Commentary Magazine


Topic: Wendy Sherman

North Korea Amnesia and Iran Engagement

Who says the ayatollahs don’t have any holiday spirit? In what some might interpret as a courtesy to their Western diplomatic partners, Iran suspended the negotiations being conducted to nail down the details of the implementation of the Geneva agreement they reached with the U.S. and the P5+1 group last month until after the Christmas holidays. Though some might consider this gesture just one more delaying tactic, the Iranians are confident that the Obama administration will be just as pliable after the celebrations as before them. With the president threatening a veto of a proposed bill to toughen sanctions on Iran, the commitment of this administration to what appears to be a push for détente with Tehran is not in question. Nor is it worried much about having to defend the Geneva deal since much of the foreign-policy establishment loves the idea of more engagement and a war-weary public is disinclined to support further confrontation with the Islamist regime in spite of worries about the nuclear threat from Iran.

But in spite of the clear public-relations advantage the administration has in the debate over their approach to Iran, the news cycle has a way of exposing even the most confident narrative involving negotiations with rogue states. As often as President Obama, Secretary of State Kerry, and other administration figures speak up about the need to try diplomacy and to avoid “breaking faith” with Iran, the example of the last tyranny that the U.S. tried to bribe to drop a nuclear program keeps popping up. As the New York Times reports today:

Satellite imagery suggests that North Korea may have begun producing fuel rods for its recently restarted nuclear reactor, a United States-based research institute said in a report published Tuesday.

The signs of new activity at North Korea’s main nuclear complex in Yongbyon, north of Pyongyang, follow the country’s repeated assertions that it is strengthening its capabilities to produce nuclear arms. North Korea, which has conducted three nuclear tests since 2006, the most recent in February, has used spent fuel rods from the reactor as a source for plutonium, a key component for nuclear weapons.

The five-megawatt reactor was restarted earlier this year after a six-year hiatus. Its ability to produce plutonium again depends in part on how quickly North Korea can supply it with new fuel rods. North Korea is believed to have only 2,000 fuel rods in its inventory, a quarter of the 8,000 needed for a full load of fuel.

It bears repeating that Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman, the lead negotiator with Iran at Geneva, played the same role for the Clinton administration with North Korea. Sherman claims that there is no comparison between the two situations, but the plain fact remains that Sherman believed Pyongyang could be bribed rather than pressured into giving up its nukes and thinks the same thing now about Iran. That is why even those who are unenthusiastic about confronting Tehran think there’s little doubt that the U.S. is well down the road toward embracing containment of a nuclear Iran rather than stopping it.

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Who says the ayatollahs don’t have any holiday spirit? In what some might interpret as a courtesy to their Western diplomatic partners, Iran suspended the negotiations being conducted to nail down the details of the implementation of the Geneva agreement they reached with the U.S. and the P5+1 group last month until after the Christmas holidays. Though some might consider this gesture just one more delaying tactic, the Iranians are confident that the Obama administration will be just as pliable after the celebrations as before them. With the president threatening a veto of a proposed bill to toughen sanctions on Iran, the commitment of this administration to what appears to be a push for détente with Tehran is not in question. Nor is it worried much about having to defend the Geneva deal since much of the foreign-policy establishment loves the idea of more engagement and a war-weary public is disinclined to support further confrontation with the Islamist regime in spite of worries about the nuclear threat from Iran.

But in spite of the clear public-relations advantage the administration has in the debate over their approach to Iran, the news cycle has a way of exposing even the most confident narrative involving negotiations with rogue states. As often as President Obama, Secretary of State Kerry, and other administration figures speak up about the need to try diplomacy and to avoid “breaking faith” with Iran, the example of the last tyranny that the U.S. tried to bribe to drop a nuclear program keeps popping up. As the New York Times reports today:

Satellite imagery suggests that North Korea may have begun producing fuel rods for its recently restarted nuclear reactor, a United States-based research institute said in a report published Tuesday.

The signs of new activity at North Korea’s main nuclear complex in Yongbyon, north of Pyongyang, follow the country’s repeated assertions that it is strengthening its capabilities to produce nuclear arms. North Korea, which has conducted three nuclear tests since 2006, the most recent in February, has used spent fuel rods from the reactor as a source for plutonium, a key component for nuclear weapons.

The five-megawatt reactor was restarted earlier this year after a six-year hiatus. Its ability to produce plutonium again depends in part on how quickly North Korea can supply it with new fuel rods. North Korea is believed to have only 2,000 fuel rods in its inventory, a quarter of the 8,000 needed for a full load of fuel.

It bears repeating that Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman, the lead negotiator with Iran at Geneva, played the same role for the Clinton administration with North Korea. Sherman claims that there is no comparison between the two situations, but the plain fact remains that Sherman believed Pyongyang could be bribed rather than pressured into giving up its nukes and thinks the same thing now about Iran. That is why even those who are unenthusiastic about confronting Tehran think there’s little doubt that the U.S. is well down the road toward embracing containment of a nuclear Iran rather than stopping it.

The problem with negotiating with such regimes is that the West plays by the rules but nuclear tyrannies don’t. The North Koreans never put forward an alleged moderate as the face of their government the clever way the Iranians have done with Hassan Rouhani. But they often made the same kind of promises to American negotiators like Sherman about giving up their nukes for relaxation of sanctions, the way the Iranians have now done. Despite pledges of transparency and allowing inspections, such governments can revoke their promises at the whim of leaders like Kim Jong-un or Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. In the absence of the rule of law, any deception is possible.

But the problem goes deeper than just a matter of a few foolish negotiators or the technical problems of keeping track of nuclear scofflaws. Integral to the story of what happened with North Korea and what may well be unfolding now with Iran is a refusal to learn from history and the inclination of Westerners to project their own beliefs onto totalitarians—be they Communists or Islamists—that view such foolishness as their diplomatic ace in the hole. Twenty years ago, the notion of a nuclear North Korea was considered science fiction by many in the foreign policy establishment. Today, it is a fact. Ten years from now we may look back on our current debate about Iran with the same incredulity that Sherman’s talks with North Korea now provoke. So long as there will be gullible diplomats whose zeal for the deal exceeds their common sense, Western governments will believe the promises of countries like North Korea and Iran.

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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.

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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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Ashton, Not Obama, in Charge of Iran Talks

Laura Rozen’s account of the behind-the-scenes action during the Iranian nuclear talks in Istanbul undermines the notion that President Obama is in control of the P5+1 diplomatic process that he fiercely defended during the weekend. As Rozen’s reporting makes clear, it is the European Union’s Catherine Ashton who was clearly in charge of the affair, and as long as that fierce critic of Israel is calling the shots, it’s unlikely the Iranians will surrender their nuclear ambitions.

Indeed, by championing Iran’s right to nuclear development, which could be ultimately used for military purposes, Ashton may be steering the negotiations toward a deal that will be represented as defusing the crisis while not removing the threat of an Iranian bomb. Though the Europeans are championing the idea that the talks have value, the Iranians seem to be back to their old tricks in convincing their negotiating partners of their interest in a solution while sticking to a playbook whose only objective is to remove the threat of an oil embargo in exchange for giving up nothing. This may be Obama’s idea of a ticking clock, but with Ashton dragging out the process, there is, as even Rozen concluded, little likelihood that real progress is in the offing.

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Laura Rozen’s account of the behind-the-scenes action during the Iranian nuclear talks in Istanbul undermines the notion that President Obama is in control of the P5+1 diplomatic process that he fiercely defended during the weekend. As Rozen’s reporting makes clear, it is the European Union’s Catherine Ashton who was clearly in charge of the affair, and as long as that fierce critic of Israel is calling the shots, it’s unlikely the Iranians will surrender their nuclear ambitions.

Indeed, by championing Iran’s right to nuclear development, which could be ultimately used for military purposes, Ashton may be steering the negotiations toward a deal that will be represented as defusing the crisis while not removing the threat of an Iranian bomb. Though the Europeans are championing the idea that the talks have value, the Iranians seem to be back to their old tricks in convincing their negotiating partners of their interest in a solution while sticking to a playbook whose only objective is to remove the threat of an oil embargo in exchange for giving up nothing. This may be Obama’s idea of a ticking clock, but with Ashton dragging out the process, there is, as even Rozen concluded, little likelihood that real progress is in the offing.

As Rozen makes clear, the Iranians seem all too comfortable with Ashton as their chief interlocutor. Though Ashton, a failed leftist British politician who has become the EU’s foreign policy chief, is praised for her skill in orchestrating the talks, her coziness with the Iranians has to worry President Obama. According to Rozen, she spent a three-hour dinner with the top Iranian negotiator discussing “political party funding in the U.S.,” a clear illusion to the influence of the pro-Israel community and President Obama’s need to sound tough about the nuclear question. This nugget raises the inescapable conclusion that Ashton’s position may actually be closer to the Iranians than it is to that of Washington.

Rozen’s reporting on the way the Europeans and others who are committed to the myth of what the president calls a “diplomatic window” with Iran were played by the Iranians also gives us a good idea of how effective Tehran’s representatives were in Istanbul. Using the same tactics employed in the previous attempts to talk them out of their nuclear program, the Iranians raised the hopes of the Euros for a while and then dashed them. By the time they were finished, Ashton and her crew actually thought they had come out ahead because the Iranians had agreed to another meeting, albeit one that would not be held until the end of May. The article also makes it clear the long delay before the next round that will be held, at Iran’s behest, in Baghdad, is due as much to Ashton as anyone else.

Even those cheering the diplomatic process admit the talks would have had more credibility if there had been a bilateral meeting between the U.S. and Iran. But it never happened, though Rozen claims Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman made a good impression on everyone in Istanbul by taking an appropriately “tough” attitude with the Iranians. But the most important thing to understand about Sherman is that she was the Clinton administration’s North Korea Policy Coordinator. Which means she is among those responsible for a feckless policy of appeasement of the North Koreans that ultimately led to their achieving nuclear capability. For an administration that has vowed never to allow Iran to go nuclear to have one of the people who can be blamed for the failure to stop North Korea as our point person in the talks is yet another reason to call into question Obama’s credibility on this issue.

The happy talk emanating from Istanbul and the ease with which the Iranians stonewalled the P5+1 negotiators creates a stark contrast with President Obama’s vow to keep the pressure on Iran. The failure to obtain anything of substance from this meeting as well as the long delay until the next conclave give no reason to hope for better results in Baghdad in May and should be counted as just the latest diplomatic triumph for the Iranians. If Obama is serious about bringing the Iranians to heel — an assumption open to debate — he must attempt to take back control of the process from Ashton. If not, he may find that she not only will not defuse this crisis but also may create another issue for the Republicans to use against him this fall.

 

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