Senior Administration Officials on Iran

Flag of Republic of Iran

Special Briefing
Via Teleconference
March 22, 2019

 

MODERATOR: Thank you. Good morning, everyone, and thank you for joining us this morning. We’re pleased to have senior administration officials with us today to discuss actions the government will be taking in regards to Iran. For your reference purposes only and not for reporting, we welcome [Senior Administration Official One]. Hereafter that will be Senior Administration Official One. We are also welcome with us this morning [Senior Administration Official Two], now known as Senior Administration Official Two. They will both have brief remarks for you at the top, and then we’ll have some – we’ll have time for questions. As a reminder, this call is embargoed until the conclusion of the call. So with that, we’ll get started with Senior Administration Official Number One.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: Good morning. So today, the Treasury Department and State Department are announcing that we are designating 14 individuals and 17 entities under sanctions targeting proliferators of weapons of mass destruction and their supporters. These 31 entities and individuals are linked to Iran’s Organization for Defense Innovation and Research, better known by its Persian acronym SPND. In this action, we are designating the technical experts and critical entities linked to Iran’s previous nuclear weapons effort. These are entities and people who continue to operate in Iran’s defense sector, which means that the intellectual firepower behind the AMAD program very much continues to exist in Iran, and with this action, we’re exposing those people, those entities, and we are making them radioactive internationally.

Everyone who served SPND and the organizations connected to it, from the working-level staff to senior managers and decision makers, plays a role in the most sensitive part of Iran’s defense sector. And anyone who continues to associate with SPND or these individuals risks professional, personal, and financial international isolation. With this action today, this administration will also have issued 25 Iran-related sanctions tranches targeting 960 individuals, entities, aircrafts, and vessels.

Just to get some of the background, so FPND – SPND was designated by the State Department pursuant to Executive Order 13382 for weapons of mass destruction in August of 2014, and you can find – in addition to our press release, you’ll find some additional details in that action.

Although the underlying organization went through name changes and reorganizations since the early 2000s, the key leaders and subject matter experts have remained in place, meaning individuals who were involved in the AMAD plan continue to be employed by what is now SPND or an SPND subordinate group – most notably, the organization’s head, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh. Several individuals being designated today continue specifically to be employed by SPND or SPND subordinate groups. SPND maintains control over more than a dozen subordinate groups with varying specialties, including radiation, physics, explosives, and missile technology. Taken collectively, the broad spectrum of capabilities within these groups is gravely concerning. This is the type of expertise it takes to develop a nuclear program.

Just to give you some examples of the concerning activity that we’ve highlighted and the expertise that we’ve highlighted in the press release: You have Mohammad Reza Mehdipur, head of Shahid Karimi Group – has been involved in explosion and shock research. Shahid Chamran Group work has included studies on electronic acceleration and research related to pulse power and wave generation. Shahid Fakhar Moghaddam Group has attempted to procure X-ray equipment from foreign suppliers. Mansur Asgari oversaw projects on exploding bridge-wire or EBW detonators. Pulse Niru manufactures pulse power devices and produces particle accelerators. And Reza Ebrahimi was involved in numerous explosive experiments relevant to the development of a nuclear weapon.

Equally problematic are SPND’s efforts to leverage front companies and cover companies to acquire sophisticated equipment and other technical materials from foreign suppliers. As we have highlighted in action after action over the last several years, the Iranian regime is expert at building out these front companies, pretending like they’re from somewhere else, doing something else, and yet taking advantage in many different ways of the international financial system.

Just for example, one of the targets being designated today, Pulse Niru, procures advanced technologies from China, Russia, and other foreign suppliers. We are pursuing those actors just as aggressively as the Iranian defense organizations they support.

Again, through today’s designations, we are holding accountable those who support Iran’s defense sector and key personnel who worked for entities involved in Iran’s previous nuclear weapons effort, from working-level staff to the most senior managers. Just by way of tangible impact, the individuals being sanctioned will struggle to travel abroad whether for business or personal reasons due to the stigma of being designated under a sanctions program targeting WMD proliferators and their supporters. Our sanctions will restrict their opportunities to conduct research at foreign universities, participate in international conferences, access other collaborative fora, as well, of course, as a freeze – freeze in many different ways from the international financial system.

This is especially relevant to young professionals in Iran’s research and development sector. Any association – they should understand – with SPND or its subordinate groups makes them radioactive.

As with all of our designations, OFAC regulations generally prohibit all dealings by U.S. persons or within the United States, including transactions which transit – transit the United States that involve any property or interest in property of blocked or designated persons. And because secondary sanctions also attach here persons that engage in certain transactions with the individuals and entities being designated may themselves be exposed to sanctions. Further, unless an exception applies, any foreign financial institution that knowingly facilitates a significant transaction for any of these individuals or entities being designated could find themselves also subject to U.S. sanctions.

I’d now like to turn to [Senior Administration Official Two] to speak more about what these designations mean for our efforts to achieve – in our maximum pressure campaign.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: Thank you very much. I don’t have a lot to add to that very comprehensive outline of what we’re doing today, but I did want to stress the context. And as you all know, of course, for the last few months we have been going to a great deal of trouble to reimpose pressures upon Iran that were lifted under the JCPOA in order to try to incentivize Iran making the right choice and in coming back to the table to ultimately agree to the kind of enduring and better, more comprehensive settlement that Secretary Pompeo outlined in his remarks at the Heritage Foundation back in May.

But this particular tranche of sanctions has an additional layer of symbolic importance because it’s not just about putting pressure on Iran to reach a diplomatic, negotiated solution. We are highlighting with these steps the continued existence of this SPND organization about which you’ve been hearing, and this is – this is a really very important point. And this is an organization that was set up in effect to keep the personnel and the human capital from the Iranian nuclear weapons program still together and to keep their skills sharp, apparently with some eye to potential future reconstitution.

Mohsen Fakhrizadeh is known as the founder of that former illegal nuclear weapons program that was suspended in 2003, and he was put in charge of SPND all along with personnel, in many cases including these individuals sanctioned today, who were involved in that prior weapons program. This is a way for them to keep the gang together, as it were, and to provide a reconstitution capability for that weapons program to the Iranian regime should it choose to use that. And I think that is an extraordinarily important thing to remember because it puts into context all of what Iran has been engaged in here.

SPND is in a sense the – sort of the bureaucratic survivor and inheritor of that nuclear weapons program, and its continued existence highlights the problem of Iran continuing to try to maintain the option for itself of going back to its old way that we are obviously trying to prevent from occurring.

This is a danger that was highlighted by the so-called Iranian nuclear archive, which the Israelis rather daringly spirited out of Iran not too long ago, but is an extraordinarily important point to remember because the very squirreling away of all of those carefully preserved records from that program also goes to this point of reconstitution. And so what you have is essentially a regime that has been trying to prepare for itself what we might think of in the outside world as the perfect storm for proliferation breakout. You have a situation in which, under the JCPOA, Iran would have been permitted in a number of years’ time to build, essentially, any enrichment capacity it wanted for uranium and to hold, essentially, any quantity of enriched uranium.

At the same time, it had squirreled away those records I referred to from the – from its prior weapons program and it has been maintaining the people who worked on that program and keeping them employed in things that have kept those skills or intended to keep those skills sharp. So what you have here is a situation that speaks volumes about Iran’s strategic intentions and I think about the importance of the international community coming together to make sure that Iran is forever denied the opportunity to use anything of that sort for ill purposes.

And so what we’re doing today by highlighting this is to continue to stigmatize SPND and that reconstitution program-in-waiting that it represents, and try to make it as unattractive as possible to be a part of that organization, make it hard for SPND to recruit the next generation of illicit nuclear weapons scientists, and to make it all the more clear that this is an option that is not and cannot be allowed to be made available to Iran, and that it’s essential that they come back to the table to reach the kind of solution that the JCPOA did not represent but that we think is indeed possible. And that’s why we are putting all these pieces together as part of our pressure campaign. Thanks.

MODERATOR: Thank you both very much. We’ll now go to questions.

OPERATOR: Certainly. Once again, ladies and gentlemen, if you wish to ask a question at this time, please press * then 1 on your phone. You may also remove yourself from that queue at any time by pressing the pound key. One moment, please, for our first question.

We’ll go to the line of Nick Wadhams, Bloomberg News. Please, go ahead.

QUESTION: Hi, thank you. I have two questions. One, in his presentation on the Iran nuclear file, Prime Minister Netanyahu said at the time that illegal nuclear weaponization work continues, and as of 2018 it’s being carried out by SPND. So do you share that assessment? It doesn’t sound like it from your statement today that SPND continues to do illegal – illegal nuclear weaponization work.

And second, I’m just trying to (inaudible).

MODERATOR: I think we lost Nick on that one.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: I’ll try to take the first part. I mean, I think the challenge with SPND is that it is an organization, chunks of which seem to have been created precisely in order to employ people on dual-use things that could easily be repurposed into the very kind of work that was being done before on the weapons program and, as I said before, to – in a sense, to keep their skills sharp and available to the Iranian clerical regime. That’s the locus of – the principal locus of concern here. These – some of the projects and the types of work that my colleague from Treasury mentioned do directly translate into weaponization work. That’s sort of the point of this. It’s – this is stuff that is a mobilization capability-in-waiting by virtue of the technologies and the skillsets involved, and we think that that is something that the Iranian regime shouldn’t continue to avail itself of.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: And just to add to what [Senior Administration Official Two] said, of course that’s the reason this administration has been so concerned about that sunset clause, right. You – here you have people, the people who are being designated today, continuing to engage in proliferation-sensitive activities, and it’s our very strong view that we have to remain vigilant for any efforts by the Iranian regime to exploit gaps in that deal, to include, among many other things, that intellectual firepower that continues to be there and to include procuring items for the benefit of a designated person.

And of course, as I already said, you’re seeing front company activity where, just like they do in many other contexts, they’re trying to hide behind fronts to procure a variety of different kinds of goods, among other things.

QUESTION: Can you guys hear me? Can I ask just my second question?

OPERATOR: Still open, Mr. Wadhams.

QUESTION: I’m just trying to figure out what you would have these people do or what they can do to get off the list if the work that they were doing ended, I mean, if – and if the Intelligence Community assessment is that Iran has not reconstituted its nuclear weapons program. What do they need to do to get off this list?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: Look, all I can say there is that’s a very high bar. You are talking about people who we have now designated under our weapons of mass destruction executive orders, which is our one – one of our most powerful tools because secondary sanctions consequences now apply. So beyond that, I’m not going to comment, but there would be a very, very high bar there.

MODERATOR: Thank you. We’ll go on to our next question now.

OPERATOR: And our —

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: I would think – I would think one of the – I would think – sorry, this is [Senior Administration Official Two]. Just real quick, I mean, I would think that the relevant message here is actually, in a sense, to other scientists who might be considering employment with SPND or who are in some fashion available or potentially able to make themselves available to the Iranian regime for this kind of work in the future.

This is a message that I think that they should be paying attention to and I think [Senior Administration Official One] has flagged that very, very clearly. Message to them should be: Don’t do this. This is not a wise thing to be involved in. It is not a – this is not something with which any serious, thoughtful, or creditable person should wish to be associated, and it is very clear now that there will be consequences for those who associate themselves with this kind of work.

MODERATOR: Thank you. We’ll go to the next question now.

OPERATOR: Our next question comes from the line of Carol Morello from The Washington Post. Please, go ahead.

QUESTION: Hi, thanks for doing this. I understand why you were looking at this through the lens of suspicion, but is it also possible that some of the work they’re doing might be for legitimate purposes of energy looking into, say, doing research on energy or defense? And also, has the IAEA been able to have access to this unit? Thank you.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: We don’t customarily talk about where we may or may not understand the IAEA to have had access so far. Those issues are usually treated as safeguards, confidential between the host government and the IAEA itself. So I will simply defer to them about what they’re willing to say about their investigations. But I think the point of this work, I would imagine from the Iranian perspective, like the very point of a lot of this work that SPND has been engaged in is that it is work for which one can point to one or another various types of non-nuclear weapons-related use. That’s the cover for this. And it may well have some utility to them in those very regards, but it also has the additional advantage of being the kind of work that could easily be redirected back into weaponization activity should that choice be made by the regime, and that’s why we think this is highly problematic.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: And I would just add, and [Senior Administration Official Two] may be able to speak more to this, but this entity is completely separate from Iran’s civil nuclear program. Again, you have to look – and there’s a lot – you can – you’ll be able to find a lot online about SPND in addition to what we’ve put into our press releases. But I appreciate the question, but we view this as very – very much as distinct. Of course, we have a wide range of other concerns with the activity across the spectrum that the Iranian regime is engaged in.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: Yeah, and I think it’s not —

MODERATOR: Thank you. We’ll go to the next question.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: Sorry, just – let me just add a little bit more additional gloss too. I mean, I think it is not at all insignificant that Mohsen Fakhrizadeh is the head of this organization. This is the fellow who was aiming to be the father of the Iranian nuclear bomb, and the fact that he has been put in charge of this and employs so many of the same people who worked for him in doing exactly that effort tells you sort of what you need to know. It’s as if we had – so it’s as if some evil version of Robert Oppenheimer had been kept in charge of keeping the Manhattan Project crew together for years afterwards pretending that they were – or even legitimately working on other things but being very carefully kept together in order to be able to be called upon to get back to their original line of work. That tells you what you need to know. This is not your run-of-the-mill defense organization; this is the reconstitution weapons program waiting for an opportunity to be restarted.

MODERATOR: All right. We’ll go to the next question.

OPERATOR: We have the next question from the line of Andrea Mitchell from NBC. Please, go ahead.

QUESTION: Thank you very much. I’m wondering what effect you think this will have internationally given the fact that the IAEA has given Iran a clean bill of health and that our European allies as recently as the Munich conference and the Warsaw conference disagree with our posture towards Iran. How are these sanctions going to stop what you allege Iran is doing?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: Well, as we were outlining before, I think – we hope that this will make it more difficult for Iran to continue to attract the talent it needs to keep this sort of capability in waiting going indefinitely, and that’s certainly a positive step. And I think when it comes to some of these issues, you, I suspect, would find that the – that our European partners do not disagree significantly with us. We do have some disagreements about what one should do about the problem, but disagreement – there is no disagreement over the fundamental problem of the potential for Iran to reconstitute its weapons program. There is no disagreement over the idea that what the JCPOA actually permits is actually not a good thing and should not – it should be an objective of all of us to not get to that point.

I mean, the agreement, as it was drafted, would have allowed the Iranians to build up an enrichment capacity and a stockpile of enriched uranium that would allow it to dramatically shorten the so-called breakout time that it would take for it to get to a nuclear weapon. That breakout time is currently assessed at approximately a year or so, about 12 months, and with capabilities that the deal would allow Iran to have in some years’ time, that breakout time would shorten dangerously. And having that short breakout time for the material to produce a weapon, with people from SPND who have been waiting around and practicing their tasks, in effect waiting for the opportunity to put them back into service in a weapons program, just goes to the point of how critical it is to prevent that breakout time from shrinking.

I think we do not have disagreement with our European partners on the importance of doing that. We have some tactical disagreements about exactly how the best way is in the short term to work to achieve that, but over the strategic objective of making sure that Iran never has the availability of that option. You will not find us, I think, in any form of disagreement at all.

MODERATOR: All right, we can go on to the next question.

OPERATOR: Your next question from the line of Shaun Tandon, AFP. Please, go ahead.

QUESTION: Hi, thanks for doing this call. I wanted to follow up on Nick’s question a little bit. As you were mentioning that these sanctions relate to past activity of the SPND and concerns about potential future activity, for the individuals who are actually sanctioned now, what should the message be to them, not to people who might join but to them? And how can they actually get off the sanctions list? I mean, would the – does the SPND, does it need to take itself out of existence? What could the actually – the people who are actually sanctioned do at this point?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: Look, I mean, first of all, the messaging, the strong messaging here, is to the international community to not work with these people, not be fooled by them, not be fooled by their front companies, not allow them to participate in international conferences among many other things. The other strong messaging is to those – again, what I said, those Iranian researchers, scientists in Iran, don’t associate with the SPND because there will be very severe consequences in our sanctions program. And look, as a general matter, people need to stop working with SPND. It is not what you should want to be affiliated with or associated with. And for those who have not been specifically identified today, they need to get out of the program. They need to distance themselves, because if they continue, there will be severe consequences.

MODERATOR: All right, we’ll go to the next question.

OPERATOR: The next question from the line of Ali Rogin, PBS NewsHour. Please, go ahead.

QUESTION: I wanted to know if you could provide any update on the administration’s contemplating designating the Iran Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terrorist organization. And what do you say to those entities within the U.S. Government that are concerned about that potential move? With the understanding that this is somewhat ancillary to the topic of this call and to your portfolio, I appreciate your consideration of this question.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: I’m not sure what we have for you on that at this point, I’m afraid. That is probably best addressed to others.

MODERATOR: We’ll go to the next question.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Next question from the line of Laura Rozen from Al-Monitor. Please, go ahead.

QUESTION: Thank you for doing this. [Senior Administration Official Two], you talked about wanting Iran to make the right choice and come back to the table to negotiate. Can you update us on any efforts to reach out to the Iranians or their interest in coming back to the table? And secondly, Iran is still in the agreement, the other countries are still upholding it, so all these sunsets that you’re talking about are still going to happen; is that correct?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: I’m not in a position to talk about any particular diplomatic overtures. That’s something on which, of course you won’t be surprised to know that we don’t tend to talk much one way or the other. It tends to make them less useful where they exist, and one wouldn’t want to create false promises or false hopes either if they don’t exist. So we’re not – we don’t have anything to say about that.

I would certainly point you to the fact that we have been gradually building an increasing amount of international support for insisting that Iran do make that right choice. We are certainly not as far along the curve as we are with the North Koreans in terms of the actual engagements. But in some respect we are putting the same kinds of pressures on Iran with the hope of enticing a return to the table. That return to the table is further along in the North Korean context, but we hope that we will be soon working to come up with the kind of negotiated solution that Secretary Pompeo has referred to.

What was the second part? My apologies.

MODERATOR: We’ll have to move on to the last question now.

OPERATOR: Thank you. The next question from the line of Joel Gehrke from The Washington Examiner. Please, go ahead.

QUESTION: Hi, thanks for doing this. You mentioned earlier that individuals who are sanctioned today could potentially get out of the program, and you wanted to discourage other participation with SPND. But that’s obviously difficult to verify, given the number of rebrandings and reorganizations that some of these subordinate entities have gone through. Would they – would some of these sanctioned individuals need to leave the country to get off the sanctions list?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: I’m just not going to – I’m not going to get into what criteria we may – at this point, we may – we would apply in that context. There’s a longstanding administrative process that, as a general matter – that is reflected through our sanctions program. But beyond that, I have nothing else to comment.

MODERATOR: All right –

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: It’s not really an answer to your question, but let me just also say to point out that some of the names that we are sanctioning today are known to us initially coming out of the Iranian archive of material from their weapons program, and these are names that sort of came to our attention through that and that we have been, of course, worked to validate through our own sanctions process and procedures.

But this is an example of how we are using this sort of ongoing development of knowledge about Iran’s malign activities, both past and present, to ensure that it faces the kind of pressure that it needs to face. We are leveraging information from that archive into the present day to make sure that no one in the future has to be able to have these discussions about Iranian reconstitution efforts and so forth. So – but this is a concrete example of how we’re using the information in that archive as a piece of our policy toolset in the present day.

MODERATOR: Thank you, everyone, for joining us. The embargo on this call is now lifted. As a reminder, it’s on background to senior administration officials. You are now free to use that and we wish you a good Friday. Thank you very much.

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