Hard-line media in Iran have launched a campaign against the top US nuclear negotiator, keying on her comment weeks ago that “deception is part of the DNA,” to portray America as an untrustworthy adversary in nuclear talks.
The effort to target Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman, who has led the US team during six negotiating rounds between Iran and world powers since early 2012, has been picked up by some Iranian lawmakers as an “insult” that “adds another brick to the wall of mistrust.”
The campaign comes amid a broader attack by Iranian hardliners who accuse the new negotiating team under the relatively moderate President Hassan Rouhani of readiness to make too many nuclear concessions to bring about an easing of crippling sanctions.
“Sanction the negotiations with Sherman,” the hard-line Kayhan newspaper emblazoned across its front page this morning, under the heading “Kayhan’s suggestion to the country’s nuclear negotiation team.” Kayhan’s editor is an official “representative” of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who earlier this month said Iran was “pessimistic about the Americans. We do not at all trust them.”
The fusillade against Ms. Sherman began two days ago, when the semi-official Fars News Agency – which is connected to Iran’s Revolutionary Guard – published a lengthy interpretation of the US diplomat’s comments made Oct. 3 in Washington.
The Fars headline described Sherman as a “symbol of anti-Iranian thinking,” and asked, “Can a person who identifies deception as part of Iranian DNA be trusted?”
The Fars article, based on nine words spoken by Sherman during lengthy testimony to the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee, was republished by at least 30 hard-line websites, most of them small, many of them in Iran’s provinces.
In Washington, when Sherman was asked then about Mr. Rouhani’s use of “negotiations as a stalling tactic” to advance Iran’s nuclear program as Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator a decade ago, she replied that that history meant “we know that deception is part of the DNA.”
Sherman later told senators: “I don’t trust the people who sit across the table from me in these negotiations.”
For nearly three weeks, Iranian media virtually ignored Sherman’s comments. Fars has chosen to highlight them as Iran’s US-educated Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and his negotiating team come under fire from hard-line factions that fear that the secrecy surrounding the nuclear talks indicates that the outcome will be bad for Iran.
Both US and Iranian officials gave positive assessments of nuclear talks last week in Geneva, but details of the proposals have been kept under wraps. Negotiations will resume on Nov. 7, and Mr. Rouhani has said he wants a deal sealed in three to six months.
Senior Iranian officials clarified yesterday that Ayatollah Khamenei is aware of all aspects of the nuclear talks, and of Iran’s new proposal presented in Geneva.
Those talks are the first real test of improving US-Iran rhetoric from both sides not seen since a generation of mutual hostility began with Iran’s 1979 Islamic revolution. President Obama has expressed openness to better ties based on “mutual interests and mutual respect;” Rouhani said both could “manage our differences.” An Obama-Rouhani phone call in late September was an unprecedented step forward.
Marie Harf, the US State Department deputy spokesperson, was asked in a press briefing Tuesday if Sherman's comment "was not meant to imply that President Rouhani is genetically incapable of telling the truth."
"In no way," Ms. Harf replied. "We've been very clear that we appreciate… many of the things President Rouhani has said, that we appreciate the tone coming out of him and the rest of the Iranian delegation to the P5+1 [designation of six world powers at nuclear talks], and hope to continue that tone going forward."
In its complaint against Sherman, Fars News evoked Persian history and pride: “Since Iran is not a 300-year-old country and has thousands of years of civilization and history in its collective memory… it would be useful to remind Ms. Sherman and the ones ranking above her some points.”
Dismissing any “expertise in biology” by Sherman, Fars asked with “which scientific evidence, she is insulting the Iranian nation? Is it not the same nation that the US president tried to befriend in his [Persian New Year] message?”
Fars described Sherman’s remarks as “offensive,” based on “wrong assumptions,” and asked its own diplomats to be wary. “If one day the United States government really intends to rectify this mistrust, it should not be through insults,” Fars wrote.
The article set off a chain reaction in the media and among politicians. Siamak Marreh Sedq, the lawmaker who represents Iran's Jewish community, was quoted by Fars as saying Sherman was an "unwise person and her remarks are far from logic and reason."
The wall of mistrust “will not be demolished easily,” and US officials “with such insulting comments…will only make the wall of mistrust thicker and thicker,” said Mohammad Hassan Asafari, a hardline member of parliament’s National Security Commission, according to the Tasnim News Agency.
A cartoon by hard-line Mashregh News website depicted a microscope with “Sherman’s DNA” on the slide, which included “bits of glass” and sand – references in Persian to looking for trouble in a naughty way, and of deceitfully developing wicked plans – and even mouse droppings.
Battling a position on the sidelines
Conservatives and hardliners have been smarting since their resounding defeat to the centrist Rouhani in elections last June. Despite Khamenei’s orders for all to support the new government, hard-line attacks have been growing.
In recent days, large banners have appeared over roadways in Tehran, purporting to show the American "style" of honesty. One depicts a US-Iran negotiating table, with the US negotiator wearing a pair of camouflaged military trousers – a hint that military action or regime change is the true American intent. Another shows an attack dog on the US side of the table, ready to spring into action.
The DNA controversy prompted a counter attack Wednesday by the reformist Shargh newspaper, which was widely republished inside Iran – even by Iran’s state-run IRNA news agency. It suggested that Sherman had been mistranslated and was not referring explicitly to “Iranian” DNA in her Senate testimony.
“Mistranslation in the world of politics and diplomacy can bring about a lot of problems,” Shargh noted. It was only “rumor” that Sherman said “deception is part of Iranian DNA,” and in fact “Sherman has not mentioned Iran and Iranians in her comment,” Shargh asserted, in a very generous interpretation of Sherman's testimony.
The moderate conservative Mehr News Agency asked about the Sherman comments in an interview with Alan Eyre, a Persian-language State Department spokesman, who is part of the US nuclear negotiating team that Sherman heads.
“Doubtless, each side has said things that have offended the other side over the course of the last 30 years, and each side has commented publicly on its inability to trust the other side,” Mr. Eyre told Mehr, echoing Harf's comments from Washington. “But focusing on that which divides us won’t get us anywhere.”