DURHAM, N.C. (Tribune News Service) — The U.S. government’s lead negotiator in the nuclear-weapons talks with Iran has little patience for the idea a better deal would’ve resulted if President Barack Obama had been more willing to threaten war.
The threat of a walkout by the U.S. delegation was always on the table, and with it the possibility that military action would follow, Wendy Sherman, former under secretary of state for political affairs, said Thursday during a talk at Duke University.
As for Obama’s public stance, “of course the president didn’t want to go to war,” Sherman said. “Who does? And what would the outcome have been? Nobody knows. It could’ve set off a Persian-Arab war of staggering dimensions.”
Sherman was responding to a question from Peter Feaver, a Duke political science professor who was a national security aide to Obama’s predecessor, former President George W. Bush.
Feaver said Obama in the eyes of critics “sort of violated bargaining 101” by signaling he regarded the prospect of war as “totally unacceptable.”
Sherman countered that what mattered was the Iranians across the bargaining table, who “knew we were willing to walk away,” and that “there were several times we almost did walk away.”
Thursday’s talk was the latest Feaver and Duke officials have orchestrated this academic year with prominent national security figures. Previous speakers have included Obama’s former national security adviser, Tom Donilon. Former Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey is on tap to appear later this month.
Most of the recent talks in the series have focused on ISIS and the Syrian civil war. Sherman’s was an exception, Iran and the nuclear deal being the sole topic of conversation.
She said the agreement ensures that Iran “will never have a nuclear weapon, ever,” provided the Iranian government adheres to it. Should it not, there are sufficient safeguards embedded in it to give officials notice of nuclear-weapons development.
“Never, ever was this about trust,” Sherman said, adding that Iran and the U.S. have “a long way to go, if ever” to reach that point.
The enmity between the two sides is bitter enough that she saw no chance that public opinion or any president any time soon would countenance a resumption of normal trade with Iran, even knowing the refusal hands a commercial advantage to Europe, Russia and China.
The bitterness, in her view, stems on the Iranian side from the U.S. role on overthrowing the country’s government in the early 1950s. On this side of the ocean, the grievance is the 1979-81 hostage crisis.
Feaver didn’t question that analysis, or the notion a country that’s been at war for nearly 15 years and still in recovery from the the 2008 economic crash could sustain a new conflict.
He did, however, probe one of the agreement’s safeguards, provisions that in theory position the government to unilaterally trigger a resumption of full-blown United Nations economic sanctions on Iran if it’s not satisfied with that country’s compliance.
That would allow a new president who opposed it to “blow up the deal.”
Sherman said that’s “certainly” a possibility, albeit one America’s allies and other world powers would serve as check and balance on.
“If Iran has complied .... and all of our partners believe they have complied, it will be hard, I believe, for a president to blow up the deal,” she said. “Not impossible, but hard.”
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