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John Kerry: Risk Ready And Looking For A Legacy


Secretary of State John Kerry will have to work hard to allay concerns about the Iran deal, concerns from U.S. allies, including Saudi Arabia and Israel. And as Melissa just mentioned, the White House faces criticism from some in Congress. Kerry will need to convince senators not to impose additional sanctions on Iran so that negotiators can come up with a comprehensive deal over the next six months. As NPR's Michele Kelemen reports, Kerry seems to be well positioned to take on the challenges.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: With another all-nighter in Geneva to seal the deal with Iran, Secretary Kerry has earned this nickname.

AARON DAVID MILLER: He's proven himself and within a year to be the Energizer bunny of American foreign policy. He's everywhere.

KELEMEN: That's Aaron David Miller, who advised both Democratic and Republican secretaries of state in the past. The Wilson Center scholar says Kerry seems to have supreme self-confidence in his negotiating skills and a bit more room to maneuver in a second term Obama administration.

MILLER: You have a guy who believes in diplomacy, a guy who is driven, a guy who the president has allowed to work and he's given him some running room and, finally, a secretary of state who is not risk-averse.

KELEMEN: The 69-year-old Kerry, who lost his presidential bid in 2004, has already made clear he's not running again for political office, so he seems to be looking for legacy and he's risk-ready and that's new, says Vali Nasr, dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.

VALI NASR: He has not been afraid of criticism and he has not been afraid of making a mistake. And I think that has been refreshing.

KELEMEN: But everyone is impressed with the way he dives into issues. Danielle Pletka of the American Enterprise Institute says Kerry came away with a terrible deal on Iran.

DANIELLE PLETKA: The United States appeared to want this deal more than the Iranians did, and Kerry, perhaps because it's so long since he was in high school, has not learned the lessons of high school, which is that you really shouldn't want it more than the other side.

KELEMEN: Pletka, who was a long time staffer on the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, thinks this is personal for Kerry.

PLETKA: I admire Secretary Kerry's persistence and his ambition as well. The problem is that his desire to achieve something at the twilight of his career is the enemy of prudent negotiations.

KELEMEN: But Secretary Kerry presents himself as a pragmatic negotiator and described the talks with Iran this way in an interview on ABC's "This Week."


KELEMEN: He's pursued a more forward-leaning diplomatic approach throughout the region on Syria, on Afghanistan, and on the Arab-Israeli issue. And Vali Nasr says the secretary grabbed his chance with Iran.

NASR: Even if people criticize this particular deal for a variety of reasons or doubt that it will have legs past six months, they cannot deny the fact that Kerry has proven the case for diplomacy.

KELEMEN: But the Iran diplomacy could make one of Kerry's other priorities even more difficult, says Miller of the Wilson Center.

MILLER: So there's a sort of a paradox: Kerry succeeds in one area, with respect to Iran, and he makes his work much more difficult with regard to the Palestinians. Because the prime minister of Israel is feeling angry, aggrieved, to some degree betrayed, I suspect, by this administration. And he's going to be, I suspect, very withholding and very reluctant to make big decisions on the Palestinian issue until the Iranian file is much more certain.

KELEMEN: Miller says everything Kerry has been doing is a work in progress, so it's hard to judge yet whether this Energizer bunny - as he calls him - can deliver. But he gives him credit for getting into the middle of the mix on some of the toughest issues in the Middle East.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.

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