U.S. Under Secretary of State R. Nicholas Burns has been Washington’s diplomatic point man on the civilian nuclear deal with India, as well as on the international efforts to curb Iran’s nuclear program. Burns says ending India’s nuclear isolation will bring it more securely in line with global safeguards. At the same time, Burns says, the Bush administration is ratcheting up the diplomatic and economic isolation of Iran as “the cost to Iran of its current intransigence” on suspending its uranium-enrichment program. He says in the next two months there will be crucial decisions by international bodies involving each initiative.
The India nuclear deal announced last Friday [July 27, 2007] has already been described alternatively as bold and transformative as well as reckless and dangerous by some in the nonproliferation community. How would you reassure those who see it as violating the spirit of nonproliferation accords?
I think it speaks to the modern-day needs of the Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) as well as what we need to do to strengthen it in the years ahead. You’ve got this anomalous situation where you’ve got countries inside the NPT, like Iran, cheating. And you’ve got countries outside the NPT, including the soon-to-be largest country in the world, India, not cheating but following the rules of the NPT. To strengthen the nonproliferation system for the future, it just makes every bit of sense to bring India into it and to do that in such a way that doesn’t strengthen its military arsenal, but does allow it to move forward to modern nuclear-plant construction with the latest technology. The benefits of that are manifold. It finally straightens out this situation we’ve had where India has been on the outside for thirty-five years. It allows them to put fourteen of their twenty-two power reactors under safeguards and all future breeder reactors [a reactor that produces energy as well as new fuel]. And within twenty-five years, I think 90 to 95 percent of their entire establishment will be fully safeguarded. So the choice is: Should we isolate India for the next thirty-five years, or bring it in partially now and nearly totally in the future? I think that’s an easy choice for us to make strategically.
You’ve got countries outside the NPT, including the soon to be largest country in the world, India, not cheating but following the rules of the NPT. To strengthen the nonproliferation system for the future, it just makes every bit of sense to bring India into it.
From an environmental standpoint, India is one of the largest carbon emitters in the world. Right now, nuclear energy is only 3 percent of its energy source. We think within a generation that could go to 25 percent if you open up trade and nuclear fuel and nuclear technology. So from an environmental, energy, and nonproliferation point of view, for us this is the right thing to do.
Some say that under the deal, if India holds a nuclear weapons test, the U.S. would delay its own nuclear fuel supplies to India but the U.S. would help India find other sources of fuel, which violates the spirit of the Hyde Act. What do you say to those concerns?
That’s absolutely false. I negotiated the agreement and we preserved intact the responsibility of the president under the Atomic Energy Act of 1954 that if India or any other country conducts a nuclear test, the president—he or she at that time in the future—will have the right to ask for the return of the nuclear fuel or nuclear technologies that have been transferred by American firms. That right is preserved wholly in the agreement. We’re releasing the agreement on our website on Friday afternoon [August 3, 2007] and people will see that when they cite the text.
One other aspect of the deal that was a sticking point was India’s use of reprocessed nuclear material. What are the safeguards for ensuring only civilian use?
We thought very carefully about whether or not we should confer reprocessing consent rights, as it’s called, on the Indians. We agreed to do so finally because of two factors. Number one, the Indians offered and have now agreed to construct a state-of-the-art processing facility and all the foreign fuel shipped into India will go through that plant to be reprocessed. It will be fully safeguarded by the IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency], fully transparent and monitored by the IAEA. That will give the entire international community an abundance of reassurance that there is no diversion to the weapons program. Secondly, U.S. law states that while we can promise reprocessing consent rights, we have to negotiate a subsequent agreement. We will do that and Congress will have the right to review that agreement.
Does the deal address U.S. concerns that India would support efforts to press Iran to abandon its suspected nuclear weapons program?
This is a technical agreement of the type that we’ve done with Japan, Russia, China, and the European Union in the past, so it doesn’t speak to political issues in the text of the agreement. But apart from that, we have been very actively involved in counseling the Indian government that they should remain with the rest of the international community in arguing to the Iranians that they should not become a nuclear weapons power, number one. And number two, we hope very much that India will not conclude any long-term oil and gas agreements with Iran. The Indians, as you know, have voted with us at the International Atomic Energy Agency board of governors against Iran on two occasions. And so I trust the Indians will maintain this policy of not in any way, shape, or form assisting the Iranian government in its nuclear plans, and in giving the right advice to the Iranian government that we would expect any democratic country to give.
Do you see enough movement in Congress that there might be a vote this autumn?
We hope so. Two things have to happen before it goes back for a final vote in Congress. First, India has to conclude a safeguards agreement with the IAEA, which I expect will happen in the next thirty to thirty-five days. Secondly, the Indians will need to convince the nuclear suppliers group—this is the group of forty-five nuclear energy powers in the world—that it should give the same kind of international treatment in terms of civil nuclear trade to India that the United States would have just given bilaterally. Once those two steps are taken, then perhaps by November or December we’ll be ready to formally send this agreement to Capitol Hill for a final vote. We hope that vote will mirror the Hyde Act vote which was, of course, an overwhelming vote in favor of India and the United States by Congress.
There’s much talk this week about a so-called U.S. diplomatic surge in the Middle East that’s in part about countering Iran’s influence. This is coming even as you had these two series of talks between Iran and the United States on Iraq. How would you characterize those talks and what can we expect for the future?
We have opened up a channel to the Iranians in Baghdad that is being run on the American side by Ryan Crocker, the American ambassador, with his Iranian counterpart. That channel is solely about issues that pertain to security in Iraq. We’re trying to convince the Iranian government that it should cease and desist in its support of the Shia militant groups who are using fairly sophisticated technology to attack American forces.
We must convince the Iranians that they must be more ecumenical, if you will, with their approach to Iraq, to be supportive not only of the Shia community, but also of the Sunnis and Kurds, and to try to help bring about an improvement and cooperation among the major groups in Iraq. Iran has never taken the kind of role the United States has taken. And Iran has not been a country that’s used its influence for the kind of political stability and peace that is required if the Iraqis are going to get back on their feet. So that’s what that channel is about. We’ll see how it turns out. We’ll expect results from it and we’ll be looking at it in that light.
We have been very actively involved in counseling the Indian government that they should remain with the rest of the international community in arguing to the Iranians that they should not become a nuclear weapons power.
We are also trying to open a channel to the Iranians on the nuclear side for fifteen months now. The P5 countries [Security Council veto-wielding members]—the U.S., Russia, China, and the Europeans—have tried to convince the Iranians to negotiate. Secretary [of State Condoleezza] Rice said that she would be at those negotiations but the Iranians have rebuffed every attempt by us to negotiate. We’ll keep that offer on the table, but as long as the Iranians do not negotiate, and as long as they continue their enrichment activities, their plant at Natanz, we’re going to be forced to sanction them in the Security Council, but also to try to convince Western financial institutions—banks, lending firms, et cetera—not to do business with Iran. We’re trying to drive up the cost to Iran of its current intransigence.
Some analysts are saying the United States is holding key leverage now with the sanctions, but the Iranian regime has been put on the defensive and fears regime change moves. If the United States would show its willingness to come to the table on a whole host of issues, they could maybe get somewhere. Not a great option, but a better option than where things are going. How do you respond to that kind of assessment?
Frankly, that’s a little too simplistic. Here’s what we’ve offered the Iranians: We did not expect the Iranians to make a unilateral concession to the P5, so what we offered them is what’s called a “suspension for suspension.” We said, if you will suspend your scientific research at Natanz on enrichment for the life of the negotiations, we will suspend the sanctions that we’ve imposed on you through the Security Council for the life of the negotiations. We thought that was a fair deal, so if we would give something up, Iran would save face by not having to make a unilateral concession. Well, they turned that down. And for those people who say: “Why don’t you just sit down with the Iranians with no strings attached and no conditions?” That’s not in the interest of the United States, because if we just sat down with them and didn’t insist on suspending their weapons program, they could easily keep us at the table for months or years. While we were talking at the table, they could continue their nuclear research and get closer to that time when they’ve developed the scientific capacity to become nuclear capable.
On that issue, without any sort of dialogue North Korea went ahead and developed a crude weapons capability and when the United States came back to the table there seems to be a deal in the works. By being willing to come back and create some assurances to the North Korean regime you’re able to gain some traction there.
I know why it’s tempting to compare them, but they are worlds apart in culture, history, and what drove them to the table in the first place. The North Koreans have tested a nuclear device, have conducted nuclear tests, and so we approached them in a very different way. The Iranians aren’t there yet. Our policy is not “We hope they won’t be nuclear capable.” Our policy is “We must prevent them from becoming nuclear capable.” Now, we’re focused on diplomacy. We have enough time to follow a diplomatic path and we need to exhaust all the diplomatic possibilities. That’s why we want to sit down with them at the negotiating table. We always have the military option available to us—we do and the president does and his successor will. We much prefer a diplomatic approach at this point and a diplomatic approach needs to be smart and tough. It doesn’t make sense from my point of view to allow them a carte blanche to continue trying to build a nuclear weapon at the same time that you negotiate.
When do you expect to bring up further actions in the Security Council regarding Iran’s nuclear program?
I’m currently working with the Russians and the Chinese and the Europeans on a draft Security Council resolution. At this point, realistically, we’re probably looking at the next thirty to sixty days—either August or September—for it to be passed. It’s something that’s very important to us because we’ve been able to construct over the last two and a half years this very broad international coalition where countries are sanctioning Iran and speaking out against its nuclear programs. You have not only the United States, Europe, Japan, and Australia. You also have Russia, China, India, Brazil, Indonesia, South Africa, and Egypt who all have implemented sanctions against Iran. On the other side, you only have Cuba, Venezuela, Syria, and Belarus, that motley gang of four, supporting the Iranians. So the Security Council process is very important because it does demonstrate the Iranians are isolated. It’s not just the United States and Europe that are opposed to its nuclear-weapons ambitions, it’s all the other major powers of the world.
We know there are many countries considering their own unilateral sanctions that will be tougher on Iran than what we could get from the Security Council. We know the U.S. Congress is considering toughening and strengthening the Iran Sanctions Act (PDF). There was a divestment bill in Iran passed by the House of Representatives on July 31, and there are other pieces of legislation that would make the sanctions currently on the books even tougher in terms of penalties for international oil and gas firms that agree to more than twenty million dollars of business with Iran. So we’re going to see a trend of increasingly tough international action against Iran because they refuse to negotiate and they refuse to slow down their nuclear efforts.