On October 23, an Iranian hardliner newspaper, Kayhan, which has done everything possible to undermine President Rouhani's efforts in seeking rapprochement with Washington in its numerous articles and op-eds, asked the Iranian government to boycott any talks with Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman present, accentuating conservatives' and the Supreme Leader's narrative that the United States is "untrustworthy."
Earlier this month, Ms. Sherman, speaking before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to urge Congress to postpone new sanctions on Iran, said "deception is a part of [Iran's] DNA." She made this comment just as Iran was in the midst of negotiations between Iran and 5+1 countries over Iran's nuclear program, with both sides trying to overcome decades of mistrust and suspicion and move in a new direction to resolve mutual concerns.
Kayhan's reaction to Ms. Sherman's comment shows how even the smallest remark made in Washington can play an outsized role in the ongoing negotiations and give weight to those who will do anything in their power to undermine the positive momentum of new talks between Iran and the 5+1 countries.
In a Voice of America interview on October 25, reporter Siamak Dehghanpour asked Ms. Sherman to clarify what she meant by "deception is a part of the DNA." Ms. Sherman responded, "I think that really speaks to history. Historically, Iranians believe we have been deceptive, and I think it referred specifically to what our history of mistrust has been, and as the president said we must work to a place, and I think President Rouhani wants to work to the same place, where there is mutual trust, mutual respect. It will take a long time for us to get there." Reasoning around her comment, she didn't offer any explanation as to how such words could help to build trust.
Instead of retracting her comment or distancing herself from it, she simply said it was a "misunderstanding" and tried to justify the comment in a historical perspective. "There has been a misunderstanding about some testimony that I gave on Oct. 3 ... and in that, I chose some words in response to a member of the Senate that I think caused some concern, among the Iranian people and even I heard from some Iranian-Americans, and I think that those words spoke to some deep mistrust that President Obama discussed, and that we have to really get over that mistrust. I think these nuclear negotiations will help us to do so," she said.
Regardless of the context in which she made her comment, and considering the complicated political dynamics in Tehran, it's quite reasonable to speculate that this comment might undermine the trust critical to success in the negotiations. The remark was also, for millions of Iranians, deeply offensive. For these reasons, it might be a good idea for President Obama to publicly distance his administration from the comment -- and especially the way it's being perceived -- and publicly disavow all such sentiments.
During the meeting of the Committee, where members have been pushing to adopt more stringent sanctions on Iran, Ms. Sherman asked them to delay new sanctions until the results of the negotiations were clear. And yet she undercut both her own argument to Congress and the administration's tenuous trust-building with Iran with one thoughtless comment.
To be sure, there have been times over the last few decades that Iranians have created a perception that they negotiate for the sake of negotiations, or even to buy time to expand their nuclear activities. But Tehran has sent multiple signals that they are now prepared to negotiate seriously. Moreover, the need by all sides to avoid a further deterioration in the dispute, which both the U.S. and the Iranian administrations seem to concur is in no one's interest, suggests that now is the time for confidence building, not destroying.
When an official involved in the negotiations calls Iran deceptive, and, moreover, carelessly makes this reference to the whole of Iran -- at least that's how it's being portrayed in the Iranian media -- that does not build confidence. It is the height of irresponsibility, especially given the fact that the Obama administration is keenly aware that there are hardliners on both sides eager to seize upon any opportunity to derail the talks. In Iran, this is the kind of comment the obstructionists need to argue that the U.S. is not serious about the talks. It strengthens their ability to pressure the Iranian government not to compromise with the U.S.
The October meetings in Geneva, according to all parties, were positive and constructive, and laid the foundation for progress on the nuclear issue in the coming months. Many observers that I spoke to who were present in Geneva said that the Iranians seemed serious in tone and language, as well as in the specificity of the proposals they laid out. Indeed, Iran's request to keep the negotiations confidential shows that Tehran wants to remove the opportunity for sabotage from those parties that stand to benefit from the irresolution of the ongoing crisis.
I've spoken to a number of Iranian officials who explicitly told me that Iran is serious in resolving this decade-long crisis and sees no reason to continue the status quo. Officials have come to the understanding that it is in Iran's national interest to put an end to the previous Iranian administration's policies towards the West. I see no reason, as somebody who has criticized the Iranian government many times over the last several years, to find such comments deceitful or dishonest.
At the same time, people close to Rouhani's inner circle have told me that they are fearful that the voices in the U.S. who call for ever-increasing pressure on Iran will undermine the Rouhani administration's ability to move forward with complicated, technical, time-consuming negotiations. They fear that hardliners in Tehran will use such voices to interrupt the negotiations and paint any compromise offered by Rouhani's administration as surrender to the West.
Ms. Sherman's comment, and comments like it, can easily play a destructive role in Iran's domestic politics, even if she was misquoted or didn't mean it in the way it's being perceived. Many Iranian officials have been trying to have a more sophisticated understanding of U.S. domestic politics, separating administration policy from Congressional statements, and recognizing that they can move forward on negotiations with the U.S. administration despite more hardline Congressional views.
Additionally, the effect on broader, long-term U.S.-Iranian relations should be clear: The Iranian population is the most pro-U.S. population in the Middle East; it is hardly in America's interest to alienate this population through pointless and seemingly derogatory remarks. For Iranians, culturally, words carry a lot of weight. When the Bush administration labeled Iran as a founding member of the "axis of evil" in 2003, even though it was a policy line for the U.S. and was meant to target the Iranian government and not its people, still it was received as an insult to all Iranians. If U.S. administration officials are seeking to curry favor with Congressional hardliners, surely there are better ways to assuage their concerns than to make flippant and seemingly insulting comments.
Beyond retracting her remark, the Obama administration and its officials should exercise far greater caution in the statements they make. In the delicate atmosphere surrounding talks between these two adversaries, there is no place for these kinds of unnecessarily provocative and counter-productive public remarks.