Remarks at a Symposium on P5+1 Iran Nuclear Negotiations

Wendy R. Sherman
Under Secretary for Political Affairs 
Center for Strategic and International Studies
Washington, DC
October 23, 2014

UNDER SECRETARY SHERMAN: Good afternoon, everybody. You can tell how important this is to me to do it, because as Jim and John know, I just got off of a plane from Lima, Peru, so that’s how important you all are that I’m here to do this, these remarks. I’m really delighted to be here and to see so many people that I know who are working so hard on one of the greatest challenges of our time.

As Dean Steinberg mentioned – I sort of like saying that, Dean Steinberg. That’s sort of nice – Jim and I became acquainted more than a quarter century ago, first on the Mondale campaign and then on the Michael Dukakis for President campaign. Some would say that says a lot about our ability to create success. But that said, we got to know each other quite well. And for those of you who have not had the pleasure of working with Jim, I can tell you that he is incredibly smart, witty, warm – just ask his two daughters. And despite the fact that his brain has been picked regularly by presidents, national security advisers, secretaries of state, it remains chock full of wise thoughts, and Maxwell is very, very lucky to have you as dean. We are grateful to him and to the Maxwell School for bringing us together, just as I’m sure that the Maxwell School is grateful each day to have Jim Steinberg as its leader.

I also want to thank our host, Dr. John Hamre. He may have been following Jim Steinberg’s tail lights, but I’ve been following his. John Hamre is really one of the wise men of this town, and I had the pleasure when I was in the private sector of sitting on the Defense Policy Board, where he ran a meeting of 25 formers and I was the low person on the totem pole – one of two women out of 25 I must say. But nontheless, every former secretary of State, every former secretary of Defense, and all of us – all of us – followed John Hamre’s lead. He is just an extraordinary public servant.

I want to congratulate CSIS on this spectacular new facility – just a slight upgrade from your previous digs. (Laughter.) CSIS is renowned for organizing conferences such as this, where men and women who make policy are able to dialogue with people who actually have time to think about policy, and that is a healthy and most necessary mix.

I thank, as well, our friends from the Carnegie Corporation and also Ambassador Kvale and representatives of the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs. In recent decades, Norway has played a truly unique part in some of the more uplifting moments in Middle East diplomacy. They’re hard to find from time to time. So grateful for the role that Norway continues, for less than two weeks ago, Norway helped to organize the Gaza reconstruction conference in Cairo. America welcomes Norway’s continued involvement in an arena where good ideas and common sense are as valuable as they are rare. So thank you very much.

Now, as I understand it, the major purpose of this extraordinary symposium is to analyze the nuclear negotiating strategy of the Islamic Republic of Iran. I’m strongly tempted to just remain silent and have you spell out that strategy for me, because the more I know about it the better. Of course, I could – and you probably wish that I would – seize the chance to speculate publicly myself about the motives and decision-making processes of the people who sit across from me and our team during our discussions. But, as will come as no surprise, that’s probably an opportunity I will pass up. Since the nuclear talks have begun, I have suffered a twisted ankle, a broken nose, and a ruptured pinkie finger, made very famous on the front page of The New York Times. And I don’t intend this afternoon to invite dental surgery by having to eat my words, so I will be a little bit careful.

To be honest, several weeks ago, when I first received Dean Steinberg’s invitation, I quite frankly was not sure whether this would be a good or a bad moment to speak openly about the negotiating process. And indeed, quite frankly, timing remains an issue. As you know, the talks involving Iran and the P5+1 – or as our European friends prefer, the E3+3 – have been extended through November 24th. And obviously, I don’t and won’t want to say anything today that would jeopardize our chance to bring those deliberations to a successful close. As Madeleine Albright once observed – a wonderful Secretary of State, a dear friend, and a business partner to boot at one point in my life – negotiations are like mushrooms, and often they do best in the dark. There are, however, many aspects of the topic that can be usefully explored and are fully in keeping with the focus of our gathering, which is blessed with an outstanding array of experts on relations between Iran and particularly the West.

To begin, I’d like to simply emphasize how important the P5+1 negotiations are. An Iran equipped with nuclear arms would add an unacceptable element of instability and danger to a part of the globe that already has a surplus of both. If Tehran had such a weapon, other countries in the region might well pursue the same goal, generating a potentially catastrophic arms race, intensifying the sectarian divide that is a major source of Middle East tension, and undermining the global nonproliferation regime that President Obama has consistently sought to reinforce.

That is why the President has pledged to ensure that Iran will not acquire a nuclear weapon. Our preference is to achieve this goal by diplomatic means. But make no mistake. Our bottom line is unambiguous, crystal clear, and, quite frankly, written in stone: Iran will not, shall not obtain a nuclear weapon.

A major step in the right direction of that pursuit was taken last January when we began implementing a negotiating framework called the Joint Plan of Action. In return for limited sanctions relief, Iran committed – while talks are underway – to freeze and even roll back key components of its nuclear activities. Specifically, Iran has halted the expansion of its overall enrichment capacity; put a cap on its stockpile of low-enriched uranium hexafluoride; stopped the production of uranium enriched to 20 percent; agreed not to make further advances at the Arak heavy water reactor; and opened the door to unprecedented daily access for international inspectors to the facilities at Natanz and Fordow.

At the time the Joint Plan was announced, many observers expressed profound doubt that Iran would abide by its commitments. But according to the IAEA – the International Atomic Energy Agency – Iran has done what it promised to do. The result is a nuclear program that is more constrained and transparent than it has been in many years. In turn, the P5+1 has fulfilled its commitment to provide limited sanctions relief. More extensive relief will come when – and only when – we are able to arrive at a comprehensive deal that addresses the concerns of the world community. Such a plan, if fully implemented, would give confidence that Iran’s nuclear program will be exclusively peaceful and would enable the Iranian people to look forward to a much brighter future.

We are aware, of course, that this negotiating process is, shall we say, controversial. Some worry that it will fail. Others seem to fear that it will succeed. Many have questions and doubts. As our discussions have gone forward, the Obama Administration has consulted regularly with members of Congress and with our many overseas partners, including Israel and the Gulf states.

We have heard a variety of concerns and done our best to answer hard questions regarding the possible nature and implications of a potential deal, while reaffirming our enduring commitment to the security of the region. These conversations have been and continue to be quite valuable, and taken together, have reinforced our conviction that, although every alternative has risks, the decision to fully explore a diplomatic solution is the right one.

There does, however, remain much hard work to be done. As we approach the November 24th deadline, the valuable safeguards included in the Joint Plan of Action are still in place. Our goal now is to develop a durable and comprehensive arrangement that will effectively block all of Iran’s potential paths to fissile material for a nuclear weapon. Such an arrangement would bar Iran from producing fuel for a weapon with either uranium or plutonium. Through inspections and monitoring, it would also offer the best method to prevent the covert processing of these materials and make any effort by Tehran to turn away from its obligations so visible and so time-consuming that the attempt would not succeed.

Given the stakes, it should be no surprise that our talks have moved forward at a deliberative pace, which is diplo-speak for “not so fast.” Last week, my P5+1 colleagues and I were in Vienna yet again, or to be more precise, confined to a hotel that happens to be located in Vienna while subsisting on endless cups of coffee and a hotel buffet that specializes in turkey schnitzel.

The Iranian delegation is headed by Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif, while the chief negotiator for the P5+1 is the very capable High Representative of the European Union, Cathy Ashton. Both sides are assisted by teams of technical experts who help us understand the full range of our options. From the beginning, our talks have been serious and businesslike; they have also occurred in a variety of venues and formats. To date, we have met in Geneva and New York, as well as Vienna; we have had bilaterals, trilaterals, hexalaterals and plenaries; and we have devoted some sessions to broad principles and others to the very laborious task of defining specific technical parameters. We have also met at various levels: the specialist, the delegation heads, and sometimes – as in Europe this past week – Secretary Kerry takes the American chair.

It’s no secret that among the P5+1 governments there exist some major differences on prominent issues in the world. But with respect to Iran’s nuclear program, solidarity has been our watchword. We are all working towards the same goal. To that end, our group has proposed to Iran a number of ideas that are equitable, enforceable, and consistent with Tehran’s expressed desire for a viable civilian nuclear program and that take into account that country’s scientific knowhow and economic needs.

Iran’s Supreme Leader has repeatedly said that his government has neither the aspiration nor the intention of building a nuclear weapon; indeed, he has said that such a project would be forbidden under Islam. So our proposals are consistent with Iran’s own publicly-stated position. If Iran truly wants to resolve its differences with the international community and facilitate the lifting of economic sanctions, it will have no better chance than between now and November 24th. This is the time to finish the job.

Will that happen? I don’t know. I can tell you that all the components of a plan that should be acceptable to both sides are on the table. We have made impressive progress on issues that originally seemed intractable. We have cleared up misunderstandings and held exhaustive discussions on every element of a possible text. However, like any complicated and technically complex diplomatic initiative, this is a puzzle with many interlocking pieces.

Because of this, it would be a mistake to focus inordinate attention on any one issue at the expense of all others. Every piece is critical whether it involves infrastructure, or stockpiles, or research, or types of equipment, or questions of timing or sequencing. But one area that has drawn much comment – in part because of Iran’s own public statements – concerns the size and scope of the Islamic Republic’s uranium enrichment capacity.

Iran’s leaders would very much hope that the world would conclude that the status quo – at least on this pivotal subject – should be acceptable, but obviously, it is not. If it were, we would never have needed to begin this painstaking and difficult negotiation. The Security Council imposed sanctions on Iran for a reason, and that is because the government violated its obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, engaged in secret nuclear-weapons-related activities, and was less than transparent in reporting to international agencies. That past has created a thick cloud of doubt that cannot be dissipated by Tehran’s words and promises alone. The world will decide to suspend and then lift nuclear-related sanctions only if and when Iran takes convincing and verifiable steps to show that its nuclear program is and will remain entirely peaceful. That is a reasonable standard that Iran can readily meet. It is the standard that Iran must meet. And it is the key to ending Iran’s international isolation.

The Obama Administration recognizes that in diplomacy, it is sometimes a good idea to widen the agenda so that a tradeoff on one issue can be balanced by flexibility on another. Given the turbulence roiling in the Middle East today, the temptation to link the nuclear question to other topics is understandable. However, all parties have agreed that this should be a single-track negotiation, with its own defined set of participants, its own logic, and a clear bottom line. We are concentrating on one job and one job only, and that is ensuring that Iran does not acquire a nuclear weapon.

I should note, however, in separate and dedicated meetings on the margins of each of our talks, I and members of my team raise our concerns regarding the status of U.S. citizens missing or detained in Iran. Nothing matters more to me as Under Secretary of State than ensuring the fair treatment of American citizens. Amir Hekmati, Saeed Abedini, Jason Rezaian should be allowed to return without delay to their families, and we must do all we can to find answers regarding the whereabouts and well-being of Robert Levinson and bring him home too.

Whether or not a nuclear deal is reached, the United States will continue to voice its longstanding concerns about Iranian policies that undermine regional stability or that are inconsistent with global norms and values. We will continue to hold Iran’s Government accountable for all aspects of its human rights record and for actions that exacerbate sectarian divisions. As is the case with any country, engagement on one issue does not require and will not lead to silence on others.

In his Inaugural Address more than 50 years ago, President John Kennedy asked in the Cold War context whether a beachhead of cooperation might one day push back the jungle of suspicion separating East from West. Today, there are those in the United States who disbelieve almost everything Iranian leaders say, and there are many in Iran who question whether America will live up to whatever commitments we make. Clearly, there exists, if not a jungle, then at least a forest of distrust on both sides. Given what has happened in past decades, how could there not be? But I can affirm to you this afternoon that the United States will not accept any arrangement we can’t verify, and that we won’t make any promises we can’t keep. Just as we will demand good faith, so will we demonstrate good faith.

Last fall, the President of the United States and the leaders of Iran decided to test the possibilities of direct negotiations on the nuclear issue. Both faced resistance and criticism for taking this bold step. And yet, both still chose to accept the risks of diplomacy over the even greater uncertainties of other options. We do not yet know what the full consequences of this decision will be. But the world is clearly better off now than it would have been if the leaders on both sides had ignored this opening. With all that is going on in the Middle East today, an Iranian nuclear program that was not frozen but instead rushing full speed ahead toward larger stockpiles, more uranium enrichment capacity, the production of weapons-grade plutonium, and less transparency would hardly have been a stabilizing factor. Although our negotiating progress to date hasn’t fulfilled our highest hopes, it has still exceeded the expectation of many observers.

Make no mistake. Developing a consensus on a comprehensive plan will require some extraordinarily difficult decisions and we should all appreciate that. This negotiation is the very opposite of easy. But the potential benefits are quite extraordinary. And it is vital that we understand that, as well. Because the acceptance and implementation of a comprehensive plan will improve prospects for people everywhere. It will reduce anxiety and enhance security throughout the Middle East. It will make possible an era of greater prosperity without any loss of dignity for the people of Iran. It will protect our allies and partners from a new and dangerous threat. It will lessen the incentive for a regional nuclear arms race and thereby strengthen the international nuclear proliferation regime. It will make our own citizens safer. And it will demonstrate yet again the potential for clear-eyed diplomacy to arrive at win-win solutions achievable in no other way. In sum, compared to any alternatives, diplomacy can provide a more sustained and durable resolution to the issues generated by Iran’s nuclear activities.

Almost 800 years ago, the Persian poet Saadi advised listeners to “Have patience; all things are difficult before they become easy.”

Despite the intense efforts of negotiators from seven countries and the European Union, we are still in that “difficult” stage. We must use the remaining time wisely and with a sense of urgency and purpose.

In closing, let me affirm that the United States and its partners are prepared to take advantage of this historic opportunity to resolve our concerns regarding Iran’s nuclear program. We hope the leaders in Tehran will agree to the steps necessary to assure the world that this program will be exclusively peaceful and thereby end Iran’s economic and diplomatic isolation and improve further the lives of their people. If that does not happen, the responsibility will be seen by all to rest with Iran.

We encourage Iran to make the right choice. Meanwhile, we remain steadfast in our determination to take the steps necessary to protect America’s security and to improve the prospects for stability and peace across the globe. We hope Iran will make the right choice. We are ready to do so.

We thank you very much, and now I’d be pleased for a short period to respond to some questions. Thank you. (Applause.)