Wendy Sherman recounts Iran nuclear deal negotiations

by Samantha Stern | 10/27/15 9:53pm

Former undersecretary of state for political affairs Wendy Sherman gave a lecture on Tuesday.

Former undersecretary of state for political affairs Wendy Sherman said that when she’s at the negotiating table, “I’m the United States of America, not just Wendy Sherman,” at a talk Tuesday about her critical role as the chief American negotiator in the Iran nuclear deal talks.

Sherman assumed the role as the No. 3 highest ranking official at the State Department in September 2011, and only recently left the government, having reached the agreement curbing Iran’s nuclear program in July of 2015.

Rather than expounding on the terms of the Iran nuclear deal and the various achievements and concessions made by the United States, Sherman spent the majority of her time discussing the behind-the-scenes, everyday interactions she had with her Iranian counterparts.

Sherman recounted the history of the negotiations, which began secretly through a back channel when the United States sent representatives to Muskat, Oman, to meet with the Iranians. The Iranians halted their nuclear program in 1979, but resumed the program after receiving a schematic of an IR-1 centrifuge — required for the enrichment of uranium to a weapons-grade fissile material — from a Pakistani scientist.

In 2003, Iran possessed 164 centrifuges, Sherman said, but by the time the United States began successful negotiations, Iran already had 19,000 centrifuges, 10,000 of which were operational. According to Sherman, the United States was left with two possibilities for stopping the Iranians — peaceful negotiations or military action.

Sherman said destroying facilities would simply render their program inactive until they could rebuild again.

“You can’t get rid of knowledge. You can get rid of facilities, but you can’t get rid of knowledge,” she said.

Sherman was quick-witted and engaging, telling stories of what she called the “very complex human dimension” of the negotiations process. One day, she would be sitting around the table with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, sharing pictures of her grandchildren, and then trust would erode and a disagreement might be sparked the next day, she said.

During the last round of negotiations, Sherman was pent up in a hotel in Vienna for 27 days, during which she did not leave, except for one dinner. She joked that there, she ate a lot of turkey schnitzel, wiener schnitzel and chicken schnitzel. As a result of such intimate and lengthy negotiations, Sherman said she got to know the Iranians and the other European partners quite well.

Indeed, negotiations lasted much longer than expected. As a result, an interim agreement that was supposed to be in place six months ended up lasting a year, she said.

Sherman addressed Congress’ opposition to the deal and the need to appease Iran, Israel and other countries and the United States legislative branch.

Dickey Center director Daniel Benjamin, who was also at the talk, said that on one hand, Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, was saying things that could have torpedoed the entire undertaking, while on the other, some members of Congress were also threatening to prevent the deal from going into effect.

In March 2015, a group of 47 senators, led by Senator Tom Cotton (R-Ark), sent a letter to Iran’s leaders warning them that “anything not approved by Congress is a mere executive agreement” that could be nullified in January 2017, Benjamin explained.

Sherman mused that such dissent was a lot of fun, which drew laughter from the audience. In order to prevent the legislative branch from blocking the international nuclear agreement from becoming law — an attempt that was made in late September — Sherman met one-on-one with congress members, and U.S. President Barack Obama personally made hundreds of phone calls, she said.

Sherman believes the March letter only hurt Cotton’s cause by implying to Democrats that the deal had emerged as a partisan issue and was trying to be killed principally by Republicans. Sherman said she was able to use the letter as evidence with the Iranians that the agreement was going to be a hard sell to Westerners, and that it had to be extremely capable of assuaging the fears of all parties involved.

Other countries, including Israel and the Arab Gulf States, also expressed legitimate concerns about Iranian credibility, Sherman said. She added that she spent many days briefing her Israeli counterparts on all of the United States’ proposals.

“I think the bond between the U.S. and Israel is unbreakable,” she said. “I think that we are absolutely committed to Israel’s security for all of the right reasons. We all know the history. We all understand that this is the only democracy in the Middle East and a place that was created for the safety and protection of a people who at one point, parts of the world wanted to wipe out.”

Additionally, Sherman elaborated on the dynamic process of carrying out negotiations in the modern day. Due to social media outlets like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, decisions can be disseminated in real time. Iranian negotiators sometimes tweeted during the talks, and Khamenei’s public statements had immediate impacts on the negotiations, Sherman said. The press immediately hounded her to respond and react to the Iranians.

“She has the absolutely essential requirement for a good negotiator. She’s tough as nails. She’s incredibly sharp, she’s very good at seeing lots of different angles,” Benjamin said. “She’s tough. She has extraordinary stamina, and certainly in the Iran deal, that was vitally important.”

He likened the role of undersecretary of political affairs to simultaneously playing two or three dozen chess games at one time. Although Sherman receives the most credit for her work on the Iran Deal, Benjamin said it is difficult to think of anything that was not in her ambit.

Questions asked by audience members touched on a series of topics, ranging from the Iran Deal, sanctions and the four prisoners being held by the Iranians to ISIL, also known as the Islamic State, the civil war in Syria and the challenges posed by being a woman in a position of power.

Benjamin hoped that bringing Sherman to campus would allow students to appreciate what a remarkable achievement the Iranian nuclear deal is and get a sense of the complexities involved in the negotiation process.

The lecture also provided an opportunity for students to hear from and interact with an accomplished diplomat and learn about leadership, keeping with the Dickey Center’s mission of instilling in students an understanding of the world’s troubles and a commitment to do something about them, Benjamin said.

Danny Reitsch ’16 said he followed the economic ramifications of the deal closely over the summer, while Jibran Ahmad ’16 expressed a lack of knowledge about the deal and said the event would serve as an opportunity to get an inside perspective on the negotiations.

“I’m curious to see how we interact with any formal government, especially the Iranians, who are not the most diplomatic group. I want to know what types of techniques [Sherman] used [and] how long negotiations took,” Reitsch said.

Peter Griffith ’16 said he hoped to gain a deeper understanding of the negotiations and understand the mechanics behind the deal, especially because he believes the Iran Deal will be debated in the upcoming elections.

Community member Debbie Hall read about Sherman’s lecture in The Valley News. While Hall does not think the deal is perfect, she supports the deal because she thinks its better than inaction.

Sandor Farkas ’17 said that although he finds some aspects of the deal disconcerting, he nevertheless thinks its helpful to hear from those directly accountable for the deal.

“I decided to come today because when someone who played such a key role in determining the future of world politics comes to Dartmouth, you listen to them,” he said.

Farkas said that he could see that she was someone who cared deeply about Americas future, Israel’s future, and the world’s future.

“She may not have convinced me of anything in an overarching sense, but she made me more confident about the future,” he said. “I thought she was an amazing speaker…her story is pretty inspirational and the way she conducted herself as a negotiator and representative of U.S. is exemplary.”

Courtney Miller Tu’17 said Sherman was eloquent, and it was obvious that her knowledge of the subject was expansive based on her ability to answer each question with fluidity and great depth.

“During the whole [negotiation of the] deal, I was an active duty army officer, so it wasn’t up to me to oppose or support [it], but I knew any sort of agreement that would prevent people from going to war would be impactful for my life,” Miller said.

Although Sherman was unable to meet with classes in her time at Dartmouth, she stayed late to answer questions from audience members.

“I was hugely gratified that she could slot us in,” Benjamin said. “Although she’s probably decelerated a bit from the rate at which she was living before, she still has an incredibly busy life, and I think [she has] a lot of pent-up demand for normalcy because she’s really been working insane hours for a very long time.”

Advertise your student group in The Dartmouth for free!