Special Briefing with Under Secretary of State R. Nicholas Burns on Negotiations with Iran (Excerpts)

March 16, 2006

Weapon Program: 

  • Nuclear

. . .

QUESTION: Is the U.S. willing or agreeable to talking to Iran about its nuclear program -- the senior negotiator (inaudible) talks and is that something that the U.S. will pick up on?


QUESTION: Direct talks?

UNDER SECRETARY BURNS: Yeah, we've taken note of the statements made this morning by Mr. Larijani. There have been earlier Iranian statements. You know, the problem here, Barry, is not the absence of discussions between the United States and Iran. The problem is what Iran is doing in its foreign policy. We see an Iranian Government, particularly since Ahmadi-Nejad came to power in August, that seems bound and determined to create a nuclear weapons capability. Why else would they be undertaking the actions they have at the plant Natanz on enrichment research and development?

We see an Iranian Government that continues the 25-year Iranian preoccupation with supporting the major terrorist groups in the Middle East which have directed their fire at the United States, at American citizens, at Lebanon, at the Palestinians and at Israel. And we see a government that has unleashed, if you will, a much more aggressive foreign policy in its own region which I think has many countries in that region quite concerned.

So the problem here is not the absence of discussions between the Iranian Government and the American Government. The problem is and has been, for quite a long time, the actions of the Iranian Government.

QUESTION: But there's opportunity to talk. I mean, you haven't responded to that. Why limit any discussion with them to their meddling in Iraq? Why not talk to them about their nuclear program if it's that awesome problem you've just outlined? Why -- what harm would it be in talking to them?

UNDER SECRETARY BURNS: Barry, we have made the calculation, particularly since the Ahmadi-Nejad government came into being a couple of months ago, that it is better to try to isolate the Iranian Government. And so, you have seen and -- what we've tried to do on the nuclear issue, for instance, the construction of this coalition of countries that voted against Iran on February 4th at the IAEA, Russia and China and Brazil and India, the United States, the Asian countries, the European countries. We believe that that has the attention of the Iranian Government. You see now Iranian envoys going to all sorts of capitals, throwing up into the air all sorts of ideas about how this problem can be resolved. But the Iranians haven't answered the central question that was raised on February 4th at the IAEA, and that is, will they be willing to suspend their nuclear activities at Natanz, to roll back the nuclear steps that they've taken since January and even before that and will they be willing to return to negotiations.

Why can't the Iranians accept the proposal made by the Russian Government many months ago for an offshore fuel arrangement? So this is where the international debate is and it's now in New York and that's a very serious forum. It's a more political forum than the technical nature of the discussions at the IAEA in Vienna.

And we're concentrating our attention on that multilateral forum, convinced that if the coalition of countries that is together in New York can send a united message to Iran that it has to roll back its nuclear activities and return to negotiations, that's the best way to deal with Iran. And so we choose that course. (Inaudible) trying to isolate, shine a spotlight on the Iranians and to ask the Iranians to respond to the clear role of all these countries around the world that spoke with one voice a month ago and continue to insist on the same behavior by the Iranian Government.

QUESTION: Follow up, Nick?


QUESTION: How do you read the timing of the --

UNDER SECRETARY BURNS: I just wanted to call on my friend Carol Giacomo --

QUESTION: I'm sorry.

UNDER SECRETARY BURNS: -- who is seating here.

QUESTION: I wanted to talk about India so --

UNDER SECRETARY BURNS: Okay. Why don't we stay in Iran and then we'll go back to India.

QUESTION: How do you read the timing of the Iranian acceptance to this offer, I believe Ambassador Khalilzad six months ago, said they're willing to talk about Iraq. Do you see it as linked to what's happening in New York? And secondly, what do you expect to come out of these talks if they happen on the Iraq issue?

UNDER SECRETARY BURNS: Well, two separate questions. And the first question, as you know, I think Secretary Rice and other U.S. officials have said before that Ambassador Khalilzad had been authorized to undertake these discussions. However, these discussions have not taken place.

On your second question, which is what's happening in New York, we're hopeful that there will be an agreement on a presidential statement. Now these things take time in a multilateral organization like the United Nations. That was your question, right?

QUESTION: (Inaudible).

UNDER SECRETARY BURNS: And we're hopeful that presidential statement can be put together and that the Iranians can then take note of that and hopefully adjust their behavior.

QUESTION: I was interested in your interpretation of why the Iranians picked today to say we're willing to talk to the United States about Iraq?

UNDER SECRETARY BURNS: I have no idea why the Iranians chose today. But I would just say they've made similar statements for many months now.

QUESTION: Mr. Burns, my name is (inaudible). I represent the Daily Jang in Pakistan. You made a contrast between India and Iran that one country has invited International Atomic Energy Agency to inspect and the other country has kicked them out and that is fine, as far as the current government goes. But let me go back the -- for eight years, the Khatami , government which was recognized as a reformist government by the United States and which had invited IAEA and had allowed them not only to inspect the facilities, but to put their seals on the Iranian nuclear facilities. Can you cite maybe two or three or even one encouraging economic concession that the U.S. government made to that previous government to show support for its willingness to open its government facilities and to be reformist and to take on the fundamentalists?


QUESTION: What did the United States do to encourage that government and to prevent people like Ahmadi-Nejad to come into power?

UNDER SECRETARY BURNS: The American Government is not in the habit of making concessions to countries that direct and fund terrorist groups that strike at American citizens and at friends of the United States, like Israel or Lebanon or moderate Palestinians. We're not in the habit of doing that and so we haven't done that. And the previous Iranian Government continued the long Iranian tradition of funding and directing terrorist groups in the Middle East. We believe a previous Iranian Government also had as a strategic long-term objective the creation of a nuclear weapons capability. And so you have to choose in diplomacy your tactics. And the tactics of the United States and most other countries have been to tell the Iranians that that kind of behavior is unacceptable. And so we've done that.

Now with the appearance of the Ahmadi-Nejad Government, if you will, the problem has worsened. It's been exacerbated by the statements of that government concerning Israel, by the aggressive foreign policy towards some of its other neighbors and by now the provocative and quite dangerous steps that they've taken since January to cross the international redlines at their plant at Natanz to begin research and -- centrifuge research and development. So we just have to judge countries by what they do, not just by what they say. And the previous Iranian government was engaged in all of these nefarious activities.

Now we did see on March 11, 2005, a public statement by Secretary Rice a year ago, that the United States would support the EU-3 negotiations with Iran. And that to show our interest in those negotiations, although we didn't participate in them, we would agree to the sale of spare parts by United States -- American firms to Iran's aging fleet of airliners. And we would not object to Iran's application to begin the application to join the World Trade Organization. So, you know, we put those two forward but what happened? We saw the Iranian Government unilaterally end its negotiations with the EU-3. We saw them reject the Russian proposal and we saw them cross the international redlines on centrifuge research and development. So for all those discussions the Iranians have spurned all the offers. They've gone on unilaterally and it's in a direction that the entire international community has condemned.

And so we think the policy of the United States, which is to be tough-minded and expect that Iran will meet its commitments and to try to align ourselves with other countries in a large coalition to send one message, we think that policy is succeeding and we hope the Iranians hear this message.

QUESTION: Just one follow-up. Mr. Burns, one follow-up.

QUESTION: How is the policy succeeding?

UNDER SECRETARY BURNS: Oh, I think if you look back, Carol, a year ago --

QUESTION: The Iranians are continuing their program.

UNDER SECRETARY BURNS: -- a year ago, there was a very limited international discussion about Iran's nuclear program. It had to do with three EU countries -- been going on for some time with Iran. If you look at the last 12 months, we have been able to put together a much larger international coalition of countries. It is not insignificant that Russia and China and India and the United States are in one place on this issue. We were not in one place a year ago. And we're betting that Iran is not going to want to isolate itself. It's not a country like North Korea, which seems to thrive on isolation. It's a country that needs investment. It needs the kind of diplomatic ties that have been produced between Iran and some countries.

And I think what's at stake is the normalcy of those relations with part of the rest of the world should Iran not respond to this united that has been put forward.

QUESTION: I don't -- that the diplomacy has certainly been more deft until you got to the UN and now the Russians are throwing up huge roadblocks to moving forward on something that arguably, given what's gone before in the IAEA, should have been a rather pro forma presidential statement. But the facts on the ground remain the same, and that is, Iran's program moves inexorably forward if all the opinions of world leaders are to be believed.

UNDER SECRETARY BURNS: I think it's going to be difficult for the Iranian nuclear program to move inexorably forward as you say, if they have to do it in isolation and if there is opposition from some of the friends of Iran, the countries that have dealt with Iran economically. The Russians, of course, have been engaged in the construction of a nuclear power plant in Bushehr for a number of years. All of that's going to be at stake if the Iranians don't respond to the message that they have to be hearing these days. So you know, we have to stay focused on a patient, determined, diplomatic course and that's what we're on.

You know, in New York, things do take time at the United Nations, but we're confident that we'll get to a presidential statement and confident that Iran's going to feel that pressure from the United Nations Security Council.

. . .

QUESTION: In view of referring Iran to the Security Council and in view of the President Bush speech expected about reaffirming the preemptive war doctrine, do you expect that the problem with Iran is eventually going to be solved diplomatically or through use of force?

UNDER SECRETARY BURNS: We are clearly attempting to send a very strong signal to the Iranian Government that it is isolated on this question of nuclear weapons and that the whole world is speaking with one voice and therefore, they ought to listen to that voice. And there's a process underway in the United Nations Security Council designed to shine a bright spotlight on Iran and have Iran pull back from its nuclear ambitions. We hope Iran will respond to that diplomatic course.

Thank you very much.