Remarks at the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism Biennial Leadership Policy Conference

Wendy R. Sherman
Under Secretary for Political Affairs 
Doubletree Hotel
Arlington, VA
April 27, 2015


AUDIENCE: Good morning.

UNDER SECRETARY SHERMAN: That’s nice. (Laughter.) It’s – I’m really very happy to be here today among so many friends.

Thank you Rabbi Stone, Warren, for that wonderful introduction. As most people say, you should stop now. Our families have grown up together at Temple Emanuel from births to Bat Mitzvah’s, weddings, and funerals. Our daughters used to sneak out of Hebrew class and hide in the rabbi’s study. (Laughter.) We’ve watched our daughters grow into young professionals who share our social conscience and who have blessed us, or soon will bless us with grandchildren. We have also been blessed by your leadership, Warren, particularly in making us all think about the planet, about the sanctity of our environment, and the need to urgently address climate change. Rabbi Stone is a leader for all of us in that.

I also want to thank the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. You do such critical work on issues that are really at the heart and soul of what binds us all together. It’s fitting that your conference this year is focused on equality and civil rights – ongoing struggles our nation continues to grapple with, even in 2015, as we’ve seen too often over the past year, and in my home city of Baltimore.

I know last night you honored Rabbi David Saperstein. And I want to thank you for sharing his leadership, intellect, moral conscience, and skill with us at the State Department and with the entire world now as our ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom. We are thrilled to have David at State, but we realize that our gain is your loss. Fortunately, the Reform movement, with leaders like Rabbi Rick Jacobs and David’s replacement at the RAC, Rabbi Jonah Pesner, the movement continues to be led by visionary, passionate, and committed leaders.

I want to take a moment and discuss the relationship between social conscience, social action, civil rights, and religion in quite a personal way. As I grew up, my family attended Baltimore Hebrew Congregation in Baltimore. Rabbi Morris Lieberman led that congregation for many years. One night he gave a stirring sermon on civil rights and was a leader with Parren Mitchell and others to desegregate Baltimore’s restaurants. My father, who led a residential real estate firm, went to see Rabbi Lieberman after the sermon to ask what he could do to help. Rabbi Lieberman said he could advertise open housing, something that had never been done before in highly segregated Baltimore. My father responded that doing so would be economic suicide. Lieberman responded, “You asked and I told you.” (Laughter.)

Well, my father talked with my mother and they decided to do just what Rabbi Lieberman had suggested, even knowing they would pay, and our family would pay, a high cost. So I grew up going to civil rights marches, and having people call our house and threaten to bomb it. And indeed, my parents faced an economic cost in spite of the fact that my father, at the Orioles front office request, found Frank Robinson a house in what had been an all-white neighborhood. When asked why Robinson wanted to live there, my father, who went house to house to ensure owners would not flee, simply said, “Like you, he wants good schools for his kids and a safe neighborhood.”

So social action has been a way of life, a gift from my parents. And social action means not being afraid, or if you are, to move ahead anyway, if it’s the right thing to do. So this morning, I’m here to talk about what President Obama, Secretary Kerry, myself, and so many others are doing to make the world safer, even when it’s hard.

This is a very significant time for all of us to be coming together. Just a few days ago, we celebrated Israel’s Independence Day, an occasion where we remember the truly heroic and historic efforts that led, finally, to the creation of a Jewish state. I hope you all had the opportunity to hear the powerful words spoken by Vice President Joe Biden at the celebration here in Washington, where he said: “We are like family – sometimes we drive each other crazy, but we love each other and we protect each other.” I know we all feel the same way.

I also, as Warren said, just returned from Vienna, where we had the latest round of negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program. And I’m heading up to New York this afternoon, before flying to India, to join Secretary Kerry for more meetings with Foreign Minister Zarif and his Iranian colleagues on this very important issue. We will be working nonstop between now and the end of June to see if we can resolve this most pressing national security challenge peacefully, which will make Israel, the region, the United States, and, indeed, the world safer. (Applause.)

I know that in the Jewish community here in America, a community I’m proud to be part of, there’s been a lot of discussion during the past few weeks about our relationship with Israel, and Prime Minister Netanyahu in particular, and a lot of interest and concern about our efforts to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. Given the importance of these issues, I’m going to spend just a few minutes talking to you about them today, and then I’d be happy to take your questions.

Every time I hear President Obama talk about issues that matter to American Jews, and some of you have heard directly, I’m always struck about how personally he feels about those issues and how personally he feels about his connection to the Jewish people and to Israel. This deep-seated feeling is what drives his unwavering commitment to Israel’s security and his desire to ensure Israel’s future as a democratic and Jewish state.

It’s also what drives this Administration’s approach to the Iran nuclear threat. We understand that Israel is in a tough neighborhood. That’s why we have given Israel more security assistance than any other Administration in history. (Applause.) And that’s why we’re doing everything we can to ensure that that neighborhood doesn’t become even tougher with a nuclear-armed Iran. We believe that the parameters, announced two weeks ago in Lausanne, offer the best chance at preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, and just as importantly, that the alternatives fall far short of what we’ll have if we’re able to turn the political framework into a comprehensive agreement.

Without such an agreement, Iran’s breakout time to get enough nuclear material for a weapon is two or three months – what it is right now. With this agreement it will be one year, up to six times as long as it is now, for at least 10 years. Without this agreement, Iran would expand its enrichment program to 100,000 centrifuges in the next few years. With this agreement, we will have limited Iran to operating about 5,000 centrifuges for at least the next decade. Without this agreement, Iran could produce two weapons’ worth of weapons-grade plutonium every single year. With this agreement, Iran is going to have zero weapons-grade plutonium, and not just for 10 years, but for the lifetime of the reactor.

Without this agreement, Iran would be able to expand its stockpile of currently 10 tons of enriched uranium. With this agreement, that stockpile will be reduced by 98 percent to only three kilograms[1] of a working stockpile. And without this agreement, the international community through the International Atomic Energy Agency would only have its pre-joint plan of action – the first step – insight and inspection into Iran’s declared nuclear program and no ability to look for undeclared nuclear activities.

But with this agreement, we will have the most extensive system of monitoring and verification we have ever negotiated for any country anywhere in the world. We will have eyes into every part of Iran’s nuclear program from cradle to grave. And if we detect Iran is trying to break its commitments or violating the agreement, we will have every single option on the table to respond to them that we have today. So when you look at the comparison between the agreement we are negotiating and the chance that we would succeed, the better course of action is abundantly clear.

Now, I know that the Iranian nuclear issue is at the forefront of the Jewish community’s concerns, but I also know that there are other important concerns as well. First, as you know, we have always had Israel’s back in the international arena, and we have repeatedly stood up against efforts to delegitimize Israel or single Israel out unfairly, even when it meant standing alone. That has been the case and will continue to be the case.

As we’ve said, it’s true that Prime Minister Netanyahu raised questions about his government’s commitment to a two-state solution in comments he made right before and right after the Israeli election. Now he’s working to form a government, as we speak, with a deadline approaching and I certainly don’t and won’t want to get ahead of that process. We will be watching very closely to see what happens after a new government is formed on this issue of working towards two states living side by side in peace and security. (Applause.)

If the new Israeli government is seen as stepping back from its commitment to a two-state solution, something that all of you and a vast majority of American Jews supports, that makes our job in the international arena a lot tougher. Because our ability to push back on efforts to internationalize efforts to address Israeli-Palestinian issues has depended on our insistence that the best course in achieving a two-solution is through direct negotiation between the parties.

The Administration is also absolutely committed to doing all that we can to combat rising anti-Semitism – including by supporting our European allies’ efforts, where we’ve tragically seen this hatred rear its ugly head too often in the past year.

We helped to plan the historic UN General Assembly session on anti-Semitism, at which scores of countries from throughout the world stood up to condemn anti-Semitism. And we will continue to make crystal clear that anti-Semitism has absolutely no place in legitimate policy differences over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Finally, when I look at all the great work that the Reform Movement is doing on a wide range of social issues here in the United States, it underscores for me how Jewish values and American values – we have a cell phone interruption. That’s okay; we all go through it. Finally, when I look at all the great – I’m just glad it wasn’t mine – (laughter) – finally, when I look at all the great work in the Reform Movement is doing on a wide range of social issues here in the United States, it underscores for me how Jewish values and American values are inextricably connected. Jewish values are American values.

Just look at the issues you all are focused on here today – equality, civil rights, social justice. Without these things in our society, all of us are less free and less secure.

The Jewish community, through the Federations, does critical work to support vulnerable populations. All of you have been on the forefront of efforts to expand civil rights. And you have been among the strongest voices in support of immigration reform, affordable health care, and other key Administration priorities.

I could go on, but I want to have time to take your questions, and here’s the key point: Our shared values have provided a basis for partnership on critical domestic and foreign policy priorities over the past six-plus years, and they will continue to do so for the remainder of President Obama’s second term. We intend to use every single day of the rest of this Administration to work to make our country and the world a better and safer place, even when it’s hard to do. At the State Department, that means working as hard as we possibly can to achieve a good agreement with Iran that provides us and the world with the assurances that Iran will not obtain a nuclear weapon.

With that, I’m happy to take your questions. (Applause.)

MODERATOR: We have staff positioned throughout the room, so you can keep your seats. Just raise your hand and I will be happy to call on you.

Rabbi Limmer. Someone will come to you with a mike.

QUESTION: Under Secretary, I want to thank you for sharing (inaudible). I found your articulation --

PARTICIPANT: A little bit louder, Rabbi.

QUESTION: I found your articulation of what we gained with this deal and what would happen were this deal not in place to be exactly what I have been looking for to articulate. My question is –

MODERATOR: Sorry, Rabbi Limmer, can you keep the mike? It’s for the webstream. Thank you.

QUESTION: Oh, it’s for the webstream. Sorry. I have two mikes. (Laughter.) Never do this to a rabbi. (Laughter.) My brief question is really a request: If you could possibly make – share with us that brilliant articulation of what we gain with this deal and what would happen were this deal not in place. I, for one, would like to bring it back to my congregation. Thank you. (Applause.)

UNDER SECRETARY SHERMAN: I think the remarks will be available online, and it’s being streamed as well. You’ll be able to find it, I think, on the State Department website eventually. Thanks.

MODERATOR: We’re going to go over here. The mike is coming to you; one moment.

QUESTION: Thank you. That was a wonderful presentation. Before the first Gulf war, President Bush the elder had sanctions in place, and they were working. And he ended the sanctions shortly after he said they’re working, and we ended up in war. I’m very concerned that we have sanctions working and that we’ll end them too soon and we won’t get the deal and we won’t get the enforcement and we’ll end up in war and in an even more dangerous situation.

UNDER SECRETARY SHERMAN: Thank you. It’s a very good question. The sanctions that we have on Iran – which are U.S. sanctions, EU sanctions, UN Security Council sanctions – are quite vast and quite effective. But they are not effective at preventing Iran from having a nuclear weapon. Sanctions have helped to bring Iran to the negotiating table, but just a few years ago Iran had only 164 centrifuges. As the sanctions came on and as they got more profound, Iran went to the state where they are today, which is to have 19,000 centrifuges, because Iran is in a resistance economy and a resistance culture, and they believed that if the world was going to put sanctions on them, they were going to keep marching forward with their program in the way that they felt they needed to. The only thing that has stopped Iran’s program – and, in fact, rolled it back – is what’s called the JPOA, the Joint Plan of Action, which was the first agreement that we reached, the first step, the interim agreement. That agreement stopped Iran’s program where it is so that we would have time to negotiate a comprehensive agreement, and it got rid of its entire 20 percent stockpile of enriched material. And that’s critical because you go from small enrichment – 3.5 percent, 5 percent – then you go to 20 percent, and then you go to 90 percent and highly enriched uranium, which is fissile material for a nuclear weapon. So the only thing – the only thing – that has stopped Iran’s nuclear program at all has been that first step negotiated agreement to provide time and space to negotiate a comprehensive agreement.

And secondly, it’s very important to understand that the reason we were able to keep sanctions together was because we were committed to trying to find a peaceful, diplomatic solution. So countries around the world, even good allies like Japan and South Korea, were willing to limit the amount of oil they imported from Iran because they believed we were working towards a peaceful solution. If they feel we aren’t working towards a peaceful solution, they are likely to break ranks and we won’t be able to keep the sanctions together anyway.

And then finally, many people say – and I understand the impulse, because you get frustrated and there’s so much going on in the region that is it not good – that people say, “Take military action against Iran.” Actually, our intelligence community has assessed and said publicly that if we took military action against Iran, it would only take away their program for maybe two years. They have mastered the entire nuclear fuel cycle, and you can’t bomb away knowledge. So even if we destroyed their facilities, they could recreate it.

So the really durable solution here is getting an agreement with enough transparency, monitoring, and verification to understand what is going on. Thank you. (Applause.)

MODERATOR: Right here in the front.

UNDER SECRETARY SHERMAN: Okay. And then I have to say, after this question, one of the women in this audience better raise your hand. (Laughter and applause.) But don’t take it personally. I do that everywhere. (Laughter.)

QUESTION: You’re forgiven. (Laughter.)


QUESTION: I wanted to ask you: Does the Administration --

UNDER SECRETARY SHERMAN: You just have to hold it closer. Yeah.

QUESTION: Does the Administration have a plan in place to prevent the undermining of the agreement that you’re negotiating by the Congress? Because the Congress seems to be intent to do it. Would you perhaps consider having President Obama oppose the agreement, so that the Republicans could find a way to support it? (Laughter and applause.)

UNDER SECRETARY SHERMAN: What is there to say? (Laughter.)

QUESTION: (Inaudible)

UNDER SECRETARY SHERMAN: Thank you. You remind me of my father. (Laughter.)

We’re working very hard with Congress. Senator Cardin, who is obviously my senator – and I’ve known Ben most of my life – worked very hard with Senator Corker to fashion a piece of legislation that gave the Congress a procedural way to look at this agreement without getting into the substance, per se. We’re very grateful, and grateful that Senator Corker and Senator Cardin were able to reach an agreement. This legislation will be on the floor of the Senate this week. There will be a lot of pretty awful amendments, quite frankly, and we’ll see where we end up.

The President has said that if the Corker-Cardin legislation stays where it is, he will not veto it; if it becomes something else, then he’ll have to consider his options.

MODERATOR: We have time for one more.

UNDER SECRETARY SHERMAN: Okay, ladies. Over there. Happens everywhere, I just want you to know. And there are more women in this audience, I think, than there are men.


QUESTION: Thank you, thank you. You spoke so beautifully about the heritage you received from you parents. Can you maybe make some concluding comments about where your sources of strength and inspiration come out in the incredibly hard work that you do?

UNDER SECRETARY SHERMAN: Thank you. You asked me that question, the first came – the first thing that came to my mind is my husband. My – our daughter is grown up and lives in Boston and is a committed professional herself. She works as a professor and as a fellow at Boston’s Immigration and Asylum Law Clinic and she is a very committed person to immigration reform in this country and to helping people who don’t have a voice. And I think she has that heritage as much from my parents as I have the heritage from my parents.

But I say my husband because he puts up with a lot. I’m on airplanes all of the time. He is very supportive of what we’re trying to do. And I was saying – somebody said, “How do you do all the flying you do?” Some people get up and go to the office. I get up and go on an airplane. (Laughter.) And you learn this is what you do. And I work with extraordinary Foreign Service officers and civil servants. Andrew Stevenson is here with me today and a couple of the – my other colleagues are here. These folks do this for their living their entire careers. I don’t. I’ve come in and out. I was in the private sector for a decade. I come in and out of government service. I think the inspiration is the people who every single day – not just when they’re president of the United States or secretary of state or under secretary for political affairs – but every single day, they get up, you don’t even know who they are. And they work to try to make this world a safer place. They’re quite extraordinary and I’m honored to serve with them. (Applause.)

Thank you all. Have a great day.


[1] Three hundred kilograms