January 19, 2016
As the State Department’s No. 3 official in the George W. Bush administration, R. Nicholas Burns was instrumental in negotiating sanctions to punish Iran for its nuclear program. Those sanctions were lifted on January 16 when the International Atomic Energy Agency determined that Iran was in compliance with the terms of the nuclear agreement it concluded with the P5+1 countries—the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Russia, China, and Germany—in July of 2015.

Burns, a Harvard University professor of diplomacy who is on leave this semester at Stanford University and an Atlantic Council board member, discussed the opportunities and challenges presented by the Iran nuclear deal in a phone interview with the New Atlanticist’s Ashish Kumar Sen. Here are excerpts from our interview.

Q: Has the lifting of sanctions created an opportunity for broader regional cooperation between Washington and Tehran, and, more specifically, improved the odds of the success of the Obama administration’s efforts to end the war in Syria?

Burns: This is a historic achievement. We have been estranged, separated, divorced from the Iranian government for thirty-six years. There was no continuous conversation between the governments during that time. For President [Barack] Obama and Secretary [of State John] Kerry to have connected to the Iranian government, steered an unwieldy international coalition forward, and arrived at this agreement is a substantial achievement for them and for American diplomacy.

The agreement will freeze Iran’s nuclear efforts. It will not be able to achieve a nuclear weapons capability anytime in the next ten to fifteen years, and I think beyond that. So it has taken that problem off the board for a good decade or more and it achieved that through diplomacy, not through the force of arms. We have avoided the possibility of a larger conflict that could have even led to a third major war in the Middle East.

On the other hand, I would not predict similar progress between the United States and Iran on some of the great strategic challenges in the Middle East mainly because our interests are so misaligned. We stand opposite each other along a great divide on Yemen, on Iraq in many ways, certainly on Syria, definitely on Lebanon, and we see the future of the Middle East in very different terms than does the Iranian government.

Secretary Kerry was able to negotiate with [Iranian] Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif who represents the reformist wing of the Iranian government. But the people who actually run Iran’s security policies, their intelligence networks, their support to the terrorist groups like Hezbollah and Hamas, are in the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. That group of people has a fundamentally more anti-American, cynical, brutal view of the future of Middle East politics. So it is going to be very difficult for us to achieve on regional security issues the same measure of progress that the Obama team has achieved so brilliantly on the nuclear side. That is not to say that we shouldn’t try.

Secretary Kerry has obviously developed a relationship of some confidence with Zarif. When our sailors were taken last week it was an unfortunate incident. The manner in which they were detained and the video that was released that showed the American sailors surrendering was a violation of the Geneva Conventions and the sign of an unfriendly government. But Zarif was able to secure the release of those American sailors within twenty-four hours.

I think Secretary Kerry is right to test the Iranians. Will Iran be part of the resolution of the Syria problem or will they continue to be part of the problem?

On Yemen, nearly everybody believes that is a most unfortunate war. It makes sense for us to test the Iranians on Yemen to see whether they will cease their active military support to the Houthi rebels.

On Iraq, Iran has not been a voice for unity because they are solely backing the Shia side of the Iraqi governing sector.

On Lebanon, the Iranians have delivered weapons to Hamas and Hezbollah to conduct rocket attacks against Israel.

This is an aggressive, violent government, and we have an opportunity to test them and engage them. As a former diplomat, I believe we should always be talking, particularly with our adversaries. But it is important to avoid romanticism or extrapolating that success in the nuclear negotiations will predict success in other domains.

Q: What advice would you give to President Obama and his successor on dealing with Iran when it comes to important issues such as the Islamic Republic’s support for the Assad regime in Syria, Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Houthis in Yemen, and its violation of human rights?

Burns: I think President Obama and Secretary Kerry made a major calculation that turning to diplomacy as the central strategic tool to limit the Iranians was the right decision, and they have been proven correct.

One of the things I admire very much about President Obama’s administration is the emphasis he has put on diplomacy; making contacts with adversaries; negotiating our differences, if that is possible; seeing diplomacy as the first impulse and the use of the military as the last resort. To me, that is the proper correlation of American strategic interests. So I see the Iran nuclear deal as being not just important because it will prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear weapons power, but also because it reaffirms America’s strength in diplomacy. It is a vital tool for us.

The Iran deal, the opening to Cuba, the climate change agreement, the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement are all examples of a government focused on using diplomacy as a central part of our arsenal. As someone who was a diplomat and teaches diplomacy now, I find this to be very hopeful.

President Obama has done very well to open up the channels to the Iranians. I think we have to have a policy of engagement and deterrence. We engage where we can, we work with them where we can, but we push back and limit and contain them where we must. That is a very difficult strategic framework in which to operate. There aren’t a lot of countries in the world where we are engaging and deterring. There are some. For example, we are engaging with the Chinese on a whole host of issues, including climate change, with a great deal of success, but we are also trying to limit the reach of the Chinese military in the South China and East China Seas. We have the same type of relationship developing with Iran, but less friendly.

With Iran, we have had some emotionally searing events on our side—the taking of our diplomats in 1979, the holding of the American prisoners over the last four or five years who were just released over the weekend. You don’t quickly forget all this.

Will we be able to establish trust over time? We don’t have trust now. The Iranians will have to earn that trust. My advice would be to continue the contacts with Iran, but continue challenging them. Engage, but also contain, in different domains.

Q: Saudi Arabia cut off diplomatic ties with Iran in January after an Iranian mob, angry over the execution of a Shia cleric, attacked the Saudi Embassy. Are you worried that the exacerbation of this Sunni-Shia rift will undermine any potential diplomatic gains to be had from the nuclear deal?

Burns: It is certainly not going to help.It could, in fact, complicate the efforts to try to arrange a stable, productive Syrian negotiation. There are already reports that the talks that were to resume on January 25 will not resume because there aren’t agreements on some important matters.

Saudi Arabia is the key Gulf partner of the United States. One thing that President Obama and Secretary Kerry need to do, and they are trying to do this, is to repair the damage that has been caused in our relationship with Saudi Arabia, as well as our relationship with Israel, over the difference of opinion we had on the nuclear deal. There isn’t as much confidence between Riyadh and Washington, and certainly between the Israeli government and the US government, as has historically been the case.

If we have to gear up to limit Iran’s influence in the Middle East on some of these conventional strategic crises, we are going to need an understanding with the Saudis, other Gulf countries, the Israelis, and the Turks.

Q: What should the Obama administration be doing, that it is not already, to allay the concerns of Israel and Arab Gulf countries that are worried about Iran’s hegemonic ambitions?

Burns: Many of the Arab states and the Israelis believe that the United States has stepped back a bit from its traditional leadership role. By that I don’t mean deploying tens of thousands of troops. I mean our traditional diplomatic and political leadership role of being the active, daily leader of a coalition of countries trying to provide for stability in the Middle East. I think the United States could be more active and more attentive to our relationships with the Gulf Arabs in particular.

With the Israelis, this is a two-way street. I think we need a public signal in the relationship that we are back on track. I hold the Netanyahu government responsible for many of the problems that have occurred in the last year. The decision by Prime Minister [Benjamin] Netanyahu to address a joint session of the US Congress and openly oppose President Obama was unprecedented. For an American partner country to actively try to defeat the President in Washington, in the halls of Congress, I think Netanyahu was poorly advised.

Q: Speaking at the Atlantic Council in December, Treasury’s Adam Szubin said that even after sanctions have been lifted the US embargo on Iran would essentially remain in place. Given this reality, will US firms lose out to their European counterparts that are rushing to snap up business opportunities in Iran?

Burns: I support the administration that we maintain sanctions on Iran for its terrorist activity, for its human rights violations, and now for its ballistic missile tests that were in open contravention of the UN Security Council resolutions that we sponsored in both the Bush and the Obama administrations.

It is unfortunate that American companies may very well lose many opportunities, but these issues are more important than just trade opportunities. The sanctions go to the heart of the critical differences that we have with Iran: human rights, terrorism, proliferation, ballistic missile development. Our national interests dictate that those issues will have to take priority over commercial interests at this time given the nature of this regime.

Q: The lifting of sanctions has taken away a key excuse used by successive Iranian administrations to explain the state of Iran’s economy. President Rouhani is now under pressure to revitalize Iran’s economy. There is a danger that his administration will face a backlash if Iranians do not quickly see tangible benefits of the nuclear deal. In light of the many challenges he faces—endemic corruption, mismanagement, and low oil prices—what are the likely repercussions for the Rouhani administration if it is unable to speedily deliver the change the Iranian people seek?

Burns: This is going to have a major impact on who emerges triumphant in the struggle for power inside Iran between the reformers and the reactionaries. The reformers are banking on the fact that an Iran reconnected with the global economy will raise living standards, create jobs, and create a sense of hope because the Iranian economy was badly affected by the sanctions over the last decade. That will be one of the critical determinants in defining the future of Iran over the next five to ten years.

Ashish Kumar Sen is a staff writer at the Atlantic Council.

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