The United States and Iran held snap bilateral talks on Thursday in Geneva as part of an effort to overcome differences that have prevented the conclusion of a final, lasting agreement on the status of Tehran's nuclear program. Curiously, two of the three senior U.S. government representatives that participated according to the sparse State Department announcement—Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns and the vice president's national security adviser Jake Sullivan—are both expected to depart the Obama administration in a matter of months. This raised questions as to whether the Obama national security team was seeking to give the president some maneuverability on this sensitive issue, by allowing him to disavow his outgoing negotiators should they test the diplomatic waters by advancing proposals that end up being politically unpalatable at home. It also risked sending the wrong signal to the Iranian side—that the team sent to Geneva might not truly speak on behalf of the White House.
To address such concerns, State Department officials reiterated that Burns and Sullivan would "stay on as special government employees to work to reach a comprehensive Iran nuclear accord after they leave their current posts in the coming weeks." Some have speculated that President Barack Obama might be laying the groundwork for appointing a special envoy who would report directly to him to focus exclusively on handling the final negotiations with the Iranians.
Having a dedicated team would make sense, as long as it is clear that they have direct access to the president and are empowered to speak on his behalf. Given the administration’s current “To Do” list—crises in Ukraine, Gaza and Iraq, not to mention what might be waiting in the wings in Afghanistan or the South and East China Seas—the secretary of state and other U.S. national security principals have been forced to adopt triage methods, shifting from one problem to the next and looking for short-term solutions to prevent things from getting worse. Being in reactive mode does not permit the long-term attention to detail that the Iran talks will require.