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A U.S. Negotiator Says There's Still Pending Business With Iran

Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman testifies before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 2014. Sherman was the lead U.S. negotiator on the Iran nuclear deal. She stepped down from her post last week and is now teaching at Harvard.
Charles Dharapak

Wendy Sherman, the lead U.S. negotiator on the Iran nuclear talks, was the third-ranking official at the State Department until she left her position just last week.

One of the most meaningful gifts she received during her job at the State Department was a small thing, she said.

"It was a plastic Rubik's Cube that was given to me by my team that was emblematic of the Rubik's Cube we were trying to settle in the Iran nuclear negotiation," she tells NPR's Steve Inskeep.

Those negotiations addressed only the nuclear issue. The U.S. chose not to raise such matters as Iran's backing of Syrian President Bashar Assad, its role in Iraq or human rights issues.

"At the beginning of this process, the Gulf states said please don't discuss regional issues because we're not in the room and it's our interests that are at stake," said Sherman, who is now teaching negotiation and diplomacy at the Institute of Politics at the Harvard Kennedy School.

Interview Highlights

What did Israel think about limiting the negotiations to nuclear issues?

Israel did not want Iran to have a nuclear weapon, either, and throughout the negotiation we were in very close consultation with the Israelis. ...

I think actually it was the world community that wanted us to focus on the nuclear issue. As I said, this really goes back to 1929, the last U.N Security Council resolution to try to, in fact, find a peaceful solution to this problem.

What about the Americans being held in Iran?

We were very careful, Steve, to keep a separate track on getting our American citizens home, both those that are detained and those missing. Robert Levinson has been missing for several years, and of course we've been very concerned about Amir Hekmati, Said Abedini and Jason Rezaian.

And all throughout these negotiations, we had a separate track that I conducted on the margins of the negotiations, but very consciously keeping it separate because we did not want the Iranians to say to us, 'Well, if you give us this on nuclear weapons, then you'll free up the Americans.' We did not want them to be held hostage to these negotiations.

Did the Iranian negotiators ever raise the possibility of making the Americans part of the nuclear deal?

None of us wanted to fold this into the nuclear negotiation. The Iranians did not, either. I do not want to leave that impression. The reason I am not giving you a direct answer is because I'm trying to protect the ongoing discussions that are taking place. But no one thought, either the Iranians or the Americans, that this should be folded into the nuclear negotiation.

Does it feel a little awkward now to have kept all the other issues off the table and now they are exploding, with developments like Russia's military action in Syria?

There is no military solution in Syria. I think that Russia has made a very, very wrong strategic decision here to try to take military advantage. Obviously, even though, as the Russians have said to us — as [recently] as last week in the U.N. General Assembly in New York, where we had several meetings — that they are in fact coming into Syria to deal with [the Islamic State], it is quite clear that their target is, as much if not more so, the opposition to the Assad regime and protecting Assad.

During the negotiations, you were quoted at one point saying that deception is in the DNA of the Iranian leadership. Do you still believe that's the case?

I said after that that I regretted using those particular words. I think it's probably not wise ever, as a diplomat, to characterize countries and peoples in exactly that way. ...

I think we have, you know, decades of mistrust between Iran and the United States. l don't think that mistrust is going to go away because of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action to address the world's concerns about Iran's nuclear program.

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