Monday, November 11, 2013

After Near Miss on Iran, Kerry Says Diplomacy Is Still the Right Path

ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates — Secretary of State John Kerry came up a few disputed words short of closing a landmark nuclear deal with Iran on Sunday in Geneva. Now he is defending the diplomacy that led to that near miss against a rising chorus of critics at home and abroad.

On Monday, in this Persian Gulf emirate deeply suspicious of a nuclear Iran, Mr. Kerry laid out his fullest argument yet.

"Having the negotiation does not mean giving up anything," he declared at a news conference after meeting top officials of the United Arab Emirates. "It means you will put to the test what is possible and what is needed, and whether or not Iran is prepared to do what is necessary to prove that its program can only be a peaceful program."

Mr. Kerry promised America's allies in the Middle East that a nuclear accord would not put their security at risk, and he pleaded with critics of a deal, most notably Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, not to try to scuttle it before the details are even hammered out.

"The time to oppose it is when you see what it is," he said, "not to oppose the effort to find out what is possible."

But with the prospect of a deal suddenly more real than it has been for a decade, Mr. Kerry is having to fend off those who want to pre-empt it. He is insisting to allies that the United States will drive a hard bargain with the Iranians and doing his best to dispel rumors.

The latest round of talks failed, he said, not because of dissent from France, as has been reported, but because the Iranians rejected an offer put on the table by the French, along with the United States, Britain, China, Germany and Russia. "The French signed off on it; we signed off on it," Mr. Kerry said. "There was unity, but Iran couldn't take it."

He offered familiar arguments as well: Without diplomacy, he said, Iran is much more likely to obtain a nuclear bomb, which would set off an arms race in the Middle East and leave everyone less secure. He even raised his own service in Vietnam as a reminder of war's futility.

Still, the forces arrayed against a deal are diverse and potent: Israel, Saudi Arabia and other Sunni Muslim states, as well as a sizable contingent of Iran hawks in Congress. Mr. Netanyahu, who warned that Geneva was shaping up as a "deal of the century" for Iran, is calling on other leaders to rally opposition. An Israeli minister, Naftali Bennett, is mobilizing Jewish groups in the United States to try to block it.

On Wednesday, Mr. Kerry is to testify behind closed doors before the Senate Banking Committee to urge senators not to move ahead with a new, tougher set of sanctions on Iran. But powerful Democrats, like Senator Robert Menendez of New Jersey, who heads the Foreign Relations Committee, have already called for the bill to be passed.

A 10-day pause before the next round of talks is an added danger, giving opponents time to marshal their ammunition and stoke enough doubt about a deal that the United States and its partners could have less flexibility to work out differences the next time.

The deep qualms of America's allies in the Middle East are rooted in three things, said Robert M. Danin, a former State Department official who worked in the region: genuine fear of Iran, frustration that the United States has not consulted them adequately, and a more generalized doubt that Washington can be counted on to safeguard their interests.

"Put simply, they worry that we are fair-weather friends who can't be depended on to cover their backs," said Mr. Danin, who is now a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

The easiest remedy would be to build up America's military presence in the Persian Gulf, something the Obama administration did in its first term. But with budget pressures and President Obama's avowed desire to shift America's foreign policy focus to Asia, that is less realistic this time. While Mr. Kerry spoke Monday about protecting America's friends here, he did not mention aircraft carriers or Patriot missile batteries.

Failing that, Mr. Danin said, there were other steps the United States could still take, including back-channel communications with allies and highly visible diplomatic gestures. After negotiating past midnight on Sunday in Geneva, Mr. Kerry flew six and a half hours to have dinner with the crown prince of the Abu Dhabi, Mohammed bin Zayed. Mr. Kerry's chief negotiator, Wendy R. Sherman, went straight to Jerusalem to brief officials and journalists about the negotiations.

Standing next to Mr. Kerry in Abu Dhabi, the Emirati foreign minister, Abdullah bin Zayed, said he was satisfied with the level of consultation with the United States on Iran. He offered Mr. Kerry polite encouragement to keep trying for a deal, though he left little doubt he would oppose any agreement that would give Iran the right to enrich uranium.

Citing the nuclear agreement the United Arab Emirates has with the United States as a model for other countries in the region, the foreign minister said, "We have accepted not to enrich."

Negotiations in Geneva faltered in large part over Iran's push for language that would give it a formal right to enrichment, according to Western diplomats. But given that Iran already has 19,000 centrifuges, many experts and former administration officials say that such an accommodation will inevitably have to be part of a final agreement.

Persuading Israel, Saudi Arabia and members of Congress to go along with that, analysts say, will require a lobbying campaign far more intense than the one Mr. Kerry is now waging. To succeed, some said, the administration will need to bring in a bigger gun.

"President Obama himself will have to step up and lead this effort," said Cliff Kupchan, an Iran expert at the Eurasia Group, a risk consultancy. "U.S. assurance will have to come from the very top."
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