In the closing years of the Bush administration, Nicholas Burns was America's lead negotiator in the effort to stop Iran's nuclear program. A career diplomat and senior State Department official, Burns was in effect the anti-Cheney: He was the Bush team's main proponent of direct and unconditional U.S. engagement with Tehran.
That's why I was struck when I read Burns's testimony from last week's Senate Banking Committee hearing on a bill sponsored by Joe Lieberman, Evan Bayh and Jon Kyl to choke Iran's gasoline imports via U.S. economic sanctions. Although Burns has long pushed for the U.S. to talk with Iran, in the wake of the June 12 elections, he has little hope that talking will accomplish anything:
My best judgment is that, even if negotiations are held this autumn, they will fail due to the predictably unreasonable and inflexible attitudes of Ahmadinejad and his colleagues. It is highly likely, for example, that the Iranian government will not agree at the negotiating table to cease its enrichment of uranium as the United Nations Security Council has demanded in successive sanctions resolutions passed during the last three years.
That said, Burns thinks it's important at least to try talking with Khameinei and Ahmadinejad:
Some will argue that any willingness by the Obama Administration to talk to Iran would legitimize the Iranian government and would be an affront to the courageous Iranians who took to the streets in opposition.... While it may serve our collective sense of outrage and frustration to stonewall the Tehran government, that kind of policy is not likely to serve our core American interest--finding a way to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear weapons power.... By supporting the international offer for negotiations, the Obama Administration is building credibility with countries important for any future negotiation or sanctions effort--Russia, China, the Gulf states, Japan, South Korea, Germany and other European countries.... If the U.S. refused to negotiate, we would likely have little subsequent international credibility to argue for tough sanctions.
Burns is sometimes portrayed as an Iran dove, someone who thinks talking will solve everything. In reality, his position is not so different from that of Obama's Iran point man, Dennis Ross: that negotiations are probably doomed to fail--but that attempting them is essential to winning international support for the tough sanctions America will likely seek in the late fall or early winter.
As to the gas sanctions bill specifically, Burns was quite supportive of the measure--at least as a means of threatening Iran--so long as any legislation gives the president broad flexiblity to waive its provisions during negotiations. Burns also made clear that the most effective sanctions "would be those that are multilateral and not unilateral." Read his full statement to the Banking Committee here.