United States Under Secretary for Political Affairs Wendy R. Sherman addressed the Wellesley community about her experiences as the head of the American negotiating team in the Iran nuclear deal, a July 14 multilateral pact that limited Iran’s nuclear capabilities in exchange for lifting financial and international oil sanctions. The lecture was in the Science Center’s room 277 on Nov. 16. She delivered the Fall 2015 Hyunja Laskin ‘88 and Jeffrey Kenner Lecture, one of two annual Kenner lectures hosted by the Madeleine Korbel Albright Institute for Global Affairs.
Sherman was the fourth-highest ranking employee of the U.S. Department of State and was hired as its Under Secretary for Political Affairs by former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton ’69 in September 2011. While she played a pivotal role in the 20-month crafting of the Iran nuclear deal from 2014 to 2015, Sherman travelled to more than 50 countries as an overseer of all the U.S. Department of State’s regional bureaus. She resigned in October 2015 after the final Iran nuclear agreement was signed, commenting to The Times of Israel, “It’s been two long years.” Sherman is currently an Institute of Politics resident fellow and senior fellow at Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.
Early in her career, Sherman served as director of Maryland’s Office of Child Welfare and was President and Chief Executive Officer of Fannie Mae. In the 1990s, she served the Clinton administration as Assistant Secretary of State for Legislative Affairs and in an ambassador role as a counselor to U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Korbel Albright ’59. Sherman is currently Vice Chair of the Albright Stonebridge Group, a strategic advisory and commercial diplomacy firm founded and chaired by Albright. Sherman earned a bachelor’s degree in sociology and urban studies at Boston University and a master’s degree in social work from the University of Maryland.
Melanie Chen ’16, an Albright Fellow this year, introduced Sherman. Sherman thanked Laskin and Kenner for their contributions; these capital market investors were in the audience. Sherman described Sherman’s service to Albright and noted that “Wellesley made Secretary Albright who she is” when describing the women’s years of collaboration.
Sherman took the helm, noting that “like Secretary Albright, I’m an optimist who worries.” She thanked Jeanne Murray, the founding and current Director of the Madeleine Korbel Albright Institute for Global Affairs, for first emailing her. Sherman noted that Albright had been urging her to come, eliciting a laugh from the packed audience. Sherman also thanked Laskin and Kenner for their “investment in human capital.”
Sherman broached a serious topic: the Russian airplane explosion in Egypt and the recent attacks in Paris, Beirut and Baghdad before discussing the refugee crisis in Europe and ongoing civil war in Syria. Sherman noted that military intervention in Syria is only one component of the solution and advocated “a negotiated peace” as a prerequisite to rebuilding it. She described the Nov. 15 Vienna meeting as the culmination of “years of failure by the international community” and concluded that in Syria, “change must come, hopefully sooner rather than later.” She pointed to the summit’s significance by underscoring the fact that the participants were a “team of rivals gathering around the table” who sought common ground. By the meeting’s conclusion, 17 countries agreed on a Syrian transition plan of United Nations’ (U.N.) supervised elections within 18 months and invited Syrian rebel leaders to participate in the negotiation.
Sherman segued into her account of her time as the head U.S. negotiator for the Iran nuclear deal.
“Three months earlier, I’d sat in the same city [Vienna] and witnessed history,” she said.
Sherman then went back in time to 39 years before the agreement was signed.
“The story, of course, starts far from the negotiation table,” she noted, recounting how Iran’s nuclear program started in 1974 and was temporarily halted by the 1979 Iranian revolution and Iran hostage crisis, which caused the United States to freeze the assets of some Iranian officials and remains a source of tension between the countries today.
In the 2000s, it became clear to the United States, Great Britain, France and eventually the rest of the world that Iran was pursuing a covert nuclear facility program and intended to create nuclear weapons. After Iran refused to suspend its uranium enrichment program, the U.N. imposed sanctions on the country in 2006. The United States has enacted multiple sanctions against Iran, most recently in 2013. Iran’s economy and oil exports fell, but as expected, the nuclear program continued. Sherman argued the sanctions brought Iran to the negotiation table.
Oman served as the crucial link between Iran and the United States in its secret initial negotiations, which culminated in what would become the Joint Plan of Action. This plan was signed by the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council and Germany in 2013. Even at that early stage, “everyone including Iran knew the goal was to lift Iran’s isolation from the international community.”
With many countries collaborating and elections occurring in the United States and Iran, the final agreement’s components were complex and took much effort to create.
“With so many players involved, it was like playing many games of multidimensional chess at once,” Sherman explained, adding that it was necessary to keep each country on the same page all the time.
She asked the audience to ponder what criteria must be met for multilateral agreements to pass. Among the ten criteria she listed for why agreements like the Iran deal succeed include leaders’ consistent insistence that certain goals be met, the timing of the agreement, the intense concentration and stamina of the diplomats and the negotiators’ understanding of which trade offs could and couldn’t be made. As an illustration, Sherman described “the final 27 days of this marathon as long ones.” During that time, she only ate one meal outside of the hotel she was staying in. Secretary of State John Kerry spent two and a half weeks in Vienna this summer, more consecutive time in one place abroad than any of his predecessors.
Although Sherman says the option of the U.S. taking military action in Iran would have been considered had the nuclear deal not been passed, she argues it would have no long-term impact on deterring the country in its goal to amass nuclear weapons.
“No military action can bomb away knowledge,” she said.
Sherman also touched upon the direction of the Syrian civil war, stagnant efforts to move North and South Korea towards peace and the effort to curb North Korea’s nuclear weapons program before fielding audience questions. She answers queries on issues ranging from how to practice self-care in the U.S. State Department to the future of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s reign to how she functions so well in a high-stress environment.
“On the tough days when I think I lose it, my husband tells me, ‘You are trying to make history,’” Sherman said.
When asked by The Wellesley News about the role of women at the negotiation table and whether their representation in high-level diplomatic talks is likely to increase in the future, Sherman drew on her experience in the Iran negotiations and a trip to Pyongyang in the 1990s.
“Numerous literature has shown that women are better negotiators than men,” Sherman said to laughter before recounting the key role of several women in the Iran negotiations.
“Our field class of underseretaries and negotiators has grown up since then,” said Sherman, referring how representation of women has increased since her historic trip to North Korea. She was the only woman at the delegation. As for women’s future representation in the diplomatic arena, Sherman expressed optimism and says “change is happening and will continue to happen.” Sherman noted that successful diplomacy requires “starting where people are, not where you want them to be.”
Sherman offered Wellesley College students practical career advice.
“You can have it all, but you can’t have it all at once,” she said, adding that Wellesley students should view older women as resources who can teach them.
“Find a skill set, learn it, use it in whatever you do in your life. The other ingredient is to have passion and go for it. The third thing is to take risks, expect failure, learn from it and do it better the next time,” Sherman advised.
Sherman also proffered much advice about life and its myriad problems.
“There’s no simple solution besides in life and death. Everything in between is really complicated,” she remarked.
Catherine Woodhouse ’18 commended Sherman for her effective presentation on the complexities of the Iran nuclear deal and a wide range of topics related to diplomacy and the recent tragedies that occurred this past weekend.
“Sherman was an enlightening, forthcoming and bluntly honest speaker. She’s an inspiration to everyone looking to follow her footsteps in foreign diplomacy and an advocate of breaking the glass ceiling hanging over every woman’s head,” Woodhouse wrote, adding that Sherman embodies the archetype of Wendy Wellesley.
Amber Qin ’18 was similarly moved by the lecture and Sherman’s delivery.
“She spoke on issues as big as national security threats and as little as what it means to be religious and to be female in the State Department. She bridged us as students of Wellesley to the problems of world at large,” Qin said.
Simone Liano ’17, an Albright Fellow, enjoyed the lecture.
“The lecture was fantastic; it exceeded my expectations. Ambassador Sherman was quite an impressive individual, but also a very genuine person,” Liano said.