John Kerry Still Has a Chance in the Middle East

In engaging with Afghanistan and Iran, the secretary of State is looking to break a losing streak.

Afghan presidential candidate Abdullah Abdullah and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry chat prior to a meeting in Kabul.
National Journal
Kaveh Waddell
July 11, 2014, 10:01 a.m.

The se­cur­ity situ­ations in Ir­aq and Ga­za con­tin­ue to de­teri­or­ate, the war in Syr­ia shows no signs of abat­ing, and Libya slips near­er and near­er to civil con­flict — but Sec­ret­ary of State John Kerry has trained his eye on two sep­ar­ate crises in the re­gion. Resolv­ing an elec­tions dis­pute in Afgh­anistan and reach­ing a land­mark nuc­le­ar deal with Ir­an of­fer Kerry a chance to save face in the Middle East.

Kerry alighted in Ka­bul on Fri­day, hop­ing to settle a dis­pute between two can­did­ates vy­ing for the Afghan pres­id­ency, a dis­agree­ment that threatened to de­rail the first demo­crat­ic trans­ition of power in 10 years. The two can­did­ates, Ab­dul­lah Ab­dul­lah and Ashraf Gh­ani, both claimed to have won an elec­tion that was marked by wide­spread fraud and rig­ging. Both can­did­ates ac­know­ledged the wide­spread ir­reg­u­lar­it­ies, but Ab­dul­lah threatened to break off and form a “par­al­lel gov­ern­ment” if his al­leg­a­tions are not ad­dressed. Kerry ar­rived in Afgh­anistan just hours after a U.N. pro­pos­al failed to bring the two sides to­geth­er.

Be­fore meet­ing with Kerry, Gh­ani com­mit­ted to an “in­tens­ive and ex­tens­ive” audit of res­ults to re­store Afghans’ faith in the elec­tion pro­cess. And his op­pon­ent lauded Kerry for his vis­it after emer­ging from a meet­ing with the sec­ret­ary of State. “At a very crit­ic­al time you have proved your com­mit­ment to Afgh­anistan, to sav­ing Afgh­anistan, and sav­ing the demo­crat­ic pro­cess here,” Ab­dul­lah said. Meet­ings con­tin­ue in Ka­bul today.

After his busi­ness in Afgh­anistan, Kerry will fly to Vi­enna, where he will dive in­to talks with Ir­an on its nuc­le­ar pro­gram. As the dead­line for an agree­ment draws near, the U.S. sec­ret­ary will be joined by some for­eign min­is­ters of the oth­er par­ti­cip­at­ing states — Bri­tain, China, France, Ger­many, and Rus­sia — in a push to either ham­mer out an agree­ment be­fore Ju­ly 20 or fur­ther ex­tend the talks.

Many obstacles re­main in the way of a deal in Vi­enna. As un­re­solved dis­agree­ments over the num­ber of cent­ri­fuges Ir­an would be al­lowed to op­er­ate con­tin­ue to dom­in­ate talks, con­ser­vat­ive voices back home tie ne­go­ti­at­ors’ hands. Both Kerry and Ir­a­ni­an For­eign Min­is­ter Javad Za­rif are con­strained by hard-line polit­ics in their home coun­tries: Za­rif must sat­is­fy Ir­a­ni­an con­ser­vat­ives who are wary of deal­ing with the United States and are push­ing for un­checked nuc­le­ar cap­ab­il­it­ies; Kerry is faced with a bel­li­ger­ent Con­gress that on Wed­nes­day de­man­ded to be in­cluded in any de­cision to lift long-stand­ing eco­nom­ic sanc­tions on Ir­an.

Neither of Kerry’s mis­sions will be eas­ily com­pleted, but he’ll be look­ing for a win to end a streak of failed or un­pop­u­lar at­tempts to in­ter­vene in the re­gion. After what ap­pears to be a com­plete break­down in the peace pro­cess between Is­rael and Palestine — far from the grand re­con­cili­ation the State De­part­ment hoped for, the U.S.’s of­fer to broker a cease-fire in an in­creas­ingly bloody Ga­za was re­buffed by Is­rael today — the deal with Ir­an, es­pe­cially, of­fers him a chance to leave his mark on his of­fice.

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