Sees ‘tough’ Iran talks ahead, with grounds for hope, but risk of failure
Secretary of State John F. Kerry, on his first full day home after surgery on his broken femur, said he is eager to return to one of the biggest diplomatic challenges facing the Obama administration: negotiating a nuclear arms deal with Iran.
In an exclusive interview with the Globe — the first he’s conducted since his bike accident in France two weeks ago caused him to cut short a European trip — Kerry sat in the living room of his Beacon Hill home, physically worn from his stay at Massachusetts General Hospital but emotionally upbeat.
Kerry said he was determined to get back into the fray of diplomacy and not allow his bicycling mishap in the French Alps — which he called a fluke accident at a very low speed — to disrupt his leadership of American foreign policy.
“We’re working on an unbelievable number of things,” he said, between sipping Gatorade and petting his panting dog, Ben. “We have a lot going on. A lot going on.”
He was already at it earlier Saturday, meeting with Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, who is assisting in the Iran talks. And, crutches at hand, he may leave for Washington this week to prepare for a series of upcoming meetings with the Chinese, and is expected to travel to Europe toward the end of the month for what he hopes are the final round of negotiations with Iran. The doctor who performed the June 2 surgery said on Friday that it would take several months of physical therapy before Kerry has fully recovered.
The disarmament negotiations with Iran have been one of the thorniest and highest-profile undertakings of Kerry’s career, and in many ways have featured two of his well-known traits — vast stamina and a frenetic pace. The talks are nearing their end phase, with critics aplenty in Washington and multiple hurdles remaining, including disagreements over how and when sanctions should be lifted in exchange for Iran agreeing to restrict its nuclear capabilities.
“You know, some things have gotten hard. Some things are progressing,” he said when asked whether negotiations had stalled. “It’s hard. It’s a hard negotiation. We haven’t talked to each other in 35 years. There’s huge suspicion. And huge stakes.”
When asked whether he was optimistic, he said, “I’ve never said optimistic. I’ve always said hopeful. I’m hopeful.
“Could we get an agreement? For sure,” he continued. “Could it fail? Yes.”
“It’s a hard negotiation. We haven’t talked to each other in 35 years,” John Kerry said of a pending nuclear deal with Iran.
The delicate negotiations were further complicated two weeks ago when a curb got in Kerry’s way.
The nation’s chief diplomat had a few free hours and was preparing to set out on a 90-minute bicycle ride along a grueling uphill route that has been used in the Tour de France. He had heard that morning that Vice President Joe Biden’s son Beau had died of brain cancer, so Kerry was making final edits on his message of condolence, using the roof of a nearby car as a brace, before giving it to an aide to put out the statement.
Then, he hopped on his bike and began to ride. He got distracted by motorcycles that sped off ahead of him.
“I’m just navigating my way at about 2 miles an hour . . . and this curb appears out of nowhere while I’m focused on the motorcycle,” Kerry said. “And the bike just freezes.”
He toppled over, the full force of his fall coming on his thigh and breaking his right femur near one of his two artificial hips. After initial treatment in Switzerland, he flew back a day later to Boston, where he was treated by Dr. Dennis Burke, who previously performed replacement surgery on both of Kerry’s hips.
The accident put Kerry in a hospital bed at a time when he was supposed to be traveling. The man who has logged nearly 820,000 miles going to 63 countries spent more time in one place these past two weeks than he has almost his entire tenure as secretary of state.
After being on narcotics for the first few days, he told his doctors in no uncertain terms that he didn’t like the effects they were having on him.
“All I’m taking is Tylenol,” he said on Saturday. “After I got two or three days in, I said, ‘You’ve got to stop this crap.’ ’’
Kerry said he was determined to keep working from the hospital. He had several secure phone lines set up in his hospital room at MGH, ones that he used to call the president, and hold strategy sessions with the negotiating team in Vienna. He called foreign ministers, and he exchanged e-mails with his Iranian counterpart, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif. He worked on several speeches, and he began sketching out possible new approaches for dealing with the ongoing turmoil in Syria, where the Islamic State group is starting to take over and expand its reach in the Middle East.
“Syria remains too much of a sieve for the attraction of foreign fighters,” Kerry said. “You need ground troops. It’s not going to be American, so the question is whose are they going to be, and what will America’s role be in helping that?”
But much of the immediate focus is on Iran. If a deal is reached, it could provide momentum for other areas of cooperation in the Middle East. Kerry said he is hopeful an agreement can be attained, but was careful not to express optimism in the face of such a difficult task.
Negotiators announced on April 2 that they had agreed on the broad framework for a final deal, with Iran willing to limit its nuclear stockpile and enrichment capacity. In return, the United States and European Union would lift economic sanctions.
But the details are still being worked out, and there are several unresolved issues. Iran wants the sanctions to be released almost as soon as the deal is implemented, for example, while Western negotiators want more time to prove Iran is abiding by the agreement.
Western officials have also pushed for inspectors to have extensive access — including on military bases — to determine that nuclear activities are being curtailed, while Tehran is pushing back and wants military sites to be off-limits.
Kerry said that Iran was “looking to put an angle on some of those things that was not, in our judgment, understood or part of the deal,” but he declined to elaborate.
The United States has set a deadline of June 30 for the talks with Iran to be completed. Kerry said if progress is made, he would be willing to go over the deadline by days but not weeks. “If you don’t get this done on the schedule, then mischief-makers step in everywhere,” Kerry said. “You have plenty of folks in Iran who would love to not see the deal, hard-liners. . . . You have people here in the United States who don’t want the deal.”
If a deal is reached, Congress will have at least 30 days to review the agreement before President Obama can begin lifting sanctions on Iran. Congress could disapprove of the deal and try to prevent Obama from lifting the sanctions, but it would need a two-thirds majority to override an expected presidential veto.
“I know sometimes people lob political grenade suggesting there’s not a strategy and this and that,” Kerry said. “I can’t think of a time in history where America’s leadership has been more critical to as many different issues simultaneously as right now.”
He also defended the Obama administration’s strategy in Iraq.
“You know, Baghdad would have been under siege if the United States hadn’t intervened,” Kerry said. “The president decided to use air power and then train people. Now we are reclaiming territory. there will be, hopefully progress. It’s a tough slog.”
Kerry is doing physical therapy, and trying to put more weight on his leg. And eventually, he said, he will bike again.
“Yeah, absolutely. Are you kidding?” he said. “I’m just going to make sure I never take my eye — I’m not going to look at the motorcycle instead of what’s right in front of me.”