The Case for Sending Secretary Kerry to Tehran

by Navid Hassibi

Although it is unclear what will happen to the Iran nuclear deal (the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA) once President-elect Donald Trump assumes office, President Barack Obama still has a few weeks left to try to reinforce his signature foreign policy achievement by sending Secretary of State John Kerry to the capital of one of the signatory members–Tehran. While it is unlikely that the Iranian government would welcome Kerry in what would be a historic bilateral visit, due to political complexities and ramifications at home (particularly as the Rouhani administration prepares for reelection in a few months), it may be possible to pull off a last-minute Kerry visit within the confines of a JCPOA ministerial visit in Tehran. Kerry’s attendance at such a meeting would represent the first visit to Iran by a senior U.S. official in decades. It would monumentally reconfirm the P5+1 and Iran’s commitment to the nuclear deal and possibly make it more difficult for the incoming Trump administration to either tear it up or to go along with new sanctions that would put it at risk.

To be sure, Trump has repeatedly called the nuclear deal a disaster–most recently on Wednesday this week. As president-elect, he has surrounded himself with Iran hawks who have publicly expressed their disdain for the deal. His choice for CIA director, Rep. Mike Pompeo, tweeted that he looked forward to rolling back the deal just hours before his nomination. Trump’s pick for National Security Advisor, Gen. Michael Flynn, and his nominee for Secretary of Defense, Gen. James “Mad Dog” Mattis, are both hyper-critical of Iran and the nuclear deal, as is John Bolton, a potential nominee for the number two spot at the State Department and a veteran proponent of war with Iran.

Defending the Agreement

To counter the threat that the agreement might be undone, Iran deal supporters have been highlighting its merits, pointedly noting, among other things, that Tehran has fully complied with its obligations to date and that the deal has effectively pushed back any possible nuclear “break-out” by the Islamic Republic from only about two months to at least a full year–thus, for now, peacefully resolving a major international security concern without firing a single shot. As President Obama said after the election: “We now have over a year of evidence that they [Iran] have abided by the agreement.” In other words, the deal is working. Indeed, under the agreement, Iran has dismantled and limited key aspects of its nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief.

In an effort to solidify the Iran deal, the Obama administration has reportedly been issuing more licenses to U.S. companies to do business with Iran and waiving additional sanctions before leaving office. Iran has already signed a $16 billion deal with Boeing, which will support tens of thousands of U.S. jobs, a business reality that the Trump administration cannot easily ignore. The Obama White House should go even further to protect the deal by probing, via the Kerry-Mohammad Javad Zarif channel, whether a ministerial gathering of the P5+1 and Iran within the next few weeks in Tehran would be welcomed by the government. While bold, such a meeting would send a powerful message in support of diplomacy and the nuclear deal.

Meeting within the “business as usual” framework of the JCPOA could provide sufficient cover against any political backlash facing both the Rouhani government and, to a lesser extent, the outgoing Obama administration. Limiting Kerry’s presence in Tehran solely to attending the meeting would further limit adverse political consequences for both parties and could in fact bolster the Iranian president’s stature in advance of the May election. The meeting would also enable the P5+1 and Iran to touch base on the deal’s progress to-date, as well as new and anticipated challenges to its implementation, such as the extension of the Iran Sanctions Act. More importantly, it could help reassure the international community, including the parties themselves, about Washington’s commitment. A high-profile–albeit potentially controversial–meeting this close to Inauguration Day is hardly unprecedented, as Kerry will be attending the French-led Israeli-Palestinian Peace Summit on January 15.

Limiting the Damage Trump Can Do

Not only has the nuclear deal removed any near-term threat of Iran’s nuclear “break-out,” it has also established official channels between U.S. and Iranian officials. These channels have been leveraged for non-nuclear matters such as last year’s prisoner swap, the release of U.S. naval detainees by Iran, the settlement of a longstanding financial dispute, and some limited cooperation through the International Syria Support Group. Sabotaging the nuclear deal would remove any ability the United States has to pursue and defend its interests directly with Iran, particularly at a time when Iranian hardliners are arbitrarily detaining dual nationals.

What is certain is that the Trump administration’s unraveling of the agreement would severely undermine U.S. credibility in the world. It would significantly impact the United States’ relations with its key European allies, especially the EU3–France, Germany and the United Kingdom–which are already worried about Trump’s position on NATO. It would further complicate the relationship with China, which Trump recently angered due to his stance on Taiwan and his threats to impose tariffs against Chinese exports. It would also throw a wrench into the incoming administration’s desire to rehabilitate relations with Russia.

Sending Kerry to Tehran within the framework of a JCPOA ministerial meeting would be a public show of commitment to the deal and could make it harder for the Trump administration to unravel what has been hailed as Obama’s greatest foreign-policy achievement. It could also help to ensure that the U.S.-Iran relationship does not deteriorate to pre-2013 levels, which were marked by regular displays of brinkmanship and threats of military action. Obama is still in office until January 20. He can still make sure that diplomacy speaks louder than what he once described as the “loose talk of war.”

Navid Hassibi is with the Council on International Policy. He tweets @navidhassibi. The opinions here represent his own.

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  1. I cannot imagine that sending Kerry to Tehran would be on Trump’s radar, and maybe it is precisely because it would show a commitment to honoring the JCPOA deal. After all, as the author notes, Trump is on record as having basically trashed the policies of the Administration.

    Furthermore, given:

    (1) Obama Administration’s sanctions nonsense following the signing of the JCPOA to keep Iran in a strait jacket (whether or not it was to keep together the Democratic coalition and pacify its pro-Israeli donors during an election year, i.e., by looking tough with Iran),

    (2) the tortured nature of the negotiations (and renegotiation of points thought to have been agreed upon by Kerry’s team) leading up to the JCPOA, when the Administration knew Iran did not have a WMD program- and knew that the Russians, who had built the plants, and who were committed to the non-proliferation of WMD in the region, essentially controlled the Iranian program and its future direction, and

    (3) Kerry’s failure to ensure that any of his numerous agreements with Russia about removing terrorists from Aleppo would be implemented,

    Kerry’s credibility as an effective and reliable Secretary of State (and America’s credibility as an effective and reliable partner), would seem to be in serious question.

    Apart from Kerry’s institutional memory about the JCPOA and his commitment to the deal, I wonder if, going forward, the Iranians could expect him to deliver anything of real value. (Who knows? Maybe his comments yesterday about resolving the Palestinian-Israeli conflict might mean something, though even there one wonders where, apart from logging miles, he has been with that issue for the past few years.) Kissing Bibi’s ‘tuche’ during his term in office, and doing literally nothing about Israel’s settlement policy when he (and his boss) knew it was illegal, counterintuitive, and counterproductive to any resolution of the crisis (but was very much in keeping with Israel’s expansionist policies), and then complaining about it at the very end, has a hollow ring. It kind of reminds me of that cold warrior Paul Nitze’s ‘Come to Jesus’ moment about nuclear weapons at the end of his life- a bit too little, too late. (It’s ironic that the Aspen Institute that was his and his brother-in-law’s brainchild and playground still peddle the same cold war nonsense.)

  2. Please. If Kerry went to Tehran then Trump would… well…. trump it with a simple tweet.

    All Trump would need to do is tweet that Kerry is a jackass for making that trip and the incoming Administration is under no obligation to pay any heed to Kerry’s brayings, much less feel bound by them.

    Net result of that visit: zilch.

    Haven’t you noticed that Trump has no interest in the diplomatic parlour games that Kerry and Obama find oh-so-fascinating?

  3. @Yeah, right. Nothing to lose. Trump will do his best to make the US an irrelevant pariah state no matter what.

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