John Kerry's victory lap at Davos could be short-lived

Willie Grace | 1/20/2016, 7:08 a.m.
In a welcome respite from a torrent of Republican criticism over Iran, Syria and other controversial foreign policies, Kerry will ...
Secretary of State John Kerry

John Kerry loves Davos.

In a welcome respite from a torrent of Republican criticism over Iran, Syria and other controversial foreign policies, Kerry will arrive at the World Economic Forum on Wednesday ready to bask in the glow of an international crowd that is more supportive of his diplomacy than are his domestic critics.

He has long traveled to the annual Switzerland gathering, schmoozing with the world's elite and debating weighty global and economic issues as a senator and, now, as secretary of state, representing the popular voice of the United States in a world gone awry.

But this year, Kerry views his visit as a victory lap. He travels to Davos fresh from the implementation of the Iran nuclear deal and the release of five Americans from Iranian custody.

Together, the diplomatic achievements represent two years of painstaking diplomacy by Kerry, during which the United States and Iran have built a relationship that, while still fraught with mistrust, actually functions. His personal relationship with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif has become an important channel that helped facilitate the release within 24 hours of the 10 U.S. sailors who drifted into Iranian waters last week.

Aides say Kerry will be touting a series of diplomatic coups by the Obama administration at the gathering, which kicks off a weeklong multicountry tour through Europe and Asia.

In addition to the nuclear deal, Kerry will also point to the historic restoration of ties with Cuba, reaching a global climate change agreement in Paris and drafting the Trans-Pacific Partnership with 11 Pacific nations.

And in a major address to the Davos forum, he will try to reframe issues that have challenged the Obama administration, including making the case that the U.S.-led strategy against ISIS is showing steady progress, even while he concedes more needs to be done.

"It has been a very good run over the last six months and I think he wants to make sure that people are aware of that," one senior State Department official said.

Receiving the international praise of the nuclear deal, which the vast majority of countries around the world support, will be a pleasant reprieve from the criticism Kerry and the White House faced this weekend.

While Republicans hailed the Americans' release, they blasted the Obama administration as foolish for negotiating a prisoner swap with Iran that they say creates an incentive for other rogue countries to detain innocent Americans to gain concessions from Washington.

Moreover, the implementation of the nuclear deal and the subsequent lifting of economic sanctions against Iran renewed the intense Republican criticism over the accord and threats by the 2016 GOP presidential contenders to rip it up after President Barack Obama leaves office.

But though the Iran deal may represent a diplomatic achievement for Kerry, it will also create some challenges on his world tour. In the Middle East and Asia, he will need to defend that deal to skeptical allies whose support he needs to end the civil war in Syria and defeat ISIS.

Even Davos itself could provide some uncomfortable moments.

Kerry will be meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, one of the most vocal critics of the nuclear deal. The Israeli leader continues to warn that the lifting of sanctions will embolden Iran's leaders "to destabilize and spread terrorism" throughout the Middle East.

That is also a main concern of Gulf leaders, who argue that Iran will use the billions of dollars it is receiving from the lifting of sanctions to continue supporting the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Meanwhile, Iran President Hassan Rouhani plans to address the forum on why, after a decade of isolation, Iran is eager to open a new chapter of economic engagement.

With the nuclear deal finished, Kerry has turned his attention to finding a political solution to end the civil war in Syria. But his hopes that Iran now become a more willing partner have been somewhat dampened because of a widening diplomatic rift between Tehran and Riyadh.

Iran has been a longtime supporter of Assad, while Saudi Arabia has provided the rebel factions fighting Assad with financial assistance and weapons.

While Saudi Arabia and Iran have been involved in proxy wars throughout the Middle East for years, Syria has become the main battlefield for dominance in the Middle East.

After months of prodding, Kerry was able to get the historic rivals to sit at the same table last month for the first time since the war began five years ago to discuss a road map to end the bloody Syrian civil war.

But Riyadh's execution of a prominent Shiite cleric and Iranian recriminations have brought tensions to a new low. And they spiked further when, after a mob attacked the Saudi embassy in Tehran in protest, Saudi Arabia and several of its allies severed diplomatic and some commercial ties with Iran.

The animosity between the long-wary Sunni and Shiite powers diminishes the chances that they will work together to end the Syrian violence in which ISIS has thrived and, U.S. officials have warned, increases the likelihood of more regional instability.

With Sunni states lining up behind Saudi Arabia, U.S. officials have questioned whether they were trying to use the current tensions to scuttle the nuclear deal. With the deal now in effect and the prisoner swap reflecting a new spirit of cooperation, Gulf states could see Syria as their best chance to check what they perceive as growing Iranian influence.

Just last week in London, Kerry, standing next to Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir, insisted that despite Washington's outreach to Iran, the U.S.-Saudi alliance remains a "lynchpin" of U.S. efforts in the Middle East.

When he visits Riyadh this weekend, Kerry must assure nervous Saudi leaders that that statement remains true in the wake of the unprecedented recent cooperation between Washington and Tehran. If he can't persuade Saudi Arabia to stay the course in Syria, even with Washington's new relationship with Tehran, Kerry's victory lap may end in Riyadh.

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