Biden to Tap More Former Obama Officials for Top National Security Jobs

WASHINGTON — President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. is turning to more veterans of the Obama-Biden administration to fill senior positions on his national security team, including two former officials who played crucial roles in the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, an agreement the Biden administration will seek to restore.

Mr. Biden plans to name as deputy national security adviser Jon Finer, a former chief of staff to Secretary of State John Kerry, and to nominate as deputy secretary of state Wendy R. Sherman, who was Mr. Kerry’s lead negotiator during the Iran talks.

In a clear sign that he intends to take a tough posture against President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, Mr. Biden plans to nominate Victoria Nuland, a retired career diplomat and former top State Department official for Russia affairs under Mr. Kerry, as under secretary of state for political affairs. Ms. Nuland, a fierce critic of Mr. Putin, is despised by the Kremlin, and her confirmation is sure to anger the Russian president as Mr. Biden plans to both firmly confront and seek to find common ground with Moscow.

The appointments further illustrate Mr. Biden’s desire to surround himself with experienced and trusted former officials with whom he worked closely during the Obama years, even as some Democrats and foreign policy analysts complain that he has yet to infuse his national security team with fresh and more diverse faces bearing unconventional ideas.

The upcoming appointments were reported earlier on Tuesday by Politico. People familiar with the transition confirmed the personnel plans, but Biden transition officials say they plan to unveil a fuller national security team soon, one reflecting greater diversity.

The picks also underscore the weight that Mr. Biden places on his stated goal of restoring the nuclear deal with Iran, negotiated by the Obama administration along with several other major nations. Under the deal, Tehran accepted strict limits on its nuclear program for many years in exchange for sanctions relief. After President Trump withdrew from the deal and placed a growing load of sanctions on Iran’s economy, Tehran accelerated its program. It is now within a few months of producing enough highly enriched uranium to develop a nuclear bomb, although assembling a deliverable warhead would take many months longer.

In choosing Ms. Sherman as deputy secretary, Mr. Biden is turning to a longtime diplomat and Democratic operative who has deep experience dealing with the Iranians.

As under secretary for political affairs during President Barack Obama’s second term, Ms. Sherman was the driven, detail-oriented architect of the 2015 Iran deal, and the central figure in negotiating its terms. While she openly acknowledged its shortcomings, including the fact that limits on Iranian production of uranium would be lifted in 2030, she argued that the accord was the best way to forestall Iran’s drive to a bomb — and that Mr. Trump’s abandonment of the deal was deeply misguided.

If formally nominated, she is likely to be a lightning rod for Republicans, who will argue that she helped route the Iran deal around the Senate by working to make the accord an executive agreement rather than a treaty. If confirmed, she will have the difficult task of putting the deal back together — and negotiating a tougher follow-on arrangement that limits Iran’s missile development.

Ms. Sherman, 71, is also deeply familiar with another state sure to consume large amounts of the Biden administration’s attention: North Korea.

During the Clinton administration, Ms. Sherman was counselor to Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright, and together they traveled to North Korea to try to strike a missile deal in the last days of the Clinton administration. The effort failed, and Ms. Albright and Ms. Sherman were criticized by Republicans when they were pictured attending one of North Korea’s mass games with Kim Jong-il, the supreme leader at the time and the father of the current leader, Kim Jong-un.

Mr. Finer, 44, also became immersed in Iran during his tenure as chief of staff to Mr. Kerry, who devoted much of his time to the nuclear talks with Iran. Mr. Finer was glued to Mr. Kerry’s side for countless hours of meetings with Iranian, European and other officials as they devised ways to contain Tehran’s nuclear program.

A former Washington Post foreign and national reporter who embedded with U.S. military forces in Iraq before shifting to a career in government, Mr. Finer is known for his intense work ethic and sometimes sharp humor. He joined the Obama White House as a fellow in 2009 and became a speechwriter to Mr. Biden and a senior adviser to Antony J. Blinken, Mr. Biden’s pick for secretary of state, when Mr. Blinken was Mr. Obama’s deputy national security adviser.

While serving as Mr. Kerry’s chief of staff, Mr. Finer also held the job of director of policy planning, the State Department post tasked with long-range strategic thought. A Rhodes scholar, Mr. Finer founded a group to assist Iraqi refugees while he was a student at Yale Law School.

Ms. Nuland, 59, who retired from the State Department shortly after Mr. Trump’s election, would take the job Ms. Sherman held in the Obama years: under secretary for political affairs. A longtime diplomat with deep experience in Europe and Russia who is known as a Russia hawk, she argued vociferously in 2016 that the United States should respond to Russia’s interference in the presidential election with sanctions directed at Mr. Putin, including revelations of where he allegedly stores his money abroad.

The daughter and granddaughter of Russian immigrants, she is a firm believer that the Russian leader understands only tough pushback. “I didn’t mind attempting a reset” with Russia, she said after leaving the State Department, “but it had to be a reset with no blinders on.”

Ms. Nuland has ties in both parties — she was once a senior aide to Vice President Dick Cheney — but became a more public figure in 2014, when Russian agents tapped a phone conversation she was having with the American ambassador in Ukraine at a time of upheaval in Kyiv.

They then made audio of the conversation public — an early warning sign of what they would do two years later in making public emails stolen from the Democratic National Committee. In the audiotapes, Ms. Nuland, who is known for blunt speech, used an epithet about the European Union, which she thought was balking in its role as an election observer. For a while she thought she might be out of a job, until she ran into Mr. Obama at a reception and he uttered the same epithet, in relation to Mr. Putin.

Now she will return at a moment when Mr. Biden is vowing to retaliate for Russia’s hacking of American government and corporate networks — a bigger version of the past cyberactivity that she has argued must be met with major responses.

Eric Edelman, a former diplomat and senior Pentagon official under President George W. Bush for whom Ms. Nuland has worked, praised her as a superb diplomat and public servant who would help to restore faith in the State Department among Foreign Service officers whose morale has plunged during the Trump era.

Mr. Edelman acknowledged that her return to government would not come as welcome news to Mr. Putin, but said that Russian officials respected her deep understanding of their country.

“The Russians may not like dealing with her, but they know she speaks their language — both figuratively and literally,” he said.

People familiar with the transition said Mr. Biden was also finalizing decisions about other senior National Security Council positions.

At the White House, he plans to name Amanda Sloat as the top National Security Council official for European affairs, officials said. Now a fellow at the Brookings Institution, Ms. Sloat served under Mr. Kerry as a deputy assistant secretary for southern Europe and eastern Mediterranean affairs and previously worked at the N.S.C. and in Congress.

Mr. Biden is likely to choose Brett McGurk, the Obama administration’s envoy for the global coalition against the Islamic State, for a senior N.S.C. job managing the Middle East and North Africa. Kurt M. Campbell, who served as assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, is a leading candidate for a top N.S.C. Asia job.

In an appointment likely to please progressives impatient to see more of their own within Mr. Biden’s national security team, the N.S.C.’s senior director for strategic planning will be Sasha Baker, currently Senator Elizabeth Warren’s top foreign policy adviser.

Yohannes Abraham, the executive director of the Biden transition and a former top aide to Mr. Obama’s senior adviser, Valerie Jarrett, will serve as the N.S.C. chief of staff.

Mr. Biden has chosen numerous top Obama national security officials for senior posts, including Mr. Blinken; his incoming national security adviser, Jake Sullivan; and Avril D. Haines, his pick to be director of national intelligence.

Eric Schmitt and Edward Wong contributed reporting.

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