Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Nick Burns, who is due to leave the State Department after twenty-six years of service at the end of the month, spoke to the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington tonight. He discussed a range of issues, from Kosovo to North Korea. He said he believes that perhaps the biggest unanticipated issue for the next administration on the global front will be the energy issue, and its relation to global climate change.
But all were looking to Washington's top Iran envoy for a signal about what the Bush administration plans to do on the Iran nuclear issue over the next ten months; and for signs that Burns' imminent departure might be related to some bureaucratic battle - or simple exhaustion or frustration - at trying to lead the administration's effort to cobble and keep together an international coalition to pressure Iran diplomatically and with economic sanctions and other means to change its behavior on its nuclear program.
And Burns did deliver a fairly clear message on that question. He said that he did not think the Iran nuclear issue would be resolved by the end of the Bush administration and would still be outstanding when a new administration takes office.
"I don't think conflict with Iran is inevitable," Burns said. "There is plenty of space for diplomacy."
"I think the issue plays out well beyond 2009," Burns said.
Burns said he had led a meeting today with UN Security Council Permanent Five (P5) members plus Germany, where the discussion was two fold: agreeing on a third set of international sanctions he expects to be passed by the Security Council in two weeks. As well as, reiterating the offer to negotiate with Iran. Among the incentives offered to Iran to negotiate, Burns said: that an international consortium would provide Iran a civilian nuclear power facility, under which Russian would basically haul in the nuclear fuel and haul out the spent fuel.
He did say there was concern about uranium enrichment work at Natanz outpacing sanctions' ability to slow it down. "The pace of Iranian nuclear [development] at Natanz is outpacing sanctions," Burns said. "If the international community wants to avoid a military solution, then economic sanctions need to be more effective."
I asked Burns more about the effort to reiterate to Iran the standing offer to talk with it. He said Iran and its president Ahmadinejad and other officials had the offer on their desks, using his hands to pantomime someone putting a document on a desk. He said Iran has rejected the offer to talk with the U.S. four times already. I asked if the offer got on Ahmadinejad's desk through the Swiss channel, and he said that EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana had handed it to him. He said the U.S. and P5 still consider it a precondition for such talks that Iran suspend its uranium enrichment going into the talks. Presumably under the "suspension for suspension" arrangement Burns mentioned last year -- the offer that if Iran agrees to suspend uranium enrichment going into negotiations, the international community would suspend international economic sanctions.
"We are all anxious to continue to keep on the table the offer to negotiate with Iran," Burns said. "They have the offer on the table. President Ahmadinejad has it on the table. I think it's up to them."
I heard Burns speak a year ago on US Iran policy, when the US was trying to get a second round of economic sanctions through the UN Security Council. The message then, while containing many of the same elements as tonight's CFR speech, struck me as darker, and more deliberately calibrated to convey an underlying threat. Burns used language then about there not being endless amounts of time for diplomacy and to see Tehran's behavior change. Tonight, the message seemed to suggest a longer horizon, and perhaps as well a greater interest in probing for the possibility of talks. Whether that is because Burns feels more free to speak his mind now because he's leaving government service in a few days, or because the administration and its allies have determined they have more time, is not clear; perhaps a bit of both.