President Donald Trump has spent much of his four years in office trying to erase the signature achievements of the Barack Obama White House. One of Trump's top goals has been undoing Obama's nuclear deal with Iran.
President-elect Joe Biden is vowing to reenter the deal. Yet, Iran's leaders say that should not happen so fast. They're indicating there may be a price to pay before they'll comply with the pact.
Plus, new US sanctions imposed on Iran this week may complicate a return to the deal even more.
Ambassador Wendy Sherman was the lead negotiator on the deal. She was the under secretary of state for political affairs for Obama and joined The World's Marco Werman to discuss how a Biden administration might reenter nuclear talks with Iran.
Marco Werman: How do you think a Biden administration will be able to turn back the clock on the Iran deal? It's not like there's a magic time machine that can take us back and pick up as if Trump didn't quit the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.
Wendy Sherman: Indeed, Marco, we're not in 2016. We're in 2020 and almost to 2021. Time has passed. Circumstances have changed. And even though the deal was kept together by our European allies and by Russia and China, in the last year, I would say it has started to unravel a bit. And although Iran has said it has taken reversible steps, nonetheless, we're not in the same place. So, this will be difficult, hard work. And I would suspect that President-elect Biden and his team will first start by talking with our European allies, with France, Great Britain, Germany, with the European Union, and then with Russia and China, to see what might be the best way forward.
And what about the view from leaders in Tehran — the suggestion that there might be a price to pay for the US before they comply with any new pact? What is that price?
One thing that I know about Iranian negotiators is that they are very tough. They're going to put as many chips on the table as possible before sitting down to talk with the new administration. That's how one negotiates. You try to create as much leverage as possible. So, I'm sure that the president-elect will have a very capable and competent team to take a look at this. And one of the things that will be different, certainly, than the Trump administration, is we actually will have diplomats in the State Department. We will have slots in the Pentagon filled — that have not been filled — with competent, capable people, in our development agencies, in our intelligence community. And it will give us the wherewithal of a team that is necessary to do what will be a very difficult undertaking.
The Trump White House — in its final weeks in office — has vowed to slap new sanctions on Iran. In fact, some reports suggest there may be new sanctions on Iran every week until the 20th of January. That's going to make it a lot harder to revive the nuclear deal. And is that the point?
That is indeed the point. The Trump administration is trying to do whatever they can, quite frankly, to make it more difficult for the president-elect and vice president-elect, when they come into office. But a lot of these sanctions are going to actually be similar to things that have already been done, with new names on them. But the underlying sanctions, I think, are not fundamentally going to change. Sanctions have not brought Iran back to the negotiating table, nor have they stopped Iran's malign behavior in the Middle East.
So, a Biden-Harris administration is going to have to look at where we are. The president-elect has said he wants to reenter negotiations and build back better. So this will be a very complicated puzzle. But one thing I know that will be different here is there will be a very capable and competent team that the president-elect is putting together. The transition teams that were announced just yesterday are 500 capable experts who know what they are about, because as the president-elect has said, this is not about the example of our power. Everybody's aware of our power. It's the power of our example.
So, you spoke earlier about new faces coming into the Pentagon and State Department. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo took aim at you and other potential new faces yesterday in an interview with Fox News. Here's what he had to say: "One of the things that I have observed now almost four years into my time in this administration is the previous folks just refused to get off the stage. So they talk about healing and all these transitional things. Frankly, I've watched Ben Rhodes, Susan Rice and John Kerry and Wendy Sherman be active on the world stage in ways that weren't consistent with what the Trump administration is doing. I regret that it wasn't in America's best interest that they chose to behave that way."Pompeo's point seems to be that officials from previous administrations should basically go home and not be pushing policies contradictory to this administration. What do you make of that?
I would say that I am always honored and privileged if I'm on a list with John Kerry, Susan Rice and Ben Rhodes on any given day. They are all patriots. They are all people who care about our national security. And every one of us who have been at, let's say, the Munich Security Conference or anywhere else where we are talking to leaders around the world — we listen, we learn, we represent the interests of the United States of America. We understand there is only one president at a time. But part of a democracy is to be able to say what your point of view is, even if you disagree with the current administration. I don't think of that as getting on or off the stage. I think of that as democracy.
You served in the State Department during the Clinton and Obama administrations. Have you been speaking with the Biden transition team about how you might serve in his administration?
What I know is that the president-elect and the vice president-elect have a fantastic transition team. I'm now the director of the Center for Public Leadership at the Harvard Kennedy School and a professor of the practice of public leadership. And I encourage every single one of my students — if they have an opportunity for public leadership — to embrace it. There's no greater privilege than to help our country.
In the last 70-some days before the inauguration, what is keeping you up at night?
What is keeping me up at night, quite frankly, is that foreign leaders around the world who have called the president-elect to offer their congratulations seem to be respecting our democratic norms of transition more than the Trump administration, more than the Republicans in leadership positions. And I think it's quite critical that we move forward, because if we don't, we create a dangerous situation where our adversaries around the world think they may have an opportunity to take on the United States, and that is not in our national security interests. So, on a day that we honor our veterans, our military, who believe and duty, honor and country, I would hope that every American would do the same and honor the election that we've just had and move forward with the transition in the way we always have before the current circumstances — which are operating differently and in my view, dangerously.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.