WASHINGTON — Secretary of State John Kerry is facing increasingly heated and at times personal criticism from his former Senate colleagues as he prepares to head to Capitol Hill this week to begin the difficult task of selling the Obama administration’s nuclear pact with Iran to skeptical lawmakers.
Some of the strongest attacks on Kerry’s strategy for curbing Iran’s nuclear ambitions have come from Senator John McCain of Arizona, a Republican who has often been a personal friend — and sometimes an ally — of Kerry’s because of their shared experience as Vietnam veterans.
Like a troubled sibling rivalry, however, their relationship has alternated from displays of mutual admiration to the occasional political attacks. It recently struck a low point, when McCain called Kerry “delusional” and suggested that Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei of Iran was more trustworthy than the chief diplomat of the United States.
“We’ve known each other for many, many years,” McCain said in a brief interview on Tuesday, after calling the Iran deal — and Kerry’s shepherding of it — “a disaster.” “But when he has no clothes — you know, when the emperor has no clothes, I point it out. I told him the Palestinian-Israeli thing would fail. I told him the Syria thing would fail. We have disagreements.
“We have what you might call,” he said, pausing, “an understanding that, many times, because of our different philosophies, we will have strong disagreements.”
Kerry last week completed a marathon negotiation in Vienna, announcing that the United States and five other world powers had agreed on a landmark deal with Iran. The accord would force Iran to agree to degrade its nuclear program and allow for additional inspections, in exchange for the lifting of economic sanctions.
Congress has 60 days to review the deal before it begins to go into effect. But given a veto threat from President Obama, opponents will need to amass at least a two-thirds majority. Several key Democrats have yet to back the deal, although on Tuesday, Senator Dick Durbin emphatically endorsed it in a Senate floor speech.
Both sides are gearing up for a battle, with opponents hoping to use the August congressional recess to pick apart the deal and derail it in the same way they nearly did with Obama’s health care law six years ago.
Senator Lindsey Graham on Monday launched a “No Nukes for Iran” tour that he plans to take around the country over the next two months as he runs for the Republican presidential nomination. The American Israel Public Affairs Committee is supporting a group called Citizens for a Nuclear Free Iran that is planning to run up to $40 million worth of TV ads against the deal.
The White House on Tuesday announced it was creating @TheIranDeal, a new Twitter handle, to defend the agreement on social media. Kerry — along with Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz and Treasury Secretary Jack Lew — is planning to testify on Thursday before the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, the same committee he chaired before becoming secretary of state.
Senator Bob Corker, the Tennessee Republican who now chairs the committee, said on Tuesday that Kerry has seemed “very defensive” in recent interviews, in contrast to Moniz.
Corker has often offered more measured critiques of the Iran pact than some of his colleagues, but Tuesday he said the deal Kerry struck seemed to accede to all of Iran’s demands.
“I’m still struck by the fact that less than two years ago you had a rogue nation with a boot on its neck, whose program we were going to dismantle,” he said. “How in the world could we have degraded our goals so rapidly in such a short amount of time?”
In a further preview of the political rhetoric Kerry faces on Capitol Hill, Senator Ted Cruz — another critic running for president — on Tuesday told a group of reporters that “millions of Americans will be murdered by radical, theocratic zealots.”
After saying the deal could eventually mean Iran launches a nuclear weapon from a ship in the Atlantic Ocean, the Texas Republican lambasted Kerry.
“John Kerry has been substantively wrong on virtually every national security issue to affect this country over the last three decades,” Cruz said. “One can almost check to see John Kerry’s position and know that the correct answer is the opposite.”
The relationship between Kerry and McCain dates back more than three decades, before either was known as national lawmakers.
As a freshman House member, McCain traveled to Massachusetts to campaign for Ray Shamie, Kerry’s opponent in 1984, denouncing Kerry for tossing his medals in 1971.
But in 1991, they were in a cramped military jet on a fact-finding mission in the Middle East and small talk began to turn into a deeper discussion of Vietnam, which had defined both of their lives. They worked closely together to normalize relations with Vietnam, with Kerry occasionally reaching over and putting his arm on McCain’s arm to calm him down when he grew heated during intense hearings.
“Once you bond over Vietnam, what else matters?” said Tom Vallely, a Kerry confidant and director of the Vietnam Program at Harvard’s Kennedy School. “There was a time when Kerry-McCain was one word: Kerry-McCain. It was part of the jargon.”
When a George W. Bush surrogate criticized McCain on veterans’ issues in 2000, Kerry jumped to McCain’s defense. When Kerry came under attacks, sponsored by the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, during his 2004 campaign, McCain similarly defended Kerry.
And over the weekend, after Donald Trump said McCain was not a hero, Kerry quickly sent out a statement calling the former prisoner of war in Vietnam “a hero, a man of grit and guts and character personified.”
Just after calling Kerry’s work “a disaster” on Tuesday, McCain said he appreciated Kerry’s comments and planned to soon write or call him with thanks.
Former Democratic senator Chris Dodd, who said he talked with Kerry in recent days, said that the attacks bother Kerry, particularly the ones that come from McCain.
“John Kerry has reached out to John over the years, and really made an effort in that relationship,” Dodd said. “My thought would be . . . give some space. Let him make his case. Sitting there and undercutting people at the knees, it’s not a Senate I remember.”
The rhetoric will probably be heated over the coming weeks between Kerry and McCain, but longtime observers of both men say they doubt it will cause irreparable harm to the relationship between two men who know each other well.
“Secretary Kerry has a harder time than Senator McCain in some ways,” said former senator Bob Kerrey. “Because he has to remain diplomatic.”