I spend the week leading up to my interview with Ambassador Wendy Sherman, America’s chief negotiator on the Iran deal, negotiating the terms of our meeting. The ambassador’s office and I come to the following deal: I will have exactly 15 minutes for a Q & A, including the time it takes to photograph the ambassador. I must send over the topics I will cover in advance. I must also accept the fact that there will be another person in the room, who looks and acts exactly like Tom Hagen, Don Corleone’s consigliere.
The 15 minutes go by in what feels like less time than it takes to say: “I haven't asked a single tough question yet, have I?” I'm escorted out. I leave Sherman’s office completely discombobulated. Shirt stained with sweat. Hair a mess. I feel failure: I didn’t ask her about any specifics of the Iran Deal.
But then, I have a realization. I’ve learned everything I could have hoped from the ambassador, even if I didn’t break any news: Don’t ever negotiate with a nuclear negotiator, unless you’re looking for a verbal ass kicking.
Fifteen Minutes: What brings you to Harvard this semester? Why did you choose to come here?
Ambassador Wendy Sherman: I came here A) because I was asked to, but more importantly, it’s a chance to really reflect on the last four years as under secretary for political affairs. I traveled to over 54 countries, and obviously spent many, many days in Vienna on the Iran nuclear negotiation. I was thoroughly exhausted and needed to reflect on what I had done, and this is an extraordinary environment in which to both decompress and reflect, and hopefully bring some contributions to the students here.
FM: How do you think that ISIS and the enemy of your enemy is your friend thing that developed helped bring Iran to the table?
Sherman: I don’t think ISIS brought Iran to the table. I think what brought Iran to the table was the overwhelming sanctions, and a desire not to be isolated from the international community. The sanctions never stopped Iran’s nuclear program. In 2003, they probably had 164 centrifuges; when we began negotiating, they had 19,000 centrifuges. So, it never stopped the program, but it did bring them to the negotiating table. And the entire Security Council was behind the isolation of Iran for fear that it was developing a nuclear weapon. I think President Hassan Rouhani’s election created a shift in Iran and President Obama made some very calculated and very smart decisions about how we approached the Iran negotiation, and I think his leadership has been fundamental to that.
FM: I want to get into the behind the scenes aspects of the negotiations. Obviously, there are huge cultural differences between America and Iran, so I’m wondering: How did you connect with the Iranians outside of the negotiating table? What was some common ground you found that you think might have enabled you to negotiate and understand one another?
Sherman: Well, the negotiations under Foreign Minister Zarif were all held in English. When we had negotiations with Jalili, they were all in Farsi from their side and English on our side, through translators, which always makes it more difficult. So, [conducting negotiations in English] helped immensely. We spent an enormous amount of time with each other, so you get to know each other. The lead working negotiator for Iran, Abbas Araghchi, and I both had grandchildren during this time, so we’d share videos of our grandchildren. It created some humanity; it didn’t mean that we changed our national positions or that the underlying mistrust disappeared—it did not. This agreement is based on verification and monitoring, not on trust.
FM: How do you convince the people on the other side of the negotiation table that you’re serious and that there’s nothing to worry about?
Sherman: We are a democracy. People have a right to speak their mind. We explained this to the Iranians, and that we had to have a deal that was good enough to be sustainable and could manage all of the politics we have to face. They, of course, came back to us and said: We have… hard liners, we have the [Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps]. We have politics too, so we have to have a deal we can sustain on our side. So, we went back and forth on this on both sides of the equation and the reality is any negotiation, any negotiation, has to withstand the politics in any country who is sitting at the table. And it has to be sustainable and meet those interests in a way that make it durable.
FM: There’s a live campus issue right now that has a lot of Harvard students very divided, and that’s the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Putting your negotiator hat on, what are steps students could take on both sides of that issue to maybe work together and seek a solution? How does negotiating from sides that are so differing in their beliefs ever really happen?
Sherman: Unless the leaders themselves want to create peace, it’s not going to happen. Everybody knows what the elements of an outcome, a fair outcome, could be. There’s not a mystery around that. But there has to be the political will to do that, and it has to be in the interest of Mahmoud Abbas and Bibi Netanyahu representing their populations to do this. And there are some things outsiders, including the United States, can do to support coming to an agreement, but at the end of the day, the leaders themselves, the people themselves, have to make that difficult decision, and they don’t seem to be there right now.