John Kerry, the U.S. secretary of state, is a thoughtful, honest man. He’s remarkably adept at seeing conflicts and issues from the perspectives of other people. That makes him a good person and, in many ways, a good diplomat. But it made him a clumsy presidential candidate, prone to expressing arguments on both sides of every issue. It also makes him an awkward spokesman for his country.
In the two weeks since Kerry concluded the nuclear arms deal with Iran, he has given at least 18 interviews about the deal, plus a long press conference, four hours of Senate testimony, and an hourlong discussion at the Council on Foreign Relations. He has strong talking points, and he makes a persuasive case for the deal. But Kerry has never been capable of staying on message. The more he talks, the more he reveals, and much of what he reveals isn’t helpful. Here’s what we’ve learned about what happened backstage—and what Kerry personally believes—from his 20-something public appearances.
1. Iran had already decided not to pursue a bomb. Whether or not this is true, Kerry seems to believe it. On the one hand, he told the Voice of America that the deal had to be cut and the necessary compromises had to be made now, in order to stop Iran from getting a bomb. If the P5+1 (the six countries negotiating with Iran—the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, plus Germany) had broadened the talks to include other issues, he argued, “We would have been negotiating for 10 years ... and we didn’t have that kind of time because of the nuclear issue and where the progress was.” But in other remarks, Kerry has undercut that claim. He told the BBC that “the Ayatollah has decided they’re not going to have [a bomb] anyway.” Kerry also told the Senate:
The supreme leader’s quote is in this document that Iran will never go after a nuclear weapon. And the Iranians happily put that in. ... He believes he stopped them because he issued a fatwa, and he has declared the policy of their country is not to do it. So he is, as a matter of sovereignty and pride, making a true statement. He doesn’t believe the Americans stopped them. He said they didn’t want to get one in the first place.
If Kerry really believes that, then he traded away sanctions for a concession that had already been made.
2. Iran is right that we shoehorned the conventional arms embargo into the nuclear deal. Kerry told the CFR audience that our then–United Nations ambassador, Susan Rice, “slipped the arms embargo thing in at the very last minute” when the United Nations was adopting a resolution against Iran’s nuclear program. In the Senate hearing, Kerry explained that as a result, Iran “felt it was being rammed at them in the context of a nuclear agreement, and it had no business being part of a nuclear agreement.” Kerry says the United States and its allies scored a big win by continuing the embargo over Iran’s objections. But he also seems to admit it was a dirty win.
3. Iran has more will and stamina than we do. In many interviews, Kerry portrays the P5+1 as a weak-willed coalition that was about to splinter if the deal hadn’t been signed. He told the CFR audience:
If China and Russia start to do business with [Iran] because they say, “Well, the hell with the rest of these guys—you guys cut a deal, you’re not living by the deal, so we’re not bound—they’re going to do business. By the way, the French foreign minister is going in the next couple of days. The French commerce minister has already been there for a few days. The Germans are going in the next few days. There’s going to be a rush to do that.
By contrast, in the Senate hearing, Kerry depicted Iran as indomitable:
They’re not going to be sanctioned into submission. We’ve seen that. They have what is called their resistance economy. There are limits to what our friends and allies are able and willing to do. You know the challenge we’ve had in just bringing people along on Ukraine. Bringing people along, particularly the Russians and the Chinese, over a long period of time is going to be very, very difficult. There’s sort of a half-life, if you will, to the capacity to keep the sanctions pressure in place.
4. We have no good military option. Last Friday, NBC’s Matt Lauer asked Kerry what would happen if Israel launched a military attack on Iran’s nuclear program. Kerry replied:
I presume Iran would then have a reason to say, “Well, this is why we need a bomb.” And what Iran will decide to do is dig deeper, because Israel does not have the ability, nor do we, to stop—unless we went to all-out war and literally annihilated Iran, which I don’t hear people talking about. So if you proceed along a normal, reasonable military operation, you’re talking about rolling their program back for two to three years. Then what do you do?
That’s a straight-up confession of impotence. Which makes it pretty hard to threaten Iran in the event of noncompliance.
5. Here are our nuclear detection methods. Kerry has hastened to assure senators that we can detect forbidden nuclear activity at inspection sites, even if Iran stalls for the 24 days allowed under the agreement. But the assurances often veer into too much detail. In his CFR appearance, Kerry discussed the “environmental swabs” that caught Iran’s nuclear activity in 2003. And on Friday, he told Lauer: “The Department of Energy has done tests. They’ve had people sandblast, paint over, concrete, do everything to any kind of nuclear material. You can’t get rid of it.” I’m glad to hear that. But do we really need to spell out, for potential cheaters, the precise extent of our tests?
6. We didn’t need the breakout time we demanded. A major boast in Kerry’s media tour is that the deal extended Iran’s breakout time—the time Iran would need to produce a nuclear weapon, or at least enough fuel for a weapon—from two months to a year. But during his CFR appearance, Kerry blurted out: “Frankly, two months is more than we need.” If that’s true—and if Iran wasn’t serious about getting closer—why the haste to cut the deal?
7. We raised the issue of American captives. In a July 15 press conference, President Obama was asked about Americans who are being held captive in Iran. He said it would have been dangerous to entangle these people in the nuclear talks: “If the question is why we did not tie the negotiations to their release, think about the logic that that creates. Suddenly Iran realizes, you know what, maybe we can get additional concessions out of the Americans by holding these individuals.” But two days later, Kerry declared on MSNBC that “there was not a meeting that took place—not one meeting that took place—believe me, that’s not an exaggeration—where we did not raise the issue of our American citizens being held.”
8. Russia wasn’t nearly as difficult as we’ve pretended. One of Kerry’s talking points is that we had to make compromises because Russia and China were tugging the other way. But when Sen. John Barrasso, Republican of Wyoming, alleged in last week’s hearing that “Russia and Iran teamed up” in the talks, Kerry shot him down. “Actually, the Iranians were furious at the Russians on any number of accounts,” said Kerry. “The Russians, they felt, were not cooperative with them and didn’t help them.” If that’s true, why all the compromises?
9. We timed this to protect the deal from a Republican president. Several Republicans have threatened to scrap the deal if they capture the White House next year. Kerry is betting that they won’t. In his July 14 news conference, he explained:
I really believe deeply that if Iran fully implements, with two years already under Iran’s belt, during which time Iran’s program has effectively been frozen—and they have begun to show people that they’re not able or ready to make a bomb ... I am convinced that whoever is our next president will see the wisdom of this agreement, and they will leave it in place.
In other words, Kerry and Obama have calculated that by cutting the deal now, they’re giving Iran enough time to lock in a status quo the GOP will be afraid to overturn.
10. We don’t care whether Congress votes against the deal. On Face the Nation, Slate’s John Dickerson asked Kerry, “If you don’t get a majority in Congress to support this deal, doesn’t that undermine the deal?” Kerry answered: “No, not in the least. The Congress—they don’t care over there whether it’s majority or a minority, or whatever it is, as long as the deal is implemented. And that’s what we care about, that this deal be implemented.”
That’s Kerry. He’ll tell you truth as he sees it—or as somebody else sees it—without necessarily pausing to think through the consequences. I wish more politicians were as candid and circumspect as he is. He’d make a fine friend, dinner guest, or essayist. But as secretary of state, selling and explaining an arms control deal? He might be better off saying a bit less.