by Derek Davison
In a May 16 event held by the Cato Institute, Ambassador Wendy Sherman spoke at length about the Iran nuclear deal and its status under the Trump administration. Sherman, who served as Barack Obama’s under secretary of state for political affairs from 2011-2015 and was one of the key figures in negotiating the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) with Iran, also discussed the administration’s policy toward Iran more generally. Below are a few lightly edited excerpts from her remarks, which mainly took the form of a question-and-answer session with Al-Monitor’s Laura Rozen.
On the Trump administration’s JCPOA policy so far:
I don’t know [what the policy is], but then again I’m not sure anyone in the administration does. There is an ongoing review, and the president has just about come up to the point where he has to agree on waivers for some of the sanctions that were lifted. I don’t know these things for a fact, because “transparent” isn’t even a useful word when it comes to understanding what’s happening in the administration. There are several different voices, and, as we’ve seen, members of the administration may say one thing and the president may then say something quite different.
My sense, bottom line, really goes to the statement that came from Secretary Tillerson, certifying that, in fact, everyone had complied to this date. [He also said] there would be a review of the deal, but he certified compliance to Congress. And so I hope that the waivers are signed [NOTE: the administration did agree to extend those waivers the following day], that this deal continues, and that we let the Iranian election play out as it will, on Friday. By Sunday we’ll probably know who the next president is, which may create very interesting times for all of us.
On complaints from Secretary of State Rex Tillerson that the JCPOA does nothing to address any problematic Iranian actions apart from its nuclear program:
I think we see this administration trying to square the circle all the time, between what was said during the campaign, as well as the different voices coming out of the administration, or administration officials versus the president, who sends his people out to say one thing and then really pulls the rug out from under them. It must be a very tough job for the national security team at the moment.
The Iran deal was never meant to address all of the problems that we have with Iran, and that was for several reasons. First, no deal can carry everything, and to try to do everything in one deal would be to compromise everything in the deal, and that is not good for our national security. Second, many Gulf states asked us at the beginning of this negotiation “please, only discuss nuclear weapons. Do not discuss issues in the region, because we are not in the room and this is about our security. You shouldn’t discuss our security if we’re not in the room.” As the deal started to look like it was going to happen, some of those same voices started saying “you haven’t solved all the problems facing our region.” Which they had decidedly asked us not to do. I understand the shift, and wanting to keep pressure on Iran, but I ask people all the time to imagine how much worse things would be if Iran had a nuclear weapon, if they could project power into the region with a nuclear weapon and deter ours and our partners’ actions in the region that way. I think we did this in the right way, and we now, as President Obama began during his administration, need to continue on a concerted strategy to deal with all the other issues of concern that we have with Iran.
On the charge that the JCPOA provided Iran with billions of dollars with which to fund destabilizing activity in the Middle East:
There was no question, and we said so at the time, that Iran was going to continue its malicious activity in the region. They did quite a bit with very little money. The IRGC [Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps] basically owned the black market—they didn’t want the JCPOA because they lost their black market advantage. We expected that the Supreme Leader, having agreed (more or less) to the JCPOA, would probably do something to bolster the IRGC’s budget, because although Americans tend to think there are no politics in Iran there are a lot of politics in Iran, and the Supreme Leader is always in a balancing act.
But what I will dispute is, when people say that Iran has gotten billions of dollars that it’s given to the IRGC, that’s not the case…Most of the reputed $100 billion that was immediately going to come back to Iran was in frozen assets in foreign bank accounts. Of that $100 billion, only about $50 billion was liquid—the rest was in non-performing loans or loans that were outstanding to China. Of that $50 billion, a lot of that was likely to be left in foreign bank accounts, to be used for commerce and trade. That’s not to say that there wasn’t other money that started to come in, because Iran could get its oil refineries up and running again—of course, the price of oil was and remains rather low—but the IRGC was already doing pretty bad things. And the Middle East in general has heated up, because of the Saudi intervention in Yemen.
On congressional Republican opposition to the deal, and recent polling showing increased Republican support for it:
Early on, Republicans laid down the gauntlet in terms of the need to undermine everything that President Obama was going to do. Democrats are certainly part of this polarized politics that we have, and we can have a long discussion about how redistricting and gerrymandering led to extremes being elected to Congress. But I think what we saw in the JCPOA was that virtually every single Republican said they were against the deal the day it was announced, before any of them had read it—I’m sure most of them haven’t read the deal to this day.
Now there is some acceptance that we are safer because of [the JCPOA], that no one wants to rip up the deal. When we had these negotiations, my [Iranian] counterparts said “how do we know that the new president of the United States will stand behind this deal?” And I would ask “how do we know that the new president of Iran will stand behind it?” Deals like this only endure if they remain in the national security interest of the parties involved…I think the Trump administration has come to understand that [the JCPOA] is in our national security interest, [even if] they think they could have done better.
On new Iran sanctions legislation circulating in the U.S. Senate:
I know that the senators, particularly Senator [Ben] Cardin, worked really hard to ensure that this legislation did not create enormous unintended consequences. Nonetheless, I oppose this legislation categorically. I do so because lawyers disagree about its impact on the JCPOA. It can be read in a number of different ways, even with the care that was taken in writing the bill. And my question is, why take the risk? Because, quite frankly, the bill doesn’t do anything. There’s no real consequence to the bill. It’s just really a way to say that we’re “tough.” Because we can, under our existing laws and executive orders, designate virtually everyone who might be covered in this bill. So why risk the JCPOA for a bill that does nothing, that arguably undermines the JCPOA? It is just not worth it.
On how Congress can take a tough stance against Iran without risking the JCPOA:
They can encourage the administration to use the authorities that exist, to designate as President Trump did early on in counterterror measures. Be working now and putting evidentiary packages together for those sanctions. Work with countries around the world to interdict shipments of technology where we are concerned. To dry up financial assets of proxies of Iran who commit acts of terror. To share intelligence, although sharing intelligence has become much harder in the last 48 hours. But, yes there are plenty of things that can be done.
On American citizens being held by the Iranian government:
We can’t have a conversation about Iran and the United States and not talk about the American citizens who are being held in Iran, and Robert Levinson, who has been gone from this country for so many years and Iran has not been willing to tell us where he is or help get him home. When I did the Iran negotiations, the only other issue I discussed every time we had a round was to have a bilateral [discussion] with the Iranians to talk about the American citizens who were being detained. It is a horrendous experience, as we have heard from Jason Rezaian, Hala Esfandiari, and others. This is an ongoing tactic of the IRGC and Iranian intelligence services. It is terribly concerning…I would urge [Secretary Tillerson] to fill [the position of special envoy for hostage affairs] and to find an opportunity to establish a relationship with [Iranian] Foreign Minister [Mohammad Javad] Zarif…there is no trust between the United States and Iran, I don’t expect there to be any time soon, but that does not mean we shouldn’t have a channel of communication, because it is in our interest to do so.
Photo of Wendy Sherman courtesy of U.S. Mission Geneva/Eric Bridiers (via Flickr)