An Interview with Ambassador William J. Burns on Iranian-American Negotiations

Ambassador William J. Burns helped lead the back-channel talks with Iran that led to an interim nuclear agreement in November 2013 and set the stage for the July 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action between Iran and the P5+1. Ambassador Burns retired from the U.S. Foreign Service in 2014 after a 33-year diplomatic career. He holds the highest rank in the Foreign Service, Career Ambassador, and is only the second serving career diplomat in history to become Deputy Secretary of State. Ambassador Burns served from 2008 to 2011 as Under Secretary for Political Affairs. He was Ambassador to Russia from 2005 to 2008, Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs from 2001 to 2005, and Ambassador to Jordan from 1998 to 2001.

Ambassador William J. Burns
June 06, 2016

The Journal spoke with Ambassador Burns on the negotiating process with Iran, his thoughts on the future of the Middle East, and the United States’ role in the region.

Journal of International Affairs (JIA): Tell me about the very first steps, when President Obama asked you to lead a delegation to Oman to meet with the Iranians. How did the president and his staff explain it to you? What were your thoughts?

Ambassador William J. Burns (WB): The President had a clear idea of how he wanted to go about this. The first step was to build leverage with the Iranians, by showing them that we were willing to engage, but also that we were absolutely determined to prevent Iran from developing or acquiring a nuclear weapon.  Our willingness to engage with the Iranians helped us build international solidarity, which also helped make the sanctions regime far more effective. By the beginning of President Obama’s second term in early 2013, we had built up a fair amount of leverage through economic sanctions and political isolation, and the result of that was that Iran’s oil exports had decreased by 50 percent and the value of the Iranian currency had decreased by 50 percent. The president decided that this was the time to test whether or not an effort at direct diplomacy would get a result.

And so in early March 2013, in meetings facilitated by the Omanis, we began a quiet direct conversation with the Iranians. And the fact that we did it quietly or secretly caused a certain amount of controversy, but the reality is that after 35 years without sustained diplomatic contact between the United States and Iran, there was a huge amount of baggage, a lot of mistrust, and a lot of grievances. Had we tried to begin that negotiation in the glare of publicity, I think it would have been extremely difficult, if not impossible, to get any traction. I was skeptical that we would be able to produce an interim agreement, let alone a comprehensive one. I think the Iranian diplomats who were engaging with us were probably equally as skeptical. Over time, we demonstrated that we could produce results in which each side would live up to its obligations and that it would be possible to construct an agreement.  I wouldn’t suggest that we built up trust between us but I think there was a fair amount of professional respect in the midst of very tough negotiations.

JIA: Jeffrey Goldberg’s recent piece on the Obama doctrine in the Atlantic is a fascinating insight into President Obama’s policies towards the region and Iran in particular.

WB: The president’s view always struck me as very practical in the sense that he was clear-eyed, and remains clear-eyed, about the reality that there won’t be an overnight transformation either in this Iranian regime’s behavior in the Middle East or in U.S.-Iranian relations. If you look at the reality of a very chaotic region, and add to that yet another layer of fragility and risk, either in a nuclear armed Iran or an Iranian nuclear program that was totally unconstrained, you can see that there is real value in this diplomatic achievement.

JIA: Which could potentially lead to an arms race, and the last thing we want is a bunch of nuclear weapons lying around in the Middle East.

WB: That’s exactly right. So I think it was that very practical aim that animated the president’s interest in testing diplomacy. He always realized that a commitment to a solid verifiable nuclear agreement had to be embedded in a wider strategy for dealing with Iran in the region. He was quite realistic that there wasn’t going to be any early transformation in Iranian behavior in the region or in attitudes towards the United States. Given that 70 percent of the Iranian population was born after the revolution, that you’ve got a very well-developed entrepreneurial class, and that a lot of Iranians thirst for connections with the rest of the world, I think it is possible that Iran will evolve, but the thinking was never that this would happen overnight.

JIA: That’s a key point, the fact that a lot of people implied that the President’s secret goal through this deal was to get Iran to open up, and that’s why he was taking the action that he was taking.

WB: Hope is not a policy or a strategy; you have to be realistic. On the merits, using diplomacy backed up by leverage to constrain the Iranian nuclear program and prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon, has considerable value on its own.

JIA: I think you’ve briefly touched on this already, but what was it like negotiating with the Iranian delegation? Did you sense an openness to engage on their part? As you mentioned, it had been 35 years since the end of diplomatic relations, with very little contact of any form since then between the two countries, and a lot of animosity and rhetoric on both sides. So when you actually sat down the first time and talked to the Iranian delegation, what were they like? What did you sense from their end?

WB: There was a significant difference after President Rouhani’s election. When we first engaged, this was still during President Ahmadinejad’s tenure, so the Iranians with whom we engaged during that period were very cautious and I don’t think empowered to go beyond a kind of exploratory mission. But after Rouhani’s election, when Javad Zarif came to the Foreign Ministry, I dealt extensively with two of his principal deputies, [Seyyed Abbas] Araqchi and [Majid Takht] Ravanchi, who were both very tough, skilled diplomats determined to get the best deal they could for Iran. So the negotiations themselves, lasting hours and hours and days and days, were often quite tough and at times tense, but they were always professional.

Given the complexities of the issues and the depth of the mistrust, it would have been extremely difficult—I think impossible—to have gone in one leap to a comprehensive agreement. The interim agreement was an important way of demonstrating that both the Iranians and the international community would live up to obligations. You will recall that the interim agreement was much criticized at the time. There were people who said that the Iranians were going to cheat and that the sanctions regime was going to fall apart. None of that happened. And in the following year and a half or so, both sides demonstrated that we could make an agreement stick. I think that created an important foundation for the later comprehensive agreement.

But it’s a classic difficult negotiation. The Iranians are very skilled negotiators, very tough. So you have to know when to walk away at times—and we certainly did. You have to be able to make it very clear that there are lines beyond which you are not going to go. You have to understand very clearly what it is that you want to achieve, because I’ve always found that unless you have a clear sense of purpose in your own mind, other people will define it for you. And you have to be persistent and insistent  on those kinds of positions. And that can lead to a very difficult period of negotiation. I remember at one point being accused by one of my Iranian counterparts of being a “rug merchant,” which under the circumstances I took as a compliment. But as I said before, I did develop a fair amount of professional respect for their skill as diplomats and as negotiators, and the same is true of our P5+1 partners [the UN Security Council’s five permanent members—China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States—plus Germany].

JIA: Speaking of which, the French position was interesting to observe during these negotiations. They seemed to have a very tough position towards the Iranians, much tougher at times than the American position. Were there a lot of divergences among the different members of the P5+1?

WB: There were certainly some tactical differences at different times, but what was striking to me was the sense in which the P5+1 partners had a strong sense of shared purpose and a willingness to extend considerable effort—this despite pretty significant and serious differences among some of the P5+1, most notably with Russia over Ukraine. On the Iran issue, the Russians were constructive partners throughout. The Chinese were too. Although they kept their enthusiasm under control, they were willing to accept a diminution of Iranian oil imports. And of course the same is true of our European partners as well. So what was striking, in a world in which we have lots of differences over many other issues, was how coherent the effort was on this issue. And that takes a lot of work, for which Secretary Kerry and former Under Secretary Sherman deserve great credit. To try to make progress in multilateral diplomacy takes a lot of persistence. But I think in this case it paid off in a very constructive working relationship with all of our partners.

JIA: We’re currently in the middle of the U.S. presidential election campaign, and there’s obviously no certainty over who the next president is going to be. What do you think the next president’s policy or general outlook will be towards Iran, and beyond that the Middle East in general? The implied question here is, does the Obama doctrine signal a shift in American foreign policy and the way the U.S. is going to deal with the Middle East in the future?

WB: On Iran, I think the challenge for the rest of this administration and for the next administration is going to be ensuring rigorous implementation of the nuclear agreement. It’s off to a solid start, but it’s going to require day-in-and-day-out focus to make sure that everybody lives up to their obligations and that the verification provisions work. And it is going to require embedding that agreement in a wider strategy, which is clear-eyed about the need to push back against Iranian actions that threaten our interests and the interests of our partners and friends in the region.

It would make no sense for a new U.S. president to walk away from the nuclear agreement. People forget that this is not an agreement between just the United States and Iran. If the United States had walked away from that agreement last summer or fall, we would have walked away alone, and you would likely have seen a disintegration of the international coalition that had so painstakingly been built up, and the disintegration of the sanctions regime, with an unconstrained Iranian nuclear program.

More widely on the region, if we take a step back, there are some fundamental changes underway across the Middle East. Much of the old Arab state system has been crumbling, whether it’s in Libya, Syria, Iraq, Yemen. And a vacuum is emerging in some of those places over which hangs a big question mark: what comes next? The truth is that only Arab leaders and Arab peoples can answer that question, and it’s only going to be by discovering a kind of pluralism that multi-sectarian and multi-ethnic states can stick together. Now, that’s a tall order. It’s really easy to be pessimistic about that. I’ve always found in the Middle East that pessimists really lack for either company or validation. But I don’t think that you have to be fatalistic about it.

And I think that there is a very significant role for American leadership. We don’t get to pivot away from the Middle East. Even though objectively America is less dependent on energy imports from the Middle East, the truth is the problems in the Middle East tend to metastasize and expand threats, whether it’s as a result of the migration crisis, the terrorist attacks in Europe, or potentially even in this country. So what that means, finally, is several things: first, obviously ISIS is a significant and serious threat. ISIS is only going to be marginalized—and defeated—through a combination of security and political means. The security steps are pretty obvious: you can punish ISIS from the air, but ultimately it’s going to be, in my view, local ground forces that are able to roll back its gains. You can see more clearly how to do that in Iraq with rebuilt Iraqi security forces than you can today in Syria, but ultimately that’s the challenge in Syria. But it’s got to be political as well in the sense that you’ve got to mobilize the 20 percent Sunni Arab minority in Iraq against ISIS, a Sunni extremist group, so that that 20 percent minority feels a stake, a political future, in Iraq. In Syria, the challenge is to mobilize the 65 to 70 percent of the population that is Sunni Arab against ISIS, because that’s ultimately the only way to defeat them. And that has clear implications for the need for some form of political transition to new leadership in Syria as well.

But alongside that ISIS challenge there are two other priorities. The first is that I think it is true that the United States has a significant challenge in reassuring some of our traditional Sunni Arab partners who are anxious about a more self-confident Iran, and the threats that they see coming from Iran. There are ways in which we can provide that reassurance. Some of it is—if you look at the smaller Sunni Arab states, Tunisia and Jordan are two examples—investing in their evolution and stability. With the Gulf Arab states, we need to make of our partnership a two-way street—a greater effort at pushing back against Iranian aggression coupled with more serious efforts to address vulnerabilities in the Sunni Arab world. You can go back to the Arab Human Development Reports from 2002 and draw a straight line from there to the Arab awakening five years ago. These are the kinds of deficits, whether it’s in education, or in government, or in economic opportunity, women’s rights, that have made those societies vulnerable and their political systems brittle. They have to be addressed
over time.

The second priority, of course, is dealing with Iran. Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger often talks about Iran having a decision to make as to whether it’s a revolutionary, regionally disruptive power or it’s just another ambitious regional power with a stake in regional order. And I think it’s only through that combination of leverage and pushing back against certain Iranian behavior, as well as a willingness to engage directly, that can help over time produce that evolution in Iran and yield some hope, at least, of a more stable regional order. That’s much easier said than done. But I think for the rest of this administration and the next administration and probably the one beyond that, those are the main challenges given the stake of the United States in regional order in the Middle East.

JIA: You also served as ambassador to Russia. What do you make of Russia’s renewed vigor in Middle Eastern affairs under Putin, specifically through his decision to get involved in Syria? Do you think this is a broader trend of more Russian involvement in the region?

WB: I think there are several motives which have animated President Putin in Syria recently. First and most straightforward was to bolster the Assad regime, which last August was losing altitude and losing ground. Second, it was to reassert Russia’s role as a significant international player in the Middle East and more broadly as a major power in the world. Third, I think it was to try to provide a counterpoint to what Putin often sees as a naïve American interest in regime change in the region which doesn’t take into account the second and third order consequences—a way to  assert a contrary Russian view. Fourth, I think he was certainly interested at the time in changing the subject a little bit from Ukraine, given the sanctions which had been enacted against Russia in the course of the Ukraine crisis. And fifth, but not least, it’s sometimes particularly satisfying to Putin and the Russian leadership to stick a thumb in the eyes of the Americans.

JIA: Ambassador Burns, thank you very much for your time.

WB: Thank you.