As a team of inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency heads to Iran to oversee on Monday, Jan. 20, the dismantling of Iran’s 20% enrichment cascades, the US diplomat who was asked by the president to try to start a bilateral channel with Iran to advance a nuclear agreement has to date said little about his role.
But in an exclusive interview with Al-Monitor on Jan. 14, Deputy Secretary of State William Burns spoke for the first time about the back channel to Iran that he led, which gained momentum after Iran’s election of President Hassan Rouhani in June, and culminated in November with the first agreement to halt the expansion of Iran’s nuclear program in a decade.
Burns, only the second career foreign service officer to be confirmed as deputy secretary of state, credits a team of US and foreign diplomatic colleagues, some who have gone largely unsung, for the success of the effort. Among those Burns singled out for praise were top State Department non-proliferation adviser James Timbie, “truly a national treasure,” and EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, who has led the negotiations on behalf of six world powers with Iran, “an enormously skillful diplomat.”
He also credits the tough-minded professionalism and “clear sense of purpose” of the Iranian nuclear negotiating team put in place after Rouhani, in August, appointed Iran’s former UN envoy Mohammad Javad Zarif as his foreign minister, tapping him to oversee Iran’s nuclear negotiations. “The issues remain very complicated ones,” Burns said. “Having said that, I certainly found the Iranian officials with whom we worked to be quite skillful, quite professional, and I think determined in what they see to be the best interests of Iran in trying to reach a negotiated resolution. That makes for a set of tough negotiations. But I have a good deal of professional respect for the people with whom our team and I were meeting."
With negotiations set to begin in February between Iran and the P5+1 on a comprehensive nuclear accord, Burns said President Barack Obama’s estimate of 50-50 odds of reaching an agreement is not bad, considering the context.
“The truth is, against the backdrop of the tortuous history of the relationship between the United States and Iran, that’s actually not a bad opportunity to be tested,” Burns said. “And I think it’s very important for us to test it, having created the circumstance now through the Joint Plan of Action, in which we have stopped the advance of the Iranian nuclear program, and in a couple of important respects rolled it back.”
“There are no illusions about the challenge ahead,” he said of reaching a comprehensive nuclear deal. But while the issues involved in the forthcoming negotiations are “very complicated,” he said, a resolution should be achievable.
“The truth is, at the end of the day ... if Iran wants to demonstrate that it is has no interest in pursuing a nuclear weapon ... we’ve made clear, as the president has, we accept a civil nuclear program for Iran, then it should not be impossible to reach an agreement,” he said
On prospects for a broader thaw or easing of tensions between Iran and the United States, Burns said the two governments still have broad differences beyond the nuclear dispute, which remains most urgent.
“Certainly over time I think you see a lot of potential in the attitude of Iranian citizens toward greater connections with the rest of the world and greater connections with American society, however difficult relations are between governments,” he said.
“Having said that, I think we both have an awful lot of baggage in our political relationship, and it’s going to take time and a great deal of effort to deal with all of the differences between us,” he said. “I think the nuclear issue, as both of us recognize now, is not the only one of those differences, but it’s the most urgent.”
“What the long-term possibilities are between the United States and Iran is very difficult to predict right now, given the range of differences between us,” Burns said. “But I do think it’s possible to make further progress on the nuclear issue, and I think that’s extremely important.”
Among the major differences between the United States and Iran, of course, is Syria and the future role of Syria’s Bashar al-Assad — one reason the United States continues to insist that Iran should formally endorse the Geneva I communique on a Syrian political transition before it be formally invited to attend the Geneva II Syria peace talks set to get underway next week.
The US position on participation in Geneva II is “not born of any romantic ideas about the process or about Iran’s role,” Burns said. “It’s really born of the practical notion that, if Geneva II is aimed at implementation of the Geneva I communique, including political transition, then logically, countries participating ought to make clear their commitment to it.”
“We see [Geneva II] as the beginning of a process, a process that’s aimed at political transition,” he said. “Along the way, as the secretary said, you can focus on practical steps like localized cease-fires, humanitarian access, prisoner exchanges, which can help create an atmosphere in which progress toward that political transition is possible.”
As for a role for Iran in possibly facilitating some of those practical steps, such as localized cease-fires, Burns said the United States would welcome it. “Listen, we’d certainly welcome any Iranian contributions toward progress in those practical steps,” he said. “I mean, that’s very much in the interest of the people of Syria, and of the region.”
The United States also has deep concerns about the rise of Sunni extremist groups in Syria and the spillover of jihadist violence out of Syria, Burns said.
Secretary of State John Kerry, in “lengthy conversations” with Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal in Paris this week, “emphasized again our concerns about the rise of violent extremist groups, the danger of spillover, the importance of success in Geneva II,” Burns said. “I think the Saudis increasingly share a number of those concerns, especially about the sorts of Sunni extremist groups that have in recent weeks, up until the last week or so, been expanding the territory on which they are operating in Syria. There has been encouragingly pushback from others in the opposition in the last week or 10 days.”
Asked about the role for covert diplomacy in bringing about the opening of the US-Iran diplomatic channel, Burns said it’s hard in the age of Twitter and email to conduct secret diplomacy, but such discretion was imperative given the sensitivities and mistrust between Washington and Tehran. “I am convinced that the only way to get this particular process started was to do it quietly, and we did everything we could to try to bring that about, which is not an easy thing in this day and age.”
He acknowledged that US and Iranian nuclear negotiators have been in direct contact by phone and email, beyond the private and public meetings now acknowledged to have occurred throughout the fall. Little surprise, perhaps, given the attention to both public and private diplomacy that Rouhani and Zarif and their team have shown, for instance, in their Rosh Hashana Twitter greetings, and in their direct engagement with numerous journalists covering the issue.
As for his own plans after 32 years as a US diplomat, Burns said he continues to love the job, and work hard at it. Will he stay on to see through the reaching of a comprehensive nuclear accord with Iran, after getting the bilateral channel going? Burns said that for the past six years in the No. 2 and No. 3 jobs in the State Department, advance planning for him often consists of what he’s doing tomorrow. But he acknowledged that the decades of relationships he forged with counterparts around the world had helped the president achieve the goal of a bilateral dialogue with Iran to advance a nuclear agreement.
“I think diplomacy at the end of the day is not just about issues or difficulties,” Burns said. “It’s about people. And it’s about trying to work with people to see if you can find common ground.”
Below is an edited transcript of the interview.
Al-Monitor: President Obama asked you to see if you could get this bilateral diplomatic channel with Iran going, and you managed to succeed. How did you bring it about? And where do you see channel going?
Burns: First, I was very lucky to be part of a really fine team of people in this effort, including people like [State Department non-proliferation adviser] Jim Timbie, who don’t always get their names in a newspaper. But, you know, Jim is someone who has done non-proliferation issues for decades, and he’s truly a national treasure. It was a really fine team of people to work with.
Second, I have long been a believer in the importance of direct engagement or contact with people, whether they are your partners, your adversaries. It’s the only way I think to test whether or not you can make progress diplomatically, even on the hardest of issues. And the Iranian nuclear issue I think is one of the most complicated before us.
So that is something, as you know, that the president made very clear was a priority from the beginning of his first term. And so we worked hard at trying to produce that kind of a channel.
And you know I think we hope to lay a basis that the P5+1 was then able to turn into an agreement and provide a foundation for now what is a complicated effort to try to reach a comprehensive solution.
Al-Monitor: Do you see that the P5+1 and bilateral channels will fuse and became an integrated, umbrella unit?
Burns: Sure, I think what you saw before Geneva, we had always seen the bilateral effort as trying to create a basis that would accelerate progress in the 5+1. And so the 5+1 is very much in the lead. And the negotiations are likely to begin in February with the Iranians. [EU foreign policy chief] Cathy Ashton will lead that effort. She is an enormously skillful diplomat, someone I admire a lot.
And as with the other members of the 5+1, I think it is logical that there are going to be bilateral contacts to complement the core effort of the 5+1. And we have already seen examples of that. Not just by the United States, but other countries, other partners as well in the 5+1. So I think that will be very much the frame within which you see the diplomacy in the coming months.
Al-Monitor: Given the accelerated pace of US-Iran meetings since Rouhani’s election, are the new Iran negotiators very different in their positions from the past team? Is their stance wholly new? Do you think there is some continuity here? What is your sense of that? How much are the players now in Iran, their receptivity, key to the success of the negotiations?
Burns: The issues remain very complicated ones. That is not going to exactly shock anybody. And so this is going to be a difficult path ahead.
Having said that, I certainly found the Iranian officials with whom we worked to be quite skillful, quite professional, and I think determined in what they see to be the best interests of Iran in trying to reach a negotiated resolution. That makes for a set of tough negotiations. But I have a good deal of professional respect for the people with whom our team and I were meeting.
Al-Monitor: How much does the longevity of your professional and diplomatic relationships with players, with officials, around the world, over time, help you help the president, help the administration. You have been doing this a long time. Someone told me you were close with the sultan of Oman. You served as ambassador to Russia. I was curious if any of those relationships had been links ...
Burns: I think diplomacy at the end of the day is not just about issues or difficulties, it’s about people. And it’s about trying to work with people to see if you can find common ground, to recognize those areas of difference that you can bridge. And so for any effective diplomat, it’s really important to build up that set of relationships over the course of a career.
We are lucky in the US government to have lots of very effective diplomats, who have that kind of experience and those kinds of connections, not just in the Middle East but in other areas as well.
Al-Monitor: ... But in the absence of US-Iran relations for 34 years, that has to impact the ability of officials on both sides to understand each other.
Burns: It does. After more than three decades without sustained direct contact, it’s a challenge to reacquire the habit. And you have a few people like John Limbert, who worked in the [Near East bureau] in the first term, with whom I enjoyed working a great deal, who has beautiful Farsi and served, was a hostage in Tehran during the hostage crisis. But that generation of people by and large has moved out of the [Foreign] Service.
But one thing that we did, which was one of those rare instances of the State Department looking ahead, was a decade ago or so beginning to develop a cadre of Farsi speakers, based in posts around the world, but in posts that are either near Iran, like Dubai. And so that we would be prepared for the day when this kind of [direct contact] resumed.
Al-Monitor: Like [State Department Persian-language spokesman] Alan Eyre.
Burns: Yes. So we quite consciously tried to build up that cadre of people. And Alan Eyre is a good example. He is a really fine officer, and without that kind of a feel for not only languages but cultures and political systems, it’s really hard to navigate effectively diplomatically. And so we have quite consciously tried to build that.
Al-Monitor: The new diplomatic team in Iran are very talented in public diplomacy, they are on Twitter ... sometimes responding by email. They are trying to affect what’s understood here [in Washington], because they understand it’s important for their interests and what they are trying to achieve. Given their level of attention and engagement, it would seem that they would probably email and call you and your team, too ...
Burns: Yeah ... It is, when you think of the meeting that Secretary Kerry had with Foreign Minister Zarif, and the presidents’ phone call, the bilateral contacts that we set up. ... It almost now does not seem very surprising that American officials and Iranian officials engage. Just a few months ago, that would have been, at least for many people, a bit harder to imagine. So it’s also not surprising that you find other ways to stay in touch.
But as I said, I have found the group of people mainly from the Foreign Ministry with whom I’ve dealt to be quite professional. Tough negotiators, but quite professional.
Al-Monitor: Let me transition to Syria. We’ve seen Iran Foreign Minister Zarif do his regional tour this week ... including in Lebanon, laying a wreath at [former Hezbollah commander] Imad Mughniyeh’s tomb, casting an image a bit at odds from the one he has had in the nuclear negotiation. ... Do you think the Iranians should be at Geneva II?
Burns: First I’d say the issues you raised are a reminder that we have lots of quite serious differences with Iran that go well beyond the nuclear issue, whether it’s on Syria, Lebanon, Yemen. And we’ve never been shy about making those concerns clear.
Second, with regard to Geneva II, you know the secretary was very clear again earlier this week in underscoring our position, which is that participation in Geneva II — and this has been sort of the common understanding for the other participants, and the basis on which they are participating — is acceptance of the Geneva I communique, and the commitment to its implementation. Which, again, is not just about political transition. I mean, people rightly focus on the importance of creating a transitional government with full executive powers, reached by mutual consent. But Geneva I and the Geneva I communique also address issues such as cease-fires and humanitarian access.
So the secretary again has reinforced that we are quite realistic about all the impediments on the path ahead. With regard to Geneva II, we see it as the beginning of a process, a process that’s aimed at political transition, because that’s the only way that we and many others around the world can seek to end the civil war in a way which not only stabilizes Syria and realizes the rights of its people, but also prevents the dangerous spillover of violent extremism out of Syria.
And so, the purpose of Geneva is to begin that process. Along the way, as the secretary said, you can focus on practical steps like localized cease-fires, humanitarian access, prisoner exchanges, which can help create an atmosphere in which progress toward that political transition is possible. And that is how I define a good beginning is to make a little bit of traction on those issues and keep people pointed at a political transition, recognizing that transition to a new leadership is essential, that’s the core goal, but that it is going to take a lot of work there.
Al-Monitor: Especially with practical steps a more achievable short-term goal [from Geneva II] than perhaps the end of the political transition, why not have the Iranians there, as your former colleague Jeff Feltman, now at the United Nations, and others have suggested, not out of any romantic notions about Iran’s role in Syria. But because they could conceivably help or impact some of the practical steps.
Burns: Well, listen, we’d certainly welcome any Iranian contributions toward progress in those practical steps. I mean, that’s very much in the interest of the people of Syria, and of the region. But you know the secretary made pretty clear what our consistent position has been and remains with regard to participation. It’s not born of any romantic ideas about the process or about Iran’s role. It’s really born of the practical notion that, if Geneva II is aimed at implementation of the Geneva I communique, including political transition, then logically countries participating ought to make clear their commitment to it.
Al-Monitor: Do you see anything coming out of the meeting in Moscow Thursday between Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem and Iran Foreign Minister Zarif? Possibly the kind of helpful step Secretary Kerry mentioned would be welcomed from Iran.
Burns: Secretary [Kerry] had a long conversation with Russian Foreign Minister [Sergey] Lavrov [at a meeting in Paris Jan. 13] about a lot of these issues. ... I wasn’t at the meeting, but my impression is that the Russians understand the value of trying to accomplish some of those steps. They certainly have a considerable amount of leverage in trying to produce that. They’ve demonstrated that in the agreement to destroy chemical weapons. So the secretary strongly encouraged Minister Lavrov to push not only Moallem in the Syrian regime, but also anybody else with influence, including the Iranians, to agree to those kind of steps. And that would create an atmosphere in which we can make that kind of good beginning in Geneva II.
Al-Monitor: I wondered, if you see a hesitancy on the part of the Iranian Foreign Ministry side to get dragged too deep into the Geneva II process, given the sense the team is focused on the nuclear issue, which if resolved could bring some economic relief to the Iranian public, and the sense as well that the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) more than the Iranian Foreign Ministry has more sway over Iran’s Syria policy.
Burns: I have learned over the years that foreign ministries can speak for themselves, and certainly the Iranian Foreign Ministry can.
Al-Monitor: So you think the US objective for Geneva II is some sort of practical step, such as a cease-fire?
Burns: ... It’s to begin a process that is aimed at implementation of the Geneva I communique, in particular aimed at political transition, and along the way, I think It creates opportunities to push for steps like localized cease-fires, humanitarian access, prisoner exchanges, that can create a little bit of momentum in the direction of a transition. And I think that is a pragmatic way of looking at it. And I think it’s certainly something to which we are very committed. And the London 11 ministers in the public statement that they raised underscored the value of that as well. And the support for the SOC and the Syrian opposition which have some important choices of their own to make [this week].
Al-Monitor: How do you characterize the Saudi position on Syria?
Burns: The secretary, in the lengthy conversations he had with [Saudi Foreign Minister] Prince Saud [al-Faisal] over the past two days, emphasized again our concerns about the rise of violent extremist groups, the danger of spillover, the importance of success in Geneva II. I think the Saudis increasingly share a number of those concerns especially about especially the sorts of Sunni extremist groups that have in recent weeks, up until the last week or so, been expanding the territory on which they are operating in Syria. There has been encouragingly pushback from others in the opposition in the last week or 10 days.
So I think the Saudi set of concerns based on the secretary’s conversation with Saudi is quite similar to our own.
Al-Monitor: It seemed like the Islamic Front suddenly became quite effective on the ground, beyond money. Do you see organizational or command/control support coming — from Western special forces?
Burns: No, there’s been no shortage, sadly, of support for groups like that, and it’s been a constant theme of the dialogue we’ve had with some of our friends in the Gulf has been to underscore the dangers of that, and underscore the importance going back more than a year of a singular focus on support for the SMC [Supreme Military Council] and the groups connected with it in the armed opposition in Syria. Obviously that’s been an imperfect process but it remains extremely important.
Al-Monitor: Looking back on the initial skepticism that widely greeted the US-Russia plan to destroy Syria’s chemical weapons. It seems to have been implemented largely as advertised.
Burns: First, it’s a good thing objectively to deprive the Syrian regime of a very large chemical weapons arsenal. A good thing from the point of view of the people of Syria against whom these weapons have been used, a good thing for the region, which faced the risk of further use. And I think we and the Russians have worked effectively together on that issue. There’s still a large task ahead of us in terms of completing the implementation and completing the destruction. But we’re pointed in the right direction.
Al-Monitor: But there’s not been obstruction, which I think was a concern by some when the agreement was announced.
Burns: No. So far it is pointed in the right direction. There are a lot of both logistical and security issues, and we need to keep at this because it’s very important to keep up the momentum. A very ambitious timetable was set. We are going to do everything we can along with the Russians to bring this to a conclusion.
Al-Monitor: Where do you see [US-Iran] relations going? You’ve heard both Rouhani and Obama say, let’s try to get a nuclear agreement, and then we’ll see. Perhaps it’s naive, but the stance of this new team seems more engaged and not overly, uber hostile to the United States.
Burns: Well, certainly, over time I think you see a lot of potential in the attitude of Iranian citizens toward greater connections with the rest of the world and greater connections with American society, however difficult relations are between governments. Having said that, I think we both have an awful lot of baggage in our political relationship, and it’s going to take time and a great deal of effort to deal with all of the differences between us. I think the nuclear issue, as both of us recognize now, is not the only one of those differences, but it’s the most urgent. And it’s on that basis that both bilaterally and working with our partners in the 5+1 we have made some progress.
Having said that, and the president and the secretary made this clear, there are no illusions about the challenge ahead on the nuclear issue. Negotiations toward a comprehensive solution are going to be extremely difficult. The president has put the odds at 50-50. And the truth is, against the backdrop of the tortuous history of relationship between the United States and Iran, that’s actually not a bad opportunity to be tested. And I think it’s very important for us to test it, having created the circumstance now through the Joint Plan of Action, in which we have stopped the advance of the Iranian nuclear program, and in a couple of important respects rolled it back.
So the issues involved in the forthcoming set of negotiations with the 5+1 are very complicated issues like Arak, the heavy water reactor, for which we are convinced there’s no civil nuclear purpose. So this is going to take a great deal of effort on the part of everybody engaged in that negotiation. What the long-term possibilities are between the United States and Iran is very difficult to predict right now given the range of differences between us. But I do think it’s possible to make further progress on the nuclear issue, and I think that’s extremely important.
Al-Monitor: In September, Zarif, at the United Nations, and in various settings since then, said we don’t want a nuclear weapon and it’s in our interest to convince the world that we don’t want a nuclear weapon. Sort of setting out a common objective. I’m curious, did it convince you ... ?
Burns: Some Iranians, certainly Zarif, have been quite public in asserting that. And the truth is, it’s, at the end of the day, not that difficult to demonstrate that you are not pursuing a nuclear weapon and demonstrate that it’s for peaceful purposes. And that’s the challenge before us. We’ve made some headway with the initial agreement reached, we have a long way to go. But if at the end of the day, Iran wants to demonstrate that it is has no interest in pursuing a nuclear weapon, at the end of the day, we’ve made clear, as the president has, we accept a civil nuclear program for Iran, then it should not be impossible to reach an agreement. But it’s going to take a lot of work to demonstrate the seriousness with which Iran wants to show that it has an exclusively peaceful program.
Al-Monitor: I am curious, even under the old Iran administration, before Rouhani, they were willing to at least test the possibility of bilateral dialogue. They showed up, at least a few times. Would it have been possible to make progress had [former Iranian nuclear negotiator Saeed] Jalili been elected president?
Burns: It’s an interesting question. And in the end, I can only judge it by the experience we had over the course of the last seven or eight months, since the elections.
Al-Monitor: Did you think in the March [US-Iran meeting in Oman] that there was a possibility for progress?
Burns: You know, I’ve always thought, as I said before, that it’s important to try to build a direct set of contacts. But certainly after the election, Rouhani’s election, Zarif coming to the Foreign Ministry, his team there, there was a clear sense of purpose ... on both sides. I think on both sides, a very tough-minded approach to the negotiations which has made for a complicated process, but has also produced some results.
Al-Monitor: Can the process survive without you? Will you stay to see this through to a comprehensive agreement? I know you tried to dump the Iran nuclear portfolio on Wendy Sherman when she came on as under secretary. What do they have to get you to stay?
Burns: I enjoy very much what I do as a diplomat for the last 32 years. A lot of times in the job I am in, especially the last six years in the No, 3 job and now the No. 2 job, advance planning for me is sometimes what I am going to do tomorrow. So I continue to enjoy this job a great deal and I continue to work as hard as I can, not just on this issue but also on others.
Al-Monitor: What is the role for secret diplomacy?
Burns: It’s interesting, because at this day and age it’s very difficult to do anything quietly.
Al-Monitor: Is it really though? Because you guys did it.
Burns: It is hard. But I am convinced that in this case, given the particular history of our relationship, getting it started quietly was the only way to make progress. But to answer your question, no, it’s not easy.
Al-Monitor: I mean, is there a role for dissembling? ... Public schedules were [misleading] ...
Burns: Honestly, I am not a natural dissembler. ... I am convinced that the only way to get this particular process started was to do it quietly, and we did everything we could to try to bring that about, which is not an easy thing in this day and age.