Kerry’s Broken Leg Complicates Iran Talks as Deadline Looms

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(Bloomberg) –- A cycling accident involving Secretary of State John Kerry could complicate nuclear talks between the U.S. and Iran. The two countries have set a deadline for June 30th to reach an agreement. Bloomberg’s Hans Nichols reports on “Countdown.” (Source: Bloomberg)

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s broken leg, sustained in a bicycling accident, may complicate but not derail efforts to reach a nuclear accord with Iran by a June 30 deadline.

Kerry’s “main focus for the month of June remains squarely on the Iran negotiations” on the “same timetable,” according to Marie Harf, a State Department spokeswoman. The top U.S. diplomat arrived in Boston for treatment Monday night after returning from Geneva.

The accident in eastern France on Sunday, which forced Kerry to cut short a trip to Europe, will limit his travel as the U.S. and other world powers enter a crucial stretch of negotiations on an agreement that would curb Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for an easing of economic sanctions.

Three former State Department officials said Kerry is sure to find ways to keep negotiations on track, even if he’s off his feet for weeks.

“John Kerry is the Energizer Bunny in foreign policy,” said Aaron David Miller, who has advised secretaries of state of both political parties. “Nothing is going to keep this guy down.”

Kerry met with his Iranian counterpart, Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, for about six hours in Geneva on Saturday. Their next meeting was expected to be in about two weeks, which would give Kerry some time to start what could be a long recovery.

Technical experts will hold talks in the meantime, starting in Vienna within a few days. Negotiations are expected to peak as the deadline nears, as was the case when a preliminary deal was made in Lausanne, Switzerland, in April.

Helicopter Evacuation

Kerry, 71, hit a curb at the start of a bike ride “and fell pretty hard,” Harf said. The accident occurred along the roadside near the town of Scionzier in the French Alps. The avid cyclist was transported about 40 kilometers (25 miles) by medical helicopter to University Hospital in Geneva, where his injury was evaluated.

The secretary will be treated at Massachusetts General Hospital by Dennis Burke, the orthopedic surgeon who replaced both of his hips several years ago, State Department spokesman John Kirby said in a statement on Monday.

Burke traveled to Geneva to accompany Kerry on a military C-17 transport plane that’s based in Ramstein, Germany, and staffed with military medical personnel, Kirby said.

“The secretary is stable and never lost consciousness, his injury is not life-threatening, and he is expected to make a full recovery,” Kirby said Sunday.

Limiting Travel

Kerry “continues to be in great spirits and active” and has talked by phone with President Barack Obama and others, Kirby said.

Kerry may be able to work from a hospital bed and from home while recuperating, but his injury could affect the negotiations on Iran by limiting his globe-trotting.

While his injury may prevent an “aggressive travel schedule,” he will “continue to play a critically important role” in the Iran negotiations, White House press secretary Josh Earnest told reporters in Washington on Monday.

Limited travel may be possible “in a matter of weeks,” although precautions would be needed to make it safe, said David Teuscher, president of the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons. Kerry may need to use a walker or crutches for the next six to eight weeks and may not be able to resume a full schedule and walk independently for about three months, said Teuscher, a surgeon based in Beaumont, Texas.

Harf at the State Department said Kerry is “committed to pursuing an aggressive recovery schedule. There are a range of possible recovery trajectories with an injury like this, and it’s, quite frankly, premature to speculate on the specifics of what that recovery will look like.”

Kerry’s Travels

Since taking office in 2013, Kerry has chalked up more than 819,000 miles in visits to 63 countries, according to the State Department’s website.

He was enjoying a rare free morning after his meeting with Zarif at the time of his accident. He fell while riding in the direction of the Col de la Colombiere, a mountain pass used many times in the Tour de France bicycle race.

While the fate of the Iran talks ultimately depends on whether a deal satisfies the interests of both Iran and world powers, Kerry and Zarif have held one-on-one talks at key points to define differences and areas of agreement.

The two men took a walk in January on the streets of Geneva to help reach a framework for a nuclear deal, although the resulting publicity drew a backlash among Iran’s hardliners who accused Zarif of being too friendly toward the U.S.

“Face-to-face diplomacy is crucial,” said Ilan Goldenberg, a former Kerry aide at the State Department and in the Senate. “A lot of these things at the end are about building trust. That comes from spending time together.”

Injury Workarounds

Yet Goldenberg, now director of the Middle East Security Program at the Center for a New American Security, said Kerry will be able to work around his injury and hold meetings as needed.

“They can find a way to make this work,” he said, recalling that Zarif participated in some negotiations for an initial Iran deal while in a wheelchair.

“Secretary Kerry’s injury is bound to have some impact on the negotiations, but I don’t think it will be decisive,” said Nicholas Burns, a former State Department official in the George W. Bush administration who is now at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government.

Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman “will do much of the negotiating anyway,” as she has throughout the talks, while Kerry will be available by phone, Burns said in an e-mailed statement.

While Sherman has announced she’s retiring, she indicated she will stay on through the Iran negotiations.

Considerable Force

Kirby said Kerry broke his right femur, or thigh bone. The longest and strongest in the human body, it usually takes considerable force -- such as the impact of a car crash -- to break, according to the academy.

Kerry had been scheduled to fly to Madrid Sunday. He was also slated to meet with other members of the coalition against the Islamic State militant group on Tuesday in Paris. The secretary plans to participate in the Paris meeting “remotely,” Kirby said.

Kerry’s injury, while unfortunate, could prove helpful to the Obama administration if talks need to be extended beyond the deadline set by negotiators, said Miller, now a vice president at the Wilson Center, a policy research group in Washington.

‘Never Realistic’

“June 30 was probably never a realistic date for conclusion,” he said. “You now have a completely valid explanation, should one be required, as to why June 30 won’t be met.”

Goldenberg, the former Kerry aide, discounted the possibility of the injury becoming a basis for moving back the deadline, even if talks do get extended.

“He would never want that to be the reason,” Goldenberg said of his former boss. “I don’t think he would personally like that.”

A law giving the U.S. Congress authority to review any agreement with Iran sets an incentive to avoid extending the talks much past the June 30 deadline. The measure gives lawmakers 30 days to review an accord before Obama could ease sanctions if the deal is submitted by July 9 and 60 days after that.

(Updates to say Kerry arrived in Boston in second paragraph.)
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