President Donald Trump's decision to assassinate Qassem Suleimani, the commander of the Quds Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards, was "a significant strategic setback" to the very goals the Trump administration set for itself, according to William J Burns, a senior US diplomat who conducted the negotiations that culminated in the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran.
In a diplomatic career spanning 35 years, Burns reached the rank of deputy secretary of state, the highest office ever held by a career diplomat. Now president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, he recently published The Back Channel: American Diplomacy in a Disordered World.
Burns said Suleimani’s January 3rd assassination harmed three objectives of the Trump administration: to obtain a better nuclear deal, to reverse Iran’s influence in the region, and to weaken the Iranian regime.
“The administration is farther away from each of those goals,” Burns said in a telephone interview. “On the nuclear issue not only do we not have a better deal, we in effect have no deal right now.”
The Iraqi parliament’s demand for the US to pull out 5,200 troops “would have collateral damage on the US capacity to continue work with others in the fight against Isis, a conflict that is by no means over,” Burns says.
Furthermore, “our closest Gulf partners are increasingly nervous about being caught in crossfire, about becoming collateral damage in a US-Iranian conflict”, Burns says. Gulf states have made “direct and indirect feelers to the Iranians”.
A series of drone attacks on Saudi Arabia’s Abqaiq oil processing facility, the world’s largest, last September, “reminded Gulf Arabs in a pretty graphic way that while the Iranians are experiencing considerable economic pain as a result of the US unilateral reimposition of sanctions, they can inflict pain of their own.
“Their message to Gulf Arabs, and in particular to the Saudis and the Emiratis, was ‘don’t think you are not going to bear the brunt of this as well’.”
Unify the regime
Suleimani’s death also helped the regime “to tighten its grip, to unify the regime on the eve of parliamentary elections next month, and later in the year presidential elections, and ultimately the choice of a new supreme leader”.
Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is 80-years-old.
Iran admitted at the weekend that it accidentally shot down Ukrainian International Airlines flight 752, killing 176 people, on January 8th.
Burns called the downing of the airliner “horrific”, and said it reminded him of the accidental shooting down by the USS Vincennes of an Iranian passenger aircraft in 1988, when he was a young diplomat at the National Security Council.
“Now that the Iranian government has belatedly taken responsibility for the tragedy, pledged a full investigation and offered to co-operate with foreign specialists, including from the US, perhaps there’s a glimmer of hope for the kinds of practical interactions that can help manage tensions,” he says.
“This tragedy is certainly a broader reminder, for all sides, of the inadvertent risks of escalating military tensions.”
The fact that both the US and Iran “wanted to try to draw a line under a phase of overt military conflict… doesn’t mean, as President Trump said publicly, that the case is closed”, Burns says.
“The Iranian regime is going to move into a different phase of its strategy, on to terrain with which it’s more comfortable, where it can make use of its own proxies, its own tools, in more covert ways,” says Burns.
In particular, he believes the Iranians will "play on anxieties in a fragile Iraqi government and an angry Shia cleric establishment in Iraq to push us out".
By warning the Iraqi prime minister Adel Abdel Mahdi that they were about to fire missiles at Iraqi bases housing US military last week, Tehran ensured there would be no US casualties.
At a press conference following the missile barrage, Gen Amir Ali Hajizadeh, the commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Aerospace Force, stood in front of the flags of Iran, the IRGC and armed groups supported by Iran in Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon, Pakistan, Palestine and Yemen.
It was an unusually direct avowal of Iran’s regional expansionism, and a statement that Iran will use those groups to seek further revenge for Suleimani’s killing.
Burns says while President Trump claims he does not want regime change in Iran, his strategy of “sustained economic pressure and episodic military actions” amounts to working for either “the capitulation or implosion of the regime. Those aims are not tethered to reality.”
While Burns’s diplomatic career encompassed all areas of US foreign policy, Iran has dogged him ever since he took the train from Oxford, where he did his doctorate, to London to take the foreign service exam, just days after Iranian revolutionaries took 52 US diplomats hostage in November 1979.
Under the Bush and Obama administrations, Burns initiated moves to establish a dialogue with Iran. In 2008, he broke the taboo on US participation in nuclear talks between Iran and UN Security Council members plus Germany. In 2009, he became the first US diplomat to engage in bilateral talks with Iran since the 1979 revolution.
Presidents Bush and Obama decided against assassinating Suleimani. “Both of Trump’s predecessors understood that just because you can do something, just because it is morally justifiable, in the case of Qassem Suleimani, who was responsible for the deaths of many Americans, doesn’t make it a smart thing to do.”
With the blessing of then secretary of state John Kerry, Burns established the secret, back-channel negotiations with Iranian diplomats which led to the July 2015 agreement known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Acton ( JCPOA).
Trump tore up Burns’s signal achievement when he renounced the accord in May 2015.
"I thought then, and I continue to think now, that it was a foolish step for us to withdraw on our own, with no evidence of Iranian violations or cheating, in the face of opposition from our partners in the UN and Europe. It was a foolish step to take," says Burns.
Iran stopped compliance altogether after Suleimani’s assassination.
“Each step that the Iranians take, provoked by what I would argue is the original sin of Trump abandoning the JCPOA, each step they take to disentangle themselves from compliance with the agreement is going to make it harder and harder to resurrect what is left of that agreement if you had a different administration in early 2021 in Washington,” says Burns.
He finds some hope in the fact that Iran continues to comply with monitoring and verification obligations, “which I always thought were among the most important, if not the most important”.
He acknowledges that the agreement “wasn’t perfect”, but “perfect is rarely on the menu in diplomacy”.
“It was the best of the available alternatives for preventing the Iranians from developing a nuclear weapon…It was always meant to be the beginning of diplomacy and not the end of it…
“If we could have done a comprehensive agreement which dealt with all the issues in one fell swoop we certainly would have. But diplomacy is the art of the possible, and often times it’s about managing conflicts rather than solving them in one transformative step. We were far better off with that agreement than without it.”