The invisible man: Bill Burns and the secret Iran talks

WASHINGTON Wed Jan 1, 2014 10:59am EST

1 of 3. Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns attends the U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue at the State Department in Washington in this file photo taken July 10, 2013.

Credit: Reuters/Yuri Gripas/Files

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The night before a round of high-stakes nuclear talks with Iran, U.S. President Barack Obama told his chief of staff he had "absolute confidence we have the right team on the field."

Obama was not referring to his public negotiating team, led by senior State Department official Wendy Sherman, nor even to his secretary of state, John Kerry, who was soon to sweep in from Tel Aviv to join the early November discussions in Geneva.

Rather, White House chief of staff Denis McDonough recalled, Obama was talking about a secret group led by Bill Burns, Kerry's discreet, disciplined and self-effacing deputy.

At times using U.S. military aircraft, hotel side entrances and service elevators to keep his role under wraps, Burns undertook arguably the most sensitive diplomatic mission of Obama's presidency: secret talks with Iran to persuade it to curb its nuclear program.

In picking Burns, seen by his peers as a leading U.S. diplomat of his generation, Obama gave the envoy, who speaks Arabic, French and Russian, a chance to ease more than 30 years of estrangement between the United States and Iran.

If it ensures Tehran does not build a nuclear bomb, the Iran deal could stand as the capstone to Burns' 31-year diplomatic career.

If it fails, it could bring Israel or the United States closer to a military strike on Iran and fuel criticism that Washington squandered its best opportunity for a peaceful solution by appeasing Iran rather than pressuring it further.

Current and former U.S. officials, including four former secretaries of state, describe Burns as well suited to dealing with the Iranians, with the sensitivity to see Tehran's perspective and the tenacity not to compromise U.S. interests.

"He is steady, reliable, intelligent, disciplined and - in his understated way - persuasive," said former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.

"I like to hear his judgments and can learn from them," Kissinger told Reuters. "That's not something I volunteer very often."

He said he saw Burns' deft touch in the discreet way the diplomat, then ambassador to Russia, reported private conversations between Kissinger and Russian President Vladimir Putin back to Washington.

"I wanted to make sure they were not in the cable traffic lest they leak," Kissinger said. "He handled that with great skill."

Even those who square off across the table speak well of Burns.

He "knows Iran very well and also understands Iran's culture, expectations and position in the region," said a senior Iranian official, speaking on condition of anonymity. "Sometimes during the talks Iranian negotiators get angry and pressure him, but he remains calm and patient."


Burns, 57, who has a lanky frame that he used to good effect on the basketball court in his youth, has executed the rarest of Washington careers. He has taken on politically perilous assignments such as heading the State Department's Middle East shop during the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, all without a hint of personal failure or personal controversy.

Running the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs, which handles Middle East policy, from 2001-2005 made him a participant in the epic struggles between the State and Defense Departments over the war and its aftermath - battles the Pentagon largely won.

Burns, who declined to be interviewed for this article, is no stranger to bureaucratic infighting, though colleagues sometimes conduct skirmishes on his behalf. "If an elbow has to be thrown, usually it'll be thrown by someone else for him," said one U.S. official.

In recent years, officials say, Burns has acted as liaison between the Obama White House, which directs foreign policy with a firm hand, and the State Department, where mid-level officials sometimes complain of being kept in the dark.

Over the past nine months, Burns, along with Jake Sullivan, Vice President Joe Biden's national security adviser, met secretly with Iranian officials five times in Oman and Switzerland.

Their assignment became public only when Tehran and six major powers reached a November 24 agreement for Iran to constrain its nuclear program for six months in exchange for sanctions relief that Washington estimates at $7 billion.

Critics have targeted the deal rather than Burns. Some argue that the sanctions relief is worth more than the White House says, and will undercut U.S. economic leverage on Iran.

Former President George W. Bush was skeptical of talking directly about the nuclear issue with Iran. But in 2008, his final year in office, Bush sent Burns to meet with the Iranians, joining envoys from Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia.

"There was some skepticism in some quarters of the administration," former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told Reuters. "When I said to the president, 'Well it's going to be Bill Burns,' he said: 'He'll be able to handle it.'"

Asked if Burns had any faults, Rice could only think of one: a demeanor so low-key that he sometimes does not generate headlines that could advance an administration's agenda.

His style is in sharp contrast to that of another top diplomat of the era, the late Richard Holbrooke, known for his outspokenness and self-promotion.

"I sometimes think that if Bill were more demonstrative publicly, it could be helpful," Rice said. "It takes a little pressure off the secretary. But Bill is just so understated that that doesn't happen."


Burns' understated style was evident as an honors student at Philadelphia's LaSalle University, which his father, an Army general and former head of the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, also attended.

"Bill would sit on the right side, near the back of the room, with his head looking down at the floor, his hands clasped between his knees, and I don't think he ever took a note," said George Stow, who teaches history at LaSalle. "I thought, oh this boy's in trouble come the first exam."

"Well, I opened the blue book for the first exam and it was astounding. It was page after page after page and filled with references and quotations from books and sources that I had never mentioned," he added, saying Burns had "a capacious mind."

Stow later sponsored Burns for a Marshall Scholarship, to study in Britain. The idea came from the professors, Stow said. "Bill would never, if I may use such a term, be that pushy."

Despite the absence of obvious self-promotion, Burns has had an almost gilded career, spent more in Washington than abroad.

A string of staff jobs that are coveted, if exhausting, plums, put Burns at the right hand of officials such as Colin Powell, President Ronald Reagan's national security adviser, and Warren Christopher and Madeleine Albright when they were secretaries of state.

Powell said Burns had a soft-spoken confidence as a young man and offered unvarnished advice behind closed doors.

"I don't have people around me who pull their punches. I have people around me who will tell me when I have got no clothes on," Powell told Reuters.

Richard Armitage, Powell's deputy secretary of state, said Burns was part of a State Department leadership team that did not so much oppose the 2003 Iraq invasion, as favored a less unilateral approach to ousting dictator Saddam Hussein.

"Was he unhappy? Yes. We were all unhappy with the way we were going to war," Armitage said, adding he, Powell and Burns favored obtaining a second U.N. Security Council resolution to explicitly authorize the use of force in Iraq.

While known for his courtesy, Burns is not shy about advocating for his preferred policies.

Jim Jeffrey, Bush's deputy national security adviser, said Burns had swum against the tide in a skeptical Republican administration to make the case for engaging Tehran.

"He pushed very hard in 2008 to have contact with the Iranians," making his case through then Secretary of State Rice and informally lobbying the national security council staff, Jeffrey said.

Those 2008 dealings with the Iranians helped pave the way to the November nuclear deal, Jeffrey said.

"This was one of the first steps that laid the ground work for what we have today, and laid the groundwork for the Iranian sympathy for and trust in Bill Burns."

(Additional reporting by Parisa Hafezi in Ankara and by Warren Strobel in Washington.; Editing by Warren Strobel, Martin Howell and Tim Dobbyn)

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Comments (4)
Newsrocket wrote:
Admirable man. But there have been many in public service who are ignored when “other interests” are providing “resources” at the back door of the White House and the Pentagon.

Jan 01, 2014 12:06pm EST  --  Report as abuse
rustic36 wrote:
Sounds like an ”admirable man”- – unfortunately the ”secret negotiations” embarrassed and totally undermined our standing with the Saudi’s- – but then again perhaps that was intended? They are now forming their own separate group of Gulf State States to act ”without us”. Kind of makes speaking with one voice- -extremely difficult. Hope it all works out- – ME- – I don’t trust the Iranians as far as I can throw them! Never will get over their taking of our Embassy and us doing NOTHING! ! !something like – - BENGHAZI! ! !

Jan 01, 2014 1:31pm EST  --  Report as abuse
xyz2055 wrote:
rustic36..”undermined our standings with the Saudi’s”? The 911 hijackers were Saudi’s. Hell Osama Bin Laden was a Saudi. And there is strong evidence that rich Saudi nationals in Florida helped the 911 hijackers. Please explain what Saudi Arabia has ever done of significance for the U.S. Saudi Arabia is virtually the only Middle Eastern country we have eve bought any significant amour of oil from. And the simple fact is we don’t need their oil. It’s a political arrangement. We sell them arms and sophisticated military aircraft. What has Saudi ever actually done for us in return? At the end of the road you will probably find that it’s in fact the CIA that is enjoying some subversive benefit from Saudi. Radicals in Iran over took our embassy because we toppled their government and installed the Shan. WE caused the chaos in Iran..not the other way around. And Benghazi…Chris Stevens who had a better vantage point of Iran than anyone in Washington left the safety of the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli on that fateful day for mundane business in Benghazi. With no extra security. On ground reports indicate that the attackers probably didn’t even know that the Ambassador was in that building. I disagree with a number of things that Obama has done, but his foreign policy and skill in handling Iran will go down as one of the high points of his presidency. Had John McCain won the election in 2008, there is little doubt we would have wasted trillions more by attacking Iran. A country mind you that has done absolutely nothing to the U.S. We are the threat. Not the other way around. We have some delusional vision that Iran having a nuclear bomb is a threat to all humanity. What about India, Pakistan AND worst of all North Korea? But it appears like the extreme right, you prefer military action. Which has worked sooooooo well in Iraq and Afghanistan. We spend 7 times more than China on Defense and approx 46% of what the world spends on Defense. For all of North Korea’s threats..that’s simply rhetoric that Kim uses to control his people. He actuality fires one at us…we could turn that country into a parking lot in a New York minute and there would be nothing he could do about it. We have highly sophisticated military toys that have never been used in combat that those Generals are dying to try out on somebody. And he knows this. If Iran wants a nuke..we planted that all the talk of attacking them. The neocons are driving that bus. Obama’s use of diplomacy (with operatives like Bill Burns) and sanctions has defused the situation. Which I still believe is mostly manufactured in Washington. No loss of american blood or treasure. As Dire Straits would say…”That’s the way you do it….”.

Jan 01, 2014 5:30pm EST  --  Report as abuse
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