Top 'Iran Deal' Negotiator Sees Limits to US-Russian Cooperation
This month marks one year since the implementation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, better known simply as “the Iran deal”—an agreement by Iran, the EU and the P5+1 (China, France, Germany, Russia, the U.K. and the U.S.) to ensure, through a complex set of measures, that Iran’s nuclear program be exclusively peaceful. Ambassador Wendy Sherman, currently a senior fellow at Harvard’s Belfer Center and a senior counselor at Albright Stonebridge Group, served as lead negotiator on the deal during her time as Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs (2011-2015). Here she speaks with Russia Matters about working with her Russian counterparts, the convergence and divergence of Moscow’s and Washington’s interests and her concerns about the deal’s future.
RM: To start, could you please describe Russia’s role in the JCPOA negotiations?
WS: I want to set a slightly broader frame, given the current debate. I agree with the general view that we will work with Russia where we can; we will confront and challenge them when we must. The Iran negotiation was one place where we could work together. But those are limited circumstances for all the reasons that your readers know. In the Iran negotiation Russia did play a useful and constructive role. The negotiations took place at the time that Russia illegally attempted to annex Crimea and challenge the eastern border of Ukraine—and it was something we could not discuss. It was certainly present but did not change the focus of attention on the deal. [Deputy Foreign Minister] Sergei Ryabkov, who was the leader of the Russian team, is a seasoned diplomat; he not only has responsibility for the North American relationship but for non-proliferation. So he knew the substance of this very well.
It’s not that we trusted each other—we all knew we had different national interests, to be sure—but we certainly knew each other, which is helpful.
[Foreign] Minister [Sergei] Lavrov, of course, always had very strong views and knew the U.N. system extremely well and in the provision for the snapback [sanctions] at the United Nations he was actually quite central for figuring out how to do that so that the U.S. could maintain its veto. And it was very helpful that he did that. The Russians have had a long history of strong efforts at non-proliferation, and that was true here as well. It’s probably useful that Secretary [of State John] Kerry, Minister Lavrov, Sergei Ryabkov and I were core members of the team that worked out the agreement between the U.S. and Russia to get chemical weapons out of Syria, so we knew each other rather well and had already accomplished one agreement. It’s not that we trusted each other—we all knew we had different national interests, to be sure—but we certainly knew each other, which is helpful. So I would say Russia’s team was seasoned and knowledgeable, for the most part professional, and could operate at an expert level as well, which was very important. They did have to find their way to the balcony to smoke on a regular basis, but nonetheless. [Laughs.]
RM: In what ways did U.S. and Russian goals and interests converge and diverge?
WS: Our convergence was on believing that Iran should not possess a nuclear weapon. That was fundamental to everybody at the table, in the P5+1 and the European Union, and that was probably the most powerful convergence with every country; we all had the same objective. Secondly, Russia and the United States have traditionally shared the desire to build down the number of nuclear weapons, to make sure there are no new nuclear-weapons powers in the world. That’s gotten a little stickier over the last few years, but, nonetheless, the fundamental [position] that there not be a new nuclear-weapons power has been in Russia’s interest and continues to be so. Russia believes that we should find a way forward to remove sanctions on Iran; it was important to them in terms of doing business. This was also part of Russia believing that the U.S. unilateral sanctions and extraterritorial sanctions were not legitimate. Nonetheless, to a greater or lesser extent, they had followed the sanctions as long as we were having a serious negotiation.
One of the areas of tremendous divergence—and one of the last things to be negotiated—was the U.N. resolution on missiles and the arms embargo. Russia believed that there should be no restrictions on missiles, there should be no restriction on arms; they didn’t want any restrictions on theirs, and they didn’t think there should be any restrictions on Iran’s. It was a conscious decision by everybody to leave this as one of the last things [to negotiate] with the belief that since Russia wanted nothing and the U.S. wanted quite a bit, if we were towards the end of the deal, we’d find a compromise—which we did.
The U.S. wanted to be able to snap back sanctions. We wanted to make sure that our veto was intact. And so the mechanism that we came up with is a sort of inverted vote. As I said, Lavrov was very instrumental in that and it preserved the U.S. ability to snap back multilateral sanctions on our own. And that was critical to the U.S. that we be able to do that.
The other thing that was very important to Russia was that the agreement not be a precedent for anything else. It was important to the Iranians that the agreement not be sui generis, that it would not make them stick out like a sore thumb. And so we had to work very hard to find language that could reasonably meet both of those requirements.
If Moscow was already thinking about their role in the Middle East, which I’m sure they were, having greater conflict with Iran was not in their interest.
RM: Just to clarify, why was it so important to Russia that the agreement not be a precedent?
WS: Because they didn’t want any of those mechanisms, including on verification and monitoring, to be something that might be imposed on them. They didn’t want the IAEA to have new tools that could be applied universally. The irony is many of the tools in this deal are beginning to be applied universally and [for some of them] that had already begun [prior to the deal]—use of electronic seals and things like that.
RM: A disruption of the Iran talks could have pushed up oil prices, on which Russia’s economy remains heavily dependent, yet Moscow pushed for the talks to result in the JCPOA. Why?
WS: The low price of oil was not where things were for the entire length of this negotiation. That lowering of the oil prices happened later in the process. So I think some of this is temporal: We began in one place in terms of oil prices, but ended in another. And by then the deal had a momentum I don’t think Russia could stop at that point without looking like they were undermining the potential for an agreement. If there hadn’t been an agreement and we had ended up facing the potential for a war, that sort of trumps a lot of other things. … I think Moscow understood that there was certainly potential [for conflict]. And if Moscow was already thinking, which I’m sure they were, about their role in the Middle East, and how they were going to manage, having greater conflict in the Middle East with Iran was not in their interest.
RM: One of the criticisms of U.N. Security Council Resolution 2231 [the U.N.’s endorsement of and amendments to the JCPOA] is its relatively weak language on constraining Iranian missile development. For example, whereas prior UNSC resolutions prohibited Iran from testing missiles “capable of delivering” a nuclear weapon, which could be almost any missile, 2231 prohibited testing of missiles “designed to deliver” nuclear weapons, which, given Iranian declarations, is no Iranian missile. Can you shed any light on the negotiations at the Security Council? How do you account for this outcome?
WS: The Russians and the Chinese didn’t want a General Assembly resolution of any sort except to endorse the agreement. And they didn’t want any restrictions to continue on missiles or the arms embargo. They understood we could not have a deal without restrictions that were ongoing. Everyone understood that the restrictions that were in place before we did this deal had been violated by Iran on a regular basis, but, nonetheless, the UN restrictions provided international legitimacy for interdiction and for countries to take on board requests that the U.S. and others might make for interdiction or for inspection. So, quite frankly, we went back and forth; the U.S. negotiated this with the Iranians because the U.S. has always held the pen at the U.N. on Iran-related resolutions. So at the end Rob Malley [of the U.S. National Security Council] and I would meet with [Iran’s deputy foreign ministers] Abbas Araghchi and Majid Ravanchi. There were several versions of the resolution: The Russians drafted a version, my European colleagues had some ideas about a version, we had some of our best U.N. staff drafting from our perspective. This was a very complicated negotiation because every time we got somewhere not only did the Iranians have to see it but, even before the Iranians saw it, all of our partners had to see it. This is one area where my P5 partners wanted the resolution agreed by the P5 in the first instance because we were the only members of the Security Council. We certainly kept the European Union apprised, but this was very much a P5 undertaking—with the concurrence of Germany and the European Union, but with an understanding that it was a P5 responsibility. So we got to a place where President Obama believed we had an answer that would ensure we could do the things we wanted to do internationally on these critical issues, understanding that the U.S. also has its own bilateral capabilities.
RM: Is it clear why Russia opposed restrictions on Iranian missile development and arms?
WS: Well, sure, because they don’t want any restrictions on theirs or anybody else’s. I think it’s the issue of precedent more than anything. And they were most neuralgic about the arms embargo, because the arms embargo was put in place as a punishment for what Iran had done, not because it was core to the nuclear-weapons potential. And so they thought it was inappropriate. We did not.
Iran has politics. Most people don’t think they do, but they do.
RM: What is the outlook for the JCPOA in 2017?
WS: I give a lot of credit to Helga Schmid, who runs the Joint Commission [of the JCPOA] for the European Union, and to the IAEA. They have had to do a staggeringly complex job and have done it very well. The Iranians have for all intents and purposes complied. Issues have been worked out that were not foreseen, or maybe foreseen but not in the level of technical detail [required]. And for the most part the deal has held together. Even recently with the Iran Sanctions Act renewal, the Iranians made their views known, there was discussion within the Joint Commission, but the deal is going to continue. They didn’t name it [the renewal] as a fundamental violation of the agreement. I worry about it, obviously. I don’t know where the president-elect [now U.S. President Donald Trump] will ultimately come out. It was good to hear his nominee for secretary of defense say the deal should stay. Congress is very concerned about what Iran is doing in the Middle East, as am I. A lot of nefarious behavior. And I don’t know what actions Congress will take that might have the added effect of destroying the deal. So I think there are a lot of unknowns going forward, but I would urge everybody—whether it’s Congress, our negotiating partners, the president-elect and the new administration—to be mindful because the alternatives to this deal are more than unattractive; they are downright dangerous.
RM: Iran’s own domestic politics are now in dramatic flux. Any potential consequences of that?
WS: You’re very right to raise that. As complicated as our politics are, Iran’s politics are also complicated. Iran has politics. Most people don’t think they do, but they do. And the presidential election is coming up this spring. There’s a lot of jockeying going on. I think [ex-President Akbar Hashemi] Rafsanjani’s death just makes difficult politics more difficult in Iran. The IRGC [Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps] doesn’t like the deal because they lost a lot of their black market stakes in the economy once the sanctions were lifted. And the hard-hardliners in Iran, as opposed to the hardliners like [President Hasan] Rouhani, don’t like the deal. So Iran’s got a lot of its own complex politics.
RM: If some sort of rollback of the deal were to be initiated, what is the procedure in place for actually doing that?
WS: It would matter what the circumstances were. Take the Iran Sanctions Act renewal: That got discussed in the Joint Commission and got to a good resolution. Most of these things are taken up in the Joint Commission to work out. So you’d have to sort of take each hypothetical circumstance one at a time and we can’t even began to imagine all the hypotheticals here.
RM: Would it be enough for one signatory to pull out?
WS: Everyone can do that. Whether the rest would keep it together [is the question]. This was not a bilateral agreement between the U.S. and Iran. It was a multilateral agreement that was endorsed by the Security Council, 15 to nothing. Even our allies and partners, like Japan, Korea, India, who reduced their imports of Iranian oil to try to put pressure on Iran to come to the negotiating table would not be happy to see the deal go away. So there are a lot of players. The U.S. can—technically—pull out. This is a political agreement; this is not a treaty and, as you know, even treaties get walked away from.
RM: In this volatile, dynamic, changing political atmosphere both in the U.S. and Iran, are there particular flashpoints that concern you?
WS: There are plenty of things that could happen that would challenge this deal. Plenty of things. I can’t even begin to catalogue them. … Many [things worry me]. That the politics in Iran would overtake the agreement, that our politics overtake the agreement. I see less of a risk that one of the other partners in the deal would overwhelm the agreement. Not impossible, but most likely us or the Iranians.
RM: In light of U.S.-Russian cooperation on JCPOA, are there opportunities to strengthen U.S.-Russia cooperation on non-proliferation in general and controlling WMD in the Middle East in particular?
WS: Truly, I have no idea. Mr. Trump has been in a whole variety of places on this issue. The relationship between the U.S. and Russia is extremely challenging at the moment. So I think this is a very, very, very tough time to find those places where we can work together. I’m glad that at a working level that [cooperation] is continuing on the Iran deal. I’m glad that it worked on getting chemical weapons out of Syria, which would make a horrific situation even more catastrophic than it is in Syria. But we’re in a really tough moment with Russia, for sure.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.