ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

Today is the deadline the U.N. Security Council's set for Iran to suspend its uranium enrichment. That deadline was set last December when the Council imposed sanctions on Iran. Iranian leaders insist they will not suspend enrichment under pressure. And a report from the U.N. nuclear agency is expected tomorrow. It's likely to confirm that Iran is speeding up the construction of an industrial scale enrichment facility. And that could mean even tougher sanctions from the U.N.

Iran's president has said repeatedly that negotiations are possible, but with no preconditions. The Bush administration insists Iran must suspend enrichment before it will talk directly with Iran.

SIEGEL: Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Nicholas Burns joins us from his office at the State Department. Welcome back to the program.

NICHOLAS BURNS: Thank you very much, Robert.

SIEGEL: The Iranians have not complied with the U.N. Security Council deadline. What will the U.S. do next?

BURNS: No, they haven't. And it's really disappointing they haven't, because, you know, Robert, we've given them eight months. We gave them what we thought was a very good offer, filled with inducements to come to the table, but they didn't accept it. So I think we'll have to see now what Mohamed ElBaradei says. He's the director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency. And he will assess whether or not Iran has complied. Obviously, the answer will be that they have not complied.

And therefore there's going to have to be further action by the international community.

SIEGEL: Here's what he said on Monday, Mohamed ElBaradei, he said the Iran issue is not going to be resolved through sanctions alone. You need to reach out to the country and bring them to engagement. You need to get that process going. When he said that, he fully expected that, as we all did, that Iran would not comply with the deadline. Is there something more to U.S. should be doing to bring the Iranians to engagement?

BURNS: Well, I think the irony is here, Robert, that we're trying very, very hard to use diplomacy and to seek negotiations. We've asked the Iranians to do one thing, and that is to suspend for the life of the negotiations their nuclear research, their enrichment activities at their plant at Natanz in Iran.

The reason we've done that is because none of us felt - the Russians and Chinese and us felt that we should not allow the Iranians to continue to conduct nuclear research when we were talking to them, because then that we gave them an incentive to prolong the negotiations and would give them a decided advantage. And so all of us agreed on that. It's not a very high bar for the Iranians to meet.

They've got the entire international communities saying to them, we don't want you to have nuclear weapons. But we're quite content to negotiate with you to provide civil nuclear power, energy for Iranians. And yet they've turned that down. It may be because there are substantial divisions within the Iranian government over this issue.

SIEGEL: Well, a senior Iranian official, Alyaq Barbalyani(ph), asked by the French newspaper Le Monde if Iran would consider a temporary enrichment halt, said that their negotiator, Ari Larijani, is open to all proposals bar-none. Is that a positive sign, or is openness to a proposal less than what you're talking about right now?

BURNS: Well, unfortunately, we've seen so many different statements by the Iranian government, and we just can't possibly accommodate all of them. What matters is will Iran meet the conditions that have been laid down by all of us, by the Security Council members. And we haven't seen anything in the flurry of public comments out of Tehran in recent days that would indicate that they are.

We will be pleased when they do meet those conditions, but if they cannot, I think then, Robert, you'll see a continuation of the international effort to use diplomacy but also to use some sanctions to try to raise the cost to the Iranians economically of what they're doing.

SIEGEL: We've also seen the U.S. send a second carrier group to the Persian Gulf. Should Iranians look at that and see that is the fall back position of the United States: If we don't have an agreement here, they're prepared to attack us?

BURNS: Robert, I think we've tried to send every signal imaginable over the last few weeks that we deeply desire a diplomatic conversation with the Iranian to a diplomatic result here. We do not want to resort to force. And I don't think a military conflict with Iran is inevitable. In fact, it's not desirable. And we're really putting the vast majority of our efforts into this diplomatic approach to the Iranians.

SIEGEL: But aren't we saying, though, through the sign language of dispatching the warships to the Persian Gulf that it's not desirable, it is not inevitable, but it's a possibility?

BURNS: We have deployed American naval vessels to the Gulf since 1949. We have security responsibilities to our friends in Arab world. All of those friends are worried about what they see Iran doing: Iran with its arms buildup, Iran with its, frankly, quite negative influence in Iraq. Now we are not seeking a new military conflict. We are doing everything we can to convince the Iranians that the far better preference here is to sit down and negotiate. And that's the policy of our government.

We've got enough going on in the Middle East right now that we obviously want to focus our attentions on diplomacy. And I think, you know, we've got to have some patience here. Diplomacy sometimes takes time to work its way out. The Iranians do not have a nuclear weapons capability. They are probably years away from it. And so I think the better part for the United States, the better decision is to focus on diplomacy, be patient, and give this a chance to play out.

SIEGEL: I want to pursue this question of being years away from the Iranians having nuclear weapon. A recent news agency report from Israel had this quotation: Iran will have its first atomic bomb within three or four years if its nuclear weapons program continues to develop at the current phase. That was Meir Dagan, the head of the Mossad, the Israeli intelligence agency.

BURNS: We have a very clear uniformity of views with the Israelis. It sounds we don't have a uniformity of views with the Israelis.

It sounds like they think Iran is much closer and much more dangerous in terms of becoming a nuclear power than the U.S. does.

BURNS: well, I was in Jerusalem recently, and had extensive talks with the Israeli government about the Iranian problem. And I do think we have a common view of what the problem is and how to address it. But on this question of nuclear weapons, I am not an intelligence expert. I have to rely on the assessments given by our own government and by the statements made by our senior intelligence officials, which are public. And those would indicate that the Iranians are not going to have a capability in the next few months or the next year or two.

SIEGEL: But the reason whether the...

BURNS: And therefore we have some time to focus on diplomacy and use diplomacy as a way to move forward here.

SIEGEL: But the reason the difference in estimates as germane, as you recall as well as I, Vice President Cheney once put out the idea that if the U.S. doesn't act to prevent the Iranians from going nuclear, the Israelis might. They would do so obviously based on Iran calculations. Coming back from Jerusalem, are you now saying that the notion of an Israeli preemptive strike on Iran strikes you as unlikely as an American attack on Iran, let say?

BURNS: You know, I can't speak for the Israeli government. Robert, all I know is this: That the Israelis and we, and the European partners, the Russians and Chinese - all the countries that are working on this understand that the Iranians are isolated, they're on the defensive, they're also very divided internally, and our best play right now is to continue to use diplomacy, is to assert that negotiations are the way forward. So that's the policy of our government.

SIEGEL: And that was your message to the Israelis as well when you were in Jerusalem?

BURNS: Well, I don't want to get into our private discussions in Jerusalem. But I will say this, it's very clear that diplomacy has not yet played itself out and that we would be very wise to continue on this diplomatic track.

SIEGEL: Well, Under Secretary of State Nick Burns, thank you very much for talking to us once again.

BURNS: Robert, thank you, always a pleasure.

SIEGEL: Nicholas Burns is the undersecretary of state for political affairs.

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