Iranian-American negotiations: an interview with Ambassador William J. Burns.


Ambassador William J. Burns helped lead the back channel talks with Iran that led to an interim nuclear agreement in November 2013 and set the stage for the July 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action between Iran and the P5+1. Ambassador Burns retired from the U.S. Foreign Service in 2014 after a 33'year diplomatic career. He holds the highest rank in the Foreign Service, Career Ambassador, and is only the second serving career diplomat in history to become Deputy Secretary of State. Ambassador Burns served from 2008 to 2011 as Under Secretary for Political Affairs. He was Ambassador to Russia from 2005 to 2008, Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs from 2001 to 2005, and Ambassador to Jordan from 1998 to 2001.

The Journal spoke with Ambassador Burns on the negotiating process with Iran, his thoughts on the future of the Middle East, and the United States' role in the region.

Journal of International Affairs (JIA): Tell me about the very first steps, when President Obama asked you to lead a delegation to Oman to meet with the Iranians. How did the president and his staff explain it to you? What were your thoughts?

Ambassador William J. Bums (WB): The President had a clear idea of how he wanted to go about this. The first step was to build leverage with the Iranians, by showing them that we were willing to engage, but also that we were absolutely determined to prevent Iran from developing or acquiring a nuclear weapon. Our willingness to engage with the Iranians helped us build international solidarity, which also helped make the sanctions regime far more effective. By the beginning of President Obama's second term in early 2013, we had built up a fair amount of leverage through economic sanctions and political isolation, and the result of that was that Iran's oil exports had decreased by 50 percent and the value of the Iranian currency had decreased by 50 percent. The president decided that this was the time to test whether or not an effort at direct diplomacy would get a result.

And so in early March 2013, in meetings facilitated by the Omanis, we began a quiet direct conversation with the Iranians. And the fact that we did it quietly or secretly caused a certain amount of controversy, but the reality is that after 35 years without sustained diplomatic contact between the United States and Iran, there was a huge amount of baggage, a lot of mistrust, and a lot of grievances. Had we tried to begin that negotiation in the glare of publicity, I think it would have been extremely difficult, if not impossible, to get any traction. I was skeptical that we would be able to produce an interim agreement, let alone a comprehensive one. I think the Iranian diplomats who were engaging with us were probably equally as skeptical. Over time, we demonstrated that we could produce results in which each side would live up to its obligations and that it would be possible to construct an agreement. I wouldn't suggest that we built up trust between us but I think there was a fair amount of professional respect in the midst of very tough negotiations.

JIA: Jeffrey Goldberg's recent piece on the Obama doctrine in the Atlantic is a fascinating insight into President Obama's policies towards the region and Iran in particular.

WB: The president's view always struck me as very practical in the sense that he was clear-eyed, and remains clear-eyed, about the reality that there won't be an overnight...

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