Burns Calls for More US Engagement with Iran

  • Shafique Jamal
| Mar. 12, 2008

Iran poses a "considerable conventional challenge" to the interests of the United States, but both sides would benefit from an increase in cultural exchanges and creative diplomacy, said Nicholas Burns, who recently stepped down as Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs.

According to Burns, who spoke March 11 in the John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum, the top challenges facing the world today are global climate change, trafficking in women and children, international drug and crime cartels, and terrorist groups with access to chemical and biological weapons. This last challenge motivated the focus on Iran.

"Everywhere you look in the Middle East," said Burns, "Iran is behind those groups that are trying to destabilize a democratic Lebanon, moderate Palestinians, the Iraqi government, and the Afghan government."

Burns said that Iran is a leading supporter of all groups that violently oppose U.S. policy in the Middle East, including Hamas, Hezbollah, Shia militant groups in Iraq, and has even begun to fund and arm the Taliban, a group it has previously opposed.

"That is a considerable conventional challenge to the United States as the principal guarantor of stability in the region," a region he sees as the most vital in the world toady.

In addition to their support of militant groups, Burns sees Iran's nuclear program and ambition to be the most powerful country in the Middle East as cause for concern. However, while he insisted that the military option be left on the table, he also said he favors creative diplomacy.

He pointed to previous efforts to bring Iran to the negotiating table, such as the efforts of a group of six countries led by Russia and the U.S. The group offered to lift sanctions during for the life of the negotiations if Iran would suspend nuclear research during the same. However, Iran repeatedly refused.

An audience member asked why the U.S. insisted on preconditions to negotiation. Burns responded that the U.S. would not play such a major card without reason to believe that the gesture would be reciprocated.

"They have never given any indication that they are interested in negotiation," Burns said. "So you have to play these cards, the few that you have, rather carefully."

Burns also has some criticism of the way journalists report on the Iran issue.

"The conventional press spin is that the Bush administration does not want negotiations and Iran does — the reality is quite the reverse," Burns said. He attributed Iranian reluctance to political rivalries and divisions in Iran.

He also criticized reporting of the recent National Intelligence Estimate that stated that Iran had stopped its nuclear weapons development program in 2003.

"The straightest avenue to nuclear weapons capability is not weaponization," Burns said. "It is enrichment and reprocessing. Lots of reporters did not focus on the second part of the NIE that said Iran is actually accelerating its efforts on enrichment and reprocessing."

He also urged the American people, universities and non-profits to break down the barriers where the U.S. government could not. To remedy the lack of mutual understanding and dialog between the U.S. and Iran, Burns advocated exchanges of students and professionals, and has asked Congress to fund such initiatives.

"Until we can get to the point that we're beginning to talk to each other, there is an opportunity for American citizens to demystify the America for Iran and vice versa."

Watch Burns' address online:

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Jamal, Shafique. “Burns Calls for More US Engagement with Iran.” News, , March 12, 2008.

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