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U.S.- Iran Relations: Opportunities for the New Administration

Time and Place

6th Floor, The Wilson Center

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Event Details


Broadcast live streaming video on Ustream

On March 22, 2017 the Women in Public Service Project and the Wilson Center Middle East Program hosted a panel discussion entitled “U.S. – Iran Relations: Opportunities for the New Administration” with Ambassador Wendy R. Sherman, Senior Counselor at Albright Stonebridge Group and former Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs at the U.S. Department of State, and Baroness Catherine Ashton, Former Vice President of the European Commission and former High Representative of the EU for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy. The event focused on the nuclear agreement between Iran and the United States, and what it means for the current administration.

Robert S. Litwak, Vice President for Scholars and Academic Relations and Director of International Security Studies at the Wilson Center moderated the panel discussion. Gwen K. Young, Director of the Global Women’s Leadership Initiative and the Women in Public Service Project, offered opening remarks. She stressed the importance of highlighting and showcasing women leaders who are playing a vital role in negotiating complex issues.

Robert S. Litwak began by asking the speakers to explain the agreement and clarify what it entailed. Ambassador Sherman responded by stressing that the deal was a political agreement, not a treaty. The purpose of the agreement was to close and shut down any pathway to nuclear weapons – that is, close down all covert pathways to uranium and plutonium, the two key materials to create nuclear weapons. Further, while some sanction were lifted, those regarding human rights violations, terrorism, and proliferation remain in place. 

Litwak then asked about the process of coming to this agreement, and how Iran was moved to sign on to the deal. Baroness Ashton responded by explaining the importance of the time spent in crafting the agreement. The process lasted several years with both the political and technical side profoundly involved. This was a complicated agreement, which required the involvement and assistance of experts to provide clarity. Further, the extended period of time spent on the agreement allowed for informal interactions which broke the ice and allowed for informal discussions of the process and the days ahead. To follow up, Litwak asked how the process was managed. Baroness Ashton explained the importance of creating an agreement that everyone would sign. Ambassador Sherman, expanded on the various layers of negotiations that took place both within and among the various negotiating parties.

Litwak then asked about the pragmatic call to disregard other issues in the region when negotiating the agreement. Ambassador Sherman explained that this was a mandate made from the very beginning of the negotiation process. All agreed to leave those discussions off the table. “As difficult as Iran is in the Middle East, if they had a nuclear weapon, their ability to project power into the Middle East and to deter our and our allies’ and partners’ actions would be profound. So this had to come off of the table in order to tackle the other issues. It just had to.” Baroness Ashton echoed this, stating that unless confidence was built through this agreement, there could be no path forward. The agreement serves as a precursor to future conversations.

Litwak then asked how Iranian domestic politics influenced the process of negotiation. Baroness Ashton responded by stressing the importance of emphasizing the direct benefits to Iran’s domestic and international interests. Both panelists agreed that after the election of President Rouhani, the process expedited due to better communications and increased interest in a positive outcome from the Iranian government.

Litwak then asked whether changes in the U.S. administration pose challenges to the agreement. Ambassador Sherman answered by stating that “many things could upend this. I think there are some, probably more on the Republican side than on the Democrat side, who would like to put enough pressure on so that Iran pulls out of the deal as opposed to us being responsible for it.” Renewed tensions in Iran due to the upcoming elections, as well as President Trump’s discussions about ending the agreement, are all challenges. However, at the moment, all parties are complying. Baroness Ashton further noted the importance of all parties involved in the agreement standing unilaterally with the decision.

Following the panel discussion, Hudock opened the event to questions from the audience. One audience member asked what, if anything, should be changed to make the agreement “bullet proof.” Ambassador Sherman explained that there are various complicated pieces to the agreement, and all have their strengths and weaknesses. Thus, it is impossible to pick one specific piece of the puzzle to make it perfect.

Ambassador Sherman and Baroness Ashton were asked about the likelihood of incidents at sea. Ashton responded that the situation from a European perspective is different due to the difference in historical contexts. The best way to move forward is to continue with compliance in order to open the door to further conversations. On the other hand, Ambassador Sherman remarked that she did not see Americans at intersections, but there is chance to have this conversation as the agreement has cleared a path for direct communication. Further, the panelists were asked about how positive political action can be achieved. Ambassador Sherman stressed the importance of having these conversations outside of the D.C. political sphere. Baroness Ashton echoed this point by emphasizing the importance of having clear understanding of the details.

Lastly, Litwak asked if the deal with Iran could be used as blueprint to address a nuclear North Korea. Both panelists agreed that, like with the Iran deal, all tools must be used to create an agreement. Interlocking all tools and partnerships is key to coming to a consensus. Following the Q&A discussion, Robert S. Litwak offered brief closing remarks and thanked the panelists and audience for attending.

The conversation emphasized the complex efforts that go into security efforts and peace negotiations, highlighting two women leaders who have been noticeably successful in navigating these delicate processes. Baroness Ashton and Ambassador Sherman demonstrate the impact women leaders can have when their voices are heard in peace negotiations – an area where, since 1992, only 10% of the voices involved have come from women.

Photo: U.S. Department of State

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