Are We Headed for War with Iran?
President Trump says he does not want a major war in the Middle East. But many allies and observers worry that hardlinders in the US and Iran are on a collision course toward conflict. The US exit from the Iran deal and the “maximum pressure” campaign have escalated tensions between Washington and Tehran in recent months. Iran has called the announced deployment of US troops to the region “a very dangerous game,” and the alleged involvement of Iran in the oil tanker attacks this summer only exacerbate fears of a military clash, whether by design, by miscalculation, or by accident. The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg is joined by William Burns, a career diplomat who served five US presidents and led the secret bi-lateral negotiations, that resulted in the Iran Deal.
Former career diplomat and deputy Secretary of State William Burns claims that although Iran isn’t the easiest negotiating partner, the Iranian regime is receptive to diplomatic overtures. How does he know? He was the lead US negotiator for the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. He describes the fitful, but ultimately successful, diplomatic process leading up to the controversial deal with Iran.
A key factor in understanding the current tensions between Iran and the US stems from President Trump’s decision to not uphold the US’ end of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. The deal, which incentivized Iran to curtail its nuclear weapons program, was condemned by some as myopic and naive. But are those criticisms warranted? Jeffrey Goldberg, editor in chief of the Atlantic, asks William Burns, one of the chief architects of the deal.
This exchange has been lightly edited for clarity
Jeffrey Goldberg: The primary criticisms [of the Iran nuclear deal] in, let's say more hawkish circles, are that the deal is too time constrained. It's unrelated and it does not deal with any of Iran's other malevolent actions in the Middle East. Trump says that these are the reasons that he wanted to get out of the deal. Put Trump aside for a minute. Do you think that the deal was tough enough?
William Burns: I think it was the best of the alternatives we could produce at that time. If we could have done a more comprehensive deal that included all of Iran’s threatening behavior in the Middle East, we would have done that. But we weren't going to get our closest European allies, as well as the Russians and Chinese, to agree to really strong international sanctions if the aims were that wide, at least right at the outset. Like any arms control process I've been involved in over the years with the Soviets and with the Russians, these aren't one-off agreements. You build on them over time. And so our expectation always was with this nuclear agreement with Iran that we were then going to have to build on it to try to extend the timelines in terms of some of the constraints on Iranian capacities to push back in other areas in the Middle East. We were just in a better position to do that. When we had united most of the international community around that set of goals, we were in a better position to deal with all of those other threatening Iranian actions.
Madman diplomacy — acting irrationally and volatile towards a foreign adversary to theoretically dissuade opponents from eliciting unintended consequences — only works if it’s part of a larger strategy, says William Burns, and President Trump’s unpredictability towards Iran is both the means and the end.
Burns sees Trump’s erratic behavior towards Iran (and other world powers) as immediately dangerous. He worries that a US that can’t be trusted on the world stage will erode its foreign influence in the long term.
Iran is sometimes portrayed as an irrational actor with a bad temper, but this facile view of the Iranian regime distorts meaningful discussion (and diplomacy). William Burns says that the Iranian government, above all else, seeks the survival of the current regime. Additionally, Burns says Iran wants what most other countries want: to be a principal actor in their geographic region.
How It Works
Burns also contends that, while we shouldn’t underestimate the Iranian regime, its internal desires may have set itself up for disaster. With 70 percent of the population under 30 and an anemic economy, Iran may face challenges from its own citizens as it pursues potentially unpopular strategies abroad.