Iran To Sit Down With Six World Powers In Geneva

When Iran talks about its nuclear program Thursday, it will face six other world powers at the table. Former Ambassador Nicholas Burns was the State Department's top negotiator on Iran during the final years of the Bush Administration. He talks with Steve Inskeep about what some of the key participants want out of the negotiations.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

The chief nuclear negotiator for Iran says his country will enter nuclear talks this week with good intentions. That assurance comes amid many questions about the talk. One question is whether Iran is simply stalling for time.

INSKEEP: Americans also have questions about the intentions of some of the other nations at the table. Diplomats from five major world powers join the U.S. in Iran this week. Former U.S. Ambassador Nicholas Burns has been thinking about two key powers: China and Russia.

Professor NICHOLAS BURNS (Diplomacy and International Politics, Harvard Belfer Center; Former U.S. Ambassador): The Russians are the closest country geographically, of the six involved, to Iran. They have a very close relationship, in some ways, with the Iranian government. Of course, they are the major provider of arms to Iran. They're also helping to construct a civil nuclear reactor at Bushire. And I think the Russians, in the past, have not wanted to allow the process to get anywhere close to a decision to use force. They want to keep this on the plane of talking about negotiations or sanctions.

INSKEEP: Let's move to another chair at that table: China, largest country in the world, huge trading partner with Iran. What is China's interest here?

Prof. BURNS: Economic. You know, as the European governments began to pull back from trade and investment with Iran in 2005 and six and seven, the Chinese rushed in to fill all those contracts. China has become the leading trade partner with Iran, and so China tends to view Iran through the prism of China's own economic interests. And China tends not to be as focused on the threat that a nuclear-armed Iran would pose for all of us in the Middle East.

INSKEEP: Just trying to understand things from the Chinese, or for that matter, the Russian point of view here: Is there an opposite argument to be made that engagement with Iran, trading with Iran, opening up Iran, doing business with Iran could be positive for the world in the long run, and that maybe there is a different approach to this than the United States has considered up to now?

Prof. BURNS: Well, I think that is the Russian and Chinese point of view, and, you know, the Russians and Chinese were critical of the Bush administration for having put a condition on the Bush administration's offer to talk with Iran.

President Obama has offered to talk unconditionally. He's not asked for anything to be done about the Iranian government before our negotiators get to the table in Geneva, and we'll see if engagement does change Iranian behavior. I, frankly, am skeptical. I think it's more likely that these negotiations unfortunately, will probably break down within a month or two because the Iranians will not be willing to make the compromises that the rest of the world will want them to, and that will then lead us to a sanctions regime, and the true critical players in that sanctions regime will be Russia and China.

INSKEEP: I'd like to try, finally, to see this from the point of view of the Iranian negotiator and the country that's behind him. This is a country that wants to look after its own national security like any nation does. It's a country governed by a supreme leader who, if you believe his public statements, may not see a lot of value in a better relationship with the United States or with the West. How do you think Iran sees its interests as its diplomat sits down?

Prof. BURNS: Oh, I think it's very clear that the Iranians are obsessed by what they feel is a threat from the United States. Of course, the Iranians are very fond of citing all of their historical grievances going back to 1953 and the coup against Mossadegh, and going back to the 1980s when they believed the United States sided with Iraq during the Iran-Iraq war. And it goes on and on.

INSKEEP: We should say there's some evidence for that belief. But anyway, go ahead.

Prof. BURNS: Well, and, you know, the thing that - when Iranians and Americans get together, they both have a set of historical grievances. But the Iranians have these grievances. They see the United States as the most powerful country in their region with a set of military alliances encircling Iran. And so, if you're an Iranian, I suppose you see the United States as your biggest problem. You're feeling quite isolated, and you're at these fateful negotiations that will go a long way towards deciding whether or not your country is going to live in peace or in war. So if you're perhaps the delegation at that table with the most to lose, the most at stake, is that of the government of Iran.

INSKEEP: Ambassador Burns, good talking with you.

Prof. BURNS: Thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: Ambassador Nicholas Burns was the top negotiator on Iran during the Bush administration. He now teaches diplomacy and international politics at Harvard University's Belfer Center.

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