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Meet the CIA chief
William Burns on what his being a Putinologist means for Israel, Iran
William Burns has spent his life studying Russia and Vladimir Putin. He has had outsized influence on US policy with Moscow for the last several months, with US President Joe Biden’s ear on all key predictions and decisions. As CIA chief, Burns has convinced Biden to declassify an unprecedented amount of intelligence to try to help Ukraine and embarrass and deter Russia from its invasion, and later, from continuing the fight. In mid-September, he did a semi-victory dance, declaring Putin’s invasion a “failure.”
Things have come a long way since Biden made his first major speech before the US intelligence community in July 2021.
That speech was on US Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines’s turf, and Biden publicly acknowledged her contributions, as opposed to Burns. Some of that had more to do with internal US strategy than about the place of the CIA in foreign policy.
But it is safe to say that Burns’s reputation as a veteran top government official who is widely respected in the US, and knows Israel well, has raised his value within the Biden administration.
Still, as far as Jerusalem is concerned – even if Russia also matters – the real question is what has Burns meant and what will he mean going forward for US policy on Iran?
First, though his career has focused on Russia, he did also serve as ambassador to Jordan during the Clinton administration. Also, he was significantly involved in the Obama-era negotiations on the 2015 Iran nuclear deal.
So he is no Middle East novice.
And it is known that his views on Iran pre-Biden administration would not have squared with the governments of Benjamin Netanyahu, Naftali Bennett or Yair Lapid on the issue.
He has criticized Donald Trump for pulling out of the deal and for the “maximum pressure campaign,” and has expressed doubts about the assassination of IRGC Quds Force chief Qasem Soleimani.
In a January 2020 op-ed for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, along with Biden’s eventual national security advisor, Jake Sullivan, Burns wrote, “As we’ve argued before, we’re at this dangerous juncture because of Trump’s foolish decision to withdraw from the nuclear deal, his through-the-looking-glass conception of coercive diplomacy, and his willing hardline enablers in Tehran.
“When the deal was in place, Iran remained an adversary – but US unmanned aircraft weren’t being shot down by Iran in international waters, Gulf shipping and infrastructure weren’t being hit by Iranian mines and missiles, and US personnel weren’t being targeted by Shia militias in Iraq,” said the post.
Burns and Sullivan also wrote, “Abandoning the nuclear
agreement, on our own and with no evidence of Iranian cheating, started a predictable cycle of escalation and brinkmanship. It is a cycle which Trump has accelerated with muscular bluster and ‘maximum pressure,’ unconnected to realistic aims or careful foresight.”
Noteworthy here was Burns’s focus on a spike in Iran attacking American interests during the Trump era.
He did not discuss the spike in Iran attacking Israeli interests and expanding its attempts at conquest and a Shi’ite land bridge throughout the Middle East, which seemed to come out of the nuclear deal and emerged as a major issue by 2017.
In other words, post the nuclear deal, Iran believed it could do whatever it wanted in the Middle East because Washington would not endanger the deal by rocking the boat.
Burns also did not get into the US strategy for Iran after the JCPOA’s nuclear limits expired in 2025 and 2030.
Let’s say that Burns was right and that it was foolish for Trump to pull out of the nuclear deal so early in 2018.
At the end of the day, we are now in fall 2022, and as close to nuclear weapons as the Islamic Republic is, it has still avoided crossing the threshold.
Conversely, if the US and Iran return to the JCPOA without any improvements to the deal, key limits will expire in less than three years.
Burns as a private citizen in January 2020 and as an Obama administration official in 2015, however, may not be identical to Burns as head of the CIA in 2022.
In March, Burns told the US House Intelligence Committee that regardless of the outcome of the nuclear negotiations with the world powers in Vienna, Iran will continue to present a threat throughout the Middle East.
Burns noted that for “many years, I negotiated these issues with the Iranians... we are mindful of the fact that the Iranian regime poses not only a nuclear or missile issue but also a threat across the Middle East and to our partners in the Middle East. Regardless of how negotiations go, those threats will continue.”
Days before he testified to Congress, the US intelligence community released its annual worldwide threats report, which Burns would have had significant influence over, which stated: “Tehran will try to leverage its expanding nuclear program, proxy and partner forces, diplomacy, and military sales and acquisitions to advance its goals. The Iranian regime sees itself as locked in an existential struggle with the United States and its regional allies, while it pursues its longstanding ambitions for regional leadership.”
Further, the report said, “The election of President Ebrahim Raisi in 2021 has invigorated Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei to try to make progress toward his long-term vision of molding Iran into a pan-Islamic power capable of defending global Muslim causes while tightening its theocratic rule at home.”
“We assess that Iran will threaten US persons directly and via proxy attacks, particularly in the Middle East. Iran also remains committed to developing networks inside the United States – an objective it has pursued for more than a decade,” said the report.
The report also described Iran as a threat to Israel. None of this sounds like someone soft on Tehran.
So did Burns shift on the issue once he had access to the full threat-view the CIA has to offer?
Possible, but not likely.
Burns never served in the CIA before, but he served as a top diplomat for decades working with CIA agents overseas operating from his embassies.
Though Burns was not Biden’s first pick, his diplomatic background was part of what got him the job.
His earlier choice, former acting CIA director Michael Morell, had been vetoed by some Senate Democrats for defending the CIA against allegations of post-9/11 torture of terrorist detainees.
Instead, Biden appeared to have picked Burns due to his expertise on Russia and an impression that he would rally respect and legitimacy both to the CIA and in the intelligence community’s relationship with other parts of the US government.
In any case, Burns was not just any diplomat but had risen to be senior enough to be privy to both CIA analytical reports and some ongoing field operations.
This means he knew quite a bit about threats to the US, and though it was not his focus, threats to Israel.
Burns and Cohen
Burns may have had access to intelligence material when he was part of the State Department, but he was not the key intelligence bridge with Mossad directors Yossi Cohen and then his successor, David Barnea, as Burns has been for the last year and a half.
When Mike Pompeo became head of the CIA, he met Cohen in Washington and came to Israel to spend multiple days with the then-Mossad chief all in his first month on the job. Burns did not meet with Cohen for months until April 2021. One thing Cohen could hold over Burns was that the US had become more dependent on Israel for human spying about Iran.
The risk of such dependence became clear in April 2021 when Israel set off explosives at Iran’s Natanz nuclear plant.
Then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu had reportedly ordered a reduction in information-sharing with the US
regarding operations in Iran.
The US and Israeli sides dispute what started this trend – US leaks of prior operations, American ignoring of Israeli concerns about negotiations with Iran or whether it was just a natural byproduct of the sides’ policy differences on Iran.
Burns and Cohen had a spirited exchange over the issue in which neither particularly backed down.
Still, Cohen tried to fix things in his final months as Mossad chief.
When Cohen visited Washington shortly after the Natanz hit, the CIA chief went to his diplomacy tool kit, took the high ground and gave him an award for managing the tight partnership between the clandestine agencies.
Burns also accompanied Cohen to a key meeting with Biden himself, a meeting that may have significantly impacted US positions on the Iran nuclear issues at the time.
Incidentally, Cohen told The Jerusalem Post that, regardless of policy differences, Burns was viewed as highly professional and talented.
Relations also improved when Netanyahu was replaced with Naftali Bennett as prime minister, but the other new twist was the changeover from Cohen to current Mossad Director David Barnea.
Burns and Barnea
Barnea took over the Mossad in June 2021, and Burns visited him and Bennett in Israel in August 2021, only weeks before Bennett went to Washington to meet with Biden.
Burns’s visit in Israel took place as there was an impasse and turning point in the nuclear negotiations with Iran and with leaks that the US might radically shift to make more concessions toward Tehran to try to break the logjam.
Even without this additional dynamic, multiple Mossad directors have told the Post that their first meetings with the CIA chief could be one of the major events that frame their term in office.
After all of this, many speculated that the main purpose of Burns’s visit to Israel at the time was to try to get the Jewish state to stay calm while Washington planned to offer major new potential leaked concessions to the Islamic Republic.
It was being widely discussed that the US would be removing some sanctions (how much and which ones would be key) in exchange only for a freeze in Iranian nuclear advancement.
This would stop Iran from barreling forward and getting continuously closer to breaking out to a nuclear weapon, but it would do nothing to bring Tehran back toward nuclear limits or to roll back its extensive progress since mid-2019.
There was speculation that Barnea and Burns might discuss potential scenarios of joint covert activities or cyber activities to slow Iran down, but the Post has been given indications that no concrete agreements on such issues were ever reached.
But Israeli officials hoped that any new deal with Iran would not limit such operations, which in the past have included sabotage of Iranian nuclear facilities and the assassination of Iranian nuclear scientists.
Then in December 2021, Barnea delivered a high-profile and combative speech, leaving no doubts about where he stood in the internal Mossad debates and the broader global discussions about how to handle the Islamic Republic.
“Iran will not have nuclear weapons – not in the coming years, not ever. This is my personal commitment: This is the Mossad’s commitment.
“Our eyes are open, we are alert, and together with our colleagues in the defense establishment, we will do whatever it takes to keep that threat away from the State of Israel and to thwart it in every way,” said the Mossad chief.
Days later Barnea visited Burns at Langley.
Did Burns chew him out at that meeting for going loud and public against everything the Biden administration is striving for?
Nothing was ever leaked, but it did not seem that the US’s consistent desire and push to rejoin the Iran nuclear deal changed at all after that meeting or for a couple of months, until Russia and Iran presented new obstacles in March.
So it seems that whatever their level of cooperation was, Barnea did not have much pull with Burns. Without impact there, he was also likely limited from impacting others in the Biden administration.
There were no reports about Burns ushering in Barnea to meet with Biden as had occurred with Cohen.
And yet when Israel, allegedly, carried out its biggest recent campaign against Iran, criticism from the US subsided.
From April 30 to June 15, the Bennett-Barnea duo allegedly had the Mossad eliminate several nuclear scientists, as well as top IRGC officials, who would normally lead efforts at retaliation in the event of Iran’s nuclear scientists being killed.
This was a time period when the nuclear negotiations with Iran had stalled again and the US was increasingly angry and impatient with Khamenei about his nuclear violations and failure to cut a deal and end the nuclear standoff.
That meant that the Biden administration, including Burns, was likely much more tolerant of Israel being the “bad cop” and smacking Iran around, while it could wait in the wings as the “good cop” who Iran could return to if it wanted the pain to end.
None of this is to suggest that Washington promoted the reported Israeli escalation campaign against Tehran, but it explains why there was less criticism than in 2021.
The next high-profile Burns and Barnea meeting was in early September. It came after a leaked briefing that Barnea gave to Lapid in which he slammed the US for allegedly being ready to make problematic concessions toward Iran to sign onto the JCPOA.
At the time, conventional wisdom was that Iran and the US would hold a signing ceremony within days or weeks, and specific provisions of the all-but-signed deal were leaked to the media.
Then the deal fell through or was delayed by at least several months.
Some believe this was Khamenei’s plan all along, but the deal-falling-through part did happen at the same time as the US refusing Iran’s request to close the IAEA probes right as Barnea was giving America the latest intelligence on continuous Iranian violations.
It would be an exaggeration to say that Barnea got Burns and Biden to drop the deal. But Burns has been tougher on Iran in the Biden years than in the Obama years. The Barnea-Burns bridge might have convinced Washington to hold its ground on the IAEA probes issue – which led the Islamic Republic to back off of a deal it was otherwise ready to sign.
Burns on the Palestinians
The CIA chief has not just weighed in on the issue of Iran.
He has also been a key interlocutor with the Palestinians, being one of the early high-level Biden administration visits to the PA in August 2021.
When Burns visited the PA, a Palestinian official in Ramallah told the Post’s Khaled Abu Toameh, “The visit shows that the Biden administration is serious about restoring Washington’s relations with the Palestinians and strengthening the Palestinian leadership under President Mahmoud Abbas.
“The Biden administration’s policy toward the Palestinians is very good,” the official added, noting Burns’s meeting in Ramallah with Abbas and Majed Faraj, head of the PA General Intelligence Service.
Faraj, along with senior Palestinian official Hussein al-Sheikh, head of the General Authority of Civil Affairs, were seen by many Palestinians as the de-facto rulers of the PA. The two were said to have had a huge influence on the 85-year-old Abbas.
At the time, the official told the Post that the Palestinians are “very satisfied” with the Biden administration’s policy of “strengthening” the PA.
The PA later somewhat soured on Biden for not moving faster to restore the traditional US consulate in east Jerusalem devoted to its affairs. Yet, the move to use Burns to try to repair relations after the rupture between the PA and the Trump administration was unmistakable.
On other hand, Burns was not part of Biden’s visit with Israel and the Palestinians in July, so it is not clear if he has had any sustained role on the issue as much as maybe being used earlier in the administration’s term to try to jump-start better relations.
The latest involvement of the CIA will be to evaluate intelligence the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) gave it in early September relating to certain Palestinian civil society NGOs that Israel has declared illegal.
The Shin Bet is hoping to convince Burns to take its side and that he will convince the rest of the Biden administration not to criticize Jerusalem over the issue.
Burns is only one of a number of top figures in the administration, and his primary focus is not always Israel. But to the extent that he is a key figure on Iran issues and has a hand in Palestinian issues as well, he is a man to keep an eye on for Israel and Middle East observers.