He Persuaded Obama to Line up with Moscow against Harsh Sanctions

On December 2, Denis McDonough, acting National Security Council chief of staff since October 2009, will turn 40. His CV is impressive enough – former advisor to top-ranking US Senators, among them Senator Tom Daschle when he was Senate majority leader and Senator Ken Salazar. In 2008, he was the Obama campaign's senior foreign-policy coordinator and in January was appointed by the new president director of NSC strategic communications. He came to the job after serving as a senior fellow of the left-leaning Washington think tank, the Center for American Progress.

But DEBKA-Net-Weekly's Washington sources confirm that the relatively young official is still a shooting star, rising in recent weeks to the position of President Barack Obama's most influential adviser. McDonough is the first handler of every presidential decision, large or small, whether for execution or for choosing to whom it is to be delegated. Leslie H. Gelb of the well-informed Daily Beast website this week dubbed him Obama's Lord High Executioner.

Using his ready access to the president, our sources say McDonough has quietly pushed aside such top-notch figures as the president's right-hand man, Chief of Staff Rahm Emannuel, who finds himself talking to Denis when he needs to know what Obama is thinking. The president's personal political advisor, David Axlerod, and National Security Advisor Jim Jones are in the same position. McDonough has also supplanted Deputy National Security Advisor Thomas E. Donilon, until recently a regular presence in the Oval Office.


McDonough here to stay, for a while at least


Sources familiar with work procedures at the Obama White House tell DEBKA-Net-Weekly that, these days, the President is more comfortable discussing delicate political and diplomatic problems with McDonough than any other aide. He has also taken to dropping his instructions and decisions in this adviser's lap for overseeing their implementation – and not just for routine trivia, but weighty issues as well.

They say his input in the last few weeks was critical in Obama's thinking for the next stage of the Afghanistan conflict, his Asian tour, the Middle East and Iran, relations with Moscow and other European capitals – and more.

According to these sources, Obama and McDonough have developed strong personal chemistry. The president is certain he is the only White House team member with no personal axe to grind whose only interest is to serve him and assure his success. The relationship may have grown out of Obama's disenchantment: The policies he broached in his first 11 months in office in the Middle East and Afghanistan have foundered; the tempo of economic improvement is sluggish and some Democrats are in mutiny against his domestic agenda, including health care reform.

The President is keenly aware of his fiascos and their impact on his credibility at home and aboard. He appears to have reacted by replacing or distancing some of the advisers who accompanied him as his inner circle in his first period in office.

The name of Deputy National Security Adviser Thomas E. Donilon was bandied about during the summer. His shoes have since been filled by McDonough who looks like settling in for the long term.

Our Washington sources find the strongest imprint of the rising adviser's influence on foreign policy in the President's current handling of the dispute over Iran's nuclear program and tough sanctions. The evidence is mounting that, contrary to published reports, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev never did promise President Obama his support for stiffer UN Security Council sanctions in any of their interviews in Moscow, New York, Europe, and this week in Singapore.

Just the reverse: Whenever they met, Medvedev made the following argument against harsh penalties for Iran:


'Moscow pledges to leave Iran defensively naked'


Really painful sanctions with teeth will result in Iran withdrawing from the Non-Proliferation Treaty. The NPT will then collapse and open the way for many small countries, especially in the Middle East, to arm themselves with nuclear weapons. Therefore, even though Iran has been caught out developing a nuclear weapon, Moscow advises pursuing sanctions which are cautionary rather than punitive.

At the same time, the Russian president proposed that Washington and Moscow pursue direct measures against Iran. He offered, for instance, “to leave the Iranians defensively naked.” The Russians have acted on this proposition by withholding from Iran the weapons system it needs most for shielding its nuclear sites against a US or an Israeli attack, namely the highly advanced S-300 missile interceptor.

Medvedev advised Obama to continue applying American economic and financial pressure on Iran by blocking its paths to world banking. He informed the US president that the talks he and prime minister Vladimir Putin had held with Chinese leaders convinced them that Beijing would come on board a policy on those lines alongside the two world powers.

DEBKA-Net-Weekly's sources disclose that it was McDonough who persuaded President Obama of the logic embodied in the Russian approach on Iran and advised him to adopt it. He maintained that past advice to build America's Iran policy around a controversy with Moscow was misguided. There is no real divergence between the two governments on policy goals, he said, and advised Obama to drop his adversarial stance toward the Kremlin.

To broaden his support base, McDonough managed to get the veteran John Limbert, who shares his views on Iran, appointed this month as Deputy Assistant Secretary for Iran in State Department's Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs. A veteran U.S. diplomat, Limbert arrived at the US embassy in 1979 in Tehran as a tyro officer only to be held captive with the rest of the staff by revolutionary students. Until his appointment, he served on the advisory board of the National Iranian American Council which opposes military action and additional sanctions against Iran.

Limbert now ranks as second-in-command to Undersecretary of State William Burns.

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