August 19, 2012

Nicholas Burns: diplomacy is the answer in Iran - really?

Nicholas Burns when he was at the State Department

In a recent article, former U.S. Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs and former Ambassador Nicholas Burns advocates a new and bold approach to Iran, an approach based on diplomacy. Of course, we would all like a diplomatic solution to halt Iran's drive to acquire a nuclear weapons capability. I think that's what we have been attempting since Barack Obama assumed the presidency in 2009.

That approach has not worked thus far, so why might it in the future? First off, let me acknowledge that Nicholas Burns is a highly capable, highly educated and experienced foreign policy expert. That said, I am somewhat taken aback by his apparent naivete on this particular issue. He does have limited experience in the Middle East - he served at the embassy in Cairo and the consulate in Jerusalem over 25 years ago. For the most part, however, he has dealt with the Soviets/Russians, NATO and European issues, so it is easy to understand why he might have a penchant for negotiations. However, his previous dealings have been with partners who were reliable interlocutors - that description does not apply to the Iranians.

Ambassador Burns believes that the United States should do all it can to avoid war and find another way to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. I agree wholeheartedly - no one wants to send young Americans into harm's way more than those of us who have been sent into harm's way. However, the United States government for years - through the Bush Administration and into the Obama Administration - has been clear in stating that we will not allow Iran to have a nuclear weapon. There have been some nuances about what defines that capability - actually producing a weapon or having the capability to produce a weapon, but everyone is in agreement that we will not tolerate a nuclear-armed Islamic Republic of Iran.

The nuanced stance is problematic. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has at one time said we will not tolerate Iran merely having the capability, in other words, enough highly enriched uranium and the technology to build a weapon. However, it is also difficult to pin the President down on his interpretation.

The difficulty in determining the exact American position is not lost on the Israelis. If they believe the Iranians are on the verge of developing the capability to build a nuclear weapon, they will act militarily. Ambassador Burns proposes that the United States take the lead to preclude such an attack.

That is a noble idea, but the Israelis are not convinced that we are willing to take the lead. The ambassador proposes a three-pronged diplomatic approach to make this happen. I have summarized them here:

- create a direct channel between Washington and Tehran for bilateral talks. Burns quips, "to attack a country before we have had our first meaningful discussions since 1979 would be shortsighted, to say the least."

- the United States must be ready to compromise by offering imaginative proposals that would permit Iran civil nuclear power but deny it a nuclear weapon.

- the United States needs to reaffirm our determination to protect Israel’s security, to slow down the Israeli timetable for military action.

He concludes his remarks with this paragraph:

"In the decade after 9/11, we reflexively turned to the military in Iraq and Afghanistan. Shouldn’t we now restore diplomacy as our first responder to face our greatest international challenges? There is no guarantee that diplomacy will work. But before we launch a third Middle East war, we would be well advised to consider first how we might defeat the Iranian leadership by other means — at the negotiating table."

As I said, Ambassador Burns is a smart man, but we have tried almost all of this before. We have tried the direct approaches to the mullahs in Tehran - it was one of the cornerstones of the new Obama diplomatic initiative in the region, to "extend an open hand instead of a fist," I believe he put it. It was flatly rejected each and every time it was attempted. I have to conclude that the Iranians do not want to talk to us. That strategy seems to be working - they have been enriching uranium non-stop. The multilateral talks have only reached agreements on more talks - we have agreed to talk about talking.

Iran knows that the rest of the world cannot legally prevent them from pursuing peaceful uses of nuclear technology - that is not the issue. They are using it as cover to pursue nuclear weapons. How hard is that to understand? This has been explained to the Iranians time and time again, but they choose to make the confrontation about their right to nuclear energy to deflect from the real issue. No rational intelligence analyst believes that Iran is not developing a nuclear weapons capability.

I do take some issue with the ambassador's concluding remarks. I do not think we "reflexively" turned to the military in Iraq and Afghanistan. Immediately after 9/11, we offered the Taliban-controlled government of Afghanistan a diplomatic solution - turn Usamah bin Ladin over to the United States. They refused, knowing full well what was about to happen to them. Three thousand Americans were killed in a senseless act of barbarism - it demanded an appropriate response. A United Nations resolution was not going to cut it.

As far as Iraq, we had been pursuing the diplomatic option since the end of the Gulf War in 1991. How many chances were you willing to give Saddam Husayn?

I do agree with your desire to exhaust all diplomatic options before we turn to the military option. Unfortunately, I think we are rapidly approaching that decision point.