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At a hearing today at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, chaired by Senator John Kerry, former top State Department official Nicholas Burns delivered testimony that can only be described as a back-handed endorsement of President Obama’s outreach to Iran.

During President Bush’s second term, Burns was undersecretary of state for political affairs, and he handled the Iran file. A career diplomat and a noted realist, who would have been one of those opposed to Vice President Cheney’s war-mongering on Iran at the time, Burns is on record supporting diplomacy vis-à-vis Iran. In his testimony, he said: “It could actually work.” But he didn’t sound convinced.

In response to questions from a few senators who attended the hearing, Burns loaded his endorsement of Obama’s Iran policy with so many caveats and warnings that it made it sound nearly hopeless. Worst of all, echoing many neoconservatives, Burns said that talks with Iran – if they occur – must be held to a strict, and short deadline. How long? “Two months,” he said. “We have to impose a timetable.” If the talks are – horror of horrors! – “open-ended,” then Iran “can run out the clock.”

No one who supports talks with Iran believes that two months will be enough to decide the shape of the table, never mind long enough to reach a successful conclusion.

If the talks fail, and Burns left no doubt that he’s skeptical that they will succeed, then the United States has to work in concert with Russia and China to impose what Burns called “draconian” sanctions on Iran. And, he said, Washington will also have to keep the military option on the table.

Burns supports enlisting Russia and China in the effort to make a deal over Iran’s nuclear program, its support for Hezbollah and Hamas, and its influence in Iraq and Afghanistan. But, he said, any talks with Russia and China require the United States to get, “in advance,” a commitment from Moscow and Beijing to isolate Iran economically if the talks fail. And he said that “it makes sense to keep the threat of force on the table” because “it’s a language [Iran] understands.”

Dennis Ross, his friends at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, and Michael Rubin and his friends at the American Enterprise Institute, couldn’t have said it better.

None of the senators raised any objections to Burns’ perspective. Does it make sense to tell Iran they have two months to put up or shut up? No one asked. If the talks fail, is there a realistic use of military action that wouldn’t result in a catastrophe? No one asked. Isn’t Iran years away from having a nuclear bomb, and don’t they lack the ability to deliver a weapon? No one asked that, either. And why should we expect Russia and China, both of whom have significant economic interests in trade with Iran, to join a United States-led regime of harsh sanctions? No one asked.

The only drama of the day came from Senator Jim Risch, a Republican from Idaho – admit it, you’ve never heard of him – who seemed enthusiastic about the idea of an Israeli attack on Iran. “Don’t the Iranians understand that Israel won’t allow them to possess a nuclear weapon, one way or the other?” he asked, with “the other” clearly meant to imply an Israeli raid on Iran. Burns responded: “The United States is right to take the lead here.” I didn’t hear Burns say: “I hope Israel isn’t crazy enough to bomb Iran, but the United States will have to make it clear to Israel that we won’t support such an attack.” I didn’t hear it, because he didn’t say it.