But at a briefing in Washington today he dismissed the suggestion that Iran’s recent decision to answer questions from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) should delay or derail efforts in the UN Security Council to pass a new set of sanctions.
Following are key excerpts of Burns' responses to questions from the briefing audience.
On whether U.S. allies, like those in the European Union, are willing to join the United States in taking more vigorous action if progress at the UN on additional sanctions doesn’t go as quickly as the United States would like:
"I think the European allies, particularly France and Britain, have been very strong and very supportive of this effort. I don’t worry about that at all. But there’s more than we can do just at the Security Council. We’ve now seen several European banks decide to shut down all lending to Iran. Now, Iran is not North Korea. They are not willing to live in isolation. They want and need investment credit, and trade with the international community. And the action of these banks - to shut down lending - is very important. Because it shows it’s not going to be business as usual.
"[Sanctions are] going to be a major issue in the month of September at the UN Security Council, we intend to push it very, very hard, and we certainly will never agree that because Iran has some meetings with the IAEA we should stop all of our efforts."
"We would also hope that the European Union and some of the other large trading partners of Iran would even agree to take action outside the Security Council, perhaps stronger action, to show their displeasure against the continued program of the Iranian government to engage in nuclear research at the [Iranian uranium-enrichment] plant at Natanz. So I think there are a variety of things that we need to be doing if diplomacy is to succeed and it’s our fervent wish that this problem be settled by diplomacy, be settled by peaceful means. We certainly have time enough to do that, but we’re going to need to see a greater buy-in from some countries around the world - particularly those countries that have active trade relations [with Iran.]"
On whether Baghdad’s recent willingness to come to the table and talk with the United States an attempt by Iran to buy time and possibly stave off action on the new sanctions being discussed at the Security Council:
Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad at the Natanz nuclear facility, February 2006 (FARS)
"Oh, I think it’s obvious what the Iranians are up to. It’s totally transparent. They have this dalliance with the IAEA right now. And they’re pretending to have meaningful negotiations in order to try to convince the rest of the world not to go forward with the Security Council resolutions. The Iranians have been refusing to answer major and significant questions from the IAEA for the last two or three years.
"And so now the Iranians, over the last month of two have turned back, and they’ve made a great show of being willing to talk to the IAEA to answer questions that they’ve refused to answer for the last couple of years that the IAEA believes are central to the issue of whether or not Iran is trying to seek a nuclear weapons capability. Our view is Iran should have answered these questions years ago.
"So now you have the Iranians, and even some other people in the IAEA system saying, well as long as the IAEA is talking to Iran about questions they haven’t answered for the last couple of years, we shouldn’t sanction [them] in the United Nations Security Council. That is absolutely unacceptable logic. It is not logical at all to reward a country that has held out for so long. To reward a country for answering a few questions, we’re going to turn off the sanctions? That’s not possible.
"The United States is making a point to everybody concerned that we hope the IAEA can be successful. We hope the Iranians can finally be truthful to the IAEA about what they’ve been doing. But that should not turn off the third Security Council resolution that we believe should be passed in September. This is going to be a major issue in the month of September at the UN Security Council, we intend to push it very, very hard, and we certainly will never agree that because Iran has some meetings with the IAEA we should stop all of our efforts."
On how Iranian domestic media has been lately filled with stories about how Pakistan and India successfully made deals with the United States to acquire nuclear weapons technology, and the fact that some Iranians are wondering why the United States allows other countries to develop this technology, but works so hard to prevent Iran from getting it:
U.S. President George W. Bush (left) with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh during a joint press conference to announce a new nuclear technology deal in New Delhi, March 2006 (epa)
"Well, the reason that so many countries, including nonaligned countries, are voting for sanctions against Iran, is that countries don’t trust the Iranian government. We trust the Indian government, which has been a responsible steward of its nuclear materials, nuclear fuel and nuclear technology, and has not sold it on the black market. We certainly trust Britain, France - two nuclear powers. We don’t trust Iran.
"I think the IAEA would be the first to say that for 18 1/2 years, Iran lied to the IAEA is now public knowledge about the secret nuclear research activities that respective Iranian governments had undertaken. We certainly don’t want to see an Iran that is violating Security Council resolutions and arming Hizballah and Hamas and the Shi’a militants in Iraq, with nuclear capabilities.
"We don’t want to see that kind of impact on the balance of power in the Middle East. And so the answer I think to the question -- why some countries and not Iran? -- is because Iran’s foreign policy is so mercurial, so violent and so destructive that no one wants to see a government of the type of government run by [Iranian President Mahmud] Ahmadinejad in possession of nuclear weapons. It’s as simple as that."
On whether the Iranian people realize that their government is viewed with such distrust:
"I think it’s very important that the Iranian people understand that South Africa is voting against them. And Indonesia is. And India is. And Brazil. They’ve got four countries supporting them --- the ‘Gang of Four.’ They’ve got Syria supporting them, they have Belarus supporting them -- Iran. they’ve got Venezuela and Cuba. That’s it. Nobody else will stand up for the Iranian government in the IAEA or the UN or anyplace else in the world. That is highly significant. This is not just the United States saying no to nuclear weapons. It’s the entire international community and every leading country."
On whether the United States, in its talks with Baghdad, made any progress in convincing Iran to stop arming Shi'ite militias in Iraq:
"The whole purpose of these talks that [U.S.] Ambassador [to Iraq Ryan] Crocker has been holding is to say to the Iranian government: ‘We’re willing to sit down with you, we’re willing to have an open and active dialogue with you on this question of security, but that’s the agenda. We’re not going to talk about other issues in that particular venue.’
"And we’re going to judge the Iranians based on whether or not they do the right thing, which will be to fight against the terrorist groups that are in Iraq, including the Shi’a terrorist groups that are attacking both the Iraqi Army as well as American soldiers and others, and frankly I don’t think we’ve seen the type of response from the Iranian government that we would have liked. Now, we’ll continue to talks in the hopes that we’ll see a change of behavior but that is the agenda."
On what lies at the end of the U.S. timeline to let diplomacy and sanctions work:
"Nobody should doubt that we’re focused on diplomacy. We have spent the last 2 1/2 years focused on diplomacy in Iran, specifically dating back to February 11, 2005, when [U.S.] Secretary [of State Condoleezza] Rice announced that the United States would be working with the European Union allies to support their then-negotiations with Iran.
"Since then we’ve created this large international coalition, which includes Russia and China, the European countries, and the U.S. We’ve made the offer to negotiate. We’ve pulled in almost every other major country in the world to support our strategy at the UN and the IAEA.
"I personally have, I think, made 20 trips to Europe and Asia to be involved in these negotiations, to work with the Russians and Chinese, and the Indians, and the Europeans, to stimulate diplomatic talks with the Iranians, and we have dedicated ourselves to it, we believe it’s the right thing to do.
"We have some time to make diplomacy successful. We know that diplomacy is a combination of offering -- as we have -- to help Iran to help cope with its electricity shortages by helping to build a civil nuclear power system. But also being willing to sanction. And to increase economic pressure on Iran, should that be necessary, and it is definitely necessary. Frankly I think the United States has made a good faith effort. I believe we should continue that effort. I think we should stay focused on diplomacy, and as I said before, exhaust diplomacy.
"But President [George W.] Bush has been very clear, and many senior members of both parties of the Congress have also been very clear: the United States ultimately has a variety of options, including, of course we’ve never taken the military option off the table, but we certainly prefer and are dedicated to a peaceful diplomatic solution and I think that will be the focus of the international efforts -- diplomacy -- over the coming months as we try to get the Iranians to accept our offer to negotiate."
On August 20, RFE/RL's Washington bureau hosted a briefing by Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Nicholas Burns
in a discussion of U.S. foreign policy on Iran, including efforts to achieve multilateral pressure on Iran's leaders to renounce the development of nuclear weapons and measures countering Iran's support for terrorist organizations and the insurgency in Iraq.
Listen to the entire briefing (about 54 minutes):