Interview With Gwen Ifill on PBS NewsHour
Under Secretary for Political Affairs
QUESTION: For more on the nuclear deal with Iran, I’m joined by Wendy Sherman, the Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs. She was the lead negotiator of the agreement. Welcome to the NewsHour again.
UNDER SECRETARY SHERMAN: Thank you. Good to be with you.
QUESTION: This nuclear deal that was cut in Geneva, will it hold?
UNDER SECRETARY SHERMAN: I think it will hold, because it’s in Iran’s interest for it to hold. Iran is looking for some economic relief. There’s very little in this agreement, but it is the first step to a comprehensive agreement which will give them the economic relief they are looking for.
QUESTION: Could it have happened without the secret bilateral talks that were happening on the side? We heard about the public ones in Geneva. It turns out there were a lot of private ones, too.
UNDER SECRETARY SHERMAN: There were private conversations, and that helped to deepen the conversation. But all of the issues that arose in that private bilateral conversation also arose in the P5+1. And I think very effectively the P5+1 used our bilateral channel and other bilateral discussions that were going on with other partners to get to this agreement.
QUESTION: So you work out this very complicated temporary first-step agreement, and then you come home to Washington and find a fair bit of resistance on Capitol Hill, which is where you spent part of your day today. You’re hoping to talk members of Congress out of imposing further sanctions. How is that going?
UNDER SECRETARY SHERMAN: Well, it’s a tough road because, understandably, members of Congress have played a very critical role here. It is in fact the sanctions regime that is supported internationally through UN Security Council resolutions, U.S. actions – both in the Congress and through the executive branch by the President – by the European Union and other nations that has brought Iran to the table, because they’re looking for sanctions relief. So I understand why the Congress believes that more sanctions can only be better. I agree up to a point, because that’s what brought them to the table. But in fact, sanctions were meant to change the strategic calculus of Iran to come to that negotiating table. Now we have to test that resolve to get to an agreement. And any more sanctions at this moment by the U.S. Congress would undermine the agreement which calls for a pause by everybody in that regard, and in fact might give them an excuse to depart from the agreement that’s been made.
QUESTION: But in lifting or easing those sanctions, even for six months, even for a temporary period, don’t you lose some leverage? Isn’t that the argument members of Congress are making?
UNDER SECRETARY SHERMAN: Well, they’ve made that argument, but in fact, Gwen, the sanctions that we are suspending are quite limited, quite targeted, and all reversible, so we lose absolutely no leverage in this regard. And the fundamental architecture around banking and oil sanctions that we have, that the European Union has, all remain in place. So what Iran really wants isn’t available to them unless we get to a comprehensive agreement that we can agree to.
QUESTION: What Iran really wants in part is to continue enriching some – for some fashion, whatever you believe, but using – continuing nuclear enrichment. Does this deal stop that?
UNDER SECRETARY SHERMAN: Well, this deal doesn’t stop it in the first step because it is just a suspension, but it does stop all of their enrichment over 5 percent. And that’s very important because the higher you get up on the scale, the more quickly you can get to weapons grade uranium which is needed for fissile material for a nuclear weapon. So now they can’t enrich over 5 percent even in this first step.
But the fact remains that we’ve also said in this agreement that when we get to a comprehensive agreement, we would consider a limited, modest enrichment program if it is attached to real practical needs and if, in fact, they agree to all the monitoring and all of the intrusive verification that’s needed on limiting the scope, the capacity of the stockpiles, and everything that they do.
QUESTION: So some of that monitoring starts this weekend, but you believe just as fact that there is a plausible civilian use for nuclear enrichment by Iran?
UNDER SECRETARY SHERMAN: There may be, but this is all part of the comprehensive agreement which we will begin to negotiate very quickly. And indeed, if we cannot get the kinds of agreement we need, the kinds of limitations we need, then there will not be an agreement, and we will revert to where we are with these sanctions, additional sanctions, and the UN Security Council resolutions, which are quite critical and must be addressed before any final agreement is reached.
QUESTION: How close would you say Iran is to being able to develop a nuclear weapon right now if they weren’t under this pause?
UNDER SECRETARY SHERMAN: Well, I think there are intelligence assessments which I can’t share with the audience. But publicly, many analysts have said that if the Supreme Leader decided today – and he’s the only one who makes these decisions in the final analysis – if they decided today, it would probably be at least a year away before they had a nuclear weapon. And of course, they not only have to build the weapon but a delivery system to carry it.
QUESTION: Does this deal allow UN inspectors, international inspectors, access to the military bases where they might have evidence to support this?
UNDER SECRETARY SHERMAN: Well, indeed this is probably an extraordinary intrusive monitoring regime that we’ve put in place even with this first step. There will be daily inspectors at Fordow and Natanz, the two enrichment facilities. There will be at least monthly access to Arak, the plutonium reactor that they are trying to build that we have halted any advance on with even this first step. There will be managed access to uranium mines and mills, to centrifuge production, things we have never, ever had before. That will help us to make sure that they cannot divert things, they cannot have a covert program, and it will give us great insight into what they’re doing. These are all firsts that we have never had before.
QUESTION: Is it fair to say that as difficult as it was getting to this first step, as you call it, that it will be 10 times as difficult getting to the next one?
UNDER SECRETARY SHERMAN: I think getting to a comprehensive agreement will be very, very difficult.
QUESTION: Does that include dismantling, full dismantling?
UNDER SECRETARY SHERMAN: This includes a lot of dismantling of their infrastructure, because quite frankly, we’re not quite sure what you need a 40-megawatt heavy water reactor, which is what Arak is, for any civilian peaceful purpose. And at the end of the day, what is critical here is that the international community and the United States of America must have full confidence that Iran truly has a peaceful program.
QUESTION: And you know who does not have that confidence. That would be Israel.
UNDER SECRETARY SHERMAN: Indeed.
QUESTION: And what are you saying to them in this interim? Are they also the subject of secret bilateral mollification?
UNDER SECRETARY SHERMAN: It’s not secret. We talk to the Israelis all of the time, as we do to all of our partners and allies, including the Gulf, who also have a lot of interest in what’s happening here because they care about what’s happening in the region and about strategic geopolitical consequences regarding Iran. But on the nuclear deal, Israel, the United States, and all the Gulf states share the same objective: Iran will not, cannot, should not have a nuclear weapon. The President’s been very clear that he will stop that from happening. So we agree on the objective. Tactically, we may disagree from time to time.
QUESTION: From time to time. Is part of that objective also normalization eventually with Iran, relations with Iran?
UNDER SECRETARY SHERMAN: Oh, I think that we are a long way off from that. I note a Wall Street Journal op-ed that was read – written by Secretaries Kissinger and Shultz which laid out three objectives going into the future. One was a limited capacity in Iran for a civil nuclear program with severe limits that could give confidence to the international community. They also talked about where we might head with Iran in terms of a relationship with them going forward, but I think that’s many years off.
QUESTION: Far down the road.
UNDER SECRETARY SHERMAN: Far down the road.
QUESTION: (Inaudible) seem to agree on that. Wendy Sherman, Under Secretary for Political Affairs and lead negotiator in the Iran talks, thank you so much for joining us.
UNDER SECRETARY SHERMAN: Thank you, Gwen.
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