Meet the American 'badass' leading negotiations with Iran
November 21st, 2013
06:58 PM ET

Meet the American 'badass' leading negotiations with Iran

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.”

soundoff (27 Responses)
  1. Spuds

    Wendy Sherman is the wrong capitulatior for the job. First they could not arrange release of the American pastor being held tortured for a year now. This was just a ploy for Obama to change the focus off of Obamacare disaster. Iran cannot betrusted ever.

    November 25, 2013 at 2:07 pm | Reply
  2. Skorpio

    It is ironic that MUSLIM PRIESTS / CLERICS just like Rouhani and the other the Ayatollahs are in charge and behind ALL the weapons negotiations, in control of the Iranian Army, war, threats, destruction, murders, coercion and intimidation. It seems we are negotiating with SATAN'S DISCIPLES. The root of the problem are the "Satanic Verses" of the Qu'ran and prophet Mohammed's highly immoral, perverse, cruel, discriminatory conduct which are the role models for millions of brainless Muslims. Unless there is A MASSIVE CONVERSION OF MUSLIMS TO CHRISTIANITY or to any other religion, except Islam, the same GLOBAL Islamic madness and violence will never end.

    November 23, 2013 at 12:16 pm | Reply
    • Coldstream

      Skorpio, you sound like someone who has not read the Old Testament. Before you start spewing hatred, have a look at that book which is exhorts murder and genocide and then judge whether the Quran is as you say it is.

      November 23, 2013 at 12:40 pm | Reply
  3. John Smith

    America is the root of all terror. America has invaded sixty countries since world war 2.
    In 1953 America overthrow Iran's democratic government Mohammad Mosaddegh and installed a brutal dictator Shah. America helped Shah of Iran to establish secret police and killed thousands of Iranian people.
    During Iran-Iraq war evil America supported Suddam Hossain and killed millions of Iranian people. In 1989, America, is the only country ever, shot down Iran's civilian air plane, killing 290 people.
    In 2003,America invaded Iraq and killed 1,000,000+ innocent Iraqi people and 4,000,000+ Iraqi people were displaced.
    Now America is a failed state with huge debt. Its debt will be 22 trillion by 2015.

    November 23, 2013 at 12:15 am | Reply
  4. bob

    “I have always said good negotiators ultimately try to get more than they give,” she said.

    Is this really what excellent negotiators attempt to do? So she believes both parties can't grow or share the pie?

    November 22, 2013 at 7:14 pm | Reply
  5. Jim

    BEWARE! Iranian culture does not respect honesty, integrity or character. These people are ruthless lying leaders,who will buffalo any weak negotiator. Remember the past history of Iranian negotiations on any matter. They give great lip service but do not honor their agreements.

    November 22, 2013 at 5:39 pm | Reply
    • Gerald O'Hare

      Who are you to bash Iranian culture, Jim? Do you really think that the right-wing thugs in Washington are any better? We need to overcome our ignorance and hatred when it comes to Iran!

      November 22, 2013 at 5:46 pm | Reply
    • Coldstream

      Jim, you are soooo funny. Please continue writing, it makes me feel good about myself.

      November 22, 2013 at 5:55 pm | Reply
      • MT

        Obama approval rating 37% today, 22% less than 2 years ago. Need I say more. C

        December 11, 2013 at 12:27 am |
  6. Coldstream

    Badass in a negotiation and screwing your opposite number = someone who does not get the big picture. US will have leave Afghanistan – more than ever US will need Iran to help balance the forces there if Taleban is not gioing to take over. US needs Iran's cooperation in every theatre of the Middle East – in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Palestine. By not doing a deal and taking the side of client states who in any case have nowhere to go, US just shoots itself in the foot. Obama is many things, but he is neither stupid nor weak. It has taken guts to re-arrange the its foreign policy to protect the US. Will Israel and SAudi Arabia squeal? For sure, but they have been part of the problem that has brought the Middle East to such dire straits.

    November 22, 2013 at 2:36 pm | Reply
    • Gerald O'Hare

      Well put, Coldstream. Thank you.

      November 22, 2013 at 5:48 pm | Reply
  7. You Got It

    Weny Sherman is NOT the right person for this job, and you can bet Iran will do whatever they can to lie and mislead during the "talks".
    They've done it in the past, they'll keep doing it.

    And for George Patton: Why don't you brush up on Iran's history of past negotiations and promises made, etc. Your idea of being right: forget the past, none of that matters, let's just move forward.

    If you think their culture buys that crap, you're the only simpleton here ........learn more about your enemies, sir. And yes, they are an enemy of the US – if you don't believe that either, you REALLY need to read & learn more.

    November 22, 2013 at 1:57 pm | Reply
  8. Random

    Ive done my share of social work too, actually it was a huge hurdle to overcome to be able to understand the dynamics in the ME. It basically took turning everything i had learned doing social work upside down. Where I would give my coat away in the cold, it's with that same conviction that they slaughter anyone who believes something other than what they do.

    I personally feel she is not the right person for the job. She is too kind hearted given her background. Not only does the culture not respect women , but her previous experience is actually a hindrance , and will make her exceedingly easy to mislead. We need someone more along the lines of kerry the first few days dealing with syria, with a bit of mccain. Before he started giving it a chance. Nice intentions with iran are a liability.

    November 22, 2013 at 7:20 am | Reply
    • Random

      Take the cue kerry. That is as close to an engraved invitation you are going to get. At the least your appearance will shore up her position.

      November 22, 2013 at 9:55 am | Reply
  9. Jay

    She is Jewish. Her loyalty is first and foremost to Israel, not the US, and she will sabotage all nogotiations. But of course, we are not allowed to point that out.

    November 22, 2013 at 1:21 am | Reply
    • Blah11

      What does it feel like to be stupid. Please tell us.

      November 22, 2013 at 1:35 pm | Reply
  10. Mike

    Regime of Iran did not, is not, and will definitely not stop its nuclear weapon program. Anyone thinks otherwise does not know terror of liar and dictator regime. More sanctions will be most effective.

    November 21, 2013 at 8:25 pm | Reply
    • George patton

      Thank you, Mike. Spoken like another uneducated, right-wing, hillbilly Tea Partier from the South!!! I bet you have no idea of the rise of Islam or what they believe, do you? I think not.

      November 21, 2013 at 10:53 pm | Reply
      • Kim

        Which kind of Islam? Taliban also claim that believe Islam?! Ghadafi also was another Islam supreme leader!

        November 21, 2013 at 10:59 pm |
    • Rerun

      So Jay, because she is jewish, her first loyalty must be to Israel? Which means since i'm catholic, my loyalty should be to Vatican city regardless of never visiting the city and not knowing much about it? Rediculous. Separation of church and state happened centuries ago and most jewish people i know are proud to call themselves Americans. Not Jewish Americans. Your choice of God and religion is your business and has no place in negotiations. I think her appointment was genious. Some things take a womans touch, especially in matters of pride. This long history of hatred between the US and Iran is not baseless. Both sides have reason not to trust the other, but i admire Obama and his administration in his attempts to alter the course. Our middle east plan for the past 50 years hasn't worked and terrorist groups such as alqaeda is a direct result. We need to change our philosphy. We can't police the world, we don't need to force our ideals, our democracy on anyone. We pushed Iran in a corner, their nuclear capability was done for survival. As much as the Iranians hated Saadam, watching him on the run must have given the Aatollah nightmares about being next. Especially after the axis of evil speech. Our president is trying change that perception. Not only will an additional military conflict in the middle east effectively bankrupt the US but we are also out of the business setting up puppets to pull their strings. And like the commenter above, i have no love lost for Israel or Saudi Arabia our so called allies. Where were their combat units during Iraq and Afghanistan? They want war with Iran, let them fight it themselves!

      December 9, 2013 at 2:56 pm | Reply
  11. sara

    She is also a racist. Just look up what she says about Iranian people.

    November 21, 2013 at 7:27 pm | Reply
    • Mike

      Blame your ayatollah that love bomb!

      November 21, 2013 at 8:26 pm | Reply
      • sara

        No I blame her for her racist remarks about the Iranian people.

        November 22, 2013 at 12:01 am |
  12. lila

    If ever you need advice, Diana the Huntress, or Sita, or Rat. They are allways there to help.
    unless they are being held hostage on usa military experimental tecnology, getting raped repetedly by personel mike holmes!

    November 21, 2013 at 7:25 pm | Reply
  13. George patton

    Wendy Sherman has the right idea here. One must be open minded. Unfortunately, most of us Americans are not as evidenced by many of these narrow minded bloggers on this website!!!

    November 21, 2013 at 7:06 pm | Reply

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