State Department

John Kerry Has a Long Way to Go to Reshape the Middle East

The Secretary of State may have scored a victory with an interim deal, but there's plenty of work ahead of him. By David Rohde

President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry appear to have run the table in Middle East diplomacy. An interim nuclear agreement with Iran has been reached, Israeli-Palestinian negotiations are underway, and peace talks to end Syria’s civil war are slated to begin in January.

For an administration under siege domestically, press coverage declaring the triumph of Obama diplomacy over Bush-era militarism is a political godsend.

But talk in Washington of a legacy-defining breakthrough for Obama is overstated and premature. So are the apocalyptic warnings of Iranian hegemony now coming from Jerusalem and Riyadh.

Fundamental differences must be overcome before a comprehensive nuclear pact with Iran, an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement, or a Syria ceasefire can be brokered. In all three, the White House and Kerry ignored, avoided, or fudged thorny issues—and declared success.

First of all, Kerry and the White House deserve praise for simply reaching this point. Defying deep skepticism in Washington, Jerusalem, and Riyadh, they embarked on risky diplomatic overtures that ranged from Kerry’s quixotic public effort to revive the Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement to a secret meeting between American and Iranian officials in Oman last March.

The momentum created by these interim agreements could lead to final settlements. Strategically, the Obama administration’s embrace of diplomacy is a welcome shift from a long-running American tendency to resort to military force in the Middle East.

But enormous obstacles must be overcome in all three cases before they can be declared diplomatic triumphs.

In future Iran talks, the core unresolved issue is whether Tehran will be able to have a limited, tightly monitored nuclear energy program that enriches uranium to 3.5 percent, far below nuclear weapons level. Officials from Iran’s newly elected, relatively moderate government say it would be politically impossible for them to accept an agreement that does not include some form of nuclear energy program. This is a right, they argue, that all countries have under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Skeptics in Congress and Israel insist that Tehran’s previous cheating means it should have no nuclear program at all. White House officials appear to be willing to accept a small, exhaustively monitored Iranian nuclear energy program. Kerry denied that the interim agreement recognized Iran’s right to enrichment—though the preamble does state it would be the goal of a final agreement.

“This comprehensive solution would involve a mutually defined enrichment program,” the preamble states, “with practical limits and transparency measures to ensure the peaceful nature of the program.”

It remains unclear whether the administration can convince key congressional Democrats who are deeply skeptical of Iran—such as Senators Charles Schumer (D-N.Y) and Robert Menendez (D-N.J.)—that some Iranian enrichment is tenable. Israeli officials have been adamant that no enrichment should occur in Iran.

In many ways, the interim Iran agreement Kerry hammered out in Geneva last weekend  is similar to his resurrection of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks last summer. He has created a freeze in Iran’s nuclear program and a round of nuclear talks with Iran that will last six months. But he has not crafted a final, far-reaching pact that rolls back Iran’s nuclear program or normalizes its relations with the world.

In August, Kerry convinced the Israelis and Palestinians to engage in nine months of final status negotiations—the first direct talks between the two sides since 2010. But the historic disagreements that have divided the two sides for decades remain unresolved.

Kerry brought the two parties back to the table with a short-term deal. In stages over nine months, Israel agreed to release 104 Palestinian prisoners jailed since before the 1993 Oslo Accords. In exchange, the Palestinians have agreed not to seek recognition as an independent nation from the United Nations during the course of the negotiations.

The insoluble underlying disputes—Israeli settlement building, Palestinian claims for a right of return to Israel proper and the status of Jerusalem—all remain unresolved. The two sides even failed to agree on whether Israel’s pre-1967 borders would be the basis of negotiations. All of those issues were ignored.

Since the talks began in August, they have made little headway, according to officials from both sides. On Tuesday, Nabil Shaath, a senior Palestinian official, called the negotiations “a dialogue of the deaf,” Israel’s Army Radio reported.

Meanwhile, peace talks on Syria that are scheduled to begin in January face long odds as well. Again, the parties are coming to the table with an unresolved basic dispute—here, President Bashar al-Assad’s future role in Syria.

The government insists that Assad remain in power. Rebels say his departure is a pre-condition for peace. In a further complication, the opposition is badly fractured and it’s unclear which opposition leaders will participate.

To be sure, talks that resulted in historic breakthroughs have often confronted seemingly impossible odds. The 1978 Camp David Peace Accords were unimaginable before they occurred. The 1995 Dayton Peace Accord that ended the war in Bosnia seemed inconceivable.

At this point, talk of the administration’s interim Iran accord altering the strategic balance of the Middle East is premature. Supporters who hail it and critics who assail it are exaggerating.

For now, Obama and Kerry have shown themselves to be masters of setting the stage for breakthroughs. They have deftly maneuvered around fundamental issues that have scuttled past peace initiatives in the region.

Hopefully, they will achieve landmark accords. But for now the divides remain.

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