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What Wendy Sherman Hasn’t Learned

It’s possible that many of the liberal readers of the New York Times just can’t get enough the paper’s fawning pieces heralding Secretary of State John Kerry’s diplomatic prowess that have been repeatedly published in recent months. Then again, maybe even the Times readership has noticed that its news pages aren’t merely being used to editorialize in favor of the Obama administration’s foreign policy but have become home to some of the most embarrassing puff pieces the Grey Lady has ever published. For a change of pace today, chief Washington correspondent David Sanger switched from his usual bouquets thrown at Kerry to one lobbed in the direction of one of his functionaries: Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman.

In the wake of the nuclear deal with Iran concluded last week, this is Sherman’s moment to bask in the praise handed out by the Times. The ludicrously weak agreement that granted Western recognition to Iran’s nuclear program and did nothing to roll back the progress it had made in the last five years was largely Sherman’s handiwork, which makes her a heroine in the Times. Sanger pulled out every gimmick to laud Sherman, even giving a breathless account of how she didn’t let a fall that left her with a ruptured tendon in her finger prevent her from conducting a confidential briefing for skeptical members of Congress. That leaves no doubt that Sherman can rise above pain.

But unfortunately, along with other flattering details Sanger doesn’t spare us, Sanger was forced to include the most embarrassing item in her biography that ought to inform the country about dealing with Iran: the all-too-similar nuclear disaster she crafted with North Korea. While Sanger can claim that she is now “pushing back” against critics who cite her last nuclear disaster claiming that this discussion is based on “tempting, but overly simplistic sound bytes,” it’s apparent that most of the widely acknowledged determination that Sherman is known for is spent on ignoring the lessons of her past mistakes.

Sanger skips over much of the details about the deal with North Korea, but suffice it to say it was structured in much the same way as the gift she has handed Pyongyang’s Iranian friends. That “searing experience” was a fiasco as the North Koreans agreed to halt their nuclear program in exchange for financial blandishments only to turn around and confront the West with a secret nuclear fuel program that allowed them to acquire the bombs that Sherman thought she had ensured would never see the light of day. But rather than learn from that colossal miscalculation, Sherman has repeated the pattern in which the West chases after a nuclear scofflaw, bribes them, and then hopes for the best.

In her defense, Sherman and Sanger claim the analogy is inexact:

“It’s a different time, a different culture, a different system,” she said. By the time the Clinton administration began negotiating with North Korea, American intelligence agencies had assessed that the country already had weapons-grade fuel for one or two bombs; in Iran’s case, Ms. Sherman argues, “No one believes they are there yet.” There are other differences, too, she said. “Iran has a middle class” that the United States is trying to appeal to by giving it a taste of sanctions relief. “It’s people who travel, within limits, and see the world.” Those factors, she believes, create the kind of leverage that was missing in talks with North Korea, whose citizens are almost completely isolated from the rest of the world.

There are a number of problems with these arguments.

First, the Iranians already have a huge stockpile of refined uranium that can be converted into weapons-grade material in a matter of weeks, something that her efforts with Iran hasn’t fundamentally changed. The U.S. is gambling everything here on the assumption that the Iranians are so far away from a bomb that there is little danger of a breakout. But unlike North Korea, the Iranians have a large network of nuclear facilities and hundreds of centrifuges and all of Sherman’s negotiating did nothing to dismantle a single one of them.

As for the Iranian middle class, as she may have noticed, the Islamist leadership of Iran has already conclusively demonstrated that it isn’t terribly interested in what they think. But even if we were to throw away everything we know about the way the ayatollahs have suppressed dissent, this actually works against Sherman’s strategy.

The point here is that when the U.S. negotiated with North Korea it had very little leverage in dealing with its maniacal Communist leadership. It’s arguable that there was nothing the West could ever do to dissuade the North Koreans even if Sherman’s deal was a disgraceful swindle that only added humiliation to the frustration Americans felt. However, the existence of a vast Iranian middle class as well as the support of an international community prepared to enforce sanctions on Tehran and give up its oil argued for a tougher stand against Iran. But instead of using this leverage, Sherman stuck to the same playbook she used with the North Koreans and conceded the Iranians’ demands simply because the ayatollahs said they would settle for nothing less.

That’s where Sherman’s background and characteristic style comes in. As Sanger makes clear, Sherman is all about negotiating more than actually getting results. Rather than focus on preventing the Iranians from doing what the North Koreans did to her, it’s obvious that she knows what happens when reaching a deal is your primary goal rather than ensuring that the other side never gets a nuke. Though she claims to have sewn up some of the loopholes that the North Koreans exploited, at best the deal she got froze the Iranians in place where they can leap to a weapon anytime they like with the confidence that the complacent West won’t re-impose the sanctions they never wanted to enact anyway.

The way Sherman got taken to the cleaners by the North Koreans should have made her the last person entrusted with stopping Iran. But instead, her zeal for the deal made her the perfect partner for both Obama and Kerry. In the world of Obama-era diplomacy, failure is an excuse for promotion, and agreements that do nothing to avert a nuclear peril are celebrated. With a negotiator like Sherman representing the United States, it’s little wonder the Iranians think they’ve nothing to worry about as they continue their pattern of using diplomacy as a way to run out the clock on their nuclear program.



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