Send Burns to Teheran for a US-Iran thaw

THE US Undersecretary for Political Affairs, William Burns, attended a recent meeting in Geneva between EU Secretary-General Javier Solana and Iran's chief nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili. This decision was the first direct and official contact between the US and Iran after nearly three decades of troubled relations.

By Anthony Zeitouni (Middle East)

  • Follow us on
  • google-news
  • whatsapp
  • telegram

Published: Wed 20 Aug 2008, 10:05 PM

Last updated: Sun 5 Apr 2015, 4:12 PM

The decision to send Burns to the talks was a wise and courageous one despite his nominal role as an observer.

What impact does this have on US-Iran relations? With this simple decision, Washington has taken the first step in reversing its course with Iran, taking the initiative to break the vicious cycle of escalation.

Burns is a high ranking US official, holding the third highest position in the Department of State. The Undersecretary serves as the day-to-day manager of overall regional and bilateral policy issues, and oversees the geographic bureaus. Consequently, the US government's decision to participate in this meeting, by sending someone of this level, sent a clear and serious message.

And Iran responded positively. Manoucher Motakki, the Iranian Minister of Foreign Affairs, suggested they get to know one another in order to reach a better understanding of the origins of the conflict. He also repeated a call for more direct air flights between Teheran and the United States. And Ali Akbar Wilayati, Foreign Affairs Adviser to the Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, noted the great importance of Washington's decision. Even Iranian Vice-President Esfandiar Rahim-Mashaei stated that the people of Iran are friends of the American people.

Sending Burns to the negotiating table was a good move, but by itself it is not enough. Further steps are required to show that America is committed to a track of diplomatic engagement.

Continuing upon this path could prevent the United States from entering into an open-ended, potentially deadly conflict with Iran and its allies in the Middle East. It would save the lives of US soldiers and help safeguard America's interests in the region.

It would also assist Iran's regime in its quest for stability and recognition. Furthering its political interests would require sitting down at the same table with US officials and being recognised by the United States as a friend rather than one of the "rogue regimes" in the "Axis of Evil". Iran is also aiming to put an end to US and UN sanctions that are proving harmful to the Iranian economy and standard of living. It needs to begin selling its natural gas (Iran sits on the world's second largest proven gas reserves after Russia) to the United States and developing its oil and gas fields.

Shortly after meeting with political and senior military officials in Israel, America's Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, warned against pursuing a military strike against Iran. He said that the Iranian nuclear issue should be dealt with only though diplomatic channels, and that war with Iran is not in the United States' best interest. Launching air strikes against Iran's nuclear facilities would be "extremely stressful", Mullen added, which is military speak for catastrophic.

Likewise, a war with America would also wreak havoc for Iranians, who are already suffering from a huge economic crisis, despite the recent hike in oil prices. Many Iranian political experts are already expressing their fear of an American attack on Iran's nuclear facilities, army and economy.

Through the Burns visit, the seed of diplomacy has been planted and it must be nurtured.

The United States can count on help from civil society to continue to build positive relations with Iran's civil society. For example, the Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington, DC, John Bryson Chane, recently travelled to Iran on two occasions at the invitation of former Iranian president Mohammad Khatami. He exchanged viewpoints with numerous religious leaders and scholars in Teheran and Qom in the hopes of giving "theological diplomacy" a chance.

In addition, the Catholic University of America in Washington, DC, has worked for several years building bridges between the United States and Iran, organising conferences along the theme of "dialogue of civilisations" with Iranian partners, and arranging exchange visits for Iranian university professors and clerics. Such initiatives should continue.

In addition, the US plan to establish a diplomatic presence in Teheran could be constructive for both sides. For America, it could serve as a window of understanding into the relatively unknown government of Iran. Along with direct contact with Iranian officials, it would encourage public diplomacy with the Iranian people vis-à-vis culture, education, women's rights, and other mutual interests.

For Iran, it provides an opportunity to improve its reputation, through contact with American diplomats. It is a good starting point that may lead to broader recognition for the Iranian regime and the emergence of diplomatic ties.

Anthony Zeitouni is a Washington-based conflict resolution researcher. This article is distributed by the Common Ground News Service

More news from