An Interview with Wendy Sherman

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Wendy Sherman served as the Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs in the President Obama Administration. In that capacity, she was the lead U.S. negotiator on the Iran nuclear deal. DPR’s Alison Huang sat down with her.

DPR: Republican presidential candidates like Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz have openly stated they would break the Iranian deal their first day in office. If one of them was sitting here right now, what would you emphasize to them?

WS: This deal is not about trust. It’s about monitoring verification. If Iran complies with the deal and their program is verified to be exclusively peaceful, I think over time people, who may be skeptical now, will see the merits. I understand everybody’s skepticism; Iran does many nefarious things in the world. Of course, they were trying to at one point pursue getting a nuclear weapon, so I understand the skepticism. The proof is whether in fact we continue to have a verifiable exclusively peaceful nuclear Iran. Whoever is the next president, that’s what I think they’ll have to judge.

DPR: One of the more contested parts of the deal is the concession of a limited nuclear plan to Iran. What was the process required to work this part into the deal? Considering all the doubts placed on it, how do you foresee this element materializing as the implementation plays out?

WS: We were negotiating this deal for two years, and even before that, when Ahmadinejad was the president of Iran, we had two years of negotiations that went nowhere. These negotiations, which ended up with first the Joint Plan of Action and then the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, required a two-year process. So yes, there was a lot of hammering out. There were a lot of details to go through, and in the end Iran was allowed to have a limited enrichment program. Now the reason for that is because Iran knew how to do what it knew how to do. Even if we bombed away their program, they could recreate it; they had the knowledge. They would likely then recreate it underground and covertly, so that wasn’t a much better option. Of course, we all would have liked to have seen Iran get rid of their nuclear program completely; no question about it. That just wasn’t an available option to get a deal, and I know that some people argued, “If you had just been tougher. They needed this deal more than we did.” Well, they did need it very badly which is why we ended up with only 5,000 centrifuges, why we ended up with only 3.67% enriched uranium, why we ended up with only a 300 kilogram stockpile. All of those things would ensure that Iran wouldn’t be able to produce a nuclear weapon. This is all in conjunction with a verification-monitoring regime that is unlike any that has existed in the world; it is incredibly intrusive. We will see whether in fact Iran complies. Again, this deal is not about trust; it’s about intense monitoring and verification.

DPR: How do you see the verification and monitoring process playing out in it’s early stages?

WS: The reason why the agreement was so long is because all of the details outlining this process and hammering them out and including them in the negotiation document of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. Then the IAEA operationalized them all; we just had Implementation Day in January when the IAEA verified that Iran had taken all the initial steps that it was required to do: reducing the stockpile, reducing the number of centrifuges, getting down to 3.67%, putting all the 24/7 details in place, electronic seals, video, on and on and on. All of those details have been agreed upon; they are all in place. The IAEA will now be periodically reporting to the Board of Governors of the IAEA and to the Joint Commission of the Joint Comprehension Plan of Action, the P5 plus one plus the EU plus Iran, whether in fact they’re complying.

DPR: What message do you think this deal sent in regards to our stance on Iran’s poor human rights track record? Do you think this new deal changes anyone’s perspective on America’s approach to preventing proliferation?

WS: We left all of the sanctions on human rights, on state sponsorship of terrorism, arms trafficking, all of those sanctions remain in place. The United States was very clear; we are not lifting those sanctions, we are only lifting nuclear related sanctions. We were very clear to the Iranians that we thought that all of these things that they were doing were horrible and that we would enforce our sanctions and international sanctions as well. I don’t think there’s going to be any fundamental change in the US-Iranian relationship. We do now have a channel of communication and that is very valuable. We saw that as valuable when the sailors were taken the other day, we saw that as valuable when we got most of our American citizens home with the exception of Robert Levinson, who we still don’t have an answer for but are working on. We have a channel of communication so that when things are going wrong, we can pick up the phone and have a conversation. That is a plus, but I don’t anticipate normalization of our relationship any time soon. Iran is still a bad actor.

DPR: If you don’t mind me asking, during negotiations, were you one of the few females present?

WS:  I don’t mind you asking at all. In fact, the two people who spent the most time with the lead Iranian negotiators just below the foreign ministers were two women: Helga Schmid, who is the deputy minister to the high representative of the EU, and me. Abbas Araghchi and Majid Takht-Ravanchi, who were foreign minister Zarif’s deputies, most often sat across from the table from Helga Schmid and me, two women. One of the things that I think everybody needs to understand is when you sit at a negotiating table, you’re not there as Wendy Sherman; you’re there as the United States of America. That’s what’s playing at the table.

DPR: How did you build your rapport with your Iranian counterparts during the negotiation process?

WS: Over time. We spent so many hours with each other, we came to know each other. That’s not to say we came to trust each other. But I became a grandmother during these negotiations, and Abbas Araghchi became a grandfather, and Secretary Kerry had grandchildren, so we would all share videos of our grandkids in lighter moments. We got invited into their dining room, had great Persian chicken. Of course, we were in different dining rooms because ours had alcohol in it. So we had moments like that, but at the negotiating table, we were representing our countries’ interests, so it wasn’t about those moments of trust. I would hope that getting to know each other meant we became committed to solving this problem and getting to a solution. We still have a long way to go.

DPR: Why did you pursue a career in public service?

WS: I didn’t begin in national security and foreign policy, I began as a social worker and a community organizer. I first worked with children and was the director of child welfare in the state of Maryland. I ended up getting involved in politics and ran the campaign for Barbara Mikulski to become the first female Democratic senator elected in her own right. I ultimately helped Madeleine Albright become the first female Secretary of State, and I became the first under Secretary of State for political affairs, who was a woman. I just tease that my caseload has changed over time but I think the skill set that I got as a social worker has been immensely helpful to me in my career. I had parents who were activists in the Civil Rights Movement, and I grew up in the Civil Rights Movement, Women’s Movement, the movement against the Vietnam war. Trying to solve problems has been what I learned from my parents.

DPR: What advice would you give a young person who hopes to follow a similar path?

WS: I tell young people don’t have a 5-year plan or you’ll miss opportunities. If you had asked me when I was a freshman like you that this is what I would be doing, I would’ve said, “You’ve got to be crazy.” You just never know where life will take you, that’s the exciting part. I would urge young people to get a really good skillset that is transferrable to different problem-solving situations. Go with your passion and really extraordinary privileges will come your way. The Iran nuclear negotiation was, I’m sure, the hardest thing I’ll ever do in my professional career. It was an honor and a privilege to have had the opportunity to do it.

DPR: What advice would you give to young females who have set their sights on careers like yours?

WS: I would say just have confidence in yourself. Create a support group; I’ve never been in a job where I didn’t have a group of women I could go to when I thought I was losing my mind, who I could go get a drink with, who I could bitch, moan, and complain to. Don’t doubt yourself; if you are strong and tough, you will be called a lot of things you would rather not be called. You won’t die of it, so go forward. Understand that there are a lot of, as Senator Mikulski would call them, “galahads” out there, guys out there who are fantastic colleagues. Make sure you build those relationships as well. Don’t hold yourself back. When I’m giving a lecture, and there’s a Q&A session, almost without a doubt the first 4 questions will be from guys. After those, I always say, “I’m not taking another question until one of the women in this room raises their hand and asks a question, because you have valuable things to say.” I think it’s very important for women to pass it forward and help other women. Madeleine Albright has a great phrase, “There’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women.” I’ve been called a lot of things, like tough and aggressive and some other words I won’t use. I’ve probably not gotten opportunities because I was a woman who wasn’t “due” for the part. There are glass ceilings that people of my generation and women before me have broken. I’ve got a daughter who is an asylum and immigration non-profit lawyer, very committed and dedicated. I think it is quite critical that every generation keep going because things are better, but they’re not done. There’s still a long way to go. I would urge every woman to keep splintering and breaking those glass ceilings.




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