William J. Burns hasn’t quite finished what he started. But if President Barack Obama cuts a deal with Iran in the coming weeks to curtail its nuclear program, the soft-spoken Burns will—deservedly—get no small share of the credit for getting the negotiations started after years of stalemate. Burns, along with Jake Sullivan, a close adviser to Hillary Clinton, began the secret talks with the Iranians in Oman, talks that never became public until late 2013, when the months of maneuvering yielded an agreement to begin negotiating in earnest. It was a fitting capstone to a career that had Burns rise to the No. 2 post in the State Department, only the second career Foreign Service officer ever to do so; he retired to much insider fanfare last fall, hailed as a “diplomat’s diplomat” who had served in just about every sensitive posting in Washington, as well as ambassador to Russia as Vladimir Putin went from tough to tougher and U.S. envoy to Jordan in the midst of Middle East tumult. Politico editor Susan Glasser met recently with Burns, now head of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, to talk about the heated politics of the Iran talks, Putin and what he learned from all those secretaries of state.
Susan Glasser: So you have worked with—so how many Secretaries of State, 10? And how would you compare them?
Bill Burns: Jim Baker was as good a negotiator as I’ve seen in a secretary of state. He’s so methodical and thorough and well prepared. And you saw that with German reunification, and a number of other issues, that really have born his stamp. Hillary Clinton, you see some of that same focus on preparation, much like Baker; the two of them, when they walked into a room, were almost always as well prepared as anybody else in the room. You know, the ability to think strategically at least, look over the horizon a little bit. And John Kerry has energy and drive and persistence as a negotiator, which is essential, and Baker demonstrated that as well. Colin Powell’s a wonderful leader. I had worked for him at the NSC staff first, and then later when he was secretary. He invested a lot in the State Department as an institution, people remember very positively to this day, and I learned a lot just about the basic qualities of good leadership from him too.
SG: All of them have this shared challenge of how to get the White House to pay attention to them. What were the different approaches there? There have been periods of clearly much more conflict; during the Baker years, they were much closer to the White House. Under Powell and Rice, clearly there was a lot more conflict embedded in the relationship. You were one of the authors of this famous memo—the “Perfect Storm Memo” —about Iraq.
WJB: Yes, this was an issue where Powell was trying to be thorough and thoughtful about—in the run-up to the war in 2003—about thinking through the second- and third-order consequences of that kind of action, and had asked us at one point to try to think through everything that could go wrong—hence the title, “Perfect Storm.” A couple of the other guys I worked with—Ryan Crocker and David Pearce—did more of the work than I did. But collectively, I think, I read it a couple of years ago, we got it about half right.
SG: What was the half that you had right?
WJB: In broad terms, that once you took the lid off of a terribly repressive political system in Iraq, which Saddam Hussein had run by brute force, all the kinds of sectarian passions that could flow out of that. That’s not rocket science to anticipate that, but I think the depth of the problem is not something that was well appreciated in Washington beforehand. I’m not trying to pretend that we got it entirely right, but we were trying—at least it was an honest effort to anticipate some of those challenges.
SG: Thinking about the continuity of some Washington debates, the cycles of debate—Russia is probably the greatest example of that really, in the last two decades. First of all, like, where do you think things are headed at this point? With the assassination of Boris Nemtsov it almost suggests that it’s become much more unpredictable. The future may always be unpredictable in Russia—but that really, we don’t even know what trajectory it’s on.
WJB: There’s a lot of truth to that. Boris Nemtsov’s murder is a pretty cruel reminder of how dark the political atmosphere has become in Russia. It’s not the first of those kind of murders. When I was an ambassador to Russia, I remember speaking at [reporter] Anna Politkovskaya’s funeral. And I remember being struck by the fact that we had two or three thousand mourners, and not a single senior Russian government official. But Nemtsov is clearly the most prominent figure to be murdered. And I think what it says about Russia in a sense is, you had President Putin in his first two terms as president, including when I was ambassador from ’05 to ‘08, who had established a kind of rough social contract, where the deal was: I’ll ensure that economic growth picks up and standards of living rise if everyone else stays out of politics. I think that began to slow down, and then stagnate, as a result of everything from falling oil prices to corruption, to the sanctions that were produced by aggression in Ukraine. And so, in his third term he’s looked for a different way to mobilize people and nationalism was the answer. But not just any kind of nationalism, a chauvinism which is very much us against them, which has just gotten more and more aggravated and sharpened as a result of the war in Ukraine. And so you create an atmosphere, in which I don’t know who was responsible for Nemtsov’s murder, but where that kind of unpredictability and violence becomes more and more common. And that’s a dangerous thing for Russia, both internally, but it’s also dangerous I think in terms of foreign policy, too.
SG: Here in Washington, did we fundamentally misread Putin? Or has he shifted?
WJB: No, I mean I think hindsight is always a more perfect guide. There’s this kind of steady accumulation of grievance, the sense that history in the last 20 years, not just for Putin, but for lots of thoughtful Russians, is a story of the West taking advantage of Russian’s moment of historic weakness; the West treating Russia as less than a first-class citizen globally; of the West trying to deny Russia its entitlement, as lots of Russians see it, to a sphere of influence, in its own region. You can agree or disagree, I’m not arguing you accept or indulge that kind of point of view, but, understanding it is important, and I think that is a trend line that you can see going back seven, eight, nine years. Now that’s not an argument against the effort [to reset relations] in the first couple of years of the Obama administration.
Even to this day, you look at the Iran nuclear issue, or a few other ones, arguably on counterterrorism, potentially at some point in the future on Syria or other issues, there could be some room to work together. And, the reality with managing a relationship with a very complicated, unpredictable country like Russia, is that you don’t have the luxury of ignoring it, either.
SG: So Iran is a good example—this process of negotiating with the Iranians has continued in the exact same time period that the bottom has fallen out of our direct relationship with Russia, the Russians have invaded and taken over Crimea, they have effectively invaded Eastern Ukraine, and by the way, would you say that’s a fair characterization? What is your characterization of Russian military activity in Ukraine?
WJB: Well, it’s obvious aggression, I mean, that the Russians have mounted first in Crimea and now in a wider swath of Southeastern Ukraine, I don’t think there’s any question about that, about direct Russian involvement. People have been pretty direct about this being aggression, and a violation of sovereignty. And a lot of norms that matter in the 21st century.
SG: So why haven’t they tried to blow up the Iran talks then? Or are they waiting?
WJB: Well, I mean, I think Russians are capable of looking at their interests, and they don’t have an interest in a nuclear-armed Iran. That’s not to say that they share our interests exactly with regard to this Iranian leadership or this Iranian regime. But I think on that score there’s a fair amount of common ground. And I think they’ve been constructive, as partners in that effort, along with the Europeans and the Chinese. So we’ll see. There’s still a lot of ground to be covered in the negotiations, but so far the Russians have played a constructive role. One example: their willingness if this is ever worked out in an agreement, to take a significant part of the current Iranian stockpile. Which would be a big contribution to reaching an agreement.
SG: If they wanted to be unconstructive, what would they do? Would they resurrect the S-300 sale?
WJB: Yes, that’s one thing that could be done. Sanctions busting of one kind or another is another example.
SG: So, you have had the chance to engage more directly with the Iranians in the last couple of years than we thought was possible. Has there been anything that surprised you in those dealings with them? Were some of our assumptions wrong? What have you learned from dealing directly face to face with them, as opposed to through intermediaries.
WJB: Well, the Iranian government leadership is a big complicated operation with lots of points of view. And the Supreme Leader himself is clearly very suspicious of dealing with the United States, in part because it’s a whole system that’s been animated by suspicion of the U.S. over the years. But Iranians with whom we dealt in the form of secret bilateral negotiations, and then those that I’ve been involved in since then, are tough professionals, they have a feel for the world outside Iran, and they’re committed obviously to try to get the best deal possible for Iran. But also in the run-up to the interim agreement, the Joint Plan of Action, which we concluded at the end of 2013, it was clear that they were committed to trying to take a concrete step toward a comprehensive solution. And so, you know, after 35 years without sustained direct diplomatic engagement, it relatively quickly become clear that you could produce tangible results. Now whether we can take the bigger leap—whether the administration can take the bigger leap—to a comprehensive agreement still remains to be seen.
SG: So what’s your current sense of the chances, and will we really—do you think we’ll figure it out one way or the other this month?
WJB: Yes, both the president and Secretary Kerry have been pretty clear there’s a sense of urgency here in terms of the timetable, and I think the Iranians seem to understand that too. There’s a lot of ground that has to be covered, on some very important issues. And so, you know we’ll just have to see.
SG: Do you—I know we haven’t figured out what the actual contours of the deal are—but in terms of the negotiations that we’ve had up to this point, where their positions is, where our position is, has there been anything surprising? A lot of people talked about what the basis of a deal would be, really for a number of years. That’s kind of what we’re talking about, right?
WJB: It is. Some of the contours have been debated for a long time. First, if you take a step back, it really is important to continue to embed how we deal with the nuclear issue on a wider strategy toward Iran. The reality is, Iranian behavior is likely to be threatening, whether it’s in support of Hezbollah or it’s Syria or Yemen or elsewhere, for some time to come. And so it’s very important for us to continue to work with partners in the region, in the Gulf, and elsewhere, to reassure them and to make clear that we’re clear-eyed about all those threats, and on the nuclear issue, the further reality is that a nuclear-armed Iran is just going to multiply exponentially all of those other dangers. And a strong negotiated agreement, I really do believe, is the best of the available alternatives on the nuclear issue.
The ingredients for that are obviously easier to describe than they are to achieve, but it’s first to sharply constrain an Iranian civil nuclear program over a long duration. Second, to have very tight monitoring and verification and inspection procedures. Third, is to phase sanctions relief in such a way that you also have kind of snap-back provisions, so that if there’s a violation, you’re able to reapply sanctions. And then fourth, is to be able to cut off the potential pathways to a bomb, whether it’s through uranium or plutonium production, and to ensure as has been discussed a lot, a one-year breakout time. Current breakout is probably two or three months, and this is again one-year breakout, if Iran decided to produce enough fissile material for a single weapon.
Listen, I understand the argument for no enrichment capacity at all. In a perfect world, you wouldn’t have any domestic enrichment program, and the United States has argued in lots of other circumstances that people ought not to do domestic enrichment, because it’s not commercially sensible. The reality is that the Iranians have developed over the course of the last decade or more the know-how to enrich, they know their way around basic enrichment technology, and you can’t wish that away, you can’t dismantle it away, you can’t bomb it away. And so the reality is that if you want to get a negotiated agreement, the question is how to constrain it, verify it over a long duration, so that you have strong confidence that they’re not going to break out and try to develop a weapon. And so that they’re deterred in thinking abut that prospect in the future. So I understand the argument for no enrichment, but I just think that train left the station.
SG: Do you think that Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu’s speech to Congress and the political uproar here in Washington meaningfully, in any way, impacts the prospects for a deal?
WJB: I don’t know, I mean the only thing I would say is a strong U.S.-Israeli relationship is obviously very much in the interests of Americans and Israelis, especially at a moment of such uncertainty in the region as a whole. Historically, that relationship has not been partisan and I think the way in which the speech to Congress was orchestrated and the timing of it was really unfortunate. Certainly if an agreement is reached, I’m sure the administration will work very closely with Congress to make its case. But there’s a lot of ground that has to be covered between here and actually getting to an agreement.
The other thing, too, is to keep a sense of perspective. Even when you think back to the end of 2012, and we finished the interim agreement, there was huge criticism at the time, including from Prime Minister Netanyahu, that this was the deal of the century for the Iranians. The reality is that turned out to be a pretty solid agreement. It froze and rolled back in some significant ways the Iranian program; it gave us intrusive verification measures we didn’t have before which provided a good foundation on which to build some of those measures for a comprehensive agreement. And in return for relatively modest sanctions relief that did not, as many of the critics suggested, would cause the overall edifice of sanctions to collapse. And so, I think people need to keep a sense of perspective as they look at all the early criticism of an agreement that’s not done yet, and compare it to what the atmosphere was like in November of 2013.