US Ambassador William Burns discusses Iran, Iraq, and missile defense

US Ambassador to Russia William Burns: “Although there really are differences and an element of rivalry between our countries, the truth is that we need each other. And it would be a great mistake to lose sight of that fact.”

The first guest of Izvestia’s Diplomatic Club is US Ambassdor to Russia William Burns.

Question: Mr. Ambassador, what do you see as the main reasons for the differences which have arisen between Moscow and Washington of late?

William Burns: Quite clearly, there’s disillusionment on both sides. Some of these feelings reflect honest and principled differences on specific issues. Russians sometimes think that Americans underestimate their significance. Americans sometimes think that Russians are inclined to believe the worst about the behavior of Americans. But although there really are differences and an element of rivalry between our countries, the truth is that we need each other. And it would be a great mistake to lose sight of that fact. For example, our bilateral cooperation in the process of Russia’s accession to the WTO, and our nuclear cooperation.

Question: Plans to deploy American missile defense elements in Poland and the Czech Republic have drawn an aggrieved reaction from Russia. Perhaps it would have been better to hold some preliminary consultations with Moscow, to relieve the tension.

William Burns: Permit me to point out two circumstances. Firstly, over the past few months we have repeatedly told our Russian colleagues that the fairly modest ideas we are currently considering aren’t directed against Russia in any way, and pose no threat to Russia. We’re talking about ten small missile interceptors in Poland and one radar in the Czech Republic. They can’t possibly pose a threat to Russia – and your specialists admit this as well. Your ICBM arsenals are too large and too fast to be affected by these interceptor systems. We’re not concerned about Russia – we’re worried about potential threats from the south, especially from Iran. We’re building a missile defense not because any kind of threat exists at present, but because we’re apprehensive about a threat arising several years from now. And we do have grounds to believe that. The North Koreans have built a long-range missile and tested it across a distance that surprised us. And we were also surprised by how fast they built it. Secondly, there’s a lot of room for more detailed and perhaps more far-reaching consultations and cooperation between us, between NATO and Russia, on the whole range of issues connected with missile defense. We should work more intensively in this area.

Question: If this about security cooperation, why not ask Russia to host some missile defense elements?

William Burns: Indeed, we could also cooperate with Russia on missile defense. I don’t know exactly what form such cooperation would take, but I do know that there are far more opportunities for joint efforts than we have used to date. This should be part of a broad-based strategic discussion between us – how we see the new threats to global security and what we should do about them.

Question: But you will agree that we won’t get far if we start installing radar systems just because the Poles have a phobia about “Russian invasions.”

William Burns: I do understand the concerns behind your question, but permit me to repeat that our motives for negotiating with Poland and the Czech Republic have nothing to do with seeing a threat emanating from Russia, just as they don’t pose a threat to Russia itself. We’re talking about a potential threat from the south, which is a source of concern for all of us – Americans, Russians, and Europeans. We should discuss this more systematically and decide what to do about it. Not because this would change our intention to talk with the Poles and Czechs. But at least it would give us an opportunity to disabuse people of the notion that our missile defense system is part of some sort of secret strategy to undermine Russia and infringe on its interests, and that all this would place your country in danger.

Question: In talking of Iran, why do the Americans make one demand after another from Russia, while not offering anything in exchange? Perhaps it would be worthwhile to “bargain” for our loyalty with regard to Iran, and make a few concessions.

William Burns: That’s a good question, and I’ll try to give a simple answer. Russia and the United States are engaged in diplomatic cooperation on the Iran issue, since they share concerns about Iran’s ambition to develop nuclear weapons. This isn’t a matter of making demands of each other or doing deals. This is about shared concerns about a grave danger, and we are joining our diplomatic efforts with China, Britain, France, and Germany, as well as cooperating closely with the UN Security Council and the IAEA. Thus, it’s not a question of “buying” anyone’s cooperation. This is a question of shared mutual interests. We’re dealing with a situation where there’s a significant danger of Iran moving even faster toward acquiring nuclear weapons. And the conseqences of that could be negative for Russia and the United States alike. The danger of increased instability in the Middle East – a part of the world where I have spent a long time – is fairly high. In this kind of situation, I know that some would say: “What’s the problem?” Energy prices will still remain high. But I’d call that a short-sighted approach. There’s a real danger of the region blowing up. That’s dangerous for both Russia and the United States. And we don’t have any easy solutions to the problem. I think that the diplomatic position of Russia, the United States, and our partners on the Iran issue has been very balanced. We have taken a number of consistent steps to increase diplomatic pressure on the Iranians. Gradually – first one UN Security Council resolution, then another. In my view, the most effective move now would be to send Iran a political message: your own interests won’t be protected if you refuse to comply with international obligations.

Question: As far as we can tell from previous experience, resolutions won’t have much of an effect on Iran. What other options are there? War?

William Burns: That’s an unattractive alternative to a diplomatic solution, of course. And it would be madness for anyone to underestimate the consequences of using force. The United States is committed to a diplomatic solution. And on our part, it’s very important to send a clear political message by means of our joint efforts in the UN Security Council. I won’t pretend to be certain that this will produce results. That will be very difficult, of course. But we shouldn’t underestimate the complications and potential consequences that may come about as a result of using force. We don’t consider that option attractive at all.

Question: Does the US Administration have a precise strategy on Iraq? And why has the White House barely responded at all to the report from the independent Baker-Hamilton commission?

William Burns: The Baker-Hamilton report is one of several proposals thoroughly considered by the Administration. Some of the steps recommended in that report have already been taken. We have started to communicate more with the local population and pay more attention to training Iraqi military personnel. We are also trying to involve Iraq’s neighbors, including Iran and Syria, in a number of meetings aimed at establishing stability in Iraq. Russia is also playing an active role in these efforts. Iraq is one of those situations where we’re faced with a choice between some fairly unattractive options. But regardless of our differences in the past, we all have an interest in improving the situation now.

Question: Before Saddam Hussein was overthrown, Iraq was a secular state. Its people lived within the framework of their own country. Yes, Iraq had a dictator – but it also had stability. See how everything has changed. Now there’s terrorism in Iraq. That’s frightening, primarily for Russia – because the United States is an ocean away, but we’re right next door.

William Burns: Saddam Hussein’s regime was dangerous and horrific. The Iraqis and the region are better off without it. But you’re quite right in the sense that we are facing a fairly complicated situation, and this has indeed been caused by some substantial errors made by the Americans after the military operation. Everyone has an interest in maximizing stability in Iraq. Russia and ourselves can do more in Afghanistan, whether in countering drug trafficking or strengthening border controls. Sergei Lavrov spoke of this in Kabul recently. Iraq is a different topic, of course. But the essential point is that we also have some common interests there. We need to be sure that the problems Iraq is facing now don’t spill over its borders. That would be a disaster for all of us. The same goes for Iran’s nuclear program and the Arab-Israeli conflict. And in this difficult situation, cooperation with Russia and other countries is very important for the United States.