But now everything has changed in America’s foreign-policy vision—it had to. Europe, happily, is nearly what President George H.W. Bush predicted in 1989 it would become: “whole, free, and at peace.” And with the exception of the Balkans, Europe is democratic, united, and peaceful for the first time in several hundred years. It is an enormous accomplishment to which both Democratic and Republican administrations contributed. And our policy toward Europe now reflects our efforts to promote peace and end crises elsewhere in the world. We are trying to get the Europeans to join us in the Middle East, in Asia, in Latin America, in Africa, in everything we have to do. The Middle East in particular is now—for President Bush and Secretary Rice, for their successors—the place that Europe once was for the administrations of the 20th century.
There are four conflicts underway in the Middle East that are vital to our national interests—vital in the sense that any one of them could involve us in a larger war; any one of them could, if destabilized, involve us in some kind of generational conflict that we don’t want to see. In Iraq, of course, we have 170,000 American men and women in uniform, which is by anybody’s definition one of our great challenges of the last 40 to 50 years. That story has not yet played out; we wish to be successful. In Lebanon a democratically elected government is trying to survive an attempt by Iran, Syria, and Hezbollah to unseat it by non-democratic means. In Israel, for the nearly 60 years since its founding, every American administration has tried to bring the Israelis and Palestinians together, and we are now still trying to do that. And in Iran, which is involved in all the other three conflicts, the president—the radical president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad—says that Iran should be the dominant country in the Middle East. This same man has said that the Holocaust never happened and that Israel should be wiped off the map. Iran is funding Hamas to oppose an Israeli-Palestinian peace, funding and directing much of the terrorism directed by Shia militant groups against our troops in Iraq, and playing a big role in trying to unseat democracy in Lebanon.
So, our beef with the Iranian government is not just about Iran; it’s about what Iran is doing in the broader Middle East. With the Middle East occupying the great majority of the time and attention of our administration and Congress—who share the responsibility for our country’s foreign policy—I want to set the problem of Iran in the larger context of what we are doing in the Middle East and in the world.
Our view is that Iran is a generational challenge. It is not a challenge that is going to be episodic or fleeting; it will likely be on the front burners of our foreign policy in 2010, and 2012, and probably 2020. It is the largest country in the Middle East. It aims to be the most powerful country in the Middle East, and it always will, no matter what type of government it has. But it does have a radical government. It is radical by our definition. It is a mullahcracy. It is a theocracy, whose government since 1979 has been directing its terrorist potential against us: against our Marine barracks in Lebanon in 1983 and at Khobar towers in Saudi Arabia in 1996. I happened to be with Secretary of State Christopher in Cairo when we heard about this horrible terrorist attack outside of Dhahran, Saudi Arabia; so we scrapped out plans to go to the G-8 summit in Lyon and went to Dhahran, and got there four or five hours after the attack—33 American dead, 240 American wounded and in the hospital, their building blown apart by an extraordinary bomb. We now know that the operation was directed, funded and carried out by the Iranian revolutionary government.
We have a beef with Iran. But it is three-dimensional. First, Iran is trying to develop a nuclear-weapons capability, and there’s no doubt about it. We are not wrong about Iran. The Chinese government, the Russian government, every European government, the Indian government, the Brazilian government, the Indonesian government, the South African government—we all agree, because all of us are involved in a coalition against Iran to prevent it from developing a nuclear-weapons capability. Imagine an Iranian government that was powerful, radical, and in possession of nuclear weapons; imagine the threat that would pose to Israel and to the American-led balance of power, which has been so important in the Middle East since the close of the Second World War. That is our first challenge.
Our second challenge is that Iran continues to be the central banker of Middle East terrorism. It is the leading funder and director of Hamas, Hezbollah, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine general command.
Third, Iran is in our judgment a major violator of the human rights of its own people; it denies religious, political, and press rights to the people of a very great country representing a very great civilization. And so we see a problem that is going to be with us for a long time, and we are trying to fashion a strategy that will work for the long term.
On March 29, in my testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, I said that diplomacy is our best course of action in blocking and containing the Iranian regime; that a military confrontation with Iran is not desirable, nor is it inevitable if we continue our skilled diplomatic course and have the patience to see it play out over the mid- to long-term. I am confident that we can avoid a conflict and see our strategy succeed. The response was remarkable. Every Democratic senator and every Republican senator said the same thing: that they support what we are doing in Iran; they support the effort to try to use diplomacy to resolve the problems that I described, not to think that somehow a conflict is inevitable or desirable, and to be patient enough because we do have some time before Iran becomes a nuclear-capable country. Patient enough and devoted enough to our belief in diplomacy that we might create international coalitions to pressure the Iranians on each of those issues—and I think we are doing that.
Just a couple of years ago the only countries that were really confronting the Iranians on the issue of nuclear weapons were Britain, France, and Germany. We joined them two years ago this April. Since then we have constructed a very large coalition. Russia and China came on board. Together we sponsored two Security Council resolutions since December 2006 that are imposing quite substantial economic and political sanctions of the government of Iran for the first time. But more importantly, we now have South Africa and Indonesia and Qatar voting on the Security Council against Iran. We have India, Brazil, and Egypt voting on the International Atomic Energy Administration against Iran. So Iran, a country that prides itself on its connections with the non-aligned movement, a country that wants to be integrated, not isolated like North Korea, is having all the doors shut to normal intercourse and normal political relations with these great countries of Africa and the Middle East and Latin America. That is significant; it is not just the United States opposing Iran, it is this collection of countries. We have managed to create a coalition, which is a very important asset to us.
We are also using our ability under the Patriot Act to sanction Iranian banks that exist as front companies for their ballistic-missile and WMD industries and for their funding of Hezbollah and terrorism. We have engaged in what I call a “global whisper campaign” against the Iranians. We have approached a number of banks in Asia, the Middle East, and Europe and said, Did you know that the Iranian government is using fictitious front companies to use your legitimate bank to launder their money and send it to terrorist groups? And most of these banks said they had no idea this was happening. Now Credit Suisse, Credit Lyonnais, and HSPC—three banks in Europe—have over the last year shut down lending to Iran. This is beginning to pinch the Iranians. The Iranians need investment capital. Ironically, they import 40 percent of their gasoline. As the number-two gas producer in the world and the number-three oil producer, they are very much dependent on the Gulf oil states, on Europe, on Japan, on South Korea for trade and commerce. We are beginning to see the banks shut down lending; we are beginning to see the various governments align with us and diminish export credits available to their companies to stimulate trade; and we are beginning to see sanctions kick in, just over the last couple of months.
In addition to this political strategy of containment—of trying to block the Iranians and of having countries shut down these normal avenues of cooperation—we thought that we had to make a point to them in the Gulf. That’s not an Iranian lake. It has for 60 years been the major international waterway through which most of the world’s energy sources travel. It is a place where we have allies—the Gulf states—and so we have staged military maneuvers in the last several months, to let the Iranians know that they don’t live there alone, that they don’t have unlimited freedom of action, that our Navy has been there since 1949, and that our job is to keep the Gulf and the waterway open to the Strait of Hormuz, and to try to prevent the Iranians from intimidating their neighbors.
And of course we push back in Iraq. We look at the statistics on how our young men and women were dying there in the course of 2006. In the last four months of the year, an alarmingly high percentage of the American dead were killed by armor-piercing ammunitions—technology given to Shia militant groups by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, the militant arm of the Iranian state. We are 100 percent sure of our intelligence—100 percent sure because these explosive projectiles have Iranian markings on them. A high percentage of our soldiers are being wounded and dying because of these explosive devices.
The fundamental responsibility we have to our troops is to protect them, and one way to do this is to disrupt the networks. In December of this year, and again in January, we took prisoner large groups of Iranian paramilitary forces in Iraq. We are holding them because they are members of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and because they are a part of this network whose purpose is to shoot our at soldiers. So I think that we have been able to send a message to the Iranian government that we are serious about deflecting and containing its power.
In looking at how we might deal with the government of Iran, President Bush has said many times, “All options are on the table”—military, economic, and political. In that part of the world, in this type of crisis, you do not want to de-link the threat of force and diplomacy. Because we have seen time and again, whether in the Balkans, in Rwanda, in Darfur, and certainly in the Middle East, that the threat of force combined with effective diplomacy is absolutely essential. So we keep all options on the table, but we are focused on diplomacy. We are not seeking a conflict with Iran. And we do believe that diplomacy has a good chance of succeeding if we stick with it long enough. When you set up sanctions and political, military, and economic pressure, it takes time for a response. Luckily, no one believes that the Iranians could have nuclear arms in the next 12 to 15 months. Most projections by our intelligence committee that have been made public and given to Congress in open session have a much longer timeline. There is time to work and believe in diplomacy.
Another challenge we face is that there is no unified, purposeful government in Iran. We are dealing with a government that has many bitter internal factions, whose president has been publicly repudiated by the supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, for his mishandling of the nuclear issue; whose national security advisor, Ali Larajani, seems to us to be the counterpart of the president inside the government.
Last June 1, the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France, and Germany said publicly, We have a package of incentives for you. We’d like to negotiate the future of your nuclear industry. We will build for you a civil nuclear-power industry in Iran. We will not give you access to the fuel cycle—this was President Putin’s proposal—we will do that off-shore, because we don’t trust your scientists with it; we don’t want them to take advantage of the enrichment techniques to then produce fissile material and build a nuclear weapon. We will give you civil nuclear power, and we will reduce some of the American and European economic sanctions on you. We will meet you any time, any place.
It took four and a half months for the Iranian government to even answer that proposal. Why? Because they are divided. Because they had a four-and-a-half-month argument in Tehran. Then they came back and said no. And so we said to the Iranians, You have two choices. You can negotiate with us peacefully—and by the way, that option is still on the table, and we hope that you choose to pick it up in the next months—or we will sanction you.
I think we are on the right path with a combination of sticks and carrots, of pressure and the prospect of negotiations. And we ought to keep at it, because sooner or later the mullahs in Iran are going to have to realize that they won’t be able to survive if their trade and investment channels are cut off, and if they become the great international pariah, which they are on the road to becoming.
In March our ambassador to Iraq (now our ambassador to the United Nations), Zalmay Khalilzad, sat down with the Iranian, Syrian, and Egyptian, Jordanian, and Iraqi diplomats to say, How can we talk about Iraq? How can we convince Iran and Syria to shut down the crossing points of the foreign terrorists coming into the country? Secretary Rice attended a meeting on May 3 and 4 with the foreign ministers of Iran and Syria and the Arab countries about Iraq. We are trying to open up a channel on Iraq, and we hope the Iranians will be responsive and understand what we are trying to do.
I have described a policy that is very much short-term in orientation, because it is a response to the vital military challenges and problems that we face in Iraq, in Lebanon, in the Palestinian territories, and on the nuclear issue. But in the long term we have to fix this relationship with Iran. It is the most unusual diplomatic relationship we have in the world. We talk to North Korea; we are about to send an ambassador to Libya; we talk to the Cubans—we have a senior diplomat there. We talk to that incredibly abusive leader Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe. Yet we don’t talk to the Iranians. Apart from the two channels I just described—one on the nuclear issue that we haven’t yet realized and the incipient channel on Iraq—we don’t talk to the Iranians, and we haven’t talked to them since the hostages left on January 20, 1981, when President Carter stepped down and President Reagan was inaugurated. There have been episodic, cursory conversations, but never at the head-of-state level and never meaningfully at the foreign-minister level. So when Secretary Rice said on June 1 of last year, “I will meet the Iranian foreign minister in any city of the world to talk about the nuclear issue,” it was quite a big leap forward for us.
Thinking long-term, we need to break down the barriers between Iran and the United States, because there has been no communication. In the 1960s and 1970s we used to have about 75,000 Iranian students in the United States. Those students remember their time here. We now have about 1,500 Iranians studying in all of the United States. That’s nothing compared to the 80,000 Chinese and 90,000 Indian students here. So one of the things we would ask Congress for—and I testified to this before the Senate—is the funds to bring thousands of Iranian students here. Let’s put aside the short-term focus of trying to contain the Iranian government and think long-term. Where do we want to be in 15 or 25 years? We want to be able to know each other. We have tried to encourage that in a very modest way by bringing the members of the Iranian medical profession here. We brought a small group of Iranian doctors and nurses to Harvard Medical School and Washington earlier this year. We are bringing disaster-relief specialists here from Iran. We sent the American National Wrestling Team to Iran in January—wrestling is their national sport. Our wrestling team went to Bander-Abbas to a big national televised wrestling tournament; they were greeted with thunderous applause and great respect, and one of our guys even won in his weight class.
We have said to the Democrats and Republicans in the House and Senate, Please give us some money to fund this type of person-to-person exchange. Let’s begin to break down the barriers between our two peoples, and let’s also work on the problems between our two countries.
We have to think positively. There is going to come a point—we hope in our lifetimes—when we are talking to Iran again and when we have reestablished diplomatic relations. There is no question that our two countries will have as much to do with the fortunes of the countries in the Middle East as any two countries will have. And we are trying to lay the seeds now for that kind of productive relationship. It has been such a long time.
On November 4, 1979, the American embassy in Iran was taken, and 52 hostages were held for 444 days. It was my first year in the State Department. This April I met with 12 former hostages, all retired people, all former diplomats, led by Bruce Laingen, who was our charge d’affaires in Tehran in 1979. I invited them back to the State Department for two reasons: to thank them for their service and to get some advice on how we should deal with this very difficult problem with Iran. I don’t know how long it is going to be before an American diplomat sets foot in Tehran, but they told me it that had to happen in their lifetime. In addition to our preoccupation with the real, immediate problems Iran is posing to the region, we also need to think over the horizon and prepare ourselves for the day when our two countries come back to a normal conversation. <
Adapted from remarks presented at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library, Boston, April 11, 2007
R. Nicholas Burns is the U.S. under secretary of state for political affairs. He has previously served as the U.S. permanent representative to NATO.