Iran nuclear talks: 3 Questions with Ambassador Nick Burns


Iran's and world powers' delegations sit prior the start of two days of closed-door nuclear talks on October 15, 2013 at the United Nations offices in Geneva. The P5+1 and Iran began fresh talks on Tehran's controversial nuclear program, after a six-month hiatus over its refusal to curb uranium enrichment in exchange for easing sanctions.


Fabrice Coffrini

BOSTON — The big diplomatic story this week, of course, has been talks in Geneva over Iran's nuclear ambitions.

US Secretary of State John Kerry made an unexpected stop in Geneva Friday, raising expectations that a nuclear deal between Iran and and the so-called P5+1 nations — the US, Britain, China, France, and Russia, as well as Germany — could be imminent.

So what would a deal mean to US policy in the volatile Middle East? And what's really at stake?

To find out we turned to GlobalPost's senior foreign affairs columnist Nicholas Burns, as part of a regular feature we call "3 Questions with Ambassador Burns."

The man ought to know. He's a professor of the practice of diplomacy and international politics at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.

Prior to that Burns held just about every important diplomatic job in the US government — including NATO ambassador, US ambassador to Greece and State Department spokesman, among others.

What is the rationale behind a limited nuclear arrangement with Iran?

This agreement is designed to compel Iran to freeze some or all of its current enrichment efforts for a specified period of time, perhaps as long as six months. In return, the US and its negotiating partners would lift a limited number of the sanctions against Iran but apparently not the major financial and oil and gas sanctions that have been so damaging to the Iranian economy. This type of limited deal would provide some time and space for the much tougher negotiations ahead for a final and complete agreement on Iran's nuclear program.

Is this a good deal for the US?

The central idea of the deal would help the US. The Obama team and its European allies are most concerned about Iran's acceleration this year of its uranium enrichment program, particularly its more powerful P-2 centrifuges. Along with the new Arak Heavy Water Reactor coming on-line soon, this could speed Iran more quickly than envisaged toward a nuclear weapon. So, the imperative is to stop or slow down the enrichment program. That will permit the US to stay in negotiations longer into 2014. If the US can effectively freeze the Iran program in place, that would be highly advantageous for the US.

But the devil will be in the details. We need to see the specifics of the deal to understand if it places real and verifiable limits on Iran. In addition, the sanctions relief granted by the US should be reversible so that Washington could reimpose the sanctions easily at any time should Iran renege on its commitments.

Why is Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu so opposed to this agreement?

Prime Minister Netanyahu has been highly critical today, calling it "the deal of the century" for Iran. He believes apparently that it relieves too much of the sanctions pressure on Iran for too little in return.

The US, on the other hand, seems to believe that some type of compromise now with Iran is necessary in order to achieve a final agreement that stops Iran short of a nuclear weapon.

Netanyahu is making a serious error in judgment by criticizing the US so openly before the deal is even announced. It does not make good sense for Israel to feud with the Obama Administration. That can only help Iran. Israel and the US will be much stronger and effective if the two sides keep their arguments private and stand together publicly.

Given Netanyahu's outburst, we will now likely have a major debate between some in Congress and the administration over Iran at a time when national unity and supporting the president would be the far more effective and desirable alternative.