Remarks at Foreign Press Association in LondonR. Nicholas Burns, Under Secretary for Political Affairs
February 11, 2008
MODERATOR: On behalf of the Foreign Press Association, I welcome you to our building here. Thank you so much for joining us. Ambassador Burns has a very limited time schedule here. He’ll be with us for 20 minutes, so I’ll be very brief in my introductions. Please, when you ask questions, just introduce yourself – one question each - and the organization you come from.
Ambassador Burns is the Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs, the Department of State’s third-ranking official. He was appointed by President Bush. Previously was Ambassador to NATO and he headed the combined State-Defense Department U.S. Mission to NATO. And he will be answering all questions on all aspects of U.S. foreign policy.
UNDER SECRETARY BURNS: Thank you very much, Nazenin. Thank you. It’s a pleasure to be here – my first time, I think, at the Foreign Press Association. It’s a pleasure to see all of you. I really don’t have much to say. I’m happy to answer questions on any issue. I should tell you I’m here in Britain for meetings with the British government – my British counterparts – on all the issues that we’re dealing with these days. So certainly to discuss Iran, in all of its aspects. A full discussion, I expect, of Afghanistan. There was, at the Munich Security Conference at the Wehrkunde over the weekend, quite a lot of discussion – you saw that, some of you reported on that – about the NATO effort in Afghanistan, about the need for a greater NATO presence and a more vigorous NATO military effort there, as well as, I think, a resuscitation of what we're doing on the civilian side, through the United Nations, to assist the Afghan people and the Afghan government. Certainly we’ll talk about Iraq today with the British government, the upcoming NATO summit in Bucharest, in Romania, in about six weeks’ time. And Darfur and Burma will be on the agenda. So I will be reviewing this afternoon, at the FCO, all of these issues with a variety of British officials. I’m pleased to be here. I’m happy to take any questions that you have.
QUESTION: (inaudible) … My question is about Iran. (inaudible)
UNDER SECRETARY BURNS: Thank you very much. The question was about Iran. Let me just say, first of all, I agree with everything that Secretary Rice said here in London last week. I know you’re surprised to hear me say that. (Laughter) She’s my boss, so I agree with her.
Secondly, I thought there were two developments last week in Iran that were particularly interesting, noteworthy and troubling. The first was the attempt to launch a rocket . You all saw the photographs of President Ahmedinejad with his 3-D glasses. The FT had a cover-story on that. The second were the very interesting -- and I would say troubling -- press reports that appeared in the U.S. press on Friday – there was a New York Times story, I believe, there was an AP story – about a new centrifuge device, centrifuge mechanism that the Iranian government may or may not be employing at their plant in Natanz. Now, on the second story, we – the U.S. Government – have not corroborated that. These are press stories. But I think that both are troubling because the international community has sent a rather clear message to the Iranians over the last three years. The IAEA Board of Governors has twice passed resolutions calling on Iran to suspend all of its enrichment and reprocessing activities at Natanz. The Security Council has passed one resolution, in July of 2006, and since then two sanctions resolutions, Chapter 7, asking Iran to suspend its nuclear efforts at Natanz.
Iran seems to be willfully disregarding the Security Council, as well as the IAEA. It is now moving ahead, by its own admission, in broad daylight, to expand the number of centrifuges under operation at Natanz, and is not suspending in any way, shape or form. This tells us that a third sanctions resolution must now be passed by the Security Council. That resolution, presented by the European Union countries, is being debated in New York. I suspect we’ll have to debate it for a little bit of time in New York, but it is now imperative that it be passed, because Iran is so willfully out of compliance, and these are troubling developments.
I would then think that there would be a process, after the Security Council votes the sanctions resolution, of other countries stepping forward to sanction as well. We hope very much that the European Union, following the passage of a third sanctions resolution in New York, would adopt its own sanctions resolution, which would be obviously much tougher than what the Security Council will do. And we hope that other major trading partners of Iran, in Asia as well as the Middle East, will think about what they can do to contribute to this international sanctions effort. There has to be an international response to what the Iranian government is doing.
So, on the nuclear issue, I believe that that’s where the focus of the diplomacy is going to be – to strengthen the sanctions effort, both the overt sanctions, but also some of the efforts made through private financial institutions to dry up lending and investment activities in Iran. We’ve seen quite a bit of that over the last year.
There’s another issue concerning Iran. That is its outright support in arming and funding most of the Middle East terrorist groups, from Hamas in Gaza to Hezbollah in Lebanon, to Palestinian Islamic Jihad, to the Taleban in Afghanistan, to the Shia militant groups in Iraq. And there, I think, there’s been universal, international condemnation of this Iranian policy to support the violent groups in the Middle East, in a region that clearly needs greater stability and greater peace.
I was interested to read The Economist, I’m a great admirer of The Economist, I think it’s one of the most intelligent news magazines, if not the most important news magazine in the world. But I disagreed with its cover story last week, when it essentially said that Iran has gotten the better of the international community diplomatically. I think that’s the conventional wisdom. That’s certainly the conventional wisdom in the press. But it’s hard to find a country in the world that’s more isolated than Iran right now. The only countries that are really sticking up for Iran: I think Syria does, I know that Cuba does, I know that Chavez and Venezuela does. But when you have an international reaction on the nuclear issue where China and Russia are the lead countries sanctioning Iran, with Britain, France, Germany, the United States; where all of the non-aligned partners of Iran are now sanctioning it: India, Pakistan, Brazil, Indonesia, Egypt, just to name a few countries, are all, of course, fulfilling the UN sanctions regime, due to resolution 1737 and 47. So I think Iran is a country that is perilously in isolation from the rest of the world.
And these revelations last week – the rocket launch and the stories about the centrifuge -- mean that the International Atomic Energy Agency needs to conduct a very vigorous and comprehensive review of what the Iranians have been up to. I know Doctor El-Baredei’s going to present a report at some point in the month of February, and we’re looking forward to that report, we have great respect for him. But it really is incumbent upon the IAEA to leave no stone unturned and to look at all these allegations and to make sure there’s a bright spotlight being shone upon the Iranian government.
QUESTION: (Inaudible) . Your man in Delhi, your Ambassador, recently said it’s now or never (inaudible). Is that how you see it? (Inaudible). And if you don’t see it that way, how do you see it?
UNDER SECRETARY BURNS: Well, I am very much involved in this agreement between India and the United States, and I’ve been in touch with the Indian government as recently as Thursday and Friday of last week. It’s an agreement that is entirely in the best interests of both countries. It’s going to bring India out of its nuclear isolation dating back to the mid-1970s. It’s going to allow civil nuclear trade of all countries with India: the provision of nuclear fuel, the construction of nuclear power reactors. It will allow India to go from 3% reliance on nuclear energy, hopefully to say 20-25% in a generation, with enormously positive benefits for global climate change and carbon reductions in the process. So, there’s a lot to like in this agreement.
Now, it has to be completed and I would say that it’s time to move this agreement forward. I do agree with Ambassador Mulford, our excellent American Ambassador in Delhi, we don’t have all the time in the world. We are, quite famously, in an election year in the United States. The Congressional calendar is crowded. This agreement, after it’s accomplished by the International Atomic Energy Agency and the nuclear suppliers group, needs to come back to the Congress of the US for one final vote. We have broad bipartisan support, but it needs to get there, and so while I wouldn’t want to say anything that would, in any way, intrude on domestic politics in India, from an international point of view, and given the fact that we’re one of the negotiating partners, we do need to complete the agreement, and we’re ready.
QUESTION: So, it’s now or never?
AMBASSADOR BURNS: I didn’t say that.
QUESTION: But, he said that.
AMBASSADOR BURNS: I didn’t say that. What I said was what I said, that it’s an important agreement and that we should now move forward to complete it. And that means that we would hope for expeditious action on this agreement by all concerned, including the Indian government.
QUESTION: I'm from German Radio, what is the outcome from you on (inaudible) to Afghanistan (inaudible), after Vilnius and Munich. Do you think countries like Germany, France, Spain (inaudible) and especially Germans who the US continues to ask for German troops (inaudible)?
UNDER SECRETARY BURNS: Well, we are very grateful for the contributions being made by Germany and by all the NATO countries to the effort in Afghanistan. We also know that as NATO's first ground operation in the 59-year history of NATO, it's absolutely essential that NATO succeeds. We know that we can succeed; we know that we have gotten the better of the Taliban. The Taliban is not on a strategic offensive, it does not pose a strategic threat to the government of Afghanistan, but is a very considerable force that needs to be pushed back.
I think there are two jobs that need to be accomplished in Afghanistan. The first is all of us need the support of the United Nations, hopefully seeing the naming of a new envoy who would be able to galvanize the international community to have a central strategic focus in the provision of international assistance to Afghanistan: Building schools, rebuilding the power sector, attending to the health needs of the people of Afghanistan and rebuilding health clinics and hospitals. There has not been a sufficient strategic focus to that effort, it's almost as if every country is going -- with the best intentions in the world -- going in a different direction. So we have long championed the idea that the United Nations Secretary General should name -- and it's his decision -- a senior, we would hope European, figure who could be the central organizer of the international civilian effort in Afghanistan and that needs to happen. And I certainly worry, and a lot of people worry, that that effort has been disjointed and not as effective as it should be.
On the military side -- we've done very well on the military side. We have pushed back the Taliban, particularly in the east along the Afghan border and in the south. But there is no question that Secretary Gates was absolutely right what he said yesterday in Munich, at the Wehrkunde conference. NATO has an ethic, and that ethic since April 4th 1949 has been all for one and one for all and we are now engaged in a very difficult campaign, and it simply isn't right that nine of the members are required to do 99 percent of the fighting in Kandahar, in Oruzgan, in Helmand province in the south where the Canadian, Brits and Dutch are, and in the east where the United States forces are. Our countries are sharing and shouldering the vast burden of that fight. We have taken the vast majority of the casualties, and therefore, it is incumbent upon us to say, with great respect, that we need help from Germany and the other major west European countries, we need an end to these restrictions, these artificial restrictions on the deployment of forces, and we need to be able to take the fight to the Taliban.
It's hard to think of a successful military operation when a majority of the capitals are saying we decide, not the military commander on the ground, where and when the troops are deployed. We can't have that attitude. Secretary Gates was absolutely right to say what he said and he was reflecting the American viewpoint on this issue and not just the American viewpoint, the viewpoint of the European allies who we find with us, the Danes, the Estonians and Romanians and Bulgarians as well as the Dutch and the Canadians and the British.
I would just use Canada as an example. Canada has suffered casualties, the highest rate of casualties in the alliance of any country, in Kandahar province. Canada is in the most significant military altercation since the Korean War. Canada has made an enormous contribution and sacrifice and for Canada to do all that, and not to have the support of every country in the alliance to come and help with resupply, with helicopters, with combat troops, is not a recipe for success. And so I think you do need to tend to both the civilian side as well as the military side, and Afghanistan is a country in which we have to do both well, and NATO countries have to be involved in both and not just in one of them, and that was a central message we are trying to send and we were trying to send it at the Wehrkunde conference over the weekend.
QUESTION: Julian Borger of the Guardian. Kosovo is expected (inaudible) to declare independence sometime next week. What can you tell us about the chorography of the international community (inaudible) and are you concerned at all about the ripple effect around the world and other enclaves seeking to follow Kosovo (inaudible)
UNDER SECRETARY BURNS: Well, first let me say that I'll leave the chorography and time lines to others, it's up to the authorities in Pristina to determine the chorography, but the position of the United States is very clear. When Marti Ahtisaari, the United Nations envoy, presented his plan for a period of supervised independence, when he presented that plan to the United Nations, we immediately supported it and that was in March/April of last year. Since then we've had this extraordinary diplomatic effort of trying to find a solution. We engaged in 130 days of negotiations -- the US, the EU, and Russia together with the Serbs and Albanian leadership, Kosovo-Albanian leadership -- and that effort did not succeed. We are convinced that the greater risk is inaction and the greater likelihood of trouble would be brought about by inaction, and it was in 1998/1999 that Milosevic attacked the Kosovo Albanian population, attempted the ethnic cleansing of a million people. The province since then has been under the control of the United Nations, not of Serbia. The United Nations has had the mandate to be the civil authority in Kosovo since then. Ahtisaari’s plan would prepare a transition from UN rule to self-government, and we believe it is correct in all its applications.
We do think the Kosovo Albanian relationship has a major responsibility. They need to send the right signals to the Kosovar Serb population. That the Serbs and the other minority populations are welcome in Kosovo, will be able to lead successful and peaceful and happy lives there as communities, and remain part of Kosovo itself , and we have reminded the Kosovo Albanian leadership of that obligation.
We hope that the Serb government will understand that this change is necessary and that there should be no resort to provocations, much less to violence, and that a peaceful application of this United Nations plan is necessary for the peace of the Balkans. And our strongest desire is to see the Balkans and the countries of the Balkans become fully part of Europe, and so we have consistently, the United States, I know the EU has said it, that the way is open for Serbia to develop its relationship with NATO and the European Union. Serbia is a key country in the region; the same is true of Montenegro and of Kosovo and of Bosnia-Herzegovina and Albania and Macedonia and Croatia. And so a peaceful transition, and a stable transition, is going to be very important and we hope very much that that will be the case as this situation unfolds.
QUESTION: Hosny Eman from the Kuwait News Agency. Ambassador Burns, are you satisfied with the progress made in Iraq regarding the political and national reconciliation, the stamping out of corruption, sectarianism, (inaudible)
UNDER SECRETARY BURNS: Well we’re, first of all, very committed to maintain the American effort to assist the Iraqi government and people. We have shown that through the deployment of our troops, we've shown that by the political engagement of our government, and especially of our Ambassador, in the question that you asked me. And we hope very much that the effort will be there to see a stable evolution in Iraq, and to see the major questions that are before the Iraqi government to be handled effectively and to be handled peacefully.
QUESTION: (inaudible) Focus, German News Magazine. (inaudible) fresh from David Miliband (inaudible) that you’re particularly impressed with and do you feel Britain is a bridge between Europe and the United States?
UNDER SECRETARY BURNS: Well, let me say, first of all, we don't normally comment on personalities in diplomacy. Britain, the United Kingdom, Great Britain and Northern Ireland, is without any question one of the strongest partners and allies of the United States. We are enormously grateful for the friendship of Britain, and for the diplomatic strength and military strength of Britain, and I can't think of a diplomatic partner of ours that is more indispensable to peace and stability in the world. Choose an issue, whether it's Darfur or climate change or Pakistan or Afghanistan and Britain is playing a positive role.
I can tell you that Secretary Rice - and you evidently saw this last week - has great respect for Secretary Miliband, who has made I think an immediate mark as foreign secretary. He has been particularly effective on the question of Iran. We have this group, the P5, the permanent 5 members of the Security Council, and Germany have been meeting for 3 years; he has been a particularly active and effective member of that group as the foreign ministers have tried to sort out the best way forward diplomatically. I know that Secretary Rice values the friendship with him and the diplomatic collaboration with him, and I think Britain has really demonstrated time and again that as a European country, as a NATO country, it is indispensable to the transatlantic relationship. Britain, yes in many ways is a bridge between Europe and the United States and has played that role for decades, if not more, I think it continues to play that role very well these days.
QUESTION: Can you make it more clear, “bridge” meaning that Britain can explain the United States to the Europeans and other (inaudible)
UNDER SECRETARY BURNS: Well, hopefully the United States is sufficiently effective in its diplomacy that we can be self-explanatory to the Germans and to the Romanians and to the Italians, and I am sure that the British don't feel the need and don't feel it's part of the mission to be explaining us every day of the week.
We have a very good relationship with our European allies. I was living here in Europe, as NATO Ambassador in 2002/3, and I remember the difficult times in the transatlantic relationship. I think we are well beyond those difficult times. Europe, the United States are together in Afghanistan. We largely have now the same goals in Iraq which had been previously been a divisive issue and is now no longer a divisive issue. Do you see an argument between Germany and the United States right now on Iraq? There isn't. We both support the Iraqi government, we both support engagement with that government; Germany by civilian means, we by civilian and military means.
I think NATO is in pretty good shape, and the strategic direction of NATO is assured. I can tell you that the United States works very well with the EU and values the European Union, so my view is that US-European relations are very strong, especially in contrast to where they were in 2002/3, when all of us remember both the public demonstrations and the degree of antipathy among many of our capitals. I think those days have disappeared. So the United States finds that we communicate very well, thank you, with the governments of Europe, especially with the German government. President Bush has a strong relationship and friendship with Chancellor Merkel. Secretary Rice has a very strong friendship and relationship and partnership with Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the foreign minister of Germany, and so we are very proud that our transatlantic relationship is in such good shape. Does anybody disagree with that here? Let's have a discussion about it. It’s a good thing to have a discussion on.
QUESTION: Reuters. Can I just go back to Afghanistan? Paddy Ashdown turned down the envoy job saying that it looks like a failed state there, do you agree with him (inaudible). Also, do you think that President Karzai is doing enough to stamp out corruption?
AMBASSADOR BURNS: Well, first of all, I’m one of those people who believe that Paddy Ashdown has been one of the most effective international civil servants that we’ve seen on the world stage in the last decade. I was in Bosnia and visited him there many times when he was the High Representative, and I can tell you he was exceedingly effective in that role. We would have liked, if it had been possible, we would have liked, of course, to have seen him in Afghanistan because of his stature, his energy and his intelligence. But that’s not our choice. That’s a choice for the United Nations Secretary General, of course, and for the Afghan government. And we hope now that the United Nations will find the best possible person to be that envoy, who can centralize, in one coherent strategy, the civilian effort, the humanitarian and economic effort in Afghanistan.
Second, we have a very close friendship with President Karzai. We admire him. he has faced extraordinary challenges as President of Afghanistan, you know what they are, and we think that he’s been an effective leader of Afghanistan. Obviously, the challenge that you mentioned – corruption -- is a major challenge for many world governments, including the Afghan government. There are also problems and challenges of narcotics production and trade; there are challenges of the tactics of the Taliban that need to be countered effectively by our militaries. But I do think that, despite the fact that we believe that NATO needs to have a bigger force, and a force that will be less encumbered by restrictions on the deployment of troops, we do believe that we’re heading in the right direction in Afghanistan, and our policies will be successful in that country.
QUESTION: (Inaudible) from As-Sharq al-Awsat newspaper. Last month the (inaudible) Bahraini Bank took a decision to cut its relations with two Iranian banks, and I’m asking if this decision was taken individually (inaudible). And second, you talked about Iran (inaudible). At the same time, you have the Lebanese crisis. How is Iran so influential (inaudible)? How can you see the picture (inaudible)?
AMBASSADOR BURNS: Well there’s no question that Iran, as a major country and a sizeable country in the Middle East, has some influence. But the problem is that Iran’s influence is almost entirely negative, and that’s not just an American point of view. I think there are three or four countries in the world that support Iran’s nuclear ambitions. That’s it. And there are 192 members of the UN General Assembly. And the whole UN is imposing sanctions on Iran. Name a country that’s happy, or pleased, about the fact that Iran is funding and arming Hezbollah, and Hamas, and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and the Taliban, and the Shia militants in Iraq. I think the whole Middle East, as we speak to the Arab countries, are disturbed by that. They see Iran, and many countries see Iran, as a country disturbing the peace, fomenting instability. So influence is one thing, but whether it’s positive or negative, of course, is the key evaluation that one has to make. And I think the great majority of countries around the world see Iran as a country that’s troublesome. And, therefore, whose power needs to be contained. And that is the basis of our policy – to contain Iranian power, which we see to be a very negative force in the Middle East.
I don’t know about the particular decision of these Bahraini banks, you’ll have to ask them. But I would say it’s part of a larger trend that has been apparent for about a year and a half. There have been many European banks that have either stopped lending altogether to Iran, or shut down their operations, or have diminished the operations in lending. And there is no question that, in our minds, that Iran is feeling the pinch, that Iran is troubled by this. There was just an article in the FT this morning, that Iran is trying to think about creating investment banks that would skirt the sanctions. I don’t think that’ll work. These are United Nations Chapter 7 sanctions. So, Chapter 7 means that every country has the obligation to implement it, and I do think that, in addition to the UN sanctions and the EU sanctions, and the US sanctions that have been in place for almost three decades, these private financial actions of banks and financial institutions are probably the most effective leverage against Iran and they bother the Iranian government. And that is a positive thing for our international strategy of trying to prevent Iran from becoming even more destabilizing a force in the Middle East than it already is.
QUESTION: (Inaudible). Why isit that often when there is positive news from particular agencies, such as IAEA, or even your own National Intelligence Estimate, (inaudible).
AMBASSADOR BURNS: I would just say in response to your question that I don’t think anyone is gleeful about the IAEA reports. I don’t think anybody inside the IAEA is. The fact is that the IAEA is looking into some very serious questions. What is the extent of Iran’s past research and development into nuclear technology, into enrichment, P1, P2? What is the status of the Arak heavy water reactor? If you go Google the IAEA reports when you return to your office, and you read them, what really is striking about them is the number of times in the past reports that the IAEA has to say “Iran didn’t answer that question; Iran didn’t provide any information on that question.” So this is not just an American concern that Iran is not being straightforward. Physicists will tell you, and some leading European politicians will say, “Isn’t it curious that -- in a country that has exactly one nearly functioning nuclear reactor, and that’s Bushehr, where Russia will ship in the fuel and take out the spent fuel -- isn’t it curious that they should spend all this time and effort and flagrantly violate the UN resolutions to learn how to enrich and reprocess uranium?” One of the largest oil and gas producers in the world. Not a single functioning indigenous nuclear reactor and they’re spending all this time and money and suffering these international sanctions and isolation to enrich and reprocess uranium. Doesn’t that lead you to believe that there’s something else happening here? That Iran is not actually telling the truth about its nuclear research? So that’s how I’d answer your very good question.
And the second way I’d answer your question would be to say -- because you asked the question, it deserves a good answer and a full answer -- is that the UN Security Council resolutions and the IAEA Board of Governors resolutions were not focused on the issue of weapons. Go back and look at them. They’re all focused on the issue of what Iran is doing in broad daylight -- enrichment and reprocessing. IAEA and Security Council. What I’ve found as the American negotiator is that within two days of publication of the unclassified National Intelligence Estimate -- the unclassified document that we released – within two days, all the Permanent Five members of the UN Security Council had reconfirmed their interest in sanctions and a third sanctions resolution. And now you have Russia and China, Britain, France, Germany and the United States, all saying we need to sanction Iran because it’s wilfully ignoring what the Security Council has been saying. I think that’s a powerful argument.
Q: Bridget Kendall, BBC. Mr.Burns, I want to return to Kosovo. You said on the ground that you think that the risks of inaction are greater than action. But, looking more broadly, don’t you worry that you’re opening a can of worms both at a time when there are a lot of precarious diplomatic negotiations at stake with Iran, where Russia is crucial, on the future of how NATO behaves in Europe, the deployment of missile defense for example. And Russia has consistently said that it thinks this would be a very wrong, a calamitous step. Are you not worried that you could create more problems, more instability, more broadly and diplomatically, perhaps indirectly, than you saw on the ground by supporting a unilateral declaration of independence?
AMBASSADOR BURNS: The can of worms was opened by Milosevic in 1998, 1999. He started this. He launched a vicious military campaign, denounced all over the world. And we cannot forget those images of the attempted ethnic cleansing of over a million Muslims, Kosovar Albanians, in 1998 and 99. Serbia has not put that situation back together. It’s been the United Nations on the ground, it’s been the European Union on the ground, it’s been the United States on the ground. We’ve all been there, with our troops, with our money, with our development assistance, since June of 1999. We’ve been the ones on the ground, trying to help solidify peace in Kosovo, and so we didn’t open this can of worms. We inherited it. We stopped the war and we’ve kept the peace.
A United Nations envoy -- not an American, a Finn -- has proposed supervised independence. Most of the countries of Europe have supported that. My country has supported it. Most countries around the world have supported it. And so I think the countries that are out of step are those countries maybe on the sidelines, who are not involved, who don’t have their troops on the ground, who haven’t paid the price that we’ve paid, who now want to say “well, it’s too fast” or “it’s not the right time” or “you’re opening a can of worms.” I don’t think that’s fair criticism.
And so, we’re just trying to follow a very well-conceived, well-structured United Nations plan and we understand that the time has come for that plan to be implemented. Now the choreography and the timeline is not up to us. It’s up to others. But we certainly know what has to be done – and that’s to preserve peace. And KFOR, the NATO force there, has been there to preserve the peace. And the UN has been there and the European Union. We are all agents of peace and stability. And that’s what we’ve stood for and we believe that’s what the future of Kosovo can and should be.
Released on February 11, 2008