Wendy Sherman may not have the highest name recognition outside of Washington — but that’s what you might expect from a former top State Department official whose job included delicate negotiations with old adversaries and rogue states. Now she has just come out with a new memoir that fills a valuable gap in recent history by providing a detailed look at the talks that led to the Iran nuclear deal. Sherman was the lead negotiator for the U.S. side during much of that process.
Particularly compelling are her descriptions of secret negotiations facilitated by the sultan of Oman between the United States and Iran starting in 2012. She joined those talks when they were already underway.
“We never would have concluded a comprehensive deal with the other P5+1 nations or without the review by Congress. Rather, our need for secrecy was principally based on our lack of trust in Iran,” Sherman writes in “Not for the Faint of Heart.” “Confidentiality allowed the two teams to explore new ideas without exposing them to criticism from partisans in our respective countries who would be looking to sabotage any deal, no matter the merits.”
Those discussions laid the foundation of the 2015 deal between Iran, the United States and a group of leading powers that aimed to curtail Iran’s nuclear program. That agreement was abandoned earlier this year by President Trump.
In Sherman’s recounting of all the efforts that followed those initial contacts in 2012 — building a negotiating team, learning through encounters with Iranian officials, bridging differences with the ministers of the other powers involved, and cultivating a political strategy that would allow it to survive challenges in the United States — she offers a vivid reminder that diplomacy is about hard work, persistence and the accumulation of experience. In other words, contrary to the current administration’s approach, negotiating isn’t about showing up somewhere, taking some pictures and pronouncing it a success.
She draws frank character portraits of her Iranian negotiating counterparts, Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, and his deputies, Abbas Aragchi and Majid Takht Ravanchi. Even though she knows they represent a regime that is fundamentally at odds with the idea of America, she also understands that the deal will be as tough a sell in Tehran as in Washington.
Her sense of sympathy for her Iranian counterparts will make for awkward reading in Tehran. And that’s a good thing. The fact that this particular author happens to be Jewish and a woman will raise even more eyebrows among Iran’s ideological attack dogs.
Our strength as a nation has much to do with the fact that someone such as Sherman could ascend to being our top negotiator — in stark contrast to the rigidity of the Iranian system. Sadly, the Trump administration’s decision to depart from the agreement with Iran means we’re neglecting an opportunity to exploit our natural advantages. After years of accumulating valuable information about the ins and outs of the Iranians’ political behavior, we decided to abandon the process from one day to the next.
“Whether we bought the Iranians’ political culture or not, we needed to understand the dynamics of it, and we needed a glue to bind them to a process and keep them coming back to the table,” Sherman writes. “We had to understand where they were coming from.”
This is a theme that permeates the book, and it serves as an important reminder that the process she led for years amounted to the most sustained high-level contact we’ve had with Tehran since Jimmy Carter was president.
Sherman’s narrative works because it’s honest. She lays bare what got her from one point to the next, in her personal life and in this massive negotiation. You can disagree with her all you want, but it would be difficult to simply discount the historical document she has provided. It’s a devastating reminder of just how much the United States invested to build a consensus with allies and adversaries alike, only to have it dismantled by people with a fraction of Wendy Sherman’s experience in international matters.
People will and should continue to debate the wisdom of President Barack Obama’s outreach to Tehran for decades to come. But sooner or later — unless the Iranian regime falls apart first — the United States will have to talk to the Iranians again. (Indeed, the Trump administration continues to stress that it’s eager to start talks with the Iranians — though why they should indulge the current White House after its abrupt withdrawal from the deal is less clear.)
At one point, when the negotiations seemed destined to fail, Sherman writes that then-Secretary of State John F. Kerry made an observation that seems especially apt today: “Sometimes you have to meet and not get anywhere in order to one day get somewhere.”
When that time comes, the American leadership will have the choice of starting from scratch — or consulting the people involved in the long and sustained process that resulted in the original nuclear deal. Either way, those future decision-makers can give themselves a huge head start simply by reading this book. For the time being, though, Sherman’s memoir will remain the definitive account of the nuclear negotiation with Iran.