Women Ambassadors, Mediocre White Men and the Iran Deal

“God, grant me the confidence of a mediocre white dude.” Sarah Hagi’s quote came to mind as I watched a bombastic, overconfident President Trump cause the demise of a truly historic nuclear deal.

Confident in his personal assessment that the Iran deal was “very bad” and that he could do better, President Trump violated the Iran deal and broke the United States’ commitment to the international agreement. If only he had the ability to question his own confidence. If only he could comprehend that his decision to violate the Iran deal is catastrophic—and that he cannot fulfill his promise to secure a “better one.”

If only the president would draw on the expertise of someone who helped craft the Iran deal—someone like Ambassador Wendy Sherman, who was the lead negotiator for the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA, or the Iran deal) while serving as the Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs from 2011 to 2015 and has had more contact with Iranian representatives than almost any other American diplomat.

Over several years, Sherman carefully negotiated and crafted the strongest deal possible—one that verifiably reduced the risk of a nuclear Iran and was championed not just by the United States and Iran, but by the five permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany. In the end, the deal blocked Iran’s path to a nuclear weapon and implemented an expansive monitoring system designed to alert the world if Iran resumed its banned nuclear activities, and the International Atomic Energy Association (IAEA) has certified Iran’s compliance with the JCPOA time and time again since.

The U.S. is not “withdrawing from” the deal. It is violating the deal—and compromising the continued ability to monitor Iran’s nuclear activities in the process.

Ambassador Sherman knows as well as anyone what works when negotiating with Iran. She argues that two years of sanctions were not what stopped Iran from pursuing a nuclear bomb and brought them to the negotiating table. Instead, it was a change in the political climate in Iran, exemplified by the election of moderate President Hassan Rouhani, that favored greater involvement in the international community.

But President Trump has declared the he knows better—and that this time, sanctions will work. Subsequent to his announcement last week, the U.S. Treasury has issued guidance for reinforcing all of the sanctions relieved by the Iran deal. Reimposing these sanctions will do exactly the opposite of what President Trump thinks they will do; they will turn the political climate in Iran against further cooperation with the United States and harm Iran’s most vulnerable citizens.

President Trump is attempting to create conditions that will force Iran to come back to the United States and negotiate a new deal that will meet his criteria for a strong deal, but this outcome is highly unlikely. Iranians will blame the suffering caused by the new sanctions on the United States, stoking feelings of mistrust and hostility toward further engagement with the United States.

But suppose for a moment the Iranians do decide to re-engage in talks with the United States. What would that look like? Sherman has characterized the Iranian diplomats she engaged with as, “tough, smart and legalistic negotiators.” There is no reason to believe that President Trump and his team would find future negotiators to be anything less. As for Trump’s team? Adept negotiators like Ambassador Wendy Sherman have long since left the State Department, as have career diplomats that understand the Iranians’ pressure points and tactics.

In any case, these experts would be useful only if President Trump put aside his confidence in himself long enough to ask for, or even agree to incorporate, outside expertise. President Trump’s violation of the deal insults senior State Department officials, baffles national security experts and even defies his own military officials. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis was asked by Senator Angus King if he thought remaining in the nuclear deal was in the national Security Interest of the United States. (His response? “Yes, Senator, I do.”)

President Trump’s decision to violate the Iran deal counters expert advice, careful analysis, and America’s interest in preventing Iran from getting a nuclear weapon. The world is now at the mercy of President Trump’s misguided confidence that he can do better than the experts. Hopefully Sarah Hagi won’t mind if I modify her quote to fit our current times: “Lord, save us from the overconfidence of a less-than mediocre white man.”



Cassandra Varanka is the Nuclear Weapons Policy Coordinator at WAND, where she connects its work with the larger nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation community and key policy makers. Prior to joining WAND, Cassandra served as a Legislative Assistant to Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky, advising on foreign policy, defense, judiciary and other issues. Cassandra holds a Bachelor's degree from Saint Michael's College.