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Former Deputy Secretary Of State Discusses Rising Tensions Between The U.S. And Iran


President Trump weighed in today on the explosions on two tankers in the Middle East, and he was not sounding like a man looking to ratchet down tensions.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Well, Iran did do it. And you know they did it because you saw the boat. I guess one of the mines didn't explode, and it's probably got essentially Iran written all over it.

KELLY: The president calling in this morning to "Fox & Friends" - he was referring to a video that U.S. Central Command released last night which they say shows an Iranian Revolutionary Guard boat removing an unexploded mine from one of the tankers. So what now, and is there a path for diplomacy back from the brink?

Well, let's bring in one of America's most experienced diplomats. William Burns served five presidents, retired as the State Department's No. 2 official and along the way conducted backchannel diplomacy with Iran helping set the stage for the Iran nuclear deal. Ambassador Burns, welcome.

WILLIAM BURNS: Great to be with you, Mary Louise.

KELLY: As someone who's watched many tense moments unfold between the U.S. and Iran, how dangerous is this one?

BURNS: I think this is a particularly dangerous moment. I mean, certainly if the Iranians are responsible for these attacks, they're reckless and dangerous. I think we're at - on the verge right now of a situation where hardliners in both Tehran and Washington - and there's no shortage in either capital right now - become kind of mutual enablers. And you can go very quickly up an escalatory ladder. So I think it's quite a dangerous moment, and it's a moment when we need to remind ourselves, I think, of the value of diplomacy.

KELLY: You said, if Iran is behind these attacks. You're not completely persuaded by the evidence that's been made public so far.

BURNS: No, I suspect that the evidence is accurate. And I can understand, you know, why the Iranians, who have been building up to this, would engage in what I said are quite reckless and dangerous actions.

KELLY: All right, so you said this is the moment for diplomacy...

BURNS: Yeah.

KELLY: ...Which is what I would expect from a seasoned diplomat.

BURNS: Shocking.

KELLY: There you go. But is it clear to you that the U.S. wants to deescalate?

BURNS: Well, I think that the challenge is that we tell ourselves - we tell the world we're engaged in coercive diplomacy. But so far it's been all about coercion and not at all about diplomacy - in other words, a willingness to engage with the Iranians however sharp or differences as well as try to rebuild the international coalition that we worked so hard to develop, you know, for years and years, which was a prime source of leverage over the Iranians on the nuclear issue and potentially over other questions as well.

KELLY: The Trump administration, if Secretary Pompeo or another senior member of the Trump foreign policy team were here, would likely argue it's time to lean toward the coercive side of coercive diplomacy, that it's past administrations such as the ones you served that set the stage for where we are now and that the U.S. should have taken a harder line against Iran a long time ago.

BURNS: Well, see; I think it was our coercive efforts to build a very strong international coalition that produced leverage on Iran which caused them for the first time to negotiate seriously on the nuclear issue - still left us with a range of other actions by Iran that threatened our interests and threatened our friends. We were just in a better position to deal with all those challenges having constrained their nuclear program quite significantly.

KELLY: Is it clear to you what the U.S. objective vis-a-vis Iran is right now?

BURNS: What I worry - I mean, you know, the president has said he wants to talk. He said that, you know, the aim is a better deal. But, you know, I think for others in the administration, what seems at least to me to be clear is that the aim is rather producing either capitulation on the part of the Iranian regime or its implosion. I don't think either of those are realistic goals, and therefore I think you've got to be really careful about the danger of collisions, whether advertent or inadvertent, as well as a lot of collateral damage.

KELLY: Your own experience - backchannel diplomacy with Iran, backchannel because of course there are no official relations between the U.S. and Iran on the diplomatic level - you met in Oman. Is that right? How many times?

BURNS: We did. A number of the meetings were in Oman. We met about nine - had nine or 10 sessions over the course of 2013.

KELLY: Lessons from that that you see as being applicable to the situation now...

BURNS: Well, leverage does matter. You've got to mobilize international pressure. It can't just be unilateral American pressure. But then you also have to be willing to engage. I think you have to understand that Iran presents a wide range of threats to us. It's not possible overnight to solve all of them, but you can manage them. You can constrain their nuclear program, which I think we did successfully. And you can push back against other areas. But first you've got to build that leverage and mobilize that coalition of countries.

KELLY: To your knowledge, do those relationships still exist?

BURNS: Not to my knowledge, no. I don't think there's an active channel.

KELLY: The actual people who you were negotiating with - are they talking to your successors in the U.S.?

BURNS: To the best of my knowledge, no. I mean, it wouldn't be impossible to recreate. It would be extremely difficult. I mean, I don't mean to underestimate the challenges. But I think it's an essential part of a smart, hard-nosed strategy for dealing with the Iranians.

KELLY: Former Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns - Ambassador Burns, thank you.

BURNS: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.