Deconstructing Nicholas Burns

Deconstructing Nicholas Burns

The happy sages of disbelief in Iran’s peaceful intentions can never be satisfied by any counter-evidence that disturbs their “regime of truth” about Iran, pushed forth vigorously by the pro-Israel lobbyists who exploit the Iran nuclear crisis to let Israel off the hook on the Middle East peace process, says Kaveh L. Afrasiabi.


Summary: A high official of Bush administration now turned a faculty at Harvard has been playing a prominent role in shaping US’s Iran policy. Nicholas Burns has been joined by neoconservatives such as Michael Ledeen in Iran demonizing diplomatic revisionism and a well-orchestrated campaign to narrow Obama’s Iran’s option to two false choices: prevention or containment. This overlooks a third option: normalizing relations with Iran, respecting its NPT rights, and cooperating on a number of shared issues in the region.

“We have no information on Iran’s wok on nuclear weapons,” Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin flatly said on Russian national television last Thursday. Apparently someone in Washington, London or Paris forgot the importance of sharing such vital information with their partners involved in the nuclear talks with Iran.

But, don’t tell that to the high-brow faculty at Harvard University, who held a “simulation game” last week on the Iran nuclear crisis, concluding that Iran will likely win and US loses — in its effort to prevent Iran’s nuclear proliferation, thus forced to play the uncomfortable role of “containing Iran” much to the chagrin of Israelis who still insist that Iran can still be stopped on its march toward nuclear weapons.

“By the December 2010 hypothetical end point, Iran had doubled its supply of low-enriched uranium and pushing ahead with weaponization,” David Ignatius of Washington Post, writing about the Harvard “nuclear practice” reports.(1)

Two cheers for the prestigious Kennedy School of Government to make such valiant efforts that “revealed some important real-life dynamics,” to paraphrase Ignatius, who quickly adds “and the inability of any diplomatic strategy, so far, to stop the Iranian nuclear push.” Nor should we forget about the media pundits such as Ignatius, and the wonderful synergy of academic and media power — to perpetuate the hitherto unsubstantiated “hypothetical” regarding Iran’s relentless march toward nuclear weapons, together giving us another splendid example of Chomskyian “manufactuing consent” or, alternatively, what the late French philosopher, Michel Foucault, described as the administrative production of knowledge by power.

Never mind that all of Iran’s enrichment activities are under the full-scope safety and surveillance regime of the IAEA, whose cameras detect any sign of military diversion, or that the IAEA inspectors have inspected the empty building under construction near Qom, to be used as a second enrichment site, if ever depending on the nature of country’s contingencies, and they have found it to be entirely peaceful and not at all in line with president Obama’s disinformation that the Fordow center is “configured for military purpose.”

The happy sages of disbelief in Iran’s peaceful intentions can never be satisfied by any counter-evidence that disturbs their “regime of truth” about Iran, pushed forth vigorously by the pro-Israel lobbyists who exploit the Iran nuclear crisis to let Israel off the hook on the Middle East peace process. Their cognitive map thus sealed off to doubts or any refutation, these scholars, policy-makers and media pundits form a formidable and charming policy circle that, increasingly, wraps itself around the White House and slowly but surely tightens its noose on Obama’s Iran choices, narrowing it to false dichotomies, prevention or containment, and then indirectly pushing the former by highlighting the dangers and unwanted consequences of the latter; you win by losing your argument.

Little wonder then that the “Iran team” at Harvard’s little game of witts on Iran was led by Gary Sick, a former White House staff-turned-Columbia professor-turned-Ahmadinejad-hater after the recent presidential elections. One can only imagine Sick’s personal satisfaction at seeing the horrified reaction of public to the news that the evil Iranians would come out ahead in the months to come, much to the chagrin of helpless Americans led by president Obama, played by a Bush-era leftover, Nicholas Burns, a former undersecretary of state for political affairs who is now “a retied diplomat” and teaching public diplomacy at Harvard, although one would not know that by following Burns’s flurry of Iran-bashing activities, ranging from congressional testimonies to numerous public speeches and open mic with the US’s media.

No doubt about it, as long as Obama has not inusulated himself from the destructive influence of Bushites lurking behind every strategy session on Iran, there is no hope in his “Iran engagement” policy, even though some of them such as Burns have now disguised themselves as converts to “Iran dialogue” in part by falsifying the historical record of Bush administration’s confrontational approach toward Iran.

Not so according to Burns, who along with his neo-conservative allies such as Michael Ledeen, are determined to re-write diplomatic history, in order to exonerate the Bush administration and paint Iran in a negative light. Thus, according to both Ledeen, in his latest diatribe against Iran in a new book calling Iranians “evil,” as well as Burns in his various public statements, Iran shoulders the blame for frozen US-Iran relations during the 8 years of Bush presidency. Their narrative runs as follows: In June 2006, US initiated a serious effort to engage the Iranians in dialogue and “unfortunately, Iran rejected over the next two years repeated offers by the US and its partners for talks,” to quote Burns’ congressional testimony in May 2009. Conveniently, Burns leaves out a couple of relevant details that expose the fallacy of this claim.

First, Burns omits mentioning that the US’s offer of dialogue was disingenuous simply because it was “talk with preconditions” as reflected in numerous statements by the then secretary of state Condaleeza Rice, that she was willing to sit down and meet with the Iranian foreign minister “any time, anywhere” as soon as they agreed to halt their uranium enrichment program. That stiff condition, questioned even by Javier Solana, European Union’s foreign policy chief, essentially meant putting the cart before the horse and demanding at the outset of negotiations what should have been the desired outcome of such talks.

Second, Burns also fails to mention that Iran actually did continue its dialogue with US’s European partners during those years and more than once the US deliberately scuttled the talks when they were ripening for fruitful results.(1) Distorting the past, giving false account of past diplomatic efforts toward Iran, and the like, now play a crucial role in “closing the window of diplomacy” as warned last week by the White House National Security Advisor, General James L. Jones, who reiterated the US’s patience with Iran running thin. Put simply, by making Obama’s short-lived flirtation with Iran talk as merely the continuation of a long-standing prior (non-existing) process, the US piles up the necessary justification for resorting to extra-diplomatic, i.e., coercive, methods against Iran.

Interestingly, if one were to simply narrow-focus on Mr. Burns and his “quasi-diplomatic” efforts at Iran-bashing, bestowed with the legitimacy conferred upon him as a result of his new distinguished career as a Harvard professor (even though he lacks a doctorate degree or any record of scholarly publications whatsoever), then one can realize the dangers that lurk ahead for world peace, as the US inches forward toward an unnecessary confrontation with Iran, partly fueled by all the pre-war stage settings, such as Burns’ recent testimony by before the House Committee on Foreign Relations — that expressed his “fear that the US is now on a collision course with the government of Iran.”

Indeed, Burns’ testimony is a must read for all those who are interested in seeing how an ex-official of the rogue Bush administration, that for 8 long years operated in a vacuum of international law and legality, aptly spreads the content of “axis of evil” vis-a-vis Iran, by portraying Iran as a “lethal threat to US” and as a thoroughly “negative influence on all that is important to US in the Middle East,” including being hostile to most of its neighbors.

Such a demonization of Iran is a part and parcel of any (pre) war strategy toward Iran, irrespective of the fact that Iran has rather excellent neighborly relations with most if not all of its neighbors: it has provided significant material support to the new governments in Iraq and Afghanistan, has signed a gas deal with Pakistan, has cordial relations with all its Caspian neighbors, has drastically improved its ties with Turkey recently, and on balance has a guardedly positive relations with the six Arab states of Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), irrespective of post-Saddam tensions with Saudi Arabia, which has yet to reckon with the new political reality in Baghdad.

Of course, Burns can be faulted also for his role as an architect of the US-India nuclear deal that, bottom line, substantially weakens the international nonproliferation standards by allowing nuclear sharing with the de facto nuclear weapon state of India and, perhaps worse, may significantly contribute to a dangerous nuclear imbalance favoring India over Pakistan. Mr. Burns, ever an adaptive diplomat, can be heard nowadays blaming New Delhi for the remaining “snags” in operationalizing that deal, such as with respect to the re-processing issue, although many nuclear pundits rightly blame the defective deal and its progenitors such as Burns. Perhaps president Obama would show real leadership by completely altering the terms of this nuclear deal that, in the final analysis, is not in US’s, India’s, and the international community’s interests. But, of course, not if Mr. Burns and his clever associates continue to have their policy weight on Washington.

That aside, over the weekend, in a highly-publicized interview with the network C-Span, Burns repeated his sure-footed conviction that Iran is pursuing nuclear weapons, circling back to the coercive option by throwing the idea of a US military encirclement of Iran, since “deploying troops around Iran” would ensure “Iran’s military does not operate outside its borders.” This from an American mouthpiece some nine thousand kilometers away from the Iranian borders, without a breath of pause on the irony that he finds nothing problematic with an imperial role for US army — which has incidentally done precisely that since 9/11, by building military bases near the Iranian border inside Iraq as well as Afghanistan, not to mention the US bases and military presence in Central Asia, the Caucasus, Persian Gulf, etc., in effect putting a tight security belt against Iran that has continued unabated since Obama came to the White House.

Not only that, Burns, now exercising diplomatic revisionism, adamantly claims that Iran’s pursuit of nuclear energy is “a ruse…Iran is the second largest gas producer in the world and a major oil producer.” Suffice to say here that this runs contrary to another historical record, that is, the repeated US government’s own studies dating back to mid and late 1970s, agreeing to Iran’s need for alternative sources of energy.(2)

And then, in his C-Span interview, Burns committed another blatant falsehood, by claiming that Iran is enriching uranium in “sites that the UN can’t get at.” Either Mr. Burns is pure ignorant of IAEA’s exhaustive inspection of Iran’s nuclear sites and their robust safeguard measures, e.g., all the Russian nuclear fuel already delivered to Iran remain under IAEA seal, or, more likely, he somehow believes that his past and present credential suffices to engage in utter distortion of facts in the full view of a global audience?! This author’s theory is that, sadly, it is the result of a bad combination, of pure arrogance, habitual distortions ingrained in the previous administration, sedimented vilification of Iran, and a narrow intellectual horizon completely unbefitting a distinguished professor of international diplomacy at venerable Harvard.

Alas, it is also a sad testimony to the tragedy of American diplomacy, the paucity of American diplomatic imagination and statecraft, that instead of marginalizing such Bush leftovers, they are enabled to influence the country’s diplomatic machinery and, thus, nip in the bud the wonderful possibilities of a post-hegemonic American global policy. In a word, US loses the Iran game primarily at home, by virtue of failing to cordon off the likes of Burns from the Iran policy perimeter.