Big changes afoot in Obama Iran, arms control teams, as Samore departs

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U.S. White House Coordinator for Weapons of Mass Destruction, Samore, talks during a meeting at the Itamaraty Palace in BrasiliaA key member of President Obama’s Iran negotiating team is leaving. White House WMD czar Gary Samore will depart the administration to become executive director of the Harvard University Belfer Center, the center said in a press release Tuesday.

The departure of Obama’s top nonproliferation advisor comes as the United States and five world powers are aiming for new nuclear talks with Iran the last week of February, possibly in Kazakhstan, diplomatic sources told the Back Channel Tuesday.

Samore’s exit, at the end of the week, is only one of several anticipated changes to the Obama Iran, arms control and Middle East teams expected to shake out over the new several months, even as the administration has vowed not to let the transition shuffle cause any distraction from its Iran policy efforts.

It’s not yet decided who will succeed Samore as the top White House coordinator for arms control issues, multiple officials said. “Big shoes to fill,” NSC spokesman Tommy Vietor told the Back Channel. “We haven’t replaced him yet, but I will miss the guy.”

Meantime, Dan Fried, a former Assistant Secretary of State for Europe who was tasked in Obama’s first term as the State Department special envoy on closing the US prison in Guantanamo Bay, is already working in a new State Department role. Fried is heading up a new sanctions coordination office at State, department sources said. Fried will be joined soon by a deputy, Richard Nephew, who until he went on paternity leave last month served at the NSC/NSS coordinator for Iran sanctions.

State Department arms control envoy and Iran sanctions czar Robert Einhorn is expected to stay on at least through March, an Obama administration official told the Back Channel Tuesday. If and when he departs, some of his functions may be played by the regular State Department bureaucracy—the new Fried sanctions coordination shop, as well as the State Department International Security and Non-proliferation (ISN) bureau, under Assistant Secretary of State Tom Countryman, reporting to acting Undersecretary of State for Arms Control Rose Gottemoeller.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee voted on Tuesday to advance John Kerry’s nomination for Secretary of State to the full Senate, and he’s expected to be in place at State by the end of the week. Other staffing issues are expected to be worked out in the coming weeks. Among the rumored contenders for Kerry’s chief of staff at the State Department are former Senate Foreign Relations Committee/Kerry chief of staff Dave McKeon, currently serving in the State Department policy planning shop, and current Kerry chief of staff David Wade (Wade has previously indicated his plans are unclear).

Among those discussed as possible nominees for Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs are Dan Kurtzer, the former US Ambassador to Israel and Egypt, and US Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford.

SFRC Asia advisor Michael Schiffer, a former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for East Asian affairs, and Danny Russel, the NSC Senior Director for Asia, are reported contenders for Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian affairs.

Under Secretary of State for Economic Affairs Robert Hormats is expected to leave the administration.

Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns looks to be staying for now, the source said. (Deputy Secretary of State for Management and Budget Tom Nides last week announced he plans to depart.) (Burns has been mentioned as a possible UN envoy if National Security Advisor Tom Donilon departs at some point in the next term, and UN envoy Susan Rice succeeds him. Donilon is staying for now. Last week Obama of course named Deputy NSA Denis McDonough his White House chief of staff, and Biden’s national security advisor Antony Blinken to succeed him.)

Rand Beers, DHS Under Secretary for National Protection who served as foreign policy advisor during Kerry’s 2004 presidential campaign, is also rumored for a senior State Department position under Kerry.

(Photo: U.S. White House Coordinator for Weapons of Mass Destruction Gary Samore is seen in a talk with Brazil’s Foreign Minister Celso Amorim (not in picture) during a meeting at the Itamaraty Palace in Brasilia August 7, 2009. REUTERS/Roberto Jayme (BRAZIL POLITICS)