It was Sept. 27, 2013, and President Barack Obama was about to place a historic phone call to the president of Iran — a conversation that would kick off the public phase of nuclear talks between two longtime adversaries.
And it was at that moment that Jake Sullivan, a 30-something aide who'd spent months secretly laying the groundwork for the talks, started to panic.
Sullivan ran back to his office to triple check his source, according to a person familiar with the episode. The information was solid. He returned to the Oval Office — now a little sweatier — for a 15-minute call in which Obama and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani warmly agreed to pursue the talks.
Eighteen months later, Sullivan's attention to detail has paid off. In Switzerland on Thursday, officials from the U.S. and five other nations reached a framework deal to limit Iran's nuclear program — vindicating, for the moment at least, Sullivan's deep personal involvement in the process.
Sullivan has emerged as Clinton's most trusted foreign policy adviser. It remains undecided whether he'll have a formal post at campaign headquarters during her all-but-certain 2016 presidential run, but Clinton allies say he'll be in daily contact with the candidate regardless.
And should Clinton win the White House, Sullivan, now 38, is almost certain to take a top post in her administration — possibly even as the country's youngest-ever national security adviser.
Even many strongly opposed to the Iran deal sing his praises.
"Sharpest guy on the [Iran] issue I know," said Mark Dubowitz, executive director of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a withering critic of the Iran talks.
Sullivan was "much more skeptical and tough-minded" about the Islamic Republic than other Obama officials involved in the talks, Dubowitz said. That view was echoed by sources who have worked inside the administration: "He's definitely been tougher," said one.
That may reflect the influence of Clinton, who has long taken a harder line toward Tehran than has Obama.
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