Inside the grueling negotiations that led to the Iran nuclear deal
The Iran nuclear deal is one of the most significant diplomatic agreements in recent history. This week on The Negotiators, we’ll hear the inside story from Wendy Sherman, who led the US side of the negotiations as the Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs. She now serves as the Deputy Secretary of State.
Of course, much has changed since the Iran nuclear deal was reached in 2015. President Trump abandoned the agreement in 2018. To catch us up, host Jenn Williams talks to Ali Vaez, the International Crisis Group’s Iran project director, about where talks stand with Iran these days.
Note: We encourage you to listen to the audio if you are able, as it includes emotion not captured by the transcript. Please check the corresponding audio before using any quotes.
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JENN WILLIAMS, HOST:
From Foreign Policy and Doha Debates. Welcome to The Negotiators. Each week, we feature one person telling the story of one dramatic negotiation that either succeeded or failed. I’m Jenn Williams, one of the deputy editors here at Foreign Policy.
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JENN: Today, you’ll hear about the Iran nuclear deal, one of the most significant diplomatic agreements in recent history. When it was struck in 2015, lots of people praised it, while others called it a bad deal, including many US Republicans and many Israelis. President Trump pulled the US out of the agreement in 2018, but the Biden administration is now trying to restore the deal. So we’re going to do something a bit different with this episode. First, we’re going to hear from Wendy Sherman, who was the lead US negotiator of the Iran nuclear deal. She now serves as the Deputy Secretary of State. The story you’re about to hear from Sherman was adapted from an interview she gave Foreign Policy’s podcast First Person. Later, I’ll sit down with Ali Vaez, the Iran Project Director for the International Crisis Group. Vaez talks to people on all sides of the Iran nuclear deal, officially known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA. He’ll describe what went wrong and where negotiations stand today. But first to Wendy Sherman, who started her career as a social worker before getting into government.
As a social worker, I got a core set of skills in community organizing and how to work with groups. I got clinical skills, which I joke all the time have been very useful with dictators and members of Congress, and I’ve used those skills in political campaigns, which certainly take those skills—working on presidential campaigns. And then I got a call about whether I’d come and meet Warren Christopher the next day, who was going to be Bill Clinton’s first Secretary of State. I couldn’t imagine why he wanted to see me. But of course I said yes, and I went and met him. And he said, “You know, if the president agrees, I would like you to consider being nominated to be the Assistant Secretary for Legislative Affairs.” And I said to Chris, “If you want someone who knows everything there is to know about foreign policy, I’m probably not the right person. But if you want someone who understands Washington and the Hill, maybe I am the right person.” I ended up becoming the Assistant Secretary. I then became Madeleine Albright’s counselor; she and I had known each other for years. And then Secretary Clinton asked me to come back—and President Obama—as the Under Secretary for Political Affairs.
I think the Under Secretary for Political Affairs is probably the best job in the State Department. You’re responsible for every regional bureau and all international organizations, so it’s an incredibly broad mandate. During the four years that I was the Under Secretary, I went to 54 different countries—several of them multiple times. And the Under Secretary for Political Affairs in the US government is the US government’s political director, and the Iran negotiations were done at the political director’s level. So that’s why I ended up being the lead negotiator on the Iran nuclear deal. And so, while I was worried, and had to worry about all the rest of the world—sort of had to do the Iran negotiation over here with my pinky finger.
I began to try to negotiate with the Iranians, and there were very set pieces where the Iranians would do their talking points in Farsi, then we’d do our talking points in English, and we didn’t get much of anywhere. But when Rouhani was elected president, things did start to change. He was elected on a platform of reform, which the economy of Iran needed badly—of trying to remove the sanctions. The majority of Iran is quite young, and I think he well understood that if the economy did not improve, then it would be—or could become a threat to the regime, though they’re pretty good at oppression.
So things began to change. The back channel—the secret channel—had actually started under Ahmadinejad, and when Rouhani became president, he was shocked to find out that the United States and Iran had had a secret discussion. It hadn’t accomplished a lot, and it had actually gone in sort of a hiatus during the election in Iran. But now it looked like indeed, we were going to begin to get some traction. Javad Zarif was named as the lead for Iran in the P5+1 negotiations. Zarif knew the United States extremely well. He lived here 30 years of his life. He understood media quite well, as we all have seen. All of the negotiations were done in English, so it was a whole new ballgame.
I was at the UN General Assembly, and was set to meet the gentlemen who are going to become my counterparts—the Iranian negotiators, Abbas Araghchi and Majid Ravanchi. It was very awkward. As a woman, I could not shake hands. I sort of would put my hand over my chest and slight nod of my head instead of shaking hands. It sort of looks like a Marx Brothers routine if you’re in the middle of a room filled with men. But nonetheless. And so one day, trying to find some common ground with Abbas Araghchi and Majid Ravanchi, I started a conversation about this. I said, “You know, it’s sort of awkward. I can’t shake your hands. It’s a little unusual.” But I, in fact, grew up in a Jewish community, and in Orthodox Judaism, most men won’t shake hands with a woman who isn’t their wife or daughter or mother. It was a very fascinating conversation. They were, at first, surprised that I raised this, but it gave us a different way of thinking about each other. And we entered into very, very serious talks.
The United States had been saying in every formal meeting that Iran should have no enrichment facilities or enrichment processes whatsoever. And enriching uranium is one of the methods—the other being plutonium—to get material of such a grade that it can be used in a nuclear weapon. And we wanted forever to shut it down and have none. But the president had come to realize that people cannot unlearn what they know; that he would consider Iran having a very small, limited, civil nuclear program—which is permitted under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty—if it were quite aggressively monitored and verified by the International Atomic Energy Agency.
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WENDY: There were hundreds of sticking points—literally thousands of sticking points. But you have to find common ground, and part of the way you do that is through human interaction. It doesn’t change your objectives, it doesn’t change how tough you are in the negotiating room. But it does allow you to see each other in more human terms and probably have more civil conversation. Even Foreign Minister Zarif—when I was really pissed at him, he knew it, because I called him Minister Zarif. At other times, when we were just working hard on behalf of our own interests, I might call him Javad. When Abbas Araghchi and I both became grandparents during this negotiation, we swapped photographs, and it just allowed us to understand that we were actually individuals doing the best for our country’s interests. It doesn’t change how tough you are in the negotiating room, but it does create a better environment to meet your interests.
There was a point where—we were getting to the point where we had to put things down on paper, and we were having a very difficult time, because the Iranians were very concerned about things being on paper, because then they’d have to take them back to Tehran, get new instructions—their politics might pick those pieces apart. And so it occurred to me that we should use a low-tech solution to this. So I asked my team to find a very large wheeled whiteboard, brought it into the room, put every element of the deal on the whiteboard. Then we sat there and went through each element. Everybody, of course, took furious notes, and then were able to transmit those positions back to their governments without it being final. So it was incredibly helpful device, and it almost came to disaster, because one of the other teams used a regular marker as opposed to a whiteboard marker and couldn’t erase the numbers. They ultimately figured a way to sort of scratch them out of the board, but it was a very useful, low-tech device. And so, sometimes, the most obvious solutions are quite simple and quite low tech.
What came out of the secret channel, ultimately, was an interim agreement that froze and rolled back some of Iran’s nuclear programs in exchange for some small lifting of sanctions. And it was thought that that would give us six months to negotiate a final agreement. It actually took us nearly 18 months. Indeed, before we even began these intense negotiations, I asked my core team to write an entire agreement. Not because we thought we’d get exactly that, but because we needed to know, and good preparation requires that you know what you’re trying to achieve. And then after they wrote this 100 pages of agreement, we sat in a conference room for two days, and everybody on the team, no matter what their role, went through it line by line so we would be really well prepared.
JENN: You’re listening to The Negotiators, a production of Foreign Policy and Doha Debates. [LIVELY INSTRUMENTAL MUSIC] We’ll be right back.
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JENN: Welcome back to The Negotiators, a production of Foreign Policy and Doha Debates. I’m Jenn Williams. So, Sherman and her team are making progress in negotiations with the Iranians, but opponents of the deal are also hard at work, including Republican House Speaker John Boehner and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Back to Sherman.
WENDY: When John Boehner invited Bibi Netanyahu to a joint session of Congress to castigate us for the Iran agreement that we were working on without consultation with President Obama, followed by a letter signed by 47 Republicans to the Iranians saying, you know, “Unless Congress has a role here, this isn’t going to stand beyond President Obama.” Neither of those were particularly wonderful from our perspective, to say the least. But nothing is ever wasted in a negotiation if you’re conscious of everything that’s going on. So that when the Iranians said to me, you know, “Woe is us, we’ll never get this through. They can impeach us”—which can happen in their system—I was able to say to them, “Excuse me, we both have problems. You saw what happened in our joint session. You’ve seen this letter sent by Senator Cotton. So if we’re going to get to a deal, it has to meet both of our interests so that it can survive domestically in both cases.”
So we went to Vienna, the Palais Coburg, for what we thought would be the marathon—and we had no idea what a marathon it would be. President Obama was fully engaged. We would have secure video conferences with him at like 3:00 in the morning Vienna time, because that worked for his schedule back in Washington, you know, to say, “Here’s where we are, what’s acceptable to you?” Because at the end of the day, we were coming to the point where the president has to call the shots. He has to say whether what you’re arriving at is sufficient to this negotiation.
It was day 25—a time I ate exactly one meal outside the hotel. And Helga Schmid, who was Cathy Ashton and then Federica Mogherini’s deputy, and really the unsung hero of these negotiations—she probably spent more time with the Iranians than anyone, just an extraordinary diplomat. Helga and I, a couple of her team—who happened to be women as well—were trying to get the pieces together and the agreement, and the ministers had gone off with a couple of aides—because not all the ministers were there—to have dinner together. And I’m not going to say who started to text us messages that some of the ministers were saying they didn’t know why this was taking so long. If they’d been doing it, not we women, it would be done by now. Helga and I decided to ignore the misogyny and just get the work done.
Yeah, there were a lot of mishaps. Minister Zarif had a very bad back, got the flu a couple of times. Secretary Kerry, of course, broke his femur. Ali Saleh, he had surgery in the middle of this. And I was rushing up to our delegation room at the Palais Coburg in Vienna, where we did these negotiations—an elevator went up to this suite so that it was secure, because we had secure communications equipment in it. It had glass doors after you got out of the elevator; they were usually open. I was rushing quite late at night to get to the phone for Secretary Kerry. Someone had closed those glass doors. I smashed into them, started bleeding like mad. The guys around me said, you know, “Call an ambulance.” I said, “No, no, you’re clearly not mothers. When you hit your nose, you bleed a lot. Get me an ice pack.” I did the phone call with Secretary Kerry. He didn’t know for months it had happened. But I went the next day, saw the ear, nose and throat doctor who took care of the opera stars in Vienna. And he walked out into the anteroom to greet me and said, in English, “[EXPLETIVE BLEEPED] happens.” Turned out I’d broken it in several places. These days, unless your nose goes at a 90-degree angle and it disturbs your breathing, you don’t do much. He packed it up. Makeup helped with most of the black and blue. A lot of Advil. And most of my colleagues never knew it happened.
One of the last pieces of the negotiation was the UN Security Council resolution, which, although not fundamentally a part of the negotiation, had to be reconciled with previous resolutions now that we were hopefully going to have a deal. And because the US holds the pen on Iran resolutions, it was me, Rob Malley—my deputy, an extraordinary diplomat—sitting across from Abbas Araghchi and Majid Ravanchi to negotiate this. None of us had had much sleep. I’d put a piece of paper in the middle of the table of elements that I thought could work—a couple of different options to get to some of the details we needed in the resolution. And Abbas Araghchi said, “OK, I think this one can work.” And I thought, “Oh, we’re—we’re actually going to get this deal done.” And then he said, “But one more thing”—which is a totally Iranian tactic; there’s always one more thing that they need. And I was furious. I was furious because of the delay and the extension of the talks. My plan for the fall, when I was going to retire from the State Department to go to Harvard, was now completely screwed up. And I was most furious because they were putting the entire deal at risk at this 11th hour. And so I started to yell and get angry and say, “You’ve put this all at risk.” And no matter what I did, I could not stop the tears from streaming down my face. You know, as a woman, somewhere along the line, I was taught—and I think most women are taught—you’re not supposed to get angry. And so when I get angry, I cry, because crying is something women are permitted to do. I’ve tried over the years to stop it. [LAUGHS] I dig my fingernails into my hand. It does no good. So I’ve just come to accept that’s what I have to live with.
Everybody was silent. Even Rob wasn’t sure what to do with me. This was a Wendy Sherman they hadn’t seen before. And after what seemed like a long time, but I guess was not, Abbas leaned forward and said, “OK, we’re done.” So I would never urge women to adopt this as a tactic, but I tell this story because we are most powerful when we are our authentic selves, and when we try to be other than our authentic selves, we undermined our own power.
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WENDY: The final agreement was 110 pages long. It included a series of very complex, detailed annexes. This is a very technical agreement. I’m sure most of the Republican senators—and probably some of the Democratic senators, as well—have never read it, because it is a very, very complex agreement.
I spent 27 days in that hotel. I ate one meal outside of the hotel. No, you don’t know that you’re going to get to the end. There is a lot of momentum to get to the end. But there were many setbacks during those 27 days, and there were times during these days where the secretary went to Zarif’s room and said, you know, “If you can’t do this, go get more instructions, or tell me it can’t be done.” And you just have to be ready to do that.
In the end, we got to an agreement. It was terrific on one hand, but for the United States, we really couldn’t celebrate, because we had to go back and make sure that Congress didn’t disapprove the deal, which is how the congressional review process was set up. It was a disapproval, and we knew that we had only so many days to work that, because the time limit of the legislation meant that we had to resolve this by September 17th. So we got on the airplane. We had a quick toast, and then we all passed out, because we were exhausted knowing that we had to go back and immediately begin working the Congress.
JENN: So that was Wendy Sherman, describing how she helped broker the Iran nuclear deal in 2015. But of course, President Trump’s withdrawal from the deal more or less killed the agreement.
To bring us up to date, I spoke to Ali Vaez, the Iran Project Director at the International Crisis Group. Vaez is one of the smartest analysts around on this issue, and he’s in touch with people on all sides of the debate. Here’s our conversation.
JENN: So this is a really general question, but what do you think the American public misunderstands the most about the Iranian side in these negotiations?
I think the US public doesn’t have a good sense of what Iran’s nuclear program—what threat Iran’s nuclear program actually poses to the US. The reality is that recent surveys demonstrate that the majority of Americans—above 60%—believe that Iran already has a nuclear weapon. Whereas the reality is that Iran not only has not had nuclear weapons, it’s still far away from the ability of having nuclear weapons. A lot of people believe that, for instance, the breakout time—which is the amount of time that takes for Iran to enrich enough fissile material for one nuclear weapon—means the breakout time to developing nuclear weapons.
ALI: The reality is, once you have enough fissile material, you have to fashion that into a nuclear weapon, and then put that on the cone of a missile, test it—and that process itself takes about two years. And so, even now that Iran’s nuclear breakout time has shrunk significantly—from 12 months that the nuclear deal had envisioned to now one month timeline—you know, Iran is still at least two years away from being able to have a single nuclear weapon. And so, Iranian nuclear weaponization is not an imminent or inevitable threat, but I don’t think the American public really have that perception.
JENN: So what do you think were the biggest achievements of the deal? And then, what do you think were the biggest flaws of the agreement that was actually finally reached and signed in 2015?
ALI: Getting multilateral agreements between adversarial countries is a rare phenomenon. It doesn’t happen every year –
JENN: – Sure.
ALI: – Every decade, even.
ALI: So that, in and of itself, is an achievement. Second, Iran’s nuclear program, at that time, was about two months away from the ability to break out. And the deal basically rolled back Iran’s nuclear program, put it in a box, and put it under the most rigorous international inspection regime ever established anywhere in the world. I used to say the good news is that we have a nuclear deal. The bad news is that we only have a nuclear deal.
JENN: [LAUGHS] Right.
ALI: You know, the reality is, we had a narrow transactional agreement in the context—in the broader context of enmity between Iran and the United States and their regional allies. And you know, by definition, those tensions eventually spilled over into the nuclear deal as well. And some of the measures that President Obama took in order to alleviate concerns of US allies in the region—for instance, by providing them with billions of dollars of sophisticated weapons—in fact deepened and exacerbated Iran’s threat perception, pushing them to double down on their ballistic missile program and on the regional activities, which then, in turn, was used by opponents here to point to the shortcomings of the JCPOA, and to prove that the deal has actually exacerbated Iran’s behavior on other fronts. And eventually, they managed to convince the Trump administration to withdraw from the deal. But you know, again, any deal by definition is imperfect, and the JCPOA on that front was not an exception. But I think if it had been achieved, maybe in the early years of the second term of President Obama, it would have had a different fate.
JENN: So, obviously, a lot has happened since the deal was signed. As you said, you know, Trump pulled out in 2018. Iran is now closer to having a nuclear weapon than they were back in 2015. Is that right?
JENN: And the election in June in Iran brought in the leadership that is potentially more critical of the agreement. So what do you think both sides need to do to—to actually get back to the table?
ALI: So look, the reality is that both sides want the same thing. The Iranians want sanctions lifted, want the JCPOA restored, despite the fact that the new Iranian administration was very critical of the previous Rouhani administration who negotiated the deal. And the Biden administration also wants to, once again, put Iran’s nuclear program back in a box and under monitoring. The problem is, I think, that there were two misperceptions on both sides. On the US side, you know, we treated Iran as any other adversarial negotiating partner. Whereas Iranians—because we reneged on the agreement in 2018 and inflicted enormous harm on their economy—they believe that they’re the aggrieved party here, and they expected the US to understand that the onus is on Washington to apologize, to try to make it up to them. And these two misperceptions, I think, eventually resulted in the fact that, although both sides wanted the same thing, after six rounds of negotiations in Vienna between April and June of this year, they were not able to find a mutually acceptable formula. And talks now have been in deadlock and in limbo since Iran went through a presidential transition in June. Iranians would eventually come back to the table, I believe, in October or maybe November. But it is expected that they would have a much harder position, try to drive a much harder bargain, which is bad news, because it probably means that the deadlock will continue and could potentially result in the collapse of the agreement. We’ll see if the new Iranian government has new demands or has changed some of these priorities. None of them are without solution. But it requires, really, flexibility on both sides if they are to bridge the gaps and restore the deal, which I think remains the least costly option compared to all alternatives.
JENN: So on that note, what gives you hope? I mean, do you have hope? It sounds like you have a pretty optimistic, kind of, read on the fact that there are ways out of this, there are pathways toward a negotiation. What gives you that kind of optimism, that there actually could be a solution here?
ALI: So, I’m actually quite cynical that both sides will be able to –
JENN: [LAUGHS] – You’re in good company, so it’s OK.
ALI: [LAUGHS] – will be able to, you know, overcome these differences. I’ve seen this during the negotiations that led to the JCPOA—that, at the end of the day, the most important factor is political will. If there is political will, at the end of the day, you’ll figure out a way. I remember, when the talks started in 2013 about the JCPOA, Iran had about 10,000 centrifuges then. Iranians wanted to keep those 10,000 centrifuges. The US wanted them to have 500.
JENN: [LAUGHS] That’s a big difference.
ALI: A big difference. The Iranians wanted to accept limits for about two years. The US wanted them to accept limits on the program for 30 years. And eventually, they ended up somewhere in between. It took two and a half years of negotiations –
JENN: [LAUGHS] – Sure.
ALI: – It was grueling and difficult, but there was political will, so they ended up with a compromise. And, so, I think if both sides truly understand that the alternatives to this agreement—you know, which is not really difficult to imagine. Maybe in 2018, the opponents of the—of the JCPOA, who wanted the Trump administration to get out of it, were promising us a better deal. But now we know, in the absence of diplomacy, what’s the outcome, which is a race of sanctions against centrifuges. It’s a lose-lose dynamic with the risk of military confrontation. During the Trump administration’s last year in office, we came three times to the verge of a military confrontation between Iran and the US. Iran is now a month away from breakout. In a few months, breakout will be near zero. It’s much better to put this issue on ice and start negotiating about a better—for better arrangement. So that’s the only thing that still gives me a little bit of hope, that maybe they would realize that this is in their best interest and the alternatives are less attractive. Again, unfortunately, I think mistrust is marrow-deep on both sides, and political obstacles to restoring the agreement remain formidable.
JENN: Yeah, great. Thank you so much. Ali Vaez, Crisis Group’s Iran Project Director. Really appreciate your time.
ALI: Absolute pleasure. Thanks for having me.
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JENN: The Negotiators is a production of Foreign Policy and Doha Debates. A bunch of people helped produce today’s show, including Rob Sachs, Rosie Julin, Zamone Perez, Claudia Teti, Japhet Weeks, Jigar Mehta, Amjad Atallah and Dan Ephron. Laura Rosbrow-Telem is the show’s senior producer. Thanks to Nelufar Hedayat, Govinda Clayton and James Wolley for helping create the show with Doha Debates, a production of Qatar Foundation. If you want to help us out, please subscribe on your favorite platform and leave us a review.
Next week on the show, you’ll actually hear about a hostage negotiation between the US and Iran, shortly after Trump pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal.
MAN: It’s important to realize these conversations can never start with, “Oh, what do you need me to give you in order for you to give me the prisoner?” Because, from the perspective of the captor, that person is never a political prisoner. They’re a criminal that is paying for their crimes.
JENN: That’s Mickey Bergman. Next week, on The Negotiators.