Kerry’s backdoor talks undermine efforts to hold Tehran accountable for its actions
Iranian regime thrives on exploiting divisions
When the US walked away from the Iran nuclear deal in May it was, in president Donald Trump’s words, because it was a defective, one-sided pact that would not succeed in its declared aim of preventing Tehran from acquiring nuclear weapons.
Now it has emerged that since leaving office in January last year, former US secretary of state John Kerry, who drove through the 2015 deal under the Obama administration, has had several back-channel meetings with Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif.
The two men apparently discussed the potential implications of the collapse of the nuclear deal and Mr Kerry, who has neither confirmed nor denied the allegations, advised his former opposite number to simply “wait out” the Trump administration.
Understandably, Mike Pompeo, Mr Trump’s secretary of state, has denounced his predecessor's “unprecedented behaviour” as “beyond inappropriate”.
Undermining your own nation’s policy in unsanctioned talks with one of its adversaries is not simply a grave diplomatic misstep; it flouts every convention that states former officials should uphold and respect state foreign policy and is potentially dangerous and destabilising to the US administration’s attempts to hold Tehran accountable for its behaviour.
There are potential repercussions far beyond the Beltway. Many in this region have long considered the nuclear deal to be flawed. It failed to hobble Iran's uranium enrichment activities or stop it supplying weapons, including ballistic missiles, to its proxies. It should be remembered that the sanctions the US lifted, which have now been reimposed, were intended to punish Iran’s meddling in Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Lebanon, which has not abated. Indeed, it has instead gathered pace since 2015.
When Mr Pompeo presented the Trump administration’s alternative strategy for Iran in May, he listed multiple examples of how Tehran had continued to pursue its disruptive agenda under the protection of the nuclear deal, including equipping Houthi rebels in Yemen with missiles, supplying funding and weapons to the Taliban in Afghanistan and sending thousands of fighters into Syria to prop up the Assad regime.
The US and the rest of the world must present a united face if Tehran’s ambitions are to be checked. As yet, the US has failed to build a consensus behind any alternative to the nuclear deal beyond imposing sanctions, and the longer uncertainty reigns, the more fissures open up ready to be exploited by a willing Iranian regime.
The public falling-out between Mr Pompeo and Mr Kerry, which saw the latter exchanging barbs on Twitter with the US president, not only lays bare the deep schisms over Iran within the American political establishment, but also further diminishes the prospect of re-establishing the united international front that is vital if Iran’s dangerous regional ambitions are to be contained.
Iran thrives on exploiting weak links among its opponents. Tehran, already greatly encouraged by the disunity of the western allies, will have been further emboldened by the unseemly squabbling in Washington and that can only add fuel to the fire of its ambitions elsewhere, which is deeply worrying to this region.