With the Iran talks coming down to the wire, the administration is bringing former White House aide Jake Sullivan back from Yale to help sell Congress on a potential nuclear deal.
Jake Sullivan left the Obama administration this summer to teach at Yale. But with American and Iranian negotiators scrambling to cobble together a nuclear deal before a Nov. 24 deadline, the White House has brought Sullivan back to Washington — and given him the vitally important, if unenviable, task of shoring up support for a potential agreement in Congress.
Sullivan, 37, worked as a senior aide to then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton before becoming Vice President Joe Biden’s national security advisor. He gave up his White House post in August, but has spent recent days quietly crisscrossing Capitol Hill to brief Democratic and Republican leaders and key committee chairs on the status of the ongoing nuclear talks with Iran and to deliver a simple message: The administration will never accept a deal that allows Tehran to acquire a nuclear weapon.
Many lawmakers don’t trust the White House’s assurances and fear the administration will give too much in order to nail down what could be a legacy-defining win for the president. Even with the United States signaling concessions on Iran’s enrichment capabilities, meanwhile, it’s far from clear that any sort of deal can be struck on time. On Friday, Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif scrapped their plans to leave Vienna, where the two sides have been locked in tense negotiations for days, and instead have remained in the Austrian capital for new rounds of talks. Given the opaque nature of the years-long negotiations, that could mean a deal is close, but it could just as easily mean the talks are in danger of collapsing altogether.
If a deal is struck, Sullivan could be one of the administration’s primary salespeople on Capitol Hill. Given his close ties to the White House and the Republican Party’s near-unanimous opposition to the nuclear accords, it’s a job few would envy. But senior Republicans have already given him plaudits for frankness and candor during this week’s briefings.
"The guy is outstanding," said one GOP lawmaker. "You can understand what he’s saying. He’s very clear. You don’t leave there with any misunderstandings."
One of Sullivan’s advantages is that he doesn’t carry the same baggage into the closed-door briefings as Wendy Sherman, the State Department’s chief Iran negotiator. Sherman has been publicly lambasted for months by Iran hawks from both parties, making it harder for her to win over lawmakers in the sessions.
During a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on the negotiations in July, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) called Sherman’s painstaking diplomatic work a "disaster."
"It’s not just an embarrassing diplomatic failure. This is a dangerous national security failure, in my opinion," he said. Senator Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), a prominent pro-Israel hawk and the outgoing head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has also engaged in a number of testy exchanges with Sherman.
Sullivan typically meets with lawmakers alongside Sherman and David Cohen, who oversees the Treasury Department’s efforts to batter the Iranian economy. They have a pair of missions. On the domestic front, they aim to convince lawmakers to hold off on imposing new economic sanctions because of the risk that they would derail the sensitive nuclear negotiations with Tehran. On the international front, their goal is to exert pressure on Iranian negotiators in Vienna to accept a range of concessions they’ve been thus far unwilling to accommodate, such as a substantial dismantlement of centrifuges used to enrich uranium. (Iran currently has about 10,000 operational centrifuges, a number the U.S. would like to cut in half.)
Besides Sullivan and Sherman, the U.S. delegation in Vienna includes Kerry; Ambassador Brooke Anderson, a senior advisor on the talks; and Bill Burns, the former deputy secretary of state.
Sullivan owes his spot at the helm of one of the most high-profile foreign-policy initiatives of Barack Obama’s presidency to a chance assignment he received from Clinton in the summer of 2012. The then-secretary of state asked Sullivan to accompany Burns to a set of top-secret meetings in Oman with senior Iranian officials to see if an opportunity existed to launch formal nuclear talks. Turns out, an opportunity did exist, and it paid off well for Sullivan.
"It was unusual because he didn’t have the high profile and years of experience that others had who could have been sent," Clinton told the New York Times in June. "But he had my full confidence, and he was still low-enough profile that he could travel back and forth without inciting undue interest."
Whether the U.S. team will be able to achieve a deal by the self-imposed Nov. 24 deadline or succeed in brokering some kind of extension to the talks remains to be seen. Either way, Congress is likely to remain critical of the administration’s pursuit of a deal, making Sullivan’s unlikely role in the talks more pivotal than ever.