GWEN IFILL: Tonight, we hear from a man with a unique relationship to the Iran deal. Retired career diplomat and former Deputy Secretary of State William Burns headed a secret negotiating team that met with high-level Iranian representatives in Oman and Switzerland first in 2008 under President George W. Bush and then in earnest in 2013, when the Obama and Rouhani governments revived the talks. Burns’ role, which wasn’t revealed until late 2013, continued even during the formal negotiations, up until the final agreement was signed in July. Chief foreign affairs correspondents Margaret Warner sat down with Ambassador Burns today in Washington to ask him about the deal and whether Iran will truly comply.

MARGARET WARNER: William Burns, thank you for joining us.

WILLIAM BURNS, Former U.S. Deputy Secretary of State: It’s a pleasure to be with you.

MARGARET WARNER: Now that it’s clear that the president has at least the votes he needs to get this Iran deal through somehow, does it matter internationally whether he has to do it by veto or whether he is able to somehow finesse having a vote at all?

William J. Burns
William J. Burns was president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He previously served as U.S. deputy secretary of state.
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WILLIAM BURNS: Well, I think the more quickly this can be accomplished on the Hill, I think the better it is for the United States as a demonstration of our commitment to this agreement, and then to focus on implementation, which is going to be a real challenge for all of us.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, there are some Republican members of Congress who are talking already about, once the deal goes through, slapping new sanctions on Iran, unilateral ones that are non-nuclear-related. Would that throw a monkey wrench in the works either on the Iranian or on the implementation side?

WILLIAM BURNS: It could, is the honest answer. So, I think the real issue here is less new measures at this point, and it’s more the rigorous implementation of those provisions which already exist to push back against Iranian behavior, whether it’s support for terrorism in the region directly through proxies or human rights practices that we have continued to condemn.

MARGARET WARNER: So do you mean more rigorous than we are now?

WILLIAM BURNS: Yes, I think there are things that we can do working with others to try to interdict arms shipments to Hezbollah, as well as to Houthis in Yemen. I think we’re in a stronger position to do that now that we’re moving ahead with implementation of the nuclear agreement.

MARGARET WARNER: Given how politically divisive this issue has been, with all the Republicans lining up against it, how hopeful are you that in fact this deal will really be implemented fully on the U.S. end, without constant attempts to undermine it?

WILLIAM BURNS: Well, I think it’s clearly in the U.S. interest, notwithstanding the bitter debate that’s gone on over this agreement, to implement the agreement, so long as the Iranians are living up to their obligations, which is why I think it’s really important in the first year of implementation that both sides live up to their obligations, because I think that builds some momentum that can then be sustained over the entire course of the agreement.

MARGARET WARNER: As we know, the critics have raised many different charges about this agreement. And one vote that the president lost, a Democrat, was Ben Cardin, senator from Maryland, ranking Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee. And one of his big concerns is the $140 billion that it’s going to free up for the Iranians, which he says are sure to be spent just to foment greater terrorism in the region. What do you say to that? What could the U.S. do about that?

WILLIAM BURNS: Well, I think, first, I would say there are risks in any option that we pursue with regard to the Iranian nuclear issue, and there are honest concerns such as those that Senator Cardin has expressed. The truth is that it’s only a subset of that $140 billion that the Iranians would actually have access to that’s not already committed, whether it’s to long-term projects with the Chinese or others, so it’s maybe $50 billion or $55 billion. That’s still an awful lot of money. And some of that money surely is going to go to the kind of purposes the Iranians have demonstrated before, whether it’s support for proxies in the region or efforts to destabilize other parts of the Middle East. I don’t think in the end that it’s going to have a huge determinative effect on, you know, how effectively the Iranians continue to pursue those aims. And, as I said before, there is a lot that we and others can do to push back against that behavior over time.

MARGARET WARNER: And more than we’re doing now?

WILLIAM BURNS: I think that’s true, yes.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, do you expect the Iranians — you have dealt with them more perhaps than anybody in the United States government. Do you expect them to try to cheat, to try to violate around the edges the actual agreement?

WILLIAM BURNS: Well, I think they will test, you know, any areas of ambiguity that they perceive, which is why I think it is going to be very important, especially in the first months, the first year of implementation, that we and our partners are quite rigorous in the execution of this agreement.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, when you say you think they will test it, do you think they will test it openly, essentially, or that they will try to do something sub rosa and wait to be caught?

WILLIAM BURNS: I think it’s more nibbling around the edges, where they see or perceive areas of ambiguity in the agreement. And I think that’s why it’s just very important to hold them to their obligations right from the very start of this.

MARGARET WARNER: Both sides talk about the decades of distrust between our two countries. Do you think all these months of painstaking negotiations have in any way eased that distrust?

WILLIAM BURNS: There is a lot of mistrust that persists. There are a lot of very serious differences that persist, and we have to be very clear-eyed about that. But I think we have built up through the course of the negotiations the last few years a fair amount of professional respect. The Iranian negotiators with whom I dealt directly were very tough-minded, skillful negotiators. And I think, over time, I wouldn’t say that we eliminated the mistrust between us. I think that’s going to endure for some time, but I do think we built up a fair amount of professional respect, and that’s important when you’re trying to get anything done.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, just yesterday, President Rouhani said he could imagine that Iran and the U.S. and Saudi Arabia could cooperate in trying to resolve the Syrian conflict. Do you expect something like that to develop once this deal is implemented?

WILLIAM BURNS: I honestly don’t expect any overnight transformation of Iranian behavior, whether it’s with regard to the Syrian issue or U.S.-Iranian relations.

MARGARET WARNER: Meaning they’re still supporting Hafez Assad, they’re still supporting Hezbollah? They’re accused of shipping weapons in.

WILLIAM BURNS: Yes, I think the Iranian — this Iranian leadership has a pretty unsentimental view of its interests in Syria. I don’t think there is going to be any overnight transformation. It’s going to take time and it’s going to be a very complicated process. It’s not an argument against making the effort. It’s just an argument for being realistic about it.

MARGARET WARNER: And, of course, the Syrian unresolved conflict has unleashed now this absolute migrant crisis in Europe. If you were still the deputy secretary of state, you were still advising the secretary of state and the president, what would you be advising the U.S. should do right now in this situation, the migrant situation?

WILLIAM BURNS: Yes, it’s certainly a horrific human tragedy. I think there is more that the United States can do in terms of taking in more refugees than we do today. I think there is more we can do working with key European leaders like Chancellor Merkel, who has made clear Germany’s willingness to take in a lot more refugees. The United States can be proud of the contributions we have made to supporting refugees over recent…

MARGARET WARNER: Writing a check, essentially?

WILLIAM BURNS: Right. But I think there is more that we can do, not only in terms of taking in refugees. David Miliband, the head of the International Rescue Committee, called for the United States to take in more than 60,000. I think we ought to do at least that much. But I think there is also more that we can do to try to stabilize the situation and do everything we can to revive the serious diplomatic effort to produce a political transition in Syria. Much easier said than done, but, ultimately, I don’t see how you come to grips with the migration crisis unless you begin to address the deeper political crisis in Syria and in the region.

MARGARET WARNER: William Burns, thank you so much.


This broadcast originally aired on PBS Newshour