The Iran Deal: Kerry’s Ordeal, Obama’s Challenge

A grueling all-nighter for the Secretary of State, charges of foolishness for the President

  • Share
  • Read Later
Alexander Klein / AFP / Getty Images

Secretary of State John Kerry delivers a speech after talks over Iran's nuclear program in Geneva on Nov. 24, 2013

The international bargain struck with Iran here early on Sunday may have been a diplomatic feat — but for John Kerry it was also a physical one. The Secretary of State, who turns 70 next month, arrived in Switzerland shortly past dawn on an overnight flight from Washington, on which he stole at most a few hours’ sleep. By 9 a.m. Kerry had plunged into a nonstop marathon of meetings with fellow Foreign Ministers.

The talks dragged on for hours. The reporters wilted. Kerry worked out of view on the high floors of Geneva’s five-star InterContinental hotel, though he dashed out once to procure chocolates for his wife. A deal wasn’t announced until 3:30 a.m. At 5 a.m., Kerry briefed the press — more than 20 hours after his arrival. Then came several television interviews. He finished at 6:30 a.m. Three hours later, Kerry was in the lobby of his hotel in a fresh suit and tie, a little glassy-eyed, moving a little slowly. “The hard thing is that I have to work today,” he said with a wan smile. Had he slept? “Barely. About an hour.” Then his plane took off, bound for London, where still more meetings awaited him. The odds that Kerry was looking forward to his visit with Libya’s Foreign Minister seemed about nil.

Even for a man who survived a campaign for President, it was brutal.

It’s not clear what took the U.S., Iran and the five other powers here — France, Britain, China, Russia and Germany — so long to craft a deal whose details were not, in the end, very surprising. A standoff over whether Iran enjoys an inherent “right” to enrich uranium, for instance, ended in the agree-to-disagree outcome that many observers had predicted. The deal’s basic limits on Iran’s nuclear activities had been floating in the press for days. It might have been nuclear diplomacy, but it wasn’t rocket science.

But this is not Kerry’s story anymore — it is Barack Obama’s. It’s worth thinking about the long path Obama has trod to get here. When he ran for President in 2008, Obama’s rivals warned he couldn’t be trusted to deal with a nuclearizing Iran. Hillary Clinton would brand him “irresponsible and naive” for saying he’d meet with Iran’s leader. John McCain later called that a sign of his “inexperience and reckless judgment.”

Six years later, Obama’s Iran policy has the potential to reshape the Middle East and define his legacy. If it proves a success, historians might compare it to Richard Nixon’s breakthrough with China. “If Iran seizes this opportunity,” Obama said in remarks on Saturday night, “the Iranian people will benefit from rejoining the international community, and we can begin to chip away at the mistrust between our two nations. This would provide Iran with a dignified path to forge a new beginning with the wider world based on mutual respect.”

But Obama again faces the same charges of naiveté and foolishness that hounded him as a candidate. Never mind that it took real toughness to get here: Iran only came to the bargaining table because Obama imposed punishing sanctions on its economy. His critics say he was desperate for a deal — or a “historic mistake,” as Bibi Netanyahu calls it — that would avoid a potential conflict and give his ailing presidency positive new momentum. It’s still possible those charges will be borne out — if Iran breaks its promises, if the sanctions unravel. It’s also possible that what happened in Geneva was a historic turning point that will allow Obama to put to rest the charge of naiveté once and for all. That would certainly be worth pulling an all-nighter for.