Deal or No Deal on Iran with Sherman

Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman testified before the House of Representatives in 2011, suggesting that the government shutdown would weaken the US sanctions regime in Iran.

Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman testified before the House of Representatives in 2011, suggesting that the government shutdown would weaken the US sanctions regime in Iran.

Dartmouth students, with their busy academic, extracurricular, and social calendars, sometimes fail to take full advantage of the many speakers who grace this campus. When Daniel Benjamin, head of the Dickey Center for International Understanding, introduced a speaker on Thursday, October 29 in Filene Auditorium, the room, though filled beyond capacity, likely had a median age of 50. This is especially surprising, because the speaker was Wendy Sherman, former Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs and the woman who served as chief nuclear negotiator with Iran.

Mrs. Sherman began her career as a social worker, a job which influenced her political worldview in a similar fashion to President Barrack Obama’s work as a community organizer. Originally from upstate New York and a graduate of Smith College, Mrs. Sherman shared a similar background with many of those in the room. It was readily apparent that many of the community members, retirees, faculty, and students were Jews, as is Mrs. Sherman. Assuming that many of the community members and faculty grew up and attended college in New England and New York State, the room was remarkably homogenous when it came to backgrounds. It was also apparent (initially from the demographics, and later from the questions and comments) that many people in the room were ideologically left of center, though there was an unspoken understanding that the Iran Deal itself was the one point that those in attended might disagree upon. A brief visual survey of the room revealed some of the most influential professors whose studies and personal interests touched on Israel, the Middle East, Islam, and Judaism.

Mrs. Sherman, though clearly aware of both the homogeneity and tension in the auditorium, cut right to the point. “President Obama was very clear that we wanted Iran never to have a nuclear weapon.” She could have dropped the microphone then and there and then driven home, creating just as much controversy as if she had made a five hour speech. She cut through every issue in a clear and concise manner. It was clear that years as a negotiator give a person the ability to articulate ideas quickly and in an unambiguous manner. She asserted that while it was sanctions that brought the Iranians to the table, the same sanctions had no effect whatsoever on their nuclear development. Developing her narrative, she set up what was likely a false dilemma between a negotiated deal and a decisive military commitment. She rejected the idea that “merely” eliminating Iranian nuclear facilities through military force or through negotiations was enough, because, “you can get rid of facilities, but you can’t get rid of knowledge.”

Mrs. Sherman, though clear and forceful, was also funny. “All of our negations were in Farsi,” she said, “and they were a farce.” She continued with the reassurance that, “unless the United States agreed to the deal, there was no deal,” which somewhat contradicted what was nominally a joint effort between six countries.

Much to the surprise of the many members of the audience that saw the Senator Cotton letter to Iran as inappropriate, if not illicit, Mrs. Sherman reminded listeners that not only were his actions legal, but they were useful as leverage with the Iranians. She explained that both the American and Iranian peoples were significantly invested in the deal, and that both sides knew that they would not be able to successfully implement a deal that did not, on some level, satisfy their respective public opinions.

She went on to reveal that she had offered one-on-one briefings about the negotiations in her office to any senator who wanted one. She explained that she

could do this because her office was a secure space (which is presumably similar to the safe spaces demanded across college campuses throughout the nation).

Mrs. Sherman was particularly eloquent in describing the opinions of those who opposed the deal. In a straw man impersonation of this opinion, she asked, “what can we do to kill this deal and kill the President of the United States?” Realizing her mistake, she immediately added, “not literally, but figuratively.” She was not, however, deaf to the concerns she initially blew over, admitting that, “people had serious and legitimate concerns… Iran isn’t trustworthy… I understand that.”

At this point in her talk, she brought the negotiations closer to home. Speaking of the partisan rift over Israel’s role in the Deal, “It was for me, personally, quite painful…. and on top of all of that, I am a Jewish American, and proud of that, and the Iranians knew that.” The room went silent. If Mrs. Sherman left the audience with anything, it was fear. It was the specific fear of what it would have been like to be in her shoes: in her shoes, the shoes of a woman and of a Jew negotiating with the extremist government of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

She was then quick to point out that the other principle negotiator, representing the European Union, was also a woman. She described how the Iranian officials shunned her, though she put this down more to orthodoxy and less to any specific religion.

She was also abundantly clear about her position with regard to Israel (“I think the bond between the U.S. and Israel is unbreakable…”) and its Prime Minister (“I don’t agree with what Prime Minister Netanyahu believes, but I respect his right to believe it”). This remark is proof enough that Mrs. Sherman is a good diplomat. She concluded with a somewhat ambiguous yet important assertion, saying, “I think anyone who says this is going to fundamentally change the relationship [with Iran] doesn’t know what they’re talking about, and anyone who thinks the opposite also doesn’t know what they’re talking about.”

Mrs. Sherman then called for questions, selecting a female student first. Before the student asked a question, Mrs. Sherman said that she tries to call on women because at most lectures, “the first five hands that go up are white guys. I’ve been married to a white guy for 35 years, and I love you all very much, but [I want to give others a chance.]” When a Zimbabwean medical student asked Mrs. Sherman about the difficulties of being a woman in her position, Mrs. Sherman told her, “Understand the power you bring to the table. Own it.”

Another student asked Mrs. Sherman what she thought about American “misbehavior,” in light of the more heavily discussed Iranian “misbehavior,” which includes funding terrorism and enforcing draconian civil justice. Mrs. Sherman responded that she constantly thought about American missteps, at least partially because the Iranian negotiators would not let her forget about them. She said that, looking back at the successes and failures of American foreign policy, “I don’t think we should be in the business of overthrowing leaders. I think we have gotten out of it – at least I hope we have.”

She related an incident regarding one of her own missteps. She had, in an off-hand remark, said that Iranians have, “deception in their DNA.” Though she quickly retracted her words and issued an apology, she described the many serious consequences of her words. She articulated how painful it was to have her family see on the news that Iranians were chanting, “Death to Wendy Sherman!” alongside, “Death to America!” and, “Death to Israel!”

After she had finished atoning for America’s sins, Mrs. Sherman felt the need to add one more issue into the mix. She described the 1979 hostage crisis, saying, “[the Iranians] did indeed take American hostages and hold them for a very long time. There are scars about that. There are Americans detained in Iran…. They need to come home right now.”

When an audience member asked her why she did not ask for American hostages during the negotiations, she first clarified that the Americans being detained in Iran were prisoners and then said, “I believe that was the right and moral decision,” because adding American lives into the negotiations could have compromised the ability of the United States to negotiate. With that said, she continued, “I dare say that conversations are continuing. [Not bringing them home] is something that I deeply regret”

When an audience member asked her why the deal did not provide for certain types of inspections, Mrs. Sherman said, “Nowhere else in the world is there such a deal.” Another person asked what it was like to converse with the negotiators, to which she responded, “All of the [Iranian negotiators] have superb English. The Iranian lawyers knew all of the terminology necessary to make me crazy.” She added, “Lawyers run the world, in case you didn’t know that.”

One of the last questions asked about her interactions with Russian President Vladimir Putin. She stated, “He’s very smart. He can be funny and silly and self-deprecating.”

She concluded with a series of statements about the fundamental nature of Iran and how that complicated the deal. At its core, she said, “Iran is a revolutionary culture,” its leaders were just as hard-pressed to maintain public support for a deal as American leaders were.