White House Names Trump Loyalist to Iran Policy Job at State Department

The Trump administration’s pick for the Iran post will likely back a more aggressive stance.

The State Department seal on the podium before a photo opportunity from Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, June 9 in Washington, D.C. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
The State Department seal on the podium before a photo opportunity from Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, June 9 in Washington, D.C. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

The Trump administration plans to install a former U.S. military intelligence officer at the State Department to a key position managing policy on Iran and Iraq, a move that will replace two civil servants with a political appointee.

Andrew L. Peek, a former captain in the U.S. Army Reserve and member of the president’s State Department transition team, will become the new deputy assistant secretary of state covering Iran and Iraq, according to three State Department officials familiar with the matter. The Iran and Iraq portfolios were previously handled separately by two diplomats.

Peek, a former U.S. Army intelligence officer, has no prior diplomatic experience and has not earned a reputation as an established expert on Iran or Iraq but has years of experience in military intelligence and in the Senate, where he served Republican senators on foreign-policy issues.

He will replace both Chris Backemeyer, who currently serves as deputy assistant secretary for Iran and Joseph Pennington, a career foreign service officer, who serves as deputy assistant secretary for Iraq. Backemeyer previously served as deputy coordinator for sanctions policy at the State Department and National Security Council director on Iran from 2012 to 2014 under President Barack Obama.

“I have known Andrew for years,” said Elliot Abrams, a prominent Republican foreign policy hawk and former senior official in the George W. Bush administration. “I view him as one of the group of veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan who bring to government jobs both invaluable real-world experience, and academic and intellectual credentials. He’s an amazing, excellent choice for this position.”

The State Department is expected to make the announcement on Monday, according to two sources familiar with the deliberations.

In his new role, Peek could wield outsized influence on Middle East diplomacy, according to one State Department official, in large part because of how many State Department posts that require presidential nomination sit empty nearly a year into the Trump administration.

Since Trump entered office, White House officials have privately expressed frustration with the career foreign service officers handling Iran policy in the State Department. In deliberations over the Iran nuclear deal, some officials on the National Security Council have clashed with their counterparts, arguing for a more aggressive stance toward Tehran and for laying out options to abandon the nuclear accord. One civil servant, Sahar Nowrouzzadeh, was pushed out of a top advisory role on Iran policy at the State Department after conservative media attacked her for having a played a role on former President Barack Obama’s Iran nuclear deal.

The impending appointment of Peek comes amid growing tension between Iran and the United States. Trump informed Congress in October he could no longer certify under U.S. law that the nuclear agreement between Iran and world powers was in the national interest. The decision has fed speculation that the administration aims to derail the agreement, while European allies have warned the White House that the collapse of the accord could increase the likelihood of Iran obtaining nuclear weapons.

The deal between Iran and the United States, United Kingdom, France, Germany, Russia, and China eased sanctions against Tehran in exchange for strict limits on the country’s nuclear program.

Deputy assistant secretary roles are filled by a combination of career and political appointees, but notably don’t require a presidential appointment or Senate confirmation, unlike the higher assistant secretary of state rank. The White House’s refusal to nominate many key State Department roles — some 50 percent of top State Department posts don’t yet have nominees — has become a source of tension between Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s team and the White House, two State Department officials say.

A State Department spokesperson for the Near Eastern affairs bureau declined to comment on Peek’s potential nomination.

According to his LinkedIn profile, Peek worked on Trump’s presidential transition team for the State Department from October 2016 to January 2017 and was a columnist for the New York Daily News and the New York Observer, a news outlet then owned by Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law, who now serves as a top White House aide. He is currently completing his doctorate at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and received a masters degree from Harvard University.

Peek served as a military intelligence officer in the U.S. Army Reserve from 2008 to 2016, which included a one-year stint from 2011 to 2012 as a strategic advisor to Gen. John Allen, then commander of the U.S.-led mission in Afghanistan. He also served as a legislative assistant for Republican senators from 2007 to 2011, including former Sen. Gordon Smith (R-Ore.), who played an outsized role in crafting U.S. sanctions against Iran and former Sen. Mike Johanns (R-Neb.).

Peek’s frequent columns in a variety of online news outlets leading up to the presidential elections last year both criticized and praised Trump’s foreign policy. “He’s knowledgeable about the world, obviously bright, sophisticated beneath the spray-on populism, and experienced in high-stakes negotiations with foreign potentates,” Peek wrote of Trump in one Aug. 20, 2015 column for the Fiscal Times. But he also expressed doubts about how well Trump’s inclinations as a deal maker would translate to the Oval Office.

Update, Dec. 12, 2017: This article was updated to include additional details about Mr. Peek’s background and his new role.

Correction, Dec. 11, 2017: The Fiscal Times column quoted in this report was published on Aug. 20, 2015. An earlier version of this article used an incorrect date.

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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