The Secret Mission of William J. Burns

by James M. WallU.S. President Barack Obama shakes hands with Deputy Secretary of State William Burns at the Diplomatic Corps holiday reception at the State Department in Washington

“The Secret Mission of  William J. Burns” is a true story that begins in Amman, Jordan. The year is 1983.

William J. Burns, a 27-year-old U.S. Foreign Service officer, is on his first overseas post to Amman, Jordan.

War is raging between Iran and Iraq. Burns volunteers to drive a truck load of communications equipment across the desert from Amman to Baghdad, Iraq,  a distance of 500 miles.

As soon as the freshly-minted diplomat reaches the Iraqi border, he is arrested and held for two days before being escorted to the capital by police.

As Burns would later recall, his career “didn’t exactly get off to a rocket-propelled start.”  After that two-day delayed mission to Baghdad, however, the career of William J. Burns has taken off like a rocket.

Currently serving as the U.S. Deputy Secretary of State, Burns (pictured above with President Obama) has just completed a far more significant secret mission. He has led  “a secret U.S. back channel to Iran going back to before the June election of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani”.

Laura Rosen has the story on her Back Channel news blog for Al Monitor:

Burns was tapped to lead the US diplomatic effort to establish a bilateral channel with Iran, which gained momentum after the exchange of letters between US President Barack Obama and Iranian President Rouhani in early August, US officials said.

Led by Burns, the US’s second highest ranking diplomat and a former lead US Iran nuclear negotiator, the US effort to form direct contacts with Iran also includes two officials from the Obama White House: Jake Sullivan, the national security advisor to Vice President Joe Biden, and Puneet Talwar, the National Security Staff senior director for Iran, Iraq, and Persian Gulf affairs, US officials confirmed.

The agreement reached to cover the next six months, according to Al Monitor’s Laura Rozen, “was painstakingly assembled during four days of marathon negotiations”. The agreement calls for Iran:

 to halt most of its uranium enrichment efforts, eliminate its stockpiles of uranium already purified to near weapons grade quality, open its facilities to daily monitoring by international inspectors and significantly slow the construction of the Arak plutonium reactor.

Nuclear weapons can be assembled using either enriched uranium or plutonium, and the new pact is designed to make it difficult, if not impossible, for Iran to gain enough of either material for a bomb.

In exchange, Iran would gain some relief from the punishing economic sanctions that had been leveled by Washington and its allies in recent years, freeing up roughly $6 billion.”

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu did not know of Ambassador Burns’ bilateral channel with Iran until September 30 when he learned of it directly from President Barack Obama. After the story became public, the Israeli conservative newspaper The Times of Israel, reported how the news had reached Netanyahu:

In the confines of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue on September 30, just after the Jewish high holidays, Obama revealed to Netanyahu that his administration had been engaged in secret, high-level diplomatic talks with the mortal enemy of the Jewish state.

Netanyahu’s immediate public reaction betrayed no surprise, but a day later he launched a full-frontal attack on Iran, delivering a blistering speech at the UN General Assembly in which he said the Islamic Republic was bent on Israel’s destruction and accused Rouhani of being a “wolf in sheep’s clothing.”

Netanyahu’s allies in the U.S. Israel Lobby, including members of Congress, led by New York Senator Charles Schumer and his Republican colleague from Illinois, Senator Mark Kirk, in concert with pro-Israel media, and conservative Jewish organizations, have all joined Israel’s side in an effort to scuttle the agreement with Iran.

This is not the first time Benjamin Netanyahu has encountered William J. Burns. Sixteen years after his first low-level posting in Amman, Burns returned to Jordan in 1998 as the U.S. ambassador.

Speaking to the Senate committee considering his nomination in 1998, Burns said:

“It is a special honor and pleasure to have been nominated to return as Ambassador to Jordan, where I began my diplomatic career sixteen years ago.”

The new ambassador began his second tour in Amman a few months after September 25, 1997, when, on a sidewalk in Amman, a team of Israeli assassins unsuccessfully tried to kill Hamas political bureau director Khalid Mishal, by injecting poison in his ear.

Burns was not serving in Jordan at the time. He was, however, the U.S. ambassador who had to deal with the diplomatic aftermath of the failed Israeli assassination attempt.

That connection calls for consideration of a book that appeared twelve years after the failed assassination attempt. Australian journalist Paul McGeough published a meticulously well-crafted account of the street attack and its aftermath, Kill Khalid: The Failed Mossad Assassination of Khalid Mishal and the Rise of Hamas. (The New Press, 2009).

In my August 2, 2009 Wall Writings posting on the book, I described it this way:

Kill KhalidThe book races along like a spy thriller, starring real-life leaders like Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu, President Bill Clinton, the King of Jordan, and Khalid Mishal, whose near-death experience in Amman projected him into his current role as the leader of the Hamas political bureau.

This is a story of intrigue, deceit, plot twists, villains and heroes that cries out to be made into a movie. And yet, just as the events of 1997 were largely ignored by mainstream media, McGeough’s 2009 book has received limited attention, with a few exceptions, all available on line: Jane Adas, in the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs; Adam Shatz, in the London Review; and Greg Myre, in The Washington Post.

The story itself quickly faded from western consciousness.

For this reason, it is important to recall the story of the failed Israeli assassination attempt on Hamas leadeer Khalid Mishal at this time, when William J. Burns,  the former U.S. ambassador to Jordan, once again enters and troubles Benjamin Netanyahu’s tightly controlled universe.

Kill Khalid provides considerable insight into an important moment in history for anyone wishing to comprehend the unbridled passion of Benjamin Netanyahu, a passion that heats up whenever he is confronted by anyone who fails to give him precisely what he demands.

Paul McGeough’s book should also be read as background for recent findings on what is now widely accepted as the poisoning death of Palestinian President Yasir Arafat.

Note the similarities:  Israel’s method of killing an opponent, which was ordered in Khalid Mishal’s case by the then Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, was planned to be carried out in secret.

The poison used on Mishal was slow working and almost impossible to detect. The plan was for Mishal to receive the poison in what was to appear to be an accidental encounter with a man on the street.

According to the Massad plan, the Palestinian Hamas leader would proceed on his way until the poison did its deadly damage far removed from the street location where he had been poisoned.

Fortunately for Mishal, Jordanian police captured two of the assassins immediately after the street attack. Jordan’s King Hussein  (father of the current Jordanian King Abdullah) telephoned Netanyahu with the news that he was holding his Israeli agents, all of whom he was prepared to execute for attempted murder.

Hussein had learned from the captured Israeli team members that they had brought with them an antidote that could save Mishal. They admitted they carried the antidote in case one of the assassins was accidental poisoned.

To underscore his anger and determination to save Khalid Mishal, who was a guest in the King’s nation, King Hussein called U.S. President Bill Clinton to deliver the same warning.

The  word to Washington was blunt: Israel must save Khalid or Israel’s agents will die. Clinton called Netanyahu. An humiliating (to Israel) agreement was reached. Israel would produce the antidote immediately, which it did.

Furthermore, Israel was forced to release a number of Israeli-held Palestinian prisoners, most notably Sheikh Ahmed Ismail Hassan Yassin (1937- 2004), a founder of Hamas, who served as the spiritual leader of Hamas. The Sheikh, who was almost totally blind and wheel-chair bound, was released and returned to Gaza to great acclaim by the Palestinian public.

Netanyahu lost his reelection bid in July, 1999, defeated for Prime Minister by Ehud Barak. Netanyahu returned to politics in 2002 as Foreign Affairs Minister (2002–2003) and Finance Minister (2003–2005) in Ariel Sharon‘s governments.

It was during Netanyahu’s term as Finance Minister that Ahmed Yassin was killed in an Israeli attack on March 22, 2004. Israeli AH-64 Apache helicopter gunships fired Hellfire missiles that killed Yassin and both of his bodyguards. The attack came while he was being wheeled out of an early morning prayer session in Gaza city.

The period of time after that humiliating failure by Israel’s Massad agents to kill Khalid Mishal, was a dark period in the career of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Jordan and the U.S. were the instruments of his humiliation in that dark period.  And just  across the Jordan River, starting a few months after Netanyahu’s humiliation, there sat William J. Burns, the U.S. ambassador to Jordan, two countries that humiliated Netanyahu in 1997.

Netanyahu returned to power as prime minister in 2009. Khalid Mishal is still an Hamas leader.

In the Burns-Netanyahu story that began with a 27-year-old William J. Burns driving communication equipment across a desert to Baghdad, Benjamin Netanyahu has suffered a major political setback due in large part to the work of William J. Burns.William J. Burns

Burns (at right), the man who was the US. ambassador to Jordan in 1999 when Netanyahu lost his election, has now negotiated an agreement with Iran, worked out in secret, to lift crippling sanctions on the Iranian economy.

He was chosen for the assignment by Secretary of State John Kerry, who describes his Deputy this way:

Bill is the gold standard for quiet, head-down, get-it-done diplomacy,” Kerry said of Burns.

“He is smart and savvy, and he understands not just where policy should move, but how to navigate the distance between Washington and capitals around the world. I worked with Bill really closely from the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and I’m even more privileged to work with him now every single day. He has an innate knack for issues and relationships that’s unsurpassed.”

Israeli leaders are accustomed to working with U.S. presidents and their diplomats, who are expected  to represent Israel’s best interests, William J. Burns  does not fit that mode. He has been described as a man with a “brilliant mind, unflappable demeanor and flair for self-effacement in a field where titanic egos often clash make him the fastest-rising career diplomat of his generation,”

That accolade came from Time magazine writer David Van Biema, in a 1994 profile of Burns he wrote for the magazine’s list of 50 people under-40 who will make a difference.

Burns is a U.S. diplomat who has distressed Benjamin Netanyahu by working, initially in secret, to hammer out an agreement that is designed to relieve the suffering of the Iranian people, and curb the further spread of nuclear weapons.  He did not do this to distress Netanyahu, but to  save him from further humiliating himself and his nation.

One final word on William J. Burns from Shilbey Telhami, a Middle East expert with the University of Maryland:

“Bill Burns is probably and arguably the most respected and effective U.S. diplomat. Period. He is universally acclaimed in the region and within the department and by Republican and Democratic administrations.”

Who is Shilbey Telhami, this academic and author, who sings the praises of William J. Burns?

Here is an insight that should help us understand Telhami, who is the author of The World Through Arab Eyes.  Before the Israeli-Palestine peace talks were resumed , Telhami wrote an essay on peace in the Middle East for Brookings. He begins:

As Secretary of State John Kerry continues to give much time and effort to the Palestinian-Israeli issue, with plans to convene negotiations in Washington this week, his critics have come from right and left: With all the pressing issues, why is Mr. Kerry focused on this one?

Critics miss the point: No issue is more central for Arab perceptions of the United States — even as Arabs are focused on their immediate local and national priorities.

America has little influence in the events unfolding in the Arab world, from Egypt to Syria. More centrally, Arab perceptions of Washington are less dependent on short-term American policy and more a product of deep-seated Arab mistrust that ties everything the United States does to helping Israel and controlling oil.

Shilbey Telhami has Arab street cred*. When did we last hear someone with authentic Arab street cred sing the praises of an American Deputy Secretary of State?  These are, indeed, remarkable times.

In the picture at top, U.S. President Barack Obama shakes hands with Deputy Secretary of State William Burns at the Diplomatic Corps holiday reception at the State Department in Washington on December 19, 2012.The picture appeared on an Atlantic blog. It was taken by  Yuri Gripas for Reuters.

*Street cred: “  Commanding a level of respect in an urban environment due to experience in or knowledge of issues affecting those environments. As in: He’s been thru it all. His street cred is undeniable.

About wallwritings

From 1972 through 1999, James M. Wall was editor and publisher of the Christian Century magazine, based in Chicago, lllinois. He was a Contributing Editor of the Century from 1999 until July, 2017. He has written this blog, wall, since it was launched April 27, 2008. If you would like to receive Wall Writings alerts when new postings are added to this site, send a note, saying, Please Add Me, to Biography: Journalism was Jim's undergraduate college major at Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia. He has earned two MA degrees, one from Emory, and one from the University of Chicago, both in religion. He is an ordained United Methodist clergy person. He served for two years in the US Air Force, and three additional years in the USAF reserve. While serving on active duty with the Alaskan Command, he reached the rank of first lieutenant. He has worked as a sports writer for both the Atlanta Journal and Constitution, was editor of the United Methodist magazine, Christian Advocate for ten years, and editor and publisher of the Christian Century magazine for 27 years. James M Wall died March 22, 2021 at age 92. His family appreciates all of his readers, even those who may have disagreed with his well-informed writings.
This entry was posted in Iran, John Kerry, Middle East Politics, Netanyahu, Obama. Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to The Secret Mission of William J. Burns

  1. PEACE LOVING says:

    “The secret mission of William J. Burns”, is no longer a secret.
    Thanks Jim for an eloquent report.
    The world should hail the work of Mr. Burns, who is trying to save the world
    from destruction. As a true American seeking American interests first, he is
    portraying his American courage to make America stay on the right path of
    diplomacy, in order to stay the leader of the Free world. He will not surrender
    to threats of Bibi Nat. who stands against any US initiative for peace that does not suit his right wing motives.

    Mr. William J. Burns, should be appointed to help structure the negotiations
    between the Palestinians and Israelis. His knowledge of the Middle East,
    and the respect he garnered among the leaders and people of the region,
    has no match by any diplomat/negotiator for that matter.

    Once the Iran issue is resolved, President Obama should not hesitate to
    put Mr. Burns in the gear of negotiations. Peace will come, and a viable, democratic Palestinian State, with Jerusalem Its capitol, will not be compromised by President Obama, or any free loving human being.
    Then Israel has to reckon with the fact that being Jewish is not being Israeli,
    nor Black and white are distinctly different, and Ethiopian Jews, are Ethiopian
    African, and not sematic but people of the Jewish faith. And Arabs inside Israel should be treated as equal citizens as those newly imported immigrants.

    Thank you Mr. Burns for opening the doors for Peace in the land of the
    prophets, and may you fulfill the aspirations of all who seek Freedom, Justice, and Independence, as did the American forefathers did for this
    Great Land of the Free.

  2. Fred says:

    Israel’s policy of assassinating people it doesn’t like is mafia style politics. They also assassinated five Iranian nuclear physicists. There have never been any consequences to Israel for these assassinations. They get away with them.

    Israel is the rogue nuclear state, not Iran, but our government and mainstream media always protect them by censoring the news. An so it goes.

  3. abunaalgodon says:

    The more Netanyahu roars his “nyet”, the more transparent is the massive hypocrisy with which he approaches negotiations with the Palestinians. He foments that Iran will be allowed to continue enriching uranium during this interim agreement while he continues building settlements as the clock ticks on the nine month window proposed by Mr. Kerry.

    In times like these – when cynicism runs high – it’s good to be reminded that President Obama selects people like William Burns to move diplomacy forward and military solutions a few inches backward – sending Mr. Netanyahu into paroxysms of rage that there are indeed limits – though hardly enough – to his ability to dictate to this administration.

    Thanks, Jim. Cotton

  4. Kathleen Matsushima says:

    Thanks, Jim, for making this complicated current negotiation context a whole lot clearer. It is difficult, but so important, to find the words and ideas to respond to all the critics who surround us now. Keep writing!!

  5. Jack Graham says:

    Thanks Jim. This story about William Burns is very edifying, first because I love to see a man who quietly accomplishes historic success, secondly because I am glad to see I may be wrong about Obama on foreign policy. I thought Obama was showing his true colors on Syria before Putin wrote the New York Times. I did not have the heart to vote for Romney in 2012, so I voted for Jill Stein who wants to cut military spending by a third and to make peace in the Middle East, I am an old-fashioned Democrat in that I believe honest money and the middle class as did William Jennings Bryan, and like Bryan I think we should keep out of wars that are none of our business, including the First World War which was none of our business except as an honest broker for peace. For this reason I have been disappointed to see my old party get so distracted on hot-button social issues that they can’t pass workable health care legislation when they get the chance. It was unbearable when, on top of it all, their President wanted to bomb Syria without authorization of Congress. Anyway, I am glad that Lovrov has taught the facts of life to Kerry so we might see him nominated and elected in 2016..But I am even happier to learn that Obama is using Burns for good purpose,. Burns as secretary of state? What a Hail Mary play that would be! — J. R. G. . .

  6. James David says:

    Ambassador Burns’ father, Major General (USA retired) William F. Burns, was a close friend and fellow alumni of mine at La Salle University where I was to receive my commission in 1965. William J. Burns is also a graduate of La Salle. I have met him and have the highest respect for him. He is very intelligent and diplomatic but, most of all, a religious and wonderful person. The U.S. State Department is honored with his representation and character. He contributes immensely with his ability to overcome obstacles facing foreign policy, and I must include one of the greatest of all these obstacles, the Israeli lobby, AIPAC. I wish there were more like him with such stamina, morals, and virtue.

  7. AWAD PAUL SIFRI says:

    Many thanks for an excellent piece featuring William J. Burns.

    Israeli leaders fret that, if Iran is no longer an “enemy” of the US, let alone a “friend” of the US, Israel’s disproportionate stranglehold over US foreign policy will lose its grip.

    Why should successive US administrations assign mostly biased Zionists – from Kissinger to Indyk – to handle the most sensitive issues of the Middle East?

    It seems to me that shining American Star, William Burns, should be the next Secretary of State when Kerry is done. I have no doubt that he will hold America’s interests and moral values, FIRST and FOREMOST.

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