Retired diplomat Nicholas Burns believes there are three basic choices the U.S. could make in foreign policy regarding Iran. The first two, he said, are so “absurd” that they shouldn’t be taken seriously. The third, though, is the path he believes in, because it’s “practical and right in the middle.”
Choice No. 1: War. Some people — mostly right-leaning individuals, Burns said — believe the U.S. should strike Iran before it develops nuclear energy. Using an air raid, it would be possible to set back nuclear development as much as years.
This choice, Burns continued, has one major flaw: Iran is a powerful nation. It could easily retaliate, and it would. Its counterattack would be heavy and destructive.
Choice No. 2: Passivity. He said this option, supported primarily by left-leaning Americans, is to simply live with the situation. Americans can recognize that the possibility of nuclear arms possession in Iran isn’t a good thing, but it’s best to avoid another war in the Middle East.
Although this option keeps the U.S. out of war, it also runs the risk of ending in war, Burns said. The U.S. has a rocky relationship with Iran; if it has nuclear power, it may enact the first option itself. He also said the U.S. needs to be active in every region of the world, because it is a global power.
Then there’s choice No. 3 -- the best choice, in Burns’ opinion. The third plan of action is simple: Draw a line.
Burns presented these options in his lecture at 10:45 a.m. Wednesday in the Amphitheater. He was the third speaker in Week Six’s topic, “Iran: From Ancient Persia to Middle East Powder Keg.” Unlike Monday and Tuesday’s speakers, Burns focused his lecture on U.S.-Iran policy.
“We are prepared to fight them if we must,” Burns said of his view, “but we’d rather contain them, threaten them (and) present them with overwhelming force so that they won’t attack us, and we’ll find a way to keep the peace.”
This is the Cold War policy carried by the U.S. from President Harry Truman’s administration through that of President George H.W. Bush. Burns said it’s not an easy policy to follow, but it’s effective. He recognized flaws in the plan but said it’s still the best option.
Essentially, he said, the U.S. would “draw a line in the Middle East sand.” If Iran crossed that line with weapons, an attack by the U.S. would result.
With troops already stationed in Iraq and Afghanistan, the “foundation stones” of his plan already are in place. Furthermore, he said, much of the world -- including most of the Arab world, Europe, China, Russia, Japan and South Korea -- is in support of disallowing Iran’s achievement of nuclear technology.
“It could possibly work,” Burns said, “and it could possibly work because I don’t think the Iranian leadership is crazy. I think they’re brutal and cynical and murderous, but I do think they’re rational.”
U.S.-Iran relations are damaged for several reasons, Burns said. While the U.S. is fighting an international war on terror, Iran supports several terrorist organizations. Furthermore, Iran doesn’t want what the U.S. wants in Iraq and Afghanistan -- instead, Iran wants to keep more in common with those nations.
Another issue that Burns mentioned, focused upon in Azar Nafisi’s lecture Tuesday, is a lack of respect for human rights. In this topic, Burns made a distinction between the Iranian people and the Iranian government: The people seem to have been fighting for rights ever since the second election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in June 2009.
Finally, the last issue Burns listed is that of nuclear weapon capability. Burns is very opposed to Iran’s acquisition of nuclear power.
Iran has posed issues for the U.S. for as long as Burns has been involved in politics. When he was just an intern, the U.S. embassy in Tehran, Iran, was held hostage for 444 days, from 1979 to 1981.
Even during his time as under secretary of state for political affairs, from 2005 to 2008, Burns said he never was allowed to speak directly or indirectly with the Iranian government.
He said he doesn’t understand how anything can be accomplished if the two nations aren’t even trying to compromise. However, he did commend President Barack Obama’s attempts at negotiation.
Both sides are “burdened” by the other’s influence on their own history, Burns said. While Iranians think about the CIA’s hand in overthrowing Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh in 1953, Americans remember the embassy takeover.
He said if something is not done in regards to Iran, he sees war arising in four or five years. This, Burns said, can be avoided.
“We know we’ve got the history; we know we’ve got the arguments,” Burns said. “Let’s continue to argue about them, but can we please face forward and talk about the issues that separate us now? If we’re not smart, and if we don’t make progress and if we don’t compromise, we may end up fighting each other.”
Ambassador R. Nicholas Burns
Nicholas Burns is director of the Aspen Institute’s Aspen Strategy Group. He is also professor of the practice of diplomacy and international politics and faculty chair for programs on the Middle East, India, and South Asia at the Harvard Kennedy School. Burns is a senior counselor at The Cohen Group. Previously, he was undersecretary of state for political affairs, the State Department’s third-ranking official; US ambassador to NATO from 2001 to 2005 and to Greece from 1997 to 2001; and State Department spokesman from 1995 to 1997. He worked on the National Security Council as senior director for Russia, Ukraine, and Eurasia affairs under President Bill Clinton and, before that, director for Soviet affairs for President George H.W. Bush.