The Cable

Who are the key Obama players on Iran?

As the United States shifts from engagement to sanctions against the Islamic Republic of Iran and the Iranian opposition takes to the streets, a broad and diverse team of officials inside the Obama administration is working on the issue day in and day out. It’s easy to see the role of the principals: Secretary of ...

As the United States shifts from engagement to sanctions against the Islamic Republic of Iran and the Iranian opposition takes to the streets, a broad and diverse team of officials inside the Obama administration is working on the issue day in and day out.

It’s easy to see the role of the principals: Secretary of State Hillary Clinton delivers the lead message, signaling overall policy positions. Defense Secretary Robert Gates holds the line that there are no good military solutions, while reiterating that all options are on the table. National Security Advisor Jim Jones is in charge of overall policy coordination.

But The Cable would like to introduce you to the U.S. government officials who are working on Iran one or two levels down. "The complexity of the problem makes it by necessity a team effort," explained Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "There is not one person who is the Iran czar; there are different people who handle different parts of the equation."

Here are some — but by no means all — of the most important players:

Bill Burns, under secretary of state for political affairs

Burns is the administration lead on the multilateral process to deal with Iran’s nuclear ambitions. His primary, but not exclusive role is to lead the U.S. in the P5+1 talks (the permanent U.N. Security Council members plus Germany). A skilled diplomat, he was previously ambassador to Russia, and assistant secretary for Near East affairs before that. Insiders describe Burns as quietly effective, a reasoned and thoughtful voice. Steve Mull is the key Iran guy in Burns’ shop.

Dennis Ross, special assistant to the president and senior director for the central region

Ross’s general role at the NSC is as a strategic thinker and coordinator rather than a person with line responsibilities. He works with Puneet Talwar, the NSC senior director responsible for Iran, Iraq, and the Gulf, and they do things in coordination and in parallel on Iran. Ross is consistently a voice but never the only voice when it comes to the Iran discussion.

Bob Einhorn, State Department advisor for nonproliferation and arms control

Einhorn is a technical guy and a seasoned nuclear negotiator who got much of the credit for the now-troubled Geneva deal over transferring Iran’s low-enriched uranium to France. Some had expected Einhorn to be named under secretary for arms control, but that job was given to former California Rep. Ellen Tauscher. Their division of labor isn’t entirely clear, but Einhorn’s influence is important nonetheless.

Stuart Levey, under secretary of the Treasury for terrorism and financial intelligence

Levey’s operation has been very successful in targeting banks and the income of key regime officials under existing sanctions. He’s an important carryover from the Bush years, bringing demonstrated expertise and skill in leading Treasury’s efforts to trace shadowy financial transactions and unravel opaque business connections. Iran is not his sole preoccupation, but he plays a large and growing role, not least due to his ability to act without international or congressional approval.

Dan Poneman, deputy secretary of energy

When the U.S. held talks with Iran over providing fuel to the Tehran Research Reactor in October, Poneman was the lead U.S. negotiator. A nuclear power expert, a key nonproliferation figure in the George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton administrations, and a former principal in the Scowcroft group, he’s widely respected and relied upon for things like how to organize fuel supply or establish proper safeguards. Insiders say he’s a problem-solver, not an ideologue.

Gary Samore, special assistant to the president and White House coordinator for arms control and weapons of mass destruction, proliferation, and terrorism

As the WMD czar at the NSC, Samore works with Einhorn and Ponemen on technical matters but is also part of the team coordinating overall policy. Although his portfolio spans the world of proliferation threats, in practice he is very focused on Iran. Observers see him as skeptical of nuclear deals with Tehran. Rexon Ryu, an ex-staffer for retired Sen. Chuck Hagel and a former Foreign Service officer, works for Samore and has been active on Iran at the staff level.

John Limbert, deputy assistant secretary of state for Iran

Limbert is a unique and fascinating player on the administration’s Iran team. The most senior Farsi speaker in the U.S. government, he’s married to an Iranian woman, served the Peace Corps in Iran, and was an involuntary guest of the Iranian government for 444 days three decades ago. If there’s anyone in the administration with a keen sense for the rhythms and nuance of Iranian politics, it’s him. The team relies on Limbert, who recently published a book called Negotiating with Iran, when crafting messages to Iran and thinking through how the country’s complex internal politics factor in.

Tom Donilon, deputy national security advisor

Donilon, as Jones’s top deputy, is charged with managing aspects of the interagency coordination process but also how the policy affects broader issues. How, for instance, do administration moves on Iran affect America’s overall diplomatic standing, the White House’s relations on the Hill, and in the media?

Jeffrey Feltman, assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs

Feltman is charged with managing U.S. relationships with other regional actors as they relate to the Iran nuclear issue. Many Arab regimes are deeply worried at the direction Iran’s nuclear program is heading, and Feltman’s role here is to make sure the U.S. government and its embassies are communicating and coordinating with them as the ball continues to bounce.

 Twitter: @joshrogin
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