Interview With Nermeen Shaikh of the Asia Society
R. Nicholas Burns, Under Secretary for Political Affairs
New York City
November 27, 2006
QUESTION: A State Department official today said that Phillip Zelikow, one of Condoleezza Rice's closest advisors on
Iraq and the Middle East, plans to resign his post. How might this influence US policy in the Middle East in general,
and in Iraq in particular, especially given recent concerns about policies involving the latter?
UNDER SECRETARY BURNS: Well, Phillip Zelikow has been one of Secretary Rice's key advisors, and I might add, a very
close friend of mine, and we are very sorry to see that he has submitted his resignation. It's entirely for personal
reasons; it has nothing to do with policy. The policy in the Middle East, of course, is made by the President, and I
would look for a great deal of continuity in our policy towards Iran and towards Lebanon and the Israel-Palestinian
process. As you know, we are reviewing our policy in Iraq, so we'll have to wait and see the decisions that the
President makes, but Phil Zelikow is going to be very, very sorely missed, he's added a lot to what we've done. But I
don't think it'll have an impact on the direction of our policy.
QUESTION: In an address to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in September you said that the United States has no
higher priority than "facing and overcoming" the threat that Iran presents. Do you still think that's the case, given
that North Korea has since carried out nuclear tests?
UNDER SECRETARY BURNS: Well, I think I would say that they're both important, and they're both problematic. In the case
of North Korea there's an international consensus that North Korea not maintain a nuclear arsenal, so the whole purpose
of the six party talks is to dismantle their nuclear arsenal, in fact that's what the North Koreans have committed to.
In the case of Iran, it is potentially more dangerous, because Iran, of course, sees itself as the most important
country in the Middle East, it believes it's the most powerful country, and a radical government of the type led by
someone like Ahmadinejad in possession of nuclear weapons would be a lethal mix. So, I do think we worry about that, we
worry about that as a very serious concern to global security as well as regional security.
QUESTION: More so than North Korea?
UNDER SECRETARY BURNS: Well, I wouldn't compare them as much, I'd say that both of them are serious concerns. Any time
you're talking about the proliferation of nuclear weapons, and of the ability to manufacture them, and you add to that
unstable or aggressive states, and North Korea and Iran meet both of those definitions, then you've got a terrible
problem on your hands. And so I can't think of any two bigger problems right now that the world is facing than those
QUESTION: What's the US position now on what might be gained from bilateral engagement with either North Korea or Iran?
UNDER SECRETARY BURNS: You know, we've been talking to the North Koreans from time to time in the context of the six
party talks. In fact, our negotiator, Chris Hill, just met with them on the 15th of October, and we don't discount the
possibility of future meetings. And so there's no lack of contact there, and we're just all trying, the Japanese, the
South Koreans, China, Russia, the US, trying to move the North Koreans back to implementing the agreements that they
have made with us.
In the case of Iran, it's a unique relationship. We've been estranged for 27 years, we haven't had any official contact,
and we'll have to see if opportunities arise where it would make sense for us to talk to them. We do have contact from
time to time, unofficial contact, and it's going to be up to the President and Secretary of State to decide when and if
we should be talking to the Iranians, whether it's about Iraq or whether it's about nuclear weapons. And I should say,
in the case of nuclear weapons, we did make an offer back on June 1st of this year to negotiate with the Iranians for
the first time in three decades. And Secretary Rice said that she would personally be present at those negotiations. The
Iranians did not accept our invitation, so if there's any party responsible for the lack of contact between Iran and the
United States on the nuclear issue, it's Iran, because we want negotiations with them.
QUESTION: On a related issue, the nuclear question, could you comment on Chinese President Hu Jintao's recent visit to
Pakistan? Are the burgeoning military ties between these two countries, between Pakistan and China, a concern for the
US, especially given Pakistan's, what shall we say, rather ambivalent position with respect to the war on terrorism?
UNDER SECRETARY BURNS: Well, we're a strong supporter of Pakistan, and we have a very close relationship with the
Musharraf government, and we want to support that government because it's playing a central role, for instance, in the
fight to keep al Qaeda and the Taliban from crossing the border into Afghanistan. And I think we are still, by far, the
largest provider of military assistance to Pakistan. We have made a case to the US Congress that we ought to sell F-16
fighter aircraft to Pakistan. So we are not opposed to Pakistan strengthening its military, or its counter-terrorism
capabilities. We, of course, wouldn't want to see any proliferation occur in the future as has happened in the past
through the AQ Khan Network.
QUESTION: So the US has no concerns about China developing a military relationship with Pakistan of the order that has
just recently been discussed& hellip;?
UNDER SECRETARY BURNS: Well, I don't think that relationship will be more important than the relationship, frankly,
between the United States and Pakistan. And if Pakistan's military can be helped through talks with China and work with
China, that's not anything that would cut across the interests of the United States.
QUESTION: Could you comment on all the recent reports that suggest that Pakistan's military establishment and its
intelligence agencies are playing, minimally, a confusing role in the war on terrorism that may be contributing to the
deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan?
UNDER SECRETARY BURNS: President Musharraf has assured us that his government is making every effort to try to strike
against the terrorist groups that are bent on destroying the Afghan government, and also targeting American soldiers in
Afghanistan, and we appreciate what President Musharraf has done. I would say there is no more important partner than
Pakistan to us in this global fight against terrorism. Pakistan is ground zero, in the sense you've got Taliban there,
you've got al Qaeda, there are other insurgent groups that are both a threat to the Pakistani government as well as to
the Afghan government, and we have very close cooperation with them.
QUESTION: To return to North Korea: you just met with UN Secretary General-elect Ban Ki-moon, could you comment on what
influence or effect, if any, his selection as UN-SG will have on the potential resolution of the North Korean problem?
UNDER SECRETARY BURNS: Well, we're fortunate to have someone of his expertise and familiarity with the issue as
Secretary General of the UN. North Korea is an abiding concern to the Security Council. We're at a critical stage now,
we're trying to exert international pressure on the North Koreans to live up to the agreements they've already
negotiated. So, I think that Ban Ki-moon will play a large role in this as the Secretary General of the United Nations,
and we're going to be fortunate to have both his actions and his energy as well as his knowledge to bring to bear on
this critical issue.
QUESTION: Do you think the South Koreans are doing enough to support the US position vis-Ã -vis North Korea at the
UNDER SECRETARY BURNS: Well, I know that President Bush had good meetings with President Roh in Hanoi last weekend, and
that we're satisfied the South Koreans support our strategy. We would have wished the South Koreans had become a full
member of the Proliferation Security Initiative, the PSI, because that's one very definite way to try to limit the
possibility of proliferation from North Korea on the high seas, for instance, and through ports and airports. So there
is more the South Korean government can do.
QUESTION: And what about the Chinese?
UNDER SECRETARY BURNS: Since the North Korean nuclear tests of October 9th, the Chinese have been very helpful to us,
and we've worked well together in the Security Council. I was in Beijing two weeks ago, and we found the Chinese to be
dedicated to the September '05 Agreement, we think the Chinese have used their influence with the North Koreans to
attract them back to the six party talks, so actually we're very pleased with the way we've worked with China over the
Released on December 1, 2006