Paul C. Warnke Lecture on International Security With Wendy R. Sherman

Monday, September 17, 2018
Don Pollard
Wendy R. Sherman

Senior Fellow, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs; Senior Counselor, Albright Stonebridge Group; Former Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs, U.S. Department of State (2011–2015); Author, Not for the Faint of Heart: Lessons in Courage, Power, and Persistence

Richard Engel

Chief Foreign Correspondent, NBC News

The Paul C. Warnke Lecture on International Security was established in 2002 and is endowed by a number of Council members and the family and friends of Paul C. Warnke. The lecture commemorates his legacy of courageous service to the nation and international peace.

ENGEL: So I guess we get started. It looks like we have a full house. And on behalf of Ambassador Sherman, thank you all for coming here. This is the—hello. I recognize some faces in the crowd.

This is the Paul C. Warnke Lecture on International Security. It was established in 2002 and is, of course, dedicated to the—to the memory of Paul Warnke, who was a famous diplomat, the father of the SALT Treaty, a big advocate of arms control. And members of his family are here today, and so it’s a great honor for them—and including Stephen, who we just had a few minutes to talk to.

But tonight we’re going to be talking with Ambassador Wendy Sherman. She has a new book out, and we’re going to be talking about a lot of things. She has a very interesting career. She started out as a social worker and worked with kids, and got involved in local politics. I won’t try and memorize or summarize her entire bio because it is very long and interesting. Started—

SHERMAN: It’s because I’m very old. (Laughter.)

ENGEL: Started out as a—as a social worker, then got involved in local politics. Then got eventually tapped for her legal expertise to join the State Department, became one of their most important negotiators around the world. Involved in Israeli-Palestinian talks. Was the lead negotiator for the Iran nuclear deal, which the United States of course has walked away from. The Trump administration decided it was the worst deal ever, so she is actually responsible for the worst deal ever. (Laughter.) And also North Korea, came up with a plan, was involved deeply in negotiating with North Korea, also which according to the current administration she wasted her time with the North Koreans and did nothing until now there has been a totally new change of opinion. So, according to the current administration, she is the worst diplomat who has—(laughter)—who has ever graced the State Department because she came up with the worst deal in the world for Iran and wasted her time with North Korea, only to have the situation change now.

So, without further ado—(laughter)—thank you for joining us. (Applause.)

SHERMAN: I told—I told Richard when we chatted on the phone even before this evening that it was intimidating to be here with him because there is no one who has traveled the world more, been in the midst of more crises, and reported in the most dangerous of situations to give us all a real sense of what goes on in the world. And we are fortunate, too, because he’s still with us. (Laughter.) He just had his birthday yesterday, and I consider every birthday a gift because it means you got another year. And we are very grateful and appreciative for your reporting, Richard. Thank you.

ENGEL: Oh, thank you very much. I appreciate it. Thanks. Thank you. (Applause.)

So, without—let’s get right into it. You came up with the worst deal ever—(laughter)—along with John Kerry, and then you saw it effectively not torn up, but have the United States, which is the—one of the main parties, walk away after the deal has been savaged in the media. How did you—how did you feel about that? What was your—how did that—how did that feel, to be out of the process and watching what you spent I can’t even imagine how many—

SHERMAN: Four years.

ENGEL: —four years, watching it go up in smoke?

SHERMAN: I think, for me, the most painful part of that is what it means for the security of the country. Sure, it’s personally painful. It’s painful for President Obama, I’m sure, and for Secretary Kerry, Secretary Moniz, the hundreds of people in the U.S. government who really blood, sweat, and tears to try to get there, and all of our colleagues and partners around the world. This was a time when we actually had partners around the world—(laughter)—and worked very closely with Great Britain, France, Germany, the European Union, Russia, and China. Can you imagine?

ENGEL: So why dangerous for the world? I mean, the deal has been ripped up. We haven’t seen anything from Iran. There hasn’t been any calamitous event. I mean, I don’t think the world is any necessarily visibly less safe than it was with the deal in place.

SHERMAN: Well, I think—we don’t know the end of the story yet, but there has been reporting over the last few days that Secretary Mattis, our secretary of defense, is very concerned that the deal got ripped up, and he’s no fan of Iran. He’s been a hardliner on Iran. And he believes that they have gotten worse in the Middle East since the deal was torn up, not better.

ENGEL: What’s they? What’s gotten worse in—

SHERMAN: What’s they is the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps has gotten more engaged with the Houthis in Yemen, gotten more engaged in Syria, gotten more engaged with Hezbollah in the Middle East and put Israel’s security even more at risk. This is an area you know quite well.

ENGEL: So are you saying that tearing up the deal emboldened the hardliners—

SHERMAN: Absolutely.

ENGEL: —emboldened the people who were—

SHERMAN: Absolutely, absolutely. You know, when I talk about people in Iran, I talk about them as hardliners and hard hardliners. Soleimani and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps are the hard hardliners.

ENGEL: Qassem Soleimani, the head of the Quds Force, right?


ENGEL: He’s the guy who is running a lot of their operations that the U.S. finds problematic, running the operations in Syria—

SHERMAN: Yeah, and we understandably find problematic.

ENGEL: Sorry?

SHERMAN: And we understandably find problematic.

ENGEL: Yes, yes, yes. So Qassem Soleimani, you think this tearing up the deal helps him?

SHERMAN: Yes. Soleimani and the IRGC never wanted the deal for several reasons.

One, they had a corner on the black market. When all of the sanctions were in place, they made a lot of money in trading in black-market goods.

Secondly, they didn’t want the hardliners, as opposed to the hard hardliners, to get in charge.

ENGEL: Let’s just peel this back a little bit.


ENGEL: So Iran was under painful sanctions, right, and the Iranian regime is an Islamic regime. It’s a theocracy, but it also has this militant element, the Revolutionary Guard. And during the sanctions regime the theocracy ran the spiritual side of the country, they ran the political narrative, but the army and the secret police—

SHERMAN: Owned the economy.

ENGEL: —owned the economy.

SHERMAN: Still own the economy.

ENGEL: And having the sanctions in place did what? It allowed them, like—sort of like in Prohibition?

SHERMAN: Exactly.

ENGEL: It allowed them to benefit from a constrained economy?

SHERMAN: Exactly. And, you know, I think what the administration has in mind is what I would call a soft coup. They are hoping that by putting the sanctions back on—and those sanctions will get much worse at the beginning of November when the full oil embargo goes in place, when what we call secondary economic sanctions go in place, which means any business that does business with the Central Bank of Iran can’t do business with an American bank. That’s a very powerful—

ENGEL: That’s starting in November?

SHERMAN: That starts in November.

ENGEL: So if a French company, Italian company, whomever wants to do business with Iran in the oil sector, they want to buy pistachio nuts, whatever it is, they have to choose, us or them.

SHERMAN: Exactly.

ENGEL: In November.

SHERMAN: Exactly, and it’s a very powerful sanction. And, in fact, when Jack Lew, to sort of—not to digress too much, but when Jack Lew was secretary of treasury he would sit in the Situation Room and say be really careful how you use this sanction, because if you use it too often then the world will say, well, we don’t want the dollar to be the reserve currency of the world because they’re using that tool to really blackmail all the rest of the world, so we’re going to create a basket of currencies.

ENGEL: So you think by using this you’re overusing your strongest card, and that could turn people off.

SHERMAN: Turn people off and turn people to a basket of currencies, no longer making the dollar the reserve currency of the world, which is an enormous part of our power.

ENGEL: Is that happening? Are there discussions to say, you know what, the Americans, under this administration, can’t be relied on, they’re too—they’re acting too erratically or they’re acting too aggressively, therefore we need to go to some consortium or currencies?

SHERMAN: I think there’s discussion. I don’t think it will happen right now. But we are also trying to use those secondary economic sanctions with North Korea. It doesn’t work as well with North Korea, in part because there’s so little trade with North Korea, and none of it is by the United States.

ENGEL: So November’s a key, key month to watch.

SHERMAN: November’s a key month to watch. And the Europeans are trying to hold this deal together because they believe in it. They know it will be very hard to hold it together, and in fact all of the big companies—Siemens, Allianz, Total, Renault—have already left. It’s trying to keep in the small and medium.

And I just want to remind everybody the United States has had and still has and always has had a primary embargo with Iran.

ENGEL: So let’s say the deal had not—was not torn up, was not hobbled badly. What were you hoping for? What was the goal? Let’s say we were still on that track. So in November we have this crossroads, right, where they’re going to start feeling pain. There’s going to be—one would assume there could be some flashpoints coming up and maybe we’re going to see a little bit of that instability which we haven’t manifested so far.

So let’s play a little bit of a counterfactual. If you—if the deal had still been in place, what were you hoping would be—have been accomplished by now or six months from now or a year from now?

SHERMAN: So, first and most important, that Iran would never be able to obtain a nuclear weapon. If this deal truly does fall apart after November and Iran feels it has no choice but to go back to its enrichment facilities, its plutonium facilities to build the material you use for a nuclear weapon in the ways they were doing, to improve their missile program in the ways they were doing, that will put us all at much greater risk. So the major objective for Barack Obama, for John Kerry, for Ernie Moniz, was to make sure that Iran could never have a nuclear weapon. And in my view, that is what the deal did. For skeptics, the deal at least—at least—would ensure that wouldn’t happen at least until 2030.

ENGEL: So you’re—do you think this is a realistic scenario, that November they start to feel the pain, there’s an—more pain, real pain, there is an attempt at a soft coup as you were describing it before, unrest, hardiners’ hand is stronger—is strengthened, and they go back to enriching more uranium and centrifuges are spinning?

SHERMAN: At some point—at some—at some point they will have to do that because they’ll feel they’ll have no other choice. Now, they’re smart enough to understand that they should stay in the deal as long as they can because otherwise President Trump wins. He gets the high ground. Right now, in some bizarre way, they have the high ground because the International Atomic Energy Agency is still in there. They’re still complying with the deal. You know, when—at the point the president ripped up this deal, the International Atomic Energy Agency had certified eleven times that Iran was in full compliance.

So I think the other fallout from this, beyond Iran, is that it says we are not credible. We are not reliable. Here we had the most—

ENGEL: A four-year deal that you worked on, and then—

SHERMAN: Exactly.

ENGEL: Then there’s a change of administration and it goes up smoke.

SHERMAN: And it—and it goes away. And that the International Atomic Energy Agency, which we rely on to ensure—you know, it was set up not really to do inspections; it was set up for the safe and useful purposes of nuclear energy. But it spends a lot of its time on the unsafe uses of nuclear energy. And so we are basically saying we don’t trust them.

ENGEL: We don’t care what you say.

SHERMAN: We don’t care what you say. And that really undermines a very important institution.

ENGEL: North Korea, because we don’t have a ton of time.

SHERMAN: Lovely place.

ENGEL: We were going to talk about North Korea, and then we have a lot of other things, and then we’re going to open up to questions because this is—you know, a lot of people here have interesting things that they want to ask.

SHERMAN: A lot of people—there are some people here who helped do this Iran deal, too.

ENGEL: I recognize—

SHERMAN: I see Mr. Finer back there.

ENGEL: I see Mr. Finer there as well.


ENGEL: So North Korea. So not only did you do the worst deal in the world, you basically did nothing in North Korea. That’s the allegation of the Trump administration, that this problem of North Korea was dumped on his lap—that all the previous administrations had been treading water, they’d been giving the North Koreans money, and they kept building their nukes, and then suddenly they’re blowing up their nuclear weapons so much to a degree that they collapse a mountain, and he has to swoop in, meet in Singapore, walk, and have their great—the great friendship bond—

SHERMAN: The hug. The bond.

ENGEL: —with the video showing what their mutual future could look like. And the idea was that you and others like you had really been wasting your time previously. What do—what do you say to that narrative?

SHERMAN: So two things. First of all, I think probably every administration should have done more than we did on North Korea. I think, unlike Iran, people believed that North Korea was sort of this strange place way over there, wasn’t bothering anybody, wasn’t invading anyone. Of course, they were selling their missiles all over the world and had—Mr. A.Q. Khan in Pakistan helped them, helped Iran. You know, there was a network. That part wasn’t good. But they were sort of this place over there nobody dealt with. And—

ENGEL: The hermit kingdom.

SHERMAN: The hermit kingdom. And, quite frankly, North Korea is more like a cult than a country.

I do disagree, though, that nobody ever did anything. In the Clinton administration, which I was honored to serve in first as assistant secretary of legislative affairs and then as counselor, first to Christopher then to Madeleine Albright, Bob Gallucci, a very seasoned, terrific diplomat, negotiated the Agreed Framework, which was an attempt to stop them from producing fissile material. Most of you in this audience know that that’s what you need to build a nuclear bomb. And even though that agreement was only three pages long, for the entire time that Bill Clinton was president not one more ounce of fissile material was created. There was enough fissile material in North Korea at the beginning of the Clinton administration, that had been produced on the Bush—during the Bush administration, for maybe one or two nuclear weapons. So—let me finish.

ENGEL: I—(laughter)—

SHERMAN: So no more fissile material. No nuclear weapons. No long-range ballistic missiles. Towards the end—so we thought we had the production of fissile material in a box.

Towards the end of the Clinton administration we were trying to negotiate—first started by Bill Perry, former secretary of defense, and then taken over by me—an agreement for a permanent moratorium on all missile testing of long-range missiles, which means they could never create a delivery system for a nuclear weapon. We were really close. But we had a big problem: We wanted to brief the incoming administration. And you may recall there was a problem with Bush v. Gore. It went all the way to the Supreme Court. It was December before we had a president of the United States.

ENGEL: But you can’t be telling me that the hanging chads are the reason that North Korea can now blow up nuclear weapons.

SHERMAN: The hanging chads certainly are part of the reason why.

ENGEL: Tell me more on that. I don’t understand.

SHERMAN: Because we didn’t get to really brief the incoming administration. We thought if Gore had won we would continue the negotiation and perhaps be successful. But when Bush won, I did after the election go out and brief Condi Rice, who was going to be the national security adviser, and Colin Powell, who was going to be the secretary of state, at Colin Powell’s house in Northern Virginia. We told them what we had, and Colin’s response was that’s a hand we should play. Condi’s response was I think the president will want to do a policy review, which is not unusual. Most presidents, when they come in, want to. But as you all may recall, by March, when President Bush met with President Kim Dae-jung of South Korea, he sent Colin Powell out to say that the sunshine policy was over. They weren’t going to continue the negotiations that the Clinton administration had begun, and it was dead.

ENGEL: So are you saying that it was the disruption of the awkward transition because of the recounts and the whole debacle of Florida—are you saying that that’s what the—that gave the North Koreans more breathing room to build a nuclear weapons program? Or was it the lack of interest of the Bush administration? Or both?

SHERMAN: I think it’s part of both. You know, we’ll never know. It’ll be a long time before we really know what happened in history. And the truth is—to be fair to the Bush administration, which I try to be—at the beginning of the Bush administration it was discovered that North Korea had started a secret uranium-enrichment program. Up until that point they’d only been doing plutonium. And, you know, the Soviets, as you well know, as the Warnke family certainly knows, cheated on arms control deals. We cheated on arms control deals. And usually what you try to do is get back on the path to the negotiation. You try to use the deal as the mechanism to get back on the right path. But the Bush administration took a different turn as a result of finding that out and went in a different direction.

And, again, to be perfectly fair, I wish that the Obama administration had done more. I wish the Bush administration had done more. So we are all—

ENGEL: What do you wish the Obama administration had done?

SHERMAN: Well, we did spend more time trying to get people to pay attention to the sanctions. The U.S. had less leverage than it did with Iran because we don’t have trade with North Korea to speak of. And we didn’t use all of the sanctions at our disposal as extensively as we should. But we did, towards the end of the Obama administration, go around quietly getting countries to send North Korean workers home, to close down all their financial accounts, to really begin to hurt them.

Now, I was for the president meeting with Kim Jong-un, having the Singapore summit, because these are both guys who believe that they are the only ones who matter. In the case of Kim Jong-un, it’s true; he is the only one who matters. He has to worry about his military, but he goes out and kills his opponents. He killed his uncle, you know, two weeks after he became the leader in his country. And President Trump believes he’s the only one who matters, even though we do have a system of checks and balances. But he did that summit without a team, without a plan, without a way to follow on. And we’re sort of nowhere.

ENGEL: So instead of me sort of trying to pick around at it, if you were to give a very brief answer how it was that North Korea, a country we knew was a problem, has been a problem since it was—since the Korean War—hermit kingdom, we knew it was—the bad things—so it’s not like there was no focus on it. In a time when we can watch everything with satellites, how was it that the United States and other countries allowed North Korea to develop a nuclear weapons program? You’ve talked a little bit about the transition. You’ve talked a little bit about Bush. You say you could have done more in the Obama administration. But if you had to summarize it—because it seemed like it was something that happened while the world was watching, while we could watch it from space, and then suddenly here is the problem.

SHERMAN: Well, first of all, we can’t watch everything all of the time from everywhere because we don’t have enough satellites to do that. So it’s a—it’s a bit of a problem. If you want to watch what’s happening in the Middle East you may not be able to at the same time watch every single day everything that happens in North Korea. And North Korea’s—

ENGEL: So you’re saying—does that mean the Iraq War was a distraction?

SHERMAN: The Iraq War was a huge distraction, as was Afghanistan.

ENGEL: OK. You tell me, why do we have—why did North Korea have nuclear weapons when everyone knew that this was a potential problem?

SHERMAN: I think we were distracted. I think we put our priorities in some of the wrong places, Iraq being at the top of my list of a wrong place to put our priority.

I think that we didn’t know all that they were doing. It is a very mountainous country. A lot of what they do is underground and you don’t know what they’re doing.

And, quite frankly, I do give the Bush administration credit because they tried to put China in charge of this, because China is the keeper of North Korea. It is their chip on the board of Northeast Asia. Eighty percent of the trade, maybe as much as ninety percent of North Korea’s economy, depends on China. And so I think they were right to put emphasis and weight on China. But we took our foot off.

ENGEL: Well, that’s the past. What about the future? Does the summit—you said you were a proponent.


ENGEL: You believe it was a good idea for them to meet. Did it—

SHERMAN: If they had done it right. They didn’t quite pull that off.

ENGEL: They didn’t—you didn’t—


ENGEL: What went wrong?

SHERMAN: No. There was no team. There was no detailed plan. There was not a clear set of objectives. They didn’t—weren’t able to define success.

ENGEL: You’ve spent your life being a negotiator. What went wrong? What would—what would you have done differently?

SHERMAN: Well, I probably wouldn’t have had the summit. But—

ENGEL: You said you just supported it.

SHERMAN: I did support it because of who these two characters are. So, having supported the summit, I would have had a full-fledged team ready to go, a team that would have already drafted what they had hoped would ultimately be the agreement. Before we ever did the Iran negotiations, I had the team write an Iran agreement, a hundred pages long. Sat in a conference room for two days with the whole team.

ENGEL: More prep work.

SHERMAN: Much more prep work. Much more prep work.

ENGEL: What about the timing? Do you like—President Trump went immediately—(snaps fingers)—went right for the summit. And there were some preliminary meetings, but very few.

SHERMAN: Very few. So no preparation. No team that could follow up. And the piece of paper that came out of that summit was the thinnest gruel of any agreement ever made by North Korea with anybody. There was nothing in it. Even the word “denuclearization,” which was in virtually every other agreement, didn’t appear in this one. So it is—it was quite astonishing how little came out of that summit.

Nonetheless, people were hopeful, and I think people were hopeful that he sort of seemed to hand the baton to Secretary Pompeo. But I think Secretary Pompeo’s now handing the baton to Steve Biegun, who’s a very capable professional. But one of the things I knew every time I negotiated, both for President Clinton and President Obama, is that the rug would never be pulled out from under me. I knew what the terms were of the deal. I don’t think Steve Biegun can count on the rug not being pulled out from under him because President Trump said I will meet with Iran’s president anytime, anywhere, anyplace, anyhow, and the next day Secretary Pompeo came out and laid out a whole bunch of conditions, and now the president is back to I’ll meet with anybody anytime, anyplace, anywhere. So unless—

ENGEL: So you’re saying they’re not speaking with one voice.

SHERMAN: Oh, hardly.

ENGEL: Do we have a State Department anymore?

SHERMAN: No. (Laughter.)

ENGEL: I guess that sums it up. (Laughter.) There have been quite a few ambassadors who have left in principle. Do you agree with that?

SHERMAN: What I say to all of the career folks—I have somebody in my office probably once a week at least.

ENGEL: Once a week somebody comes to your office?


ENGEL: What, like an aspiring diplomat or someone who’s a diplomat who says I want to hang myself?

SHERMAN: So someone who’s in—someone who’s in—a diplomat and not sure what they should do, or a young career Foreign Service office, or a young civil servant.

ENGEL: What are they wrestling with?

SHERMAN: They’re wrestling with—you know, they take an oath. And there are many career officers here, one who was my chief of staff for a while, Cameron Munter, a real senior diplomat. Can I be effective? They take an oath when you go to work to protect the Constitution. And you’re there at the pleasure of the president. But when you’re a Foreign Service officer, you are there for every president because you’re there for the Constitution and for the country.

ENGEL: So when these diplomats, junior or senior, come in and they’re having this soul-searching moment, do you say leave or do you say stay?

SHERMAN: No, I say stay as long as you can because we need your experience, we need your expertise. The wheel will turn and we will need you to come up through the ranks and help us reestablish diplomacy as the first resort, not the last resort. And if you get to a moment, as Dick Holbrooke and Tony Lake did during the Vietnam War—

ENGEL: You’re telling them to wait it out.

SHERMAN: Wait if you can. If you can’t, leave. And our DCM, our deputy in China, left because climate change. If you lived in Beijing, you understand the importance of climate change because you can’t breathe. Felt he could not stay. Roberta Jacobson, who was our ambassador in Mexico, decided, given how the president was approaching Mexico, she got to a place where she just felt as a matter of conscience she could not stay.

ENGEL: But that—so if you’re saying that they should wait it out, that the wheel will turn, as you say, that suggests that they can’t be effective now.

SHERMAN: It depends on where you—it depends—

ENGEL: But you’re telling them kind of like, yeah, wait it out because, to answer your question, yeah, you are kind of wasting your time now.

SHERMAN: It depends on where you are. If you are a junior diplomat, you’re not working on the big things the president cares about or even even knows about. I mean, let’s be honest, he never read the Iran nuclear agreement. He ripped up a deal he had no idea what was in it. So he certainly hasn’t read what’s happening in Togo, right? So—

ENGEL: Do you think if you’re in Togo and you’re, you know, stamping passports, you’re probably safe?

SHERMAN: You’re probably fine. And even if you’re an ambassador abroad, you don’t get a lot of instructions. You probably have stopped asking for instructions.

ENGEL: But if you have the—

SHERMAN: You just do the best you can.

ENGEL: Your job as the number two in the State Department—

SHERMAN: Or number three. You’re in a harder place. David Hale, who is now the undersecretary of political affairs, is a superb diplomat. I worked with him on Middle East issues for many years, and I wish him only the best.

ENGEL: This has gone quickly, you see? Already they’re telling me that it’s time for questions. We’re entering the bonus round. So please, if I could ask you, stand up, state your name, and then—I know people have a lot to say. We want questions, not thoughts. So, please. You had your hand up first, the man in the red tie. I’m not going to point you out. The easiest thing is put your hand up and the—one of the staff here will bring you a microphone.

Q: Thank you for your time, Ambassador. Joel Mentor, Barclays.

I just wanted to get your view. Just assessing from China’s perspective, what do you think their interests are or how they’re reading or could potentially benefit from us pulling out of the Iran deal? Because you can see it hurting them in some ways, but also helping them in certain ways. Thank you.

SHERMAN: I think it’s helping them a lot more than it’s hurting them. I think that we are sending Europe into China’s arms. I think that, you know, I don’t know whether while we’re sitting here $200 billion more of tariffs have been placed on China. I think that the administration is not clear about its priorities. If your priority is to get a deal with North Korea, putting billions of dollars of tariffs on China probably isn’t the way to go. The president’s decided he wants to deal with things bilaterally as opposed to work with Europe to go to the WTO. China’s doing bad things economically but putting tariffs on is not the only route to getting satisfaction. I think that China—I have enormous concerns about China when it comes to artificial intelligence and 5G. I think they’re going to clean our clocks if we don’t get our act together.

So I am all for China’s rise if we’re on a level playing field. But they are changing the rules. They now do have a president for life. He is in control. He can call the shots. You have to give him credit, he’s reduced poverty by probably thirty percent at this point, which is quite something in a country that large. But we are not really upping our game in all of the ways that we need to, to make sure there is a level playing field with China. And when it comes to the future, we may be quite far behind. Really optimistic about that.

ENGEL: OK, I’ll call on—right—you—there you go.

Q: Hi. Raghida Dergham, Beirut Institute. Hello, Ambassador.


Q: Ambassador, when you negotiated the nuclear deal there were resolutions in the Security Council that you agreed to annul. Part of these resolutions, two of them, lifted—they had imposed sanctions on Iran that prohibited Iran from sending its Revolutionary Guard, it’s Qassem Soleimani, or helping the militias, Hezbollah or others, outside of their own territory. So therefore, it emboldened them. By chapter seven, they were not allowed to go outside of their own territories. But by lifting, by annulling these resolutions, they were suddenly able by law to go in, because before they were not allowed to. It was prohibited by Chapter VII. So I think—can you address if you felt a little bit guilty about how much did they take advantage of this and helped with that genocide in Syria? I mean, you know, basically they had the money by then, and Qassem Soleimani had a great time doing it?

SHERMAN: Lots of pieces to that question. I’d want to go over the resolutions with you one by one, because I’m not sure I agree with your assessment of what got lost in the redoing of the U.N. Security Council Resolution. That aside, however, we still have both at the U.N. Security Council and unilaterally by the United States sanctions on state sponsorship of terrorism by Iran. We still have sanctions on Iran on human rights. We still have sanctions on arms transfers and on missiles capable of carrying nuclear weapons, and on the transfer of missile technology. So all of that is still in place. All of the tools are there to put pressure on Iran, we just have to mobilize that pressure in ways that take a lot of very hard work.

Secondly, in terms of the money, there is a lot of false information about there—out there about how we gave—

ENGEL: Pallets of cash.

SHERMAN: Pallets of cash.

ENGEL: Were there pallets of cash?

SHERMAN: There were. I had left the—

ENGEL: There were some pallets of cash?

SHERMAN: There were some pallets of cash. And I’ll explain why.

ENGEL: Explain, why were there pallets of cash. Why cash? And why pallets of cash?

SHERMAN: Yes. This happened after I left, but nonetheless I think I know. And if I have it wrong, Jon (sp) can correct me. He was still there. At the same—at the same—

ENGEL: Because President Trump drills on this all the time—the pallets of cash.

SHERMAN: I know. I know. I know. I know. I know. I know. So we have long been in negotiations at The Hague over our having frozen Iranian assets as a result of the 1979 revolution. We stood to lose a lot of those deals at The Hague. When we were doing the Iran nuclear deal, and we were also trying to get Americans home who were being kept in Evin Prison, the deals were not all done in the same room, but there was certainly some leverage going on to get them resolved. At the same time that I was doing the nuclear negotiation, the one other negotiation I did bilaterally every time I met with the Iranians was just me and my deputy meeting with Abbas Araghchi and Majid Ravanchi, my two counterparts, to try to get Americans home.

That ended up spawning an entire separate negotiation which did eventually get some Americans home, but not find Robert Levinson and not get every American home but did get some Americans home. At the same time, we were using some of the leverage of all of this to try to resolve some of The Hague suits in our favor. And although the amount of money—and I don’t remember the exact amount—do you remember the exact amount? One-point-seven? One-point-seven billion. We resolved a Hague suit that lawyers will tell you, and I’m not a lawyer, was much better for our benefit.

But because of the sanctions, Iran could not access U.S. dollars. So we had to provide the U.S. dollars. And that’s why there were pallets of U.S. dollars. So it was our own sanctions that made it impossible for us to get the money to them some other way. I may be shortcutting that a little bit, but that’s essentially what happened.

ENGEL: This woman right here, and then we will get to the back. If we could just get her in the red blouse. I’m sorry, ma’am. We’ll get to you.

Q: Thank you. Gillian Sorensen. Formerly with the United Nations.

Ambassador, you’ve been a superb diplomat. And my question relates to the Foreign Service and the value of diplomacy. These couple of years I’m very concerned that our diplomatic service is being decimated. I understand that applications for Foreign Service have dropped by half, that some of our best people have either been fired or quit or retired early. How do we make up for that, having lost the best we have and having not—and not bringing in a new generation of good, future Foreign Service officers? What does that mean for our country?

ENGEL: Good question.

SHERMAN: Very good question. First of all, thank you for all of your service and all your leadership, Gillian. Very grateful. Second, in the book that Richard mentioned, Not For the Faint of Heart: Lessons in Courage, Power and Persistence, which I hope you all will read—and happy to sign at the end—buy and sign at the end here.

ENGEL: Buy. It’s outside. There is bookseller who will be waiting for you.

SHERMAN: One of the things—one of the lessons, both in my life and in negotiations, is persistence. And we are at a very—in terms of diplomacy—we’re at a very dark time. There is no question about it. Secretary Tillerson thought that his job was to not be a diplomat and to decimate diplomacy and make it the last resort, not the first resort. Secretary Pompeo has paid lip service to improving things, and he has gotten a couple more people confirmed, but there are still many people—many, many, many vacancies. And all of the regional assistant secretaries, I understand, will be political appointees not career Foreign Service officers, which has not happened before.

So you are quite right. And young people are not going. So what I try to tell every school of foreign service, every young person who might consider a career as a civil servant or as a Foreign Service officer, or a political appointee—get that experience now. Go into the Foreign Service. You’re going to be learning great things. You’re going to have phenomenal experiences. You’re not going to be in a position or a place where what this administration is doing is going to hurt you. And you will learn skills so that when there is the turn of the wheel and diplomacy comes back as something that’s important to the security of our country, you will be there.

ENGEL: Is that message getting out there?

SHERMAN: We’re trying.

ENGEL: Because people seem to be so turned off by, let’s say, actions of public officials, public policy. Are you getting that draw? These are the ones who come to you and they come to your office and you say, stick with it.

SHERMAN: Or I go to schools and advocate.

ENGEL: Or you go to them and you advocate. But are you getting this organic people who say, I really want to dedicate my life to a career in the Foreign Service and take that exam and get that first posting on the passport line in Togo?

SHERMAN: No. I mean, there has absolutely been a drop in the number of young people who want to go into the Foreign Service, no question.

ENGEL: And how do you fix that? How do you get them inspired?

SHERMAN: It’s not going to be a quick fix. It’s why you have to persist. If something is important, and this is important, then you have to keep at it. And part of what I try to talk about in the book is what it takes to do these things, both in life and in diplomacy. And I would bet for everybody in this room there has been some tragedy or some obstacle or some challenge and you have to find your way through. And it doesn’t get fixed overnight. And so you all have to become ambassadors for people coming into the Foreign Service.

Hey, Fred.

Q: Hi, Wendy.

Looking back, I assume we could not have gotten this passed by the Senate. Do you want—can you talk a little bit about that process and in retrospect whether perhaps we should have tried a different approach, with obviously the perfect hindsight of getting this as a treaty approved by the Senate, it would be harder to unwind?

SHERMAN: Thank you. It’s Fred Hochberg, who also served in President Obama’s administration at Ex-Im and did a great job. Thank you very much.

There is a fantasy—

ENGEL: So explain the question a little bit.

SHERMAN: Right. The question is we—this was done—the Iran deal was done as what’s called an executive agreement. There was a congressional review process, but it was not a treaty. And a lot of people argue if it had gone in front of the Senate as a treaty and could get passed, then it might survive from administration to administration.

ENGEL: Harder to—

SHERMAN: Harder to dump it. And that it creates bipartisanship. This is true. But there are a couple reasons why we didn’t do that. First, other than New START, which is really an extension of the START agreement, no treaty has passed the Senate in years. Even when Bob Dole came in his wheelchair as a former senator to the floor of the U.S. Senate to get the disabilities treaty through, he could not. So treaties don’t get passed.

ENGEL: Why? Why not?

SHERMAN: Why doesn’t anything happen in Washington? (Laughter.) It’s the same dynamic.

ENGEL: Is it the fear of commitments?

SHERMAN: It’s the fear of commitments. It’s also the partisanship.

ENGEL: Ultimate worst boyfriend in the world?

SHERMAN: If somebody—right. If somebody—if a Democrat wants it, a Republican doesn’t. If a Republican wants it, a Democrat doesn’t.

ENGEL: Even on the disabilities treaty.

SHERMAN: Even on the disabilities treaty. And on the disabilities treaty, and all international treaties, I would say the biggest sticking point is some sense that we are going to lose sovereignty. We’re going to—

ENGEL: So his point was, do you think you made a mistake? Should you have gone for the treaty move?

SHERMAN: No. No. There was another reason . And the other reason was this agreement has many milestones along the way and many if this then that kinds of movements. And putting that into a treaty is extremely difficult if not impossible to do effectively, because of the International Atomic Energy Agency.

ENGEL: It was a—it was a—it was a clock that kept moving. And if this happens, then this happens. Another happens, a third consequence result.

SHERMAN: Exactly. Exactly. Exactly. Exactly. So not impossible, but very difficult to put into a treaty. What we ended up with was a congressional review mechanism where the Congress, in essence, had so many days to disapprove the deal. And we ultimately won this on a cloture vote that we were good vote counters and basically got it through the Congress. But there’s no question, the day the deal was done every Republican—every Republican—none having read the deal because they didn’t have it, opposed it.

ENGEL: This woman up front, and then we’re going to turn our attention to the left, which we’ve been neglecting a little bit. But she had the microphone in her hand.

SHERMAN: Some people would say we’ve been neglecting the left, yes. (Laughter.)

Q: Thank you. And I want to—I’m Cora Weiss from The Hague Appeal for Peace.

Let’s say you have some time to waste again and you’re asked to work on a peace agreement, a peace treaty, with North Korea. What issues would you put on the table? And would they include denuclearization?

SHERMAN: Sure it would include denuclearization, though I don’t believe that the North Koreans will denuclearize anytime soon. Their view of denuclearization is the United States leaves South Korea and the Northeast Asia never has nuclear weapons, including U.S. nuclear weapons on ships or cruise missiles. We think denuclearization means North Korea will get rid of its nuclear weapons and its long-range ballistic missiles. So there’s a bit of a mismatch. I think the North Korean negotiation is much, much, much harder than Iran, because North Korea has many nuclear weapons and the delivery system for them.

And so I think the negotiation is one that will be very hard, takes a lot of detail, takes enormous amount of consultation. I talk in the book about creating the team, it talk about the processes involved in getting these things done. And one of the pieces on the Iran deal that is true of North Korea as well is I negotiated inside of the administration. I negotiated with Congress. I negotiated bilaterally with every member of the negotiating group—Europeans, Russian, China. I negotiated with Israel. I negotiated with the Gulf countries. I negotiated with every other country that had an interest in what was happening with Iran. And occasionally, I negotiated with Iran.

It is a very labor-intensive process to do these complex negotiations. It takes discipline. It takes persistence. It takes a clear definition of success. It takes an ability to walk away. There were many times during the Iran negotiation, and North Korea, and certainly Middle East peace, and Cuba, where we would ready to walk away. So it takes lots of elements. And ultimately, and one of the things that’s most important to me in the book, is the chapter on courage. I learned—and some my family is here tonight, my sister and my brother in law and my nephew—we had parents who understood what courage meant.

My folks decided after a Rosh Hashanah sermon in the early ’60s—my father was in residential real estate. The rabbi really challenged people to do what they could to stop discrimination in the city of Baltimore. My father asked him what he could do. He said, well, you could advertise all of your housing to anybody who wants to buy it. This was before any open housing laws. And my father said, well, if I do that it’ll destroy my business. And the rabbi said, well, you asked me what you could do. This is what you could do. (Laughter.)

And my parents discussed this, and they did it. By 1968, my father’s business had closed. But he had found homes for Frank Robinson, who became the most valuable player on the Orioles.

ENGEL: So his business closed because he was selling to black families.

SHERMAN: Yes. And—

ENGEL: And the white families refused to buy, or?

SHERMAN: Yes. Or refused to send him listings. And but my parents never regretted what they did. He went on and my mother went on to do wonderful things. And it taught me an important lesson about courage. Courage comes at a price. And you have to be willing to pay it. And I think that the greatest leaders in our country have understood that.

ENGEL: You’ve negotiated with a lot of people—and then we are going left. How would you say President Trump is as a negotiator? The man who wrote The Art of the Deal.

SHERMAN: You know, right after—

ENGEL: The man who prides himself on courage.

SHERMAN: Yeah. Yeah. So—

ENGEL: Has a familiarity with real estate.

SHERMAN: Yeah. (Laughter.) Yeah, for sure. So right after Trump was elected I was at Dulles Airport, which is my second home. And I bought The Art of the Deal, because I figured I should read this. The guy who’s going to rip up a deal I spent a lot of time on, I should—

ENGEL: It was still for sale at Dulles Airport?

SHERMAN: Yeah, it was—oh, I’m sure they ordered it in paperback immediately, as soon as he was—Peter, you can tell us. Isn’t that what a publisher would do, send the paperback out to the airports? Peter Osnos, fabulous publisher, and my publisher.

So I read it. And I thought about this very question. When you build a building, if it doesn’t get built, you go onto the next project. The people who might have lived in that building go someplace else. If you’re negotiating a deal to stop someone from building a nuclear weapon, the stakes are just a little bit different. And the requirements are a little bit different. The president I think did know when he built a building about zoning, about financing—though, we’ve come to understand he loves debt. We now have a trillion-dollar debt in our country. He clearly loves debt. But debt in a world economy is different than debt in financing a building. So I think the president’s sense of himself as a negotiator within the narrow place in which he negotiated and went bankrupt several times, probably worked pretty well for him. But it has nothing to do with the world of war and peace.

ENGEL: On that note, sir. (Laughter.)

Q: My name is Charles Ganoe. I’m a retired banker. My name is Charles Ganoe. I’m a retired banker.

I visited North Korea several years ago. And I came back with a strong impression that the biggest problem is their paranoid feeling in terms of our invading them. Can you discuss how we have dealt with that problem and what kind of security arrangements we have proposed to them in negotiations?

SHERMAN: Why did you decide to go to North Korea?

Q: I wanted to see it. Actually, I wanted to go last week, but with the State Department’s new rule I couldn’t get approval to go.

SHERMAN: Yeah, well, I would—I would urge people not to go. I’m a senior fellow at Harvard’s Belfer Center and I’ve urged them to stop sending young people to North Korea, because I think it’s—the risks are quite high.

Q: I just went out of curiosity.

SHERMAN: So—well, good for your curiosity.

ENGEL: Risks for what? Risks of being kidnapped, physically taken?

SHERMAN: Risk for being jailed. Yeah, yeah. Yeah, so—

ENGEL: So the paranoia, the—

SHERMAN: So the paranoia. Yes, you’re right. North Korea’s greatest concern is us, that we are going to take them out, that we have the military that can destroy them. And so for Kim Jong-un, the highest priority is regime survival. There is no question about that. And I would say second to that is that there be a reunification of the peninsula under North Korea. So the reason that South Korea and North Korea are moving together at the moment, and South Korea is setting up an office north of the DMZ, they’re now back to having humanitarian missions, is because they both want reunification. But sort of like denuclearization, their definition of what that means are polar opposites. So at some point, even the South’s efforts are going to come to a resounding, I’m sad to say, crash.

ENGEL: So you think that we are—we have not made real progress with North Korea, in that North Korea’s not blowing up its missiles, it’s not blowing up its nuclear weapons, it’s—the tensions aren’t there. A lot of that was sui generis. But the tension is not there that it was six, eight months ago. You would say that this is not progress—or it’s apparent progress.

SHERMAN: So I am glad—I am glad they are not testing missiles. I’m glad that they are not testing nuclear weapons. Those are good things. However, I think they are largely not doing that because they don’t need to anymore, because they know how to build nuclear weapons and any testing they can do, they can do on a computer. But, yes, I would prefer us be where we are, not heading to war, because war on the Korean Peninsula will be catastrophic. North Korea has a conventional army, a million people, thousands of rounds of artillery, Seoul is only thirty kilometers from the DMZ, so it would be catastrophic without nuclear weapons, let alone if North Korea used them.

ENGEL: I’ll stay a little bit on the left-hand side. Can I—can we get you a mic?

Q: Hi. It’s Suzanne Nossel from PEN America. Nice to see you.

SHERMAN: Good to see you. Thank you for service, Susan.

Q: Thanks. I’m curious whether you think there’s anything you and the team in the Obama administration could have done to have shifted the political dynamic on the Hill and in the Washington on the Iran deal, on sort of widening the lens beyond that in terms of your view of partisanship in foreign policies. Is this just a fact of life that will never change and all of our thinking should be framed in those terms, or do you see any way to recast this? And what would that look like? How might it happen?

SHERMAN: If I have the real answer to that question, we should just mint me. (Laughter.) I think it’s very tough. And Richard and I—before this Tom Brokaw was here and we were having a chat. And we I think all agree that the next two years if the Democrats take back the House will be brutal because there will be investigations every single day. And subpoenas every single day. What I think may stop this and start us in a new place is whatever Robert Mueller finally does. And it will frame what happens between now and 2020.

You know, when one is negotiating, one of the key elements—same thing when you fall in love or not fall in love—is ripeness and timing. You can know somebody in high school and you don’t get along at all and meet them ten years later and fall madly in love because the timing is right. Not to make this too simplistic, but timing and ripeness matter. And oftentimes you have to get to a place where people don’t want to kill each other anymore to finally find peace. We thought we had that moment in the Middle East at several times in our history, but it’s never held on. In part, one of the pieces in the book is about, you know, when Rabin was assassinated it was as if you assassinated Middle East peace, because he understood he had to hold Arafat up and help him get to peace. And once Rabin was gone, it was as if Oslo died, even though we just celebrated the Camp David Accords and Oslo.

So I think that we may have to wear ourselves to a place—and I hope we’re almost there—that we decide we need to go in a different direction. And one of the things that I urge—you know, my hope—to be hopeful here is two things. One, I came of political age during the Vietnam War, when there was horrific violence, Kent State, people trying to register folks to vote were murdered, Weatherman did bombs in townhouses here in Manhattan. It was a horrible time. A lot of people died and were hurt. But out of that came the Civil Rights Act, the women’s movement, the end of the Vietnam War, the Voting Rights Act. Some bad things too. But some good came out of it. So I am an optimist about the turn of history.

And the second is, when you see the Parkland kids go to Chicago and elevate the Chicago kids to get the attention they deserve for the deaths they face every single day, when you see the women’s march the day after the inauguration, when you see all of these women running for office, then I believe success might be around the corner. And I just hope I live to see it.

ENGEL: There’s so much I would love to talk about. We could talk about domestic politics. We could talk about the Middle East Israeli-Palestinian issue. But we have three minutes left. So I think that probably leaves us with one or two—and I’m looking at these two gentlemen. Can I—can I go here? I’m sorry. And then if you keep it short maybe we can get—maybe we can get two.

Q: Short, short. Jeff Laurenti.

To what extent did the very fact of having high-level direct negotiation, U.S.-Iran, and then having an agreement, open other opportunities for cooperation, whether it be Iraq, Syria, or Afghanistan? And to what extent has the abandonment of the deal by Trump led to, in Afghanistan, the Iranians looking to find deals with the Taliban and other places to get back at the enemy?

SHERMAN: Yeah. I don’t want to overstate the hope of that. But there was no doubt that we had channels that we’d never had before. When the sailors were taken—American sailors were taken by the Iranians, John Kerry could pick up the phone and call Javad Zarif and say: Really? We just did this deal? And we got the sailors back in 24 hours.

ENGEL: Is that pretty much how that conversation went?

SHERMAN: Yes. (Laughter.) Pretty much. When the—

ENGEL: Say, really?

SHERMAN: (Laughs.) You have to ask Secretary Kerry. And he’s running around for his great book. So you can go to one of his events and ask him.

I think that it allowed us on the margins, even though the Iranians did not have authority to discuss any of these things, we discussed all these things on the margins of the talks. So it opens up channels. But I don’t want to oversell this either. You know, the president never believed, the secretary never believed, I never believed there was going to be a great metamorphosis of the relationship with Iran. It wasn’t going to happen. They were doing horrible things in the Middle East. They were going to continue to. And we needed press them very hard to stop it.

ENGEL: The Council is very strict on time. We want to be like that too, otherwise people won’t come. But I did promise this gentleman. One question, but really brief, sir. And brief answer. And then please join us, we’re going to go into the reception. There’s a book seller there. You can keep asking Ambassador Sherman some questions. And we will progress out of the room. But, sir, last question. But, please, short.

Q: This is quick. This is quick. Steve Gutow, NYU.


SHERMAN: Say Wendy, Steve. We know each other.

Q: Wendy, two years ago on this day I was at a conference and I got to ask you a question about something and you gave the most—an answer. You looked like this when I asked. It was in the end of the session. I said: What do we have most to fear in the next two months before the election. And nobody thought—you said Russian interference. I mean, you would think now that’s obvious. It wasn’t obvious then. I’m asking you. I’m asking you, what do we have most to fear about this election, between now and November?

SHERMAN: The thing we have most to fear is that people will not turn out to vote. And so I would urge you to get everybody to vote. (Applause.)

ENGEL: Let’s move them out while they’re applauding.

SHERMAN: Indeed. Thank you,

ENGEL: Thank you very much. (Applause.)


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