For three years, from 2005 to 2008, R. Nicholas Burns was the State Department's top diplomat dealing with Iran on behalf of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. So Burns has perhaps the best-informed perspective on recent American policy toward Iran. Now he is looking back at those years with a new academic sensibility: after retiring from the foreign service, he joined Harvard's Kennedy School as a professor of the practice of diplomacy.
Yesterday, Burns testified as a private citizen for the first time to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee at a hearing on Iran. His testimony is a must read for anyone concerned about how the Obama Administration should handle Iranian relations, at a time when concerns about Iran's nuclear weapons ambitions have never been greater. Burns offers a cogent assessment of the current state of the relationship, or non-relationship -- and some frank criticism of the shortcomings of the American approach while he served as Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs.
Burns is hardly naive about the dangers Iran poses, and he is hard-headed about the options. Still, he says one failing was to make the US offer of talks with Iran in 2006 conditional on Iran meeting a number of demands. In hindsight, Burns says, It would have been worth the risk to make the offer unconditional. And entering into wide-ranging negotiations now -- with constraints including a limited timetable -- would also be worth the risk, he says.
Burns also laments our lack of contacts and connections with the Iranian regime and its people over the past 30 years, and that the United States needs to find ways to encourage improved ties with ordinary Iranians.
I found a thirst for better relations among ordinary Iranians when I visited Iran in December 2006. At every street corner, Iranians would stop and chat about their some family member living in an American city or town, or a nephew who had studied at a US university. As Burns suggests, the question for the United States is how to nurture and exploit those deep ties.
About this blog
About James F. SmithJim Smith came home to his native Boston in 2002 to become the Boston Globe's foreign editor after spending 22 years abroad. He was previously based in Buenos Aires and Mexico City for the LA Times, and in Johannesburg, Tokyo and The Hague for the AP. In 2007 he became the Globe's national political editor, coordinating presidential campaign coverage. He is a Yale graduate, and has an MBA. He is married to Maxine Hart and has two sons, Matthew and Daniel.
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