Meet the social worker turned nuclear negotiator who's trying to keep Iran from getting the bomb.
Wendy Sherman, the U.S. State Department's chief nuclear negotiator, held talks 13 years ago with the leaders of one opaque, mercurial country prone to deception and rabidly anti-American rhetoric. Those talks were ultimately a bust. This week she'll hold talks with the leaders of another opaque, mercurial country prone to deception and rabidly anti-American rhetoric. The success of those new negotiations could spell the difference between a long-term peace and a perilous showdown -- and give Sherman a rare second chance to prevent a U.S. adversary from getting a nuclear weapon.
Wendy Sherman, the U.S. State Department’s chief nuclear negotiator, held talks 13 years ago with the leaders of one opaque, mercurial country prone to deception and rabidly anti-American rhetoric. Those talks were ultimately a bust. This week she’ll hold talks with the leaders of another opaque, mercurial country prone to deception and rabidly anti-American rhetoric. The success of those new negotiations could spell the difference between a long-term peace and a perilous showdown — and give Sherman a rare second chance to prevent a U.S. adversary from getting a nuclear weapon.
Sherman, who was part of the U.S. team that negotiated with North Korea in the 1990s, heads the American delegation that will sit down with senior Iranian officials in Geneva on Tuesday, Oct. 15, to open talks over the future of Iran’s nuclear program. Little known outside the State Department, Sherman faces the extraordinarily difficult task of determining whether the moderate tone of Iran’s new leader, Hasan Rouhani, means that Tehran is genuinely prepared to open its nuclear sites to international inspection and halt its enrichment of certain types of uranium or is simply trying to wring concessions from the West.
Sherman, a highly regarded diplomat known for her steely demeanor and attention to detail, travels to Switzerland holding both a carrot and a stick. In Senate testimony this month, she said Barack Obama’s administration is prepared to offer Iran some short-term sanctions relief if Tehran takes "verifiable, concrete actions" to delay its nuclear program. Sherman also urged lawmakers to hold off on imposing new sanctions on Iran until she can gauge how seriously the Iranians are prepared to negotiate. If they don’t appear genuinely willing to accept far-reaching limits on their nuclear program, she said the administration would support a congressional push to put hard-hitting new restrictions on Iran’s mining and construction sectors. Her team, Sherman said, has a simple message for its Iranian counterparts:
"Come on the 15th of October with concrete, substantive actions that you will take, commitments you will make in a verifiable way, monitoring and verification that you will sign up to, to create some faith that there is reality to this, and our Congress will listen," Sherman said. "But I can assure you, if you do not come on the 15th and 16th with that substantive plan that is real and verifiable, our Congress will take action, and we will support them to do so." In other words, be prepared to deal or be prepared for more economic pain.
Many Republicans reacted warmly to Sherman’s testimony. Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, a longtime critic of the administration’s Iran policy, said he was relieved to hear Sherman say that the White House would back new sanctions if the current round of talks failed.
"That’s a pretty clear answer and one I didn’t really expect," he told her. "We’ve been getting some mixed signals from others within the administration."
Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, Sherman’s boss during Bill Clinton’s administration, said her former aide was known for that kind of straight talk. "She had this amazing ability to separate fact from fiction," Albright told Foreign Policy. "She basically served as my watchdog."
Sherman, a rail-thin woman with a shock of gray hair, has followed an unusual path to her current post as the undersecretary of state for political affairs, the No. 3 position in the State Department. A Maryland native, she studied sociology and urban studies in college and then got a master’s degree in social work from the University of Maryland. She met her husband, journalist Bruce Stokes, in 1978 after they’d gotten together to talk about low-income housing. Unlike most of her peers at the State Department, Sherman’s first jobs were in partisan politics and social work, not diplomacy. She was the director of EMILY’s List, which provides money to pro-choice, female, Democratic political candidates, and she ran the successful Senate campaign of then-Congresswoman Barbara Mikulski of Maryland. She also served as director of Maryland’s office of child welfare and as the president and CEO of the Fannie Mae Foundation, the charitable arm of the mortgage-lending giant.
Sherman left Fannie Mae in 1997, when Albright made her the State Department’s counselor, one of its top posts. Albright told Foreign Policy that they worked together virtually every day and eventually became good friends. The two women threw a joint Halloween party — Albright came dressed in a colorful Moroccan wedding gown, Sherman dressed up as Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz, and Mikulski came as a cowgirl — and Stokes said he and Sherman cherish a photo of their daughter sitting in Albright’s ornate chair at the State Department. After leaving government in 2001, Sherman spent several years working for her former boss at Albright Stonebridge, a consultancy. During the 2008 Democratic primary, Sherman served as one of candidate Hillary Clinton’s top foreign-policy advisors. As secretary of state, Clinton, in turn, brought Sherman back to the State Department in 2011 as the undersecretary of state for political affairs. "I joke that I remain a community organizer," she told National Journal this summer. "My caseload has just changed."
Stokes said that his wife has always been careful not to talk to him about her work, even when the issues at stake have seemed relatively trivial. During the 1988 presidential convention, Sherman was given the sensitive job of negotiating with the civil rights leader Jesse Jackson about whether he’d be allowed to speak to the crowd. Stokes was covering the convention for National Journal, and he remembers seeing his wife in a hotel bar and asking her whether the rumors he’d been hearing about Jackson’s speech were correct. "We’ll just have to see, won’t we?" Sherman told him before standing up and walking away. The couple have been married for 33 years and are expecting their first grandchild.
This week’s talks with Iran won’t be the first time that Sherman has had to gauge the true intentions of a longtime U.S. adversary. Sherman was one of Albright’s top aides in 1999 and 2000 when Washington and Pyongyang engaged in marathon talks designed to limit the development and export of North Korean long-range missiles in exchange for American financial aid and the delivery of several long-promised civilian nuclear reactors.
The talks advanced so far that North Korea agreed to a moratorium on new missile testing and sent a senior military officer on an official visit to the United States for the first time. Albright reciprocated by traveling to Pyongyang in October 2000, making her the most senior U.S. official to visit North Korea since the end of the Korean War.
It was a memorable trip. After one particularly long day of negotiations, then-leader Kim Jong Il brought Albright, Sherman, and the American negotiators to a cavernous Pyongyang soccer stadium for a synchronized dance performance that ended with thousands of North Koreans forming themselves into a giant image of the country’s Taepodong missile. Years later, Sherman recalled complimenting Kim on the spectacle.
"’Mr. Chairman, I have the sense that in some other life, you were a great director,’" she says she told him at the time, according to an interview she gave to NPR. "And he said, ‘Yes.’ He cared about this a great deal. He owned every Academy Award movie. He had watched them all. He also had every film of Michael Jordan’s NBA basketball games and had watched them as well."
Senior administration officials were so optimistic about the prospects of a deal that they began making plans for Bill Clinton to visit Pyongyang to move the negotiations closer to the finish line.
Sherman was tabbed to lead the follow-on talks, which were supposed to take place in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, in late 2000. She was traveling through southern Africa with a suitcase full of the business suits she’d need for those meetings when word came down that the talks were being called off because of the disputed presidential election back home. The White House was unable to finalize a deal before the end of Clinton’s term, and the president never visited North Korea.
In March 2001, Sherman penned a New York Times op-ed urging the new administration of George W. Bush to continue the negotiations with North Korea. Bush, she wrote, had the chance to "close the deal with North Korea that came tantalizingly close for President Bill Clinton in his final days in office." Bush instead cut off the direct talks with Pyongyang, effectively putting years of diplomacy into deep freeze.
Sherman’s willingness to make concessions to North Korea in exchange for movement on its nuclear program put her squarely in Republican cross-hairs. In March 1999, former Secretary of State James Baker wrote an op-ed in the New York Times that said an initial deal that the Clinton administration had struck with Pyongyang was part of a failed "policy of appeasement." John Bolton, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, resuscitated the charge when Sherman was nominated to her current post in the summer of 2011. The diplomat, he told the Washington Post, had been "centrally involved" in the unsuccessful attempt to funnel money to Pyongyang in exchange for new limits on its nuclear program.
Rhetoric aside, there’s no question that Washington’s long-standing diplomatic outreach to North Korea failed to eliminate Pyongyang’s nuclear program. In 2006, North Korea surprised the West by conducting a test detonation of a nuclear weapon. Bush returned to the negotiating table and struck a deal in February 2007 that called for North Korea to dismantle its nuclear program in exchange for U.S. aid and the lifting of Western sanctions on the country. The agreement fell apart just one year later, and North Korea now has a small but growing nuclear arsenal.
There are some similarities between the current talks with Iran and the earlier negotiations with North Korea, even though they are far from a direct match. Like Tehran today, Pyongyang wanted to get out from under the heel of punishing Western sanctions. Kim didn’t mount the same kind of charm offensive that Rouhani has launched, but he played the part of gracious host while Albright was in Pyongyang and was photographed clinking glasses of champagne with her at an official dinner. That said, North Korea was a more dangerous country in the 1990s than Iran is today — far closer to the successful development of a nuclear weapon than American intelligence knew at the time. Not only does Iran still have to overcome some key technical hurdles before developing enough uranium for a nuclear weapon, U.S. officials believe, but the Iranians still don’t have powerful-enough missiles to threaten anyone outside their immediate region. Resolving those challenges could take at least one year, and potentially more.
Gary Samore, who served as Obama’s chief advisor on weapons of mass destruction until earlier this year, said that the United States had managed to delay North Korea’s nuclear program for a few years but had been unable to persuade Pyongyang to abandon it altogether. He said this might be the most that could be expected from this week’s talks with Iran, which begin with both sides’ demands already largely laid out. Tehran wants freedom from the Western sanctions against its banking and oil sectors that have decimated its economy and have driven the value of its currency to record lows. Washington wants Iran to stop enriching uranium to a purity level of 20 percent, reduce its existing stockpiles of that type of uranium, put its nuclear facilities under strict international supervision, and shutter its heavily fortified underground uranium-enrichment facility near Qom. U.S. and Israeli officials believe the facility plays a key role in Iran’s push for a nuclear weapon because it would be extremely difficult to destroy from the air. "The supreme leader won’t give up his desire for a nuclear capability," Samore said. "The best we’ll be able to do is come up with an agreement that limits, delays, and contains Iran’s nuclear program. I don’t think there’s any chance they’ll give it up altogether. We’re not in a position to dictate those types of terms to them."
All the same, Sherman, who Samore describes as having an "iron fist in a velvet glove," will have to get as much from the talks as she can. Her work will be closely followed in the capitals of key allies like Israel and Saudi Arabia, which fear that the Obama administration is prepared to accept a deal that would leave Iran with the ability to continue enriching uranium. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recent described Rouhani as a "wolf in sheep’s clothing" and reiterated his promise that Israel would act militarily, alone if necessary, to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. The Qom facility would likely be at the top of any Israeli target list. Robert Einhorn, a former State Department official who worked with Sherman during the on-again, off-again negotiations with North Korea in the 1990s, said she is a skilled negotiator with a deep understanding of the complex politics surrounding the nuclear talks, particularly among skeptics from both parties on Capitol Hill. "She knows that world," he said.
Still, Samore cautioned that the success of the talks will be determined by Iran’s willingness to strike a deal, not just Sherman’s talents at the negotiating table.
"We’re in very good hands in terms of skills and toughness of our negotiator," he said. "But no matter how good a negotiator you are, if the other side isn’t prepared to negotiate, you’re not going to get anywhere."
Sherman herself seems to understand that potential pitfall quite well.
"No deal," she told the Senate this month, "is better than a bad deal."
Yochi Dreazen was a writer and editor at Foreign Policy from 2013-2016.
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