Wendy Sherman on Iran

Wendy ShermanBefore she was appointed Deputy Secretary of State, Wendy Sherman had pushed for a swift return to the 2015 nuclear deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). She urged the Biden administration to immediately begin consultations with Europe, Russia and China on preserving the JCPOA after taking office. “It's important for the U.S. to start its consultations as quickly as a new administration can,” Sherman said at Johns Hopkins University on November 19, 2020. Any new diplomacy with Tehran, she said, should also focus on Iran’s ballistic missile arsenal. “There are lots of issues that we have to address, including ballistic missiles all over the world, because particularly long-range ballistic missiles are a threat to the United States if they can carry a nuclear weapon.” 

During her confirmation hearing, Sherman was circumspect about the prospect of new diplomacy. "The facts on the ground have changed, the geopolitics of the region have changed, and the way forward must similarly change," she told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on March 3. Sherman was confirmed by a vote of 56 to 42 on April 13. The following are remarks by Sherman on Iran.


On Iran’s nuclear program and future diplomacy

In remarks on Jan. 24, 2023: “So, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, better known as the Iran deal, is still on the table. But it’s not on the agenda.

And it’s not on the agenda, not only because Iran has given UAVs and there’s other military engagement with Russia, which is horrifying, because it’s led to the death of many civilians in Ukraine and is really a weapon that is horrifying in what it’s done to the civilian population, and taking out power grids, and trying to freeze people to death.

But because of wanting to support the protesters in Iran. The right of women to have a future in Iran. Because of what Iran’s malign behavior has been in the Middle East and their undermining of governments throughout the world. Because they still wrongfully detain Americans in Iran.

So there are a lot of reasons, a lot of reasons, why the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action is not on the agenda right now.

That said, we remain very concerned about Iran’s nuclear program and where it is headed. We are in close consultations with many around the world, including our European partners, and of course, with Israel, and others in the Middle East, about how best to deal with all of the challenges that come from Iran. And it is of great concern, a lot of energy and efforts going into meeting each of those challenges.”

In remarks on Sept. 16, 2022: “We’re at a stalemate in the sense that Iran, in the latest round of negotiations, have given us back a pretty tough response, one that’s unacceptable to us.”

“We’ve sent back a message about what we believe is necessary and what are critical elements here. And this is in Iran’s court.”

“We are planning for any eventuality. Whether the deal happens or the deal doesn’t happen, the president still believes it is in our interest to pursue the deal, and we’ll continue to do so as long as that is the case.”

“The president of the United States, the secretary of state, the secretary of defense, believe that Iran must never get a nuclear weapon. We believe that returning to the JCPOA is the best way to ensure that, but we will be prepared for every eventuality if the deal does not come to pass.”

In remarks on July 12, 2022: “I think there is a very viable agreement and Iran just has to say, ‘yes’.”

“As best as we can tell, they can’t come to a decision…”

“They would get sanctions relief. They would improve their economy and sell their oil again and the world needs their oil, so they could get a good price for it. It’s all in their interest to do this, but they’re having a very hard time getting consensus.”

“The European Union, the French, the Germans, the British who have negotiated this deal, along with Russia and China, all want this deal.”

In remarks with Al Arabiya on March 17, 2022: “It [detainees’ release] is separate and apart from the JCPOA. Though I must say it is impossible to imagine that we get a deal on the JCPOA and that those unjustly detained Americans don’t come home.”

“It is a high priority for this administration to bring them home, to make sure that they’re safe and secure. There is no higher purpose that we have than to protect Americans.”

In remarks with Fox News Sunday on March 13, 2022: “I think [the deal is] close, and we would like all of the parties – including Russia, which has indicated it’s got some concerns – to bring this to a close. We are very concerned about what Iran is doing, but imagine these Iranians with a nuclear weapon. We need to get that off the table so we can address their malign behavior in the Middle East, and we will do all of the above, but first we’ve got to get this deal. And it is not yet closed.”

“If Iran has a nuclear weapon, its ability to project power into the Middle East and to deter us, our allies and partners, is enormous. So President Biden believes very strongly, as does Secretary Blinken, as do I, that we need to make sure that Iran never obtains a nuclear weapon, and then we also need to deal with their malign behavior in the region. But first we’ve got to make sure that they cannot obtain a nuclear weapon.”

“We are urging all parties to do what they need to, and there’s a lot of onus on Iran to decide whether in fact it wants to move forward or not, come into compliance and ensure that Iran never has a nuclear weapon.”

In remarks at the Atlantic Council on May 9, 2021: “There’s been some progress made, but there’s still a long way to go on this.”

“I am hopeful that we can reach an understanding so that the [International Atomic Energy Administration] technical agreement that expires with Iran at the end of May can be extended. I’m hopeful that we make enough progress that it can stand as the Iranian election gets underway in June. I don’t know if we can get to compliance-for-compliance agreement and an agreement to continue discussions past that by the deadline of their election.”

In remarks on June 9, 2021: “I know that the negotiation will start again over this coming weekend.”

“I think there's been a lot of progress made, but, out of my own experience, until the last detail is nailed down, and I mean nailed down, we will not know if we have an agreement.”

Confirmation hearing on March 3, 2021: “With respect to Iran, as the lead of the U.S. negotiating team for the JCPOA, I remain clear-eyed about the threat that Iran poses to our interests and those of our allies. I am ready to address your questions about the JCPOA, but would note that 2021 is not 2015 when the deal was agreed, nor 2016 when it was implemented. The facts on the ground have changed, the geopolitics of the region have changed, and the way forward must similarly change.”

Interview with GBH radio on Dec. 3, 2020:

Question: “Joe Biden wants back into the Iran nuclear deal. How much harder was that task made by the assassination of Iran's top nuclear scientist the other day?”

Sherman: “It has undoubtedly complicated it. The actions of the parliament, the Majles, as it's called in Iran, and the Guardian Council, which stepped in yesterday to say they're going to accelerate their program and give the United States until probably about mid-February to lift some of the oil and bank sanctions in retaliation, in part at least for that assassination, complicates diplomacy, but it absolutely does not foreclose it. And I strongly support the president-elect wanting to reenter this deal.”

Question: “Was that the goal of the killing? While many believe it was Israel, they haven't claimed responsibility, was the goal to make it more difficult for President-elect Biden to re-enter the deal?”

Sherman: “There certainly has been that speculation, but I don't think the intention is really the driving force here. When you negotiate, when you try to solve a world problem, you have to deal with the facts on the ground. And the facts on the ground now are some complications. So, I must say some of the most profound complications are Iranian politics. They have an election coming up in June. It means that they're going to start focusing on that. Their parliamentary elections last year went over to the folks I call the hard hardliners, the very most conservative in their country.  See if that's the case for the presidency. But they also have an economy that's devastated and a COVID surge of their own. So Iranian politics matter here too.”

Question: “Have the sanctions worked or has Iran just gotten more dangerous since we left the nuclear deal?”

Sherman: “In the four years that the maximum pressure campaign has gone on, Iran has increased its nuclear stockpile. It has gotten closer to what we call breakout, getting enough fissile material for one nuclear weapon. They haven't stopped their malign behavior in the region. They haven't stopped their human rights abuses. They haven't stopped putting people in Evin Prison. They haven't stopped their missile development. They haven't stopped their arms dealing. So I'm not sure what the Trump strategy was. I have no idea what the outcome was that was perceived. But they certainly haven't reached it. They have definitely made things worse.”

Question: “Speaking of strategy, there are reports that in early November [2020] he was talked out of a strike on some of Iran's nuclear facilities. How concerning would that be to you?”

Sherman: “Extremely, for a number of reasons. One, in terms of getting a nuclear weapon, we can eliminate their nuclear facilities, but then they would be most likely rebuilt underground and in secret and be able to do so within three to five years because you can't bomb away knowledge. They know how to do all of this. Secondly, even if someone thought you could do a quote unquote surgical strike and just deal with their nuclear facilities, they would feel they had to retaliate and we might get into an escalatory cycle that would lead to an Arab-Persian war, which certainly is not anything the American people want. It's not anything that increases stability in the region. As the president-elect said, diplomacy is really the only thing permanently and verifiably that can create stability.”

Virtual event with Johns Hopkins SAIS on Nov. 19, 2020:

Question: “What is it that the United States would need from Iran and what is possible for any American administration to give in order to resuscitate the deal?"

Wendy Sherman: "I certainly think that will include consultations with the U.K., France and Germany, as well as the European Union writ large. It will even include some consultations with Russia and China, with whom we will have very complicated relations in the next administration. And it will take some homework on our part to see where we are, what sanctions have been added, where our partners in the JCPOA are, where Iran is.

“Iran will be doing its own thinking. They are approaching a presidential election in 2021, which you probably know better than I will be quite a conservative election because the parliamentary election this last year put what I call more ‘hard hardliners’ in place instead of hardliners. And I suspect that's the way the presidential election will go as well. Rouhani cannot run again.

"Iran has had to deal with COVID just like every other country has and has had a very rough time. Then again, the United States has had a very rough time, but Iran is continuing to build its relations with countries to try to position itself in the best place possible for the Biden-Harris administration. But I don't think it's going to be on day one [that] everything will fall back into place. That's not going to happen."

Question: “There's been some debate about whether it's beneficial for the United States to aggressively try to start the process with the existing Iranian administration, given the fact that they have a vested interest in the JCPOA and have already negotiated once with the United States or to actually wait until there is a new order in Iran. What are your thoughts?”

Sherman: “It's important for the U.S. to start its consultations as quickly as a new administration can."

Op-ed in Foreign Affairs on Aug. 13, 2018: "Trump has turned Iran into a nearly impossible problem for future administrations. His behavior has given U.S. allies less reason to trust Washington on future deals or to take U.S. interests into account. He has thrown away a hard-nosed nuclear deal that set a new standard for verification, and he punched a hole in a highly effective web of sanctions and international consensus that made the Iran deal—and future deals like it—possible.

"The JCPOA represents the state of the art of professional multilateral diplomacy. As Trump is now finding out through his difficulties in pinning down a deal with North Korea, verifiable nuclear agreements backed by U.S. allies and adversaries are hard to come by. With every threat Trump tweets and every list of empty promises his administration releases, the Iran deal looks better and better."


On the 2022 protests

In a tweet on Dec. 14, 2022: “Today’s vote to remove Iran from the @UN’s Commission on the Status of Women is a clear and necessary message of support for the brave women and girls of Iran. The Iranian regime’s ongoing crackdown shows it is unfit to serve on the commission.”

In a tweet on Oct. 22, 2022: “The women of Iran, and all people, deserve to enjoy their rights of free expression and peaceful assembly without being subject to violence and intimidation. Today, Americans from DC to LA made a powerful statement of solidarity with the Iranian people.”

In a tweet on Oct. 12, 2022: “Iran’s continued violent crackdown on peaceful protestors is an affront to human rights. I spoke with major U.S. tech firms and urged them to utilize General License D-2 to provide the Iranian people with additional services and communications tools.”

In a tweet on Oct. 3, 2022: “The United States remains deeply concerned about the intensifying violent crackdown on peaceful protesters in Iran. We stand with the Iranian people and will continue supporting their right to protest freely.”


On a security dialogue between Iran and its neighbors

Virtual event with Johns Hopkins SAIS on Nov. 19, 2020:

Question: "How would the United States think about... engaging [regional actors] without giving them a veto over the process or without getting Iran to balk at the idea?"

Sherman: "The fact is that the Gulf Arab states and Israel were incredibly engaged throughout the negotiating process. I met myself with the ambassadors from the Gulf Arab states and Jordan and others before and after every negotiating round. I met with Israel on a constant basis as well. And when we began the negotiations, the Gulf said, just make sure you only focus on nuclear issues because if you're going to discuss regional issues, we need to be in the room. 

"When it looked like we were about to have an agreement and we were approaching our presidential election, I began to hear quite a different message, which was: 'how could you finish all of this and not deal with all the issues in our region?' And I understand that. I understand it politically. I understand it conceptually. And I think that there's no doubt that anything that moves forward will have to have a very complex consulting regime that is part of the process.”


Question: “In 2018, Europe reportedly offered to impose ballistic missile sanctions on Iran, if President Trump remained in the deal. Will the E3 take actions on missiles, if the U.S. reenters the JCPOA?”

Sherman: “I don't know the answer to that question. The Europeans were very close I understand... to an agreement that would have kept the deal in place with some additional pillars, as was the term at the time. And then President Trump, it's my understanding, decided he didn't want those negotiations to go any further because he really, truly just wanted to blow up the JCPOA and didn't want there to be a way out of doing that, which that agreement might have offered. I think that ultimately there are lots of issues that we have to address, including ballistic missiles all over the world, because particularly long-range ballistic missiles are a threat to the United States if they can carry a nuclear weapon. So, there's a lot of nonproliferation and arms control work that has to be done. It's very difficult work. And certainly, there are countries in Europe that are ready to commit to that hard work. And I hope there are countries all over the world who are ready to commit to that hard work.”

Some of the information in this article was originally published on January 26, 2021.