LOUIS PERLMUTTER: If I may have your attention, please. I'm Louis Perlmutter. I'd like to welcome you to the Council on Foreign Relations. Let me make a couple of the usual housekeeping announcements.
First of all, if you'd please turn off your blackberries, cell phones, other electronic devices as we get started. Second of all, this session is on the record, and it is being teleconferenced to national members of the council across the country.
Our topic this morning is Iran, a very difficult and a tough issue. Iran is a hostile country. There is absolutely a lack of trust between the United States and Iran. We've had no diplomatic relations since 1979. Iran's drive for hegemony in the Middle East and on the Gulf specifically conflicts with American interests. Their support for terrorism, their objection to any sort of end-of-conflict resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian situation, their actions on the ground in Iraq, obviously their nuclear development program, all have serious impact for America's national interests.
I don't know of anyone better positioned than our speaker today, Under Secretary of State Nicholas Burns, to tell us about how America is dealing with these very difficult issues. His very impressive resume is attached to the program, so I'm not going to bother to repeat the details, except to mention the pertinent fact that at the State Department he holds the highest rank available to a career foreign service officer and is also, among his other responsibilities, overseer of our Iranian policy.
So with that more than inadequate introduction, let me invite Secretary—Under Secretary Burns to the podium.
R. NICHOLAS BURNS: Louis, thank you very much. Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. It's a pleasure for me to be here. Pleasure to be with my friend, Richard Haass, our president, who’s done such a great job as president of the Council on Foreign Relations.
I’m supposed to speak about Iran, but I guess given the events of the last few days, I should give you an opportunity to have a discussion—and I’d like to have a discussion with you about North Korea, certainly, and about what we’re trying to do to send a message to North Korea that the nuclear test or the seismic event of the other night, depending on how you read it, is something that is absolutely intolerable, that deserves a swift response from the Security Council.
And it’s an episode that also allows the United States now to take a step back and look at our broader interests in Asia and the Pacific, and see, with a new Japanese prime minister, and with a South Korean government, if that relationship between Japan and South Korea can now be sustained and strengthened; if we can work with China and Russia in the six-party talks format to make sure that we’re doing everything we can to contain the ability of North Korea either to go further than it intends to do, or said it would do, and also to contain its ability to proliferate its nuclear material. That’s an important issue.
And I know I’m here to talk about Iran, but I’m very happy to discuss—ready to discuss with you what we’re trying to do to contain the North Koreans. The president just gave a press conference just about an hour ago where he was every forthright that we’re committed to diplomacy; that we are trying very hard to keep the six-party talks format alive at the right time, but we have to deal with the punishment phase first in the United Nations Security Council. And that’s what’s happening in another part of this city this afternoon.
It’s also an important time for our policy in Sudan concerning Darfur. We have seen a major humanitarian crisis, intolerable cruelty by the Sudanese rebels permitted by the Sudanese government by its inaction. And we are at a stage now where we’d like to work with the Arab League, with China, with Russia, to make sure that a U.N. Security Council force can go into Sudan to protect the civilian population of Darfur in the midst of yet another military offensive by the Sudanese government, which we believe is ill-advised and could promote yet another attack—series of attacks on those civilians in Darfur.
And, of course, we’re dealing with the continuation of our challenges in Iraq, in Afghanistan. And so it’s a very busy time for the United States, and our interests are on the line in many parts of the world.
I’ll say a few words about Iran, but I’m happy to have a broader discussion about the issues that I’ve mentioned, and very pleased to discuss anything else that’s on your mind.
When we think about Iran in the—in our administration, if you put aside just for a moment, for theoretical purposes, the priority, the absolute priority of succeeding in Iraq and Afghanistan in the global war on terrorism, there’s no question that there is no greater challenge to America’s vital interests in the Middle East than making sure that we’re able to blunt the current diplomatic and military and terroristic and nuclear offensive, of sorts, of the government of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
I know some of you had a chance to meet with him recently, and I’ve talked to many people who were in the room, and so you’ll have your own views on Ahmadinejad as a person. But we think that since he took office 13 months ago, there has been a dramatic change in Iranian policy in the Middle East. There has been a sense of Iran flexing its muscles in its region; a sense that Iran, if you look at his speeches and look at the policies of the government, is a resurgent power; that he, and the people who follow him, want to return Iran to the “purity,” perhaps, of the early years of the revolution of the Ayatollah Khomeini and to the zeal of that time in the way that Iran relates to countries both in its region and relates to the United States and other powers in the world.
We look at Iran as a considerable threat to the multiplicity of American interests in the Middle East, with which you are all familiar. And it was certainly evident this past summer. The war in Lebanon was not just a border war, in our view, between Israel—or the latest iteration of the border wars between Israel and Hezbollah. The war in Lebanon was in its larger dimension an attempt by Iran to weaken Israel and to use Hezbollah as a proxy to strike at Israel, perhaps seeing that Israel, having withdrawn from Gaza in 2005 and having encountered terrorism in 2006, Israel having withdrawn from Lebanon in 2000 after an 18-year occupation, had encountered it again, perhaps seeing some vulnerability there.
And so we saw that episode, the financing of Hezbollah by Iran, the direction of Hezbollah in many respects—not entirely, but in many respects—by Iran and Syria, the fact that Iran has formed around it pretty much a nexus of terrorism in the Middle East, as Ahmadinejad—(inaudible)—power, Iran has met frequently with the Syrian government as well as with Hamas, Hezbollah, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestinian general command, and they meet together. We know there is financing for the operations of those terrorist groups. We know there’s a considerable degree of political direction.
And the major strategic difference this past summer in the war was a the provision of long-range rockets from Iran through Syrian territory down to southern Lebanon, which made a great deal of difference for the 1 million Israeli civilians who had to live underneath those rockets being fired upon them for 35 days.
And so Iran made a strategic attempt to weaken Israel. And we saw it in those terms, and that had a great deal to do with the way that the Bush administration, our administration, reacted to that crisis.
So if you put that challenge together with the nuclear challenge, that we’ll talk about—I’ll talk about in a minute, together with the fact that Iran remains the central banker of most of these terrorist groups in the Middle East, it was a busy summer. And that confluence of Iranian actions and threats amounts to a considerable challenge to our country, to Israel and to all the Arab states in the Levant and in the Gulf that wish to see a future of relative peace in the Middle East and relative stability.
We see the combination of Iranian actions—support for terrorism, specifically for Hezbollah and Hamas, their nuclear actions and their wider policy to the Arab world—amounting to Iran bursting into the region over the last 13 months in an attempt in essence to destabilize the established order and to rearrange the power relationships in the region.
So what I’m saying simply, this is a serious threat by Iran. It’s not an inconsequential threat, it’s not a minor threaten, it’s a serious attempt by Iran to seek a position of greater power vis-a-vis the United Sates and our allies in the Middle East, and it deserves to be confronted. And it will be confronted.
Our beef with Iran amounts to three issues. First, we’re convinced—and I think equally important, China and Russia and the other countries involved in Europe in the nuclear diplomacy are convinced—that Iran is seeking a nuclear weapons capability.
What is somewhat ironic and interesting about the debate over Iran is how little it resembles the disagreements that we had over Iraq in 2002 and 2003 across the Atlantic and with Russia and China. I have been traveling to Europe and working with the Russians and the Chinese for 18 months, as well as the Europeans, on this Iran nuclear issue, since the spring of 2005. I haven’t had a single conversation with any official at any level of any of those governments, including the governments of Brazil and India and South Africa, as well as all these others, I haven’t heard anyone assert that Iran is not trying to build a nuclear weapons capability or that somehow there’s insufficient intelligence it doesn’t make sense or it doesn’t add up.
In fact, it’s agreed, it’s assumed that given the fact that Iran withheld information for 18-1/2 years about its nuclear research programs from the IAEA, and given the fact that there’s so little openness on the part of the Iranians to what they’re doing, either at Isfahan, where they’ve been converting uranium, or at Natanz, where they’ve been enriching uranium over the last year, given the fact that ElBaradei can’t get in really to see the specifics of what the Iranians are doing, everyone is assuming that they’re seeking this nuclear weapons capability. And the disinclination of the Iranian government to meet the repeated offers by the United States and our partners over the last 18 months to negotiate this issue is also further evidence that this enrichment program is important to them, that they want to proceed and that they’re bound and determined to do so. But we have a considerable threat to manage in the nuclear sphere as well.
We also, of course, are looking inside the country, and it’s difficult for the United States to do that. We have had such an abnormal relationship with the Iranians over the last 27 years. It has to be the most unique relationship that we have with any country in the world: no diplomatic relations for 27 years; no embassies or consulates of one country in the other;, very little in the way of travel by business people, by scholars, by think tankers from the United States to Iran over the past generations. And so we have a relationship with minimal communication. Our lawyers get together to talk about our debts to each other once or twice a year. There are episodic meetings in the margins of international conferences a few times a year.
I am the person in the State Department that directs Iran policy for Secretary Rice, and I’ve been doing this for 18 months. And I have never met an Iranian government official—not that we’re disinclined to do so. I think the hallmark of our policy over the last six months has been Secretary Rice’s attempt to sit down herself with the Iranians on the nuclear issue, and they’ve respectively turned us down and turned the Europeans down.
And so we have a state of affairs where we try to look into that country and understand what’s happening. We see the more radical policies of the Ahmadinejad regime. We and you have heard the outrageous statements that he’s made about the existence of the state of Israel, about the historical accuracy of the events that led to the holocaust and the unfolding of the holocaust in Europe 60 years ago. And we’re appalled by those statements. We’re trying to figure out the power relationship inside the country, and we do so with some degree of humility because we don’t have people there. And there’s, I think, a lack of clarity in general about our ability to fully comprehend the motivations of that government and its intentions for the future.
But here’s what we know. We know that Iran is seeking this nuclear
weapons capability. We know that for three years the European Union three countries—Britain, France and Germany—have been trying to negotiate with the Iranians to resolve that issue and essentially to prevent—to convince the Iranians that they’d be far better off seeking a commercial relationship with Europe and Russia to build a civil nuclear capacity inside Iran itself without access to the fuel cycle. That’s been the deal that the Europeans have had on the table for three years now.
The Europeans thought they had a fairly good shot at reaching success in those negotiations about two years ago, and then, in the past year, specifically after the election of Ahmadinejad, the Iranians walked out of those talks. That led to the effort of the United States, Russia and China to join the EU-3 and a coalition of sorts, which started 11 months ago, and we have had six meetings of our ministers over the last year. And we’ve developed a similar proposal, and we challenge the Iranians to sit down and negotiate with us. Secretary Rice said on behalf of the United States in May, “I will sit down personally,” she said, “as secretary of State at the table with the Iranians if the Iranians would do one thing, and that is simply suspend their enrichment programs at their plant at Natanz.”
The Russians and Chinese and Europeans agreed with that. We put that offer on the table on June 1 st in Vienna. We told the Iranians we’d like to hear from them in a month. We didn’t hear a thing. In the absence of any communication from Tehran, we met here in New York at the end of July and passed U.N. Security Council Resolution 1696, which essentially said: We would like to negotiate with you. We have a positive offer out to you. We will all engage in technological, scientific and economic commercial cooperation with you, including the United States, therefore offering to break the 27-year sanctions regime in part. And we’d like to hear from you. If you can’t suspend your nuclear programs and do that, there’s also a negative path in addition to this positive path, and the negative path will be a U.N. sanctions regime. And we codified that and the Security Council resolution passed on July 31.
We then said, “Could you please get back to us by the end of August?” And they didn’t get back to us. And suddenly in September, when the UNGA came around in this city, the Iranians became interested in talking to Javier Solana, the new foreign policy chief, who was representing our interests in the P-5, and there were a series of conversations which turned out to amount to very little. The Iranians came back to Solana and said they were not willing to suspend their enrichment programs, they were not willing to curb in any way their nuclear programs as a condition of sitting down with the P-5.
And so it was clear to Secretary Rice and myself, when we were in London last Friday meeting with the foreign ministers of the P-5 and Javier Solana, that we had come to a fork in the road; that we had offered this very substantial package of cooperation with the Iranians, and had offered direct negotiations with the United States, and that they had turned us down. So we have no alternative now to head back to the Security Council in a couple of days, at the end of this week or early next—it’s a busy agenda at the Security Council this week—and to begin the process of writing and then passing, we hope, a sanctions resolution that will raise the cost to the Iranians of what they are doing in the nuclear realm.
Now, our offer that we made to the Iranians, that positive package of incentives and inducements, that’s going to remain on the table. We haven’t taken it off the table. And if at any time the Iranians wish to come forward and negotiate with the United States and these other countries, then we’ll be very happy to do so.
But in the meantime, we have to worry about the credibility of the Security Council and of the United States. And we put an offer on the table, we asked them to choose. They have chosen, at least temporarily. So we now need to go to the sanctions regime, because the Iranians have to understand there has to be a price for essentially being a major international outlaw, and I guess next to North Korea, the greatest international outlaw in the nuclear realm today. And I think that will be the consequence of what you see.
We have a commitment from China and Russia, written in that Security Council resolution in July, that they will support Chapter VII sanctions under Article 41 of the U.N. Charter. And we hope that can happen as soon as possible.
And we hope the Iranians will reflect on their isolation. And their isolation is actually quite extraordinary. A year ago today, they seemed to be holding most of the cards. They had walked out on the Europeans and there was no consequence to that action. But since then, we have built this international coalition, we have essentially put forward to them the prospect of negotiations. They’ve turned them down. And now they’re going to see the price and the cost raised to them because of that decision that they’ve made. And they’re not just isolated from the Perm-5, from Russia and China and Britain and France, Germany as an ex officio member of this group, and the United States, India has voted against Iran twice in the IAEA. India has said that Iran is out of step with its obligations. Brazil has voted against Iran. Egypt, Ecuador, Sri Lanka. So major members of the Non-Aligned Movement have come forward to break ranks and to say that Iran has to answer for what it’s doing. And that is a very serious case of internationalized isolation that the Iranians are going to have to now consider over the period ahead.
In addition to that issue, we are focused on the terrorism issue. And I’ll just say a word about it and be happy to talk about the details, should that interest you.
The Iranians are supplying very sophisticated IED technology to Shi’a insurgent and Shi’a terrorist groups that have, in turn, been used against American and British soldiers, and have led to the death of some of our soldiers over the last six to eight months. And we have told the Iranians and communicated with them that this is absolutely unacceptable, and that we expect that Iran, given its obvious interest in Iraq, and given the degree of influence that it has over parts of the Shi’a community in Iraq is going to now decide to act differently.
We’ve also told the Iranians that if they think that in forming a nexus of terrorist organizations and effectively being the chief political and financial supporter of those organizations, they can seek to weaken Israel in the Middle East, we’re going to oppose that as well. And our response to the initial—in the initial phase of the war in Lebanon this summer, our response was predicated on our concern for what the Iranians were doing. And this area of Iranian support for terrorism, which, of course, going back to the ‘80s and through the ‘90s was directed at the United States—remember the Marine barracks bombing and the embassy bombing in Beirut in 1983; remember Khobar Towers in 1996—we know the Iranians have been acting directly against the United States, and we are determined to protect ourselves, and to convince the Iranians that there will be a cost to those actions as well.
And finally—and I’ll conclude these remarks on this note—all Americans, any administration in the future is going to have to be concerned with what’s happening inside the country. It’s pretty clear that we are trying to in many ways communicate with the Iranian government. We’ve offered negotiations. But it’s also clear that we have a responsibility to support those within Iran that want to see in the future a more open, democratic society emerge and evolve.
And so the Congress has been good enough to give us in a supplemental fashion this past year sufficient funds that now we can take Voice of American Television Service and broadcast 12 hours a day into Iran, not four hours a day; and that Radio Farda, the U.S. government radio Farsi language station can broadcast 23 hours a day, not eight hours a day, into Iran. It’s clear that the democrats and reformers inside Iran are looking for connections with our country and with other countries in the Middle East and in Europe. It’s clear that they’re not getting a free flow of information into their country. And we have a certain opportunity now to be more effective in helping them to receive that type of information, and we are determined to do that.
Secondly, there are a number of grassroots, nongovernmental organizations, civic groups, democracy activists who very much want to work with people like you, who work for NGOs or businesses here in our own country. And this is a very difficult thing for us to do, to be directly funding these groups, because of course the Iranian government normally responds quite harshly to that against the Iranian individuals. And so we are working with Arab and European organizations to see if we all together, the international community, can support these democratic groups within Iran itself.
And finally, President Bush spoke, when he spoke to David Ignatius—and David wrote a column on this interview a couple of weeks back, in late September, and President Bush has said subsequently—we ought to have a commitment by the Congress and the executive branch to a dramatic expansion of our exchanges with Iran—in business, in academia, in athletics, in the arts. There’s been so little contact between our countries now for a full generation, that certainly if we’re looking towards the future and we hope for a better relationship down the line, it can start with people-to-people contacts. And so we’re dedicated to that.
Now, we have a challenge in our government, and that is, how do we understand, as I said before, events inside Iran itself? And Secretary Rice and I had an idea about six months ago that we might try to replicate what the United States did so effectively in the 1920s in a somewhat similar situation where we didn’t have diplomatic relations in the early years with the Soviet Union. We established in Riga what they called back then Riga Station, and we put some of the best young American diplomats, people like George Kennan and Chip Bohlen, into Riga. And we said, “You’re going to learn Russian, and your job is going to be to watch the Soviet Union, to understand it, to talk to people coming out.” Because at that time, as you remember, until FDR came in, between 1919 and 1933 there were no diplomatic relations between the United States and the Soviet Union.
Obviously, for a variety of reasons, it’s not possible for the United States to normalize its diplomatic relationship with Iran. It’s not possible for us to establish an embassy or consulates in Iran itself. But we have established in Dubai our 21 st century version of Riga Station. In the past year we’ve built up an office in Dubai solely dedicated to watching Iran and understanding Iran and talking to the thousands of Iranians who come out of Iran into Dubai itself so that we might better communicate with Iranians from all walks of life, understand them, and they’ll have a little bit understanding—better understanding of what the United States believes about their own country.
And we have increased, just in the last year, our commitment to producing the next generation of Iran experts in the U.S. government. I have been in the Foreign Service for nearly 25 years. There is no one in my generation who’s ever served in Iran. There’s no one in my generation who has ever worked with the Iranians in any way, shape or form. And we have got to fix that.
The next generation of American diplomats and military officers have to speak Farsi, many of them, and have to know about Iran and be sophisticated in its history and culture and its present-day politics. And we’re pouring a lot of money into training our younger generation in Farsi, giving them positions to serve in overseas, so that over the long term our government, at least, is going to be positioned more effectively to follow events there and to be effective in responding to them.
So I just wanted to give you a couple of snippets about the concerns that we have and to give you a little bit of context about how we see the Ahmadinejad regime.
I’m going to stop right here, Richard. It’s always better to have a conversation. I know you have questions on this issue, on Sudan, on Iraq, Afghanistan, on North Korea. I’m happy to talk about any of these issues. And it’s a pleasure to be here. (Applause.)
LOUIS PERLMUTTER: The format we’re going to use today is the usual council format. We’ll have a conversation for a few moments, and then for the latter part of the meeting we will open up for questions from the floor.
Thank you for that overview of not only Iran, but the other difficult issues that you’re confronting on a day-to-day basis. If I can come back to some of the points that you made, looking internally at Iran, at the changes that have taken place in Iran in terms of their policies since the election of Ahmadinejad, Iran, as best we can tell, has a collective leadership around the supreme leader, with a small group of very influential advisers.
The president of Iran has historically not been one of the dominant voices in foreign policy, and the group has disparate views. We have seen the rise of Ahmadinejad to cult-like status in the Muslim world. His views are widely disseminated. He’s very, very popular. As you mentioned, some of us at the council had direct experience with him. It was very interesting because it was—(inaudible)—confrontational, no interest in compromise, no interest in dialogue, and the conclusion you had to reach is if he is the dominant voice in Iran, it’s going to be very difficult, if not impossible, to conduct any sort of negotiations whatsoever.
So what is your assessment, as best that you can tell with the information you have, as to how influential he is? And do we know about the views of the other people in this small circle that advise the supreme leader, Ayatollah Khomeini?
BURNS: Thank you. Again, I want to start by saying there’s a lot we don’t know about the internal dynamics of the Iranian government. And I do certainly approach this with a high degree of humility, since we don’t have anybody there.
But having said that, we do not believe that the Iranian political system today is monolithic. In fact, it’s anything but that.
And if you look at this debate that the Iranians have had with each other about how to respond to this rather historic offer that we made to them back on June 1 st—we are willing to sit down with you, and Condi Rice said, “I’m willing to be there at the table as secretary of State—there was a fierce debate within the Iranian government about whether or not to accept this over the last four months. We know as much as that.
And it’s clear that—and these terms are relative, and they’re difficult to use—it’s clear that there’s a very hard-line faction within the government, certainly centered around President Ahmadinejad. And some of you had the experience of—that firsthand experience a couple of weeks ago here at the council. It’s also clear that there are those who believe that Iran should not choose to isolate itself politically or economically or diplomatically from Europe and the United States. And so they wanted to accept this offer.
But it was equally clear to us at the end of last week in London that when Javier Solana reported to the ministers of the Perm 5 countries, there was no agreement whatsoever by the Iranian government to meet the very basic condition, a suspension—and frankly, this would be temporary suspension—for the life of the negotiations of its nuclear programs at Natanz. They’re simply unwilling to do that, and therefore the rest of us felt we had to turn back to the Security Council.
So there seems to be a struggle inside Iran for how to define a foreign policy of engagement with the rest of the world. Iran is not like North Korea. It does not wish to live in isolation. It can’t live successfully—it cannot live successfully—in isolation. The degree of economic dependency now by Iran on its commercial trade relations with Germany, with Italy, with France, with Spain, with a number of the Arab countries, especially the Gulf Arab countries, is quite striking. There is a dependency there. Iran needs that kind of commercial intercourse.
And I also say that you have to look at this in a relative light. We saw Mr. Khatami here, the former president of Iran. Now, we decided to give him a visa, and we did so because we felt that we’re an open country. Citizens of our country ought to have a chance to talk to him.
We also suspected that he’d present a different view of things than did Ahmadinejad subsequently, and that turned out to be right, because we know that he said to a number of you, here in New York and in Charlottesville and in Washington and in Boston, he thinks that Israel does have a right to exist as a state in the Middle East. He believes that the Holocaust did happen and doesn’t question its historical veracity. And he also said—and this was quite striking to us, and we were—we didn’t meet with him, but we all—we listened to what he said—he said the United States ought to remain in Iraq, because the United States is a factor of stability in Iraq.
So the message that Khatami brought—albeit a relative reformer, someone who’s out of power, who probably does not represent—undoubtedly does not represent the majority view in the Iranian government these days but nonetheless represents a segment of the Iranian political class—was quite strikingly different than what you just heard from Ahmadinejad at the council and what we hear every day when we plow through his speeches that he gives around the country—so not a monolithic political environment; in fact, a highly divisive one.
But we have to assume that given the election, given the ascendency of Ahmadinejad and what looks like—to be an increase in his power, political power, we have to assume that the Iranian government that we’re going to deal with over the foreseeable future will be quite hard-line in its orientation.
PERLMUTTER: Thank you.
Just as an aside, when Khatami was up in—at the Kennedy school, he as an aside said one of our problems is that President Bush and Ahmadinejad are cut from—and the quote was—“the same cloth.” And he said it—and then he said, “You should not repeat that. Please don’t repeat it.” I am not the first person to repeat it, believe me. (Laughs, laughter.) And that leaves no response. (Laughter.)
PERLMUTTER: You also mentioned the coalition of six, the permanent members of the Security Council plus Germany and the agreement to take Iran to the Security Council for Chapter VII sanctions.
PERLMUTTER: Which was a diplomatic feat that you and the secretary of State should take great credit for. That’s difficult. But we do know that Russia has been outspoken in its opposition to punitive sanctions, and certainly the Chinese have not been forthcoming on the issue of sanctions. Does the North Korean apparent setoff of a nuclear device make the coalition stronger in its determination on additional proliferation? Or does it just make Iran bolder?
BURNS: I think the prevailing assumption in our government over the last few days is that the North Korean crisis will help to unify this coalition of countries on the question of Iran. Because it does tell you—if you look at the history of the North Korean nuclear crisis over the last two, three American administrations, particularly the last two, it does tell you that, given how the North Koreans have acted with the 1994 agreed framework, with the September 2005 six-party agreement, how they’ve willfully ignored it, we’re better off probably trying to strike at these problems diplomatically in the beginning phase, as we are in a relative sense with Iran, rather than ignore them, let them go or be insufficiently unified so that we can’t be effective in blunting them.
And I think—I had a meeting today—a videoconference with some of these countries, and there has been, I would say, a surprising degree of unity and strength of unity on the question of North Korea. And I think it does reinforce our (foreign ?) policy. And now we see the two of them tied together.
I would also say—(in order ?) to talk about the first part of your question—the coalition we have is not perfectly formed, and it’s not always as strong as we’d want it to be. Russia has a different view certainly of its future relations with Iran and the United States. China tends to take less interest in Iran than it does in North Korea. But we did all sign up to that Security Council Resolution 1696 on July 31. Our names are all on it. That’s a commitment, and we reaffirmed that commitment last Friday evening in London, our foreign ministers did. And so I imagine Ambassador Bolton will be getting together with his counterparts in the next couple of days—he’s got to wade through the North Korea resolution first—to get going on a Security Council resolution on Iran itself.
PERLMUTTER: On the same vein of coalitions against Iran, isolating Iran, the secretary of State just returned from the Middle East last week. She was in Riyadh and in Cairo. What did she hear about the Iranian nuclear threat from those governments? And what is their willingness to cooperate in an attempt to isolate Iran?
BURNS: Well, we think—she met in Cairo last week with the Gulf Cooperation countries along with Egypt and Jordan. And in that particular conversation, but also in the variety of conversations that we have every day with Arab countries, there is acute concern in the Arab world not just over Iran’s nuclear ambitions, but also about the flexing of muscles in the neighborhood. Ahmadinejad seems to want to hijack the Palestinian issue and wants to become the spokesman for that issue. I don’t think that sits very well in the Sunni Arab world, because Iran has largely been absent as a champion of the Palestinians over the last two decades.
And it’s very clear as well that there is a high degree of uneasiness about what Iran’s military intentions are in the Gulf area. And so for some time now, this is not new. Over the last six to eight months, we have been engaged in substantial conversations with a number of the Arab states about how we together can try to work to blunt and to reduce whatever impact the Iranians hope to have in playing a larger role in the Middle East. But this is clearly their ambition.
You know, they are emerging, if you will, from a period of relative isolation. They had this horrible war against Iraq in the 1980s. They’ve had a lot of internal struggles. They went through this unfortunately ill-fated period of reform under President Khatami. And there’s a real—a sense in listening to President Ahmadinejad and reading what the Iranians are saying that they believe their day has come to achieve a position of power in the Middle East that they have not had for a very long time. And so one has to react to that. And I think there is a confluence of interest among the Arab states, the United States, the European countries, as well as by Russia and China, to combine efforts.
Now, the other thing I’d say is that sometimes people talk as if the Iranians are 10 feet tall. Now, they have this terrific reputation in diplomatic circles for being wizards of diplomacy. And I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard over the last 18 months, “You’ve got to be very careful with the Iranians, they’re great negotiators.”
And so what we expected last autumn was that when President Putin began to talk about providing Iran with civil nuclear power, without access to the fuel cycle, a fuel take-back arrangement, we expected Iran would try to divide Russia from Europe and the United States on that deal. But it didn’t happen. And we expected when the P-5 formed and began meeting frequently and began passing Security Council resolutions and IAEA resolutions to condemn the Iranians, the Iranians to do something diplomatically, to offer enough at the table, whether with Solana over the last couple of months, or with the Russians and Europeans before that, to make it impossible for this diplomatic coalition to emerge. And they didn’t do that. And I have to conclude that’s because of their internal divisions; that they’ve really been unable to put together a coherent national policy that is unified and that they could play out over a 12-month period. I kept waiting—we’ve kept waiting for this Iranian move; it’s never come. You know, you’ve had all sorts of organizations trying to negotiate with Iran—ElBaradei, now the Perm 5, Security Council actions—and there’s been no response, effectively, from the Iranians. It’s been quite surprising.
And so what we have to do now is turn to other tactics designed to increase the cost to them, while keeping diplomacy very much at the front of what we’re doing.
And that’s the last thing I’ll say, I think, before we go to Q&A. President Bush has been saying consistently now for one solid year, of course the United States never takes any option off the table, and nor should we in a situation like this. But we are absolutely dedicated to diplomacy. We have been at this for 18 months, and for a solid year now aligned with the Russians and Chinese. And what we are now saying is that while we have to go, unfortunately, to the Security Council for sanctions, we’ll leave that offer on the table. We’d like to see negotiations unfold. We’d like to see the Iranians choose engagement. But they have to make that choice, and they have to be sufficiently unified to send a clear signal that they’re willing to do so.
PERLMUTTER: Good. Thank you. I think you anticipated well, we’re are at the point where we’ll open the floor to questions.
There are microphones. I would ask that you state your name and affiliation; try to ask as concise and precise a question as possible, and one question, so that we can get the most use of our allotted time here.
And with that, the floor is open.
Yes, sir? There is a mike that should be coming.
QUESTIONER: Peter Garver, Deutsche Bank. I wonder if you can give us your unconditional probability that two years down the road, Iran and North Korea will be significantly farther along on their nuclear weapons development.
BURNS: I had a job 10 years ago—I was State Department spokesman—and I learned a real lesson in my first weeks, never answer a hypothetical question—(laughter)—especially when you’re on the record with the cameras rolling. So I’m not going to—I’m sorry, I’m going to decline the opportunity to look into the crystal ball.
I would just say this, on the question of Iran, it is the stated policy of our government—and I don’t see any divergence with the senior members of the Congress in the Democratic Party with whom we’ve spoken on this issue—it is our policy to deny Iran a nuclear weapons capability. And so we’re not planning for fallback scenarios. We are not busy contemplating dealing with a nuclear Iran. We are absolutely focused in using diplomacy to deny them a nuclear weapons capability and to have a united international community to do so.
I think on North Korea—out of—you know, out of many crises come some opportunities. What has been the weakness of the American strategic position in Asia over the last several years, and indeed, what has been the weakness in dealing with North Korea, you’ve had this very difficult relationship between China and Japan. You had an equally difficult relationship between Japan and South Korea. Just before the nuclear test, Prime Minister Abe, in his first week in office, chose to go to Beijing on Sunday, and then after the test—he was in Beijing, I believe, when the test was conducted, or the seismic event occurred, after that, he went to Seoul. And you’ve seen in just one week attempts now made to patch up very important relations—China-Japan; Japan-South Korea.
And, of course, it’s in the interests of the United States, as treaty allies of Japan and South Korea, to make sure that all of us have a commonly held strategic position, and that we are cooperating tactically. And I think you’ll now see that. Because maybe the unintended consequence of the “Dear Leader” in North Korea and what he did the other night is he is bringing South Korea and Japan together, and I think he’s bringing China, Russia, Japan, South Korea, and the United States—the five of the six parties in the six-party talks—together as well. You saw the debate in the Security Council yesterday, you saw some of the statements made by John Bolton and his counterparts—a real degree of unity that what had happened was unsustainable, intolerable, and had to be responded to with a great deal of diplomatic strength.
And so out of this crisis in North Korea I think comes an opportunity for us to strengthen our strategic position in Asia and to reform the coalition of countries to respond both to North Korea and to Iran, as Japan, a country with a great deal of influence in Iran given its diplomatic ties and commercial relationship, and Japan’s very much a part on the effort on Iran, as it is in North Korea. So we see an opportunity here, and we intend to go forward on that basis.
PERLMUTTER: Yes, sir?
QUESTIONER: My name is Richard Erb from the University of Montana. To change the subject to Iraq, could you say something briefly about what other countries are doing, European countries and perhaps countries in the region, to bring about some stability within Iraq?
BURNS: Thank you. I’m happy to take that. I don’t know if we’ve always fully understood just how much support we actually had in Iraq. I was ambassador to NATO when we went into Iraq in 2003, and of the 26 NATO allies, I believe eventually 16, 17 of them found themselves in Iraq with military forces on the ground, and the great majority of them are still there. Most of the international military effort, apart from the sizeable contributions made by Britain, and Italy, and Poland, are in training the Iraqi armed forces and the Iraqi police, which is obviously a critical function, if we are to see stability emerge in the future and the Iraqi state strengthened. So we’re very grateful for that.
And for those countries that are beginning to end their direct military involvement in Iraq through the peacekeeping coalition forces, we’re encouraging them to remain involved in police training, which is a very important function.
In addition to that, we are beginning to put together an international compact for Iraq, which will be—what we hope will be substantial financial assistance to the Iraqi government from the EU, from EU member states, and from several of the leading states in Asia. And our Treasury Department, Secretary Paulson and Deputy Secretary Bob Kimmitt, are taking the lead on that, and it’s a very high priority for us.
So whether it’s on the military side, particularly the training function, or the economic side, it’s obvious to us that this drama in Iraq is going to play out over a very long period of time and there is going to be necessary a sustained level of international involvement to help the Iraqis. And we think that there is a basis for that, particularly on the economic and financial side, as they move forward.
Thank you very much for your question.
PERLMUTTER: And there’s a question over there.
QUESTIONER: Garrick Utley, of the Levin Institute. Coming back to North Korea and proliferation of nuclear weapons, the test obviously sets off aftershocks. A new government in Japan—you mentioned the positive steps of the new prime minister, Abe. There’s talk, though, that under the new government that Japan may pursue a more nationalist policy of military build-up, even questions of achieving a nuclear capability. If this were to emerge and Japan is headed in that direction, with such a strong commercial and a partner and democratic nation, what would the United States position be towards Japan if it said, “Now that North Korea has nuclear weapons, China has nuclear weapons, it’s a volatile area, we have to have them too.”
BURNS: Garrick, thanks for that softball! I really appreciate it! (Laughs; laughter.) But you haven’t lost your instincts!
You know, I think it’s important for us to give Prime Minister Shinzo Abe a little bit of diplomatic space, and I don’t think he needs public advice from the likes of me on these very sensitive issues about Japan’s constitution and about its national security.
I would say this; what President Bush said in his statement of Monday morning, the morning after the seismic event, was that the United States would continue, of course, to meet our treaty commitments to Japan and South Korea.
QUESTIONER: But this is—
BURNS: And we believe—those commitments are now 60 years—
QUESTIONER: (Off mike.)
BURNS: We have been a solid ally of both countries, and we will continue to be, and they know that.
So there’s no reason to think—for those countries to think that somehow they are defenseless in the world. They don’t think that. They know that the United States is fully engaged in Asia and the Pacific, and that those security commitments are among the most important that we have with any country in the world, and that they are sacrosanct in this American administration and in both political parties.
What we do read is that—and I think, again, we need to give him some space; he’s only been in office not even two weeks—is that there are voices in the Japanese establishment who believe that Japan can play and should play a greater role in their ability to contribute to peace—(inaudible).
There are a surprising number of restrictions, if you look into this, on the ability of Japan to participate in the kind of coalition operations or U.N. Security Council operations. And, of course, Japan has become one of the leading contributors of support to the United Nations, both in direct support for its peacekeeping operations as well as financial support.
I know there are many members of the ruling party and some in the opposition who want to debate this issue. I think we should allow the Japanese to have that debate without advice from us. But needless to say, we’re very much encouraged and have been encouraged over the last four or five years by Prime Minister Koizumi’s inclination to support us. And Japan has been with us in Iraq. Japan has been with us in Afghanistan. Japan has been with us in the Balkans, where the Clinton and Bush administrations have been, with a great degree of success, keeping the peace for the last decade. And Japan has been—every time there’s an important international issue, the Japanese are there.
So here’s my chance to have an advertisement, for those of you interested in the United Nations. As we look ahead towards Secretary-general Ban Ki-Moon—and we certainly intend to vote for him on Friday; we’re one of the champions of his cause, and we believe there will be a very large vote, if not by consensus, for him—we’d like to see reform proceed in the United Nations that Japan could become a permanent member of the Security Council, and that Japan can be recognized for its extraordinary contributions, financial and military, to the U.N. system. And this does coincide, by the way, with the debate within Japan itself, which very much is similar to the debate we’ve had between what we put in and what we get out. I think you’ll see Japan and the United States act together to try to accelerate the reform process when Ban Ki-Moon does take office.
PERLMUTTER: Let’s take somebody from the rear of the room. Yes, sir.
QUESTIONER: Gary Sick, Columbia University. I know you had a limited amount of time to cover a very large topic when you were doing your original remarks. But I was struck by the fact that—you know, that you treated the fact that Iran has burst suddenly onto the scene without mentioning, of course, that we helped them very significantly in doing that by getting rid of the Taliban to the east and Saddam Hussein to the west and installing a very friendly government in Iraq, and that in fact this wasn’t so much a burst as it was in fact we sort of encouraged them to go that way. And as you know very well, there are a lot of conspiracy theories to that effect running around the Middle East, that for some reason we wanted to do that.
You also, of course, omitted—although I would really be interested in hearing your comments about—there was a very well-documented report that the Iranians offered to talk to us very specifically and very openly in this spring of 2003, and the administration responded to it by throwing it in the wastebasket and actually chastising the Swiss ambassador who in fact brought the message to us. So, you know, that—was it—it’s not quite as one-sided as perhaps it’s been made to seem.
And as you know very well, there’s a lot of people in this country—very smart and very even conservative people—who are arguing that we should be talking to Iran under any circumstances, not using it on the grounds that it’s conditional, that if they do what we want them to do, then we’ll talk to them. How about talking to them about what we want them to do?
BURNS: Gary, thank you. And I can assure we didn’t invade Iraq and Afghanistan for Iran. We didn’t do it for them. (Soft laughter.)
But there’s no question that in the case of Iraq, the Iranians have profited. They have now relative stability. They have a much greater ability to influence events. And so what we say to the Iranians in both Iraq and Afghanistan—and we have had discussions, as you know; when Ambassador Khalilzad was in Kabul, there were discussions within the U.N. framework among six parties, including the U.S. and Iran, on counternarcotics and counterterrorism. I think the message to Iran is you’ve got to be responsible, and you’ve got to use the access that you now have both in Iraq and Afghanistan for stability.
We often get the impression that the Iranians are more interested in disruption—for lack of a better word—than stability. It’s certainly the case in Iraq, certainly the case in Iraq. I mean, can you really say that Iran is using its political influence over some of the Shi’a political groups to send a message of unity, of a unitary state and a unity among the three major groups competing for political power in Iraq? I don’t see that Iran has used its influence in that way. I think it’s been rather one-sided, whereas I think the United States has been very active in trying to pull Sunni, Kurd and Shi’a together. We don’t see the Iranians doing that, which is unfortunate, and as I said, we just have to judge the Iranians based on what they do, not what they say. They are supplying IED technology to Shi’a insurgent groups, and that’s been used against our soldiers. So the Iranians have to understand that we take notice of that and we’re disturbed by it and we’ll react to it.
As to your last point, I can’t speak to 2003. I spent eight years out of the country as an ambassador overseas. I came back in 2005. I was not party to whatever happened in 2003, but I will tell you this. When Condi Rice stood up on May 31 st and made this very full statement about American policy in Iran, it was the first serious attempt openly by the United States in 27 years to say: We are ready for a full negotiation at the ministerial level, at the ministerial level. Because what she said very importantly is: I’m not going to send a guest officer to these talks. I will appear myself, and we will engage on the nuclear issue. And if the Iranians want to talk about other issues, we’ll engage in those issues too. We thought that was a substantial offer. The fact that it was backed up by Russia and China and the Europeans was also important for the Iranians to understand.
And so I just—I judge them on what they’re doing in 2006. You know, we can argue about the history of earlier years, but all I know is that they’ve just turned down an opportunity, unfortunately, to engage us at the negotiating table. But let me say again, that opportunity stays on the table, it remains on the table. Should they wish to pick it up and meet the condition that all of us have put down, not just the United States, we’d be very happy to do so, to meet with them on that basis.
QUESTIONER: To follow up on Gary’s question on Iraq, what is the Iranian game plan? As you look at it, they are supporting disparate groups, many of whom are in conflict with one another. What are they trying to accomplish?
BURNS: Well, I think Gary’s probably in the better position—he’s an expert on Iran, I’m not—to answer that question. But again, we’ll have to judge the Iranians by the results. And what is striking to a number of our friends in the Middle East, in the Arab world, as well as to others around the world is the degree to which—by which the Iranians seem to be an agent of instability rather than stability in Iraq as well as in the wider Middle East, and I think that’s what’s producing this incipient counterreaction that you see in the greater Middle East to what the Iranians have been doing for the better part of a year.
PERLMUTTER: Yes, ma’am. Robin.
QUESTIONER: Thank you. Robin Duke, Alan Guttmacher Institute. I wonder if you could tell us, because we’re hearing horrendous reports that there are over 500,000 to 600,000 Iraqis who have been killed up to date. None of us know if this is true or not. I wondered if the State Department has some measure of how many people have been killed in Iraq.
BURNS: Robin, thank you. I—I’ll tell you the truth. I first heard this on NPR as I was driving into work this morning, this report, and I have not seen (this ?). I’m confident that no one else in the upper reaches of our department has seen this particular report, which I believe was produced by an NGO. I know that President Bush gave a press conference about two hours ago now, and he said he felt—you can look at the quotes—he felt that this was grossly inflated, and so I’m sure that we’ll be responding on a methodical basis to this because we should respond to it, it’s an important report. But that’s what president—the president has said on behalf of our government this morning.
PERLMUTTER: Way in the back. Right there. Yes, sir.
QUESTIONER: Hi. I just got to New York a week ago, and I’m really appreciative of this speech. This has probably been the best hour that I’ve had since I’ve been here.
PERLMUTTER: Great. You just arrived, and you can identify yourself too.
QUESTIONER: It’s—(name inaudible)—with (Solomon Ivory ?).
BURNS: I’m sure you’ve had a boring week, but—(laughter).
QUESTIONER: I wanted to quote something you said a little bit earlier. You said that the United States supports an open and democratic society to emerge in Iran. I was wondering if—in that—and I appreciate that I’m asking for you to opine on this, but I ask for your indulgence. But if there’s a group of Iranians sitting around in Tehran right now at a similar lunch, and they hear, you know, an official statement that says something like that coming from the U.S. government, do you think that they’ll reflect back on the last time they gave a crack at democracy and how, you know, the overthrow of Mr. Mossadeq was perhaps sparked with the interests of the United States in mind?
BURNS: Thank you very much. (Laughter.)
You know, I think what all of us appreciate about Iran is how history plays such an important part of their politics and their national life, and of discussion among Iranians. So we understand the importance of the events of 1953 in forming an Iranian worldview of the United States. I just read this terrific book, “Guests of the Ayatollah,” that brings us back to the hostage crisis of ‘78 and ‘79 and ‘80. And that was obviously very much in the minds of the people who took over our embassy. So we appreciate that fact.
We’ve got some history too, by the way, and Americans are not amnesiac when it comes to history. We have 1979, ‘80, 52 of my colleagues taken hostage and held for 444 days, many of them tortured by their Iranian captors. We remember 1983, our diplomats blown up in Beirut; our military, over 250 of them, killed in one bombing. We believe Iran was—(inaudible)—bombings. I was at Khobar Towers with Secretary Christopher just by chance six hours after the bombing. We were in Jerusalem. We flew there. We saw the crater. Thirty-one Americans dead, 240 Americans in the hospital. We visited—(inaudible).
So we’ve both got history. And it’s the duty of responsible politicians and diplomats to overcome the worst aspects of our history. If we just spent all of our time lobbing grievances at each other, (we ?) wouldn’t get very far.
And so what we would suggest—what I would suggest personally is that if we want to look ahead and reestablish some basis for us to relate to Iran and to the Iranians, we both should put our history behind us and appreciate that we both have grievances; it’s been a painful last several decades.
But there has to be a future between these two countries. At some point in time, we’ll normalize relations. It won’t be this year. It probably won’t be next year. But we ought to have a rational, commonsensical discourse among the citizens of our countries.
That’s why it’s surprising how few Americans have ever been there. I don’t know how many people in this room have visited Iran in the last five years. Mashaka’s (sp) been there. Warren’s been there. Okay, that’s two.
QUESTIONER: (Off mike.)
BURNS: A few. (Soft laughter.) A few. Nobody in our government’s been there.
And so, you know, what we need to produce is some degree of normalcy in this relationship, but Iran knows what it has to do to get to that point with the United States. And if they continue to direct terrorist groups against us in 2006 and against Israel, if they refuse to negotiate with us on the nuclear issue and sit down with us, frankly, there’s not a lot we can do, from a practical perspective.
But I appreciate your bringing up history. It’s always interesting to discuss it.
PERLMUTTER: My boss, Richard Haass, has indicated that we have time for one more question. I know there are a lot of hands, and you’ll excuse me. But Senator Goodman, did you have a question?
QUESTIONER: I’d like to ask your reaction to the—I’m Roy Goodman of the Kennedy United Nations Development Corporation. May I ask, sir, your view of the probable likelihood of continuing resentment between Iraq and Iran as a result of the very bitter war, which they did fight fairly recently in the past? Is there anything about that war that has created a lingering resentment that affects the current situation?
BURNS: Thank you very much.
I think that there’s no question that that war was just such a vicious conflict for so many years and was really a searing experience for the current Iranian leadership. Ahmadinejad, of course, fought in that war, as did many of the senior members of the current government. And it’s also true that many senior Iraqis, especially the Sunnis, fought in that war. So there’s no question it remains a basic divisive element in the future evolution of relations between Iran and Iraq.
However, you do have the Shi’a majority in the—plurality—excuse me—and the Shi’a point of view, and the Shi’a—of course many of the current Shi’a members of the government took refuge in Iran during the latter part of the Saddam period.
And so it would seem to me that the two countries have an opportunity to put that war behind them and to define a different future. But there are lingering resentment on both sides, and you certainly hear it from the Iraqi Sunnis, from some of the Kurds, and you hear it in Iran as well. It’s a factor in that relationship.
And again, I—you know, we would hope that Iran would choose a responsible course of action in Iraq, and we haven’t seen that over the last year. By and large we haven’t seen that. And that’s our public advice to the Iranian government.
PERLMUTTER: Well, please join me in thanking—(applause).
(To Mr. Burns.) Thank you.
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