Burns: "Our Patience with Iran is Not Unlimited"
Georg Mascolo, Spiegel:
Despite US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's visit to Europe recently, the continent remains up in arms about secret CIA prisoner transfers. SPIEGEL spoke to US Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Nicholas Burns about the CIA flights, the trans-Atlantic relationship, and just what should be done about Iran. READ MORE
SPIEGEL: Mr. Undersecretary, there's tremendous outrage in Europe concerning transfers of CIA prisoners, secret prisons, kidnapping and torture. Is the anger valid?
Burns: Secretary of State Rice was in Europe and she gave straight answers to all those questions. Most of these questions were actually allegations made by sources in the press and sometimes individuals. They were not coming from governments. Many of them were quite unfounded and inaccurate. I know Secretary Rice feels that she's been straightforward and she's given a lot of information, and we hope very much that will satisfy both the European governments as well as the European public.
SPIEGEL: Are there or were there secret prisons in Europe?
Burns: She answered the questions in a very straightforward way...
SPIEGEL: ... and what was her exact answer?
Burns: She actually gave a lot of detail: that we face new security threats globally, we have to work differently in terms of using intelligence and law enforcement. But she clearly said the United States is a country of laws. We abide by our laws and we abide by international law.
SPIEGEL: Actually, Europe is still waiting for straight answers. So why don't you tell us if, for example, mock executions and waterboarding are included in CIA interrogation techniques?
Burns: There is no government in the world that discusses publicly anything pertaining to intelligence.
SPIEGEL: Do you really think the discussion is over?
Burns: I expect the discussion will continue knowing the press and knowing the interests that a lot of people have in these issues. But I think it's incumbent upon Europeans to give us the benefit of the doubt. We're your friends. We're your allies. We have been for 60 years defending Europe at Europe's darkest hours and I don't think it's appropriate that people just believe wild allegations made in the press that often times have no basis in reality.
SPIEGEL: You're considered one of the architects of the Bush administration's foreign policy of reconciliation between the United States and Central Europe. Is this project already in ruins given the outcry in Europe?
Burns: Not at all. At the beginning of this year, the war in Iraq and the divisions that it caused in the trans-Atlantic relationship were still present. The fact that President Bush visited Mainz as well as Brussels in February and had the summit with NATO cleared the air. It was rightfully seen by Europeans as an olive branch by the American administration and it was meant to be an olive branch. The problem seems to be in public opinion, and I would just hope that people wouldn't believe every wild story they hear about what the United States may or may not be doing.
SPIEGEL: You have great expectations for the new German government. What should it do differently to the previous one?
Burns: Germany is one of our greatest allies and has been for 60 years. We have for many of those years had as close a partnership as any two countries can have. And I know that Secretary Rice believes that there is an opportunity now to work with the German government to rebuild the relations -- and that process already started at the beginning of the year with the former German government. We want to see the Kosovo and the Bosnia problem solved. We want to see good relations with Russia and Ukraine. We want to see democratic countries emerge in the Caucasus and Central Asia. We both want to be helpful in Middle East peace negotiations. There's a lot that unites Germany and the United States.
SPIEGEL: Your government would also like to see Germany take over a greater role in Iraq. There is a lot of talk that Berlin could take over sponsorship for the interior ministry or the parliament.
Burns: The German government can decide on its own without me giving advice as to what it should do. Germany has been for the last two years training Iraqi forces outside Iraq. That's been very helpful. Now we had the elections in Iraq -- a new government will be formed. It will need our support. My country has said we will keep our troops because we have to, because it wouldn't be right for us to pull out our troops when the job is not finished and when the Iraqis are depending on us. So we would appreciate it if the European governments would each decide what they can do and how far they can go. The important thing is that we should all want to support a democratic government in the Arab world. There are so few of them. Here is a government elected by its own people, that's revolutionary. We should all be happy about that.
SPIEGEL: For the nuclear negotiations with Iran, you are counting on the European Union as well. The IAEA-chief, Mohammed al Baradei, recently warned that Iran could quite possibly obtain a bomb very rapidly once the country started to enrich uranium again. When are you going to bring the case before the Security Council?
Burns: We are in full support of the European Three (editor's note: Germany, France and England are leading the ongoing negotiations with the Iranian government); I have been the liaison. Our view is that Iran now has an obligation to return to the talks, and if Iran cannot do that, then of course the international community is going to find a way to apply greater diplomatic pressure on the Iranians. One very serious option would be to refer Iran to the UN Security Council. Why would we do that? We might have to do it to show Iran it cannot disregard the opinion of most countries in the world -- namely that Iran should not enrich uranium and should not develop scientific and technological know-how to enrich uranium and develop fissile material. And certainly there is not a single country in the world, with the possible exception of, I guess, Venezuela or Cuba, that would want to see Iran develop nuclear weapons.
SPIEGEL: But it seems difficult to get the votes you need in the Security Council. That's why the United States already proposed that Europe could impose sanctions without a UN mandate. Would this include an oil embargo?
Burns: The heart of the effort right now is to convince the Iranians to return to negotiations. We need to see a sign from Iran over the next several weeks or months that it's willing to do so. If it cannot do that, then I think our patience is not unlimited and we're going to have to consider ways to get the Iranians' attention. One of them certainly would be the Security Council, to pass a Presidential statement perhaps, and certainly a potential future option would be sanctions. We don't rule that out.
SPIEGEL: Including oil or excluding oil?
Burns: I don't want to be specific about that. We'll let the Iranians wonder what that might mean, but that hasn't been excluded by most governments in the world.
SPIEGEL: There is still some hope left in Europe that the United States will try to restart the negotiations with Teheran by offering a security guarantee or some other strong incentive.
Burns: No. We have nothing of the sort in mind. The United States is not part of the negotiations. The Europeans are at the table.
SPIEGEL: But the Europeans have very little to offer without the United States.
Burns: But there is no incentive for the United States to negotiate with Iran right now. Here is a country that, since August of this year, has unilaterally broken off its negotiations with the Europeans, insisted on its right to go forward with an advanced nuclear program. Its president has said that Israel should be wiped off the map of the world, doubted the Holocaust has taken place...
SPIEGEL: ...and said that the whole State of Israel should move to Germany or Austria.
Burns: So here is a president who makes outrageous statements with which no sensible and rational person would agree.
SPIEGEL: But why were incentives given to North Korea, ruled by a dictator who is for sure not better then the mullahs are.
Burns: We agreed to sit down with North Korea because five countries, Russia, China, Japan, South Korea and the United States, all had a common platform. North Korea said it was willing to give up its nuclear programs, and Iran is not willing to do that. They say they insist on their rights. It's interesting that the Iranian government only talks about its rights, but never about its obligations. All of us have obligations in the world, not just rights.
SPIEGEL: IAEA head Baradei also said that a military solution doesn't exist. Would you agree?
Burns: I would refer you to what President Bush and Secretary Rice have said consistently over the course of the past years. The United States is seeking a diplomatic solution to the Iranian nuclear problem, and we are supporting a diplomatic process to that end. But they have both also said we don't take any option off the table, and that's appropriate. A powerful country like ours would never exclude options in advance. But we would like to see a peaceful resolution to this problem.
Interview conducted by Georg Mascolo