By CNN Foreign Affairs Reporter Elise Labott
Social work and community organizing may seem unlikely career experiences for a lead negotiator to draw on in high-stakes nuclear talks with Iran.
But in an interview before she headed to Geneva this week for the negotiations, Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman joked that while her caseload may be more global now, the work is similar.
“Understanding who the person is across the table from you, watching the group dynamics and knowing when to intervene, scoping out situations and seeing where the points of leverage are and how you can reach your objective, are a set of skills I was trained with earlier in my life and have used in any setting I have been in,” Sherman said. “You have to understand what you’ve come to achieve but be very cognizant of all of the other pieces. You need a 360-degree view.”
Today, Sherman’s “caseload” involves the complex relationship and budding detente between Washington and Tehran, as well as managing a series of clients both inside and outside the meeting room.
First, Sherman must manage the solidarity within the P5+1 negotiating group, no easy feat with Russia and China appearing eager to accept a weaker agreement and France and Britain even more hardline than the United States. Add to that a series of countries not even taking part in the negotiations, but with strong vested interests - including Persian Gulf states and, most important, Israel.
Since taking on the Iran file, Sherman has been a constant presence in Jerusalem in an effort to allay Israeli concerns. Now that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has decided he cannot support the deal with Iran, and the White House has decided to move ahead over his objections, Sherman will be on the front lines to repair the open break between the two countries.
If that weren't enough, Sherman also is in a race against the clock to close a deal, before Congress makes good on its threat to impose new sanctions against Iran.
“We all share the same objective, which is to ensure that Iran does not acquire a nuclear weapon,” she said. “It’s also the Iranian objective because they want relief from sanctions, and that is the only way they will get what they want. These opportunities do not come along very often, so if we can get the deal we must have, we should do it.”
It’s not the first time Sherman has been in a high-stakes nuclear negotiation. As counselor to then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, Sherman was at the table when the United States sought a deal with North Korea to curb the development and proliferation of Pyongyang’s long-range missiles in exchange for substantial aid and civilian nuclear reactors.
The deal was so far along that Sherman accompanied Albright on a historic trip to Pyongyang, the highest-level visit to North Korea by a U.S. official since the end of the Korean War.
That trip was meant to pave the way for a possible visit by then-President Bill Clinton, but was remembered for the image of Albright clinking champagne glasses with then-leader North Korean leader Kim Jong Ill and the massive spectacle in Pyongyang’s soccer stadium, where some 100,000 North Koreans formed the image of a Taepodong missile in a synchronized dance.
Sherman was supposed to lead the follow-on talks, but the White House canceled the negotiations because of the disputed U.S. presidential election of 2000.
“We felt that before we could bring an agreement to closure, we needed to brief the incoming administration because they would actually have to follow through. We didn’t have the ability to do that,” Sherman said, adding “President Clinton made a very tough decision to end the talks.”
Whether more time would have made a difference, Sherman wouldn’t speculate. But she said the lesson then was the same as the situation now faced with Iran.
“There can be an opportunity, but you have to bring it to closure,” Sherman said. “When people ask me if we are going to get to an agreement this week, I have said that I believe we can but I don’t know if we will, because until you do, you haven’t.”
Sherman shies away from comparisons between the North Korean negotiations and today’s diplomacy with Iran, calling them “entirely different countries.” Both sought relief from punishing sanctions, but Pyongyang was completely isolated from the rest of the world, while Iran prides itself on international engagement. North Korea’s nuclear program was more advanced than Iran's is now, far more than the international community even knew at the time.
“The times are different, the capabilities are different, the cultures are different, the circumstances are different,” Sherman said.
Critics in Israel and on Capitol Hill maintain the North Korea example bolsters an important theory: that even if a deal is struck, there is no guarantee Iran will honor it.
After initially cutting off direct talks with Pyongyang, Clinton’s successor - President George W. Bush - joined a six-nation diplomatic process with North Korea. Following a 2006 nuclear test by Pyongyang, the so-called Six Party Talks struck a deal for North Korea to dismantle its nuclear program in exchange for substantial aid and the lifting of U.S. sanctions.
That deal fell apart, followed by fits and starts of diplomacy that have ultimately been unsuccessful in curbing North Korea’s nuclear ambitions. In the 13 years since Albright and Sherman visited Pyongyang, North Korea has conducted two nuclear tests and launched countless long-range missiles, and its nuclear program continues unabated.
Now Sherman is one of three women sitting across from the Iranian delegation, along with European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton and her deputy, Helga Schmid.
Gary Saymore, who stepped down earlier this year as President Barack Obama’s top adviser on arms control and weapons proliferation, called Sherman an “iron fist in a velvet glove.”
A current aide was more blunt, saying simply about the boss: "She's badass"
“She is very personable and pleasant and polite, but she is tough as nails,” Saymore said. “It all comes down to an issue of trust, I trust her to negotiate the best deal under the circumstances.”
Saymore noted the circumstances may never be more in Sherman’s favor. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is under pressure from hardliners to lift sanctions quickly. The Obama administration is eager strike a deal before Congress imposes more sanctions that could cause Iran to accelerate its program and reprise the diplomatic tit-for-tat that has existed between the countries for years.
Sherman called herself merely “the face of a very deep, broad and intricate” U.S. effort to negotiate with Iran.
But she is the one sitting across from Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif. And she knows, as lead negotiator, that the fate of the talks will hinge on what she and her counterparts will be able to extract from the Iranian side.
“I have always said good negotiators ultimately try to get more than they give,” she said. “And at the very least not give more than they get.”