Nicholas Burns on the Iran Nuclear Deal

November 25, 2013
By HKS Communications

The United States and five other world powers announced Sunday a nuclear agreement with Iran. The interim agreement will temporarily freeze Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for limited relief of international sanctions.

We spoke to Nicholas Burns, The Sultan of Oman Professor of International Relations, on the agreement and what it means for the United States.

Q: What are the terms of the deal?

Burns: I think this is a sensible deal for the United States. What it allows us to do is now negotiate a longer term, final agreement, we hope, with the Iranians, without having to worry that Iran will be racing ahead, behind our backs, to accelerate its nuclear program. This interim deal, the Geneva deal, essentially stops the Iranian program in its place. It doesn’t permit any forward movement and it rolls back the program in other places. It provides for daily international atomic energy agency inspections of Iran’s nuclear plant. That’s new, we’ve never had such inspections before. It prohibits Iran from adding powerful new IR2 centrifuges to its enrichment facilities, and it insists that Iran, essentially, do away with its 20 percent Uranium, which had been very worrisome to the United States and other countries.

So, I think, in all respects, this is the only rational way forward, to give the President and Secretary Kerry the time and space needed to try to negotiate a final arrangement that leaves Iran short of a nuclear weapon, but keeps us out of a war.

Q: In what ways is this agreement in Iran’s best interest?

Burns: What Iran gets for this is very limited sanctions relief. The Administration has said that it will now unblock a little more than $7 billion worth of frozen Iranian assets and that was very attractive to the Iranian leadership. But the United States maintains the crippling oil and gas sanctions, and financial sanctions that have been so devastating to the Iranian economy. So, we retain leverage over Iran, both in terms of the sanctions and the continued threat of force, and I think that’s powerful leverage in the upcoming negotiations. It will help the United States at the negotiating table.

Q: Israel and some of our Arab partners are less than pleased with this deal, how come?

Burns: I think there’s a philosophical difference, particularly between Prime Minister Netanyahu of Israel and President Obama. The difference is this: The United States hasn’t talked to Iran in 34 years, and as there is a fair prospect that if this dispute cannot be resolved, we might end up in some kind of limited military campaign against Iran, it really behooves us to exhaust diplomacy first. We should try to see, after 34 years, if we can work out some kind of negotiated settlement. That, to me, is rational and it’s the right way to go.

Prime Minister Netanyahu seems to be saying that he doesn’t really favor any negotiations. That he wants, in effect, a more confrontational approach. That may be his interest, although many people in Israel disagree with him, but that is certainly not the United States’ interest. So, we have a clear divergence in interests between the Israeli and American leadership and I believe that President Obama’s doing the right thing here.

Q: What happens next? How do the two sides begin pursuing a longer term agreement?

Burns: Well, if we thought this Geneva deal was tough, and it was very tough for Secretary Kerry to work it out, the United States is now going to embark on much more difficult negotiations. What we asked Iran to do in the Geneva deal was to essentially freeze in place its nuclear program. What we’re now going to ask them to do, with France, and Britain, and Germany, and Russia, and China on our side of the table, is to dismantle large parts of its nuclear program. For example, the Arak heavy water reactor, if it goes on-line, is an alternative route to a nuclear weapon through production of plutonium. We just can’t allow that heavy water reactor to go on-line because there’s an absence of trust, of course, with the Iranians. They’ve been lying for years about their nuclear efforts. That would be a huge hole in the effort to try to stem their ability to build a nuclear weapon.

So once we get into those discussions, it’s going to be extraordinarily difficult to get an agreement, much less to gain acceptance of that agreement in Tehran, itself. The people that Secretary Kerry’s negotiating with are, in the Iranian context, liberals, reformers – Foreign Minister Zarif, President Rouhani – but to the right of them, well to the right of them, are the Revolutionary Guard, the Iranian National Security Council, and above all, the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. I think it will be difficult for them to digest this deal. We’re right to negotiate, but these are going to be extremely difficult, complex negotiations.

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Nicholas Burns, The Sultan of Oman Professor of International Relations

Nicholas Burns, The Sultan of Oman Professor of International Relations

"I think, in all respects, this is the only rational way forward, to give the President and Secretary Kerry the time and space needed to try to negotiate now a final arrangement that leaves Iran short of a nuclear weapon, but keeps us out of a war."