SPIEGEL ONLINE: American commentators have criticized President Barack Obama for not getting more commitments from the Europeans on Afghanistan or Pakistan during his recent visit to Europe . If he can't even win over allies, they say, is it not naïve to expect progress from negotiations he promised with adversaries like Syria, Iran or North Korea ?
Nicholas Burns: It was disappointing that the Europeans did not make more commitments on Afghanistan. But I don't blame President Obama. It is up to Europe to do more. However, this Europe trip and its results have nothing to do with the question of how to deal with difficult governments such as Iran and Syria. These are very separate questions and we are dealing with very different mindsets.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: The Obama administration has begun to reach out to the regime in Tehran. Are they making progress?
Burns: We will have to wait and see how that develops. So far, not much has happened. The Iranians have not yet really responded to the American overtures and it does not surprise me. They have very many viewpoints competing within the government in Teheran and they have their presidential elections coming up in June. But I fully support what the Obama administration has done so far: Obama's video message to the Iranian people that went above the heads of the Ayatollahs, the very public invitation to the Iranian leadership to the Afghanistan conference in The Hague. Those are the right things to be doing. The President is communicating to Tehran: We are open to talks.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: You were deeply involved with the US-Iran negotiations on Tehran's nuclear program in the past. Was it a mistake of the Bush administration not to start a similar outreach effort earlier?
Burns: I give former US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice credit for having tried very hard to participate in an offer to Iran to negotiate in 2006. We made Tehran a good offer on the nuclear issue back then that we were ready to negotiate. Iran rejected it. But in hindsight I wish we had challenged Iran more in the past by doing more of the things that Obama is doing now. I am impressed by Obama's diplomatic dexterity.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: What will be the American strategy on this issue in the coming months?
Burns: Obama will need to have a very tough-minded approach. Obama should try to make negotiations on Iran's nuclear program work. But if the negotiations fail, as could easily happen, the US should want to make sure that all major powers agree on tough sanctions. This a strong challenge to China and Russia: China is Iran's leading trade partner. Russia has been an important arms supporter. This is undercutting the unity of the UN sanctions. If the negotiations fail, stronger economic sanctions must be implemented.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: European nations -- including Germany -- are also reluctant to support even tougher sanctions. Our trade relations with Iran are significant.
Burns: The European nations need to make the same sacrifices we Americans have made by cutting our trade relationship with Iran. We need to have a unified approach.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: What is the message for the Iranians?
Burns: It can't be in Iran's interest that they are effectively isolated, that they can't trade with a large majority of the world, that they are more feared than admired by Arab nations and the rest of the world. Iran is terribly divided. But, Iran should give up its nuclear weapons ambitions. And there is no question the degree of the political competition in the run-up to the presidential election will make it more difficult to talk to Tehran.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: North Korea just shocked the world again with missile tests. There have been a lot of US negotiations with Pyongyang in the past -- to no avail. Is it a sign that negotiations with unpredictable regimes are bound to fail?
Burns: I don't consider the developments in North Korea to mean diplomacy has failed. It just underscores how important the verification processes are in such negotiations. Former US President Ronald Reagan always said: Trust but verify. We need to continue the effort to prevent North Korea's nuclear aspirations. We need to talk to them. On the other hand, the regime there has been so unstable and inconsistent that it would be naïve not to insist on strong verifications. We have had some tentative agreements with the North Koreans which have not been honoured by them.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: When the White House presented its new Afghanistan strategy, it openly talked about possible negotiations with "moderate Taliban." Isn't that a contradiction in terms?
Burns: I am certain there are some Taliban we should not be talking to, such as the very top leaders like Mullah Omar. On the other hand, there are lower-ranking people who might not be very loyal to the Taliban and do not believe in the ideology but who fight for other reasons. In addition to the military strategy, it could be worth an attempt to convince fighters to give up their allegiance to the Taliban and to pledge to support the Afghan government. But again: We should not waste time on the top leaders.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Reaching out to America's adversaries has been an issue in the election campaign and remains controversial. At what point could such an approach hurt Obama's presidency, if results fail to materialize?
Burns: I wrote a Newsweek article defending President Obama's approach during the campaign. We should have enough self-confidence to talk to adversaries. I hope the American people will be patient enough to realize that it takes time for diplomacy to work. We have to be persistent and have to build up the capacities to use diplomacy as our first line of offence. On this matter, we see an attitudinal shift that Obama promised during the campaign and that he is now beginning to deliver on. He is making diplomacy a priority and that is positive.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: But the American public could run out of patience quickly, given that the focus is on the domestic situation as a result of the financial crisis.
Burns: America is still fighting two wars, we are fully engaged militarily and we face a major economic crisis. You could make the counter-argument: In the middle of a global crisis like this, we should increase the attention given to diplomacy.
Interview conducted by Gregor Peter Schmitz