Newspaper Article - The Wall Street Journal

An Expert View: Accept the Deal but Move to Contain Iran

| July 20, 2015

Nicholas Burns, a former point man on Iranian nuclear matters, advocates effort to contain Tehran’s regional ambitions

Nicholas Burns was there when Iranian nuclear diplomacy was born—a birth that occurred, as is little remembered now, during the administration of President George W. Bush.

Mr. Burns was undersecretary of state and the diplomatic point man on Iranian nuclear matters in the second Bush term, when the U.S. initially teamed up with European nations and offered to negotiate. The Iranians didn't take up the offer at the time, and Mr. Burns ultimately turned the task over to incoming Obama administration officials.

But the experience gave him some perspective on Iranian nuclear matters—and the fact he now is out of government gives him some objectivity. So what is his advice now that a deal designed to limit Iran's nuclear program has been struck, amid wide controversy over its merits?

Accept the deal, imperfect as it is, as the best option available now on the nuclear front and promptly move onto a “parallel track" strategy of containing Iran's regional ambitions, with a heavy dose of U.S. leadership.

The theory here is that the new agreement, while it certainly doesn't end Iran's nuclear program, accomplishes its core goal of preventing Iran from developing a nuclear weapon over the next decade.

“If you look through this deal, these are substantial restrictions on Iran," says Mr. Burns. “The probability of Iran getting a nuclear device in the next 10 years is extremely low."

Much of the criticism of the deal, in Israel in particular, derives from the fact that slowing and shrinking Iran's nuclear program this way falls well short of the original diplomatic goal, which was to end entirely Iran's ability to enrich uranium—the “zero enrichment" goal. While that was plausible years ago, when Iran had a couple of hundred centrifuges to enrich uranium, Mr. Burns says it is an implausible goal now that it has some 19,000.

“If I could get an ideal solution, or you could, where the Iranians submitted to every demand we had, I would take that," he says. “In a real world, you have to make real-world decisions."

Which leads to the second line of criticism: that the deal, even if it does succeed in stopping Iran's nuclear program for a decade, will enrich Tehran by lifting international economic sanctions while doing nothing to prevent it from using newfound riches to make more trouble in the region.

Here is where Mr. Burns thinks there are grounds for action, taken jointly by those who like the deal and those who hate it—notably Israel, Saudi Arabia and the other Persian Gulf states. Implicitly, this strategy doesn't embrace the idea that a nuclear deal with the international community will moderate Iranian behavior. In a sense, it guards against the opposite result.

That effort would start by renewing a commitment that was made first by President Jimmy Carter and then renewed by President Ronald Reagan in the aftermath of the 1979 Iranian revolution. “We should say the security of the Persian Gulf is a vital interest of the United States…and put the Iranians on notice that we're not going to tolerate any diminution of American influence in the Persian Gulf," Mr. Burns says.

The U.S. also would declare anew that it is going to protect oil shipments through the Strait of Hormuz, which runs past Iranian territory. It would back up that pledge with a “major effort" to upgrade the defensive capabilities of the Saudis and other Gulf states.

U.S. officials point out that military spending by the Gulf Arab states already outstrips Iran's many times over, so the upgrade wouldn't simply be a matter of sending more arms. Rather, it would be working more closely with the Saudis and other Gulf states to make that military equipment knit together better, and making clear it would be used in coordination with the U.S.

The next step in containment would be to get past the current poisonous period in relations with Israel. “The U.S. estrangement of Israel has gone on too far and for too long," Mr. Burns says. “Our identity of interest with Israel is so important that the White House has to narrow that gap with the Israelis." That should begin, he says, by expanding Israel's “qualitative edge" in armaments over its neighbors.

But such steps wouldn't be enough to deter Iranian mischief-making in venues as far-flung as Yemen and Syria. That would require an intangible addition to the containment formula: A forceful reassertion of American interest in playing a leading role in the region.

“It's not just money or weapons," Mr. Burns says. “It's credibility. They have to see that we will take steps to protect our allies and our interests." For America's friends, he adds, “this isn't Yankee go home. This is Yankee come back."

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