Low-key Obama aide at center of secret Iran talks
WASHINGTON – Last summer, while Jake Sullivan was traveling with his boss, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, he quietly disappeared during a stop in Paris. He showed up again a few days later, rejoining Clinton’s traveling contingent in Mongolia.
In between, Sullivan secretly jetted to the Middle Eastern nation of Oman to meet with officials from Iran, people familiar with the trip said. The July 2012 meeting is one of the Obama administration’s earliest known face-to-face contacts with Iran and reveals that Sullivan – who moved from the State Department to the White House earlier this year – was personally involved in the administration’s outreach to the Islamic republic far earlier than had been reported.
Senior administration officials had previously confirmed to The Associated Press that Sullivan and other officials held at least five secret meetings with Iran this year, paving the way for an interim nuclear agreement signed in November by Iran, the United States and five other world powers.
The cloak-and-dagger diplomacy may seem like a tough assignment even for a grizzled foreign policy veteran, but Sullivan is just 37 and looks even younger. Even-keeled and pragmatic, Sullivan’s temperament mirrors that of President Barack Obama, people close to him say. That helped him crack the tight-knit foreign policy team at the White House where he serves as Vice President Joe Biden’s national security adviser.
While Biden is a possible presidential candidate in 2016, Sullivan remains loyal to Clinton and is seen as her likely pick for White House national security adviser, should she run for president and win.
“He’s essentially a once-in-a-generation talent,” said Philippe Reines, a longtime Clinton aide who worked closely with Sullivan during their tenure at the State Department.
Sullivan has a gleaming resume: undergraduate and law degrees from Yale, Rhodes scholar at Oxford, and clerk for Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer. He entered politics by serving as chief counsel to Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, Sullivan’s home state.
During the bruising 2008 Democratic primary, Sullivan sided with Clinton, serving as a top adviser on her debate preparation team. But he switched to Team Obama during the general election, taking on a similar role on the debate team.
When Obama tapped Clinton to lead the State Department, Sullivan followed the new secretary to Foggy Bottom. He had a pair of high-level titles – deputy chief of staff and director of policy planning – and quickly became known as one of Clinton’s most trusted advisers. He traveled with her to nearly all of the 112 countries she visited as secretary and played a leading role in shaping U.S. policy toward Libya and Syria, as well as the historic opening of relations with the isolated Asian nation of Myanmar.
Clinton, whose daughter Chelsea is just four years younger than Sullivan, would sometimes turn motherly with her young adviser, openly worrying that the single Sullivan’s work schedule wasn’t leaving him enough time to date.
After Clinton announced she would leave the State Department after the first term, Obama advisers began courting Sullivan for a job at the White House. They hatched plans for Sullivan to have more face time with the president, including when Obama and Clinton headed to Asia in November 2012 for their final trip together as president and secretary of state.