The Iran breakthrough: 3 Questions with Ambassador Nicholas Burns

Iranian newspapers depict Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, US President Barack Obama, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and his American counterpart John Kerry on Sept. 28, 2013. Iranian newspapers hailed the first contact between presidents Rouhani and Obama but warned that opponents like arch-foe Israel would seek to torpedo the historic opening to Washington.
Credit: Behrouz Mehri

US President Barack Obama and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani spoke on the phone Friday, a development many are hailing as a significant shift in US-Iran relations.

Just how significant is it? GlobalPost's senior foreign affairs columnist and former Ambassador Nicholas Burns weighs in.

How important is this apparent breakthrough in the US relationship with Iran?

By any measure, this is a big moment in Washington’s relationship with Iran and in American foreign policy. When presidents Obama and Rouhani spoke by phone Friday, it was the first head of government discussion in over three decades. When Secretary of State John Kerry met Iran’s foreign minister, Javed Zarif, in New York the day before, it was the start of what will very likely be the first extended and substantive negotiations between the two countries since the Jimmy Carter administration.

This is nothing less than a sea change in the world of diplomacy. When governments fight a long cold war with no official relations and few discussions, it robs diplomacy of its greatest promise — hope. As long as two bitter antagonists refuse to even meet, there is the absence of hope of even minimal progress between them and the ever present danger of misunderstanding, mistrust and conflict. All that changed this week. Two countries on the verge of a possible war over Iran’s nuclear program have now committed to walk down a very different road toward negotiations. This is important and undeniable progress.

How should the Obama administration handle this new opening with Iran in the negotiations that begin in October?

Secretary of State John Kerry, who will lead the talks for the US, will need to find the right balance between openness and flexibility on the one hand and continued toughness on the other. The Iranian leadership is a fragile and fractured group requiring outward signs of respect and reassurance given their collective cynicism, neuralgia and paranoia about the United States.

As Obama did in his phone call with Rouhani, Kerry will need to convey outward respect and openness for the Iranian people and government. At the same time, Kerry will want to make it clear that the US won’t act on sentiment in the negotiations. Rouhani’s New York charm offensive was welcome and effective and likely reflects his genuine desire for a change in the way Iran and the US deal with each other.

But, without concrete Iranian concessions on key issues such as uranium enrichment, the Arak heavy water reactor and the need for more intrusive IAEA inspections, the talks will go nowhere.  This is why the US and EU should leave sanctions in place during the talks and not agree to diminish or remove them until Iran has committed to a fundamentally different course in their actions and not just in words.

The US will also want to test Iranian sincerity on burning Middle East issues where Iran has been a troublemaker — running arms to the Syrian government and pushing Hezbollah into the Syrian civil war, continued support for Shia extremists in Iraq and mischief in Afghanistan. Broadening the US-Iran agenda to include these issues will allow us to test Iran and give us a far more vivid picture of whether Tehran really wants change in the US-Iran relationship.

Finally, the Obama team will want to keep Israel close and well briefed on all aspects of our discussions with Iran. The Israelis will not use force as long as the US is at the table with Iran. Monday’s White House meeting between President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu will likely focus on the key Israeli concerns that the US keep its eyes wide open, remain firm and toughminded and not stay at the table so long that Iran makes even further progress on its nuclear program behind the scenes.

Are there risks for the US in opening talks with Iran?

Yes. The main risk is that Rouhani will not be able to deliver on the promise of his statements in New York. Iran is not a monolithic political culture. Rouhani and Zarif appear to be sincere advocates of a new strategy designed to normalize Iran’s relations with the US and West. But, the Revolutionary Guards, many of the senior clerics and certainly the Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, have much more strident and conservative views, especially toward the United States.

The diplomacy between Iran and the US will hinge on whether Rouhani can deliver these until now unyielding members of the Tehran government on the promise of reform and on delivering concrete changes on Iran’s nuclear program. There is no way to know at this point whether or not Rouhani will succeed or fail in making permanent changes to the way Iran has operated as a government for 30 years.

It is important to remember that we are dealing with a government that has lied first about the existence and then the extent of its nuclear research program. This same government has followed a radical and bloody policy throughout the Middle East that has antagonized the US, most Arab countries and Europe. There is no reason for us to trust the Iranian government at this point. They will have to prove, and we will have to verify, if the promise of Rouhani represents a temporary shift or permanent change in the way Iran deals with the rest of the world.

Despite our many differences with Russian President Vladimir Putin, he may emerge as a critical figure in the talks ahead. Russia does not want Iran to become a nuclear weapons power. Russia also has a much closer relationship with Iran than any of the other countries involved. Asking Putin to push Iran for the fundamental compromises necessary for peace would be a smart move by President Obama.

The risks for the US in this crisis of diplomacy are manageable and far outweighed by the possible benefits should we be able to end the nuclear impasse and begin to work productively again with an Iranian nation that will continue to be a force in this critical region. The negotiations ahead will be fascinating to watch and central to our hopes for a more stable and peaceful Middle East.

Nicholas Burns, GlobalPost senior foreign affairs columnist, is professor of the practice of diplomacy and international politics at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He is faculty chair of the school’s Middle East Initiative, India & South Asia Program, and is director of the Future of Diplomacy Project. He served in the United States Foreign Service for 27 years until his retirement in April 2008. Burns was Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs from 2005 to 2008. Prior to that, he was Ambassador to NATO (2001-2005), Ambassador to Greece (1997-2001), and State Department Spokesman (1995-1997). Follow him on Twitter @RNicholasBurns.

Related Stories