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The Kerry Factor

Why it’s going to take more than a broken leg to keep the secretary of state – or the Iran deal – from moving forward.

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The cemeteries of France, Charles de Gaulle reportedly once said, are filled with indispensable men. De Gaulle certainly would have considered himself indispensable — and he probably would have been right. But most other folks who work in Washington probably aren’t.

I was thinking of de Gaulle’s quip while answering a tsunami of press questions about what kind of impact U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s unfortunate biking accident would have on the course of the Iran negotiations. Kerry has been a driving force in these talks; he believes more deeply in the power of diplomacy and the logic of the deal than anyone probably including the president. And what’s more, he’s established a very close working relationship with Iran’s key negotiator, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif. Before his accident, Kerry had just emerged from hours of intensive talks with Zarif in Geneva, a long session which foreshadows the likely drama — all-night negotiating sessions, threats of walk-outs, ultimatums — that we will see in the weeks to come.

So, in considering the tricky dynamics at play, how could Kerry’s broken femur and the prospects of a long recovery not have a key impact on the talks, particularly now that we’re approaching the endgame and the June 30 deadline? Isn’t Kerry indispensable?

I’d be the last person to underestimate or trivialize the influence of personalities in a sensitive negotiation. During the run-up to the 1991 Madrid peace conference, I worked for the master negotiator of them all, then-U.S. Secretary of State James Baker, and watched how he used his personality and charisma to cajole, press, and embrace those he was dealing with in order to hammer out terms of reference for attendance at Madrid. I saw how he gained then-Syrian President Hafez al-Assad’s trust and, yes, former Israeli PM Yitzhak Shamir’s too. And I was there when he stormed out of one meeting with the Palestinians on the way to the Madrid conference, only to return 15 minutes later and put his arms around their shoulders, drawing them into a huddle as if he were a football coach.

And indeed, were Kerry to be taken out of the picture, his absence could actually have a significantly negative impact on the deal’s endgame. The loss of a senior negotiator, and more important a believer in the process, might actually lessen the chances of overcoming key issues in the final phase of the negotiations. Kerry isn’t only a negotiator; he’s also a decision-maker when it comes to determining tactics at the table: when to go, when to stay, and in real time, when to contact the president. To quote Kenny Rogers — “when to hold ‘em and … when to fold ‘em.” And this isn’t just one hand clapping. Kerry’s absence could affect the willingness of the other believer in this enterprise, Zarif, to push his own respective envelope with bosses in Tehran.

And yet as problematic as Kerry’s injury may be, it probably won’t have much of an impact on the course of the Iran negotiations; it might even benefit them. And here’s why.

First, we can acknowledge that, yes, individuals are important to the relationship between nations. But national interests trump personalities. And this deal in particular has an inexorable logic to it, driven by interests that seem to defy potential obstacles, including Kerry’s fall, largely because the president, the Iranians, and perhaps even the supreme leader see great merit in getting this agreement. Think about it. Few in this town believed that secret diplomacy between the United States and Iran was even possible, let alone that it could be productive. The Omani channel — which was meant to hammer out key areas of agreement in the interim agreement — proved them wrong. Few believed the interim agreement could be reached and implemented, but it was. Most Iran watchers and nuclear gurus were surprised by the detail of the April understandings — and the prospective foundation they laid out for final details, regardless of how many issues remained to be worked out. And many thought that between Israel and the U.S. Congress, the domestic politics of the Iran deal were just not sustainable.

And yet here we are in early June and the momentum in favor of a deal seems intact. Doomed to succeed? Too big to fail? Good, bad, or somewhere in between, the Iran talks appear to be headed toward what President Barack Obama’s administration wants: a slower, smaller, more-easily monitored Iranian nuclear program as a means to preempt Israeli military action, to make American military strikes unnecessary, and to kick the nuclear issue-can down the road. And to a place where the mullahs want to be too: sanctions relief, Iran open for business, its influence in the region rising, and at day’s end, a nuclear infrastructure large enough to consider weaponizing should they choose to do so.

Second, Kerry is the Energizer Bunny of U.S. foreign policy. He believes in this deal and also sees it as a way to establish himself as a truly consequential secretary of state. With his goal of meaningful Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, let alone an agreement, all but impossible to attain, the Iran deal remains perhaps the most important foreign policy legacy issue left for both he and the president to achieve. And that creates a huge incentive to stay engaged. Forget the fact that Kerry, a senator at the time, showed up at a White House ceremony in 2012 with two black eyes after getting banged up playing hockey. Or that he seems physically and virtually indefatigable. That he continued to hold talks via Skype from his hospital room should tell you something. Indeed, doctors said yesterday that Kerry would be up and walking today.

Moreover, time is running out for a guy who deeply believes in diplomacy as the talking cure and his own powers of persuasion. There’s likely no third act here, certainly nothing as central, important, or as preeminent on the world stage as being America’s top diplomat negotiating perhaps the thorniest challenge in international politics. Kerry can’t will a quicker recovery. But he will, despite his injury, remain in the thick of these negotiations. Kerry can always set up an extended stay in Europe for the endgame. And there’s precedent. Henry Kissinger was out of the United States for 33 days to conclude the 1974 Israel-Syria disengagement agreement. It would take an atomic crowbar to separate John Kerry from the Iran negotiations.

Finally, would it be so bad if the June 30 deadline were missed? The perception that we’re rushing to complete an agreement this sensitive is never a good thing. If we hurry, we will make mistakes, and we will send the other side the unmistakable signal that we want this more than they do. And that’s never a good thing for negotiating tactics, nor for domestic politics. And Kerry’s injury can always be used as an elegant justification to slow this down and as a way of buying more time if need be. I don’t much care for this deal because I think the mullahs get more out of it than we do. But it’s coming. And no biking accident in France — even one that involves America’s top diplomat — is going to change that painful reality.

Photo credit: PIUS UTOMI EKPEI/AFP/Getty Images

About the Author

Aaron David Miller is a vice president and distinguished scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and the author of The End of Greatness: Why America Can't Have (and Doesn't Want) Another Great President. @aarondmiller2

Aaron David Miller is a vice president and distinguished scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and the author of The End of Greatness: Why America Can't Have (and Doesn't Want) Another Great President. @aarondmiller2

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