On Ambassador Sherman’s Testimony on Iran

by Peter Jenkins

Listening, on 15 May, to the House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing on US policy towards Iran put me in mind of the inscription Dante imagined over the entrance to Hell: “Abandon hope all you who enter here”.

There seemed no notion among members of the committee that territories beyond the borders of the United States of America are not subject to US jurisdiction – still less that reasoned persuasion and reciprocity can be more effective tools for achieving US foreign policy goals than sanctions (how the good Congressmen love sanctions!) and the infliction of pain.

Wendy Sherman, the Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs who heads the U.S. delegation in the P5+1 negotiations with Iran, must have come away from that hearing with the feeling that she has an impossible task. Congress will howl if the administration makes the slightest concession to secure Iranian agreement to non-proliferation assurances and restrictions on nuclear activities. Yet if Iran is offered nothing in return for measures it deems to be voluntary, because they lie beyond the provisions of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), it will continue to defy the US and its allies.

Still, it is hard to avoid the thought that the administration could have made more of this opportunity.

Ambassador Sherman’s opening statement contained no reference to the US intelligence community’s confidence that Iran’s leaders have not taken a decision to acquire nuclear weapons. Instead, it referred to “Iran’s nuclear weapon ambitions” and to the need for Iran to “change course”, which the congressmen could be forgiven for taking as confirmation of their chairman’s opening assertion that Iran is trying to build a nuclear arsenal.

On top of that, Ambassador Sherman fed the Congressmen’s appetite for a penal approach by stressing that the goal of US policy is to have Iran live up to its “international obligations”. The Congressmen were left undisturbed in their conviction that Iran is entirely in the wrong and most certainly should not be rewarded for mending its ways. The opportunity to start helping their Honours to understand that the reality is more complicated went begging.

I hope LobeLog readers who know what lies behind that last sentence will forgive me for explicating it.

Iran’s “international obligations” come in two forms. One lot of obligations stem from the provisions of the NPT. Iran accepts that these are genuine obligations under international law and is ready to comply fully with them without reciprocity. Indeed some observers believe Iran is already fully compliant.

The other lot stem from the provisions of four Security Council resolutions adopted under article 41 of the UN Charter. Iran refuses to accept the legally-binding nature of these, not unreasonably, given that, when they were adopted, the Council had not determined that Iran’s nuclear activities represented a threat to international peace and security. Instead, Iran offers to proceed on the basis of reciprocity, volunteering the steps specified in these resolutions in return for recognition that Iran has NPT rights as well as obligations, and also for the lifting of nuclear-related sanctions.

The third missed opportunity was ethical in nature. The administration had no need to indulge in misrepresentation and distortion but succumbed to temptation.

The Congressmen were told that Iran is “isolated”. In reality, Iran maintains full diplomatic relations with some 100 states. Iran’s Foreign Minister is received courteously almost everywhere in Asia and Europe apart from the UK and Israel. Just this week Iran assumed the chair of the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva. Currently Iran presides over the 120-member Non-Aligned Movement

Ambassador Sherman implied that responsibility for the appalling civil conflict in Syria must be ascribed to Iran, “a destabilising influence across the entire Middle East”. The initial supply of weapons to the Syrian opposition by Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia was not mentioned. Some Middle Eastern states are allowed to have interests beyond their borders, it seems, and others are not.

Oh, and in Syria all the violence against “the Syrian people” is being inflicted by the Assad regime, supported by its Iranian ally. Perish the thought that the opposition has shed a single drop of Syrian blood!

Most Europeans yearn for the objectivity and ethical agnosticism that underlay the US opening to China, détente with the Soviet Union, and the final flurry of US/USSR agreements heralding the end of the Cold War. That sort of objectivity should come naturally, one might think, when the adversary is Iran, a state so very much weaker than the US. Alas, the opposite seems to be the case!

Peter Jenkins

Peter Jenkins was a British career diplomat for 33 years, following studies at the Universities of Cambridge and Harvard. He served in Vienna (twice), Washington, Paris, Brasilia and Geneva. He specialized in global economic and security issues. His last assignment (2001-06) was that of UK Ambassador to the IAEA and UN (Vienna). Since 2006 he has represented the Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency Partnership, advised the Director of IIASA and set up a partnership, The Ambassador Partnership llp, with former diplomatic colleagues, to offer the corporate sector dispute resolution and solutions to cross-border problems. He was an associate fellow of the Geneva Centre for Security Policy from 2010 to 2012. He writes and speaks on nuclear and trade policy issues.



  1. One cannot help but be impressed by this sober and informed analysis of the US approach towards Iran by a former career diplomat and UK Ambassador to the IAEA who knows what he is talking about. The art of diplomacy is to try to find solutions to political problems, not to compound them by inflating the problems and excluding all but the most violent solutions. However, it seems that some US diplomats and politicians know of no other alternatives but sanctions and wars.

    The criticisms regarding Iran fall into three categories: Iran’s nuclear program, its regional policies and its human rights record. Many liberal Iranians who are opposed to the Iranian government would join Western critics of Iran in demanding the resolution of all those problems. However, linking the issue of Iran’s “nuclear ambitions” with the other two issues is dishonest and counter-productive. Since the US intelligence community has concluded that Iran has not yet decided to pursue nuclear weapons, pretending that Iran is in violation of the NPT is bogus. The job of the IAEA and the P5+1 talks with Iran should be to ensure that, unlike Israel, India, Pakistan and North Korea, Iran does not produce nuclear weapons. Their job is not to bring about a regime change. That reminds us of the worst misuse of intelligence about WMD that resulted in the illegal invasion of Iraq. To use vague phrases such as “Iran’s nuclear ambitions” in order to bring about regime change is dishonest and is a disservice both to the cause of non-proliferation and indeed to the spreading of democracy. Therefore, the talk in the same hearing about Iran’s role in Syria, its sponsorship of terrorism, etc. is unrelated to the nuclear issue and should be kept separate.

    The West has some valid complaints about Iran’s policies towards Israel and its human rights record. Those issues should be addressed separately through talks and the use of diplomacy, not through hysterical nuclear scaremongering, sanctions, ultimately leading to war. On the eve of important presidential elections in Iran, such sabre rattling and talk of yet more sanctions and regime change would only push the Iranians to the arms of the regime and would not resolve the nuclear issue either.

  2. Mr. Jenkins has done a masterful job of unraveling the charade that passes as a policy toward Iran!

    Mr. Jahanpour’s comments are a thoughtful addition.

    Unfortunately for both, and the world as a whole, the current thrust of US and her allies’ policies has effectively dispatched into the dustbin any meaningful international agreements and norms of behavior. Iran is one facet of the convulsion being thrown by the giant imperial power.

    The US axis of allies, through their unilateral insistance on pre-emptive attacks, detention without due process as required by Geneva conventions, disdain for the conventions on torture, and the complete politicization of human rights efforts, NPT, CW bans treaties, … have created a de facto lawless international plane.

    This de facto return to “might is right” does not bode well for humanity, nor for the US and allies.

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