Mideast relations is major factor in difficult Iran nuclear negotiations to come

The interim deal could be a first step in striking a longer-term diplomatic agreement on Iran's nuclear program. What difficulties might stand in the way? Gwen Ifill talks to former State Department official Nicholas Burns and Walter Russell Mead of Bard College.


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GWEN IFILL: And now to the diplomacy behind the Geneva deal and its potential impact in the region.

We turn to Nicholas Burns, former U.S. undersecretary of state for political affairs. He now teaches at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government and he is the senior foreign affairs columnist for GlobalPost. And Walter Russell Mead, editor at large of "The American Interest" magazine and a professor of foreign affairs and humanities at Bard College.

Nick Burns, what did we see, a temporary pause on its way to true detente here?

NICHOLAS BURNS, GlobalPost: Well, it's very hard to say.

I mean, the value of this, Gwen, is that it's an interim deal. It gives -- it stops the Iranians, the first time that's happened. It gives time and space for diplomacy. You know, this is a big issue for an American national security in 2014.

Can we stop Iran through negotiations, through some diplomatic settlement, or are we going to be -- have to use force at the end of the day? And, of course, the president, I think quite rightly, has said before we consider force, we have got to consider this diplomatic option.

I think, Gwen, you have to resolve the nuclear problem with Iran before you can really say it's a new day in the relationship. We haven't had a relationship with them diplomatically for 34 years, since the Jimmy Carter administration. It's a rare diplomatic opening. And even if we resolve the nuclear problem, we're going to have to talk to them about their support for Hezbollah and Hamas, about their opposition to what we are trying to do in Afghanistan and Iraq.

There is a sea of difficulties in this relationship. And it requires patience, and it requires a lot of discussions. And that is -- I think is one of values of the Geneva deal reached over the weekend. We now have the time to have those discussions with the Iranian government.

GWEN IFILL: Well, Walter Russell Mead, as we just heard in the last conversation, Judy's conversation, there are a lot of pretty fundamental disagreements about whether the nuclear part, the science part of this is even workable.

Does the science have to work for the diplomacy to stick?

WALTER RUSSELL MEAD, "The American Interest": Well, I'm actually much more worried about the diplomacy than the science, maybe because I know more about diplomacy than I know about science.

(LAUGHTER)

WALTER RUSSELL MEAD: But I think, you know, and the problem is to really get to an agreement that can stick with Iran, there are two things that we need to be doing. One is addressing the nuclear issue and finding a way to talk about that in some kind of negotiating framework.

And the other is to sort of deal with Iran's regional ambitions. I think Iran right now feels it's on a roll in the region. Iran and Russia were more or less able to frustrate U.S. policy in Syria. We have talked about how Assad must go. We have talked about red lines. But at the end of the day, he's still there, and, if anything, as the rebels divide and the situation on the ground gets messier, Assad seems to be gaining ground.

Hezbollah is also doing very well. When you put all that together, it looks to the Iranians as if they're dealing from strength. I'm not sure that that is the mood that is going to get them to make the kinds of concessions that we actually do need on the nuclear issue.

GWEN IFILL: That's a question, Nicholas Burns. We saw the pictures of the kind of partying in the streets in Tehran as the negotiators returned. Are they dealing from strength now, having worked out this deal?

NICHOLAS BURNS: I'm not so sure. There is a sense of jubilation in Iran because there's going to be some temporary limited relief from sanctions.

And they have been hit very hard by sanctions. But the real problem here is that the Iranians are in a relatively weak position vis-a-vis the United States and Europe. We have retained, as you heard Secretary Kerry say, the really crippling sanction, the financial sanctions, the oil & gas sanctions. We're not going to lift them until we have a long-term permanent deal.

And, as you know, the United States has reminded the Iranians over the last few days, as has Israel, that both of us retain the right to use force should negotiations not be successful and should Iran then drive towards a nuclear weapons capability.

So I think the Iranians have to respect that. And that's why we needed this time and space for negotiations. I think the president now is going to have to focus on this probably as his number one national security issue for the next four or five months. We're going to need a lot of help from our allies, the French and the British especially.

But we're going to -- the president has to operate now on multiple levels. He's negotiating with the Iranians and all those other countries. He's trying to establish a separate bilateral challenge channeled to the Iranians that we haven't had in 34 years. He's also got to negotiate, the president, with the Israelis and the Saudis, who oppose what he's doing, and he's got to negotiate with Congress that wants to slap on more sanctions at a time when the president doesn't want that.

GWEN IFILL: Well...

NICHOLAS BURNS: This is about as challenging as it gets.

GWEN IFILL: Yes, you just put a lot on his plate right there.

Walter Russell Mead, as hard as it was to get to this temporary six-month pause, how much harder will it be for this administration or any administration to tackle all the things Nicholas Burns just talked about?

WALTER RUSSELL MEAD: I think it's very hard.

That's one of the reasons that I'm worried about the diplomatic situation. You know, I think, to the Saudis right now, what it looks like is happening is the U.S. is offering Iran a kind of a Fertile-Crescent-for-nukes deal, that we are more or less dropping any serious opposition to Iran's consolidating power in Iraq, in Syria and Lebanon.

And, meanwhile, we're sort of working towards some sort of a nuclear agreement that may or may not pan out. I think, for the Saudis, that's not just a little bit unacceptable. That is radically and totally unacceptable and an existential threat. Now, they may or may not be able to do something about it. But it's -- your life in the Middle East is usually not very easy when the Saudis are fundamentally unhappy with you.

And I should say that the -- you know, we haven't even gotten to Israel, which is another issue.

GWEN IFILL: Well, let me ask Nicholas Burns about Israel, because, at the very least, it would seem this deal might tie their hands for a short time at least in the ability to just unilaterally strike against Iran. Is that -- is that possible?

NICHOLAS BURNS: I think that it's inconceivable that Prime Minister Netanyahu would launch a military strike on Iran when President Obama and Secretary Kerry are at the negotiating table.

I don't think the Israelis will do that. But they're very unhappy with this deal. And on the one hand, you have to be sympathetic to the Israelis, because even just last week, the supreme leader of Iran said the most reprehensible things about the state of Israel. The Iranians have not made their peace with the existence of the state of Israel, and so the Israelis have to take that seriously.

But this deal, I would say, as Secretary Kerry did over the weekend, it really is in the long-term interests of Israel to see a cessation and to see if there is a possibility of a long-term agreement. I think we are going to have to agree to disagree with the Israelis, but managing that problem is going to take a lot of time by both the president and Secretary Kerry, the Israeli and Saudi problem.

And, Gwen, I don't think the president is acquiescing in Iranian policy in Syria and Lebanon. We're going to try to stop them from becoming a nuclear weapons power, but we're going have a big argument with the Iranians on what they are doing regionally.

GWEN IFILL: Walter Russell Mead, let me ask you about the sanctions. There's an argument that it was because -- the White House makes this argument -- that the sanctions were what brought the Iranians to the table. If that's true, wouldn't more sanctions, which some members of Congress are threatening, make them even more serious?

WALTER RUSSELL MEAD: Well, you know, it's possible.

But I think we shouldn't overestimate how crippling the sanctions have been, you know, not so much on the Iranian economy. But if Iran was really broke, it wouldn't have been able to funnel all that money to Assad and to Hezbollah during this civil war. I don't think Iran is down to scraping -- you know, looking behind the sofa cushions for the last few nickels and dimes.

Again, I think we are overestimating the degree to which we have coerced Iran into making -- into a position where it has no choice but make the kinds of concessions we're looking for. I don't think that's the way they see it. I don't think it's the way other people in the region see it. And, if that's true, we're likely to have a pretty stormy period of negotiations ahead.

GWEN IFILL: Well, let's talk about the next stormy period, because today -- or this weekend, we heard that they're going back to the negotiating table over Syria in Geneva.

We have also heard that the loya jirga in Afghanistan, with some resistance perhaps on timing from the president of Afghanistan, have agreed to this withdrawal pact, this deal that has been signed. And now we have these negotiations ongoing involving Iran.

Is that something, Nicholas Burns, that is going to change the entire focus of this administration as it enters this next kind of critical six months?

NICHOLAS BURNS: Well, and there's also the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations that Secretary Kerry is consumed by.

GWEN IFILL: Oh, that, too, yes.

(LAUGHTER)

NICHOLAS BURNS: You know, I think the administration correctly sees our longest-term vital interests to be in Asia and it wants to pivot to Asia, but it really can't right now because of what you just said, Gwen.

These are crises that have to get dealt with now. I think there is the bandwidth within the administration to deal with all of them simultaneously, but it's going to require an extraordinary focus on this region. The Middle East is still the place where the United States has to be directed day-by-day.

I do think, of all the issues you mentioned, Gwen, the Iran issue is the priority. They're all important. But that's the one where the United States cannot afford to let Iran become a nuclear weapons power. We have a chance now, a rare diplomatic opening. I agree with Walter. This is going to be extraordinarily difficult, but not impossible.

And that's why the president's right to take this opening, and that's why this deal makes sense for the U.S.

GWEN IFILL: Walter Mead, does this administration have the bandwidth?

WALTER RUSSELL MEAD: We're going to find out.

But I think we should also mention that, at the same time we're seeing the Middle East in trouble, we're seeing, in Asia, we have China declaring its new air defense restrictions near those disputed islands. We have seen the European Union fail to get Ukraine into an association agreement, which is a big win for Russia.

I think, if you look at Iran, Russia, and China, three significant players in Eurasia who -- who are -- who would like to see American influence diminished and the post-Cold War order in Eurasia altered significantly, they're all making progress right now. They're all pushing -- pushing to the limits.

And I'm not sure that the administration has yet sort of come to terms with the nature of a much bigger foreign policy challenge than maybe they hope we're facing.

GWEN IFILL: Walter Russell Mead of Bard College, Nicholas Burns of Kennedy School at Harvard, thank you both so much.

NICHOLAS BURNS: Thank you.

WALTER RUSSELL MEAD: Thanks.