The New York Times’ chief foreign correspondent John Fisher Burns joined me from London today to talk about the negotiations with Iran and whether the mullahs could ever be trusted:
HH: A special last hour of the radio week begins with John Fisher Burns, our chief foreign correspondent friend of the New York Times who resides in London. You can follow him on Twitter, @JohnFisherBurns. John Fisher Burns, welcome back, it’s always great to have you on the Hugh Hewitt Show.
JB: Mutual, absolutely mutual, Hugh.
HH: Well, I wanted to ask you your opinion of the Iran negotiations and the Senate letter, and the reaction from the German foreign minister, and President Obama. You’ve been covering Tehran for a long time from a lot of different angles. What do you make of this situation?
JB: Well, it seems to me that the preeminent feature of this entire business is everybody agrees surely that our negotiations are better than no negotiations, and obstructive, recalcitrant as the Iranians have been for many years on this issue, there does appear to be now somewhat better hope of reaching a successful conclusion than there was before. And in any case, you have to ask yourself what is the alternative. Can we really contemplate, if we continue to push Iran with indefinite sanctions, and Iran does not give up the potential to develop nuclear weapons, can we really contemplate the use of military action? I would have thought not.
HH: Now do you have a perspective on why we would be able to trust the Iranians now when we clearly haven’t been able to trust them for the last 30 years? And of course, they’re the chief state sponsor of terror in the world, and they’re very sophisticated and they’re very powerful. But what’s the indication, from your perspective, and the people that you talk with that maybe there is an opening here where trust would be justified?
JB: Well, you know that old, is it the Marines or is it just an old military saying in the United States, trust but verify? And you’re certainly right if you’re suggesting that no agreement with the Iranians would be worth more than the paper it was written on unless there was serious verification of it. It’s true that they have broken trust in the past, that they have been sponsors of terrorism, and for a very long time, now, they’ve been a very disruptive force in the Middle East. But against that, I think you’d have to set something which has been evident now for ten, fifteen or more years, to anybody who travels to Iran, which is that the moderates in Iran are always pushing for a better relationship with the West. They have their high tides and they have their low tides. Ten years or more ago, it was President Khatami. Now they have a new president who seems to have grasped that Iran itself has got to find a way out of this corner. Its economy has been wrecked, absolutely wrecked. What the ayatollahs didn’t wreck, the sanctions are now wrecking. And it seems to me we’ve missed before opportunities under President Khatami, being the preeminent example, an opportunity to explore more deeply the possibilities of some sort of reconciliation. It’s a very striking fact when you go to Tehran, of course, there are people that we would be consider to be lunatics of God. But there is a very strong, moderate, for the most part, and entrepreneurial class, academic class in Iran which of course hopes for an eventually turn away from the ayatollahs. And we need to, I think, give them whatever help we can, consistent without exposing ourselves to further security risks.
HH: Now you’re very hard-headed about this. Late this afternoon, Reuters carried a story quoting a senior European diplomat not identified, but I assume Reuters knows of whom they speak that even if a deal is reached by the end of March, they’re going to need three more months to read a full agreement by June 30th. Now John Fisher Burns, that seems to me to be more extension because Iran is simply not willing to do the hard things. Is there anything in your experience that would lead you to believe that that which they cannot get done now they could get done in another 90 days?
JB: Do you know, you have to know a lot more than I know, and I suspect most outsiders know about the state of those negotiations. But I think American negotiators, including the Secretary of State, John Kerry, these are not foolish people. They’re not soft-headed people. They’re keenly aware of the evil that has lurked for a very long time at the heart of the Iranian regime. And I would hope and trust that these people are going to be very, very tough with the Iranians, because if another negotiation, another trust is broken, and of course, it does move us further down a road to a military confrontation, which would surely be catastrophic.
HH: After the break, your colleague, Peter Baker, is going to join me to talk about the domestic, political problem that President Obama faces in getting people to believe that he is fact that tough. Many people think he’s too eager for a deal here, as you’re no doubt aware. I’m mostly concerned about the 1994 agreement with North Korea, which sure seems to me, John Fisher Burns, to seem a lot like this agreement. And that, of course, came up a-cropper.
JB: Well, there’s no doubt that in the case of North Korea, there’s a case to answer about soft-headedness, about assumptions which were absolutely unsustainable about the ability to get the various Kim regimes in North Korea to change course. So you know, that’s not a very good precedent. But I think that you know, we’ve dealt with Iran for a very long time. We know more about Iran. We know a great deal about Iran’s potential for malevolent and influence in the Middle East. There are very few people, I would think, at any level of authority in the Defense Department or the State Department or the White House who need any schooling about these things. And it seems to me whilst it would be foolish to say we would not repeat those mistakes, it just seems to me improbable, and that the need to explore every possibility of getting a diplomatic solution to this is overriding.
HH: And John Fisher Burns, you know Iraq so well from having spent so many years there as the head of the Baghdad bureau during the war. We know that Iran is basically taking over the Iraqi military in large parts, and that they are leading the offense against the Islamic State. And that’s a fact on the ground. Would it be impolitic or imprudent to insist on some sort of degree of separation of Iraq from Iran before we went forward with this deal, some good faith gesture on the ground there, because it seems like the Quds Force is everywhere from the Golan Heights to Tikrit.
JB: It’s a worry in fact, but it seems to me that the situation in Iraq and the current drive north by the Shiia militias, Iran-backed, who knows, Iran-led in many instances, is going to run into the hard facts of life in Iraq, which is that for all of the Sunnis, who are only a 20% minority in Iraq, the current fighting is taking place right in the Sunni heartland. And I don’t think that a Shiia dominion over that heartland, that Sunni heartland in Iraq, is going to be sustainable. And it’s pretty plain that General Dempsey, the chairman of the joint chiefs, among others, sees that very plainly. He has a great advantage, as do many of the most senior officers in the American military, of having actually served in this terrain. They know all about the Sunnis in Iraq, and it seems to me that if the Shiite-led military operations now in the Sunni heartland of Iraq do succeed in the short term, they will not succeed in the long term, but that we may hope that there will be a turning within the Sunni community itself away from the ISIS influence. The Sunnis are not lunatics. They want a place in the sunshine for themselves in Iraq. There are a lot of very accomplished people amongst the Sunni people of Iraq. And I think that the ultimate outcome of all of this will not depend on anything we can currently see, but on some projection of a fight that within the Sunni community in Iraq, and across the border in Iran, and Syria for that matter, and among the Sunnis for, to control and ultimately defeat the extremist elements.
HH: And a last, quick question, John Fisher Burns. We know what Netanyahu thinks of this deal. The Prime Minister denounced it. But what do you hear Saudi Arabia and Egypt saying about this deal? Are they with Netanyahu? Or are they with leaning forward into a deal with Secretary Kerry?
JB: You know, it’s been some time since I’ve been in the area, and I find it difficult to say that. But of course, the Saudis in particular are extremely wary of any expansion of Iranian influence, because the effect that will have in the Gulf, and in their own security, which as you know is quite tenuous.
HH: Put them down as skeptical. John Fisher Burns, it’s always a great pleasure, chief foreign correspondent for the New York Times, America. Follow him, @JohnFisherBurns on Twitter.
End of interview.