Jake Sullivan, architect of the Iran Deal, National Security Adviser to Biden, and key Clinton aide, on Trump’s withdrawal from the agreement, North Korea, and what happened in 2016.

Jake Sullivan, second from left, with Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.Jake Sullivan, second from left, with Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.

Jake Sullivan has a C.V. which sounds like it’s been made up. A product of the local Minnesotan high school, (his phone number still begins with the Minneapolis calling code), Sullivan then went to Yale, won a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford, was ranked the second best university debater in the world, returned to Yale Law School, won a Truman Scholarship, clerked for a Supreme Court Justice, prepped Hillary Clinton for the 2008 primary debates and then Obama for the presidential debates, joined Clinton at the State Department as Director of Policy Planning, became National Security Advisor to Joe Biden and then in his mid-thirties opened the secret negotiations with Iran which eventually led to the Iran nuclear deal, the jewel of Obama’s foreign policy.

As a senior campaign official for Clinton in 2016, (she read at his wedding), Sullivan was widely expected to be appointed the youngest ever National Security Advisor to the president when Clinton won. But then of course it all went a bit wrong. Lessons in disaster: A top Clinton adviser searches for meaning in a shocking lossreads a Washington Post profile on Sullivan – one suspects that this was not quite the post-election headline Sullivan hoped for. If Donald Trump’s ascension to the White House initially marked a bump in Sullivan’s seemingly inexorable rise up the ranks of the foreign policy establishment, Tuesday’s announcement that Trump is withdrawing the US from the Iran Deal spells the demolition of Sullivan’s crowning achievement. At least he now has time to speak to student newspapers. Sullivan generously agreed to be interviewed by The Cambridge Globalist and this Wednesday – the day after Trump’s announcement – we spoke to him about Iran, North Korea and November 8th, 2016.

 

[The following has been edited for clarity.]

 

How are you doing?

I’m good.

 

Considering the circumstances I suppose.

Yes, yes. Gotta keep your chin up and not get fatalistic. An unfortunate reminder that elections have consequences.

 

So I thought we’d start with the topic of the moment which is obviously Iran, you were obviously intimately involved in the negotiations around the Iran Deal. Just to start off why do you think Trump pulled out? Do you think he has any genuine foreign policy convictions or just a desire for ‘wins’ and to undo the legacy of Obama?

You know I’ve been saying to friends and former colleagues that Trump when it comes to Iran doesn’t really have a strategy or a policy, he just has an attitude, and that attitude is that the Iranians are bad, Barack Obama is bad, therefore this deal is bad.

I don’t think he has the vaguest idea of a) what’s in it or b) what comes next now he’s pulled out.

 

I mean what do you think comes next, do you think Iran is going to start developing nuclear arms again, do you think this is going to empower domestic hardliners?

 Well there’s a number of different forks in the road, so this could now end up in a few different destinations.

The first fork in the road is do the Europeans and the Iranians try and keep the deal going, and it looks they’re going to try and keep it going as long as they feel they can protect the deal from American secondary sanctions.

So then the next fork is will the reimposition of sanctions by the United States render that practically impossible, because European companies and banks will just feel they can’t keep business with Iran? I think the answer to that is probably ‘yes’, but not certainly, just probably ‘yes’.

So, let’s say I’m right about that. Then the next fork in the road is with Iran clearly being denied the benefits that it was promised under the deal what does it do, and I think what it does is begin moving the programme forward, begin advancing its nuclear capability, but not in a way that is so provocative that it rallies the world to America’s side. So I think that they will be careful in the way they start advancing their programme; they’ll do enough to tell their people they’re moving forward but not too much that they, for lack of a better term, freak out Europeans, the Chinese, the Russians and others.

Then the next fork is if the Iranians do that then what does the US do? So here’s where things get a little complicated, because I think if you ask Donald Trump he genuinely believes that he’s setting up for a new, big negotiation where he can comprehensively solve the Iran problem by getting a great deal, and that he’s going to get this leverage to do that. I don’t think the Iranians are going to go for that and I don’t think that the Europeans, much as they’d like to broker such a deal have the capacity to do so. Furthermore, the rest of Trump’s team isn’t all that interested in sort of further diplomacy; they essentially view the reimposition of sanctions not as a means of bringing Iran back to the table for a better deal, but rather as a means of either generating regime change or as part of a broader rollback strategy of Iranian influence in the region.

So, I think that’s where we’re headed; I think we’re headed towards a sustained campaign of pressure by the United States and a rising possibility of confrontation between the US and its partners and Iran.

 

I mean I thought it was interesting that you said that Iran would try and go forward without ‘freaking’ too many people out. But presumably for Israel and Saudi Arabia, any sign of a restarting nuclear program is going to be a big red light for them.

When I say freaking anybody out, I mean freaking out its relevant audience, which is basically the countries with whom it’s trying to do business so the oil purchasing countries, Europe, Japan, India, South Africa, China, Russia – it’s not worried so much about the United States, Israel or Saudi Arabia. But I think it doesn’t want to move forward so precipitously that it more or less invites military action from the Americans.

So just to give an example of what I think it might consider, I think it might consider really doubling down on research and development such as on advanced centrifuges so it can say alright we’re advancing our capability but not in a way that generates an immediate crisis. And that will put the Israelis and Saudis and the United States in a difficult position, because that’s probably not enough for us to do anything [militarily], so I think that’s the kind of calibration we’re likely to see from the Iranians after they play out this trying to keep the deal going.

 

Do you think that Israel is angling to at some point do a strike on Iran’s nuclear capabilities? I think also John Bolton [National Security Adviser to Trump] wrote an op-ed a few years ago saying we should bomb Iran to get rid of their nuclear programme, so do you think that that’s a possibility?

Well starting with Bolton, I think that he basically believes that the nuclear issue in Iran can only be solved militarily; he doesn’t believe there’s any deal that will put us ahead. But he also believes that the nuclear issue isn’t really the issue; he thinks that the issue is the regime, and so his strategy is much more focused on a comprehensive effort in weakening, destabilising, undermining the regime and then finally a possible change in the regime.

For the Israelis I think the calculus is significantly more complicated. We can’t look at the nuclear issue in a vacuum when it comes to Israeli decision-making, it has to be considered in the context of the ongoing low-intensity war between Israel and Iran right now across the Israel-Syria border and in the context of the stand-off between Israel and Hezbollah across the Israeli-Lebanese border.

And so, do I think Bibi [Netanyahu] is sort of spoiling to go bomb Iran – not necessarily, I don’t know. I think what he’d like to see is this massive campaign of economic pressure: weaken Iran, knock Iran down a peg or two, and then he’d like to see whether or not his campaign of military strikes against Iranian paramilitary proxies in Syria starts to deter the Iranians, and then he’ll calculate whether he’s got to do something with the nuclear programme, but I think he’s probably deferring that question right now.

 

On Iranian influence throughout the Middle-East, I think one of the major arguments against the Iran Deal was that it releases a lot of money which Iran can use to fund its various nefarious activities throughout the Middle-East. I guess there’s sort of a case to be made that its influence has grown since 2015 [sanctions relief actually began in 2013], in that Assad is winning the civil war and Hezbollah is growing in influence, we just had those elections in Lebanon [in which Hezbollah expanded its number of seats], etc. Do you think that’s a good criticism of the deal or do you think that that would have happened either way? 

Well I mean we have evidence as to Iran’s regional activity when the sanctions were in place and it suggests that the real issue, or the real constraint on Iran’s regional behaviour is not cash, it’s opportunity.

Where they’ve got new opportunity, they’ve taken advantage of that. So we were imposing massive sanctions on Iran in the years 2010-2013 and in that time period they were backing Assad, Hezbollah was active in that conflict in a meaningful way, Hezbollah tried in Lebanon to ensure the presidency either went unfilled or would be ultimately filled by an ally. We saw assertive Iranian support for the Houthis in Yemen, we saw active Iranian measures in Bahrain, we saw aggressive Iranian influence operations and support for proxy militias in Iraq. So I have a hard time with the argument which says all of a sudden when the deal went in place, Iran was unleashed upon the region.

If you actually look at the arc of Iranian influence and activity across the Middle-East in 2013-2018, they’ve taken steps forward whenever an opportunity has presented itself on the ground. It’s never been that the opportunity has just been sitting there and they didn’t have the spare change to go spend on what is essentially a fairly cost-effective proxy-based operation. I do not want to say that getting access to sanctions relief had no impact whatsoever on the Iranian regime’s operational rhythm; I wouldn’t go that far. But I do not think it’s the dominant cause of Iran’s regional adventurism.

So I think the imposition of sanctions isn’t going to stop Iran continuing to support the Assad regime, continuing to support Hezbollah in Lebanon, continuing to have a heavy hand in the political future of Iraq, continuing to support the Houthis in Yemen, all of these things will continue.

 

So do you think then we should be punishing Iran’s non-nuclear activities which we disapprove of with more sanctions, or do you think that’s ineffective if the root problem isn’t their lack of money?

My basic view when it comes to Iran’s view in the regime, is that we do need to raise the costs of their behaviour, but not for its own sake, but rather to generate some sort of modus vivendi between Iran and the Sunni states where they work out an uneasy balance of power and an understanding of the limits of Iranian influence in the region, and that that could become a kind of new status quo over time.

To get there I do think we need to raise the costs of Iranian behaviour in the region and that does mean ‘yes let’s add some more sanctions’ but we could have done that easily while keeping the nuclear deal. Walking away from the nuclear deal I do not think was some kind of necessary precursor to pursuing a more effective regime strategy vis-à-vis Iran, not at all. So that’s my take.

I mean what I worry about from this administration, is that they sort of want to pretend Iran either has no role in the region and just needs to be put back in a box which is an untenable proposition, it’s rather that we should be defining that role in a way that stops them from some of their malign influence and destabilising activities, or alternatively the administration seems to believe ‘yes Iran can have a role in the region but only after regime change so let’s get that’, and there again for American policy to be predicated on a policy of regime change is a dangerous place for us to be.

 

Just in terms of the United States’ diplomatic isolation after this, what are the effects of that in terms of irritating the US’s European allies or possibly the US sanctioning European companies. What are the material knock-on effects of that sort of isolation? 

Well I think there are medium effects and then there are longer-term effects.

The immediate effect will be a weaker sanctions regime because other countries will be less likely to vigorously comply with American secondary sanctions, and in some cases may outright resist them, so you’re not going to see the unity and he enforcement of sanctions that you saw in the period leading up to the Iran nuclear deal.

The longer term effects I think are more profound and potentially deeply damaging to America’s global standing. Chancellor Merkel went out today and basically said ‘look this is another lesson following Paris, following TPP, following the Iran nuclear deal, following the the steel tariffs, and a range of the other decisions the Trump administration has taken’. ‘The United States is fundamentally abdicating its global leadership role and we’re just going to have to step up, and we will restructure’ – I think the Europeans are going to start saying more and more – ‘our relationship and expectations accordingly’, and I don’t think that’s good for anyone apart from our common adversaries.

 

And finally in terms of Iran do you think there’s a possibility that the deal could be revived at some point, I mean it seems to have relatively strong bipartisan support amongst the American public and you know you have Mcmaster and Mattis and Tillerson who all supported it somewhat, so do you think that there’s a chance that it could come back, or do you think that the trust with the Iranian regime has been shattered by this point and its chances of coming back are pretty dire?

Well sitting here today it feels that it’s unlikely that the deal from the US perspective and the US-Iran perspective could be resurrected, but in the final analysis the Iranian nuclear program is a problem which needs to be managed and ultimately solved, and so there’s going to have to be another diplomatic undertaking, assuming that we don’t end up in some catastrophic war. In a post-Trump environment it will be harder. We won’t probably just be able to put Humpty Dumpty back together again; we’ll probably have to do something new, but this is going to be an urgent task.

The answer to your question in a way has to be ‘yes’ because the alternative is essentially either letting Iran get a bomb or bombing Iran, and neither of those options are palatable.

 

Quickly on North Korea: the Iran issue forms a backdrop to the North Korea negotiations. Do you think the fact that the US has pulled out will change North Korea’s calculus on what it could get out of a possible to deal with the United States and undermine its sincerity in participating in any such deal?

I actually don’t really think so. I’m not in the same place on this issue as many of my colleagues are, that what Trump has done in Iran will have an impact on North Korea, but it’s not for the reason that you might expect. It’s not because I think that Kim Jong-un is just ignoring what Trump is doing; I think it’s because Kim Jong-un is playing a completely different game. His game is not a game of doing a deal with the United States to give up all its nuclear weapons. His game is to make a series of promises and extract a series of promises in return from the United States and put himself in a process that allows him to essentially work over the Chinese and the South Koreans and string the Americans along. I think he’s playing that game very effectively, and I think that’s going to be the net result of all of this.

I think he and Trump will announce some big, grand bargain which will simply amount to promises for promises, and Kim Jong-Un has no intention of keeping the core promise that he’s going to give up all his nuclear weapons. I don’t think he’s much concerned with the Iran nuclear deal because I don’t think he’s conceiving of a deal with United States as some sort of binding exchange of actions. I think he’s thinking of it as a diplomatic framework that will allow him to achieve his objectives on the Korean Peninsula and in the region.

 

I think you have advocated that China should step up and take more of a role in managing the North Korean situation and should even begin transferring money to it in return for an easing of tensions and a freeze on its weapons programs, etc. Could you briefly elaborate on that and why you think that would be a good strategy?

Well the argument that I and Victor Cha was making is actually that the Chinese have a history of coming to the United States and saying, ‘you will figure this problem out because your problem is between you and North Korea’.

What we were essentially saying was ‘you know what, actually China has to start the process of telling the North Koreans how this is going to go’ [and say] ‘we can provide you with various economic benefits if you stay within certain lines or we can withhold those benefits if you don’t’, and interestingly that is essentially what has happened here.

The Chinese began much more aggressively implementing sanctions on North Korea over the past six or eight months, and then Xi Jinping summoned Kim Jong-un to Beijing and essentially said to him, ‘look China and North Korea can work out a deal in terms of our economic relationship as long as we’re not engaged in provocative actions’. I think that is a necessary predicate of any sort of long-term, durable outcome in the Korean Peninsula which does not lead to a crisis.

What I basically expect in the months and years ahead is a pause in North Korea’s missile program, and potentially its nuclear program as well, but not the actual handing over its actual arsenal of nuclear weapons or long-range missiles.

 

I think one thing that has been concerning the foreign policy establishment is that the State Department has been depleted and it’s been facing cuts, and various positions have been left unfilled. Does that concern you?

I think Mike Pompeo is likely to remedy this. I think it’s a bizarre legacy of Rex Tillerson which is really almost impossible to comprehend – what made Tillerson tick, what he was up to, why he essentially decided to hollow out the State Department and drive out senior diplomats in droves – it just makes no sense. But I think Pompeo will operate as a much more traditional Secretary of State and I think he’s far more likely to attempt to to fill the key senior roles in the department and elevate the State Department within the national security bureaucracy and the U.S. government.

 

I guess that’s a note for optimism among all the doom and gloom. So finally if we could very quickly on 2016, I mean I’m sure you’ve been asked this question a thousand times and asked yourself it a thousand times, but what happened – do you think that the loss of Secretary Clinton in 2016 was a sort of perfect storm of factors or do you think there was one big underlying vulnerability which was missed?

 

I do think it was a perfect storm of factors, any one off which had you changed it, it would have changed the outcome given how close it was, but structurally the real issue was that this was an election in which voters really wanted change and Hillary Clinton was seen as someone who could not deliver change.

I think more than anything else there was a whole bunch of additional factors, and she still would have won [had one such factor been removed], but that that structural fact put her at disadvantage and perversely gave Donald Trump a significant advantage as the ultimate outside the iconoclast. But she still would have won [chuckles in a slightly pained manner] but for a whole series of additional things that all came together at once, including the Russian interference, the Comey letter, the fact that the polls suggested that she was going to win, so on the day of election people felt less urgency to come out. You change any one of those and the outcome changes, which is not to say that this was all a series of disembodied factors beyond of anyone’s control.

The campaign also made decisions and some of those decisions, had we made them differently might also changed the result, like where she went in the final weeks, or how we constructed our message or how we dealt with some of the issues that arose along the way.

I’m not trying to absolve myself or the campaign of responsibility. It’s just that in a race this close everything matters and anything changing just a little bit would have have had an impact on the outcome.

 

What do you think of the sort of ethnic resentment argument? There have been these exchanges between people saying that the defection of Democrats in the Midwest was either due to the sort of cultural anxiety or sort of an economic malaise; do you think it’s both do you think it’s more one than the other?

I do think it’s both, but as you dig deeper into the data it’s pretty clear that identity issues issues, issues around immigration and race and the like, played a really important role in the shift that you saw particularly in the Midwest but in other parts of the country as well. And that will be an issue going forward: Trump will continue to try and stoke that and Democrats will continue to try and get their arms around it, so this is not a one time thing from 2016.

 

In terms of midterms are you optimistic?

I am optimistic about the House. I’m optimistic that we can retake the House of Representatives, but sort of sixty-five/thirty-five optimism. There’s a very credible chance that the Republicans hold the House. I think it is significantly less likely that we take the Senate.

 

In terms of 2020, do you have your eye on anyone you want to run, your old boss [senator from Minnesota] Amy Klobuchar perhaps?

[Laughs] No, no. No, no, no, no. I’m not looking past 2018 at the moment which is I know what candidates say not people like me, but I think it’s just too early to start lifting one person up and saying that this is who it should be.

 

Apparently Hillary Clinton said that you could be president one day, do you have any interesting running for public office?

[Laughs] At some point I might be but my appetite for it has diminished a bit seeing how politics is practised today. I haven’t given up the thought.

 

You don’t feel the urge to go and fix all the horrible mistakes Trump has made?

Well I’d certainly like to do that but that might be a form of government service apart from elected office.