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Interview: U.S. Undersecretary Wendy Sherman On Iran Vote, Sanctions

"The success of [U.S. policy] will ultimately be whether Iran -- and most particularly the supreme leader [Ayatollah Ali Khamenei] -- make a strategic decision that is in the interest of his regime, in the interest of the Iranian people," says Wendy Sherman.
The United States says Iran’s upcoming presidential election is not free, fair, or credible by international standards. The comments by U.S. Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman come less than a week before Iranians go to the polls to choose their next president.

Speaking in an exclusive interview with RFE/RL correspondent Golnaz Esfandiari, Sherman says the outcome of the vote and what it means for the future of the country is unclear.

RFE/RL: I’d like to start with a broad question. What is your perception of the Iranian regime? Is Iran a time bomb like the Soviet Union that will implode one day? Or a typical dictatorship that can last for decades to come?

Wendy Sherman:
Well, I think we have to look at where we are. Ultimately, the future of Iran is up to the Iranian people. It's not up to the United States or the P5+1 [group of major world powers]. The choices and decisions are decisions made by the regime, and it is the people of Iran that hold the regime accountable.

Clearly, from a U.S. perspective, we are very concerned about Iran's nuclear program. We believe that it is headed towards having a nuclear weapon, which would be greatly dangerous for the world, and the president of the United States has said he will not allow Iran to have a nuclear weapon. We hope that the regime soon makes a good strategic choice for its own people and decides to seriously and substantively negotiate with the P5+1 so that the future of the Iranian people is a brighter one.

RFE/RL: An increasing number of former diplomats and experts have argued in recent weeks that the United States' efforts to end Iran’s sensitive nuclear activities have focused solely on pressure – it’s "dual track" only in name, they say -- and that the current approach is not likely to make Iran change course. What do you say to that?

Wendy Sherman
Wendy Sherman
Sherman: Well, I say that I understand everyone’s frustration because there are not results yet. Iran continues to build its nuclear program, and the sanctions get tighter and Iran gets more isolated, and life is difficult for people -- difficult for people not just because of U.S. or EU or United Nations Security Council sanctions, but more difficult because of choices that the regime is making.

The onus is really on Iran's government to decide what it wants to do. It can have the sanctions gone in a moment if, indeed, it will substantively and constructively negotiate with the P5+1.

So I think the decision is really Iran's regime's to make, and we have been ready to have negotiations on the entire program to lift sanctions. As the president himself has said, Secretary [of State John] Kerry has said, Iran will be able to have a peaceful nuclear program once it meets all of its international obligations and responsibilities according to UN Security Council resolutions and then Iran can go about a more normal life.

RFE/RL: But what is your response to the criticism that your policy is not going to make Iran give up its sensitive nuclear activities?

Well, I think it’s very useful for us to listen to voices and to ideas that other people have. We take them all into account and make sure that we are on a path that we think can get to a constructive outcome. We believe we are. The P5+1 (United States, Russia, China, France, Britain, and Germany) is completely united in its approach, so we will always take on other people’s ideas, thoughts, and criticisms and test them against what we’re doing. But right now, all of the P5+1 is united on the path forward.

READ NEXT: Virtual Election Gives Iranians Chance To Vote For Unofficial Candidates

RFE/RL: How do you measure the success of your policy?

The success will ultimately be whether Iran -- and most particularly the supreme leader [Ayatollah Ali Khamenei] -- make a strategic decision that is in the interest of his regime, in the interest of the Iranian people, to end their isolation and rejoin the international community.

RFE/RL: Will there be a point when there is nothing left to sanction? What will the U.S. do then?

I think that there is still a ways to go. The president has said there is still time for negotiations. We all strongly prefer a peaceful outcome. No one wants to go down another path. But the president has also said all options are on the table.

So we still have time for a peaceful resolution and we must make every effort to get one. That time is not indefinite, but there is still time.

RFE/RL: There are reports from Iran that the sanctions are making life for ordinary Iranians difficult. You said it yourself, that people live under difficult conditions. One woman in Tehran recently told me that she feels the U.S. is punishing the Iranian people with the sanctions. Are you concerned that Iran’s public opinion could gradually turn against the U.S. because of the sanctions?

First of all, we have been very careful to make sure that food, medicine, and medical devices are all exempt from any sanctions. So we have, in fact, sent teams around the world to tell pharmaceutical companies, to tell medical-device companies, to tell food companies, that they may, in fact, send those materials into Iran. They will not be sanctioned in any way, shape, or form. And where there have been problems we have tried to resolve those problems.

My understanding is that part of the problem on these issues are decisions by the regime. In fact, I think the health minister -- until she was fired -- indeed herself said that Iran was not putting enough of its budget, its hard currency, against the importation of medicine for the Iranian people.

So in the end of the day, these are choices that the Iranian government is making, not choices made by us.

RFE/RL: The U.S. last week lifted sanctions on the sale of technology to Iran. Some critics have dismissed the move as a feel-good gesture as it is not likely to have any immediate impact because of the financial sanctions that are in place. Have you given companies guarantees?

We have gone out to companies around the world and made clear to them that they have a general license now. They don’t have to come for specific permissions. They can sell in software, hardware, and they will not be sanctioned.... We want to make sure that the Iranian people, if they choose to, can communicate with each other safely and securely.

RFE/RL: Iranians will go to the polls to choose their next president in less than a week. You’ve said that the U.S. doesn’t take sides. But wouldn’t it be easier to deal with Iran if a moderate president were elected?

This is really a choice for the Iranian people, not for the United States. And it is our understanding where the nuclear file is concerned, the decision really rests with the supreme leader, and that is where these choices and decisions are being made.

RFE/RL: So you don’t expect any changes coming after the vote?

I don’t know. I think no one knows how the Iranian election will turn out -- even in this election, which is not, by international standards, free, fair or credible. Decisions were made about who could run by the Guardians Council. That is not an elected body, that is not an accountable body. The criteria were relatively opaque.

So this is not by international standards a free, fair, and credible election. But nonetheless the Iranian people will make some choice among the small choices they have, and I don’t think anyone knows what the outcome will be and what that outcome will mean for the future of Iran.