In “The Back Channel,” retired career Foreign Service officer William J. Burns takes readers into a world we rarely see. Burns worked under five presidents — three Republicans and two Democrats — and managed some of our most sensitive and high-profile portfolios. He served as ambassador to Russia, and later became deputy secretary of state and under secretary of state for political affairs, the second- and third-highest ranking positions, respectively, at the State Department.
When Burns retired in 2014, then-Secretary of State John F. Kerry said he was on a “very short list of American diplomatic legends.”
It is, however, Burns’s track record of dealings with Iran, spanning several decades, that is the most intriguing. It’s fair to say that Burns is the U.S. diplomat with the richest experience of dealing directly with Iranian officials. Few other U.S. officials in recent times can claim a background of comparable depth.
Talking with Iran or other adversaries is not a symptom of appeasement — it’s what diplomats do. Without that contact, we lose touch with the realities of our world. Even worse, we run the risk of losing the moral high ground afforded to honest international brokers.
I recently had a chance to speak with Burns about his views on Iran. We started by discussing a particularly intriguing episode in his book — a 2008 memo he sent to then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in which he proposed a new multifaceted Iran strategy that would have even included U.S. diplomats based in Tehran.
Burns explained that he strongly believes that regular diplomatic contact is always a good idea — even with our most difficult adversaries. “It’s not a favor or reward for them, but a sensible, coldblooded investment in avoiding misunderstandings and collisions, and making our concerns clear.”
He didn’t expect Tehran to accept his proposal, suggested in the 2008 memo, for a U.S. visa office in Tehran. “The last thing the supreme leader would want to see was a long line of visa applicants around a diplomatic facility staffed partly by Americans,” Burns told me. “But by proposing it, we would have undermined that narrative” of American hostility toward Iran and its people.
It would have also “built credibility with international partners whose support we would need to tighten sanctions if Iran was incapable of a serious approach to negotiations,” according to Burns.
Iran, I noted, is not an existential threat to the United States. So why, I asked, do we seem to have such an obsessive fear of the place?
Burns agreed that it has had “an outsized hold on our imagination” over the past few decades. It is true, he conceded, that Tehran is skilled at taking advantage of regional vulnerabilities and, as a result, is capable of posing real threats to our friends and interests. “But they are not 10 feet tall, and theirs is a society with lots of internal contradictions,” he said. “That’s why I argued for a version of ‘containment’ — limit their ability to subvert others, engage them to manage the biggest risks, like an unconstrained nuclear program, just as we did with the Soviets, and look for creative ways to exploit those contradictions.”
So what would he recommend to his current counterpart at the State Department? How should we handle the Iranian challenge?
There is, he said, “a smart way and a dumb way to manage an adversarial relationship with Iran.” It would be smarter, he argued, to keep the nuclear deal going, to use it as the basis for further negotiations aimed at removing its imperfections, and to use this process as the centerpiece of “a wider strategy to push back against threatening Iranian actions in the region.” At the same time, he said, “just as Reagan did with the Soviets, we’d continue to be very clear about human rights concerns. … The dumb way, it seems to me, is to abandon the agreement, operate on the false assumption that unilateral American pressure is going to bring the regime to its knees.”
I wanted to know if we gained anything from our years of negotiation with Iranian officials and the nuclear deal that resulted from them. And what, I asked, have we lost from abandoning it?
“I always saw the nuclear agreement as the beginning of a serious effort to reshape Iranian behavior, not the end,” said Burns. “It was the start of a long, complicated diplomatic slog — but it removed one important layer of risk in a very risky region. And after a decade at war, it showed what diplomacy could produce. Now we’re reminded that it’s a lot easier to tear down diplomacy than it is to build it up.”