Gwen’s Take: Counting on Diplomacy

Posted: Thu, 12/05/2013 - 3:43pm

Just before the end of my PBS NewsHour interview with the lead Iran negotiator for the U.S. Wendy Sherman this week, she went out of her way to trot out a somewhat surprising endorsement of the Obama approach to Iran.

The Obama administration’s views on Iran, she suggested, are pretty much in step with what two former secretaries of state -- Henry Kissinger and George Shultz -- believe.

Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman, in red, at the Iran nuclear deal negotiating table [Photo: State Department].

Quoting a co-bylined op-ed by the two Republicans that appeared in the Wall Street Journal this week, she said a lot has to happen before Washington and Tehran normalize relations.

Among them, she said: “a limited capacity in Iran for a civil nuclear program, with severe limits that could give confidence to the international community.”

Easier said than done.

Sherman’s decision to invoke two of diplomacy’s wise old men was an interesting clue to how things work in Washington. She’d spent the day on Capitol Hill, leaning on Republicans and Democrats to forgo imposing additional sanctions on Iran. New punishment right now, she argued, would force Iran away from, not toward, a final deal.

But Obama administration officials have apparently discovered that it’s not enough for them to make that case. They must enlist others to do it as well.

This approach has its limits. If any of those lawmakers read to the end of the Wall Street Journal opinion piece, they would find this as well.

“The next six months of diplomacy will be decisive in determining whether the Geneva agreement opens the door to a potential diplomatic breakthrough or to ratifying a major strategic setback,” Kissinger and Schultz wrote.

Major strategic setbacks are exactly what Obama foreign policy does not need right now.

This is the thing I like about diplomacy. One has to listen to what’s being done as much as what is being said.

Republicans and Democrats agree that they don’t trust Iran, but the people at the table cannot say so. So it’s left to truculent members of Congress, Israel’s prime minister and U.S. foreign policy experts to apply long distance pressure.

The strongest assertion someone like Sherman can make, as she did to me, is: “I think getting to a comprehensive agreement will be very, very difficult.”


Diplomacy is like politics writ large. Everyone knows what is at stake, and is at least mostly aware of the consequences of action and inaction.

The difference is that when diplomacy fails, bombs drop or cold wars ensue. When politics fail, elections happen.

Sometimes both.