Nuclear Deal Complicated by Kerry's Accident

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Kaveh L. Afrasiabi

The month of June is supposed to be filled with intense negotiations between Iran and the world powers aiming to meet the July 1, 2015 deadline and, yet, the top U.S. negotiator, namely, Secretary of State John Kerry, is undergoing a surgery due to the injury he sustained while biking in Geneva, potentially sidelining him during this crucial month.  This unfortunate, and highly untimely, accident may in fact lead to the extension of the nuclear deadline, in light of the prominent direct role that Kerry has played in steering the ship of US diplomacy in these talks over the past two years. He is credited for playing a huge role in reaching the April 2, 215 Lausanne agreement -- on basic core elements of a comprehensive deal.

A manna from heaven for the hawkish U.S. politicians and pro-Israel lobbyists who are opposed to a final nuclear deal, Kerry's accident serves their purpose of throwing obstacles after obstacles to delay and ultimately prevent a deal. In his absence, Kerry's subordinates including Wendy Sherman, the chief U.S. negotiator, will need to fill his spot at the table and Kerry might engage in some remote conferencing. But, given the critical role that Kerry has played in the numerous meetings with his Iranian counterpart, Mohammad Javad Zarif, it is doubtful that such remedies will suffice to compensate for his absence in direct talks at a sensitive moment when there are still gaps in the positions of both sides that need to be bridged for the sake of a final agreement. These gaps pertain to such issues as Western demands for access to Iran's military sites as well as its scientists, the number of centrifuges at the Fordo facility, the sequence and timeline for lifting the Iran sanctions, and the like. 

After the latest bilateral round between Zarif and Kerry, Iran's foreign minister vowed to devote full energy to reaching an agreement during this month, yet Zarif must now wonder if the American negotiation team can make the same commitment with their captain in hospital. According to a source close to the Iranian negotiation team, President Obama might need to step in and increase his input in the negotiation process now that Kerry has been temporarily sidelined. There is a residual worry in Iran that a lengthy Kerry absence might benefit the more hawkish (national security) elements in the White House who are not necessarily on the same page with the more pragmatic US Department of State officials headed by Kerry.  

By all indications, there is a growing push in the U.S. for an extension of the July deadline. Case in point, Gary Samore, a former White House non-proliferation official who nowadays heads an anti-Iran advocacy group, United Against Nuclear Iran, has tried to justify an extension as a "tactical move." United Against Nuclear Iran is reportedly funded by some right-wing, pro-Israel Jewish donors and has a history of media-savvy Iranophobia.

But, with so much progress already made in narrowing the differences, it is important to maintain the momentum and reach an agreement, instead of giving the opponents of an Iran deal another window of opportunity to wreck this golden opportunity. Even a temporary extension might backfire against the delicate process of negotiations that transpires in a complex political environment that is full of hazards with respect to an Iran deal, in light of the volatile backdrop of conflicts and tensions throughout the Middle East today. Indeed, Kerry's accident might not be the only one, given the proximity of hostile forces in the Persian Gulf and the region's proneness to incidents that could trigger open hostilities. What is for sure, however, is the absence of a calm environment for the Iran nuclear talks, given the incessant Saudi-led attacks on Yemen, the on-going conflicts in Iraq and Syria, etc.

Of course, even without Kerry's accident, a brief extension of the deadline may be inevitable because of the extent of remaining gaps that require in-depth diplomatic transactions; Kerry's accident has simply complicated the process and it remains to be seen how quickly he can recuperate from his injury and resume the direct stewardship of the U.S. diplomacy in Iran talks. Chances are that his deputy, Antony Blinken, who has replaced Kerry at a Paris conference on ISIS, will fill Kerry's role during the next three to four weeks if his boss is unable to travel. The big question, then, would be if Blinken is up to task and compensate for Kerry's skillful last-minute breakthroughs? This is highly unlikely, particularly in light of the important personal rapport that Kerry has already

established with Zarif and, therefore, the bigger possibility is that Kerry will try hard to be on the negotiation scene. That would be a heroic effort on the part of the 71 year old U.S. diplomat who is a Vietnam war veteran and familiar to hardship. Should that happen, the next question would be if Kerry would be up to par with the task when his physical condition would be sub-optimal?

*Kaveh Afrasiabi, Ph.D, is a former political science professor at Tehran University and the author of several books on Iran’s foreign policy. His writings have appeared on several online and print publications, including UN Chronicle, New York Times, Der Tagesspiegel, Middle East Journal, Harvard International Review, and Brown's Journal of World Affairs, Guardian, Russia Today, Washington Post, San Francisco Chronicle, Boston Globe, Mediterranean Affairs, Nation, Telos, Der Tageszeit, Hamdard Islamicus, Iranian Journal of International Affairs, Global Dialogue.

More By Kaveh L. Afrasiabi:

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*Nuclear Deal Will Brighten Middle East Prospects:

*Yemen and Iran's Role in Regional Crisis Management:

*These views represent those of the author and are not necessarily Iran Review's viewpoints.

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