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Lead negotiator: U.S. would consider limited enrichment by Iran with conditions

December 4, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT

GWEN IFILL: For more on the nuclear deal with Iran, I’m joined by Wendy Sherman, the undersecretary of state for political affairs. She was the lead negotiator of the agreement.

Welcome to the NewsHour again.

WENDY SHERMAN, U.S. Undersecretary for Political Affairs: Thank you. Good to be with you.

GWEN IFILL: This nuclear — this nuclear deal that was cut in Geneva, will it hold?

WENDY SHERMAN: I think it will hold, because it’s in Iran’s interest for it to hold.

Iran is looking for some economic relief. There’s very little in this agreement, but it is the first step to a comprehensive agreement which will give them the economic relief they’re looking for.

GWEN IFILL: Could it have happened without this secret bilateral talks that were happening on the side? We heard about the public ones in Geneva. It turns out there were a lot of private ones too.

WENDY SHERMAN: There were private conversations.

And that helped to deepen the conversation. But all of the issues that arose in that private bilateral conversation also rose in the P5+1, and I think very effectively. The P5+1 used our bilateral channels and other bilateral discussions that were going on with other partners to get to this agreement.

GWEN IFILL: So you work out this very complicated, temporary first step agreement, and then you come home to Washington and find out — a fair bit of resistance on Capitol Hill, which is where you spent part of your day today.

You are hoping to talk members of Congress out of imposing further sanctions. How is that going?

WENDY SHERMAN: Well, it’s a tough road because, understandably, members of Congress have played a very critical role here.

It is, in fact, the sanctions regime that is supported internationally through U.N. Security Council resolutions, U.S. actions, both in the Congress and through the executive branch by the president, and by the European Union and other nations, that has brought Iran to the table, because they are looking for sanctions relief.

So I understand why the Congress believes that more sanctions can only be better. I agree up to a point, because that’s what brought them to the table. But, in fact, sanctions were meant to change the strategic calculus of Iran to come to that negotiating table. Now we have to test that resolve to get to an agreement.

And any more sanctions at this moment by the U.S. Congress would undermine the agreement, which calls for a pause by everybody in that regard, and, in fact, might give them an excuse to depart from the agreement that’s been made.

GWEN IFILL: But in lifting or easing those sanctions, even for six months, even for a temporary period, don’t you lose some leverage? Isn’t that the argument members of Congress are making?

WENDY SHERMAN: Well, they have made that argument, but, in fact, Gwen, the sanctions that we are suspending are quite limited, quite targeted and all reversible.

So we lose absolutely no leverage in this regard. And the fundamental architecture around banking and oil sanctions that we have, that the European Union has, all remain in place. So what Iran really wants isn’t available to them unless we get to a comprehensive agreement that we can agree to.

GWEN IFILL: What Iran really wants in part is to continue enriching some — for some fashion, whatever you believe, but using — continuing nuclear enrichment. Does this deal stop that?

WENDY SHERMAN: Well, this deal doesn’t stop it in the first step, because it is just a suspension.

But it does stop all of their enrichment over 5 percent. And that’s very important, because the higher you get up on the scale, the more quickly you can get to weapons-grade uranium, which is needed for fissile material for a nuclear weapon.

So now they can’t enrich over 5 percent, even in this first step. But the fact remains that we have also said in this agreement that when we get to a comprehensive agreement, we would consider a limited, modest enrichment program, if it is attached to real, practical needs and if, in fact, they agree to all the monitoring and all of the intrusive verification that is needed on limiting the scope, the capacity of the stockpiles and everything that they do.

GWEN IFILL: So some of that monitoring starts this weekend, but you believe, just as fact, that there is a plausible civilian use for nuclear enrichment by Iran?

WENDY SHERMAN: There may be.

But this is all part of the comprehensive agreement which we will begin to negotiate very quickly. And, indeed, if we cannot get the kinds of agreement we need, the kinds of limitations we need, then there will not be an agreement and we will revert to where we are with these sanctions, additional sanctions, and the U.N. Security Council resolutions which are quite critical and must be addressed before any final agreement is reached.

GWEN IFILL: How close would you say Iran is to being able to develop a nuclear weapon right now, if they weren’t under this pause?

WENDY SHERMAN: Well, I think there are intelligence assessments which I can’t share with the audience.

But, publicly, many analysts have said that if the supreme leader decided today — and he is the only one who makes these decisions in the final analysis — if they decided today, it would probably be at least a year away before they had a nuclear weapon. And, of course, they not on have to build the weapon, but a delivery system to carry it.

GWEN IFILL: Does this deal allow U.N. inspectors, international inspectors access to military bases, where they might have evidence to support this?

WENDY SHERMAN: Well, indeed, this is probably an extraordinary intrusive monitoring regime that was put in place even with this first step.

There will be daily inspectors at Fordow and Natanz, the two enrichment facilities. There will be at least monthly access to Iraq, the plutonium reactor that they are trying to build that we have halted any advance on with even this first step. There will be managed access to uranium mines and mills, to centrifuge production, things we have never, ever had before.

That will help us to make sure that they cannot divert things, they cannot have a covert program. And it will give us great insight into what they are doing. These are all firsts that we have never had before.

GWEN IFILL: Is it fair to say that, as difficult as it was getting to this first step, as you call it, that it will be 10 times as difficult getting to the next one?

WENDY SHERMAN: I think getting to a comprehensive agreement will be very, very difficult.

GWEN IFILL: Does that include dismantling, full dismantling?

WENDY SHERMAN: This includes a lot of dismantling of their infrastructure, because, quite frankly, we’re not quite sure what you need a 40-megawatt heavy water reactor, which is what Arak is, for any civilian peaceful purpose.

And at the end of the day, what is critical here is that the international community and the United States of America must have full confidence that Iran truly has a peaceful program.

GWEN IFILL: And you know who doesn’t have that confidence. That would be Israel.


GWEN IFILL: And what are you saying to them in this interim? Are they also the subject of secret bilateral mollifications?


WENDY SHERMAN: It’s not secret. We talk to the Israelis all of the time, as we do to all of our partners and allies, including in the Gulf, who also have a lot of interest in what is happening here because they care about what is happening in the region and about strategic geopolitical consequences regarding Iran.

But on the nuclear deal, Israel, the United States and all the Gulf states share the same objective: Iran will not, cannot, shouldn’t have a nuclear weapon. The president has been very clear that he will stop that from happening. So we agree on the objective. Tactically, we may disagree from time to time.

GWEN IFILL: From time to time. Is part of that objective also normalization eventually with Iran, relationships with the U.S.?

WENDY SHERMAN: Oh, I think that we are a long way off from that.

I note a Wall Street Journal op-ed that was read — written by Secretaries Kissinger and Shultz which laid out three objectives going to the future. One was a limited capacity in Iran for a civil nuclear program, with severe limits that could give confidence to the international community.

They also talked about where we might head with Iran in terms of a relationship with them going forward. But I think that’s many years off.

GWEN IFILL: Far down the road.

WENDY SHERMAN: Far down the road.

GWEN IFILL: Republicans and Democrats seem to agree on that.

Wendy Sherman, undersecretary for political affairs and lead negotiator in the Iran talks, thank you so much for joining us.

WENDY SHERMAN: Thank you, Gwen.