Before he was nominated as Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, William Burns called for diplomacy with Iran to end the wars in Afghanistan and Yemen. “We should have no illusions that they will engage productively on all our concerns,” he wrote in May 2019, in an article with Jake Sullivan, Joe Biden's National Security Advisor. And contact with Tehran is “not a reward for bad behavior,” they said. “But diplomacy is the best way to test intentions and define the realm of the possible, repair the damage our unilateral turn has inflicted on our international partnerships, and invest in more effective coercion if and when it’s needed to focus minds in Tehran.”
Burns also urged a regional security dialogue between Iran and the Gulf countries, which share an interest in de-escalating tensions. “A lot will depend on the prospects for Saudis and Iranians finding some basis for regional co-existence—built not on trust or the end of rivalry, but on the more cold-blooded assumption that they both have a stake in stable competition,” he wrote in December 2019. “Our instinct should be to reinforce and encourage their dialogue, not sabotage it.”
Burns, as Deputy Secretary of State, initiated secret talks with Iran in 2013, through Oman, that led to the 2015 nuclear deal. He was an outspoken critic of the Trump administration’s decision to withdraw from the agreement in 2018. “When the deal was in place, Iran remained an adversary—but U.S. unmanned aircraft weren’t being shot down by Iran in international waters, Gulf shipping and infrastructure weren’t being hit by Iranian mines and missiles, and U.S. personnel weren’t being targeted by Shia militias in Iraq,” he and Sullivan wrote in January 2020. The following are remarks by Burns on Iran.
Remarks while in office:
On Iran’s protests
In remarks at Georgetown on Feb. 2, 2023: “As we look ahead at 2023…the Middle East is going to reemerge as a particularly complicated set of challenges for American policymakers.
“Part of that is about Iran. It’s about an Iranian regime that is increasingly unsettled by what’s going on inside Iran. The remarkable courage of demonstrators over the course of the last few months—especially young Iranian women—who I think in many respects are fed up…with economic decay, they’re fed up with corruption, they’re fed up with political oppression, they’re fed up with social restrictions that especially affect Iranian women. They’re fed up with a lack of dignity.
“And none of this is about us. It’s not about Americans. It’s about Iranians and their future.
“This is an Iranian regime that is capable, in the short term, of suppressing people. Their habits of repression are pretty well practiced. But I don’t think they have good answers for what’s on the mind of a very young population, 70% of which is under the age of 30 as well.
“That unsettled view of what’s going on internally in Iran is leading to more aggressive behavior externally by this Iranian regime. We see it across the Middle East right now.
“Especially concerning is the deepening of Iranian-Russian military connection as well. Last time I was in Kyiv a couple of weeks ago, of the 30 hours or so I was in Ukraine, I spent six of them in bomb shelters because of two separate strikes by the Russians against Ukrainian civilian facilities, many of them by Shahed-136 Iranian UAVs that had been supplied to the Russians, which they’ve been using to kill innocent Ukrainian civilians. So that’s obviously very troubling as well.”
In an interview with PBS NewsHour on December 16, 2022: “I think what struck our analysts at CIA is both the duration of those protests, now almost three months on, and their scope, because they seem to cut across Iranian society, cut across ethnicities, socioeconomic groups.
“It is about a growing number of Iranians who are fed up, who are fed up with economic decay, with corruption, with the social restrictions that especially affect Iranian women. They are fed up with political oppression, fed up with the denial of basic human dignity.
“So, in the short term, I don't think the Iranian regime perceives an immediate threat to its grip. It still has some very practiced habits of repression and brutality that it's continuing to employ. In the long term, though, I think the reality is that this is an Iranian regime does not have good answers for what's on the minds of a very young population, 70 percent of which today is under the age of 30.
“And it's been a remarkable indication of both that frustration that I mentioned before and also the genuine courage of people out in the streets. And so this has gone on for just about three months now, and it can continue for some time.”
In an interview with CBS Evening News on Oct. 3, 2022: “I don’t think they’re isolated protests. And what’s striking at least to me and to our analysts here is the sweep of those protests. Now, these are incredibly brave people, and many incredibly brave young women. They’re fed up in a lot of ways. And they’re willing to take the risk of getting out and demonstrating because they’re fed up with economic decay, with corruption, with the social restrictions especially that Iranian women face, and with political repression as well.
“Now again, this is an autocratic system, the Iranian regime, which is very good at repressing people, and they’re quite ruthless now in putting down those kind of protests as well.
“The U.S. government has made very clear our support for the free flow of information and freedom of the internet. Without going into any details, I think the United States is very committed to that. We are going to continue to be strongly supportive as a government in the free flow of information.”
On Iran’s nuclear program and future diplomacy
At the Aspen Security Forum on July 20, 2022: “I think there are at least two dimensions of Iran's nuclear program that are particularly concerning right now. The first is, is the amount of time it takes them to produce the fissile material, the highly enriched uranium you need for a single nuclear weapon. Under the terms of the JCPOA, the Comprehensive Nuclear Agreement, which the last administration pulled out of several years ago, that breakout time to produce that amount of fissile material was a little more than a year. Today, after the U.S. withdrawal from from the JCPOA and Iran, moving away from you know, its compliance with the agreement, enriching to 60 percent, resuming enrichment activities at Fordow, the nuclear site dug into--pretty deep into--a mountain in Iran, usually expanding the amount of the stockpile of enriched uranium that they have well beyond the constraints in the Comprehensive Nuclear Agreement, beginning to work again on advanced centrifuges which speed up their ability to enrich especially to higher levels as well, for all those things. I mean, that's a concern because now that same breakout time can be measured not in a year plus but in weeks.
“The second dimension though, is how long it would take if the Iranians resumed an effort to build a weapon, nuclear device, and their--our best intelligence judgment is that the Iranians have not resumed the weaponization effort that they had underway up until 2004 and then suspended so that's something obviously we at CIA and across the U.S. intelligence community keep a very, very sharp focus on. But the trend lines are quite troubling.”
On Iran’s drone and missile programs
At the Aspen Security Forum on July 20, 2022: “I don't know if it's a greater threat [than the nuclear program], but it's certainly an increasingly significant threat as well. They have the biggest arsenal of of missiles of anyone in the Middle East right now. And you know, it's a it's a mark of the development of their armed drone system that you have the Russians now trying to acquire some as well. So those are both significant concerns.”
On Iran's ties to Russia
In an interview with PBS NewsHour on December 16, 2022: “Historically, there's a lot of mistrust between Russians and Iranians, but they need each other right now.
“And what's beginning to emerge is at least the beginnings of a full-fledged defense partnership between Russia and Iran, with the Iranians supplying drones to the Russians, which are killing Ukrainian civilians as we speak today, and the Russians beginning to look at ways in which, technologically or technically, they can support the Iranians, which poses real threats to Iran's own neighborhood, to many of our friends and partners in Iran's neighborhood as well.
“[The relationship is] already having an impact on the battlefield in Ukraine, again, costing the lives of a lot of innocent Ukrainians.
“And I think it can have an even more dangerous impact on the Middle East as well if it continues. So, it's something that we take very, very seriously.”
At the Aspen Security Forum on July 20, 2022: “I must admit that watching the images of President Putin and Iran supreme leader meeting yesterday in Tehran did not exactly fill me with nostalgia because most, most of the gray hair on top of my head came from negotiating with Russians and Iranians over the years. I mean, I think beneath the images that we all saw, the reality is that Russians and Iranians need each other right now. Both federally sanctioned countries, both looking to break out of political isolation as well, but if they need each other, they don't really trust each other in the sense that they're energy rivals and historical competitors.
“So it's true that you know, the Russians are reaching out to the Iranians to try to acquire armed drones, UAVs, it's important, I think, for us to remember or to remind ourselves, when we look at that prospect that the purpose of those drones is to kill Ukrainian civilians in a brutal and unprovoked war of aggression. It's also important to remind ourselves that it's a reflection in some ways of the deficiencies of Russia's defense industry today, the difficulties they're having after significant losses so far in the war against Ukraine and replenishing their stocks as well. Both sides are going to look for ways in which they can help one another evade sanctions. Both sides, I think, are looking to demonstrate that they have options, you know, the Russians, Putin, amidst the war in Ukraine. I'm sure it's occurred to the Iranian leadership as they looked at President Biden's trip to the Middle East a week ago that you know, they want to demonstrate they have options too. But I think as you know troubling as some of the steps between those two parties are, and we focus on them very sharply at CIA. There are limits, I think, to the ways in which they're going to be able to help one another right now.”
Remarks from before taking office:
On Iran’s nuclear program and future diplomacy
Op-ed with Jake Sullivan in The Atlantic on Jan. 6, 2020: “We’re at this dangerous juncture because of Trump’s foolish decision to withdraw from the nuclear deal, his through-the-looking-glass conception of coercive diplomacy, and his willing hardline enablers in Tehran. When the deal was in place, Iran remained an adversary—but U.S. unmanned aircraft weren’t being shot down by Iran in international waters, Gulf shipping and infrastructure weren’t being hit by Iranian mines and missiles, and U.S. personnel weren’t being targeted by Shia militias in Iraq. Abandoning the nuclear agreement, on our own and with no evidence of Iranian cheating, started a predictable cycle of escalation and brinksmanship. It is a cycle which Trump has accelerated with muscular bluster and ‘maximum pressure,’ unconnected to realistic aims or careful foresight.”
Op-ed with Jake Sullivan in The New York Times on Oct. 14, 2019: “To start, both sides need to reset their expectations, and begin a step-by-step de-escalation that could create the basis for a longer-term resolution. The United States won’t get Iran to the table without some economic relief — either directly or through the European Union, as President Emmanuel Macron of France has suggested. The United States will also need to abandon as a precondition for progress the 12 demands that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo laid out publicly last year. This hard-bitten and resourceful Iranian regime is not going to issue that kind of declaration of surrender.
“The Iranians will have to get more realistic, too. It is simply impractical to think that the United States will provide significant sanctions relief without assurances that Iran will immediately begin negotiations on a follow-on agreement that at least extends the timelines of the deal and addresses issues of verification and intercontinental ballistic missiles.
“Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif recently signaled some openness to negotiation of additional terms. While we should have no illusions about how difficult that would be, we should certainly test the proposition. The Iranians have known since the secret talks that we saw this as an iterative process, like other arms control processes, in which one agreement became a foundation stone for further negotiations. The nuclear deal agreed to in 2015 was meant to be the beginning, not the end, of diplomacy with Iran.
“Both sides should also seek to reduce tensions more broadly. It is long past time to secure the release of Americans detained, deeply unfairly, in Iran. It is time to stop threats to vital shipping lanes, and stop making Iraq a battleground for American-Iranian competition. We should make an opportunity of the crisis in the gulf and push hard to end the war in Yemen. That conflict is not only a humanitarian tragedy of epic proportion but also a strategic calamity for our gulf partners and a stain on American foreign policy. Afghanistan is another issue to discuss directly, given Iran’s stake in stability there, and Tehran’s ability to disrupt it.”
Op-ed with Jake Sullivan in The Atlantic on May 16, 2019: “The best way forward for the Trump administration is to signal privately that its maximalist demands are not carved in stone and pursue a more realistic agenda on nuclear issues. That starts with working to extend the nuclear deal’s timelines, and recognizing that further sanctions relief will be necessary to encourage Iranian acceptance; it means talking quietly about securing the release of Americans detained in brutal Iranian prisons; it means probing for possible understandings on Iran’s ballistic-missile programs; and it means encouraging dialogue on the wars in Afghanistan and Yemen, where Iran will be a player in any eventual settlement.
“Contacts with the Iranians are not a reward for bad behavior, and we should have no illusions that they will engage productively on all our concerns. But diplomacy is the best way to test intentions and define the realm of the possible, repair the damage our unilateral turn has inflicted on our international partnerships, and invest in more effective coercion if and when it’s needed to focus minds in Tehran.”
Op-ed with Jake Sullivan in The New York Times on Sep. 21, 2017: “The smart way to proceed would be to keep the world’s powers united and the burden of proof on Iran. That means working with partners on relentless enforcement; enhancing sanctions that punish Iran’s non-nuclear misbehavior, including its missile program and sponsorship of terrorism; working closely with Arab partners to deter Iran’s meddling in their internal affairs; and making plain our concerns with Iran’s domestic human rights abuses. It means using the diplomatic channel we opened with Iran, after 35 years without such contact, to avoid inadvertent escalation. And it means making it clear that after some restrictions in the deal expire, the United States and the world will still not allow Iran to advance its nuclear program in threatening ways.”
On a security dialogue between Iran and its neighbors
Op-ed in The Atlantic on Dec. 8, 2019: “With Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Arabs, that means much more of a two-way street. We ought to support them against legitimate external security threats, from Iran or anyone else, and back serious political and economic modernization. They need to stop acting as if they’re entitled to a blank check from us, end the catastrophic war in Yemen, stop meddling in political transitions in places such as Libya and Sudan, and manage their internal rivalries. And we need to find a way back to an updated nuclear deal with Iran. That will not be a miracle cure for all our serious differences with the current regime in Tehran, from its regional aggression to its domestic repression. It will, however, be an essential starting point for countering its threats and eventually reducing them.
“A lot will depend on the prospects for Saudis and Iranians finding some basis for regional co-existence—built not on trust or the end of rivalry, but on the more cold-blooded assumption that they both have a stake in stable competition. Tentative contact between them, over the war in Yemen for example, suggests that they are beginning to awaken to that reality. Our instinct should be to reinforce and encourage their dialogue, not sabotage it.”
Op-ed in The Washington Post on Nov. 4, 2019: “We should throw our full support behind a new U.N.-led framework for talks: one that acknowledges the realities that the Houthis are not going to withdraw back to their northern redoubt; that the internationally recognized Yemeni government cannot simply be airlifted from its exile in Riyadh to Sanaa; that the legitimate security concerns of our gulf partners have to be addressed; and that Tehran has to be engaged directly. Iran has been deeply complicit in the violence in Yemen, but it has both potential interest in revived diplomacy and a demonstrated capacity to undermine it.”
Interview with CNN’s Christiane Amanpour on June 17, 2019: “There are other issues that we could talk about, whether it's with regard to conflicts in Afghanistan or in Yemen. But I think it's really important to try to look cold-bloodedly at the dangers of escalation and take some quiet steps so that the situation at least doesn't get any worse. So, that Iran isn't going to take further steps to pull away from the nuclear agreement, isn't going to conduct further attacks in the Gulf, and the United States begins to consider, you know, the virtues of not adding to the pressure that we're building right now. That might create a circumstance in which you could not only deescalate but begin to talk quietly about some of these really, really risky issues.”
On humanitarian and medical support
Interview with CNN’s Christiane Amanpour on Mar. 30, 2020: “Providing humanitarian assistance or at least allowing it to be transported, I mean, is not only the morally right thing to do, but it is also the diplomatically smart thing to do, in the sense that the Iranian regime, for example, you know, is animated in a sense by the notion that the United States is implacably hostile to the Iranian people. This is a way of undercutting that argument.
“Maybe it could create a circumstance if the U.S. were to take a more flexible approach in which we could help secure some important but modest steps like the release of, you know, Americans unjustly detained in Iran, maybe we could use this to help ease the overall pandemic crisis to help ease tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran or to begin to open up the door to a diplomatic resolution of the horrific conflict in Yemen today.”