Nicholas Burns, the Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs during the George W. Bush administration, has surprised observers with a strong argument for the United States to do everything it can to avoid war with Iran in his latest Boston Globe column. Burns essentially argues that the US needs to operate independently from Israel and directly communicate with Iran with “far-reaching proposals”. He writes that “Iran and the United States are like two trains hurtling toward each other on the same track in a breakneck game of diplomatic chicken” and then lists three steps that the US can take before “electing to fight”:

First, the winner of November’s election should do what every president since Jimmy Carter has failed to do — create a direct channel between Washington and Tehran and begin an extended one-on-one negotiation with all issues on the table. The United States should aim for the sustained and substantive talks it has not had in the three decades since American diplomats were taken hostage in Tehran. Once elected, either Barack Obama or Mitt Romney could ask his secretary of state to lead talks with Iran or choose a distinguished former cabinet official such as James A. Baker, one of America’s most accomplished negotiators. We should exhaust diplomacy before we consider war. To attack a country before we have had our first meaningful discussions since 1979 would be shortsighted, to say the least.

Second, the United States must for the first time put far-reaching proposals on the table if diplomacy and negotiations are to succeed. Obama has rightly followed essentially the same policy on Iran as George W. Bush. Both offered to negotiate but also placed increasingly tough sanctions on Iran and threatened force if necessary. But the negotiating channel we have tried for six years now — a multilateral forum with the United States as one of six countries under European Union leadership — has produced no results and tied the hands of American negotiators. A new US-Iran channel would reinforce those talks. To be successful, however, the United States must be ready to compromise by offering imaginative proposals that would permit Iran civil nuclear power but deny it a nuclear weapon.

Third, the United States needs to take the reins of this crisis from Israel to give us more independence and protect Israel’s core interests at the same time. Israel’s concern that an Iranian nuclear weapon would pose an unacceptable risk is completely understandable. We should reaffirm our determination to protect Israel’s security. But the United States, not Israel, must lead on Iran during the next year. It is not in America’s interest to remain hostage to Prime Minister Netanyahu’s increasingly swift timetable for action. We need the freedom to explore negotiations with Iran on our own slower timeline before we consider force.