull out of the JCPOA.

SECRETARY TILLERSON:  Our sanctions would go back on.  And in some of these triggers, we think, others would also put their sanctions back on as well.

So there’s some harmonization on that.

MR. SHAH:  All right.  Thanks, folks.  So the changes we’re going to make are — obviously, this is on the record.  The embargo is also going to get pushed to 11:30 a.m. tomorrow.  And we’re going to have to push it back because we’re putting it on the record, so we don’t get in front of the President’s remarks.

END                6:18 P.M. EDT


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