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 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.

The Cable

State Department: No shift on missile defense

U.S. Ambassador to Moscow John Beyrle's recent blog post about ongoing negotiations for a START follow-on agreement does not represent a shift in the U.S. position, despite the articles saying so.

Written in Russian, Beyrle's post says, "The treaty deals with offensive, not defensive systems, but since we acknowledge a logical link between them, our presidents have agreed that the treaty will contain a provision on the interconnection between strategic offensive and defensive weapons."

The Associated Press declared on its own authority that "Beyrle's statement indicated the U.S. stance has shifted," and that "Beyrle's statement apparently reflects an attempt by Washington to overcome Russia's suspicions of the U.S. missile defence plans."

Not so, say our State Department sources, who point out that Beyrle was simply referring to the July 8 Joint Understanding between President Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, which said that the START follow-on would include "a provision on the interrelationship of strategic offensive and strategic defensive arms," nothing more, nothing less.

Multiple senior administration officials have told The Cable that this carefully negotiated compromise was well understood to mean that missile defense would be delinked from the START negotiations -- and that was the assumption the American team led by Rose Gottemoeller was working under.

Moreover, the July 6 joint statement of Obama and Medvedev made it clear that missile defense would be dealt with separately from the START follow-on talks.

"Beyrle's post simply refers to what both presidents said they would do in July," one administration official said.

Recent statements by Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and Russian military leader Nikolai Makarov have brought the missile-defense issue back into the discussion over a START follow-on treaty. State Department officials have indicated that the specifics of a reference to missile defense in the agreement might not be finalized.

"It's possible that the treaty text will refer to missile defense, but I can't do a play by play," State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley told reporters Thursday. But Beyrle's blog post is not an announcement of any such shift, and negotiations over the remaining details in the treaty are ongoing.