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Negroponte Says China Mostly ‘In Sync’ With U.S. on Iran

Interviewee: John D. Negroponte, Deputy Secretary of State
Interviewer: Robert McMahon, Editor
February 4, 2008

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The head of the Bush administration’s “senior dialogue” with China, Deputy Secretary of State John D. Negroponte, says he’s confident of Beijing’s support on preventing a nuclear-armed Iran following a recent round of diplomacy. Negroponte says China’s agreement on a third round of UN sanctions against Iran showed that despite some differences, which include China’s investment in Iran’s energy sectors, “by and large China is in sync with us on this issue. And they certainly do not want Iran to become a nuclear-weapons state.” The expected new UN resolution, Negroponte added, is a sign that UN Security Council members remain concerned about Iran’s nuclear ambitions despite the recent U.S. intelligence report saying experts had “high confidence” Tehran halted its nuclear-weapons program in 2003.

China is concerned about Taiwan’s referendum on UN membership next month. It is eager for the United States to press Taiwan further on this. Beyond calling it a provocative act, what is the United States willing to do?

As always in our senior dialogue with China, the question of Taiwan comes up. It is inevitably raised by my Chinese counterparts. They express concern that something might be done unilaterally by Taiwan to alter the status quo. Our position has consistently been that our policy towards Taiwan is guided by the Three Communiqués [past agreements between United States and China establishing principles for addressing differences and broadening cooperation], and by the Taiwan Relations Act. And we believe that the issue across the Taiwan Strait should be resolved by peaceful means. The problem with the referendum is that it could be construed by the world as Taiwan trying to alter the status quo without having mutually agreed on this with the People’s Republic of China. So we think in that sense it is provocative. And we’ve said that publicly. And we’ve also made similar points in our private dialogue with the government of Taiwan.

So in the next month is there going to be some ratcheted-up pressure on Taiwan about this issue?

Our view is quite well-known. Both the Secretary [of State Condoleezza Rice] and myself – we’ve both spoken out on this. It was of sufficient importance that in her year-end press conference, she singled out the Taiwan issue as one of those of particular importance to us.

Are you then perhaps not as concerned that there will be some provocative Chinese act following up this referendum, from your talks with China?

Our policy is to counsel restraint on both sides of the strait, to reiterate our position that this is a question that should be settled by peaceful means, and that no one should do anything that would unilaterally alter the status quo. And for its part, one of the things that we urge the People’s Republic of China (PRC), is that they shouldn’t try to deprive Taiwan of all of its political space. For example, there are institutions, global institutions, that don’t require being a state to have membership. We think Beijing can afford to be a little bit more generous toward Taiwan in regard to some of those organizations. We also are concerned, and expressed our preoccupation, about this military buildup on the PRC’s side of the Strait. That’s a subject of continual concern as well.

You were also in China recently to talk about the Iran sanctions process. China is usually one of the tough nuts to crack among the [five veto-wielding states] in the Security Council. Since the initial sanctions went through, there’s been Chinese commitment of [billions of dollars in] investment in Iran. Do you feel you reached some progress on getting Chinese cooperation?

The problem with the [Taiwan] referendum is that it could be construed by the world as Taiwan trying to alter the status quo without having mutually agreed on this with the People’s Republic of China. So we think in that sense it is provocative.

On the question of Iran, China has joined us in the last two resolutions that were passed in the Security Council imposing sanctions on Iran. And as you know, after my [January 17-18] trip to China, Secretary Rice met with her P5 counterparts [five permanent members of the UN Security Council], plus the foreign minister of Germany, and they agreed on the elements of an additional UN Security Council resolution directed at Iran. And as we speak, that resolution is now being worked in draft in the Security Council. So I believe China’s on board for that. While sometimes there’s some tough bargaining and there are some differences in perspective, by and large China is in sync with us on this issue. And they certainly do not want Iran to become a nuclear-weapons state.

Analysts see Iran still sort of gaming the system successfully. The latest Economist says, “Has Iran won?” And a column in that same issue suggested the United States remove the conditionality of suspending uranium from the start, and opening up a broader dialogue with Iran. What do you say to that sort of approach at this point?

My answer to that is Iran has not been playing a constructive role. Almost on any issue that you examine you’ll see they are undertaking actions and positions that are almost diametrically opposed to ours, whether its fomenting instability in Lebanon, or supporting extremist militants in Iraq, or shipping weapons to the Taliban in Afghanistan, or trying to frustrate the Middle East peace process. So I’m not sure what a sort of open-ended dialogue with Iran would get for us. There are mechanisms to talk to them on specific issues—the European Union, talking to them on the question of the nuclear file, and the bilateral talks we have with them about the situation in Iraq. But it’s pretty clear what they have to do. They need to suspend this enrichment activity, and Secretary Rice has said that if they are willing to do that, we’re prepared to have direct talks at a high level with them.

You have a special perspective coming from the intelligence community, and in the midst of these negotiations with the P5 comes the National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iran, which many think took the steam out of the U.S. effort. One, has this made your job more difficult, and two, are you worried about the timing of this estimate coming out and do you question it?

That’s a very good question. We are having some success in clarifying what the NIE actually means. And what it does mean is that we have information that at some time, back in 2003, Iran stopped its activity in the area of designing a warhead. That’s what they stopped doing. But building a nuclear weapon involves three fairly discrete activities. One is to acquire the fissile material, and as you know, that activity continues in Iran. They are continuing their work on enriching uranium. Another is to develop a delivery system, and of course the Iranians are working hard on the acquisition and development of missile technology, and they already have a lot of missiles. And thirdly, of course, the actual warhead. So it’s only the work on the warhead that stopped, and we don’t even have absolute certainty that activity has not resumed. But the other two activities go forward, and that’s why in this area of nuclear capability Iran continues to be a country of serious concern. And that obviously enjoys strong support among the P5. I don’t think we’d otherwise be continuing our work together on this Security Council resolution.

While sometimes there’s some tough bargaining and there are some differences in perspective, by and large China is in sync with us on this issue. And they certainly do not want Iran to become a nuclear weapons state.

So the estimate required some work to clarify the situation?

Well, in the initial presentation, the fact that work had stopped on the design of a warhead was construed to mean that they had stopped all activity that might be relevant to acquiring and developing a usable nuclear weapon. And that simply is not the case.

An apparently successful strike at a top al-Qaeda leader in the tribal areas of Pakistan is construed, in some reports and amongst some analysts, that perhaps this is a new sign of coordination and joint efforts by U.S. and Pakistani officials in that region to try to knuckle down on al-Qaeda. Is this a safe assumption, that there’s an improvement in U.S.-Pakistan coordination?

I’m not going to comment on that. If this is true—that this high-level al-Qaeda operative has been put out of commission—that’s probably an important development and degrades al-Qaeda’s capabilities. But we’re still concerned about the fact that part of the world, that border area between Pakistan and Afghanistan, remains an area where there are a lot of al-Qaeda operatives. That has an impact on the security situation in Afghanistan on the one hand, and then on the other, extremist activities have spread from these tribal areas to what the Pakistanis call the settled areas in recent months with more suicide bombings, more militant extremist activities. So this is a serious problem. We fundamentally share a similar assessment of the situation with the government of Pakistan, and we work this issue very hard with them. We’re very supportive of their efforts to try and improve the economic situation in the tribal areas. We have military cooperation programs, military equipment programs, and obviously the issue of the war on terror is something on which we consult with them on a frequent basis.

On the tribal areas, there’s an interesting op-ed in the New York Times from Selig Harrison where he says there’s concern that Pakistan will disintegrate and you’ll be left with a nuclear-armed rump Punjabi state. He recommends U.S. and other donors pressure for more autonomy for these areas as a way of trying to strengthen the hand of the secularists.

I did not read that item that he wrote today. I have to have a look at it. But Pakistan is already the product of partition from another country, from India. I think it probably is in our interests and the interests of the international community and of Pakistan itself to remain a strong unified state.

He’s saying just provide more autonomy.

I'd have to study that article. But I think the important thing is that they do have a strong central government that's able, and strong security institutions that are able to stabilize the situation throughout the country.

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