CIA Director William Burns has spoken of a nascent Tehran-Moscow defense partnership just as the US faces “major-power competition with China and Russia.”
With Burns a former ambassador to Russia and as Deputy Secretary of State a key player in behind-the-scenes talks that led to the 2015 Iran nuclear agreement, many expected President Joe Biden to assign Burns a diplomatic post. His appointment to head the Central Intelligence Agency raised some eyebrows in Washington.
Two years into the job, Burns Friday gave an interview to PBS where he expressed pride in the CIA’s work at a “moment of profound transformation on the international landscape.” A revolution in technology was “transforming…the way the intelligence profession works,” he said, while emphasizing “the rise of major power competition with China and with Russia.”
Burns argued that Iran’s supply of military drones to Russia marked “at least the beginnings of a full-fledged defense partnership… with the Russians beginning to look at ways in which, technologically or technically, they can support the Iranians.” This, he said, could “have an even more dangerous impact on the Middle East [than in Ukraine] …if it continues.” Without elaborating, or being asked to, Burns added that the US took the matter “very, very seriously.”
The Ukraine war, he argued, was exposing Russian weaknesses, for example in its troop mobilization and inability to match the weapons being supplied to Ukraine. Some Washington analysts have highlighted as ‘good news’ evidence of ships travelling from Iran to Russia turning off tracking devices to hide shipments – ‘good news’ in the sense it signals the success in the US strategy of eroding Russia’s military capacity.
The aftermath of an Iranian-made drone striking Kyiv on October 17, 2022
But Burns acknowledged the consequences of the war and sanctions not just on Moscow’s war effort but within Russia itself. The Russian economy has suffered long-term damage,” he said. “Most of the progress that the Russian middle class has made over the last 30 years is being destroyed.”
CIA ‘struck’ by Iran protests
Turning to Iran, Burns said CIA analysts had been “struck” at “the duration and scope of current protests,” which reflected “a growing number of Iranians… fed up with economic decay, with corruption, with the social restrictions that especially affect Iranian women.”
Protests have slowed economic growth as Iran struggles in the fifth year of US ‘maximum pressure sanctions with 40 percent inflation and the authorities expanding money supply to meet a fiscal challenge. But Burns did not express the view, or hope, held by some US conservatives, that this would lead soon to dramatic political change.
“I don’t think the Iranian regime perceives an immediate threat to its grip,” he said. “It still has some very practiced habits of repression and brutality that it’s continuing to employ.”
The diplomat in Burns resurfaced as he acknowledged China’s “reluctance” to supply weapons requested by Russia, and of both Chinese President Xi Jinping and India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi in “raising their concerns about use of nuclear weapons.” But this did not distract the CIA director from his main concern. “We have no higher priority at CIA,” he said, “than not just Taiwan, but the longer-term geopolitical challenge that Xi’s China poses.”