Sherman Reflects on the Iran Nuclear Negotiations

Wendy Sherman, former Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs and chief U.S. negotiator for the Iranian nuclear deal discussed her experience leading the negotiations in a conversation with former Congresswoman Jane Harman at the Aspen Ideas Festivel on Tuesday.

Following UNSC resolution on launching the P5+1 talks with Iran, “it was decided that the negotiations would happen at the political director level. So I just fell into this. Bill Burns had been the Undersecretary [of State for Political Affairs]. He had gone to an initial meeting with Iran, which was a big historic moment when the Americans entered the room with Iran, and Bill became deputy secretary of state, and early on, I said to him, ‘Do you want to keep the Iran file? You know, it’s a big deal.’ He said, ‘It’s all yours!”

Jane Harman: So Wendy the negotiator. Now, you are in the room – I assume this process goes on for a long time – how long, and how do you actually do this?

Sherman: “For those couple of years when Ahmadinejad was president, it was awful. The Iranians spoke in Farsi, we spoke in English – so we spoke through interpreters. When Rouhani won, he announced soon after that he really wanted to engage in these negotiations, he really wanted to move forward and open Iran to the international community in a different way. And let me be really clear here: basically, in Iran there are hardliners and there are hard hard-liners. We all talk about Rouhani as a moderate. He’s a very conservative cleric. So no one should have, you know, some belief that he’s going to all of a sudden open up Iran and it’s going to become a full-fledged democracy. It’s not going to happen. I have a lot of faith in the young people in Iran… But if there’s change, it’s going to be a long time in coming.”

On what role the Russians played: “The Russians, on these issues, are incredibly capable… Their team was quite adapt, quite skilled.”

On coordinating with Israel: “Before every and after every round, I met with, spoke with, or had a secure video conference with Israel, which provided enormous technical assistance to us.”

On why the U.S. didn’t focus on Iran’s behavior: “No deal can carry the weight of everything. This is a Rubik’s Cube that was complicated enough. So to try to pile on all of Iran’s bad behavior would have, I think, been virtually impossible as a negotiation. But beyond that, and I had said this publicly, all of the Gulf states said to me at the beginning of this, do not discuss any regional issues in side rooms. Stay only focused on the nuclear deal because you cannot discuss our future if we are not in the room, which is sensible. And then, as the deal started to look like it might get done, they all said to me, how can you do this deal without solving all the other problems. I understand both. I really do. There was grave concern that Iran was going to get so much money and the IRGC would get lots of more money that they could finance more terrible actions by Hezbollah and Hamas, their proxy. And we said very transparently, IRGC will probably get some more money, but the IRGC was not for this deal and they were not for this deal because they had built up enormous economic power through the black market… and they lost all of the black market… And the most important thing is, as horrible as Iran is, and we need to do everything we can to stop their bad behavior, imagine if they had a nuclear weapon.”

On Israel’s opposition and AIPAC’s campaign against the deal — Harman: Wendy and I were in Israel at a security conference (INSS) right after the deal and she explained the enormous pain, personally, pain for someone who happens to be Jewish dealing with their own community, and I just think maybe you want to talk about that a little bit..

Sherman: “It was very tough and I wanted to go to Israel to this conference to speak and said it was very difficult to have a community that I love and feel part of be so against what I was doing. I knew that the technical professionals in Israel thought we did a good job and that we had improved Israel’s security. And I understood and appreciated that the Prime Minister at a political level had a different view. I never questioned the PM’s right to make that decision… General [Yaakov] Amidror, who was National Security Advisor during a lot of this time, was at this conference and we hugged and kissed and we have moved forward.”

On the Corker-Cardin bill: “Congress had a chance to chop on this deal… It had to take action – action of disapproval – if they wanted to have a say… Congress did not stop the deal.”

“Why didn’t we make it a treaty? The Senate has not approved a treaty for years now. Any treaty. We just don’t do treaties anymore. But even if we did a treaty, treaty agreements are only durable if the deal is good and it serves the interests of all the parties. We have left deals… So treaties aren’t quite frankly a guarantee of success either. These are all, in the end, political agreements.”

“There’s a lesson to be learned here, and the lesson is to use all of our tools in our toolbox simultaneously all at once… The President of the U.S. commissioned and deployed a new penetrator weapon that could penetrate the one secret facility called Fordow, which was an enrichment facility. We used our intelligence and cyber capabilities in ways that the NY Times has reported on. I think they called it Stuxnet – I am not going to speak to it. We used public diplomacy, ways to speak directly to the Iranian people about what we are doing. And, of course, we had sanctions, both bilateral and international sanctions…”

On not shaking hands with the Iranians: “I had a discussion with them about how I grew up in a Jewish community that had a lot of Orthodox Jews and I couldn’t shake their hands either. It was really an odd and interesting discussion.”

On Saudi Arabia, Gulf states’ warming relations with Israel as a result of the deal: “I would urge you all to read an Op-Ed written by Phil Gordon’s in the Washington Post, which argues that if everybody think that suddenly there’s a kumbaya moment between the Gulf States and Israel, think again… I don’t think the Gulf states have any interest in being very public about its relationship with Israel.”

“I’m not surprised that Jared Kushner had a difficult trip to the Middle East. It’s a tough problem.”

On Qatar-Saudi rift: “I think the rift between Qatar and some of the other Gulf states would’ve happened regardless of the Iran deal. Yes, it is about Iran, but it is also about who is in control of the Gulf. Saudi Arabia has always been a punitive leader of the GCC. I think what is going on right now is incredibly dangerous. I’ve always been worried about an Arab-Persian conflict. I thought that could happen for other reasons.”

Jane Harman: “There is some reason to think that because our president views this deal between [the Palestinians] and Israel as a deal of deals that attention will be paid – the neighborhood is now more aligned — I am not saying totally aligned — with Israel than it was, and there is an opportunity — not that it will happen — of what’s called an outside-inside solution.”

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