John Kerry did not start the negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program. But nobody has thrown himself more into the talks and nobody's reputation has more riding on their outcome than the American secretary of State currently trying to hammer out a deal in Switzerland.
The former Democratic senator from Massachusetts hoped when he took the helm at the State Department in 2013 that he would make his mark in history by finding the long-elusive formula for bringing Israelis and Palestinians together. That was a mess. Instead, Kerry found himself diverted to the search for a diplomatic way to block Iran from developing nuclear weapons. Already on his way to possibly eclipse Hillary Clinton as the most traveled secretary in history, Kerry has spent a third of this year—33 of the first 92 days of 2015—in those Swiss talks.
Even if he is able to claim success, Kerry—again—may not get the payoff he'd like. Given the complexity of the negotiations, the opposition of Israel's government, and the critics in Congress, the verdict almost certainly will be mixed.
"If these talks succeed, that is going to be his legacy," says Kenneth M. Pollack, a former Iran-Iraq analyst at the Central Intelligence Agency and a senior staffer on President Clinton's National Security Council overseeing policy toward Iraq and Iran. "It would be an historic accord." As controversial as it would be in the United States and Israel and some Sunni Arab states, "everywhere else in the world, this is considered an unmitigated good."
If a deal is reached and Iran's nuclear program is blocked, Pollack added, "I think Kerry will get an enormous amount of credit for pulling it off. He will be in line for a Nobel Peace Prize. "¦ He could go down in history books as being a monumentally important character, like Jimmy Carter with Camp David."
But, Pollack stressed, there is a flip side: "He could go down as Neville Chamberlain at Munich. Both are possible here."
Aaron David Miller, who spent two decades at the State Department working on the Middle East for presidents of both parties, thinks the accolades for Kerry will be restrained despite his strenuous efforts.
"Will it be his ticket into the secretary of State hall of fame? Absolutely not. He'd like to get in, to be like [Henry] Kissinger and [James] Baker. But to do that, I think he'd have to leave another legacy," likely from the broader Middle East peace process, said Miller, who is now vice president of the Wilson Center.
The difficulty for Kerry, he said, is the nature of the Iran talks. "Remember, it is not a peace treaty. This is not a transformation. This is a transaction. This is a business deal," he said. "They want something from us; we want something from them. And it is premised on the notion that if you buy time to avoid a crisis with Iran ... that over time Iran will evolve" and its behavior in the region will change.
That would take time to gauge—too much time to allow facile early assessments of any deal.
Early judgments will also be colored by Iran's trouble-making across the Middle East, from Syria to Iraq to Yemen. "This is not a popular regime. This is not a popular deal. And as a consequence, those who broker the deal are not going to get the kind of halo and kudos that Kissinger got or that Cy Vance and Jimmy Carter got for Camp David," said Miller.
"We tend to personalize these things," said P.J. Crowley, a veteran of President Clinton's NSC and Hillary Clinton's State Department. "It would be a significant accomplishment. But we're going to have to wait to see if we win the game. You are talking about a guy pitching in the seventh inning, and he's doing pretty well. But what matters most is, does the home team win the game?"
The pressure on Kerry has been intense, in part because Tehran is so virulently anti-American and anti-Iraeli and because its influence has been so destructive across the region. It also makes the personal relationship Kerry has struck with Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif more critical. During the Cold War, both China and the Soviet Union were guilty of much worse actions. But the United States had diplomatic relations with Moscow and Beijing, permitting the American president to personally influence the direction of any negotiations. That option is not open today to Kerry.
"This is not a situation where you can up the ante," Crowley told National Journal. "In the Middle East peace process, the secretary of State does a lot of the heavy lifting. But everyone recognizes that if we get to the cusp of an agreement, then the president is the closer. ... But Kerry can't pass this up the chain. For obvious reasons, the president is not going to sit down with the president of Iran and work out the final details."
That ratchets up the pressure on Kerry and helps explain his frantic travel schedule. It took Hillary Clinton four years to break Secretary Madeleine Albright's record for foreign travel. But Kerry is taking aim at Clinton's mark. He has already traveled 746,168 miles to Clinton's 956,733 miles and has spent 326 days overseas compared with Clinton's 401. Because he has focused much of his travel on the Middle East, though, he is unlikely to break Clinton's record for number of countries visited. Clinton went to 112 while Kerry has been to 59.
"If you were to clock success in flight time hours and international meetings, he is clearly succeeding," said Kathleen Hicks, who was deputy Defense undersecretary on global and regional defense policy and strategy in Obama's first term and now is director of the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. She urged caution on the early judgments of any Iran deal.
"There are so many factors swirling around these talks—the politics in Washington, the politics in Tehran, the allies, Russia—that it will be hard, even if it wildly succeeds, to say the success is Kerry's. Or, if it fails, to pin it on him."
She singled out the relationship Kerry has forged with Zarif as one of the biggest pluses of the talks. "This isn't about trust. It's about establishing a working relationship," she said, stressing the value of opening a channel to an adversary "to be able to discuss issues and prevent any kind of miscalculation."
Pollack also noted a benefit of Kerry's hard work that will pay off even if the talks collapse, stating that it will be important how the two sides are positioned if there is a failure.
"If they break down and the U.S. is seen as the guilty party, the expectation is that the sanctions will break down very quickly, because everyone will blame the Americans and will say the Iranians were trying to be reasonable and you wouldn't take yes for an answer so why should we continue to punish the Iranians," said Pollack. "But you have to give John Kerry credit that no one has done more to make sure that the United States is not seen as the guilty party if the talks fall apart. He has gone the extra mile. He has done everything. ... If the talks fall apart, it is going to be extremely difficult for the Iranians to blame the United States."
That isn't the legacy Kerry is seeking. But it may be the best to be had if the talks don't succeed.