U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, flanked by Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz (left) and U.S. Under Secretary for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman met with Iranian negotiators Tuesday at a hotel in Vienna.

Wendy Sherman pictured with Secretary of State, John Kerry during negotiations.

Credit: Carlos Barria

Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman: One Year Later, Behind The Scenes Of The Iran Deal

July 21, 2016

You can find the podcast Security Mom on iTunes, and see some of our conversation with Wendy Sherman transcribed below:



WENDY SHERMAN: So most Americans think about Iran and they think about, you know, all of the Americans that were taken hostage in 1979. But the enmity, the lack of trust between our countries actually started back in the 1950s when we were part of an intelligence operations to depose the prime minister of Iran after he nationalized the oil industry and our British colleagues weren’t particularly happy about that. So it’s, it’s long-held and pretty fierce. And we’ve all gone and seen “Argo" …so we know what this is all about.

JULIETTE KAYYEM: In the intensity of those moments when you’re really negotiating, how do you even structure how something like that is going to unfold when you don’t even know if you can get to the endgame, because presumably there were times when you were like, “We’re done. It’s not gonna happen.”?

WENDY SHERMAN:  There were many time we thought: “This is done. It’s not going to happen.” Remember, we were having bilateral discussions, but also multilateral discussions with all of the permanent members of the Security Council. That is the United Kingdom, Germany.France, Russia, China, the United States, and Germany. Plus the European Union, which coordinated this effort and did a lot of the negotiating as well.

So there were many times when we all for the first year, a lot of what we were doing is just seeing where everybody else was what they were willing to put on the table, brainstorm ideas. We had a core team of about 15, but we were backed up by literally hundreds of people in our government. Whenever we had an idea, it went out to our nuclear labs for validation. Each one of the countries had its own team of experts. And we negotiated with other people as well. So I joke all the time that we negotiated inside the U.S. government ’cause you have to agree among departments and agencies what your policy’s gonna be; what your trade space is gonna be; what you’re gonna agree to; what you won’t agree to. Then we, of course, had consultations and negotiations with the U.S. Congress.

We had negotiations bilaterally and as a group with each of our negotiating partners. We had negotiations with Israel. We had negotiations with the Gulf Arab states. We had negotiations with countries like Japan and Korea which imported a lot of Iranian oil. And anybody else who was interested. And then occasionally we negotiated with Iran.

So a very complicated negotiations. And so the reason that I led the team is because the Undersecretary for Political Affairs in the U.S. government is the political director of our country and the negotiation was done at the level of political director.

And there were times we would meet in Vienna or Geneva for a few days. Then we’d go back for consultations with our own government. Then come back again. When Ahmadinejad was president, the negotiations were held in Farsi and English. And we would jet all over the world. We went to Almaty. We went to Baghdad for one of the negotiations. It was all for naught. It never went anywhere ’cause Ahmadinejad didn’t want it to go anywhere. Then when Rouhani became president, we started negotiations. We did most of them in either Geneva and then ultimately, the vast majority in Vienna. And at, when you get to the places where you’ve got to take a big set, step, you’ve gotta stay for as long as it takes. So the last round of the negotiations, I spent 27 days in a hotel in Vienna.

JULIETTE KAYYEM:        Just straight?


JULIETTE KAYYEM: I mean just sorta that this, but then this became not, maybe just a legacy for the Obama administration. It was going to show that you could negotiate with quote-unquote “enemies.”  Are you socializing with them? 

WENDY SHERMAN: Working out climbing up and down stairs. Secretary John Kerry spent, I think, two and a half weeks at the negotiations in Vienna. The longest a Secretary of State has ever stayed in one place. Now he had a broken femur, which made it hard for him to move around. But nonetheless, he stayed. So he also had a big job. We have modern means and secure technology. So he could be on the telephone. He could do a secure videoconference. He could interact with other ministers who came to be part of the negotiations as well. So he could keep doing his job. And I did the same thing. I was responsible for every region in the world and all of the assistant secretaries. And I had a staff person with me whose major job was to give me reports of what else was going on in the world so I knew what else I had to do.

So for those 27 days, though, most of my time was spent on this negotiation. You’d get up early in the morning. Probably most of had breakfast in our room ’cause you’re trying to multitask and read the newspapers and get ready. Some folks were able, because of means they had to catch up on intelligence they needed to know. Have an early, early morning staff meeting. So everybody knew what was to be done because people worked in different groups on different problems, different groups of experts with different partners. Then there might be some down time during the day which you, when you could take care of other things while other groups were working on another part of the negotiation. Usually these would go late into the night. And towards the end you get almost no sleep at all. You use a lot of Woolite… And one of the team members’ kids sent us all sock puppets. Made a sock puppet for each one of us. We’d share videos of our kids and our grandkids. And my favorite story from on myself is I had a fairly young grandson and my daughter would send me photos at the, or videos at the end of each day, which sustained me, quite frankly. And she sent me one where he is looking at the front page of The New York Times and it has a picture of me on it sitting with Secretary Kerry and he kissed the newspaper. And that sort of like did me in. But also, you know, it made me think this is, I’m doing this so the world is safer…more peaceful.

We certainly got to know the Iranians. We were focused on two things: the nuclear negotiation and our American citizens. And I had a separate bilateral negotiation that went on about getting our American citizens home and they finally have come home, not all of them. Still really want to find out where Bob Levinson is and bring him home.

My Iranian counterpart and I both became grandparents during this negotiation. So we’d share videos of our grandkids and then we’d go right back in the negotiation room and be as difficult with each other as we needed to be.

JULIETTE KAYYEM:  So you know, you started off in sort of child welfare, child advocacy. You have a stint helping in politics. You’ve, you were part of an effort to do negotiations with North Korea. You’ve had the most remarkable career. You’re a mother and a grandmother and I, I can’t let you, you know, be here and not just ask like, like what was your attitude about your career? How does it unfold like that?

WENDY SHERMAN: I tell students not to have a five-year plan because you’ll miss great opportunities. What I do also say is get a skill set that’s transferable. And my skill set was as a community organizer, as a social worker, as a clinician. That’s what my master’s degree is in. And I’ve teased over the years that my caseload has just changed. It went from child welfare in the state to American politics to the world. And a lot of what I learned really starting where the other person is on the other side of the table, being able to see the whole landscape in front of you, which you have to do as an organizer. You have to see 360 degrees. Having courage of your convictions – I had folks who were very active in the civil rights movement. Actually, they were at the founding of the United Nations. So their activism goes way, way back. And they took big economic hits because of their courage. So have the courage of your convictions. Learn the skills and the substance you need and some competence. And then if you’re lucky, you’re at the right place at the right time.


>>>To hear more from our conversation with Wendy Sherman, please click on the audio link above,

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