Senators pepper State Department nominee with Iran questions

Sherman says goal is to strike a new nuclear agreement with Tehran that is 'longer and stronger' than one negotiated by the Obama administration

Wendy Sherman, nominee for deputy secretary of State, testifies during her Senate Foreign Relations Committee confirmation hearing on Wednesday. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Wendy Sherman, nominee for deputy secretary of State, testifies during her Senate Foreign Relations Committee confirmation hearing on Wednesday. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Posted March 3, 2021 at 5:30pm

President Joe Biden’s nominee to be the No. 2 leader at the State Department on Wednesday found herself in familiar territory: urging Republicans not to let perfect become the enemy of the good when it comes to negotiating a nuclear agreement with Iran.

Wendy Sherman, the chief U.S. negotiator of the 2015 Iran multinational nuclear accord, said at her Senate Foreign Relations confirmation hearing to become the deputy secretary of State that the Biden administration’s goal is to strike a new agreement with Tehran that is “longer and stronger” than the one negotiated by the Obama administration. But she said there would be many difficulties in getting there.

Sen. Jim Risch, the panel's top Republican, said he considered Iran’s aggressive regional behavior just as concerning as its nuclear activities. Republicans have long criticized the multinational nuclear deal, which was also agreed to by France, Germany, the United Kingdom, Russia and China, for not limiting Iran’s ballistic missile program or curbing its support to regional militia groups that have been destabilizing countries such as Yemen and Iraq.

At the time, the Obama administration argued that achieving a limit on Iran's nuclear activities was job No. 1 and that other behaviors could be addressed afterwards.

Sen. Mitt Romney criticized the 2015 agreement for allowing some of the toughest restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program to gradually expire, opening the door in the future to Tehran legally resuming higher-level uranium enrichment and other weapon-sensitive activities while still enjoying sanctions relief.

“People like myself and many in my party were very, very concerned that that was not an effective agreement in preventing Iran from ultimately having a nuclear weapon,” the Utah Republican said.

[Report on Khashoggi death splits Democrats on punishment for Saudi prince]

Over the three years after its 2018 withdrawal from the accord, the Trump administration imposed tougher and tougher unilateral sanctions on Iran in an effort to pressure Tehran back to the negotiating table. But the end result of what former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called his “maximum pressure” campaign was nothing. Iran did not capitulate or negotiate. 

Rather, Tehran steadily resumed nuclear activities prohibited by the deal while developing new sanctions-avoidance techniques and deepening illicit trade with countries such as Venezuela that have enabled Iran's battered economy to withstand the U.S. financial pressure campaign.

“We are now where we are, which is outside of the agreement. The Iranians have increased their enrichment capacity, they’ve increased their development of ballistic missiles, they have increased their bad behavior,” said Sherman, whose last government job was as undersecretary of State for political affairs, the No. 3 position at Foggy Bottom. “The maximum pressure campaign may have put chips on the table but it has not stopped [their nuclear activities], in fact they have gone further than they had at the end of the Obama administration.”

Open to working other Iran issues

Sherman said the administration is committed to working with Congress and foreign partners “to address all of the other issues of concern regarding Iran” including ballistic missile development, weapons sales, regionally destabilizing activities and human rights abuses.

“This is a very tough problem set,” said Sherman, who also previously served as assistant secretary of State for legislative affairs during the Clinton administration. “I do think we have the same objectives and I think the issue is how to achieve them, how to sequence various steps to get there, how to work with our allies and partners to make it real.”

Sherman, a onetime chief of staff to former Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., sought to shift senators’ thinking away from what they liked or didn’t like about the original nuclear agreement.

“It’s really beside the point now. We are at a very different place. The geopolitics are very different in the region,” she said, noting the recent diplomatic recognition of Israel by several Arab countries has improved some of the calculus around how best to deal with Iran. “There were many things that I disagreed with the previous administration on but the normalization of relations of countries with Israel … was a very good thing.”

Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin, who originally opposed the Iran nuclear deal, praised Sherman’s diligence in working with the Foreign Relations Committee in 2015 as it developed and eventually passed through Congress with overwhelming support a measure (PL 114-17) that gave lawmakers some degree of oversight over the nuclear deal with Iran.

“There was the threatened veto by the Obama administration, there was deep partisan division in the Senate as to how we should review the act,” said the senior Maryland Democrat, who was ranking member of the committee when they were debating the legislation. “Ambassador Sherman was key in involving Congress as we reviewed that act. She gave each of us — Democrats and Republicans — a meaningful role in how we could improve the Iran nuclear agreement. She was totally engaged with complete transparency and trust.”

Risch pressed Sherman on whether the administration would submit for Senate approval any new deal with Iran. During the Obama administration, lawmakers, particularly Republicans, were critical of the White House’s decision to treat the nuclear deal as an executive agreement rather than a treaty, which requires two-thirds Senate approval for ratification.

“I hope that the Biden administration has demonstrated that it has learned from the mistakes of the past,” the Idaho Republican said. “I know that we are going to struggle again with [that] if we get to an agreement point, how that agreement is ratified by America.”

He warned that if the agreement doesn’t have bipartisan support, it would risk being ripped up by a potential Republican successor to Biden, just as Trump made killing the Iran nuclear deal one of the cornerstones of his Middle East policy during his time in office.

While Risch spoke positively of the benefits that treaties offer over executive agreements when it comes to building long-term bipartisan support on foreign policy issues, he made no mention of the multiple arms control treaties that Trump unilaterally withdrew from during his time in office, despite strong Democratic opposition.

Considering the United States and Iran have yet to begin any official negotiation around both sides returning to compliance with the 2015 deal, Sherman said it was too soon to be making any kind of determinations about what form a potential revised nuclear agreement could come in.

“I think that the Biden administration is absolutely committed to following the law and doing what is appropriate and necessary to whatever gets decided but since I don’t know — none  of us today know — what the ultimate outcome will be here, it is hard to make a commitment in advance,” she said.