[Arabist] Who is Bill Burns ? – Biden nominates veteran diplomat to lead CIA

Ali Harb

Middle East Eye  /  January 11, 2021

Burns helped set up negotiations with Tehran and has been an outspoken supporter of Iran nuclear deal.

US President-elect Joe Biden has nominated Bill Burns, who played a leading role in negotiating the Iran nuclear deal, as the director of the CIA. 

Burns – who has held various posts, including deputy secretary of state, in his 33 years in the US foreign service – is an outspoken proponent of diplomacy.

“Bill Burns is an exemplary diplomat with decades of experience on the world stage keeping our people and our country safe and secure,” Biden said in a statement announcing Burns’ nomination on Monday.

As the head of the CIA, Burns would direct and coordinate US intelligence-gathering efforts abroad, evaluate national security threats and relay his assessments to the director of national intelligence and the president.

It is an unusual choice to pick a diplomat, not a spy, to lead the intelligence agency. But Burns comes without the baggage of previous CIA controversies, including the use of torture in the years after the 9/11 attacks.

Biden said Burns shares his “profound belief that intelligence must be apolitical”.

“During his 33 years as a career diplomat, Bill dealt first-hand with many of the thorniest global challenges we face – from great power competition to nuclear proliferation,” Biden said in a video posted on Twitter later on Monday. 

“He approached those complex issues with honesty, integrity and skill. That’s exactly how he’ll head the CIA.”

Burns needs to be confirmed by the Senate before taking office.

Role in negotiating Iran deal

During his decades in foreign service, Burns has been involved in shaping US policy towards several conflicts and crises in the Middle East, often coordinating American diplomacy and relaying messages from the ground.

He served as ambassador to Jordan, envoy to Russia, assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs and deputy secretary of state under administrations from both major parties. 

He retired from government service late in 2014, months before the Iran nuclear deal was finalised. But he played an instrumental role in negotiating the agreement.

In 2013, Burns and Jake Sullivan – who was appointed as Biden’s national security adviser in November – led secret talks with Iranian officials in Oman, which laid the foundation for the nuclear agreement. 

He also helped negotiate the draft of a 2013 interim deal that preceded and inspired the final pact, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

The pact saw Iran scale back its nuclear programme in exchange for lifting sanctions against its economy. 

President Donald Trump nixed the deal in 2018 and embarked on a “maximum pressure” campaign against the Islamic Republic, piling sanctions against its industries, including its vital oil sector.

In his 2019 book, The Back Channel: A Memoir of American Diplomacy and the Case for Its Renewal, Burns defends the JCPOA – stressing that the UN nuclear watchdog (IAEA) and “US intelligence community repeatedly affirmed Iranian compliance” with it.

He argued that lifting sanctions “exposed the regime’s vulnerabilities” as the rulers of the Islamic Republic could no longer blame Washington for the country’s economic woes, stemming from corruption and mismanagement.

Burns compared Trump’s decision to withdraw from the deal to the US unilateralism that led to the invasion of Iraq.

“The decision to abandon the JCPOA signalled anew a dangerous dismissiveness toward diplomacy,” he wrote.

“It was exactly the kind of risky, cocky, ill-considered bet that had shredded our influence before, and could easily do so again.”

Biden has said he intends to rejoin the agreement if Iran returns to compliance with it.

Proponents of diplomacy with Iran welcomed Burns’ nomination on Monday. 

“I’ve known Bill Burns for more than two decades and never found a more thoughtful, professional and downright decent public servant. Wish him well in his new responsibilities,” Barbara Slavin, director of the Future of Iran Initiative at the Atlantic Council, wrote on Twitter.

Call for re-examining foreign policy

After his retirement from the State Department, Burns served as the president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, an influential think tank.

Late in 2019, he wrote a lengthy column for the Atlantic magazine, calling for a new diplomatic path in the Middle East where Washington world “recalibrate” its relationships with the region.

“With Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Arabs, that means much more of a two-way street. We ought to support them against legitimate external security threats, from Iran or anyone else, and back serious political and economic modernization,” Burns wrote. 

“They need to stop acting as if they’re entitled to a blank check from us, end the catastrophic war in Yemen, stop meddling in political transitions in places such as Libya and Sudan, and manage their internal rivalries.”

The incoming CIA director also slammed Trump’s proposal for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which would allow Israel to retain all of its West Bank settlements. 

Trump’s “talk of a ‘deal of the century’ to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict camouflaged a methodical tilt toward the Israeli right, all but obliterating any vestigial hope of a two-state solution,” Burns wrote. “Never has American diplomacy given away so many negotiating cards so fast for so little.”

In his memoir, the veteran diplomat detailed his internal efforts to push for explicit criticism of the Israeli occupation when he was serving in the George W Bush administration.

During the Israeli-American push to topple then-Palestinian President Yasser Arafat in 2002 amid the siege on his compound in Ramallah, Burns was a proponent for providing a clear vision for a viable Palestinian state.

He revealed that the Israeli government was involved in the editing process of a landmark Bush speech in which he called for Arafat’s ouster.

Burns recalled a conversation with an Israeli official in the White House who claimed in June 2002 that “the Palestinians are fed up with Arafat”.

“I countered that ’the one thing Palestinians are more fed up with than Arafat is the occupation’,” Burns wrote. 

“If you want to marginalize and manipulate Arafat, give the Palestinians a real political horizon,” he added, addressing the Israeli diplomat. 

“The Prime Minister [Ariel Sharon] has not given Palestinians a whiff of hope for ending occupation, nor any kind of compelling political plan. If he had done so, we might be having a different conversation.”

In his own memoir, former President Barack Obama describes Burns as “tall, mustached, and slightly stooped, with a gentle voice and the bookish air of an Oxford don.” Burns has a doctoral degree in international relations from the British university.

Senator Chris Murphy, a Democratic advocate of diplomacy, called Burns an “inspired choice” to lead the CIA.

“Experienced, level headed, and brilliant, he knows the ways in which the CIA, properly used, can protect the nation, but also the ways in which improperly used, covert action can add fuel to security threats,” Murphy said of Burns on Monday.

Ali Harb is a writer based in Washington, DC; he reports on US foreign policy, Arab-American issues, civil rights and politics