Gambling on Iran: The Nuclear Deal and the Legacy of John Kerry

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U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, second from left, meets with foreign ministers and delegations from Germany, France, China, Britain, Russia and the European Union at a hotel in Vienna, July 13. Reuters/Carlos Barria

At the end of May, during a pause in the Iran nuclear talks in Switzerland, Secretary of State John Kerry was riding his bike around Lake Geneva when he accidentally hit a curb and crashed. This was no ordinary accident. Kerry's thigh bone broke close to his hip, which doctors had previously replaced. Such a painful injury might have forced another 71-year-old to lie in bed for months. But in just four weeks, Kerry bounced back. Hobbling on crutches in his signature blue suit and pink pastel tie, he flew to Vienna at the end of June for the final round of talks with Tehran. In marathon sessions that often ran into the early hours, Kerry worked through his pain and hammered out what could prove to be one of the world's most significant nonproliferation treaties.

The deal, which severely restricts Iran's nuclear program for at least 15 years in return for easing sanctions, represents both a physical and professional comeback for Kerry, who first tried and failed last year to etch his name into diplomatic history by brokering an Israeli-Palestinian peace accord. But with his victory in Vienna—and the likelihood that the Iran deal will survive a September challenge in Congress—Kerry is poised to provide President Barack Obama with his crowning foreign policy achievement. Some observers even predict the deal puts Kerry in line for a Nobel Peace Prize.

"It's an enormous diplomatic accomplishment. There's no question that it has profoundly changed the status quo," P.J. Crowley, a veteran of President Bill Clinton's National Security Council and Hillary Clinton's State Department, tells Newsweek . "There was a major issue that had the potential to lead to a military confrontation, and through effective diplomacy, he sidelined it. This is exactly what you expect a diplomat to do." Kerry, he adds, has now established a valuable channel of communication with Iran that can be used for future diplomatic efforts.

Already, the former Massachusetts senator is talking optimistically about working with the Iranians to address the conflicts in Syria, Iraq and Yemen. "I know that a Middle East that is on fire is going to be more manageable with this [nuclear] deal, and [it] opens more potential for us to be able to try to deal with those fires," Kerry told the Council on Foreign Relations on July 28. Aides say he's also eager to give Israeli-Palestinian peace talks another try.

But former officials and experts caution that the diplomatic challenges facing Kerry in the Middle East in the wake of the agreement promise to be even more difficult than the Iran negotiations. David Rothkopf, CEO and editor of the FP Group, which publishes Foreign Policy , and a supporter of the nuclear agreement, argues the deal has strengthened Iran considerably, first by lifting its pariah status and opening the way for European countries, along with China and Russia, to once again do business with Tehran. The agreement will also add some $150 billion in unfrozen assets to Iran's coffers, providing it with the means to fund its regional proxies, including embattled Syrian President Bashar Assad, Lebanon's political and militant group, Hezbollah, Shiite militias in Iraq and Houthi rebels in Yemen. And all this is happening as Iran's Sunni Arab neighbors have been weakened by wars, revolutions and the declining price of oil. "Everybody involved—the Iranians, the Europeans, the Chinese, the Russians, the Israelis, the Saudis—[is] looking at the post-deal lay of the land in the Middle East as significantly different from what it was before the deal," says Rothkopf.

As Obama implements the nuclear accord, Rothkopf warns, he also will need to find ways to offset Iran's increased strength and influence in a region undergoing enormous upheaval. "U.S. national interests are not advanced simply by one deal," he says. "They're advanced in the context of everything that's going on."

Washington's first moves will involve strengthening the defenses of its allies in the region. The Pentagon is already fielding a Saudi request for 600 Patriot missiles at a cost of $5 billion—the first of several expected arms deals with Arab allies in the Persian Gulf. The administration is also expected to boost military sales to Israel beyond the $3 billion in weapons it already receives annually. But Middle East experts say such weapons sales won't be enough to manage the broad power shifts in the region. In the years to come, the biggest challenge in the region will be rebuilding war-devastated Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Libya. If that doesn't happen, these places will become breeding grounds for violent extremists, much like those areas of Iraq and Syria now under the control of ISIS. Longer-term solutions will be necessary, these experts say, and they will require Iran's cooperation.

There are signs that Washington and Tehran are already moving in that direction. Until now, the Obama administration has refused to allow Iran any role in a U.S.-proposed political solution for Syria. (The U.S. wants Assad and his top lieutenants to step down and a managed transition to a new government to occur.) But in his July 15 news conference—just a day after the Iran nuclear deal was announced—Obama offered the Iranians a seat at the table. "I think that it's important for them to be part of that conversation," he said.

A solution to the Syrian problem also requires the participation of Russia—which supports Assad—as well as Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, which back the Syrian rebels. Some observers believe Russia could be convinced to abandon Assad, provided Moscow gets to maintain its naval base in Syria's Mediterranean port city of Tartus and its commercial arms relationship with the next government. Iran also might be persuaded to step back from Assad, but it would insist on maintaining its weapons pipeline through Damascus to Hezbollah, which threatens Israel's northern border. Kerry would be hard-pressed to overcome Israeli objections to such an arrangement. There are also concerns that Assad's departure could cause the government to collapse altogether, eliminating the prospect of a successor regime from within its ranks.

U.S. cooperation with Iran in the fight against ISIS predates the nuclear accord. Under a tacit alliance between Washington and Tehran, U.S. warplanes have been conducting airstrikes against ISIS positions for more than year now while Iran-backed Shiite militias have fought the group on the ground. U.S. military officials say they provide air support only to Shiite militias that are under Baghdad's command, but in the March fight for the city of Tikrit and in later battles, American warplanes helped fighters under Iran's control. Closer coordination with the Shiite militias, however, could present Obama with political problems at home since U.S. military officials haven't forgotten that hundreds of American troops died at the hands of the Shiite fighters during the Iraq war.

In Yemen, the U.S. says it is providing logistical and intelligence support to a Saudi-led military campaign against Iran-backed Houthi rebels. But quietly, the administration is urging Riyadh to stop its offensive. In late May, Newsweek has learned, Anne Patterson, the assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, secretly met with senior Houthi officials in Oman. Shortly afterward, the Houthis released journalist Casey Coombs, one of several Americans the Houthis are believed to be holding, in return for additional U.S. pressure on the Saudis to halt their bombing campaign, Western diplomatic sources say.

Peter Feaver, a former official on President George W. Bush's National Security Council and a critic of the Iran deal, says the success of such diplomacy—and Kerry's place in the pantheon of great secretaries of state—will depend on whether he can make the agreement part of a larger strategy that realigns Iran according to U.S. national security interests. He's not optimistic. "It's a gamble that bets against history and that bets against Iran's pattern of behavior," he says. "And it's a gamble that is riskier than it needed to be because we could have had a better deal."

Defending the nuclear accord before Congress in July, Kerry recounted the moment of quiet reflection in Vienna's ornate Palais Coburg hotel after he and fellow diplomats from Iran and five major powers reached the nuclear agreement. French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius noted that the date of the agreement was July 14—Bastille Day, which marked the beginning of the French Revolution in 1789. Fabius then expressed confidence that the Iran deal would create another historical marker.

Maybe. But for now, most observers are reserving judgment. Aaron David Miller, who served as a Middle East adviser to both Democratic and Republican administrations, says the agreement remains "transactional" at this point, a business deal in which each party gets something from the other. In other words, Nobel Peace Prize or not, Kerry is likely to go through a lot more pain before the deal ever leads to a true détente between the U.S. and Iran.