As Secretary, Kerry Likely to Stress Diplomacy With Iran

Democratic senator John Kerry of Massachusetts, July 13, 2010

Democratic senator John Kerry of Massachusetts, July 13, 2010 (Center for American Progress Action Fund)

Early next year, Massachusetts senator John Kerry is likely to be appointed to the job that many officials in Washington DC believe that he always wanted: that of secretary of state.

When President Barack Obama announced last week that Kerry was his pick to replace Hillary Clinton, who previously said that she would serve only a single term in the job, neither Democrats nor Republicans were at all surprised. Even before the nomination was made, Senator John McCain jokingly referred to his colleague as “Mr Secretary.” The implication being that if nominated, Kerry will likely sail through the Senate confirmation process without major hiccups.

Kerry’s foreign policy views are nevertheless at odds with those of many conservatives in the legislature. Like most Democrats, he has been a vocal proponent of engaging with America’s enemies and working in the United Nations as a constructive member state. As a presidential candidate against George W. Bush in 2004, his repeated references to the United Nations got him into some trouble with the electorate, which largely regards the multilateral body as superfluous at best, but as a potential secretary of state, that very obsession with multilateralism and coalition building should be quite useful.

Although it is not uncommon for Kerry to thrust himself into the center of every major foreign policy debate, he has taken a lead on the issue of Iran’s nuclear enrichment program over the past decade of his career. As both a member and chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee for the last three years, he has worked exceedingly hard with the Obama Administration and his fellow legislators to promote diplomatic discussions with the Iranians, even as that option steadily deteriorates with every passing spin of a centrifuge. His efforts have not always been successful but they have given President Obama some measure of support for the option on Capitol Hill.

Kerry’s calls for direct, bilateral engagement with the Islamic republic is controversial for dozens of senators and congressmen who would rather increase the economic pressure on Iran in an attempt to dissuade it from pursuing a nuclear weapons capacity. Bashing Iran and passing sanctions resolutions on the floor of the House and Senate is an easy way for members of Congress to boost their popular support and gain recognition from their colleagues.

However, as Kerry sees it, using only coercion has rarely pushed the Iranians to compromise. The Democrat has been consistent in his approach: reaching out to the Iranians from a position of strength is the only way that they will feel comfortable to make a grand bargain.

Kerry has made that opinion known publicly in a number of ways, either on the Senate floor, through television interviews and in opinion articles in the nation’s biggest newspapers. While his arguments are hardly popular with Republicans and some Democrats, some of whom consider talking with the Iranians at all naive and dangerous, it’s at least kept the idea of diplomacy alive in Washington.

More importantly, by stressing diplomacy as the best option, Kerry is laying the groundwork for an agreement in the future. The Iranians, after all, are much more likely to speak with an American who talks about bridging differences than one who discusses bombing Tehran’s nuclear facilities as if it were inevitable.

As President Obama’s second term progresses, there will very likely come a chance for the administration to launch one more round of substantive talks with the Iranians in order to put the nuclear issue to rest. With John Kerry, the president has a man who believes in diplomacy as a policy that can work if followed through.

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