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Lead U.S. Negotiator Talks About JCPOA Under Trump

As Iran holds its presidential election on May 19, in Washington, D.C. the Trump administration is in the midst of conducting a 90-day review of its Iran policy, namely the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) also known as the Iran deal.

Reached in July 2015, JCPOA was a result of intense negotiations between Iranian diplomats and officials from the United States, the United Kingdom, Russia, China, Germany, France (P5+1), and the European Union.

Today, more than 17 months into the implementation of the deal, Iran seems willing to re-establish its standing in the international community. However, given the tougher stance of the new U.S. administration, questions arise about the future cooperation between Iran and the world, Iran’s economic relations with various countries, and the future of JCPOA itself.

Although many experts believe the deal will continue, some are concerned about serious hurdles along the way and even the United States’ willingness to renegotiate certain aspects.

One of the lead negotiators during the Iran talks is Wendy Sherman, who is currently a non-resident senior fellow at Harvard Kennedy School's Belfer Center. As undersecretary of state in political affairs, Sherman led the U.S. team during the talks and met frequently with their Iranian counterparts in bilateral meetings. In this interview, conducted in March 2017, she shares her thoughts about the future of JCPOA and the approach of the new U.S. administration, as well as a look back at how the deal was reached.

You were the lead negotiator of the U.S. team for so long. The first obvious question here is, are you concerned about the future of JCPOA?

Wendy Sherman: Well, I think when we did the agreement we all understood [it would] be durable and sustainable only on the basis that it served all of the countries who participated. And that there might be changes in our government, in Iran’s government, and in other countries who sat at the table. So we tried to fasten the most durable deal possible that not only met the interest of -- in this case, the U.S. -- that Iran could not obtain a nuclear weapon but did so in a way we thought would have lasting power.

In the case of the U.S. administration, although while campaigning Trump said he would rip up the deal on the first day, he clearly did not do that. He will have to sign waivers, which I’m hopeful he will do; he has said he wants to rigorously enforce the agreement, which of course we all want.

So far, everyone has seen that all parties have complied. There have been a few technical glitches but [they] have gotten worked out in the joint commission. There is no doubt we have ongoing concerns about Iran’s activities in the region, which we think are not helpful and malicious and undermine peace and stability. So the United States will continue to use its existing sanctions for efforts against state sponsorship of terrorism, transfer of weapons, human rights abuses, proliferation, and I would imagine those would be enforced rigorously as well and there would be a new designation under that.

Whether U.S. Congress would take further action because of the activities in the region remains to be seen, but there are pressures Iran faces as it approaches its upcoming election, and we will see whether they can sustain the agreement, as well.

I hear from analysts critical of the deal, or those who suggest new policies to the current administration, that their top priority is rigorously enforcing JCPOA. Why is that? When implemented during the Obama administration, was something not addressed regarding its 100 percent implementation?

Sherman: No, I don’t believe so. I think the joint commission has vigorously enforced the agreement and the deal, as we call it. Agreement in English is a legal word that has further meanings, so we call it the deal. I think we all have vigorously enforced it, and I expect we continue to do so because that’s part of what ensures its sustainability.

Critics have been pointing out the issue of heavy water going over the level permeated. It was mentioned twice in the IAEA’s reports, and the commission waited until Iran reduced the stockpile. Do you think if the same were to occur again, the U.S. would behave any differently?

Sherman: I don’t know. I think the commission gave Iran time, and worked with Iran to find a solution to the heavy water issue. It is not the easiest thing to dispose of appropriately and move from the country. This was obviously a concern, but a solution was found. So I don’t think vigorously enforcing doesn’t means you don’t solve problems.

There was clearly a problem; it took a little bit of time to resolve, but it did get resolved. If it couldn’t get resolved to meet the requirements of the deal, action would have had to be taken.

Iran recently tested some missiles and was put on notice, with some new designations announced accordingly. Can you clarify why the issue of missiles was not part of JCPOA and only mentioned in UN Security Council Resolution 2231?

Sherman: Missiles, as you noted, are in the UNSC resolution, where they have been addressed previously. So we thought that is where they should be addressed. A country having a missile program can be viewed as part of conventional military action and development. But we certainly don’t want missiles capable of carrying nuclear weapons.

The deal itself was focused on ensuring all pathways to fissile material for the nuclear weapon itself were addressed as opposed to the delivery mechanism. The deal does indeed address all of that, and then as you note the UNSC resolution has an ongoing restriction on what Iran can do in terms of missile development and proliferation. That is something that should be enforced, and certainly the United Stated has bilateral means to do so. Having the UNSC resolution creates an international imprimatur for doing so, and it’s quite important.

Some international law experts from the Iranian side say that in UNSC 2231 Iran has been “called upon” rather than being prohibited, and this is why Iran can do what it is doing.

Sherman: Actually, they would be reading that wrong. It is true there is a little bit of space in some of the language, but it is quite clear technology that would allow Iran to create missiles capable of carrying a nuclear weapon is something that is not allowed -- and that enforcing action would be taken to ensure that.

When you were negotiating the deal, did you foresee sanction relief being the condition that Iran sees today and is so unsatisfied with its slow return to the international economy, attracting foreign investment, and working with international banks?

Sherman: Iran has got benefits out of the deal, but I had said to my Iranian counterpart at the time the nuclear sanctions were not the only thing keeping commerce from Iran. Iran was not compliant with a lot of international business practices, including money laundering. Iran did not have a banking system that made it easy for people to do business; they didn’t have transparent business practices on all of the international list of how difficult it was to do business in Iran. They were among the countries with the worst track-record for ease of doing business.

Being a private businesswoman now, and being one for a decade before, I became the under secretary; when businesses invest, they look at risks, and certainly the lifting of sanctions removed some considerable risk but risks remain because of banking practices, transparency, and Iran being the largest state sponsor of terrorism in the world. All of these increase risks.

I said to my counterpart this would help but will not solve all the problems, because the problems go well beyond the nuclear concerns. That said, Iran has seen some improvements; it is just the pace has not been as fast as I think they had wished.

During this time, we saw some steps being taken regarding money laundering and FATF. Did your counterpart react to your comments?

Sherman: I’m not going to go into specifics of what my counterpart said to me, and I can only talk about what I said to them. But I think they understand, and it’s one of the reasons Iran is trying to become compliant with FATF and with other basic approaches. It’s quite important, and I hope they will look at their activities in the region, which also are very concerning to business investors.

One of the issues critics have mentioned is the issue of regional players. They argue that leaving out regional U.S. allies from the negotiating table puts the U.S. in a sort of peculiar situation, and now the U.S. has to make up for it to gain trust and strengthen its partnerships. Do you think something was done incorrectly when you were negotiating?

Sherman: It is very, very difficult for one deal to carry every issue of concern of everyone. We consulted very closely with all of our partners and allies in the region, before and after every negotiating round and with some of our partners and allies on a stirringly consistent basis, so they were well aware of how this was proceeding.

Quite frankly, at the beginning of the process they didn’t want us to bring up any regional issues because they wanted to be in the room and didn’t want the P5+1 and EU making decisions about the region where they were not sitting.

What I said to them at the time, which they understood, were two things. One was that if Iran had a nuclear weapon, their ability to project power and deter our allies and partners’ actions would have been even more profound. Secondly, we said from the start to Iran that all other sanctions would remain in place and we would enforce them vigorously because there were many issues that had not been dealt with and we made a commitment to our allies and partners to build a common strategy to deal with the Iranian actions in the region. President Obama brought all of the nations together to do so. Secretary Kerry engaged very vigorously, and I would expect this administration to continue that effort.

Another issue which has been brought up is the case of Iranian dual nationals imprisoned in Iran. Eventually the swap happened, but the U.S. State Department and the White House said this didn’t have anything to do with the deal. At the same time, it happened parallel to the implementation of JCPOA. Why the timing? From that experience, what can be done today for other Iranian-American citizens in Iranian prisons?

Sherman: I was no longer the undersecretary on implementation day. And I really want to salute my colleagues, and not only in the U.S. government but in the P5+1 and the European Union who brought everything together for the implementation in January, to make everything quite real.

As it turned out, it all came together, including the freeing of detained U.S. citizens, who never should have been detained by Iran. That made for a pretty remarkable day.

The work to bring Americans home -- and we certainly have some Americans of concern and the greatest concern is of course about Robert Levinson, an American citizen who disappeared some years ago. His family has been in understandable agony every single day. And one of my own great regrets is that we were not able to find out where he is and bring him home.

That said, I did only two things as a U.S. negotiator. One was to work on the deal, to ensure Iran could not obtain a nuclear weapon. Second was to have a parallel bilateral discussion with Iran about the Americans who have been detained.

At the point that we saw maybe we have some traction to solve that problem, we then asked Brett McGurk in the U.S. government to lead an interagency group that met with [one] from Iran to try to work out a solution which brought us to the point where some Americans were freed in January.

So this has been very difficult, and it remains very difficult. Obama and Kerry named Jim O’Brien special envoy for these kinds of negotiations. He continued to work until the end of the Obama administration to free American citizens, wherever they were in the world who had been detained or kidnapped or imprisoned unjustly.

We hope that the Trump administration will continue that work that we can see everybody come home and we can find out where Robert Levinson is and get him home. too.

So you think the procedure was the way to go forward, and now the same should be done?

Sherman: I do. I think it brought results. It’s hard work, very complicated, very sensitive, and difficult. We have responsibility to every American family to do everything we possibly can to bring Americans home.

US Secretary of State John Kerry shakes hands with Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif as he prepares to leave the Austria Center in Vienna, July 14, 2015
US Secretary of State John Kerry shakes hands with Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif as he prepares to leave the Austria Center in Vienna, July 14, 2015

One last question. You observed two foreign ministers, Mohammad Javad Zarif of Iran and Secretary of State John Kerry, work so closely to reach the Iran deal. Now that the administration has changed, do you think such work can continue on other matters, such as events in the region?

Sherman: This is not only the decision of the United States; this is the decision for Iran. The supreme leader of Iran has said he doesn’t want to open up those avenues of discussion. I would hope that he would. I do think Kerry and Zarif -- as well as, quite frankly, Energy Secretary Moniz and Ali Salehi, the vice president and head chair of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran -- also had a channel of communication that was quite valuable.

I would hope those channels of communication continue because it is important, particularly when there are crises. When our sailors were taken by Iran, it was critical to have a channel of communication. The UN is an important channel, but having direct -- minister to minister -- communications, helps facilitate matters quickly. So I hope that continues.

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    Hannah Kaviani

    Hannah Kaviani is a Radio Farda staffer based in Prague, since 2008. She followed the nuclear negotiations between Iran and 6 world powers between 2013 and 2015 and covers the aftermath of Iran deal.