Q&A: Ex-Veteran Diplomat Says 2013 Could Bring U.S.-Iran Nuclear Talks

Former U.S. Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns, shown in 2007, said the United States and Iran might this year engage in "serious, substantive, sustained bilateral negotiations" (AP Photo/Rob Griffith).
Former U.S. Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns, shown in 2007, said the United States and Iran might this year engage in "serious, substantive, sustained bilateral negotiations" (AP Photo/Rob Griffith).

WASHINGTON  -- The new year could bring “the first serious, substantive, sustained” direct negotiations between the United States and Iran in decades over Tehran’s controversial Iranian nuclear program, according to a former undersecretary of State.

“I do believe that 2013 will be a consequential year for the Iran nuclear crisis,” former Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Nicholas Burns said in an interview. “There’s also a reasonable chance that we might have some bilateral negotiations with Iran -- the first serious, substantive, sustained bilateral negotiations since the Jimmy Carter administration,” he told Global Security Newswire. There are no publicly announced direct U.S.-Iran talks on Iran’s nuclear program.

Currently, the United States participates in P-5+1 talks with Iran through a coalition of the five permanent U.N. Security Council members and Germany. Following three rounds of talks in 2012, reports have suggested another meeting could be in the offing with the objective of resolving concerns over Iran’s nuclear work. Of particular concern is uranium enrichment that could be used to produce nuclear weapons material; Iran insists it has no military atomic program.

Burns noted direct talks could give the United States a better feel for the intentions of Iran and its supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. “We don’t know whether or not he’s willing to make some fundamental compromises here and to pull back from the progress that Iran is making on enrichment,” according to the veteran diplomat. “And so, negotiations would give us the answer to that question.”

Direct talks, he argued, would also show the world the United States had taken “the last steps possible towards peace” before any potential use of military force against Iran.  “Of course, the Obama administration, I’m quite sure, would not give up the threat of force and the possibility of the use of force should that be necessary,” Burns added.

Burns handled the Iran nuclear issue as undersecretary of State for political affairs, retiring from that post as the third-ranking official in the State Department in 2008. The undersecretary position capped a diplomatic career that also included serving as State Department spokesman and U.S. ambassador to NATO.    

The former envoy chastised nuclear-armed India for what he described as failure to live up to a civil nuclear agreement with the United States. Burns negotiated the deal approved by Congress in 2008. In return for allowing International Atomic Energy Agency monitoring of its civilian nuclear plants, India is to receive access to U.S. nuclear equipment, material and technology that had previously been off-limits.

Officials in Washington have been critical of an Indian law that could hold U.S. equipment suppliers liable in case of a nuclear accident, stalling any potential trade.

“The United States has fulfilled all of its commitments,” Burns said. “And the Indians have not. In fact, they’ve passed legislation in the Indian Parliament that effectively nullifies the agreement.”

Burns also criticized Pakistan for failing to rein in former top nuclear scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan, branded as the head of an international proliferation network. Freed from five years of house arrest in 2009, Khan has now formed his own political party in Pakistan.

“He did enormous damage to the security of the world,” Burns said of Khan’s sales of nuclear equipment to Iran, Libya and North Korea. “The Pakistani government ought to make sure that he is no longer able to act internationally and to participate in international affairs in any way, shape, or form.”

In the wide-ranging interview, Burns commented on issues including the U.S.-Israeli relationship over the potential use of force against Iran; the dangers of Syria’s chemical weapons; and Russia’s response to NATO’s missile defense efforts. Burns also remarked on endangered U.S.-Russian Cooperative Threat Reduction efforts and what he sees as the main WMD threat in the future. Edited excerpts are below:

Q: The International Atomic Energy Agency has observed “a steady gradual increase in the amount” of Iran’s enriched uranium, according to IAEA chief Yukiya Amano. Is increasing Iranian nuclear defiance going to bring the long-brewing crisis to a head in 2013?

Burns: I do believe that 2013 will be a consequential year for the Iran nuclear crisis. It is, in my judgment, the No. 1 national security concern facing the United States.

President Obama’s policy – very much in line with President Bush’s in the second term –has been very effective. Iran is weaker now than it was four or five years ago. It has less international support. Because of the U.S. and EU sanctions, the value of the Iranian currency has depreciated by about 80 percent. Iranian oil production is down 1 million barrels a day. And Iran has very few friends in the world.

2013 is going to be important because there is time and space now for diplomacy and for a big negotiation between the U.S. and Iran. I would expect that the P-5+1 negotiations will continue. And I think there’s also a reasonable chance that we might have some bilateral negotiations with Iran, the first serious, substantive, sustained bilateral negotiations since the Jimmy Carter administration. And it would make sense for the president to give diplomacy a real chance here over many months.

But at some point in 2013 … it will be necessary for the president to decide whether diplomacy has succeeded or failed. And whether or not other measures, including the threat of force or the use of force, need to be taken. So, I do think it’s a very important year.

Q: When you said the advantage of diplomacy, the advantage of direct talks or the advantage of diplomacy overall?

Burns: Both, but certainly of direct talks because one of the problems we have is that we have not had a sustained conversation with the Iranians on this issue over many administrations. The supreme decision-maker, the supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, we don’t know whether or not he’s willing to make some fundamental compromises here and to pull back from the progress that Iran is making on enrichment. And so, negotiations would give us the answer to that question. We have very little, if anything, to lose because you can always walk away from negotiations.

Of course, the Obama administration, I’m quite sure, would not give up the threat of force and the possibility of the use of force should that be necessary. So, there’s widespread support, both internationally, but I also think in Washington, in the Congress, for a period of negotiations and diplomacy before we consider the use of force. That makes sense for the United States.

Q: An example of diplomacy with the threat of force was before the Persian Gulf War, when then-Secretary of State James Baker sat down with his Iraqi counterpart, Tariq Aziz, to warn him an invasion would happen if Iraq did not pull out of Kuwait. Similarly, are talks between the United States and Iran a way to renew the U.S. threat of force as well as diplomatically negotiate directly?

Burns: Well, I think the example of Secretary Baker’s a very good one. … He went the extra mile. [In] January, 1991, he flew to Geneva. He met with Tariq Aziz when a lot of people were criticizing him for doing that. But in doing so, he was able to show the rest of the world that the United States was going to exhaust all efforts for peace.

And I think the same dynamic is going to be in place in 2013. If we want to sustain a very broad-based and effective international sanctions effort to restrict the Iranians, we need to be able to show the rest of the world that we’re dedicated to taking the last steps possible towards peace. And it was [former Israeli Prime Minister] Yitzhak Rabin who said famously, you don’t negotiate with your friends. You negotiate with very unsavory enemies.

So President Obama would be well within his right to start these negotiations. I do think he’d have support for it in the country. The president would have to decide how long these negotiations would take place. But frankly, if you might be able to resolve the problem without recourse to war, then I would think negotiations over several months would be in order.

Q: What is the potential for military attack by the United States or Israel on Iranian nuclear facilities?

Burns: First, let me say I have not given up on the possibility that a combination of sanctions, a threat of force, and negotiations might convince the Iranians to agree to an arrangement where they would not produce a nuclear weapon, make fundamental compromises on what they’re trying to do -- and we wouldn’t have to go to war. So, I don’t believe that that’s an impossible goal.

The chances of success are probably, you know, not high, but it’s certainly worth trying.

Now, if diplomacy fails, the president will have to decide what our next steps are. And certainly, both President Obama and President Bush have indicated in the past that they would not take the threat of force off the table. So, that would be a very difficult and fateful decision for the president to make.

Q: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seemed to indicate in his U.N. [General Assembly] speech that perhaps the spring would be Israel’s deadline for an attack. Do you see that as possibly when an agreement would need to be wrapped up?

Burns: I have enormous sympathy for Israel’s concern about Iran’s nuclear future. The Israelis are on the front lines in the Middle East and they cannot afford to see Iran become a nuclear weapons power. I do think they can count on the United States.

And I certainly hope that Prime Minister Netanyahu would trust what President Obama said at the AIPAC conference last March: that he has Israel’s back, he’s fundamentally dedicated to Israel’s security, and that the United States is not willing to see Iran become a nuclear weapons power.

What needs to happen is the public disagreements between Israel and the United States need to be closed. So, there should be a united front where the United States and Israel are standing together. I would hope that there be no further arguments in public.

It’s important that the United States lead in this crisis: that Israel work very closely with the United States but not try to get ahead of the United States in the use of force, in particular.

Q: Can you envision a scenario in which the United States would use force?

Burns: In the hypothetical event that diplomacy failed ---there were no more diplomatic options, then I think that there is a possibility that the United States could use force. If you look at the position of the administration, it is that Iran shall not be allowed to acquire a nuclear weapon. So, that would be either one way or another.

But it’s far preferable for the U.S. to try to resolve this first diplomatically by negotiations. I think that’s where you’ll see most of the action in the first half of 2013.

Q: Also in the Middle East region, are you worried that the stock of chemical weapons in Syria could be out of safe hands or even used?

Burns: Any time that you’re dealing with a situation involving WMD, weapons of mass destruction, it’s a highly dangerous situation. So, it really does matter how the Syrian civil war ends.

One would hope that this national council that’s been formed, this new umbrella organization of the Syrian opposition, will be effective. As they take territory in a civil war… that they be highly organized and responsible.

And any WMD or any sophisticated military equipment that they acquire be protected and turned over to responsible international authorities, as it was in Libya in 2011. That’s going to be a very important issue

Q: The Mideast WMD-free zone meeting intended for last month was postponed. Do you infer any meaning from this in general?

Burns: I don’t think it’s an issue where progress can be made … given the state of the Middle East and given the threat that the democratic countries face. I think you’re going to see a focus on trying to resolve the Iran problem, the Israel-Palestine problem before you see any serious consideration of that proposal.

Q: President Obama is expected to seek to further reduce the U.S. nuclear arsenal. Currently, the New START treaty with Russia provides for a ceiling of 1,550 deployed strategic warheads. Does our current nuclear posture match U.S. needs in the 21st century?

Burns: I certainly strongly supported President Obama’s nuclear arms reduction agreement with Russia. There is unfinished business before the U.S. Senate: the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. And that’s important the United States stand behind that.

I generally am supportive of what the president’s trying to do on arms reductions. He made a historic speech in Prague which was very visionary and very welcome. Now, he’s trying to work in a very pragmatic way to reduce the risk of a nuclear conflict, obviously, and … to lower the levels of the major states. That’s a very positive direction for our country.

Q: As someone who worked in diplomacy for decades and was a Russia expert at the National Security Council, do you think the United States could reach a new agreement with Russian President Vladimir Putin to significantly reduce the number of deployed strategic nuclear warheads?

Burns: That’s going to depend on the quality of our relationship with President Putin in President Obama’s second term and whether or not the United States and Russia can begin to establish a pattern of better work and cooperation together. And there was a famous reset four years ago, which I felt was the right thing to do.

Now, we may have to go through a reset [again], because certainly over the last year, our relations with Russia have been highly problematic. So, I don’t think you can plan major strategic agreements unless there’s a certain element of trust and cooperation in place between the two governments. I think that has to come first.

Q: Moscow said it will pull out of the Cooperative Threat Reduction program when the U.S.-Russia agreement expires next year. Do you think this will happen? And what do you think of that potential?

Burns: I thought it was really very unwise for the Russian government to indicate that they didn’t want to proceed with the Nunn-Lugar program, which I think has been one of the most important programs the United States has undertaken in the last 20 years. So, I would really hope that the Russians would reconsider.

Q: What are the stakes in this?

Burns: Well, the stakes are enormously high. I think a lot of people believe, and I certainly do, that the greatest threat to peace in the world is the possibility that a terrorist group might get its hands on nuclear or biological or chemical weapons. And when President Obama was in the Senate, this was one of his major concerns. He worked closely with Senator Lugar.

And as president, he has spearheaded the creation of the nuclear [security] summits, and proliferation is now higher on the agenda of the U.S. government than it’s ever been before. So, I think the president’s given this a lot of energy. We now need help from the Russian government. It’s a major issue to be decided with the Russians.

Q: Russia’s been vocal in its opposition to a NATO plan for missile defense in Europe. President Obama famously indicated he would have more flexibility on this issue with Russia after the November election. What could the president and the NATO alliance do to assuage Russian concerns?

Burns: I would really hope that the Russians would reconsider. I think they’ve misunderstood, or they have willfully misunderstood, perhaps, the rationale for missile defense.

NATO has an obvious interest in establishing a pan-European missile defense system --not because Russia’s an imminent threat, but because Iran is an imminent threat. And that threat needs to be countered to protect Europe’s populations and Europe’s military.

I think the Russian objections have been tendentious and frankly, have not been based on solid reasoning. They’ve been more political than anything else. I would hope the Russians would reconsider and agree to support the creation of this NATO missile defense system.

Q: You cited the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. Why do you think it’s important that the Senate ratify it? Do you think that the Obama administration will bring it up to the Senate in the near future, and could it pass?

Burns: It’s very important that the United States continue to lead on the issue of nuclear testing. We’re coming up next year, 2013, on the 50th anniversary of the [Limited] Nuclear Test Ban Treaty [that bans testing in the atmosphere, outer space and underwater], a great achievement of President John F. Kennedy and a direct outgrowth of the Cuban missile crisis.

If there are any lessons that we’ve learned over half a century, it’s that the leading nuclear powers need to establish leadership and send very strong signals embedded in international law to other nuclear powers that they must not test.

And this is a message for certainly the Chinas and the Turkeys and the Indias of the world. So, the United States has to be leading on the comprehensive test ban. Obviously, it’s the prerogative of the Senate to give advice and consent, but it’s a very important test of our leadership. And I think the president passed that test.

It’s now time for Congress to follow.

Q: You mentioned India. Nearly a year ago, you wrote that India was “stonewalling” on implementation of the civil nuclear agreement. Has that situation changed, and what are they doing to stonewall it?

Burns: Well, you know, this was the signature centerpiece of the U.S.-India relationship from 2005 on over the last seven years.

Q:  You negotiated it, right?

Burns: I was the American negotiator for that agreement with the Indian government. And the United States has fulfilled all of its commitments. President Obama and President Bush did.

We’ve done everything we said we would do. Congress passed legislation to allow the agreement to go into effect. And the Indians have not. In fact, they’ve passed legislation in the Indian Parliament that effectively nullifies the agreement. So, it really is the responsibility of India to save this agreement.

It’s a very important, both concrete and symbolic, part of the new strategic relationship between the two countries. And I know President Obama’s tried very hard, and he’s done the right thing, but the Indian government is not reciprocating.

Q: Abdul Qadeer Khan, once under house arrest for his nuclear equipment proliferation network that supplied technology to Iran, Libya, and North Korea, is registering a new political party in Pakistan. How do you feel about this?

Burns: Well, I think it’s outrageous that A.Q. Khan ... can continue to talk and continue to meet with people and even to be involved in politics. He is an international outlaw. He did enormous damage to the security of the world.

The Pakistani government ought to make sure that he is no longer able to act internationally and to participate in international affairs in any way, shape, or form.

Q: What is the greatest WMD issue that we will face in the 21st century?

Burns: Oh, I think we’re facing it now. It is the horrifying proposition that a nihilist, evil terrorist group might come into possession of nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons. That is a substantial international threat, and I do think President Obama has been a real leader in trying to cope with that threat.

Q: With Osama bin Laden gone and al-Qaida weakened, is there still a real nuclear terrorism threat?

Burns: There always is because there’s more than just one terrorist group in the world. And it stands to reason that one of the greatest vulnerabilities, the greatest threats we face, is of not just a state acquiring nuclear weapons illicitly, and that’s a major threat, say, in the case of Iran, but that a terrorist group might.  Because it’s so much harder to combat a small terrorist group operating in the shadows.

 The possibility that a terrorist group might acquire WMD is still unfortunately a reality. It could happen. And that’s why we have to strengthen the international measures to prevent it from happening.

 

 

 

Jan. 4, 2013
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WASHINGTON  -- The new year could bring “the first serious, substantive, sustained” direct negotiations between the United States and Iran in decades over Tehran’s controversial Iranian nuclear program, according to a former undersecretary of State.