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Politics

How John Kerry opened a secret channel to Iran

Quiet diplomacy helped lead to deal on Tehran’s nuclear program

Secretary of State John Kerry with Iran’s Mohammad Javad Zarif.

CAROLYN KASTER/ASSOCIATED PRESS/POOL

Secretary of State John Kerry with Iran’s Mohammad Javad Zarif.

WASHINGTON — It was early December 2011 and the US Senate was poised to hold a crucial vote on the nomination of Richard Cordray to head President Obama’s controversial new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. But John Kerry, the senior senator from Massachusetts, was nowhere to be found.

His office was uncharacteristically mum about his whereabouts, saying only that he was not in Washington. “Does anybody know why Kerry did not vote on Cordray’s nomination?” asked a Democratic blogger, puzzled that Kerry would miss casting a vote for a former campaign worker.

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It turns out Kerry was on a secret trip to Oman — a trip with an importance that can be appreciated fully only now, following the historic nuclear agreement reached with Iran over the weekend.

Kerry, then chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, was sequestered in an ornate palace in Muscat, the Omani capital. There, in a delicate meeting with Sultan Qaboos bin Said al Said, the ruler of the desert kingdom who overthrew his father in 1970, Kerry was trying to open a secret dialogue between the United States and Iran.

To break the ice, Kerry, who had arrived on a commercial flight in the middle of night, gave the sultan an antique book about Frederick Law Olmsted, the famed 19th-century Boston landscape designer.

“Kerry had a simple message,” recalled an aide with direct knowledge of the overture, which was coordinated with the White House and State Department. “The United States was interested in a quiet dialogue on the nuclear issue [with Iran], one that would be out of the way. There was no trust to start, only issues in need of discussion to see if there was an understanding that could be created.”

The trip — aimed at ending Iran’s nuclear program — was undertaken with the blessing of the Obama administration. The overture proved to be the beginning of a relationship that Kerry has now relied on as secretary of state and that aides credit with helping the United States, Russia, France, Britain, Germany, and China reach the agreement with Iran. Oman has become a vital link in communication between the US and Iranian leaders.

Under terms of the accord, Iran pledges to temporarily halt its enrichment of uranium in exchange for the lifting of $7 billion worth of international economic sanctions. Officials hope to use it as a steppingstone to a longer-term pact to limit Iran’s nuclear activity to the generation of energy, and nothing more.

Kerry returned to Muscat in May of this year to express his continued interest in using the so-called “Omani channel” to see if the new Iranian government was open to cooperation.

The United States has not had diplomatic relation with Iran since 1979 and the nation is designated a state sponsor of terrorism by the State Department.

Kerry’s behind-the-scenes diplomatic legwork, which led to follow-up meetings in Muscat in 2012 between State Department diplomats and their Iranian counterparts, has not been publicly outlined before. It was discussed by Kerry aides under the agreement they not be identified by name given the continued sensitivity of the ongoing discussions. Kerry was not available for an interview, State Department officials said.

The painstaking effort to establish a rapport so that Kerry in recent weeks could talk directly by phone to Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, provides new insight into the level of effort to try to reach a breakthrough on Iran’s nuclear program.

The lengthy, careful process also illustrates the sort of patient work that remains for Kerry and his counterparts in foreign capitals as they seek to persuade the Iranians to agree to a more encompassing deal that ends Iran’s nuclear weapons program once and for all.

While the interim agreement is being heralded by the Obama Administration as a major step, there is deep skepticism, particularly in Israel, which believes the deal could encourage the Iranian regime to covertly develop a nuclear arsenal.

Some of the fiercest critics of the new agreement are among the ranks of Kerry’s former colleagues in Congress, including Democrats and Republicans, who believe that allowing the Iranians to undertake “low enrichment” not suitable for a bomb — as the six-month agreement stipulates — sets a dangerous precedent.

On Monday, Senate majority leader Harry Reid, a Democrat of Nevada, repeated in an interview with National Public Radio that he is considering taking up a bipartisan proposal to levy new sanctions against Iran as a way to keep up the pressure on the regime to reach a final deal. Support for such a step is also building in the GOP-controlled House of Representatives.

“The stakes are too high to trust a regime that has proven it cannot be trusted,” Representative Vern Buchanan, a Florida Republican, said Monday, calling the deal reached in Geneva “dangerously reckless.”

“The only reason Iran came to the bargaining table in the first place is because the sanctions are working,” he added. “Now is the time to tighten the economic noose — not loosen it — if we want to end their nuclear program once and for all.”

Some fear, however, that such a move could backfire by scuttling the diplomatic progress that has been made with the Iranian regime, which despite its recent public openness to a deal remains unpredictable.

Others believe that what has been achieved is a positive step.

“Having no deal is very dangerous from the nuclear perspective,” said Natan Sachs, a fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, because it would allow Iran to continue its uranium enrichment unchecked.

And Kerry, he said, deserves a lot of the credit.

“They managed to keep the back channel secret,” Sachs said. “He has his faults but what you can take away is his tenacity in pursuing his goals. What has been achieved so far is in no small part due to that tenacity and his stature.”

But the real test, Sachs concluded, “will be a permanent deal that verifies that Iran is not building nuclear weapons. That will be something the United States has been looking to achieve for a very long time.”

Bryan Bender can be reached at bender@globe.com.

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