John Kerry has not yet saved — or destroyed — the Middle East

November 27, 2013

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 cases, 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 and the region, 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 but the interim pact states that would be the goal of a final agreement.

“This comprehensive solution would involve a mutually defined enrichment program,” the agreement 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 inside 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. The interim Iranian agreement froze Tehran’s nuclear program and committed both sides to six months of negotiations. But Kerry 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. But the historic disagreements that have divided the two sides for decades remained unresolved.

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

Core underlying disputes — Israeli settlement building, Palestinian claims for a right of return 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.

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 central 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.

Throughout history, talks that resulted in historic breakthroughs 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 as well.

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 scuttled past peace initiatives. Hopefully, they will achieve landmark accords but for now vast divides remain.


This post was updated and revised at 12:45pm on Friday, November 29, 2013.

PHOTO (TOP): Secretary of State John Kerry steps off of his aircraft as he arrives at Andrews Air Force Base, Maryland, from London, November 25, 2013. REUTERS/Carolyn Kaster/Pool

PHOTO (INSERT):  President Barack Obama makes a statement about an agreement reached with Iran on its nuclear program at the White House in Washington November 23, 2013. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts


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The current administration is just looking to make a political tool or statement with this for use in future elections. They need an agreement that really does nothing. That’s the goal. They just want to be able to use it in a few years with “at least we got an agreement, got them talking. What did you do?”
What a shame. Our government is totally useless at everything. The USA is gone, welcome to the United States of Corporate America; The USCA.

Posted by tmc | Report as abusive

I don’t want to sound just negative, so let me elaborate. When it comes to the major foreign policy challenges like Iran, Israel & the Palestinians, North Korean, etc.., it would take a long serious effort to accomplish real progress. Meaning at least a decade if not two or three. And a generation or two for truly final acceptance. The United States cannot do this with its current form of government. The political flip-flopping to keep its population quiet and corporations happy does not allow for any long term planning of the nature required. I’m sure the administration would be ecstatic if a breakthrough agreement came out of these negotiations, but they know that is such a remote possibility that its not worth consideration. So they are using it for political gain for the democratic party, a little boost to Mr. Kerry’s ego, and probably some other gains we can’t comprehend. Personally I think the best thing we could do is hold the status quo with foreign policy and keep the nuclear and biological threats mitigated until the Chinese are prepared to address the situation. That may be another decade or so though. But at least they have the ability to actually handle the situation in long term, consistent manner with real, attainable goals.

Posted by tmc | Report as abusive

I agree with the other comments, I don’t think the present “breakthroughs” are any more than the same “kicking the can” they do on the domestic front.
I do not blame them, they have no other options, since this “old type” of politics, negotiation, decision making is obsolete, even harmful in today’s global system.
Kerry is nothing more than a foreign secretary of a country within the global human community. Yes that country is big and strong, but it does not give them neither the right nor the capability to create, make deals for others, above the head of others.
The time of the “Great American Hero”, “global policeman”, “leader of the free world” is over.
The Middle East as a whole needs a comprehensive settlement, and it has to be done by those who are directly or even indirectly involved in it.
All the parties have to sit down around the same round table at the same time, as many times as necessary to find the mutual, common pint of interest, goal they can build on, rising above their mutual hatred, rejection.
Everybody has their price, priorities, they have to find the minimum “eye of the needle” overlap they can use as foundation.
Secret talks, corridor diplomacy by default is harmful, destructive, only raising resentment, inflating problems.
Leaders cannot continue acting based on personal legacies, election priorities any more.
The global, integral world demands, global and integral decision making and mutual cooperation.

Posted by ZGHerm | Report as abusive

This is that spoken of by the Prophet Daniel:

“And he shall confirm the covenant with many for one week: and in the midst of the week he shall cause the sacrifice and the oblation to cease, and for the overspreading of abominations he shall make it desolate, even until the consummation, and that determined shall be poured upon the desolate.” Daniel 9:27

Posted by amos033 | Report as abusive

We in America – founded by mostly immigrants – can never bring peaceful solutions to those rooted in tradition and dirt. Our minds are more open and naive – thinking others in the world can find peaceful solutions by talk.

The Middle East is a boiling fester of religion, entitlement and revenge. Best lest them settle things their own way – with violence and blood letting.

Posted by Butch_from_PA | Report as abusive

I personally felt that Kerry could not achieve anything there — and I am right. It is “kicking the can down the road” just like they (both houses) have been doing for my lifetime.
I was duped by Obama, wanted only three things
that Obama himself promised and did not deliver; end the wars, health care for $90 a month, and re-adjust the economy (meaning house prices reverting back to 2002 pricing)by slapping the banks.
—NONE of this happened.
It’s the same thing the judges are doing now in the courts — caving to the lying banks and kicking Americans out of their homes.
I hope the current government officials realize that 40 million American former home-owners will vote differently next time.

Posted by BillinSavannah | Report as abusive

Now we have Biden “concentrating” on Asia – heaven help us! And Asia!!!!!

Posted by AZreb | Report as abusive