Critical Issues for U.S. Foreign Policy: Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan

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A CONVERSATION WITH R. NICHOLAS BURNS

In December 2009, Fletcher Forum editors spoke with Ambassador R. Nichols Burns about foreign policy and security issues in the Middle East and South Asia, with a particular focus on Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan.

FLETCHER FORUM: Iran has been at the forefront of our foreign policy concerns in recent months, particularly in terms of their nuclear ambitions. Recent negotiations on uranium enrichment have not been successful. In your opinion, what went wrong with the negotiations, and what does this mean for U.S. policy toward Iran?

AMBASSADOR R. NICHOLAS BURNS: First, I think that President Obama has been correct in trying to engage the Iranians and in trying to give diplomacy a chance. It has been thirty years since we have had a meaningful, sustained discussion with the Iranian government. We have not discussed any of the issues that separate us in a comprehensive way since the founding of the Islamic Republic. President Obama expressed early on that we needed to try to see if there was a way to move forward diplomatically, which I think was the right decision. The deal that President Obama and the other P5+1 leaders have tried to negotiate this autumn-on the transfer of Iranian uranium and its conversion outside of Iran-seemed to be the right step forward. But now, the Iranians have reneged on it. The domestic political situation is very divided within Iran currently, and it may be that they backed out for that reason.

So, I think having gone through this process, and now with Iran announcing publicly in a quite outrageous fashion that they are planning ten different enrichment sites around the country, and the testing of the missiles that occurred in December, the Obama administration and the other countries involved with the P5 effort will likely now have to turn to another round of Security Council sanctions, which is the right step. The Iranian government has been quite negative and unhelpful at a time when all these other countries were willing to sit down and negotiate, so I think there is probably no alternative now than to turn to sanctions.

FORUM: Do you think sanctions will be effective?

AMBASSADOR BURNS: I fear they will not be. In my opinion, the Obama administration is turning to sanctions because the hope is that at some point the Iranians will decide that they are sufficiently isolated and the impact of the sanctions is severe enough for them to come back to negotiations.

So, I think that the attempt to impose tougher sanctions is going to be the right one, but I fear that some of the key countries that will have to implement those sanctions will not do so with significant energy. I am thinking here of China and Russia, who, when push comes to shove, oftentimes do not implement sanctions in a tough-minded way. The problem is that at the same time that we are trying to impose sanctions, China has become a leading trading partner with Iran and, in fact, has increased its investment and trade, and Russia remains the leading supplier of arms to Iran. Therefore, the potential for impact of these sanctions is undercut by the actions of these two countries-others as well, but those two in particular-because they are so significant to the Iranians and they are members of the P5+1 negotiation group at the same time.

FORUM: Are there any arguments that could be made to the Russians or to the Chinese that would encourage them to collaborate on an effective sanctions regime?

AMBASSADOR BURNS: I think the Russians probably have the more strategic view because they are so much closer geographically to the Iranians. They also have a much longer history with the Iranians than the Chinese do. I think all the arguments have been made that the world is going to be better off if Iran does not have a nuclear weapons capability-that the Middle East would be more stable if Iran does not achieve this capability-and yet you see the Russians and Chinese going forward with the business-as-usual approach. …